The Unreliable Placebo

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Funnier than Bridget Jones's Diary, more bizarre than Fleabag, Anna Duke's clumsy attempts to re-join the couples club after the Arsehole ‒ sorry, her husband Alfie ‒ has left her, result in various embarrassing events, and lead her to some strange places and into some weird situations. She believes that prior information about a man she's going to meet might affect the success or otherwise of the date, in the same way that a medicinal placebo can affect physical symptoms. Do expectations affect outcomes in the dating game? Anna's theory doesn’t always work out in practice and many wires get crossed. Is it possible that one person will have the courage to manfully hack through the thorny thicket of Anna's mind, circumventing the muddled hopes, dreams, fears, musings and speculations, to reach the perfect ending? ‘…. I have not laughed so much reading a book for a long time…it was a wonderful - and wonderfully funny - picture of modern womanhood.’ Val Kershaw, award-winning author.

Humor / Romance
Gill Mather
4.3 3 reviews
Age Rating:

Chapter 1 A Toe in the Water

SO, MY ARSEHOLE of a husband’s waltzed off with an up-dated version of me. Yes, probably prettier with a bigger arse and tits. I only briefly once caught sight of her rear end and a side-on glimpse of her unnaturally large cantilevered bosom when I saw the Arsehole saying goodbye to a woman. I went up to London to go and see a show with him. I met him in the foyer of his ruddy gym and I determined later that it was her. Obviously brighter than me (she’s a high-flying corporate lawyer apparently, whereas in recent years I’ve contentedly whiled away my working life as a mostly residential property solicitor waiting for my periods to stop signalling that I might be PREGNANT, or at least I was until Himself quit the scene); seven or eight years younger than me meaning presumably more fecund, though why this would make any difference I don’t know since it was me not him who was interested in reproducing; with no doubt more social skills; probably superior to me in just about every possible way, God curse her, strike her dumb and infect her gonads with undiagnosed and untreatable necrotizing fasciitis.

None of the above means that other people know how I should react, how I’m feeling, how I might best overcome the deep sense of betrayal, bitterness, anger, the murderous thoughts. All of that. So you have to wonder why everyone thinks they know far better than you what’s best for you. In any given situation, you have only to open your mouth and provide someone with information about yourself for the recipient of this information to hold forth at length on their version of what’s going on and how you should behave going forward, as they now say. You’ve told them the bare minimum, but they nonetheless have an instant, wide and fast grasp on what makes you tick and what would indubitably make you tick actually a great deal better.

In fact, not that many people know I was hoping to conceive, or at least I haven’t told many people. It hadn’t become that big a thing but I am now thirty-five and it does start to weigh on one a little, but the Arsehole didn’t want to try to do anything about it, advance or assist the process in any way.

“There’s plenty of time,” he’d say, while enjoying all the benefits of trying for a baby, most notably constant sex and no need to bother with pesky contraception. I just hope he’s being a bit more careful now that he’s knocking off Corporate Legal Backside of the Year.

However, to get back to other people’s long lists of must-dos, one of them seems to be to find yourself another man immediately. The old adage that you have to get under someone to get over someone keeps coming up. Even my mother says this and more vociferously than most as it happens, though she doesn’t put it quite that way but I expect that’s what she means. Doesn’t matter how. Go online, eye up any available talent at work or in work-related situations (yeah like that’s not going to get me into any kind of trouble or send round the word that Anna Duke has finally tipped over the edge); visit speed-dating sessions; attend one of these up-market expensive dinner parties organised for the sole purpose of trying to get people off with others of a similar social class, or just stupid enough to chance two hundred and fifty quid on an indifferent meal taken with a sundry group of strangers; generally put the word around; go out more. None of these appeal.

I reflect on how the Arsehole met the Backside and apparently it was at the gym. The Arsehole works in London and had started to be home late because he’d joined the above-mentioned gym, a posh one in Mayfair, and he used to go there after work. And then, of course, he had to go out to a posh bar afterwards so he wasn’t getting home until gone midnight sometimes. Does that sound plausible to you? Anyway, the story is that attraction developed over the hyper extension bench ‒ or something ‒ and had progressed via get-togethers with ‘friends we have in common’ to her conveniently situated luxury Docklands apartment, though it was stressed that of course nothing had ‘happened’ until the Arsehole had abandoned the matrimonial home.

