Category Archives: Bad dates

The Also-Ran

Is there anything less sexy than a date who dumps all his problems on you? Is it really only nice guys who finish last?

Internet dating attracts the loneliest of souls. Behind every profile advertising a “vivacious go-getter”, there’s a self-doubting emotional wreck searching for a friendly face upon which they can offload their problems – and little else. Sadly. Thankfully. Everybody’s got their problems; some of them like to share them on a supposedly romantic evening. It’s a risky seduction technique, but depressingly popular.

Tonight, I’m playing shrink to Christopher, an aspiring novelist with faux-messy hair and a bowtie. Aspiring. Bonjour alarm bells – aspirations are doppelgangers of unrealised, far-fetched fantasies.

His profile promised the romantic equivalent of high-speed broadband. Instead he is, at best, alternately fizzing and flatlining dial-up on the Isle of Skye. He’s telling me about his career thus far. It’s light on comedy.

“I’ve wasted chances, fucked up opportunities, chased stupid dreams that turned into nightmares and missed out on a podium place every single time. I try not to be bitter about it, but it’s hard. I wish things were different. I wish I wasn’t such a, such a…” he begins to stammer.

I eye my beer wearily.
“Such a what?” I prompt.

He sighs heavily. Any joy remaining in the room is quickly sucked out of it.
He continues: “Such an also-ran. A bystander. I’ve never been at the centre of anything. Always in orbit. Uranus.”

I do the obligatory schoolboy laugh, but he ploughs on, deadly serious. “I wish I’d been less of a loser.”

I begin to wish he hadn’t ordered that gin and tonic.
“You don’t really feel that way about yourself, do you?” I say.

He looks up from the table, his eyes sad and grey, like the unluckiest pensioner in the bingo hall.
“I’m afraid so. I try and try but nothing seems to work. All my relationships have been a disaster. Men screw me over all the time.”

He’s doing a dreadful PR job on himself. What am I supposed to say? I have never met him before; I only have his side of the story. If he was this scintillating on dates to other men, no wonder all they wanted to do was roll in the hay and run. Do nice guys all really finish last? Or is there a reason you’re destined to be runner-up? I’m not sure I want to find out, and he doesn’t look like he needs psychoanalysing. Just a hug and that gin taking away from him would do, I reckon.

We haven’t known each other long enough for physical contact, so a verbal ruffling of the hair will have to do.

“I’m sure you’ve just been unlucky,” I offer.
He looks down again, utterly convinced. “Yeah, maybe.”
A huge sigh. His eyes return to mine. “Not much chance of a second date, I suppose?” he says.

My mouth dribbles into a weak smile.  I feel celibacy’s icy fingers grip my balls.
“I think you’ve just had a bad day. Let’s try another, some other time.” It feels about as sincere as a Christmas card with a live grenade attached.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, and we finish our drinks before heading out into the night and away from each other.

Over the next few days, I think about whether to contact him again. Sure, he was a bit of a downer, but maybe he’d had a bad day. And while he’d been screwed over by men before, perhaps I can prove we’re not all the same. Considering those vulnerable eyes, I finally do contact him – a text proposing a drink.

I wait. Nothing comes in return that evening. Busy, maybe. Out of the country. And, then two days later, my phone buzzes.
“Nice of you to get in touch,” comes the reply. “But I kind of got a better offer. LOL. Was nice to meet you. Take care.”

Maybe I should be irked, but I’m not. His curse looks to be finally broken. Second prize now belongs to me.

Stats: 35, 5’8”, brown/grey, Shropshire
Where: Columbia Rd, London
Pre-date rating: 7/10
Post-date rating: 3/10
Date in one sentence: The world’s biggest loser wins the lottery.

The Raincheck

Stats: 38, 5’10″, brown/brown, Inverness
Where: Central London
Pre-date rating: 7/10

“It’s raining” is the first thing out of his mouth.
“I know.”
He hops from one foot to the other as if avoiding drops of lava from the sky. He seems stressed.
“Well, what should we do?” he asks. “It’s raining!”
Let’s go into the gallery,” I reply, wishing I had brought an umbrella – not to keep me dry, but to shove in my date’s mouth. I try to shake the last time I went to a gallery with a date from my mind. This will be different.

Afternoon dates are always a risk. Daylight can be unforgiving, of course, and going for a drink in the afternoon always seems a little seedy when you’re with a stranger. But here I am, in the absence of anything to do on a grey Saturday afternoon other than count the spatters of tea next to the bin (I’m quite athletic when it comes to chucking tea bags away). I didn’t factor in the rain, but here it is, like a gooseberry. A wet, miserable chaperone to match my date’s mood.

I know exactly why he’s upset. He has a ‘hairstyle’. It’s a huge quiff, which wasn’t in his photos, so either it’s a new thing he’s trying out (with limited success today), or his pictures are aeons old. I watch the rain trickle down the lines by his eyes. The quiff, like his photos,  is not new.

