NB: this week’s story and next week’s both, I hope, stand alone, but they work much better read together.
“The fickleness of the women I love is equalled only by the infernal constancy of the women who love me.”
George Bernard Shaw, The Philanderer
“So how was the big date?”
It was a grey, blustery Sunday afternoon, and East London Cemetery was deserted except for Jenny and me.
“Well … it was touch and go.”
“I touched her and she went.”
Jen squeezed my hand. “Oh well.”
“‘Oh well’? Is that it? You normally say stuff like, ‘She wasn’t good enough for you anyway,’ or, ‘Her loss.’”
“I know, but …” Jenny pretended to be interested in the huge ship’s anchor dedicated to the 34 killed in the 1898 HMS Albion disaster. “… she was extremely attractive.”
“What are you saying?”
“Look, there’s no harm in shooting for the moon. But if you keep missing the moon, maybe you should … aim a bit lower.”
“You’re asking me to settle for a barrage balloon?”
“No, I’m just saying that if you just spread your net a bit wider, you’re more likely to find someone who sees your true beauty.”
“My inner beauty, you mean.” We passed the grave of Andrea Angel, commemorating the 1917 Silvertown explosion (73 dead). “I’ll have you know I have been romantically linked with some highly desirable women.”
“With a bit of help from the law of averages.”
I bristled. “I pulled you!”
“If we’re going to split hairs, I pulled you. Anyway, I don’t care about looks.”
“There you go again. Are you subtly trying to tell me that I should abandon my dream of a career in Gillette adverts?”
Jen turned and stopped me next to the memorial to the 650 victims of the sinking of the SS Princess Alice in 1878. “Hey. You know I think you’re gorgeous.”
I made a sulky face. “Hmph. Why is it only girls in relationships who tell me that?”
“Duh,” said Jenny, setting off again, “because if they were single and they said it, they’d have to get off with you.”
I pulled my hand free of hers and put on my best sports-commentator voice. “‘And Bodle’s down. He’s gone down hard. But there’s a woman approaching – she looks like she’s going to help him up – but no! She’s kicking him! She’s actually kicking him in the head!’”
In the pre-Google era, the Guardian’s Research and Information Unit (formerly the Library) was the newspaper’s silent engine room. As well as the company’s battered smattering of reference books, it was home to a vast assortment of databases, cuttings, directories, microfiches, and contact information for anyone who might know anything about anything. If you wanted the correct spelling of a minor Nepalese royal, it was a job for R&I. If you needed a list of Mars probes, you called the Library. If you were after background information on the attempted coup in El Salvador, you nipped down to the second floor. The department consisted of nine permanent staff, who were joined each autumn by a new intake of four graduate trainees on one-year contracts. Since their department was next to the features desk, and since I, as a subeditor, frequently had cause to suspect the veracity of our reporters’ assertions, I was on grunting terms with most of them.
One slow October afternoon, I glanced up from my screen and noticed the manager in conversation with one of the new-bloods, a shorter than average woman in her mid-20s. She wasn’t exactly the sort of woman I’d spent my life fantasising about, but with her simple, sunny smile, and a laugh like wind chimes, she made me go all gooey inside.
The conversation finished abruptly, and as the trainee turned, her eyes caught mine. She looked away immediately, but then – no mistaking it – she blushed. She blushed! The only time I’d made a woman blush before, it had been closely followed by a slap. I resolved there and then that this woman was going to play a major part in my life.
A week later, fate threw me a bone.
I was at a leaving drinks in the Coach and Horses for someone on reception when I saw the smiley trainee at the bar. Without a second’s thought, I downed my drink and strolled over to join her.
She was Mirjam, 23, from the Netherlands, and she was even sweeter in person. So sweet that it took her a full five minutes to point out the tray of drinks she was supposed to be carrying to her friends. I let her go, planning to deepen our acquaintance an hour or so later.
But an hour or so later, Mirjam was nowhere to be seen. One of the other librarians told me she’d just left. I dashed outside; no sign. My only hope was the tube.
I decelerated into Farringdon station just in time to avoid tripping over Mirjam. As luck would have it, she lived in Kentish Town, and so was heading in my direction. More or less. As the next train was 15 minutes away, we found an empty bench and sat. I winkled a little more information out of her, offered some tidbits of my own, and during the first suitable lull, I dived in. We didn’t come up for air until her stop.
One week, one lunch and one pub quiz later, we were an item.
For the first couple of months, we did the things lovers do – read the newspaper to each other, fed the ducks in the park – with one notable exception. Mirjam, you see, had been chaste her whole life. She was no Christian; she simply believed sex was something special, and not to be entered into lightly.
