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Tuesday 30 April 2024

Time to exercise your noggin

He's so real he merits a plaque

It’s Use Your Imagination Week.

The exercise: What fictional character(s) would you most like to meet?

I start with a huge advantage. I spent at least a year each with Clare (Gorgon Times) and Jana (Out of Arizona), Creating them, manipulating them and falling in love with them. How are they finding middle age? OK, scrub these two wonderful women. I’ll start from scratch like the rest of you.

First off it’s got to be Leopold Bloom, the co-lead in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  He is the most rounded, human yet humane character in all the novels I’ve read. A 1904 Jew too, so he understands life’s disadvantages. Witty. We’d pub-crawl through Dublin, me paying. Then I’d write Ulysses – The Sequel.

● Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a less obvious choice. Stiff-necked, a bit of a prig, she marries the aesthete, Casaubon, because “it seems the right thing to do”. And lives to regret it. But her character evolves throughout; I’d like her to discuss this evolution.

● The Countess in Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. She’s getting older; believes the Count no longer loves her. Reflects on life in the heart-rending aria, Dove Sono. I’m not into forgiveness, she’s its epitome. I would take instruction.

● Harriet Pringle in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy. Married to an insufferable cleverclogs whom she out-distances. We’d just chat; I’d merely give her her head.

● Almost any of the cluster of central characters in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. For the fun of it.

● Learn how to cultivate a moral backbone from Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s private eye (several novels) . Also, how to deliver great one-liners.

● Zacchaeus, the father of The Prodigal Son. Since I see the Bible as a moderately successful work of fiction.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Odds and sods

In the House of Two Invalids nothing much changes. As a signal to the blogosphere that we’re still functioning I’m reduced to scrabbling amongst the tiniest of events.

SOCKS These days I don’t wash them; I wait til holes appear, throw them away, then open up the sock drawer. Coming upon a pair which must have formed Christmas table presents many moons ago. The sentiment is mawkish; had it been in English neither daughter would have been tempted. In French it has just enough style.

You don’t need me to translate, do you?


BRUNCH FOR VR, part one The default dish is two slices of Ryvita, spread with Philadelphia cream cheese and something added for variety. Yesterday it was peeled prawns. “Stir in a blob of mayo,” said VR. I had slight misgivings; the jar of mayo had been around for some time. I invited VR to smell it; she said it was OK. Today I checked the sell-by date. 2005! Hmm.



BRUNCH FOR VR, part two. The prawns had been stored in the freezer and had been bought this year. But does anyone have the patience to thaw frozen food with the microwave’s defroster? Ten seconds, no change. Twenty seconds, no change. Grinding my teeth I gave them twenty seconds on High with the full 650 watts. More like it. I mean, the kitchen is my slave galley these days. I hate to linger.

ENTERTAINMENT Being related to grand-daughter Bella (soon to be married), we have Netflix for free since she subscribes. Now I must pay. It’s only about £7 a month but I’ve decided I can do without. Fact is we play about 2% of what’s available. And some of that turns out to be junk.

Saturday 20 April 2024

Bones, gristle and chat

I can’t remember whether Gary is officially a chiropractor, a physiotherapist or an osteopath. Not that it matters. Once he eased me out of the worst (ie, sciatic) pain ever. Now I visit randomly even when I’m pain-free. During his pummelling he usually isolates a muscle or other flexible bit which profits from his ministrations. Good to stretch.

This time it’s what you might call a triple date. I’m without a car so daughter Occasional Speeder drives me there and also gets pummelled. I’m first on the table and as usual there’s wall-to-wall talk. For some reason I recall my RAF training when I deliberately made myself the most unpopular occupant of a 24-man billet and how this led two quite serious fights. Gary’s a decent sort and he ums and ahs politely then steers the conversation to somewhere less pugilistic.

When Occasional Speeder takes to the table I get to see the pummelling from a more objective viewpoint. In particular, strange two-handed flicks up and down her spine, too fast to follow. Then OS’s arm is held vertically with the hand made to describe figure-of-eight patterns; it’s almost balletic. My concentration lights on a (presumably) plastic model of a backbone with an odd asymmetrical attachment at the top. I intend to ask Gary about this, but by now the talk has risen to a noisier level as we shout our condemnation of the present Tory government.

