Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
James Goodall
Features Writer
1:00 AM 10th February 2024

Plenty of Carp!

Image by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash
Image by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash


Jess’s house was like a private hospital. Clinically white and antiseptic. Germ-free and sanitised beyond sanity. Kate felt like a dung beetle intruding upon a basket of fresh linen. She hadn’t blitzed her own pad in nearly a month, whereas Jess cleaned her place top to bottom twice a day, religiously.

Kate had instructions to leave her shoes in the porch, the first of many house rules. But at least she wasn’t obliged to remove all articles and don a hazmat suit.

She proceeded into the foyer of Jess’s pearly-white Persimmon home. Shimmering mirrors reflected her bedraggled presence (it’d rained on the way over), and dust-free ornaments shone with a silvery lustre. Images of relatives consecrated Jess’s magnolia walls. Everywhere she turned, yet another face grinned at her. It felt like she was being watched.

“In here, Kate,” a voice called from the dining room. Jess’s husband, Chris. “We’re just plating up.”


Homemade ragu steamed aromatically from a Le Creuset. They’d made the dinner; Kate had brought the wine. Lots of it. That was the general agreement. She poured unsparingly as Chris spooned out carefully so as not to drip on the tablecloth.

The TV played at a low level in the living room. But even with the sound turned down, it was still a distraction and kept catching Kate’s eye.

The screen began to blossom with love hearts.

“There’s that advert again,” Chris said, reaching for the remote. “I’ll turn it up. Might be of interest to you, Kate.”

Kate narrowed her eyes and sipped her wine.

A husky woman’s voice dripped like treacle through the in-wall speakers. “We understand that meeting people isn’t quite so easy anymore, what with so many of us now working from home and no longer finding the time to venture out socially. But we can help.”

Oh, great, Kate thought. An ambush! This wasn’t the first time they’d attempted something like this. She was now the only single member of their circle of friends – the only one not yet paired off and reproducing. That made her a target, like an injured straggler in a tank of piranha fish.

“Here at the newly created Department for Love and Friendship,” she continued, sounding increasingly like a narrator from Master Chef, “our sole purpose is to bring people together. Loneliness is currently one of the biggest challenges facing our society. At the DLF, under our new initiative, ‘Forever Love and Happiness’, we aim to create a safe virtual meeting space where singles can interact and form lasting relationships.”

Great, another bunch of charlatans trying to make a quick buck out of vulnerable people.

“We understand love isn’t just about finding that spark. Love is also a journey.”

Not for her, it wasn’t. More of a no-through road – and a decidedly spark-free one at that!

“Think of us as your online chaperone. We plan around your busy schedule to facilitate social engagements. And if you want to take things to the next level, we can arrange dates so you can meet in person. We do all the leg work!”

A loved-up power couple filled the screen, the type who’d never used an online dating service in their lives.

“This isn’t a dating site in the traditional sense. There are no fake profiles or scam offers. Best of all, our service is completely free! So, why not get in touch? Love is just a click away!”

Chris noted Kate’s livid expression and stared down at his pasta.

“Maybe you should give that a go,” said Jess.

“Not interested.”

“Oh, but why?”

“Just because,” Kate replied animatedly, sloshing wine.

“Could be worth a look, though, ”Chris chipped in, feeling brave.

It didn’t look like they were going to take no for an answer. It wasn’t enough for her to tell them she simply wasn’t interested. They were relentless, like dogs that wouldn’t let go. As if they knew what was best for her and a simple three-way conversation could make her rethink her life choices.

“But this is better than any of those old-fashioned dating apps,” Jess persisted. “There won’t be any catfish or timewasters; this is a special government body dedicated to helping people who want to meet someone for a meaningful relationship.”

“But I don’t want to meet anyone.”

“Look at us. We met online, and we’ve been together seven years – married for four – and we’ve never been happier. It does work.”

“Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I doubt I’d meet anyone via the DLF. Besides, it sounds more like a furniture store.”

