Part 1 of a longer story (maybe).
Their first date wasn’t a disaster, or a damp squib. It didn’t bubble with steamy potential either. It was just nice. He had a nice time. She seemed to have a nice time. It was far nicer than she’d come to expect from an Internet date. But it wasn’t exactly momentous. If there was any kind of hint that they were to become each other’s Big Thing, it was undetectable.
But then, in real life, there is no foreshadowing of future events. She knew this, but he didn’t. Perhaps he read too much.
“Literature is my teacher, my soul-mate, my grande passion,” he would have told her, if he thought he could get away with it. He didn’t want to sound like a wanker. He wanted her to think he was refreshingly unpretentious, while also being well-read and erudite. So he only said it to himself, daily, watching himself in the mirror while brushing his eyebrow-hair into submission with a tiny comb he’d bought on Ebay.
It was true though. Fiction had given him certain convictions. He thought that people had character arcs over the course of their lives, and conflict was a tool for development. And if asked, he would have said he didn’t believe in fate or predestination. But he did, really, because he believed in plot.
He also believed that a smart protagonist would have the critical tools to recognise salient plot points when they happened. Consequently, as the two of them chatted in a cat cafe in Dulwich Village, he took the easy ebb and flow of their interaction to mean that theirs would not be a significant pairing. She wasn’t The One. She couldn’t be. The universe didn’t spring into being after the Medium-Sized Bang, did it? So this was clearly a lesser chemical reaction.
She had similar thoughts, in different terms. There was a distinct lack of swooning. It was a first date, and she felt comfortable. Ridiculous. She’d had more intense sandwiches. On the other hand, she’d eaten some excellent sandwiches.
“Are you hungry?” she asked after their second drink ran dry, and he said yes. She chose a restaurant on an app on her phone, claiming that he wasn’t to be trusted after picking a cat cafe as a meeting place.
“You’re right, it’s awful,” he acknowledged. The setting was so gum-achingly twee that it had contributed to his dismissal of her as a serious prospect, even though it had been his idea in the first place.
They walked to a nearby Indian restaurant, where they had a very nice curry and lots of genial chat, and she teased him relentlessly about the cat cafe. He enjoyed the teasing. It could have been irritating, if he hadn’t liked her. But he did, so it was welcome flirtation.
At the end of the night, they had an acceptable kiss and headed back to their homes. She read a newspaper on the train, and he asked to listen to Radio Four in the Uber taxi. The next morning they both decided they’d like another nice, easy date, and began texting one another.
A few months later, when he realised that she was going to be a fixture after all, he embellished it. Not on purpose: his imagination just wouldn’t let it stand, that their beginning was so ordinary. He tweaked the memory: he made the waiter at the restaurant larger-than-life, the weather prettier, and in time he genuinely believed that there had been a palpable frisson between them as they sat surrounded by moggies, a frisson that was more profound than merely the anticipation of sex with someone new. A frisson that spoke of their impending history. Love at first sight, basically, although he would never think or say anything as naff as that. Instead, he clasped her hands and told her how, that first night, he’d been transfixed by her eyes. Entranced by how… brown they were. Like… urrrmm… a Labrador’s?
“A Labrador? How poetic!”
He’d been embarrassed and frustrated, because he couldn’t think of anything better. He wracked his brain for more startling imagery.
“Chocolate, then,” he’d said, voice rising. “Soil after Spring rain. Oxtail soup on a cold day! I don’t bloody know, do I! For CHRIST SAKE, just take the bloody compliment!”
She’d been a little taken aback, but because she didn’t know how to react, she’d changed the subject.
After several years together, he decided to have an affair with someone devastating. He’d just read Wikipedia’s entry on Ayn Rand and decided she (or someone like her) was the gal for him, so he signed up to a website that promised discretion. He was desperately excited. With every visit to the site, his guts were thrown into turmoil. The anticipation of a new message in his inbox meant a sprint to the bogs at work. Even thinking about it gave him cramping pains.
Unable to connect the dots, he became convinced he had bowel cancer, and started to plan a blog about being terminally ill. The first entry would relate his diagnosis in plain, stark language, and the final one would end abruptly, signalling his death.
Writing imaginary blog entries in his head slowly replaced writing flirtatious Internet messages to strangers. The blog gave him more hope. He planned to approach it differently to all those other, hack blogs that detailed the dying of the light in brave, ordinary terms. His blog would embrace the darkness and the fear. He intended to go screaming into death’s arms, his fierce, defiant, conflicted words burning up the screen. There would be a beauty to his anger that wasn’t evident in anyone else’s rather pedestrian writing/dying. He’d be retweeted constantly, and his work collated by his (now) wife and published after death.
