I can already smell the coffee as I open the back door, slip out, and close it behind me to keep the warmth in. "What's this one today?" I call as I stand by the fence, resting my elbows on it and looking into her perfectly cultivated garden. Her back door is open and she can hear me while she's inside her kitchen, with the whoosh of the final cup being made by the machine. Even in the depths of winter her garden looks lush and green, as if part of a National Trust garden had upped and brought itself straight to Wanstead.
Joan appears on cue, with a cup in each hand and a coffee leaflet in her teeth. She leans toward me and I take the leaflet from her, as well as the cup she offers.
"I thought we'd try Firenze Arpeggio today," she declares.
I read the leaflet. "Intense and creamy. Aren't they all?"
I sip. It tastes exactly the same as the one from last week. It's delicious and does exactly what I want it to do, hitting my tastebuds with a caffeinated heat that I need in this cold weather.
Joan nods and says, "Definitely a four out of five." She's lived here since she inherited the house from her mum about thirty years ago. I've never asked how old she is, but I've pieced together a gradual timeline from her stories and have decided she's probably in her seventies, at a push. Her husband died twenty years ago or so, but she's not lonely, as far as I can tell. She's out and about at all hours of the day, driving fiercely in her battered old Citroën Saxo as if she's an eighteen-year-old boy high on life and the success of a freshly passed driving test. I used to think these coffee mornings were for her. But now I think they actually hold her up from her life. I'm sobered by this as I tuck into a chocolate biscuit and offer the plate to her.
"So, what's the latest news from the young, free, and single?" she asks, dipping a biscuit into her cup and leaving it there to soak for far too long. I watch, waiting for it to fall into her cup with a dissatisfying floop noise. Joan is no amateur and saves it at the final second. "Last night's date?" she prompts. "Not still in there, is he?"
"No!" I exclaim, horrified. "I don't sleep with men on the first date."
"Anymore," Joan points out.
"Anymore," I confirm sheepishly. "I didn't go."
"We've talked about this," Joan chastises. "You only live once. How will you know if he's the one, if you don't even go on a date with him?"
"I didn't go," I say, nibbling another biscuit—this will be my brunch, I decide—"because he stood me up. Or, rather, he canceled. Again. And so that's it."
"Are we swearing off men again?"
I shake my head. "No. That way lies madness. But I'm swearing off him."
"Good girl. On to the next."
I look at Joan. Does she imagine I have a conveyor belt of men that I'm working my way through? I offer a nod rather than a comment. "What are you doing today?" I ask, happy to change the subject.
"Lunch at my friend Sheila's, drinks with a lovely man named Geoff this evening."
"Really? Who's Geoff?" I dip my biscuit into my coffee, daring to hold it in for a fraction longer than I should. Unsurprisingly, it disappears into the depths of the dark liquid and I'm left deciding whether to drink/eat it or fish it out with my fingers. I do neither.
Joan doesn't answer. She's looking into my cup and then raises an eyebrow at me. "Do you want a new coffee?"
I laugh at myself. "No, this one's still good."
She hides a snigger. "Geoff's a lovely man I've been introduced to by my daughter. Thinks I'm lonely."
"Not really, but no man is an island, and all that."
A date will be a good thing for Joan. "And what's he like—this Geoff?"
"He's very nice. Good-looking. A bit younger than me."
"Joan," I joke. "You minx!"
She laughs, enjoying the limelight focusing on her love life for once. Not that I have a love life. Just the distant thought that there might be one. I date. But it's a string of first dates and I'm exhausted. Every now and again they progress to a second date. Sometimes even a third. And then it all fizzles out. The lure of dating apps and the ease with which we can swipe someone into our lives, then swipe someone out of our lives, means that now we're forever chasing something else, someone else. It's making us lazy.