Tuesday, 5 June 2012

On One Hand This, On The Other That

Now, don't get me wrong. Like I said, there were plenty of profiles from women who seemed attractive, reasonably literate, and almost normal. But even then the profiles rarely told you anything. Allow me to deconstruct one example:

About Me
Hi, Don't want to write too much about myself here.
[Heaven forbid you should know what I'm really like]
I am fun, honest and genuine and strongly believe in treating people the way you yourself expect to be treated.[Unlike all the others who claim to be dull, dishonest and fake and who say they believe in treating people badly]
I do enjoy going out and having a vodka or two, but also just as happy to chill out at home with good company.[I like going out, but I also like staying in]
I have chosen 'looking for a relationship' option but certainly not wanting to rush into anything....what will be will be
[I may be looking for something serious but reserve the right to dump you if you start getting clingy]
I don't mean to appear rude if I don't reply to a message, just don't want to waste your time or mine.
[Give it your best shot but don't be surprised if you fail to meet my incredibly high standards]

Just what exactly are you supposed to write to someone like that? She has revealed precisely nothing about her personality (other then how capricious and indecisive she is), any interests that you may have in common, or much of any reason at all why you would want to date her.

But, the sad truth is that this sort of profile is good enough to ensure that a woman with reasonably attractive photos will attract plenty of interest. And, given that she hadn't written anything truly awful that would immediately rule her out as a potential prospect (no sign of mad catwoman tendencies, hideously chavvy children, or merchant navy grade tattoos), I was forced to send her one of my standard opening mails.

I wished it were otherwise. I wished online dating was actually the way I thought it would be when I first started: selecting perhaps one or two from a series of detailed profiles, where it seemed we really had something in common and there was that magical "chemistry". Then, writing something considered and meaningful, that touched upon our potential connection ... and, who knows, maybe even some woman doing something similar to me?

That notion was swiftly disabused by the appallingly low signal-to-noise ratio found on online dating sites. Basically, to get a reply, you had send at least ten mails, and chances are that one reply won't be followed up any further. I had, of course, very little idea what the female experience of dating sites was, and, while I expected it was probably also pretty negative (most guys are arseholes, after all), it had to be different. It really was just an online version of the old bar or club, with the few girls dressed up and looking pretty, while massively outnumbered by all the horny guys constantly trying to hit on them in various unsubtle ways.

So, I was resigned to it being a numbers game. But, at least, unlike that old bar or club, the online process was vastly cheaper, less humiliating and more efficient. So, if one was prepared to send out opening mails with the frequency of a black market Viagra supplier, one would eventually find a few takers.

And, so it proved, with a number of replies which seemed quite promising.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

When Swamp Donkeys Attack

The remainder of my weekend with Jenny could not end quickly enough. Once I'd given up trying to seduce her, and settled on the frankly more appealing target of sleep, Saturday night had passed in deep unconsciousness. I was vaguely aware of Jenny leaving early on Sunday morning, to give Pugsly his morning walk, but did not emerge myself until she had returned, and was preparing for a much longer walk with both the hideous little dogs.

I went with her. What the hell else I going to do? Not sit around and talk to Sarah, that was for sure, and my train home wasn't until the Sunday afternoon. So, I suffered my way through an extended trek around the park, followed by lunch in The George, before I was finally able to make my escape. Jenny and I told each other what a lovely weekend we'd had, hugged briefly, kissed on the cheek, and then I was off. No mention was made of my having my hand down her pants the preceding night.

Coming home was a blessed relief. Jenny and I exchanged a couple of texts, but I think we both knew what had happened. For me, I suppose the overwhelming feeling was one of closure. To be sure, I had been hoping for something more - a spot of old-times-sakes, uncomplicated, sex would have been just dandy for me. But life moves on. And onwards may not necessarily be upwards, but it is onwards.

So, once home, it wasn't long before I got back online and starting checking out my options. And, hey, there was interest! Messages from women! Let's check them out!

It's a common feature of all these dating sites that they'll email you when someone sends you a message. It's also a common feature that they won't include a photo or any details of your match in the email – you have to log into the site to find out anything. That's fair enough, I suppose – it makes it that bit more secure for people, and also forces you to be exposed to the site's advertisers. But, it does tend to generate a degree of excitement that is usually unwarranted.

This occasion was no different. My first message was from “Sparklingeyes73” - a good choice of user name, if I am honest. Because, trying to focus attention on her eyes was a good move, given what the rest of her looked like. The profile photo was simply horrific – an immense, shapeless blob of a woman, who could have been any age from twenty to sixty, with her features set in a grim-faced expression and more chins than the Chinese phone-book. A true swamp donkey, unredeemed by any sign of definable curves, or even an welcoming smile.

What truly amazed me was the extent of her opening message (“Hi! Howya doin'?” - that was it) and the equal brevity of her profile description. I mean, I know I am particularly shallow when it comes to appearance, but surely no one could ever think that that photo looked good? So, given that you have to play the hand you're dealt, did it not occur to Sparklingeyes to try demonstrating a few positive features, that would indicate intelligence, empathy, or just someone who is fun to be around? Nope, that's your lot: a big fat ugly munter says hello. Over to you, pal, now do all the chasing.

Sorry, love, but I think I'll pass. Next up, “Carlathemermaid” (where do they get these user names?). Now, Carla certainly had a bit more going for her in the messaging department. Here I feel I have to quote:

wow- can't believe your single- loved your photos
sorry i haven't got one on here, i could do with some one taking one LOL!
so if you fancy a trip to my town any time- let me know

good luck Carla x x

Now, that is how to get a guy's attention. Ok, the grammar may not be up to much, and the content is of course as cheesy as a ripe Stilton, but we don't need subtlety. Compliments are rare enough in an average man's life. And, the rest of Carla's profile description wasn't bad, except …

No photo is never a good sign. In the modern age, I find it very difficult to believe that anyone doesn't possess a selection of electronic self-portraits, taken on phones or posted on Facebook or similar. No, anyone on a dating site with no photo has something to hide.

And, at age fifty-one, it was quite that likely Carla had plenty to hide. Still, let's keep an open mind, and wasn't Nigella Lawson fifty-two? And, I absolutely worshipped Nigella Lawson. So, I sent her a slightly cagey reply:

Hi Carla,

Thanks for your mail. I like to think it's because I'm choosey!
Your profile seems really nice. You must have a recent snap somewhere you could send me?

Xxx Ben

Succinct and to the point – clearly indicating that I had no interest in getting into any more email ping-pong until I knew what she looked like. Sorry, sweetheart, but I'm not on here to make friends.

With those two out of the way (and, let's face it, I never expected many women to make the first move, online any more than in real life), it was time to run a search. I set my criteria fairly broad, with the exception of distance – I'm not really interested in trekking more than a dozen miles away for a first date that, odds-on, will be a complete waste of time. And I firmly believe that you know nothing about someone until you actually meet them in person – the online stuff just establishes whether the most basic of criteria are met. Charlotte was the classic example of that – the image I had of her when we were messaging was absolutely nothing like the real girl when we finally met. Based only on our online exchanges, I was fairly indifferent, but I fell for her quite hopelessly in the course of date one, and thought her the love of my life a few dates later.

But, onwards and … er … onwards! Sorting the results by the newest members (let's try and get in there before they become totally disillusioned by all the sub-human male trolls messaging them fifty times a day, looking for web-can fun), I had a long list of prospects. And, now it was time to start winnowing them down.

