With a leap and a bound he was free

And, with a leap and a bound, he was free

SPEED DATING FOR DADS - shopping in 4 parts


Part 1
It’s definitely not an illusion - younger women have been noticing me in the street. Not sure why but for the past few days I’ve been picking up expressions that are a curious mixture of pity and incredulity. My best guess is that it’s something to do with clothes.
Dressing isn’t usually high on my list of priorities because I’m a stay-at-home dad with a sideline in novels and most of my time is spent running between schools. The week has been trickier than usual with my wife away on a business trip and no-one at home to give advice except the kids.
I’m not complaining. Rosie has this proper job; right now she’s at the firm’s annual conference in France which is a big deal and this year her standing is high enough for me to be invited to the dinner after the final session. Work for her but a treat for me and I’m looking forward to doing something a little different. From nowhere I seem to have developed a manageable ambition: for this one weekend, I won’t be scruffy.

Okay, soon I’ll be on the train to Paris. I’ve made arrangements for a neighbour to look after the dogs and grandparents are installed to take care of the children. Doesn’t matter what I wear for the journey but when I arrive I’ll get myself looking smart.
All goes well until I get to the last school drop-off where I discover I’ve forgotten to tie my son’s laces.  As I bend down, the unwelcome sound of my trousers tearing announces that I’m in trouble. Now, I may be shabby and untidy but you wouldn’t normally catch me wearing ripped jeans. As a matter of principle I can’t stand this business of rich people pretending to be poor. As discretely as I can, I check on the state of my 501s. There’s a flash of colour. Forget the naked expression of knees, the crotch of my jeans has gone and it’s only boxer shorts that are saving the world from an outrageous display. Today of all days.  
A deep breath. It’s okay. I make the decision not to panic. The train leaves at midday so there’s plenty of time for me to stop off and buy a new pair. I don’t know how long Levis have been making 501s but when I discovered buying clothes-by-number it made life a whole lot easier.  I’m so relaxed I can still get a coffee with the mums. I didn’t imagine it this way but we see each other all the time and I’ve made a friends over the years.

Part 2
This morning the conversation is much the same as always. How was the weekend? Homework piling up but thank god it’s nearly holidays. Last month our world was disturbed by a couple of beta-mums arguing in the street. It’s taken a while  but everything has settled down. I’m used to being the only man at school gatherings and these ladies are kind. Am I doing anything interesting? They know I was once a doctor but I’ve never told anyone about my writing. Off to Paris, I tell them, for dinner with my wife. It’s a party at the Opera.
Ooh, sounds romantic,” the usual teasing. Only three of us left in the café.
Black tie, big outing for me.
What’s she wearing?
I know enough about shoes and designers to get by. And I tell them about all the arrangements; I came by cab this morning because I’ll going directly to the station once I’ve bought a pair of jeans. I’ve been careful while I sit, they don’t need to know the reason.
Jeans? What kind?
501s, same as always,” I’m feeling so relaxed, almost like a holiday.
One of the ladies grabs my arm to make sure I don’t get up. A quick look across to her friend and I can see they’re in agreement. She signals to the waiter to bring another round of coffees.
We have to talk.
I’m sitting across the table, watching the nudges going back and forth. I’ve got to get to the shop soon, I don’t want to miss the train.
 “It’s not as simple as you think,” no.1 is telling me. This is Pam, makeup in archeographic layers and a mass of curly hair.
Don’t worry,” I reassure her. “I know my size. I’ve been wearing the same thing for years.
I know it’s come out wrong, just today I have a deadline.
Don’t rush into anything,” the smaller one suggests. Tilda. Maybe I should have said petite.
I’m only buying jeans, it’s a uniform,” I hear myself saying. This is starting to feel like an interrogation. Or maybe more like therapy; these are things I don’t need to share.
Exactly,” Tilly says. “That’s the problem.
Like those Chinese peasants in the Cultural Revolution,” Pam grimaces. “Seriously, I can’t understand why straight men are so resistant to having fun. You guys would feel better if you’d let go and be a bit gay.