True, he did allegedly spend an indeterminate though believed to be short period of time sleeping in his brother’s lounge before making the final break. The brother backs him up on that, though I have no actual evidence that this sofa-hopping did ever take place. But within an indecently minute time frame, a scintilla in fact, I found that his mail was no longer being delivered to our house and that he was sending round emails and things to everyone giving them his new address and circumstances making it clear that he and the Backside were an item. Everyone generously including me as he’d obviously, in his enthusiasm, overlooked deleting all my email addresses from his list and unfriending me on Facebook.

Though I digress once again. What I was going to say was that I don’t want to meet anyone. For the time being I want to be allowed to fester a little, like a glass of milk that’s been left out for too long and eventually turns into yoghurt. Well, if you’re lucky. I want my poor little brain to be given time to adjust to the change. I don’t want some other man trying to climb into my under-garments while they and what’s in them are still the right size and shape and consistency for the Arsehole, damn him. My affections are not ready to be invaded by some stranger who looks and sounds and feels and smells all wrong. These things take time. And if the glass of milk turns into a rancid yellow malodorous unedifying mess, well then … well then … I don’t know. Maybe I should just stick one small toe into the water and be ready to whip it straight out if it feels like I’m getting scalded. Or worse still, frozen out. As you see, I have the resolve of a wobbly blancmange.

So when, at a business breakfast that I’ve been persuaded it would be a good idea to go to so as to ‘get out more’, Dennis Barrow, a local surveyor, notices, and I notice him noticing, that I’m not wearing my wedding or engagement rings any more (the same having been wrenched off in a fit of extreme drunken rage on receiving the Hi-I’m-on-the-Move email and I’m not at all sure where they are now) asks me if I’d like to go for a drink, I decide on the very spur of the moment to say yes. Having looked in the mirror before leaving the house this morning and having observed that the metaphorical surface of the milk has spots on it that look like bacterial growths, it seems like a reasonable idea to put the glass back in the fridge for the time being and hope that that will arrest the process. The spots are obviously accounted for by the fact that, now I’m on my own and now especially that I’m not expecting to be … expecting any time soon, I’m not eating properly. In fact I’m eating decidedly improperly, mostly chocolates for breakfast, caramel-iced custard-filled doughnuts for lunch and red wine and more chocolates for dinner. Perhaps Dennis will take me out for a good square meal. Though so far he’s only offered a drink.

I consider that in the intelligence, intellectual stakes I ought to be able to keep up with a surveyor and provided I don’t break down and tell him how terrible I feel, well maybe we’ll hit it off. He looks all right. I think. He seems nice enough. Actually, I admit to myself, I’ve never before taken the least notice of him. I’ve barely ever spoken to him and I have no idea what his marital status is. Thinking about it, perhaps he just wants me as a business contact who might chuck some work his way. And now I’m unsure of the ground I’m stepping onto, I wish I’d made an excuse. Still, it’s too late; the die is cast.

I tell my friend Sharon about Dennis’s offer and my doubts. Sharon has the solid marriage, the faithful husband, the two children, the smug air of complacency and the spreading midriff. She’s enthusiastic and sweeps aside my fears that he has an ulterior mercenary motive and a purely business relationship in mind. We go online together and bring up the website of the firm in which he’s a partner. We read his profile. While it gives his hobbies (golf, squash and computer games ‒ “Hmm” says Sharon, frowning), it doesn’t give any details of his personal circumstances such as ‘Happily married to Tracey with six children, Dennis has little time for extraneous activities and mostly sits glued to a monitor playing World of Warcraft when he’s not shagging his wife in an effort to produce the seventh offspring.’ But then it wouldn’t.

“His photo looks OK,” say Sharon. I hope this isn’t indulgent friend-speak for “What a tosser!” Actually, though, he does look quite sophisticated and urbane in the pic, right down to the sidelong look and raised eyebrow. “I should go for it.”

I sigh. It can’t do any harm and we’ve already exchanged mobile numbers. Anyway, perhaps he won’t ring me.

I ASK around at work about Dennis, trying not to be too obvious. Sadly almost no one knows anything at all about him, until I casually ask the commercial partner who they use for rental valuations et cetera and it turns out to be Dennis a lot of the time. He even apparently sits on tribunals. And he also acts as an arbitrator in leasehold rent reviews and other commercial disputes.

“What you mean small stuff? Newsagents and things?” I ask.

