Dating in the millennial age is driving Jenna Payton crazy. All she wants to do is to meet Mr Right, and yet, all she seems to find herself doing is forever swiping left . They’re just not what she’s looking for. In her eyes, modern-day men and their attitude to romance was nothing but a disappointment. And despite her friends’ eagerness to set her up on a plethora of blind dates and install every phone-clogging dating app under the sun, downhearted music journalist, Jenna, has all but given up hope.
“Time waits for no man,” she proclaims, daunted by the prospect that she is destined to grow old alone.
However, “time” – the one thing she fears she’s running out of – is about to lend her a helping hand…
Chapter 1 – First Impressions
Erica was practically pissing herself with laughter whilst she filmed me. Unearthly snorts could be heard reverberating all around the cosy corner of the lounge we were huddled in. It was just typical. The only way I could ever make light of this repeatedly disheartening situation was through ridicule. Luckily for me though, sarcasm was my forte. Also, rather luckily for me, today’s batch of cyber-men made that notion all too easy…
‘Eyes are too close together,’
‘Looks like a serial killer,’
‘Ugh!’ I gasped, horrified at the picture of a giant thumb-man named, “Gazza” on the screen before me, ‘This guy looks like he ate his last girlfriend!’
Swipe four, accompanied by a fake vomit sound.
‘Seriously Erica,’ I said, shaking my head in disappointment, ‘Why are we doing this again?”
My best friend looked at me, her mobile’s camera lens still hovering over the screen of mine, filming the sad – but truly hilarious – process that was filtering through every single man within a 20-mile radius via yet another pointless online dating app.
“Because,’ she began, still laughing hard enough that she had to clutch at her knickers, “This is pure gold!!”
I was not so amused.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the clock on the mantelpiece hit 10pm. Not exactly the most unearthly hour of the day, but when you hit 30 and work full-time stuck in front of a computer all day writing articles for the nation’s most-loved music magazine, spending your free time staring at a palm-sized monitor awash with ugly men is somewhat of a buzzkill.
‘Turn it off,’ I commanded, shaking my free hand in direction of her phone, ‘I’m coming off this stupid thing.’
‘Oh,’ she whimpered, doing as I requested, ‘But it’s so funny.’
I looked over at her with a disagreeable gaze. To her, my beautiful, confident and very much in-a-relationship, best friend, of course it was funny! She was safely perched on the outside my reality – comfortably taking in the bird’s eye view of it all, with the fortunate ability to fly overhead whenever the sight of it got old. But to me, her comparably average-looking, workaholic, slightly obtuse and absolutely single-as-a-pringle counterpart, the entire experience was boring as hell. It was always the same. Left swipe, left swipe, left swipe again, sigh, gives up. And, unlike the face that launched a thousand ships, all these did was sink my heart to the very bottom of my stomach.
Call me French, but Déjà Vu was not a hobby of mine.
‘Hmm, I think I’m going to delete it.’ I stated, pressing my thumb against the dating app’s heart-shaped face, ‘I’m far too busy for a relationship. Not that any of these men are right for me, anyway.’
Denial: always a productive course of action.
‘Oh, come on!’ Erica protested, watching me as I got up from the sofa, avidly studying the screen of my phone, ‘You can’t give up,’ she continued, ‘Mr Right is out there somewhere.’
A satisfied grin emerged on my lips once the app had finally finished uninstalling.
There. That’s better. Now I have more space for important things, like funny cat videos and what the weather is doing in Sydney.
‘Sure,’ I replied, popping the now-cleansed phone back into my jeans’ pocket, ‘And when I meet him, I’ll tell him that we found his pet pig after it flew past our window, too.’
Now it was her turn to look with a disagreeable gaze.
‘Jenna Louise Payton,’ she announced, ‘you are so silly sometimes.’
From her kneeling position on the cushion of the couch, her concerned stare followed me as I shrugged my shoulders and made my way towards the lounge doorway. Though, I should’ve known better than to think I could escape without hearing one last pearl of wisdom.
‘Give it time.’ She said, her blue eyes brimming with hope that I’d listen, ‘You’ll find him one day. I just know it. And when you do, I’m going to be there to say, I told you so!’
I raised my eyebrows, adoring my friend’s dedication to the cause of finding me a fella, but still no further convinced by the sentiment.
‘Time,’ I responded listlessly, looking at my hands as they impatiently gripped the frame of the doorway, ‘Time waits for no man, Erica.’
CHAPTER 2 – My So-Called Job
Tea and biscuits were what I wanted. A pile of papers titled with ambiguous notes scribbled on them was what I got.