Those with no photo, or a photo which clearly resembled a stegosaurus, were rejected at once. I try to remain open-minded with regard to pictures, given that few people look really good in an average phone-camera snap, but it has to be said that some of these women were irredeemably unattractive. Their images really should be sketched into the unexplored areas of old seafarers' maps, to warn captains to steer well away.

And, then there were the frustrating photos. The ones which show no one at all, but a picture of a sunset or a landscape. With most sites, these are technically forbidden, but some munters post them anyway, hoping to lure someone in with their personality and artistic appreciation. I am not fooled – someone else with something to hide (most probably a face like a dog's bum).

And then there are the photo's taken too far away, often on holiday with the subject disguised by a pair of dark glasses and a floppy hat. Yes, it's nice to know you've been to the Pyramids and that you're a keen skier, but I'd like to see your face, please! In fact, I'm only really interested in one of your holiday snaps if it shows you in your bikini.

Similar to these are the fancy dress photo's. It's great to know what a fun person you are and what wacky times we might one day share, but can I please see what you look like without the clown make-up, orange wig and comedy glasses? Unless that's really what you look like when you're ready for the office?

The group photo's. A whole gang of girls enjoying a fab night out on the cocktails, dressed to the nines and looking hot. Except … which one are you? There's usually no indication, but if you look closely, you'll be able to tell. Yes, that's right – she's the ugly one.

Photo's of their pets. Christ, like we care … well, actually, pet photo's are a good disqualifier. A single dog can often be fine, but anyone with a photo of three vicious-looking Staffordshire Bull Terriers labelled “My gorgeous boys” is to be avoided. Even worse are multiple cats, or those who have a whole menagerie of horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. You'll always be well-down the priority list with these women.

I find it very strange indeed that some women post photo's of their children. Frankly, the sites should ban such photo's – who knows what manner of sick pervert may be searching for their next victim? I wouldn't even post an unobscured photo of another adult – I think that is a violation of others' privacy.

I can't say as I can come up with any objection to the odd lingerie shot some women post on their profiles. I wouldn't exactly recommend it, unless a girl really is just looking for meaningless sex, but they will always get a message from me in any case. And I'm quite prepared to make it meaningful.

Photo's aside, what of the profiles themselves? Do men care?

There are of course plenty of women who write as little as possible. Unlike poor deluded Sparklingeyes above, yes, some of them can get away with it, simply because their photo is hot. And, in that respect, I'm no deeper than the next man – I'll drop them a brief, standard line. But no more than that – partly because I don't think they deserve it (how arrogant is that attitude?), but also because I simply find it difficult to come up with much to say. If they don't reveal any facet of their personality, how can I come up with a message that will be in any way meaningful or interesting? So, I don't bother – just a quick “like your photo; doing anything interesting this weekend?” one-liner. The chances of them writing back are tiny, in any case.

So, yes, I at least do care what women have to say. And, some of it is awful.

There was this one. “Up for a challenge?” was her opening line. The rest of her profile described how “fiesty, firey, strong-willed and high-maintenance” she was, and how she wanted a man who was “strong enough” to put up with all this bullshit. Feeble-minded enough, would be more like it. Why on earth anyone would think those to be attractive qualities I cannot imagine. I've had enough challenges in my life, love – I'd like someone to actually be nice to me for a change.

Then there are the supposed extreme sports/activity fanatics. The ones who are into hiking, mountain-biking, climbing, bungee-jumping, sky-diving, white water rafting, surfing, etc., all while managing to hold down a full-time job and be a single mother of three. Yeah, right …

The entitlement princesses. The ones who want to be flown to the Paris for a first date, taken on holiday to the Seychelles, showered with gifts of flowers and jewellery, and spoiled, spoiled, spoiled, by a “real gentleman” who is stupid enough to fork out for it all. One of them even blatantly described her preferred first date: “You choose, because you'll be paying”. Or, you could just visit an honest prostitute instead.

The functional illiterates. These women do have something to say, but what it is is generally unintelligible. It's either hideously abbreviated text-speak, or (what I would hope) is deliberately misspelled English in an attempt to look cool. The worst of the latter, is, undoubtedly the term “gawjus”, usually applied to their Ritalin-addicted toddlers or vicious-faced little dogs. One on my list did not want to say much about herself, but encouraged men to message her and then “all will be reviled”. Yes, I'm sure it will, love …

Then there was one who sounded ok, until she got to the point where she revealed “I have eleven tattoos – does that put you off?”. Yes, it does - if I want to date a stoker in the merchant navy I'll start hanging around the docks.

But the most common unappealing female profile is one that says nothing about them whatsoever, but simply consists of a long list of qualities which you, the poor aspiring male, must measure up to. These are, usually, resolutely conventional: tall (you can have a face like a baboon's arse but still be a big hit with the ladies, provided you are 6'2”), preferably dark, athletic, confident, successful, professional, affluent, handsome, etc. One girl had list exactly like every dopey tart's dream guy, but also added the qualifiers “not big-headed or arrogant, and not a cheater or a player”. Yeah, good luck finding that combination, baby.

You get the odd variation on what they are looking for – some of them openly look for “bad boys, tattoos, motorbikes, muscles, attitude”, and maybe bald instead of dark (but always TALL, even when they are 5'1”). What these women should simply put is “I want to be treated like dirt, battered senseless and cheated on at every available opportunity”. I'm sure they are generally successful in their quest.

So, it wasn't hard to whittle down my list to more manageable proportions. But, in truth, there were still plenty of attractive, independent, normal-sounding women who could at least string a sentence together. By the time I had messaged them all, I had received a reply back from the mysterious Carla, who enclosed the requested photo.

Which appeared to be of Yoda's sister, and not the Nigella look-alike I was hoping for. Oh, well, surely one of the ones I've messaged has to go somewhere!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Shark Does Not Swim Backwards

I've always found Thai food to be a winner for dates. It's got that touch of the exotic, while appearing much more upmarket than Chinese or Indian, and the restaurant service is usually immaculate. And, it's not too spicy (you don't want an overpowering after-taste when it's time to move onto kissing), while still offering plenty of those dishes which invite sharing and intimacy.

Dinner with Jenny was going well, despite the extended trek back from Sarah's to the restaurant. I had suggested calling a cab, but Jenny dismissed the idea: not willing to admit, I think, that where Sarah lived was not “just round the corner” at all. Pugsly, thank God, had been left behind, despite his plaintive yelps, and had been assured that “Auntie Sarah” would look after him (was the creature ever actually left alone, I wondered).

It seemed Jenny had known Sarah for less than a year, but the two clearly shared a mutual interest in dogs – pugs in particular. Jenny also confirmed what had been my growing suspicion since meeting Sarah – that she was not entirely what might be termed “the full quid”.

“Sarah's had a few problems,” Jenny admitted, “but she's been out of hospital for quite a while now, and just has a care worker popping round once a week or so, to make sure she's taking her medication and keeping on top of things. Her father was a High Court judge, you know – he bought her that house so she would always have somewhere to stay”.

Ah, so now the fabulous town-house made sense. It seemed that Sarah took in lodgers – she was obviously incapable of working – so I guessed it was through a combination of their rent, the welfare state, and whatever trust fund her late daddy had left her that she was able to support herself. I felt sorry for her now, although I thought she made an odd choice of friend for Jenny – nothing like the much younger girls she used to hang out with.

Although, the flap we had experienced just before leaving Sarah's had been some indication. Jenny suddenly announced with horror that she didn't know where she'd left her handbag, and both women worked themselves up into a near frenzy of mutual self-recrimination. “Oh, I don't see it anywhere in the kitchen, Jenny,” said Sarah, “That's why I use one of those belts with the pouches – if I have a bag I know I'll put it down and forget about it.”

