“Hi, my name is Aaron and I am a mechanic from Hotton.”
Aaron looks at the producer behind the camera who smiles encouragingly at him.
“Ummm… I guess, I’d like to have a go at First Dates because… I live in a small village and all of my friends are married and settling down and I just feel like I’m missing out on something. My best mate is actually the one who set me up on this show. Well, him and my mum.”
He tries not to think about how his palms are sweating. If he wasn’t acutely aware of the fact that he is currently on camera he would wipe them on his jeans.
“My ideal man would be…” he pauses for a moment, thinking about the features and personality traits that all his previous dates have had in common. But nothing stands out to him. “I don’t know what I’m looking for, really. I guess, I’m just looking for that ‘spark’ y’know?”
Robert arrives to the restaurant all 6 ft of confidence and swagger and gives his most charming smile to Fred at the door. Rob knows he’s early and he’s quite glad for the opportunity to have a drink and scope out the restaurant. He orders an Old Fashioned from Merlin at the bar, who asks him the standard questions about the sort of person he would like to meet.
“Someone charming, good looking,” he takes a small sip of his drink to cover the fact that he needs to think about something else to say. “I’d like to meet someone different. My relationships have always ended in disaster and I can’t help thinking I’m missing something.”
“So, the lady must be lovely?”
“Or not a lady at all,” Rob replies with a grin, enjoying the chance to make the bartender blush to the very tips of his ears.
“I only recently came out as bisexual,” Robert says, directly to the camera. He’s still not quite used to being able to say the B word without the world crashing down on him. But the producer just smiles at him and gestures for him to continue.
“All of my relationships have ended badly, and I think it was because I was always living a lie, not being my authentic self.”
He is sure that if any of his ex-partners are watching they’ll be screaming at their television that the actual reason behind all the break-ups is that he’s a lying cheating bastard.
“I hope that now I’m ‘out’ I can form a real and deep personal connexion with someone.”
Merlin sees that Rob’s glass is empty and asks if he would like another, but Robert declines, wanting to keep a clear head for his date. He casts his eye across the restaurant once more, looking at the other couples who have been paired together and taking a moment to wonder what sort of person he’s been partnered with.
He’d only told the producers that he was looking for someone ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ so really, they could have picked anyone for him. Well, almost anyone, as he had specified that he wanted to go on a date with someone dark haired. His more recent debacle with Bex had been enough to put him off blondes for the rest of his life.
He glances towards a young man just arriving to the restaurant. Rob is immediately struck by just how fit he is. The new arrival has broad shoulders, a pert arse, and perfectly groomed stubble that Robert can tell would feel amazing pressed against his own skin.
Merlin catches him staring and winks at him.
“Is he for me?” Robert asks as soon as he is able to pick his jaw up from the floor.
And yes, it appears that he is, as Fred directs the young man to where Rob is sitting at the bar.
“Hi,” he says in greeting. “I’m Aaron.”
They do their introductions at the bar as Aaron orders himself a beer. Rob is thankful for the fact that Aaron has no idea what being a ‘management consultant’ entails (to be fair, after five years on the job, Robert still doesn’t really know either) which gives him an excuse to break the ice a bit as he explains what it is he does for a living. Aaron reveals that he works as a mechanic and Robert tells Aaron about his first job working at the garage at home.
It’s not the first weird coincidence of the night.
Aaron doesn’t know how to feel when Robert subtly edges the waiter to the side so that he can hold Aaron’s chair out for him. He can’t decide if the gesture is chivalrous or pretentious. Robert is fit, but Aaron can’t pin him down at all. One minute he acts like a posh and polished git who would only consider Aaron as a bit-of-rough on the side, the next he’s laughing like a total dork at one of Aaron’s engine oil related anecdotes.
He worries that he might fall for Robert’s charm offensive by the end of the night and wake up broken hearted in the morning.
The conversation has naturally turned from jobs to hometowns and Robert is enthusiastically describing his London neighbourhood as Aaron glances at the menu.
