August 20, 2019

A date that defies destiny

The assignment was not the one reporter Lucy Archer wanted when she looked at the newsroom diary that morning. Courts were sitting, there might be a juicy case and here she was presented with the prospect of joining a dating agency with the eventual aim of writing a feature article about this growing social phenomenon.

She came to Bentley to complain, who always provided a sympathetic ear for reporters with a complaint, a grouse. Bentley always listened, and understood.

He’d been there, done it, and understood. What’s more, as Bentley observed more and more frequently with advancing years, nothing seemed to have changed much in the business of news gathering. Stories, and issues, and a reporter’s response to them, came round again and again. Lucy’s complaint took him back to years ago, to the English military town of Aldershot where he worked as a sub-editor briefly between Fleet Street jobs, looking for a quick buck to see him by.

The news editor of the Aldershot News had taken note of the growing number of advertisements for dating agencies appearing in the classified pages and appearing on radio and television.

In the old days as Bentley remembered them it was all about signing up to a physical agency with modest offices on the High Street, presenting a form with personal details to a friendly intermediary and handing over a black and white photograph of yourself and a modest fee.

Now the friendly intermediary, the “counsellor” had vanished and the internet had taken over. Lucy Archer was signing up online, attaching a carefully selected colour photograph in PDF form to her email.

Instead of waiting in anticipation for a letter giving details of a “date”, as in days of old, and possibly their telephone number, now it was instantaneous. An email with picture would arrive and an assignation could be arranged online.

“Shit,” said a reporter from the 1970s with the same assignment, as Bentley remembered it 40 years on. Sally Ritchie sat not in front of a computer terminal, but a sit-up-and-beg Royal typewriter.

“Of all the stories I have to get. This could be so embarrassing. I’m not looking for love, well not in that way. Why me?”

The news editor explained that among his staff Sally Ritchie appeared the perfect candidate for this assignment. She was unmarried, and unattached, and in her late-twenties, which might appear a perfect age for someone looking for love.

“Are you saying that all women in their late twenties are on the shelf, can’t find a man?” she had said indignantly to the news editor, a man in this late 50s, and happily married to the woman he met in the newsroom 25 years previously.

“No, Sally, didn’t mean it that way. I meant to say, you, unlike my younger staff, are experienced in journalism, have a nice touch with your writing. If anyone can do this story, bring interest to it, empathy maybe, explain why in this age people have to advertise for someone to share their dreams, you are the person to capture that in words. Know what I mean?”

The news editor was going overboard in his praise of Sally Ritchie, partly to make up for the clear error of judgment in suggesting she might be incapable of finding a partner on her own, and in desperation to find a female member of staff to tackle the assignment. He didn’t tell her that two staff members had already refused to do the story, which no doubt she would discover, hopefully after she had gone on her date and written her story.

Obtaining money from petty cash, to pay the dating agency fee, Sally dully signed up. One of the photographers took her picture and she carefully went through the form in which she was required to give details about herself.

A requirement of the assignment was to conceal the fact she was a journalist, and not to give any details that might reveal her real identity. She was given a fictitious name.

Age was easy, no need to lie on that point, as she suspected many people do, but her occupation proved a problem. She couldn’t put down anything that hinted at working for a newspaper. Secretary, maybe, but too boring. Sally thought long and hard about what occupation she could pursue outside of journalism. Nurse maybe, but what if her date asked questions about medicine or medical procedures – what if he was a doctor. Air hostess would also pose problems about describing the foreign places she had never visited.

Sally Ritchie settled on being a librarian, a safe occupation in which she would not be required possibly to discuss her work.

In truth Sally Ritchie was looking for love, and she had become more and more aware of her age as her thirtieth birthday approached.

The town of Aldershot might be full of soldiers as the biggest military garrison in the country but it was not a happy hunting ground for women seeking a partner. Troopies looking for sex filed into the town centre at weekends where they took over the two night clubs there, or the handful of pubs.

