by Buffy Greentree
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Episode 1: Date Or Die
Week 1 Monday
Melbourne’s winter mornings are the Wuthering Heights of weather: cold, bleak and full of disillusionment. The fact that it’s Monday only makes it worse. Even the promise of coffee isn’t enough to drive me out from under my cosy doona.
After being side-tracked thinking through the practicalities of staying in bed for the rest of my life, and deciding it isn’t worth a bedpan, I check my phone. It’s 8am, two hours until I have to meet Amelia, my psycho pseudo-boss (if they don’t pay you, are they really your boss?). I clunk my brain into gear for some tricky mathematics: ten minutes to talk myself out of bed, then probably fifteen to toss on as many layers as possible and perform a miracle with my hair. It’ll probably take another fifteen minutes to get from my apartment to the overpriced, below quality chain coffee shop on Collins Street, if I decide to walk and not shell out for a tram ticket. Hmm, divide by five and carry the one … I can stay in bed for over an hour and a half and only be ten minutes late. Sounds like a plan.
With an evil grin, I slip one arm out of the covers to grab Anna Karenina from the pile of books on my bedside table. The rest topple to the ground with abandonment issues, their temporary bookmarks scattering. It’s like watching angels fall. My Bible, released from its captivity at the bottom of the pile, glares at me accusingly. Has it really been that long since I’ve read it? I should get onto that. Just not right now. I suck my arm back in before the goosebumps start forming their own union.
Ah, Anna Karenina, how those Russians love to complicate things. See, my love life could never be made into an 800 page novel. In fact, it can be summarised in two sentences; People in love with me: zero. People I’m in love with: zero. Okay, let me rephrase that last one: people I’ve actually met that I’m in love with: zero. And if some people want to judge me for being 29 and single, just because I’m not producing grandchildren, well that’s their problem. At least I don’t have so many people in love with me I’m contemplating suicide under a train.
Now where was I? Russian peasants farming, that’s right.
I’m just settling into the bucolic scene when the doorbell rings. Now, had it been the phone, the phone I could ignore. But the doorbell sounds so infrequently that I’m shocked into jumping out of bed before I can think. By then I’ve ripped off the icy Band-Aid, so I might as well see who it is.
I find my gianormous fluffy dressing gown – evidence in itself that I have no romantic expectations – and pull on my doggie slippers. Shuffling across the floorboards of my converted warehouse loft, I reach the intercom. It’s Yanie, my little sister. I buzz her up and turn on the Nespresso machine (a joint birthday present from my two best friends, Jess and Tiff. They know me so well).
My industrial metal door rattles but doesn’t open. I lurch over and heave on it. It starts rolling with a jolt, pulling Yanie along in its wake before she can let go. I’m expecting her usual comments about how I should replace the door and am already planning a snappy comeback about her scrawny arms when I realise she hasn’t said a word. Instead, she’s burst into tears.
‘YanYans, what’s with the tears?’
She’s still standing in the doorway, her minuscule frame hidden beneath a duffle coat; only her eyes appear above the wool boa constrictor that has wound itself around her throat.
‘It’s Tony,’ she finally gets out, finishing with a hiccup.
I herd her inside like a duckling and throw myself against the handle of the door to slide it back. I crank up the heating, then spin her around and around to unwrap the scarf. The coat comes off next, and finally Yanie is revealed in all her petite, twinset glory.
It looks like she’s been crying for a good half an hour, and has acquired the handkerchief of some kindly person. It’s monogrammed with the initials M.J. As I guide her over to the large sofa and head back to make us both a coffee I vaguely wonder about this mysterious individual. Did Yanie let slip she was crying about her boyfriend and the optimistic MJ saw his chance to cut in, maybe using the return of the handkerchief as his lure?
These are the sorts of things that happen to Yanie. If I burst into tears on the train — okay, I should say ‘when’, as it has happened a few times now — the most care and consideration I got was from the drunk guy wondering if I had any ciggies. This is just one of the essential differences between my sister and me.
But I digress, back to the crying Yanie. I shake myself out of my imaginings and bring over the coffees. Yanie takes hers and starts sipping.
‘So what’s all this about?’ It seems as good a start as any, but sets her off into more tears. I get up again and retrieve a box of tissues.
As I watch my little sister try to master herself and fail, I run through the various platitudes I could offer: ‘If he doesn’t realise how wonderful you are, then that’s his loss.’ Possibly true, but not much help. ‘Give him some time; he’ll realise what a mistake he’s made, and come back begging.’ Well, maybe, but do you really want a guy who comes back just because he couldn’t find anyone better? And then there’s the good old, ‘It’s not you, it’s him.’
This is all made more awkward by the fact Tony and I have been friends since high school, and as much as I love my little sister, I really doubt Tony would have done anything terrible. Of course, if he has, I know where he lives and seven different ways to break into his house.
I tune back in to find Yanie talking. Darn, now I have to piece together what she said. Just wait … waaait … nah, I got nothing.
‘He’s just so … and I thought … but he really meant … and then I felt … but he thought …’
‘Okay darling, slow down. Take a breath. I’m going to need some nouns.’
She drops her hands and turns her wet face towards me. ‘He asked me to marry him!’
Whoa, okay, was not expecting that. What platitudes can you offer in this situation?
‘I’m sorry, that sounds … awful?’ I try.
Her eyes open large. Not the right answer. ‘Yanie, I’m still not clear why you’re crying. I thought you really liked Tony?’ And I’m not just saying that because I set the two of them up, or because Tony’s awesome and the thought of having him as a brother-in-law is great. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
‘It’s just that …’ She hiccups but doesn’t conclude the sentence.
‘Just what, Yans?’
‘Mum,’ is all she manages to supply.
‘What about Mum? You know she loves Tony.’ Possibly more than she likes me. ‘It would make her so happy to know you were lovingly cared for.’ Tony has ‘provider’ tattooed on his forehead, which is exactly what Yanie needs. At 25 she still lives with Mum and Dad, even though she’s got a good job and is great at keeping house. It’s just that Yanie isn’t made to be by herself.
She turns her big eyes to me. ‘You think so?’
‘I don’t know what Mum’s said to you, but just the other day she told me how nice it would be if Tony proposed. And I know Dad feels the same.’
She puts her crying on pause. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, ducky, really.’ I give her nose a flick. ‘You and Tony are meant to be together.’
She thinks about it for a while, which I judge as a good opportunity to surreptitiously check my phone for any messages. Darn, Amelia has moved the meeting forward an hour. I’m going to have to speed this up.
‘So don’t you think you shouldn’t be cruel and leave him hanging?’
‘You think I’m being cruel?’
‘Well, what did you do when he proposed?’
‘Um, well he’d taken me out for breakfast before work, at that little café off Chapel. And the waiter had just brought out our plates when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a box.’
One of the problems with being a writer is constant autocorrect. Obviously that sentence has a loose pronoun, or else Yanie just got proposed to by the waiter, but this is probably not the time to point it out. I let her continue.
‘And he didn’t say anything, just pushed the box towards me. I didn’t even know what it was. But then he pulled off the white ribbon, and I saw …’ She chokes up again.
‘Well, then I just ran. I saw a tram opening its doors, and found myself on it coming into the city.’ She shakes her head, blond curls tumbling around her face. ‘Then there was this really nice guy, and he gave me his handkerchief, and his number, and the next thing I knew, I was at your door.’
I overcome my desire to yell ‘I knew it!’ at having sussed out the dubious MJ merely by his initials. Instead, I pat her on the shoulder and search for the next appropriate thing to say.
‘So, you’ve left him sitting all alone in a cafe without any answer?’
‘Um, when you put it like that …’
Please recall my previous statement about Tony’s awesomeness: this really is unfair to the poor guy. Having poured my heart out to many a book publisher, and having suffered the agony of waiting weeks and weeks with no news, I completely feel for him right now.
‘Ring him.’ I search inside her bag, which is perfectly organised and doesn’t have five different lipsticks rolling around the bottom, and pass her the phone. ‘Ring him now.’
‘And you really think I should accept him?’
I want to shake her to get more oxygen to her brain, in case that would help. Instead I put on a kind and considerate face and tell her that, yes, yes I really think she should.
I must do a convincing act because she instantly looks brighter. ‘Oh, Lau, it’s going to be so much fun! Imagine, a whole wedding to plan in just seven weeks. I think we can do it in seven. That shouldn’t be a problem, right?’ She doesn’t wait for an answer, but finds Tony in her contacts and hits call.
I’m left all by myself in this suddenly insane conversation. Seven weeks? What now? How was that part of the deal? All I said was she should accept – there was nothing about the shortest engagement in the history of the universe! (Okay, for the sake of accuracy, I know perfectly well it’s not the shortest engagement. However, I think the scale of the probable wedding should be taken into account. Yanie has more real life friends than I have Facebook ones. This is not going to be a small affair.)
But before I can cogitate any longer on this new development, Yanie kisses her microphone port several times, and springs up.
‘You were so right, Lau. He’s the best. He completely understood about me running, and Mum and everything. Now it’s all going to be okay.’ She does a twirl. ‘Oh Lau, I’m getting married!’
Less athletically I lumber off the couch. ‘That’s wonderful. Now, back to the part about organising it all in seven weeks?’