We duck into the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favourites. Obviously, lots of other people have had the same idea – the lobby is filled with pissed-off looking people who wouldn’t normally be in here, shaking off sodden cuffs and looking bewildered. The air is heavy and humid. It smells of wet hair and halitosis and museum.

“Do you want to start at the top and work our way down, or look around the bottom floor?” I ask, praying he won’t come back with a double-entendre.
“Well,” he whispers, narrowing his eyes in a way I imagine he thinks is sexy. “I was hoping to get to know you a bit better first, but I always like to start at the top.” There is no God.
I laugh a laugh so fake I should be arrested, and we make our way up the long escalator to the top floor.

We talk, mainly about the pictures of various Tudors in front of us. I’m not particularly highbrow, but his exclamations about how difficult it must’ve been to have sex in the outfits they wore and musing whether Henry VIII was well-endowed make me feel like a schoolteacher taking a wang-obsessed pupil on a day out. I have to get him away from these paintings.

Down a floor, then. He finally stops wondering about the sex lives of all the subjects in the portraits and casts his dirty little mind to me instead.
“I hope you don’t mind my wee joke about tops earlier,” he says.
Ah, so he’s kind of read me already. That’s good, I suppose. I’m not a prude or anything, but it was a bit awkward. But, really, I should lighten up. It was just a joke. Anyone else would’ve answered similarly, I’m sure.
“No, of course not.” I smile. Too widely.
“Good,” he says, and our eyes exchange a look that means something and it feels nice.
“But out of interest,” he carries on. “Which are you? Give or take? I’ll do you either way; I’m not that fussy.”

I am back out in the rain ten minutes later and it has never felt so good to be wet and alone.

Post-date rating: 1/10
Date in one word: Versatile.

The Late Great Letdown

Searching for Mr Right, it’s a sad fact that I’m equally Mr Wrong for plenty of others. Could tonight be different? It is, after all, our second outing. Our first date seemed to be a meeting of minds, if not bodies. While we both definitely fancied each other, we didn’t so much as kiss. It felt liberating, refreshing, to end things on a high note but stay out of the bedroom. Not that every good date has ended in a roll in the hay, but there’s nothing wrong with a wander round the field if you fancy it.

After a few texts, we agree to meet again. It does take a good fortnight before any plans are in place, and while usually alarm bells would be ringing – if you really want things to get going, you see each other pretty sharpish – he does sound genuinely regretful that he’s been so busy. I have half-forgotten what he looks like, but I do remember liking what I saw, so am looking forward to round two – a Sunday evening.

Oddly, he says he wants to go back to the same pub we met in first time around. This has never happened before – usually a date will want to try something different for a second date, or leave the choosing up to me, but my date is adamant. One concession to changing things up is “Maybe we can eat this time?”

When he arrives, I see he is still good-looking, although not as smiley. Plus, he’s 15 minutes late. He was also late on our first date, but this time there are no apologetic texts or jokey drink requests, he just turns up, panting like a poodle. It does, at least, look to have run the last few steps to the pub. His eyes flick over me, but his expression is unreadable. He gets himself a drink. He didn’t offer me one, but perhaps he saw I already had one. It is, of course half-empty. I was on time.

He finally sits, looking me and up and down again, keenly, I think. He’s sexy, stylish and smells like a corner of heaven. We’ve both browsed the aisles and been enchanted by the packaging – let’s see what’s inside.

At first it is almost like the last date. He’s funny, and talkative, saying all the right things when I ask, but I’m not sure he’s quite as enamoured. He says he has come straight from a barbecue with friends and that he’d been having a great afternoon. I start to feel sorry I dragged him away. He’s distracted, and can’t get comfortable on the large couch we’re sitting on, turning that way and this until he finds the perfect spot – with every limb facing away from me. OK, then.

I rapidly become nervous as I see a sure thing slip away from me. The first date went so well, I hadn’t really felt like I was trying; now I’m flailing and babbling. And when I’m not firing off questions, there is silence. I watch him fidget like a constipated toddler on a tricycle trying to let out a fart. He fiddles with his laces, runs his hands through his hair, undoes and refastens the top couple of buttons on his shirt and taps his tanned throat edgily. He’s about as excited to be here as you would be your own cremation. It is all going to shit, but I don’t think it’s anything I have done. I have played it exactly like last time. He said he wanted to do it again. We’re even in the same pub, a perfect spot for an exact rerun. What’s changed in two weeks? Apart from absolutely everything?

A waiter approaches the table with menus.
“Will you be eating?” he drawls, running a stained cloth over one far corner of the table.
I look at my date for confirmation. “Are we?”
He stares back blankly. “Errrr.”
The waiter lingers, silently. I gaze up at him. “We’ll have a look at the menus.”
The waiter shrugs and slides the menu across the table, now even stickier thanks to his half-arsed wiping, and walks off. My date and I both stare at them, but do not pick them up.

Finally, a question from my date. “Do you watch any boxsets?” he asks, his eyes trained about three kilometres to the left of my head.
Great. I shouldn’t waste the opportunity, though, so start to tell him about what I’ve been watching.

