Impeccable Table Manners

Mary and Rob

Entering the lions’ den this week are Rob, a 33-year-old travel consultant – which I totally read wrongly with one eye open at 07:30 am as “time travel consultant”  – and Mary, 37, who is an NHS manager. Click to see how their date went before I create an emergency in cubicle 3.

Mary on Rob | Rob on Mary

What were you hoping for?
A fun evening with someone decent.

Decent. Decent. Open to interpretation, really. My 20-year-old brother says this word and he means “good” or “cool”. A 33-year-old probably means it another way. An upstanding citizen, maybe. Someone with a strong moral centre. Or, and I hesitate here, maybe he means someone decent-looking. Quite the conundrum.

Someone different; outside my usual circle of friends.

Am I supposed to take from this that Mary has exhausted her supply of dates from her increasingly irked social group – “Mary, it’s getting really awkward at birthday parties because you have broken up with literally everyone attending” – or does she want to meet someone who isn’t wrung out and traumatised from working in the NHS?

First impressions?
Lovely and friendly.

Like a dog that won’t stop licking your hand when you first “meet” it.

Handsome; rugby physique without the cauliflower ears or obvious damage.

I like how practical this is. Mary has done a full health assessment and is satisfied that the patient – sorry her date – is of optimum hotness. I am addicted to the word “handsome” – it’s so old-fashioned and evocative and when someone says it to you, you believe it because it sounds like a word that doesn’t belong in the now, where everyone is super direct and calling each other “hot” and sending dick pics.

Handsome is a bit more mysterious, more open to slightly wonky noses and one eye a little bit smaller than the other. Handsomeness is rarely just about the physical features; it’s an air, a state of mind. It has a slightly wistful, envious undertone. When another man calls you handsome or says it about you, it’s a begrudging yet almost involuntary reaction that comes from a pain deep inside. Because they want it too, whatever it is you’ve got that makes people say that you’re handsome.

What did you talk about?
Dogs, travel, Nile cruises and zombies.
Where we live, what we do for a living, holidays, families, cartoons, pets, exes.


I thought this was going very well, with a good range of subjects covered – Nile cruises and zombies, why? But okay – and then I saw the “exes”.

The exes don’t belong here. What are they doing here? Don’t bring them on a date. Maybe the exception would be if they died tragically and left you a lot of money or something but generally on a date the last person who should be pulling up a third chair – however figuratively – is one of your exes.

You may well be who you are now because of your ex, but you are not who you were when you were with them. Exes exist in a kind of conversational limbo. The context is too involved to ever explain, impossible to imagine. Plus, when you are talking about your exes, you’re taking the focus away from you, and your date is starting to imagine a) your ex b) why it ended and c) what it might be like to be your ex one day.

Any awkward moments?
I knocked my wine glass over and it broke on the marble tabletop. Fortunately, it was nearly empty.

Thank GOD you didn’t waste any wine.

Not that I noticed.

Perhaps Rob had his back turned or was too busy dreaming about Mary’s ex.

Good table manners?
Very good.

Haha there is something about the “very good” that makes me think Rob was actually keeping an eye out for any faux-pas. It’s very “Barbara Woodhouse reacting to a spaniel finally learning not to crap on her geraniums”.

Very. Rob took the meat off the skewers, and we shared main courses and desserts.

Before we start going into our usual “food-sharing is evil” meltdown, they’re at a souvlaki restaurant and that’s kind of acceptable. I did dash over and peek at the menu and was disappointed to see that many of the dishes come in sets of three. Thankfully, with skewers you can take everything off and divide it fairly. I suppose you could say Rob was being very chivalrous taking the meat off the skewers and it’s a very nice thing to do for someone if you know they don’t like a fuss but I think it’s controlling – I would have insisted on doing some of it myself.

Describe Mary in three words
Fun, outgoing, kind.

FUN like clearing 33% off the TiVo and not regretting it. (How many Dinner Dates can you watch in one lifetime?)
OUTGOING like a magnetised cat flap.
KIND like a benevolent billionaire who, when you pick up the wallet he’s just dropped in the street and hand it to him, offers to pay off your mortgage.

Describe Rob in three words
On a journey.

Look, Mary, this isn’t really how we… OK, well fine. I’m going to read between the lines here and guess that the journey Mary is picturing Rob going on involves a Tube ride in the opposite direction.

I guess I’m so used to strep-throated attention-hoarders going on The X Factor and having a “journey” that I’ve become irreparably cynical about the whole idea of anyone else going on one.

We’re all on a “journey”, aren’t we? For some, it’s a ceaseless glide through the air in first class with a bottomless champagne flute. For others, a gorgeous romantic train ride through the mountains of a nameless European principality in a luxe cabin with someone who nuzzles your neck and feeds you strawberries from dawn to dusk. And for most of us it’s a bumpy, airless chug across centuries-old tracks in a tin can with crumpled, stained copies of Metro under our feet, standing next to the World Halitosis Champion through 1977–1994.

Would you introduce her to your friends?
I would if it came to it.

This sounds like a hostage situation.

What do you think she made of you?
Probably a bit on the young side for her.

I… I don’t know if this is the truth. Because I looked at their ages – four-year gap – and I looked back over the conversation and I stared into the photograph of the pair of them and I thought, “Really?” When I read Rob’s answer, I read it totally differently. I think Rob is actually talking about himself here. He thinks he’s too young for her, because, I would hazard a guess – and the taking the meat off the skewers is another little clue here – he expected someone younger, someone with less life experience, someone he could… oh I don’t know, take meat off skewers for and be given a gold star, or a special badge. Because these words he’s putting in Mary’s mouth don’t ring true at all. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but you thought it too, admit it.