‘Well, of course it has to be then. You haven’t got anything planned for that Sunday, do you?’
‘Not that I know of. But Yanie, you can’t organise a wedding in seven weeks. Think about it; you won’t be able to have the dress made in time, or book a venue, or … or … any of the other things that go with organising a wedding.’
‘That’s why I have you.’ She comes forward and kisses me on the cheek. I’ve always been a softie when it comes to Yanie, but still. ‘Darling, not even with ten of me could you get it done.’
She’s already walking to the door. ‘Oh don’t worry, I’m sure it’s all going to work out. But I have to fly; I need to go back and finish my breakfast. Tony said he’d wait.’ She turns back from robing herself in the giant coat. ‘He’d been waiting there the whole time. Isn’t that sweet of him? But don’t worry, you and I will work out the whole wedding.’
‘And Mum, she’ll probably want some input.’
Yanie’s face looks like it’s about to crumble, but then smooths over. ‘Of course. But she’s very busy right now, and I don’t want to bother her too much. I’m sure we can organise most of it.’
What has Mum been saying? Yanie and Mum have a great relationship. Mum and I, on the other hand, not so great. But I’m prepared to put that aside for the sake of Yanie’s wedding. So what’s going on?
‘Oh, and we’ll finally get to meet that author you’re dating! I’m so glad you have someone. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to be dateless at your younger sister’s wedding!’
I stare at her blankly. This is too much for 8am on a Monday. ‘That author?’
‘Yes, Timothy Farren. Didn’t you say you two were dating?’
Timothy Farren, who changed the adolescence of a whole generation of Australians with his brilliant writing, and me … dating? I quickly filter through all recent conversations where I may have let my fan-girl crush on Amelia’s one real client appear a reality.
‘Ah, you know …’
‘Did I get it wrong?’ Yanie turns to me with her eyes wide. Really, it’s like kicking a puppy. Who kicks a puppy?
‘No, you’re right, sorry. Yes. Timothy Farren, my date. Won’t be a spinster at your wedding, no need to worry.’ And anyway, it’s not really lying; I’m sure within seven weeks I’ll be able to think up an explanation as to why I’m not dating Australia’s greatest writer, as well as finding someone new so I don’t drown in Yanie’s pity.
She comes forward and takes my hands. ‘He’s good to you, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, darling, he’s the ideal boyfriend.’ I can feel the ghost of Oscar Wilde laughing at me as I watch Yanie smile and head back to her new fiancé.
It’s fine. I can find a boyfriend in seven weeks. I haven’t had one for almost six months, but that was because I wasn’t motivated enough.
But first I need to survive my meeting with Amelia.
Despite all efforts, I arrive on time. I’m soon seated with my long black and a hot chocolate for Amelia, the sole agent of The Precious Literary Agency, my pseudo-boss. It’s an unusual choice for her, since she’s almost as big a caffeine addict as I am. But it’s probably the latest fashionable fad; cocoa for weight loss, don’t mind the sugar. I stop to consider a world where chocolate make you thin. Global anorexia might become a problem.
Five minutes later, having given in and started on my long black, I get a message from her saying she’ll be two minutes late. How can she be two minutes late when she’s already five? However, I take the opportunity to contemplate which cake I would buy if I could afford to eat cake every day. Definitely the layered chocolate mousse. Or maybe the carrot cake as it would also count as my vegetable quotient for the day.
After torturing myself for long enough, my thoughts turn to possible boyfriends. As previously mentioned: people in love with me – zero, people I’ve actually met that I’m in love with – zero. Some might say that this would make finding a boyfriend in seven weeks difficult, but I’m not one to back down from a challenge. Except for a physical challenge, those I back down from like a pro-abseiler.
I feel a project coming on. Options:
1. My brother Hadley has a few cute friends. Cons: a) they’re all younger than me, b) it would be weird, and c) they probably all have hot younger girlfriends already.
Who else, who else …?
Ten minutes later, I’ve become sidetracked into a daydream about what would happen if I somehow met the prince of Liechtenstein and he took me to the wedding. There’s a Cinderella coach involved. A sudden thump in front of me makes me spill my coffee.
Amelia has arrived and dropped a whole shopping bag full of manuscripts onto the table. She sweeps back her platinum blond hair and artfully collapses into her chair. ‘You wouldn’t believe the weight of all these. And people actually expect me to read them! Do you think you’ll be able to get through them by Wednesday?’
‘Oh, yeah, that’s totally fine. I’ll use my usual method: throw them down the stairs and take the one that gets the furthest.’ I smile blandly at her horror-stricken face.
After a few seconds she blinks. ‘Laurie, I don’t know if you thought that was funny, but please act professionally when dealing with my clients.’
I take the manuscripts and try to stuff them into my leather satchel. I end up putting them on the ground next to it.
Amelia tutts but moves on. ‘Now, I’ve called you here for a very important matter.’
I try not to sit forward on my seat. It’s awful, I know, but Amelia has me completely over a barrel. I’m her slave, her whipping girl, purely because she’s promised to possibly send my manuscript, Missing Life, to one of the publishers she deals with.
‘It’s about Timothy Farren’s latest book.’
My mind freezes for a microsecond before butting in. ‘Before we discuss that,’ which, by the way, I know nothing about. How does Timothy Farren start writing a new book and me not know about it? ‘Did you get a chance to send my manuscript through to Hendricks at Pan MacMillan?’
Despite thinking she’s Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada, she’s no actress and her face is easier to read than a McDonald’s menu. Written across it is ‘awkward’.
‘Well, as to that, it’s been a very busy week.’ When she says week, she means over a year. ‘But I’ll be meeting with Jefferies in a fortnight, and I think it might better suit what Penguin is doing right now. That’s the benefit of having an agent,’ she gains confidence as she steers onto well-rehearsed ground. ‘It’s all about our expert knowledge of the market and which publishing houses are looking for what.’ She gives me a nod, though I’ve heard her spiel a hundred times.
Actually, Australia doesn’t really have literary agents. There are a handful in total because most people deal directly with the publishers. Somehow Amelia has convinced herself this makes her special, not redundant.
In truth, she lucked out convincing a young Timothy Farren to sign with her. His first debut novel did something no one expected – it sold. It became part of the school curriculum, as well as part of the Australian psyche. I was in high school when I read it for the first time. It was deep though accessible, passionate yet subtle, humorous but at the same time heart breaking. In short, it was a masterpiece.
His second book was reasonably well received, though even I can acknowledge it wasn’t as good. Having said that, it came out about seven years ago now, and is still on the shelves at Dymocks and other bookstores, so no one’s knocking it.
On top of that, Amelia has kept him at the forefront of Australian writing by organising a lucrative speaking circuit, enhanced by Mr. Farren’s natural ability to speak and his general, well, hotness.
And it turns out he’s been writing a third book without me knowing it. ‘So, what’s Mr Farren’s new book about?’ I’m not allowed to call him Timothy, that would be unprofessional. But not for Amelia, because they’re such close friends.
‘Well, as to that …’ Again, her face — open book.
Alarm bells start ringing and the voice over the loud speaker of my mind tells me to evacuate the situation.
‘That’s where you come in.’ She hurriedly continues, ‘It’s actually a very prestigious position. I don’t even know why I’m entrusting it to you.’
I consider whether to slap her out of her delusions of grandeur, but decide I’m too interested in what she’s offering.
‘Timothy just needs a bit of … encouragement … to write his next book.’
‘So he has an idea?’
‘To … think about writing his next book,’ she corrects.
What exactly does she expect me to do? Walk up to him and say, ‘Hello Mr Farren, loved your past two books. Have you thought about writing another one? Well, I really think you should. Here, take this pen and paper and see what you come up with.’ The man’s a genius! You can’t force that!
‘I’m not sure I quite understand how I can help.’
‘Well, I’ll leave the details for you to work out, but there’s the book launch for poor Marcus on Friday night. Timothy will be speaking, so I’ll introduce the two of you then.’
First, I hate how she refers to him as ‘poor Marcus’. Marcus Malone is releasing his debut novel, and has already signed contracts for the next two books in the series. I don’t know the figures, but there are rumours.
And then we get to the carefully savoured second — Amelia is actually going to introduce me to Timothy Farren? On Friday I’m going to meet the man himself? Even I’m not delusional enough to think that in reality anything would happen, but just to be in his presence … ah.
Surely this has to be another one of her tricks. There must be something else she wants me to do before then, which I’ll stupidly agree to because my eyes are blinded by the Friday night lights.
‘So, don’t forget to handwrite all those response slips. It was such a great idea, and shows you have real promise.’
O’ Stupid Mistake, how long will you haunt me? When interviewing for the ‘intern’ position with Amelia, I was so desperate I promised I would handwrite all the rejection slips for the slush pile. I naively added I’d also give pointers on how they could improve. Little did I know. Turns out there’s a very good reason why agents don’t handwrite rejection slips, and why many don’t send them at all.
I sigh and pat the fat bundle with a plastic smile on my face. Amelia downs the rest of the hot chocolate while waving one manicured hand to indicate what a hurry she’s in. She then pats her lips with the serviette and totters off, throwing kisses at me as if we’ve just had a BFF powwow.
