TThis exaggerated London rends the heart
Her name is Anna, and in her message, she lets me know that I sound interesting. She writes that she likes my profile, and though she doesn't appear to be my type, I am overjoyed.
Two days since I've subscribed to this dating app, my existence has been recognised. I feel like a newborn, yanked into this novel life, and all of a sudden, I can breathe.
She tells me that she also likes mountain climbing and waterskiing and asks me where I am from.
I think her message is tedious. I browse her profile, and it looks lousy. The pictures are blurred and only show her from a distance. I don't make an effort to read through it at all and decide not to reply.
But then I notice an attachment. There are another four pictures, and they are of far better quality. The first one shows her sitting on a bench together with some friends in a park. I think she looks pretty. The second one is of her and a dog whose face is so close to Anna's that it seems like it wants to lick her. On the third one, she sits next to a woman who looks like an older version of her. It could be her mother. And finally, the fourth picture makes me decide to reply. It shows a close-up of her face; her hair is blond and curled; she has the most endearing smile. Her right shoulder is casually turned forward, and with her left hand, she brushes through her wind-combed hair. It almost feels as if she is looking at me.
She is gorgeous.
I read her profile again, this time more in-depth. It seems that I have missed things the first time I looked, and I am starting to be intrigued by what she has written. I read her message again, and it sounds lovely.
My profile doesn't mention that I like mountain climbing. I have never done it. But one of my pictures shows me dangling from a rock, and even though twenty centimetres below is solid ground, the angle makes it look as if I am a regular free-climber.
I did mention the waterskiing part, but I haven't uploaded any pictures of me being towed behind a speedboat. A genetic blemish in my family line makes me look as if I am burdened with a beer belly. All my cousins have it. We can't get rid of it, and although (when I tense my muscles) it doesn't look too bad, it certainly doesn't establish a good first impression.
I could have let her believe that I live somewhere in the United Kingdom. The great thing about the internet is that you can pretend to be in any country in the world. But in my reply, I stick to the truth. I let her know that, while I am originally from Belgium and currently live in South Africa, my company will relocate me to London in two weeks from now.
If anything, it at least tells her that I have a job.
She replies a day later. She wants to know if September is summer or winter in South Africa. She comments on some of my pictures and asks if I am really six foot three. She says that she especially likes the one where I am milking a cow and thinks I am attractive. She asks if my eyes are blue or greyish-green, as it is hard to tell from the pictures I have uploaded. She wants to know if I happen to live in Cape Town and confesses that she loves that city and its people.
'Green,' I write back, and: 'Early summer-ish.' I further tell her that I live in Port Elisabeth and that (because she thinks I am attractive) she has won extra brownie points.
During the first couple of days, I don't spend too much time checking the dating app, and even though I did see her messages, I restrained myself from replying immediately.
I don't have to rush things, I tell myself. It's another twelve days before I fly to Heathrow, and it would be silly of me to jump straight from the plane into a relationship with some English girl that I have just met on the internet.
Three and a half years ago, when I first arrived in South Africa, I did a search on the local outlet of this internet dating website. I keyed in some features like pictures, height, distance, no children, and the like, and a lousy thirty-two girls were the result. None of those could tempt me to write a message. But this time, while probing through the United Kingdom's version and putting in a mere range of ten kilometres from Ealing-London, the site releases no less than nine-hundred and twenty-eight potential dates!
In one of her messages, Anna explains her reason for using blurred pictures. She believes that no one would select her profile if she hadn't put any on. At the same time, she didn't want people to recognise her. What if a colleague of hers stumbled upon this site, she wondered, does she then become the laughing stock of the office?
'This whole inbox messaging is silly,' she writes back the next day, and then her question comes: 'Would you like to chat on Skype?'
I am shocked.
A friend of mine has warned me about this. Anna might not be who she portrays herself to be. "There are many internet-based scams out there," my friend had said and revealed that he had experienced it first-hand when a pretty blond girl (who claimed to live somewhere in the north of England) had contacted him over a dating site.
In hindsight, he'd told me, he should have been a little bit more suspicious. Instead of writing the usual chitchat, she'd immediately given him a complete description of her family's background. Already in that first message, she'd told him that her mum and dad had passed away and that only her grandmother was still alive. On top of that, there were many English language mistakes, which was bizarre, especially for someone who claimed to have a university degree in geology.
It didn't take her long to tell him that she didn't want to endlessly write up and down over that dating app and that it would be far better to chat over Skype.
My friend agreed. He was, I guess, blinded by her looks. They started chatting. Within ten minutes, he learned that she worked for a large oil company and currently lived in Nigeria. But her contract had come to an end. She needed to return to the United Kingdom because her grandmother had been hospitalised in St Georges London.
They agreed to meet, but then things got complicated. While chatting over Skype, she told him that she had a problem. Her flight to London was booked, but the hotel she was staying in didn't want to let her go as it appeared her credit cards had been stolen, and she had no money to pay her bill. Of course, the next question she asked was—could he help her out? He simply had to deposit some money into a Nigerian bank account, and she would pay him back the moment they meet-up.
My friend, realising that this was a scam, immediately deleted all her details. But a week later, he was approached by another pretty girl: similar language mistakes and a request to chat over Skype. What followed was a detailed story about her being a fashion designer travelling through African countries to purchase exclusive fabrics, and, of course, one of those countries was—Nigeria.
Did Anna really say Skype!?
I decide to write back and ask her if WhatsApp would do? I mean, everyone talks on WhatsApp nowadays, right?
But when I explain that I'm not that often on Skype, her reply says that she dropped her phone in the sink and WhatsApp needs a working phone.
I reluctantly give her my Skype name and wonder if this is a red flag? While I half expect her to write that she has been kidnapped by warlords (that they have already wiped out all her friends and family and that they demand a ransom—or else), her Skype message appears. In pure Bugs Bunny style, she asks: 'What's up?'
'Hi Jennifer,' I reply hesitantly.
A yellow smiley-face emerges in the next line, quickly followed by: 'It's my flatmate's name.'
Then Anna again: 'I'm using her computer and also her Skype account. Sorry, I am completely disorganised. I normally chat over WhatsApp, but my phone is absolutely dead.'
During the next half an hour, I learn that she recently moved house and that most of her stuff is still in cardboard boxes. She tells me she needs to get her life sorted out, which means: she needs to find a new job, a new flat and, well, in a way—a new boyfriend. She says that it doesn't necessarily need to be in that order, and another yellow smiley face full-stops her message.
From then on, Skype takes over my life. I regularly check if Anna is online. Most of the time, I write her a short message, nothing more than a 'how are you?' and wait for her to reply. This often arrives immediately, and then we start our chat which can take up to an hour or more. Sometimes I wait for her to contact me first. I don't want her to think that I am desperate or don't have a life?
At this stage, I actually don't.
I convert my precious sunny South African days into waiting. I wait for the morning to come. I wait for the day to finish. I wait for Anna to go online. And, I wait for the moment I can finally fly to London so I can meet up with her and jump straight from Heathrow into a relationship. But she doesn't need to know that.
However, the days pass and Anna and I spend our time chatting with each other. It feels like I am really getting to know her. She has three sisters who all live in England. She tries to visit them as often as she can and misses her little dog that stays with her parents in Leicester. She further doesn't like ironing, olives, visiting the zoo, cleaning the bathroom, peeling mushrooms, people who pull up while the traffic light is still orange and washing greasy frying pans in the sink.
On the other hand, she enjoys eating spicy food, all sorts of dried fruits, drinking coffee and listening to the alternative metal band Korn. In fact, she has plenty of time to listen to Korn now that she is in-between jobs and in-between flats. ('Or in-between boyfriends,' I reply.) But she is lucky that her ex-colleague is letting her stay at her place for a couple of weeks until she finds another flat.
I, on the other hand, let her know that I am an outdoorsy person. I like walking shoes and rainproof jackets, forests, mountains, the smell of pinewood in summer's dawn misty woodland lakes, the noise of crickets in the background and campfire sparks leaping into the open night sky while trying to become stars when they grow up.
In one of her messages, she says that she really likes me. She tells me that she enjoys chatting with me and that she often can't wait for me to come online.
She is already becoming a close friend, and four days before I fly to the UK, I decide to voice-call her.
She sounds wonderful. Her voice is soft, almost velvety, and she laughs the most endearing laugh. "When shall we meet?" she asks.
"As soon as I've landed," I reply.
"When will you land?"
"Saturday it is then," she giggles.
I will leave South Africa Friday evening around nine to arrive at Heathrow a little bit after six in the morning. That same afternoon I will meet Anna in a coffee shop in Ealing-Broadway, West London. I have lived in South Africa for over four years, and although I have dated quite a few girls, it never truly felt right.
I can't believe the amount of time I have wasted.
After a two-hour delay, I land at Heathrow airport. I couldn't sleep on the plane, and so I watched all the movies that were showing. At times two or three at once, just to keep my mind off Anna, but I can't remember any of the titles.
I feel exhausted.
It's a quarter past eight in the morning when I finally spot my friend Brett at Arrivals. He has been waiting here since six and looks tired too. We give each other a brotherly hug. He asks me how my flight has been, and I reply that it was okay.
It is raining. Heathrow airport is only twelve miles from Ealing, but while we drive back to his place, traffic peaks, and he is getting late for work. He manages a small sales team for a real estate company, and since Saturday is the busiest day of the week, he has to be at his office at nine.
An hour later, he drops me at his house. He doesn't have to show me where his fridge, shower, toilet or TV is. I have been here before. After he hands me his keys, he rushes off. But forty minutes later, he's back. He has told his office that he has to show clients a flat.
"Tell me all about this girl you'll be meeting? Who is she? Where is she from? What does she do? Is she nice?" he grills and gasps, "I can't believe you have a date on the exact same day you land in London."
I show him the pictures on my phone. It makes him bite the knuckle of his thumb. "You are such a lucky man!" he says and slaps me playfully on my shoulder while he moans: "I feel betrayed. You're such a bastard. We were supposed to lead a bachelor's life in London. I've been waiting for you to come over, so we can go out on the piss every weekend and hunt for girls!" he whines, "But now you've messed that all up by landing yourself into a relationship the same day you arrive in the UK."
"I’m not sure if she’ll even like me,” I laugh.
“Don’t bullshit me!” he roars, “Of course she’ll like you.”
“Anything could go wrong. Chatting over Skype is meaningless. She might take one look at me and think that she needs to get the hell out of that coffee shop as soon as she can.”
"Rubbish," he says. "The moment she sees you, she'll fall head over heels in love with you."
He is always positive, always encouraging, and I appreciate that.
“I wish,” I reply.
“And what about you?” he asks and laughs: “Do you like her?”
"Mm," I smile, "I haven't seen a girl that pretty in a long time, and I know it isn't all in the book's cover, but she seems to have a truly wonderful personality. She is sweet and interesting and lovely to talk to. If I had found a ring in Johannesburg airport,” I jokingly say, “I would go on one knee and propose even before she sits down at my table.”
“My goodness,” he chuckles, “you’re such a wimp!”
Then he’s off again but promises me that he will try and drop by later. He tightens his tie and walks out.
Brett is as tall as me but bigger built. Years ago, he was selected to join the South African 'Springboks' Rugby College'. But for some reason, he decided not to pursue it as a career. He still plays rugby but never pushed through to top level.
If you ask me, I believe he was scared of getting hurt in much the same way as he’s scared of getting hurt by girls. That’s the reason why he wants us to lead a bachelor’s life.
I once knew a young football player in Belgium who, already at the age of fifteen, showed true talent. One of the top clubs invited him to play a test game. A couple of weeks after that, I ran into him and asked him what the outcome had been. He told me that they’d let him play a complete game against another national team, and that was where he saw top-level football's true nature. The other players kicked, hit and spat him in the face every time the referee turned his back. It intimidated him, and he ended up playing the worst game of his life. He never joined that top team and now sells office supplies to small and medium-sized businesses.