Suddenly, as I’m three sentences in, he jumps up, announcing he’s off to the loo. I sit meekly, awaiting his return. I’m sure I heard the distinctive hum of a vibrating phone just before he leapt up. No. Surely not. I’m probably being paranoid. A barmaid comes over, asking whether we need more drinks. I consider this. Best to wait.

And wait I do, a good five or six minutes. It doesn’t sound like very long, but when you’re on a date it is an eternity. Eventually, he returns, sits and turns toward me (finally!) with a pathetic little cough.

“I’m starting to feel a bit ill,” he says, patting his stomach.
“Oh dear,” I reply, with a hint of genuine concern. “Are you OK? Do you need to, erm, go?”

I am, naturally, expecting him to say no. He didn’t say he was dying and he looks, well, fine. I am about to be disappointed.

“Yeah, I wanna go,” comes the heart-stopping reply. As soon as he says it, he visibly brightens and picks up his drink. Realising an ‘ill’ person probably wouldn’t want to finish the dregs of a pint, he quickly puts the glass back down and turns to me once more.

“Thanks for being so understanding,” he whimpers.
I look back at my glass, by now long empty, and feel sorry this handsome man isn’t likely to be buying me a drink any time soon. He could really be unwell, of course. But I know he isn’t. Call it cold feet, a change of heart or a better offer coming his way, but he regretted making the date before he’d even set off. He’s used his Get Out Of Jail card; I’ve been there.

We leave together. I check my reflection briefly in the mirror as we walk out of the door, wondering whether I have grown an extra head since our last date or aged twenty years. “I’m really sorry,” he says, with the smallest allusion of sincerity. “Let’s rearrange for next week when I’m better.”

Last time we met I offered to wait with him for his bus, but tonight I just nod dumbly and turn away. I look back just once to see him bounding up the road, checking his phone. I hop on my bus and slump into the seat farthest away from everyone else, guessing (correctly) that I’ll never hear from him again.

Home time, Mr Wrong.

Date rating: 3/10
Date in one line: Time’s up.

This post is a follow-up to the Late Great. It went pretty well, surprisingly. Give it a read.

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.

The Time Thief

Stats: 37, height unknown, blond/blue
Where: Central London
Pre-date rating: 8/10

Clocks. All they do is tick and make people fret. I’ve been waiting at the bar for about 15 minutes now, for the latest contestant in the endless gameshow that is my dating life to turn up. I don’t believe in fashionably late – stylish punctuality is much more my kind of thing – and tardiness should always be explained with a conciliatory text or even a phonecall. So far, nothing.

Everywhere I turn there is a clock reminding me how late my date is. Late, late, late. I can’t look at my wrist any more, above the bar is off limits, and outside, a clock tower looms in my eyeline. And just to serve as one more reminder, even the barman’s wonky eyes are positioned at ten to two. I roll my own baby-blues and go back to studying my rapidly draining pint glass.

I have a bad feeling about this one, I have to say, and his delayed arrival isn’t helping to soothe my worries. He almost seemed too perfect, too good-looking, too eager. His one profile photo, of him and a pudgy mate on a beach in Ibiza, was tempting. ‘All this could be yours’ it seemed to say. I didn’t even bother exchanging much more than the usual pleasantries with this one. I purposefully cut the email chat dead before he managed to woo me with the written word, only to disappoint ‘live’, as happens only too often.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to go for it, throw caution to the wind. At least that’s what every idiot who ever took a stupid risk says. But he looks so good. If something looks too good to be true, it usually is, of course. So where is he now?

Finally, my phone vibrates with that hallowed text. His arrival is imminent, he says, as if he is an emperor or an aeroplane. I stand up from the bar stool and quickly survey myself from top to bottom in a mirrored pillar nearby. Looking up and seeing clocks no longer holds any fear for me, not now I know he’s on his way.

I look OK; I may even have gone to a little more effort than usual. I smooth out the creases in my corduroys – sadly the ones in my face are immovable – and straighten my collar.

Just then, a sound at my right ear. My name. He’s here. I spin round, my face a picture of expectant elation. The joy is shortlived. My mind races back to the profile picture. My shallowness has got the punishment it truly deserves. The pudgy friend is not a friend; he is my date.

Tip: always ask for another photo.

Post-date rating: 4/10
Date in one sentence: To assume is to make an ass of you and me, but mainly, disastrously, me.

– A truncated version of this post originally appeared in my monthly column in Gay Times.

The Lollipop

Stats: 28, 5’11″, brown/blue, Taunton
Where: Regents Park, London
Pre-date rating: 6/10

“Go on, just suck it. You might like it.”
I roll my eyes. Yet another date who confuses sleaze and innuendo with flirtation. For me, they’re uneasy bedfellows.

I’m sitting in the park on an unseasonably warm day for the time of year. Before me is a mini banquet of all manner of romantic foods: chocolates; adorable cupcakes; dinky little sandwiches with the corners cut off; fizz. And yet there is no spark whatsoever between me and my date, who now sits next to me proffering a red lollipop, eager for me to wrap my lips around it. No doubt he’s anticipating a preview of the ‘technique’ that I am now absolutely certain he is never going to experience in real life.

