I waved at Angel as I entered the bar. A light rain had just started. I shook the drops off my coat and hung it on the rack by the door. Angel, chatting with a customer, looked over momentarily and waved back.
A long, dark-stained wooden bar ran along the far end of the room, glass shelves filled with bottles behind it and draught taps in the middle. The walls were open brick and there was a small working fireplace in the corner. Two immense crystal chandeliers dominated the high ceiling. Small tables, discretely spaced apart, with black wooden chairs, filled the room. It was early, just after five, and the place was almost empty. The after-work crowd would start filling it soon, even on a Tuesday.
I took a seat at the bar, sliding my purse onto a hook underneath.
I'd called the owner Angel for so long that I'd almost forgotten his real name (Martin). All the regulars did. For a lot of single women in Notting Hill, like me, this was our local. Angel looked out for us. If you'd had too much to drink, he'd send his husband, Jason, to walk or drive you home. (They lived upstairs.) If a guy was bothering you, Angel would make sure he got the message to leave you alone. If a first date went sideways, Angel was there to lend a sympathetic ear. If you even suspected your drink, or another woman's, might have been spiked, Angel replaced it free of charge. The bar was written up last year in Time Out as a 'female-friendly establishment.'
I stop in often on my way home from work. The bar is almost half way between Notting Hill Gate station and the tiny flat off Portobello Road that I inherited from my grandparents. They’d had the sense to buy after the war when it was still a working-class area. I have wine bars, posh restaurants and up-market cheese sellers on my doorstep, but a budget that suits Tesco, Oxfam and second-hand books. Nights at Angel’s bar are my main splurges.
Angel doesn't bother making food as there are so many restaurants nearby. He keeps menus for Thai, Tandoori, Greek, Italian and Caribbean, and a quick What's App order gets you dinner. Some nights it's an easy choice: stay and chat, and have someone else cook, or go home to an empty flat.
I bring all my first dates here. If they survive my selection criteria, and Angel's eagle eye, they're eligible for a second date. However, in the past year, ever since my ex-boyfriend, Tom, had broken up with me ("you're just too intense") none of those first dates had progressed to a second.
Angel came over. "Hallo, Lovely Allie. How are you this evening?" he asked.
"I'm good. Date night tonight.”
"What's he do?" Angel asked.
"No way, Allie. If he's in tech, he's probably an INTJ like you. You need someone to balance out your intensity, not ramp it up.” Angel shook his head. He had gotten into reading about personality types lately. Claimed it made him a better bartender. He'd even started trying to match people with the best drinks for their personality types after he read an article on the topic.
My type, INTJ, is also called “The Architect.” High standards, known for being independent, hates wasting time. Endlessly analyse everything. So, yes, intense.
I heard the front door close. I looked over and saw my date, Brian. I'd seen him often in the Starbucks near work over the past few months. This morning, we wound up next to each other in line and started chatting. He seemed smart and confident. When he'd asked me out, I’d said yes.
"Too late, Angel. He's here," I said.
We ordered drinks at the bar.
"What'll it be?" asked Angel.
"I'll have an Old Fashioned," said Brian.
"Sure thing, coming up," said Angel. He leaned towards me and whispered, "Close. ISTJ.”
ISTJs are also called “The Logistician.” Methodical, accurate, patient, analytical. Won’t go for blind dates or set-ups. Needs to feel in control. I’d been learning a lot lately from Angel.
Brian was looking around the room and missed the comment. Aloud, Angel said, "And the lady will have the Cabernet Sauvignon."
"Am I that predictable?" I asked.
"Always," said Angel.
I moved us to a table in the corner, away from the bar. I didn't want Angel eavesdropping. Brian slid a black backpack under the table.
"So," I said, "tell me about your start-up." That got Brian excited. Off he went, talking about unicorns and capital and venture funds.
Angel came over with our drinks. He put a glass of red down in front of me. “Try this,” he said. I took a sip. The flavours of cherry, chocolate and cedar rolled around on my tongue and the alcohol and tannins warmed the back of my throat. “Hmmm, nice,” I said, “But that’s not my Cab Sav.”
