Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Standard Operational Procedure

Nothing remains the same. You might think that, when you finally bail out of your unhappy existence, you've been through the valley of pain and anguish, and it's time to restart your life again, you can pick right up where you left off. It is with great regret that I inform you you cannot. The world has changed, and (more importantly) you have changed. And not for the better.

We men are spoiled. Thirty is no big deal for a guy. In fact, if you can avoid the entanglements and responsibilities that most twenty-something blokes fall prey to, you'll find your very best times are in your thirties. There's a good chance you'll finally be making some decent money, you'll have that flash motor, the cool bachelor pad, the wardrobe of designer gear and, most importantly, you'll have at least a modicum of maturity and self-confidence. And, there are plenty of hot 22-year old babes who would just love to spend time with a cool thirty-something guy like that.

But, when you're forty-something? Suddenly the bars and clubs are full of girls who really are young enough to be your daughter. And, instead of that cool older guy, you're starting to think you're the creepy old bloke who hangs around in the corner eyeing all the young girls. The one you used to make fun of fifteen years ago.

So, what are the alternatives? There's your circle of friends, but do you really want to go there? And, even if you do, is it not likely you have long ago been cast into that frozen circle of hell that is called “the friend zone” - a zone from which there is never, ever any escape?

Meeting someone through work has its complications, and, of course, if you work in a profession where women are a rare as hens teeth, it may not offer many prospects.

People will tell you to take up a new interest or hobby. Salsa dancing, badminton or tai chi. Trouble is, it mostly seems to be the over-sixties who have time to waste on activities like that.

Which leaves that great invention of the 21st century – online dating. It's all very mainstream these days. The social stigma has (just about) disappeared. There are prime time TV ad's for the the big sites on all the time.

And, hey, for guys like myself, you start to think it might actually play to your strengths. I've never been the world's greatest chat-up artist, but I can string a written sentence together. So, I could take the time, do a little research, write myself up a decent profile, pick some photo's which show my good side, and maybe I'd do quite well.

Maybe. I've been on a couple of sites for a while now. And there seems to be a standard operational procedure, which is not quite what I was hoping for. When you first sign up, and run a search for suitable local women, you feel great. The expression “target rich environment” springs to mind. Here are all these women, who must be actually interested in meeting someone, taking the time and trouble to put themselves online. And, in general, most of them are surprisingly attractive.

After a couple of days, you notice how few messages you get. As a guy, you'll get some, but almost exclusively from 56 year-olds in some far-flung geographical location. And who are, quite frankly, physically horrific. It might be different if you actually are George Clooney, but, I suspect, less so than you'd think. Because some old social conventions persist, and it is still the guy who is expected to make the first move.

That's fair enough. Another opportunity to impress through my literary skills. So, you run your searches and you carefully select the two or three women who you find really attractive and who's profile you seem to have a lot in common with. And, then, you write them each a carefully crafted message, honing in on some aspect of their profile and trying your best to be urbane and witty and amusing. And, then, nothing. No reply. Big zero. Null point.

So, time for a change of approach. Less precision and a wider spread. Not so much single action marksman's rifle as 12-bore shotgun. Or, maybe, one of those multi-barrelled gatling gun things they have on warships to shoot down incoming missiles.

Again, a carefully crafted message. But, shorter this time, and not at all profile-specific. And, written in Notepad to begin with, and copied into each outgoing mail, with only the “Hi xxxx” bit at the start edited.

And, not sent to a “special” selection of two or three women, but to every single passable female on the database within a 10 mile radius. As a first hit – the radius will then be increased if necessary.

And, this time, you get replies. Not a vast amount, of course - the signal-to-noise ratio is about one in ten. But they do arrive, and you can even get some of them to engage in on-line conversation.

So it was with an attempt of mine a couple of weeks ago. There were a couple of replies, but one in particular from a dark, willowy-looking girl with a slightly sad smile. Her name was Claire, and her profile seemed quite earnest and almost painfully honest. She was in her early 30's, never married, no children (and didn't seem to want any), a big animal lover (a horse, three dogs and a cat), and claimed to be looking for that special person who would complete her life. Her message was short (messages from women usually are), and she told me she wasn't a full member of the site so wouldn't be able send any more messages, but would I like to add her as a Facebook friend?

Well, obviously I would – for what other purpose has my Facebook account than as a way of keeping in touch with women? And, of course, the great thing about being Facebook friends is how you can thoroughly stalk a woman's status updates, photo's, and general information. Now, that may be considered a bit unethical, but if they're going to post all this information, why not use it? The only problem is … well, we'll come to that …

So, photo albums and pictures of Claire first, to see whether she's really worth bothering with. Shallow, moi? Like a puddle, guys, and any man who claims differently is a liar. The photo on the dating website was comely enough, if a little fuzzy, but there's no escaping all those multiple Facebook albums. And, the verdict was … Claire is a total babe. Jet-black shoulder length hair, eyes of the deepest blue, gorgeously high cheek bones and a fantastic body, including (it must be said) an absolutely cracking pair of charlies. Scrubbed up in a cocktail dress, she looked sensational.