They were invariably drunk, aggressive and only looking for a quick lay. Any local girl looking for a serious relationship tended to avoid Aldershot on a Saturday night and head for the more cultured environment down the Hogs Back towards London, or the country town of Farnham in the opposite direction.

Sally Ritchie had been in an unfortunate office relationship with a young reporter who had recently secured a position on a Fleet Street newspaper. Sally was aware that the word among her office colleagues was that she had been dumped by the reporter moving up the journalistic ladder in London, but it was more complex than that. Sometimes the lives of two journalists, with all the pressures of the job, simply could not run together.

One thing was certain: Sally Ritchie would never resort to signing up with a dating agency or indeed placing an advertisement in a newspaper seeking a companion. There was something not only contrived in that, but something unnatural, as she would put it. Romance, and finding someone to share your life with, might be a lottery but she believed in fate, that that certain person was just round the corner, waiting to be discovered, bumped into, sat next to. Love was not meant to be mail order, and in her view dating agencies carried a stigma about them, as did those people who used them. And how, when people asked how you met your partner, could you confess it was through a dating agency. And worse, how could you tell your children.

All these thoughts ran though Sally Ritchie’s head as she filled in the questionnaire to be dropped in at the dating agency on the High Street.

In a few days a letter arrived from the Happy Moments agency, with details of a young man interested in meeting Sally Ritchie. Twenty-nine-years-old, Sally’s prospective suitor looked very presentable in a dark, pin-stripe suit, if a little unkempt. His hair was long and wavy and clearly had not seen a comb on the day the picture was taken.

He gave his occupation as chartered accountant and Sally Ritchie thought Robert Jones looked anything but an accountant, with that long hair and slightly wicked smile. Perhaps he was one of those international accountants who travel the world, add up columns of figures in exciting places, the ones she had seen presented in an advertisement on commercial television for the accountancy profession.

She would ask him about it, quiz him, and perhaps her probing and questioning, at length, might prevent him from finding the time to ask her about her life as a librarian. On that score she had decided she would just avoid the subject, say she preferred not to talk about work on social occasions. She had a problem in that she did not know any librarians and could not determine what they did apart from putting books on shelves. There must, however, be a great deal to cataloguing. The information about her date did not indicate where he lived and she decided if he used the Aldershot library, and said he had never seen her there, she would say she worked in a back office.

A assignation was arranged for a restaurant in a city hotel, not in Sally’s home town but Guildford. In consultation about how the story would be approached, the news editor and Sally had agreed that it was best not to do it in Aldershot itself, because it was a small town and she would be bound sooner or later to bump into her “date” if he came from the town or surrounding areas. Lucy had had qualms about the story, masquerading as someone else, being devious and it was partly on her insistence it was done outside of Aldershot. The news editor also gave Sally the name of Adele, Adele Smith.

To her surprise, Sally Ritchie enjoyed the encounter at the restaurant and her story later was not an understated, disguised condemnation of this approach to finding a partner as she feared it would be. She now acknowledged that agencies and even newspaper advertisements placed by individuals had their place in a fast-paced world where people were too hard-worked and busy to meet anyone outside their family or workplace circle.

Without naming him, the story said that her date appeared kind and personable and had gone to a dating agency because he had had difficulty meeting the right women socially who might share his interests. He had had dates, had girlfriends, but nothing ever lasted and the women he met in life never seemed to fit the bill of what he looked for in a woman, something he told Sally he didn’t know himself.
He was looking for someone special, someone who might join in adventures in the outdoors, of hiking, and canoeing and the girls he had met had not wanted to do this.

“So why not try a dating agency?” he had told Sally over dinner, trying to explain, excuse himself for advertising for love, because in truth that is what he, and the woman he knew as Adele, were doing. “And who’s to judge if this is the right or wrong thing. Perhaps it’s just an extension of fate, two people writing to the agency at the same time, say. You meet people in all types of strange and unexpected ways. Why not this way?”

