“Unlike others here, I won’t claim to be classically handsome, ruggedly built or an elite sportsman. But I will certainly amuse you, absolutely respect you and endeavour to support you…”
Clare. I recognised her immediately. She looked around, shielding her eyes from the white, winter sky and like a fool, I panicked, backing myself literally into a corner. How dare she turn up looking as good as her photo? The rules were well established; women lost a few years and some kilos, men rose a few inches and gained a qualification. Who could resist the temptation to correct a few flaws? If the truth was appealing none of us would be in this predicament.
From where she stood, framed by the entrance to the Tube station, I was invisible. I had a few more minutes to indulge my happy notions. Sometimes I turned up feeling a bit ho-hum, but not this time.
She wanted to meet almost straight away, but I bought myself time for some serious wooing. Across the void I built a bridge of words and ideas, exploring things we had in common, opinions on books, theatre, movies, life. She was a charming correspondent, smart and funny and I’m a pushover for a well-constructed sentence.
She never said so, but I guessed she was homesick. I’m in the business of using humour as a defence; I recognised the dialect by its brittle undertone. Her company had transferred her to London and as far as I could tell, she didn’t have many friends. The job was some high powered corporate nightmare; power, position and material reward, but ultimately insubstantial. But as I say, I read most of this between the lines. She understood that the art of seduction requires us to put aside our problems, or at least not bang on about them.
I’d bet she intimidated most people; intelligent and sure of herself, but distant, not someone to whom you’d naturally warm. And then there’s that prickly South African accent. Not that she seemed distant to me, but I had an advantage. When we log in looking for love, the one thing we can’t obfuscate is our loneliness; we’re holding our hearts in our hands.
London can be a cruel city; I wouldn’t want to be a stranger here. Actually, I wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for my children – and work. For once I’m on topic at the right time, writing and producing a comedy about the lives of three disabled housemates. My co-writer and I are neck deep in script revision for a pilot with the BBC. We should be done, but the lawyers are ‘helping’ us to find a balance between political correctness and belly laughs. I am utterly gobsmacked that I have to worry about people’s sensibilities; to them I say, fuck off with your opinion about what’s offensive until you’ve lived with a disability. Try mine; cerebral palsy and a side serve of kyphoscoliosis to add some flavour. Honestly, if you can’t have a laugh, what can you do?
As she entered the station, Clare looked over, but didn’t recognise me. She’s seen a photo, my one good angle, but I’m not exactly helping by lurking here in the shadows. My strategy (I do have one) is that eventually she’ll look at me properly, she’ll realise and then she’ll decide. A wall of people surges between us, it would be easy enough to slip away into the crowd.
By now she thinks I’m rude for being late, I’m sorry for that, but I’ve done this before and wouldn’t you know it, most do decide to slip away. Sometimes it’s better than the alternative – for both of us. One lady was so outraged that I’d “wasted her time” by not warning her about my condition that she started clobbering me with her handbag. A passer-by intervened, such a wonderful expression on his face, when he saw a nice looking young woman suddenly launch herself at a gimp.
Imagine the situation reversed; what would have been the appropriate response for failing to reveal that she’d had extensive work done, or that her impressive cleavage was all thanks to Wonderbra? Or if contrary to my expectations, she’d turned out to be a pretentious bitch?
Maybe I could stray into some more facts in those precious preliminary exchanges, but I never lie, I never write a false word.
It’s not always a disaster. My best was Alice – more mortified by the idea of ignoring me than dating me. We had a drink together and she was nice company. I convinced her to meet me again for a meal but stupidly, I allowed myself to wonder. No doubt I said too much, because no sooner had I laid my fork across my plate, than she disappeared, wishing me luck.
And now Clare. When we finally ventured a phone conversation we talked all night. After that, it was impossible not to arrange to meet. But who was I kidding? By then I was longing for us to meet.
While I wait for her decision, I enjoy watching her. Her pink jacket stands out in a sea of grey and black, catching people’s eyes. She’s annoyed by her hair; pushing the waves of blonde and copper away from her eyes, checking the time on her phone. She watches people stride off the escalator, wondering if the next dark headed man will be me. I imagine walking confidently across the station, kissing her on both cheeks, apologising, “I’m so sorry I was waiting over there, I didn’t see you”. She’d smile at me. “I’m sorry I didn’t see you either, but you’re here, that’s all that matters, I’ve been looking forward to this so much”. And touch my arm briefly, affectionately.
She has a nice figure, not one of those sticks, well-shaped legs and, hard to tell under the coat, but it looks like she has decent breasts. I love breasts. I might be hunched over with a few withered bits, but I’m still a man. And I don’t lack coordination when it counts.
