Long Reads The Read More Project

Three by David Christopher Johnston

George doesn’t want to be here, you can see it in his expression: eyes darting nervously from side to side, perspiration shining his top lip and brow, an uneasy smile offered through closed lips. You can sense it in the way he stands: sagging shoulders anticipating defeat, clenched fists buried deep in trouser pockets. It is clear from only the briefest of glances that George feels out of place, out of his comfort zone. A zone that was far from the spectrum of spaciousness to begin with.

George doesn’t want to be here, you can see it in his expression: eyes darting nervously from side to side, perspiration shining his top lip and brow, an uneasy smile offered through closed lips. You can sense it in the way he stands: sagging shoulders anticipating defeat, clenched fists buried deep in trouser pockets. It is clear from only the briefest of glances that George feels out of place, out of his comfort zone. A zone that was far from the spectrum of spaciousness to begin with.

Speed dating: it was his sister Jenni’s stupid idea. Go on it will be fun, she’d said in her effervescent way that exasperated George with its bouncy-castle-buoyancy. Fun? He’d countered with a lifetime of disbelief and a pocket full of scepticism. Fun for George was a quiet day fishing, a relaxing pint with his pals in a country pub or a walk with Max, his doting German Shepherd. It certainly wasn’t speed dating. No, fun was not the way George would describe it at all.

Yes, F. U. N! Jenni had replied, emphasising each letter with such urgency that George envisioned multiple exclamation marks following the words out of her mouth. His perplexed silence had made Jenni laugh, which infuriated him even more. She’d hugged him close and kissed his cheek, then tried to engage him in a sporadic waltz around the kitchen. He’d shrugged her off and told her to stop annoying him, but had eventually agreed to give speed dating a try – if only to get Jenni off his back and out of his kitchen.

Speed dating: as if his life was too busy for dating at a normal pace. The whole concept seemed alien to George; it was just another shortcut solution for the lazy millennial generation. He’d done some research online, so he knew what he was letting himself in for, yet he remained puzzled. Sure, speed dating would be enjoyable for the attractive and the supremely confident. But how many attractive and supremely confident people really needed, or wanted, to go to speed dating? Not many, he guessed. So the door was left ajar for the desperate and the barely dateable: like himself. A balding, fifty-four-year-old widower with a lifetime of memories and an empty road ahead. As unappealing as he was uninterested. In the basement of his subconscious, George’s armoured reservations waged war on F.U.N! and the Army of Exclamation Marks.

So George passes his completed registration slip to Joan, the kindly woman behind the wobbly folding table in the reception room of Crichley Village Hall. She is tonight’s coordinator. She passes him a sticker with a number four on it and leans back into a blue plastic chair that George imagines began life in a 1980s classroom. He sticks the sticker to his jacket breast and takes a seat. Despite the sweat beading his forehead, the room is cold. He rubs his hands together, looking over to the double wooden doors that lead into the main hall, with a deepening sense of trepidation. 

‘I’m Steven,’ the stocky man sitting beside George says, offering his hand for George to shake.

‘George,’ our hero replies, shaking Steven’s hand and giving a brief nod. Not much of a talker, George’s eyes wander back to the door of the main hall and the broken clock that hangs above it. The clock slumbers at three o’clock, awaiting resurrection by battery.

‘You done this before?’ Steven asks.

‘Nope. You?’

‘No. To be honest, the whole thing seems a little daft to me – if you know what I mean?’

‘Yep, I do,’ George replies, ever the budding conversationalist.

‘If I could have everyone’s attention please,’ Joan calls out from her desk, saving George from this awkward encounter. The six men sitting around the room look up in unison.

‘We are almost ready to start,’ Joan continues. ‘So, if you can all please follow me into the main hall, we can begin.’ She clasps her hands and flashes an excited grin, which only succeeds in reminding George that he left his excitement in the drawer at home.

The sound of muted shuffles as this newly-formed gaggle of hopeless and helpless romantics rise and flock through the double doors, each taking a seat at the table bearing their allocated number. George sits down at table number four and smiles politely at the lady sitting opposite him. She returns a toothy smile.

‘Ok everyone,’ Joan says in her soothing, perpetually optimistic tone. ‘Welcome to our autumn speed dating event. It’s a cold one outside tonight, so I’ve asked the caretaker, Bob, to put the heating on for us – warm the place up a bit.’ She rubs her wrinkled hands together and mimics blowing into them. Approving nods for Bob abound. 

‘I can see we have some lovely ladies and gents with us tonight, here for the blossom of love,’ Joan says with a girlish giggle that defies her age, holding her crossed fingers in the air. A few polite laughs ripple around the tables, but the undercurrent of impatience permeates; silent screams suffocate the throat of the group, no desire to delay the inevitable a moment longer. LET’S JUST GET THIS OVER WITH! flashes from a neon sign in the collective imagination of our participants.

‘So, how does speed dating work?’ Joan asks rhetorically. ‘You’ll be pleased to hear it’s really simple, so there’s no need to worry if this is your first time, you’ll soon get the hang of it.’ She catches George’s eye and flashes him a cheeky wink, making him blush. He looks down at his boots and studies them intently. 

