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Romance For The Socially Inept

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It took a lot of nerves for Henry to ask Martin out to dinner. He stammered his way through an offering of a date, his hands sweaty and shaking as he talked, setting himself up for rejection with every word he managed to pronounce. Even with the buzz of euphoria (He said yes! He said yes!), this was soon followed by the distressed realisation that he had absolutely no idea about how to go about what was apparently to everyone else such simple social protocol.

Their first date is middle of the road by most stretches of the imagination. Not that it doesn't work out: Martin stands awkwardly in a smart shirt and jeans at the time they set, and Henry thinks he looks amazing, tugging on his own cuffs and feeling inadequate, but when they're seated his nerves disrupt his speech every time his brain calls attention to the fact that he is out on a date with the pilot across from him, his sentences stuttering into each other, giggling anxiously at his own jokes and beating himself up on the inside after every comment (Nice hair?! Nice hair, what the hell were you thinking saying that, you stupid, stupid...). He can tell Martin's as about as wound up as he is; the pilot keeps running his hands through hair, laughing too loudly and a wary tenseness to his posture, as though he expects someone to shout 'April Fools!' at any given moment, eyes darting towards the door for a quick escape should his prophecy come true.

Reservations aside, they manage to make comfortable conversation aside from the perfunctory small talk, and Henry's pleased that they both can relax over talk of flying and aeroplanes, Martin perking up and discussing avidly different types of light aircraft, while Henry interjects with his own preferences. He knew Martin was a pilot of course, and he himself is a fan of planes, especially of older historic models like Lancaster Bombers and Spitfires, but he finds that half the pleasure of the topic is seeing Martin's face flush with excitement, the lines around his eyes crinkling as he makes grand gestures with his hands to add to his argument. He knocks over the salt cellar at one point, immediately halting his demonstration with a look of embarrassment and self-horror, but Henry quickly saves the situation by claiming the cellar as a casualty of warfare, and they both laugh and mimic bomber squadrons with their hands before someone shushes them for being too noisy and they can't help giggling at how childish that was.

They both agreed at the start of the meal that it might be better if they both paid for their own meals, and Martin readily agreed. He orders small and light however, claiming when asked that he isn't really that hungry (although Henry would never have thought it looking at him, skinny as a rake like he was), and shakes his head vehemently when Henry offers to get him something extra. Henry maybe thinks Martin just doesn't want to have to stay any longer than he has to, but as the night goes on, he doubts it somehow; they get on well, and mishaps aside with the seasoning, the night flows by with good conversation, a glass of wine and a water for Martin.

It feels like it's not long before they're putting their coats on to head back home, stepping outside the door of the restaurant. Henry's only in Fitton for a couple of weeks on business, staying at a B&B, so hopes that the darkness of the streets coupled with that one glass of alcohol wont stop him finding his way back to his lodgings.

“Well...” Henry starts gawkily, scuffing his newly polished shoes on the pavement, wishing his trousers had real proper pockets so he could burrow his hands down away from the cold. “I had a-a nice night Martin, thank you.”

The pilot flushes under a street light. “Yeah. Me too. Better than expected. I mean – not that I wasn't expecting a nice night, course not, just it was nicer than I had hoped for.”

“We could go back to your place for coffee?” Henry says, then blanches.“I-I-I mean actual coffee, not that weird euphemism for sex people use in films, although if you wanted to, not that I'm asking of course, just if you were interested, but not if we both mean just coffee-coffee, 'cause then we'd just have coffee-coffee and it wouldn't be anything to do with sex, and oh bugger, I'm really making a mess of this aren't I?”

Martin smiles faintly, and touches his arm, clunkily patting it in what is meant to be a comforting action, as though he's been running through the motions of how to establish minor physical contact in his head before actually doing so.

“That'd be nice.” he mumbles self-consciously. “Just... my flat's not the best place...it's a bit...” he scrunches his face up like he's trying to figure out how to word something before he simply blurts out: “It's getting renovated see... so there's all sorts of dust and paints and things like that. Not very good for coffee. It'll end up tasting like plasterboard.”

It doesn't occur to Henry that the man might be ashamed of where he lives. He laughs too high-pitched and bites his lip, the conversation suddenly drying up, silence lingering for a couple of seconds too long to be natural, until he finally manages to say:

“Well, I guess I'll see you again?”

Martin nods fervently, reminding Henry of one of those nodding dogs that you stick on the dashboards of cars, only with a mop of curly ginger hair instead. “I-I'd like that. I'll call if you like? We can meet up again?”

Henry nods, then strays for a moment, rocking on his feet, wondering if this is the point when he should kiss Martin goodbye, not quite sure how to go about it. Is he meant to just go for the cheek? – oh but what if he misses and kisses him on the lips, and that would be too forward, wouldn't it, and that'd make this so much mortifying than it need be. In the end, he gives up, and waving the pilot a goodnight, starts back to the B&B a couple of streets away, thinking Oh god, I am such an idiot to think this might have worked out.

He doesn't expect Martin Crieff to ring him back. Definitely not to clumsily make enquiries about another date.

But he does.

The second date, in contrast to the first, is much better. They go to a movie, and afterwards, they hop over the gates of the park, and they lie on the cold grass, Henry tracing out the constellations he recognises from his night-watching back in Dartmoor, Martin repeating the name of every star with a quiet sort of reverence.

And, when they actually both pluck up the courage to kiss, it becomes – as Arthur Shappey would put it – actually quite brilliant.