I’m sure my ex-wife would agree.
We met working on Richard III. Beyond even my own expectations, I earn a decent living on the stage. There are so many wonderful monsters in the classics, but Richard is the best of the roles Shakespeare wrote for me; a star vehicle and an early example of equal opportunity employment. I am perfectly captured in his immortal lines;
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size,
To disproportion me in every part …
Richard wasn’t quite as hideous as Shakespeare’s imaginings – or so historical records suggest – but perhaps Shakespeare had a vision, many years into the future, of a beautifully deformed actor who could really use a gig.
My wife worked in costume, in charge of my many fittings, thoughtfully examining and considering my odd shape. I joked that it was about time someone paid a beautiful woman to fondle me. We laughed a lot; she wasn’t horrified by my hunch, my withered arm, or my dragging foot. Not even by the muscles that slide down the left side of my face. Sally was a loving, genuine spirit. To see me from my right side, she said, it was obvious how handsome I was, and she didn’t mind that it was hidden under all the contortion. And, she said, I had the most seductive voice she’d ever heard.
My voice is my greatest asset. With everything else I had to contend with as a child, at least I didn’t have many problems with communication. My parents were told that speech therapy wasn’t a priority, but they decided to do everything possible. Lucky for me, or I’d not have met my voice coach and been introduced to acting, I wouldn’t have married Sally and I wouldn’t have had my beautiful boys. Well worth more years of swallowing, chewing, blowing, puffing and hissing than an opera singer.
My mistake was to assume that she would always be there. Someone once said, that for every gorgeous girl in the world there’s a man who’s tired of fucking her. I never tired of Sally, but one day I woke up and I’d forgotten how amazing it was that she’d agreed to marry me. After our youngest was born, she stayed home with the children while I toured. I had to take all the work I could get, but I was away too often.
It was years before I got over the divorce, but I’ll always cherish her. She is the proof that it’s possible for me to be loved, even while naked.
I have to keep reminding myself of that. To some women, I’m not even a man; they look right through me. Others imagine I’m at the mercy of some dangerous, frustrated lust and keep their distance in case I mistake common courtesy for a come-on. So I’ve given up leaving it to fate. Online, I can lead with my best qualities and get to know a lady before I decide if she’s worth risking the almost inevitable humiliation. Online, I can rule out the shallow, the idiots, the downhill ski enthusiasts and the ‘nice but boring’. I have to believe that given a chance to know what’s inside my head, there’s a woman who won’t flinch when she sees what the palsy has done to my face.
It’s time to meet Clare.
I should show her my good side first, but I’ll have to move forward into the light.
“Recently moved to London for work, I’m keen to get out and about and make the most of what the city has to offer. I’m a big fan of the arts, well written films, books, great conversation over red wine; would you care to join me?”
It was a stupid idea to walk; now I had nerve amplified moisture in my armpits. I checked my hair in the reflection of my phone; small mercies, the wind had wreaked the minimum of havoc.
No sign of Sam. I walked further into the station, keeping out of the way of the Tube crowd all intent on their final destination. No one else was standing around, just me and a thin, dark haired man up against the far wall. He didn’t look at me, his eyes fixed on the escalators tossing people up into the light.
Something about him was a bit strange. He looked uncomfortable, shuffling slightly, favouring his right leg and maybe, a bit hunched. It was so rude to stare, I turned away. He waited. I waited.
It was going on fifteen minutes past the time we agreed. Probably OK to call him, maybe text, without him thinking I was high maintenance. And I’d make an effort not to sound too pissed off, even though I hate lateness, because what if something bad had happened? But if he knew he was running late he should’ve called me. Then again, if he was stuck on the Tube he couldn’t call. Crappity crap crap.
I regretted coming to this awful country. I blamed Great Britain and all its recalcitrant, unfriendly inhabitants for landing me in this tube station, alone on a Saturday night, waiting for a stranger I’d already burdened with unrealistic expectations.
Five more minutes, I decided.
From the beginning I’d had misgivings about London. I was no stranger to the city; I’d stayed in its famous hotels, had my high teas and enjoyed cocktails in its Condé Nast approved bars. But however much I enjoyed the trip, I was always happy to go home. Unfortunately the HR philosophy of the sprawling global enterprise I work for it is ‘up or out’. For me, ‘up’ meant being drawn by its relentless tractor beam toward the mothership in London. ‘Out’, meant finding a new job in Cape Town. In two minds, I tested the local market and meet with a head-hunter; he laughed and questioned whether I’d understood the size of my opportunity. ‘Up’ it was.
