Authors: Neal Doran
Perpetually single Dan Taylor is so terrible at meeting women his own mother suspects he might be gay. So best friends — and smug married couple — Hannah and Rob insist he needs some serious man management. Taking matters into their own hands, they decide to make him their ‘Project’ and set to work on finding him a girlfriend — one that might actually stick around long enough to meet his mother.
A new wardrobe, a better haircut and a slick online profile later and an unwitting Dan is ready to be launched on the London dating scene. But miracles don’t just happen, and when he
achieve some success with women, it’s not in the way anyone expected.
grew up in London, and the only real childhood hardship he knew was not being able to get a bedroom door sign with his name spelled properly on it. He knew he’d rather be a writer than an astronaut from the time he realised he didn’t want a job that required too much travel. He has been an editor for spoof news website Newsbiscuit, written some jokes for BBC radio, and spent a short time as Britain’s most unlikely private investigator.
Neal now lives on the south-west coast of Ireland with his wife and two sons, who still prefer their mum’s stories to his.
He can be found on Twitter, usually when he’s not supposed to be, as @nealdoran.
Thanks to mum and dad for their total support, and for not reading the rude bits; my brother Mark for being the ideal early reader; Richard Asplin for constantly reminding me to write ‘something funny’ even if he didn’t realise it; Mark Dawson for thinking I could do it long before I was entirely convinced; Helen Davies for helping orchestrate blind dates so awful I had something to start writing about; Kathryn Cheshire and the team at Carina for actually making this happen; John O’Farrell for those vital early breaks; Miranda Dickinson for a ‘Future Stars’ boost at just the right time; the Monday night poker guys for all their money; and Sam Kumari, because she asked.
And finally thanks to Jo for proving to me what a mistake it would have been to ever give up on women, and Thomas and Noah for providing both inspiration and the training to live with sleep-deprivation.
‘OK, so let’s review,’ said Hannah as we sat over brunch amid the pseudo-smoke-stained gloom of a chain French bistro. ‘You don’t think there’s a chance you’ll be able to get Angus to put in a word? Explain things so you can see her again?’
‘I’ve been texting him this morning,’ I explained as I gingerly nibbled dry pellets of muffin from my Eggs Benedict. ‘She’s apparently never felt so angry and lied to. And is pretty pissed off at him, as well, for getting the two of us together in the first place.’
Hannah pushed her hair behind her ears as she concentrated on developments. It was long-ish blonde-ish, not quite curly but not exactly straight. I’d once made the mistake of saying it was messy, which hadn’t gone down too well, although I’d meant it in a good way.
‘She’s probably sublimating what she feels. What she’s really angry about is that she and Angus aren’t together,’ said Rob.
‘Not everyone has as big a crush on Angus as you do, hun,’ Hannah told her husband, before turning back to me. ‘Couldn’t he fill her in on what really happened?’
‘She probably does want Angus to fil—’
‘Bup!’ Hannah’s hand went up to stop Rob’s gag so I could continue.
‘She only partly calmed down when he told her that the marketing bloke with the fashionably challenging spectacles had asked if he could have her number. So I don’t think the signs are that good.’
‘And don’t forget the text she sent you at three a.m. saying, “Don’t ever contact me again, you bastard”,’ Rob chipped in helpfully, dancing a sachet of sugar across the back of his knuckles.
‘Yeah, there was that,’ I conceded. ‘And written with proper words and punctuation instead of text speak, which these days is legally binding or something.’
‘Well, I suppose if a bloke had run off looking sick after I took my top off, I don’t think I’d be too keen on a second date,’ Hannah conceded. ‘But it’s so unfair she’s not even listening to your side of the story. I mean, you were
to be nice.’
‘I’m not sure she sees it like that,’ I said.
This is probably a good time for introductions. Together, Rob and Hannah are my best ‘couple’ friends, the Harrisons. And I’m Dan, their perpetually single friend. Their reminder, when married life can start losing its sheen, that the alternatives are really no better.
You know the kind of thing — you may be in a couple and have a Project yourselves. Somebody you look out for, and worry about. Somebody you want to see happy but who isn’t doing such a great job on that front on their own. You want them to have what you’ve got, but also — if we’re being honest here — you enjoy this window into the world of the unattached, which is off-limits to you these days. Or at least it should be. If it’s not I suggest you stop reading this now and go and find yourself a good marriage counsellor, or shit-hot divorce lawyer.
Or maybe you’re on your own, but have couple friends. The type who always have a sympathetic ear for your problems, who are always coming up with ideas for how your life could be improved immeasurably by salsa classes or the latest trend in speed dating: ‘You’ve got two minutes in a sensory deprivation tank and, if neither of you scream in claustrophobic terror because you’ve mistaken the other person’s foot for a giant rat, they set you up on a spa day. It was in
If that sounds like you then, I hate to break it to you, but you’re their Project.
