It’s now almost 14 years ago to the day that I met my lovely partner Dave. But the week before I met him, I went speed-dating. An experience I will never forget!
Speed-dating at the Chelsea Corner Bar
I’d been a single mum for over a year when I decided to try speed-dating. I worked from home at the time, as a pharmaceutical market analyst for an Essex-based company, and the only people I saw on a daily basis were mums and grandparents at the school gates when I went to pick up my girls. There were very few men on the school run and I had no idea if any were single even if I was attracted to them, which I wasn’t. I had tried going on a date through a local matchmaking company, but when I spoke to my date on the phone to make arrangements I was as put off by his thin reedy voice and the fact that he repeatedly dropped into the conversation that he was training to be a pilot. I wasn’t impressed. So at the last minute I cancelled our date at The Beachy Head pub. He just didn’t sound right for me. It didn’t feel right. I hoped he wouldn’t be too upset.
I was starting to wonder if I would ever meet someone to share my life with.
I was nervous but mostly intrigued as I reached the Chelsea Corner Bar, a small wine-bar in the middle of town where the speed-dating was to take place. It was January 2004. A weekday evening. I had decided to dress ‘smart casual’ in my favourite wine-coloured fitted v-neck, long black denim skirt and black leather boots. Accessorised with my delicate red pendant necklace and a dab of my favourite perfume, I was pleased with how I looked.
When I arrived I was greeted by one of the event organisers who gave me a badge with a number six on it and indicated that I should go downstairs. I took the wrought iron spiral staircase down to the basement level and saw that there were already people grouped around the bar. In unison they all looked my way.
All the men were standing on one side of the bar and all the women on the other. I went over to join the women and to get a drink.
“Have you done this before?” the woman nearest me asked. She was very giggly and seemed a little drunk.
“No, but I thought I’d give it a go,” I replied, more nonchalant than I felt. She told me this was her first time too and she was very nervous. The drink, she explained, lifting her glass, was ‘Dutch courage’.
She grinned widely and giggled again. Her eyes were very big, glistening with the alcohol shine behind her huge thick-lensed glasses. I could feel the energy of her excited anxiety crackling around her as she darted looks at the men on the other side of the bar.
I looked around me and noticed that the other women were very dressed up, as if they were going to a party or out clubbing. Hm. I wondered if I was underdressed. Some of the women were also very attractive.
The men were mostly in suits, all holding their pints, looking at us and chatting. They seemed to be sizing us up, gesturing with their drinks and nodding towards one or other of us. They laughed together in manly camaraderie, in what appeared to be a light-hearted, nudge-nudge kind of way. The banter of bravado I guess. The women were trying to see which person had the same number as they had, as, I was told, that’s who we’d be talking to first.
Then I overheard one of the women saying “Bin out with ’im…bin out with ’im…bin out with ’im….” indicating her failed dates with her tall drink and cigarette. Wow! A serial speed-dater. She was hard-faced, square jawed and deep-tanned. Her hair was close cropped, spiky and red-blonde in colour and she was wearing a short tight flowery dress and a lot of gold jewellery. Her tone was so bored and jaded. She was obviously fed up to see the same old daters here again. I wondered what this meant for the rest of us.
A bell then rang and the organisers asked us ladies to take a seat at the table that corresponded with the number on our badges. There were eight tables and I sat at number six. We were told that the men would then visit our tables one by one and we’d chat for ten minutes, after which time another bell would ring and the men would move on to the next table. How very gentlemanly, I thought. The men move and the ladies sit demurely and wait.
After each encounter, we were all asked to indicate on a card if we’d like to see the person again, either ‘as a friend’ or ‘more than friends’. The cards would then be collected together by the organisers at the end of the event and if there was a match we would be put in contact with each other in a few days’ time.
OK then…here we go…
My opposite number six was a Chinese guy from Hastings. He had a very wide round face and a great big child-like smile. He seemed rather agitated and he laughed a lot. At some point during our conversation he started to rummage in his trouser pocket.
“I’m a rabbit!” he announced proudly, pulling out a Chinese zodiac chart printed on a bamboo scroll and unravelling it on the table between us.
Oh! Oh! I know this one!
“I’m a snake!” I returned.
Apparently we were not a good match. Ha!
My next date looked like a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Richard E.Grant. Dyed-black thinning shoulder-length hair with a middle parting, long pale face and small circular glasses with blue lenses. Yes, blue. He worked in removals and was in a band. Really?
The third contestant, with a number eight on his badge, was pleasant enough but I think he lied about his age. This event was supposed to be for singles aged 35-45, but with his cloud of soft wavy white hair and finely lined face he seemed nearer 65! He looked good on it though. Very smooth skin and kind smiling blue eyes.