Despite Robert Jones’ defence of this approach to love as the dinner went on they both seemed intent on giving excuses for turning to advertising for a partner, and unspoken words said that they might have preferred to find love in different ways, and this was a last resort.

“And yes, we can find ways of love in all the strangest places. I once went out with a bloke who came round to buy my car,” said Sally Ritchie with a smile. Robert Jones laughed.

“Well that’s strange,” he said. “I once went out with a girl whose car I had run into. I was tuning the radio in the car, wasn’t paying attention, and I ran clean into the back of his Morris Minor. Actually I had also been drinking, but not too much. Just a few at the pub after work. Man was she angry, jumped from her car – it was her father’s – but the anger soon subsided when I apologised repeatedly and said I’d make good all the damage.

“We exchanged notes about my insurance company, and then addresses and it just took off from then. But her old man never liked me, always mentioned his pride and joy, his bloody Morris Minor when I went around there.”

On first dates, dating agency dates, participants are supposed to be on their best behaviour, perhaps present a sanitised version of themselves that wasn’t necessarily true to life.

Robert Jones, telling the story of the car-crash date, appeared to be letting his hair down. Sally Ritchie might have been new to the art of agency dating but she thought that one of the cardinal rules would have been to steer clear of mentioning you enjoyed a drink, and make sure you did not consume excessive alcohol first time out.

Robert Jones did not appear to be adhering to this rule. One bottle of good red turned to two, and Sally Ritchie was surprised that the accountant was so readily prepared to abandon the sobriety rule. Likewise, with nothing to lose, knowing this was going to go nowhere, was an exercise merely in the interests of journalism and a good story, Sally Ritchie joined the young accountant in a celebration of alcohol.

Sally Ritchie was quickly changing her mind about accountants. Perhaps that advertisement was right, the accountant of today was a high-flying, high-living man about town.

Looking at the unkempt Robert Jones, and his fondness for a good red, Sally Ritchie thought that he could easily pass as a journalist, perhaps he was in the wrong profession. She didn’t know any accountants, but she knew of many journalists and Mr Jones fitted the bill perfectly.

About his profession, he was critical, satirical and dismissing. The wicked smile that Sally Ritchie had detected in his photograph certainly mirrored his personality, it was not strained and rehearsed and put on for the camera and for whoever might see it on his personal file put out my the dating agency. Sally Ritchie liked the accountant who said he came from Woking down the tracks towards London.

The staff of the hotel restaurant were eager to close. It was 11pm and Sally and Robert were still deep in conversation, two empty bottles of red on the table and two brandy glasses.

Sally Ritchie had dreaded this story, had complained to Don Bentley about it, but now found herself reluctant to leave Robert Jones’ company. She agonised how to tell him that this was a one-off, and there would be no more dates. How could she say that? Eventually she just said she had had a great evening and would be in contract. She would leave it for a while, however, because she had other men recommend by the dating agency to see.

As she mentioned the others, she suddenly felt somehow insincere and shallow. The word “unclean” even sprang to mind. She was giving the impression she was road-testing prospective partners, and what would the young accountant think of her? If this was for real, she had really joined the dating agency to find a partner, the Robert Jones would be her instant choice, she couldn’t think of a more appropriate person to meet, even if he was an accountant from Woking.

The manager of the restaurant phoned for a taxi and Sally Ritchie was soon on her way to a mythical suburban home where she said she lived with her parents. She looked back to the restaurant as the taxi sped away and she could see the accountant standing on the pavement, looking in her direction and giving a weak wave.

Sally Ritchie thought daily about the young accountant in the days after their meeting.

She was attracted to him, felt comfortable in his company, loved his sense of humour and his tall, handsome looks, even if he was slightly ruffled and unkempt at the edges. He could have been a journalist, the people whose company she felt comfortable with most. Accountancy? She couldn’t see how there could be creativity and excitement in that.

