The run-up to Christmas in my faraway past used to mean three parties a night and dates — or at least encounters — full of promise. There were enough glasses of mulled wine and romantic highs to offset the rather more numerous disappointments. But even the disappointments had their consolations, top of which was learning the art of taking the rough without much smooth. One man, one December, had illustrations of Father Christmas on his boxer shorts. He wasn’t a long-term prospect, and not solely because of his choice of underwear, but he was merry company. Such was the festive spirit I was feeling, I managed not to dismiss him out of hand.
These days, the Christmas parties are rather more scant; the dates rather less fun.
Latest date: the man telling me — before we had even been shown to our table in a restaurant in the West End — every detail about the three women fighting over him. He was completely unable to contain himself and had, only just, the wit to make out it was all a nightmare — the dramas, the screaming — but it couldn’t have been more plain that he was relishing every silly second of the farce of which he was the dubious lead player. His tone, his expression, his body language were soaked through with such boasting that it seemed impossible he was unaware of it. The more he protested about the outlandish lady-shenanigans surrounding him, and what a trial it all was, the more his eyes urged me to be knocked sideways with wonder at his pulling power, to come on board perhaps as a fourth? His is a seduction technique employed by many and it is beyond puzzling. I wonder if it ever works? Even I, with my judgments often skewed by anthropological curiosity or the desire for novelty, was able to resist.
Another man in his late fifties with whom I have had several dates — if that is what they are; they could just be meetings, it is hard to know — tells me with lovely enthusiasm all about his eventful social life post-divorce, populated as it is by a richesse of fabulously intelligent, brilliant, beautiful and attractive women. I haven’t met any of them but he describes each one, without exception, as hot. Tantalisingly enough, he doesn’t reveal if he is sleeping with them or not. That flappy little secret is left dithering above the candle between us like a vexing clothes moth you try to clap and squash, but miss. This is a man of mystery, the one who likes to keep you guessing.
Either way — man with heart on sleeve or up his own arse — the message is the same: I am generously here with you now but, don’t be mistaken, there are plenty of other women in my life and they are all rather superior to you — more intelligent, more talented, oh, and way more hot.
If these men’s purpose is to make me feel inadequate, they succeed. I sit with them smiling like a mug, listening to the attributes of these other female wonders — first-class degrees, modelling contracts, books published, prizes won — and I manage to feel stupid as well as oddly both smaller and fatter simultaneously. The sexless, smiling sounding-board. Not a role I wittingly carved out for myself. They don’t ask me about the seam of marvellous men in my canon and I don’t tell them; probably because we both know there aren’t any. Just one charming, hard-working and respectful man from Wakefield, who has more grace than either of the two privileged and self-serving types put together. The reason he and I are not really together? It’s complicated.
On Christmas Day, surrounded by family, I shall be thinking about the two latest dates who, for all their braggadocio, are both clever in some ways and funny and not entirely bad company. At least my own domestic arrangements are straightforward. There is a certain satisfaction about returning into the midst of the full-bodied family, in spite of being a spinster again. I almost feel sorry for these men and their Christmas complications and wonder how, with so many women, they will be managing to juggle their litter of hot cats. Will they in fact be miserable, and/or alone?
Possibly. But more likely sitting back with their stilton and port and paper hats enjoying their ringside view of women fighting over them. A niche sport, for the benefit of one.