Smoked salmon sandwich, seasoned with black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Freshly handmade in Pret this morning. A pearl on a fine silver ring from Accessorize. A perfect fit for her middle finger. And a silky, mulled wine-coloured bra from Victoria's Secret. One missing a security tag.
Rose was in between jobs and decided that if she could get something for free, she would. Although she had always had some sort of a job since the age of eighteen and her mother had drummed into her the importance of saving, she had never felt financially safe. And she was sick of it. She was sick of being taxed a third of her income, having money legally stolen from her by her agency and the ever-increasing price of transport in London.
Also, it felt good getting products for free. She didn't see it as stealing; she saw it as buying things with the money she had already spent. When she was eighteen and fresh out of college, she had had work experience at a dying department store called Bodgers. There, she learned that the original price of an item was actually one tenth of the selling price. Shocked, she rarely bought anything at full price after that. She felt the stores were ripping her off and they owed her.
One cold, sunny afternoon in November, Rose was walking along Tottenham Court Road, when she noticed a woman handing out some chocolate samples besides the door of an organic food store. If there was anything she liked as much as a five fingered discount, it was free samples. She walked over and smiled at the lady politely.
‘Would you like to try a sample?’ the lady asked, as expected.
‘Oh yes, why not?’ replied Rose.
‘This is a new addition,’ said the lady, indicating to a plate of broken brown chunks before her. ‘It's chilli chocolate with a hint of zesty lime.’
‘Hmm chilli and chocolate,’ said Rose slowly. A seven-year-old memory rose to the surface of her mind like the smoke of a neglected cigarette butt withering away on an ashtray. ‘I'm a little wary of that combination.’
‘Wary,’ said a male voice to her right. ‘That's an interesting choice of word.’
Tall, slim, dark haired and in a black trench coat, he stood at the end of the table. He wasn't the first guy you'd notice in a room but there was certainly something about him.
‘Oh... I've had a bad experience in the past,’ she said, her eyes darting from the sample lady to the dark-haired stranger and back again. She vividly remembered feeling sick, like she was about to throw up the last time she had tried chilli chocolate. Although it was about 72% pure cocoa, which was probably why.
Rose tried to share the story with the sample lady as well as this mysterious man, but somewhere along the way, her words got lost amongst the other freebie lovers who were talking and asking questions. When she looked back to her right, he had disappeared.
Rose tried another sample, lemon chocolate, when she spotted the man at the back of the shop. He was browsing through the snack section. Rose didn't know what it was, but she felt compelled to speak to him. She walked down the short aisle towards him, wondering what to say.
‘Anything tickle your fancy?’ he asked, before she could open her mouth.
‘Oh, they were okay, but nothing stood out,’ replied Rose. ‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’
‘Do you work around here?’
His name was Duncan Carlyle and he worked for an advertising company nearby. He was about a foot taller than her and had a tiny little gap between his two front teeth. About half a millimetre wide. He seemed to sense her gaze and closed his lips, still smiling.
Rose was interested in the advertising world. As an artist, she had a wide range of interest from film and photography to creative writing and painting. But the advertising industry had always felt out of reach. She felt like she was looking in through a window, nose pressed against the cold glass, hands splayed out on either side of her head, peering hard and catching glimpses of a colourful streamers and helium balloons.
Like her, Duncan was also a tea and cake lover. They certainly had plenty to talk about.
‘Would you mind if we exchanged numbers so we can chat more over a cup of tea?’
‘That sounds good,’ replied Rose, taking out her phone.
She typed up his name and heard him laugh.
‘I can be Funcan if you like.’
Rose looked down and realised she had misspelt his name.
‘Please can I be Funcan?’ he joked.
So he had a sense of humour. Rose liked that.
'The letters are close together on the keyboard…'
And then, a tiny pause.
‘So… are you on your lunch break?’ Rose said, trying to hide the pause naturally.
Duncan however, seemed to have picked up on it.
‘Yes, and I should get back to work,’ he replied.
‘Well, it was lovely to meet you.’
‘You too. I’ll be in touch,’ he smiled with a twinkle in his eyes.
They parted. Rose was happy. Apart from the tiny pause at the end, the interaction had been natural. And awkward pauses were common in first meetings, weren’t they?
