It is many years since I outgrew the bravado of youth, at which age I had no qualms about approaching young ladies on the dance floors of what were then called discotheques. If I got lucky, I might have enjoyed a spin with a stranger to the strains of I Feel Love by Donna Summer under the glare of a UV light that made the dandruff on my shoulders glow. If it wasn't to be my night, I'd walk home alone, carrying enough cold shoulder to cater the Cheltenham Festival. But it didn't matter; I knew I'd be back the following weekend as eager and thick-skinned as ever.
But time marches on, and we fast-forward several decades.
Following two failed marriages and a string of relationships, the cooking time of which ranged from flash-fry to slow-roast, I found myself single as I turned sixty. This is a whole different cauldron of cod to those carefree days of my youth, not only because body and mind aren't what they once were but also because I'm clueless as to the whys and wherefores of senior dating.
But time waits for no man, and the cogs and gears of fate were turning in a manner that would see me thrust headlong into a new relationship right out of the blue.
One afternoon a year after my return to the singleton fold, I was at a bottle bank in the car park at a local shopping mall. The previous day, some friends had visited my apartment to watch football on TV, and eighteen beer bottles stood in a clump on the kitchen worktop. I bagged the empties, braved the clink of shame as I passed neighbours on the stairs, and drove to the bottle bank. As I began pushing bottles through the designated hole, a lady whose age I guessed to be about fifty started decanting wine bottles from a bag for life into a hole further along. Always one for a quip, I spoke to her.
"It's amazing how quickly these sauce bottles and pickle jars mount up," I said, shoving another lager bottle into the hole. The stranger laughed, and following that killer ice-breaker, we entered into a cheerful conversation. But there was very little sand in the hourglass, and I was soon down to my last two bottles. I had to act fast, so in a demonstration of decisiveness I'd not shown since my youth, I overrode my misgivings and suggested we continue the chat elsewhere. She was folding her now empty bag, so I went all in.
"Would you care to join me for coffee?" I said, drawing the final bottle from my bag. Such was my haste, I made to use the neck of said bottle to point towards a large pub across the road. Unfortunately, the last of the dead men wasn't quite empty, and I slung the dregs right into her face, and I mean bullseye. As she spluttered and spat, I quickly moved to offer my sleeve as a towel, but she pushed me away.
There followed the most contrite apology ever to fall upon a human ear, and as she dried her eyes with a tissue she had pulled from a pocket, she started laughing.
"Come on then, useless," she said, to my astonishment, "lead on."
We went into the bar, and I bought us a latte each. As we chatted, my new friend revealed that she goes by the name of Camomile McSween. I commented on her unusual but rather sweet first name, and she told me that her parents, who were hippies with a liking for herbal teas, had chosen it for its rhythm and how its three syllables are a perfect prelude to the two in her surname.
In fact, she went on, so pleased were Mr and Mrs McS with their efforts on the child-naming front, when a son came along two years after Camomile, they stuck to the same formula and named him Camembert in honour of the classic Gong album Camembert Electrique. Her brother carried that name until he was eleven when he changed it to Robert. But the damage had been done, Camomile said, and his friends still call him Cheezy to this day.
Camomile, who goes by the name Cammie, is fifty-six and single, her long-term partner having died eight years ago. She told me that she's been on her own for the past two years, during which time she has enjoyed very little social activity, hence the wine bottles.
I have to say, my new friend seemed a thoroughly decent old stick, about five foot six, slim build with uniform light grey hair. She is well-spoken, smartly dressed, and wears makeup even while on bottle bank detail. On the downside, she is a smoker, but her positive attributes easily outweigh that.
We hit it off so well that by the time we parted, we had exchanged phone numbers and pencilled in plans for a weekend of shared activities. Our itinerary included a trip to the cinema on Friday, the zoo on Saturday, and Sunday lunch at my local pub, the George and Dragon.
I got home feeling quite excited at what had been a most pleasant and unexpected development. But later, over a thoughtful cup of tea, concerns crept into my consciousness, one of which caused me some unease.