Should one undergo pummelling even when there’s no tangible pain? Or am I really there for the chat? Gary’s got a heavy-duty electric pummeller that’s new to me; to the patient it’s like a badly sprung car riding over a bumpy road. But only for a few seconds. Outside it’s sunny and I realise how rare this is in 2024. 

Monday 15 April 2024

How did this happen?

Horrid details continue to emerge of invalids and oldsters (more often combinations of both) suffering the tortures of the damned in the UK’s not-so-well welfare state. VR and I are very old UK invalids but there are times when our existence is closer to Easy Street. For three weeks in March we were ministered to by Grandson Ian, an expert and ambitious cook, later for a week by his Mum, Professional Bleeder. Both away from their home in Luton. Occasional Speeder, who lives nearer, was in and out throughout this period

Properly cooked and exotic food replaced the miserable offerings I typically come up with. Drinks arrived unbidden. Shopping happened as if via an invisible conveyor belt. Chat and argument enlivened our waking hours. Julie, our cleaner, took on more domestic drudgery. Re-adjusting afterwards took a little while.

There’s no doubt VR deserved this cossetting. But did I? As a father you could say I contributed in absentia. How could I do otherwise when in Tokyo, Caracas or Munich? Not only was I away I was doing a job I liked. Had I been filling potholes things might have seemed fairer. Instead I was merely asking questions. What kind of work was that?

Some offspring drop their parents altogether. Fair enough; there is no official training for parents and plenty of us get it wrong. In any case awful problems may arise out of different tastes in music. I’m the only one taking singing lessons

Is there an obligation either way? If so can it be enforced, other than through perceptions of guilt? I have to say I feel twinges when a gin and tonic appears in my hand; not even asked for, yet exactly hitting a spot I haven’t even identified. Is it just unexplained magic?  

Friday 5 April 2024

La - an aftermath

My short story, La but no la-la, touches on computer dating. It’s not my best work and – perhaps deservedly – is enjoying a worldwide storm of apathy. Also it’s longish (4700 words). But I’m glad I tried.

Consider. The world’s population depends on an inbuilt desire among men and women to get together. Take it no further than that. Forget lerve and what sperm and eggs do. If togetherness doesn’t happen, nothing happens.

Getting together is quite hard. Often the couple might have been unaware of each other. How to break into that “other” world? Handled clumsily it may seem like intrusion, even an assault. Handled too slickly and those very skills may repel the other party.

Computer dating helps eliminate some awkwardness in that first meeting. The other party, alone, gets to assess us from a written description. This may or may not be true but then such uncertainty will always exist between a man and a woman trying to understand each other.

There are also photographs. Romantics like to say appearance isn’t everything but – alas – we all suffer from prejudices and misunderstandings. If what we see doesn’t fit our preferences the physical meeting may be uphill work.

Nothing is predictable. People with shared interests may hate each other. Those theoretically at daggers-drawn may shelve their differences. We are all individuals which means we differ. 

Computer dating allows us to arrive prepared. But not too well prepared, one hopes. No monologues with brief pauses for breath. No over-contrived jokes. Unpredictability is just that, of itself it’s neither good nor bad.

If La merely scratched the surface where might I go next time? An articulate person overtaken by a fit of sneezing? Two gays, neither outed? Computer dating couples on adjacent tables.

Play safe. Fuel injection deserves a go.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

La but no la-la 1

Short story 

Takes in .. oh, let's say ordinary people. Started out as hilarious but got deflected..Split into two to meet Google restrictions, although this may not have been necessary. If it's not obvious that Part One precedes Part Two perhaps you should look elsewhere.


PART ONE

Months ago the Tesco shopping lists were scribbled in pencil. Then, carefully, in pen. Then in pen and in capital letters. Then enlarged on the laptop and printed out on a full A4 sheet. Ma saying, “You can’t snivel now even if you do forget your glasses.”