What do you think he made of you?
I hope the wine glass disaster isn’t the only thing he remembers! A bit of a softie, probably – we talked about rescue dogs and looking after people.

He doesn’t remember it at all! Maybe Rob wanted someone with more of an edge – someone who wouldn’t just spill a glass of wine but neck a bottle, do shots, dance on tables, be 23 years old. Something like that. Mary has maybe done all that already; she’s after something else. Perhaps Rob isn’t ready to be looked after just yet, or maybe his empathy gene hasn’t kicked in. Or maybe I am reading this totally wrong and he’s a modern-day Mother Theresa in a button-down Oxford.


Do you ever try and guess what they’ve knocked the marks off for? Mary drops three here so I’m guessing age, age, and kindness (age). This is just my reading of the answers as they’re presented here. I might be wrong.

But I have met 33-year-old men before; I have been 33-year-old men. If you ask one “who do you think you are”, they can’t answer you, because they don’t know.  Mary is right, Rob is on a journey. Often, however, it’s better to travel than to arrive.


Ah, Mary.  A 9. A two-point difference in scores. She liked him. See? He wasn’t “too young” for her at all. That was just face-saving by Rob to a) avoid describing any of his qualities that might have stood out to Mary and b) another way of saying he wanted someone younger himself. But he is on a journey, after all.

And do you know what? It is fine to want different things and be interested in people for different reasons, and in a way his answer is attempting to be a kinder way to do that, but to put those words in her mouth feels a little… disingenuous. I will take all this back if Mary said “I only fancy men over 33” at any point during the date.

Would you meet again?
Probably not.

Would you meet again?
We didn’t exchange numbers, so I guess not.

You want a man who forgets about the numbers in an entirely different way, Mary. You deserve better.


Queen Mary has been in touch and is very lovely – she has a few things to clear up.

On the meaning behind her “on a journey” comment:

He’s a travel agent and gets lots of free trips. It wasn’t meant on a deep level at all. It’s funny how it comes across compared to what actually happened.

On some of the blog’s readers’ speculation that Rob was hung up on an ex. 

We both quite innocently talked about our exes as we talked about our kids. We didn’t talk about how, why or when the relationships ended.

So basically he wasn’t at all! On the difficulty, yet necessity, of meeting new people outside of your social circle:

The meet new people thing for me was because having been married for a long time, moving away from the area where we lived together and then studying a masters means that my social circle was pretty much people at work (and you know what they say about company ink) and people on my course. Most of whom are married/in relationships and don’t know single people. Or we don’t socialise at events like parties where you can mingle; its ticketed gigs. Just a feature of getting older I guess; less hanging out in bars with other singletons. I think that’s something lots of single women in their late thirties can relate to. Also, most of my friends are like me – we’ve been to the same places and done the same things. My most successful tinder matches have been with people who I have less in common with in terms of life story.

On the age thing:

We didn’t talk about our ages on the date. I am rubbish at guessing. Rubbish. Known for being rubbish. So I don’t bother. Before I went I figured the Guardian thought it was a close match and then didn’t think about it until I read the article.

Reading what he said, and recalling our conversation, I don’t think it’s age related at all. I think it’s career progression. I run a big department, which we talked about in the ‘caring about people bit’, and we talked about how the team has grown under my leadership. I think his has been fairly stable, with the same employer.

On the attraction and that score of 9:

His first words to me were “You look stunning”.

There was no instant spark though. I would see him again as I did think he’s a genuinely nice guy; hence the 9. Maybe the spark would come later; that’s what I tend to do. My past serious relationships have grown from friendships.

And finally, maybe we should book a table at the restaurant, because Mary rates it:

It was a great experience – the restaurant was amazing. It wasn’t open to the public just us and a handful of reviewers which was nice – lots of staff to wait on us and they knew why we were there. Food was fantastic as was the wine. I’d go there again.

So it turns out Rob is a good guy after all. I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Yay!

Photograph: Alicia Canter; Jill Mead, both for the Guardian

Note: My first novel, THE LAST ROMEO, is coming out early 2018 and is available for preorder on Amazon.

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Disclaimer: The comments I make about the couples are meant to be playful and humorous and are based on the answers the Guardian chooses to publish, which have usually been edited for space, brevity and drama. Get in touch if you want to give us your side of the story. Maybe I was wrong. I hope so.

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  1. Ah bless, a 4 year age difference… If she’d been 29 would she have been too young for you, Rob? This is why I hate men

  2. First thing this morning there was a different couple with no photo, who were a lot of fun. She had a great time chattering, telling jokes, being the life and soul of the party.
    His three words
    Just shut up
    I was looking forward to them and we swapped

  3. Ooh, I interpreted parts of this one a little differently. He didn’t mention that they were talking about exes; she did. Conclusion – he was talking about his exes. And I thought “on a journey” was a truly great answer, and it suggested that, in her view, he’s still emerging from something that has left him relationship-unready.

    Hence the marks: she likes him but thinks he’s still getting over something; he is, indeed, still getting over something. In real life we’d check back on them in a year or so. (Not that she’ll be single in a year or so.)

      1. Damn you, Guyliner; my prurient and, indeed, impertinent speculation about total strangers has been proved wrong!

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