With friends like these…

“You mean to say,” asks my friend over a coffee in the park, “that’s there not a single man ON THE WHOLE PLANET that you find attractive?”

Her eyes are nearly popping out of her head as she stares at me, agog.

“That’s not what I said,” I reply. “There are many men that I find attractive. It’s just that they aren’t necessarily single. And the ones that are don’t seem to be attracted to me.”

She tuts in disgust.

“The trouble with you is that even when a bloke is super-keen, you don’t notice!”

I consider this.

Whilst there haven’t exactly been hordes of men beating a path to my door of late, it’s true that, historically, I have been a bit obtuse in that department. But there once was a time – admittedly many years ago – when I was confident in my ability to attract gentlemen that appealed to me. Now, my default is to assume that they just wouldn’t be interested … mostly because they’re not.

“What happened to that guy you wrote to on the dating site?” she persists.

“Didn’t reply.”

“And the guy you were spending all that time with?”

Ah, now this was a single gentleman that I did like. And I thought that he liked me. He spent enough time round at my place, anyway… initially, at least. He was even great with the little guy. But then one evening we went out together and I made the tiniest of advances … and was so firmly rebuffed that I didn’t dare try again. And that was that.

We’re still mates, and he’s still in the little guy’s Top 10 of favourite human beings, but I’m under no illusions about the fate of that friendship.

“Wasn’t interested,” I mutter.

“Whaaat?!” She narrows her eyes. “He spent all that time with you because he wasn’t interested?”

I have to admit, it seemed odd to me. But what do I know?

“Apparently so,” I say.

My friend rolls her eyes in disgust.

“And did you challenge him about it?”

Challenge him?!”

I’m not sure what my friend has in mind, here. Ask him how very dare he spend time with me if he had no intention of making an honest woman of me? Maybe he just wanted to spend time with me. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he loves hanging out with the little guy. Whatever his motives, I doubt very much he’d change his mind just because I challenge him.

“You have to fight for what you want,” says Friend.

Now it’s my turn to roll my eyes.

“You can’t force someone to like you,” I say.

“Why not?” she says. “It worked for Belle.”

Actually, improbable as it may seem, it really did work for Belle.

Belle is a woman we used to work with, full of fun and raucous laughter, bustling and hugely efficient, but also feisty and maybe just a tiny bit pushy.

Anyway, despite having been engaged to each other for no short time, her other half took it upon himself to dump her. But she wasn’t having that. Oh, no. She hassled him and harried him and refused to take no for an answer. Now they’re married with two kids.

So yes, it worked for Belle, but that’s just not my style. I don’t want to be known as the woman who bullied someone into being with her.

“If I challenge him,” I explain patiently, “then I might lose a friend. And I’d rather have a good mate than a reluctant boyfriend.”

“So you’re just going to yearn quietly from afar?” says my mate.

“Yes. Well, no. I’m done with yearning.”

I can tell she’s about to berate me again, so I jump up brightly and suggest getting lunch. Which is, apparently, all that’s needed for the guy who’s been sprawled on an adjacent bench to come to his senses and join our conversation.

“Lunch? Yes please, darlin’!” he crows, before breaking into the sort of wheezy laugh that has you reaching for the Lemsip in emphysematic empathy.

I look sideways at my friend, biting my lip in an effort to suppress a rebuttal.

She smirks at me and, raising a suggestive eyebrow, whispers, “Get your coat love…!”

And I do get my coat. I get my coat and I throw it squarely at her head. And then we go for lunch.

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What to do about Alan Carr

It turns out that second dates aren’t that easy to arrange. Or, at least, second dates without a four-year-old in tow.

Yep, I’m referring to Alan Carr.

You wouldn’t think it could be so hard for two grown-ups to arrange a get-together of some sort. But it is. And, I must admit, it’s mostly my fault.

Part of the problem stems from my reluctance to bother any of my mummy friends who already have two offspring of their own to wrangle with. The other part of the problem is my reluctance to pay the exorbitant rates demanded by professional babysitters: although we’re not flat broke any more, I can’t contemplate coughing up fifty quid on childcare before I even put a foot out the door.

And the other part of the problem – yes, there are three parts, OK? – is that weird, undefinable mummy-guilt that crashes down on my head every time I even think about dumping my beloved offspring on a babysitter just so that I can go out and – horrors! – have a good time.

Complicated, no?

Add to that a man who also has a social life of his own and … yeah, you can see why Alan Carr and I have yet to meet up again.