“Blimey no!” exclaims the partner Ned Hemmings. “Shopping centres, large building developments, industrial estates. That sort of thing. Fucking great stuff.”

Ned puffs out his chest and tells me that if he’s got a “fucking enormous case on”, he always sends it to Dennis.

This of course worries me no end. That Dennis holds an elevated position in specialised commercial property circles makes me now think that he’s way above my own batting order. I mean an arbitrator is like a sort of judge, as is sitting on a tribunal. I do wish I hadn’t asked now. And I daren’t ask Ned about Dennis’s marital status. I can’t think of any way I could innocently introduce that into the conversation. Or what Dennis is like as a person. I can’t tell him I’m going out on a date with Dennis. Ned is the world’s most assiduous gossip. They say women are the worst gossips. Don’t you believe it. When it comes to newsmongering and scandal, Ned is at the top of the game. And it would all come out wrong, as though I’m deeply interested in Dennis when all I actually want is a little forewarning and forearming.

So instead I go back home that evening and look up on the internet all I can on computer games and there are a bewilderingly, hopelessly large number of them. I give up. Squash I know nothing about and five minutes online convinces me that I don’t want to either. Golf seems a bit more accessible to the average person. We’ve all seen (and in my case switched over from) TV programmes featuring men in checked trousers driving buggies along windswept Scottish fairways with a large crowd standing back huddling in their mackintoshes and grimly trying to stop their umbrellas from blowing inside out. As an effective means of exercise, golf has always puzzled me as it seems so sedentary. Still, Dennis looks fit enough. As this thought hovers in my head, my mobile suddenly goes.

“Hello, it’s Dennis.”


“I thought we might firm up on that drink we spoke about the other morning. Or we could go to a restaurant if you like.”

I instantly forget about my need for a decent meal. “Oh, a drink’s fine,” I stammer, thinking about my last glimpse of his manly torso in his business suit. I blush charmingly and just hope it doesn’t show in my voice. It’s horrible the amount of information your voice can unwittingly convey for you.

“Well OK. Anywhere you’d especially like to go?” he says.

I wonder what sort of drinking establishments commercial property arbitrators might frequent and all inspiration abandons me. “I … um … you know … quite like country pubs. Though,” I hurry on, “perhaps a town bar would be better. You know, when you bear in mind the driving and, er …”

Cutting quickly to the heart of the issue, as any judge faced with hopelessly ignorant indecisive opposing parties would, Dennis says masterfully: “Well, where do you live, Anna?”

I name the village.

“So,” he says , “one of us at least would have to drive anyway. Look isn’t there a nice pub there called ‘The Sorcerer’s Kitchen’?” He sounds a bit strained; a bit irritated. I’m not making a good impression. “How about going there this Friday? If of course you’re not doing anything.”

“No, no that’s fine.”

“Right. Text me your address and I’ll come and pick you up about seven-thirty. Is that OK?”

“Yes. Great. I’ll look forward to it.”

“Me too,” he says but I can’t detect any smile in the voice. He sounds in a hurry, in fact, to get away. “Bye then.”

“Yes. Goodbye.”

Phew! I feel as though I’ve been hit by a steam roller. Run right over in fact. I’m not up to all this. The Arsehole, damn him, was used to my many weaknesses and insecurities. Unaccountably I start to feel weepy. It’s been two months; not that long. And though I have no intention whatsoever of ever in the whole wide world having the Arsehole back ever, two months isn’t long enough by any measure. I consider texting Dennis to call off our meeting. But I quickly type in my address instead and send it before I have a chance to let any more doubts upset things.

If Dennis turns out to be sweet and kind and caring and understanding, then maybe it’ll be all right. Conversely, if he’s horrid and cold and distant and judgmental, there’s no chance whatever. I do so wish I’d been able to speak to someone who knows something about his personality, good or bad. Instead, I’m going to have to go in there blind.

IT’S FRIDAY evening quicker than you can say ‘She should’ve gone to Specsavers’ and I’m madly trying on garments that might be suitable for a first date. I can’t decide if it should be casual, devil-may-care attire or something smarter. Happily Dennis seems to be late since, when I glance at the clock/radio, it’s seven-forty. I’m in my, used-to-be-our, bedroom with heaps of stuff on the floor I’ve forgotten I even own. The other member of the ‘our’ and I used to watch TV in bed and, as a person who now lives alone, I’ve fallen into the habit of turning the TV on as soon as possible when I get into the house. I’ve heard that I’m not the only single dweller that does this.

