Andy Bodle is flattered to receive the attention of a much younger woman—while hoping to avoid being noticed by her powerful father.
New Scientist interviewer: “What do you think about most during the day?”
Stephen Hawking: “Women. They are a complete mystery.”
Interview, January 2012
The driver switched off the engine, turned round and cleared his throat. “We’re here for 15 minutes, so feel free to stretch your legs, use the facilities, or have a smoke. And if you do, could you spot me one?” I shimmied to the front of the bus, handed him a fag, and stepped out into the sunshine. My seven fellow passengers stayed put.
Stopovers are standard on all journeys of over two hours on Bus Eireann. And this one, coming 12 hours into my 15-hour overland trip to the west coast of Ireland, was most welcome.
Under normal circumstances, I’m as anxious as the next man to reach my destination. I’ll always take the direct flight where possible, I’m the first person to tut on a stalled Tube, and I once greeted the news of a person under a train at Mill Hill Broadway with the words, “You cunt.” But just this once, I was determined to take it slow.
Although the main point of the trip was the sitcom, I had two ancillary aims. First, to shed a few pounds, to which end I’d chosen a B&B that was five miles from the nearest shop, so I’d have to walk 10 miles a day just to eat; and second, cold turkey. For one solid month, there would be no computer games – I’d stripped everything but Microsoft Word from my laptop – no booze, and categorically no cocaine.
And on the whole, I stuck to my plan. Every day, I wrote for eight hours; I walked the minimum 10 miles a day for the first two weeks, and when the blisters became too painful, I hired a bike; and I broke my vow of abstinence just twice.
The first time was the Saturday after I arrived, when the joke glands just weren’t secreting. I made the comparatively short three-mile hike through the rain to the nearest pub, and treated myself to two pints of the local cider.
The smoking ban had recently come into force, so I took my cigarette and joined a couple huddled in the porch. They left almost immediately, but were replaced by three girls. They needed a light, so I gave them one, and we started talking.
They were obviously too young for me, but the whole smoking-outside thing was a novelty to us all, and I hadn’t met any locals apart from my landlady since my arrival. Besides, it was only talking.
Two of the girls communicated entirely in giggles, but the third, a lean, dark-haired girl with intense green eyes, was a feisty one. She introduced herself as Riona. She was 18, she was studying medicine at university, and her dad was the local garda. Then she turned the questioning round. “How old are you?” “I’m, um—” “You look 30.” I decided not to shatter her illusions. “What are you doing here?”
I told them about my job at the Guardian, and about the sitcom. Riona was interested, but far from overawed. She made me promise to write the three of them in as the lead character’s pet guinea pigs.
Fun though this was, flirting with someone half my age was a shade outside my comfort zone, so as soon as my cigarette burned down, I bade them goodnight. “Bye,” said Riona with a twinkle. “You’re nice.” I finished my pint, squelched the three miles home, and thought no more of her. Well, maybe a little bit.
The second time I fell off the wagon was two weeks later, on St Patrick’s Day. I’d never been to Ireland before, and it seemed rude not to observe the national holiday in the traditional manner. So I trekked the five miles into Quilty, found myself a window seat in a cosy pub, and watched, somewhat deflated, as a sorry procession of randomly themed floats trundled through the drizzle. Little Bo Peep, plus sheep. Cowboys and Indians. A solitary cow. Shrek?
As the last float disappeared from view, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was Riona. She seemed inordinately pleased to see me. She grabbed my hand and hauled me over to the table where she and her friends were sitting, then asked me how the writing was going, and why I wasn’t bored yet, because she was going out of her mind in this tiny, backward, fun-starved town.
At that moment, more friends appeared and announced that they were moving on. Riona apologised and followed the mob outside. A few seconds later, she bounced back in through the door.
“You’re really nice,” she said. “Not like the boys round here. Give me your phone.”
I looked on helplessly as she snatched my mobile and pressed buttons. As I was trying to work out what she’d done, she grabbed me by the elbows, raised herself on tiptoe, and planted a huge wet smacker on my lips. And with a final, cheeky “See ya!”, she scampered out of sight.
I stood there, frozen, flummoxed, and grinning from ear to ear.