“Of course,” Robert explains, “it’s nothing like the Yorkshire village I grew up in.”
Aaron would never have guessed that Rob is from the same county as him, due to his lack of accent. He tells him as much.
“Well, it’s been a long time since I loved there. How about you? I can’t place your accent either.”
“Oh, that’s cause I moved around a lot as a kid,” Aaron explains. “But I consider Emmerdale to be my home.”
“Emmerdale?” Robert asks incredulously. “As in, just outside Hotton, Emmerdale?”
“Yeah, do you know it?”
“Know it? I grew up there! My whole family is from there!”
Aaron can’t believe what he is hearing. How has he not managed to meet this man before?
“Do you know anyone who lives there now?”
“My sister, and my step-mum, Diane.”
Suddenly the pieces all fall into place.
“You’re Robert Sugden- Vic’s brother.”
“You know my sister?”
“Know her? I was at her wedding! I’m best mates with her husband, Adam.”
Robert looks completely overwhelmed. Then he mutters, under his breath, “I can’t believe Vic hasn’t introduced me to you.”
Aaron knows exactly why she hasn’t. Most of it is due to circumstance rather than strategy; Robert never visits. Now he also remembers a while ago Vic told him that her brother had just come out as bi and had asked him for any advice she could pass on. Aaron had only shrugged and told her that her brother should just try to be himself- now he’s wishing he had said something a little more profound.
“Why don’t you ever come to visit?” the question is out of Aaron’s mouth before he can properly consider if it’s a good idea to ask.
“Ah, well, it’s mostly work. I’m so busy. And I guess you’ve already heard about the famous Sugden-brother-feud so…” Robert answers honestly. “I’m really starting to regret not visiting now.”
Aaron blushes at the implied complement and is relieved when the waiter comes to take their orders so that he doesn’t have to come up with a witty reply.
“I’m so mad at my sister!” Robert tells the camera. “There’s this guy- this perfect guy- that she’s friends with, and she hasn’t once thought to introduce me!”
He runs his hands through his hair- a nervous habit that he still can’t break.
“I mean. He’s gorgeous. And so… In can’t put my finger on it. But there’s something special about him. I just hope I can charm him as much as he has me.”
They’ve talked about the village the whole way through their first course. Aaron has been able to catch up Robert on most of the recent village gossip and Robert has regaled him with tales of what the villagers were up to before Aaron moved in with his mum.
They’re just settling into talking about Chas taking over The Woolpack from Diane when Robert’s phone goes off.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I’ll turn it off,” Rob says, but Aaron can tell the call is important from the look on his face.
“It’s ok; you should answer it,” Aaron tells him.
Robert looks absolutely torn for a moment, and Aaron feels a brief thrill when he wonders if the reason he looks so uneasy is because he doesn’t want to leave their date. But then he’s up and answering his phone as he heads outside.
He sees one of the waiters shoot him a sympathetic glance, and Aaron hides his face in his beer.
“Honestly, I thought he was going to ditch me,” Aaron says. “I mean, we were having a great chat, but it was just about stuff from home. He was probably really bored.”
“It’s kinda gutting really,” he admits. “I mean- this guy is so unlike anyone I’ve ever dated before. And I never would have picked him for myself. But there’s something about him. I don’t know what. I just hope he feels it too.”
The phone conversation is a long one, and Aaron’s pint is well and truly gone by the time Rob sheepishly slides back into his chair.
“Everything ok?” Aaron asks. He tries to keep the question neutral so that his annoyance isn’t obvious. He’s not sure how successful he is.
“Yeah- it’s fine. I thought it was an emergency but it’s just…” Rob trails off, looks conflicted for a moment, then takes a deep breath. “This is a bit of a serious conversation for a first date. Promise you won’t do a runner on me?”
Robert shoots him a smile so charming that Aaron is sure that he’ll never be able to say no to that face. This could be dangerous.