But glasses didn’t solve all Larry’s problems. At Tesco potatoes were of course potatoes. And tooth-paste was tooth-paste. But what was Ainsley Harriot lemon grass? Last week he’d returned home lacking this very item, worried about asking a shelf-stacker in case he made a fool of himself. Ma had shrieked her displeasure, grabbed the car keys and stamped off.

She was back in ten minutes and still angry. At least she hadn’t insisted Larry walked back to Tesco. She could have.

But what was it Ma had shrieked a week ago? His mind was blank yet again. So, go back to basics. Start in aisle one and walk very slowly. Item by item, eyes screwed, alert to just those words: “lemon grass”. Never mind if it took forever. Aisle nineteen revealed a nondescript yet familiar packet soup. 

But, alas, he’d already sealed his fate for this day’s shopping. Before putting on his glasses he’d picked up stewing steak, guessing steak to be the operative word on his list. Back home, in an ominously quiet voice, Ma pointed out the difference between “sirloin” and “stewing”.

“I’ve a bloody good mind to fry that rubbish for you. Like bloody shoe soles. Do your dental a whole lot of favours.”

Even the miserable dinner was denied him. At six-thirty Ma got a phone call and Larry was sent to his bedroom with yesterday’s sandwich, the slices turning up at the corners. Gerry wanted to come over and watch Arsenal on Sky and Ma didn’t want Larry hanging about, looking sackless.

It had happened before. For Ma, nothing was too good for Gerry. When Gerry’s  young wife succumbed to breast cancer an insurance policy had wiped out his mortgage. Take a deep breath - he owned his house! No more monthly payments! Almost like early retirement. Ma dwelt on Gerry’s gift from the gods. Dwelt a lot.

While Larry, her 23-year-old son, alone in his room, dwelt on other matters. Tomorrow would be horrible Monday and he turned to his well-thumbed copy of the Highway Code. Then he dozed. Dreamt that Lollipop Man was trying to assault him; Lollipop Man, breathing heavily, creaking and bustling in his hi-vis plastic yellow raincoat.

Larry woke groggily near midnight and heard the wide-screen TV downstairs still burbling. Still football. Gerry was staying later than usual. Not normal. But Larry, wanting desperately to sleep, shoved this small revelation aside and buried his face in the pillow

LATE AFTERNOON and Larry had done everything that needed to be done in the mail room. In half an hour Ma would pick him up as on all other Monday evenings since mid-Spring. Ma would arrive sulky, become grumpy then noisily angry.

Didn’t Larry know realise these lessons were costing Ma good money? Larry did know; also knew his stomach would heave at the mere thought of touching a driving wheel or searching the windscreen for invisible menace.

 Aaargh.

He wasn’t reassured by the mail room’s tidiness. The two sorting tables were bare and he’d gone without lunch to prevent letters and parcels backing up. Sacks were filled and tied off. The floor swept clean of wrapper fragments. Oppressive silence. Nothing to see since the sky was blotted out by windows caked with dust. On the outside. Not his responsibility.

Ten minutes left and he went to the toilet, finding himself unproductive at the urinal. Washed his hands, already thrice washed that afternoon. At five he punched his card and emerged into unexpected sunshine for his half-mile walk.

Theoretically Ma could have parked outside the company’s entrance since the road there wasn’t busy. But for once Larry had protested successfully. Being driven away from work by his mother would emphasise his feebleness. Especially by a mother like Ma. She had argued, of course, but without conviction since his driving lessons would ultimately benefit her rather than him.

But being cantankerous was some compensation. In a narrow street well beyond the view of Larry’s co-workers she had the car window down. “Don’t shuffle Laurence, you look like the village idiot.”

Surely village idiots didn’t wear suits. But then neither did mail-room operatives. Six of one, half dozen of another.

Ma watched as he buckled in. Asked. “Where’s your tie?”

“It’s uncomfortable when I’m driving.”

Ma sighed. “How many lessons has it been…?”

He wriggled; dropped his voice. “Eighteen.”

“How many failed tests?”

“Just the one.”

“And when will you be ready for the next test?”

“It’s… sort of… up in the air.”