‘You have three minutes to get to know the person sitting opposite you: your first date for the evening,’ Joan continues. ‘You can talk about anything you like, such as work, hobbies, favourite places to visit, favourite books. It’s up to you. When the three minutes are up, I will ring this bell’. She lifts a little brass bell, which looks as old and worn as the village hall and gives it a tinkle. ‘When the bell rings, it’s time for date two. The gents will need to move to the next table on their right, and the three minutes will start over, and so on.’ Joan holds her arms out like a magician revealing her final trick. ‘It’s really that simple. Any questions?’

A man with a thick head of grey hair and dressed in a bold blue suit raises his hand at table one. ‘Yes, Joan I have a question,’ he says. ‘If we find a match this evening, how do we arrange to meet that person again?’ The inflection in his voice indicates gentry, but his complexion of burnt orange suggests bottle, rather than Barbados. George, ever the budding socialite, dislikes him instantly.

‘Good question,’ Joan replies. ‘Before you go home, you will each need to fill out one of these pink forms.’ She picks up a pad of pink forms from her desk and waves it at the group. ‘If there is anyone that you would like to meet again just complete the form and pop it in the blue box over near the door, and I will arrange the rest for you. Does that make sense?’ The man at table one nods his head and mumbles a swift thank you.

‘Ok, without further ado, let’s begin,’ Joan beams. ‘Good luck, everyone.’ She gives the bell an extended tinkle and takes a seat behind the desk at the front. George takes a deep breath and turns to face his first date for the evening, Linda.

Linda is a talker. And that’s fine (for those who like to listen). George is a good listener but prefers silence to the bang and clang of chatter, making date one a mismatch from the start. He does his part, nodding politely and making agreeable noises at the right moments as Linda reels off her life story at lightning speed. She is a teacher at the local primary school, has been married twice before, has three kids from her first marriage and none from her second. She likes beach holidays in Europe and bingo with her pals. George wonders if he should have brought a pen and notepad.

‘So, what do you do?’ Linda asks halfway through a sentence about her recent holiday to southern Spain, catching George unawares.

‘Erm, I’m a farmer,’ George replies.

‘My friend used to date a farmer,’ Linda says before careering off into a story about her friend’s failed marriage to a dairy farmer. George struggles to keep up with the endless list of names in each story, the visionary overload of places, the bitter taste that each story leaves in his mouth. His mind wanders. He thinks of his wife and how she would laugh if she could see him now. 

After a few moments, he realises Linda has paused and is looking at him intently.

‘Sorry, what?’ George asks.

‘I said how come you’re not married then, handsome farmer like you?’ Linda repeats.

‘I was married,’ George answers in a low voice. ‘My wife, Maggie, died three years ago.’ 

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Linda says and leans over and strokes his arm. George looks down at her hand and notices her long red nails, the varnish chipped off around the edges. He pulls away and leans back in his chair, folding his arms. A look of hurt flashes briefly across Linda’s eyes making George feel terrible, but then she cascades into a story about a work colleague who lost her husband in a car crash. 

This whole thing is bonkers, George thinks to himself as he hears the welcoming sound of Joan’s bell. He shakes Linda’s hand as he rises from the chair, tells her it was lovely to meet her, then quickly moves on to the next table. 

Speed dating: at least it’s fast.

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Christine at table five – Chris to her friends – is a welcome world away from Linda. She swims in placid waters, like George, and their conversation has a natural pace (if a little awkward). Christine is an accountant and commutes forty miles each day to work because she loves the tranquillity of the countryside: the escapism. She asks George about his farm, and he tells her in succinct sentences about his life as a farmer. George has a natural talent for brevity, but Christine listens carefully to him when he speaks, responding to his answers rather than waiting for her turn to talk. She tells him she is a widow; her husband, Michael, died of oesophageal cancer almost nine years ago when she was only thirty-nine. 

‘When did your wife die?’ she asks. 

‘Three years this December,’ George replies in a tone that announces the conversation is at an end. In the brief and awkward silence that follows, George can hear Mr Tantastic from table one prattling on about his new Range Rover. Material idiot, George thinks to himself.

‘Can I tell you something,’ Christine says, leaning closer to George and lowering her voice. George nods. ‘I don’t actually come to these things looking for a date,’ she says with a nervous laugh. ‘I just like the company. To be honest, ever since my Michael died, I’ve never felt like I wanted to find someone else. I guess that makes me a little weird, but I think I’m happier on my own, with my memories.’

‘That doesn’t make you weird at all,’ George says. ‘I understand completely.’ George’s family and friends were always telling him it was time to move on, saying it was what Maggie would have wanted. But how did they know that? And what about what he wanted? Maybe he didn’t want to move on. He believed their eagerness for him to move on with his life was partly for their own benefit; the river of sympathy had run dry.

‘It’s been really nice to talk to you, Christine,’ George says as the bell rings once more. ‘You take care now.’

