The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 4 First Internet Date

FOLLOWING the Milton disaster, I’ve taken the plunge and agreed to meet someone I’ve had a brief exchange with through the internet dating website I’ve signed up to. After all, I’ve paid good money to go on this site and it couldn’t be any worse than Milton. However, I find myself rather dubious about it. And quite worried really.

The thing about actively going out of one’s way to seek a mate is … well, just that really. One is embarking on a course the clear purpose of which is to form a couple; not just for a bit of a laugh for that evening alone, but to see each other again. And again. Oh no! And again! It puts the pressure on. It entails more than a Well let’s just wing it. Let’s just see what happens. These people go on these sites because they want to find a life-long partner. I’m afraid it frightens me to death. But I must stop focusing on that. Perhaps others feel the same as I do and aren’t expecting to make a firm commitment after just the first five minutes.

And loads of people do it now so I shouldn’t really worry that using these sites is a last ditch attempt by total losers, whom no one remotely attractive to the opposite sex would want to consort with, to find a mate; any mate. When I was a teenager, these sites hadn’t really taken off. If you went on them, it was still something you wouldn’t want others to know about, like putting an ad in a lonely hearts column. The expression ‘lonely hearts’ says it all. Why, you have to ask, is someone so lonely? They must have a personality disorder, they must’ve been hated by their mothers in childhood, picked on at school, avoided at work; they must have physical attributes that you would immediately notice and try not to concentrate on. No one in that era would admit to being lonely. It was before society became more honest and tolerant; before people in certain circumstances were prepared to acknowledge that they are, yes, lonely.

In fact these sites have gained respectability. In this day and age when many people seem to conduct seventy per cent of their social lives online through ‘social media’, actually meeting someone physically, in the flesh, is quite something.

And if you watch the TV adverts, none of those who might formerly have done so go out to play bingo anymore and have a lark and a smoke with their mates. They are deluged with offers of free stakes of five pounds to sign up and thereby at the click of a mouse end up spending far more than they’ve actually got, building up impossible debts because it doesn’t seem real online. Not real money you’re spending. Things like online poker are rife. Is this going to put an end to expressions like ‘poker face’ or ‘marked card’, ‘above board’ and ‘playing one’s last card’? And many, many more since, if you’re not playing face to face, a lot of these old adages don’t apply!

Accordingly, when I clicked to take matters further with a chosen male it seemed unreal, as though I’m entering a make-believe world that’s meaningless in real life. I can’t take it seriously. A male chosen out of a bewildering number of apparently available, willing men who’d just love to meet me and who fit my profile exactly such that, like going to Primark where there’s so much stuff on offer that you can’t take it all in or make a reasoned sensible choice, I’ve more or less said “Oh sod it!” under my breath and gone ahead and clicked on any reasonable looking male who’s expressed an interest.

And now the evening is actually upon me. It’s stretching ahead of me like one of those films about people falling through their computer screens into a virtual world, having to save mankind by battling with creatures that are really the products of binary numbers so that somehow or other the physical equivalents in the real world outside will suffer the same fates and matter won’t actually suddenly cease to exist in the reverse of the big bang. I’m wondering what a cyber-heroine would wear for such a quest. Perhaps as a result of all this speculation I pick maybe not quite the right garb for the occasion.

I’ve actually lost some weight. No need now to check into the Carol Kirkwood Corsetry Clinic. Mindful of the fact that I’ve been eating rubbish since the Arsehole left, since I can’t be bothered to cook healthy food for myself in the evenings, there was only one solution presenting itself; which was to eat nothing at all. I used to do this as a teenager, though of course in those days chain-smoking did help a lot. I was proud in those faraway times of my svelte streamlined figure and incredibly I find I’m getting it back. I’d thought such was impossible, that I was destined, like my friend Sharon, to keep piling on the pounds until a baby came along and I’d have an excuse, that is pregnancy and then lactation, to simply carry on. I’ve noticed other women doing this and presumably thinking, well he’s hooked, doesn’t matter if I turn into a giant marshmallow now. He’s devoted to the kids therefore he’ll have to put up with it. Actually I have to say that as a plan, I’ve always thought this sucks and is expensive too, having to renew one’s wardrobe every year or so to the next size up.

