Breaking up is hard to do. I know; I've done it. Relationships can be a long, languorous drive around winding country roads. The break-up is the huge tractor or speeding idiot who appears from nowhere, slicing through your cosy hatchback of coupledom. If you're lucky, the end of your romance can result in a friendship that no amount of crashing and burning could ever break. Your ex will find somebody else and they will be happy, and that, in turn, should make you happy. But it isn't like that for everyone. It isn't like that tonight.
We have been at the bar about twenty minutes when my date - Dean, an estate agent from Kidderminster - looks out across the bar, his face freezing into a mask of horror and embarrassment. Naturally, my gaze begins to follow his, imagining he has spotted someone we can gently mock for the next minute or two (aww, c'mon... you do it too). Before I can fully turn my head to where he's looking, he clasps his hand round my wrist and implores me not to look. I dutifully turn my head back to his original position and look Dean straight in the face.
There is a moment's silence. Finally, I speak. "What's wrong?"
His face is still frozen, like a Victorian mill-owner posing for a family portrait. He stares straight ahead for what feels like an eternity before turning back to me, ashen-faced.
"I don't believe it," he says slowly, deliberately.
I can't imagine what's going to come next. Is he going to reveal to me that he's part of a terrorist cell, and his contact has entered the bar? Is his wife or mother in the room? I'm almost right. He speaks again.
"My ex-boyfriend is over there."
Finally I get the chance to turn to look where Dean was gawping before, to see a guy who, if I'm honest, looks a hell of a lot like Dean, except shorter, glugging on a pint and laughing. He is with another guy and they look to be on a date - and it's clearly not their first. The guy is tall, good-looking and around ten years younger than me. I feel for Dean right now.
"Do you want to go?" I ask, conscious that double-dating with one's ex, even when they're not aware of it, is probably not many people's idea of a great night out.
"No, we can't", he hisses in hushed tones. "He'll see. We'd have to go past them".
I take a long swig of my drink. I feel a long night ahead.
The conversation continues for the next few minutes, but Dean's mind is elsewhere. Just as I'm in the middle of telling him a frankly hilarious story about something that happened to me a few weeks earlier - a tale which really needs attention to fully 'get' it - his eyes robotically track to the left, where the ex is standing. I watch him do this around three or four times. He then drains his drink, the first of the night, and breezily exclaims: "Another?"
That his mission could attract the attention of his ex doesn't seem to bother him too much, so I say yes and watch as Dean attempts to reach the bar with all the subtlety of a pig in stilettos on a treadmill. He looks back at me and makes the 'same again' gesture and I nod over-enthusiastically, my head turning just in time to catch Dean's ex notice him. The ex rolls his eyes and then flicks them to me, looking me very quickly up and down before returning to Dean for one more weary glance and then back to his drink and his hotter date. It was a brief moment, but it was enough. This isn't the first time the ex has looked up from a drink to spot Dean in his eye line, I now realise. Dean, of course, chose this venue.
Dean returns with the drinks. "Do you think he saw? Did he look?" he asks expectantly.
I sip my pint. "No", I lie coolly, "he didn't".
Dean's face falls and sets in stone. I do not see him smile again.
The second drink is even more painful than the first. Dean's chatter has now been reduced to monosyllabic answers; I could slash open a vein in front of him and he would pay me no mind. While he hasn't looked over at his ex again, I know that's where his head is. His eyes are lifeless, his pretty mouth twisted into a scribble of pain and regret. I drink the last half of my pint far too quickly, but it has to be done. Enough.
"Shall we go?"
Outside, we manage to move a few steps before Dean asks if we can stop a minute and leans, half-crouching, against a wall. He looks up at me.
"I'm sorry", he says, his eyes becoming moist, "I'm so sorry".
I sigh. "It's okay. It must be really hard".
He nods piteously, like a child who has just dropped the last 10p of their spending money in a lake. "Yeah, it is", he murmurs.
"Did you...?" I am hesitant to talk about exes on a date but it seems the situation compels me. "Did you break up very recently?"
And then it comes - a tsunami of emotion I was unprepared for. The tears fall heavily and Dean begins making a choking, moaning sound, somewhere in between a car engine failing and a tube train pulling out of a station. He is crying.
He talks at a million miles an hour, every word juddering and anxious, like they are surprised to find themselves finally being spoken after God knows how long whirring around inside his head.
"He said he wanted some space. He said I could stay and he would move out, but I wanted to go. I wanted to see if he would miss me. And then as I was going, he said he wanted to break up for good - that he needed to be on his own. Without anyone. But I've been back; I've been to the house. We used to live there together. But he's not on his own. There have been others. Some looked, well, serious. Sometimes they bring in shopping bags. I see them out running together. He is everywhere. They are everywhere."
I feel dumb, awkward. While my heart goes out to him, he should be with friends now, not a stranger. I put my hand on his shoulders, but in the midst of his heaving sobs, he shrugs it off. He finally stops and looks up at me. I replace my hand on his shoulder and this time he lets it rest there.
"Dean, can I ask you a question?" He doesn't speak or look at me, but nods sadly. I ask: "Did you know he was going to be here tonight?"
There is silence. Then, a man in a nearby flat coughs like he is about to lose a lung, and the tableau melts.
Dean nods. "Yes, I knew he was going to be here". He looks up at me, his eyes like puddles, his face wretched and blotchy and pained. "I bet you think I'm a right stalker now, don't you?"
I look at him, an emotional disaster in chinos. Somebody's son. It would be easy to think him a stalker, but this isn't insanity or obsession. This is grief, heartbreak.
"No, no, I don't. But I do think you have to stop being where he is. Go out and have adventures of your own."
"You think?" he sniffs hopefully. "Will I ever get over it?"
"Yes, you will", I smile. "There are plenty of people out there to help you do just that".
His eyes begin to dry. "And you?" he says. "Are you one of them?"
I can't fix him; I don't have the skills. At best, I would be a sticking plaster, not the complicated surgery it would take to put Dean back together again. But now is not the time for home truths and confessions. The 'telling it like it is' will have to wait.
"Yes", I say gently. "I might be."
Stats: 31, 5'11", mousey brown/blue, Worcestershire
Where: Columbia Road, east London
Pre-date rating: 8/10
Post-date rating: 4/10
Date in one sentence: Dean cries a river over me, but not because of me.
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