Tom walked out into Nelson Mandela Square past the enormous statue of Madiba. He took a turn around the perimeter of the square, partly because it was pleasant to walk in a city where walking in most public spaces was considered to be a foolhardy activity for white men like him, and partly because he was early for his appointment. He noted with disapproval that the fountain in the middle of the square was off, as usual; he'd only ever seen it working once: it had been a hot day and small children had run around among the jets of water screaming and laughing, getting soaked. The mall's patrons had had something to look at, that day, apart from each other and the oversized statue. Today the fountain was just an array of holes in the ground, and there was nothing to attract anyone to the square except the restaurants along the sides, their awnings stating laconically what they were offering: pizza, fish, sushi, steak, boerewors, ice cream.
Tom looked at his watch; he was still ten minutes early. His watch was a large, solid Breitling which he wore in defiance of all the advice he'd been given, by friends and through the media, not to display portable wealth in public. Gangs of thieves, he'd often read and been told, would target people who looked rich and follow them home to subject them to the dreaded driveway robbery, which could also lead to loss of your vehicle, or invasion of your house and theft of everything you owned, and even, sometimes, a cursory bullet through the head as the thieves departed. Tom's reasoning, when he argued about this with his friends, was that he didn't want to live in a country where he couldn't wear a reliable wristwatch if he wanted to; and so he wore his Breitling, just as he drove a fairly decent car – a Mercedes SL500 – as a form of transport which was commensurate with a reasonably successful career. And if at some point he was relieved of his Breitling or his Mercedes at gun or knife-point then so be it, he would hand them over with minimal regret as additional tax on his income; he was well insured anyway. But he was also careful about who followed him home, although he didn't make much of this when he discussed the issue with his friends; he paid a lot of attention to his mirrors, and if he suspected he was being followed he'd drive to the local police station and stop outside. This tactic, he believed, would convince any would-be thieves that he was an alert and street-wise sort of person, and they would drive off and target someone who'd be less troublesome. His vigilance had worked so far; or, his friends would say, he'd been lucky – he'd never been held up, and he'd only had one car stolen, his first BMW, and this had been removed from a supposedly secure car park; the CCTV camera had turned out not to be working, and the guard in the exit booth had claimed not to have seen or heard anything unusual. The police had issued Tom with a case number, and that had been the last he'd ever heard about it.
Tom walked once more around the perimeter of the square, then went into the Cafe Italiano. It was fairly busy, as usual, on a late Saturday morning; he looked around for a free table and met the gaze of a blonde woman who was sitting alone. He realised that this had to be Carol, the woman he was meeting – he recognised her from her invitation-only photos on the dating site. He smiled and went towards her. She stood up as he approached and held out her hand, which he shook. Her palm, he noticed, was warm and somewhat damp. With a few quick glances Tom assessed Carol's looks and figure, dispassionately. He was disappointed. Her internet profile said that she was in her late thirties but she looked older – not that this in itself would necessarily have put him off, but he didn't like tired-looking women, and Carol looked tired. She was also heavier than she'd seemed to be in her photos, which for Tom usually meant, in dating site parlance, that she was "not a match", as this criterion was "non-negotiable" for him when it came to erotic interest; he had no conscious objection to fat women if they were otherwise attractive, and he'd attempted a relationship with one or two larger ladies in his time, but after the initial novelty had worn off he'd found that he had no lasting physical interest in them. As he sometimes said to his male friends, your penis can't lie – you could fake just about everything with a woman except a stiffy.
Tom and Carol sat down; the waiter appeared immediately and Tom ordered a coffee. Tom noticed that Carol was already half-way through a cappuccino, which indicated that she'd been there for a while. He hoped that this was just an accident, and didn't imply keenness; in his dating experience he'd found that in women's reactions to him there was a fine line between a flattering degree of mild enthusiasm and an off-putting level of desperation. It was awkward, when the results of these initial meetings were one-sided; and he'd already decided that this encounter was very likely to be a waste of time, at least for him. Nevertheless, he felt that it was a question of etiquette not to be unpleasant, and so he smiled at Carol and asked polite questions, refering to things that they'd talked about online over the previous couple of weeks. She had teenage children still at home, going to school; she'd been divorced for five years, relations with her ex -husband were amicable but she didn't see him much; she was originally from Cape Town but had moved to Johannesburg when she'd got married; she ran a catering business which was doing well, she was looking to expand and employ more people; she was a founder member of an amateur dramatics group; she did this and she did that. After a while Tom was only half-listening, although he went on looking into her eyes and nodding and smiling when appropriate. He felt like telling her not to give him so much information; not to talk so much, in fact. She was rapidly and deftly painting a portrait of a capable woman who was comprehensively plugged into the world; she had lots of apparently successful relationships, through family, friends, school, community, business, etc. She was very busy, but he had to presume that she was also lonely, or at least lonely for a certain type of male company.