“Yes,” said Jenny, “I am getting a bit absent-minded these days. Oooh, I hope I haven't left it in The George … Ben, did you see me bring it back from The George? Oooh, where is it now? How silly of me ...”

Eventually, I was forced to do the obvious thing and look in the hallway by the door, where of course Jenny's bag was to be found. I don't think I'd have received a more rapturous response if I'd discovered Maddie McCann alive and well.

But, now I had left my overnight bag in one of the bedrooms on Sarah's top floor, and Jenny and I were enjoying our Thai meal, while I attempted to get as much Pinot Grigio down her neck as was humanly possible.

The conversation was flowing easily, and was moving onto old times and past mutual friends. Jenny was surprised to learn that Bernie was married, and had recently become a father: “Wow! I thought he was the eternal bachelor. And what about little Sabrina, then – what's she doing these days?”

“Oh, she's married as well, now – to Gareth. They've got two daughters and live in the West Country.”

“Sabrina and Gareth? They got back together then?”

“Yes.” I tried to ensure my voice betrayed no hint of emotion. I think I got away with it – fifteen years, after all.

“Gosh, I remember they split up just before we did.”

Yes, Jenny, do the math, as the Americans say. But, either Jenny had never put two and two together, or she had learned to be almost as good a liar as me.

“I am so sorry, you know, Jenny,” I judged it was time for the big apology, “You never did … anything to deserve what happened. I was … I don't know what I was … But I've only ever thought of you with the greatest of affection, and the greatest of regret about … how we ended ...”

“Thank you for saying that, Ben. I was really upset, you know. For a while things … were a bit of a mess. You were the love of my life ...”

And now I really did feel lower than dog dirt. But, still, needs must. I reached out and held her hand.

“I'm lucky that Mum was there for me,” Jenny continued, “It was a difficult time. But, you know,” she smiled with genuine warmth, “life goes on, and I did get over it eventually. Then there was Steve, who was bit immature, really, and Dave, who was a bit of a wet blanket. I did really like Keith, but he turned out to be a boozer ...”

The list of Jenny's post-me men turned out to be long and unedifying, and I began to feel a lot less guilty. She'd certainly made a determined effort to get over the “love of her life”. Damn' her for not joining a convent instead!

“Well, I can't say that my relationships after you have worked out very well,” I said. Confession time – up to a point. “I did start seeing someone after you, but it only lasted a short time, then after that I met my ex-wife. I don't know what I was thinking about there ...”

“That must have been quite soon after me, then?” Was Jenny probing? I back-tracked.

“It was a few months later,” I continued. Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies … “As I say, it didn't last long, and then I met my ex-wife almost immediately after. I think with her it was a case of both seeming to want the same things - to settle down, start a family - but the problem was we were really two completely different people.”

Had that worked? Deflecting attention away from you-know-who to the Screaming Banshee? Who I didn't want to slate too much at this stage – you get nowhere with women by sounding bitter and twisted.

“I'm sorry about that, Ben. You seemed so happy in your wedding photos.” Happy? More a case of the Stockholm Syndrome, I'd say. But I seem to have performed a successful segue over certain unpleasant facts.

“Well, I tried everything I could. That's why I moved out of London – to be nearer her family, as I thought it would make her happy. But nothing worked, in the end. I've been on quite a few dates, since my divorce – even saw this one girl for a while last year – but ultimately that didn't work either.”

“Aw, why not?”

“Too big an age gap, I think – she was twenty years younger than me, and I think that got to her in the end.” Was that too cruel, given Jenny's advancing years? Or was Charlotte an appropriate demonstration of value?

It didn't seem to do me any harm. The conversation continued to flow throughout the rest of dinner, as we caught up with our lives, expressed our regrets, and made our vows of friendship. More importantly, we managed to get through two bottles of Pinot Grigio, and I ensured that Jenny's glass was always well-filled.

And, then the meal was over, and what were we to do? It was Jenny who suggested another drink at The George. I'd have preferred to have gone straight back to her flat, but, if more alcohol was required, who was I to argue? I paid the bill and we moved on.

It was swing night at The George, and well-attended by a mixed crowd of 1940's throw-backs. I found it hard to believe that any of them could have been part of The George's original clientèle. A DJ was playing a constant stream of jazz and big band numbers, and the brylcreamed guys and girls were jiving and lindy hopping across the wooden floor, now cleared of tables to become a dance venue.

Neither Jenny or I could actually dance – at least, not the sort of dancing which involved prescribed steps, physical co-ordination and practice. So, we took our position next to the bar, and it seemed only natural that my arm should slip around her waist. Jenny not only did not object, but moved her body closer to mine, so that we moulded together. I could smell her hair, and her perfume, and feel the rising intoxication of arousal.

I took a chance, and kissed her softly on the side of the neck. Jenny swayed closer to me – was that an intake of breath? I pushed further, and kissed her on the lips.

No objection, but no tongues, either. No words were spoken – well, it would have been difficult to hear over the blaring jazz. But we'd already said enough that evening; it was time to hold each other close, to rediscover the old, familiar feel of each others bodies, and watch the dancers spin and gyrate.

It was nearing midnight when I suggested that we leave. Jenny agreed readily – she had to be up early, she claimed, to take Pugsly for his morning walk. We stepped outside, and I told Jenny I would walk her home.

“No,” she replied, “We have to go to Sarah's. I need to get Pugsly and take him home – and I need to show you the way. Bet you can't remember.”

It would have taken me a while to find it, that was true. And, I could tell that Jenny was rather drunk. Ok, then, let's go and get Pugsly – then I can insist on escorting you back home again.

The long trek back to Sarah's was mostly spent supporting Jenny, who was no longer very sure of foot. At one point, I found it easier to carry her – no great feat considering how tiny she was. The afternoon's charade was repeated – a ring of the bell, a tirade of furious barking, Sarah's ineffectual attempts to calm the yapping beasts, and then the door finally opened. God only knows what the neighbours thought.

Once more, Jenny's attention was totally absorbed by Pugsly, rearing up with joy at her return. His rampant pink appendage glistened revoltingly under the streetlights. My patience was at an end.

“Let's get inside, shall we?” I said, taking Jenny's arm.

Something approaching calm eventually prevailed in the kitchen. I sat down in a chair, while Jenny first leaned back against the wall, then slipped slowly to the floor. She sat there beside Pugsly, who began compliantly licking her hand. She was very, very drunk.

Sarah fussed around offering unnecessary coffees, which I eventually accepted just to shut her up. Christ only knows what she made it with – it was the foulest, bitterest cup of undrinkable sludge I have ever been presented with. I pretended to sip at it, while the situation resolved itself.

“Right, then,” slurred Jenny, “I shuppose I'd better be heading home ...”

“Oh, no,” said Sarah, “Jenny, you've had far too much to drink. Why don't you stay here and go home in the morning? You're quite welcome to the sofa.”

“No, I should go home now,” Jenny murmured, her eyes already closed.

“Look,” I said, “There's no way you can go home alone. I'll take you, if you want to go ...”

“Yesh,” said Jenny, “But then you'll never find your way back here … can't have you wandering the streets all night, Ben ...”

Well, that's certainly what I was hoping. Let me do the chivalrous thing and escort Jenny back home, then it would seem like cruel and unusual punishment to turf me out into the night once more.

But, it seemed Jenny was resolved not to allow me across the threshold.