Mind you, it’s almost easier that way. Because if the next date goes well, I’ll have to think about the date after that. And the thought of having to go through this rigmarole EVERY TIME I want to leave the house pretty much kills my enthusiasm stone dead, right from the off.

The only time I feel completely happy about skipping off for a night out is when Nanna is here – a sporadic happening – or when the Baby Daddy visits, once every six weeks.

I do have one or two childless mates who, for some illogical reason, fall into the category of people I don’t mind hassling, but I usually prefer them to be on the night out with me, rather than guarding my snoozling child.

Anyway, it seems the only way that dating is likely to be a stress-free experience is if the gentleman in question is happy to pop round to mine for a cuppa after infant bedtime. Pretty much every time. (It’s a rock’n’roll lifestyle, I know. He might struggle to keep pace.)

Truly, I’m destined for an old age surrounded by cats.

But, like the good Yorkshireman he is, Alan Carr is being stoic about it, and we’re still in touch … although I imagine I’ve been downgraded from a top prospect to my own special corner of the friend zone. Not that I blame him. From his perspective, it must look like he’s been sold a pup.

Still, I mustn’t get downhearted, because I’ve been the object of not one but TWO gentlemen’s attentions this week.

Yep, the mysterious owner of the-flat-two-doors-down – who hasn’t been spotted in the eight months since we moved in – finally made an appearance … and wasted no time in suggesting that he could, “knock me up for a drink” (a peculiar turn of phrase) next time he’s in town.

He seemed friendly enough, but since he seems to orbit this way … well, about once every eight months, I don’t suppose I need to get too excited, especially since he’s about 20 years my senior. He might be on a zimmer frame the next time he pops by.

Anyway, gentleman number two popped along with his son to buy my old vacuum cleaner … and, discovering that we were both single parents, suggested that I might like to meet him sometime – sans offspring – to, erm, chat about the trials of single parenthood.

Great, I hear you say. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s no delicate way to put this: he had a faceful of tattoos. He had a faceful of tattoos and that just doesn’t float my boat.

Lord knows, I’m not normally so quick to judge people on their appearances: I had dreadlocks for years and I’m no stranger to the odd tattoo myself. And yet … a faceful of tattoos is somehow a tattoo or two too far. It’s a demarcation line that says, you want to be perceived one way, and I want to be perceived another. And so I politely declined.

Still, it’s good to know I’ve still got it.

Mine may be a rarefied cachet, but it turns out there are plenty of youngsters, older gentlemen and social self-excluders who think I’m the bee’s knees.

And in the circumstances, I suppose I should be grateful for that.

I’m looking over a four-leaf clover

Not that long ago, there was a Very Important Anniversary that I may have neglected to mention. A very special day that was celebrated with cake and treats and a day out at the miniature railway.

Yes, as incredible as it may seem, the little guy is now four. FOUR! Can you believe it?

Who would have thought, when I brought that wrinkled little being home from the hospital (and then back to the hospital, and then home again) that one day, he would be FOUR?

I mean, I know most infants start off small and get bigger – I’m smart like that – but really … four kinda took me by surprise.
Because four means big boy: lanky limbs where chubby little arms and legs once were, and a burgeoning eloquence offset by grammatical eccentricity and unfathomable logic. (Sample quote: “Mummy, can you imagine if a tiny queen comed while we were sleeping and magicked avocados all over the world and they were rolling everywhere??”)

Anyway, four also means that the boy will be off to school in September, so our days have been full of form-filling and teacher visits and the ordering of special sweatshirts with the school badge on the front.

Of course, while I’m feeling slightly sentimental about it all, the little guy is charging towards it like an enthusiastic rhinoceros … which is, I suppose, the best way for things to be.

But between school and my new job (did I mention I had a new job?), our days as a Travelling Twosome are numbered. Now that we’re limited to school holidays instead of, well … any old time … and I’m working five days instead of four, our globe-trotting escapades will have to be reined in.

Which is why we’ve just squeezed in a highly relaxing week in Timișoara, an absolute gem of a city that’s full of beautiful architecture; green, leafy parks; and plenty of Italian ice cream shops.

Aside from the little guy stepping on a bee, necessitating rather more carrying than I’d hoped for, Romania’s finest really did deliver on fun, sun and … well, not sand, but let’s say … mellow vibes.

And the mellowness even extended to the Romanian menfolk: this was the first holiday in moons where I was not accosted by buoyant balloon sellers, Freddie Mercury fanatics or anonymous Russian admirers. It’s no wonder I’m keen to go back.

Still, if the truth be told, I’m being pretty much universally ignored by the male half of the species, full stop. Clearly, I’m not known for my raging success on that front, but things have been quieter than ever – though for once, I’ve probably noticed less.