Perhaps something similar happened to Brett in rugby and his love life. He got married at a young age and really loved his wife, but she fell in love with someone else, so they divorced. Even though this happened a year and a half ago, he’s still not ready to dive into anything new. He keeps his dates at safe arm’s length, nervous that they might kick, hit and spit him in the face every time the referee turns his back.
In a way, there’s no difference between him, the young football player in Belgium and me. Brett might have expected us to hit London’s nightlife, but I’m nervous too. I’ve arrived in a completely new country, and I don't know anyone. To end up being lonely in this gigantic city—is my biggest fear.
An hour later, Brett walks back into the flat and demands to see Anna's pictures again. "She's gorgeous," he groans and, for a second time, bites the knuckle of his thumb. "How on earth did you pull this off?"
“She actually contacted me,” I tell him. “I didn’t even have to lift a finger. In all honesty, I haven’t messaged or winked at anyone else during the whole three weeks I’ve joined that dating app.”
“Well,” he sighs, “then I think this is all meant to be.”
A couple of hours later, I’m off to meet Anna. All my clothes look suitcase-ironed, and I've borrowed a shirt from my friend. I am wearing jeans that I wore on the plane. I want to keep it casual.
I’m lousy at directions. Brett had to explain over and over where the coffee shop was. “You can’t go wrong,” he said, but I did.
When I eventually walk in, I look around. There are not that many people. I scrutinise every face and search for something familiar; signs of recognition: a smile, her waving her hand, her getting up and running over to greet me, her throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me madly. But no one pays me any attention.
The few girls who sit at a table on my right don’t resemble Anna's pictures, nor do the guys or the dog underneath one of the chairs.
I take a seat at a small table in a corner. It’s not too close to the door, but not too far either. I haven’t prepared any topics for discussion. I don’t expect us not to know what to talk about. I don’t feel I need to worry about this. Everything will go smoothly—of that, I am sure.
I look at my watch. It’s ten past two.
She is late. I cannot believe this. I have gone through all this effort, and she is late!
But then another thought surfaces: could it perhaps be possible that she won’t come? Have I been stood up? I immediately brush the thought aside, but it doesn’t stay away. Instead, it starts filling my mind. What if she doesn’t come? What if she has lost interest and decided she couldn’t be bothered to meet me?
I let another five minutes pass. It’s a quarter past two. I tell myself that I will wait until half-past—and not a minute later.
But when half-past two arrives, I am still in the coffee shop. For the zillionth time, I look around, making absolutely sure that none of the girls is her, that the guys are guys, and the dog is indeed a dog.
Only at twenty to three my phone finally bleeps. It is a text message from Anna. She writes that she is genuinely sorry. She has just left the underground, which blocked the signal from her phone, and it will take her another twenty, perhaps thirty minutes before she'll arrive in Ealing. Do I mind, she asks?
‘Absolutely not at all,’ I text back.
Absolutely not at all my arse, I think.
I’m irritated, though, at the same time, I'm relieved that she's still coming. I send her another text. I tell her not to worry and lie that I am quite relaxed reading a book.
Her reply comes almost immediately, ‘Thanks, you are sweet.’
Almost an hour after she’s sent her last text message (an hour and forty-five minutes since I entered the coffee shop), I see her walking through the door. She comes straight to me and says, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I've had a lot of bad luck with the tube, and I didn't realise Ealing was so far away."
I feel nauseous.
She definitely looks like her pictures: soft blond hair, almost angel-like, and she is beautiful. But there is something wrong. Something I was unable to spot during our weeks of emailing, chatting, phoning and exchanging photos. Up till now, I have only seen pictures of her face, and I realise this was a mistake.
I feel sick in my stomach.
It is not so much that she is shorter than I expected. Even her neck and shoulders look elegant and slim. But there is one thing which is entirely out of proportion … —it’s her butt.
I am shocked. I did not expect this. It’s not that she is merely a tiny bit overweight and that a few walks in the park could trim any excess off. It goes far beyond that. Her backside is enormous, and her slender shoulders only accentuate the contrast. Calling her pear-shaped would be an insult to pears. On top of that, she wears a long, broad skirt, most likely to conceal this part of her figure, but it only makes it look wider.
I’m not prepared for this, and even more, I'm startled by my own reaction. It feels like I’m gasping for breath, and it has turned me speechless.
I see her hesitate for a moment, and then she grabs a chair to sit down. "Are you all right?" she asks.
I keep looking at her face. I am sweating. How on earth is this possible, I think? How can fate just slap me in the face like that? This wasn’t supposed to happen.
"Yes," I eventually answer, forcing myself to act nonchalant. "How was your tube ride?"
Too late, I realise that this is quite a stupid question given the fact that she is almost an hour and forty-five minutes late and that she already told me it was terrible. But she grabs it as if it were a lifebuoy in mid-sea and starts telling me the complete story in detail.
Apparently, it was horrible! I hear the sounds of her storytelling, but I am not listening to the words. Instead, I am thinking about her butt and what to do. Her face is pretty, but I seem to be unable to get around her backside. Could she go to the gym; do some running or cycling? Would any of this help? I am not sure what to do.
Well, in a way, I am …—I can’t continue with this. I still try to tell myself that she is pretty, that I liked chatting with her and that I should give it a chance. But I don’t want to listen to this. Instead, I scream in my head that I want out! I want to leave this coffee shop, and my earlier concern that she might not like me has turned into fear that she might.
She has stopped talking and looks at me. She smiles, and there is an awkward silence. It feels as if she has asked me a question and is waiting for me to reply.
“Your flight?” she smiles, “Was it good?”
“Yes, very good,” I answer almost automatically, realising a bit too late that I should have grabbed the opportunity to tell her that I am exhausted. It could have prepared her for the fact that I will be leaving early. I quickly yawn and say, "Not really that good. I hardly slept and am very tired.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” she replies.
"I shouldn't have put our first date right after I flew in from South Africa," I continue. However, I am immediately conscious that I said 'first date', which could make her think that there will be others.
I have to admit that she is sweet, and I can't say that I don't like her, but there won't be a second date. I only want to be polite about it.
I wish it was the other way around and that she would yawn, stretch her arms above her head and tell me how drained she feels after such a long flight. No one likes rejection. It inflicts pain, and I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially not angel-face Anna. But how do I tell her? How do I get up and leave? We’ve only been sitting here for fifteen minutes. Do I have to stay and chat for a decent hour or perhaps even two? I will certainly not take her out for dinner. I don’t want to contribute food to a problem she already has.
But what if she asks me if we will see each other again?
For a second time, there is a silence between us, and she is looking at me. "Weren't you listening?" she asks.
“I’m sorry,” I apologise. “I’m really tired.”
"Would you like to go home and rest?" she suggests. "I do understand that you've had hardly any sleep, and you must be exhausted."
"No, absolutely not," I say, and again too late, I realise my mistake. I could have grabbed this opportunity to leave.
"Oh, good," she sighs, "because, after all my tube hassle, I would have hated for you to run off."
We both laugh at this, and I could hit myself on the head. Now I might even have to take her to dinner.
It is not that she is hard to talk to. Our conversation starts to flow. She asks me about my stay in South Africa and if my parents are happy that I am living much closer to Belgium. She tells me about her ex-colleague, who in fact was her boss, but since Jennifer resigned, Anna's job as a personal assistant was no longer required. "I would have been homeless if she hadn't offered me a place to stay," she laughs. "She is a very nice person."
After dinner, I no longer have to act: I am drained. I ask her if she doesn’t mind me heading home, and she says she understands. I walk her to the tube station, and when we say goodbye, I give her a tiny peck on the cheek. It makes her blush. I don’t say anything about meeting up, but neither does she. I guess this is one of the advantages of internet dating—both parties know exactly why they meet and what the risks are.
I fake another yawn, which makes her giggle and say, "Go home and get under the duvet." Then she walks towards the waiting train. She turns around one last time, waves and moments later, she is absorbed into the crowd of passengers.
When I return to my friend’s house, I can’t stop thinking about how it all turned out. I had such high hopes. It all seemed to be adding up to something extraordinary, something that was meant to be. I feel annoyed. Annoyed and guilty about my shallowness, but mainly annoyed.
“Tell me everything,” Brett says after I’ve walked up the stairs and entered the living room. “It must have really gone well because you’ve been away from two o’clock this afternoon till now. It is after nine! Don’t tell me you’ve already kissed her?”
“I won’t,” I say. “I won’t tell you.”
I turn around and walk through the hallway into the kitchen. I take a cardboard carton of apple juice out of the fridge and put it to my mouth.
Brett follows me and stands right next to me. “Come on, brother,” he insists, “spill the beans. You can’t leave me hanging here. You need to tell me what happened. Have you kissed her, or not? I knew this would happen,” he continues, “you’re going to leave me here all by my sorry self while you’re running off with the love of your life to get married somewhere on an exotic island.”
I put the juice on top of the fridge and sigh, “She’s actually a very nice girl.”
“I knew it!” he bellows, “I knew it! I knew it!”
"She has a beautiful face," I continue, "and in all honesty, we had quite a good conversation. We sat in the coffee shop for a while, and after that, I took her to dinner. It went fairly okay, though there is actually one big butt.”
“What is it?” he wants to know.
I say, “Exactly that.”
“I don’t understand. What is the but?”
“The butt!” I answer. “It’s the butt,” I say: “She has an enormous butt.”
He looks at me for a moment and then asks, “You mean her backside?”
“What the hell is wrong with you, man?” he says, “You like her, she is pretty, you had a good conversation, so can’t you get over that little detail?”
“You don’t understand,” I argue. “It is completely out of proportion. She’s overall very petite, but then there is this massive behind that shouldn’t be there. At least not in such a form.”
He cannot agree with me.
"I can't do this, Brett," I say. "I just can't date her."
“I don’t know, man,” he finally sighs and shrugs his shoulders. “If you like her as a person, then you should be able to look beyond that.”
“I would need binoculars to look beyond that,” I whine, but his comment makes me feel bad. I’m sure I come across as superficial, and perhaps I am. "You would have done the same," I argue while trying to get rid of my feeling of guilt which, by now, has overtaken my annoyance.
“She can lose weight,” he suggests and rolls his eyes. After a short pause, he asks, “so what are you going to do? Are you going to tell her that you won’t be seeing her again?”
I am shocked by his question. "Do I need to?" I hesitate. "I thought I'd just leave it where it is. We said goodbye at the tube station, and that's it."
“Hmmm,” he says.
I finish off the carton of juice. It is after ten, and we both go to bed. It is a big house with three bedrooms and a nice sized living room. I quickly check the dating app before I crawl into bed. There is nothing from Anna, which, in a way, makes me feel relieved. I don't send her a message, and neither do I text her, but perhaps Brett is right, and I should do it tomorrow. It would only be decent of me to let her know.
I promise I will.
On Monday morning, I take an early tube from Ealing Broadway to Euston. From there, I continue my journey by train to my company's UK head office in Northampton. I spend the entire day with Human Resources. They guide me through the different procedures; let me sign documents that say I have received certain information. They give me a laptop, a mobile phone and a temporary car which I can use until my new one arrives.
They have put me up in a hotel not too far from the office and told me I can stay there until I’ve found a flat. I can work from home (or basically from the hotel), but nonetheless, I drive to the office every day. I rarely leave before seven or eight in the evening, and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday fly by. I try to meet some of the colleagues I will be working with, but hardly any of them are there. They are all field-based, and I soon learn that they prefer to go to the office in Nottingham rather than to our head office in Northampton.
