About a year after my wife was killed, I was asked by some newspaper or other to write about my experience of dating as a widower. Having not written a word of fiction or fantasy since leaving high school, I politely declined the offer and rolled my eyes at the assumption that I would be back in the game so soon.
I could probably write an entire book on the subject now. And not because I've suddenly uncovered my latent Lothario but because of all the stories I've heard from other widowed men and women over the years. With my sense of humour and heart now firmly back intact, these days I yearn for both the squirm of another tale of disastrous dating endeavour and the fuzziness I feel when I hear stories of love fighting back through adversity.
I recently met up with a friend I made through Facebook after his wife died. We are the same age, were born on the exact same day, and, perhaps mystically, we tend to see the world in a similar way. We both work too hard and worry about our kids too much. We laugh a lot though, as well, so it's always fun comparing notes about our journeys through single parenthood and working out what we're going to do next. It's rarely anything subtle or tame either; we both seem to share a series of potentially life-changing plans with the same levels of fear or anxiety as a seasoned drinker might experience when ordering a beer at an empty bar.
For this particular scene, that's exactly where we were: in a dive bar that I used to love when I was in my twenties. Back then it was one of central London's best kept secrets. Even the barely-there sign outside on the street used to suggest that they didn't really want anyone to know about it. I used to feel a pang of excitement every time I descended down its narrow iron staircase and into its cavernous interior; sweet and heady with the smell of spirits, botanicals and real cigarette smoke.
This time round, though, it felt like a metaphor for the life I have lived for many of the years since my last visit: disappointing, dank and noticeably shabby arounds the edges. I looked at the table where I last sat with my wife and a old colleague - who she told looked like a cow (due to his insanely long eyelashes) - and smiled. She was the only person I'd ever met who could make a compliment sound like a borderline insult and yet still retain her unique gift of childlike charm. All of this residual magnetism had left the building, though. The whole place seemed tarnished; I even had to wipe someone's lipstick off my glass.
I let it all wash over me regardless and asked my friend what was happening in his love life. Now, I don't profess to understanding relationships any more than I ever did before, but there are some certainties in dating a widowed person:
1. Their husband or wife is dead
2. They are staying dead
3. They, by very nature of being dead, do not pose any immediate threat to any new love interests
4. They will (most likely) always love their deceased spouse
(It's worth referring to points one to three if point four presents any sense of discomfort).
5. They will still grieve (grief's a stubborn fucker and it probably will show its face on birthdays, anniversaries, at Christmas and whenever the hell else it wants to, so a new relationship doesn't mean the end of an old one)
6. They might not have a precise life plan anymore by virtue of the fact that life so abruptly unplanned itself the first time around
There's also one simple thing everyone should know about how to judge a widowed person who is brave enough to go out and put their heart on the line again: don't. Widowhood doesn't open up a person's relationship status to committee any more than it does when two people break up. It's a personal not public decision.
Point six was the the main source of our entertainment as we drank unceremoniously mixed cocktails in our underwhelming man cave.
'So, I was dating this girl for a bit,' he began, 'when she suddenly broke things off. She told me that we wanted different things.'
'And had you even told her what you wanted?' I asked, unsure that he would give himself away quite so readily.
'How could I?' he replied. 'I don't even know what I want!'
I nearly sprayed my drink laughing. The idea that a casual date, who knows very little about the other person, could read their thoughts when they can't even order or articulate their own is entirely absurd. As if being widowed automatically means a person wants to 'settle down' again or that - in the case of widowed parents - they are looking for someone to help co-parent or even procreate some more.
The truth is no relationship should start based on assumptions regardless of the marital status box a person is forced to tick. Honesty is always the key. It's just a very tricky key to turn if you're not even sure how to be honest with yourself quite yet.
I guess it's not so surprising that my young(ish) widowed friends and acquaintances find it hard to navigate their way through the modern dating game. My last pre-widowed date preceded even MySpace and so it was near impossible to meet someone new without venturing out to pubs, clubs and parties. Back then attention spans were longer and the search for that special someone was infinitely slower. A decade-plus hiatus has made us analogue singles cast into a digital dating world. Human beings with more feelings than we know what to do with (and in the case of us single parents, next to no free time) left with little option but to follow the near robotic pursuit of swiping through a digital deck of filtered faces.
Perhaps the trick is having the foresight to know exactly what we want before we even start out and setting this out as a precise plan on our profiles. Maybe that way we could skip past the first, second and third date and head straight forth towards the chapel. After all, that must be what we're all after, right?