Because although I’m still as single as can be, I’m in a pretty good place right now: we have a comfortable home, I’m in a decent job, we have good friends and the little guy is healthy and happy. And I’m pretty grateful for all of that.

Looking back over the last four years, I can see that things haven’t always been so easy: we’ve moved house five times; tightened our metaphorical belts on several occasions … and I’ve endured LOTS of days without speaking to another human being.

But here we are, my little man and I, carefree and content. And if we’re counting our blessings, we might just run out of fingers.

We’re lucky to be where we are, and I’m lucky to have my quirky little guy, rolling avocados and all.

Going back to my roots

It’s a beautiful afternoon. The sun is beating down, the sea breeze is raking my hair … and I’m heaving a snotty, wailing three-year-old past the hawkers and traders ranged along the seafront.

The infant is flopping about like a freshly caught mackerel and getting heavier by the second, when an elderly gentleman with a kind face and badly broken teeth waves a yellow balloon in our direction.

We’re in Budva, a small but attractive medieval town on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. A town which just happens to have its very own Blackpool-style promenade, where said gentleman is obviously big in the balloon trade.

“Oh, no thank you,” I say, as I hurry past, wondering how on earth he could think this was the perfect balloon-buying moment.

To my surprise, Balloon Man breaks into a trot alongside me, cooing to the boy and insistently waving the balloon, saying, “It’s free! No money. Here … good boy. Stop cry. Take balloon.”

I slow my pace, wondering how to proceed: it’s very kind of him to offer the balloon – and churlish of me if I refuse – but really I don’t want to reward my son for throwing the mother of all tantrums.

I hesitate, but it turns out that my vacillations are redundant, since before I can say a thing, Balloon Man is beaming and the boy is clutching the balloon in a grubby paw.

We thank Balloon Man and continue on our way; the wails subside to snotty hiccups and, once the little human has completely calmed himself, I insist that he returns to say thank you for his gift. And herein my mistake…

Balloon Man waves away our thank yous and tells me that his son lives in America; he has a grandchild the same age as the little guy whom he rarely sees as he’s afraid of flying. So far, so platonic.

But then Balloon Man asks me the whereabouts of my husband, and I explain that I don’t have one – which is clearly a concept beyond his ken, because he begins to berate the errant husband who has wantonly abandoned me and my son … before asking where we’re staying and suggesting that perhaps he could come and see us some time.

Luckily, I’m able to say that we’re just visiting Budva for the day; we’re actually staying in Kotor.

“I drive to Kotor,” he says, optimistically. “I look for you when you come back for bus!”

And he does.

He spies us en route to the bus station and comes to the playground where the little guy is playing, hovering hopefully while I studiously ignore him. When it’s time to pass his stall again, the little guy conveniently bolts, and I have to run and grab him before he finds himself under a car. Balloon Man watches wistfully from afar.

The next day, Nanna, the boy and I are on a boat trip around the bay of Kotor. The infant has been adopted by a Kosovan family, and is being petted by their kids when the captain’s mate – a rangy young gentleman and a recent graduate in economics – takes me by the hand and invites me to the bow of the boat.

We sit with the wind in our faces, soaking up the sunshine and chatting. (Another tourist asks if he can go up front too, to take photographs, but is tersely rebuffed by the captain.) He asks where we’re staying, and wonders whether we might meet up for a drink one evening.

And it’s then I have a flash of realisation: my niche!

As a woman with a child, I’ve been ignored by men for so long that I’d almost forgotten about my ‘under 25, over 55’ niche – and my apparent inability to attract any man outside those parameters. But here it was again, alive and well and living in Montenegro.

For a while there, it looked as though the Great Date may have derailed my ill fortune, but the second date was … nice … and then he disappeared on a six-week academic tour. And, if I’m honest, I forgot all about him.

After that, life has been so busy with one thing and another, I’ve barely had time to consider my single status. Still, when all’s said and done, I suppose there’s some sort of reassurance in knowing that times may change, men may come and go … but no matter what, I’ll always have my niche.

Happy birth… oh, never mind

Guess what? It’s my birthday again. And this year I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of … indifference.

In years gone by, my day of birth was a cause for excitement and celebration – or at least a couple of good nights out with my mates.

In more recent times, it’s been an uncomfortable reminder of the passing years, and the ever-diminishing possibility of becoming a mum again.

But this year … this year I just feel largely … disinterested.

If truth be told, I’m more excited that I’m having a night out. It’s been nearly THREE MONTHS since I had a night out on the town with my mates – or what’s left of them.

