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It had been a very pleasant afternoon – a leisurely browse around the shops (we bought nothing), a stop off for coffee, and then we had the bright idea of calling in for a drink and possibly some food.

We were in no particular rush and perfectly relaxed in each other’s company. The place was busy and a band was churning out some wonderful Sixties covers, but not so loudly that we couldn’t talk. After one drink we decided the food looked too good to ignore so we ordered.

It was a busy afternoon, the place packed with families rocking to the music, kids running about, couples coming and going. Like most people we love people watching, so when a middle-aged couple moved to the table close to us we didn’t take much notice at first. They had two kids with them, but just the two seats between the four, so the kids went off to amuse themselves. I guess the boy and girl were 11 and 13.

We continued chatting away, and I could see the couple behind Trish out of the corner of my eye. At first all was well, and we were so deep in conversation that I hadn’t realised the mood had changed in front of me. Over the sound of music and a hundred or so people chatting, this guy suddenly blew his top, gesturing wildly at his wife and raising the decibel level more than a few notches.

Initially I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but his histrionics and exaggerated mimicking were a sight to behold. He was mocking his wife in as cruel and public a fashion as I have ever seen. His naked aggression and determination to humiliate her for perceived slights were brutally obvious. He was so determined to let her know she was the problem and not him. I could make out bits of sentences here and there – “I have been good to you, looked after you and loved you, but you never think of me….” followed by his hands rising in the air. “What about me?” He shouted another time. When she responded, he reacted with a string of profanities, and like a hammy actor brought his head down and massaged his hair with his two hands, then buried his head in his hands, followed by a dramatic flourish of those hands above his head again.

Every so often the kids would come back and the argument would be filed away, only to continue once the kids went off. This carried on for at least 20 minutes, with more f-words used in such a short space of time than I’ve ever heard. He sneered at her, took his glasses off and chastised her again and again. All of this was hardly noticed by anyone because we were in a corner well away from other people. People came by, of course, because we were near the service area of the bar, but most didn’t notice the verbal fireworks next to us.

Now, I’m no stranger to rows, but one up close, with so much vitriol and such contempt for another human being, well it left me numb. For one thing, this was not just another row – it cut too deep for that. It was not one of those differences of opinion that we all have with our partners from time to time. No, this was a guy who felt his wife was not showing him enough respect. They weren’t a young couple having a tiff – this was a full-on take-no-prisoners row in which she gave as good as she got even if he was the one who seemed to be throwing a tantrum.

Now, I’m not saying I’m prefect, but I would never have a row in public and would never deliberately belittle my wife. It’s not that we haven’t had rows, but never as bad as the one we witnessed. It left us wondering how solid their marriage is that he, in particular, could speak to her in that way.

They got up and left, perhaps because they noticed us. As we departed a few minutes later I could see them sitting in another room, him flapping his arms around in her direction. Round two was obviously underway.

Tom Hickey is a former chief sub editor at the Irish Examiner. He was burned as a child and blogs about his life and facial disfigurement at hickeysworld.com Subjects he tackles include everything from travel to his family, and coping with facial disfigurement.

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