Duncan didn't bother following social rules by waiting two days to text; he did it that very evening. He suggested they meet up for a tea at a coffee shop above a bookstore.
'They serve cakes that would make Mary Berry cry,' his text said.
Rose quickly googled Mary Berry and images of a tiny, wrinkly old woman with thin painted lips filled her screen. She vaguely recalled seeing her on a cooking show. The Great British Bake Off perhaps.
Rose mulled over their encounter that evening. She didn’t think Duncan was really attractive physically however he was intelligent, spoke well with a very British accent which she found sexy. Like a dark-haired Hugh Grant with an edge.
Rose also knew how difficult it was to get into an advertising agency, so she believed him to be ambitious, determined, creative and innovative too.
What a sexy combination of qualities.
Rose wasn’t familiar with the dating scene. Twenty six years old and upon reading a pamphlet at the doctors, she discovered she suffered from low self-esteem and anxiety most of her life. It was an enlightening revelation that connected many events and put a lot of things into context. Her non-existent love life for example, as well as her lack of close friends.
So she didn't know if she should make Duncan wait for a response. Wasn't that a college girl thing? She didn’t know what the social rules were. He had text her within a few hours of their meeting so she decided to take his lead and text back.
He responded immediately and that was that. They were going to have tea the day after tomorrow.
Should she dress up? Dress normal? Was this a date? Or was it the start of a nice friendship? They were going to a coffee shop above a bookstore for tea and dessert, that wasn’t really shouting first date. But then again, they both spoke about their love for tea and cakes so maybe he was just being thoughtful and wanted her to feel comfortable?
Rose knew one thing for sure; she needed a new dress. She didn’t go out often and didn’t own any genuine evening wear. Her wardrobe consisted of many floral printed bohemian dresses and an assortment of casual tops and trousers. No, this tea date with Mr.Charming required a certain level of understated class. She needed to go to a high end high street store. Zara. Or Cos maybe.
So the next day, she stepped into Cos, her flat, rubber soled shoes unheard in the gentle hum of the shop and her oversized linen bag hanging off her narrow shoulder. She slid her fingers through a knee length dress, periwinkle blue, minimalist style. How cute. A floaty grey skirt. She liked the feel of it but disliked the colour. She always associated grey with corporate environments which she never fitted into.
And then she saw it. A deep green, figure hugging midi dress. Perfect. It balanced on the line between professional work wear and classy-casual evening wear.
A hundred and five pounds.
She was broke and had been most of her life but the price did not faze her. A year ago, she decided she was not going to let the price of products squeeze her into a box she didn't want to be.
Rose walked into the changing room and tried on the dress to make sure it was worth the hassle. It definitely was. The midi hugged her figure in all the right places, accentuated her small bottom, making it look a little bigger than it really was and showed just the right amount of smooth, unblemished, tanned skin.
Rose took it off and then casually walked out of the shop; dress still hung over the crook of her arm. No tag and no security guard. It was her lucky day.
Rose was exactly on time. She had never been to this café before; it was one of those fancy, artisan types you’d typically find in one of the many secret alley ways of London. No doubt the tea alone would cost almost as much as the tiny sequined purse she had snatched from Accessorize last week. She strolled through the mini gallery displayed at the back of the café. A collection of abstract paintings. How nice. She saw Duncan running up the stairs from the corner of her eyes. She didn’t know if she should pretend to not have seen him and let him approach her. She was terrible at greetings and goodbyes.
Rose was one of those people who usually left parties very discreetly. She always felt awkward saying bye to people, it was often long and drawn out and different people liked different things. Some liked to give a kiss on the cheek, others liked to kiss both cheeks, some preferred handshakes, others waved nonchalantly and carried on drinking. There was just too much to think about over saying goodbye when she just wanted to go home, perhaps have a cuppa and then hit the hay.
Duncan walked over to her and gave her a cheek to cheek kiss. She noted the masculine light graze of this two-day old stubble.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he apologised.
They found a small table in the corner of the shop.
‘Maybe we should order something first,’ he suggested.
They queued up and looked at the luxurious range of cakes and other treats. Rose didn’t know which one to pick.
