39 Plus One

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39 Plus One (Romance, Book Award 2023)
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Logline or Premise
The story of Rachel Collins, who, on her 39th birthday decides to embark on a quest to find her perfect imperfect soulmate before she reaches 40. Her quest takes her on a journey of self-discovery and leads her into situations that she never imagined she'd find herself in. Based on real life events.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One The Quest

Next year I enter the fourth decade of my life. It’s a dirty word for me, known as the ‘F’ word amongst my close friends; whenever they try to talk to me about what I’m planning for my fortieth, I silence them and say, “Don’t mention the F word.” They just laugh at me. By the way, most of them have already been there and find it amusing that I’m taking it so seriously; they are all married with 2.4 and living the imperfect dream, apart from Vince and Harry who think a good bonk solves all life’s miseries. Getting back to the ‘F’ word; yes, I’m in complete denial, I know, but how I remember those days dancing to Wham’s ‘Young Guns’ for the end of year school concert in the summer of ‘83 thinking how, someday, I would be married to my Andrew Ridgley lookalike, only to discover my Andrew Ridgley lookalike used to like whamming his fists into me and I decided it was time to say goodbye to my Wham days.

So, here I am, just turned 39, single, and for the past 7 years, I haven’t really had a serious boyfriend. I admit I have not explored all avenues. The thought of speed dating or even communal dinner dates horrifies me; the queuing up, the name badge, the viewing and then the bids are cast. The image that comes to mind is that of cattle lining up to be auctioned; ooh yes, the rump looks good on that one, or noooo too old to bear children. Okay, I’m being cynical, but just the thought of standing around with a group of humanimals all waiting to be sized up and examined, all suffering with the same affliction is not my kind of fun. It’s the desperate yearning look, the wait to see if someone has put a bid on you, the anticipation that this time the farmer has noticed your prize-winning qualities. No! It’s another walk back to the fields. So, yes, I know that I’m being very unfair; how can I possibly give an opinion on something I refuse to try.

Then, there’s the internet. Well, remember as a child when your birthday was approaching, you’d get the Argos catalogue out and look through the pages and list all the things that you’d like, and then place the list where everyone can see it, normally stuck to the fridge door? Then, when eventually your birthday comes around, you open your presents, imagining which one from the list it is, only to be disappointed with yet another set of pyjamas which ‘you’ll grow into’, a pair of socks, and box set of bath foam and soap on a rope. I have, on a couple of occasions, registered on dating sites but what a lengthy process! Boredom sets in by the time I get to the type of qualities I’d like in my ideal partner and before I know it, I start comparing the virtues of internet dating with the traditional method and suffice to say, my Argos days are over.

It’s not that I can’t get a boyfriend, I’m just not that good at keeping them. I’ve been told that I’m too fussy, too pretty, too nice, too independent, and, once, even that my standards are too high. I mean, really!

So, I’ve decided to go on a quest for the next 12 months to find my perfect, imperfect soulmate. To explore all avenues. To accept all invitations, even if they’re not to my liking, i.e., too short, too fat, smelly, players and haters, etc. You get my drift? I say perfect, imperfect soulmate because, let’s face it, nobody’s perfect and although it’s all very cosy and lovey the first few years of a relationship, after a while, all the things you tolerate for the love of the man, becomes the things you absolutely hate in him. Like the face shavings left in the sink, the smelly, wet clothes strewn everywhere, and I know you won’t believe me, but once, on entering the bathroom, I found poo halfway down the outside of the toilet bowl and I’m not talking a little spot. I’m talking a great lump, the size of a golf ball, just clinging on to the side for dear life. The explanation I got was that it had fallen off the loo roll during the wiping process and landed on the outside of the toilet. Well! I can’t really talk about that anymore, but my point is that if you really love someone, and find that perfect, imperfect soulmate, then what you do is laugh about it and put up with all his poo.

So, my quest to find my perfect, imperfect soulmate begins…

Three Days Earlier

It all began with my journey back from work. I decided to stop at this new store that had recently opened; it was one of those organic deli-style shops. Anyway, there I am trying the little titbits on offer at the antipasti counter; I was rather peckish after work and, as I’m popping the third feta stuffed olive in my mouth, I feel eyes on me, so I turn and catch a glimpse of him. He’s pushing his little trolley around the corner of the aisle, but I know it’s his eyes watching me stuff my face. Or am I just being paranoid? “Would you like to try the jalapeno stuffed—” I hear a voice from over the counter ask.

“No thanks, I’ll just take a small tub of the feta olives please, seeing as I’ve eaten most of the ones on the tray,” I say, chuckling to the young lad who’s serving me, but it goes over his head.