I have to admit the first few months after the move were spectacular. To say I was fêted would be no exaggeration; welcome parties, a juicy housing allowance that set me up nicely in Primrose Hill and a silver Audi TT Roadster for my daily commute. Yes, thank you, I took it all. And I set to work, ten, twelve hour days, throwing myself into the challenge. I was doing well. I was making a difference. I’d made the right decision.
All rubbish. My team was nothing but nodding heads. They ignored whatever we’d just agreed and shuffled off to do whatever was in their better interests. I know I’m direct, but I’d assumed that if people had an issue or a different idea, they’d speak up. Apparently that’s not the British way. Who’d speak out and risk embarrassing themselves? And the senior managers – bored with internal squabbling – were united in their disapproval that a plum role had gone to an outsider. Who did I think I was?
I had no idea that people weren’t behind me, I was so busy getting my head around the business, meeting key people, learning the market, orientation visits to factories. With everyone back at head office smiling and being so very nice, I relaxed; I took my eye off the ball. And then the 360 degree feedback arrived. With the assurance of anonymity, passive aggressive became plain, direct and unadorned aggressive.
My glamorous London life was a shambles. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pretty. Here I was, in my thirties, single, working all hours and no social life. I thought of going home. I dreamt of the beach, of Table Mountain, my friends, of weekends and lazy hours over wine down at the V&A Waterfront. But if I went home – after one year of my contracted three – I’d have failed. So did I stay just out of pride? Absolutely, but if I abandoned that, I’d have nothing left.
One Friday night, making inane conversation at my favourite cocktail bar - the staff was welcoming, despite the fact that I was moaning into my martini week after week – one optimist suggested internet dating. I decided that I didn’t hate the idea.
The site claimed that thousands of men were only a click away, but by the time I rejected smokers, guys without a clear head shot (no sunnies, no middle distance, no baseball hats) anyone under five foot (there has to be a limit) and anyone without some semblance of an education, I’d whittled the single male contenders of Great Britain down to about five blokes. My mother said I was being too fussy, but it wasn’t true. I’d consider any man whose appearance didn’t turn my stomach. All he needed was acceptable hygiene and an IQ higher than a Labrador.
They couldn’t even hit that low bar. Instead I met Mario, who claimed to run a Ferrari racing team but turned up in a battered Golf and a Hawaiian shirt. According to his profile he was five foot nine, but without the electronic inches he stood about as high as my left boob. Then there was Lawrence, an attractive jazz saxophonist, who should never have opened his mouth except to play, and not just because of his hideous smoker’s teeth. And the Chilean Naval attaché, his name now erased from my memory.
One very pleasant evening he offered to cook me a roast meal and my imagination went into overdrive with scenes of domestic bliss. My reverie was shattered when he explained that he would slaughter the lamb himself and that the blood running down his arm would symbolise his devotion. “Don’t worry,” he said, mistaking the look on my face. “It’s a very sensual experience.” Before I could respond, he jumped up, seized me by the shoulders and licked my face from chin to eyebrow. I was out of the bar and into a black cab faster than you could spit.
Please God - don’t let this one be awful.
Sam’s a writer and an actor. I wish I was creative, that I could write, or act, or sing. I’d give my left arm to be able to sing; I usually sound like the song is choking me to death. He posted a photo from his webcam; not the best photo I’ve ever seen, but for now, no deal breaker. Attraction is hard to call until you’re standing in front of each other. I like to meet quickly – if hope is going to die, let it be stillborn – but he’d been a bit coy, sending me yet more emails, yet more questions. He asked what I wanted from life and what I was hoping for from a relationship. Curious questions from a man, but he really wanted to know. It’s rare to meet someone so genuine and thoughtful. Even more remarkable when compared to the daily deluge of messages which can be summed up; “Hi, I’ve got a massive cock, looking for a good time. Interested?”
Against my better judgment I let myself became hooked on his wonderful, clever words. When he finally agreed to go out, I proposed a bar I knew, but he suggested Swiss Cottage Tube – keep our options open.
I checked the time again and it suddenly occurred to me – maybe he’d already been and gone. He could have used the crowd to check me out and having found me unacceptable, scampered back down into the tunnel. Maybe that explained his choice of meeting point; better than me sitting at the bar, embarrassed and conspicuous, with him a no show. Disappointment washed over me. I was being stood up. I should have been paying attention, instead of trying to act cool.
The odd looking man who’d been standing in the corner moved a little toward the entrance. He’d been waiting as long as I had; perhaps another victim of internet dating? I was wondering how he’d describe himself in his profile, when I had a sudden, terrible thought.