I check my phone: five hours until I need to be at my real job, which is even sadder than my fake one.
Throwing pecuniary caution to the wind I order another cup of coffee. With steaming glass in hand, I pull out the first of the manuscripts.
The heavy raindrops splashed on the exposed alabaster skin of the tall, raven-haired young woman as she stood on the battlements overlooking her kingdom. How could her father sell her off like some piece of cattle!
I sigh. It’s going to take a lot more than caffeine to get through this.
‘So, what have you got for us today?’
The other four call centre chattel are standing around the sink in the break corner (despite the optimistic signage, a semi-permanent partitions does not a room make). They are waiting expectantly for me as I usually (always) bring in a stack of horrendous manuscripts to read while the phones are quiet. It’s become a late shift tradition for me to read out the passages so bad they make me lose faith in humanity. We may’ve even started a list on the whiteboard of the best, that is worst, opening lines.
They crowd around me as I try to detangle myself from a lanyard that’s doing a good job of strangling me, while keeping the armful of pages from spilling.
‘Come on, anything truly horrific?’ From behind a hand snatches at the papers, but I twist away.
‘You know, one day I’m going to slip my own manuscript in here, and you’ll be horrible about it, and then you’ll realise what bad people you are.’
Sandy succeeds in swiping the top piece off the pile.
‘Hey!’ I make a grab but get further tangled.
‘Oo, today’s offering is from Hannah Klein. It’s a romance, set in an age when men were men, and women were supported by a lot of unnecessary underwear but not much else.’ I think Sandy is ad libbing that last part, though to be honest, she mightn’t be.
Sandy, who despite her name is an Asian goth with a rusty nail sticking out of her bottom lip, happens to be a corrosively good mimic. She can do any accent and is brutal at picking up on mannerisms. However, despite this, she’s actually a really nice person.
Compare this to one of our co-workers, Michael, who looks like a goth, but was in fact born that way. While Sandy can be cruel to be kind, if Michael’s ever kind it’s somehow to be cruel. I’d like to believe he has a sensitive, caring side somewhere deep down, but if he does, you’d need a dimensional shift machine to find it. He’s currently sitting on my desk, for no other reason except he knows it annoys me. He waits until I’m right up in his face before sliding off.
‘Just parking, Barker, no need to get pissy.’
I’m waiting for the opportunity to show him what pissed off really looks like.
‘Come on, get to the good part.’ Blob has a doughnut in his hand and cinnamon sugar around his mouth. His real name is Bob, but Blob has stuck. I feel bad about that, really I do.
‘“It was a love like no other, a love bound by fire,”’ Sandy starts off in a deep, sensual voice. ‘“It was ruled by passion, and subjugated reason to its needs.”’ She pauses for a moment while the rest of us digest the true awfulness of this.
‘It was a good use of “subjugate”.’ Michael would play devil’s advocate against the devil if he could.
‘Are there any boobs?’ I hadn’t noticed Creepy IT Guy come in. He’s standing close behind Sandy when he speaks. She turns and swipes him across the ear with the wad of pages.
‘Who invited you?’ She says with her usual disdain for him.
‘Coming to do my nightly round of the sick and disabled.’ He walks over to one of the computers and turns it on. We’re all looking at him, so he runs a finger along the monitor while licking his tongue across his lips. Like I said, Creepy IT Guy. We all turn away with a shudder.
‘Well, I think this deserves to go on the list.’ Sandy drops the pages onto my desk and surveys the group.
‘Nah,’ says Blob, ‘I don’t know if it makes the cut.’
We turn to look at Betty, who’s managing to hide behind the break table. ‘Me? Oh, well, I thought it was … well … you know, quite nice.’ She finishes on a rising inflection, making it sound like a question. Betty is sweet, but has a backbone even a jellyfish would laugh at. ‘Anyone like a muffin?’ She adds to take the attention off herself.
She brings out a Tupperware container with two layers of white chocolate and raspberry muffins, neatly separated by baking paper. Did I mention I love Betty? More than my own mother at times? We all dive in and take one, then a few more for the desk, before Rabib our manager stalks down the floor, scattering us like chickens to our roosts, or roasts depending how you look at it.
I turn on my computer and adjust my headset while swallowing an enormous mouthful. A few more bites disappear while everything boots up. I’m still chewing when my phone suddenly drops in. Thankfully my recording saves me while I swallow. Welcome to First Regional Bank. You’re speaking with Laurie. How may I help you today?
‘Finally,’ comes the exasperated voice down the line, ‘I just wanted to check my bank balance.’
I pick up where the recording leaves off. ‘Did you know that with our new services you can do that from any ATM, over the internet or even on your phone with our First Regional app?’
‘I just want my balance.’
Pushy much? ‘That’s fine. I’ll just need to ask you a few questions.’
‘Why do I need to answer any questions? It’s me, how else can I prove that?’
Well, if you’d shut up and listen for a moment, I’d tell you.
Yes, this is my life. Dealing with idiots, then coming to work and dealing with idiots. The late shift at a call centre is even less glamorous than it sounds. The only advantage is that except for a few peak times, it’s usually quiet and I can get other work done.
After the initial rush of workers ringing when they arrive home, we get the dinnertime lull. My last caller was an elderly gentleman who wanted to know his bank balance and to tell someone about his day, so I started doing some wedding related Googling while he was talking to himself. Turns out that the average amount spent on weddings in Australia is $36,000. That’s almost a deposit on an average house; or a reasonable new car; or a very nice holiday.
‘Googling wedding venues, huh?’ I jump as Michael leans in close behind me. I exit the page, but obviously it’s too late.
‘It’s not for me.’
Betty’s head appears above her cubical wall. ‘Is someone getting married? I love weddings!’
By this time everyone’s peering, even Sandy who is simultaneously discussing possible credit options with a customer, but whose eyes are fully engaged in prying into my private life.
‘My sister Yanie has just announced she’s getting married, and I said I would help with the wedding, that’s all.’
‘When’s it going to be?’ Betty comes as far around the corner as her headphones will allow.
‘Um, in seven weeks.’
Sandy splutters. ‘Seven weeks! … Sorry Mr Lincoln. No, not on your credit card. Our cards have up to 55 days interest free.’ Having made a good recovery, she hits mute and hisses, ‘Seven weeks?’
‘Yeah, tell me about it.’
Betty thinks about this. ‘How are you going to find something to wear in that time?’
Blob waves her question away. ‘Never mind that, how’s the bride?’
Sandy finally gets free and puts her phone on busy. ‘More importantly, how are you going to find someone to take in that time?’
Everyone nods in agreement and turns to stare at me.
‘It’s fine. I’ve got seven weeks, I’m sure I can find someone by then.’
Sandy shakes her head. ‘Well, you’d better get on it, because you don’t want to be that bridesmaid who hooks up with the groom’s geeky high school friend with adult braces and works in IT.’
We all look across the room but Creepy IT Guy’s already gone. Turning back, Betty nods, her bob accentuating the movement. ‘She’s right. Happened to my sister Angie at our cousin Barb’s wedding. And then she found out she was pregnant and ended up having to marry him.’
Everyone acknowledges that this is a potential pit I need to avoid.
Sandy is the first with helpful advice. ‘What about that guy you were dating, what’s his name … Simon?’
Ah Sandy, you don’t even mean to be cruel. ‘It was Steven, and he dumped me six months ago.’
‘Was it really that long ago?’
‘Before Betty started working here,’ I reply.
‘And I’ve been here just over five months. It’s turning into quite a career.’ We all look in different directions so as not to catch her eye.
‘Yeah, that’ll show that scum sucking ex-husband of yours you can totally make it on your own,’ Sandy kindly says for all of us before turning back to me. ‘Anyway, so he’s totally off the scene?’
‘Engaged to someone else.’
‘What, already? Okay, I know, the Christian thing. You guys really are eager to snatch them up, aren’t you?’
I give her a baleful stare, which, if there were any justice in this world, would burn her to the ground. Sandy, however, remains charcoal free. ‘Fine, so is there anyone else you could ask, even as a favour?’
Does she really think I haven’t thought through all the options? ‘Well, my days are spent sitting at home performing literary slave labour for Amelia, or here with you guys.’ We all pause and look first at Blob, now consuming a Mars Bar, and then at the back of Michael, who’s standing in the break room. Even Betty looks dubious.
Michael doesn’t turn around. ‘I recommend looking elsewhere then.’
‘Well, where do you suggest?’ I snap, feeling snarky even though I’m obviously not going to take either of them.
‘How about internet dating?’ He turns around with a smirk on his face.
‘Oh!’ Betty bounces up and down. ‘I had a friend who tried internet dating and found the love of her life. She now lives in Ipswich in Queensland and has five children.’
Sandy can’t stop her expression of wide-eyed horror, but quickly recovers. ‘Five children aside, I had a friend who tried it, and met up with another taphophile.’
We all look at her blankly. ‘Seriously you guys. It’s someone who loves cemeteries.’
Blob shudders. ‘That’s just wrong.’
‘Anyway, they had their first date in a graveyard not far from here. And they’ve just taken six months off work to ride around Europe visiting Neolithic burial sites. I think it’s kinda sweet.’
Everyone turns their attention back to me.
