Two women sit beside each other in the Hackney Picture House bar. It’s Friday night and they’re on a first date. They were set-up by a friend who knows little about how best to match people, as they appear to come from different worlds. There’s Kate, whose clothes and mannerisms resemble that of a man – she has cropped white hair, no make-up, and is dressed in a casual blazer and shirt – while Hen has Goth-like dyed-black hair, thick khol around blue eyes, badly-applied lipstick, and stained teeth and gums. Hen is drinking red wine, while her teetotal date drinks coffee. They recognise the other’s difference.
Kate is nervous, and talks incessantly, barely stopping to take a breath. The only thing she knows about Hen is that she recently moved out of London and, in order to aid conversation, Kate tries to find reasons why she could do the same. She recalls fond childhood memories, when she visited her grandmother. ‘It was March, 1985, I remember, and me, my dad and my gran went for a lovely walk, and we came to a well and we looked down into it. It was so dark. My gran told me to shout my name, and I did, and it came right back at me…’ She smiles at the memory. ‘It was one of those moments.’
Hen feigns interest and shows her teeth, takes a sip of wine.
‘But, anyway, you know how it is. I lived in London as a kid, and my gran lived in the country.’
Her companion smiles vaguely.
‘A friend of my mum’s once sent a box of conkers in the post and it was so exciting. It was the best thing I could ever have received. So many shiny brown conkers.’ Kate stretches her fingers into a starfish on the table, before retracting them back into a ball. ‘I feel so Londonified. Is that a word? Lon-don-ified.’ She laughs at herself.
Hen kind of knows what she means. She never liked London, and when her relationship broke down the city came to resemble her lost love. Every area she went, she was reminded of what she no longer had. ‘Now, I live in a small town,’ Hen says. ‘I have a little garden just outside the kitchen. It’s so nice to walk outside of the house and be in the garden–‘ But her energy is flat compared to Kate’s, her words monotone.
‘Aren’t you quite near the sea?’ Kate asks. ‘I imagine you up on a hill, with the sea down below. Isn’t the sea beautiful? It would make my day to wake up to it every morning.’
Hen shakes her head. ‘No. I’m not on a hill. There are too many houses between my house and the sea.’
‘Ah.’ Kate says. ‘That’s a shame.’ She scrambles around to find another lead. ‘I was listening to Radio 4 Extra, and Nigel Havers was playing this investigator, slash, wine buff. It was brilliant. I do love Nigel Havers,’ she says.
‘I’ve not heard any of that,’ says Hen.
‘He has that interesting English-type face, so public school boy. Do you remember that film he was in? Gosh, what was it called?’ She taps her head with her fist. ‘They’re running. Yes, they’re running at the beginning, in fact all the way through the film. It’s a film about running. I loved the theme tune, what was it?’ She attempts to sing it, but she’s never been good at singing.
Hen shakes her head, and Kate’s voice tails off.
‘You know,’ Kate says. ‘You must know.’
As Kate continues on about the Radio 4 drama, which her date has not seen, she attempts to take off her blazer, but immediately puts it back on again. At various stages in the conversation Hen tries to join in, but with little success. ‘Chariots of Fire!’ shouts Kate. ‘That’s it. Chariots of Fire. Ha, ha, great.’ Her face creases with her recollection. ‘I thought I was getting old there,’ she says. ‘Isn’t that terrible?’ She goes on to tell her date about her mother and how she left London when she was too old to negotiate the buses. ‘People kept treading on her toes,’ she says.
Once Hen has drunk the dregs of her wine, she stops smiling and nodding along to her date’s inane chat, and begins to let her eyes and mind drift about the room. She wonders about other people’s dates, about how other people spend their Friday. She suddenly feels sad, disappointed. Maybe she’s not ready for this after all.
Kate doesn’t like being a chatterbox. She doesn’t behave like this with people she knows. It’s like a nervous tick. She can’t help herself. ‘What’s your favourite food?’ Kate asks Hen, trying to move the evening on. ‘Do you like chips? I like chips.’
‘I’m not hungry,’ says Hen, and reaches for her bag.
Kate doesn’t want her to go. She jumps to her feet and searches her pocket for her wallet. ‘Would you like another drink? I’ll go to the bar. I could drink another coffee, though it might make me even more hyper.’ She laughs, as if to apologise.
‘No, thanks,’ says Hen. ‘If I leave now, I’ll make the next–’
‘Okay,’ Kate says quickly. ‘Of course.’ She steps back to let her pass.
There’s a moment of intimacy between the two of them when Hen squeezes past a chair and loses her balance, knocking into Kate, who steadies her by taking her arm. ‘Are you okay?’ Kate asks, and there is tenderness in her voice. Hen stops and hesitates. When her eyes meet Kate’s, she notices their colour. They are aqua blue, like hers, and there’s something new there: softness, kindness.
‘Thank you,’ Hen says.
Kate nods, and takes a step back to let her pass. As Hen walks to the exit, she thinks of her kitchen back home, how there is no food in the fridge and how dull the garden looks in the dying light. She stops at the door and checks her watch. She could take the next train. They could get food. Where’s the harm in that? She turns around, but Kate is too busy to see her. She is fitting her blazer onto the back of her chair, only to take it off and slip her hands back through its arms. Hen waits by the door.