I was really getting into my stride now. After telling my story three times over, I was feeling much more confident. It was rather like my work at the time, which involved carrying out telephone interviews with international over-the-counter drug manufacturers to find out about emerging market trends and brand positioning. Often when I started a new piece of research I wasn’t confident in my questioning. But by the time I’d had three conversations with different industry specialists, I found that I knew enough to blag my way through subsequent calls. And of course most of the people I interviewed were men who liked to boast about their marketing successes and market share to a ‘clueless’ female market researcher! They were easily flattered as they gave away their secrets.
Next up was badge number one. He was so drunk he could hardly keep his head off the table. He had to use his elbows to prop himself up as he leaned forward, all red face and perspiration.
“How long will it take for me to get over her?” he drawled, pleading with me through a fog of warm beer fumes.
He then went on to recount the story of his recent split with his girlfriend – two months ago – and I responded, kindly I thought, that he didn’t seem ready for another relationship. I counselled him for the rest of the date.
Therapy over, the bell rang again and it was time for a break. Most people headed to the toilets or the bar. I stayed in my seat for a while and smooth-faced Number 8 saw his opportunity and asked if he could buy me a drink. I thanked him but politely declined. Didn’t want to lead him on.
After the break came the British Gas heating engineer.
“You seem like some kind of boss woman.”
It was an original opening gambit, I give him that. He looked sideways at me and smiled, nodding knowingly. When I told him I worked in pharmaceutical market research he grinned wide and asked if I could procure him some drugs.
There was no Number 3. He was a no show. So I sat for ten minutes on my own between the bells, trying not to eavesdrop on the conversations going on around me. I was wondering if we were all just repeating ourselves, on a loop all evening, when I noticed a very attractive woman across from me. She looked Mediterranean, with dark olive skin, bright eyes and tumbling curls of black hair. Her dress was shiny gold and sequined and she wore beautiful sparkly sandals. In January. I wondered how it was that somebody like her was here…The women seemed so much more attractive than the men.
Ding! Number 4 arrived in front of me. He was a tall, thin, stern-faced man about whom I can remember very little, except that he had a northern accent and had the feel of grey, hard granite. He struggled to smile at me. He told me that he worked ‘in security’ for one of the big supermarket chains.
“A security guard?” I asked. He wrinkled his nose with quick shake of the head as if reacting to a bad smell.
“Corporate,” he said.
We got onto the subject of holidays but when I told him that I had two young daughters he clammed up completely. Apparently he didn’t consider it worthwhile continuing the conversation! Rude! We sat trying not to look at each other for the remaining five minutes. It was very awkward.
And then my final date sat himself down in front of me. He was a large wide man, with no visible neck and surprisingly long earlobes that seemed to sit on his shoulders.
“You wanna go to Brighton next time,” he said as he started to tell me about his long speed-dating career.
Perhaps he’s bin out with ’er at the bar?
“All you get is nurses in Eastbourne,” he complained.
Well, I’m not a nurse. And what’s wrong with nurses anyway?
Towards the end of our conversation we found that we had a mutual love of walking in the countryside. As the last bell rang he reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a business card between index and middle finger. He flicked it across the table at me.
“If you ever fancy going for a walk on the Downs some time, here’s my number,” he grunted at me.
“But don’t think we’re getting married or anything.”
I was so taken aback that I mumbled thanks and picked up the card. I wish I’d chucked it back at him.
When the evening came to an end I made my way back up the spiral staircase. Most of the daters were back at the bar, but I didn’t feel the inclination to stay. I left as I arrived, feeling all eyes on me.
As I made my way home I chuckled to myself. That was one of the strangest and at the same time most entertaining evenings I’d had in a long time. I felt light as air! I just shook my head incredulously as I realised that I really didn’t need to do that to find a man. What a revelation! I saw too that I was much more confident than I thought I was and that if I were to meet someone it would have to be in more ‘natural’ unpremeditated circumstances. But what a fascinating experience! Such an eye-opener!
I was back at work the next day and still on a massive high. And not because I’d met my Mr Right – quite the opposite! As I sat in the corner of my bedroom working at my computer I realised that I was actually really very happy. I remember taking stock and thinking, if this is all there is, if this is all there will ever be for me, then that’s just fine! I had my two beautiful daughters, my family and friends, my little three-bed semi in a nice part of town. I was financially independent and I enjoyed my part-time job. Life was good! I was really content just as things were and I embraced that feeling of being at peace with my situation for the first time in many years. Maybe the first time ever. I realised that I didn’t need to go looking for anyone to ‘complete’ me either – I was already whole! What a fantastic feeling that was! To realise I already had everything I needed to be happy right there and then.
Later that same week I bumped into the giggling lady with the glasses on the school run. We smiled over the heads of our noisy children and nodded knowingly to each other in the midst of the pick-up throng. I would’ve liked to exchange notes with her to see what she thought of the speed-dating experience, but it was the wrong time and place. Strange that I never did see her again.
A few days later the dating agency got in touch to tell me that two of the men had asked to see me again – the Chinese Rabbit and British Gas guy. On my score card I had indicated only the Chinese guy, and only ‘as a friend’. But in the end I politely declined both.
After all the following Sunday I was to meet my future husband.