In the summer of 1998, my friend Cath and I were bored. Really, really bored. We were in our early twenties and while everyone else we knew appeared to have moved on with their lives, we both found ourselves spending the “school holidays” back home with our respective parents. I remember the two of us in my bedroom one evening, dancing to “Cigarettes and Alcohol” by Oasis. “It’s true, though”, Cath observed, “that is all we’ve found round here. Cigarettes and alcohol.” The only difference was that Liam Gallagher wasn’t still hiding his fags from his mum and dad (whenever Cath’s mum found cigarettes, they were “mine”; whenever my mum found them, they were “Cath’s”. It would be insulting everyone’s intelligence to pretend that anyone believed this shit).
Both being single, we came upon an idea. Let’s just shag each other! Only kidding; this was a small town in the north of England. And yes, we could have livened things up by re-enacting Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, but we just weren’t that way inclined. So we decided on something else. We would find boyfriends! Sod Cigarettes and Alcohol; it was time to find our Wonderwalls (whatever that might mean).
We were both 23 and had each never had a proper boyfriend. This was, naturally, disconcerting, although we responded to it in different ways. Cath was the joker; I was the total slag. Each response was clearly unacceptable; after all, that was why we were still single. Hence we decided to step things up a gear and take some positive action (although, to be fair, the shagging around could be quite positive at times; but it was time to set aside such ladette fripperies once and for all). And thus, allow me to reveal to you our amazing three-step plan, all conceived and executed in the summer of ’98.
Step 1: Visit a fortune teller
Before one embarks on any serious project, it’s a good idea to know in advance whether it’s likely to work. So we ventured out to see Mystic Mary, deep in the wilds of Carlisle town centre, possibly somewhere near The Lanes. With Cath, once she’d established that my friend hadn’t come to discuss concerns about “coming out” to her family (by then we were looking quite couple-y; probably could’ve pulled off the whole Oranges thing after all), Mary talked about meeting “a man” within the next year. With me, she said I’d meet “a man” within the next two years (it was clear I still had a lot of “personal stuff” to work on). As an extra detail, she mentioned that my man would be taller than me (I’m 5′ 1″, so it was a long shot). Utterly elated at these glad tidings, Cath and I went off to treat ourselves to lager and lime and cheesy chips in a tiny pub ‘neath the shadows of Carlisle Cathedral.
Step 2: Visit the “personal development” section of Bluebell Bookshop
There we hunted down our essential literature, the bible that would tell us, once and for all, how not to stay single. Thus, when we happened upon a book that was in fact called How not to stay single, we thought we’d struck gold. Alas it was not to be. “How not to stay single” might also have been called “How to stalk and freak out the entire human race until it places a restraining order on you and you have to go and live out the rest of your days, alone, on an island at least 10km away from any other inhabited island, in all directions”. Man, it was freaky. The thing I remember most was the insistence that you say “hello” to fifty complete strangers every week (or was it day? Hour?). The book mentioned the example of one woman who hadn’t done her requisite number of greetings and was running out of time, so positioned herself at the end of a marathon yelling a desperate “hello” into the face of every male runner crossing the finish line. And guess what? One of these men became her husband! Presumably he was too knackered to say no. I just couldn’t go for any of this, and nor could Cath. Where we come from, the random “hello” will just lead to no end of trouble (especially as, while you might think you’re greeting a stranger, it’ll turn out to be a friend of your dad’s and the news that you’ve been smoking in town will just reach home all the quicker).
Thus we descended upon another, more established guide: The Rules for Dating, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. You’ve probably heard of it; if not, there are lots of rules, a whole book (and desk calendar) of ’em, but these are the essential ones:
- Remember you are “a creature unlike any other”. We’re all individuals and you’re no exception.
- In spite of your bog-standard individuality, you must act in exactly the same way as any woman following the rules. Otherwise they won’t work.
- Play hard to get. That’s the main thing. A man doesn’t like to feel pursued. And he does NOT want to shag a woman who does anything which might indicate she might want to shag him.
- Your main objective is not, in fact, “getting a boyfriend”. It’s “getting married”. Always “getting married”. Without that in mind, you’re lost.
- Your husband doesn’t have to be “someone nice”. He just has to be “some man”. Don’t worry; it won’t cause conflict. You’ll just fit in around whatever he wants. Still not sure of the point of having a husband if that’s what it all means? Well, don’t be. Just don’t. That’s not one of the rules.
This all sounds like complete crap, doesn’t it? But hey, it all sounded much more doable than what the other book said. So it was time to move on to Step 3.