(I did manage to sneak in one or two cocktails with a dear old friend when I went to visit my mum, mind. And thank goodness I did, or my sanity would have been completely out of the window by now.)

I know I bark on about it all the time, but the single hardest thing about being a lone parent is the isolation: you’re either in full-on mummy mode or sitting by yourself on the sofa, whiling away the hours until bedtime.
So the opportunity to leave the house AND hang out with grown-ups seems like a miracle of bounteous good fortune.

Truly, I am blessed.

The weird thing is, I’ve kind of forgotten how to snazz myself up for a night out. As I realised when I was trying to envisage some kind of outfit that would be suitable for a celebratory soirée, my work wardrobe is far more daring and sexy than my civvies. Scary, right?

Obviously, I’ll be going with mates who won’t care if I turn up in a bin bag, but since this is a rare opportunity to get my gladrags on, it’d be nice if my imagination could stretch to something more than jeans and a Primark tshirt. But I seem to have become the antithesis of glamour.

For example, a friend recently bought me a voucher for a photo shoot, complete with makeover. Now, I admit that I’ve never been much of a glamour puss – para boots and dreadlocks were more the order of the day for me – but I think this experience underlined how very little primping and preening happens on my watch.

Although I’d stated my preference for minimal make-up right from the start, the young lady still trowelled on what I considered obscene amount of gunk and goo … resulting in a less-than-ecstatic response from yours truly.

In fact, I looked so continually horrified at every stage of the makeover that the young lady eventually threw her hands in the air and, with good-natured exasperation, capitulated to my desire for, “less eyeshadow, please”, “not that much blusher!” and, “my own lipstick might be a bit less … red”.

I think the defining moment was when her query about whether I did my own eyebrows was met with a blank stare. Do…? Eyebrows…? She knew then that she was dealing with a rank amateur.

(The photos turned out great, by the way. And I looked like myself. Or rather, a very smooth version of myself.)
Anyway, this all goes to show that maybe I should up my game. Women of my age surely need all the help we can get with our je ne sais quoi … not to mention our dwindling appeal for the opposite sex. (Ha! As if any of them are looking.)

So tonight I’m going to push the boat out: I’ve already painted my nails (whoo!) and I may even apply some foundation. (Steady on…)

So if you spot a gussied up dame, caked in panstick and swanning about like Zsa Zsa Gabor with a cocktail in her hand, that’ll be me. Pop over and buy me another, why don’t you?

Cheers!

From Russia with love

So here we are in Lithuania – me, the little guy and Nanna, on a three-generational holiday. And in the great tradition of our three-generational holidays, we’re staying in a hostel.

We’ve spent the morning traipsing round Vilnius’s finest kid-friendly attractions, so we’re taking a well-earned rest in the common room with a beer, a glass of milk and a cup of tea, respectively.

The little guy is – naturally – showing off his finest Spiderman moves, attracting the attention of our fellow hostellers, so we take time to say hello and introduce ourselves. We meet a young girl from Oregon, USA, who’s worked as a nanny and has clearly got the measure of my overly bouncy infant; a young guy from Korea who’s just graduated and is taking time out to travel round Europe; and an older guy who tells us that he’s from a place on the Russian border with China, and his town is half Russian and half Chinese.

“Interesting,” I say. “I’d never really thought of the two populations living side by side…”

But I don’t get to ponder this further, because the Korean guy starts talking about his plans to go to Warsaw and it turns out that’s where the American girl is headed, too, so they start talking about that, the conversation ends and the little guy and I head off to hang out on the beanbags with Nanna.

Cut to three days later.

I’ve just realised that I’ve miscounted the nappies and we’re two short, so I’m on a late-night mercy mission to the local supermarket. (I’ve become a bit casual since the little guys switched to teeny tiny pants during the day; I somehow forget that he still needs them at night.)

While I’m perusing the aisles in search of Baltic bum wraps, Nanna is putting the little guy to bed in our four-bed dorm – which, since there are three of us, has effectively become a private room. She’s just changed into her nightie and is about to read the first of three bedtime stories.

Suddenly, without as much as a cursory knock on the door, Russian Guy bursts into the room, burbling about how he’s leaving this evening and asking, “Where is your daughter?”

My mum – quite politely, given the rather startling circumstances – explains that I’m out and will surely be back soon.

Exit Russian Guy.

Ten minutes later, Nanna is just snuggling down under the covers when Russian Guy bounds in again, explaining that he’s leaving now and he’d like to leave his contact details for me.