“Huh. And lessons cost thirty quid.” Ma gestured. “So, look at you. Shirt collar open, a real roughdick. Cringing too. Thing is, you don’t look confident enough to learn what they’re teaching you. Never mind the flipping test.”

THE ALBERTS had both suffered early retirement and had offered driving lessons to help with their reduced pension. Their car was a well-worn seven years old and for long periods Larry appeared to be their only customer. Once they might have cherished him, given the financial stability he represented, however meagre. But by now he was barely tolerated. Like Larry they desperately needed a winner and the Alberts had decided Larry would never tear up his L-plates.

Today it was Mr Albert’s turn in the passenger seat and Larry cringed yet again. Waiting for the over-white smile and the hollow greeting. 

“Albert Albert’s my name; teaching driving’s my game.” A bit of banter to calm the nervous student, he called it. It had spooked Larry that his instructor had the same first name and surname, How should he be addressed? Talk tended to be infrequent. “The same street?” Larry whispered.

Albert Albert nodded.

The same street had been quiet for thirty years. Three dozen terrace houses awaiting demolition, the date constantly “moved back”. Since there was neither traffic nor parked cars it was generously safe for practising three-point turns. And the Alberts knew what they were doing. Crammed streets induced panic attacks when Larry had to reverse. Here in forgotten Suva Bay Row he could turn his car round taking no more than two minutes. And his tyres brushed the kerb only rarely.

For the Alberts and Larry three-point turns were just the entrée; the main course was taken in the High Street of a nearby village with Cotswold pretensions; a maelstrom of tourist arrivals and departures, arguments about parking, brain-dead pedestrians clutching shiny fashionista bags and treating the High Street as a place for meditation.

Larry stiffened and for the fiftieth time Albert Albert wished he’d had the money to fit dual control for the steering, the go pedal and the footbrake.

Two-hundred yards behind them and they were out of the High Street and – as a deliberate act of kindness by Albert Albert – into a quiet residential street where most stationary cars occupied driveways. A huge salty droplet had formed at the tip of Larry’s nose and even Albert sensed moistness in his underwear. More than that, Albert now knew these ordeals must come to an end.

He glanced at Larry, noted the hunched shoulders, the raspy breathing, hands clenched on the wheel.

Christ, we need the money. But do we need it that badly? Taking these risks? Getting this close to… who knew what?

He tapped Larry on the shoulder, thumbed backwards. Larry, bewildered, said, “Wha…”

“We need to talk.”

The car was parked. Albert spoke quietly; Larry merely gobbled, unable to understand. Only when Albert revealed he would not charge for this – the absolutely final – lesson did things become clear. Larry asked, “What will I tell Ma?”

Albert Albert reckoned that wasn’t an instructor’s business.

Only half a lesson had passed. Ma was elsewhere and Larry must wait. Imagining the punishment. Yet when it arrived it was almost tranquil. Ma was surprised, yes. Silent for a while. Then, pensively, “It isn’t the end of the world. We’ll see, we’ll see.”

Ma drove them both home, provided a burger and fries, watched an It Ain’t ‘alf Hot Mum re-run with Larry and then retired to her bedroom but not necessarily to sleep. The flat’s only phone sat on her bedside table.

IT RAINED heavily the following evening and Ma seemed restless, prowling from room to room, as if searching for something long forgotten. Larry became nervous. It was the longest period he’d ever gone without being abused. He was almost tempted to do something stupid for which he would be abused. In the kitchen Ma had not only washed the dinner things but put them away. Only a saucepan remained, inverted for draining. Larry felt his very being sucked into the saucepan as if it held the answer to all his problems. Perhaps it did. He picked it up only to find his fingers slack and incapable; saw the pan drop on to the rubber-tiled floor. Causing a dull boing.

Feet thumped in the passage. Retribution, surely. The door flung open and there stood Ma, primed like a firework, tense with explosive potential. Staring first at Larry then – for want of something better – the saucepan on the floor. Seemingly irritated by the pan’s anonymity, its very innocence.

Screaming, “Larry, what the hell….?” But the scream died away. As if saucepans didn’t warrant a scream.