Nottingham, depending on traffic, is at least a three-hour drive from London. I don’t want to move too far away from where Brett lives as I plan to spend most of my weekends at his place. Even if I move closer to Nottingham, my colleagues will hardly be there. Besides this, I need to be close to an airport with easy access to most European cities.
So, on Thursday, keeping all those reasons in the back of my mind, I take a drive to Leighton Buzzard. It’s more or less halfway between London and Northampton.
I’ve browsed the internet while looking for flats, and a little cottage-like building jumped out. Judging from the pictures, it seemed very nice, but when I arrive, I notice it is actually a converted garage built next to the landlord's house. Still, it isn’t too bad, but I am a little disappointed.
When I’m back in my hotel room, I sit on my bed for a while and think about my next steps. Tomorrow, I will drive my company car to London and stay the weekend at Brett's. Then another week will come. And another one. I plan to find a flat by the end of this month. I could push to stay a second month in the hotel, but the food isn't that great, and I already feel I need some proper structure in my life. I might as well go for the Leighton Buzzard's converted garage.
At some point in time, I should focus on my job. The company I work for believes that I am good at what I do, and perhaps I am. I started as a business development manager in Belgium. When the local sales team needed advice or when a customer was too big to handle, I was brought in to give my support. With an in-depth technical understanding and good commercial skills, I was thought to be more qualified to take a customer to a higher level of partnership.
However, now that I am playing on a European level, the job has slightly changed. I will be more involved with project management and the implementation of corporate strategies. Although some degree of business development will remain, my responsibilities are no longer limited to just one country. Aside from the UK, there is Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and, for some strange reason, Scandinavia.
I need to set up some meetings with my colleagues or at least let them know that I exist. I doubt that any of them are waiting for that. I could even decide to keep a low profile and hide for a couple of weeks, but surely Josue, my boss in Spain, might at some stage ask what I have been doing.
I better be able to give him some answers.
That same evening in the hotel, after I shower, my phone flashes.
Of course, it is Anna.
‘Are you online?’ she wants to know, and I can tell she sent her message about fifteen minutes ago.
I am not sure what to do. I could pretend I am not online. My Skype profile is set to private. This means no one can see when I am online or read their message, although she will know that it has been delivered to my phone.
I could simply not reply, pretending that I haven’t noticed her contacting me, but I am torn by that nagging feeling of guilt which, I am sure, will disappear with time.
I should be nice to her, and I should make her feel good about herself. It’s the least I can do.
'Hi there,' I type, 'I was in the shower. Are you still there?' When I press enter, I realise that letting Anna know that I was in the shower might have been a little too much information.
She replies immediately. ‘Great to hear from you. How was your week?’
It has almost been a week indeed, and I am quite surprised to learn that time also flies when you are … well … —not really having fun.
'Pretty busy,' I reply. 'I finally managed to catch up on some sleep. What about you?'
I don’t tell her that I think she is a genuinely wonderful person. I don’t sandwich information by using words like; sweet and interesting and lovely-to-talk-to, to eventually let her know that I feel it might —for whatever reason— not work out between the two of us. Let’s face it, she might not even like me, and how ridiculously presumptuous would I sound by telling her that I think we would not be a good match. She most likely will laugh in my face and tell me she has no interest in me whatsoever and that she was just trying to be friendly by messaging me.
A few more questions and answers follow, and they all fit the 'how-was-your-week' category. After about ten minutes, I lie and tell her that I’m getting a call from someone else and that I need to go. She says goodbye and wishes me well, but the moment I think I am safe, her following message appears, 'We will have a barbecue soon. It would be great if you could come.'
You see what happens when you try to be nice to people!
I don’t reply and log off.
I shouldn’t feel bad about it, I tell myself. This is precisely what attracts me to the concept of internet dating. Everyone knows from the start what can be expected and what they are in it for. I am not responsible for other people’s expectations and disappointments, or am I? In all fairness, the fact that I have not asked her on a second date is an answer in itself.
It works. This explanation eases my mind. At least for a moment. Then the guilt comes back. What if she is ‘meant to be’, I wonder. Would I then be the one who’s slapping fate in the face? Let’s assume that fate lets itself be slapped; how ungrateful would it make me?
I stare at my phone and find myself opening the dating app. All of this happens without thinking. When I click on the search page, I think: 'screw fate' and key in some features; like height, distance from Leighton Buzzard, no children, non-smoker and so on.
Within seconds, seven hundred and fifty girls appear to be within dating reach. I open a few of the profiles and scroll through the pictures. I even randomly read what some of the girls have written.
As it turns out, quite a lot of them would like to curl up on the sofa with a good glass of wine while watching a Netflix movie. It is almost as if they have copied each other's wording or have been on some internet dating course I still don’t know the existence of.
Only after clicking through about fifteen profiles, I find someone who I could be interested in. The girl has uploaded seven pictures, and they (unlike the ones of Anna) show her in full length.
This is good. I will not make that mistake again.
I half-read through her profile but mainly focus on her looks. She is pretty, she has long blond hair and is quite tall. It seems she works as an accountant for a biscuit company and I decide to write her a message.
I stare at my phone for over five minutes before I start typing, 'Hi, how are you? I really like your profile and—...' But then I stop and realise that this is precisely what I can't do. I start again and tell her that I think we have things in common, to only backtrack and erase what I’ve written.
I’m sure that she gets approached by hundreds of guys who tell her that they like her profile and feel they have things in common. I need to be original, but that’s harder than I thought. I require a fresh angle, a method that wakes her from the boredom of reading all the other letters. I have to prove that I've at least made an effort to read what she's written. When Anna contacted me, she mentioned that she also liked waterskiing and mountain climbing. I have to do the same and need to pick out things from her profile which I can casually mention in my message.
I take another look at her but can't seem to find anything worthwhile mentioning. I can tell her that I am Belgian and that I lived in South Africa, but it is precisely the type of information she should be able to read on my profile.
This is more difficult than I thought. It is almost like a job interview. My curriculum vitae is out there, but what do I write in the accompanying letter? I should give this more thought, though at the moment I’m too tired. I can’t be bothered. It’s already late, and all I wanted to do is contact at least one girl, so the coming weeks don't look too empty.
If only friends of friends know someone who knows someone and invite her to some house warming party. But this is London, a city where no one knows anyone to invite anywhere.
Despair overwhelms me. This is exactly why I wanted to meet someone before I arrived at Heathrow. I dread being alone, and I certainly don’t want to be lonely.
Before I switch my phone off, I notice that the app creators have thought of an easy way out. There is a button, and if I click it, it will tell the girl that she has been noticed. It is called 'winking', and it saves me from being forced to write her witty messages. In fact, almost immediately after clicking it, I get a message that lets me know that they have let her know. To be more precise, it says, 'We have let her know that you are interested'.
It’s as simple as that.
Of course, I’m interested. There is no mistake about it, and even the girl with long blond hair in seven photos shouldn’t have any doubts. This is great. It certainly saves me a lot of trouble—no hurting my brain about being original and no worrying about being different from others.
I quickly flick to another profile. A girl with dark hair has uploaded three pictures. She writes that if happiness were a religion, she'd definitely be a churchgoer. I think this is quite funny, so I wink at her. Another profile shows an Irish girl. I skip through her text, pass over her hobbies and favourite things and wink. The next one is a brunette with lots of freckles, and after that, I let a girl with black hair know that I have noticed her.
Within ten minutes, I have winked at six profiles, and I didn’t have to read or write anything. By the time I have clicked on eight profiles, I no longer open the second or the third picture and wink immediately. In less than fifteen minutes, I let more than twenty girls know that I am indeed absolutely and tremendously interested. By the time I turn my phone off, I feel I have achieved something. It didn’t even take any effort.
It’s a quarter past eleven, and I crawl into bed.
The following day, I wake up at six. Even before I go to the toilet, before I brush my teeth, take a shower or make myself my indispensable instant coffee, I switch my phone on and browse straight to the dating app. I check my inbox to see how many replies I’ve received.
No messages whatsoever.
This is impossible. Something must have gone wrong. On the other hand, it is still early. I can’t really expect that those girls sit up till late at night, waiting for a wink from me to reply immediately.
I crawl back into bed and lie awake for over an hour. After that, I recheck my phone.
I shower, get dressed, have breakfast downstairs in the hotel's restaurant, and when I arrive back at my room, I open my inbox for the third time.
What is wrong with these girls?
It rains while I drive to the office. I have a meeting with two of my colleagues: Roger and Eric. They are both field-based in the north of England.
Roger is a senior account manager, and Eric, still very young, a technical application specialist. I need to learn from them what they have been doing with some large international customers.
Roger appears to keep his distance. He sighs and shows his displeasure with the fact that he had to drive all the way from Newcastle to meet me. He even says that he doesn’t see the point since all is okay, and therefore there is no need to waste time.
Eric, on the other hand, is more eager to talk to me. He says he wants me to join him on some customer visits to learn and absorb all he possibly can. I answer that this is great. He only needs to let me know when and where, and I assure him that I will be there.
While my two colleagues dutifully explain how they go about their daily jobs, I surf the dating site only to become disappointed again. My inbox is still empty. I double-check whether my profile is still visible, and it is.
Almost three hours into our meeting, a third guy walks in. His name is Rodney, and although he has been living in the UK for about six years, he still has a solid South African accent. During our lunch break, he lets me know that, even though he misses his country, he has no plans to go back. “Too much crime,” he sighs, “and the politicians are unable or unwilling to do something about it. South Africa will end up like Zimbabwe,” he concludes.
I am not sure if I share his apocalyptic view, but for some reason, I immediately like the guy. He grew up in Garden Route's Mosselbay and went to a private school. He is married with a daughter and has been working for the company for about three years. He tells me he manages a young team of sales reps in the south of England. He lives in Slough, west of London, which is not far from Ealing, and he says I should come around for drinks one day.
I check my phone for a fifth time to find the app's inbox is still empty. I am starting to become frustrated. Not only with the way my dating life is progressing, but also with work.
My boss Josue has sent me a tremendous amount of emails, and they are all packed with hundreds of attachments. 'For Your Interest', he writes. Not even that: his message says, 'Hi L, FYI, Rgds, J'. In a way, I prefer his 'FYIs' to his lengthy emails even though I am not interested at all. The only 'FYI' I really want to receive is from the girls on the dating app, who seems to be completely unaware of my existence.
I think that must be it: they simply are not aware that I am still there because I haven’t renewed my subscription. It’s been over five weeks since I joined, and I suddenly remember that I only subscribed for one month.
This newly gained knowledge exhilarates me. I browse straight to the settings but notice that the tick-box with 'automatic renewal' has been checked. They have also taken another twenty-five pounds out of my account to allow me to continue receiving messages from girls.
What do they mean 'to continue'?
I have received squat-all and aside from that—how dare they! It’s not as if they have asked me for permission. If I hadn’t checked this today, they could have been taking money out of my bank account for the next thirty years!
My frustration turns into irritation. Though I am not entirely sure what I am most irritated with: the fact that I am still a member or that none of the twenty girls I winked at has given me any attention. The least those girls could do is let me know that they are not interested. They should appreciate that it has cost me time and effort to get in touch with them.
At five in the afternoon, I decide to pack up and drive back to the hotel. Roger and Eric left at three and Rodney, the South African, around four. But before I fold my laptop into its bag, I check my inbox one last time.
There it is, finally a message!
I feel like I have just solved the issues around nuclear fusion and would jump from my chair and dance on the hot desks if it weren’t for all the people around me.
‘Hi,’ the message starts. ‘I must say I feel refreshed with you stating exactly what I believe in; the importance of good friends and family. If you love a chat and a laugh, good food and wine, then I am looking forward to your reply.'