Perhaps a whole minute passed before she said, ‘I’m an indecisive person in case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘I hadn’t noticed..!’ he laughed.
She finally picked a victoria sponge and placed it on her tray.
And then, another slightly awkward moment. They both stood in front of the cashier who looked at them politely and expectantly.
Who was going to pay for what?
Rose wanted Duncan to pay. Not because she wanted free expensive tea and cake but because although she believed in being a strong, confident and independent woman, she was also a tad old fashioned when it came to things like that.
Rose liked being taken care of by her partner. Taking her out and paying for a meal was one way of doing that. And despite her liking of hundred percent discounts at shops, she also took pleasure in treating people she liked and cared about. So she would pay too. But the man always paid first in her books and if he didn’t, it was a turn off and that would be the end of their relationship.
After a millisecond of a pause, Duncan pulled out his wallet.
Duncan was indeed funny; he made her laugh a lot. Conversation was good. They spoke about food, jobs, music and art they liked, holidays and travels. Time flew and soon it was eight in the evening.
Upon seeing Rose look at her phone, Duncan suggested they get some pizza. They walked to another fancy, artisan place. It had a rustic look about it, bare, wooden, low lit with candles in little foggy glasses on every table. When Rose had chosen her pizza, Duncan went ahead and paid without hesitation. Rose was pleasantly surprised.
The whole experience felt like something out of a rom com. She was Julia Roberts and he was Hugh Grant in Nottinghill. They didn’t meet in a cosy book store but they did have their first date in a coffee shop on top of a book store. And then an intimate dinner at a candle lit table, which he paid for. He was a gentleman. And she was the softly confident and beautiful female that the protagonist wanted and would later claim in the throes of passion.
OK she was letting her imagination run away with her.
At the end of the night, Duncan dropped her to the train station. She didn’t think saying goodbye would be an awkward experience; Duncan seemed confident in his skin and comfortable taking the lead. But for some reason, he acted a little odd. It seemed he was finding it difficult to say goodbye.
‘So I had a great time tonight,’ Rose said, filling up the silence.
‘Yeah,’ Duncan responded.
A pause while she waited for him to say something more. She waited for him to end the night pleasantly by suggesting they do it again and he’ll be in touch.
‘So I should be off,’ she said brightly after a pause.
Rose gave him a little peck on the cheek.
‘Okay then…’ she smiled.
Duncan just looked at her. He had a strange look on his face. A little shy maybe.
‘So…’ he said, as if to continue a conversation.
‘So… we should do it again sometime,’ Rose said.
Duncan smiled oddly. Rose wasn’t getting the sense of closure from him so she kissed him on the cheek again and made to leave when he said, ‘I wouldn’t mind if your lips missed my cheek and ended up on my lips.’
His comment caught Rose off guard, making her heart thump hard in her chest. She did not expect this at all.
‘Oh I er… don’t, couldn’t… I mean we’ve just met…’ she trailed off, her eyes looking at the dirty floor where thousands of Londoners had stomped over that day.
‘So thank you for tonight and I’ll be off now..!’ she squeaked, before running off to the escalator without glancing back.
Her heart continued thudding in her chest for another five minutes in rhythm with the train.
Rose only ever had one boyfriend and that was a long time ago. Her college sweetheart who was now married to someone else. She was happy for him, he deserved to be with someone who loved and appreciated him.
It had been eight years since she’d been with anyone. Not even a date. Rose had thrown herself into the professional world of art, an industry that was hard to maintain without giving away your life to it so she didn’t give dating too much thought. Or perhaps that was an excuse to cover her insecurity and lack of confidence with romantic relationships.
What must Duncan think of her, running off like that?
She decided to text him before going to sleep.
Thanks for tonight, I really enjoyed myself. Sorry about the awkward goodbye, I got nervous.
Her heart beat increased as she waited with anticipation for his response.
And then, a buzz.
I had a great time too. You mean when I joked about you kissing me? No worries!
Rose stared at the text. So it was a joke? She felt silly. She had taken it seriously, thought he wanted to kiss for real. Her heart had pounded in her chest. She had berated herself for being awkward and running off, for not handling the situation in a cool and confident way.