So I’m climbing quite easily into skintight black spangled leggings and a skintight black top with built-in pointy support at chest level and a silver thread running through it, knee-length black patent ultra-high-heeled boots and I tie my hair up into a ponytail. I do my makeup to match including very red lipstick, shading and blusher designed to emphasise the cheekbones, which once again are visible in my face and not fleshily plumped out, plenty of eye-liner curving away well into my temples. I look in the mirror and can’t see anything wrong at all with this outfit. Sharon wasn’t able to be here tonight to act as any kind of restraining influence. I don’t see at all that it might look as though I’m attending a Star Trek enthusiasts’ convention or similar. To me it just emphasises my new-found curves in places where there were formerly bulges.

THE modern town bar, where I am to meet the virtual man in the profile on which I clicked, is fairly full when the taxi drops me off and I walk in. Every man in the room turns in my direction which is gratifying. But I can’t see my date anywhere so I walk over to the bar and throw aside my cape which attracts more masculine stares that seem to fix on me like iron filings flying towards a magnet.

One man then emerges from the sea of males apparently fixated on my chest support and walks up to me. He’s fairly attractive, quite tall and I see some resemblance now to the photo I must have picked out the other morning at two am when I couldn’t sleep and was trawling through the website, thinking how nice it would be to have someone to curl up with at nights. He had said he was an attorney, which made me think he’s a lawyer, though I had taken that with a pinch of salt as lots of them put down ‘lawyer’ thinking for some reason that it will impress females, little realising what low paid, obsessional, pernickety squirts most lawyers actually are. This man is quite a bit fairer and Aryan-looking than his photo would suggest.

“Hello” he says. He’s polite. He doesn’t look at my bosom which I now realise is possibly a tad too highly emphasised.

“Hello,” I say. But I don’t ask if he’s Jeremy just in case he’s actually not and is just a random male who thought he’d chance his hand by coming over. (You see! Another card-playing idiom). The site only includes people, as I’ve said before, who are vouched for and are prepared to undergo ID checks.

“I’m Jeremy Cross. I’m glad to meet you, Anna.” He puts his hand out and rather formally we shake hands.

“Can I get you a drink?”

I ask for and he orders me a Campari and lemonade. I haven’t had one of these for ages and in this sort of Emma Peel get up I rather fancy it. We take bar stools and start to talk about ourselves. I’m not sure whether, in this situation, it’s appropriate to talk about one’s marital status and in brief what went wrong. In plays they do, but quite honestly I don’t really want to hear someone else’s hard luck story any more than I imagine they’d want to hear mine. After all, if we were to hit it off seriously, there’d be plenty of time for that later.

So I drink my Campari ‒ and very nice it is too ‒ and start to talk about jobs with Jeremy. But I’ve learned and imparted almost nothing before the Campari has actually all gone. These pub measures are tiny and I hadn’t wanted to drown it out in lemonade so I’ve quickly swigged the lot. I ask Jeremy if I can get us another drink but he’s still only halfway through a small lager. He insists though on buying my next drink and he gets me a double.

Now I don’t know why this didn’t seem like a sort of deja vu moment for me. It should have occurred to me but somehow it didn’t. Anyway, I’m still entirely sober so I ask him what area of law he practises in. I assume he’s a barrister since he’s described himself as an attorney. I listen attentively when he says:

“I’m not really a lawyer. I’m a patent attorney.”

“Yeah. So you’re a lawyer right?”

“Well, we’re called attorneys so many people think we’re lawyers but we aren’t really, not like you’d understand a lawyer. You’re a solicitor aren’t you? According to your profile.”

I assure him that I am.

“Well a patent attorney is more of a scientist. For example my degree was in biology and chemistry and I specialise in patents for drugs and medicinal substances. A lot of it is to do with intellectual property but the science comes in by us having to write up a patent in such a way that some other drug company can’t come along and see a gap in the armour we’ve created for the client and produce something almost but not quite the same.”

I look at him uncomprehendingly. “I’d just assumed,” I say, “that patent attorneys dealt with the law. Like if someone unlawfully copied a patented item, for example, a patent attorney would be right onto it taking court proceedings and getting damages for passing off or whatever.”

“No. Not at all. Or not usually. The parties would have to instruct conventional lawyers to deal with the court proceedings and the lawyers would have to have a knowledge of the technical issues or mug up on it for the case but that’s not what I do. We write the patents as I say in such a way that if the worst happened and our client pursued it they’d win the case because the patent would be watertight in their favour. Most patent attorneys have a scientific background not a legal background. Einstein was actually working in a patent office when he was developing the theory of relativity. Most people assume that he was doing a menial job that had nothing to do with science when of course it did.”

