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This is a question Will you go out with me?

"Bloody Kraut, a" asks, "How did you get your current flame to go out with you? If they turned you down, how bad was it?"

Was it all romantic? Or were the beer goggles particularly strong that night?

(, Thu 28 Aug 2008, 17:32)
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Put the kettle on, make a cuppa, sit back and read the story of Che & Xena
One of the first reasons why I wanted to stay with Xena for the rest of my life was because of where we met.

Seriously. I thought to myself: 'Wouldn't it be great, if in years to come, when people asked you where you met, you could say: "We met in a Family Planning Clinic....in Soho"'. If you're reading this, and you know me, now you'll know who Che Grimsdale really is, because I guess there aren't many couples who can say that.

Back in the summer of 1985 I was working for a temp agency in London called Catch 22. I think the catch went something like: you want work, we will send you on shit assignments, if you complain, we won't send you on any more, if you don't complain, we will.' That's some catch that Catch 22.

I did some interesting work with Catch 22. One of my favourites was the Hilti drills warehouse near Wormwood Scrubs where I worked with a guy who’d been a helicopter engineer in the Falklands amongst others. We used to have pallet hand-cart races around the warehouse. Another time I was commissionaire for an office block next door to the South African embassy just off Trafalgar Square, I was post-room boy at Readers Digest in one of the posh London squares and for Olivetti in Clapham or somewhere and for a while I was a driver's mate for the Bloomsbury Health Authority. The guy I worked with was Portugese - can't remember his name - and our job was picking up the laundry from the various hospitals and clinics in the area and taking them back to the big laundry in one of the large hospitals, possibly the Middlesex.

It meant early starts but our first stop would always be for a coffee at one of the little Italian cafes somewhere in the West End that was open early for cabbies etc. I vividly remember one morning...we'd just got our coffees, which were in polystyrene cups with those annoyingly tight-fitting lids; I was sat on the passenger side of the van while Luis (now I come to think about it, I’m fairly sure that was his name) drove. As all the ancillary workers at that time smoked - possibly still do, I wouldn't know - it was common practice to smoke in the van between pick-ups. I always used to smoke roll-ups; I've written before about the ritual and paraphernalia of the rolly that I enjoyed almost as much as the actual smoking. I had a cheap refillable lighter in those days in the Catalan colours, a souvenir of my work-camp experience in the Pyrenees, and a tobacco tin with Fat Freddy and his cat painted on the lid. Anyway, I balanced the tin on top of my coffee cup lid, which was held between my legs so that I didn't drop it, but it left my fingers free to roll the fag. When suddenly, Luis hit the brakes, I was thrown forwards, my legs came together, the lid popped off the coffee, my tobacco tin fell onto the floor of the van and scalding hot coffee poured onto my crutch and thighs. Fuck me that hurt, I mean REALLY hurt. Luis was not very sympathetic, we carried on and for most of the morning my scalded thighs were made worse by chafing of damp jeans. Not a good day.

My stoicism was rewarded though, as very soon after that incident, I was asked to work for three days at the Margaret Pyke Family Planning Clinic, which had been one of our pick-ups on the van. It was located underneath the Hospital for Women and was just off Soho Square. The most popular gynaecologist there was the guy who’s alter ego was Hank Wangford - Country ‘n’ Western star. It was June, I was 21 years old, very nearly 22 and my life was soon to be turned upside down.

I was asked to do some filing. There were wire baskets full of files from patients that needed to be re-filed. Oh well, beats humping bags of hospital laundry into the back of a van. Needless to say, the place was full of women - and I'm sure you know the kind: the kind that like working in a Family Planning Clinic. Their idea of a joke was to 'tease' any blokes that came in for free johnnies: "OK son, drop your trousers and we'll measure you up straight away" was their idea of putting a lad at his ease. You'd think they didn't want men to take any responsibility for birth control at all.

Anyway, I was diligently filing away when suddenly all noise faded into the background, the light in the clinic seemed to gain in intensity, time slowed down...if I'd looked up to the top of the filing cabinets, no doubt I'd have spotted Cupid chuckling away merrily to himself safe in the knowledge that another of his arrows had sped home speedily and true.