‘Please, call me Chris,’ she replies. ‘It was lovely to meet you too, George. See you around the village sometime.’ She flashes George a reserved but genuine smile. George nods and reciprocates the smile, then turns towards the next table.

Tables six, one, and two are a blur and George can remember very little: not even names. The minutes merge into one as they talk at him. He says little because he isn’t truly present; he is off over the hills of memory, lost in the meadows of Maggie. Flashbacks of a music concert in Leeds in 1982, the two of them locked in an embrace as a teary-eyed frontman sang for somebody to love.

When the bell comes it enters his mind in a warm fuzz, smearing the colours of the past across the canvas of his imagination and interrupting his fantastical daydream. He rises in a dull daze and makes his way to the final table – table three – grateful that this debacle is almost over.

Yet, when George sits down at table three something happens that he does not expect: he sees me. His eyes awaken, his face softens and cute little age lines flow out from the corner of his eyes as he gazes into mine. He takes my hand, which trembles at his touch. Placing his free hand delicately on my cheek, he strokes it lightly with his thumb and stares at me with confused wonder. His fingers trace my lips, then run through my curly, brown hair. He is lost for words, his brain awash with confusion, joy and a lifetime of memory. He sees visions of pink and white blossom trees on a cold, bright wedding day in May; he sees warm summers on the beach and long, cold nights by the fire; he sees us young and carefree, partying and singing until the early hours; he sees sleepless nights of first-time parents, pacing and rocking in dark hallways to calm the cries of beautiful, new life; he sees us old and frail, silver-haired and cuddled on the sofa under a blanket, surrounded by pictures of the children, and the grandchildren. He sees somebody to love. A love that lasts forever; a life that won’t last long enough. He closes his eyes and tries to take it all in, praying God will freeze him in an eternity of this moment.   

‘George are you ok?’ the lady sitting opposite him at table three asks. Reality hits George like a rock, the fleeting fairy-tale stolen from his grasp. Dull pain overwhelms his senses. His eyes start to refocus in the present and he sees, for the first time, the petite brunette lady sitting across from him. Julie is her name. She looks at him with kind green eyes, her smile warm and compassionate. Open. Honest.

‘I’m sorry,’ George says to her after a pause, his eyes filling up with tears. ‘I was thinking about my wife, Maggie. For a moment, I thought I could… never mind.’ He puts his hand over his face and begins to sob. He feels so embarrassed.

‘It’s ok, George,’ Julie says, taking his hand in hers and squeezing gently. His hand trembles, his pulse thumping on her fingers. Her eyes glisten with tears for the grief of this poor man, the depth of his sorrow. She looks at him for a moment and then places her hand on his cheek and wipes away a tear. 

‘Tell me about your wife, Maggie,’ she says softly. ‘It sounds like she was a wonderful woman.’ 

Our hero looks up at her with an endless sea of sadness in his eyes and begins, slowly, to talk about me. The first time he has done so in almost three years. He talks not about the pain, the darkness, and the long, final days of despair, but about the joy and the happiness of the life that came before it. About the inescapable satisfaction of love, that holds you in arms of hope and feeds a lust for life that romantic comedies never seem to accurately encapsulate. And as he talks, I can feel him starting to let me go – the anger and guilt finally beginning to drain from his tired frame, the fear and the loneliness beginning to subside – and I am happy. I don’t want him to be alone anymore. 

George and Julie talk and talk and talk: long after the three minutes are over, long after the last tinkle of the old brass bell, long after Joan and their fellow speed daters have gone home, and long after the falling autumn leaves are replaced by the new buds of spring. And when I think of those three minutes at table three, in that dingy little village hall on that freezing, autumn evening, I know that those were the first three minutes for my sweet George. The first, not the last.

About The Author

David Christopher Johnston is a fiction author from Derbyshire, United Kingdom. He writes satirical fiction — ignoring the advice of numerous teachers who told him (all those years ago) that “joking around won’t get you anywhere in life” — but dabbles in other genres from time to time. His work focuses on themes of mental health, class prejudice and the nonsensical stresses of modern life. In his spare time he enjoys music, chuckling to his own jokes, and hiking in the British countryside with friends and family. If you would like to read more of David’s work, several stories are available on his website: www.davidchristopherjohnston.com (including his satirical fantasy short story, The Infinite Woes of Being a Hero, which was published by Bandit Fiction in August 2020). Or follow him on Twitter for information about his upcoming satirical fantasy novel and short story collections: @AuthorDCJ.

Bandit Fiction is an entirely not-for-profit organisation ran by passionate volunteers. We do our best to keep costs low, but we rely on the support of our readers and followers to be able to do what we do. The best way to support us is by purchasing one of our back issues. All issues are ‘pay what you want’, and all money goes directly towards paying operational costs.

5 comments

  1. Very well written David, enjoyed it a lot. A gentle, warm humour and lovely imagery. I liked Maggie’s entrance into the story, I thought that was very clever. I’ll take a look at your website.

    Like

  2. I like the funny in everything: “Speed dating: as if his life was too busy for dating at a normal pace” made me chuckle!

    Like

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