First of all, let me make it clear that I’m not one of those people who does online dating. I’ve heard of ‘Tinder’ – most of the young singles at work use it – and I know you have to ‘swipe’ right or left if you like the look of someone; but meeting a complete stranger for a date just isn’t me. I do, however, have a sort-of-blind-date for this Friday. Steve, a guy who recently joined my work team, has asked me out. Well, I think he’s asked me out. It could be a date or it could just be a two-people-who-happen-to-be-single-at-the-same-time-and-who-like-the-same-sort-of-things type of occasion. I happened to mention to Julie, the girl who has the desk opposite mine, that I like Monty Python (my parents were huge fans, so I grew up with it) and she said she’d overheard Steve telling Mike that he was going to see a Monty Python film this weekend and why didn’t we go together? Anyway, the upshot of it all is that Julie more or less told Steve that I was a die-hard Python fan and the next thing I knew, he was asking if I’d like to go to see ‘The Life of Brian’ with him at the Electric, which is a lovely art-deco cinema in the middle of Birmingham.
I think I may have done something rather stupid. I’ve only been working for Jenkinsons three weeks and I don’t really know anyone yet, but I’ve somehow found myself going out on a date with a woman I’ve never even spoken to – just because her friend sort of hinted that Megan likes Monty Python.
Let’s be honest – I don’t have a great track record when it comes to women. About six months ago, I plucked up the courage to chat to someone I saw on the train every morning. She caught my eye because she was reading a Terry Pratchett novel, so I started off by asking her about the book and whether she’d read any more of them, and it was surprising how easy it was after that to move onto talking about our favourite foods and then me suggesting we go out for dinner sometime. The meal itself was fine: it was when we went back to her place afterwards that it all went wrong. In my defence, it’s not really my fault I trod on her hamster – how was I to know that she let it roam free? I offered to pay for the vet’s bills, but she was distinctly frosty afterwards; and eventually, I think she started taking a different train just to avoid me.
I’m not sure if this is an actual date with Megan or just a mates’ night out; but I think I’ll ask whether she’s got any pets at the start of the evening, just in case.
When Friday comes, I’m actually quite excited. Steve and I have agreed to meet up at the tapas bar first and grab something to eat before going on to the cinema. We both have a glass of wine and share the ‘twenty-six pounds set menu for two’ – sticky chicken wings, peppers in a creamy béchamel sauce, fried squid strips and inky black rice – so that we’re well and truly stuffed by the time we get to the venue.
The first sign I have of anything being unusual is when a woman with a chef’s hat stops us as we take our seats and thrusts two paper bags into our hands. “Don’t open it until you’re told to,” she warns me as I try to peer inside.
As the room begins to fill with people, another woman – tall and bespectacled, wearing a vibrant orange tee-shirt, hands me a flyer. I glance at it idly and almost choke. “Birmingham Death Festival” it declares proudly. Taking a sideways look at Steve, I wonder what he’s brought me to.
“Most people find it difficult to talk about death,” the flyer begins. “That’s why we have created Brum YODO (You Only Die Once) – to enable people to sensitively discuss not only the financial implications, but the spiritual and emotional ones as well.”
Why did I not realise that Steve was part of some strange cult? I ask myself now, skimming the list of activities for ‘Death Week’, which include workshops on writing last wills and testaments and ‘Coffin Making for Beginners’.
So far, everything seems to be going well. We’ve had some tapas together – in a place at the station – and Megan insisted on paying half. Does that mean it’s not a date; or is she one of these independent women who doesn’t believe in making men pay for everything? The cinema scores lots of points as well – it’s small and intimate and extremely old fashioned and I can tell that Megan loves it – or at least she does until she starts reading the leaflet in the little bags we were given just before we sat down.
Full of righteous indignation, Megan jabs me in the ribs and thrusts the flyer in my face. “You got me here under false pretences!” she accuses.
I have to admit to feeling mystified.
“Why didn’t you tell me this was part of ‘Death Week?” she continues, pointing out the part of the programme that says, “Interactive performance of the comedy classic, ‘The Life of Brian’, sponsored by ‘The Sorcerer’s Kitchen’.”
I grab the flyer and peruse it hurriedly. How could I have got it so wrong? Megan must think I’m some sort of necrophile with all this Death Week business. “I had no idea,” I apologise, hoping she’ll recognise the genuine shock on my face. Then, as my curiosity gets the better of me, I ask her, “What on earth is an ‘interactive performance’?”
Megan’s as clueless as I am, but we read the rest of the flyer together, hoping to find out. It’s when we get to the ‘Graveyard Tour – no need to book: just turn up!’ that I start to see the funny side. I catch her eye and we both collapse in a fit of giggles.
There’s a sense of relief when I realise that Steve is as surprised as I am by the unexpected death motif for the evening. We’re still laughing when the terribly earnest lady in the orange tee-shirt takes to the stage and welcomes us to the final night of the festival. “We chose this film,” she tells everyone, “because ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ is one of the most requested songs for funerals.”
Steve and I exchange glances. I can’t help thinking that a first date is not the ideal time to be thinking about funeral arrangements.
Ms Orange is followed by Ms White Hat, who is as excited as her companion was serious. “This is an interactive performance of the movie,” she drawls in her Texan accent. “At strategic points, I’m going to press the ‘Pause’ button and tell you to take something out of your goodie bag and eat it, and then we’ll continue watching.”
Steve rolls his eyes at me. He told me while we were having our tapas that he hates anything involving audience participation.
I think I’m beginning to regret this choice of film. Megan’s acting like she’s forgiven me for all the death squad stuff, but I have a nasty feeling we’re all going to have to get involved at some point in the evening. Maybe that woman at the front will make us have a shouting contest with the people on the other side of the room; or she might ask us questions and throw prizes to the winners. I genuinely thought we were going to just turn up and watch a film, but instead it feels like we’re all auditioning for some bizarre reality TV show.