‘I don’t know, internet dating … I mean, what’s the likelihood of meeting someone in seven weeks whom I could ask to a wedding?’
Michael looks up from stirring his coffee. ‘Well, you could always hire an escort. I can recommend some good agencies, though I don’t know what their males are like.’
‘Internet dating it is,’ I say quickly.
‘And anyway,’ Sandy says, ‘You’re a writer. Internet dating should be easy for you.’
‘Yeah,’ Betty continues, ‘You’ll be able to make yourself sound really nice, and maybe even cool.’ She squeals and runs back to her cubicle. Tapping the mute button on her phone, she adds, ‘Don’t say anything good while I’m away.’ She turns back to her screen and starts a cheerful conversation, apparently oblivious to the insult she previously dealt my personality.
Sandy holds up a sheet of paper. ‘If you need a few first lines to start you off…?’ It’s the sheet with slush pile quotes too risqué to put on the board.
‘Thanks, I think I’ll be able to write a short self-summary without help.’
Sandy looks at me kindly, in a way that also suggests I’m deluded. ‘And what exactly are you going to say?’
‘Hey, what’s that meant to mean?’
‘Well, you have no social life, work the night shift in a call centre, and spend your weekends watching Midsummer Murders on ABC iview or online lusting after clothes you can’t afford. ’
‘That’s not fair, I’m a writer, and … and …’
Blob coughs. ‘What exactly have you written?’
That’s totally unfair as I have a Masters in Creative Writing and even had a few short stories published when I was at Uni. True I haven’t had anything published since then, and I can’t even convince my boss to look at my manuscript, but I do have a blog about coffee, which I think is pretty good. Though no one actually reads it. So, when you list my life out like that, it sort of sucks.
Before I can sink further into pessimistic self-reflection, Betty suddenly bounces out of her chair.
‘Oh, oh! It’s foot fetish guy!’ She sounds half excited, half revolted.
‘Put it on speaker,’ Sandy calls out and everyone crowds around.
‘Are you wearing shoes, Betty?’ The voice is muffled and low, with an indistinct accent.
Sandy rolls her hand, encouraging Betty to answer this.
‘Underneath your shoes, are your feet … naked?’
Betty glances around wildly to see if we can aid her. ‘Um, no, I have stockings on.’
‘Are they sheer, smooth like a tongue gliding across the soft flesh of your feet?’
Betty freaks at this and presses the end call button.
‘Eew, that was so weird!’ She says the moment the disconnect tone comes on. ‘I can’t believe he keeps calling.’
Sandy looks around to see who’s listening. ‘This one time …’
I sit back down at my desk as the urban legends start. There’s a reason I’m not excited about opening my dating pool to just anyone. Experience has taught me there are a lot of weird people out there. But sadly Michael’s right, I’m going to have to do something because the answer isn’t right in front of me.
Just to motivate myself, and partly because it’s an extra slow night, I make a sign: Date Or Die.
I feel that summarises my current situation.
After sticking my artfully designed ‘date or die’ sign to the wall facing my bed, I spent the rest of the night dreaming of what else I could do to improve my life. In that wonderful state before sleep where all ideas shine bright like a welding flame, I devised the Laurie Master Plan. As I plotted out the goals, timelines, even motivational messages I would write myself, I could see it so clearly. The plan was the love child of an Officeworks store and the Sistine Chapel. I admit, looking back, I may have slipped over into sleep at some point. However, I stand by the general principle: the plan is organisation and creative genius rolled into one. And I have seven weeks to achieve it.
So here I am, 9am Tuesday morning, ready to tackle Step One – Find a Boyfriend. Armed only with a coffee and a laptop, I start my reconnaissance mission of internet dating sites.
Within a few minutes, I identify a strategic problem I’ll have to solve before I can continue. Should I use a site aimed at Christians? My ideal man would have some faith, so it makes sense. However, the more I search these sites, the greater my feeling of despair grows. As much as I love God, it can’t be denied that most Christians are weird. And these profiles are really, really Christian. They all love God and want a servant-hearted woman who loves God to raise a multitude of God-loving children. Personality appears to be optional.
So I abandon the idea and decide secular is the best route. Go with the biggest and scrape off the scum, I say. Having more people on the site has to improve my odds of meeting someone, right?
A quick Google search turns up some strong candidates. After I take out the ones that expect me to pay, I find a winner. Annoyingly, I have to sign up before it will let me browse, which involves choosing a user name. It’s a big decision for 9am in the morning. Luckily, I’m a writer, and have coffee.
A few minutes later, I’m contemplating taking out a missing persons’ report for my brain. It has failed to respond to any of my calls for help. After finding ‘Writergirl’ taken, and even ‘lamecallcentregirl’ (who’da thought?), I’m now stuck. I really want to highlight the writer/literary aspect, mostly because it’s the only thing I’ve got going. In despair, I start typing in ‘write’ while trying to think what I could add to that. The website then very helpfully suggests ‘WritingTaco’. Seriously? ‘Taco’ is the word you’d add to the end of that? However, since I’m only here to check out the potential, I’ll take it. If the site’s any good, I’ll change it later. But for now, Laurie Barker is … WritingTaco.
I tune out the Mexican theme song that has started playing in my head, and click the continue button. Next it wants me to answer a few questions about myself.
Hmm … I might skip that part.
Why would they need to know that?
Just let me browse already!
I skip a few more sections and finally get to the good bit: finding a guy. So, my search criteria. What I want in a guy. Defined. In a neat checklist … Darn.
Time for a fresh coffee.
Wrapped in a throw rug, I waddle over to my kitchen. I like to think of my apartment as ‘industrial chic’. It does sadden me that it’s actually one of Mum and Dad’s investment properties, which they only let me stay in out of pity. However, I’m a practical gal, and it’s a heck of a lot nicer than anything I could afford.
The large skylight windows open onto a rustic brick wall opposite and grey sky above. Granted, grey sky means cold, but it’s stylishly cold. I’ve tried to soften up the kitchen area by installing an eco window-farm I heard about in a TED talk. The green of the plants goes well with the exposed brick and wooden bench tops. Checking on my little babies I come across a lone, ripe strawberry. Success. I chew on it while thinking about what I’m actually looking for in a man.
As mentioned, Christian, I think. Haven’t had too much luck with them recently, but trying to explain the whole no sex before marriage thing to a secular guy is a nightmare. Hugh, the one before my last boyfriend Steven, was kind, caring, sensitive, and said he totally didn’t mind about the no sex thing. But then after three months suddenly he did. It’s difficult for a relationship to move forward after that.
But then there’d been Steven. We met at small group. It started off light between us, but finally developed into something more. Okay, I might’ve felt a twinge of pride that I’d been the one to land him, as quite a few others were trying. But I really did like him, the scumbag.
We broke up six months ago after dating for about a year. Now he’s engaged to someone else, and I’ve stopped going to that church, which is a pity because it was a good church.
Anyway, Christian, probably.
Education is a difficult one. I mean, I know a lot of tradies are sweet, have good incomes, and are great family men. But images of spending every evening talking about the latest in plumbing fixtures keep filling my head.
The seeping cold around my ankles brings me out of my reveries. I snap a pod into my coffee machine and wait for the liquidy goodness to flow out. Man, it smells great. By the time I get back to the couch there’s a message waiting for me on the dating site. I open it up. CareToDance has contacted me to say I should put up a photo because he’d like to know more about me.
Just to clarify, by this stage I’ve filled in 0% of my profile other than the wonderful name ‘WritingTaco’.
I click on his profile. Surprisingly, he doesn’t appear bad looking. First photo is a casual headshot which doesn’t seem either drunk or at a strip-club. Then there’s an action shot of him on a surf board (well I think it’s him, could be anyone really), and another of him with a Border Collie. Now that’s just cheating: putting cute dogs in your profile.
His interests are surfing, playing fetch with his dog, and designing things. He’s recently moved to Melbourne, and is looking for friends/possible relationships. No major red flags there.
While I’m reading through this, the chat box jumps open.
hey writingtaco you wanna talk?
Wow, this guy seems a bit eager, or maybe he’s just bored at work somewhere. It is a Tuesday after all.
Hi CareToDance, what to write, what to write … I’m just browsing at the moment. I sound like I’ve walked into a department store.
are you new? what do you do?
Starting with the tricky questions. Hmmm. You know, a bit of this, a bit of that. Worst line ever. Come on Laurie, pull it together. I actually work for a literary agent, and have a pile of manuscripts I should be reading. Now that sounds better.
Pause. I might as well contribute something to the conversation. So, what do you do?
a bit of this a bit of that
I was right, that’s a really unhelpful description.
Well, what ‘this’ are you working on now?
Right now Im thinking how much Id like to see a pic of you
Is that dodging the question? And don’t think I haven’t noticed every missing apostrophe, full stop and capital. However, no judgement. Well, if you’ll give me a moment …
I close the chat box and go back to my profile. Photos, what do I have? There was the one at Jess’ wedding that should be up on Facebook. But does it look desperate if I put up a wedding photo? Nah, I’m sure no one can tell, and I have awesome hair. Though, I do have a double chin thing going. Oh well. I find it and upload it anyway.
While I’m there I flit over to Tiff’s page. There’s the picture of me with Tiff and Yanie when we were at that new cocktail bar. It should be obvious which one is me. Though Yanie does look particularly cute and vulnerable, which lessens my appeal. But I’m used to that by now.