Sharon, the editor-in-chief at Top Tunes magazine, had always been a pain in the ass like that. Never one for pleasantries or congratulating you on a job well done, she was more like that one person in the office you had to be nice to, even though you knew she was taking the piss half the time and really deserved to be taken down a peg or two for it. Telling the truth was more than your job’s worth, though. Oh, but damn it, how much we all wished we could just yank out the chicken fillets stuffed down her bra and launch them across the office like rugby balls instead of just being a good little skivvy and nodding nicely. To be fair though, maybe that was just my dream…
‘This piece just came in,’ she revealed, uninterestedly, pushing her red-framed glasses back up her pointed nose. ‘We’re celebrating 35 years of music icons as part of the magazine’s 35th-anniversary edition. It’s kind of a big deal. No room for error.’ She explained, glancing over the rim of her glasses at my rabbit-in-the-headlights expression. She loved the smell of fear on a Thursday afternoon. ‘This is more than just an article.’ She continued, ‘It’s a piece of history, art and culture all rolled into one, and it’s vital that it’s done to the highest of standards.’
Between us, an obvious pause swung like a pendulum. The sheer thought of it made me feel dizzy, even sat down in my chair. It was pretty apparent that this was the lull before the storm.
‘The job is yours, Miss Payton.’ Sharon confirmed, before tilting her head and satirically adding, ‘That is if you think you can handle it?’
I wasn’t sure if that was a challenge or a question, but her tone wasn’t something to be argued with, so I quickly adjusted what my face was doing and smiled.
‘Of course!’ I chirruped, feigning nonchalance so convincingly I could’ve won a BAFTA, ‘It’d be an absolute honour. When do you need it done by?’
That was when she crookedly smiled at me and my previous anxiety returned as speedily as the metaphorical car crash she was about to bang into my life.
‘You have until 3pm tomorrow.’ She stated, waiting for my imminent crack-up.
‘WHAT! Are you crazy?!’ Was what I wanted to say.
‘Okay,’ gleaming smile fixed on the surface, heart going into cardiac arrest underneath, ‘Sure thing.’ Was what I actually said.
‘Good.’ She said, utterly relishing in having the upper-hand on the matter.
‘Oh!’ She then continued, raising her manicured hands to the hair, ‘I nearly forgot to mention. It’s a minimum of 3500 words. Make sure you get at least 100 good words on each artist selected so that all 35 icons are covered.’
And before I could even pick up my dropped jaw from the floor to contest the completely absurd time-frame, Sharon and her clip-clopping heels flounced back towards the middle section of the room, leaving behind nothing but the scent of Chanel perfume and enough papers to make a bridge that could cross the Amur River.
The middle section was forbidden to the likes of me. We reporters knew our place, and mine was chained to a tiny desk space between Moira and Brian on the row of seats nearest to the loos. As you can imagine, that position came with as many perks as it did pitfalls.
‘Whoa, Brian remarked, staring at the skyscraper pile of papers plonked on my desk as he returned from said loos, wearing such an immense waft of Joop aftershave that it nearly choked me to death. ‘What’s with the Tower of Pisa?’
‘35 bands for 35 years. 3pm tomorrow.’ I responded robotically, staring blankly into space. ‘Kill me now.’
‘What – really?!’ Brian sputtered, the coffee he sipped on nearly making its second-coming, ‘That’s absurd! Surely something that big would’ve been known about for weeks?’
I continued to stare, lost in some kind of celestial trip.
‘You’d think so…’
He blew on his cup, ‘That woman is a tyrant.’ He said, shaking his head as if it was him who had just been given the mammoth task.
Lost in a state of perpetual worry, I began to reel off everything I still had to do, ‘I haven’t even finished the piece on Kasabian yet, and that’s due in today,’ I began, searching my mind for further bombshells, ‘Then there’s that story on the school who incorporated punk-rock into their P.E. lessons AND the one about the pensioners who do Zumba to Beyoncé. Oh my God, Brian!’ I cried, pausing before looking up at him, my face etched with fear, ‘What the hell am I going to do?! I’m going to be stuck in here all frickin’ night!’
Sympathetically, he frowned and put his polystyrene cup down on the desk in front me, balancing it far too temptingly on a spot my hands could easily grab and hurl at Sharon.
Take that, middle section! I am a woman scorned. I cannot be held fully accountable for my actions.
‘I wish I could help you, babe,’ he answered, patting the top of my shoulder, ‘But I’m pretty overrun myself. Anyway, you can’t stay all night. That’d be mental. Plus, I thought you were going on a date with my friend Chris tonight? Don’t you go wasting Cupid’s arrows now, girl! I worked hard to shoot that one.’
