You're in a half-empty pub. Perhaps you're waiting for a date, but more likely you are idling away the hours alone with some much-needed human company before going back to the stark solitude of the dungeon walls which hold up the roof on your supposed bachelor pad. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot a hint of romance. Maybe you've heard the gentle slurp of a kiss or caught a glimpse of interlocking fingers.
Whatever it is, you look up and see them, or it, if you think of them as a singular unit. They certainly do. They are your enemy, your nemesis - the beast that mocks your single status just by being. Yes, at the next table, you can see, in their natural state of togetherness, a couple.
They're looking at a menu, you notice. They're both doing exaggerated gestures as they slide their fingers up and down its pages, making glib suggestions and scrunching up their faces in mock disgust at the dishes they don't like. One half of the couple, possibly the smuggest of the pair, will utter the standard line that comes in every Berlitz 'Teach Yourself To Speak Couple' phrasebook: "No, I don't mind if you get the same as me. Go on, you like it. Honestly. You have it. Maybe I can get something else".
You stare at them only a minute longer and then look away, back to the empty chair opposite you. Nobody cares what you're going to order except the pub chef, poised to defrost those sacksful of frozen chicken burgers at a moment's notice. You could order everything off the menu times 10 and sit eating it all like a Roman emperor but it doesn't matter a jot. There's no one to notice, to chastise, to care.
You can't help but look back at them once their food has arrived. One ordered pasta, while the other opted for pizza. Of course. Naturally, as any couple worth its salt knows, to really hammer home your status as a duo to the outside world, you have to split your dinner in two, and share one half with your significant other. You watch, sickened, as they gamely try to divide their sloppy heaps of carbohydrate without spilling it on the table. You know how the rest of this works. Fast forward half an hour and they'll be asking for a pudding "and two spoons, please". Meanwhile, you tip-tappety-tap away on your phone, checking your messages or boiling your brain trying to come up with a snarky tweet. You can stand no more. You give them one last hateful glance - despite the fact they're oblivious and don't even know you're alive - and leave, cursing them and their smug coupledom.
It's hard not to romanticise relationships when you're not in them. Every time you see someone clutching a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of champagne, striding eagerly home to their beloved, it's not unusual to feel pangs, to long for what cannot be yours, at least not tonight. When couples talk, they speak in a bizarre code, designed specially to bewilder those travelling solo.
Nobody normal finishes each other's sentences, but there is a whole couple's dictionary rammed with pet names, in-jokes, shared experiences and 'safe words'. Even the way they describe each other is meant to exclude you. The references to their 'other half' as if you are somehow incomplete, disfigured or wretched for being 50% of nothing, or a 'significant other', which renders you alone, unimportant, with your string of drab one-night stands, failed dates and unpleasant, over-wet kisses on a garbage-strewn side street in Soho. But don't take it to heart. Don't fret too much over being an odd sock in a drawer full of paired-up cashmere.
It takes two to tango, yes, but when you have two people you have twice as much of everything. Twice as many moods, opinions, outbursts of anger, simpering uselessness, passive aggression, excessive control freakery. Two servings of happy, sure, but on occasion, a 100% increase in misery. Half One stays out all night, Half Two goes ballistic and gets all great dictator on Half One's arse. Half Two forgets to text Half One to ask how his job interview went, Half Two gets a serving of sullen misery with his dinner that night. Half One wonders if those jeans still fit Half Two like they used to, Half Two is soon throwing heavy furniture at Half One's head. If you're half of a couple, there's always going to be someone to throw stuff at you. Live alone, and you're likely to remain free of flying hazards.
So go back to the pub - hurry! - and sit back down in your seat. Look again at the couple, sharing their plate of aorta-busting pub grub. They're not smiling. Half One doesn't want to share his pizza. If he had wanted pizza, he'd have ordered it. Half One wants to get his own dessert. And he didn't want to come out for dinner, anyway. What's wrong with staying at home once in a while? And Half One didn't even say thank you for the flowers Half Two brought home the other night, and Half One could only watch as Half Two drank most of that champagne all to himself, and he doesn't like the way Half Two answers the phone to his mother in a really obviously bored voice, and it wouldn't kill him to come straight home from work once in a while.
Yes, single one, you may go back to your lonely flat with only a half-eaten bag of Bombay mix and a noisy fridge for company, or you may make your way home to your shared house with piles of half-dry laundry on every spare worktop. True, the sound of the TV echoes loudly around your bare walls and your phone doesn't quiver with text alerts quite as often as it used to. Sure, the dates you go on have as much future potential as a poinsettia on New Year's Eve, but you're not alone. Or rather, you are, in the best way possible. Don't despair of that empty seat across from you - kiss it, give thanks for it. Imagine what could be sitting there instead.
So you raise your glass in silent celebration - and then the realisation hits you. You've nobody to clink glasses with. Oh. Neck it anyway.