“It'sh alright, I'll be fine,” she said, “It'sh only a couple of minutes away. I'll have Pugsly with me ...”

Yes, that little yapping penis-with-legs would certainly deter any assailant, I thought. Jenny tried to rise, pushing her back half-way up the wall, but then abandoned the unequal struggle and sank once more to the floor.

“Maybe I will shtay here, then, if that'sh all right Sarah ...”

“Of course it is, you know that,” said Sarah, apparently relishing the prospect of someone else to fuss over in the morning. “I'll go and make up the sofa.”

“It'sh fine, don't bother,” Jenny continued, “I'll jusht shleep upshtairs with Ben ...”

Game on! Result! It looked as though Jenny had already made her mind up, and further seduction moves were no longer required. I felt my blood begin to rise. Time to press the advantage home.

“Right, I don't know about anyone else, but I'm ready for my bed,” I said decisively.

There was a flurry of thanks and goodnights, then Jenny and I headed upstairs. We entered what was now our room, and Jenny immediately slumped in the one chair and closed her eyes once more. I debated internally for a second, and then decided that brushing my teeth would be a good move.

When I returned from the bathroom, Jenny was no longer alone. Pugsly had found her, and was curled up beneath her chair. He remained silent, but regarded me with a baleful stare that spoke of pure venom.

I sat on the bed. It was only a single, but surely that was even better, if I could just get Jenny into it. Or did she intend to spend all night in that bloody chair? I was at a loss how to proceed. If I went anywhere near her, the fucking dog was bound to kick off, and waking everyone in the house was the last thing I needed.

The best I could do was leave her to it. The chair did not look very comfortable, and was also directly under the ceiling light, which I had no intention of switching off. Not until Jenny had done the sensible thing and gotten into bed with me. I just had to hope that she wasn't so drunk that she could actually sleep as she was.

I was proven correct after a few minutes. Jenny's eyes suddenly snapped open. “Think I'd better lie down,” she said, “Can I go on the inside, next to the wall?”

Naturally, I was only too happy to oblige. I stood up, to allow her access, and Jenny slipped off her leather jacket and high heels. The rest of her clothes, however, she left on, and she then slipped under the duvet.

I snapped off the light, plunging the little room into darkness, and quickly slipped out of my clothes. I didn't want to leave her in any doubt as to my intentions, and remembered how she had thrilled to my naked body in the past. I slid under the duvet beside her, necessarily close in the narrow cot. Pugsly seemed to have settled, thank God, so it was finally time to proceed.

Jenny had her back to me, but instinctively moulded her body into mine, so that we spooned together. Her gorgeous little arse was pushed against my crotch, and the effect was electric. She always knew how that turned me on. But, clearly, another round of seduction was expected.

I kissed the back of her neck softly, while caressing her thigh through her jeans. Jenny murmured, and wriggled slightly so that she moved against my erection. I leaned over and kissed her on the lips, feeling her yielding softly, but still not allowing me to explore her mouth with my tongue. More work required.

I slid my hand up the front of her t-shirt, feeling her small but beautifully-formed breasts. Her right nipple hardened to my touch; I played with it for a while, then slid my hand down her stomach towards her crotch, all the while planting little kisses along the line of her neck. In a moment, I expected, she'd turn around and take me in her arms.

But, she didn't. Jenny remained resolutely in the spooning position, occasionally moving slightly against me, but at no point did she attempt to touch me anywhere. Nor would she kiss me properly. She wasn't stopping me, but she was definitely drawing a line as to what was permitted.

I pressed further, remembering Jenny from the past as a submissive who needed to be led, but who once aroused was prepared to do just about any filthy thing my mind could come up with. I undid the fastening of her jeans and pushed my hand inside, confident that I was good at that sort of thing. After all, even in our current lets-just-be-friends relationship, Charlotte still reckoned I should be giving lessons to other men. And she had certainly had plenty to compare me against.

I took my time, gently massaging Jenny's pussy through her knickers, building a teasing tension that should have had her gagging for it by the time I made my next move. If history was any guide, she should have been dripping wet by the time I actually got around to touching the bare flesh.

But, when I finally did slip my hand inside, there was nothing doing. No sign of arousal at all. Christ, was this the same girl I knew fifteen years ago?

Ok, then, time for stronger measures. If it's oral action she needs …

I undid her jeans further, and started to pull them down her hips. But, then, Jenny grunted and pulled away from me. Clearly, I was going a step too far.

And you know what, Jenny, I suddenly thought. Fuck you. Fuck you and your bloody so-far-and-no-further, fuck your bloody dog, your mad friend, your absent-mindedness and your big long treks that are “just around the corner”. Fuck your “let's get old Ben to stand for an expensive dinner”, fuck your mixed-up life, fuck your bloody cow of a mother, and fuck this whole bloody waste of a weekend. Because I don't want you back, I never really loved you in the first place, and you irritated the hell out of me all the time that we lived together.

And there's absolutely no fucking way was I going to jump through whatever hoops she intended to set out for me, just so that I could get a shag. It was the 21st century, for Christ's sake, and she had to be pushing sixty years old. Wasn't it about time we got away from the whole idea of sex being something women reluctantly give to men, in return for their supplication, commitment and material expenditure?

It's not that I was entirely against the idea of supplication, commitment and material expenditure (God knows, I had promised Charlotte anything), but certainly not with Jenny. I'd been hoping for something mutually pleasurable but with no strings - perhaps just the once for old times sake – but it was clear that was not on her agenda. Perhaps nothing was, other than leading me on and then knocking me back. Perhaps that was Jenny's revenge.

In which case, fair enough – I suppose I deserved it. But, the past is a foreign country. And, there's a reason why sharks do not swim backwards.

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Plan Unfolds

“Oooh! You're there already?” Jenny sounded shocked. Obviously, my earlier text had not been noticed.

“Yeah, I got an earlier connection,” I said, thinking that there was, surely, no big problem. I knew Jenny's flat was only a few minutes walk away. Unfortunately, after fifteen years, I couldn't quite remember where.

“I'm not quite ready yet,” Jenny continued. “Emm … why don't you go to a pub and I'll meet you there in a bit?”

Eh? What the hell was that all about? Why didn't she simply direct me to her place? But, there was nothing to do but play it cool for now.

“Sure,” I said, “The George isn't far from here, is it?”

“Yes, not far. Remember we used to go there all the time?”

I did indeed. Back in the day, The George had been a traditional old South London boozer, and their lunchtime roast, topped with a few relaxing beers, had been a splendid way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I used to read Jenny amusing stories from the Sunday papers, and enjoyed the novelty of being out in public with an actual girlfriend, just like a normal person.

“Ok, I'll see you there later.” I hung up my phone and took a proper look around, trying to get my bearings.

It was no good. The station exit led to a typical close-packed London street, and I had no way of orientating myself, despite knowing that The George could not be more than ten minutes walk away. I was, in the end, forced to submit to that ultimate male humiliation: I asked a passer-by for directions.

Had I come to the right place? The exterior was vaguely familiar, but, once inside, there was nothing about The George to evoke any of my fifteen year-old memories. Stepping inside that pub used to be like slipping on a worn and comfortable pair of shoes, but now it was more like entering an operating theatre. The harsh lighting and reflective chrome seemed almost designed to set you on edge. But I knew a cure for that.

“Pint of Budvar, please,” I told the barman. Change can be good. The on-draught Czech Budweiser was certainly an improvement over the vile Hofmeister of yesteryear. I took my place at one of the stunted little tables and waited for Jenny to appear.

