Dating is lonely; don't let anybody tell you otherwise. You may be out night after night, making doe eyes at handsome strangers and maybe even rolling your tongue around their mouth, but it's just a few short hours of conversation. The high is short-lived.
Sooner or later you have to come back to your flat, the fridge filled with moulding vegetables (they never get used up fast enough when you're cooking for one) and the only correspondence waiting for you are bills on the mat or emails from online retailers you bought something from once. In 2007. But what's this amid the fairy-tales of 75% discounts and ballads of limited special offers? It's a message from a man. A man who wants to meet me.
I have had a particularly hard day: the bus journey back from the office was cold and busy, the windows steamed up with the kind of anger you can only feel when you're not even a sixteenth of the way through your Christmas shopping, so forgive me if I am a little weary as I click on his missive and begin to read what he has to say.
I expect acres of grey, barren wasteland, spelling mistakes, sandpaper - iced with a dull sign-off. Maybe he'll ask how my week has been, and I will be compelled to lie. But instead I find lush meadows of green, effervescent prose, honeyed bread - finished off with a goodbye that is almost mournful, as if we have met already.
I don't beat around the bush. I reply straight away, cramming as many bon mots and charm offensives as I can fit into it without sounding like a ridiculous Google experiment in flirting. An exhilarating game of email tennis ensues; numbers are exchanged, and a date is set. All within one evening. Prince Charming is at my door with a Guyliner-sized glass slipper. My foot is primed.
The big day arrives and I sit on the bus trying hard to concentrate on anything other than my nerves. It occurs to me I can't remember what he looks like. He has black hair, I recall. Or was it dark brown? Definitely dark, anyway, so I can automatically disregard any albinos I see waiting in the bar. I know nothing of his height or eye colour. I hurriedly get my phone out and try to load the dating site, as I have forgotten every detail of our conversation. My brain is so absorbed with not vomiting or screwing things up that it has pushed out all other information; let's just hope I don't need to tie my shoelaces or tell the time in the next half-hour. In typical fashion, my phone's 3G signal has nipped out for a cigarette and a Starbucks so the site won't load. I'm going in blind. Oh, I'm here.
I walk into the bar and see him standing there, a vision in denim. He is the best kind of cliché - tall, dark and handsome, dressed tastefully with a general air of effortless. I glide toward him, as if slinking down a red carpet to talk to a Hollywood A-lister. He says my name, beams and leans in to graze my cheek with his. Well, well, well.
Over all of drink number one and a little bit of number two, he tells me he works in TV production, but is looking for a career change soon. He's very open and honest about what he sees as the shallowness of the TV world, those behind the scenes basking in an ersatz glory that doesn't belong to them.
While he talks - in even, confident tones - I sit rapt, nodding at what I hope are the right moments, and interjecting when I feel it's appropriate. I am on my very best first-date behaviour. I hope I'm not being too boring. His eyes sparkle so much I keep expecting diamonds to fall from them. And I'm happy to say that those eyes are firmly fixed on me, which makes me feel elated but also kind of surprised. I wonder what he's seeing that the mirror never shows me. I cram the lid back on my jar of insecurities and order another drink. I tell him my own stories about the workplace and as we muse on them, he reaches over and squeezes my knee.
"My life isn't exciting enough," he says later, circling the rim of his pint glass with his finger. "I want more exciting times, not just a load of filler. Where are the thrills?"
"But that's what life is like, isn't it?" I say. "Most of it is filler. With a little bit of thriller if you're lucky."
"Do you really believe that?"
"Well, yeah," I shrug. "It just is."
"Only if you let it," he grins, leaning forward.
"How much more exciting can things get?" I ask, moving in closer.
He gulps and then laughs nervously. "You tell me."
I start to feel a rush of, well, something in my tummy. "Maybe I'll show you."
The talk flows so liberally, I lose track of time. I feel I know as much about him as you should know on the first date, but I don't really want it to end. We attempt to break through the thick air of anticipation by going to another bar. It's busier in here, and almost everyone else in the place is drunker than us, making for some light entertainment as we gently poke fun at our fellow drinkers.