So the TV is blaring on from downstairs playing the One Show or some such but on switching on the bedroom box it’s already tuned to some freeview channel showing an old documentary about the mating displays of birds. I’m learning that the male of the greater crested tern dives for fish and offers it to the female as part of the courtship ritual. I realise that I should have accepted the meal tonight but as I didn’t, I’m gobbling down a cheese and onion pasty I bought that lunchtime and have just heated up in the microwave, and avoiding alcohol. More information suggests that it’s always the males of the species that go in for all this frenetic displaying.

I try to ignore the main purpose of this furious activity; which is to get the female to copulate as soon as possible with a view to impregnation and serious chick-rearing. As I glance at the TV, a pair of terns are actually at it already. It takes all of four seconds before the male disengages and starts strutting about importantly, reminding me rather of the commercial partner Ned Hemmings when he’s involved in a ‘fucking great takeover’. I’m sure Dennis is not focusing on this side of things. At least not yet. Or is he? Well, if he is, on the basis of my record of failure to conceive, he’s destined to be disappointed. But I don’t know if he’s interested in kids, maybe already has several. I just hardly know anything about him. That’s the trouble.

Oh, what the hell, I think. It should be Dennis who’s fluffing up his feathers and worrying about what to wear not me, so I grab the nearest thing to hand and struggle into it because it now seems to be several sizes too small. If I hold in my stomach and breathe in shallow gasps, I think it’ll be OK. I notice as I force the zip at the back up to the top that I’ve got a patch of pasty grease on the hem of the dress at the side, but I don’t think it’s that conspicuous.

The documentary is now telling me that sometimes the pair-bond is reinforced by the male and female doing a mutual display. It mentions albatrosses, penguins and grebes. Apparently these consist of ‘synchronous actions like calling and head bobbing’. And actually it’s now giving the impression that females often participate. Oh great! And here I am about to leave the house in an old, greasy shift dress that’s three sizes too small. I’m starting to tug the zip down again, unaware of how much more pasty grease I may be applying, when the front doorbell rings. Looking at the clock, it’s seven-fifty. He’s twenty minutes late. Is that a good or a bad sign? Is it because he’s been practising bobbing to himself in his mirror at home and trying out various calls to impress me?

But it’s too late now and I grab a jacket and my bag ‒ I hope it’s the right one ‒ and crash downstairs on too-high high heels.

I answer the door and Dennis is there looking smart-casual, in fact a beautifully balanced outfit for a first date. He smiles, says hello and hands me a rectangular article.

“A little something for you,” he says.

My, it’s a box of chocolates. A food offering! I start to worry about copulation again.

“Goodness,” I say, “I love chocolates.” Which is true. I start to leave the house clutching the chocolates.

“Er,” says Dennis, “I wouldn’t be in the least offended if you left the chocolates at home.”

“Oh, course,” I attempt a laugh and stretch to put the box on the hall table. They only just don’t fall off. I laugh again.

“Right,” says Dennis. “Shall we get going. Sorry I was late but I’m not sure the postcode you gave me was quite right. Anyway, I’ve had a bit of trouble finding you.”

“Oh surely not. I can’t have!” As we walk down the path I dig out my smartphone and start prodding at it.

“Honestly it doesn’t matter,” says Dennis, irritation creeping into his voice. “Look, er,” he sees I’m unsteady on my heels and seems a little alarmed. “Why don’t you check when we get to the pub. Hmm?”

I sigh. Of course he’s right. It doesn’t matter. It’s just that I’m so overwrought. As I was OK at the business breakfast and acting normally (I do hope so anyway), he must now be wondering if he’s made a major miscalculation asking me out. It’s only since then that all these negative thoughts and uncertainties have been piling in. I take a deep breath, which is a mistake as the tight dress rides up six inches exposing far more white flabby thigh than I would have wished. I dread to think what’ll happen when I sit down.

THE Sorcerer’s Kitchen is one of those done-up old locals, the spit and sawdust swept away and the deeply beer-soaked patterned carpet removed in favour of sanded, limed floorboards, the flock wallpaper stripped off and the walls painted a tasteful pastel shade of sage green, with the beams and uprights painted a slightly darker shade from the same palette. The surface finish is flat as befits a modern gastro-pub; no shiny common old gloss paint. Even the pub’s old name, which I’ve forgotten as we didn’t move to the village until relatively recently, was exchanged for this more distinctive eye-catching title. A raft of advertising has ensured that it’s now a popular watering hole and eating establishment for professionals young and older, and it’s already quite full when we arrive.

