It’s a Saturday, and Lucy has a brunch date with Julien, whom she found on OKCupid.
Julien, in case it wasn’t obvious from his name, is French. Lucy’s still on her mission to find a replacement for Charlie, and seems to be matching fairly regularly with foreigners. Not, perhaps, because she’s deliberately seeking them out, but maybe there’s more of a statistical likelihood that people who haven’t lived in the UK so long will be on dating apps?
Lucy also may swipe right more freely on foreigners because she doesn’t judge their spelling and grammar quite as harshly as she does for native English speakers – though in Julien’s case that isn’t actually necessary. His English is far better than that of most British men on dating apps – clearly not being a native speaker is not a problem for him. In fact, it might even be a bonus for Lucy, who still has long-held ambitions to improve her rusty French and take idyllic holidays in the South of France.
From his photos Julien appears to be quite smiley, in reasonable shape, and has good hair. He says he’s a mathematician and plays cards for a living. Lucy’s not entirely sure what that means – it certainly doesn’t sound like a proper job – but she decides to meet him anyway and find out more.
Julien suggests meeting in Islington, which is where he lives (eye roll), but since Lucy doesn’t much fancy schlepping all the way across town for a quick lunch on a Saturday, she politely requests they go somewhere a bit more mutually convenient. Which somehow ends up with them agreeing to meet at a café just a short bus ride away in Shepherds Bush – ideal for Lucy as now she can use her Saturday to maximum efficiency and pick up a few things in the Westfield shopping centre afterwards.
Lucy bloody loves it when a plan comes together.
In fact by the time Saturday rolls around she’s actually far more interested in the shopping than in the date. It’s been a while since they matched and the conversation has gone rather stale, and Lucy’s not actually that fussed about meeting Julien. She’d cancel, but a sense of obligation to keep her commitments prevents her, as does her hugely overdeveloped sense of FOMO. Gotta take chances, right? You never know what might happen yada yada yada yawn.
So she goes. Mostly because she really fancies having brunch. And Lucy loves brunch.
She arrives first, and is offered a seat by the window. The café is tightly packed, and Lucy has to be careful not to smash the couple at the next table in the face with her bag as she squeezes through the narrow gap. She settles herself on the banquette, facing the door, and Julien arrives a few minutes later. He leans towards her to give her a Gallic kiss on both cheeks, and there’s an awkward moment as Lucy’s forced to sort of half-stand and lean across the table, knocking the cutlery on the floor as she does so – an awkwardness that’s compounded by the fact that, yet again, her immediate first impression is that she doesn’t fancy him at all.
Isn’t it funny, she thinks, that you can get that kick of attraction – or not – in just a fraction of a second, before words have even been spoken. And it’s not that Julien isn’t handsome – because he’s not bad-looking at all. But there’s just something about him that simply doesn’t do it for her. For a start, he’s dressed like a French teenager in jeans, trainers, a baggy t-shirt and a sort of weirdly-patterned anorak, and his hair is mussed up and scraggy like he’s about three months overdue a haircut and just got out of bed (both of which may well be true). And although he has a nice face, she simply doesn’t find him attractive.
The next problem is that Julien has a very strong French accent – sort of Eric Cantona meets Gerard Depardieu – which Lucy struggles to understand. The issue is made worse by the fact that there’s a football match on at Queens Park Rangers stadium just round the corner, and the café is full of rowdy fans, lining their stomachs before they head off to the game. So not only can she not understand Julien, she can’t even bloody hear him.
This puts her in a confusing position, because although the whole not-fancying-him thing means she instinctively feels more comfortable sitting back in her seat, the noise in the café forces her to lean closer across the table so she can actually make out what Julien is saying. And so she leans forward, but the bastard table is wobbly, and in her now-flustered state she gets into a hot mess trying to stabilise it, and is forced to wave maniacally at the harassed waiter to get him to bring a bloody paper napkin to put under the table leg, while Julien sits there with a bemused expression and oh dear this whole thing really isn’t going very well…
And it continues to Not Go Well. Conversation does not flow. Julien doesn’t ask Lucy any questions about herself, so she asks lots about him, which actually turns out to be a good strategy because then she can let him waffle. And although she can only make out about 50% of what he says she can get the gist, and she finds that as long as she nods and smiles and says ‘ha ha’ every so often, he seems to be happy to carry on talking.
Thank fuck he’s so chatty.
The whole thing starts to unravel when Julien occasionally stops talking and looks at her expectantly, as if requiring some kind of response. But since she hasn’t really heard or understood what he was saying she has no bastard clue what to say, so she sits there in mute confusion until she can’t take the silence any more and is forced to ask him to repeat himself.
In his profile, Julien says he ‘plays cards for a living’. Lucy asks him what that means.
“I’m a prrrrofessionell Pokair playair,” he tells her in his strong French accent.
“And what does being a professional Poker player actually involve?”
“Well bezzikly I trrravel to tournaments and play pokerrr. Sometimez I ween and sometimez I looze but I ween morrre often zan not, so eet’s OK.”
“What’s the most you’ve ever won in one go?” asks Lucy, nosily.
“Well wance I wahn ninety souzand poundz.”
“Wow!” says Lucy in awe. “That must have been an amazing day! And what’s the most you’ve ever lost?”