My first impression was that she did not disappoint. Jenny wore a snakeskin-patterned black leather jacket, black jeans and a rhinestone-encrusted t-shirt. The blonde bob was glossy and immaculate; a small black handbag, multiple silver bangles and a crucifix necklace completed the ensemble. Not many women fifteen years younger could get away with the rock chick look, but Jenny most definitely still had it.

We kissed (on the cheek, of course), and I got her a drink from the bar. Dry white wine, as ever – and she was getting a large one whether she wanted it or not. And another large one later that evening, I was certainly hoping.

“Ahh, it's lovely to see you,” Jenny cooed, “So nice of you to make the effort to come down”.

“My pleasure,” I countered, “Especially as I get to see you looking this amazing. Love that jacket.”

“It's a favourite of mine, too,” she said, and reached out to squeeze my hand, “Whatever happened to that red leather jacket of yours? Have you still got it?”

I liked to think I still “had it”, but the red leather was of course long gone. I didn't even wear my black one much any more, since Charlotte's sad admonition about “old men in leather jackets” had involved her shaking her head with despair. Truth be told, I did find it difficult to dress with a dignity becoming my age nowadays, in anything less formal than a suit.

But, the hand-squeezing was most definitely a good sign. Now, do we finish this drink quickly, and get back to her place with enough time for a quickie before dinner?

“No, I think I gave to charity ages ago,” I continued, “This place has certainly changed. I was wondering for a while if I'd come to the right pub.”

“It's a lot different round here now,” said Jenny, “All gone a bit upmarket. Much nicer than it was, really”.

“Yes,” I said, “I'm hoping this Thai restaurant I've booked for later is good – the reviews all seemed very positive. It's pretty close to yours, isn't it? I must admit I can't really remember the geography around here at all.”

“Oh, it's just across the road. And it's very nice – I haven't been for ages, but I'm really looking forward to it.”

And then came the plan. Her plan, that was, not mine. Jenny gestured to the overnight bag which lay at my feet. “What we'll do,” she said, “is have this drink and then we'll go to Sarah's place so you can leave your bag. Pugsly's there, so you can get to say hello! He's so excited - just dying to meet you. Sarah's got a pug, too, you know – she often looks after Pugsly for me when I go out.”

So, that was the game. Clearly designed to ensure that I didn't get be in private with Jenny at her place. But, no reason to be despondent – perhaps it was a sign that Jenny didn't trust herself not to tear my clothes off if we found ourselves alone. After all, she had always been rather keen in the past. Later tonight, after a romantic meal, plenty more wine, and some flirtatious chat, I would surely be walking her back to her place. And it would only be natural to be invited in for coffee …

We finished our drinks and headed for Sarah's house - “just around the corner” I had been assured. Jenny set off at dramatic pace, despite her silver high-heels. Hoisting my bag upon my shoulder, I was forced to lengthen my stride to keep up

The walk did nothing to improve my sense of orientation. I remembered that Jenny's flat was located directly on the main road which led to central London, but where that was in relation to the maze of side-streets we were navigating I could not tell. Judging by how far we were walking, this friend Sarah seemed to live somewhere near Brighton.

“Here we are,” said Jenny at last, as we entered a small cul-de-sac lined with impressive three-story town-houses. Who was this Sarah, I wondered, who could afford one of these? At an absolute minimum, these were all £750K homes – far beyond anything to which I could ever aspire these days.
Jenny rang the bell, setting off an insane cacophony of high-pitched barking, but no sign of anyone coming to answer the door.

“It's very good of your friend to put me up,” I said, “She, er, does know we're coming, doesn't she?”

“Oh, yes,” said Jenny, “Sarah's just a little slow, sometimes”.

Eventually, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of someone coming towards the door. Someone who was trying most ineffectually to calm the frantic yapping of the dogs within.

“Hush, now, Pugsly … Hush, Albert …“

“Yap! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yap! Yip! Yap!”

It was the sound of someone trying to persuade the sea tide to stop coming in. The door opened, and the canine frenzy reached new heights. Sarah barely managed “Hello” before she felt she had to turn around and admonish them some more.

“Pugsly!” called Jenny, with all the delight of a returning mother, “How's my little man?”

And then the yapping stopped, as Pugsly recognised his mistress and scampered towards her, wimpering with sheer unalloyed joy.

There's something inherently comic about pugs, with their little squashed faces and stumpy legs, and an expression that can be reminiscent of Winston Churchill. Pugsly was jet black, but with an expression that put me more in mind of another historical figure – in this case, Aleister Crowley. He reared up on his hind legs in front of his mistress, revealing an obscenely pink and unbelievably large penis, running almost the full length of his chunky little body. Jenny appeared not to notice this abomination, and cooed away at the ugly little dog as though he were a long-lost child.

The other pug, smaller and brindle-coloured, and whose name I had heard was Albert, had lost his boldness now that the door was open, and was hanging back in the hall with Sarah. Like Jenny, Sarah was engaged in an intense baby-talk calming session with the beast, and for neither woman did the the wider world seem to exist at all.

I stood back for a while, clutching my bag, and feeling distinctly awkward and out of place. Should I just turn round and walk back to the station now? Would anyone have even noticed?

Eventually, Albert seemed to have been placated and Sarah was able to come to the door once more. “Hello,” she said again, looking in my direction with a polite smile. I was able to tell that she walked with a slight limp.

Sarah was one of those women who could be any age between thirty-five and seventy. It was difficult to believe that she had ever been really young, and also difficult to believe that any man had ever found her desirable. Her auburn hair was cut sensible-short, and she wore an indeterminately blue/green jogging suit that mercifully hid her shapeless form. A pair of glasses on a string around her neck completed the picture. Was she even the same species as someone like Charlotte or Louise?

“Hi there,” I said, “I'm Ben, Jenny's … friend.” Just what the hell was I exactly? What had Jenny told her about me? “Friend” was about the best I could come up with.

“Oh, yes, Sarah, this is Ben, who I told you about.” Jenny had snapped out of her love-fest with Pugsly. Unfortunately, so had he, and the little dog began a sustained low growl as he became aware of my presence.

“Hush, Pugsly,” Jenny scolded, completely without effect. “Shall we all go in?”

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Back to the Future?

The gentle rhythm of the train was helping to ease the insistent throb of my hang-over. Perhaps it wasn't the best idea in the world to go for a heavy session the evening before, but it had turned into one of those nights. And it certainly vindicated my plan to take the train, rather than drive. The idea of battling the motorway while feeling this fragile did not appeal.

“That would be lovely, Ben,” Jenny had said, when I suggested coming to see her that weekend. A fortnight had passed since her mother's funeral, and I judged the time to be ripe. Not too soon – give her time to get over it, and don't look too keen. On the other hand, strike while the iron was at least still warm, and get the job done …

What job, exactly? What was I going to see Jenny for? If I was honest, it was an idea I'd run through my mind a few times over the past few months. Not before. As long as I'd been married, my mind never harked back to Jenny, unhappy even though many of the later years had been. But, my marriage had been like that – something which, despite the difficulties, I just assumed was to be a constant feature of the rest of my life.

And, I hadn't ever considered her after I got divorced, and when I first relaunched myself onto the circuit and tried to meet women. Perhaps that was because I was looking to the future, and not the past. And, then I met Charlotte and everything had seemed wonderful and Jenny belonged to ancient prehistory.