‘Oh, you mean, like the last three fuck ups you shot?’ I said, breaking my silent stare in the name of reminding him that he was less of a Cupid and more just stupid. ‘That last guy you set me up with didn’t even show! I sat in that daft Star Wars café for over an hour on my Larry before I finally gave up. Even the barista felt sorry for me. So sorry that he brought me over a free latte and Wookie Cookie as consolation!! It was pretty obvious that the biggest Solo thing in there was me. That non-showing douchebag didn’t even reply to my text after I’d asked him what happened! Bloody twat. Oh, and as for the other two, well, I think I’ve had more fun watching paint dry, to be honest.’
Rant over. I glanced back towards my rather offended colleague who stared at me as if I’d just speared a dagger right through his chest.
‘Wow, just…wow.’ He uttered, a look of shock spreading across his well-moisturised face, ‘That’s the last time I ever do you a favour!’
I wasn’t even sure if he was serious or joking by this point. My brain was too addled by dancing papers and endless write-ups to care. And as much as I’d hate myself if I had genuinely hurt his feelings, I had bigger fish to fry.
35 icons in 35 years – catch of the day, you are not.
CHAPTER 3 – DEADLINES and dip-dabs
Horace’s squirting was distracting me. I know the guy needed to do his job, but the smell and sound of him cleaning so close to my desk just made me feel weird. Watching him rub it all in with so much tenderness really wasn’t helping matters, either.
Spshh… spshhspshh! EeeooEeeooEeeoo! Tap, tap, tap.
After he’d finished patting it dry, he took a step back to admire his work. It must’ve been jolly shiny because he was staring at it for so long I wondered if he could see his own reflection. Regardless, the smile he wore gave away that whatever the outcome, he was pleased with it. I envied that – the ability to find happiness in life’s simpler pleasures. I’d become so fixated on my crappy love-life that nothing much really touched the sides anymore.
In some ways, I wished I could just go off the idea completely and become a happy spinster that lived in a house full of cats instead. Fat chance of that, though. One, cats hate me, and two, being a sexually inactive 30-year-old does something rather alarming to the libido that becomes hard to ignore. It’s almost as if we’re programmed to need sex by that point. Like, our bodies are telling us to procreate by any means possible. It even does annoying things to your eyes by making some men seem more attractive than they are, just to grab a chance at producing said offspring. No word of a lie, you go to bed with Prince Charming and you wake up next to bloody Shrek. Try erasing that memory from your head as easily as you left their apartment the following day.
‘Hmm.’ I wondered, ‘Maybe I should’ve gone on that date with Chris?’
Suddenly, my thoughtful silence was broken.
‘Penny for your thoughts, Miss Payton?’ Horace asked me.
I looked up from my desk to see him with his chin atop the broomstick handle and an inquisitive look on his face. He was the most concerned-looking man dressed in overalls I’d ever seen.
‘Oh, nothing,’ I poo-pooed, trying to regain some focus back on the task at hand: 35 Icons in 35 Years – a doddle, it was not. ‘I just wandered off somewhere. This article is rather taxing.’
Aside from Brian, he was the second man to look at me that day with an expression of pity.
I didn’t like it.
‘You know,’ he said, shuffling over with his broomstick and bucket, ‘I’ve worked here ever since day one. I’ve seen them all come through those double-doors at some point – Ozzy Osborne, Bon Jovi, heck, even Fleetwood Mac! You name ‘em, I’ve witnessed ‘em. So, if you want a hand with your project, I’d be more than happy to help out.’
His innocent smile had me convinced. Anything had to be better than hopelessly rifling through bits of paper, thinking that the right words might jump out at me like crickets in the grass.
Spoiler alert: They never did.
‘Really? That’d be amazing! Thanks, Horace,’ I said, pulling out Moira’s empty chair next to mine for him to sit down on, ‘Take a pew.’
For a cleaner, I was surprised at how much dirt Horace could dish. The things he knew were incredible – almost impossible. It was as if, in a previous lifetime, he’d been a very lucky fly on the wall. I was amazed.
‘Are you serious?’ I stammered, leaning inquiringly in the L-shape between my finger and thumb that propped me up on my desk, ‘I had no idea they were even a couple!’
He tapped his nose surreptitiously, ‘If these walls could talk,’ he said, ‘they’d have many, many stories to tell.’
Exhaling, I replied, ‘Tell me about it.’ Before dropping my hands to my lap and adding, ‘They’d do a far better job at my job than I could, that’s for sure.’
Noticing my change in pitch, Horace cocked his head at me and scooted closer.
‘Forgive me if I’m wrong,’ he said, clasping his hands together, ‘But something tells me that this frustration of yours is about more than just your job?’
I sat upright and stretched out my tired hands, looking at my bare ring finger pensively.
‘Things are…just a little bit, stationary, at the moment.’
He continued to stare, waiting for me to elaborate.
