Famous first words

Look: it takes a lot, when you’re the average teenage boy.

First off, it takes a lot to ask a girl out. Weeks of summoning up the courage, days of shimmying past suspicious friends, hours of trying to find her on her own in just the right situation, just to pop a question that might reduce to ashes the entire foundation of your position in playground society.

This has been documented comprehensively over the generations, and I think it is well understood: it takes a lot.

But that is just the start of it. Where, when the asking-out has finally occurred and consent unexpectedly secured, is ‘out’?

‘Out’ to me, as an adult, is somewhere comfortable to pass time with like-minded people (say, having a chat and a laugh); somewhere to indulge in whatever sensual stimulation is on offer (say, a hearty meal with fine wine).

‘Out’ to me, as a teenager, was somewhere comfortable to pass time with like-minded people (say, kicking a football around and lighting small fires); somewhere to indulge in whatever sensual stimulation was on offer (say, a quarter of rhubarb & custard and a can of cider).

So ‘going out’ — like, with a girl — is the first step on the process of making the subtle switch from one version of ‘out’ to another.

You must find a place you’re not familiar with, to which you can escort your intended (and she’s not familiar with it either, having spent her ‘out’ time round a friend’s house, leafing through magazines and carrying out leftfield cosmetic experiments), and you can get on with the business of, well, being ‘out’.

My mind flits briefly to the evening when I escorted – let’s call her Miss Smith (because that was her name) – across an October-sodden Abington Park in a shortcut to the pub. Her expensively embroidered trousers were quickly reduced to a mud-caked write-off below the knee. What can I say? It was a shortcut. What else were we going to do? Walk round, adding pointless minutes to our journey?

It certainly cut a few minutes off the length of our relationship.

But, shoving my experiences firmly to one side, I was witness to the horrors of someone else’s fledgling relationship last week, as my wife and I investigated our waki udon noodles with chopsticks at Birmingham’s Wagamama.

Wagamama is the kind of restaurant that obliges you to suspend any lingering Englishness, because, first off, it’s ‘pan-Asian’ food (i.e. Asian food you can cook in a pan), and secondly you are sat on a bench opposite your dining companion, and next to a complete stranger. There is no physical divide between you and the stranger whatsoever. I should imagine one of the best things about being a Wagamama waitster is observing the psychological divides people conjure up. I myself never glance outside the -10°/+10° angle of my companion.

Our enjoyment of the noodles and casual conversation were infiltrated about halfway through by a strong scent, as a roughly 18-year-old couple were installed beside us and handed their menus.

Olfactorily speaking, the girl was obviously some way short of being able to judge the precise period of depression of the button on her atomiser. The consequent nasal assault brought right back to me the sheer complexity of the journey those kids were on – the journey that had brought my wife and I to precisely where we were, chatting and having a laugh, enjoying the good food and wine.

Here’s the breakdown of experience of what he had to do after having secured her consent to go ‘out’:

  • Think of somewhere to go (“Why don’t you take her out to a restaurant, love? She’ll be very impressed.”)
  • Find out what a good restaurant is (McDonalds <—> The Savoy)
  • Phone up
  • Book a table (or become resigned to the risk of taking her there and finding it full)
  • Get dressed up (how dressed up? trip to town? what shops are good shops? TK Maxx <—> Harvey Nichols)
  • Find her house; call for her three minutes late
  • Wait at the bus stop, while sustaining conversation
  • Endure a bus ride, while sustaining conversation
  • Find the restaurant, while sustaining conversation
  • Know what to do when you get in the door (i.e. queue up to be seated)
  • Sit right next to some 30/40 year old couple who obviously know what they’re doing
  • Sustain conversation while deciding when to engage with the menu
  • Interpret the menu
  • Sustain conversation while the food is prepared
  • Know how to use chopsticks, and not succumb to picking up the fork that has been placed discreetly to one side by the charitable waitster.

What complete and unutterable misery. How can anybody look appealing in the face of such complexity?

By hook or by crook, our lad negotiated all this. “He was trying really hard,” my wife noted, “but she wasn’t giving him anything to work with.”

The girl was, let it be recorded, eating her noodles with a spoon.

Well, there we are. I managed to attract the waitster’s attention to ask for the bill (oh – add that dark art to the above list), and as I thumbed in my PIN, I heard the lad beside me pitch one last-ditch attempt to stoke up the completely stalled conversation.

“What’s your favourite meat, then?”

I wonder how we survive as a species at all.

As ever,


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