It was February 2017. I had given up my job at the BBC in Salford where I was working on Songs of Praise, and was living on a canal boat in West London, and teaching music part-time in a primary school.
On the advice of a male friend, I’d joined a new dating app the previous week. He reckoned it was better than the rest but I wasn’t holding out much hope. In the 13 years since my divorce, I’d been on – well, I dread to think how many – dates with so many different men and most of them had been a disaster. Why should the guys on this app be any different?
A man with a weird username – NewPotatoCaboose; what on earth did that mean? – had contacted me and, after exchanging a few messages, invited me to meet him one afternoon at the V&A. He said he was a member so could get me into an exhibition free. His photo was a bit blurry, but from the little I could make out, I doubted he’d be my type. But a free exhibition sounded good and I didn’t have anything better to do that day.
I was late. I took the bus from my moorings in Brentford, and changed onto another bus in Hammersmith because it was cheaper than getting the tube. Then I managed to get off at the wrong stop. I walked so fast to the V&A that despite the cold weather, I felt sweaty when I arrived. Not a good start.
I spotted him immediately. Saggy jeans and a scruffy leather jacket that looked three sizes too big. He was shorter than me too. I know it’s shallow to judge on appearances but I had always preferred taller men. I suddenly realised I didn’t know his name. How could I approach him? I could hardly say, ‘Hi, are you NewPotatoCaboose?’
‘Hi, I’m Jen,’ I said. This was his cue to tell me his name, but he didn’t. He just said, ‘Hi’ and looked awkward. I decided I’d give him half an hour then make my excuses.
I asked his name.
‘Ernie,’ he said.
I just about managed to stop myself singing that old Benny Hill song, ‘Ernie! He drives the fastest milkcart in the west!’
He led me to the entrance of the exhibition; it was called Revolution and was about the sixties. True to his word, he rummaged through his pockets, eventually producing his membership card, and we both got in for free.
Something changed within the next half hour. Maybe it was the way he explained the Profumo Affair – which I knew nothing about – without mansplaining. Or the way he looked at the sixties outfits and said, ‘Which would you most like to wear?’ I wasn’t particularly interested in that exhibition but he somehow made it fun. He was easy to talk to. He laughed a lot. He was almost my height. The jacket could go. And I was sure he could be persuaded to buy a tighter pair of jeans.
Two hours later, we gave up on the V&A and went next door to the Natural History Museum where we both happened to be members. I was struck by a migraine. I didn’t tell him but went to the loo and necked painkillers, an anti-nausea pill and a rizatriptan, hoping something would do the trick; I didn’t want the date to end. He later said that I was a strange green colour for most of our first date and he just thought that was my normal complexion.
Six hours after we’d met, we said goodbye at the tube station; I’d decided to splash out on a trip on the District Line. I gave him my number and told him I’d like to see him again.
He texted me next day, signing his message ‘Hermi’.
Hermi? Not Ernie?
Thank goodness I didn’t sing that Benny Hill song.