It was all very flattering, but I refused to harbour any indecent thoughts. She was sweet and beautiful and bonkers and she liked me. But she was 18. I was 35. End of story.
The next day, I was woken by a beep on my phone. “Hey! What are you up to today? Have you written about me yet?” Even her texts were exasperatingly energetic.
It was at this point that Bill Murray’s face popped into my head. Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day—that Bill Murray. Only this image was of Murray in Lost in Translation, the film that had come out the year before, about an ageing actor, who, on a business trip to Japan, meets a much younger woman, played by Scarlett Johansson. Despite the age gap, they get on famously, and form a unique bond that lasts until Murray returns home. Nothing happens between them, except for one chaste, tasteful kiss at the end. It’s an intelligent, sweet-natured film, and the relationship never seems in the slightest bit sinister or wrong. Wasn’t this exactly what was going on here? Moreover, this the first time in more than three years that a member of the opposite sex had showed any sort of interest in me. This was a welcome and, arguably, vital boost to my ego.
Sod it, I thought. And I sent a reply.
The next few days brought a flurry of texts, by turns coy and probing, silly and coquettish. “What’s your porn-star name?” “Is yours an innie or an outie?” Riona’s messages became the highlight of my day. And little by little, the cautiousness fell away. “I might be coming to London this summer. Are you central?” “What are you doing? I’m bored.”
Even at this stage, my intentions were pure. It was a bit of harmless, ego-boosting fun. Well, maybe we’d meet up, just the once, on my last day. And we’d go for a walk down a sun-dappled country lane, and laugh and point at sheep, and maybe, at the end, if it felt absolutely right, I’d hold her hand.
But suddenly, just as we stopped beating about the bush, the texts stopped. Had I said something wrong? Or was she recharging her phone?
The next day, my phone beeped again. Funny. Unknown number.
I pressed the “view” button and started to read. And as I read, an icy fist slowly tightened round my guts.
“This is Riona’s dad. I am the local garda. And you appear to be a 30-year-old man exchanging suggestive texts with a 15-year-old girl. I am warning you to stop this immediately.”
A few things in the text jumped out at me: “dad”. “garda”. But most of all, “15”.
FIFTEEN? But she was going to university! And the two times I met her, she was drinking and smoking in a pub! And… oh, fuckety bollocking fuck. How old had I let her think I was? Nearer the age she wanted me to be. And how old did I tell everyone I was when I was 15? Especially when I was drinking and smoking in a pub. The succulent, blustery green of the western Irish spring suddenly turned shit-brown. This wasn’t my Lost in Translation. It was my Lolita. And possibly my Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
My situation did not look good. I had been exchanging flirtatious (but never inappropriate) messages with an underage girl. Her father was the local law enforcement officer in a very isolated and rural part of the world. I was there out of season, alone, with no readily available means of transport, and I was the only tourist for miles. Tracking me down would be like finding a needle in a sewing kit.
My fingers were shaking so much, it took me about half an hour to type my reply. “Sir, I’m so sorry, sir,” I typed. “Riona told me she was 18. Not that I was planning to do anything with her anyway. I promise I will never contact her again. Sir.”
And first thing next morning, just to be on the safe side, I packed my bags, threw away my return bus tickets, and took a taxi to Shannon airport.
I had, at least, gone the best part of a month without coke—and finished the sitcom. I sent it to my friend Cliff, a successful scriptwriter, who said he liked it and recommended me to a producer at the BBC. The producer liked it too, and so did everyone else, up to, but not including, the esteemed gentleman who actually commissions the fucking things.
Among married couples in the UK, the man is, on average, 2.2 years older than the woman. The male preference for younger women and the female for older men is universal across cultures: the global average is for men to prefer a partner 2.66 years younger, and for women to prefer a partner 3.42 years older.
Men probably developed their taste for youth because a woman’s reproductive life is shorter, and her fertility declines more quickly. Age is a less important consideration for women, since men stay fertile for longer; and since females have historically valued status and the ability to provide resources, and these are qualities that come with time, it is in their interest to go for an older man.
And it seems people have broadly the right idea: an Austrian study has shown that men are likely to have the greatest number of children with a partner who is six years younger, while the most reproductively successful women have a mate four years older.
Image credit: Béni Rivière/Flickr