At one point Sally Ritchie felt the urge to phone the accountant, to arrange to meet him again. Finally she would have to confess the reasons for their original meeting. How would the accountant handle that? Would be feel betrayed, humiliated, a subject of derision, or would he take it in good heart, see the point of their encounter. She suspected the latter.

Sally Ritchie never phoned Robert Jones. However much she felt attracted to him, she couldn’t shrug off the stigma she attached to the dating agency game. Two people, as they had discussed over dinner, could meet in strange and bizarre ways, a someone buying your car, a victim in a rear-shunt, but an advertisement for love? She never did phone Robert Jones

Robert Jarvis was not happy. When he went to the diary in the Woking News and Mail newsroom he expected to be dispatched to the Oval cricket ground 25 miles down the track in London, where a player from Woking was making his debut for the Surrey Cricket Club first eleven.

Instead, Robert Jarvis had been assigned a story about dating agencies. The news editor had taken note of the growing number of advertisements for such agencies in the Surrey newspapers and thought that it would make an appropriate story.

He cast around the office for suitable candidates and came up with the name of Robert Jarvis, a young man without family ties, who certainly needed a good woman to give him a love interest and keep him out of the pub.

The story had been sprung on Jarvis without warning and immediately on seeing it
entered in the diary he marched over to the news editor’s desk to protest.

“But, boss, I don’t need no agency to find a woman, this stinks.”

“This isn’t about finding a woman, at least for you, it’s about a story, discovering what drives people to sign up with these agencies. Are there not really enough people seeking partners to go around, or why are they so hard to meet. Now snap to it.”

Jarvis duly signed up with an agency, providing a picture that the News and Mail’s lone photographer had taken for him. He made no effort to smarten his appearance for the photograph and thought it fortunate when it was taken that he had been wearing his only suit, a blue pin-striped one, that morning after returning from a funeral for a distant relative.

Filling in the dating agency application, Jarvis struggled with the notion of putting down an occupation that was not journalism, the only occupation he knew and the only career he had wanted to pursue.

He settled on chartered accountant, an easy option because his father and his brother were accountants, and he at least knew something about the profession.
His father had assumed he would follow a family tradition – his grandfather was also an accountant – and was surprised that his son had resisted the pressure to pursued this career, and had gone into the uncertain and unpredictable world of journalism instead.

Jarvis, though, anticipating the encounter coming his way, decided to be an accountant for the evening, cut down on his fondness for alcohol and at least present an acceptable appearance, in the name of journalism.

Jarvis, thinking over his new role, also realised that he might be in for a bonus. What if his date was crying out for sex? He could end up in bed, on company expenses.

Ending up in bed on company expenses was very much on Jarvis’ mind when he received a letter from the dating agency with particulars of a rather attractive young woman, named Adele Smith. They were to meet for dinner at a restaurant in the nearby city of Guildford – paying their own way – and, as it said in the dating agency literature, see how things progressed from there.

Robert Jarvis aka Robert Jones – “Just call me Bob, everybody else does” – found Adele Smith charming and engaging. She hardly fitted the description of the librarian that was given as her occupation.

He had decided to go easy on the drink during the dinner but, excited about being in the company of someone so lovely and witty, found himself pouring drinks hurriedly and ordering a second bottle. He was surprised that the librarian who didn’t want to talk about her job, but wanted to talk about politics and art and sport and good food, and having fun, matched him drink for drink. Two bottles of good red were quickly consumed and then some fine brandy followed.

Jarvis enjoyed the company of Adele Smith so much that thoughts of sex, an easy lay, fell by the wayside.

Looking into her blue, sparkling eyes, he felt guilty, ashamed, he should have contemplated such a thing as luring her into bed.