My poor mum, from her supine position, is forced to extend a hand to receive the scratty bit of paper with Vladimir’s email, WhatsApp and Viber contacts, popping it under her pillow whilst meekly promising to pass it on to me.

Which she duly does … and seems vaguely surprised when I immediately ‘file’ the details in the nearest waste paper bin.

Now, I’m sure that Vladimir was a nice bloke, but our interaction was so brief, I don’t think I’d pick him out of a crowd.

Admittedly, from one point of view, I could be passing up the chance to meet a rare and intriguing character who could just be the man of my dreams. But from another point of view, he’s an odd kind of dude who’s barely exchanged ten words with me yet expects me to leap at the chance to stay in touch.

Later that evening, I’m out with one of the girls who works on reception, having a beer and telling her about Vladimir and his granny-bothering.

“I have a habit of attracting oddballs,” I say, as we grab our coats and start walking back to the hostel.

Barely have the words left my lips when a large, bearded guy – all hair and eccentricity – dances up to me, yelling, “WELCOME to Lithuania!” before blowing me a kiss and wafting away.

The girl and I look at each other, and burst into incredulous laughter.

“You’re not wrong,” she says. “All the weirdos come your way.”

And all I can do is nod in agreement.

Getting it wrong … AGAIN

For a good while there, I had a dilemma. A dilemma that was fully occupying the angel and the devil that sit on my shoulder, and it concerned the Phantom Texter.

We had become close. Perhaps closer than is advisable with someone who is, on paper at the very least, married.

Of course, he never quite managed to explain the doubtless complicated nature of his marriage. (Of course.) But we’d been corresponding for more than six months – with the occasional, 100% platonic get-together for coffee – and, as a consequence, we had become close.

Which is fine and not fine, because it’s hard to know at what point a friendship crosses the line and becomes an inappropriate friendship, even without physical contact.

When the angel was in charge, the simple answer was: when the conversation includes something your partner wouldn’t be happy with. But the devil reckoned that all’s fair in love and war and besides, since when was it my job to be someone else’s Thought Police?

Now, it’s true that since we’re both grown adults, he should be responsible for his own actions. But it’s also true that 50% of the conversation was mine – so 50% of the culpability surely rested at my feet, too?

I can’t help feeling that things would be far more cut and dried had I not been single for so bloody long and he were not the first man in many, many moons who was so appealing. Which I know is no excuse, but the little devil was leaning in and wheedling, “This is your time! Here – finally – is a dashing man who’s into you! You deserve him. Take him! Go on – reach out and grab him!”

Then, of course, the angel would push a hand into the devil’s face, shove him out of the way and says, “But he’s not YOURS!” … and round we’d go again … and again … until I had no idea which way was up and which was down and what the heck was right or wrong.

After a while, these shenanigans made me realise that my so-called morals were rather more elastic that I thought; they were being gradually eroded by familiarity and conversations that were once the very definition of chaste became markedly less so.

Of course, I knew it was morally wrong, but I can’t deny it – my day was brighter when I heard from him and gloomier when I didn’t. And somewhere in my head an alarm bell began to sound: that way danger lies.

But you know what? There were always innumerable obstacles to our get-togethers: extensive work trips, meetings here and there and recurrent bouts of debilitating illness … all genuine events, to be sure, but this guy was so rarely available he made Halley’s Comet look like a regular visitor.

Then, one day, something changed. The dashing gentleman was, as usual, beset by “issues” that required sympathy from me … but, this time, I had an issue of my own.

Was he concerned? Worried for me? Keen to help? Ummm. Not really. He seemed rather keen to get back to talking about his problems. And, actually, he seemed to have very little time for corresponding with me in general.

At first, I wondered if he was OK. I gave him space; tried not to care when he ignored my news or didn’t reply for three days because he really did have a lot on his plate. (He truly did – and still does.)
But suddenly it occurred to me that if he really cared about me, I wouldn’t have to be wondering about his state of mind; he’d let me know for himself. And he wouldn’t feel the need to push me out when things got hectic because I’d be central to his wellbeing.

And then a powerful – but admittedly quite belated – bolt of lightning flashed in my mind: he’s just not that into you. And I realised that it’s a lesson I’ve learned before, but obviously not that well.

You can’t care about someone who doesn’t care about you: it’s not that he can’t call because he’s really busy, it’s that you’re not an important enough part of his day. And if he hasn’t got ten seconds free to send you a text, well … you can work that one out for yourself.

And then all at once, the angel and the devil stopped their clamour; everything fell silent and I realised that there was no dilemma to speak of; no dilemma at all.