Aaron nods his agreement.
“I thought the call might be urgent because I thought it was about my son.”
Robert pauses, apparently to let the news sink in, and for Aaron to decide which question he should ask first.
“Is anything wrong?” Aaron asks.
Robert’s face melts into a strange kind of smile.
“Yes, he’s fine. His mother and I we’re just organising our shared custody.”
“How old is he?”
“Sebastian is 11 months. And before you ask, no I didn’t get a say in the name.”
“Seb’s mum and I weren’t actually ever together. We knew each other before hand, but it was just a one night stand after a work party at which I got very drunk. Bex decided she wanted to keep him and so here we are,” Robert tells him. “I never wanted to be a Dad. But I’m really glad I am.”
Aaron lets the story sink in.
“Can I see a picture?” he eventually asks.
Rob seems a little shocked, but he enthusiastically grabs for his phone.
“Sure! I’ve got loads,” Robert tells him as he begins to swipe through them all. Seb is a bonny child with a hair full of blond hair, just like his dad.
They chat for a little while about all of Seb’s shenanigans, until Rob eventually says, “I never know how to introduce the fact that I’m a dad to a date. You’re taking it remarkably well.”
“I’m good with children,” Aaron admits. “I always wanted to be a dad myself, but I never thought I would get the chance.”
“Maybe, one day, you could meet him?”
“I’d like that,” Aaron replies. “I’d like that a lot.”
Rob feels like too much of the conversation has focused on him. So, as they finish their mains (steak and peppercorn sauce for Aaron, salmon with steamed vegetables for him) Robert asks Aaron about his past relationships.
Aaron’s face falls and Robert immediately kicks himself for the misstep.
“I know it’s a faux pas to talk about your exes on a first date. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s ok,” Aaron replies. “It’s just… I’ve not had that many long-term relationships.”
“Ok. That’s ok,” Robert says to reassure him.
Aaron puts is knife and fork down on the plate. Robert can already tell that this is going to be a long story.
“His name was Jackson. I was closeted and he was not.” The sentences are short and stilted, as Aaron is really struggling to say them. Robert feel immense guilt for forcing this side of the conversation, and immense sympathy for what is obviously a difficult re-telling.
“He challenged me at every turn. He was older than me. More experienced. He was so sure about the world and his place in it, whereas I barely knew myself. And then, when I finally did get my head together… there was a car accident, and he was dead six month later.”
There is a pause. The Robert does the only thing he can do at this moment. He reaches across the table and takes Aaron’s hand in his own.
“There have been others, other loves, just like Jackson promised there would be. And it was a long time ago.”
Aaron looks down at where their hands are joined, just as Robert begins to run his thumb protectively across the younger man’s knuckles. He seems shocked to see Robert doing it, and shocked by the comforting gesture. Then he smiles.
“I dated a rugby player once. I even lived with him in France for a bit. Please don’t ask me to speak any French though…”
“I won’t, but I like the idea of you having hidden talents,” Robert replies with a matching smile. And suddenly all the tension is gone.
“Like is made up of great loves,” Fred the maître d’ says to the camera with the same wise tone and knowing smirk that he always does. “Whether it is the love of our parents, or siblings, our children, our friends, and especially our lovers- we share special connexions with many people in our lifetimes. Sometimes, after the end of a relationship, it can feel like it is impossible to love again, but with time our hearts can open again. There is always a second chance for love…”
“Do you want desert?” Robert asks.
“Not really. We could look at the menu though?” Aaron says, strangely reluctant to admit that their time together is drawing to a close.
He never thought that he would ever be comfortable telling someone about Jackson, let alone on the first date, but there is just something about Robert that brings all his walls crashing down. Robert is stuck up and smarmy- that alone is evident from the way that he delights in picking out a bottle of wine for them both, rolling the foreign words on his tongue and swirling the wine around in the glass so that it can “breath”. But he’s also incredibly gentle. Their brief hand holding session proved that, but so did the way his eyes lit up when he was talking about his son, and the way that he laughs in such a loud and unguarded way, the way he smiles like he’s not sure he’s allowed to.