After Charlotte, heart-broken as I was, I still faced the future with optimism. After all, I had just pulled one super-hot 25 year-old blonde, so why couldn't I quickly pull another? Get back out there, hit the scene, trawl the dating sites, and …

The truth eventually began to dawn. Charlotte had been an outlier, an exceptional event in my middle-age made possible only because of her own circumstances at the time. And, it became very obvious that once that particular phase in her life was over, my services were no longer required. And that, on the whole, super-hot 25 year-old blondes are not very interested in 40-something divorced men.

The sad truth was that single women anywhere near my age were nothing like Charlotte. They were, on the whole, simply awful, and my post-Charlotte dating experiences were a grim litany of failure. With Charlotte, of course, amazing though it had been, the reality was once she had grown bored she had no hesitation in dumping me, and remained resolutely impervious to repeated begging, pleading, promises, tears and the full, pathetic depths of my self-abasement. So, really, she wasn't so nice either.

The “big one” before Charlotte, of course, had been my ex-wife, who was possibly the most bitter and twisted human being I could ever have made the mistake of becoming involved with. And before that, well, there had been her, and before that there had been Jenny. Who had always been really sweet, affectionate, and loving, and who certainly hadn't deserved to be chucked in the way that she had been ...

So, it was not altogether surprising that I had started to view my old relationship with Jenny with some nostalgia. To wonder what it was she was doing now, whether she was single, and about what-ifs and might've-beens. But, to actually get in touch had been too difficult – I had long ago lost her address and phone number; had no idea, in fact, whether she had moved, got married, settled down with someone, or whatever. And, while I'm sure some detective work with my family could have uncovered these things, I really didn't want to re-open the whole Jenny issue with them again.

Jenny's mother's funeral, then – was it some signal from fate? Naturally, Eleanor Morrison had loathed the very sight of me for the last 15 years of her life – I was the one who dumped her little Jenny, and I couldn't blame her for feeling that way. But, with her mother gone, was the way now somehow clear? For what?

I didn't really believe in fate. I was tempted to, during the heights of my love affair with Charlotte, which I could sometimes think was some karmic reward for all the years of suffering through a terrible marriage and worse divorce. But, Charlotte was history, and surely I didn't deserve all this bad luck for the way I had treated Jenny 15 years ago?

And, I didn't really want Jenny back. In some ways, I never really wanted Jenny in the first place, not the way I'd later wanted Charlotte, and before that (I suppose) my ex-wife, and before that … well … one or two others. I'd been hugely attracted to Jenny when we first met, and had enjoyed our relationship up to a point, but had been persuaded to let her move in with me, and eventually came to regret it. Perhaps it was just that I wasn't ready to settle down at that stage in my life, but one big factor remained as true today as it had ever been – the age gap.

Hypocritical of me? Of course – Jenny being something over ten years older was a huge problem, while Charlotte being twenty years younger was just dandy. Of course, seeing Jenny again at that funeral had been a revelation – she looked nothing like her age, and I had felt the old feelings come surging back. Not feelings of deep romantic love, of course, but a feeling that I would really, really love to bang her senseless. Just for old times sake …

“So shag her,” had been Charlotte's straightforward advice, when I told her about the funeral encounter and how hot Jenny still looked. I'm not sure that it's always the best idea in the world to have an ex-girlfriend as possibly your best friend, but I had always found, in matters such as these, that Charlotte was always right. And, I could be open and honest with her in a way that I couldn't with anyone else – who else knew my deepest desires and fantasies?

Other friends thought that I had little to lose by at least visiting Jenny one more time. My dear little friend Louise was less forthright than Charlotte, but was definitely implying something similar when she told me to “go for it”. Nick's advice was more basic still: “Any chance of a leg-over? Good man”. And I thought: why not? After all, Jenny and I were both consenting adults, so why shouldn't both of us be attracted to a little no-strings pleasure? The physical distance would ensure that nothing too intense happened – no reason we couldn't see each other now and again, of course, for the odd weekend have-it-away-day.

So, it was with a sense of inevitability that I had suggested to Jenny that I visit that weekend. It turned out that she lived in the same South London flat as when we first met (temporarily rented out when she moved in with me). I resolved to travel down on the Saturday afternoon, and booked a nearby Thai restaurant for dinner for the two of us that evening. I could barely remember the geography around Jenny's old place, but Google Maps was my friend – and I wanted somewhere that was within easy walking distance of her flat. The plan, then, was clear: get down there around 6pm, meet up, have a couple of drinks (or maybe just tear each other's clothes off at once?), dinner and some chat, get as much Pinot Grigio down her neck as possible, then back to her place for wild, rampant, drunken sex. I had booked a return ticket for late Sunday afternoon, so as to allow plenty of time for more mellow, relaxed sex in Jenny's double bed all Sunday morning.

Of course, I couldn't be quite as blatant about it as that. I had to at least make a token effort at respectability, and find myself a hotel room, that I had no intention of using. But, no harm in hinting – rather then consult Google Maps, I asked Jenny where the nearest place to stay was, hoping of course that she would suggest her sofa (i.e., “her bed”). Disappointingly, she came up with a Travel Lodge about half a mile away.

And, then she changed her mind, suggesting instead that I stay with her friend Sarah, who was (apparently) just around the corner from Jenny's and had plenty of room. While this sounded completely bizarre to me (what woman would cheerfully invite a friend's ex-boyfriend, who she had never met, and could be a complete nut-job, to stay at her house?), Charlotte believed I was onto a winner. “It's just cover,” Charlotte said, “You'll never get to the friend's, but Jenny doesn't feel she can ask you to stay at her place because it's too much like asking you for sex. And, if by any chance you do end up at the friend's, fuck her instead.” No beating about the bush with Charlotte.

So, the die was cast. Jenny had arranged to meet me at her local station; it was a fine early spring day, everything was in walking distance, and I was travelling light with only a small overnight bag. My main journey was to Euston; I then faced a Tube ride across the centre of town, before a second mainline train to outer South London where Jenny lived. Pugsly, I had been informed, was really excited about meeting me.

I always enjoyed train journeys, and even experienced a slight nostalgic rush when using the Tube. Of course, it wasn't exactly pleasant, but the smell of rubber and burnt engine oil, and the foreign students with their ludicrously large backpacks, were a memory of another time.

The connections were quicker than I anticipated, and I caught an earlier local train to Jenny's than planned. No problem, I thought, and sent Jenny a text indicating that I would be around twenty minutes early. When the train pulled into her local station, my hang-over had gone completely, and it almost felt like stepping into the past.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Duty and curiosity

The sudden chill was a reminder of a winter not yet gone. I shivered in my black merino Italian suit, wishing now that I had worn my long coat as well. But, it had seemed sunny when had arrived, and I always hated to be too warm …

“Too warm” would have been inappropriate, in any case. A certain chill is, I think de rigueur at a funeral. There had even been a few crows pecking around on the grass outside – or were they ravens? Death may be the one certainty facing us all, yet few of us care to contemplate what it conventionally involves. If we are lucky, it will be friends and relatives gathered for a brief service of remembrance: homilies said, tears shed, then off to the reception for sausage rolls and little triangular sandwiches.

Who would come to mine, I wondered? I was the youngest of my family, and so assumed I would outlive my siblings. There were my children, of course, and they would hopefully (assuming the unhappy event was sufficiently distant) have wives and children of their own by then. The Screaming Banshee? Probably only if she were allowed to dance on my grave. Then there were my friends, some of whom at least would be bothered enough to make an appearance, and (being optimistic) some really important people I hadn't met yet – the imaginary grieving widow? Think positive! And, being 20 years younger than me, there was also the possibility that Charlotte would still be looking pretty hot even by then. Black always suited her, too.

