Physics and Chemistry

The restaurant looked busy. Tanya hovered at the entrance, recalling the details of Mike Halford’s profile. Fair-hair, blue eyes, athletic build. Aged thirty. A teacher. Shy. Steady. Single. In search of the Right Person. Just like her. Everything, in other words, that she had asked for.

She glanced nervously down at her mini-skirt, regretting the reckless exposure of her wide thighs. She had dieted for the date – nothing but fruit for six days – but the contours of her least favourite body-parts remained unchanged. Mike might be disappointed. The photo she had used for the website had been taken at her little sister’s wedding earlier in the year, a version of herself chiselled out of three months of near-starvation, costly beauty treatments and sheer, grim pride.

With a deep breath, Tanya plunged inside. Looking confident was the trick. Neediness scared men away. That she was needy didn’t come into it. All she had ever wanted was a man to lean on and look after her and have kids with. A man like Steve. Steve, who after ten years of promising exactly that, had done a runner with the girl in the upstairs flat, the one he had once liked to joke looked like a string bean.

A table had been reserved but it was empty. Tanya scurried to the Ladies, where she dithered in front of mirrors, touching up her lippy and poking at her hair. Getting Mr Right was pure science, Lizzy had assured her, on a new soap-box because of Bruno, whom she had found online. Deciding what you want and ticking boxes. As easy as Ocado. Even the mistakes were fun. She had shepherded Tanya through the process, giggling smugly, because of being so in love herself.

When she returned to the dining room Mike Halford was at the table. And looking even better than his picture. He stood up to greet her, the smile on his handsome face betraying no glimmer of disappointment. His skin was smooth, his teeth as even as flower petals. Tanya felt her heart swell with hope. The website had boasted its success with first dates.

‘I’m sorry I’m a little late…’ She slid into the seat opposite, fussing with her bag.

‘You’re not late,’ he exclaimed warmly. ‘Look. It’s only seven o clock now.’ He held out his wrist, displaying a fat blue watch bristling with knobs and dials. ‘Bang on seven, see?’ He tapped the face.

‘Oh yes, I see.’ Tanya shook out her napkin. No one should be judged on a watch, she told herself. No one. She ventured a proper look at his eyes. They were so nice. And so blue! Bluer even than Steve’s.

She ordered safe food. Pâté. Salmon. Nothing messy. As they ate they talked about their jobs, Tanya giving as lively an account as she could manage of being a legal secretary and then listening attentively while Mike spoke about teaching Physics to fourteen year olds.

‘It was the age I fell in love with the subject myself,’ he confessed, ‘during an experiment to measure an oleic acid molecule. The ability of science to quantify the density of something so small – it blew me away.’

‘Really? How…how wonderful.’ Tanya tried to think what she had loved in her life other than Steve. Steve with his shock of fair hair and easy smile. Steve whom she had dumbly, pathetically, imagined might have a clone. ‘Excuse me.’ She fled towards the Ladies, but took a wrong turn and found herself in a corridor by the kitchens. A skinny man in crumpled drainpipes was leaning against a cigarette machine shaking his head.

‘You haven’t got change for a pound have you? Or a pound, come to that?

His accent was Irish. Tanya didn’t like the Irish. All drinking and sleazy charm. And this one was scruffy too – brown hair tangled to his shoulders, and a worn grey jacket. She wasn’t keen on smokers either, not since finally having managed to quit, at Steve’s pleading behest two years before.

‘No, sorry.’

‘Really?’ His green eyes blazed with amused disbelief, trapping her in their glare. He threw back his haystack hair as he laughed. ‘You are one angry girl.’

‘No I’m not.’

‘Okay, I tell you what. I’m going to ask again. Really nicely. Ready?’

Tanya watched, appalled but mesmerised as he dropped onto one knee. ‘Dear, sweet, Sexy Lady. Whom Fate has thrown my way. Please…please…could you check your purse on my behalf?’

A waiter dodged them, as if such scenes of chivalrous supplication happened all the time. Tanya pulled her hand free to fumble in her bag for some change, but not before his mouth had brushed across her knuckles.

The absolute cheek of it. She was still trembling when she got back to the table. Mike had paid the bill and was standing up looking nervous.

‘I wondered if you’d like to come back for a coffee,’ he gabbled. ‘I only live two stops away on the tube.’

Tanya’s blood was still pumping. Her skin prickled, tight and alive, as if it had somehow slid back into place; as if it fitted after months of being wrong.

‘A coffee? Sure, why not?’

Outside the Irishman was leaning against the wall, a cigarette dangling carelessly between his fingers. He didn’t acknowledge her, but Tanya felt his green eyes tracking her down the street, appreciative, mischievous, beaming a warmth into her back. The world might be constructed of molecules, but there was also Chemistry. Oh God, how had she forgotten chemistry?

The two stops on the tube took eight minutes, Mike told her, sliding the watch back into view for verification. The watch. As big as a cupcake and just as silly.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind. It’s been fun, but I’m going to grab a bus home instead.’ Tanya kissed his cheek and turned back towards the restaurant, having the kindness not to quicken her pace until she knew she was out of sight.

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