Step 3: Fuck it all up
So, we were creatures unlike any others. Time to put on some makeup, head off into town and go and sit in the Board and Elbow, looking “mysterious”. As a prop we rented a copy of the Cameron Diaz film The Last Supper from the video shop across the road. It worked! Some boys came over and talked to us! They told us the film was shit! We just smiled mysteriously. After a few more cider and blacks (halfs – a pint is NOT “mysterious” so you just need to get more orders in), we went home “empty handed” (apart from the shit film, which I actually thought was okay), but it was a result!
The next day we ventured further afield – to Pooley Bridge, our nearest Lake District tourist hotspot. And as this was a tourist hotspot, we got even more made-up – short skirts, heels, full-on hair with that extra Sun-in glow. Alas, we had not considered the fact that said tourists were fell walkers. As a feminist I would argue that a woman has the right to dress however she likes without being presumed to be a prostitute. However, if you go to somewhere where everyone else is wearing walking boots, fleeces, waterproofs and rucksacks, and you are wearing a short skirt and heels, you look like a prostitute. Especially if you spend the whole day hanging around in a pub looking “mysterious”. No one came and talked to us. Even if we’d wanted to be prostitutes, we’d have failed miserably. Despite our early success, things were suddenly not going quite so well.
Finally, we decided on having a proper “girls’ night out”. One during which we would look totally independent, to demonstrate that we just didn’t need no man. Of course, lots of men would be attracted to this independence, this not-needing of them. It was genius! We’d start out in the local Italian, then head off to Blues nightclub for Ladies Night, a night in honour of feisty independent women and not, as others might suggest, a total fucking meat market. And indeed, the night started well. Over pizza and copious amounts of chardonnay, we discussed our independence, how much we valued it and how nice it would be to find that special someone who’d value it, too. Then we drank a bit more, and tottered to Blues, fags in hand, buoyed up on cigarettes and alcohol once more but feeling at the top of our game. I’m not sure where it all went wrong. Basically, I was too drunk to remember. I snogged some bloke called Simon (hey! I remember his name!) against the wall of mirrors at the end of the dancefloor, then slurred something along the lines of “no, cantgohomewivoo, amfollowintherools” before Cath pulled me away. It was well classy, but not the behaviour of a Rules girl.
The morning after, through the fog of my hangover, I discovered two things: 1) I’d been accepted to do a masters at Cambridge University, and 2) I wasn’t going to even attempt The Rules ever again. Thus it was that one month later I arrived at Downing College, full of hope and optimism. And thus it was that one month after that, the less “enlightened” of my housemates were already calling me “the college bike” (no mean achievement, when you consider the number of actual, non-metaphorical bikes in a place like Cambridge).
I did not find a boyfriend in 1998. I finally found one, very briefly, in 1999. He was a computer programmer and he didn’t really like me. His friends didn’t really like me, either. For some reason, I liked him, or a made-up version of him, so it lasted four months before he dumped me. I should’ve known it would never last. Hadn’t Mystic Mary told me I’d have to wait two years, not one?
And then in 2000 I met my partner, who is, just as Mary predicted, taller than me. We met at a Pet Shop Boys themed birthday party. I didn’t even know the person whose birthday it was. I’d only been invited because I’d confessed to a fellow student that I didn’t have any friends, having spent the first four months of my PhD hanging out with computer programmers who didn’t like me. When I got to the party, the girl who’d given me the sympathy invite wasn’t there, so I decided to leave. I’d already opened the front door to go when I spotted her. Five minutes later she introduced me to the man I’m still with today. If I’d decided to leave a minute earlier this might never have happened. I’d still be single now, or I’d be with someone else. Or I might have multiple divorces behind me, or be a serial monogamist, or be in a threesome, or in a polygamous marriage. Who knows? Knowing how desperate I can get at times, I sure don’t.
The one thing I do know is that there’s a lot of chance involved in meeting the right person. You can’t achieve it by following rules, certainly not ones that insist you cease to be yourself for the rest of your entire life. And if all else fails? Well, there’s always cigarettes and alcohol (joke. That’s all really passé, anyhow. Twitter and Newsnight, kids. That, not love, is all you really need).
PS Apart changing the name of my friend (who may wish to deny all knowledge that any of this ever took place), I’ve kept to the truth. Shameful as it is, all of this took place. I didn’t even bother to change Simon’s name. I am assuming he’s forgotten me by now. Although, had I not been vaguely attempting to follow The Rules, perhaps we’d now be married with kids.