Now through gritted teeth, she said, “Sit on the couch.”

But the kitchen lacked a couch. Larry looked left and right.

“Living room, you fool.”

In fact she led him there. Pushed him backwards when he hesitated about sitting down. Still standing, she asked, “What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do?”

“The… the pan?”

“You bloody fool. You bloo-oo-oody fool. About not driving.”

It took time to disentangle her meaning. Driving lessons had so embroiled him with fear and discomfort he’d forgotten why he’d taken them. “So that you can drive me,” Ma had said, magisterially if vaguely. But several weeks were to elapse before he realised this had something to do with Gerry and that it would threaten Larry’s future. Automatically he had shut down his mind and Ma had never elaborated. Now, it seemed, the future has caught up with the present.

Ma said, “You, driving. So that I can live a normal woman’s life.” 

It had never made sense since Ma failed to add further details. Could this explain Ma’s recent confusing behaviour?

From the age of eight when his father had inexplicably disappeared from his life and Ma had started to hate him, Larry had never asked for explanations. Parenthood was both cruel and unknowable. The only certainty was he, Larry, would suffer. Now he had a soft urge to know more.

He stammered but felt he must keep on going. “I n–n-ever really knew. The driving, I m-m-ean. I’m no good at it. You know…”

“Anyone can drive.”

“Not me. It scares me.”

“I explained,” said Ma harshly. “How many more times?”

In fact she’d only touched on it once. Larry spoke more positively. “It’s to do with Gerry, I know. And the car. But it’s complicated.”

Ma sighed. “Grown-up stuff. Not your field, I suppose. Gerry and I get on, you might say. He comes here and watches Sky. Seeing him at his home means me using the car. Parking the car there is… difficult. It can say things. Wrong things. The aim was you drove and left me there. Picked me up later.”

Dimly these proposals fell into place. And yet they had never seemed realistic; just part of Ma’s unceasing aim to make things uncomfortable for him. Confirmation that his only role in life was to do what Ma told him and to suffer.

And now Ma had become quieter, her eyes searching the living room ceiling. “I told Gerry the driving school had dropped you. He was sympathetic, he likes you.”

Larry tried to remember anything Gerry had said. Or done. Other than leaving the front door open and pushing past Larry in the hallway, calling out to Ma, “Got any gin left? I could make do with vodka.”

Ma smiled. “Gerry says: Laurence needs a friend. And he even has an indea. Can you guess what?”

A friend! Ma had warned him about friends. Interfering with his duties. Wanting to come in and watch paid-for Sky. Not that any such ghostly figure had ever seemed probable. Other than Gerry, of course.

“Time you started dating. That’s what Gerry says.”

MA HAD NEVER gone in for paintings or photographs. On the otherwise bare wall in the living room she’d hung a large mirror, saying mirrors were always useful. It wasn’t something Larry regularly consulted but today, sitting on a chair he rarely used, he saw his reflection. Saw the corrugations of worry on his forehead. The NHS specs (“Forget titanium frames,” Ma had said sternly. “Specs are for seeing not for decoration.”) The tight lips.

Dating?

“I said: guess what Gerry says,” said Ma, voice hardening.

Fear started to develop. He’d always suppressed thoughts about the other sex. He scrabbled through his distant childhood, that eternal unhappiness. “Dunno. Youth clubs.”

“Silly. They went out with The Flood. We live in modern times. Electrics and all that. Think, Laurence, think.”

He thought. Electrics. There were phones that weren’t the black thing on Ma’s bedside table. Devices his workmates peered at during lunch break. Shockingly expensive he suspected; Ma had forbidden them but that had been one of his lesser privations. What would he peer at? Who would he speak to?

Ma also had a laptop. A sort of television but smaller. It seemed to provide Ma with answers but Larry – lacking questions – had never felt tempted.

“I wouldn’t know how.” He said feebly.

Ma and Gerry did the online application for Chew and Chat, using the laptop. Laughing at what they were doing. Occasionally they broke off to speak about things Larry had rarely considered. Favourite TV programmes? A no-goer since Ma had denied him the remote. Holidays? Which he’d spent at home; pointlessly, getting up late, wearing jeans.

