In this series I’ve tried faithfully to recall ny first week’s at University and the life changing experiences that I enjoyed. Up to the point I went I’d had one sort of girlfriend but that was more a friend who also liked the cricket and went with me, rather than a classic boy girl thing. So when Amanda, or Sam as she preferred agreed to a date, it was both the biggest ego boost and the most terrifying experience I’d had to that point. This fateful day began with a trip to the zoo, which was also nearly the end. But here we are about to go out for a meal….
In 1975 I was 18 and by anyone’s definition pretty naive and unsophisticated. I struggle to recall how many meals outside someone’s home I would have had by then. One sticks out – the night before we moved into our house in the New Forest in 1969 – I was 12 at the time – we stayed in the Angel Inn in Lymington and ate in the restaurant. It felt like we’d slipped through a gap in the space-time continuum and were in a parallel universe. Briefly we were like people on TV who, back then were as foreign and unreal as the most clumsily drawn cartoon. I must have had lunch or tea somewhere, I suppose but if so, it was so infrequent and in the distant past that it might as well have been a dream.
And yet here I was, living away from home, in a city and about to take a woman out for dinner. I knew it happened – I watched TV and had seen everything I might need to know. I knew about the etiquette of napkins – waiters shook them and put them on your lap; I knew there were things called staters which some people didn’t have, not that I understood why anyone would pass up food; I had heard of the ‘wine list’ and it terrified me that it was my job, as the man, to choose – if I’d drunk wine it was of the rasping, wallpaper-removing sort or something so sweet even the most assiduous bee would be wary of getting entangled in its gloop; and I knew the bill would end up with me.
Why I chose to take Sam to a Chinese restaurant is lost in both the mists of time and the haze of terror the whole thing engendered. Perhaps it was my recent introduction to spring rolls and sweet and sour pork that had bequeathed me a false confidence. Whatever I turned up at Sam’s front door at Manor Hall at the appointed hour and was made to wait a punishing fifteen minutes while the final restoration of sanity to her hair was achieved following the bird-bowel evacuation of earlier. This put me on edge because we would be late for our allotted time (and I had no clue what might happen if we were late – a ban, a humiliating refusal to let us eat, a punishment wash up at the end?). Eventually we left. I was wary of saying much about her hair, given the earlier near disaster and the look I’d gotten after the ‘it looks clean’ I’d proffered on my arrival when I’d been offered the opportunity to comment on its restoration, so I defaulted to a subject that appealed to us both – gossip about our fellow law students. Sam and I dated for maybe ten weeks overall, just making it past the Christmas vacation when my company began to pale and she took up with a much older man from her home town. In that time I do recall her love of seeing people get together. She was a romantic. It turns out I am too but back then adjusting to life as a nearly adult was difficult enough so speculating on other’s love lives didn’t come naturally. I had a lot to learn.
Of course I needn’t have worried about our table. They wanted our custom so of course the table remained available to us. We sat and… so far so good. There was a white tablecloth – tick, a vase of some indeterminate flowers in the centre of the table – tick, napkins sat in front of us – tick and we were given menus – tick.
That was probably the last point in the evening when I felt comfortable.
What went wrong?
Where do I start? The menu, maybe. To that point I’d only experienced Mr Wong’s finest take away offerings which were limited to say the least. This was Encyclopaedia Chinois Cuisinerie… there were pages of incomprehensible dishes and nothing discernibly starterish. My terror must have been apparent because the waiter bowed low – he still hadn’t fiddled with the napkin – and proffered the suggestion that the set menu ‘is good value, sir’.
That of course may have been true but it was at least 50% more than I’d budgeted. I looked at Sam. ‘If you’re sure,’ she said.
I’d only been less sure during my physics exams where my answering technique had been based on the ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ game. We went ‘set for 2’, bought two Chinese beers, that, frankly tasted like fizzy pisswater but at least meant I avoided the certain ignominy of the wine list and sat back, and chatted.
She was always easy company, a good raconteur as well as listener. She made you the centre of the room and for that I was grateful. The first course was some sort of deep fried dolphin’s gonad to be eaten with one’s fingers. I just avoided the embarrassment of drinking what I assumed was a refreshing cup of water when I realised Sam was washing her finger tips in hers and told myself that, yes, I could do this.
I’d peaked too soon. The waiters cleared the table and laid out these little perforated boxes on which a series of willow pattern dishes were set. My napkin, which during the starter had migrated to one side of my plate was now handed to me with a certain brusqueness but I was peckish and intrigued to see what we’d got for all the money. Plates were put in front of us, an explanation of each dish undertaken but it may as well have been a lecture in quantum theory given in Ancient Greek and we were left to our food.
Sam began to dish out a plateful, exclaiming how she loved this, or had never tried that while I looked around for cutlery. Surely we weren’t expected to use our fingers again.
I’ve never really forgiven whoever decided that eating rice with chopsticks was an example of man’s progress. By the time the waiters stopped sniggering and offered me a spoon the food and congealed. That Sam didn’t say anything was probably her payback for my hair faux pas. But I’m not easily cowed and I eventually managed a sort of scoop cum flick that worked. And the food was delicious. I actually felt quite proud of myself until the waiters began to clear the table.
It was like a hyperactive five year old’s tantrum tea party. Well my side of the table was. Hers was pristine. I sat, feeling humiliated while we were served jasmine tea.
I think I must have communicated my low mood because we left soon after. Sam offered to ‘go Dutch’ as a birthday present which was the best thing that happened that day, to be honest. After I’d walked her back and then walked to my hall, which took about an hour in total, I think my overriding emotion was relief. She’d not dumped me for my earlier crassness, nor laughed me out for my gaucherie. I was granted a brief snog on the doorstep before she disappeared which I seem to recall felt like a bit of a win.
Looking back, those dates with Sam were a useful training, that early relationship. I grew in confidence with the female members of the faculty. I learnt all sorts about the female psyche and physiology. And I grew to hate shopping for clothes which has stayed with me down the years. I even paid to have my hair cut. To that point my mother had cut it, assuming I’d allowed it to be cut at all. These days my follicles are about as effective as a chocolate tea pot; back then, I liked to think I had fine, fly away hair, but the more prosaic truth was it lacked body and straggled. I had my first blow dry, courtesy of Sam and thought I looked a prize twannock.
I moped a fair bit when she decided we’d gone as far as we were ever going to and had just about got myself to a place where it no longer hurt when Dave, my so called best friend decided to tell me he and she had started going out. Naturally I was big enough to wish him well.
Oh sure I did…