Last Saturday I met Donna for a first date on Wandsworth Common.
She lived in Balham and suggested we meet for a grassy retreat; a little get-to-know-you summit in the sun. If it’s nice, she said, we can have a picnic. I winced at the proposal. Of all the daytime leisure activities, picnics are my least favourite. Hearty beer garden larks I can deal with; likewise, Pimms on the balcony. But scotch eggs on the grass? Unacceptable. Even the thought of a picnic makes me uneasy. Honestly, I cannot think of a more uncouth setting for a date – especially a first date.
“Donna,” I said. “Nice name.”
She was lying back on a blanket, sandals kicked to the side – a perfect picture of summer ease. I was not quite so relaxed however; perched awkwardly in what could have passed for winter attire: black jeans, shirt and elegant shoes; a thick vintage jacket crumpled by my side.
“Not a common name these days,” I said.
“Yes, I know.”
“Tart. You know, Donna Tartt. Two T’s. She wrote The Goldfinch.”
“Have you read it?”
Never start with the things you don’t have in common. Rule Number One.
“More wine?” I said.
We were drinking a Blossom Hill merlot. It was my choice, a quick-grab from Tesco Express. I should have gone for their ‘finest’ range (the finest wines known to humanity, presumably) but I had chosen poorly, and we were now stuck with a bland, warm red. Studying the label I wondered whether Blossom Hill was a real place. A scene of gentle wonder unfurled in my mind – a tableau of noble artisans lunching under the noonday sun. As Donna rattled on about summer in the city I pictured myself among the good people of Blossom Hill.
“Sorry,” I said, standing up. “I need a wee.”
I considered saying that I ‘needed the facilities’ (or some such garbage) then thought better of it. Sometimes clarity matters. I dashed across the common to a pub. On the way out the rotund landlord collared me by the door. “Mate,” he said, pointing to the bar. “The toilets are for customers.”
I mumbled an apology and fled. Back at the picnic Donna was checking her phone. As she caught sight of me she turned and took a selfie. Had she intentionally placed me in the background?
“That was a bloody trek,” I said.
“I just looked up The Goldfinch,” Donna said. “It looks great.”
I sat and topped up our wines.
“Sure…” I supped from my beaker. “…It would’ve been better if she cut it down by about a third.”
We spent a few minutes discussing literature, feeling around for some commonality. The sun and wine had charged our chatter, and we were starting to have fun. Unfortunately, my bladder was proving to be a distraction, as the drink pulsed through me with astonishing pace. I went once more to the pub, this time trying to dodge the observant proprietor. A scant thirty minutes later, I needed to go again.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “Why did we have to sit so far from the pub? See, this is my problem with the park, there’s never a toilet around…”
“Sure,” Donna said, checking her phone.
“…And when there is it’s always a scary, disgusting place. Seriously, the councils know people hang around in the park, why not make it easy for us to relieve ourselves?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Right, that’s it,” I said, rising to my feet. “I’m going in that bush.”
I climbed through a hedge, and crossed behind some foliage (which was not quite as dense as I would’ve liked). Donna looked on open mouthed as I unzipped. She turned away. It was then the horror of my move struck me. I stopped before I began. My god, I thought as I scrambled back out, what have I become?
Donna started packing her things. There was no need to explain – for either of us. She had to go, I got it; to object would’ve been ungallant. I looked around at the other park dwellers: the sunbathing couples, the readers, the throwers of frisbees. They all looked so happy, so untroubled. It was as if they were in on some big secret. As Donna went to leave I shook her hand.
“I may be on a common,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean I am common.”
She forced a smile. Which was actually pretty decent of her. All things considered, it could have been far worse.