Now, I expect you to be thinking that my big worry relates to activities that go on under the duvet and I'd be fretting over which would creak louder, the bedsprings or my hip. But no.
My anxiety is that I'm well out of practice in the art of kissing, and, of more concern, I've never once engaged in that activity while wearing my recently acquired partial upper denture. I wondered how it would perform under the stress and movement of vigorous osculation, were such an event to occur. I didn't even know if couples our age actually kiss, it had been so long since I'd been on a date. I'd soon find out.
On Friday evening, I met Cammie at the cinema doors. As I paid for tickets, I became aware of an issue that needed addressing.
My apprehension of kissing while wearing false teeth had been such, I'd applied an over generous blob of fixative to the palate of the denture, which had since oozed out onto my upper gum and the roof of my mouth. I didn't want to be poking about with my fingers, as that would give the denture game away, but I had a brainwave right there in the foyer.
I bought a bag of chocolate caramels, which are as far removed from denture-friendly as The Exorcist is from family viewing, but there was method in my madness.
My plan was to pretend to put one of the sweets into my mouth, then, under the guise of tackling the toffee, I could scrape off the residual adhesive with my tongue and swallow it, hopefully before any kissing had begun (if it ever would).
We took our seats in the auditorium, and I offered Cammie a caramel, which she declined. I unwrapped one of the chocolates and dropped it to the floor, while pretending to put it in my mouth.
Free to indulge in as much jaw movement as I liked, I scraped a globule of glue from my gum with my tongue. Another blob had attached itself to the roof of my mouth at the back, beyond the reach of my tongue but not so far back I could swallow it.
As I struggled to reach the errant blob, Cammie suddenly leaned over, planted her lips on mine, and gave me a cinema snog, the like of which I'd not experienced since my hair had colour. It was a kiss so French I thought I heard accordion music above the slurping.
When we separated to take in air, I noticed with some alarm that the lump of fixative was no longer attached to the roof of my mouth. I knew I hadn't swallowed it, so I probed my gums and cheeks with my tongue in search of the absconding adhesive. Then, to my utter horror, in my peripheral vision, I saw Cammie spitting something into a paper tissue, which I assumed she thought was part of a chocolate caramel.
There was a lot of gunfire on the screen at that moment, and I had hoped a stray bullet would take me out, such was my discomfiture. Our lips never touched again during the film.
When I got home later that night, I plopped my denture into a glass of water and set about the chocolate caramels in earnest.
When I met Cammie at the zoo on Saturday afternoon, I had already eaten, so I could turn down any offers of food that might give my secret away. Of course, I knew that if my relationship with Cammie developed into something serious, it would be impossible for me to keep up the dental deception. As things were, I'd rather wait until we were more at ease with each other before revealing my big secret.
We walked a circuit of the zoo, during which journey I photographed a flamingo, snapped a snake, and, in a photographic sense, shot a shetland pony. On our way to the exit, we came to a camel enclosure, and one of the beasts was kitted out in a large red fez. Cammie insisted I take a photo.
The ugly ungulate stood behind a fence, and Cammie positioned herself in front of it. I stepped back to get the fez in the shot, and just as I took the photo, a catastrophe played out right in front of my eyes. The camera-shy camel lunged at Cammie with its snout, barging into her right between the shoulders and pushing her forward with some force. She fell to the ground, and a zookeeper and I immediately went to her aid, the former issuing repeated apologies to Cammie and crude chastisement to the camel.
As we lifted Cammie back to an upright position, I spotted a complete upper denture on the ground that was clearly too small to have been spat out by the camel. I looked towards the likely owner of the denture, who was shaken but unhurt after her fall but in some distress at the absence of one-half of her chewing tackle.
Well! You could have knocked me down with a toothbrush. After all the trouble I'd taken to keep my dental deficiency a secret, Cammie had been doing the same all along.
I picked up the denture, and Cammie held out her hand, inviting me to give it to her. "Please," she said, holding the other hand to her mouth as she spoke. I handed it over, and she hurried to a toilet block to wash the denture before re-inserting.
Five minutes later, Cammie returned with her smile restored and a fresh application of lipstick, although there was a tear in the knee of her trousers. She said she'd had enough of the zoo for one day and suggested coffee.