As the name implies, they serve meals now instead of just Mars bars and packets of pork scratchings, and delicious smells are emanating from the dining area. I kick myself for refusing the offer of a meal as Dennis casts about for a free table. Spotting one at length, he leads the way and I follow, as any seriously interested female penguin surely would, and just as awkwardly given my choice of wear tonight. So now we have the let-me-take-your-coat, sitting down and what-would-you-like-to-drink rituals. He even pulls a chair out for me and I try to ensure that my derrière makes contact with it and doesn’t land on the floor instead. I’ve nearly done that before, unaccustomed as I am to a great deal of male gallantry.

While he’s off at the bar, I dwell on what we might converse about as he, of course, is bound to be far more cultured and accomplished than I am. I now belatedly realise that it would have been so much easier if we could have broken the ice by choosing a wine and studying the menu at length. Luckily the bar is three deep so he takes ages to come back with our drinks. I drag my chair and legs as far as possible under the table since my dress has ridden up to more or less crotch level now and, though I tug and heave at it, I can’t get it to shift back down any closer to my knees. This means that my forearms are resting on the table. I try to remember not to lean on one hand as I’ve been led to believe that this is rude and looks as though you’re tired and/or bored. Therefore I resort to fiddling with the beer mats and the salt and pepper on the tables for those wanting bar snacks.

I fall to thinking about the name Dennis. I don’t know many Dennises, or even of many. In fact, the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Dennis Pennis, a fake reporter who would accost celebrities at major events and ask them awkward questions, as in to a famous actress: “If it wasn’t gratuitous and it was tastefully done, would you consider keeping your clothes on in a movie?” Or to a producer: “You have nine toilets in your house. You obviously make a lot more crap than people give you credit for.” I begin to cheer up a little thinking of these put downs. They appealed to my infantile brain at the time in my early teens and they still do. Dennis Pennis used to wear spectacles with yellow-coloured lenses and he used to smile a lot. Dennis hasn’t smiled much tonight though he wears specs. Rather nice dark-framed ones actually that suit him.

“I see something’s tickled you,” I suddenly hear him say from behind and I jump guiltily, hoping the sound I can hear isn’t my dress seam giving way, but I think it’s just the chair leg scraping the floor a little as I turn around. He must’ve been spying on me from the bar. Dennis obviously expects an answer to his implied question since he’s looking at me as he sits down, planting the drinks on the table, and I’m not sure how to get out of this one. I have to say something, as others regard with suspicion people who laugh and smile to themselves for no reason.

“Oh. Um. I was just thinking about something funny that happened at work today,” I say to buy time. Then I utter the first thing that filters into my conscious mind from the muddle of my subconscious, penetrating through the thick treacherous and tangled barrier in between designed to protect the public at large from my worst and most excessively idiotic imaginings.

“It was … er … a client who wanted a covenant placed on the property she’s selling obliging all future owners to maintain her deceased cat’s grave in perpetuity.” I knock back most of my white wine. This isn’t true of course. The nearest I’ve ever heard was a title encumbered with a covenant to maintain a tree planted in memory of a deceased son. But that’s different and sad. Not at all funny. However dead cat stories do sometime make people laugh. In my experience.

Not Dennis however. He looks at me seriously through the medium strength lenses of his spectacles and says: “My cat’s just died.”

“Oh.” I wilt and take another drink. “Oh Dennis I’m so sorry.” I place a hand on his arm and he looks down at it. My expression must be stricken since he quickly backtracks.

“No. Actually it was some months ago and he was living with my ex-wife.” He raises his face to mine with a smile. I still appear horrified I suppose at my faux pas. “Really, it’s no big deal. She didn’t want any kids so we got the cat when we married fifteen years ago. He was hers really, though he was a nice old thing.” I’m still mortified. “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I meant it as a joke actually.”

“But you looked so serious!”

“That was supposed to be part of the joke. I didn’t realise it’d upset you so much. Perhaps we can just forget it and move on.” He takes a swig of his celebration ale and looks around while tapping the table with his fingers. Then he comes up with the conversation killer of all first dates.

“They’ve … er … done this place up very nicely,” he says. This must be the dating equivalent of “Weather’s not bad at the moment is it?”

