“Sorry I’m late. A dog died on the tube.”
Even in solid shoes, Leo stumbles into the restaurant, only just missing a waitress as she twirls with a tray in hand. He is nothing if not a martyr of maladroit. He falls into the seat opposite Bailey, who watches him with wavering contempt.
Bailey tends to not buy into binary, but it’s obvious to the naked eye that he and Leo want very different things, are very different people. Bailey has been waiting for half an hour, wears a suit he bought for sixth form and ten years later can still fit into, hair coiffed neatly, glasses not on but safely tucked away in their little box in the bag at his feet. Leo is a willow tree in Mick Jagger’s clothing, clear skin apart from a pimple on his nose, and only one out of ten fingernails painted a dreamy baby blue.
“Oh god, that’s awful,” Bailey says, a blush on his cheeks. He hates tragedy more than tardiness.
“Anyway,” Leo waves away his worry and offers a hand across the table. “I’m Leo.”
“Bailey Davis,” He says as he shakes it.
“Have you ordered yet?” Leo asks, spinning a menu and letting it land, elbows pinning it to the table to read as his bleach blond hair falls into his eyes. Bailey watches him, tries to imagine sitting two desks down from him in the office.
“I’m fine with coffee,” Bailey tells him, a mug half-empty in front of him.
“Fancy something stronger?” Leo asks, flipping to another page and giving Bailey his brightest grin, “I’m in the mood for cocktails.”
“Are you joking?” Bailey’s gaze flits between the handsome man and the list of questions he’s prepared, cursive and tidy in his notebook at hand.
Leo frowns, looking vaguely uncomfortable.
“Sorry, are you teetotal?” He asks.
Bailey glances at the time on his wrist, he supposes it is officially the afternoon.
“It’s cool,” Leo says, easy smile back on his face, “I’ll wait.”
“Maybe we should make a start,” Bailey takes a deep breath, looking at the first question. He clicks his pen twice, then once more for luck. Leo laughs at him, not unkindly, just a gentle titter.
“Is something wrong?” Bailey asks, the rouge on his cheeks deepening.
“No, no, I’ve just never...” Leo begins, grinning, “Carry on. I’m into it.”
“Ok,” Bailey coughs to cover his nervousness. It’s an age-old tick. “Leo, can you tell me about an experience in the last twelve months that has allowed you to develop a new skill?”
If Leo had had a drink at that moment, he might have choked on it. He laughs until he realises Bailey isn’t joking.
“It doesn’t have to be work-related,” Bailey continues, clicking his pen again, “Perhaps an interpersonal skill that comes to mind?”
“Do you mean, like, having chemistry with someone?” Leo shakes his hands out as he speaks like a gymnast preparing for the beam with dust-covered digits.
“Sure, people skills, communication...that sort of thing,” Bailey says, sitting up straighter in his chair.
“I mean--I'm fairly good with pleasing people, but I don't want to boast, like…” Leo smiles bashfully.
Bailey considers adding this to his list of most awkward life moments. He crosses a line through the question.
“Ok, let’s move on,” Bailey says.
“Wait!” Leo calls out, tapping the table for extra drama. “What about you?”
“Me?” Bailey breathes.
“Yeah. Fair’s fair. I like this. It’s like twenty questions. Do you remember playing that as a kid, trying to get to know your crush?” Leo laughs, nostalgia thick in his throat for partners past.
“I remember,” Bailey says, though what any of this has to do with the job at hand, he doesn’t know. “Right, so, Leo, where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”
Leo blows a raspberry, both excited and exasperated by such a big question.
“Five years? Oh, man. That’s deep,” Leo mulls, leaning back, “Five years’ time, how old will I be? Thirty-three...All right. I see myself doing a little more theatre work, maybe some Ibsen, but primarily on film. I think I’m best on screen, you know? So yeah, work-wise I want to be making decent money, have a place in Hollywood, of course, but live in Soho for most of the year, when I’m not working. And I really want to be oscillating between indie art house and big budget stuff. I know it’s hard for actors these days, but it’s possible. I’m going to make it possible.”
When Leo finishes, his eyes are a little bloodshot.
“So, you don’t quite see yourself as an estate agent, then?” Bailey asks.
Leo’s eyebrows rise in horror, the smile long gone.
“I think there’s been a mistake,” Bailey stutters, “I work for Tyler and Regal Estates. You applied for a job with us? Marlon in accounts recommended you.”
“Marlon!” Leo covers his pretty green eyes with his ring-clad hands, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Marlon’s my brother-in-law. He told me this was a blind date!”