She does not mention the wink, but then I don’t know the rules around that. I open her profile, and though I can’t really remember what all the girls I winked at looked like, I am sure that none of them was fifty-three!
Hasn’t she checked my age range? I feel insulted. Who on earth does she think she is? She doesn’t even live within the kilometre range I have specified, not even in England for that matter.
But what do I do? Shall I write back and tell her that she surely must have made a mistake. Does she expect me to reply? Must I become a slave to everyone who writes me a message even when their profiles are so remotely removed from what I am searching for?
I think not!
I do have a life. I just changed jobs, moved country and continent and have about a trillion bloody 'FYI'-attachments to read. Surely, I cannot be expected to reply to every bit of internet interest someone shows me!
But on the positive side, receiving this message means that everything works. My subscription is active, and indeed, my pictures must be visible. So why on earth have none of those twenty girls shown any reaction to my wink?
How rude of them.
Friday late afternoon, I drive on the M1 towards Brett's house in Ealing-London. It rains relentlessly, and I end up in one massive traffic jam. In my four years in South Africa, I’ve not ever seen the number of cars that are now lined up in front of me. It looks like everyone on this planet wants to spend the weekend in London.
I punch in a couple of keys on my GPS SatNav, and it quickly comes up with an alternative route. It tells me that it will take me half an hour longer, but I might not arrive anywhere before Monday afternoon at the speed I am going.
My GPS SatNav (which I’ve christened ‘Suzy') informs me that, after eight hundred meters, I need to follow the turnoff. It takes me more than half an hour to get there, but I feel like I have broken out of prison once I have. While everyone is still stuck, I leave the motorway behind to cruise effortlessly over English country roads until I have reached my destination.
However, I did not foresee all these traffic lights. Every hobbit village is packed with them. Did they buy them in bulk? Continental Europe has, over the years, been replacing their traffic lights with roundabouts, and they must have sold them off as second-hand to England. They have not only been put on crossroads but also on T-junctions, Y-junctions, intersections and forks. Besides that, each individual pedestrian has his own private traffic light, as do all dogs, cats and sparrows. Every five metres, another red light orders me to stop, and it takes an eternity before I am allowed to continue.
Everything repeats itself over and over: stop, drive five metres and stop again. Before the car in the front even slightly accelerates, the lights switch back to orange and red. It takes me another two hours before I can find my way back to the M1, where traffic has come to a complete standstill.
I will never arrive in Ealing!
Brett and I are supposed to go out tonight. I left Northampton at three in the afternoon. It is six now, and I am not even halfway.
On top of that, my phone rings. My car receives the call, and Brett speaks, "Hi Bro, where are you?"
“About forty kilometres away,” I reply, “which should mean that, in theory, I will be at your place in forty minutes. But taking traffic into account, I might arrive Sunday before breakfast.”
“We need to be at Kyra’s party at eight,” he reminds me.
“I won’t even be five meters farther around eight,” I sigh.
"Don't worry, bro," he says, "but I am afraid you need to find the place on your own. Would it be okay for you if I text you her address?"
“No problem,” I reply.
Kyra is not very pretty, and she is not a blind date for me through a friend who knows a friend at a barbecue. She is one of Brett’s friends. They went to the same school in Port Elizabeth. She seems to have a crush on him. She keeps inviting him to almost every event in London, but he hardly goes.
Brett doesn’t like her, and though I’ve only met her once, I can't say that I like her either. I don’t even feel like going, and we are merely doing the good deed and saying 'hi' and 'bye' because it is her birthday. That’s all.
After sitting still in traffic for another half an hour, my speed picks up and finally, at ten past nine, I arrive in Ealing. I enter the empty house, have a quick shower, borrow some of Brett's clothes since the few I have, are at the hotel's laundrette, and I head for the nearest tube station.
When I reach Kyra's house, I am immediately welcomed by a gorgeous girl with long wavy black hair. She asks me where I am from with a most endearing accent, and I assume she is Spanish. After I tell her, she says, "Ah qui, Belgique," and lets me know that, although she grew up in Madrid, she went to university in Paris.
She is beautiful. She giggles a lot, and her laugh hides in her deep watery eyes. It tells me she is drunk. We chat until she says she needs to mingle. She gives me a kiss on my cheek and waves her hand like a butterfly waves its wings. She knocks over a small table when she turns around, spilling beer and beer bottles over the floor. But she doesn't seem to mind and strolls off while others rush to clean up the mess.
By now, Brett has seen me and signals me to come over. We give each other a brotherly hug. "How was traffic, bro?" he greets but doesn't wait for my reply and instead calls out to Kyra, who stands a bit farther.
She appears to be pleased to see me or at least pretends she is. “How nice of you to come,” she smiles.
I wish her a happy birthday and give her three kisses on the cheek.
“Are you enjoying England?” she asks.
"He already went on a date with some hot chick," Brett inserts, and I kick him in the shin. "Why did you do that!" he cries out and jumps around like a fouled football player exaggerating his pain.
"Yes, I've heard," Kyra laughs, "and apparently, you don't like girls with fat bums."
I am embarrassed. Kyra herself is a little more than overweight, and her remark makes me go red in the face. If Brett believes that this will break the ice, it is only because the room temperature dramatically increased. Sweat slides down from my forehead, and I stutter before I manage to say, "Where are the drinks. I need something icy cold."
“I’ll get you one,” Kyra offers and disappears into the kitchen.
"I noticed that you've met Estella?" Brett says while he points in the direction of the Spanish girl with long wavy black hair.
"Yeah, man," I reply, "she's hot," and ask him if he happens to know whether she’s single.
I watch her leaning against a bookshelf at the far end of the room, and with the music blaring, I’m sure that she couldn’t have heard us, but all of a sudden, she turns around and looks in our direction. She gives us a warm smile and waves her butterfly wings in greeting. At the exact moment that I raise my arm, I see a girl with short blond hair on my right side doing the same. With her hand, she blows Estella a kiss which is almost immediately returned.
After that, the blond girl turns her attention to me and says, “I can assure you that Estella hasn’t got a boyfriend.” And pauses before she continues: “She and I have been an item for over a year.”
“Bloody hell!” I gasp. And not knowing what else would be appropriate to say while crumbling under the weight of even more embarrassment, I stutter: “Well … congratulations.”
She smiles. With a Spanish accent, she says, "You're very cute."
Excellent, I think. Within fifteen minutes, I received two compliments from two lesbians compared to zero replies from twenty straight ones who explicitly advertised that they are available. Only … —not to me.
Kyra asked me if I am enjoying England. At this stage, I'm not sure and feel that what remains for me to do is … —getting drunk!
After a week, I still haven’t received any replies from the twenty girls I winked at, and I am starting to believe that winking is not the way forward.
Perhaps my whole profile needs to be rewritten, and it could even be that the pictures I have uploaded need reviewing. They’re all a bit too outdoorsy and might give the impression that I am merely Crocodile-Dundee-ing my way through life. I need to start thinking like a woman. I need to crawl into their minds and figure out what they believe is important.
I suspect they want security and financial stability.
It makes me delete the text that I’ve crossed the Sahara and sailed on a fabulous yacht while diving for shipwrecks. I erase that we barely escaped the eye of a Madagascar cyclone (the raging water, the monster swells), that our sails got ripped, the helm got broken and that we floated at a speed of eight knots sideways while directionless meandering on an infinite ocean.
It pains me to remove the words which illustrate that I’ve dived for diamonds in the Atlantic and spent three days in a Zimbabwean jail. Or that I was held at gunpoint in Mozambique, that I smuggled a car out of South Africa and hunted for a fake passport in Tanzania.
Though after rereading this, it doesn’t surprise me I don’t get any reactions.
I do leave in that I love nature, the sun, the sea, and enjoy eating out while sleeping in after a night on the town. I add that I love cuddling up cosily underneath a duvet with a glass of red wine and a pizza while watching a good movie on Netflix. It appears that women find this extremely important.
I don’t mind doing it, but writing this cliché almost makes me want to vomit. However, it is a necessary evil.
To further address their need for security. I mention that I work for a big multinational company, that I regularly fly to different continents and that I’ve got all the perks, the freedom of decision and a boss who lives far away in another country (and only writes me FYI emails). Finally, I let them know that I am a thinker, a joker, but not a player.
Brett has read my other profile and, after I showed him the updated version, says that he prefers the previous one. Then again, he thinks like a guy.
“There is one point you need to take into consideration,” he says.
“What is that?”
“What type of girls will you be attracting? Wouldn’t you rather go on a date with the ones who like that you are adventurous? How would you feel if a duvet-cuddling-wine-pizza-Netflix girl contacts you? Wouldn’t you get bored dating her?”
“I’d rather go on a date. Period,” I reply, “because at the speed I am going, no one will be contacting me for the next twenty-five light-years, and I will end up being the only single guy on this planet."
He points out that 'light-years' is the term for distance and not for time.
On Saturday, when Brett plays rugby in rainy weather, I take time to read through profiles.
I don’t randomly wink as I did before. I only choose the ones I genuinely like. I am highly selective. A girl needs to come across as relaxed and comfortable within herself before I decide to contact her.
I have set out some strict cut-off points. I would prefer my future date to be unafraid, original, intelligent and somewhat able to pursue her dreams. She needs to have a fair dose of witty humour, and there needs to be some hint of adventure. If I can’t read these things between the lines of her profiles, then I won’t be bothered.
After having read through about fifty profiles, I end-up selecting four. It has taken me all day, and now I still need to write them a message as I am well aware of the lousy effect the wink button has.
One of the girls mentions that she enjoys wine-slash-food and likes to spend time in the kitchen experimenting on friends. It makes her sound like the female Hannibal Lecter, so I delete her from my list.
I decide that to speed things up, I need to have a system. I do not have the time or the energy to write a message to every single girl, so I create a standard one that still leaves room to mention things I will select from her profile.
I start my message by telling them that I like their profile and that it is the most appealing one I’ve read. I further let them know that a couple of things jumped out at me, and I mention them. This will give them the impression that I have read what they have written. I compliment them on their looks, and after that, I ask a couple of questions. I conclude my message by writing that I am in a rush and need to go. The reason, I say, is that I am in France for business, more specifically—in Paris. But at the same time, I tell them that this shouldn’t give them the impression that I'm always busy and that I don't have time for anything else. I let them know that it is only for the next two weeks, and then dust should settle again. I also comment on the Parisian-French accent, which I find hard to follow when everyone speaks at full speed.
Mentioning France and especially Paris, I think, could have some mellowing effect. It is, after all, a romantic city and I haven’t met a girl who wouldn't like to go there. Associating myself with Paris and accordingly with romance might smoothen my path. Secondly, pointing out that I speak French, though I struggle a bit with certain accents, could come across as exotic.
By the time I have finished the template message and sent it off to the three remaining girls, it’s six o’clock.
Brett arrives back from rugby, all muddy and soiled-up, and he carries a couple of pizzas with him. I’ve invited Rodney, my South African colleague from work who lives in Slough, and we've decided to go out on the piss tonight. Even though he is the only one married, his wife seems to be okay with it.
Half an hour later, his Peugeot company car pulls into the driveway. Brett has showered and changed, and we eat our pizzas. After that, we make our way to the nearest tube station heading for Fulham.
It’s the first time Brett and Rodney meet, and almost immediately, they seem to hit it off. It doesn’t take long for Brett to update Rodney on my London life. He tells him that I spend hours on the internet luring girls into my dating web, making it all sound awful. He further shares that I’ve had a date only minutes after I landed in Heathrow and that she had a big bum.
“It was out of proportion,” I throw into my defence, all-in high-pitched tones.
The three of us finally arrive at one of the cocktail bars in Fulham. From across the street, Brett waves at the bouncers, and they signal him to come over. There is a queue outside, but the three big eastern European doormen shake Brett's hand and let us through.