"I took the liberty. It’s a new Merlot we're trying for the bar. The rep dropped it off today.”
"Hmm. It could tempt me away from my usual," I said, "I'd definitely order this again.”
As Angel left, Brian started talking again.
I followed along reasonably well. I work in insurance so I'm used to dealing with numbers, but the tech world was still a foreign country to me. I tried to ask questions, to seem interested, but in the back of my mind, a small voice was saying, "You'd have to listen to this every night."
I’m a list person. I'd already started one in my head for Brian: tick for yes, cross for no. He'd asked me out right away. Decisive. Tick. He was on time. Tick. He had a good job. Tick. He was a bit dry. Cross. Well, I thought, hold off on that one. Maybe he has first-date nerves.
Somewhere in the middle of a monologue about why the start-up share price was going to rival Tesla's at the IPO, there was a soft yipping sound from below the table. I peered down at Brian's backpack. He went red. More yipping.
"Why is your backpack making noises?" I asked.
Brian cleared his throat. "Um, well, I had to bring the puppy with me. I gave it a tiny bit of ... well, a quarter really ... of a Xanax and it fell asleep so I thought it'd be alright."
"Puppy?" I said, sitting up straight and staring at him. Then I thought, Xanax? Allie, don't judge. Wait, he gave Xanax to a puppy?
"Yeah," he said, as if hearing my thoughts, "Someone left it on the train. It was whining and I had to do something to keep it quiet. The guard didn't believe it wasn't mine. He said he'd fine me if I didn't remove it from the station," said Brian, sounding indignant.
"So you brought it along?" I asked, my voice rising just a little.
"I didn't have a choice, really. I have to take it to the RSPCA in Battersea and there wasn't time to go there and get back here in time," said Brian, sounding defensive. He’d unzipped the backpack and was staring inside. “It looks like it’s gone back to sleep. I’ll take it in a cab later.”
“Can it breathe?” I asked, feeling indignant. I leaned under the table and looked inside the backpack. A tiny, black Labrador puppy was curled up in the bottom, twitching in its sleep. I reached down and stroked its short soft fur and it whimpered softly. It looked so small and vulnerable. My chest fluttered. It needed a home, I thought.
Brian re-zipped the bag half-way. “Good point,” he said. “I’ll leave it open.”
"Have you thought about keeping the puppy?" I asked.
"Not with my work hours," he said, still defensive, "Besides, I'd have to pay a pet deposit."
So there might not be time for a relationship either, I thought.
"I thought start-ups let you bring dogs to work?" I said in a light tone.
"Uh, no, not mine. Actually," said Brian, visibly cheering up, "I can just send the puppy in a cab. I don't need to go."
I prefer cats. I'd inherited a large grey tabby along with the flat: he liked being petted and he'd curl up next to me if I was reading, but for the most part, he kept to himself. I'm not really a dog person. They seem like a lot of work. But handing over a drugged puppy to a total stranger and hoping he took it where he was supposed to didn't sound like the best idea.
I continued my Brian list. He spent a lot of time at work. That might include weekends and bank holidays. Cross. He had rescued the puppy instead of leaving it on the train. Tick. Sending a drugged puppy to a rescue centre by black cab. Cross.
Brian and I couldn't decide on what food to order: he didn't like Indian (cross, what Londoner doesn't like a takeaway curry?), Greek or Caribbean, and Thai was too spicy for him, so that left Italian. We split a rocket salad (tick) for a starter, then I had pasta while he had pizza.
The room was getting noisier. Brian and I raised our voices now as we talked.
I told Brian about my job, which I really enjoy. I work in insurance. Leave me alone all day with cases to review, only needing to speak with people by phone, and weekly team meetings, and I’m happy. I settled claims in favour of clients as often I could. It was my way of trying to make the world a better place.
I could see from the slightly annoyed look on Brian's face when I mentioned that I was helping people that he didn't agree. He started quoting statistics about how insurance companies found ways to deny legitimate claims and how they made huge profits from premiums. Now I started feeling slightly annoyed.