I study his face to calculate how old he could be; he looks up and catches my eye as he passes the tub over the counter.

At 39, I don’t think I look too bad; a couple of grey hairs or so hidden under my brunette locks, no wrinkles yet, unless I smile too hard, and apart from a slight muffin top when I wear low-rise jeans, everything’s in the right place. “Anything else, madam?” he asks, as I pop the tub in the basket.

No! Not now you’ve called me ‘madam’. “No thank you,” I reply, as I walk away and turn into the aisle where, a few feet away, I’m faced with the one whose eyes were on me when I was olive-eating.

He looks up and smiles and I pretend not to notice him as I walk past and then I hear a French accent. “’Ello.”

I turn to look at him and he’s cute-ish; the accent is much cuter. “Hi,” I say, half-smiling and walking on. Oh God! I hope I don’t have any of those olives stuck in my teeth. I make it to the cheese counter and check my teeth with my tongue and then notice the tray of cocktail sticks with cubes of cheese attached and grab one, wolf it down, then use the stick to clear olive debris from my teeth.

Then I hear a familiar voice. “Can I help you with anything, madam?” It’s the deli counter boy; he must have rollerbladed over.

“No thanks,” I mumble, trying not to look like I’m eating my way round the store. All I need now is a drink, and as I turn into the next aisle, there’s an organic wine tasting table. I smile and think, you don’t need to go out to a fancy bar with your girlfriends, just turn up at the organic deli store and you can have a quick catch up over nibbles and a glass of wine while you browse. No purchase necessary. I smile to myself and head on over to sample what’s on offer; there’s an elderly couple there chatting to the wine promoter lady, so maybe I could do a drink and dash without being noticed. I help myself to the weeny glass of red, knock it back and nod my head pretending that I’m listening to her narrative on the virtues of drinking organic wine and then help myself to another when she turns, looks at me and asks my thoughts. “Oh! Well, it’s jolly nice,” I say, as I pop the empty vessel down and scoop up another thimbleful of happiness and then I turn to the elderly couple and ask them what they think as I edge my way back to let them take centre stage.

I can see Mr French Accent at the end of the aisle looking at something on the shelf, so I fake a hello and raise my hand as if to wave to him as I calmly walk away. I’m not going to shy away; the vino has helped to ease my demeanour. Besides, I haven’t had a date in ages and as we pass, he stops and introduces himself as Francois. “Hi, I’m Rachel.” I feel a bit awkward when I notice a lady close by glance over, raising her eyebrows and smiling as she snoops in on our conversation. I catch Francois taking a nose of my feta-stuffed olives in my basket; he looks up and smiles at me. He’s not very tall but has a nice smile and accent and after a little small talk about the new store, he asks me if I’d like to go out sometime. I give him my number, say goodbye and, as I walk away slowly, I can hear him say that he’ll call. I pay for my olives and, whilst walking to my car, I think of how we ever managed before mobile phones were invented. I mean, how great not having to go in search of pen and paper or try to commit to memory names and numbers that could be your destiny. It starts to rain and is chilly out but there’s a spring in my step.

Later that evening I receive a message from Francois saying that he wants to meet on Saturday at 6pm at a café that’s close to where he lives and then go into town for dinner. FUUUUUCCKK! That’s only two days away. What shall I wear? Where are we going? Casual or dressy? This calls for an emergency Friday night with the girls to discuss.

Harriet and Naomi meet me at our usual Friday night hangout called ‘The Drinking Ole’; it’s a little Spanish bar in Windsor that serves great tapas. I order a bottle of wine and three glasses and wait for them to arrive. Harriet is the all-important party girl who can handle her drink until she passes out, of course. She has a well-paid job that can afford her to buy whatever designer piece she likes and would not concern herself with how much she has spent. Once she showed me a simple hair clip and told me that she had paid £15 for it; to me it just looked like a plastic hair grip, but what do I know. Naomi is the quiet, doesn’t-drink-too-much, practical earth mother type who hasn’t been shopping for herself in years and would rather go without than be a fashion-conscious victim. I have known them both since school; they both married young to their childhood sweethearts, and I suspect they think the grass is greener. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. “French? I don’t much like the French!” exclaims Naomi. “Too arrogant; they think they’re the bee’s knees, and what’s the thing with the snails?”

“Well, I think they’re romantic, charming and that accent is so sexy,” Harriet purrs. One for and one against. Great! “Look, you haven’t had a boyfriend in ages; he could be the one,” continues Harriet.

“Well, as long as you don’t serve us snails at your wedding, I’m fine with it,” Naomi chips in, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, for God’s sake! It’s only a date,” I add, laughing.