You should try to avoid going on dates if you’re not that keen on the person. While it can be nice to ‘get out of the house’, toying with someone’s affections merely because you don’t have anything else in the diary is unfair. I am, of course, filled to the rafters with advice I never take and standards I set but refuse to live by, so, through lack of other options, I’m here with Graham, an accountant from what he calls “the West Country”, getting grass stains on my favourite shorts. I’m a bad person, I know; I don’t need telling twice.

This is our second date – our first was a run-of-the-mill ‘four drinks and home’ on a Thursday night. There was a distinct lack of something on our first meeting, but he has a nice face and has made the fatal mistake of acting as if he is very ‘into me’ – the ultimate aphrodisiac. I am nothing if not vain and stupid, so rather than politely decline his invitation to poke over finger food in the middle of Regents Park, I accepted. For one brief, idiotic moment I imagined an afternoon basking in the undivided attention of a pretty boy would be a good way to spend the weekend and a relatively wholesome one at that. Instead, he’s trying to get me to fellate sugary treats in an effort to move the date on from being two vague acquaintances nodding at each other across a picnic blanket, to a pair of lusty bodies writhing around in the herbaceous borders.

He’s giving up his Saturday for what he thinks is a sure thing, so I do feel a little disingenuous having agreed to meet him. Lewd lollipops aside, he’s gone all out to charm me – and his picnic is impressive – but, like I say, I didn’t have anything better to do anyway. Sometimes that’s the only reason guys say yes to a date – an empty horizon. I have jumped upon the wrong ship out of sheer desperation.

I take the lollipop, despite myself, and wrap my mouth around it. He watches, transfixed, like a businessman watching a stripper take her bra off. To make up for my guilt at wasting his time, I make more of an effort to be entertaining and chatty. I know this isn’t going anywhere, but I don’t have to act like an arsehole. I at least owe him some conversation. I ask him lots of questions and he answers them eagerly. I quickly realise my renewed interest in him is making him like me even more. I’m not really sure how to extricate myself from this, so I turn on to my front and prop myself up with my elbows, noseying at everybody else in the park. He reaches out and strokes the back of my knee with his hand. I turn to look at him; he’s staring straight ahead. His facial expression displays nonchalance, but the tremble of his touch betrays him. Soon, the sun starts to slink off behind the trees. I sit up and nervously fidget with the lolly wrapper. He fixes his doe eyes upon me and asks: “What are you doing tonight?”

I lie back on the grass and close my eyes tightly. I hear the splash of prosecco as he refills my glass. “Nothing,” I say. “I’m free tonight.”

I open my eyes and he is looking back at me. I guess he’s maybe thinking that ‘sure thing’ is going to work out for him after all. He’s pleased, hopeful – whereas I just wish I’d never laid eyes on that bloody lollipop.

Post-date rating: 6/10
Date in one sentence: Don’t suck anything unless you’re prepared to face the consequences.

Bicycle

The Pedal Pusher

Stats: 28, 5’10, blond/blue, London
Where: Shoreditch, London
Pre-date rating: 7.5/10

There are some dates you feel you should go on, even if you really ought not to. Maybe it’s because somebody incredibly handsome has deigned to ask you out, or perhaps you are lonely, and your diary tells you this coming Friday is a blank space, its page a polar landscape.

Whatever the reason, sometimes we say yes when we should be raising the drawbridge in an emphatic no. Johnny, 28, is such a no. But his square jaw and icy blue eyes draw me in, and he pets my vanity like I’m a cat drunk on all the milk in the world – he contacts me first and tells me he likes my smile. I’m flattered enough that I set aside my misgivings about his profile – one of his ‘absolute musts’ is that his date be a “keen cyclist”. I’m keen as mustard about plenty, but freewheeling around on a metal, bulimic horse with pedals isn’t one of them. I enjoy it when I’m doing it, but I’m not a confident cyclist, especially in London. But his missives are so charming and touchingly direct, like an awkward Head Boy asking me to dance at a school disco, that I am sucked in to whatever it is he is doing. It feels wrong, fake somehow.

Finally, he asks me out for a drink. I hesitate.
At last: “It says on your profile you want to go out with a cyclist. I am not one.”
The reply: “Oh that? No, it’s fine. I don’t know why I said that; it’s silly.” I can almost hear him laughing as he types that. Almost. It’s a hollow laugh.

On the actual night of our date, I fall victim to traffic and am a few minutes late. As I bound up to the pub, I spy a few cycles tied to the lone lamppost outside. They seem to be twisted around each other in an inextricable tangle, a frenzied orgy of metal, chain and oil. I wonder if one belongs to the guy awaiting me inside. He is sitting directly opposite the door to the pub, staring ahead intently. He seems annoyed at my tardiness, which I would understand, except I texted to let him know and, let’s not forget, it wasn’t intentional. I apologise in mock breathlessness – I didn’t run that fast to get there – and despatch myself to the bar to get us drinks, in the hope it will our oil on his Atlantic mood. When I return, he has thawed somewhat, but his jaw still seems set. Perhaps if he were to relax it, the entire bottom half of his face would come crashing down, like a pelican’s bill.

