Back in September 2018, when the coronavirus was just the stuff of alarmist dystopian feature films, I held only my third readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. A number of people who came to that lunch, although now regulars at the readers’ events, had never been to one before. Some have never returned since: I still wonder what became of the chap who showed us all videos of him taking part in competitive skydiving events.
Even so, by chance, the Venn diagram of people who read my blog threw up interesting results and overlaps. One of the lunch guests worked at the same school as another of the guests and sung in a choir with her colleague’s wife, also at the lunch. She had no idea that that couple would be there and yet there they were at the same table, Amazon’s people-who-bought-this-also-liked-this algorithm in human form.
Another person I met for the first time at that lunch was Helen. Helen had moved to Reading not that long ago, and was in the process of joining things and trying stuff out, dipping her toe in different scenes to try and find her place. She had volunteered at the Reading Fringe Festival, made her way to the cultural mecca of South Street and that day in September, taking her life in her hands, decided to come to a readers’ event on her own.
Lunch turned into afternoon drinks and then effortlessly segued – as those events often do – into evening drinks. When we all eventually parted company (in my case, for a shameful drunken wander to KFC) I remember hoping it wouldn’t be the last time Helen came along: her whip-smart dry humour and willingness to throw herself into spending a day eating and drinking with total strangers had made sure of that.
The following month, Zoë and I went to see The Mountaintop, pretty much on a whim, at Reading Rep. I didn’t love it as much as the reviews did – it was a little heavy-handed for me – but the play isn’t what I remember about that evening. On the way in to the auditorium to take our seats, we saw a familiar face. It was Helen: she said hello and we sat with her, having a drink together in the interval.
We were off to the Retreat afterwards to meet up with some of Zoë’s friends, so we asked her – would she like to come? Zoë’s friend Tom would be there – Tom, the epitome of quirky, woke, millennial man, a fascinating chap who had never read about a Kickstarter he didn’t like – and somewhere in the back of my mind I had an inkling that they might hit it off. She joined us, showing that same game spirit I’d so admired at our previous meeting, and the two of them ended up locked in conversation for much of the evening.
Some time the next month, Helen and Tom managed to find a slot in their schedules and went to dinner together at Clay’s (where else?). They had the table for two near the back, by the stairs; Helen, many months later, was emphatic that this most definitely wasn’t a date. It was just two single people, who seemed to find each other interesting, having a perfectly platonic evening of dinner and drinks. Even so, they spent most of the night talking: they were the last customers to leave.
The month after that was December, and when I did the seating plan for the final readers’ lunch of the year at Clay’s I made sure to sit Tom and Helen together. Maybe I was being a matchmaker, maybe I’m a hopeless romantic. It’s more likely, in truth, that I was just being a meddling stirrer. We all poured into the Retreat afterwards to carry on drinking: although Yuletide was still a couple of weeks away, people in the pub were already in their Christmas jumpers, and the tree was up.
Even after the numbers thinned out slightly our group was camped out at one of the big tables in the front room, chatting away until it was closing time. Before that event Tom and Helen weren’t a couple but somehow, after that event they were. Zoë and I spent New Years Eve that year in the Retreat with them, and the following year, gradually, they spent more and more time together.
“It’ll never last” said Helen, fatalistically, and yet somehow it did. There were holidays, to Holland (to attend, of all things, an international redhead festival, although Google calls it a “ginger weekender”) and Marrakech, and the following December at the Christmas readers’ lunch – again at Clay’s – Nandana brought them out a glass of bubbly each right at the start, as an anniversary present. One of my very favourite restaurants honouring two of my favourite people, at a time when everybody is celebrating: it was almost too perfect.
“Nandana always sits us at the same table, the one we sat at for our first date.” said Tom.
“It wasn’t a date.” said Helen, as she always did, but she was smiling all the same.
On New Year’s Eve Tom, Helen, Zoë and I spent New Year’s Eve at Geo Café, drinking an inadvisable amount of wine and eating a lot of khachapuri. I remember thinking how curious it is, that you meet plenty of people and you can never tell which ones will blossom into friendship and which ones fall, so to speak, on stony ground. I never let the two of them forget that I take at least some credit for their relationship, although I’m also writing about them here with a little trepidation: I don’t want Edible Reading to develop its own equivalent of the curse of Hello! magazine.
