Updated: Jan 23
Charlotte walked into the bistro and looked around for her date. She was a little nervous. Style had never been her strong point and she felt old fashioned and awkward. But Charlotte was brave today. She had been thinking about this day for a long time.
This date had made her hopeful after the barrage of unsolicited images she had received on her phone since she had begun her journey through the tawdry labyrinth of internet dating.
It had felt like some kind of cattle market, or zoo mating program. Charlotte’s mother had told her that certain genes were of prime importance and that she should look out for them. ‘Before one’s pleasures darling’, she would say. ‘Height, income, zero maintenance payments, one doesn't need baggage my dear.'
Several disastrous dates had almost been enough to put off the rather naive country girl from the all girl's grammar school.
The dates so far had been orangutans, Charlotte, on the other hand, was a gazelle: wrong species, wrong conservation program, back to the drawing board. Fortunately, Charlotte had been in the Brownies and was made of determined stuff.
James, today’s date, was funny, trustworthy (as far as the internet can suggest at least) and very very handsome. Charlotte had been shy of asking personal details about his work and previous relationships for fear of being labelled a gold digger, despite her mother’s suggestions. There remained an air of mystery that was privately exhilarating. Charlotte had quite gotten in a frenzy of the heart and loins. There had even been sleepless nights.
Charlotte entered the café but her date was nowhere. Worried and now even starting to perspire, she tried the garden. It was a bright summer’s day in a leafy part of London. People were looking. She began to tense up.
But there he was, a tall gentleman with the chrysanthemum in his lapel and the now-familiar quiff of speckled grey hair. Charlotte had made one of his photos, embarrassingly, her screen saver. He must never know. He was somewhere in his mid-forties with a look of Ernest Hemmingway, her favourite author; rugged yet polished, warm and paternal. His clothes, Charlotte duly noted, were tailored and crisp and this pleased her. So many men these days let their grooming go, she thought.
James looked older than she had anticipated and she wondered if he had put up some old photos or had been using the lens filters too much. She hated that and was momentarily disappointed. But she was here now and the sun was shining and James was devastatingly handsome, with beautiful teeth which she had not noticed in his photographs. It was hard to tell for sure without her spectacles but his hair seemed thicker and slightly greyer and his face less full. But perhaps she was being unduly harsh, everyone looks different in real life. We have all put up more favourable images of ourselves than we deserve, people just do these days.
‘Hi, James,’ she said louder than she meant, holding out her hand to greet her handsome dapper date.
'It's me, Charlotte.'
There was a slight pause before he spoke and returned the handshake. Charlotte, seemingly the more experienced of the two, tried to be the one to guide the mood.
She raised a brow expectantly. Perhaps James was overcome with how great she looked after all.
Finally, the discomfort broke with an interjection from James.
‘Forgive me, Charlotte, of course, how rude, please, please sit down, be my guest. Would you like a glass of something? Champagne, or Pimm's, we could get a jug.’
James spoke quickly and nervously and Charlotte found it endearing. Things were looking good.
‘Oh, yes please, that would be lovely.’ she said, feeling less anxious.
James seemed efficient and well-spoken as he ordered the drinks. Charlotte made herself comfortable in the chair and tried to relax.
‘So,’ said James, excitedly, ‘how has your day been?’
Never one to shirk on a lengthy anecdote, Charlotte launched headfirst into a convivial monologue.
Thankfully James was a great listener and he studied her face at length as she shared the drama of her day so far; how she had left her bag on the bus with her spectacles and her phone.
James seemed genuinely interested and concerned and he laughed at her witty banter. Things were going so well. There seemed an endless amount to talk about. The jug of Pimm’s was topped up again.
The conversation came around to modern life and dating.
‘So have you ever had a date from the internet?’ asked James.
It seemed a strange question as the internet was where they had met but the Pimm's and the flirting were taking over. Charlotte was simply not thinking straight and it was fantastic.
'Just a couple,' she admitted, 'how about you?'
Charlotte had assumed that James was a bit of a Jack the lad, a forty-something Peter Pan, but here he was, blushing.
‘Well, I never have really, just not my thing.’ said James.
At this point Charlotte, desperate not to come over as a cheap available tart, as mother had warned, lied brazenly.
‘No, no, nor me, not my thing either.’ she said, and justified in her mind that this was not a lie as she would never internet date again.
There would be no need, for James was the one.
He was so handsome here on the terrace, sun shining on his swarthy skin, second jug in. He was delightfully old fashioned, gentlemanly, with robust morals and traditional values. He was well travelled and had so much to talk about. He was effortlessly attentive and unpretentious. And he talked about opera and the classics. Men today did not seem to do that anymore.
They spoke of adventures and shared ideas and attitudes. There were so many things the two had in common; politics, religion, hopes for the future. It was as if they had been specially picked out for the breeding program and the zookeepers had been right.
Charlotte, despite herself, was smitten and she hoped the day would last forever.
Then, suddenly without warning, a man rushed up to the table shouting and looking agitated.
It looked like James!
‘Charlotte, hi, Dad, hi, what are you doing here? Guys, what a nightmare! Charlotte, you didn’t answer my messages! You met my Dad? This is incredible, Dad, have you been looking after her?’
This James was flustered and panting.
‘I got here as soon as I could, Charlotte, I am so sorry, you know work stuff, I’m just glad you stuck it out and waited for me.’
James senior was as confused as Charlotte. They looked at each other wondering what was going on.
James Junior, throwing his hands in the air said, ‘Dad, what are you doing here? How on earth do you know Charlotte? I had no idea!’
James senior looked sheepish, ‘Erm, well, I just thought Charlotte was chatting me up, and I was very flattered. I mean, she seemed to know me from somewhere so I just went with the flow. It was very exciting if I am honest son.'
James junior laughed loudly and looked Charlotte hard in the eye. ‘Charlotte, explain yourself immediately.’
He laughed to alleviate the rising tension and slowly, shaking his head said...
‘Charlotte, don’t tell me you thought this old codger was me!’
Charlotte was still grappling with the reality of her fundamental error.
‘Well, you look so similar, and the chrysanthemum....erm...and I lost my specs.’ Charlotte’s words trailed off and she weighed up fight or flight scenarios.
‘We always wear the chrysanthemums, family tradition, explained James Junior.
James senior fidgeted in his chair, ‘Well I must apologise, son, I really had no idea, please forgive me. Would you like a Pimm’s?'
James Junior was no longer laughing but neither was he angry. Something in the way his dad and Charlotte looked at one another, the way they sat together, the way they complimented each other, was right; just perfect.
Charlotte, a traditional English rose, looked at James senior and smiled despite not knowing what would happen next.
James broke the silence again and laughed and laughed, ‘You bloody old codger!’ and as he turned to leave with a sense of dignified resignation, he said still laughing,
‘I can’t compete with that vintage, an excellent choice Charlotte’.
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