Time passed and Larry thought it had all blown over. But then came Chew and Chat’s biographical questionnaire and the writing of a sizeable cheque, drawn against Larry’s account. The money hadn’t mattered, Larry was forever in credit. But the four-page questionnaire had taken Larry two nights. Such questions! Such probing! Blondes versus brunettes. His opinion on kissing. Food preferences. Is feminism a good thing? Political inclinations. Number of O-levels. Height (At 5 ft 9 in. he enjoyed filling in this one.) Previous dates (Ma said “Infrequent” would do here.)

On the last page was an empty box for questions Chew and Chat had failed to put. Ma and Gerry had smiled, almost secretly. Gerry pointed: “Write in: Car-driver preferred.”

The low point of the evening for Larry. A reminder of fear and failure. And a nagging doubt which he could not resolve.

The questionnaire was returned in an envelope. Gerry even had a stamp.

Continued in Part Two.

La but no la-la 2

PART TWO

THE RESTAURANT was called Sesquipedalian, a word Larry had checked in Ma’s forty-year-old dictionary and was still no more the wiser. Its culinary practice was that of a brasserie but when Larry discovered this was a French word he looked no further.

The Chew and Chat team had told him it was “nearby” but it had taken two bus rides, and one of the services had already closed down. Even at that, he’d arrived two hours early. Sesquipedalian was on the main drag of a village that had almost turned into a town – perhaps a townlet, then. The eatery was already open and this seemed mysterious to monoglot Larry. A menu, scribbled in felt-tip and pinned to the door jamb, was hard to decode but certain faintly familiar phrases seemed to be in a foreign language. No doubt French, something that would have troubled him two days ago; less so now he had a Plan.

Most of the street’s shops were closed, offering no entertainment. However he stopped outside a Gent’s Outfitter with a window display that included a full length mirror. Where, Larry supposed, potential shoppers could inspect themselves and decide if their clothing was shabby enough to need replacing.

No such problems for Larry. As the date had drawn near Ma and Gerry had resorted to ever more feverish preparations. Even buying Larry a new suit. A double-breasted light grey which he now wore, catching the last soft rays of a setting sun. Gerry had definitely approved, saying it made Larry look “sort of solemn”. Ma, who had borne the cost, wasn’t prepared to go that far and had merely nodded. On the bus Larry had pondered “solemn” and decided it meant “wise”. No one, throughout his life, had ever used that adjective to describe Larry and, like Ma, he delayed judgment.

Mostly he killed time sitting in an empty bus station, amazed that he felt so calm. It had to be his Plan. As a mantra he stroked the bulge in his inside jacket pocket. Time to saunter over to his organised destiny

But when Vivian arrived at the reserved table, a fashionable ten minutes late, Larry, sitting, then stumbling to his feet, felt his tripes turn to water. His Plan! It wouldn’t work. He hadn’t allowed for this.

Luckily an over-zealous waitress, fussing with menus, announcing specials in a speak-your-weight voice, and making an over-long pitch for a Sicilian red “chosen specially by our proprietor,” reduced the immediate tension, and Larry had time to catch the breath he’d been shockingly deprived of. Throughout his own preparations for this evening, as throughout his life, he had assumed his computer-chosen soulmate would be visually negligible. In his rare encounters with women it had always been thus. Women who had, to some extent, been his mirror image, lacking confidence, attentive but artificially so. Not exactly unbeguiling but – at best – anonymous. Breathing normally now he realised he had slightly over-reacted to what Vivian wore. The sleek sheath dress in dark green with a somewhat over-ambitious cleavage had temporarily stunned him. Close up her face seemed arguably whispy and her glasses certainly lacked titanium frames.

OK, he could manage. Even if she was properly groomed, seemingly unafraid, poised if not showy  

But hang on. She was clearly waiting, impatient for some form of words. Not surprising since Larry had so far done nothing other than mumble.

Did his mouth creak as he opened it to speak? “I’m sorry. Truly sorry.”

She frowned and he saw this as adult. Already she was ahead of him. “Sorry for what?” she asked.

