We walked into a gastropub in Brockley, South London to find it only half full of people. And yet one could say the bar was packed - with reserved signs. At every table sat a tiny sign with someone's name, 'Sam' and three friends had conquered the long table, 'Milly' et al. had the sofa covered while Sophie's crew had annexed the corner seats.
"Wow," Jane said, "This is a bar, right? Since when do people reserve tables for a drink?"
"I know, it's ridiculous."
"Is this a bar or a restaurant?"
"I don't know." Someone waved down a bearded waiter. "I'm not sure they do either."
The only free table was by a fish-tank, curiously set into a bookcase. The space was narrow, and I was periodically bumped by passing man-bags. I turned the sign on the table to read: 'Guy 8.30 x 2'.
I said, "So, we've got half an hour, let's get pissed."
Jane smiled with pursed lips. Looking at the menu, she said:
"What do you fancy?"
She didn't look up.
"That was a joke," I said.
"If you have to say it's a joke, it's not a good joke."
She ran her finger down the wine list.
I looked over at the sofa; 'Milly' had arrived and was arranging her coat to cover the entire area.
"Let me see, how about - not the cheapest - but the second cheapest?"
"I can't tell if your joking or not."
The pub had an open kitchen behind the bar. There were two disadvantages to this, firstly the chefs couldn't shout at each other, hence service took longer. Secondly, the air was pungent and one emerged smelling like a Friday night kebab shop.
Nevertheless, Jane was nice, or at least she had been during our online conversation. This was our first date and her brisk manner suggested disappointment. Of course, Internet dating is wearing but it is folly to let on. The appropriate response is to play nice in public, launch a withering social-media attack in private then fade out. That is the British way.
After ten minutes we were moved to another table where we ordered - I went for the steak and Jane, the risotto (the respective choice on every date I have ever been on). When the steak arrived it was on a piece of slate - accompanied by four chips, stacked in a square not unlike a Jenga tower - or a pretend bridge from some lame team building exercise.
"I'm fed up with this nonsense," I said, "Just for once I want to eat my steak off a plate - what's with this modern mania for steak on a slate?"
"I don't know." She was checking her phone.
"I'm going to protest," I said, "I'll be outside with my placard chanting plate not slate."
"It's a state..."
She looked away.
"But no hate."
I was about to conclude when a toddler ran up and holding a teddy bear. He had a long bowl-cut - a '70s Spielberg kid.
"This is Bear," he said.
Jane said, "What's that, sweetie?"
"He said this is bear."
"What a lovely little man."
"Sure. But when are people going to realise we don't all delight in seeing children running around the pub at night."
"Oh, please. He wasn't running around."
"I definitely saw him run."
I looked for the parents. Dad was a middle-aged trainer wearer, Mum wore a pink pashmina. They took a picture of the child engaging with us before he moved to the next table, deploying the same opener. Jane then started talking about a project she was working on, no one does 'work' anymore, I thought, everything is a project. Still, I suppose there is something unshackled about the term, suggestive of control and volition. Jane glanced at herself in the fish tank - she was a dark haired beauty.
"Shall we get desert?" she said.
And so we continued. I learned that Jane was 'a creative'. In men, the term makes me cringe, in women I think of cerebral artists. I started talking of my own projects, more of a wish-list than actual live activities, I wanted to learn life drawing and was thinking of booking a course, I was also going to buy an old motorbike and fix it up - at some point. Jane went to the bathroom leaving me to ponder my situation. Instinctively, I checked my phone and entered #Brockley into Twitter. The first result gave me a jolt:
'another date with a weirdo at The Orchard in #Brockley - at least the risotto was good! Haha #loser'
The user had a comical avatar, a black and white photo of a woman in a bee costume. Playing against time, I searched her pictures but they were all bland 'inspirational' memes. Finally, I came across what looked like a selfie, I was trying to open it when she reappeared. Checking her reflection once more in the fish tank, Jane sat and picked up the desert menu. Her smile was inscrutable - I was Kasparov, she was Deep Blue.
"What shall we have?" I asked.
"You choose," she said, "Surprise me."
"But of course," I said, pretending to review the menu, "My move."