Is it possible to fall for someone on a first date?
Perhaps not to fall in love- but Aaron is sure that he’s fallen in lust. Robert has removed his jacket, and the white shirt he has on underneath perfectly accentuates his chest. Aaron thinks he deserves a medal from managing not to choke when Robert became too hot and rolled up his shirtsleeves, revealing the most delicious pair of fore-arms that he’s ever laid eyes on.
Christ, he should have said no to the wine. He doesn’t even like wine.
He does, apparently, when Robert orders it for him.
“I feel like we’ve had way too many serious conversations- how about something more light-hearted?”
“Well, which do you think is the better Rocky film? Number two or number three. I think we can all agree that the first is the best but…”
“Number three,” Aaron interrupts. “Hands down.”
They argue over it for ages, picking apart their favourite parts of the movies together and quoting different lines to each other. From there they move onto the cornetto trilogy (Rob prefers Hot Fuzz, Aaron Shaun of the Dead) and then to the Die Hard films, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings…
It’s only when Robert begins trying to convince Aaron to watch some random film called Kung Fu Hustle when Aaron looks up and realises that they are the only two people left in the restaurant.
“Oh,” says Robert when Aaron points this put to him. “But it can’t possibly be that late.”
Aaron feels the same, but a glance at Robert’s rather expensive long watch reveals that yes, it very much is.
They quickly wrap up their conversation, suddenly awkward about making the restaurant staff stay this late, but also vaguely aware of the fact that the producer is probably rubbing her hands in glee at their over running date.
Rob puts everything on his card.
“You can pay next time,” he tells Aaron, seemingly unaware that he’s just implied that there will be another date.
And then they are standing outside in the freezing cold London air.
“So, what next?” Aaron eventually asks shifting from foot to foot to try and stave off the cold.
“Well, we could…” Robert begins but seems unsure of himself.
“Are you going home?”
“No,” Robert says quietly. Aaron wonders if he knows that he is mirroring the way Aaron’s body is swaying in the cold. He wants to bring the taller man closer, push his hands into Robert’s coat and feel his way around his waist under the pretence of warming up his hands.
Instead he says, “There’s a nice bar at the hotel I’m staying at. It will still be open. If you want to?”
“I want to,” Robert assures him.
They hail a cab and bundle in together. Aaron only just has the chance to give the driver the address of his hotel before Robert is pulling him into a searing hot and much welcome kiss.
“Aaron is so gorgeous. Totally out of my league. And he’s so funny! He’s just a great person to spend time with. We just clicked.”
“I think the date went well,” Robert says to the camera. He can’t keep the grin off his face. “I hope he thinks so too.”
Rob knows how this works. He knows Aarons is standing just off camera. There’s a spare chair beside him after all.
He’s excited to see him again.
Aaron smiles at him when he appears.
The he says “I enjoyed my date with Rob, but we agreed that we’re probably better as friends…”
Rob’s heart falls straight through his chest. Hang on. That’s absolutely not what had happened. They’d gone back to Aaron’s hotel room and spent an amazing night together. And they’d been texting non-stop ever since. Literally. He’s been reprimanded twice for texting at work.
Then he sees the twinkle in Aaron’s eye.
“You are such a wind up,” he laughs as he bumps Aaron’s elbow with his own. Aaron leans into his touch and Rob’s heart leaps straight back into place.
“Do you ever wonder if they’ll ask us to go back onto First Dates as one of their success stories?” Robert asks Aaron over breakfast one day about a year later.
“Dunno,” Aaron replies. “Don’t they usually just do that for couples who have got engaged and all that.”
“Hmmm, I suppose that’s true,” Robert replies thoughtfully.
Then he takes out a small box from the pocket of his dressing gown. He pushes it across the table to Aaron with a hopeful smile…