My heart sinks. I know it won’t recover after this. This evening was destined to be a disaster. We’re just not suited. There’s no chemistry at all between us. Maybe it’s my angst affecting everything and filling the air with negativity. Whatever, I mutter something about the walls being a nice shade of pale green. Honestly, in any other situation it’d be laughable, pale green being the colour of nineteen-fifties hospital wards, or sick peoples’ faces or actual sick. Needless to say, neither of us laughs. Forgetting myself, I plant my chin on one cupped hand. Dennis scratches his forehead. I’m about to say something when he offers to go and get me another drink and gratefully I accept. I see he’s barely halfway down his pint but then of course he’s driving. He asks if I’d like a large one this time and I say yes.

Once he’s back at the table all too quickly, I take a huge slug. These large glasses really are pretty big. Must be a third of a bottle at least. I feel I must say something to break the uncomfortable silence. It can’t be about squash or golf or computer games or he’ll know I’ve been spying on him on his firm’s website. Though why not I think. It would mean I’d taken some interest.

“Er … from your website, I gather you play squash and golf and that you’re interested in computer games. Seems like an interesting mix,” I say brightly.

“Oh, right. That thing does need up-dating. One of the other partners gave the details for it without really talking to the rest of us properly. I mean, I play a bit of golf sometimes but mostly these days I go to the gym. My main other passion is opera.”

I try hard not to let my eyes open wide in dismay and panic. I can’t think of anything I hate more than opera. My mind fills with visions of overweight contraltos in voluminous dresses belting out tuneless lines in Italian and German, put to music that sounds suitable for a nineteen-fifties horror B-movie. In actual fact, opera to me seems like they’ve invited a lot of mad people onto a stage to screech and bawl and howl and moan for four hours in mostly foreign languages. On balance it’s even worse when it’s in English.

As with the Dennis Pennis moment, I’ve no idea how to extract myself in a way that’s at all polite. And I’m getting sick of this, so I just tell him straight what I think about opera. To give him credit he doesn’t get stroppy. He merely asks me pointedly well what do I do then in my spare time. I’m fed up with all this silly business of trying to impress or at least trying not to unimpress (have I got that right?).

“OK,” I take a sizeable gulp. “Well, I eat chocolate and spend time thinking up curses on my estranged husband and his new squeeze, making corn dollies with enormous bottoms to stick pins into, going out and getting drunk with my mates or those not yet knee-deep in nappies and,” I down the last of my drink, “there aren’t many of them left these days. Reading old Dennis Wheatley books about devilry in case I can find out how to really properly and effectively jinx the ex.” I flap my hand. “Doesn’t work,” I say rather drunkenly, “Trust me I’ve tried.

“Oh,” something suddenly occurs to me, “another Dennis!”

“Sorry?” says Dennis.

“I was just earlier trying to think of other Dennises. And I c’d only think of one at that time. But o’course there’s Dennis Wheatley.”

I realise my speech is slurring a little. Dennis looks at me consideringly and nods. That’s it then. He’s bound to suggest taking me home at this point. I’m just about with it enough to be mildly surprised when he offers instead to go and get me another glass of wine to which I, with no radar at all by this stage for the possibilities of making a complete ass of myself, agree.

I sit peering owlishly at the bar menu while Dennis is absent. The dishes, said to be smaller portions of items on offer in the main restaurant area with the addition of salad and chips, or salad or chips with the option of potato wedges instead, sound mouth-watering. I put it down quickly. I don’t want Dennis to see me slavering over it. And here he is now with my drink.

“We could have eaten, you know,” he says.

“No, it’s OK. I’m … er … on a diet.”

Dennis nods again.

“So,” he says seriously, though I can’t be sure he’s being serious, not really, “who was this other Dennis you thought of earlier?”

In vino veritas. “Oh, what the hell. It was Dennis Pennis.” Dennis lowers his head and covers his face and his eyes with his hands and coughs into them. I’m not sure what this means though when he takes his hands away he looks fairly deadpan.

“A natural thing to think I’m sure,” he says looking at me. Seriously. And nodding. “Anyway, so tell me, Anna, about your ex and what happened. Was it long ago that you split up?”

“Not that long. ’Bout two months. Unless o’course you count the extended period of his easing himself into this relationship with the Backside from the security of his marriage to me, the late nights, the inconsistencies, actually now I come to think of it the weekend away which he told me was with his mates.” I’d never thought of this before. “The bastard!” I tell Dennis. “He got me to book the bloody hotel room for him! God, what a fool I am!” I slouch in my seat, swig my wine and critically regard my white thighs.