The film gets underway. We’re soon caught up in the Python team’s version of Biblical Judea and I’m just getting into a scene where all the female characters (including the ones played by men) are wearing very obvious fake beards so they can take part in a ‘men only’ stoning ritual, when our chef for the evening pauses the film and instructs us to remove the plain white paper bag (“They’re all colour coded,” she tells us helpfully) from our packs. These are found to contain chocolate pebbles and we sit there crunching and chomping as the story continues. The chocolate’s okay, but I wouldn’t have eaten so much tapas if I’d realised there would be complimentary snacks on offer with the film.
We get through another fifteen or twenty minutes before the film pauses again and we are told to open the orange and white striped bag, which contains tiny macaroons fashioned into ‘larks’ wings’, to tie in with the Roman delicacies on offer at the amphitheatre in the film. Steve declines his – he gave up after only one of the chocolate pebbles, telling me he broke a crown a few weeks ago and has to be extra careful with anything hard or chewy – but I happily take care of it for him.
Okay, so the interactive element is less embarrassing than I thought it would be. It turns out that we have edible treats in our bags and someone’s had the bright idea of linking each taste sensation to a particular part of the film. I’m a little confused by this – is the film being sponsored by Coffins-R-Us or by a sweetshop? Megan seems to be enjoying the intermissions, though – she’s polished off all of her own chocolate rocks and two very peculiar lumps of something that apparently are meant to look like larks’ wings. Still, I suppose it’s not too different to a normal film screening when everyone’s sitting there with giant boxes of popcorn, chomping their way through from beginning to end.
So far, so good. The free food’s a bit of a distraction, but we’re both enjoying the film. It’s when we pause for the third time that I start to feel embarrassed. We’ve just had a full frontal of Brian’s girlfriend, standing there, starkers, displaying a lady garden that has definitely never seen a strimmer, and we’re told to take out the blue and white striped package which contains ‘an edible chocolate mirkin’. The fact that it’s actually a triangle of chocolate cake doesn’t make it any more appealing: there’s no way I can nibble even a corner of it after the chef’s put that particular image in my mind. Steve, on the other hand, isn’t at all put off and munches away quite happily.
I think I’ve just blown my chances with Megan. So far, none of the snacks in our goodie bags have really appealed, but when we’re told to take out the third package and I see that it’s a chocolate brownie, my all-time favourite, my resolve weakens and I wolf it down. That’s when I notice Megan giving me a funny look. I notice she isn’t eating her own triangle of chocolate-y goodness and I decide it won’t hurt to ask if I can have it – after all, I did give her the contents of my first two packages – and she looks positively affronted.
“I can’t believe you just asked if you could eat my mirkin!” she hisses.
I think I got the word right – I’ve never heard it before but then I’m not really an expert when it comes to baking.
“Only if you don’t want it yourself,” I clarify.
She’s still looking really put out and I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.
“Do you know what a mirkin is?” she whispers to me a minute later.
I’m mortified when she tells me – no wonder she looks so cross! My innocent request has made it sound as if I was propositioning her for something sordid! Does this count as sexual harassment? I wonder. I want to hide under my seat, but the film’s started up again and so I decide the only thing I can do is sit through it and hope Megan doesn’t tell anyone else about my gaffe.
I’m absolutely flabbergasted when Steve makes a rather crude pass at me before the film continues. It’s a shame because I was beginning to think that this was turning out to be a successful evening, despite all the little surprises. It’s only when I notice the incomprehension in his eyes that I realise he doesn’t know what a mirkin is, and it’s rather gratifying to see his embarrassment when I explain the term.
We pause just once more – this time, to take out a moustache lollipop on a stick – before the chef allows the film to stagger to the musical finale – at which point, we are told to take out the words to ‘Always Look On The Bright Side’ and sing along in some sort of mass karaoke session. I join in lustily, trying to outdo the woman sitting next to me; then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Steve making his way towards the theatre door. I carry on singing, but my heart’s not in it anymore. It’s one thing when someone doesn’t want to see you for a second date; another entirely when he walks out on you before the date’s even finished.
As the film draws to a close, I try to work out whether this is only one of the most unsuccessful dates I’ve been on or the actual worst. So far, I’ve traumatised Megan by making her think I’m part of some bizarre death-worshipping cult, I’ve given her a gift that looked as if it had been pre-chewed by someone else, and I’ve inadvertently offered her a very intimate service that frankly should only ever be considered between consenting adults in an established relationship. When we’re told to start singing along with the song in the final scene, I know I’ve had enough and slip away quietly, wondering if Megan will be like the girl on the train and start avoiding me from now on. A part of me feels like going straight home, but I suppose I should wait for her so I can apologise one last time.
Steve’s waiting for me outside when I finally surface, having been plied with free samples of chocolate coffins and fliers for ‘soul midwives’ and the ‘Death Café’ on my way out.
“I’m so sorry,” he begins as soon as he sees me. “I thought it was just a normal showing. It didn’t say anything about any of the death stuff when I booked online. And as for the mirkin comment – well, that was a genuine mistake.”
Relief overwhelms me as I realise he wasn’t running away from me after all.
“Steve,” I say gently, squeezing his arm, “it’s okay. I enjoyed it – honest.”
He stares at me in disbelief. “So, you’d consider going out with me again, then? I haven’t put you off?”
“I had a brilliant time,” I say, meaning every word.
He looks relieved. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” I quip, “dead serious.”
We both start to giggle again, and I realise how much I’m looking forward to our second date.