Just to back up a tiny bit here, if you've been following my posts over the years, you'll know that I’d had a few dalliances with a variety of foreign girls during my year of travels but the first true love of my life had faded away and none of the others were the ‘real thing’. I kept locking gazes with lovelies on the Tube and my pheromone detection and transmitting equipment seemed to be in constant overdrive. What I'm saying is that I was a total liability to myself and any female person to come within my soft, steely gaze.

Xena didn't stand a chance.

She was the permanent filing clerk and I, as the temp, was her helper. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you: What chance did either of us stand? We were both doing the filing, the filing stacks were those movable filing stacks that we all know and loathe...except I didn't loathe them at all. It meant that all day long we were squeezing past each other, smiling, brushing up, breathing in…

Xena was petite, 5' 1" I was to find out, which makes my 5' 7" look (reasonably) masterful. She had longer than shoulder length wavy dark hair, greeny-brown eyes, a Mediterranean look and complexion but a general purpose London accent. She had the Mediterranean figure to go with the looks, and being short, she often had to use the little kick stool and stretch on tip-toes to put files away on the top rows. Boy oh boy...

So, it was a Monday, it was June, London was warm, Soho Square was full of people eating their lunches ("I believe that it's called Al Fresco" don't lie, you know, it's called Al Fresco because you're a middle-class Southern arse) and sunbathing in that typically English way, i.e. shirt off for men, skirt rolled up to mid-thigh if you're a woman.

That summer, I was working my way steadily through Joyce's 'Ulysses' - I was so young and full of myself that I didn't care or realise how much of a tosser this made me look. I was probably wearing a Glastonbury tee-shirt proclaiming the top bands to be something like Peter Gabriel and the Pogues.

Anyway, we settled down to a routine, Xena and I: first we'd do the filing, then we would sit in the little reception area and pack pills. I think Microgynon (sp?) was the most popular in those days. They would come in their blister packs in a box, and there would be little cardboard sleeves separate. We'd sit companionably side by side packing them and chatting.

Here's a tip for finding a life-mate, if you can meet in an environment where sex is the business of the day - though not in a bad way - then the ice isn't just broken, it's neatly carved into interesting little shapes, floating and clinking merrily in a double strength Gin & Tonic.

I was making a good impression on this impressionable though independent girl, I could tell. I'd been regaling her with my 'travels with a backpack' stories and she'd been telling me a little about her family. This is one of the fine things about London and about multi-culturalism. I don't want to get onto a soap box or anything, but Xena's parents both moved to London as economic migrants, her mother was a nurse from Ireland and her father was from Turkish Cyprus. For myself, my great-grandparents had escaped the antisemitic pogroms in Russia and Lithuania at the end of the 19th Century. Between us we carried genes from a pretty damn wide gene pool and we could have - if we had so wished - probably started a third world war. As it happened, that was the furthest thing from our minds.

On the Tuesday, I told her that I was a poet. Now, this was true in the very widest sense of the word: occasionally, I set words down on paper which conformed to rhyming or metering not usually found in prose. Bad poetry has two major sources: greetings cards and love-sick young men. Xena asked me for a poem and so, during lunchtime on the second day I had known her, I started penning a poem. It was...well now, how can I put it? Catchy? Not sure. It was longer than I'd planned, 7 little four-line verses, rhyming, using Xena's name [her real name that is] as the key rhyme running through the epic. The final verse was (if I can remember it correctly):

"So don't forget my name now,
And smile your whole life through,
And when I'm rich and famous,
I'll come back and marry you!"

Well. Surprising? It kind of surprised me too. I gave it to her as we parted at Oxford Street tube station.

