On dates, for a while, you are someone else. You nod at gaps in conversation that would be better served by an eye roll, you agree where disagreement is more apt, you smile – always the smile.
Usually, if you are well matched, these pretences fall away. The veil drops. The mask slips. And because you like each other so much, it doesn’t matter. Other times, it takes a little bit longer. Maybe you’re having to work harder to find a common ground or having to play along a little longer to snare your man. It’s this kind of insecurity that sees you agreeing to go ice skating at Christmas with a man you’re really not sure about.
I have been on four dates with Richard and we have got on well. He is erudite and kind of handsome and very nearly on the cusp of being funny. Our courtship has been virtuous to say the least – I have brushed up against his stubble but our bodies have always been separated by layers of cotton and Christmas jumper. And there are plenty of layers – it’s a cold winter. We are two priests in search of a baptism. Our dates have been wintry – a mulled cider and bratwurst here, a festive concert there. Little more.
I am not expecting to see Richard again until after Christmas, as he is busy with work and I, well, I am keeping my options open. I am giving dating more than one man at a time a go. I’m not very good at it – I’m terrified I’ll get a name wrong or attempt to bond reminiscing events that happened with the other. But at least I am keeping my underwear on with both; this is not a delayed threesome.
My phone rings. It is Richard.
“Hi!” He is always enthusiastic. For now, I am playing along, so I respond as if a winning lottery ticket has just fallen into my hands.
“Hello Richard, how are you?”
“Yes, great, fine,” he gasps. “Look, I’ve got tickets for tomorrow night and wondered if you are free.”
I don’t ask what the tickets are for. I have a window that must be filled, a curiosity to be satisfied, an itch that I’m hoping to be scratched and a mind I need to make up. I blunder on. “Let me just check.” I don’t move a muscle. “Free.”
“Great! We’re going ice skating ice skating at Somerset House. You like ice skating, right?”
I have never been ice skating. It was true then and it is still true now. I don’t lie.
“I’ve never been.”
“You’ll love it. See you at 6.30.”
After he rings off, I sit for a while and mull this over. I have never ice-skated. I am old. I have avoided trying it for a variety of reasons: it looks like falling over would hurt; I don’t want to look stupid; I am not confident on anything other than my Converse. And, if I’m honest, I just don’t want to. But I am not at the stage where I can say there are things I don’t want to do. Dating means you have to appear up for everything, a keen bean, an enthusiast. If all else fails, I’ll get drunk and attempt some kind of charm. Wish me luck.
On the phone to my mother that day, I casually mention I’ll be going ice skating for the first time that evening, and that I’m nervous.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because I’ve never done it before.”
“Well you were all right on the roller skates; it’s just like that.”
“I never had roller skates,” I reply.
A pause. “You sure?”
“Oh no, it was your sister. You had… Oh, what was it?” There is another pause and then a choking sound. She is laughing. “Oh, yes, the skateboard. Absolutely no sense of balance. Never on it for more than a second.”
“Yes, I remember.” I cringe.
“Well, you were OK until you actually started moving.” She begins cackling again. “But then sure enough, you’d be off it before you could even say ‘skateboard’. Terrible.”
“This is why I’m nervous,” I say.
“I should have got you some roller skates.”
“How would that have helped?” I ask, incredulous.
“It wouldn’t,” she replies drily. “I’d just have loved to have seen you give it a go.” And then she laughs again, like a drain. For too long.
I glance at the clock and lose half a stone thanks to sheer anxiety.
I arrive early and pace up and down clutching a Starbucks. (Red cup! Yaaaay! Or whatever.) I’ve decided what I’m going to do is tell him, when he gets here, that I don’t want to do it. He’ll laugh about it, call me silly – maybe even ruffle my hair – and we’ll go for a drink. I’ll feel a bit dumb for a bit, sure, but at least I’ll be honest; the transition into myself can finally begin.
And then he turns up. With his very own pair of ice skates slung casually over his shoulder. Shit.
As I change into my regulation dead-dog-coloured skates, he fastens up his own with superior skill, in about 10 seconds flat. I am dreading standing up so much. I try to think of ways to cause a diversion, but his eyes are fixed on my skates.
“Need a hand?”
“Oh, it’s fine. Let me.”
I breathe deeply. “Richard,” I say, my face reddening with both the extreme cold and embarrassment. “I…I don’t want to do this. I really don’t.”
“I don’t understand.” His forehead crinkles with bewilderment.
“I just don’t want to. I’ve never done it before and have no desire to.”
“You could just try.” Richard’s expression is dark.
I look at the ice rink. The buildings surrounding it are beautiful, floodlit and, right now, oppressive. The arena itself is packed with middle-class people in patterned pea coats laughing uproariously and doing perfect figures-of-eight. There are no clumsy elephants; everyone is immaculate, chiselled and graceful. I may as well throw a lump of shit on the ice as clamber on it myself.
I speak again. “I don’t want to sound like…like I’m going to sound, but… I really can’t.”
He folds his arms. “These tickets are fucking impossible to get.”
“I could’ve taken anyone with me tonight.” Okaaaay. “But I chose you.”
I nod and smile. “I know. But I… I know it’s stupid.”
“It is,” he barks, standing up and outstretching his hand. “Get up, we’re doing it.”
“But…” I splutter.
“Come on,” he says. “It’ll be romantic.”
I grab onto his hand, feeling as romantic as Marie Antoinette hitching her brocade skirts up to the guillotine.
“I’ve heard it’s really hard to get off the ice,” I whimper.
“You’re not even on it yet.”
“I think I need a bit longer.”
He attempts to hoist me up, chuckling. My body is unresponsive. I am frozen with fear of looking stupid – even though, of course, I am making myself look even more stupid than the ice would. Soon, his chuckles subside, and my humiliation is so great it is sentient and writing into Points Of View.
Eventually, he acknowledges my anguish and suggests we try again in a short while. He emphasises “short” like it’s a threat.
I itch to unclip my skates, my slippery jailers.
“Oh, hey, Alan!” says my date, in an excited voice I haven’t heard before. A clean-cut guy comes over to Richard, engages in what seems like hours of air-kissing, and looks over to me. We are introduced.
“We’re just taking a break,” says Richard. “I think [my name] is a bit tired,” he beams, glancing over at me with eyes no bigger than a pinprick in a bedsheet.
“Ooh, that’s a shame,” grins ‘Alan’. “I’m just about to hit the ice.”
I spy my parole. “Why don’t you two go ahead?” I smile, my mouth lop-sided with the cold. They don’t need telling twice. Before you can even say “Torvill and Dean”, they are off across the ice, hand in hand. Alan has a fat, boring arse. I clench my own in satisfaction.
I sit dejectedly for around 15 seconds, before pulling off my skates. My eyes idly wander over to the rink, and see Alan and Richard guffawing as they pirouette. They are graceful, synchronised. Two swans.
Yet my feathers aren’t ruffled. I hug my coat around me and wait for my winter wonderland to thaw. They’ll tire of their routine eventually, and then I can go home. I know this is my fault; I know I was difficult and irrational. I’m willing to take the bullet. At least I’ll never have to skate again. Not with Richard, anyway.