My winter of love: I was not expecting a hot first date. Then I found love in a terrible pub

For most of the winter of 2011-12, I was a slightly reluctant member of the Guardian’sspin-off dating site, Guardian Soulmates. I was still in my 20s, just about, and pouring the energy and naivety of youth into a busy social life, a career as a writer of newsprint ephemera and a room in a shared flat. I think I was also a bit lonely and rudderless – a manchild still making sense of life 10 years after the sudden death of my dad. Whatever it was, something was missing.

By late February, I had been on half a dozen first dates – and no second dates. I was getting tired of the whole thing. It was all so procedural. But I’d agreed to meet a girl called Jess, whose profile handle – “good_grammar_is_hot” – had somehow not entirely put me off.

Temperatures in London that night were due to hit freezing, so I wore two unattractive jumpers under an unattractive coat. I was not anticipating a hot date. Jess and I both had house parties to go on to. We planned to meet for a quick drink at a sub-Wetherspoons pub by Victoria station. It would be handy for a prompt underground getaway.

It turned out Jess had low expectations too. She’d been on Soulmates for a bit longer. In the early days of the site, an algorithm ranked matches for compatibility. Jess’s top match, with a rating of 99.7%, turned out to be her own brother. It was downhill from there.

I cannot picture now the moment our eyes first met, but I do remember feeling a warming spark and an immediate sense of ease. We drank bad lager and sweet white wine. As shoppers and theatregoers swirled about the tables around us, waiting briefly for trains home, we held fast like rocks in an eddy.

Later, when Jess popped to the loo, we furtively texted our respective flatmates. “Like her a lot,” my message said. It helped that we had basically zero degrees of separation – Jess was a journalist too and we had mutual friends – but it was more than that.

Death is not always good chat fodder for a first date – even for oversharers like Jess and me. But at some point we learned that we had both lost fathers way too soon. We had both been on the brink of adulthood when that earthquake hit, and the crockery was somehow still rattling.

It was the first time I’d met someone who had gone through something similar, and it strengthened our bond. I don’t know what else we talked about – the usual cringey first-date stuff – but and it quickly became clear that neither of us would make our next engagement. We braved the cold to go on instead to a sub-Wagamama noodle place round the corner, and kept chatting.

We lived at opposite ends of the Victoria line. We waited between platforms for the first train to arrive, squeezing every last second out of the evening. As a rumble approached from the north, we agreed, before a chaste hug and a dash, that we should meet again. Inbox archaeology can be an embarrassing pursuit, and I can see now that I waited until 10.17 the next morning before emailing: “Is this too soon for post-date correspondence?”

A year later, I moved into Jess’s flat in Brixton. It was in a development that had been advertised as a converted Victorian school. Jess later discovered that this had been an estate agent’s fudge. When she found an old photo of the building in the council archives, she gasped when she saw the huge white letters that had once stretched under the roofline: “BRIXTON ORPHANAGE FOR FATHERLESS GIRLS”. The word “fatherless” had been painted directly above Jess’s windows like a label.

It was a spooky slice of history, but then felt like serendipity as the flat became a happy refuge for a fatherless couple. We would not be schooled in Bible stories or domestic service, as the residents 150 years earlier had been (Jess would have appalled an orphanage matron), but we would learn how to be settled adults.

Ten years ago, we found each other – and love – on a cold and unpromising winter’s night in a terrible pub. Then we found ourselves. In 2015, we got married and later moved into a house with space for Jake and Betty, now four and one. The photo of the orphanage, which Jess had framed, hangs on the wall just inside our front door.


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