Dennis nods. “Look, you don’t have to talk about it. Not if it’s painful. I just thought you might like to, you know, get things off your chest.”

I sigh, thinking about the state of the world and how my troubles are minor in comparison with … all sorts of other things. I shake my head.

“Anna,” I hear Dennis saying, “I think you’re a very nice woman, but I don’t think you’re ready to start dating really, do you? It takes time to get over these things. I know what it’s like.”

“D’you?” I’m trying hard to focus on his face and spectacles properly.

“Of course I do. When my wife left I thought it was the end of the world. And she didn’t even go off with anyone else.”

“Didn’t she?”

“No. And she still doesn’t have anyone else. She just doesn’t want me either. So. You just have to wait until you start to get over it.”

“D’you know Dennis? Tha’s just what I’ve been trying to tell everyone but they won’t listen. And when I found bacterial growths, I thought I’d better do something.”

“Sorry?” says Dennis.

“Oh, never mind. You’re abs’lutely right. I’ll take it out of the fridge again. If it won’t turn into yoghurt, it’s too bad.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” says Dennis. He obviously knows better than to disagree with a drunk.

“An’ you’re right too,” I say, “Thank you for making me face up to the fact that I’m not ready for the bobbing and calling.” Dennis nods. I’m certain most men would in these circumstances. “But the food offering was ver’ much ’preciated.”

“Good,” says Dennis kindly.

I realise of a sudden that Dennis is nice and kind and probably looking for a comfortable, settled relationship. But with someone who isn’t going to rail against her ex and talk about sticking pins into effigies.

I see that Dennis’s glass is empty at last. “Can I get you a drink Dennis,” I manage to say.

“No, that’s fine. I’d better not. I’ve got to drive you know.” I think about his manly torso and its probable ability to absorb alcohol without undue effect.

“Oh, go on,” I say. “One won’t hurt and I wouldn’t mind another one.” I get up to go to the bar.

“No really,” he says. “Honestly you’ve had enough, Anna. And I really can’t have any more as I’m driving.”

As in the manner of drunks, I start to get a little obstreperous. I protest and say I’ll go to the bar and get my own drink then. I have a faint idea that tomorrow I’ll know that I showed myself up. And blessedly that knowledge gets the upper hand and I start to nod myself.

“You’re right, of course.”

“If you want to carry on drinking, Anna, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did, you can do it at home, and that’s not far,” says Dennis. “So. Shall I drive you back?”

“Yes. Thank you.” And so we leave. I lean heavily on Dennis and he supports me to his car as I totter on my high heels. I’ve given barely a thought since sitting down at the pub to my skirt and how it’s riding up my thighs. I can feel Dennis’s manly torso through his shirt, and this second I think I’d quite like it if he wanted to share my under-garments with me or at least subject me to some serious cuddling, yet I know through my drunken haze that if I suggested such a thing, he’d say no and that would be just terrible. He’d think he was abusing me. That any consent I managed to utter wouldn’t be legal and effective since it seems inebriated women, even presumably those in need of love and comfort, can’t give informed consent.

Dennis sees me right to my door (clearly he doesn’t want to risk me falling over and then having to spend the next five hours in casualty). I don’t ask him in as I know he’ll decline. I fish around in my bag for my key, my movements deliberate and ponderous and, happily, I find it quite quickly ‒ this doesn’t always happen. I open the door and he hands me in. We say goodnight and I close the door.

BACK indoors I realise far too late that Dennis really was kind and thoughtful and sweet and fairly caring so far as I could judge but no one had forewarned me of this. Had they, I might have been more optimistic about the evening before it started. I might not have decided he wouldn’t understand me, whereas in fact he had. I might have stayed sober long enough at least to have conveyed some liking for him. I might not have immediately distrusted him and his motives.

I mean, perhaps it’s the man-woman thing. The male is supposed to be predatory and you expect to some extent to be pursued and it can be a little frightening, especially when you don’t know anything about the male. And if they’re not predatory, then they can be intimidating in other ways. Over-bearing, superior, assuming they’re right all the time. It’s all very worrying and off-putting. But Dennis was terribly nice and I’ve blown it completely. Although I don’t actually care since I couldn’t possibly just now enter into any kind of relationship with a man which doesn’t involve him being some kind of nursemaid, ready to wipe up my tears and spills and rock me to sleep when I’m all sad and upset and all that.