The next day I found out would be my last on this assignment, so with mixed emotions we went through the routine of the day and this time, as we parted, she passed me a piece of paper. With tears welling in my eyes I fought my way down to the Northern Line, North-bound platform, dashed onto a train, found a seat (a miracle in itself) and unfolded the piece of paper to read (actual name changed to protect the oh-so innocent):

"To Che Grimsdale words from the boss,
To send you on your way,
A nicer lad I've never had,
To keep the files at bay,
Oh temps they come and temps they go,
And some I don't like much,
But really I would be quite pleased,
If we could keep in touch.
Boom boom"

I'm not sure how many times I read that during the 30 minute or so journey home as my memory is all a buzzing blur from that time. But if I could bottle that feeling...

God knows where I was sent the next day or so, but the following week, I was asked to go back to the clinic. Oh joy. I didn't have Xena's address or phone number - don't forget, this is 1985 and mobile phones didn't exist. I knew she lived in a bedsit somewhere in Cricklewood but that was all. Now I'd have the chance to ask her out properly...

Oh black day.

I turned up for work like an eager young puppy to be told that Xena had left.

Oh woe is me!

That would have been the thought running through my mind at the moment I discovered that Xena had left.

It would have, but the horrendous cocktail of hormones coursing through my young body had, semi-mercifully, given me a chemical lobotomy. Although it was London in late June and the sun was, apparently beating down relentlessly through the smog, everything in front of my eyes had a grey cast and I was feeling chilly.

I set to the task of filing away the medical records with about as much enthusiasm as I might have had for sorting out a rugby teams dirty kit before hand-washing and ironing it all. Last week, it had seemed as if I could have filed happily for the rest of my life, now, I couldn't even raise a smile when I came across the file for Violet Gumbs. The day dragged on interminably; lunch came and went - I found a pub somewhere off Soho Square and had a pint or two while re-reading the same paragraph of Ulysses about 30 times with as little understanding the 30th time as the first.

In the afternoon, the filing finished for now, I went upstairs to the office where Antonia worked. I'd spent a day a couple of months before helping her out in the office on a previous Catch 22 assignment. She was a pretty, cheerful girl; hair in a checker-board of tight, close plaits, glasses perched on the end of her nose and deep magenta lipstick contrasting with her almost velvet-black complexion. She had liked Xena too, and knew from the clinic gossip mill what the situation was. There was a spare chair in the office and I slumped there while Antonia made me a cup of tea and tried to cheer me up.

"The worst thing is," I told her, "is that I haven't got her phone number or address." At which, she gave me a serious look over her glasses before turning away to a filing cabinet, pulling out a file and taking it to her desk. She opened it up, copied something out, put the file away and came over to me.

"Look, if you ever tell where you got this, I'll be in real trouble, OK?" and she passed me a piece of paper with an address on it. "I haven't got a phone number, just her address."

I grasped her hands and kissed her on the cheek, "Don't worry, I won't tell, and...thanks. Really - thanks." Her smile must have at least part-way reflected my own as light began to seep back into my life.

Right. What to do? What to do?

I know: it's my birthday coming up, only a few more days left of being 21 - my folks are going to be away, and I've a party planned, just a few friends. I'll invite her along. So I posted her an invitation and got a card back saying she was sorry but she couldn’t make it - she could see me the following weekend and would phone me on the Saturday. That was the day (July 7th 1985) that Boris Becker became the youngest ever (and first unseeded player) to win the Wimbledon Men's title. I can remember watching the match, I remember being in a pit of misery as I waited for the phone to ring and I can remember that it was the best match of tennis I have ever watched. What I am saying is that one part of my brain was enjoying the match at some level, but my body was miserable, with that 'pit of the stomach' misery that is the flip-side of being in love.

Eventually she rang and we arranged to meet up. I believe Beethoven wrote his 9th Symphony chorus just for me on the day. We set a time and a place: Highgate Tube station 7.30pm Friday. I was there at about quarter past three - just to be on the safe side. Not really, in fact, at 3.15, I was probably in the shower, scouring, rinsing, lathering, rinsing, re-lathering (just to be on the safe side), re-rinsing, towelling down, brushing teeth, gargling, shaving, checking the result in the mirror, spraying, combing, talc-ing, brushing down, cooling off, choosing clothes (clean clothes!), dressing, preening, combing hair again, pacing, going out for some fresh air, smoking, coming in, cleaning teeth again, changing tee-shirt...

