It started as a joke. My mate Baz signed me up to a dating site and when I protested that I was not a tragic loner he dared me to prove it by contacting someone and going on a date.
I arranged to meet Victoria at the Nelson market on a Saturday morning. After a stroll around the craft and vege stalls and some pointed 'giddays' from grinning mates, I suggested a coffee and guided her out on to the main street, heading for the river.
'I hate those human statues,' she said loudly as we passed a bronze painted highwayman on a plinth outside the BNZ. I'd stopped to drop a few coins into the cap on the footpath – the actor's own presumably since his three-cornered hat was stuck on to his stiff bronze curls.
'Sorry,' I mouthed and he continued his faraway stare but I was sure I'd seen the creases at the corners of his eyes deepen under the make-up so I added, 'Nice hat,' and was gratified to see his mouth turn up just a little.
Victoria was waiting for me outside Michael Hill Jeweller and I hoped that had no particular significance. It was our first meeting, bar the initial swipes and a few texts.
But she was just waiting for me to catch up so that she could continue her story.
'No, really,' she said as though I had contradicted her. 'I was in United Video one time with my Mum. It's a bike shop now but when it was. United Video I mean.'
I nodded to show I was following her though I did wonder where she was heading.
'I was at the counter with my DVDs and there was this 'bzzz, click' right by my ear and when I turned, this robot was practically nose to nose with me. I screamed, threw the DVDs at him and ran out of the shop.'
'Goodness,' I said.
'Mum came out with the DVDs and calmed me down but I couldn't go back in.'
'How old were you?' I asked, picturing a terrified child.
'Oh, thirty-something. My teenage daughter was with us, she was disgusted. He was promoting a movie apparently.'
'A movie about a robot? Wall-E? That was great.' The dates would fit, she was forty-something now. I knew that.
'No idea, I never saw it. Anyway, he creeped me out and so do those statues.'
We were passing the singer outside Vodafone and she nodded approvingly as he launched into the chorus of 'It's a wild world'.
I gave him a smile. I pay him sometimes but in the summer I figure the tourists could take care of him and his mate. They are both pretty good, covers of 70s numbers with enough guitar chords to sound as though they mean it. Out there year round too. I thought they were brothers until I saw them meet and hongi as though they'd just noticed each other. I liked the way the one with the ponytail let the Downs girl stand beside him with her hand in the crook of his elbow, bobbing away to his song. Her dad would pause a while before encouraging her on through the alley to the market.
I was going to tell Victoria about this but she had another story about buskers. It involved an older guy who had a three year old girl dancing while he sang. It wasn't right, she said and I agreed. I remembered him, teeth missing, a voice like a buzz saw and sarcastic if you walked by without paying him. His amplification dominated the whole street, too, drowning out the kid with the recorder outside Farmers and the classical violin at the ASB. Only the bag-piper could give him a run for his money but he came out for just a couple of weeks at Christmas.
'There was a lot wrong with that guy's busking,' I said, but she was talking about the little girl, where was her mother and surely there's a law. That took us pretty much all the way to the river.
We then took a swerve round Hone and his horse, conversationally speaking. In reality we were on the path by the Maitai, dodging pushchairs and toddlers on balance bikes. The segue was 'there ought to be a law'. The horse was long gone and Hone himself was gone too, after many years of aggrieved protest which was too obscure for me to grasp. Word was the Council was putting him up in the motor camp where he was no doubt bending the residents' ears and scaring the kids with his humourless wizard act.
Not that I had anything against the guy, he was a force of nature and you had to admire his persistence with a protest that was its own punishment. I must have said that last bit aloud. Victoria didn't agree and had another go about his cruelty to the horse and his untidiness when he camped out in the street. Not to mention expecting handouts and to make a living from scruffy handmade cardboard signs and a few pathetic tricks for the kids. 'Entitlement' was the problem, apparently. Well, we all hope to be entitled to something, don't we?
I was heading for the café by the bridge, thinking it might be a quiet place to get to know each other but I started hoping the silver caravan would be on the grass by the river. If she was going to rant it might be better to have our coffee al fresco, the tables in that little café are quite close.
The tide was in and the ducks were paddling almost alongside us. I was about to point out some ducklings but 'entitled' had given her another segue and she was wondering about the narcissism of Trump and Kim Jong Un or Kim In Joe as she called him. I stopped to watch a shag dive and resurface. I'm always amazed at how far they go underwater; it's hard to guess where they will pop back up.
Victoria turned back to ask, 'Don't you think so?'
'I'm sure they'll work something out,' I said. She seemed about to scoff, but then she looked a bit uncertain.
I seized the moment and said, 'Let's just enjoy the day and get to know each other a bit.'
She smiled at that and I almost took her hand. She was pretty when she wasn't being disapproving.
There was no silver caravan on the river bank but a tūī was singing in the chestnut tree as we crossed the road to the café. By then Victoria was on to climate change and impending doom. The row of roses in front of the gallery next to the café was a mass of frothy white blossoms but I didn't interrupt her to point them out.
As we sat at the outside table waiting for our coffees, I said, 'So tell me what you do, apart from work.' I knew from the website she was a teacher, early childhood slash kindergarten.
Training for triathlons and half Ironman (shouldn't that be Ironwoman?) took up most of her evenings and weekends, she said. I've met a few such people, they can be very boring about times, distances and protein supplements. Perhaps she knew that, or maybe a look at my belly told her I wouldn't be into it. She didn't elaborate, just asked in return, 'And what about you? Outside of work?'
She knew I was a self-employed web designer. Who isn't? I wanted to protest that in my case that didn't mean unemployed slacker, I actually made a living at it.
But outside of work? My real life? I wondered how to put it. That I speak truth to power in an ancient tradition, honoured by Shakespeare? How I belong to a persecuted group that repressive regimes imprison, along with bloggers and poets, at the forefront of a crackdown? Or should I simply use Dad's word for someone irredeemably incompetent? Hell, why not, we both knew this wasn't going to fly.
'I'm a clown,' I said.