Then there’s that funny one with me and the emu. It’s a few years ago now, but who’s going to notice? So up they all go.
Now to put in some words. This should be the easy part.
I take a sip of my coffee.
Should I say my real age? Okay, delete that.
I take another sip while staring at the screen. I put the cup down, fingers on the keys, ready for inspiration to strike. I tap my nails. I should probably cut them at some stage. Hmm, one has gotten chipped, probably from trying to open the childproof bottle of Panadol the other day. Stupid childproof bottles.
Focus Laurie, focus. Okay, I’m just going to write out whatever comes to mind.
Me, in a nutshell: I have two eyes, two ears, one nose, but strangely two mouths. Yeah, don’t know where I was going with that. Delete.
I work for a literary agent, and spend my days reading other people’s awful writing. Then in the evenings I pay my bills by working in a call centre. Does that sound sad? Maybe I’ll take out the part about the call centre. I love coffee, and write a blog on the hidden coffee places of Melbourne. Which no one reads, but they don’t need to know that. I have a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in Creative Writing. Biggest wastes of time and money ever. But moving on.
After I finished uni I spent two years travelling around Europe drinking coffee and writing my first novel, which I’m pretty sure Amelia hasn’t even bothered to read. I like to think of it as Eat, Pray, Love in the style of Dodie Smith, the author of I Capture The Castle.
So, what else is there to know about me? Do I mention the Christian thing here, or leave it till later? It’s probably enough to tick the box in the checklist: Christian, Anglican and somewhat serious about it. Should I say very serious about it? But then that might make me sound like one of those weird Christians who only listen to Christian music and live in communes. ‘Somewhat serious’ I think is a fair summary.
The rest of the checklist is easy:
Height – short. Sadly, there’s no two ways about that.
Build – I’m on the petite side, sort of.
Eyes – brown.
Hair – brown.
Smoker – no.
Drugs – no.
Drinks – occasionally/socially. Really, compared to other people, I hardly drink at all.
Education – Masters.
Children – don’t have kids, but want some. It might just be because Jess is currently pregnant, but I’ve become really clucky. Have you seen how cute baby outfits are these days? Anyway, back to task …
Status – single. Why would anyone say married? Actually, don’t answer that.
Final section: what am I looking for? Someone who isn’t a serial killer or a sleaze. How can I say that in socially acceptable terms? Instead I write: Someone who loves reading and would like to explore the coffee treasures of Melbourne with me, which sounds pretty cool, if I do say so myself.
I upload what I’ve saved so far.
I feel I’ve made a positive step towards taking control of my life. Time to shower and get dressed.
My bathroom is probably the worst part of my wonderful little apartment. For one, the door doesn’t always latch properly, so has a habit of flying open when the air inside heats up. For another, it doesn’t have a ventilation system, so no matter what I do, I always finish stepping out into a sauna, unless the door has flown open.
I turn on the taps of my shower-over-cast-iron-bath – picturesque, but hurts like hell every time I stub my toe on its clawed feet. I wait for the room to start steaming up before I pull off my clothes and jump under the searing water. Oooo … so good. When my skin is glowing red and the air is so thick with steam it’s like breathing underwater, I steel myself to the task, turn off the water and in a quick movement am out of the tub and surrounded by a fluffy bath sheet. It’s like a towel on steroids.
I pull on my super warm grey tights and wool skirt with my favourite brown knee high boots and a navy jacket over a white top. Feeling like I blend in nicely with the weather outside, I get back to my computer.
There’s another message from CareToDance. I quickly check, but he’s gone offline, so I can read the message without being ambushed. Is it bad I’m trying to avoid him already?
you seem pretty cool. wanna meet up for coffee?
I really feel I should know more about him before risking bodily harm. Hmm, should I ask if he’s a mass murderer? Like the question on the US visa waiver form: ‘Are you intending to commit a terrorist act?’ I wonder how many people actually fall for that, ‘Yes, I am. Soz.’
In the end I reply I’m busy tonight — which is true, I have work. Though that raises another problem: I work nearly every night, and every other sane person works during the day. That doesn’t leave many openings. Generally, I also have Friday nights off, but this week is the book launch.
Arg, the book launch. Amelia will want me to bring a date.
CareToDance at the book launch? No. I’m not taking a complete stranger to a work function.
Time to call in my trusty backup. Pity I can’t use him for the wedding.
I pull out my phone and text Hadley, my twenty-seven year old brother who is a complete hipster, and way cooler than I’ll ever be. Free Friday night and want to come to a book launch?
His super gorgeous model/law student girlfriend is over in the U.S. at the moment, completing an internship in D.C. (I know!), so there’s a chance he’ll be free.
A message pops up on the computer. Turns out CareToDance was offline but still checking his messages. what about thursday brunch?
That works for me, but don’t you have work?
Im actually an entrepreneur so make my own hours.
That does sound cool.
My phone then buzzes. Just for you, Sis. What’s the dress code?
Black tie, with a 50’s twist. I love my brother.
Now my computer bings. These multiple forms of communication are getting confusing.
so are we on?
Why not. Thursday, brunch, you choose the place. I feel a person’s choice of cafe reflects something about their nature.
ill get back to you.
It’s sad, I know, but I immediately text Jess to tell her I might actually have a date. Since she became pregnant, she’s been living vicariously through me. This is going to make her day. Unless her maternal instincts have kicked in and she worries I’ll get killed. Can’t please everyone.
The other third of the Triumvirate of Awesome is Tiffany. She’ll be busy with clients right now, but we’re catching up on Saturday anyway.
As I’m typing, my phone bings again. Not Hadley, but a voicemail. Argg, stupid solid brick warehouse! The reception in my place is horrendous so I often get voicemails that have never rung through. It’s from Mum, inviting me over for dinner on Saturday to celebrate Yanie’s engagement. Oops, in plotting to get a date I’d forgotten about the actual wedding. I also note that Mum sounds hesitant, which is curious, but she doesn’t actually say anything strange before hanging up.
I bring up my calendar to start typing this all in. Brunch with CareToDance on Thursday, followed by the book launch with Hadley and Timothy Farren on Friday. Better not forget brunch with Jess and Tiff on Saturday, then off to Mum and Dad’s for dinner. When did I get a life?
Why I ever thought working for a literary agent would be glamorous is completely beyond me. As I trudge to work, my feet wet from poorly dodged puddles, and my shoulder torn from its socket by the weight of the manuscripts, the only joy in my life is the steaming hot coffee in my hand.
Amelia’s office is off Collins Street, which is not the same as being on Collins Street, the business centre of Melbourne. It’s upstairs to a boutique dress shop in a small alley that has artistic graffiti and smells of cat urine. Inside Amelia went for a white and concrete aesthetic, something that on a freezing day like today does little for the soul.
As I walk up the stairs I call out, but get no response. Pushing open the glass door I find the main room empty. The reception desk is unmanned and the waiting area, complete with white vinyl couches and copies of Meanjin and Quadrant literary journals spread across the glass coffee table, is deserted. The walls hold posters of books Amelia has facilitated getting published; mostly Timothy Farren’s works. There’s also a life-size cutout of him standing in one corner, which has finally stopped freaking me out every time I walk in.
Behind the desk I see the computer’s not even turned on. Steph, the receptionist, must be having an early lunch, or a late brunch, or just getting her nails done. She has many excellent qualities, but a strong work ethic is not one of them, which is why I love her so much.
I scrabble in the drawer for the key to the frosted glass door behind which lie the offices. ‘Offices’ is probably an overstatement. Amelia’s room is at the back, with her large desk and neat bookshelves. Myself and any other lackeys she cons into working for her get the front room, which is little more than a corridor between Amelia’s office and reception, where 10 years’ worth of books, boxes, papers and dust have collected. Officially, I have my own desk, but in reality it’s elbow high in papers Amelia can’t deal with right now.
I clear a patch big enough to work on, and take a stack of magazines off my chair. Rattling around in the drawers I find the ‘with compliments’ notepaper Amelia gave me, and release into the light the first of the self-addressed envelopes.
‘Dear Hannah,’ I begin, then stop. I sigh, resigned to my fate, and pull out the list of general comments I’ve compiled for these occasions. Yes, I would love to give each manuscript a meaningful critique, being the person they thank in their TV interviews for encouraging them to keep going when everyone else told them to quit. But the reality is most of them should just quit. Quit now, because if this is what you’ve got, you’d better spend more time at your day job.
So instead I fake it. They all have the same problems: ranging from not understanding the industry, to being self-indulgent little twerps. All it takes is two sides of handwritten A4 paper to cover 99% of the feedback I need to give. Sad but true.
I write out the remaining notes and sign them off with Amelia’s name. That was her addition to my brilliant idea. I give the A for Amelia and J for Johnston extra flourish: I think that’s how she’d like it. Then I seal each envelope and dump them in the posting trays for Steph to fix up.
On my way out I stop to admire Mr Farren’s cutout. Yes, I’m sad that way. But you haven’t seen how the cardboard has perfectly captured the wave of his blond hair, and the deep soulfulness of his blue eyes. I feel he gets me. I pat him on the shoulder and head back out into the cold.