In the weeks and months to come, I learn and copy his approach. No matter how much we are enjoying the party, we need to chat with the bouncers.
Although I didn’t grow up with the concept in Belgium, England apparently requires doormen. Bars and pubs close early, even though the eleven o'clock curfew has been abolished. This causes the English to drink as much as possible in the shortest available time. Around closing time, everybody is collectively tossed onto the streets. Hardly anyone is sober, and before you know it, people assume superman capabilities and believe they are indestructible. Gangs are formed, fights break out, guys try to stab each other, girls are pulling hair, etc.
Queues are a different story altogether. When I was a kid, I saw a short comedy on TV which started with two people standing in line, only to be soon joined by a third, a fourth and a fifth person. It didn’t take long before a string of people patiently waited and waited. The silence was slightly interrupted by a man who asked what everyone was queuing for. Even though no one knew, everybody simply stayed where they were.
That is the way I perceive England. When most of the times, the bars are not even half full, a long line of people outside gives the impression that it must be packed inside.
At times, I wonder why there are not more people looking at a queue and thinking, 'Oh no, I can't be bothered to stand there for half an hour in the freezing cold'.
But queueing is incorporated into the English DNA. It's not only at bars but also at coffee shops, post offices, fast food restaurants, museums for stamp collectors and, as I have already learned, at the second-hand bulk-bought traffic lights! There must be queues where you wait to be allowed access to another queue. I am sure that there are. It surprises me at times that online shopping in the UK has not incorporated a queuing system yet, though I’m confident it will come.
After we’ve ordered our first drink, Rodney asks, “Are you still on that dating rubbish?”
I admit that I am.
"How can this ever work?" he wants to know. "The way I understand it is that from day one, everyone receives all the information about you and based on that, they make their selection. It comes across as if they are walking through the aisles of a supermarket and throw in or out of their baskets what they do or don’t like. It’s a disease,” he continues, “a disease of our time. This can’t be good as it makes everyone expect too much. Don’t you understand that this whole bullshit about the knight in shining armour and conquering a girl’s heart while stealing her from the tribe next door and that kind of stuff is pure rubbish?”
He looks at Brett and me for a moment and then asks, “What is that song again by that country-singer who lives in Switzerland?”
“You mean Shania Twain,” Brett says.
“Yes, her. She sings about all those guys she’s dated and who never really met her standards. One thinks he is a rocket scientist, the other one carries a comb up his sleeve, the third one looks like Brad Pitt and so on. Eventually, she tells them all that, even though she thinks they are all right, none of them will keep her warm at night. So, you know what I think? I think she should buy an electric blanket."
“I’d keep her warm any time of day or night,” Brett smiles.
“So would I,” I agree.
"Well, that's not the point," he says. "The point is that she's too fussy! There is this other song by this Ashley-what's-her-name where she sings that she has broken off a relationship because the guy doesn’t want to open the flipping car door for her. That’s simply ridiculous.”
“What’s the song?” I ask.
"Ashley-something…, that blond chick with the cute ass—I don't know, but it appears that she is utterly unable to open her own freaking door. It reminds me of when I started dating my wife some years ago, and she expected me to open the lid of a coke-can every time we were in a pub. I thought, 'What the hell is wrong with you? Can't you do this yourself? You're not Forrest Gump and mentally or physically challenged or anything.' It wasn’t like she wanted me to lift up a fifty-kilogram bag of cement. I could understand that. Guys are stronger built, so no arguing that, but a stupid can of coke! I tell you what: if I were a girl, I would be insulted if a guy rushed over to open the freaking car door for me. If I had any self-respect, I would not want to be treated as if I was disabled. Here they get all worked-up about feminism and being equal, but what a load of crap is that. They don’t want to be treated equally, and in actual fact, they are even confused about what they truly want. They go looking for Arnold Schwarzenegger, JC Van Damme and Bruce-bloody-Lee, or a strong enough guy to take on a gang of twenty punks. But at the same time, they want him to be all cultural; visiting museums, reading poetry and do the dishes after cooking a culinary feast in the kitchen. How do you add those two things up? You know what I mean?" he asks, "It leaves me completely confused. Girls nowadays are expecting the impossible. Then you go out there and put yourself on those supermarket internet dating shelves to get compared with all those players who lie about their height and weight and put pictures on from the times they still had hair…! —Bullshit, that is what I call it."
Both Brett and I laugh.
“Together with all those built-up expectations, there is a lot of disappointment as well,” Brett says.
"Exactly," Rodney concurs. "Statistics show that divorces started to increase when people began to choose their own partners. It is almost as if one starts doubting one's decisions from the moment it is made.'
“I know what you mean,” Brett throws in: “it happens to me every time I go to a restaurant. The second I have given the waiter my order, I start listening to what the others have selected and, more than once, I think: bloody hell, I’ve made the wrong choice.”
"That's my point!" Rodney continues. "Because of all the variety, choosing has become impossible. Secondly, there are loads of psychological studies showing that chances for divorce increase when you marry out of love. A lot of times, people fall in love with their own expectations."
"Man," Brett chuckles, "does your wife know you have all of these opinions? You better be careful," he says. While pointing at me, he adds: "because thingy here is hoping to write a book one day, and whatever you say can be used against you."
“Will be used against you,” I correct.
“Oh yeah? Good that you mention it,” Rodney says and looks at me. “But tell me, how does that work?” he asks. “Do you hide in your little attic and write down everything we’ve discussed tonight?”
“Not always,” I say. “But sometimes I do.”
“Well …,” he hesitates, “… do you think you will be mentioning the stuff I just said about my wife not being able to open her can of coke or about women not knowing what they want?”
“If I end up disappearing into my little attic, I might do just that.”
He is quiet for a moment and then, almost stumbling over his words, says, “You see … if Cindy … if my wife would read that book … I mean … —how would it really work?”
“How would what work?”
“Well,” he says, “would you be changing my name and all that?”
"Look at who's the hero outside the bedroom," Brett laughs. "At first, you're all brave, and then you crumble when you realise that your wife might find out you have a mind of your own."
"No, seriously, man," Rodney insists, "would you change my name?"
“Of course,” I reply. “If you want me to, I’ll do it.”
“What would you call me?” he asks.
“What do you want to be called?”
He thinks about it for a while and then says, “Richard. I’ve always wanted to be a Richard.”
“Then Richard it is,” I say. “If you want me to, I can even change your background. I can write that you are from Cape Town instead of Mosselbay. I can say that you work for a construction company. I can rename your wife from Cindy into Adele and make the readers believe that you don’t have a daughter, but a little boy who is a bastard.”
“I don’t really like the bastard thing,” he says.
“Okay, what about that your son is born out of wedlock?”
“Much better,” he replies.
“But what do I get in return?”
He is taken aback for a moment. “Oh, I didn’t know it works like that.”
“It does,” I assure him.
“What do you want in return?”
“One night with Cindy.”
“You mean Adele?”
“Adele,” I say.
“You bloody bastard,” he blurts out and starts laughing loudly. “You wouldn’t stand a chance. She’s way out of your league. Adele will smack the door in your face if she hasn't already slapped you, which would leave you with a bloody broken nose."
“I might as well try,” I say.
“Go ahead and try,” he encourages. “I even dare you to. But don’t come crying when she’s beaten the crap out of you.”
I’ve been in the UK for a month, and Sunday evening, after spending my third weekend in London, I'm packing my bags to head back to my hotel in Northampton. I prefer driving at night when the traffic is not too bad, but I hate leaving the house.
Brett notices this. He suggests that I stay another night and drive up Monday evening.
“I have a meeting tomorrow afternoon,” I let him know.
“Have you found a flat yet?” he asks.
“I might have to take the one in Leighton Buzzard.”
He looks at me for a moment. “The garage?”
I nod. “It’s close to the UK head office.”
"Do you need to live in that area for your job? I thought your role was international and that you would be spending more time in aeroplanes than in your Northampton office. Finding your way to airports around Leighton Buzzard might prove to be even more difficult."
“I don’t really need to live there,” I admit. “Why?”
“It seems to me that you will be coming over to Ealing almost every weekend anyhow, so how would you feel about living here?”
It’s a big house with a massive lounge, a fair-sized kitchen and three bedrooms which, aside from Brett’s, are empty. There is a big international airport, just a stone's throw away on top of it all. There are no reasons not to live here.
“I’d be happy to,” I say.
That same evening I still drive to the hotel. Aside from my clothes being there and the fact that I need to check out, my Monday afternoon meeting is at the office. But instead of feeling deflated, I’m excited about the prospects of my new future. I finally have a proper roof over my head, and I will be sharing it with someone I consider my brother.
Monday late afternoon, I return to Ealing, and that night Brett and I discuss our living arrangements. We decide to act like a little family. Everything is shared since we both feel that it would not be right to divide the fridge and freezer into two sections, with one part containing my stuff and the other part his. We will buy groceries together, and when I cook, he can do the dishes, and when he cooks, I can walk around the house, switching the smoke alarms off.
On paper, it looks great, and in reality, it works brilliantly, with some minor embellishments. Since I work from home, I cook most of our evening meals, and because we feel that doing the dishes every night interferes with, well … —our desire to do them, we stock-pile them until we run out of pans, pots, plates and cutlery.
The latter seems to happen quite quickly. Therefore, we decided to drive to the nearest supermarket to buy additional pans, pots, plates and cutlery.
We quickly fall into a routine. Before Brett leaves his office (which is only a five-minute drive from the house), he phones me and asks whether we need anything from the shops; should he perhaps get some pizza? Every Saturday, we take a trip to Tesco's to stock up on the bigger groceries. It almost looks as if we are a couple. Our friends even joke about it, and to completely keep up with appearances, we start calling each other 'darling', or 'honey' and 'sweetheart'.
We also use each other's soap. It reminds me of an episode in the American series 'Friends' where Chandler innocently asks his flatmate what he washes first when he's in the shower. Joey replies that this would be his face. Chandler subsequently wants to know what Joey washes last, and the answer this time is—his arse. There is a moment of silence, but the hilarity kicks in when Joey realises where the soap has been before he washes his face. The answer, of course: Chandler’s butt.
Everything goes well, and Brett and I never argue or even have the slightest difference of opinion. It all flows comfortably. One evening, after a drunken night on the town when we lie on Brett's bed, he confides that having me in the house has made his divorce trouble far easier to bear. He hardly talks about this, but it is evident that he was very much in love with his ex-wife. He probably never imagined that they would ever split up.
They came to London to earn extra money to make life back in South Africa a little easier. But then she changed her mind. Unexpectedly, she didn’t want to go back to South Africa any longer. She preferred to spend their money and time watching Chelsea play football (a sport she never showed any interest in back home). Every Saturday evening, she went out with her male colleagues. On more than one occasion, she arrived back home wholly drunk. They started drifting apart, and there were even rumours that she had an affair with her boss.
Brett’s life fell to pieces. He never planned for this, but he stayed strong and firmly believed that whatever happens to a person does not define him—what defines him is how he deals with it.
However, it burdens him that he is a divorcee. Even two years after they separated, he feels no need to be with anybody. He has become sceptical and believes that women cannot be trusted. He thinks that they will all turn around and put a knife into his back.
Me being here in Ealing apparently has helped him, and at the same time, it has helped me adapting to life in England and living in London.
That night, when we lie on his bed, he says, “You know what? If you were a girl, I would marry you straight away.”
I laugh. "No way, man, I won't be the girl in this relationship." I take a look at him and say, "Aside from the fact that you are butt-ugly—if you'd grow long blond hair and some boobs, then yeah—I will marry you as well."
“What about this,” he starts, “if you and I don’t find anyone suitable to marry, then we move to some exotic island and stay bachelors for the rest of our lives.”
