The Boy on the Beach
Stats: 23, 5’11”, brown (on his photo, at least)/blue, London
When: February 2012
Where: A pebbly beach on the south coast
Pre-date rating: 7/10
When your lake becomes devoid of fish – or you’re sick of catching the same old ones – you must cast your net farther. To the sea, even. And so I find myself in a seaside town, firing up a dating app (allow me the indulgence of fooling myself that the men on this app are only looking for dates and nothing more intimate) and seeing who’s available. The circumstances which have brought me here are sad ones. My godfather has died and I am in town for his funeral, which is in a couple of days. Grief is an odd emotion. While its primary characteristic is sadness, there’s a strong undercurrent that’s quite life-affirming. You want to do things which confirm to you that you’re alive: drink a pint, jump up and down and laugh, make noise, punch a wall, scratch your eyes out, fuck somebody. I pace around his home, smiling at old photographs and wishing there were more I could do. His family need some time together to talk about the funeral, so I decide to get out of their way and go for a walk on the beach. As I leave the house, I idly scroll through the dating app, the eager mugshots all melding into one great big welcoming face. And then, a ping. And so it begins.
His photo isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it’s not a bad storefront. He has big blue eyes. That’s the first thing I notice. I look at his age. 23. A child! His lips are quite thin. My mother always told me never to trust a man with thin lips, but I’m not going to give him my bank details, or perhaps even my real name, so I don’t need to have very much faith in him. We get over the initial hellos and how-are-yous fairly quickly. My flirtation is mechanical, direct and, from my perspective, deeply unsexy. What a great proposition I am for this young buck. But he is curious and, crucially, bored out of his mind on the greyest of Sunday afternoons, so he takes the bait. I tell him I’m on the beach and he says he’ll join me. I breathe out slowly, the freezing air turning my breath into an ice sculpture, not of a swan or a pretty crystal, but words. They say, “What on Earth are you doing?” but I turn my back on them.
He tells me it’ll take around 25 minutes for him to get there, so I walk along the beach. Despite the Arctic chill, the promenade is fairly busy, with oodles of runners in their odd, fluorescent leggings and couples with prams, bickering affectionately, some of them even with ice creams. I have forgotten my scarf and gloves, so am ill-prepared for even a half-hour stint of walking in the open air in the middle of February. I briefly lament the lack of lambswool against my neck and wonder what my date is expecting of me. We haven’t talked about what we’re going to do, or where we’ll go. I don’t even have his phone number. Does he think this is a hook-up? Am I soon to be undressing in front of a stranger? In my head, the answer is no – it would be massively inappropriate and I don’t do that any more – but what kind of afternoon does he think awaits him? I begin to go off the idea rapidly and my arrogant confidence, which saw me breezily tapping away at my phone keyboard and arranging to meet a stranger, is now leaving me. My shivering is no longer related to the temperature alone. In an effort to shake it off, I duck into an amusement arcade and resolve to think about something – anything – else.
The smell of chips hangs heavy in the air as I stroll around the arcade. I attract a few initial stares (I don’t look like your typical video game fan), but people soon get back to their shoot ‘em ups or fruitless attempts at grabbing a soft toy and ignoring me altogether. I start to feel like a ghost, wandering aimlessly, or perhaps a paedophile hunting out prey, so I go to a machine which pretends you can win lots of coins the more you put in, and choke the slot with as many two-pence pieces as I can find in my pocket. I check the app again to see if there are any updates, given I don’t have his phone number. None. Five minutes ago, I was an ice cube; now I begin to sweat. I put one last coin into the machine and, when denied a prize, childishly raise my middle finger at it and leave the arcade. As I go, a man with more spots than the canine cast of 101 Dalmatians approaches the machine, inserts a coin and wins what sounds like a million dollars. I roll my eyes and push the door open.
Back outside again, I check the app to find a message. He’s here. He gives me some directions to his location, using landmarks recognisable only to a local. I am not a local. I ask again and again for clarification, like a wittering pensioner on the phone to a utility company, and finally he mentions a place I recognise, a drinks kiosk, and I make my way toward it. This feels like the longest walk of my life. Anticipation is being strangled by a sense of dread. I don’t want to do this now. I want to be back in the house, drinking tea. Not here. Not now. But I would never stand up a date, and this isn’t his fault. I know this will end badly. I plod toward my doom.