Jess looked down and frowned at the tablecloth, now a Turin shroud of spilt Malbec. “No offence, but I think you should try being a bit more open-minded.”

Kate stiffened. “Why is it people always say ‘no offence’ before offloading a shit-tonne of it?”

An awkward silence followed.

“I’ll clear the dishes, ”Chris said.


“Well,” Jess said, moving her wineglass aside to make way for fisticuffs. “That was about as subtle as an HB pencil up the nose.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were only trying to help. You’re just too picky. You won’t even consider some of the people I’ve suggested for dates. You just write them off. It’s like you have some kind of unconscious bias.”

Rubbish! If anything, she was fully conscious of her respective biases. Honestly, some of the people Jess and her other friends had tried to pair her up with. What exactly did they think her type was?

“I don’t get it. You say you like your independence, yet only a couple of weeks ago you were complaining about how lonely you were, how fed up you were being single all the time. You sure like to have your cake and spit it back out again.”

“Very funny. Except that particular ‘cake’ was wedding cake!” Her thoughts went straight back to said wedding. Sasha’s. It’d been a hideous affair. For herself, that is.

“I still don’t see what all the fuss was about.”

“Weddings are one of those social occasions where everyone’s expected to be paired off in perfect harmony. Except I was the odd one out – the only singleton there, sticking out like a sore thumb. I may as well have been wearing a T-shirt with “SPINSTER” printed on it, just to qualify all the sympathetic looks!”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Jess said, retreating a little.

“I need to pee,” Kate said, pushing herself away forcefully from the table so the back of her chair connected sharply with the wall behind. And she didn’t care if it left a dent.


Kate stomped up the stairs to the bathroom, her footsteps resounding like Robocop’s on the varnished wooden treads.

More family portraits accompanied her along the way. Matrimonial scenes too. There were faces everywhere. She wondered how Jess and Chris were able to relax with so many eyes staring at them round the clock. It felt like a self-inflicted peep show. Even in the bathroom, there was a further display of conjugal smugness. She didn’t know if she could go. It didn’t feel right sitting there with her pants around her ankles, with Jess and Chris beaming down at her in their wedding finery.

She didn’t buy it anyhow, this constant display of marital happiness. She’d been there herself, and true love didn’t look like that. Maybe for the first couple of weeks, whilst the hormones were still raging and you were still laughing and joking. But a few years down the line, the Romeo and Juliet routine would wear off, the jokes would stop being funny, things would normalise, and you’d go from star-crossed lovers to functioning cohabitees. Or, in her case, agreeable breathers of the same air.

If only Jess hadn’t brought up Sasha’s wedding. That’d touched a nerve. Now she was back in that negative headspace again.

Her mind began to wander.


Yes, she remembered Sasha’s wedding all right. The bad bits anyway, which still radiated like nettle stings.

It’d been a tedious affair: the same indistinct ceremony, the same generic wedding cake, the same best man’s speech lifted from the internet. The dinner had been dreadful too: the usual pâté starter, followed by meat and two veg. She’d wanted a curry! A cross-eyed waiter had offered her a canape at the start, but it’d looked about as appetising as a fag end.

The conversation had been insufferable too.

“What do you think the best first dance song is?” a girl in a big hat had asked her.

“Roy Orbison,” she’d replied. ‘“It’s Over.”’

Her friends had spent the entire occasion trebucheting her with their saccharine love stories, selling their life scripts, and urging her to hook up with someone as soon as possible, as if her life depended on it.

She’d been speaking to one friend in particular, Irish Siobhan (a tautology in itself), when the inevitable question had come up:

“So, when’s it going to be your turn, Kate?”

A young couple had asked her that same question again later, only she’d had one too many wines by this point. “When are you two going to separate?” she’d answered fiercely.

“Be nice,” Jess had chided during a postprandial vape. But no, she’d gotten sick of being the butt of everyone’s sympathy. In the end, she’d resorted to keeping out of sight and draining the blushing bride’s free bar dry.

“We have several alcohol-free options available, madam,” the bartender had suggested – a timid-looking student on his gap year.