That evening at Geo Café was, like a lot of modern life, one coincidence hanging off another, and another, and another. If I hadn’t gone for dinner one January night at the Turks Head, over three years ago, deep in the frosty hinterland of my divorce I would never have become friends with Keti and Zezva. That’s how I found myself, many years later, at Geo Café celebrating the end of a very different year with her and her family. It was such a lovely evening, wearing paper hats and eating ajika chicken, breaking out the port after midnight as Anders, Geo Café’s baker, started playing folk songs on his fiddle. If I hadn’t met Zoë I would never have met Tom, and he wouldn’t have been there too. If Helen hadn’t taken the plunge and come to a readers’ lunch she wouldn’t have met any of us.
Lockdown has forced many couples to make choices they might ideally have postponed. I know of one couple who split up just as lockdown begun, a month into a tenancy agreement, and another couple who are forced to live apart in Reading and London, not quite at the right time to make such significant decisions.
I know people making do with housemates they wouldn’t necessarily choose as cellmates (“I just really miss having a hug, ideally I’d have five hugs a day” said one of Zoë’s friends, living with a housemate who is one rung up from total stranger). I know people chatting away to their matches on Tinder, not sure if or when they will ever meet. All those seeds of relationships are out there, some of them fated never to blossom. And that’s before we get to the doubtless many couples who should have split up before lockdown and now have no option but to sit it out. It makes me grateful to be locked down at this point in my life, in the right place, with the right person.
Even so, this situation would put pressure on the happiest of couples. We aren’t designed to spend quite this much time together, without going to work or having other things to do and people to see. I consider myself very lucky that patience, forbearance and the occasional long solo walk or time spent sealed away on headphones has got Zoë and I through things so far, even if the first couple of weeks were jarring as we adjusted, found our rhythm and our space. Even now, the occasional day comes along when one of us is gripped by what my former in-laws used to refer to as the “can’t help its”, and you wish you could just step out of the day, as if it was a room, come back in and start over. And I say that knowing that we’re some of the lucky ones.
I wondered what Tom and Helen would do about lockdown, but the answer has become apparent as time has gone on: every few weeks Zoë and I have a FaceTime with them and they are always at Helen’s place, where the fridge is full of beers Tom has ordered to be delivered there. Siren, West Berks, the Grumpy Goat and Double-Barrelled have all visited Helen’s place recently, along with Tom’s current passion, a brewery called Dutch Bargain that they discovered on holiday. It specialises in suggestively named beers like “Strawberry Suckfest”, “Cherry Cotton Candy Glitter Extravaganza” and “Seaman’s Surprise”: in my defence, I’ve only made one of those up.
I was on FaceTime with Tom and Helen, along with other friends, a couple of times last weekend, both conversations that started out as “just a few beers” and went on until long past midnight. It was Beer Festival weekend, and when you can’t go to the festival a long chat with good friends and an excellent supply of beers in the fridge is very much the next best thing. But even so, I found I wasn’t missing the festival anywhere near as much as I feared I might.
“He won’t mind me putting it this way” said Helen, “but having Tom around has been really lovely. It’s nowhere near as annoying as I thought it could be.”
Charming, you might say. But she also accidentally admitted that their first meal at Clay’s had been a date after all, something none of us will now ever let her forget. But the funniest thing is this: Helen so nearly didn’t meet Tom that evening in the Retreat. She was in two minds, she said, about whether to go to the theatre after a hard day at work. She had to force herself to leave the house to go to the theatre on her own, still looking for her place in things, and if she hadn’t all of our lives might have been completely different. There are so many forks in the road: they can seem insignificant at the time, but a lot can depend on them.
Life really is full of surprises in general and surprising connections in particular, and I think that might be one of the nicest and most welcome things about it. I for one am glad of all the connections I’ve made through writing this blog, all the friends I wouldn’t otherwise have met and the community I wouldn’t otherwise be part of. I don’t know if you make your own luck, but you definitely make your own community. When you think about it that way, the isolation we’re currently going through doesn’t feel so much like isolation after all.