“If she’s so desperate for love, she might be desperate for sex” was the thought upper in Robert Jarvis’ mind when he entered the restaurant for his date, acting on the notion that she might be prepared to sleep with him first date in the hope that she might keep him. Adele Smith he soon decided was not a woman for one-night stands. She was that sort of woman who would make a man wait for it. She kept her body and the promise of it under lock and key until she decided the time was right.

And what a body she had. But the more Jarvis drank, the less he concentrated on the curve of her breasts under a loose-fitting, green jumper, and her lithe legs tucked under the table, but on the quality of her conversation, her jokes, her self-deprecating humour.

“Tell me about life in the library,” he said at one points to which she replied, “That’s a closed book.”

If he didn’t know better she could be a journalist and perhaps that’s the way it should have been, the career she should have chosen. He wanted to mention this once, suggest a career change but felt it would sound facetious. And, anyway, why should an accountant be advocating she make a career change to journalism? He might give the game away. But surely she would have considered that, if she loved books, and perhaps there was something about not journalism but journalists that repelled her, the drunk, the unsocial hours, the cynicism, an unkempt life. He doubted it, though, felt she would fit nicely into a newsroom, especially with a near-bottle of good red inside her, followed by a brandy whose glass she swirled in her hand to warm it.

“Fuck,” said Jarvis to himself, “she’s lovely.”

When it was time to go, he asked if he could call her again. “No,” she said firmly, “wait for me to call you.” She said he had some other men recommended by the agency to go out with.

Outside the hotel, Jarvis watched her climb into back seat of the taxi, her slender, sculpted legs neatly swivelling and swung sideways so her dress was not pulled up above the knees, for her ride home to the Guildford suburbs.

“Fuck me,” he said giving her a weak wave as the taxi made its sway down Guildford’s ancient and cobbled High Street. “She’s road-testing men.” He was thinking of a beautiful, demure young woman trying out all the models to find the best one, as though she was buying a new car. The dating agency had just been the start of the process, the new car catalogue, and Robert Jones did not want to be a part of it, even if he struggled to repress a primal instinct buried deep inside him that told him otherwise.

Jarvis was now beginning to feel the effects of the drink in the cold night air.
He felt a sense of melancholy, and loss, which he merely put down to the drink, the alcoholic remorse he knew so well, striking at an earlier stage than the hangover next morning.

He thought of Adele Smith next day, felt an urge to phone her, but all the while the thought of her road-testing men came home to him. Where was the spontaneity, the notion of fate, the sense of two lonely souls in an alien and unfriendly world finding each other, coming together against all the odds.

Twenty-four hours on, Robert Jarvis felt that the drink was still talking, he was talking and thinking like an agony aunt in a newspaper, or the writer of women’s romance novels.

In truth, Robert Jarvis had just come out of an unhappy romance, and was looking for that special person the authors of women’s fiction always laid on for their leading men and ladies.

He was tired of one-night stands, of doing the rounds of night-spots and pubs that played rock and the blues as weekends. He wanted a partner, a soul-mate, someone to share a good bottle of red with. Adele Smith might have fitted the bill, but here was a librarian road-testing men, like she would dip into and out of new novels looking for a good read. Robert Jarvis decided Adele Smith was not the woman for him, although he conceded that in the words of the romance writers she had stolen his heart.

Sally Ritchie wrote her story, and was pleased with it, as was the news editor. She asked that the newspaper not use a picture byline. Woking might be eight miles distant but she didn’t want anyone there, namely a young accountant with a wicket smile, to see who Adele Smith really was, and their encounter had been merely a means to an end, not finding love but finding a good angle to a story.

Robert Jarvis typed the final full stop to his story. He gave it a quick read and then rose from his seat and crossed the floor to where the news editor was sitting.

“Finished that dating agency story boss, but do you mind if I don’t have my picture on it. Sort of grew attached to that girl, we got on really well and I’d hate her to know it was all for a story. Know what I mean?”

“Sure,” said the news editor without looking up.