“No, that’ll be about as much use to me as diet heroin! And I can handle my drink, thank-you. I’m a fully initiated, card-carrying sister of the grape. Another Sauvignon,” she’d insisted, nostrils flaring. “No soda.”

It’d gone downhill from there.


At last, she was back home, in her own space, breathing safe air again. But her thoughts were still grinding.

Upon reflection, her performance at the wedding wasn’t her proudest moment. “Disagreeable,” someone’s elderly aunt had muttered. She’d offended many of Sasha’s guests that day with her incendiary remarks. Sasha, too, by way of collateral damage. It’d been her big day after all. Understandably, she’d never received a thank you card for attending.

Venting her spleen at Jess and Chris earlier this evening had done her some good, though. It’d been cathartic to a degree. But maybe she did need to tone it down a little. Be less splenetic.

She’d been perusing one of the DLF’s flyers. Getting one hadn’t been hard; they were everywhere. These days, you couldn’t step off a train, enjoy a spot of lunch, or take a crap without being handed one. At the flyer’s behest, she copied a weblink into her iPad and skimmed a few paragraphs on the DLF’s homepage. But she soon lost interest. “Not for me,” she decided and retired to bed.


There was a knock at the door. Light but insistent.

Kate wasn’t dressed for visitors. She looked like she’d just gotten out of bed, which she had as it happened.

“Hi, I’m Sienna,” a young, helium-voiced girl announced. She was wearing enough foundation to last ten Essex girls a fortnight. It transpired she was here at the DLF’s behest. “‘Of this matter / Is Cupid’s crafty arrow made’,” she said, proffering a business card dotted with pink love hearts. “That’s Shakespeare, you know.”

Was it? She couldn’t say. She hadn’t read it. Then again, she doubted Sienna had either. Kate didn’t bother to ask why she was here at this particular address or why she, of all people, had been targeted. That said, how did the DLF even know she was single? Maybe one of her friends had tipped them off.

“If you were to join, I’m certain you’d flourish,” Sienna said.

Thanks for the ringing endorsement!

Kate explained that she’d tried dating agencies in the past, but they hadn’t worked out, which was true. She’d gradually abandoned the dating scene after dabbling on a number of sites. Prospective suitors had been a far cry from Mr Darcy. One interested party had considered it appropriate to WhatsApp a blurred image of his nether regions by way of a romantic gesture.

“Oh, well. There’s plenty more fish in the sea,” Sienna offered, consolingly.

More like plenty of “carp”, she thought, as the old saying went. And she was being anagrammatic with the word “carp” as well!

“Any thoughts?”

“I’ll think about it,” she lied, shutting the door promptly.

She sat for some time afterwards, unable to relax. A picture on the wall was annoying her. Something about its configuration. She got up to adjust it. Whilst she was standing, she reviewed the business card Sienna had given her.

“Not for me,” she decided again and dropped the offending article in her wastepaper basket.


Kate wasn’t opposed to the idea of another relationship. She just wanted it to be on her terms. Was that really so much to ask?

She didn’t want to be pressured into meeting someone, and she took great exception to all and sundry prying into her amatory affairs – be it her friends or cretinous agents from the DLF, as if their one-size-fits-all approach to romance was for everyone.

Certainly, she could picture herself in a romantic vignette someday, strolling hand-in-hand with another lover, scrunching through the sepia of autumn. But that was something she could arrange herself.

For now, at least, she was single and content to be so. Besides, she’d finished on a bad run and needed time to cool off. Consider her options.

At this moment in time, she didn’t want to be in a relationship with anyone. Not even a rubber plant! The last thing she needed was someone getting under her feet, interfering with her routines. For the time being, she wanted things as they were.


Kate returned to the seemingly insoluble problem of the pamphlet. It had arrived two days after Sienna’s visit. The DLF again, trying to coax her interest. It’d put her on edge, like finding a dead rat on her doormat. She’d been receiving unsolicited e-mails too, urging her to quite literally “get with the programme”.