At 7.30 I was waiting at the top of the escalator at Highgate Tube (one of the longest) and then she appeared.

There are times when the anticipation is better than the event, when ‘tis truly better to travel in hope than to arrive. This was NOT one of those times. Oh no, this time, anticipation was a drink at the bar and some nibbles compared to the six course, haut cuisine, silver-service banquet that was the event.

I was the host. I didn't live in Highgate, but the Flask, on top of Highgate Hill was one of our regular drinking holes during the 6th Form and remained a firm favourite - especially in summer as there were plenty of tables outside. Xena was wonderful, not what she said or did, but just being there...

She wore tight pale pink trousers and flat red pumps. She was wearing a loose white shirt over a simple tee-shirt and a little jacket. She had a style all her own. Goodness knows what we talked about, but the conversation never dried up. We walked around Highgate Village a bit, stopping to sit on a bench in Pond Square while the sun when down. Then we wandered back to the Flask.

She drank vodka and orange and swirled the ice around, sucking the orange slice and laughing. I drank pints of cloudy scrumpy - the speciality of the house, but not to get drunk, or rather, I wouldn't have been able to tell if I was drunk or not.

After closing time we went back to the Tube. We'd been holding hands as we walked along but we stopped just outside the entrance and she turned towards me and held me round the waist, looking up expectantly into my eyes, smiling and we kissed. I don't know how long for, but we were brought out of our reverie by a car going past which honked its horn as some lads 'wa-haay-ed' out of the windows. It was that sort of a kiss: it was complete in itself and timeless but held promise, like a taste of new red wine from the finest vintage, a promise of future wines, great wines yet to mature in the barrel and later in the bottle - picking up flavours and deepness, rounding out, filling up, gaining depth, maturity, deepness of colour, fine bouquet; changing each year, always a joy, always a surprise, always a return to something familiar, overlaid with new subtlety, new enjoyment.

I knew that this was special. That this was 'it'. Oh yes, no mistake, and I wouldn't lose her a second time, oh no. No way Jose, this time, it was for keeps.
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 9:53, 13 replies)
Excellent story
and very nicely told

*clicks like a bastard*
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 10:02, closed)
Beautiful story
and well told.
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 10:19, closed)
This is the first submission I've read for this QOTW, and I don't think I want to read any more. You've managed to paint such a good picture I felt all the familiar knots in the stomach and floaty feelings as I was reading. So...

1. What happened next?

2. What's the recommended treatment for Violet Gumbs?

3. The Wimbledon men's final is always on a Sunday, but I'll let you off.
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 10:22, closed)
You know, I'm a cynical old fat bastard - I chuckled at watership down, for instance.

This actually managed to bring a warm little tear to my eye. This tale made me want to go home, hold my girlfriend and remember what it felt like the first time I did.

Thank you.
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 10:57, closed)
Very Well Written
Have a well deserved 'Click'
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 10:58, closed)
feelings....nothing more than feelings....dum de dum dum.
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 11:17, closed)
Excellent story
And very well told - have a click
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 12:15, closed)
This is truely one of the best-written pieces on this site.
I salute you sir. You've made my heart go floppy.
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 12:20, closed)
^^^What he said^^^
(, Fri 29 Aug 2008, 20:14, closed)
Great story Che
Well-written and touching

My eyes were in danger of tearing up near the end. You've certainly managed to capture the true pain of being in love. Masterfully done.
(, Sat 30 Aug 2008, 18:07, closed)
Oh how long ago I felt like that and for a moment there you made me remember so vividly. Perhaps one day again, but I think the reality is its lost now only to happen to those innocent days of youth.
(, Mon 1 Sep 2008, 1:55, closed)
Epic, brilliantly written, nearly brought a tear to my eye.
(, Mon 1 Sep 2008, 10:34, closed)
Very well told
*clicky* I thought you were going to ransack all the filing yourself to find her.
(, Tue 2 Sep 2008, 16:15, closed)

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