But anyway. It was New Year’s Day and I’m reporting back with news from the frontline of singledom. The night before, I’d been involved in the latest of a series of painful skirmishes with the opposite sex, at a party thrown by our mutual friend, the lovely, and irritatingly handsome, Angus. As
When Harry Met Sally
always reminded us, New Year’s Eve was one of the toughest times of all to have no one. As I stood making desperate small talk with hipsters in the kitchen of a Bethnal Green studio flat — more than two years after my last big break-up, and about six months after I finally got over it — I could vouch for that.
But then, despite my general distrust of the whole concept of house parties, my night had got a lot better. I’d been banging my head off the back of the fridge in boredom while talking to some guy, an ‘old school guerrilla advertising man’ apparently, who was explaining why it was cool not to have a television. Then Gabrielle had burst in dressed, as far as I could tell, like a fifties bobby-soxer but somehow making it look stylish. I could be getting the era wrong, I’m not really up on fashion, but I do remember thinking her two-tone black and white heeled brogues were cool.
‘Come out and dance!’ she’d shouted, ‘They’re playing my favourite song!’
I’d looked myself up and down in my crumpled cords, and white shirt that was perfect for showcasing the red wine someone had spilt on it earlier, and run a hand through my so-unfashionable-it-almost-counted-as-a-personal-look hair. I’d figured she couldn’t mean me. But as I’d gestured to the guy standing next to me, who was dressed as if he were in the next big indie folk boyband, she’d grabbed my hand and pulled me out to the living-room dance-floor.
The next couple of hours had been brilliant. OK, she’d thought all my best moves were me doing some ironic dad dancing, and I’d panicked slightly when I discovered she was a student — it was OK, she was a post-grad and safely into her twenties — but aside from that we’d talked and danced and laughed and I’d thought I felt a definite spark.
And then there’d been a bit of a mix-up…
‘It was a simple misunderstanding,’ I moaned to Rob and Hannah. ‘We were talking about birthdays, and I said how being born on twenty-eighth December is the worst possible day because when you’re a kid everyone bundles it in with Christmas for presents. Then later in life people almost resent you for having a cause for celebration when it’s the last thing they want to think about.’
‘Oh, sorry, Dan, that reminds me—I thought Rob was bringing your present today, but he left it behind,’ said Hannah.
‘Yes. Left it behind. In the shop. Along with the card. Sorry.’
‘Don’t worry, it just adds more weight to my argument. But anyway, then Gabrielle says she can top that seeing as she was born on September eleventh. Apparently in 2001 it made for the worst ninth birthday party ever, and every year since it’s not really been a time for party hats and balloons.’
‘Yep, she trumped you there all right, sport,’ said Rob.
‘I know. But then I mentioned how for me that date will, above everything else, be the day I lost my fiancée. So there may have been a misunderstanding about the circumstances. And the year. But just because my 9/11 was in 2010 doesn’t change the fact it’s the same anniversary. And who’s to say Gabrielle wouldn’t have invited me back to hers later anyway? I didn’t do anything wrong deliberately.’
‘You lost your fiancée?’ snorted Rob. ‘You were dumped by your girlfriend and then casually linked it to one of the twenty-first century’s worst terrorist atrocities but don’t think you did anything slightly shady, morality-wise?’
‘But I didn’t make the link, she did! I…I was just talking as if it was another day, and to do anything different would mean that They Win.’
We sat in silence for a while. Rob weighing up the attraction of pushing on with a guilt trip, but also swayed by the
appeal of the crass logic that could make the exploitation of others’ tragedy a tool in the War on Terror. Hannah looked as if she was beginning to realise that my story probably wasn’t going to be workable as an anecdote for my and Gabrielle’s ruby wedding anniversary.
I sat there thinking that Kate could have been my fiancée if she’d said yes when I proposed that September morning in 2010. Instead she cried and said it was all over, and that it had been for several years, really. So on a date most remember as one where the whole world became a scarier place, I remember being left down on one knee with an improvised engagement ring crafted from a one-carat Sugar Puff in a wholegrain Cheerios setting, while the woman I lived for went to pack up a few things. From that moment, the bigger picture hadn’t meant so much.
What can I say? Honestly, I’m over it now and I’d only mentioned it to Gabrielle as I thought it was a way of bringing up the subject of whether or not she herself was single or attached. And to make it clear that I myself was very much available. But when I saw she had genuine tears in her eyes, I realised she’d mixed up the date and the day itself. I’d wanted to explain right then — not least because how old did she think I was if I had a fiancée in 2001? But then the countdown to midnight had started and all I could think was that it could be time for the big kiss, and I hoped she’d been eating the garlicky dips too.