They’re losing me now. The point is that I don’t want to think about clothes. I’d go to a movie or play tennis if I wanted to enjoy myself. Even better, I could have slow a breakfast and read the papers. That’s a luxury I really miss.
It’s fine, I’ll wear chinos,” I tell them.
What kind? What colour?... You can’t wear a shirt like that, and what about shoes? You’ll have to change completely. Come on, stand up. Let’s have a look at you.
It’s already embarrassing. I get up very carefully.
Pamela doesn’t quite roll her eyes but it’s close. She turns to her friend, my friend too, or so I thought.
Tills, I’m late. Send him to Selfridges, at least there’ll be someone on hand to help. Obviously the wrong day but since it’s is an emergency…
Tilly just smiles. She’s a little calmer, quite pretty, with four children. The youngest is with my eldest… Funny, I’ve just realised she never talks about life before her kids and I don’t know if she works. At the moment all I’m sure about is that she’s laughing, and clearly it’s at me.
If you could see your face,” she reaches into her bag for a tissue to dry her eyes. “It’s not so bad and Pam’s completely over the top but I agree with her about the 501s. For most women, urban cowboy is not a good look. If you asked Rosie, I’m sure she’d agree.
She looks at me carefully. I can see she’s trying to gauge my reaction.
There’ll be more choice at Selfridges. 2nd floor, they have concessions,” she can see I’m wavering.
If I don’t go for Levi’s, I won’t know what to do.
You know your size,” she reminds me. “Have a look, just go and see.

Part 3
That was nearly an hour ago. Now I’m preparing to navigate a circle of purgatory without a clue about where to start. The Men’s department in Selfridges is huge, the size of an aircraft hangar and there aren’t many customers. The various stalls are supposed to have their own music but every one of them is playing a variation of the same thing. Boom Boom Boom, Let’s go back to my room. I can’t believe Tilly and Pam sent me here. It’s not just the music, every manikin is dressed in blue denim. I’ve counted 15 brands so far. To be truthful, they look identical.

I walk around for a bit without making progress. I want to phone Rose but I’m still hanging on to the idea of surprising her with a demonstration of elegant independence. Anyway, I know she can’t take random calls unless it’s a real emergency. Like the day with the cashmere jumpers and our washing machine. There was nothing she could do but I knew it was better to confess immediately – today’s problem isn’t quite in the same category.

I’m still wandering around without a coherent plan. Weirdly, when I look up, I find myself standing at the Levi’s counter. It must be fate and I find myself experiencing a minor revelation. The brands all look the same and nobody’s going to see me on the train. Which means I can just buy 501s! Great. There’s no reason for me to tell anyone. Not Rosie, not Tilly and not Pam. I can’t help smiling because it’s such an obvious solution. Next time, when I’m not in a rush, I’ll be able to work on their advice. Selfridges isn’t so bad after all. Quite convenient to have everything in one place.

At the till, behind the counter, there are two men and a woman who must be in management because she’s asking questions and making notes on a clipboard. One of the guys looks pretty normal even if he’s a little older than the usual sales assistant. The other? Well, obviously he’s normal too but his version of ordinariness includes a shaven head, bushy beard and tattoos for added colour. Also he’s wearing a cut-off shirt suitable for a bodybuilder’s demonstration. I’m sure he’s happy with his look but it’s not friendly or welcoming. Basically it’s a style that tells people like me that we should shop online. I can’t think about that now. Levis, 501, in regular denim is what I need. I time my approach to the counter so that I’ll be served by the more conventional-looking salesperson.
No problem,” he says. “Noooo problem. Always plenty of stock. I’m wearing 501s too.
The man is looking for my size and telling me this brand is fundamentally superior. He’s elegant and stylish, works in this huge store at the cutting edge of fashion so the school-gate crew obviously don’t know everything.
Do you only wear Levi’s?” I find myself asking. I’m wondering if managers disapprove when salesmen don’t wear jeans to match their stall. It’s obvious my comment is too flippant. My guide has a different world view and I can see it’s no accident that he ended up in this particular line of work. Levi’s, he explains again, are special and he can chart every major life event by the trousers he was wearing. It’s clear he’s a true believer.
If I’m honest, the devotion seems a little over the top. Before he’s done I’ve heard everything including the next stage of his life’s journey.
I chose this pair today because…” he’s talking but I’m not listening anymore. He doesn’t seem to notice so it must be okay. He’s found my jeans and leads me towards the changing cubicles.
I don’t need to try them on,” I tell him. “I always buy these.
Apparently that’s not the way things are done. The fabric is constantly being redesigned and there could be individual variations.
It’s okay, I’m not late – this is what I’m thinking – and the man is trying. People protest about poor service and, here I am, getting detailed advice.
Thanks,” I follow him to the fitting room. “I like the heavy fabric. In fact, I’m sure I’ve had a pair like this before. The only problem was that when I washed them they shrank in a funny way.
You what?” the look is pure incredulity.
I washed them?” I say more hesitantly. I’m a parent, life is full of messy events and I don’t need the world decoding my exploits through random stains on a trouser leg.
He takes the jeans back.
No,” I say. “I want them. I’ll try them on. I have a train to catch.
I am sorry, sir, my fault entirely,” he’s talking very carefully. By now we’re back at the shelves and he’s rifling through the folded stacks until he finds another pair. “Try these. 522. Can you find your way to the dressing room?