On some men, a brusque nature can be quite attractive. Everybody wants to be the one to force the clam and find the pearl, after all. On others, however, it is wearing, and my brightness feels forced, like a battered spouse trying to keep the peace. Any jokes I make are met with a kind of half-smile, half-sneer, and his own conversational attempts don’t seem to run to much more than sullen critiques of the world in general. I put it down to the same awkwardness I spotted in his emails, and resolve to try a bit harder – he’s really good looking and his chest – straining beneath his shirt – looks like it might be fun to wander over. I decide to take things back to his comfort zone, then; I will take the whining child to Disneyland. I broach the subject of cycling.

Suddenly, he comes alive. His biggest relationship, it seems, isn’t with the guy who worked in PR with wandering eyes and hands and dumped him last year, but his two-wheeled lover. He has had most of the best experiences of his life behind those handlebars, he says, and loves that he never knows where his next adventure will take him. There is something touching about that. I almost envy him his fanaticism, and it’s clear his passion for pedalling has served him well physically, if nothing else.
With the fire well and truly in his belly and a previously unforeseen sparkle in his eyes, he turns to me and says: “So do you cycle?”

I cough, embarrassed. I made it clear I didn’t cycle in the email and he said it was fine. Should I point this out? He obviously forgot. I’ll play along. “No, not really.”
He looks disappointed, like, immediately. As if I trod on his puppy’s head or broke the crushing news about Santa Claus.
“What does ‘not really’ mean?” he asks, incredulous.
“Well,” I begin cautiously. “I mean, I haven’t really ridden a bike regularly since I was at uni.”
He is wide-eyed. “And that’s what? Twenty years ago?”
My eyes shrink to slits as the diss registers. “Thirteen, actually. I haven’t needed to ride a bike since then. And I’d be uncomfortable riding a bike around London.”
“Don’t you mean you’d be scared?”
I sigh. “Yeah, if you like. Scared. That’s not too weird, is it? There are loads of accidents.”
“Not if you’re careful. You just have to own the road.”
I roll my eyes. “A juggernaut hurtling around the Elephant and Castle roundabout begs to differ,” I reply.
“Wouldn’t you at least try?”
“I did,” I say. “I hired a Boris bike for the first time recently. It was horrible.”
“Why?” he says, with a definite sulk.
“I felt nervous and out of control; I’m not a confident road user. Why put myself and others at risk?”
He leans back in his chair. “So basically you’re a chicken?”

I search his face for glints of humour, or signs this is a wind-up. It isn’t. I feel suddenly very tired. I don’t have an answer for him.
He continues: “Look, like I said on my profile, I am really into cycling. It’s important that anyone I, er, anyone I share my, um.” He falters. “Anyone who goes out with me needs to cycle, really.”
They’ll also need nerves of steel. I sip my drink and consider my answer. What witticism can I throw back? Whither my bag of jokes and pithy putdowns? It’s empty; I can’t be bothered.
Finally, I speak: “Yeah. Well, I don’t. Pretty much ever.” Another sip. “I run, though.”
He laughs with a final sneer. “Pah. I don’t think you running alongside my bike like a dog is really going to work, do you?”
No, Johnny. No, I don’t.

On leaving the pub, I wait dutifully while he untangles his bike from the spaghetti junction at the lamppost. I don’t know why I wait. What do I want, I wonder. Once he has freed his iron-framed boyfriend, he gives me a lascivious look.
“I could just push it along if you wanted to go on somewhere,” he says, as if we have just spent the most thrilling hour of our lives together. He goes on: “Or, actually, I’ve got some gin back at mine.”
I see. He wants to check out my saddle, after all. I look from him to his bike. I wonder which would give the most satisfying ride. I sigh and begin walking. In the opposite direction.

On arriving home, I turn out the lights and go to the window, as I sometimes do when I first get in after a date. I look out at the buses hurtling by, filled with people, and the taxis and the passers-by and the drunks and the hubbub, and I cast my eye back over my empty kitchen, my shadow long and lonely against the tiled wall. I am envious of them all in a way, but at least I didn’t go home with Johnny. I will always have that.

I look out of the window again, and see a lone cyclist zooming down the road. The lights change, and he quickly mounts the pavement to avoid them. A woman at the crossing shouts after him: “You stupid twat!”

Exactly.

Post-date rating: 3.5/10
Date in one sentence: One drink good, two wheels bad.

Image: Zefrog on Flickr

The Ex at Stage Left

Stats: 31, 5’11”, mousey brown/blue, Worcestershire
Where: Columbia Road, East London 
Pre-date rating: 8/10 

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.”

Post-date rating: 4/10
Date in one sentence: Dean cries a river over me, but not because of me.

The Quizmaster

Stats: 37, 5’8″, brown/green, London
Where: South bank, London
Pre-date rating: 6/10

No. It’s a simple enough word to say. Just the solitary syllable, after all, and one I always delighted in spitting out as a child when asked to do something. And it’s the word I’m focusing on as I sit opposite Alistair, a good-natured, OK-looking civil servant who’s been sitting bolt upright in front of me for the last two hours.