I make it all the way back home and start putting on a load of washing before I receive a text from Amelia asking if I could stop by the Cupcake Bakery to order two dozen red velvet cakes for the book launch (if you’d read Mr. Farren’s book you’d understand the significance). I use my mathematical genius to calculate how long it will take me to get there, obviously taste test one of the cakes (on Amelia’s account) and splash my way back. Add onto this drying the freshly washed clothes for work tonight, and I should still have plenty of time.
As it turns out no, no I don’t, and neither do the clothes I need for work.
In undue course, I’m running late for the call centre and overdressed in a suit because I couldn’t find anything else to wear. The after work tram is packed, and I’m trying not to speak too loudly as I tell Jessica about CareToDance. It’s bad enough I can’t manage my laundry, I don’t think the whole tram needs to know I’m also desperate enough to try online dating.
‘So, we’re meeting up for brunch tomorrow —’
‘What sort of guy is free mid-morning on a Thursday?’ Jessica is a great interrupter. She can’t hold onto a thought, so needs to come out with it as soon as it hits her. Pregnancy has only made her worse.
‘He owns his own company or something, so has a flexible schedule.’
‘It doesn’t sound like he’s very dedicated.’
‘How should I know? He could be getting up at 2am and doing an eight hour day before we even roll out of bed. Anyway, the point is I don’t know what to wear.’
‘What about your grey skirt and white cashmere jumper?’
‘I thought that looked a bit … you know, not very …’
‘Wasn’t actually the word I was looking for.’
‘You could always wear that tight fitting, wool dress. That always looks great.’
‘That’s true. I’ve always loved that dress.’
‘So tell me more about him.’
I glance around the tram to check if anyone’s listening. There’s a teenager next to me with the music through his headphones so loud I can recognise the song. Behind me is an older man absorbed in his paper. I then notice the guy in a well-cut suit sitting a few metres from me. He has his head down reading a Penguin Classic. Unexpectedly he looks up, catches my eye and smiles in a way that makes me catch my breath. I automatically smile back then quickly look away. Wow, he’s cute.
‘Lau, you there?’
‘Hi, sorry, um yes. Ah, not much to tell really.’ I’m thinking carefully through all my words just in case the cute guy is listening in. ‘I guess I’ll find out more tomorrow.’
‘Well, is he Christian at least?’
Trust Jessica. ‘Um, I think so.’ Okay, so he ticked the box ‘Christian’ but then chose the option ‘and laughing about it’, but I decide not to share this information.
I lower my voice and try to avoid any keywords. ‘Yeah, but you know I don’t mind as much as you.’
‘Well, are you planning to marry a non-Christian?’
We’ve discussed this before, so she knows the answer. ‘No, but you know … at the beginning.’ I look up quickly. Cute guy has his head down in his book. Did I mention he has a really good head of hair: thick, dark brown waves with just a hint of curl here and there. Hmmm …
‘Well, when exactly do they need to become Christian?’
I snap back to the conversation. ‘Jess, don’t worry. That’s a long way off. It’s just brunch.’
‘Yes, but you need to remember that sex is a long way off for you too, but not for most couples now. How are you going to handle that issue?’
‘I’ll handle it just fine when it comes up.’
‘Fine. I’ll give you a call after half an hour and pretend I’m going into labour.’
I replay that sentence in my mind. ‘You’re going to pretend you’re going into labour?’
‘Yes, it’s the perfect excuse. You’re my birth partner and you need to rush to the hospital. And if he ever meets me in the future, I’ll have a baby, so it won’t be a problem.’
‘But you aren’t due for another two months.’
‘Well, in that case I can say it was a false alarm.’
‘I’m very touched you’re prepared to lie for me — ’
‘Only to save you from a possible murderer. But yes, in such situations, I will perjure my soul.’
I tip back my head and laugh, my long hair swaying with the sudden stopping of the tram. I think it’s a pretty good laugh, if anyone were watching. I quickly glance over to see if ‘anyone’ is, but the seat is filled by an old woman. I turn around to see where he’s gone, and brush against him as he’s about to exit.
‘If you are trying to decide what to wear, I think you look gorgeous in what you have on now.’ His eye-crinkling smile and expensive cologne linger as he disembarks the tram. Maybe I should catch this tram more often.
‘Laurie? You still there?’
‘Yeah, sorry, got distracted for a moment. Anyway, emergency call would be great, tomorrow at 11am, please.’
‘Ok. And sorry I can’t make it on Saturday, but you still free for dinner on Sunday?’
‘Of course. Anyway, my stop is coming up, so I’d better go.’
I jump off the tram and check that I have all my bags, then look at my watch. Ten minutes late already. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t catch this tram more often. By the time I get to my desk I’m a good fifteen minutes late, for the first time in months I should point out. But of course, Rabib is standing over my desk waiting for me.
‘Miss Barker, you are late!’
Thanks for stating the obvious. Does my hair and general appearance not indicate I’ve tried to rush?
‘Yes Rabib. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.’
‘You had better see that it does not.’
Sandy and I originally postulated that Rabib learnt his English from corny action movies. So far, he’s done nothing to disprove this thesis. He storms off, yelling at Betty who’s stuck her head out to see what the commotion is. That’s just mean: it’s not her fault she’s easily distracted.
‘What’s his problem?’ I mouth to Sandy as I disrobe.
She does a conspiratorial look around to make sure he’s well gone. ‘Heard he’s being transferred, and isn’t pleased about it.’
‘No exact details, but it’s going to be soon.’
‘Well, not soon enough.’ I sit down and turn on my computer, moving aside the stats sheet Rabib has Blu-Tacked to my screen. Subtle. I’m sure CuteTramGuy doesn’t have to put up with things like this.
I’ve gone with the wool dress in the end. I hate being cold. The fact that it’s also super sexy is completely beside the point. Paired with knee high brown boots, a scarf, and my hair tied up in an artistically messy bun, I’m ready to go. As I walk past the mirror, I momentarily wonder what CuteTramGuy would think about this outfit. I think he’d approve.
CareToDance has chosen an okay coffee spot, though I get the feeling he’s Urban-Spooned it. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but where’s the love? It also happens to be only two blocks from my place, so despite my intentions of being fashionably late, I turn up early. Oh well, can’t win them all. As he doesn’t appear to be here, I find a table and pull out my phone to check his details again.
Real name is Jackson, or ‘Jacko’. Not great, but possibly not his fault. The rest of his stats are rather average: average age (31 – not too old, not too young), average height, average build. I didn’t notice it so much the first time, but his hair is dull brown, straight and limp. In one of the photos it’s shoulder length, which I’m not so sure about, but his main photo has it suitably short. Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs, drinks socially. All good. No kids, but wants them, which is nice. Has a dog, win.
I keep scanning the street outside as I’m reading, staring awkwardly at any possible matches until they give me the evil eye and walk away. I’m just reading through his education — no college, not an immediate no, but not a great sign — when I hear my name. He’s standing with bike helmet still on, coloured business shirt open over a worn, black t-shirt, and one leg of his brown corduroy pants tucked into his sock. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt – it is very practical.
He takes off his helmet and shakes out his unbrushed, shoulder length, limp hair. He ties it back with a hair band from around his wrist.
Try to be positive … Try to be positive … Well, he has nice eyes. There, that’s something.
I extend my hand just as he comes in for a hug, so accidentally punch him in the stomach. Not a great start.
‘Sorry. Hi, I’m Laurie.’
‘Call me Jacko. Wow, you’re like, really hot.’ He’s staring.
‘Thanks.’ I’m suddenly very conscious of how figure hugging the wool dress is. ‘Shall we order?’ I hold my stomach in as we walk up to the counter.
Now, I know it’s wrong to judge a person by the type of coffee they order, but I might as well be honest and admit I do it all the same. So who orders mint syrup added to their cappuccino?
Jacko turns to me with a smile. ‘You should try it. It’s like you’re brushing your teeth at the same time.’
I literally have no words, so just smile inanely.
I order a short black and some biscotti, both because I love them and because I can polish them off in a hurry if I have to. I’m already getting the sense I’ll have to. We take a seat on metal stools tucked in the corner between a green wall and polished concrete. Our table is a reclaimed door. Instead of table numbers, we’ve been given a superman figurine, which Jacko displays prominently.
I’ve looked around and admired the scenery for as long as is socially acceptable. Time to find something to say.
‘So, you said you were an entrepreneur, that sounds interesting.’
‘Well, you know. I’ve run a few companies. At the moment I’m working on a project I think is going to be huge. I’ll tell you, if you promise not to steal the idea.’ He throws his head back and laughs.
I look to either side to see if the laugh disturbs anyone else. ‘Um, yeah, okay.‘
He leans in close. ‘So, do you smoke?’
‘Ah, no.’ Seems an abrupt change of topic, and already stated in my profile.
‘Come on, everyone secretly smokes.’
I sit back. ‘No, really I don’t.’
‘Okay, well, whatever. For all those people out there who want to smoke but need to keep it a secret, I’m developing a filter system which you put on the end of your cigarette and it hides the smoke smell.’ He sits back as if he’s just announced the solution to world hunger.
