by Hattie Cooper Hockey
It’s a surprise when Elis tells me that it’s his birthday. He says it just after we sit down with our drinks, not in response to any questions on my part but just stated as a conversation opener: it’s my birthday today, actually. For a second I think he must be joking, and I’m almost ready to laugh before he goes on to say that he spent the afternoon watching the match in the pub with his brother. ‘Now here I am meeting you. Not a bad way to celebrate!’ He is not joking. I blink at him. Why not stay there, I think, with your brother. Who knows you.
‘Well then, happy birthday,’ I say. I smile and hope that it doesn’t look forced. ‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty-one,’ Elis says. ‘The big two-one!’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘Cheers to that.’ We clink glasses. I try to think of something else to say but thankfully he keeps talking.
‘You seemed like you’d be a nice person to spend a birthday with,’ he says. ‘I was glad when you agreed to meet tonight. Sometimes people just want to chat but they don’t want to meet, you know? It’s hard to find someone who actually wants to take things further.’
Elis is my first experience of dating apps. He is the product of a night in the pub last week, when my friends took my phone, made me a profile and spent half an hour watching me swipe. He was the first match and then the first conversation. Now the first meeting. I look at him grinning at me and wonder what it was about my profile that made him decide I’d be the right person to celebrate his twenty-first birthday with.
Maybe I am overreacting. Maybe this is perfectly normal. Maybe everyone else has been going on dates with strangers on their birthdays all the time, and I’m the odd one out.
‘Yes I’m glad we could meet,’ I say. Perhaps if I steer us away from the birthday chat we’ll be able to pretend that we are meeting on any of the many other ordinary, unimportant nights of the year. ‘So, what is it that you do again? You’re studying law?’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Well, I’m doing my placement year at a firm. All my mates are jealous because I get a free gym membership as part of my training contract, it’s pretty sick.’
‘Oh right, that’s cool,’ I say, though I’m not sure if it is cool. One of the reasons I liked Elis’s profile was that it didn’t actually mention the gym. Instead it featured pictures of him with his toddler cousins and the phrase ‘I don’t need to be told – they’re way cuter than me!’ in his bio. This at least gave him an edge over the many variations of ‘I have a dog / I have access to a dog’ popping up on my screen.
I also find myself feeling extremely conscious that he has mentioned ‘mates’. Are they sat at home now, wondering where their Facebook invite to ‘Elis’s B-day Pub Trip’ is?
“Maybe this is perfectly normal. Maybe everyone else has been going on dates with strangers on their birthdays all the time, and I’m the odd one out.”
I take a sip of my drink and he does too. ‘What does it involve, then, your placement? How long until you’re qualified?’
He starts to tell me about the different cases that he is helping with at the moment, which is vaguely interesting, but then I quickly lose track as he launches into a long story about various people at his work without really explaining who they are. I take more sips of my drink. I laugh at what I think are the appropriate moments and then when he has finished I offer a few follow-up questions: how did he become interested in law, what area is he hoping to go into. A considerable amount of time passes as he lists the different types of law and details his personal level of interest in each.
Eventually I stop providing prompt questions and he tails off.
‘Well, anyway, what about you? You’re doing art, right?’ he says.
‘Architecture, actually,’ I say. I am about to launch into a funny self-deprecating anecdote about there being a certain type of person who studies architecture, evidenced by one of my first year classes in which every single person was wearing the same pair of shoes, but he cuts me off.
‘I hated art at school,’ he says. ‘I used to get out of it a lot of the time by saying I had rugby practice. Wasn’t even on the rugby team!’
He looks at me expectantly and I cough out a short laugh. There is a pause. It doesn’t feel like the right time for my funny architecture anecdote.
‘What kind of jobs can you get out of an art degree?’ he asks, after a moment.
I struggle to find a way not to draw attention to his mistake and make things awkward. ‘Well, um, I’m actually specialising in architecture, so. I guess that.’
‘Oh. Don’t you need maths and stuff to study that? You must be clever.’ He grins at me in a way that I think is meant to be encouraging.
Though it has only been about twenty minutes since we sat down, by this point I have nearly finished my drink, a highball glass of vodka, soda and lime. I stir the ice cubes at the bottom with the straw and make a note to drink more slowly. Maybe if it takes me a while to finish, it will look less odd to only stay for one.
‘How long have you been using dating apps for?’ I say, changing the subject.
He tells me that since he broke up with his girlfriend a year ago he’s been trying out different dating apps intermittently, though he hasn’t been on that many dates. He didn’t have much luck at first because, in his words, he only sent ‘ironic messages’ and didn’t get many replies. So now he is trying to be more ‘real’. He tells me that most of the girls on apps aren’t what he’s interested in now anyway. Like his ex, he says, they aren’t the ‘sort of girl’ for him anymore.
I look at him and nod at various points but when he launches into a story about his ex-girlfriend’s hair extensions falling out on holiday I stop listening. I wonder whether it is normal on one of these dates to leave after less than an hour. My biggest problem now is how slowly he is drinking. He still has half a pint left. I suck up the last of my drink through the straw, pleased at the gurgling noise it makes against the empty bottom, loud enough that he must notice that I have finished.
I look back up and watch him talking and start thinking about how to tell this all to my flatmates later. Which parts to emphasise, where to pause for comic effect. I actually have to suppress a laugh imagining their reactions. I must not suppress it covertly enough because he stops speaking.
‘I’m talking too much, aren’t I?’ he says. ‘Sorry, I get a bit nervous on these things.’
I find myself surprised and a little irritated by this sudden show of self-awareness.
‘No, no,’ I say. ‘No, sorry, you’re fine. I’m not very good at this either.’
‘And look, you’ve finished your drink already. I’m such a slow drinker when I get talking, hang on a sec—’ He lifts up his glass and knocks back over half of the beer left in it. ‘I’ll get the next round in, shall I?’
I watch as he gulps down the last of his pint and realise that this is my moment of escape. I try to think about how I could say it, all of the possible lies I could offer him. I’ve got a headache. I’m really tired. My cat died last night and I’ve just remembered that I forgot to bury her.
Elis is standing up now, looking across to the bar. I should just say no. I should tell him that I don’t think it’s going to work. I should stand up, put my coat on and leave.
‘I’ll have another of the same, please,’ I say.
I mean, it is his birthday.
Hattie Cooper Hockey | @HCooperHockey
Hattie Cooper Hockey is a recent graduate and aspiring writer living in Manchester. She is an avid cyclist and keen runner, and can otherwise be found scrolling through Twitter.