He spread his hands as a sign of helplessness. “I’m new to this. Not good at it all. I’d thought of things to say but not for this first… time. When we need a kind of bridge… between two people who don’t know each other.”

“Ah,” she said.

“How do you do it?”

“What makes you think I’m better at it than you?”

Was she mocking him? He cleared his throat but for no good reason. No words available.

She pointed at what would be her chair. He felt a rush of irrelevant gratitude that her nails were not coloured. That was something. She said “In movies the chap says: why don’t we sit down?”

Of course. This was what people did. He started arranging his hands to indicate invitation but she shook her head. “No, I’m wrong. First things first. The question is: who gets to sit where? Who looks out, who looks in?”

Then suddenly, blindingly, he felt calmer. Stepping away from his chair he now palmed his hand. “You should look out. Much better than looking in.” Toying with, but rejecting, what might have been a fatal addition: “at me”.

She laughed and he exalted. A first in all his life! Togetherness with a woman. 

Still smiling she sat down. “There you go. The social graces aren’t that hard.”

Exaltation died. In a million years he could never have called up “social graces”.

Yet as one door closed, another opened. She had picked up the menu; pouting, then let it drop. “All in French. My absolutely worst O-level.”

He, greatly daring: “While I struggled with English.”

She wagged a finger. “Time to stop this inadequacy talk. Talking of movies, we’re neither of us Yanks and they do it all the time. But we too can occasionally use our first names. Just occasionally, not like Yanks. As you know I’m Vivian but I’ll respond to Viv.”

“I put Laurence on the C&C form but I’m mostly Larry. Not that I like Larry all that much.” Why was that? Some kind of echo with Gerry?

“I could call you La. Very Jane Austen. ‘La, Mr Darcy.’ Would you like that?”

And again he was aware she might drift away. He’d seen ten minutes of the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice;  reckoned it slow; leaving him with no opinion; unable to follow her. But what about the Plan? There was always that to fall back on. In the meantime her hair was worth considering. More than that. Brownish with wavy patterns. Bent over the menu, reminding Larry that he too needed to do some picking.

Vivian raised her head. “I’m tempted by crudités because it sounds so weird. What about you?”

On the verge of spreading his hands he reminded himself he’d already done that. More, it would be easy to oversell helplessness. “I’m baffled. Is it cheating to ask what these things are?”

She pondered. “It would prove neither of us is clever at dining out.”

“That’s me in a flash.”

“But it’s you who talked about asking for help. Would you do the asking to protect my reputation?”

He almost panicked trying to work this one out. Then saw her grinning and recognised it put him in a good light. Beckoned the waitress.

THE ORDERS were quickly taken since the waitress sensed their linguistic shortcomings and edged them away from controversial choices. (“No, those are snails.”)  But Larry’s relief was short-lived when he alone was asked about drink. Having listened to his ums and ahs the waitress abruptly suggested two glasses of red and they were on their own again.

Throughout, Vivian had held him in scrutiny, saying little. Now she spoke: quietly, “Look La… No, that doesn’t sound right. Look Laurence, you’d admit to being shy, wouldn’t you?”

“Well… “

Briskly. “Nothing wrong with shyness. And you’re not alone. I’ve done a lot of weeping after coming home from parties.”

His mouth opened and stayed open. Ma would have said he looked sackless.

Vivian shrugged. “Why should I fib? But here’s the point. We’re on a date which isn’t a date. Dates happen between humans. A machine organised ours. I’m not exactly proud about that. We need to prove we’re human. So start asking questions. There’s skads I’d like to know about you but I’ll give you first dibs. Ask me a question and we’ll take it from there.”

On reflection he should have been terrified. But no,  she made it appear logical. Perhaps the as-yet untouched Plan added stiffness to his backbone. “Yes, I am shy. I don’t get out much and I live with my mother.” How easily the words came.

“My mother’s… er… quite strict. I work in Gascoigne’s mail room and it’s a nothing job. I’ve been taking driving lessons but I doubt I’ll pass the test. For holidays…” That, however, was the limit to this confession. His monotone took on a shriller pitch. “Oh, what the hell. My life’s dull. It’s all there on my C&C biog. Were you desperate? It doesn’t look like it.” 

