She had been right. It was about a two hour drive to the Royal Oak from my location. But I managed to get there a few minutes early. I was excited about the prospect of meeting my date. She looked great in her website pictures and we'd hit it off on the telephone. I took a seat in the bar and ordered a small beer. The pub was buzzing, a convivial Saturday night crowd.
The main area consisted of a large open plan room featuring a huge rectangular, centrally situated bar with a dining area tucked away discreetly to one side. My date had yet to arrive - I can handle fashionably late - when my mobile rang.
"Hi Matthew. It's me. Where are you?"
"Hi,Fiona. I'm in the bar. Where are you?"
"Just arrived at the pub," she said. "I'll come and find you."
Five minutes later my mobile rang again.
"I can't see you. It's quite crowded. Whereabouts are you?"
"Uh..." I glanced around. "I'm sitting at the bar, on the restaurant side"
Another five minutes passed and my mobile rang again.
"Still can't see you Matthew. What're you wearing?"
For some reason I checked. Nerves, I suspect.
"A dark blue jacket and an open neck white shirt. And you?"
"A short black dress, black heels and a light grey jacket. I am over by the restaurant now."
"Okay...great. Stay there. I'll come and find you."
I clicked off the mobile and pushed through the crowd towards the restaurant. There were just couples and groups standing around. No lone date. I called her back.
"I'm by the restaurant right now. I can't see you? There's only one restaurant isn't there?" I asked, a sense of doubt creeping in.
"I think so. Are you sure you look like your picture? Oh my god...you're not one of those dodgy guys who's got a ten year old photograph posted, are you?"
"Err no...don't you mean, does my picture look like me?" I said, trying to make light of the sudden concern in her voice. "Tell you what. I'll go and stand outside the main entrance and wait underneath the Royal Oak sign. That way we can find one another. Okay?"
I stuck my 'phone in my jacket pocket and made my way outside. The pub had one very prominent sign at its front that declared it to be the Royal Oak. I stood right underneath it. Ten minutes later my mobile rang again.
"Where are you now? This is getting silly. I've been here twenty odd minutes. You haven't stood me up have you?"
"No, of course not. I've driven for two hours to be here. I'm standing under the Royal Oak sign right now, like I said, waiting for you. Whereabouts are you?"
A deep sigh breezed across the line before she answered.
"Well, oddly enough, I'm standing underneath the Royal Oak sign too and I can't see you Matthew. Whatsmore, it's bloody freezing out here."
"At the front?"
"Yes. Why? Is there another sign at the back?"
I was beginning to get concerned about the tetchiness that had crept into her tone. "I don't know. I'll go look."
I hit the end call button and legged it to the back of the pub into the car park. There was no other sign. I raced back to the front and stood directly under the tall wood structure that held the signage, my shoulder leant against it to convince myself that it actually existed. I tapped the phone icon and called up the last number.
"Fiona, it's me again. Listen, I'm at the front, standing right underneath the Royal Oak sign. I don't understand why I can't see you. And you're right...it is cold."
There was a long pause before she responded.
"You sure it says, Royal Oak, Matthew?"
I glanced up at the colourful emblem that swayed gently in the wind, a huge notice that had a mature oak at its centre. The words, 'Royal Oak' were emblazoned with an artistic flourish beneath the picture.
"Err...yes, it does. I can read," I said, trying to inject some humour into my voice.
"Ooooh, that's always a bonus. A date that can read."
I regretted my attempt at humour as soon as her sarcasm hit me. "Definitely, the Royal Oak," I said.
"Okay. The Royal Oak...in the High Street?"
"Yes, definitely. That's the one."
There was a brief silence before she spoke again. When she did, the single word she uttered sent a shiver down my spine, a shiver that had nothing to do with the falling temperature.
"Sorry Fiona...did you say...err...south...south...Southampton?'
"I did," she replied, "Why?"
I paused for a moment, gulping in oxygen whilst I considered my reply. There was not much else I could say.
"Err...I'm in Northampton..."