Almost too sensational, in fact. As in, what does a total hottie like that, with no ties, no kids and still in the prime of life, see in an aging reject such as myself? But, methodical stalking of her status updates (well-worth the investment of time for a honey like her) revealed what appeared to be the answer: life seems to have treated the poor girl with particular harshness over the past 18 months or so.

Firstly, her mother died (cancer, from what I could make out), then Claire herself fell ill. What exactly was wrong with her, I couldn't tell, but it meant she had to give up her job, and could no longer ride her horse or do anything very strenuous. Then, her father was also diagnosed with cancer, and although he had survived with treatment, well … you know … To round it off, she seems to have had a brother who died years ago (circumstances unexplained), her long-standing boyfriend dumped her unexpectedly in the summer (she expected men over 40 to be more mature, and thought she might have to look for someone even older next … aha!), and one of her cats recently popped its clogs as well. This latter death was treated as every bit as big a tragedy as all the other things that had gone wrong in Claire's life, so perhaps I should have taken that as a warning.

But I didn't, of course. Instead, my heart welled with pity for the poor girl, the injustice of this world, and against the heartless bastard of a boyfriend who had abandoned her in the midst of her pain. Most of Claire's “jokey” posts were, in truth, agonising laments on the fickleness of men, the impossibility of finding true love, and her longing to be cared for and protected. In short, she seemed to possess that magic combination of good looks and low self-esteem that I have been searching for all my life.

With barely any direct communication with this girl, I was already half-way towards a serious infatuation. Already, my mind was projecting forward to the scenes where I would bring laughter and joy into her life again, where I would take her in my arms and let her feel my warmth and affection. I imagined autumn drives to charming little country pubs in my Alfa Romeo, romantic dinners at the best local restaurants, ice skating on that outdoor rink they lay on in the run-up to Christmas, and long, languid Sunday mornings making love in my double bed.

So it began. The private messages, and the jokey comments on each other's wall. Then it seemed Claire was in the middle of moving house, and couldn't always get internet access – so she gave me her mobile number. Result! And without even asking for it – the girl must be keen.

I rapidly pressed my advantage. After a few texts, I asked if she like to meet up for a drink in a couple of days? It seemed she would love to, but (and this is where my instincts should have warned me), there was all this moving house hassle to contend with. Did I mind if we left it till next Thursday? Of course I didn't, and it was back to our virtual relationship, texting and messaging daily and my fantasies proceeding apace.

It did not, of course, occur to me that while moving house is indeed a lot of grief, it has never been allowed to seriously interfere with my social life. Maybe you don't do much more on the day of the move itself, but, after that, who cares if everything is left in a pile in the spare room for a while? Certainly not if I had the prospect of a hot date to occupy me instead.

Thursday morning's text from Claire arrived with the inevitability of summer's end. She was really busy and stressed from all the moving, so did I mind if we met up another time? I minded a great deal, but there's no point in being anything other than supremely laid-back about these things, so I replied in a suitably upbeat, couldn't-care-less manner, and told her to let me know when she was free.

And, then, I avoided all contact with her for a couple of days. Punishment, I suppose – or, at least, my way of trying to make myself care a whole lot less. When we did get in touch again it was as if nothing had happened – still the same, light-hearted and jokey banter – and it was actually Claire who suggested a lunchtime drink the following Sunday. So, ok, game back on … maybe she WAS genuinely busy and stressed the other day.

For a few more days it continued. We had arranged to meet at a quiet country pub equidistant from where we both lived, and Claire was really keen to ensure that I would meet her in the car park outside. I did my best to reassure her – I am always early for dates, so that was never going to be a problem. Everything was going swimmingly once more until, inevitably, on Sunday morning, the text arrived: “Sorry Ben going to have to cancel today, really sorry to mess you around but really can't be helped”.

And, so that was that. Naturally, I replied in as casual a manner as possible (how can it make sense to be angry with someone you have never actually met?), but it was crushing. Hopes, dreams, fantasies … to have those snatched away is always painful.

A few days later, my friend Charlotte did make me get in touch with Claire again. Charlotte's a great one for being upfront with people (well, most of the time she is), and she felt it would be good for me to find out what had gone wrong. So, I asked Claire once more if she was free to meet up the following weekend, knowing this time what the answer would be. When Claire said she was busy, I was then forced to ask her what the problem was (I would never have done this on my own, but I possess no free will when it comes to what Charlotte tells me to do).

Claire's reply was that she was at a bad stage in her life right now, that she had taken herself off all the dating sites and that she was sorry if she had led me on. If I wanted to delete her as a Facebook friend then she would understand.

In the end, I'm not that petty. Hey, you can never have too many friends in this life, am I right?