However did we get here, to this date which has very quickly turned into a hugely unsexy business meeting? He is nice enough – inoffensive, polite, clean. But there is no charm, no flirtation. I thrive on flirtation on dates; it’s the plutonium I need to get me to the end of the night. From him, however, there is none. Usually I’d put this down to nervousness or shyness, but that’s not the case here. He exudes a kind of bland confidence; he’s not brash or assertive, just, well, a bit boring.

The chemistry between us borders on nonexistent, but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He doesn’t say much, but when he does speak it’s in an even, emotionless voice. I feel compelled to get up from my seat and look at the back of his neck to see if there’s a flap where batteries would go.

Alistair is a man with a formula. He asks a question, gets his answer and before I can ask one back, he asks another, and another and another, pausing only to talk about something else unrelated to him, or indeed anything. Every question I answer is met with “Yes, yes. Of course. Yes” but no further detail or exploration. He jumps straight on to the next question, like he has a list of checkboxes in his head. I feel like I’m being assessed for a mortgage.

What is he hiding? Is there a big secret? Either he lives a double life and is scared of revealing the truth or, much more likely, he’s a dullard and is scared his answers will give him away. At each lull in conversation, he springs up and offers to go to the bar, bringing back a different drink every time, claiming they didn’t have what I asked for and I should try this much more potent, brightly coloured cocktail instead. The Long John Silver of insipid is trying to distract me with his garish parrot. I should say no before he makes his way to the bar, I know, but don’t.

He talks about his life and his job as if reading out instructions on how to plumb in a washing machine, the monotone almost sending me to sleep. Add to that my wooziness from the cocktail, and I start to feel like I’ve been the subject of a chemical-free spiking.

I soon realise I should call time when he expresses interest in the fact I live alone. It’s the one time his voice ever changes pitch from its air-raid siren drone and gets slightly more excitable. I’m slightly incredulous; all we’ve done is sit at the same table for an evening, with absolutely no sign of mutual enthusiasm whatsoever. Suddenly, now the night is drawing in and the bus stop is calling, he’s pulling an attraction out of the air. I don’t believe for one minute he’s remotely interested in me. I make noises about having to go, and hope I’m making it clear I’ll be doing that alone. His voice quickly returns to its natural, flatlining state. If he’s disappointed, his poker face doesn’t show it.

Yet he hasn’t been a totally awful date. He hasn’t been an arsehole, or upset me, or been dismissive. I won’t be walking away from the date thinking I’ve had a lucky escape. I feel uncharitable for thinking him dull; what’s wrong with someone just being a nice guy?

So when the date is finally over – just as I finish counting the freckles on his face and arms for the twentieth time – and he asks me whether I’d like to do it again, I don’t say no. I don’t make up excuses about being busy with work or having to go away a lot. I don’t smile weakly, shake his hand and say that while he’s a sterling guy, we’ve nothing in common and our time together made me feel like I was drowning in a litre of magnolia paint. Instead, I grin widely, give him an enthusiastic hug and ignore “no” in favour of its destructive evil twin. “Yes,” I say. “That’d be brilliant. Yes!”

Post-date rating: 6/10
Date in one sentence: Mr Cellophane just won’t stick.

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.

The Saint

Stats: 36, 5’8”, blue/brown, London
When: Summer 2010
Where: South bank, London, SE1
Pre-date rating: 7/10

Going for a date by the river is always a risk. No matter how limpid a pool the baby blues, greens or browns across from you might be, one lull in conversation is all it takes before your own peepers wander over to take in the Thames in all her glory, rippling in resplendent muddy brown while your date tells you about a pony trekking holiday he took when he was 7.

It’s 7.30pm, it’s a Thursday evening and I am sitting scratching my name into a wooden table outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall while my date enters his twentieth minute talking about his job. Oh, this happens. The problem with asking people what they do for a living is that they tell you, and, unless you break in with a new topic of conversation or dash your drink in their face, they go on telling you all about it – every email sent, tea run completed and pat on the back from the boss is documented before you.

He works for a charity, which would be very impressive were he a bit more humble about it. He just wishes there were more he could do. He knew from the minute he could talk and walk that he wanted to devote his life to the service of others. I bite my tongue and thus do not ask him why he didn’t become a priest, perhaps, or take up a role at the window of a drive-thru McDonald’s.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve helped people,” he trills.
“Oh, that’s good,” I reply, “were you in the Cubs or Scouts, then?”
“Well, no, because I didn’t really like the uniform and they tended to do stuff at the weekends and I wanted to be playing out on my street,” comes the astounding retort.
“So what did you do?” I ask, twirling my straw around in my gin and tonic with enough force to start a quinine-based tsunami.
“Well, I was always on hand if anyone needed anything. ‘Mummy’s little saint’, my sisters used to call me.”
I bet they did.