As I come to the kiosk he mentioned, I see a lone figure sitting on the beach, quite far away. I squint at him in the distance – I have forgotten to wear my glasses – and sigh, before trudging over to him. He is hunched, as if reading something, but as I get closer I see he is picking at his shoes. Nervous, perhaps. I stand behind him and utter a monotone “hello”. He jumps, startled, and turns to me. He has fake tan, over-gelled, badly dyed hair and eyes like dinner plates. He looks young. His camera was kinder than my eye. I look at the blond splodge on his head. It’s a comfort that he too seems rather underwhelmed by my physical form.
I plonk myself awkwardly on the pebbles next to him and we shake hands. I ask his age again. He replies that he’s 21. His breath smells like a mixture of Haribo and cigarettes.
“I thought you were 23?”
“No, I’m 21.”
“Your profile says 23.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right, I’m 23.”
I laugh out loud but he only stares defiantly back.
“Are you saying you forgot you were 23?”
“Does 2 years make that much difference to you?” he asks, sending his eyes skyward.
I have to concede that it doesn’t. And as I have not told him my name yet, and am becoming increasingly reluctant to do so, I decide I’m in no position to call anybody out on being economical with the truth. And anyway, I’m cold and can’t be bothered to argue with someone I am never going to see again. I’d quite like to call it a day now, but he travelled to get here and I feel like I owe him something. I can give him a bit of my time, surely? But that’s all he’s getting.
“I’m going to grab a coffee from over there,” I say, pointing at the bustling kiosk back on the promenade. “And then let’s go for a walk.”
I can tell by his face that he doesn’t like walking, but I can’t bear to sit on this arse-numbing beach any longer.
As we walk, he tells me about himself. He’s nice, if massively naïve and a tad dull. He says he’s a medical student, so I quiz him as much as my knowledge will allow to see whether he’s telling fibs. I don’t know very much, but his patter is fairly convincing so either he’s telling the truth – this time – or he speed-read a pile of textbooks before leaving the house. His ‘fake tan and clumps of peroxide’ look seems completely at odds with his subject of study, but that probably says more about me than it does him. He tells me he is bored, and sick of his flatmate. Because I know this is going nowhere except home, separately, as soon as I can, I don’t wheel out my usual first-date charms. I don’t tell him why I’m in town, but I talk frankly, perhaps too frankly, and I become aware of myself sounding like an arsehole. I’m not being unkind to him, but I’m ranting and probably not being great company. The combination of my causticity matched with the cold air and brisk walk are not endearing him to me, I fear – no matter how good-natured my intentions. He doesn’t ‘get’ me, it seems, but I’m not ‘giving’ particularly well, really.
Finally, as we stop and look out to sea, he turns to me and says: “Do you actually like anything at all?” I sigh. I’ve done it again. My sourness is often mistaken for misery. Maybe I am miserable and haven’t realised. I don’t reply, just smile.
“You’re very grumpy,” he says, looking puzzled and bored, and runs his hand through his hair. A clump of solidified gel falls from it and settles on his shoulder.
I speak at last. “Oh, just ignore me; I’m just a grouchy old man.”
He shrugs and picks at his hair again. “You’re not that old.” He sticks out his bottom lip. All that’s missing is a lollipop and his schoolbag tucked under his arm.
I cough. Silence. This is wrong. Now is not the time to be making small talk with strangers, wasting their afternoon with my sourness. I shiver.
“Well, I’d better be off,” I say brightly.
“Yeah, I think I had, too.”
“I’m sorry if it was a wasted journey for you.”
He shrugs. “It was nice to meet you, I suppose. I didn’t have anything else to do. But you are really grumpy; you need to fix that.”
We shake hands and part. I check my watch. 27 minutes. Wow. I hunch my shoulders up to my neck in defence against the glacial air. I quicken my walk, heading home to whomever can mend me.
Post-date rating: 4.5/10 (mainly for the cold and my grizzly mood)
Date in one sentence: I go on a mercifully brief date I shouldn’t have gone on, in a town I shouldn’t be in, with a guy I shouldn’t have met, thanks to a sad event which shouldn’t have happened.