Over the challenge of the football crowd and Julien’s accent Lucy manages to understand that the most professional poker players can ever lose is their buy-in stake in the game, though for some games that can be as much as £1000, so if you lose regularly it soon adds up.
“And you don’t have a full-time job?” Lucy asks, wondering how this weird career can actually provide Julien with a living.
“Non, so zat eez why I ‘ave deecided to ‘ave a carrreer change.”
“Oh really? What are you changing to?”
“I’m going to be a prrrofessional Bridge playair.”
Um… hold on…?
“That doesn’t really sound like much of a change,” says Lucy, who is now even more mystified by this bizarre world.
Julien explains that being a professional Bridge player is less risky because you play in teams, and you don’t have to put money in, so you can still win money but you never lose it.
“And sometimez,” he adds, “People weel pay you to play Brridge wiz zem.”
Lucy laughs. “What, like old ladies?” She thinks of her mum, who plays in a regular ladies’ Bridge club. “Is ‘Professional Bridge Player’ code for male escort?”
And then she stops laughing and wonders if that might actually not be a joke after all.
“I could ‘ave ‘ad a worse job, you know,” says Julien. “You prrobablee ‘ave concerns about me being a prrofessionell gambler but at least I’m not dooeeng what I waz dooeeng before.”
“What was that?”
“I was going to be a ‘edge fund manageair. But they are all awfull. I onlee lasted two weeks.”
Lucy doesn’t know much about hedge fund management, but she was rather under the impression that was pretty much professional gambling anyway.
Lucy’s getting bored of asking Julien questions about himself, and she’s still struggling to understand what he’s saying. Fortunately she’s saved by the arrival of brunch.
She tucks into her poached eggs with avocado and smoked salmon, but her enjoyment is marred by the couple just inches from them on the next table, who are complaining that they ordered first and are still waiting for their food. The harassed waiter comes over and confesses that the order has been lost, and the angry couple begin haranguing the poor bloke while Lucy awkwardly tries to eat her delicious meal without too much obvious enjoyment.
Julien carries on chatting away, and Lucy continues to fail to understand what he’s saying, throwing in regular questions because he doesn’t seem to want to find out anything about her. There’s a particularly excruciating moment when he concludes an answer, but Lucy has a mouthful so she can’t reply. Maybe now he will seize the opportunity to ask her something? But he doesn’t and the silence hangs over them like a fart in a taxi while she finishes chewing, until it becomes too oppressive to bear, so she swallows and asks another.
By now Lucy’s really struggling. The food is good and there’s nothing majorly offensive about Julien, not really, but with the noise and his accent and his apparent lack of curiosity the conversation really isn’t flowing and the whole thing feels far too much like hard work. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to eat brunch, so as soon as Lucy’s finished – and to pre-empt any horrific danger of him wanting pudding or (God forbid) coffee – she puts down her knife and fork, waves at the waiter, and says brightly, “Shall we get the bill?”
And when the bill arrives, to avoid any polite confusion over who’s paying, she firmly puts her card down on the tray and says, with the same fake cheery tone, “We’ll split this, yeah?” and so they pay and leave and Lucy feels an enormous sense of relief that it’s all finally over.
Except it isn’t. Julien is also walking back to Shepherds Bush station, so Lucy has no choice but to walk with him. It’s OK, she thinks, we can just walk quickly and I’ll get him carry on chatting. But it’s a Saturday afternoon and the street is crowded and people keep knocking into her or walking really fucking slowly, or stopping suddenly in front of her, and Lucy’s now getting increasingly anxious and frustrated and stressed about this whole mad situation where she’s trapped with this boring guy whom she can’t even bloody understand and all she really wants right now is just to get far, far away.
And she’s trying to walk as fast as she can so they can get to the tube station quicker, but people are still getting in the way and at one point a man walking in the opposite direction bashes her with his bag, and then they get stuck behind three girls moving really fucking slowly and smoking, so the disgusting toxic tobacco fumes are blowing directly into Lucy’s face, and she really fucking hates that so she tries to overtake them but Julien doesn’t really understand what’s going on so it looks like she’s running away and leaving him behind (which basically she would love to do) and then she has to wait for him to catch up even though she really fucking doesn’t want to.
And eventually they get to the tube station and Lucy remembers there’s a shop over the road she wants to go to, and the pedestrian light is green, so in one swift move she says ‘Oh I need to go to that shop over there it was nice to meet you bye!’ gives him a quick peck on the cheek and runs across before the lights change.
The second she steps into the road she feels the thousand tonne weight lift from her shoulders, and the sweet, fragrant air of freedom fills her lungs (along with all the crap and traffic fumes and sickly vape smoke from Shepherds Bush Green), and she feels so relieved she could almost do one of those happy side kick-hop things they do in old movies except she’d probably fall over and get mown down by a bus. So she doesn’t.
She doesn’t even really know why the experience was so stressful. Julien wasn’t weird or creepy, he was perfectly, well, fine. But there were a million and one places she’d rather be, and maybe, just maybe, she’s hit a wall with dating. Polite chit chat with random men, zero chemistry, endless effort, swiping, texting, travelling around London, only to have to deal with this kind of stress… is it really worth it? Surely there must be another way?
NEXT TIME: Lucy tries something she’s never done before.