A gastroenterologist eventually diagnosed him with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He was less inclined to write a blog about that.
He’d dismissed the idea of having an affair by this point, but despite this, the stomach issues never went away. He was now a man who carried a packet of emergency tissues in his pocket at all times. A man who avoided curry. A man who talked about ‘his IBS’ rather than ‘the IBS’. He owned it now. That’s who he had become.
She, on the other hand, succeeded in having an affair without upsetting her digestion. The affair was partly her husband’s fault. She’d sensed his dissatisfaction, had felt it enter the bones of their relationship. It had sucked some of the joy out of their time together. It was also the fault of the man she’d met in a bar after work one day. He was physically attractive and emotionally undemanding. But it was mainly her fault for wanting it and allowing herself to have it. If she’d known how close her husband had come to infidelity without seeing it through, she’d have correctly assumed he hadn’t sufficiently wanted it. Christ knows what the tedious, rigid sod actually wanted. Book vouchers, probably.
After arranging a liaison at a Bella Pasta one day, she opened Facebook and posted “Life is an Action, NOT a Reaction”, the text curling across a pastel-infused photograph of a horse galloping through tidal shallows. It was one of several hints about the affair she’d dropped on social media, although he’d have to be Sherlock Holmes to have deciphered the inspirational quotes littering her profile page. So after a while, she decided such hints were unworthy of their love, took the horse meme’s advice and left her husband.
He started a blog about the divorce. He was very proud of it. It wasn’t like all those other, whiny break-up blogs. It had poetry, and avoided expressions of self-pity. And actually, he didn’t feel any self-pity, because finally something significant had happened to him. His heart had been broken. It had been broken so that he could suffer, and through his suffering, he would slowly learn to love again. The next love would be better, more profound, rising from the ashes of his pain. He’d probably write a book about it.
The blog did well, especially once he’d been to a conference on search engine optimisation and implemented the various suggestions. From there, he soon found an audience for his brand of lofty heartbreak. His target demographic shifted from men in their forties to literature students, because it turned out there were a lot of them seeking solace online.
But as the sole contributor, it wasn’t long before more was needed than just introspection and literary allusions, and so he decided to travel the world. Not in the way that heartbroken women travelled the world, to find themselves and learn to love again. That was naff and hack. He was safe from that, as he would be travelling as a man. He had Kerouac and Conrad on his side, and the ones who’d written about love. Nabokov maybe? Yeah, maybe not.
First he went to Florence, Italy, where he ate large amounts of pasta on his own in small restaurants. He stayed there for two months. His voice became hoarse from under-use. The loneliness threatened to make his blog repetitive, and he became desperate for someone to talk to, preferably someone with local flavour and a face full of stories. As the days passed and no-one showed the slightest interest in him, he finally cracked and lurched over to a young woman leaning on the counter of his most-frequented trattoria. Unfortunately she was waiting for someone she’d met on the Internet, and didn’t want to be chatted up by random strangers in bars.
He booked a ticket to India the next day. Within forty-eight hours of arrival, he’d contracted a stomach bug. If he thought IBS was violent and undignified, this was Dante’s infernal bum explosion. In between bouts of soul-wrenching shitting in his medium-priced hotel, he used elaborate metaphors to describe his situation on his blog. His figures dropped. This wasn’t how his readers wanted to picture him, even cloaked in verbiage. Verbiage diarrhoea, he thought to himself hysterically, shakily wiping his raw anus for the umpteenth time on the sixth day.
His blog stopped very abruptly soon after.
His ex-wife sat in her office chair in London, refreshing his page every day for two weeks before she sent an email. She kept it light. It went unanswered, so she sent another, and then another, admitting she was worried about him. Nothing. A month passed and she rang his mobile number, but no-one answered. Eventually she rang the hotel (which he’d showered with high praise on his blog, in exchange for a ten percent discount off the cost of his stay). In a suspiciously professional manner, they refused to give out information about one of their guests, even when she rang back pretending to be the police.
She flew out and checked in to the hotel. She knew which room he’d been in (because of the blog), and asked if it was available. It was. A boy of about fifteen took her bags up. He smiled at her and didn’t say anything when questioned.
The room was nice. Nothing special, but very nice. She’d have a pleasant time here, if she let herself. But she wouldn’t let herself.
She had a mystery to uncover.
She had a plot to resolve.