None of this was appealing to Tom. He prefered his women to be at least slightly mysterious, to hold something back for him to discover. Carol wasn't holding back anything, it seemed; she was setting out her stall with everything she had. She'd been more terse on the dating site, Tom reflected – perhaps because she'd been typing her chat entries under extreme time pressure, while balancing her accounts or dealing with teenage crises or cooking dinner or memorising a script. Online, Tom's imagination had had some room to work in; but now Carol was inexorably filling in all the gaps. Another problem was that Tom liked a woman to be flirtatious - to have a sly, teasing sense of humour, ideally, which would leave him feeling ambivalent, wondering what she really wanted. But Carol wasn't flirtatious at all. She had a sense of humour, but it was self-directed, an occasional wry mockery of her tendency to overload herself, to over-reach, at times to fail. Tom appreciated this – she was an intelligent woman with a high degree of self-awareness – but it wasn't sexy.
"But listen to me, I've been talking far too much," Carol said eventually. "I'm sorry, I suppose I'm a bit nervous, I don't do this sort of thing much. Meeting strange men, I mean. Tell me about yourself."
Tom maintained his half-smile, and wondered for a moment if it would be at all possible for him just to stand up and walk away, without a word, back out into Nelson Mandela square, to see if the fountain had by any chance started to work. If it had, he thought, he might just lie down in the middle of the square and get wet, the bright jets of water leaping into the air and falling down on him. That, he thought, would be far more fun than this.
"There's not much to say," he said, but started to say it. Tom didn't like talking about himself; there didn't seem to be any point – he took no pleasure in saying things that he already knew, and it always seemed painfully reductive to summarise the undoubted complexity of his personality – the vast internal universe he represented – in a few phrases. He listened to himself talking and thought that the person he was describing seemed, on the surface at least, attractive enough. If I was a woman, he thought, I'd probably be interested in me. He made sure that he dropped in a reference to the Mercedes, although he wondered in passing why he was bothering to make an effort when he'd had no erotic response whatsoever to the woman sitting in front of him. When he'd finished his presentation Carol asked him several questions, mostly about his relationships with women – why did he break up with his wife, how long had he been on the dating site, had he met anyone he'd liked, etc. – presumably in an attempt to assess his attitudes and his potential: was this man, Tom, emotionally stunted at birth, or subsequently damaged beyond repair, or did he harbour unsavoury perversions, or was he a serial killer working his way through dozens of foolish women, all now buried in his back garden; was he, in other words, someone that she ought to trust and invest time in?
Tom answered the questions, fairly honestly, without trying to make himself out to be an angel. He'd learned over time that for many women it didn't really matter if they thought he was a bit of a bastard: they appreciated the honesty, or said they did, and perhaps they liked the challenge; it didn't usually stop them going to bed with him, anyway. It made it easier later, too, if things got difficult: he could always point out that they'd been warned, and only their vanity had led them to think he'd behave any diffently this time around.
After a while Tom glanced at his watch and saw that it would soon be time to move on. They would either have to go somewhere for lunch, or for lunch and then a walk, or for lunch and then his place or Carol's place for coffee or a drink and to see what happened next. Tom's approach, if he liked the woman, was to let her take the lead when it came to sex – it seemed to work much better, he'd found, not to push on the first date. If the woman agreed to a second date then, in his experience, she'd already made a decision, and sex was pleasantly inevitable. But on a first date most women wouldn't want to go that far – and if they did, Tom thought, then they probably slept with every man they met, which in itself was not a very attractive characteristic. The dating game was a complicated one, he reflected, with dozens of hidden rules and lots of fine balances to get right. It was a tiring business. Even with a woman that he liked it sometimes felt like too much trouble. With Carol, who he wasn't attracted to, it was going to be a question of disengaging with dignity. When they'd set up the meeting online they'd mentioned lunch, if things seemed to be going well. Tom wondered now if it would be possible to get out of this commitment without causing offence, or if dating etiquette required him to sit through another hour or more of excruciating superficialities.
"Oh, excuse me," Carol said, taking a mobile phone out of her handbag. "Yes?" she said. "Well, how...?"
Tom hadn't heard the phone ring. Carol was listening to the caller, or appearing to listen, with frowning concentration. He couldn't hear the voice of the person who was supposedly speaking.
"Okay," Carol said. "Yes, I'll be there as soon as I can." She pressed a button on the phone and looked at Tom. "I'm afraid I have to go," she said, "There's a problem at home. Nothing serious, I think, but I need to go."
"Oh," said Tom. "Oh, okay. I hope everything's all right."
Carol stood up and fiddled in her bag, apparently looking for a purse.
"Don't worry, I'll get the coffee," Tom said.
Carol smiled minimally. "Thank you, that's very kind. I'm sorry about this. We can chat online later, if you like."
"Yes, of course." Tom stood up.
Carol held out her hand. "It was nice to meet you," she said, very formally. "Thank you for the coffee."
"You're very welcome," Tom said. "Good luck at home."
"Thank you. Goodbye."
Tom watched Carol leave the cafe. Her bottom, he saw, was definitely too big, and she had heavy thighs. Her internet photos had been misleading. Sex with her had never been on the cards. He sat down again. Her dismissal of him had been neatly done, though, he thought. The mobile phone trick was a good one, he'd have to use it himself; from full-flowing date dynamic to departure in what, less than forty seconds? It had been Carol's most impressive moment.
Tom paid the bill and went out into the square. The fountain still wasn't working. He felt annoyed about this out of all proportion; why go to the trouble of installing a water feature if you're not going to bother to switch it on? On the way home he was unusually distracted by his thoughts and failed to notice a large black car with tinted windows which maintained a position two cars behind him.