‘But, doesn’t a lot of the smoke come from when you breathe out?’ Just to fill in the silence I continue, ‘I mean, breathing in the smoke is the point of having a cigarette, and then you need to expel it. So, really, you would need some sort of gas mask that captures the smoke on the way out before it gets on your clothes.’ I start thinking this through. ‘But of course, you’d then need something to freshen your breath. Maybe it gives you a puff of mint so it’s like brushing your teeth.’
I can’t believe I just said that. It shows how desperate for conversation I am.
Thank God our drinks arrive. But before I can take a sip, Jacko cuts in. ‘Wow, that’s amazing, do you mind if I patent it?’
‘No, be my guest.’
He pulls out a notepad and pen, but keeps talking as he scribbles. ‘You know, the creative brain, it’s such a mystery. I find it fascinating. It’s one of the reasons I liked you, your innate understanding of the creative process.’
Considering he contacted me before I’d put up any information, he’s basing this on the fact my user name is ‘Writing Taco’. I really feel that’s a strike against my creativity, not for it.
He finishes what he’s writing then sits back with his legs crossed. ‘So who’s the most famous author you’ve worked with?’
Another abrupt change of topic? ‘Well, you know, the company has a number of prestigious clients. However, I deal mainly with the emerging writers.’
‘Come on, no need to be shy. Bryce Courtenay, do you do his stuff?’
‘Well, he’s dead now, and no.’
‘Oh. What about Matthew Reilly, how about him?’
Is he really going through all the top selling Australian authors he can think of? ’No, not Matthew Reilly either. You know, there are a lot of different forms of representation out there for Australian authors.’
‘There must be one you can tell me about.’
I’m getting sick of Jacko and want this conversation to be over. ‘Well, fine. I’m working with Timothy Farren on his new book.’
‘Is that the guy who wrote about cutting off his own arm?’
‘No. He was American. Timothy Farren wrote the prominent coming of age book Killing Keeley.’
‘Did they make a film out of that?’
‘Yes, it won a number of awards.’
‘Nah, haven’t seen it.’ He goes back to drinking his coffee.
I down my short black in one move, then stuff the biscotti into my mouth. Before I can swallow, he comes up with another question. ‘So, what types of movies do you like?’
I elegantly cough out biscuit crumbs, then try to make up for it. ‘Well, you know, anything that’s showing at Nova.’
‘Isn’t that an artsy cinema?’
‘Well, I’m an ‘artsy’ girl.’ I realise my pitch is rising, and do my best to relax.
‘But what about the big blockbusters?’
I shrug. ‘I might see them with a friend, but wouldn’t go out of my way.’
‘Did you see the most recent Thor movie? It was awesome. I’m sure you’d love it.’
‘Norse gods with no shirts on? Doesn’t really sound like my thing.’
‘Nah, you have to watch it for all the science. It’s really awesome how they explain all those old stories in technological terms.’
‘So, exactly what technology do they use to explain his super-powerful flying hammer?’
‘So you have seen it!’
Darn. ‘I only saw the first one with a friend.’ Thank you Jessica. And where exactly are you? Am waiting for my emergency call.
‘Everyone loves to bag these types of movies, but I think they really show some insight into the human psyche.’
‘So, going back to your business …’ I’m not sure I really want to, but feel it would be better than finding out Jacko’s insights into the human psyche. ‘Have you actually developed any products?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘Oh, right. And these other companies you run?’
‘Well, I’ve registered the business names for a couple, and ran a tutoring company a while back.’
‘So, what do you spend your days doing now?’
‘Most of my time is taken up with bloody Centrelink. Do you know how hard it is to get welfare these days?’
‘I really wouldn’t know.’ Okay, that was a bit bitchy, but if I can work in a cruddy call-centre, then so can Jacko. Then I mightn’t have to pay so much tax.
Finally my phone rings in my hand. I jump up. ‘Sorry, have to take this.’
‘Is that your agent? Hey, you can tell her I have a screenplay she might be interested in. It’s about monkeys in space.’
‘Sorry, it’s not my agent, it’s my friend, she’s having a baby. I said I’d be the birth partner, just a moment!’
I answer the call. ‘Jessica, is that you? Is everything alright?’
‘No, it’s Amelia. Who’s Jessica?’ Darn, should have looked at the screen before picking up. So it is my agent, but there’s no way I’m telling her I’m on a date with a guy who’s written a screenplay about monkeys in space.
‘Oh, is it serious?’ I try to sound concerned, as if I were talking to a woman in labour.
‘Serious? No, not really. I just wanted to know if you had finished with the manuscripts?’
‘Of course, I have everything prepared.’
‘Laurie, are you feeling alright?’
‘Don’t think of me at a time like this. You stay focused on what you need to do.’
I then hang up before Amelia can ask me any more awkward questions. Wow, my inventive skills are really not good when put on the spot.
‘I’m sorry, I have to go, she needs me straight away.’
Jacko has tuned out and is checking out the other girls in the cafe. ‘Oh, yeah, fine. It was nice to meet you. I’ll call you, we should do this again.’
I mutter something noncommittal and try to walk out in an apparent hurry while still looking stylish in my fitted dress. As soon as I’m around the corner I text my brother. I need someone who’ll fully appreciate the situation. He agrees to meet me at a place a few blocks over in twenty minutes.
Well, at least meeting Jacko makes me feel a whole lot better about my life. Does that make me a bad person?
It’s not that my brother has a higher IQ than I do, he just seems to understand the world much better. For example, he made the sensible choice to do Arts/Law instead of straight Arts. So he now has a decent job and all the benefits that go with it, like a real income.
I walk up the laneway to find him leaning nonchalantly against an artistically graffitied wall; dark rimmed glasses on, light brown hair combed into smooth waves, and his beautifully tailored suit open at the throat. He’s also holding two coffees, one of which I dive on like a mad woman. I might not need the caffeine, but I desperately need the sense of completeness steaming coffee brings to my life.
‘That bad, huh?’
‘Hey Hadley. Sorry, yeah, really need this. By the way, why aren’t we at Mark and Geoff’s?’
Mark, Geoff and Hadley all did law together. However, a few years out Mark and Geoff decided they hated the whole corporate thing so quit to start their own cafe. No complaints here; they give us cheap coffee. Also, it helps that Mark’s really cute. I know nothing would ever happen between us because a) it’d be cradle snatching and b) he probably thinks I’m ancient, but I like to look.
‘They’ve closed for the day. Some business thing.’
‘A business thing? But what about all of us who need coffee? Sometimes people are so selfish.’ I hang my head in sorrow for humanity, but then tuck back into the coffee on hand.
Hadley motions to a set of crates with cushions on them. ‘Take a seat and tell me all about it.’
I unwind myself from my satchel and sit down. The crate is lower than I’d mentally prepared for so there’s a bump, thump, and then a splash and swearing as my coffee retaliates.
‘Here.’ Hadley tosses me the handkerchief from his top pocket. ‘So, everything still on for tomorrow night?’
I mentally flick through my strangely crowded itinerary: tomorrow is … Friday. Friday night is … book launch. Okay, up to speed.
‘No, that should be fine,’ I say while delicately sucking on my fingers. ‘In fact,’ I pause to perfect my detached, this-happens-to-me-all-the-time attitude, ‘Amelia wants me to discuss with Timothy Farren what I can do to help him with his next book.’
Hadley doesn’t buy my sangfroid front for a moment, but like a good brother enters into the awesomeness of the situation. ‘That’d be amazing on so many levels!’
I drop the act. ‘I know, right?’
‘So what’s the new book about?’
‘Oh, that, right … well, that’s part of the problem: I don’t think he knows about the new book yet. My job is to convince him it’s a good idea. But I’ll find out more tomorrow night.’
Hadley glances over the rim of his coffee at me. ‘You aren’t going to go all crazy fan girl on him, are you?’
‘No! … Well, not much. That’s why I need you there. That and Amelia wants me to bring a date.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll bring a straight jacket. Anyway,’ he takes a long sip of his coffee, ‘If it’s not the book launch, what’s brought you out here?’ He has a smile playing on his lips that I can’t account for, but I feel it’s a bad sign.
I try to brush it off as normal little brother annoying-ness, but it taunts my already mortified soul. I can’t bring myself to mention the date yet. ‘So, you heard about Yanie’s wedding?’
‘In seven weeks?’
‘Yeah. Do you know what’s up with that? If it were anyone else I’d think she was pregnant, but that’s not going to be the case.’
‘She hasn’t confided in me. Maybe there’s a venue she really likes?’
‘Unlikely, we’ve had the venue planned since she was five, and it won’t have come up in a rush.’
Hadley shrugged. ‘Well, I’m sure we’ll find out on Saturday.’ He drops back into annoying, smiling silence, and I’m left trying to find a neat segue into my important question.
This isn’t it, but I pretend it is all the same. ‘By the way, you’ll be going to the wedding stag, right? Halley will still be in DC?’
‘Nah. We skyped this morning, and she might be able to get some leave around then. Yanie’s asked her to be a bridesmaid.’
‘Really? Do you know who the groomsmen are?’
‘Hoping to pick up?’
‘Hey, not fair.’ And totally untrue: that will be far too late, especially now I know everyone else has a date.