As I suspected, I’m none the wiser after meeting up with them, but I should remember that they haven’t dated in years, and I guess wouldn’t have a clue anyway. And me? I feel like I’ve been dating for a lifetime, and I still don’t have a clue. I do have rules for dating – nothing major – but, firstly, if a man has asked me out to dinner, then I expect him to pay, if there’s a second date, then I will offer, unless he absolutely objects to me contributing. If I like him, and want to see him again, I will let him pay, if I know I won’t be seeing him again, then I will insist on paying half and then I won’t feel so bad when I say that I’m not interested in seeing him again. Secondly, I never kiss on a first date, not for any reason but I just think it’s always good to wait, unless they’re totally irresistible and we just click. Then, that kiss has got to be the sweetest kiss ever, no tongue-swashing saliva faced kiss which has been unleashed way too soon, as I have experienced on past encounters.

Chapter Two Pepé Le Pew

It’s Saturday, late afternoon, and I have half an hour before meeting Francois. The tornado that hit my bedroom earlier has finally settled as I pick out my first-choice outfit from under the pile of clothes on my bed. My light blue jeans with a white halterneck top accompanied by some strappy, pale pink heels and a dark blue woolly coatigan.

I meet Francois at a restaurant; he’s standing outside as I drive into the car park, and I notice that he’s in exactly the same clothes that he was wearing in the supermarket a couple of days earlier. I park the car, unbuckle my seatbelt, and Francois has jumped into the passenger seat and is lunging toward me. I lean back a little as he says ‘ello in that soothing French accent and kisses me on both cheeks.

“So, have you just finished work?” I enquire.

“Non, I had the day off today,” he replies.

I can’t believe it! He’s been off all day and turns up for a date wearing tired old jeans, and a bobbly black jumper that’s reserved for rainy day walks; I’m not impressed! Still, I’ve got to think that things can only get better. I open the car door and start making my way out. “Shall we make a move then?” I say, looking back at him still seated in the passenger seat.

He nods, and I realise that he’s expecting me to drive. He must have seen my jaw drop as I stepped back into the driver’s seat. “Or, if you prefer, I can drive; my house is two minutes away,” he offers.

I nod my head in approval. “Yeah, sure, okay,” I respond, and a change of clothes wouldn’t go amiss either, I say in my head as he jumps out of the car and disappears. Was that mean of me? I ponder. He did ask me out, so therefore he should be picking me up, and it was his idea to go into town; we could’ve just gone to a local restaurant. Oh why, oh why am I overanalysing? That’s it! Just enjoy the evening.

After giving myself a talking to and reapplying my lip-gloss, I feel excited to see that Francois has returned in a jeep. I pick up my coat, and bag, lock the car, and with a smile, climb into the passenger seat of his car when an overpowering smell of wet dog invades my nostrils, and not to mention the doghair everywhere. Oh no! What have I done? “Hi,” is all I can muster as Francois takes my hand and starts kissing the top of it whilst mumbling something in French. Damn! I wish I’d taken my French lessons at school seriously now.

Our journey into town is relatively painless and I’ve become nose-blind to the wet dog smell. Francois, as well as driving, is doing most of the talking. He’s a masseuse in his spare time, his full-time job is at a cinema in Fulham, and he says he also reads palms. He drives down a side street and parks up. “This is where I work,” he says, as he points to a cinema that we’ve just passed on the main road, he gets out his phone and makes a call. “I’m calling my friend, Nadia, she lives close by, maybe she can join us,” he says, as if it’s quite normal to invite another lady on a date.

What! I want to shout out, but all that comes out is, “Sure, why not?” I can’t believe that I’m on a date and the guy is calling for reinforcements before we’ve even begun. Right! I’m pissed off now. There’s no answer from Nadia so Francois curses in French as he jumps out of the car and asks me what movie I’d like to watch. Well, I had no idea that we were going to watch a movie; not a good option in my book for a first date really, but never mind, ‘what do I know’.

But before I could answer, he says, “Wait in the car and I will pick up the movie list.” Then he disappears.

As I sit in his smelly car feeling itchy and scratchy, I make a call. That sexy French accent is wearing thin, that’s for sure. The answer machine clicks in; ‘Hi, Vince ‘n’ Harry are busy bonking so leave the usual and…’ This is so typical of Vince and Harry; they never answer because they want everyone who calls to listen to their message. “You fuckers! Pick up, it’s me, Rache, I’m on a date with this guy who’s—”

A second later, Vince answers. “Rache! What’s happening? What the fuck’s going on?”

“I’m on a date with this guy who’s left me in his smelly car; he works at the cinema and—”