Part 4
What is going on? Midmorning in a changing booth when I should be on the way to Paris. There are mirrors everywhere, the lighting is brutal and my world seems to be spinning out of control. Even the once-friendly salesman is treating me with contempt. I take off my old jeans and pull on the new pair.
522s look okay but my confidence has disappeared. Am I supposed to step out and show the sales guy? Is that what people do?

I look at my phone. I’ll call Rose. I’m about to press her number when I realise how bad that could be. She might be in the middle of a speech, her phone will ring… As the avenues close off, a new idea pops into my head. I take the phone, search for Tilly’s number, looking at myself in the mirror with the phone to my ear. I’ve never spoken to the mums about personal problems. I imagine it happens a lot between women but as a man I’m not really in that deep.
Alan? How are you? Everything okay?” she already knows it’s me. We all have each other’s numbers stored in case of an emergency.
Um, Tilly, are you busy?” I say nervously. “I could do with some advice.
Obviously I’m trying to play it down but a conversation like this is very unusual. In the past we’ve spoken about missing homework or lost jumpers. Last time it was probably a cricket bat.
Fire away,” she says. “Did you get what you need?
That’s what I wanted to ask about. You’re not near still near Oxford Street are you?
Yup,” she says. “Killing time before I meet my mother-in-law.
Is there any chance you could help me? I’m a little stuck.
There’s no sound at the other end of the line.
I take a quick glance at the screen to make sure we’re still connected.
 “Alan… You’re in Selfridges? Is that right?
You said no Levis but I’ve got myself caught,” I whisper into the phone. “The salesman is a bit strange.
You want me to come to the changing room to see if your new jeans fit?” her voice is muffled, could be laughing. “I feel like I’m 16 and my boyfriend’s best mate has tried to kiss me behind the bike shed.
You’re a nice guy, Alan, but what do you think my husband would say?
Oh.” Yes, can I see now. It’s a bit tricky.
Even picturing you in the changing room… it’s only jeans, you’ll be fine.
Yes, right. Sorry to have been so stupid.
You’re sweet. Your wife is lucky to have you,” she’s still laughing as she signs off.

You know what? I’m going to get the 501s and be on my way. Then I remember the style police won’t authorise a sale. That means I have to go with the 522s. They look okay and anyway I want a pair that can be washed. The phone rings as I start taking the jeans off because I haven’t paid yet. It’s awkward trying to hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder while I hop around. The phone falls, I reach, catch it, juggle for a moment. Leave it on the chair.
Hold on, give me a moment and I’ll put you on speaker.
The legs in this skinny style are tighter than the 501s and it’s a bit of a struggle. There’s no sound from the phone. Must’ve gone, lost the connection.
Finally, they’re off. I’ll have to put the old, ripped pair on to pay, then I can come back to change. The only trouble is that when I reach for the trousers, my phone is on top and there’s a head looking at me on the screen.
Tilly? How long have you been there?
Long enough to know you need help,” she won’t stop smiling. “Don’t worry, Alan, you know I’m never going to talk about this and neither are you.
I don’t even need to nod. I can’t believe this. Here I am, in this luminous cubicle with floor to ceiling mirrors on three sides.
Good legs, Al,” she says just to remind me how exposed I should be feeling.
Oh god, oh god, is all I can think.
Well?” she’s waiting for me to do something.
I am so sorry. Let me get dressed and I’ll call you back.” There’s no way this could be more embarrassing. I can see from the screen that she’s in a café, cup of coffee in her hand.
Don’t be ridiculous,” she’s telling me. “I’m forty-four, that’s older than you, and I’ve got four kids so you know there’s nothing I haven’t seen. Now, put the jeans on and take off your shirt otherwise we won’t know if they fit.
I could break the connection.
What did you think I was going to do when you asked me to come down to help you? Hang around outside and listen to your description through the door? If I came, I’d be in there with you.
I’m think I must have frozen. It’s not clear how much time has passed.
Alan,” she says eventually. “I thought you had to catch a train.

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