I can just see him now: the pint-sized archangel popping round to his elderly neighbour’s house to trim his hedge and make him his tea; arriving home to help his little sister with her geometry homework and then slipping a fiver in his mum’s purse so she has enough for her lunch the next day, before trudging up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire for a lengthy slumber, dreaming of cocks in every hole.

The niceness of his profession – and he is at pains to run me through the figures of how many people he’s helped over the last year – seems to curdle with the perceived selfishness of my own. “I mean,” he says, “it’s great to do a job where you can really make a difference to people’s lives.” I try to imagine how many existences I’ve changed just by tapping away on a keyboard. I draw a blank.

“I have to raise my hat to you, though,” he says, with all the sincerity of a doctor’s receptionist wishing you a Merry Christmas, “I’m not sure I could work in such a corporate environment.” Corporate environment? Sitting at my kitchen table? And I suppose his own workplace is like backstage at Live Aid, right? I smile serenely and look away to the river.

He’s a good guy, I get it; the world is full of them. But surely the very best of all the good guys don’t like to go on about it? Bruce Wayne donned the bat ears for a reason, after all. It’s clear he has a big heart – with a head to match.

He asks about my job in more detail, but with each nod of the head as he strains to listen to each point, I’m starting to feel more and more superficial, a fraud and phoney. Nothing I do really helps anyone. But not everybody wants to be helped 24/7. I also want to move off the subject of work; the world of the 9–5 isn’t something couples should share all the time, and I’d rather my beau were more interested in me after I clocked off and kicked off my shiny office shoes (figurative footwear, of course – I am, as ever, in Converse morning, noon and night).

But when it comes to a social life, my date has little to say. He thinks I should volunteer at the weekend – he’s obviously changed his tune since his days of being desperate to play out as a boy – and wants to know why I don’t give my bank account details to charity workers on the street looking for direct debit regular donations. I roll my eyes.

“It’s almost like you’re doing a PR job on me,” I laugh.
“Oh, haha, well, er, of course, I’m not,” he smiles. “But.” He pauses to reach down under the table. Forward. Oh no, hang on; he’s grabbing his despatch bag. He pulls it out and rests it on the table, laboriously unfastening the Velcro on the dog-eared flap. “If you ever change your mind,” he continues, pulling out what looks like a leaflet, “a little really does make a lot of difference.”

He places what I see now is a thin, brightly coloured brochure before me. The gin I spilled when swishing my straw soaks into it and begins making its way across the printed surface.

“I know it’s a cliché,” I say, looking up from the table and back to my date, before finally settling my gaze on the river one last time. “But, for me, charity really does begin at home.”

And that’s exactly where I go.

Post-date rating: 5/10
Date in one sentence: This goody-two-shoes was in serious need of a cobbler.

The Dark Mirror

Stats: 33, 5’10” brown/blue, northern England
When: Winter 2011
Where: Soho, W1
Pre-date rating: 8/10

You would think I’d have long banished any first date nerves to the recycle bin, such is my vast experience of dating. I’ve walked into so many bars over the years, each time not knowing what kind of evening – or man – awaits me, that I should be a seasoned professional. But the jitters never go away.

The situations may be familiar, but each date is a new person, different from the last, with a slew of brand new insecurities to discover and, of course, meeting me for the first time.

As anyone who has read me for longer than ten minutes will know, I come with my own set of problems and insurmountable difficulties. I’m no picnic, and as much as I try to be the very sweetest of apple pies on my date, sometimes a piece of rotten fruit will sneak in beneath the pastry. But enough clumsy baking analogies; let’s get on with the date.

I’m in a bar waiting for tonight’s contestant. I’m not thrilled about having arrived first. Dates I have to wait for don’t turn out too well, usually. I automatically feel wrong-footed and awkward. When they arrive, should I stay seated or stand to say hello? A kiss on the cheek or a manly shake of the hand?

Somehow, I fall into a more natural rhythm when I’m second to arrive; I’m so busy breezily saying my hellos that I don’t worry about what to shake and where to kiss. But here I sit, waiting, shifting awkwardly in my seat like I’m waiting to go through customs with a balloon full of cocaine up my bottom.

Mr Tonight could break the run of bad luck, however. On paper – or screen, at least – we get on very well. Each time I send off another email full of good-natured barbs and what I hope are sharp wisecracks, he replies fairly soon after with a similar amount of zingers. He’s clever, funny and just the right side of self-deprecating without self-flagellation. He sounds a little surer of himself than me, but confidence is certainly a turn-on, so long as it doesn’t nosedive into cockiness.

Looks-wise, he seems okay. His photos have all been fairly terrible, whether subjected to bad angles, poor light conditions or him just pulling the wrong face at the wrong time. I’m not exactly photogenic myself, so prepare to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, you can’t have a relationship with a Polaroid – all that really matters is flesh and bone. Especially the bone.

If anything, he looks slightly familiar. If I haven’t met him before, I’ve certainly seen him out and about. The gay village just shrank another kilometre.