Bailey wonders whether he can mirror the man opposite, whether it’s appropriate for two people to sit down for lunch blinded by their heads in their hands, unmoving, unbelievable.
“Jesus,” Leo sighs, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, “No wonder you didn’t want a fucking cosmopolitan.”
“Well, this is…” A laugh bubbles from the depths of Bailey’s embarrassment, right in the layer of muscle that coats the space between his ribs, “Utterly horrific. I’m gonna go. I take it you never did want the job?”
“No!” Leo tells him, “I’m an actor!”
Bailey grabs his bag and stands up, begins packing away his notebook.
“Wait,” Leo says, stopping him, green eyes darting to brown, “Let me buy you a drink at least, for your trouble…”
Bailey doesn’t move.
“Unless that would be awkward for you, if you’re not--” Leo looks Bailey up and down, quietly assessing. “I’m really sorry,” he sighs.
“I should get back to the office,” Bailey says.
“No, come on, I’ll throw in a sandwich,” Leo says, “Let’s have lunch. I’m really sorry about all of this.”
Bailey contemplates it for a moment, bag tight to his stomach. For an introvert, the relief of not having to interview someone is phenomenal, and simply for that, Bailey breathes calmly once more. He takes Leo in, can imagine him in Heaven, completely beautiful and languid and unattainable. Maybe he could bear sharing a meal with him. He sits down.
They begin looking through the menus, scouring the specials.
“Have you worked at Tyler and Regal for long?” Leo asks.
“Only a couple of months, actually,” Bailey says, “You’re the first person I’ve interviewed.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Leo laughs, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse than this! You know, if it’s any consolation Marlon must think you’re great ‘cause he’s sick of the guys I’ve been dating.”
“I’m not quite sure that’s a compliment,” Bailey smirks. He makes a decision; tuna on rye.
“He thinks I need to come back down to the real world and stop dating actors...and hair stylists...and assistant directors--”
“Think I’ll have that drink now,” Bailey interrupts, looking around for his saviour in an apron.
“I’m sorry,” Leo grimaces, “Are you having a terrible day? Am I making it worse?”
“I mean--my dog didn't die, so it's swings and roundabouts…” Bailey shudders, “However this isn't the worst first date I've been on, I have to say.”
“Well, thanks!” Leo laughs, “Go on, tell me.”
“It’s truly atrocious,” Bailey says, head shaking with force. Leo sits up straighter, pouts to focus.
“An actor prepares,” He says. Bailey tries not to sink further into his seat despite the ounce of confidence weighing in his voice. He’s tried to forget that night ever since it happened.
“We chatted online and then met in real life in a bar and the music was so loud I could barely hear what he was saying,” Bailey starts, “I thought he said he was from Wales, so obviously I started talking about the one and only time I’ve been to Cardiff which was when I was eight and went camping with my brothers and it rained and was horrendous...and then we get into a cab and I'm like, well, horny and drunk and delirious, and saying all this shit about Doctor Who and bloody Bara brith 'cause it's the only thing I remember and then he looks at me, all like, proper strange, like…”
Leo is on the edge of his seat. He shoos away a waiter who approaches them as politely as he can. Bailey remains silent.
“He told me he was from Tunbridge Wells,” Bailey finishes, eyes firmly on anything other than Leo.
The honk of laughter that erupts from Leo is loud enough and amusing enough to distract Bailey from the heat in his own cheeks. Leo has no shame, doesn’t notice the glares from the couple at the table next to them. It feels nice to draw that reaction from someone, Bailey doesn’t do it often.
“Well,” Leo wipes a tear from his eye, “I’ll certainly sleep easier tonight.”
“Glad I could help,” Bailey mutters.
The waiter returns carrying a jug of water and takes their order.
“I swear a second date would be better,” Leo assures Bailey, a glint of self-doubt echoing in the timbre of his voice.
“No dead dogs?” Bailey asks. He considers a second date, a proper one, where he wears something smart and is mentally prepared, where Leo arrives just as he has that day, pretty and chaotic and everything Bailey doesn’t dare to dream about deserving. Bailey is not the sort of person to take a risk, it doesn’t suit him. But maybe it’s time for a change.
Leo laughs, pours a glass of water for Bailey, and then one for himself. The waiter presents them with a vial of olive oil, one of balsamic vinegar, and a basket of bread. Bailey picks up a piece, anything to occupy his hands whilst Leo looks him over, wandering, wondering.
“Can’t make any promises,” Leo smiles, and Bailey thinks that might just be fine.