“Oh!” I say. Jeremy laughs. “Have another drink he says,” and I accept. These shots of Campari are so tiny, I’m getting them down in no time but it tastes really nice. They’re so small, they surely can’t be having much effect. I think I may want to go to the loo soon and I look behind me to see if I can locate the Ladies sign. I notice that quite a lot of men standing around the bar are now focusing on my behind.

I decide I quite fancy this Jeremy and he’s getting more attractive with every passing Campari. He’s obviously not a dunce and he’s fairly subtle. He hasn’t been shamelessly ogling my body. As I down my third Campari (actually my fifth if you take into account that the second two were doubles), I’m wondering if the lawyer business, even though I misread and misinterpreted what he really does, made me subliminally favour Jeremy as a potential mate. I look at him again and he at me. He must’ve somehow ordered another round without my noticing as another double Campari and lemonade is sitting in front of me and he now has another full half of lager.

I’ve had enough to drink to ask after Jeremy’s background, hoping for some gen on his former love life. The profile said he was single. Nevertheless, that doesn’t rule out a long live-in relationship or similar. He replies that he’s between girlfriends which doesn’t tell me much. I tell him that I’m married but separated though this is on my profile too so we haven’t got much further forward. What I was really after was some emotional stuff, but I decide he’s not spilling in that respect and I have to wonder why. Is he still hooked on some ex, ready to fall weeping into my lap? As I might have done with Dennis had I had even less self-control on our ‘date’ five weeks ago.

Suddenly a figure comes up behind me and slaps me on the backside. My eyes open wide. What male would have the nerve to do such a thing in these days of strict PC behaviour? I turn and don’t immediately recognise the man behind me but he says:

“I’d recognise that arse anywhere.” He looks down. “And those tits.”

Jeremy is po-faced (which I assume is possibly short for poker-faced, my attention having been drawn recently to these gambling terms).

I peer into this man’s rather dissipated veiny face. He does look familiar but I’m having difficulty placing him. I take a slug of Campari for inspiration, then it comes to me.

“Simmsey!” I exclaim. He nods delightedly. We were at secondary school together, fellow battlers against authority, no idea why those poor teachers were trying to pump our ungrateful heads full of pointless facts, taking any opportunity to bunk off and have a fag along with a ragbag of similarly-minded cohorts, taking the short cut when we were let out for cross-country runs and stealing to the house of one of us to swig cider and smoke.

We were lucky in our timing. All this was twenty years ago. Before pupils started to be expected to get exceptional grades if you wanted to do anything useful with your life, go to university or otherwise get a good job. We were already in the top stream of a good comprehensive school. We didn’t have to bother. When the exams came along, we’d just cram and we’d make it OK. This was not long after New Labour decreed that fifty per cent of people should go to university, leading to a dilution of standards, a proliferation of what were previously technical colleges being granted university status, a lot more courses in flimsy, pointless subjects and hence the need to impose tuition fees, the introduction of loans and Student Finance. We didn’t have to be serious. We could afford to form an awkward squad. So a lot of mucking about was done.

“Hey, so what are you doing? What are you up to these days?” I ask. “Why in fact are you here?

I ask this because our teenage years were spent some fifty miles at least away and I’m wondering what Simmsey is doing in this neck of the woods. He should be languishing in deepest East Anglia, foraging for truffles, doing casual work pulling mangel-wurzels, setting up dwyle flunking competitions at local fayres, establishing yurt-dwelling communities, by now wearing smocks and chewing stalks of corn while bell-ringing for the church in the parish we grew up in or running a pagan commune with an emphasis on free love and self-sufficiency, or learning drystone walling and living in a stone hovel on the Yorkshire moors. Or more likely, going to collect his weekly prescription of anti-psychotic drugs needed to combat the effects of the large amount of skunk he used to smoke.

Actually, for the moment he seems fairly with it and he says he’s come to the town with a mate. They’ve started a business together. They specialise in medieval re-enactments of one sort or another but virtual ones which are bought by people all over the world. In fact, I notice that he’s a lot soberer than I am at this point. He’s become a together person. I notice also that his clothing is expensive. I look at the watch he’s wearing and the smartphone he pulls out and checks from time to time and even to my unsophisticated standards, these items look über-expensive.

However, he’s an old mate from school and no one’s going to accuse me of inverted snobbery so I chat away to him ten to the dozen while Jeremy looks on.

Thing is, Simmsey was always such a hoot. You could say anything to him and it would somehow turn into a joke and everyone would laugh. He buys me an umpteenth drink (I’ve lost count ‒ but I’m not drunk), another double. Jeremy refuses more lager. Simmsey says he’s staying in a hotel near here within walking distance so he doesn’t have to bother about being breathalysed and gets another for himself.