‘And by the way,’ I said to Rob, rising as close to my full height as I could while sitting down, ‘the reason I’m sitting here with you two and not planning a life together with Gabrielle over a casual post-coital brunch is because I wouldn’t let a mix-up like that stand.’
‘And you timed that beautifully,’ said Rob.
Not long after midnight, Gabrielle had asked me to walk her home to Bow. Without much hope of getting a cab we walked briskly through the East London night, and at some point we kissed again, properly. It must have been at one of the few points I wasn’t convinced we were going to be mugged around the next corner. We walked on with anticipation building, giggling and holding each other closer the nearer we got to the house she shared with three friends. Then we were through the door and, with only a couple of pauses for snogs, we were upstairs.
‘I wanted to do this as soon as I saw you looking at me while we were dancing,’ Gabrielle said as we fell together onto her bed, my hands getting lost in her skirt.
‘Me too. You looked so sexy. I couldn’t believe you wanted to dance with me.’
‘Those sad eyes… I knew there was something.’
Fiddling with the back of her bra, I froze. Was I really here because Gabrielle thought I was some kind of War on Terror widower? A gorgeous twenty-one-year-old, with a sensationally springy body and, my God, a real way with her hands, was going to have sex with me, but under the impression that I was someone deep down that I wasn’t. Wasn’t there a name for doing something like that? But this wasn’t my idea, and it was her flat, and my God just look at her…
‘Here, you’d be for ever back around there. This one opens at the front.’
Her bra burst open and she stretched back on the bed, sexy and vulnerable hazel eyes looking at me as she lay there in nothing but a vintage skirt.
I felt physically sick.
‘You look…smashing,’ I said as I buttoned up my shirt all wrong, stabbed my feet back into my shoes and tried to get my flies closed without doing any permanent damage, ‘but you’ve…I’m…I’ve got to go.’
Gabrielle looked confused at first as I headed for the bedroom door, but by the time I glanced back on my way out her hurt and embarrassment had quickly resolved themselves as anger.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
I walked for two hours before finally getting an unlicensed cab that smelt of stale beer and sick to take me home, where for hours I tried to sleep with the idiot words ‘you look smashing’ echoing around my head.
‘Couldn’t you have tried to tell her before, y’know, you put your trousers back on?’ asked Hannah. ‘Made a joke of the confusion? I wish you’d called us—maybe it could have been recoverable…’
‘What are we, running some kind of sex advice line now?’ interrupted Rob.
‘Look, I know you want to be honest,’ said Hannah, ignoring Rob, ‘you want to be “Nice Dan” and all that, but sometimes with women it’s about saying the right thing at the right time…’
‘Are you talking about that thing he said about your hair that made you go and buy those straighteners you never use?’ Rob asked, grinning, as I spluttered into my coffee.
‘Or that other thing?’ he continued. ‘How you were really good at wearing clothes that don’t match?’
‘I meant that was cool. Bohemian!’
‘Or, what was it? That you weren’t “one of those too-skinny girls”?’
‘That— You— I— I was only trying to be nice!’
‘I think what she’s trying to say is you don’t have a great track record when it comes to talking to women.’
‘No,’ Hannah said, giving Rob her stern look, ‘what I’m trying to say, Dan, is that you try and be honest and decent, which is brilliant, really. But there’s a time and place, and it’s just a shame your timing was a bit off on this occasion. This could have been your chance to get back out there…’
‘Or rather in there,’ added Rob.
‘So, that’s it, is it?’ I moaned. ‘I’m saying the right things at the wrong time, or the wrong things at an even worse time? It’s no wonder I’m single and fed up with my life.
‘Actually, maybe calling it a “life” is overstating it a bit,’ I continued. ‘It’s more a string of pathetic non-events. I’ve not found a single person who finds me sexually attractive since Kate. And the more I think about her, the more I think it was just this total absence of something in me that finally prompted her to leave. Apart from that brief time when we first got together it’s like who I am — me — doesn’t exist for women.’
‘You could polish up the 9/11 widower act. That nearly worked — you could get a second-hand NY Fire Department badge, maybe add in a limp…’
‘Rob…’ said Hannah, putting a hand on his knee to silence him. I looked around the room, not sure where my outburst had come from, but knowing that I meant it, and certain that if I tried to say one more thing I’d… I’d probably get something in my eye…
‘It’s not been the best start to the year for you, sweetheart, we do see that,’ said Hannah.
‘But you’ve got your worst cock-up out of the way really early too,’ reminded Rob, more kindly. ‘Things can only look up from here.’
I sat there, embarrassed, but grateful for my friends. Iwasn’t usually that melodramatic, but hangovers at the best of times made me a bit emotional. I was sure, though, that under the histrionics I was still right, that there was solid reason behind what I’d said.
‘Thanks, guys. It’s always sweet — and slightly creepy — when you’re nice to me,’ I said, ‘but how many years have we sat here and said roughly the same thing? That this year will be different?’