This is what a stranger in his late 50s said within seven minutes of sitting down next to me at dinner at a friend’s house in the country: that he had been in a marriage that had been stale; he had started an affair with a woman in her early twenties; he knew it was a cliché but he just couldn’t help it because the sex was so, so good; his wife had found out while he was on the telephone to the mistress-who-was-young-enough-to-be-his-daughter (MWWYETBHD), and the ‘awful thing’ — even though his tone of voice while recounting this sounded as though the ‘awful’ was tentative — was that when his wife walked in on the call, he’d been masturbating and she caught him at it.
Do I look like a woman who relishes too much information? Well, it would be fair to say that I ask people questions for a living and am of the opinion that there is no such prissy thing as TMI. Still, his words did deliver with a photo-booth plop a graphic image in my mind. One which, prissily enough, I could have done without, same as the 12-second video that a porn-happy au pair left on my computer nearly 20 years ago.
I should write an anthropological study of the wrong-headed ways in which people try to force intimacy. This they think can be achieved by being super-open, super-honest, letting everything hang out way too much and way too soon. It can also be a means of flirting before the first course has been cleared away. I am not sure this man was making a pass at me although he did at one point, about six minutes into our conversation, cup his hand under the table over my pudding-bowl stomach, though I am not pregnant. Either way, it was less than relished.
Sometimes I wish I were one of those cool women who would have told him to fuck off but, no, I was as stupidly smiling and polite as ever, like some witless minor character in Jane Austen. Fact was, I couldn’t be bothered, mainly because I derive such joy from listening to others revealing themselves by whatever cack-handed means and I wanted him to carry on digging his riveting holes. And in this case, it was satisfying to hear his ex-wife had met and married a lovely man after this first husband had run off with the MWWYETBHD, and the MWWYETBHD had — who knew? — subsequently left him for a man her own age.
After my prissiness had been given such resounding free-rein thanks to the telephone call image, it was then the turn of priggishness to take centre stage as I was able to tell him that if he’d asked me before the ill-advised liaison, I could have written the denouement word for word. Including the finale with him single now and housing a passion for puddings, a morbid fear of his own increasing BMI and mortality, his regrets at his foolish mistakes, not least how he misses Pamela (the ex-wife and mother of his children), and his ill-judged seduction techniques. He wasn’t a nasty man but he knew he had made a nasty mistake, the oldest one in the book. Insight with hindsight — bless.
When I started talking to the fellow on the other side of me, I realised what a total hypocrite I am. He was the same age as the self-confessed wanker, but attractive and overflowing with charm, intelligence, humour. He was open too and tactile, but with him it was an entirely positive thing. How unfair was that? Why did I not mind — not in the least bit, quite the opposite — when he touched my forearm and told me about various struggles he had faced in his life?
Well, mainly because he was so clever and interesting and funny, and because also he didn’t untimely and coarsely shove unbidden dick pictures into my brain. He managed to be warm and open but gracefully so, and mysterious at the same time. He wouldn’t have dreamed of putting his hand on my rolling hill of a stomach with the port, let alone before the first course. But here’s the really unforgivable thing about my double standards: had he done so, far from grappling with my desire to tell him to fuck off, I would have relished the gesture and cheered inside. Life is complicated.
But there’s no mystery to it, really. It’s just a question of chemistry. Oh, and not wishing to hear about a phone sex incident quite so soon after shaking hands.