This needed to stop. It was bad enough that her friends were collectively obsessed with the ticking of her biological clock, but the local authority as well?!

She picked it apart like a petrol station sandwich. There was no contact number to complain to, just an exhortation to download their app.

But then she had another idea.

She went to her writing desk and dug out her little red book, now maroon with age. Maybe she could reignite something with one of her former dud lovers, and that would put an end to the harassment once and for all. She realised, in a sense, this would be like substituting a thumb in the eye for a kick in the teeth. But still, she thought, flicking through the pages, there might be an overlooked gem.


Nope. A barrel of bad apples, the lot of them. Her little red book wasn’t exactly a glowing volume, except in the Kryptonite sense. She’d treaded love’s rocky shores on no less than seven occasions and stubbed her toe every time.

Her first, for instance. The one for whom ‘commitment’ had been something of an abstruse term. That’d been a toxic relationship. He’d act like a jerk, then turn up afterwards with a bunch of ALDI carnations by way of apology. One evening, she’d made a real effort and set the table for a romantic dinner, replete with tall, tapering candles. But still, he’d done his usual: plonked down, and gobbled his portion like a hungry dog, without making eye contact or saying a word between mouthfuls. Then he’d vacated the dining table like a crooked motorist abandoning the scene of a crash. In the end, they’d formed a contract of mutual toleration before finally parting ways.

Then there’d been the greaseball. The one who looked like he combed his hair with a block of lard. The one who’d used her as a cash machine. In the end, he’d needed a reality check instead of a blank one! They’d been watching the news one evening, a story about a woman who’d murdered her boyfriend and buried him in her back garden.

“You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?” he’d asked laughingly.

“No,” she’d answered stonily. “I haven’t got a garden.”

It’d gone south after that.

Then there was the one she’d lost – the one she’d actually liked. The one who’d ghosted her. It was one thing to cry over spilt milk. But spilt wine? That was sacrilege. But she thought of him more as cheap plonk now.

Yes, she’d had a truly execrable track record to date. There was no point in denying it. She slammed her little red book shut.


Kate looked herself up and down in her dress mirror. She didn’t have an inflated opinion of herself, but she knew she was no frump. Enough people leered at her on a daily basis to give her that impression. Not that she was damaged goods either. Her romantic armour was still intact, despite suffering the odd dint over the years. Returning to the general dating scene could be a possibility.

She did a quick Google search to see what alternatives there were to the DLF, but the names alone were enough to put her off. “Eternal Love and Light” sounded like a euthanasia clinic; “Soul 2 Soul” sounded like an old Prince song; and “Infinity Love” sounded a bit too Marvel Comics, and she didn’t fancy spending the evening with some gauntlet-wearing meathead.

She turned her attention back to the pamphlet. As Jess had said, the DLF was, after all, a government body. Bona fide, in theory. Maybe it would be worth a punt. And it’d save her a lot of time, what with them doing all the admin. There was also a cash incentive of £500 for new joiners, which would go nicely towards a new dishwasher she’d had her eye on.

A quick Q&A followed as Kate completed the online sign-up process .Under “Preferences”, she clicked “None”, adding in her final writeup that she didn’t have any hard no’s appearance-wise. She liked to think she was open-minded and judged people for who they were.

So, now it was in the DLF’s hands. She wondered what would happen next. It’d been a while since she’d been on the dating scene. She wasn’t sure what to expect. Did she even have a serviceable dress?


The next day, Kate received another knock at her door. Not Sienna this time. A man who looked like an accountant. With him were several others. Thirteen in all. A mixture of men and women with gloomy expressions.

“Good morning, Kate. I understand you recently registered with the Department for Love and Friendship’s dating service?”

“Yes,” she acknowledged cagily. “Last night.”

“Excellent. Allow me to present some of our other members who are currently seeking companionship. Would you be interested in participating in a social event with a view to something more permanent?”

“You want me to pick one of them? Now?”

“Actually, they come as a package.”

“You mean a polygamous arrangement?” She couldn’t believe her ears. She’d been open to the idea of dating again, but this was ridiculous. She’d heard of a ménage à trois but not a ménage à thirteen, or whatever the French for thirteen was.

