Alice Brown's Lessons in the Curious Art of Dating


“Where are all the men?” Kate whispered as she clutched her orange juice and looked nervously around the room. She tried to stop the disappointment reaching her face.

“In the pub with the normal human beings,” Lou snorted loudly. Despite already having a full glass of wine in one hand, Lou lunged at the circulating drinks tray and liberated another. “Jesus, Kate, what the hell are we doing here?”

Kate was beginning to wonder. It had seemed such a good idea on paper. But now that she was here, in the overheated function room of the Holly Bush Hotel, she wasn’t so sure.

“I’m all for doing things for a laugh, but this is beyond a joke,” Lou observed harshly. “They’re freaks, the lot of them!”

“Shhh! . . . You promised to be nice!” Kate frantically tried to quiet her. She tried to look on the bright side; after all, she hadn’t expected to actually find a man tonight. “They’re just people,” she reasoned lightly. “Just like us. We’re all in the same boat.”

“We’re absolutely not in the same boat,” Lou insisted. “We’re luxury yacht kind of girls, Kate: speedboats, catamarans. This lot look like they’re on a menopausal cruise ship with a broken rudder. Christ, it’s no bloody wonder they can’t get laid. Look at the state of him!”

Lou was pointing at one of the room’s few men. Kate hadn’t noticed him before. Tiny and fifty-something, he was clutching his wine like it was the last float on the Titanic. He was totally beige; even his skin was the color of porridge. His only distinguishing feature was a thin veneer of perspiration on his upper lip. As Kate looked, he turned and held eye contact just long enough to show he’d overheard. Kate’s heart leapt into her mouth and her cheeks tingled with shame. She quickly ushered Lou away into a corner of the room. She should’ve known bringing her would be a bad idea. But these were desperate times, and desperate times called for desperate measures.

As Lou busied herself with draining her glasses of wine, and the discreet tap on the shoulder and polite request that they should leave didn’t materialize, Kate allowed herself to relax into some form of normality again. She ventured another look around the room. What kind of people came to a talk on “The Secret to Finding Mr./Miss Right” anyway? She studied the groups of heads huddling around the nibbles table. Mainly they were late thirty-, early forty-something professional-looking heads, adorned with discreet highlights and the occasional expensive autumn-colored tint. Then there were the exhausted on-the-point-of-giving-up heads, hair brushed that morning and then forgotten about, at best tucked behind ears or pulled into lumpy ponytails. And finally there was the hairdo brigade: the grittily determined, heavily lipsticked fifty-ups, with coiffures carved from hairspray. Dotted amongst the sea of hair, a couple of shiny bald spots bobbed under the strip lighting, boosting the room’s quota of men to a meager handful. And steaming through the middle of it all, a red-cheeked woman with a halo of frizzy orange hair was loudly instructing everyone to visit the little boys’ and girls’ rooms “toot suite,” because the talk would be starting in five minutes.

Kate’s eyes followed a few apologetic backs as they scuttled to the door in search of the toilet. She gazed into the corridor beyond. What did they all look like to the outside world, she wondered? Would a passer-by be able to tell that everyone in the room was incapable of pulling? Was a telltale smell of sexual desperation seeping out, giving their secret away?

“We’ve got to face facts, Lou,” she declared matter-of-factly, although she wasn’t sure whether she was trying to rouse her friend or herself. “This is the level we’re at. There’s got to be a reason why we never have boyfriends; it can’t all be down to bad luck. Maybe we’re intimidating to approach; maybe we’re giving off the wrong signals, or looking in the wrong places. Whatever, just like him”—she discreetly inclined her orange juice toward the beige man—“there’s something we’re not doing right, and we need to find out what.”

“Speak for yourself,” Lou replied drily. “I’m only here for the free booze. And if Twinkletoes over there really is my level, there isn’t enough booze in the world. I’ll be settling for an intimate acquaintance with my right hand for the rest of my life, and considering it a lucky escape.”

On the other side of the room, Alice hugged her cardigan around