As we sat in a cafe, I decided that following recent developments, now would be a good time to get everything off my chest and admit to my own dental shortcomings. "If it makes you feel any better," I said, "I have a partial upper denture."
"I know," she said. I was quite taken aback, as the dentist had told me he was delighted with the match of the denture and my remaining teeth.
"How could you tell?" I said. She laughed softly.
"I got a blob of denture adhesive in my mouth when we kissed at the cinema last night."
"Nice weather," I said, changing the subject.
At home that evening, I watched TV alone and finished the bag of chocolate caramels. When an ad break came on, I picked up my phone to view the photos from the zoo. I didn't get any further than the last shot I'd taken because blow me if it wasn't the most hilarious image ever to fall under the gaze of a human eye. I donned my reading glasses for a more detailed study of what was a truly remarkable sight.
I had snapped Cammie at the precise moment the camel had shoved her in the back, and oh my, what a face. I shall endeavour to relay the image via words, but it won't come close to the real thing.
While lacquer held Cammie's hair firmly in place, the sudden jolt had caused her face to take on the most grotesque grimace. Her eyes bulged like golf balls, and each looked in a different direction, and her wide-open mouth, minus upper teeth, was a cavernous hole that would give Munch's most famous work a run for its money. The detached denture had completed its exit and, while in mid-flight, was perfectly level and closer to the camera, giving an authentic impression of a moustache made of teeth.
What made the image even more hilarious was that the fez-wearing camel had just pulled its head back after contact. Its huge face was directly above Cammie, and the beast bore its teeth as though smiling.
I laughed at the photo right through the ad break and beyond. For the rest of the night, I picked up the phone sporadically to view the irresistible image, and each time, I chuckled anew. It was priceless.
In bed, I allowed myself one final peek at the photo before sleep. I laughed so heartily, I caused the bedsprings to creak for the first time in a long time.
The George & Dragon is about as traditional an English pub as you could find. It stands by a busy canal and I have whiled away many a sunny afternoon in the beer garden there, watching passing narrowboats. Getting from my home to the pub is a mere ten-minute walk along a towpath but the fine autumnal weather that morning was perfect for walking, so I took Cammie on an hour-long stroll, meandering through woodland before doubling back onto the towpath and into the lounge of the pub.
After getting a pint of lager for myself and a white wine for Cammie, I led her to a table where several of my friends were seated. I introduced my new girlfriend to Old Harry, Stan, Foxy, and Roger and Alice Broadbent. I was delighted that Cammie made a favourable impression via her smart attire and pleasant, well-spoken manner.
About halfway through my third pint, I suggested to Cammie that we order food, as the combination of a long walk and beer had given me a keen appetite. She said she needed the toilet and that she'd go outside for a cigarette while she was about it, and we could order food on her return. After she'd left, I succumbed to an impulse I have since reflected upon with a sense of shame.
"Here," I said, "have a quick look at this." I slid my phone into the centre of the table, with the camel photo on display. Mrs B didn't find the image amusing, but the boys roared with laughter. Harry dried his eyes on his sleeve, and Foxy repeatedly slapped the table as the phone slid from one to another. And then, the riotous scene petered out rather quickly in the manner of boiling milk when the pan is removed from the heat. I knew what had caused the cessation.
"I forgot my lighter," Cammie said. I reached for the phone and pulled it towards me, hiding the image with my hand. But it was too late. "Let me see," she said. I expelled a nervous cough and gave her the phone. She looked at the image without reacting and, epitomising the phrase calm and collected, gave it back to me. "Delete it," she said. I immediately complied.
Satisfied the image had been destroyed and accepting my assurance that I hadn't sent it on to anyone, Cammie picked up her lighter and the glass of wine. She took a sip from the latter, flung the remaining contents at my face with some force, and then walked simultaneously out of the bar and my life.
I rubbed my stinging eyes, and with wine dripping from my nose onto the table, I reflected that my brief dalliance with Cammie had ended precisely as it had begun, with someone getting sloshed in the face. It was almost poetic.