From that moment onwards, we start calling this our fifty-year plan. The true meaning of it is—the hell with girls. We don’t need them. We can be on our own, have fun, live our lives the way we want to without the burden, the hassle and the heartache around break-ups, rejections, and them cheating on us.
Why is it that people are so convinced they need someone else in their lives? Is it because it makes you feel complete? In his 'Symposium', Plato wrote that the gods first created us as beings with four arms, two heads and four legs. But when humans began to wonder how they could climb to heaven and replace the gods, Zeus came up with the idea to cut all human beings in half. The analogy relates that from then on, we were constantly searching for our other half.
Could that be the reason? Is it incorporated into our being that we need someone else to make us whole? Plato’s story might have some truth in it, though I like David Moir’s version more.
It’s the one where Adam is feeling a little bit sorry for himself. Even though he lives in the blissful Garden of Eden, he is depressed because he is lonely and asks God to create him a mate. God understands Adam's point but would like to receive some specifics. What is it that he really wants? Adam replies that this newly created person should be his opposite, but also the same: a best friend, someone he can talk to and can be with. It should be someone who understands him, who supports him when he feels down and who he can truly relate to. He further adds that he wants her to be beautiful, desirable and to have respect for him at all times. He needs to be with someone he can trust. Further, if she can cook, iron, clean and not complain, that would be great. But most importantly, Adam wants to feel complete and never be lonely again.
When he finally stops talking, God is quiet for a very long time. Eventually, he says, "It is possible, Adam, but it will cost you an arm and a leg."
Adam is taken aback for a moment and thinks about what God wants in return. Finally, he looks up and asks, “What can I get for a rib?”
It is getting closer to December. I have been in the UK for a little over three months, and the weather is appalling. When I lived in South Africa, I missed the snow, but all England offers is a miserly drizzle and constant overcast greyness. It affects my mood.
Work is not really picking up either. A month ago, I had a meeting with the managing director of the UK and Ireland. After our talk, he agreed to send out a letter informing everyone who I am and what my role is. He told me that everybody is eager to work with me and that they are well aware of my reputation. He ends his praise by saying that the UK is honoured to have a guy like me in their midst. But I’m not sure what my reputation is.
I worked hard while I was in Belgium, but I am not planning to put that many long hours into the UK. I am no longer concerned about networking or about eternally trying to find value and win-wins. Before, I had to work closely together with a team of fewer than ten people. Still, in England alone, there are more than sixty individuals I need to liaise with. On top of that, Richard (formally known as Rodney) has let me know that about eight of them applied for my job. There might be some additional friction lingering around. I have asked him to give me their names. In that way, I can show some diplomacy and avoid stepping on anyone's toes.
In some way, I feel like that young football player who is all comfortable with the ball while playing for the local team. Everyone cheers for me, and I can easily score goals. But then I’m invited to join the ranks of a bigger club, and all those new players are faster and quicker. In a way, I’m scared that they will kick, hit and spit every time the referee turns his back. Perhaps I will end up playing the worst game of my life. And even though the managing director assures me that he has heard of my reputation, it doesn’t mean anything if the other players haven’t.
Yesterday, the promised letter was sent out. It informed everyone that, though I will continue to report to the European head office, I will be based and working in the UK. My primary role, it said, is to give support in terms of implementing and embedding some of the critical global strategies. I have to carry out risk analysis and ensure the transfer of best practice from the international team to the United Kingdom and vice versa. The letter ended by asking everyone to join the writer in welcoming me into the team.
I am expecting phone calls from all sorts of colleagues who will be asking me what they can do to help. But nothing happens. Instead, I have to nag and pester people to get a meeting organised, and at times I think, why bother. I could actually keep a low profile and live an easy life. If nobody is waiting for me, then why should I wait for them?
When I feel guilty for not doing my fair share of work, I try and set up meetings in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and even Scandinavia. But mostly, I can’t be bothered doing that either. Instead, I spend more and more time on the dating website.
When at times, I do make a half-hearted effort in the UK to try and persuade people to let me do my job, they actually make me feel as if I'm not needed. They tell me that they are, after all, the UK and that they have been going about their business for years without anyone's help. They really believe that they are on top of things. That they have nothing to learn from outsiders and certainly not from some small league football player who grew up in one of the tiniest countries in the world. Let’s face it, they claim: the UK is not even part of Europe and on top of that—England is different!
Yeah, England is different, just like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and even tiny little Belgium is. I really want to tell them that according to Charles S. Maier at Harvard University, they suffer from 'Imperial Syndrome'. To truly believe that their own situation is exceptional, that they cannot be called to account by any foreigners and that they obey some higher law! Trust me, the 'Imperial Syndrome' says: 'We are different.'
I am finally starting to receive quite a few reactions in terms of winks and dating messages. However, most of them are worthless. I have clearly specified the age span, which I allow to be up to ten years younger than myself—but not older. Still, messages arrive from women who are over fifty, over fifty-five and even over sixty years of age.
I have clearly mentioned on my profile that I like my dates to be from the London region or maximum within a fifty kilometres radius. Yet, women seem to interpret that Canada, Columbia and Ukraine are within that range. I am rarely contacted by girls who live within the specified area and do not immediately need to apply for government pensions. It makes me feel that most of them haven’t even read my profile.
If that’s the case, what’s the point in having one at all?
The truth of the matter is that internet dating is pretty time-consuming, not so much in replying to girls who have contacted me, but in getting someone's attention. It feels that I have to compete with hundreds of other guys, and if I want a girl to put my message on top of her pile, then a fresh approach is necessary.
When I open a profile, the first thing I do is take a look at the pictures. When I like them, I move to step two, which is quickly scanning through their profile's text.
I am sure that girls are no different. They firstly look at my opening picture, which must invite them to browse through the other ones. Only when I meet their criteria, they will skim through my profile. Also, here I must have no illusions; I am sure they will not read everything. Nonetheless, this stage must not be neglected. A properly written profile might sway the doubters into doers.
For a third time, I feel the need to change my pictures and the wording. Again, it leaves me with more questions than answers. Do I put pictures on the site that shows me in sport-clothes and give the impression that I am a triathlon freak who is never home and can't enjoy the odd night out because he has to watch his carbohydrate intake? Or do I wear a suit that portrays my seriousness, but at the same time shows me as this urban yuppie who thinks his career is more important than his family? Do I write that I am Belgian and run the risk that girls might assume I can hardly speak their language? What if they only want to date English guys? Would I eliminate my chances by writing that I am fluent in Dutch, German and French?
And what about my job? Should that be important to me, or do I say that it merely pays my salary and that I work to live and not live to work? Won't that give them the impression that I am an undercover beach-bum with hardly more ambition than a two-toed sloth who spends his weekends flicking through sports channels on TV?
I wouldn’t mind doing some in-depth research and comparing other guys’ profiles, but I am too scared that they might think I’m interested in them.
Further, it has become clear to me that I have been all too serious. I need to change my attitude and follow Richard’s—or ex-Rodney’s advice. I need to stop ‘giving-a-fuck’.
Some weeks ago, when I ran late for one of our usual outings (this time at a South African pub), I saw what the effects were of a happy-go-lucky attitude. I had already met most of Brett's friends, and when I finally arrived, quite a few came over to greet me. Most of them were drunk and loudly cheered their hellos. Before I knew it, I was hauling two bottles of Castle Lager in one hand and another three bottles of Appletiser in the other. I hardly had the time to look around and see if there were any interesting girls. But when the dust finally settled, I could tell that this had its own effect. The game had changed, and the girls in the bar were looking at me.
When I pointed this out to Richard, he merely nodded and said, "You don't have to scan a bar when the bar scans you. You need to be confident, smile and pretend that you know someone, even when you don’t. On top of this," he added, "there is one crucial sentence you need to keep in mind."
“What is it,” I asked?
“Don’t give a fuck! I have seen it so often,” he explained. “You can immediately recognise the players; how they dress, how they walk into a bar, but more importantly: how they don’t give a shit about any of the girl’s feelings. They have no problem approaching a girl who is surrounded by ten other guys, but we do! You know why we are so nervous?" he asked, and before I could reply, he said, "It’s because we care. At least tonight, you've seen it for yourself and got your answer: girls only look at you when you pretend they don’t exist or when you don’t give a fuck. If you keep telling yourself that you don’t care, girls will drop at your feet like dead flies.”
It is not that I want them to become dead flies. Though that evening, I decided to further explore this approach. When I finally looked around, I noticed girls openly checking me out. Some of them bluntly stared at me, others smiled, and one of them even waved. It felt to me that I could walk up to anyone, utter the most ridiculous pick-up line, and they would still be interested.
It was as if a veil had dropped: as if I could suddenly see who was single or at least available. There were no secrets anymore. They shouted with their eyes that they were ready and waiting for me to do something.
So, if this works in a bar, could it possibly work on a dating app?
Brett, Richard and I regularly go out of our way to befriend bouncers and bar personnel.
During one of those weekends, I am introduced to Richard’s wife Adele (formally known as Cindy). It’s her birthday, and we have all agreed to meet up at one of the cocktail bars in Putney.
As it’s becoming my routine, I’m running late. I quickly shower, get dressed and grab the tube. I have become pretty good at giving the others the usual excuse: stalled at the office, delayed on the M1 motorway and finally forced to stop at thousands of traffic lights.
Despite the queue outside, the place is not that busy. I spend my compulsory five minutes talking to the East European bouncers. When I finally walk into the bar, I can tell that most of our friends are already drunk. They loudly cheer their 'hey Lyam, brother, bro and bru's'. And depending on their nationality, they ask me 'howzit?' or 'what's up?'. Some of them give me a hug, others wave, and the ones who are English, well … they simply avoid eye contact.
I see Richard and walk up to him. "Glad you could make it," he says, and while pointing to the gorgeous girl next to him, he asks, "Have you met my wife yet?"
“No, I haven’t,” I reply and shake her hand. “You must be Adele?” I joke.
“No, Cindy,” she clarifies.
“I know,” I smile. “Happy birthday, Cindy.”
She turns to Richard and frowns, “Who the flip is Adele?”
Some new girls are working behind the bar, and when I order a couple of cocktails, I ask them what their names are. All three of us do the same, and whenever we walk over to them to order more drinks, we enquire where they are from, how long they have been in England, what they do, what they like or what their hobbies are.
Taking the time to make this small effort pays off when the bar is filled with packs of thirsty, queuing people. It’s then when we wave from a distance and point at our glasses while specifying by the numbers of fingers held up how many we want. We get served before anyone else.
A couple of times during the evening, we walk out and talk to the three doormen. They are all shorter than Brett and me, and we tease them about that.
"How on earth can you guys be bouncers?" Brett laughs and jokingly reassures them that they must just ask him if they have a problem, and he will help them out. They kid back, guaranteeing him that each of them can easily take on half the bar. We all laugh and slap each other on the shoulder and repeat this almost on the hour.
We never give them money, but every time we arrive at a place we have been before, we are let in without having to stand in a queue.
“Where is Brett?” I ask Adele while pressing four cocktail glasses against my chest.
She points to the dance floor, and I spot him making all kind of unnatural moves next to a rather petite but very attractive girl with curly blond hair. She appears to be in her mid-twenties and is entirely absorbed by her own dance motions. It is almost as if the outside world does not exist for her.
“Who’s she?” I ask.
Richard shrugs his shoulders, and Adele says, "She might know someone in our group. I think she's English."
"Is she single?" Richard asks his wife, who immediately slaps him on his shoulder. "I am only asking for him," he cries out defensively in high tones.
“You still need to tell me who this Adele is,” she says while pretending to be angry.
“It seems that Brett is trying his best to find out whether she is single or not,” I say.