I do as Dennis suggested and down a few more glasses of wine and stop just before I’m about to throw up. Then I fall into bed and I’m soon in a stupor. I don’t even go through the revolving room period. It’s straight to comatose without passing the I-wish-I-could-die-hanging-over-the-toilet stage. Which is pretty lucky really.

Except that in the morning when I feel dehydrated, dizzy, nauseous, dead from the ankles up, I have no defences when my mother phones and wants to know how it went with Dennis. I had previously let slip that he arbitrates huge important cases and she thinks he’s a far better prospect than the Arsehole ever was.

“It was OK Mum. But I think, you know, that everyone’s wrong about my jumping straight back into the arena. I’m not ready for it. Dennis realised that too. He was very caring and‒”

“You blew it with him, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes. But I didn’t in fact because there wasn’t actually an ‘it’ to blow and anyway I don’t care. I need a period of recovery and Dennis thoughtfully recognised that.”

“Couldn’t you have at least acted interested?”

“Look, Mum, I was interested. But that’s not the point. I’m not ready!

Such is my mother’s desire for grandchildren that she affects not to understand so I have to hang up on her and go back to sleep.

Sharon rings me later. She has had to wait until her husband has taken the boys off to afternoon football. I tell her more of the evening than I related to my mother, or at least the bits I can remember.

“And I could have done with a dresser last night,” I wail.

She doesn’t immediately comprehend. I can tell. She’s wondering what farmhouse kitchen furniture has to do with it. I picture a Welsh dresser groaning with fancy crockery, the shelves fringed with doilies and‒

“Oh, right, I get it,” she says. “What went wrong?”

“What didn’t! If Dennis wasn’t totally put off by a demented, drunken woman grimly muttering about putting evil spells on her ex and his girlfriend, then the sight of me in that awful dress and ridiculous heels must have clinched it. Sharon, none of my clothes fit me any more.” I realise that my voice has risen to hysterical levels.

Sharon doesn’t ask in which direction my clothes are the wrong size. It must have been patent to the senses that I was expanding at an exponential rate the last time I saw her. “What about work clothes then? They must fit you.”

“Well the trousers are elasticated at the waist” ‒ a shameful admission ‒ “and the blouses hang over the trousers. And the jackets just hang.” I have to get it off my chest and tell her the full horror of what happened. “But the dress I wore last night had grease marks all over it and rode up to my waistline practically. Or what there is of my waistline. I had no idea my thighs were so disgustingly large and pale and flaccid until last night. I daren’t usually look in the mirror these days. I’m just not fit to enter into polite society any more. I ought to join the female equivalent of the Foreign Legion or at the very least a silent reclusive order.”

She doesn’t ask about the grease. She sees there’s no point really, the state I’m in.

She’s sympathetic which is what I need really. She is after all my best friend.

“Don’t give up just yet,” she says. “Going on the occasional date won’t do any harm at any rate.”

“I don’t know.”

“It won’t. Look, the next time you have to go out somewhere special, just let me know and I’ll come over and help you get ready.”

“Oh, would you?”

“Of course. And if you feel better in a few weeks’ time, you could try calling Dennis.”


Nevertheless, I know as we say goodbye that I couldn’t possibly. He was a very likeable man and I think that if I’d been OK last night we might have had something going for us but I feel terribly embarrassed, basically, about my behaviour and it’s beyond all logic and reason that I might contact him.

I decide again that some preconceptions in this dating game would be of value, whether they’re positive or negative. To have no idea at all leaves you floating uncertainly, liable to be washed this way and that, blown on any course whatsoever without any information to ground you or bring you to dry, solid land.

Having eaten all of Dennis’s chocolates, and delicious they were too (Belgian handmade ones), I think next time I’ll try internet dating. Then there’d be some information about the blokes. I could make an informed choice. If any cited opera as a pastime, I could just carry on scrolling down until I came to one more suited to myself. Someone with similar attributes. I try to think what they might be. Chocolate lover, emotional wreck, interested in black magic. Hmm, doesn’t sound so good. I don’t suppose I’d much care for a bloke who presented with those credentials. I reckon I’ll have to take up some proper hobbies before I could possibly enter my profile into a dating website with any prospect of attracting a normal man.

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