Here's Looking At You


Anna Alessi — history expert, possessor of a lot of hair and an occasionally filthy mouth — seeks nice man for intelligent conversation and Harlequin romance moments.

Despite the oddballs that keep turning up on her dates, Anna couldn’t be happier. As a 30-something with a job she loves, life has turned out better than she dared dream. However, things weren’t always this way, and her years spent as the butt of schoolyard jokes are ones she’d rather forget.

So when James Fraser — the architect of Anna’s final humiliation at school — walks back into her life, her world is turned upside down. But James seems a changed man. Polite. Mature. Funny, even. People can change, right? So why does Anna feel like she’s a fool to trust him?

Read An Excerpt From Here's Looking At You

Anna knocked back her Negroni and quickly made inroads with the second. At that moment, as ’80s Madonna hammered in her ears, she was Singlehood In London, distilled. It was all too familiar a feeling for her, experiencing intense loneliness in a room so crowded it must be nearing a fire regulation risk, feeling as if life was happening elsewhere. Right when she was supposedly in the beating heart at the centre of everything.

No! Positive thinking. Anna repeated the mantra she’d rehearsed a thousand times: how many happy couples trot out a dinner party origins tale about how they didn’t fancy each other at first? Or even like each other?

She didn’t want to be that woman bearing a checklist, always finding that suitors fell short in some respect or another. As if you were measuring space for a new fridge and moaning about the compromise in the dimensions of the ice-box.

Plus, it hadn’t taken her many internet dates to realise that the There You Are thunderbolt she’d so craved simply didn’t exist. As her mum always said, you have to rub the sticks to get the spark.

‘Sorry, a few of those and I’d be out for the count. Falling- down juice,’ Neil said, returning with his Birra Moretti. Anna wanted him to be nice and this to be fun with every fibre of her being.

‘Yes, I’ll probably wish I’d followed your example tomorrow,’ Anna shouted, over the music, and Neil smiled, making Anna feel she could make this work through sheer force of will.

Neil was a writer for a business and technology magazine and seemed, as per their previous communications, the kind of decent, personable and reliable sort who you’d fully expect to have a wife, kids and a shed.

They’d spoken only briefly online. Anna had banned the prolonged woo-by-electronic-billet-doux since the hugely painful disappointment of Scottish Tom the author, whose wit, charm and literary allusions she fell hard for, over a course of months. She’d started to live for the ping of the new message alert. She was halfway to in love by the time they finally planned to meet up, when he apologetically disclosed a) a spell in Rampton Secure Hospital and b) a ‘sort of wife’. After that, Anna changed her sort of Gmail address.

As the alcohol took effect, she found herself laughing at Neil’s tales about the ‘rubber chicken’ speaker circuit and shyster make-a-million industry gurus.

By the time they got to the table and over-ordered soak- up-the-booze-mattresses like meatballs, calamari and pizza, Anna was telling herself that maybe Neil was exactly the kind of solidly plausible candidate she needed to take a chance on.

‘Anna isn’t a very Italian name?’ Neil asked, as they both prodded battered hoops of squid and dragged them through a small pot of aioli.

‘It’s short for Aureliana. I changed it after school. Too … flowery, I suppose,’ she said, cupping a hand underneath her fork as the squid made a late bid to get back to the sea.‘I’m not very flowery really.’

‘Hah no. I can see that,’ Neil said, which seemed a trifle presumptuous.

Her free hand involuntarily moved to her hair, which was in the usual messy knot. Perhaps she should’ve done more with it. And added make-up beyond reddish tinted lip balm, applied in haste while on the Tube. Start as you mean to go on, she always reasoned. No point pretending to be a dolly-bird type and disappointing him later.

‘The pork and fennel meatballs are the best variety, by the way,’Anna said. ‘I’ve tried them all and can confirm.’

‘Have you been here a lot?’ Neil said mildly, and Anna squirmed a little.

‘A fair amount. With friends as well as dates.’

‘It’s OK. We’re in our thirties. You don’t need to pretend to be the blushing ingénue with me,’ he said, and Anna found something rather dislikeable in his pointing out her discomfort. Although maybe it was merely a slightly inept attempt to put her at ease. Conversation stalled amid a loud Prince track, one of the ones where he went squeaky and frantic about wanting to filth a lady. ‘I’m actually poly,’ Neil said.

He’s actually Polly?! ‘Sorry?’Anna leaned in sharply against the noise, fork in mid-air.

‘As in polyamorous. Multiple partners who all know about each other,’ he added.

‘Ah yes. I see!’

‘Is that a problem?’

‘Of course not!’ Anna said, perhaps too enthusiastically, fussing with what was left on her plate, thinking: I don’t know.

‘I don’t believe monogamy is our natural state but I realise that’s what a lot of people are looking for. I’m willing to give it a try for the right person though,’ he smiled. ‘Ah.’ Good of you.

‘And perhaps I should say that I’m into mild sub and dom. All hetero, but I’m not vanilla.’

Anna gave a grimace-smile and debated whether to say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak kink.’

What was she supposed to do with this information? Blind dating fast-tracked the personal stuff, that was for sure.

‘I mean, I’m not that out there in the scene,’ Neil continued. ‘I’ve tried figging. But we’re not in the realms of the Shaved Gorilla though, hahaha.’

He was invoking shaving and animals in the boudoir. And figs, if that was what figging involved. Anna wasn’t disappointed anymore.

Disappointment was a motorway junction ago. She was passing through into severe bewilderment and at this rate she was likely to take the next exit into a Welcome Break.

‘You?’ Neil said.


‘Anything your “thing”?’

Anna opened her mouth to reply and faltered. She’d usually go with ‘none of your business’, but they were on a date and it putatively was his business. ‘Uh … uhm. Usual sex.’

‘Usual sex.’ Oh God. She was underprepared and over-re- freshed. This was like that temp job in a cinema one summer where, during the fun selection process, she’d been asked: ‘If your personality was a sandwich filling, which would it be?’ She got brain-blankness and said: ‘Cheese.’ ‘Just cheese?’ ‘Just cheese.’ ‘Because …?’ ‘It’s normal.’ Normal cheese and usual sex. She shouldn’t even be on the internet.

Neil surveyed her over the rim of his water glass.

‘Oh. OK. From your profile I thought you presented as heteronormative but might be genderqueer, for some reason.’

Anna didn’t want to admit she didn’t know what the key parts of that sentence meant.

‘Sorry if this is quite confronting,’ Neil continued. ‘I’m a big believer in honesty. I think most relationships fail because of lying and hypocrisy and pretending to be something you’re not. Much better to say This Is Who I Am and be completely open than for you to say on our fourth date, woah.’ Neil held his hands up and beamed reassuringly: ‘You like piss play?’

So ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to charge your glasses and raise a toast to the happy couple, Neil and Anna. And to the blushing bride, bottoms-up. You’ll want a full bladder for later. (Applause.)

Nice words about Here's Looking At You

  • The funniest, most romantic book I've read since One Day