On the escalator, I recite my mantra: No big deal, just another date. My third online meet-up. The other two were easy chats in cosy pubs, quick kisses, the men nice and forgettable. My mum says I’m too picky.
This morning, I’m meeting Phil. We both want children, we both love literature. His linguistic flair attracted me, the ninety-seven words of his profile leaving me longing for more. In his messages, Phil transformed everyday anecdotes into a carnival of words. We clicked ‘Yes’ a month ago and have written every day since. The caution about meeting was mostly on his side. He didn’t want to waste time: he was looking for true love. I want what my mum and dad have: each other forever and the type of house a child would draw.
I push out of the tube station. Phil suggested meeting at the British Museum; the past is another of his passions.
I’m early, but he is there, dwarfed by the columns. No big deal, just another date.
It’s not easy to talk in a Central London museum. Conversational attempts are shattered by the need to move away from exhibits.
As we plod around, I am smiling so hard my cheeks hurt. My insides are hollow, however. The mantra means nothing: it feels like a big deal that Phil in real life doesn’t attract me. Not physically; it’s not that he looks entirely different from his profile picture, but he’s on the small side of ‘five foot nine’, and his face is so pale it’s as though he’s being erased. Most crushingly, his spoken words have none of the sparkle of his written ones. Despite the weight of the disappointment I am lugging around like a rock of raw diamond that can’t be turned into a ring, I am too polite to leave. Perhaps Phil is just nervous; we can be friends.
‘I’d love to see the Troy exhibition, Tamsin,’ Phil says. ‘I’ve always wanted to see the “Judgement of Paris”, haven’t you?’
I have not, but what the hell.
There is a twenty pound admission fee to get into ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. Phil steers me towards a painting of a gingery, doughy-faced man kneeling before three naked women. Not very Me Too. Phil tells me how Paris had to choose which of the goddesses was the most beautiful; the winner, Aphrodite, gifted him the world’s most beautiful woman; Helen’s abduction from her husband started the Trojan War.
‘Very dramatic,’ I say, to fill the ensuing silence. Is Phil expecting applause? An A-star grade? ‘No man’s fought over me, let alone started a war.’
‘I’d fight over you,’ Phil says. ‘I’d start a war.’
I laugh: he doesn’t. When I look at his unlit face, he is staring at me like a painter trying to capture an essence. I don’t fill silences after that. Phil comments on what we see as we trudge from ancient sculpture to vase painting to silver vessel, from myth to history to truth.
‘Let’s find a picnic spot,’ Phil says, as if we are in the Lake District. ‘Hope you’re hungry!’
He has brought our lunch, for which I have high hopes. Some booze to add a layer of fuzz to the proceedings would be a good start, baguettes and posh crisps too. If he’s willing to spend twenty pounds at a free museum then surely he’s splashed out on this. But who can tell. Phil is an outline of the person I thought I knew. All those words, squatting inside our screens and phones: what was the point?
The weather has got worse since we were inside the museum, the faded-grey sky thick with clouds. A pathetic fallacy. I suggest going to a café.
‘But I’ve bought food, Tamsin.’
Why am I not brave enough to walk away, now it’s clear we’re never going to see each other again? I envisage my studio flat like a pair of outstretched arms.
Phil and I wander the chilly streets, rain mizzling onto us. At least it doesn’t matter if my hair frizzes. Finally, we see an uninhabited green enclave. One of London’s small secrets. The single bench is damp, so I sit on my coat. Phil produces packets of food from his rucksack: cold croissants and cold sausage rolls. Diet Cokes.
This could be a funny anecdote, I think.
When I have had a croissant and a sausage roll, I brush crumbs off my best jeans and say: ‘I’d better be off, Phil, thanks so much—’
‘Shall we go out tonight, Tamsin? You’ve mentioned that pub near you: the Rose and Crown. It gets good reviews on Trip Adviser.’
I stare at the concrete; it is pigeon-coloured and splattered with avian emissions. In my head, Mum murmurs: ‘Give him another chance, Tam. You can’t afford to be picky at nearly thirty. Your dad and I were married at twenty-three.’ Shush, Mum.
‘Sorry, I’ve got a friend coming over tonight,’ I lie. ‘Gary. We were at university together.’
‘Can I see you tomorrow, then? This has been a great date. You’re just what I expected, and that’s not always the case, is it?’
‘I need to go. Thanks for today.’
That evening, my phone doesn’t stop. Phil sends texts, voicemails and emails. I craft one message saying it was lovely to meet him, but I don’t think we connected, sorry. My phone rings: I don’t answer. He keeps on… ringing… texting… emailing. I delete the messages without reading them: block his number and email. Although he doesn’t know my address, I double-lock the door.
That night, sleep takes a long time to come. A sound jerks me awake: someone’s knocking at the window. I spring up, open the curtains. Branches are raging against the darkened pane. I’ll ask the landlord to trim the tree.
Next morning, I am tagged in a Facebook post visible to all. Brilliant date with Tamsin: beautiful as Helen and sexy as Aphrodite. The next will be even more special. Such hackneyed words; did someone else write his other messages? The fleshy-pink enthused delusion makes me feel sick. Twenty of my friends, two of Phil’s, ‘like’ the post. My best friend Jenna texts to say Went well then x
Delete delete: Phil is blocked from my social media accounts. Now he has no way of getting to me.
The next Saturday is my thirtieth birthday party. An area has been reserved in The Rose and Crown, and I’ve paid for enough Prosecco and food for a small army.
Drink and conversation flow, music is turned up. At ten o’clock, I am squashed on a sofa with Jenna’s new housemate Dara. In his lilting Irish accent, he tells me about the park runs he does. Then suggests we go jogging together one weekend. I say I’ll meet him for a pint when he’s finished running. He laughs, says that sounds good.
As Dara and I are moving closer together, I become aware of someone standing above me.
‘Tamsin, at last! I’ve been here every night this week, hoping to bump into you. Have you lost your phone?’
I can’t speak.
‘Who’s this?’ Phil points at Dara. ‘Are you Gary?’
(c) Sam Szanto