All things considered, then, I could see that Eleanor actually had a pretty good turn-out. Naturally, I didn't know a lot of them – I wasn't really close to the woman, and certainly not for the past 15 years – but I guessed that was the sister from Wales who used to get mentioned, and various friends from various stages of her life. Including my mother, of course, who was the main reason I was there – Eleanor Morrison had been one of her closest friends, and I knew she would want to be at Eleanor's funeral to say goodbye. I also knew that my mother would not have wanted to come alone, and so there I was. A son's duty.

That was not the entire truth. It was reason enough, to be sure – but I did have another incentive for making an appearance at Eleanor Morrison's funeral. An incentive which owed more to curiosity, and to my own past.

I'd known the Morrisons only vaguely while growing up. They no longer lived nearby; my family had moved away shortly before I was born. But, prior to that, the families had been close, and my elder siblings and the three Morrison girls were of a similar age and had a lot of shared memories.

Not my memories. But, fate can play the strangest of hands. Scroll forward to the 1990's, when I was living in London, with my career on a high and the single life treating me well. Perhaps not that well – I remember a succession of fleeting relationships that, while fun at the time, left me feeling dissatisfied and longing for something more. But, it was the high summer: I was young, I was going places, I had money in my pocket, a flat in one of the nicer parts of town, and a white Porsche 911 that I loved more than all the women I'd ever had rolled together, if that were possible. And, I also had my mother pop down for a visit, coincidently while Eleanor Morrison was visiting her middle daughter Anna in the south-west of the city.

So, it was natural to meet up at the daughter's house one evening for dinner. And, it was natural, thereafter, for me to keep in touch with Anna, as a family friend who lived just down the road, and completely unremarkable for Anna to invite me along to a party at one of her friend's houses a couple of weeks later.

It was a dull night, so I went, despite it being held in one of the outer London suburbs and my misgivings about probably being the youngest person there, allied to that fact that I wouldn't know anyone apart from Anna Morrison and her taciturn boyfriend. Although, Anna had informed me that
“Jenny will be there, and she's really looking forward to seeing you again”.

Jenny. The youngest of the Morrison girls, who also lived in London somewhere, but who I was straining my memory to remember. Anna was at least vaguely familiar from family weddings and the like, but Jenny I could only place through things that had been said about her. Jenny the rebel. Jenny the bohemian. Jenny the great worry on her mother's mind. Jenny who had run off aged 17 with a much older man, and who was then married and divorced before the the age of 25.

I didn't remember ever meeting Jenny at all, but I suppose I must have done at some point in my childhood, when I was probably a lot more interested in what Doctor Who was getting up to.

I took the Porsche. It offered the prospect of a rapid get-away if the party turned out to be too unspeakably awful, without having the long, awkward wait for a cab. Plus, in those magical days before speed cameras multiplied like bacteria, and every road was “improved” to be as pleasant to drive on as a cart-track, it was an opportunity to let her out for a bit, and enjoy the banshee-wail of the flat six boxer-motor.

I was wrong about being the youngest person at the party. But it was pretty unspeakable all the same, as the guests consisted of two age groups: the 45+ squad that included the hostess, Anna Morrison and the rest of the adults, and an extremely awkward gang of young teenagers, aged 12-15, built around the hostesses son. I felt like some strange exhibition piece, in my Hugo Boss raw silk jacket and Ralph Lauren polo shirt – a piece of urban sophistication cast adrift in suburbia.

I was, in fact, contemplating a swift exit, when Anna tapped me on the shoulder and announced that Jenny had arrived.

“Hello Ben.” Jenny seemed to recognise me. The feeling wasn't mutual, but I didn't care. Rationally, I knew Jenny wasn't that much younger than her sister, and was therefore a lot older than I was, but she certainly didn't look it. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, with delicate, bird-like features and huge brown eyes. Shoulder-length, chestnut hair, and a sophisticated rock-chick ensemble of black jeans, black leather jacket and cropped t-shirt (oh, that midriff!) completed the picture. Suddenly, the prospect of spending the rest of the evening at that party didn't seem to awful at all.

Jenny and I didn't leave each other's side for the remainder of the party. The sexual attraction was intense, electric and overpowering. I drove her home at the end of the night, and she practically squirmed with pleasure in the Porsche's leather bucket seat. When we kissed, I was consumed with wanting her.

And so it began. There was, to be sure, a frisson of guilt about the whole thing, what with her being older and (in theory) an old family friend. But any doubts were soon cast aside once I had taken her to bed for the first time – the sex was terrific. And, Jenny was sweet, affectionate, and fun to be with, and certainly didn't act like a more mature woman. A bit scatty at times, in fact, but that seemed like no problem in the early haze of deep lust.

Eventually, we moved in together – a first for me at the time. Now, it wasn't exactly love's young dream – more a practical solution to Jenny's financial problems – but it seemed great at first. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn't coming home to an empty flat, with last night's detritus lying exactly where I had left it. I wasn't waking up alone on a quiet Sunday morning and feeling the day yawning emptily ahead of me.

But, after a while, problems began to emerge. Our families found out, and mine was distinctly disapproving. Also, the trouble with being a rebel and a bohemian in your youth is that you end up still working in a shop when you are in your 40's, and Jenny continued to take a very traditional view of male/female relationships when it came to paying for things. I started to resent the fact that I was paying for absolutely everything, not just the exotic holidays and expensive nights out, but the weekly shopping and the mortgage and the utility bills as well. I also began to question whether this was really it – didn't I want to get married someday, to someone with a similar age and education to myself, and who wanted to have children at some point?

There was another factor, too, which only really emerged towards the end of our relationship …

“Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end” - the movie Cocktail does include a few words of wisdom. After a couple of years, Jenny and I did end badly, and in a way that left me with a serious legacy of guilt. I was the one, after all, who called time and chucked her out.

And that was it, for some 15 years, during which I loved and lost, got married and divorced, became a father, moved out of London, saw my life hit rock-bottom and and then start to move forward again, although what it was now moving forward towards I had no idea.

And there I was at her mother's funeral, and there was Jenny with her sisters on the other side of the chapel, and I didn't know what the hell I was going to say to her.

Curiosity about Jenny, of course, had been my strong incentive for coming. I hadn't set eyes on her since that awful day, 15 years ago, when she had taken the last of her things (and quite a few of mine, favourite CD's in particular) and left my flat for the last time. One thing she left behind was a silly soft toy boa constrictor, which I had bought for her in a moment of high spirits on a day out somewhere. “You can keep the snake,” were her final, telling, words.

So, what was she like now? Had she got over me (oh, the vanity we all share that ex's never do!)? Had she found happiness? Was she married, content, settled? And, perhaps most of all, what did she look like now? She must be pretty ancient, I thought – I never did find out exactly how old she was, but she was certainly in her '40's when we were together, which must make her pushing 60 by now. And, no one looks good at that age.

Except for Jenny. Looking across the chapel, I was amazed how virtually nothing seemed to have changed. The long chestnut hair was now a cropped blonde bob, but it really suited her. She had certainly not put on any weight, and was elegantly clad in a black velvet suit and cream blouse. Her face had not changed at all – the delicate, bird-like features seem to have barely added a wrinkle.

It was later, at the reception, that we actually spoke. There was an initial, polite exchange: my expression of sympathies, her thanks for my attending. Jenny was upset, naturally, but her mother had been sick for a long time, so her death hadn't come as a shock. And, after the catharsis of the service itself, the general mood at the reception had lifted. After all, funerals share with christenings and marriages the common feature of people who have not seen each other for years becoming reacquainted.

