If there is one thing to be avoided on a date, it is conflict with strangers. Of course, conflict with anyone, at any time, is best avoided. There are however situations when it matters less - for instance, an angry exchange on a tube train, while annoying, is generally forgotten by lunchtime. I've found that as the morning progresses, the molten lava of commuter rages gives way to awkwardness and mild regret - well, it does in my case anyway. I do not like conflict, or aggression. There are, of course, certain instances where aggression can be useful, one of the many reasons I have cultivated two accents. I was born into a working-class South London family, but over the years have tried to gentrify my speech. Like some kind of befuddled reverse mockney, I have shifted my vowels up the class spectrum, whilst attempting to retain an air of working-class grit. It's not been easy though and occasionally the mask slips, generally when I am either drinking, or faced with a hostile situation. It is however during the latter that my natural speech proves useful, for if there is one thing that any working-class ruffian knows - middle-class men don't fight.
Julie and I had arranged to meet at PJ's Bar and Grill in Covent Garden, an old Theatreland fixture and favourite of the stars, or at least that's what the website said. It was our third date, and our first dinner.
"What a lovely little place," Julie said, "you've been here before, I take it."
It was an untested Top Table discovery.
"Sure, loads of times."
We were surrounded by brass fittings, it looked as though we were waiting to dine with Captain Nemo. Portraits of stage actors adorned every wall, I searched for one I recognised.
"Look," I said, "Obi Wan Kenobi."
Julie looked up, "ah yes, Alec Guinness."
"That's right, he's great - oh, have you seen David Lean's Great Expectations?"
I shook my head. She looked down at the wine list.
I scanned the walls to be confronted with an array of strange faces. I was not a theatre man - I'd rather suffer the works of Willis or Statham, than sit through Pinter or Ibsen. Give me the blunt instruments of art, and I know where I stand, give me nuance and I lose focus. As it turned out, Julie's interests were an inverse reflection of mine. We had absolutely nothing in common, and yet, like Paula Abdul and that cartoon cat, there was a certain attraction. Perhaps we could overcome our differences, I thought, wrapped in a merlot-induced fug. We should at least try - we were both in our thirties, and winter was coming.
Julie and I lingered over dinner, going so far as to hold hands over the table. I even jokily forced her palm over the candle flame. Afterwards, we took up a couple of high stools at the bar. The bartender was a baldheaded man with dead eyes, he placed two coasters before us.
"You want something?" he said, his accent was foreign but not placeable.
"Yes," I said, "I want something."
"I have something for you, it is our special, maybe you want to try."
Before I could respond, he fetched a bottle of green liqueur and poured a shot.
"I let you try," he said to Julie, "but you," he said to me, "you are no good."
The remark, quite unexpected, left me a little stunned.
He shrugged and pushed the shot towards my companion. Fixing me with his pinhole eyes, he said:
"I said you are no good. Drink for the lady, but not you."
I looked at Julie, her eyes narrowed.
Pushing myself up against the bar, I said:
"Well, you...you are no good."
It was quite possibly the weakest rebuff I had ever issued. He leaned forward, smiling mirthlessly.
"Listen, mate," I said, switching to a South London brogue, "you want to watch what you're saying."
A meaningless retort, of course. The bartender slowly wiped his hands.
Julie cut in, "hey - who are you saying is 'no good'? This is outrageous. Get him a drink, now, and get me the manager."
The barman straightened and went to speak, thinking better of it - he threw down his cloth, and walked out from behind the bar.
I said, "I had that under control, you know."
"Of course you did."
"Now, you're going to grass him up," I said, "you should have let me handle it, we would have gone out into the street for an awkward scuffle - Bridget Jones style. You know, I learned everything I know about fighting from Hugh Grant."
"I thought you said posh boys don't fight."
"Yeah, but I ain't like them," I said.
It was least convincing statement I had made all night. A heartbeat later, I needlessly added, "sweetheart."
Julie shook her head and slid the green liqueur towards me. Still, it was definitely one of my better dates.