IT WAS AS IF she was smiling to herself. “Perhaps I was desperate. Who knows? Why do people pay good money to open their heart to an algorithm? But I didn’t choose you out of desperation. I had six hopefuls and the other five lied their heads off. As a living I fact-check manuscripts for a publisher. Time to time I despair of humanity. So many untruths. You were only one that didn’t decorate what you were.”

Their starters had arrived and now they both knew what crudités looked like. “Just a sort of salad,” said Larry. “Nothing very weird, nothing very interesting.” He paused, feeling entitled to skate his eyes over those brown wavy patterns. “Your turn.” 

Both, in tandem, reached for their wine glasses. Larry, feeling slightly more at ease, waved to the waitress.

Vivian didn’t seem disposed to ask her question just yet. The main course – a casseroled lamb shank – was despatched to the accompaniment of monosyllables, Vivian leaving half the meat untouched.

She sighed as if about to sit an exam. “You don’t think much of yourself, then? Has it always been that way?”

Larry had just finished his fourth glass. For him Vivian had changed. Had become more like a neighbour he’d chatted to over the dividing wall. He liked her, felt he could trust her. Time to put a modified version of the Plan into action.

“Far as I can remember I was a normal child. But that was then and I had a father; he took me fishing. When I was twelve he simply disappeared. No more fishing. No one explained why. As I grew older I thought I had to stay with Ma. Felt she’d been badly treated. But later I couldn’t help thinking Dad left Ma because of Ma. By then there seemed to be no options. Ma’s not a happy mother and I guess I’ve caught the same infection.”

Vivian seemed to be staring into his very soul, as if she knew the Plan existed. “Leave,” she said. “You’re still very young.”

“And do what? What have I got to sell? No one wants a mail room orderly who’s scared of the future. In any case I may have to leave Ma because that’s what she wants. Until then…” And this time he did spread his hands. Aching somewhat.

Vivian sat up straight. “Look, I’ve got on with you tonight. In fact…”

But Larry, horribly tempted, knew he couldn’t afford to hear the end of that sentence. The Plan must roll. He took Vivian’s hand then dropped it hurriedly. Holding hands didn’t fit.

“I’m here for the shittiest of reasons which I’ll explain. You’ll understand and you’ll go your way. But before that… it’s been… this hour…” He was becoming angry with himself and words escaped him. He gasped with irritation. “I just can’t say. I’m such a… ahhh. Hell’s bloody bells. An hour gone and you know more about me than… Look, I’m grateful… very. Perhaps something good will happen. Whenever.”

Haltingly he explained and Vivian grimaced at Gerry’s instruction about car drivers being preferred. Otherwise she said nothing.

Larry concluded. “So I wasn’t here to make friends with you, even if that happened. But I won’t go along with what they want. I’ll just tell Ma and Gerry we fell out and it’s no go. But that leaves you. I've lied to you. Wasted your evening. That always seemed a bad thing; it’s even worse now I know you.” He paused perhaps for physiological reasons. Swallowed. “Perhaps this too is shitty. I have some money; it’s all I can think of. As you can see I’m not good at what some say are relationships. Please take it.”

This time she took his hand. “No I won’t take it, La. Hey, I think I like La; it suits you. No cash, but I’m asking for your number at Gascoigne’s. A huge warning here. It won’t be a big deal; tonight we haven’t even mentioned my problems. I could turn out to be something of a female shit. But I’m remembering those weekly pieces in The Guardian magazine; couples, randomly chosen, who go out together and report back. The final point they’re asked: Any future meetings? We the readers hope it’ll be roses but more often it’s: ‘Perhaps. But only as friends.’ How about that, La? Then who knows?”

“But… but I’m still a shit. Always will be.”

“Shittiness isn’t a permanent state, La. And there’s something else. I only drank one glass, didn’t touch the second. That’s because I came by car and I’m going to drive you home. That’s an irony we can share and laugh about at, say, Macdonalds. Not something Ma and Gerry would appreciate.”