‘I mean,’ I continued, trying to work our the words to say without sounding like a complete hopeless wreck, ‘Being single is just getting me down a bit, that’s all. My friends seem to have all found that special someone and are content with their lives. And yet, here I am, still sat at work past-closing time because I’d rather finish an article than get stood up on another date. Or worse still, go out with a man whose ego needs a constant massage.’
I paused, recollecting some of the disaster dates I’d been on recently.
Tyler: 36, smelt like fish and was just as slippery.
Henry: 32, a good-looking accountant from Bath whose chance at getting my number was slim to none.
Ken: 28, pretended to be 35 online and also pretended to be pretty much everything else on his dating profile.
Finding love in the modern-day was simply impossible.
‘That sure doesn’t sound like much fun.’ He commented, unclasping his hands so that he could reach for his bag of belongings, rifling through it in search of something, ‘Here.’ he said, presenting me a small yellow packet of dip-dabs, ‘Take it.’
I took hold of the little pouch gratefully and smiled. ‘Aww. Thank you, Horace.’ It was a sweet gesture, both literally and physically. However, my mind couldn’t fathom how a lollipop from yesteryear would solve my self-indulgent woes. ‘You don’t have to give me anything, you know. It’s not like it’s your fault I can’t find love.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said, leaving one out for himself, ‘It’s the least I can do. Plus, I know what it’s like. Life can leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, sometimes. That’s why I always carry these.’ He shook the plastic bag filled with dip-dabs at me, ‘For when things need sweetening up again.’
I nodded in agreement, ‘Well, I like your way of thinking!’ I said, smiling ear-to-ear, ‘Sweet things certainly do make everything seem better.’
He smiled, ‘Indeed, they do.’ And with that, he gave me a kindly wink, picked up the rest of his belongings and made his way out of the room.
‘What a lovely guy.’ I said to myself.
Now feeling spritelier post our tête-à-tête, I swivelled my chair back to its position facing the computer and readied myself to finish the article. It was already past 9pm and I’d only just finished covering the icon of 2001.
My workload was ridiculous. Should I ever get the chance to complain and tell that Sharon she was comparable to a dictator in red heels, I damn well would.
Without thinking, I opened the sweetie bag in my hand. The packet made a joyous “pap!” sound upon tearing and a cloud of sugary dust filled the air around me. It was a rather nostalgic moment. Just imagine it: a grown woman, sitting alone in an office at night, writing about old-school pop bands with nothing but the happy sound of sucking on a powdery lollipop to echo around the room for company. It was pretty beautiful. Though, one thing did surprise me with the whole experience.
Inside the bright packet, there was not only a lollipop and precious sugar dust to dab it in, but also a thumb-sized note.
‘It must be a new spin on a retro idea,’ I thought, ‘They’re always upping the ante these days.’
And then, carefully, I picked it out of the packet with freshly-sucked fingers, gently unfolding it to read what was written on its tiny, white body.
“Make a wish!” it read.
Oh, what a nice novelty! I liked it! If anything was going to make you feel like a kid again, it was the idea that anything you wished for was going to come true.
And so, embracing the whole retro-ness of the situation, I went with it.
‘Ok,’ I said, staring at the little piece of paper in my hand, ‘I wish I could finally meet a decent guy.’ I began, ‘One with more than just a good body and good hair. I want to find a meeting of minds, mutual respect, someone who…who means what they say and says what they mean, an adventurer, intellect, a funny-man, a…’
I began to sigh. Whimsically, I looked around the empty room, remembering how silly this all was. Who was I kidding? That man didn’t exist in today’s world.
Shoulders dropping listlessly, I stared back at the little note, ‘I’m probably asking too much of you,’ I told the piece of paper. ‘You said “make a wish”, not “pray for a miracle,”’
Annoyed at myself for nearly re-joining the roundabout topic that was my absent romantic life, I scrunched up the piece of paper and put it in the bin under my desk.
There. No more silly self-pitying. You have work to do.
I shook my computer mouse back to life and began to tackle the icon of 2002. 100 words about Busted should be easy. At least writing that was somewhat achievable.
So, with my freshly-dusted lollipop poking out the corner of my mouth, I started to write about their song, The Year 3000.
Apparently, not much had changed…but they lived under water.
Wouldn’t that be a strange concept – living underwater? Quite impossible, too. Still, it would save a lot of pennies on electrical bills, if it was.
A sudden yawn nearly made me lose my lollipop and I realised how tired I was. At any age, this much work was definitely not healthy.
‘Maybe I’ll just catch 10-minutes of Z’s.’ I said, interlocking my arms and propping them on the edge of my desk, ready to use as a makeshift pillow. ‘A power nap will do me the world of good.’
Eyes flickering, thoughts of the future filled my head, then the past – both concepts utterly illogical and yet wholly real at the same time.
Time – something I never had enough of.
…If only that could change.