For the bigger part of the evening, the girl with the blond curls hardly leaves the dance floor, and when she does, it is only to drink some water. Brett stays at her side most of the time. He has consumed enough alcohol not to be aware that she completely outshines him when she dances.
Every now and then, he walks over to me to tell me that he thinks she’s great.
"What's her name?" I ask him, and though he has marked her as his territory, he shrugs his shoulders and says that he doesn’t know.
“I am not sure if Brett is getting anywhere with her,” Richard shouts in my ear, trying to top the music, “I can’t help but noticing how she is looking at you.”
"Rubbish," I reply, but at that exact moment, she throws me a fleeting glimpse.
I tell myself that I imagine this. It is clear the girl enjoys Brett's company as she laughs and cheers while he twists her around. Then again, there it is: for a second time, she briefly looks in my direction.
I try not to pay any attention to this. In fact, I am terrible at noticing whether a girl likes me or not. She practically needs to tie me to the bed and strip me naked before it might dawn on me that she could be interested.
It’s getting late, and the bar announces that it's time for one last drink. Brett and I say goodbye to Richard and Adele, and as it turns out, the girl (who by now has told us her name is Fiona) does not live too far from Ealing. The three of us share a taxi, but while we are getting closer to home, Brett and his dancing queen have decided that they are still in a party mood. There is a Polish nightclub not too far from our Ealing house, and they are determined this will be their next stop.
The taxi driver drops me off at the house, and though both Fiona and Brett nag me to come along, I’m too tired. Over the last week and a half, I’ve been twice to Denmark and once to Spain and now I can only think of my bed. Aside from that, I don’t want to be a third wheel. I insist that they go by themselves and say goodnight, but while I walk up the stairs, I wonder if I really saw a look of disappointment on Fiona’s face.
Around about three-thirty in the morning, I’m woken up by clattering noises. Brett has returned from the nightclub and is trying to mix up some concentrated apple juice in the kitchen. I can hear his footsteps in the hallway approaching my room. My door opens, and he walks in. He looks tired and sighs while he takes a seat on the edge of my bed.
“Where’s your sexy girlfriend?” I ask and smile.
"Oh man," he moans while he lays himself next to me. He stares at the ceiling for a moment and sighs, "She's fun, and she dances like I haven't seen anyone dance ever before, but I think she likes you."
“Don’t be stupid. What makes you say that?” I ask.
"She kept asking me why you didn't come with us. She wanted to know how long you have been in London, what it is that you do, and at one stage, she even asked if you had a girlfriend."
“That’s just normal conversation,” I assure him. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Nonetheless, I am flattered. She looks pretty young, perhaps even ten years younger than I am. It makes me realise that I need to change my selection criteria on the dating website. I could easily go ten to fifteen years younger than myself. I actually want to get out of bed and do it now. But Brett is still lying next to me, and in his drunken condition, he feels quite sorry for himself.
"You know what we should do?" I say, "We invite her to come over on Saturday, and we tell her to bring a friend. We can cook for them, and if her friend looks half decent, then I’ll hit on her. How does that sound?”
The next day, Brett phones Fiona, and she lets him know that she and her friend will gladly accept our invitation.
On Saturday, they arrive right on time. Fiona, full of energy, kisses both Brett and me on the cheek. She looks even prettier than I remember. With her curly blond hair, all boyishly charming, and a twinkle in her bright blue eyes, she radiates pure fun.
Her friend doesn’t look too bad, but compared to Fiona, she is no match. She seems to be a few years older, which makes me believe that Fiona has brought her along, especially for me.
Brett shouldn’t have worried after all.
While we sit around the dining table, we soon find out that Fiona's friend is in the process of divorcing her husband. They all live in the same house, Fiona included, and the guy doesn’t seem to be too impressed with their separation. On several occasions, the police were called in because neighbours were complaining about their rowdy fights.
When eventually Fiona’s friend takes a pack of cigarettes out of her purse, I catch Brett’s eye and slowly shake my head, letting him know that I won’t hit on her. He nods that he understands.
While her friend smokes a cigarette outside in the garden, Fiona asks me about the books I’m reading. Some of them are spread throughout the living room, as I like to read several simultaneously. She picks them up and, it seems, she has even read a few of them. She knows most of the authors, and I take her to my room, where more books are stacked up in piles.
While she browses her finger over the covers, lip-reading the titles and pointing out to me which ones she has read and which ones she has heard of, I look at her. I can’t help thinking that she is not only pretty but intelligent as well.
A few months ago, Brett and I had joined a speed-dating event. We’d entered with the idea to do it differently from anyone else. Instead of talking about ourselves, we decided to only talk about each other. Even when some girls told me that they were not interested in my friend and just wanted to hear about me, I replied that I could not do that.
It wasn’t a great success, and we never went back, but today, while Fiona is in my bedroom, I find it extremely hard to only talk about Brett.
By the end of the evening, when the two girls have left, Brett exclaims, “You see; she was all over you!”
Richard is more black and white in his opinions, while Brett is far more diplomatic. Even when something appears to be a hundred per cent wrong, Brett still leaves space for justification. Richard, on the other hand, has no problem to bluntly say that something is dead wrong.
At times, one needs a black and white opinion to put things into perspective. This time it’s Richard's opinion I need. Aside from not being a hundred per cent sure whether Fiona truly likes me, I need to find out what to do if she does.
I like taking the tube. I find it far more relaxing than driving my car through London. You’re even offered real-live entertainment by watching people and what they do, which books they read and how they react when their phone loses connection once the tube goes underground.
Brett, on the other hand, hates the tube. He says he prefers driving while watching real live entertainment and seeing what people do in the privacy of their car, how they pick their noses and anxiously put their phones down when they see the police driving past.
Richard lives about twenty kilometres away from us. On good days, it only takes me half an hour to forty minutes to get there. And since I am almost as fast cycling this distance, I gear up in black lycra, put my helmet on and take my bicycle out of the shed.
I cut straight through Gunnersbury Park and head for the Chiswick roundabout. It is a beautiful day, and instead of following the Great West Road, I turn left and cycle the left-side of the Thames next to Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. After that, I go around Syron Park and join the Great West Road. It is a bit of a detour, but I love to cycle along the roughed path by the riverside.
When I finally arrive at Richard’s place, I am all sweaty and wet. Adele opens the door and tells me he is not home. “You should have phoned,” she smiles, and I can only agree with her.
“When will he be back?” I ask.
“Probably this evening.” Then she raises her eyebrows while adding in a threatening, though joking tone, “He better be, or he will be in big trouble."
I can’t help but think how Richard can be such a big mouth when among friends. He has very clear, outlined opinions about everything and everyone, especially about women. Though hearing Adele talk, I truly believe Richard is a real softy.
“Why don’t you come in?” she invites, “I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”
Adele is beautiful. She has brown curly hair and is, even though pregnant, quite slim. She doesn’t know that I know. Richard can’t keep a secret and has told all of his friends that they expect a baby.
In that way, Richard and Brett are much the same. Brett can’t keep a secret either. Look at how he felt the need to tell everyone about my first date with Anna. For that reason alone, I don’t always tell him everything.
Adele switches the hot water kettle on and throws a spoon of instant coffee and some sugar in the two cups on the counter.
“Are you and Rodney ever planning to go back home?” I ask. (I am not sure if she knows that Brett and I have started calling Rodney Richard, so to avoid confusion, I rather stick to his former name.)
The question about 'going home' is commonly asked among South Africans. In a way, everyone pretends they won’t go back because of crime, just like Richard had done when we first met in our company's office. Many South Africans claim that the country is well on its way to becoming a second Zimbabwe. But whenever they meet, they discuss the possibilities of going back and the subject is raised in the same way the English discuss the weather.
At times, I’m even asked this question when, in fact, I only lived there for less than five years. But my English accent is intensely coloured by the South African rolling ‘r’ that I almost sound as if I grew up there. Some even get irritated when I claim I’m Belgian as they think that I am denying my roots.
In many ways, I do feel that I should have been born on the African continent instead of in Europe. At times, I become South Africa's most prominent defender and deem that all those who constantly publicise the terrible things about their country (the crime, the politics, the unemployment and so on) are denying their roots and their realm. I argue that it is a big country, it covers more than half the size of Europe. And yes, crime is high, but what about the former war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the situation in Spanish Basque, the IRA in Northern Ireland. All those conflicts might have come to an end now, but how many people died?
When I put South Africa’s crime into this perspective, many tend to agree that it isn’t ‘that bad’. But the reality is that everyone in South Africa knows someone who got burgled, robbed, raped or killed. Still, South Africans talk about going back all the time.
Adele points to her stomach. This answers my question about when she and Richard will be returning home.
She says, "We're packing up and flying back when this one is born and therefore automatically has gained English nationality. You never know what will happen back home." She smiles, almost in a giggly kind of way and adds, "I'm sure Richard has told you about the baby."
“He can’t keep secrets,” she laughs.
She asks me how my online dating is going, and this time it’s my turn to laugh. I would giggle if it sounded a bit manlier.
"It has its ups and downs," I admit.
“Do you think it is the right way to find someone?”
“What other ways are there? London is a big city where no one speaks to anyone. The mentality of the people in this part of the world is to avoid all contact at all times. Everybody makes a reasonable effort to ignore each other, whether on the tube or when they stand neatly in a queue. There is no way to break through that barrier. If not for the internet, how in the world can I get in touch with anyone?”
"Perhaps you are right," she laughs, "but the English are not extinct, and so they must have ways to get in touch with each other as I am sure the internet hasn't always been around."
For a moment, she stares at the ceiling and then wonders out loud, "If I know of someone, would you be interested in going on a blind date?" Before she waits for me to reply, she continues, "There is my friend Maggie. She is still with her boyfriend, though, but things aren't going that well, and I suspect that she is looking for a way out."
I shake my head. I have been set up on blind dates before, and it never worked. I have been forced to sit at a friend's dinner table, strategically positioned opposite the girl they think could be my 'one-and-only’. Perhaps my friends have formed an opinion about who I am, as they might have formed an opinion about who the girl is, and they try to add those two ideas up. As it often turned out: my friends became offended, even insulted after I whispered to them in the kitchen that the girl they invited might not really be my type. They even made me feel that they are doing me this massive favour and let me know that I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. ‘She has a great personality,’ they argued in their defence without grasping the fact that it is not a girl’s personality I want to take to bed.
For some reason, checking my phone app and writing messages to cyber-dates feels more exciting (or at least less threatening) than choking on roast duck with mashed potatoes because you can’t believe what your friends were thinking when they invited her!
I’d rather block those good intentions off right from the start before having to sit through one of those experiences again.
"I really appreciate the thought, Cindy," I say to Adele, “But I can’t do blind dates.”
"Isn't it better than the internet?" she asks. "At least you can trust that someone can vouch for the girl. You never know what kind of baggage someone on the internet is carrying with them."
“Everyone has baggage after you have reached a certain age. When you don’t have baggage, you haven’t really travelled through life. Doesn’t your friend Maggie have any baggage? There she is with this other guy, but things aren’t going that smoothly, so she might be willing to meet up with someone over dinner. You, as her friend, might even think that Maggie is great and can be trusted, but will her boyfriend feel the same when he finds out?"
I drink my coffee, and we talk a bit more about living in London. What Richard hasn’t told me is that they are financially struggling. They have recently bought a house but can barely make ends meet. Adele is already working two jobs, and they first need to pay off their debts before they can start thinking of going back home. They wanted to save money so they’d have a better start back in South Africa. That was the main reason why they came to the UK in the first place. But they’ve been here for over seven years and seem to have only sunk deeper and deeper in debt.