I notice as he raises the new glass to his mouth that he winces slightly.

“You OK?” I say.

He says he’s got a sore wrist. He doesn’t immediately say why. This is of course our sort of immature banter-catalyst. So I say (I have to), “Aren’t you getting on a bit for that these days?”

And he says with a mock-offended tone that he has no need of spanking the pony thanks a lot.

“So the chicken doesn’t need a good choking then occasionally!”

“The family jewels get polished without my help thank you.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re not taking regular turns at the self-service station.”

Me and Simmsey are doubled up by this time.

From the corner of my vision and hearing I note Jeremy excusing himself to go to the Gents. Simmsey and I carry on in the same vein, though he explains away the wrist by saying it’s possibly a bit of RSI given the amount of software writing he does. Five minutes later a girl comes out of the kitchen and hands me a folded piece of paper. I have trouble focusing on it and have to strain. I see that it’s a polite note from Jeremy in neat hand-writing on the bar’s notepaper saying he enjoyed meeting me but he felt rather in the way and hoped I’d enjoy the rest of the evening with my old friend.

I turn to the window and see him walking off down the road outside. Great is the need to rush out and chase down the street after him. I forget Simmsey. Jeremy is fifty, a thousand, a million times more attractive than Simmsey. I analyse this expression. Great is my need indeed! I realise I’m pretty plastered. By the time my turgid brain has thought this through, Jeremy has disappeared and Simmsey has bought me another double. I know I’ll regret it tomorrow. Still, I giggle at him. He’s always been such a laugh and I make a decent start on my next drink.

“So what’s with the Lara Croft outfit?” Simmsey says.

“Oh,” I say, “I don’t think I could compete with Angelina Jolie in that department but I’m flattered.”

“Oh yes you could!” says Simmsey. I realise what he’s getting at.

“Shame on you!” I say. “It just seemed suitable for coming on an internet date. You know. Unreal. You must understand when you sell virtual experiences. I couldn’t take it seriously.”

Simmsey nods. He understands. We are like brother and sister, grown up together, little between us. In the closed East Anglian community where we grew up, we probably share ninety-nine point nine per cent of our DNA (though I feel vaguely that I may have heard something similar about chimps and humans but no matter). Cut off for months by the fens and marshes, in former times before there were tarmac roads, there’s a good chance that significant inbreeding took place. An imperative for survival. If my ancestors and Simmsey’s hadn’t done it, we probably wouldn’t be here now at all, propping up a town bar and talking utter rubbish.

There’s nothing he could say to shock me or put me off him. The same vapid inconsequential aims in mind and in common. I may be by day a serious solicitor tending to my clients’ needs and he may be an entrepreneur picking up business all over the world, but at our cores and our hearts we are sixteen-year-old kids still wishing we could be more attractive and that we got invited out more and had more fun, that our parents weren’t such shits and that that certain someone of the opposite sex we were fatally attracted to would show some or any interest at all in us.

After Jeremy’s departure we calm down somewhat. If I hadn’t been so high on Simmsey, I’d have realised that Jeremy was a good bloke for whom I should have shown more respect. I’m starting to wind down seriously and want to go home. To an empty bed of course but I’m not feeling so upbeat any more.

“You always were a miserable little toerag,” says Simmsey looking at me half smiling. “You want to go home don’t you!”

“Yes,” I say.

He sighs. “I’ll get you a taxi,” he says and, leaning across the bar, he talks to a tall responsible-looking man. The man looks at me and I know he’s thinking ‘Pissed as a newt. Get her out of here as quickly as possible before she starts any trouble.’

And the taxi comes and Simmsey shepherds me to it and deposits me into it and it drives off. I realise I didn’t even get his company name or his website or email address and he didn’t get mine and he won’t know my married name, which I foolishly assumed on marrying the Arsehole.

But, when I get home and go through and empty my bag on the bed, including the little open pocket at the front where I keep business cards, I notice a colourful expensive-looking plasticised card I haven’t seen before emblazoned with pictures of medieval knights on horseback, prancing beasts a little like Milton’s ill-fated steed. Picking it up and, squinting at it more closely, I see Simmsey’s full name and an email address and some phone numbers. The company’s called ‘Le Tourney’. Very posh. He must have pushed the card into the slot when I wasn’t looking as my cape had no pockets. A bit risky since I might not have looked in there for another ten years. I giggle and fall on the bed and wonder what would come of a proper date with Simmsey, should I take up his implied offer.

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