I’m gazing absentmindedly into the window, wondering if that’s the humble beginnings of a spot I can see under my nose. Suddenly, there’s another shape reflected, an apparition by my side. It’s my date, he’s beaming a big smile and has his hand outstretched. I stand up from my stool, which bangs into his knee, and shake his hand. He then leans in for a kiss on the cheek and we collide ungraciously. I’m relieved to sit down again. My date takes my drink order – a glass of wine as my hand is shaking too much to cope with a full pint – and slinks off to the bar. All is good from behind, but as he turns round and smiles at me while he orders, something bothers me. What is it?

Usually within 20 seconds of meeting my date, I know whether I fancy them or not. In this case, nothing. I don’t find him repulsive, nor does my heart start thumping. I’m just indifferent. Weird. I dismiss it; it’s entirely possible my feelings can change as the night progresses; they certainly have before. Plus our personalities are so well-matched – so far – that it would be silly to write off the entire evening just because there was no coup de foudre.

I go back to that window again paranoid about my potential skin eruption. As I peer into it, my date returns, but instead of embarrassment at being caught out in a mad moment of vanity, I feel a churning sensation that I recognise as horror. I look from the window to my date and back again as he sits down. It becomes clear why I don’t fancy him at all, why the fireworks failed to materialise – he looks like me. Like, spookily.

He begins to tell me about his job, his background, his family – all the usual subjects – and while I am sure he’s interesting, I can’t concentrate on what he’s saying. I simply look blankly into his eyes, MY eyes, and occasionally sneak a look at the rest of his face. His hair, the same kind of dishwater brown and even greying in similar spots as mine, is styled as if he used me for a mirror. His mouth and its mannerisms aren’t a million miles away from mine either. I’m on a date with myself. I reach out and touch his knee to make sure I’m not having some kind of breakdown and talking to a mirror. This, of course, comes across as me being hopelessly forward and he casts my eyes – no, I mean HIS eyes, of course – down to my hand, those peepers widening in thinly disguised dismay. And did I just see what I thought I saw? An eye roll, no less. Behold my world-weary reflection. I compose myself and withdraw my hand. Get it together, Guyliner.

My date seems to think my weirdness is linked to him doing all the talking and turns the focus onto me, earnestly asking me loads of questions. I burble my answers pathetically, unable to form complete sentences. My nerves have almost got the better of me but I do my best to keep my head, even though I feel like I’m babbling at a slightly skewed self-portrait.

As I navigate the niceties and undoubtedly bore him to death with the details of my upbringing and career highlights so far, I let my imagination wander. I fantasise about introducing him to my friends and watching them comically, quizzically look from me to him. I imagine him leaning forward to kiss me accepting his tongue into my mouth. It would be like kissing my own hand. And then I picture him undressing me and getting into bed beside me. The ultimate narcissist’s accessory – a sexual encounter with a doppelganger.

A boyfriend who looks just like me isn’t the ideal, believe it or not. Vain as I am, I don’t fancy myself. Honestly, I don’t. Sharing my life with a lookalike would be the most elaborate, pointless masturbatory experience in the world.

Despite playing goody-goody to my evil twin, he’s a nice guy. Were I not totally freaked out by being on a date with a mirror, I’m sure the conversation would be flowing freely. As it is I’m talking far too much, worried that any gap in conversation will leave enough room for me to exclaim “Can’t you SEE how much we look alike?!” Maybe it’s just me, but the similarities are staring me in the face, not to mention trying very hard to charm me. Shit, I think he fancies me. I can’t. I just can’t

“Are you all right?” he says, looking at me with concerned eyes.
What do I say? “Well, yeah, I’m fine, but I feel like I’m in a really bad porn movie – with my brother!” Psychoanalysts the world over are sharpening their pencils and rubbing their hands in glee at the potential revenue from this pseudo-fraternal pairing.

“Yes, of course sorry,” I finally reply. “I’m a bit tired; it’s been a long day.”
He looks straight at me, his oh-so-familiar brow knitted in frustration.

“Yeah, I’m pretty tired, actually.” He looks at his empty glass.

Politeness says I should offer him a drink in return for the one he bought me. Should I? I know that if asked, I would say yes. Well, if he looks like me he probably thinks like me.

“Look, well,” I say, “how about one more for the road? And maybe we can try again another time when we’re not so knackered?”

I know this is a lie, and he probably suspects as much, but I don’t want the night to be a total disaster.

He accepts the offer of a drink – well of course! Twins in mind as well as face! I walk over to the bar, my cheeks burning crimson.

As I order the drinks, I turn round to look at him. He’s not staring after me; he’s checking himself out in the window. He then slowly looks from his reflection in the window to me. CLUNK. I hear the sound of a million pennies finally drop.

He takes out his phone and starts to text. No prizes for guessing what he’s saying to his friends, the tone of horror mirrored in his eyes as he taps away at the illuminated screen.

I take the change from the barman and walk back toward my date, knowing this drink will be downed fairly swiftly – before the night ends and we both make haste to our rightful sides of the looking-glass once more.

Post-date rating: 6/10
Date in one sentence: The Guyliner very nearly finds himself at last.