“But you said on your application you were ‘open-minded’.”

Yes, she had said that. Stupidly.

“Your apartment’s a three-bed, I understand?”

“No, it’s a two-bed,” she lied. “The top floor’s an attic space.” (With a bed in it.) “Why do you ask?”

And then all became clear.

All this time, the DLF had been a front. The housing waiting list in this area was longer than the A1. For some time now, single occupants of multi-bedroomed properties had been under pressure to take in lodgers. This was clearly the DLF’s next stage of mission creep. What had she been thinking? In signing up, she’d unwittingly accepted the keys to her own car crash!

“Will you at least agree to go on a date?” the man asked, breaking her train of thought.

“All of us?”

“Yes. You’ll incur a penalty charge otherwise. You’ve read our terms and conditions, presumably?”

Of course not. She’d scrolled straight to the bottom and clicked “Accept”.

He handed her a sheet of paper with various sections highlighted. The T&Cs looked much lengthier printed out. Sure enough, there it was. Her stomach churned. The penalty charge for refusing a proposed match-up was greater than her annual ground rent!

“The thing is,” she said falteringly, “I’m already in a polygamous relationship. I’m off to meet my two partners now as it happens.”

“That’s a different situation entirely,” the man said, crestfallen. “But I wish you well with your new arrangement.”


What had she just said? It’d been a stupid lie, but hopefully it would pay off. How could the DLF disprove it in any case? Would they even try? She could hardly see them making a return visit to check up on her. No, she’d be all right. She just had to stick to her guns.

She’d been on her way to meet Jess and Chris for lunch – a chance to exchange olive branches. But now she was running late. By the time she arrived at the brasserie, Jess and Chris had already drained several glasses of Pinot.

“Kate,” Chris said, rising. “Glad you could make it. Today’s a special day.”


“Yes,” Jess gushed, sparkly-eyed. “We’re celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary.”

“Congratulations,” Kate offered, seating herself heavily.

“And how’s it going for you, Kate? Don’t suppose you gave the DLF a try in the end?”

Seriously, we’re back at this again? Today was meant to be about building bridges, not nuking civilians!

“Kate?” a familiar voice enquired. “Sorry to disturb you. I just have a few questions about your new relationship.” It was the man from the DLF. The sky suddenly matched his lead-grey suit.

So, they’d decided to check up on her after all. Panic chilled her veins. Then an idea struck her. With a mischievous flash in her eyes, she took Jess and Chris’s hands in hers.

Jess’s eyes widened with terror.

“Yes,” Kate said, smiling proudly. “Here we are. Happy as can be. Aren’t we, darling?” She gave Jess a knowing wink.

“Yes, darling,” Jess said through gritted teeth, clenching Kate’s hand tremulously as if it were a piece of liver.

“Well, I can see the DLF’s services are no longer required,” the man said with an almost genuine smile. “My best to you all.”

“What the hell are you playing at, Kate?!” Jess erupted as soon as the man had left.

“Sorry, I had to act fast.” She quickly explained her predicament as best she could.

“But what if they go back to their office and make this official? What if we get some kind of certificate in the post?”

“Chill, ‘darling’. We’ll just say it didn’t work out.”

A waiter appeared with Jess and Chris’s earlier drinks bill.

Jess snatched it up. “Your turn, Chris.”

“What? Me again? But I bought the shopping last night.”

“And I paid for dinner afterwards.”

“But what about the petrol? I paid for that too.”

Jess shot him a death stare.

“Whatever,” he said, grumpily picking up the tab.

Kate tried not to notice the lovers’ tiff. Then again, it made a nice change to see the sugar-sweet couple argue. As for herself, she’d be needing a much sturdier cover story to get by long-term. But she’d make it up to Jess and Chris in the meantime. Smiling, she picked up the brasserie’s wine list and searched for their cheapest rosé.


Plenty of Carp! was first published by the Afterpast Review, 12th October 2023.