I finish my coffee and decide to head back to Ealing. When she walks me to the door, I give her a tiny kiss on the cheek. Then, before I climb back on my bicycle, I remember Richard’s words after he’d asked me to change his name. I told him that I wanted one night with his wife as compensation, and he mocked me and said, 'Go ahead and try, I even dare you to.' So, I turn around, look at Adele and ask, "Do you want to have sex with me?"
“What!?” she exclaims and smiles hesitantly, “Would I want what!?”
I repeat the question, even though I am sure she has heard me.
She hesitates, looks me up and down as if she is considering it and then laughs, “Are you out of your flipping mind?”
I laugh as well and say, “Tell Rodney that I asked you the question.”
This confuses her. “You mean: do not tell Rodney?”
“No, I want you to tell him.”
I start cycling and hear Adele calling after me, "You know, you are quite a cute guy, and I would consider it if I wasn't married."
Later that evening, I get a phone call from Richard and even before the decorous 'howzit bru?' have been exchanged, he blurts out, "What the fuck did you ask my wife?" But I can hear a smile in his voice.
“You agreed that I could,” I defensively say.
“I should come over and kick your butt.”
I’m sure he could. He’s a muscular guy. We both laugh, and he pauses for a couple of seconds before he, almost whispering, asks, "What was her reply?"
“She said yes, of course."
"Bloody hell, she said yes," Richard barks.
“She did. We even agreed on a day. Aren’t you going up north next weekend?”
I know he is.
“Fuck-off man,” he says, “I don’t believe you.”
“You know I am only joking, right?”
"I know, my friend," he says with a soft voice, "I know you wouldn't do this to me."
But there is a peculiar undertone in his voice which, at the time, I don’t pick up. I am too occupied with my own internet dating craze. However, at a later stage, I’m reminded again of this conversation.
When winter has fully arrived and the weather has reached its utmost lowest, I am genuinely missing South Africa. I frequently fly to different countries, though mainly to give everyone else the impression that I am working. The truth is that I am neglecting my job. I spend days thinking about new dating strategies: how to make my profile better and increase my response rate. I mainly spend my evenings searching for profiles on the dating site and make a solid effort to reply to the girls who have contacted me.
My response rate has increased tremendously, even though quite a few of them come back saying that they are not interested. But I guess at least it means they react. I prefer this over girls who pretend I don’t even exist.
What irritates me is when girls don't give me any reason for their rejection. I am even more insulted when they have used an automatically generated ‘not-interested’ message by simply pressing a button provided by the dating app.
I cannot believe that they can’t make an effort and simply choose the easy way out. Do they not have any sense of decency? Rejection is never pleasant, but being rejected by a programme is, in a way, a slap in the face.
I want to write to these girls and expose their impolite behaviour. I want to draw their attention to a scene in the South African movie 'Tsotsi’, where a man, called 'the Teacher', vividly outlines the definition for 'decency'. Okay, he did first kill the elderly guy on the train, but that’s not the point. The fact is that effort should be rewarded with effort, and I'd like to tell them that they should curl up on the sofa with a good glass of wine and watch this bloody movie on Netflix. In that way, they can learn that it would have been only flipping decent to send me a more personal reply. It doesn’t have to be a three-page message and merely something in the lines of: 'thank you for your interest and for taking the time and energy to write, though, in all honesty, I don't think we would be a good match.'
The lack of this makes my hard work evaporate into falsehood and leaves me with the feeling that I am nothing more than an ordinary stalker.
By the time I have lived in London for a full six months, the global account manager for one of our largest customers phones. He asks if I can manage their activities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He is from Texas, lives in Houston, and his colourful accent is often flanked by the typical American adjectives 'excellent', ‘awesome’, 'wonderful' and 'amazing’.
“Their international procurement manager is not a happy chappy,” he explains. “They are not very impressed with us, and everything that could go wrong has been going wrong. Not only are our chemicals being questioned, but they also put quite a bit of pressure on us to introduce new ways to save water and energy.”
After telling him that I am on board, he exclaims a loud 'great, awesome and wonderful’.
“The set-up is clear,” he summarises: “design something new and make one of our biggest customers happy again.”
For the last month and a half, I have been working extremely hard. By the time spring arrives, I’ve created an entirely new approach and optimised one of our customer's systems regarding time, water and energy savings. By now, this new approach is being introduced throughout Europe, and the rest of the world will quickly follow. Our man in Texas has one word for me: "Awesome!”
Aside from the technical and chemical aspects, it is equally essential that all our national account managers are delivering the same message. We need to become more like McDonald's, and every operating country should start providing the same … well … —hamburgers. We will fail if we do something great on the one side and something stupid on the other. How people behave is extremely important. Call it the weakest link and that kind of rubbish, but there is truth in it.
For that reason, I have started creating new reporting sheets and manage the salespeople who have direct responsibilities over this customer. I'm holding regular teleconferences and keep closely in touch with everyone.
With an improved customer-supplier relationship, my reputation within our company seems to be growing, which in turn gives me more lenience; which I use to do less and less and spend more time on the internet dating website.
But today, I am in Russia and Yuri, one of my colleagues drives me around. He is the national account manager for this big customer, and we are on our way to visit one of their sites not too far from Moscow.
While Yuri kamikazes his way through the city's traffic, he confides that he is worried he is not bringing in enough sales. He can manage existing customers quite well but feels he does not have what it takes to hunt for new prospects. A few days ago, his sales manager had a conversation with him, and he was told that he urgently needs to bring in new business. The words 'or else' were mentioned in that same sentence.
Yuri is worried that he cannot afford an 'or else'-scenario. He and his girlfriend have just bought a new flat and are thinking about having babies. There is absolutely no room for an 'or else'.
“What do I do?” he asks, and desperation hides in his voice. "How can I bring in new customers?"
"There are many different ways," I tell him, "but the summary of it is that it is a number's game. If you only visit one prospect per day and your success rate is ten per cent, it will take you ten days to get a new customer. But if you increase your visits to five per day, it will take you only two days."
Of course, there is much more to it, but his English is not very good. It would take me ages to explain that, aside from visiting as many prospects as possible, you further need to work on your message, how you sell your story and most importantly—identify who you will be approaching.
Back in London, I realise that the advice I have given the young Russian account manager could be equally helpful in my own dating world. I simply need to increase my efforts. There is no point in writing a few girls a message and waiting a couple of days for them to reply. I need to work harder and reach out to more girls per day.
Again, I change my profile and, combined with the ‘number’s game’, I mix Richard’s ‘don’t-give-a-fuck’-twist into my new approach. I don’t only change my pictures and my profile’s wording, but even the standard copy-paste message I created. Also, when someone replies or writes to me, I present them with the same ‘don’t-give-a-fuck’ attitude and —…
By deliberately not trying to impress anyone, I am doing precisely the opposite. I receive more reactions than I ever did before.
I start my messages by writing a girl that I think she is 'the one' and that it is only polite to inform her. I further tell her that I was born at the age of five and that, since I have no time to waste, I think we should get married straight away. I am sure, I write, that there must be internet sites where you just scroll and click yourself into holy matrimony. Or where we can order our children online: perhaps even buy them in bulk so we can get a discount. If we decide we like each other at the end of the day, we could even meet up.
One girl asks me in her message if I write this to everyone. I reply that this would be physically impossible as there are an estimated three point six billion girls on this planet. Even if I write one email per second, I would still need over a hundred and fourteen years to finish the job, and this when I work twenty-four-seven.
In my main profile text, I practically give them guidelines for the steps they need to follow. I advise them to read my profile, agree that I’m interesting, reply, email a bit up and down, and meet with me so we can drink a cappuccino. Then, I continue, we keep seeing each other and lie to everyone about the fact we’ve met on an internet dating site. I further admit that it is pretty different from the days where one simply had to trek to the other tribe's territory, hit the chosen one on the head and carry her back into the home caves. At the end of my profile, I write that I wish we could become filthy rich, buy ourselves a yacht, sail the coastline of Mozambique, get hijacked by pirates, undergo extreme anxieties and get shot because no one paid the ransom!
The response is tremendous, far more than ever before. Richard was right! All those players are right! When you act towards girls as if you don’t care, they start showing interest—no more mister nice guy. From now on, I will be the player. The rules have changed. There is no holy matrimony, no wedding rings. This is the start of my fifty-year plan and—I don’t give a fuck.
My success rate on the dating site centuples! Reading and replying to emails has become a full day’s job. I often have two dates per day: up to five dates during the weekends. I see eight to twelve girls per week, and it digs a hole into my finances as I am still of the opinion that the guy —at least on the first date— has to pick up the bill.
To avoid bankruptcy, I have become less flexible on where and at-what-time we meet. Especially the latter is essential to prevent constantly ending up having to pay for lunches or dinners. I try to centre it around coffee or tea time or even right after work, at around six o’clock in the evening when all the English go out for beers.
In the past, I would let the girls choose where to meet. I have always understood the risk that women take when they go on a blind date. As a guy, I don’t really have to be worried about getting raped by some girl in a dark alley. In fact, I am still waiting for that to happen. With this in mind, I can appreciate that a girl would like to meet me in a place where she feels comfortable.
However, taking tubes to all the different Boroughs of twelve-million larger-urban-zone London is not only time consuming, but it empties my railroad Oyster-card in no time. So instead, I ask my dates to train, tram and tube in the direction of Ealing.
They don’t seem to mind.
During the weekends, I prefer Covent Garden. There is a lovely little French bistro not too far from the tube station. You can eat there, but I especially like it because it offers a choice between coffee and a glass of wine.
At first, I opted for coffee shops, but Richard made a good point when he (in his typical no-nonsense style) asked me what on earth I was doing? "Why are you filling the girl up with caffeine?" he asked, "Instead of getting her all hyperactive, rather mellow her down with wine."
Even though I enjoy the constant excitement of meeting new girls, it is starting to become a drag after all those months. Nine out of ten girls are a genuine disappointment. I already know this after a few seconds and have coined it my ‘two-second rule'.
In a way, it’s frustrating. I contact a girl; she replies, and after writing two, or a maximum of three emails, I invite her on a date. A week or a week and a half later, I take the tube all the way to Covent Garden, where we meet. Then, within two seconds, I know whether I want to see her again or not.
As I said before: nine out of ten times, I am not interested, and when I am—she’s not. To keep me sheltered from constant disappointment, I tell myself that I am not going on a date and only want to have an exciting afternoon. I pretend I have no ulterior motive other than to meet new people in a city where everybody is too afraid to look anyone in the eyes. If anything, it takes me out of the house!
By doing so, I’m becoming less frustrated by dates who uploaded pictures from before they tried to win a pie-eating contest or from fifteen years ago.
I have been told that guys lie about their height, and that astonishes me. Do they expect to get away with it? Surely the girl will find out the moment they meet. At the same time, does the girl, who has put a picture up from ten years ago, believe that I won’t notice? Or does she expect that I don’t mind because they hope that their personality all of a sudden will hide their wrinkles?
One girl had written in her profile that she was training for the London Marathon, but when we met up, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had to roll her over the finish line! There was no other way she would have made it. A Russian girl, who looked like a supermodel in her arty-like black and white pictures, reminded me of one of those olympian guys who had a sex change to win medals for the USSR. A Brazilian girl, who arrived late and asked me if I was her date, received my very puzzled look and a confident, ‘I’m sure I’m not,’-reply.
There are many more, though not worth mentioning. What bewilders me is: why do they lie? Did they assume that I would fall madly in love with them despite all of their misrepresentations?
I guess that quite a few of the people who join an internet dating site are addicted to romance. They expect that, by some form of magical dust, 'love-at-first-sight’ will strike like lightning and that the person opposite them will look past the book's cover and into the essence of their very soul.
In real life, this never happens, and that is why two seconds are more than enough to know if I want to see her again or not.