The bar was getting crowded. The room had reached peak noise. Brian was talking louder, but I was missing the occasional word. I was reluctant to lean in to hear him better. It would look as if we had a connection I wasn’t feeling.
We were getting talked-out. I was fishing around for new topics.
I know I'm too critical. I over-analyse everything. Angel tells me that all the time. So how do I manage to keep choosing the wrong guys? Why can’t I find a keeper? They seem intelligent and interesting in the beginning, but then we can't get past one evening.
I looked around the room. All the tables were full. I looked at the couple sitting at the next table. They were leaning in towards each other, talking animatedly. Why couldn’t my date have gone that well? I dragged my attention back to what Brian was saying.
The evening went from bad to worse.
Brian wasn’t into art (except for NFTs) or music. I like spending rainy Sundays in the National Gallery or the British Museum and I love jazz. His reading list consisted mostly of biographies of well-known people in tech, whereas I love literature. There were longer and longer pauses.
I looked over at the bar. Sue and Sharon, two of the regulars, were sitting there talking. They saw me, waved and went back to their conversation. No chance of a rescue there, then. Angel was busy making drinks.
I flagged down a passing barmaid to order coffee. That should be a pretty clear signal that the evening was winding down.
By now, Brian wore a slightly bored look and he was getting only crosses on my list. He was also glancing around the bar, as if searching for an escape route. By the time our coffees arrived, we were talking about the weather, the classic English fallback. There was an uncomfortable silence as we finished our drinks and paid the bill.
Then Brian fumbled with his chair and stood up, saying, "Thanks for a nice evening," but he avoided looking directly at me. We shook hands. Super awkward. He headed for the door, grabbed his coat and was gone.
I was reading a message on my phone when Angel put a glass of red wine down on the table in front of me.
I looked up, surprised. "I didn't order this.”
"On the house. Consider it a consolation prize, so your evening isn't a total loss."
I took a sip. The Merlot again. “But aren’t I going against my type?" I asked, teasing him.
"So, yes, on the topic of doing things differently for a change," said Angel, looking serious, "I'm setting you up with someone."
I started to protest and he cut me off with a wave of his hand.
"No arguments," said Angel, "I've been watching you come in here for months with these dates, and sorry, love, but most of them are tossers. I think you and Jake would really get on. He's the wine rep. Aussie. Lovely bloke. I don't know why I didn't think of him sooner. He's an ENFJ so he'll balance you nicely. Big on relationships, very loyal. Plus he's a good cook..."
"Did he tell you that?" I asked.
“Didn't have to. He'd just bought the new Ottolenghi. Do you know how hard those recipes are?” asked Angel. I’m not big on cooking, but even I’d heard of the infamous 25-ingredient dishes.
I pursed my lips. "I don't know ... "
"Look, just give the bloke a chance. He's laid-back and genuine, he grew up on a farm, for eff's sake, not like these uptight city types you keep dragging in here."
"So, it's a yes then. I'll give him your number,” said Angel.
Just then came a snuffling, scratching sound from under the table. Angel raised his eyebrows.
I had forgotten all about the puppy. So had my date, apparently. Or had he? I reached into the backpack and pulled out the puppy. She (I checked quickly) was awake now and started licking my face, her paws scrabbling against my chest.
I sighed. "Looks like my date stuck me with his dog."
"You might've gotten the better bargain," said Angel, with a wink.
Six Months Later
As I put the key in the lock, my phone buzzed. I pulled it out of my bag. It was Jake. He was running late. A client had kept him back. More like Jake had gotten so carried away talking about wine that he lost track of time. Be there in 30, got dinner, he had texted. I grinned. Always trust your guardian angel.
From the other side of the door, I could hear something drumming against the wooden floor of the foyer. I opened the door and a black, furry ball of energy jumped up against my thighs. I laughed and fended her off. The black Lab ran in circles in the small space, barking excitedly. "Want to go for a walk, Merlot?" I asked.
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