I had only been with Bryony for an hour or so but already the situation was deteriorating. We were in Notting Hill on our second, and quite possibly last, date.
Portobello market was not my type of place, I felt uncomfortable amongst the vintage bric-a-brac and organic fare. It was a middle-class mecca and I was outside the gates.
I had already told Bryony that I used to be in the navy and she was thoroughly unimpressed. I had played my trump card too early and now my fall-back position was blown. I scanned the stall for some form of distraction, a comical hat to try on perhaps, or an amusing piece of objet d’art to mock.
Eventually, I settled for a tattered army jacket. As Bryony leafed through a rack of old maps I hurriedly donned the coat.
“Look,” I said, my arms outstretched.
Bryony turned, her fingers holding her place.
“What the hell, Marcello?”
“It’s just a laugh,” I said walking over.
The tight jacket pulled my arms back giving me an almost gorilla-like poise.
“What’s wrong, Bry?”
She forced a smile.
“It’s ok,” she said, “it’s just I’m pretty sensitive about that kind of thing. I don’t find it funny, you know?”
I looked down at the jacket and noticed the emblem on the sleeve, a jagged ‘SS’.
“A Nazi uniform, Marcello. That’s not very appropriate.”
“God, I didn’t realise…”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Well, it didn’t do Harry any harm.”
The trader came over and touched me on the arm.
“Come on mate,” he said, “this ain’t a fancy dress party.”
As I peeled myself out of the coat two Japanese girls took my picture.
Great, I thought, I am to be immortalised on Instagram as a fascist sympathiser.
We retreated to the pub for lunch – at last, familiar ground. We took a table beneath the TV, the football was on and we sat with a dozen raucous men facing us. I looked at the menu but nothing appealed. Still, I opted for the steak sandwich. Bryony chose the gammon and chips, it came with a slice of pineapple.
“My god,” I said, “they still do that? Reminds me of Sunday nights as a child in front of Bullseye.”
Bryony pretended not to know the reference but I wasn’t buying it. The barman turned the sound up on the TV as more people came in to watch the game.
Bryony said, “this place is fab, I always come here when I’ve been to the market.”
I glanced around at the worn fittings and obligatory photos of Victorian Notting Hill.
“So tell me,” she said, “if you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?”
I looked down at my plate.
“Not sure,” I said, “you go first.”
She starting waffling on about setting up a fund for injured animals. In this scenario the thing to do is ask benign questions and feign interest.
“That’s amazing,” I said, “so you’d get your brother to help out? Great idea.”
“How about you?” she said, poking the ice in her drink with a straw.
“Oh, who knows. I’d probably be dead within a year.”
She stabbed an ice-cube, “how charming.”
I shovelled a couple of chunky chips into my mouth, the roar of the football seemed to be growing louder. My mind started to wander, I was contemplating my Sunday chores when a camera flash drew me back. Bryony had just photographed her untouched gammon.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
She shrugged: “for my wall. You’re right, it’s really weird. I mean gammon and pineapple, kind of ironic really.”
I put my cutlery down.
“How can gammon be ironic?”
But she ignored me – just as well as my next utterance was likely to be a profanity.
As we walked back to the station we fell into silence, on parting Bryony asked:
“What are you up to this evening?”
“I’ve got to put a wash on. Maybe a bit of ironing.”
She rolled her eyes, ever so slightly.
I smiled but what could I say, compared to this – it really was.
On the bus home I started to think about Becky, my next date. She was more my type, free-spirited – a fellow maverick, if you will. Becky not only liked ‘curling up on the sofa with a glass of red and a DVD’ but she was also ‘into travelling’ and had helpfully listed some of her favourite destinations on her profile.
I produced my iPhone and looked up Bali -at last I thought, something I can work with.