After a while, I sought her out at a quiet table and we really talked. “I wasn't sure I should come,” I admitted, “But I wanted to ensure that my mother did. And, I did want to see you again. I just want to know that you're … all right ...”

Jenny was all right. She had moved on, as one might expect in 15 years. Oh, she wasn't married or settled or anything like that, but there had been other relationships. And, she said, when one of her sister's had shown her some of my wedding photos, “I realised that was the right thing for Ben.”

I allowed myself a short, bitter, laugh. “Well, it wasn't, I can assure you of that. Biggest mistake I ever made.”

“But you've got your boys, now, surely you don't regret them?”

Of course I did not, and that led to showing her some of the photo's on my phone, which she then reciprocated with shots of her dog – a little, black, squashed up thing with an evil expression on its face.

“That's Pugsly,” said Jenny, “I've only had him a few months, but he's absolutely lovely. He's a Pug, you know, and he's ever such good company”.

As the day drew to an end, we exchanged vows of friendship, and also phone numbers. And I found myself saying the fateful words: “It would be great to see you again sometime, Jenny”.

“Yes, Ben, yes it would”.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

It can get worse?

There should be a word for it: when you become disillusioned with something, give it up, and then find the alternatives so god-awfully dreadful that you go back to the first thing again. Maybe there is. Maybe it's called despair.

I had not, of course, entirely deleted all of my online dating profiles, but I had ceased bothering to check my inbox for the odd missive from 56 year-old tattooed grandmothers, and hadn't run a profile search to check the latest batch of fresh meat in quite a while.

So, I don't know why I bothered to open the message I received from “Oksana918”, once the notification had been forwarded to my phone. Maybe it was something to do with the thumbnail photo, which showed a slim, willowy blonde with most of her face hidden by a bunch of flowers. Ok, who am I kidding? It was all about the photo – she looked seriously fit.

The message, and the profile behind it, was predictably brief. And, the grammar was even worse than the norm, which is saying something in the modern age of text-speak functional illiterates. Something about the phrasing screamed “Eastern Europe” at me, despite her home town being allegedly just up the road. Well, that was certainly possible – there were plenty of East European girls here nowadays, and maybe she was a lonely Latvian nanny stuck in some company director's spare room, with nothing to do once his kids were put to bed?

She wasn't a full member of the site, but asked if I would email her directly so we could chat further. So, what did I have to lose? I sent the mail, but kept it brief and cagey.

I didn't have long to wait for a response:

Hello, Ben. Thank you for writing to me.
My name is Ekaterina. I am 29 years old. But I look much younger than his years.
I have not used the Internet to explore before. I did not know about it. I told this to a colleague at work. He met a girl who is now his wife. I am so embarrassed to write to you. I do not trust the internet, but decided to write to you.
I'm lonely. I want to start a family. I'm looking for a spiritual friend. I'm looking for love.
I think we should tell the truth. If you are here, then you are alone. We are both looking for their second half. Do you agree? I trust people. I hope you will not deceive me.
I live in Russia. For me, the distance - it's not a problem. And for you? I want to know you. We all have a chance at life. We are building our future. I like you, and I want to communicate with you.
I'm sending my photo to you.
Tell me about yourself. Ekaterina

And there was the photo. No flowers in the way this time: she was facing the camera, hands behind her head and back slightly arched, in that classic glamour pose that pushed her pert breasts toward the lens. She was, absolutely, unquestionably, Kate Moss-a-like model-girl stunning.

Russia, eh? That home town up the road was a lie. Well, that was not a good sign. Modern Russia is perhaps second only to Nigeria as the spiritual home of the internet scam, and the odds of this knock-out babe being anything other than a lure to reel in the sad, desperate and lonely seemed slight indeed.

Was I really so sad, desperate and lonely as to fall for it? Well, I was intrigued, obviously. And so the process of self-justification began: “Obviously, this is a scam,” I told myself, “But it'll be interesting to play along for a while to find out what it is. Will she suddenly have a sick mother who needs money for an operation? Or will I have to wire her the cash to buy a plane ticket to come and see me?”

Really, of course, what was going on in the back of my mind was the desperate, desperate hope that, against all the odds, she somehow might just be genuine. A beautiful, sensitive girl, stuck in some backwoods Russian hell-hole and surrounded by woman-beating alcoholics, who dreams of a better life with a kind, attentive, slightly-less-alcoholic westerner. Obviously, she'd mainly be interested in the money and the visa, but was that really so different from the British women I'd had relationships with? Gold-digging users almost to a girl.

So, I replied, somewhat less cagily this time. A few details about myself, but nothing too specific. A couple of photo's that weren't already on my dating site profile. And I asked her about where in Russia she lived and what it was like.

Once again, I did not have to wait long for a reply:
Hi, Ben. Thank you for having responded to me. Very nice to get a letter from you. I am very interested to meet you.
Ben, I live in Russia in the city of Tyumen. My city is not very large. It is home to about 580,000 people. Located on the banks of the River Tour. Distance from Tyumen to Moscow in 1725 km. I am far from the capital of Russia.
I'll tell you about yourself. I am 29 years old. My height is 1.67 m I'm blond with big green eyes. I was not married and I have no children.
I am very pleased that the distance between the two countries does not bother you. The Internet allows us to communicate with each other.
If I am writing to you with errors, do not scold me. I teach English to their own and with a tutor for about 2 years. I like this language. Sometimes I look in the interpreter, if you do not know how to translate.
I graduated from university on a specialty "Management of the organization." I loved to learn. After my studies I worked as a manager in a commercial firm. I enjoy my job.
And where are you working on? Do you like your job or you'd like another job?
I do not have much free time. And this time I like to be at home playing with my cat. His nickname Fluffy. I also have a rabbit. I love animals. Do you love animals? Do you have any pets at home?
I'm sending you my photos in the workplace. Even sending photos of his rabbit and the cat pictures.
Waiting for your letter.
Kisses, Ekaterina.

The cat and rabbit aside, the photo's Ekaterina sent this time were, if anything, even more stunning than the first. The girl was sensational (if she, in fact, existed), and I could feel my helpless longing for it all to be true starting to overcome my better judgement.

The only thing for it was to seek a second opinion. I sent copies of her hottest photo to my friends Bernie, Nick and Charlotte.

Bernie's opinion was typically unhelpful. While he agreed that Ekaterina did indeed look hot, his personal recommendation was to go for something Brazilian or Spanish. Ever the latin-obsessive, that was Bernie.

Charlotte's opinion was much simpler: it was a scam. All of these foreign women were a scam. Through some less-than-devious hacking (she had guessed his password as being their daughter's name), she had gained access to her ex's email account, and could see all of the foreign women has was in touch with. Every one had been a bitter disappointment, and several had left him severely out of pocket. “Don't be as sad as Seb, Ben!” was her final word.

I found out what Nick thought the next time I ran into him at the Horse. Apparently, he had shown the photo to Julie, who had recognised it at once. One of her male friends had been messaging the exact same girl (or, more likely, someone claiming to to the exact same girl), for several weeks. And he had been stung big time.

It was identity theft, pure and simple. The purpose of all the emails and all the questions was to find out enough information to use the victim's identity in bogus credit applications and the like.

And, once more, the cynical side of my nature was proven correct. At least I had the self-respect not to mail “Ekaterina” again (most probably a 15 stone scam artist called Boris, with a bad personal hygene problem and a whole stack of photo's stolen from some girl's Facebook page). If something seems to good to be true, that's simply because it is.