When you’re a child, you don’t notice your family’s quirks – those things that are perfectly normal to you but might seem odd to outsiders. Thankfully, school comes along and there will always be other children to helpfully point this out to you, usually in front of hundreds of other spiteful brats.
My parents divorced when I was about 8 and my dad moved away. It was a real treat for me to have him come pick me up from school. Dad was a snappy dresser – still is, really, a shameless attention-seeker when it comes to clothes – and one day he came into the school in his green checked trousers.
Nobody would bat an eye now, but this was 1986, and the teasing the next day was merciless. “Rupert the Bear trousers.” “Your dad is gay.” The usual. Plus, divorce was rarer then so that would become a focus of the name-calling.
And it’s the worst feeling. Because you have to laugh along or not show that you care. And yet you think: “You can’t say that. That’s my dad.”
You’ll probably get what I’m on about the more you read this one, but take a look at what happened on the date between 61-year-old chef Philip and Elaine, 65, a writing mentor, before I try to work out where the torch is on my iPhone so I can shine a brighter light on it.
Being single in your mid-thirties is bad enough if you’ve had a tough paper round and don’t spend four hours a day locked in the gym working on muscles you can’t pronounce. If you’re in your sixties, which makes you immediately invisible to most people, according to the rampant ageists I know, it must be terrifying.
“Oh but as you get older, you care less what others think of you,” say 22-year-olds whose metabolisms are yet to be converted to zero-hour contracts.
Elaine has the world-weary air of a singer in a late-night cocktail bar in 1982, lamenting lost loves and shattered dreams through half-closed eyes to an audience of drunk, ugly businessmen who are all going to try to come on to her as soon as she finishes the last bars of The Man I Love.
She has been on boring dates, she has listened to in-depth assessments of the best way to put up an Ikea wardrobe and she has pretended to like Led Zeppelin just so she doesn’t have to ask a man about his day. She. Is. Done.
Now that really is a first impression. If I arrived second on a date, my eyes would immediately flick from their face to their arse to their groin to the space in front of them to see what they were drinking.
Some people get nervous if they’re the only one drinking on a date. Nothing worse than sinking your fifth red wine as your date sips his first coffee – coffee, in a pub! – and asks you about your job. Onward. Philip:
I never want to have children because it always seems like a lazy fallback topic when conversation dries up at dinner parties and I don’t have any space for that alongside my go-to icebreakers concerning Cher, Madonna and Kylie. Sorry, kids.
Oh. It seems that we have two radios tuned to different stations. One’s playing Leonard Cohen, the other Girls Aloud.
Dogs (mine) strangely didn’t get a mention in Elaine’s précis. That’s the thing with saying someone talked about themselves the whole time – sometimes they’re just filling air because you’re not saying anything.
Brrrr. Suddenly it feels cold in here. I need a cardigan. There are probably more subtle ways to ask for a toothpick but I would rather a date did that then sit with half a brontosaurus leg poking out between the gap in their molars.
Philip didn’t want to go home, did he?
Elaine did, though.
Am I the only person reading this who wants to travel back in time, walk up to the table just as Elaine is leaving it and say “Hey, Philip, I’ll have another glass of wine. I’m in no hurry. Tell me about your cats”?
Phil, what’s your score?
Elaine? *bites nails down to quick*
Sympathy scoring doesn’t float my boat generally, but even though she’s not interested, she’s not prepared to chuck Philip under the bus – well, not entirely, anyway – just so she can look good in a magazine. Some of the younger or more attention-seeking participants could learn a lot from this date. It’s not a real 10, but it’s a 10. We all deserve to be a 10 at least once in our lives.
Readers of an overly sentimental disposition should look away now before reading Philip’s last answer. Seriously, shut down the laptop, swipe away.
However, there’s no point raising hopes where they have no business being raised, so Elaine’s got to be clear…
“But you can’t say that. That’s my dad.”
Pass us a sausage roll, Philip. There’ll be other Elaines, but you’ll always have us.
Photograph: James Drew Turner; Fiona Shaw, both for the Guardian