‘Well, Tony hasn’t said anything, but from what Yanie told Halley,’ my mind quickly registers the fact Yanie and Halley talk, though Halley has never tried to contact me. Not that I’m paranoid or anything. I tune back into the conversation. ‘It’ll be his younger brother Ed, some friend from work, and Rick, their small group leader.’
No luck there anyway, Rick’s married with like a dozen children, and ‘friend from work’ does not inspire confidence. I move on. ‘So, if Halley’s one of the bridesmaids, but she’s in DC for most of the time, and the other is definitely going to be sweet but flakey Samantha …’
‘Yeah, you’re going to be stuck doing most of the work. Yanie’s already putting together folders for you to look at.’
The image of a wall of wedding magazines and etiquette books avalanching over me fixes itself in my head. ‘Well, since you’ve such excellent taste, you should be our consultant!’
‘Good try Sis, but I’ve already offered my services as official photographer. Turn up on the day, take lots of photos, no prior commitment and a good excuse to move on from any awful conversations.’
‘Darn, I wish I’d thought of that … and could take photos.’
Hadley smiles again and sips at his coffee. It’s not a friendly smile. It’s more like a ‘Hello Clarice’ smile. Finally he says, ‘So, tell me about this internet dating thing.’
I splutter hot liquid everywhere. ‘What?’
‘Oh come on, did you really think I wouldn’t hear about it?’
I sometimes wonder if my brother actually works for MI5 — or at least ASIO, the not so cool Australian equivalent — as it would explain a lot about him.
‘But how did you find out?’
He shows me his phone. Betty from work has posted on Facebook asking how the date went, and if I’m dead yet.
I take a deep breath and tell myself it would be like killing a chicken for clucking, in order to quell my murderous urge to immediately track down where she lives.
‘So how did it go? You don’t appear to be dead.’ Hadley waits calmly for an answer.
‘It was horrendous. There. Happy?’
‘Come on, you’re a writer, you can give a more enthralling description than that.’
‘I don’t know. We just didn’t click.’
‘“He was nice, normal but we just didn’t click”? Or “he was really a drug dealer from Colombia” type of we just didn’t click?’
‘Not actually a drug dealer, but probably more along those lines. I don’t even know where to begin in describing the disaster. His name was Jacko. I suppose that should’ve been my first warning.’
Hadley grimaces. ‘Probably should’ve seen that one coming.’
‘And he said he was an entrepreneur.’
‘Which means either drug dealer or unemployed.’
‘He was unemployed and on the dole. But his next great idea!’ I try to mimic Jacko’s enthusiasm.
‘Stay well away from that.’
‘Yeah, I will. But now I’m afraid I’m a weirdo magnet.’
Hadley doesn’t instantly deny this. Thanks, Bro. ‘Can I see your profile? I’ll let you know if you’re sending off crazy signals.’
‘Thanks.’ Though I’m not keen to show him my measly efforts. I know I should’ve put more time into it, but when it was only strangers looking it didn’t worry me. Oh well.
I log into the site on my iPad, then pass it across to Hadley who starts flicking through the photos.
‘Hmmm, for starters.’ He pulls out his iPhone. ‘Smile.’ Due to years of conditioning, I smile before I realise what he’s doing. He then takes a few more while I’m scrabbling to make myself more presentable. Just when I think I’ve got my hair sorted, he turns away and continues tapping at the phone’s screen. A few moment’s later and he’s back on my iPad.
Clearly it’s going to take him a while to work his magic, so I pull out my phone and open up Facebook. Now where’s Betty? I think I’ll do this in a private message.
Betty, have you been telling everyone I’m trying internet dating? That was meant to be top secret!
A few moments later the message icon blinks.
Oh Laurie, I’m so sorry! I just assumed that, well, if I knew, then everyone must.
The photo of her chubby face smiles pleadingly at me.
Well, not everyone must. You’re part of my very secret circle of internet dating initiates. So no more posting about it. I close my phone with a shake of my head.
‘There, much better.’ Hadley hands back the iPad. The photo he just took manages to catch the afternoon light falling behind me. The alleyway looks artistic, and I’m perfectly at ease with my coffee. He’s added a few filters for that vintage touch. It’s me as I always secretly hoped I looked.
‘I’d also change your name, taco girl, and I’d leave out the part about reading other people’s manuscripts. Make it sound a bit more The New Yorker, and less Bridget Jones’ Diary. Talking about writing …’
I sigh. ‘No, I haven’t tried sending it off to anyone else. Amelia is still promising faithfully she’s going to give it to one of her contacts.’
‘It’s not two-timing to send your manuscript to other agents. I don’t know why you don’t send it over to America, or even the UK.’
‘I want to support the Australian publishing industry. We might not be as big as America or the UK, but we produce high quality stuff.’
‘Like the unwritten next book by Timothy Farren?’
‘Hey, you loved Killing Keeley.’
‘The sequel was a bit of a flop.’
‘I think it’s a classic.’ I hold my chin up in defiance.
‘Yes, but you’ve had a crush on Mr. Farren since you were in high school.’
I’m not prepared to cede on this point. ‘I don’t think that proves anything.’
‘Well, maybe tomorrow night you can show him your manuscript. You never know, he may have other contacts.’
‘The amount of time Amelia spends running around for him, I doubt it.’
‘By the way, how’s the blog going?’
I sigh. He’s referring to my coffee blog – Bean Missing You – part of my fantastic author platform that was going to collect hundreds of followers all dying to buy my book when it came out. Hah.
‘Still just you and the bots.’
‘You know, you could try posting more often. I mean, the writing’s not bad, but it’s easy to forget about it when nothing comes out for a while.’
The fact that he is completely correct doesn’t make the feedback any more welcome. ‘I know, but I’ve been busy lately.’
Hadley purses his lips for a second, and I know he’s holding back a scathing comment on how busy my unemployed life must be. I’m grateful he doesn’t go into Mum mode. I give a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Okay, I’ll work on it.’
‘Why not write up about the Jacko date?’
‘You mean the coffee place we visited? It wasn’t bad I suppose.’
‘Lau,’ he reaches across and takes my hand. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, the writing on the blog is really good …’
I tense. ’But?’
‘But the topic matter is really boring.’
It’s like I’ve been punched. ‘Coffee? Boring? It’s like … like the antithesis of boring!’
He pats the hand he’s still holding. ‘Drinking coffee, yes. Reading about it…?’
I draw my hand back, outraged at his betrayal and annoyed at his being right all the time.
‘I’m not saying to get rid of the blog, but you could expand the reach. You’re great at writing caricatures of people and events. Maybe put more practice into that.’
I flop like a jellyfish as the fight goes out of me. ‘That’s actually pretty good advice, darn you.’
‘Well, people have been known to pay me hundreds of dollars to give them advice. But I consider you my pro bono work.’ He gives me a wink before standing up. ‘Until tomorrow.’ He salutes and I watch him walk away, as always amused by how unconscious he is of the girls trying to get his attention.
I shake my head then check the time. I’ve still got a while before I need to get ready for work, so might as well take advantage of the bohemian atmosphere to see what I can do with this blog.
In the end I decide to paint the whole sorry date; Jacko with his ponytail and mad cigarette filter idea, my awful attempt at improvisation on the phone, and the fact I can never go back to that cafe again. As I’m writing, I get caught up and start making a list of deal-breakers guys on first dates should avoid. I feel Jacko should have some purpose in life, even if it’s just to serve as a warning to others. Once I get going, it’s easy to think of things; like not introducing yourself by dubious nicknames until you’ve gotten a feel for things. Or, don’t accuse a girl you’ve just met of lying about smoking. And, put some effort into your personal appearance, at least for the first date.
As I post it, I do have a qualm of conscience. It’s biting. But since my readership consists entirely of Hadley, Jessica, Google’s bots and a random Brazilian, it’s unlikely any of them is going to know Jacko.
I stretch back and gaze at the afternoon sun. Overall verdict on internet dating’s first offering? Well, it wasn’t a complete waste of time: I got a nice coffee and a good blog post out of it. Though, some room for improvement, obviously. For example, next time I’m aiming for a conversation that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. A girl’s gotta have goals.
And then there’s tomorrow night. What have I got planned? Oh, you know, not much, just attend a glamorous literary event, meet Mr. Timothy Farren — love of my life — convince him to write a book and then break up with him. How hard could that be?
Thank you for reading Episode 1 of Virtually Ideal.
If you enjoyed it, please leave a review at your favourite retailer.
And if you’re interested in trying internet dating, and being more successful than Laurie, check out my non-fiction work:
The Nice Guy’s Guide To Online Dating Profiles
It was written for men like my father who struggled to present himself well to the girl of his dreams (luckily she took him anyway).
A great read for both guys and girls.
Laurie Barker is 29, single, and dreams of being a published author. So she doesn't mind that she currently dedicates her time to being an unpaid slave to a literary agent while spending her nights working in a call centre to pay the bills, much. But when her younger sister announces she's getting married in seven weeks, Laurie has a problem: she has seven weeks to perfect her life. Step one of this is to find a boyfriend so she doesn't have to admit to her family that not only isn't she dating famous author Timothy Farren, she hasn't even met him. The only solution appears to be online dating. And after all, how much worse could her life get? Over 12 episodes follow Laurie as she takes charge of her life, only to find it slipping more out of control.