This didn’t bother me in the least. I wasn’t one to rush into the physical side of things, and while some men would be champing at the bit to sleep with a virgin, I found the prospect of being someone’s first quite daunting. So three times a week, we’d do something fun together, then head back to mine, kiss and cuddle for a bit, and go to sleep holding hands.
It was liberating to discover that a relationship can survive perfectly well on fun, warmth and companionship. Sex, after all, is just a clumsy, sweaty bashing-together of bodies, a mindless surrender to our basest desires, an animal act of self-gratification. And isn’t it preferable to be certain that you like someone before you make love to them?
The time came for our social circles to converge. Mirjam didn’t have much of one, because she’d only been in London a few weeks; for my part, I thought I’d start with my best friend. So it was that one Sunday in February, we arrived at Guy’s flat in north London for an afternoon of beer and poker. Joining the three of us were Guy’s flatmate Sally, an intense town planner in her early 40s, and his drinking buddy Phil, a freelance film editor whose low voice and peculiar intonation made even the most innocent remark seem utterly depraved. Except Phil had never, to my knowledge, made an innocent remark.
It was a convivial, if uneventful afternoon. Towards the end, while Mirjam was in the kitchen fixing us drinks, I pointedly raised my eyebrows at the host. Guy put on his most supportive smile and, with a slightly overenthusiastic nod, whispered: “Well, she’s a really lovely person.”
Phil, at whom I had pointedly not raised my eyebrows, pulled a face, sucked air in through his teeth and shook his head in disapproval. The only thing that stopped me punching him in the face was the fact that my full house had just cleaned him out.
Shortly after the games day, Mirjam stayed over at mine as usual. But this time, as I reached over to turn out the bedside lamp, she nervously raised a hand and stopped me. “I’ve decided,” she said falteringly. “I think it’s time.”
My brain whirred for a second, then I took her hand and gazed into her eyes. This was a big decision. Was she sure she was sure? Did she really want to rush into something she might regret? I impressed upon her once again how happy I was to wait until she was completely, absolutely, 100% sure.
Mirjam wrinkled her brow, then smiled and said, “You’re so sweet,” and curled up in my arms.
I was left in no doubt, however, that the offer was still on the table. And from that day forth, I did everything I could to avoid going anywhere near the table.
From certain angles, in certain lights, she had a certain something. But despite the fact that I adored her for her complete and utter absence of malice, despite the fact that I hugely enjoyed spending time with her, and despite the fact that Phil’s appalling gurn had made me even more determined to love her, I couldn’t for the life of me get aroused in her presence.
I tried everything. Turning the lights down low; silently talking dirty to myself; imagining her with another girl. But that only worked when Mirjam left the picture and I was just imagining the other girl.
I was disgusted with myself. Was I really so shallow? Could I really not learn to love someone simply because she was less than drop-dead gorgeous?
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the problems had ended there. But the rot began to spread. Mirjam’s faults, barely detectable to begin with – a slight shyness, an inability to make decisions for herself – became progressively more irritating. Then one day, when she unexpectedly put her hand on my arm, I physically recoiled at her touch. That was the day I knew I had to be a man and break up with her.
In the event, I was anything but manly about it. I arranged to meet her at a quiet restaurant near her place. Within five minutes of sitting down to explain why it wasn’t working out, I was in tears and she had her arm round me.
Of course I didn’t tell her I found her unattractive. Instead I trotted out the stuff I’d had to swallow a hundred times about how I wasn’t in the right place for a relationship right now, about how she was fantastic, but we just didn’t click somehow. There might even have been an “It’s not you, it’s me.” (I desperately hoped that Mirjam’s youth, inexperience and Dutchness meant she’d never had to hear any of this crap before – at least not in English.)
There was one redeeming feature to the evening: my performance was so abject, I have a feeling that by the end of it she was secretly relieved to be shot of me.
♥ Taste in looks is subjective; beauty is in the eye of beholder. But only up to a point. There are some characteristics that all humans find attractive, and which are therefore probably hardwired. Chief among them, it seems, is symmetry. Women the world over are more drawn to men with more symmetrical faces – and men to more symmetrical women. This preference may have evolved because symmetry is a good indicator of the individual’s general health and resistance to parasites.
The other, more surprising component of beauty is averageness. In 1877, a Mr AL Austin wrote a letter to Charles Darwin, observing that a composite picture of two faces was more attractive than either of the faces alone. This effect has since been noticed repeatedly, across all cultures. Psychologists have posited several theories as to why this is so: because averageness, too, is a sign of health – no unusually large or small features; because of a “prototype abstraction mechanism” in the brain that stores the most “typical” image of a concept; or simply because composite faces are more symmetrical, lack obvious deformities, and look younger and healthier.