Last night was the foreshadowing passage in the great novel of our lives. It was a hint of the future. It was a visit from that Dickensian Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come.
Our place (aka the Hippy House) is usually teeming with life; the kids, their friends, our friends are always coming and going. 2am and it is not unusual to find someone cooking, drinking (maybe both) in the kitchen. In the morning an unidentified person or persons will be cocooned under a blanket on the sofa. I like it that way. You are pretty much guaranteed never to be alone when in our home.
But last night was different. Our youngest children were away camping with the school. Our middle one was at a party. Our oldest…oh… our oldest moved out some time ago…I keep forgetting.
So it was just my wife and me alone on a Saturday evening. Quite an unusual occurrence, as you might have gathered. It suddenly struck me that the scenario was a pre-cursor of what our life will increasingly be like on a consistent basis between the children fleeing the nest and the grandchildren arriving.
Not being one to let opportunity to slip by, I suggested a date night to my wife. It seemed a good idea to go out and do something as a couple. To nurture that part of our relationship that has rightfully taken a backseat to raising children over the past 20 years…Taken a backseat? I laugh; more like trussed up in the boot of a trailer being towed behind the backseat.
“Shall we go out somewhere?” I ventured.
I could tell by Mrs Head’s expression that it was an idea with legs but she retorted with a frightening, “Yeah, where shall we go?”
My head immediately went into melt down as I calculated the permutations.
My brain works in connections so my thought process went like this:
Romance= could be extravagant gesture, could be simple and quiet, must woo her
Extravagant gesture= expensive restaurant
Simple and quiet= walk along the Thames with a bite to eat, maybe a drink in a pub
Extravagant gesture pros: Mrs Head deserves it, hell, I deserve it.
Extravagant cons: Costly. We are saving so everyone gets a great holiday in Ibiza (57 days away, dear readers).
Simple and quiet pros: London is romantic in itself; strolling hand in hand, people watching, just being together.
Simple and quiet cons: Hey big spender. You really know how to treat a girl.
1) Holiday (we need one).
2) Romance (we deserve some).
Conclusion: We can have a romantic evening by walking through London and going somewhere cheap and cheerful for a bite to eat. What is cheap and cheerful but someplace I can lay on some serious charm? : I need someplace I can woo the wife…. Woo….woo…
“How about Mr Wu’s?” I blurted out.
Followers of this blog who are familiar with London will be laughing by now. Mr Wu is well known in these parts. To be generous, Mr Wu is a cheap, quirky London dive. To be honest, Mr Wu is the last place on earth you would go for dinner. Many people, if starving, having not eaten for a month, faced with the decision of lingering death or a meal at Mr Wu; would choose death.
The Mr Wu dining experience will inevitably involve: rude, graceless and abrupt staff, serving crap food to tourists and drunks in a haphazard and cramped ambiance.
Its saving grace is its great location. Mr Wu’s sits on the edge of London’s Chinatown behind the great theatres of Leicester Square. If blind-folded in the middle of Chinatown I would be able to tell you our location in a second. It is one of those few places in London that can be instantly identifiable by smell. Star anise and rotting cabbage fill the air with undertones of bloody meats. Whiffs of caramelised brown sugar float around the tightly packed buildings that were slaughterhouses not that far back in history.
This is culture crash London at its best. Teeming Oriental masses rub shoulders with the remnants of the Huguenot culture that still influences the patch. As a result French patisseries bustle alongside rows of red, roasted ducks hanging in the windows of Chinese restaurants. All is watched and witnessed by hordes of tourists from across the globe, speaking undecipherable languages and snapping up the cheaply made Beatles memorabilia from small, crowded stalls. The scene crashes like cymbals; loud, brash, starling; but movingly appropriate.
My wife finished blow drying her hair and agreed to Mr Wu’s. Dear readers, the relief inside me that she agreed to my first offer of a destination for date night was elbowed out by the over-whelming sense of admiration I had for her attitude. The decision summed up Mrs Head. She is a low-maintenance wife. She understands that the best memories are created from the simplest, spontaneous situations. London’s street life is something that appeals to her as much as it does to me.
We ventured out into the Central London streets: through the piazza and into the tourist heartland of Leicester Square. We held hands and tried to stroll. But strolling is difficult if you live in London. The pavement is a means of getting from A to B as quickly as possible. To slow down and savour the sights of a Saturday evening stroll requires concerted concentration.
A group of Yorkshiremen badly dressed as Mexicans were being chased by a young boy who has already stolen one of their sombreros. A large family on holiday here from Indonesia were spread out across the narrow pavement on New Row. They were pointing at the tops of buildings with the Saturday night crowd shuffling, bottle necking behind them. Half-drunk, a group of young women dressed as characters from Shrek pushed past us.
We passed the Sussex Pub, bombed by the IRA in 1992 but now rebuilt. Eager drinkers spilled out of its doors and onto the pavements, pretending the weather was suitable for an al-fresco experience. We weaved through bicycle rickshaws lined up at the corners, handlebar bells ringing, pleading with us to heed their services. A roaring river of a crowd, slowed to a stagnant flow, drawing us westward into Chinatown and by some ironic juxtaposition, to the Far East.
Mr Wu’s delivered the suspected Mr Wu’s experience. We dined on onion-based oriental food in a hostile atmosphere. Our chairs scraped and collided with the jumble of dining tables around us. A man ate alone at the next table, obviously drunk. He focussed on spearing a spiced onion from his plate and negotiating it into his mouth. A large table of revellers behind us shouted to anyone who would listen about their evening’s plans. A quiet couple, perhaps on a secret tryst huddled in the corner. We sat in a comfortable, personal silence honed during 17 years of marriage, watching the great parade around us. The spectacle was broken only by the waitress rudely slapping the bill down on our table.
We walked home through Covent Garden and its labyrinth of boutiques and unnecessarily luxurious goods for sale. Still holding hands, I began to think of us as a couple again; not parents, not workers, not commuters but just a couple. It was the point at which our relationship began back in the late 1980s but was now returning and it would take some getting used to. It is getting to the time of realising we can begin to do the things we’ve always talked of doing ‘when the kids are older.’ That day is coming, maybe quicker than we had hoped.
I recalled a story I had come across recently. A woman had lost her engagement ring years before but had recently been re-united with it by a stroke of luck. It seemed apt. We were reclaiming a diamond period of our life as a couple, something we hadn’t lost but had put away in storage as our energies were consumed by raising children and following our careers. A chapter in the great novel of our lives was ending. And this book has proved to be a page-tuner; one you can’t put down.
I stopped as we got to our front door. “Thanks for a lovely time, I hope we get a chance for a second date.” I closed my eyes and an imaginary diamond ring swung past me as if on a pendulum. I reached out to grab it. It is skill I am going to need.
Keep the Faith,