My date leans on the bar and looks me over, before telling me he's glad he messaged me. I thank him, and then ask him why he did in the first place. I don't generally seek approval or security by asking dates why they're interested in me, but he is a genuine puzzle. He's a nice guy, smart and funny, with only a fraction of my cynicism. My bio on my profile is rather spiky, sardonic and frank, with only a hint of warmth; I can't imagine what made him want to email me.
He licks his lips. "You weren't trying too hard to be liked," he says. "In fact, you were almost unlikeable."
"Oh," I say. "Is that a good thing? It doesn't sound like it should be."
"No, I know," he replies, his eyes searching the ceiling, perhaps looking for a tactful way to tell me I'm an arsehole.
"But everyone is desperate to come across as a 'good guy' and friendly and unassuming," he continues, "or an opinionated bitch who wants a 'partner in crime' to be horrible to people."
"Haven't we just spent the last half an hour ripping apart everyone in this pub?" I ask, chuckling.
He guffaws. "Shit. Yeah, we have. But tonight hasn't just been about that." He looks me straight in the eye. "Not for me, anyway."
For the first time, I peer at my watch. Shit. He glances at his wrist too. Then we gaze at each other. Our watches are telling us it's time to go home; our giddy, boozy heads are saying we shouldn't leave separately. I think.
We leave the bar laughing, flushed with the success of the evening, impervious to the knives of the cold night air. It's later than we thought and the Tube trains aren't running. We stop in a dark corner for a minute or two deciding what to do. We shiver exaggeratedly and look up and down the road for a cab. None.
"We can always get a bus," I say, mildly embarrassed. "It shouldn't take long."
"It had better not," he mutters good-naturedly. "You promised you'd show me the difference between filler and thriller, remember?"
I put my hand on his chest and sway slightly, that last pint of beer or two too many finally taking hold. Our lips almost touch, but we're out in public and while this is the 21st century, there are plenty of meatheads with 19th century attitudes looking for some gay skull to crush. We make our way to the bus stop, which is deserted save for a dishevelled man clutching a pint glass filled with what I hope is very flat beer.
The date and I look each other up and down lasciviously, our mutual sense of decorum preventing us devouring each other there and then. We exchange the odd remark, offering our own bawdy premonitions of what the rest of the night has in store. The air fills with clumsy innuendo. I bite my thumb almost in two. We shall have to wait.
And wait we do. The minutes tick by with no transport forthcoming. More revellers join us at the bus stop. A girl wearing a leopard-print miniskirt throws up inches away from me. Icicles begin to form on our ardour. We now stand side-by-side, frozen, facing dead ahead. We haven't spoken for a while, the chill extinguishing the heat of our fiery, passionate promises. I'm starting to forget what those sparkling eyes look like. My teeth chatter. I pray for a cab, any cab - even an illegal one with a really talkative driver who's smoking crack and just needs to "drop something off at a mate's house on the way" - but none comes. My flesh screams.
Finally, over half an hour later, our red, brightly lit saviour arrives. It's packed with the contents of every avoidable pub in London and smells like fried chicken. It stops at every single stop. We sit in silence as the bus's passengers roar around us. We brush hands and quickly move them away. I can feel the growing heat of his leg on my own. My ears are numb. My date yawns and sniffles loudly.
At last, we are alone in my flat. We regard each other blankly. I cough with enough power to singlehandedly reintroduce the bubonic plague. His beautiful nose is scarlet; his eyes dulled and small.
"I'm really tired," he whimpers. "And cold. Can I borrow some pyjamas?"
Stats: 33, 6'1", black/blue, Gloucestershire
When: Late 2011
Where: Shoreditch, east London
Pre-date rating: 9/10
Post-date rating: 9.25/10
Date in one sentence: The hottest start has the coldest end.
A truncated version of this post first appeared in GT magazine, where I write a monthly column about my dating experiences. Find out when the next issue is due on the GT website.
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