Fortysomething Frances Burscough gives the most honest despatch from the singles frontline you will ever read
Day one a nightmare first date ... and an inbox crammed with would-be suitors
They call it “the dating game” and that couldn't be more apt. Having re-joined the scene myself in the last decade, I've discovered that it really is just like a game — a crazy mixed-up, messed-up game — combining assorted aspects of Lotto Jackpot, Charades, Musical Chairs, Pass the Parcel, Poker, Twister and Solitaire, all rolled into one but without any common rules.
There's an element of chance; the odds are stacked against you, the risks are high and you never know whether you are going to get lucky and strike the jackpot or walk away a sore loser. But, like any good game, you keep on trying because half the fun is in the playing. Besides, like the saying goes, “if you're not in, you can't win,” and despite years of trying, I’d a good feeling that someday soon my numbers would all come up — in the right order — and I'd finally meet the man of my dreams.
Over the past few years, since my marriage dissolved and I found myself single again at the age of 40, I have been on numerous dates and romantic forays with men from various walks of life and a variety of backgrounds, and all with varying degrees of success.
I’ve been courted with compliments, showered with gifts and whisked away on romantic trips around the world. But I’ve also had more than my fair share of disasters ... some laughable, some infuriating and some downright tragic. But first you may wonder, how did I end up back here, free, single and ready to mingle again after a long and fruitful marriage?
Let's start at the very beginning ...
Until 2004, the last time I had been on a date was in the 1980s in Manchester. I was a trendy fashion student going through a New Romantic phase; he was slightly older, more intelligent and a lot more mature. Until then I'd only been out with penniless fellow students or snogged half-strangers at parties. This was a proper date, with flowers and wine and everything, in a real restaurant, no less. I should have been out of my depth — I certainly looked like I was; I had peroxide-bleached hair, which I’d back-combed and extra-hold-hairsprayed into a gigantic rigid structure which could have withstood a hurricane; heavy black eye-make-up and neon lipstick. I wore a ra-ra skirt, striped footless tights, a studded leather biker jacket and ballet pumps. In short, I must have looked like a total wally.
To make matters worse, I was so self-conscious that I could barely eat and hardly spoke all night, opening my mouth only to gulp down one too many glasses of Rioja. So, of course, I ended up drunk, thus behaving like a total wally, too.
However, in spite of everything, that was the last date I went on because we moved in together the following week, then got married the following year.
Fast-forward 18 years to a different country, a different century, a different hairstyle. My marriage is over, I’ve just turned 40, I have two kids and I face the prospect of my first Christmas without a partner in two decades.
I had two options. The simplest, and most obvious one was to celebrate it Bridget Jones-style, with a Bacardi Breezer in one hand and the remote control in the other, weeping into the TV Times while All By Myself played in the background. The more tricky and complicated one was to find me a man, and quick!
Of course, in keeping with most of my life-changing decisions, I chose the difficult route. So the search was on, to find a man who was not only immediately available, but also attractive, clever, funny, solvent and ideally still in possession of his own teeth
The main problem was that I live in Bangor, a town populated mainly by young families and old age pensioners. In the 11 years I had lived here, I hadn’t so much as seen a man who fitted that description. Secondly, all my friends at the time were either settled in relationships or married, so I didn’t have an accomplice. Furthermore, I had never been any good at “chatting up” men and was sure I came across as unapproachable, so the likelihood of them falling at my feet voluntarily was very slim. What was worse, the well-known drinking emporia in Bangor were, on the whole, notorious pick-up joints for married men who wanted something for the weekend. So, all things considered, this was not an ideal place to start looking.
Rather than waste a lot of time, effort, money and pride “on the pull”, I decided to consult the Classifieds, just like you would if you wanted a second-hand sofa.
My first stop was “Get Connected” in the Belfast Telegraph. As I scanned the double page spread of literally hundreds of men searching for a partner, I started to feel a bit more hopeful. There was bound to be someone here, surely?
I picked out one described as “Tall, dark and handsome” (how original!) and called the number. After about ten minutes — and approximately ten quids’ worth — of recorded message I finally got to hear his voice.
“My name is Liam and I’m a dental technician. I’m into playing golf and ”
Until that moment, I hadn’t realised how picky I was about a man’s voice. His was nasal, verging on whiney. He might have looked like Clive Owen, but I wasn’t going to find out because the phone was already down.
My second attempt was Mr Right-up Your Street. His message began with: “Hey how you doin’ ?” in a poor impression of Joey from Friends.
He went on:
“This could be the best decision you have made in your little life ”
Speak for yourself, buddy, I thought as I unceremoniously terminated the call.
Next up, a guy who believed the only way to a woman’s heart was via a flash motor:
“Let’s get down to the brass tacks. I look good and I drive a Porsche convertible ”
Horrible, arrogant, chauvinistic a remarkable achievement to express so much in so few words!
“My God, I’m turning into a female Simon Cowell!” I thought as I tried hard to remain impartial and stay focused.
But after hearing Mr Dog Mad, who wanted to meet a pedigree bitch; Mr Lover-Love,r who was so cocksure of his appeal that I suspected a quiet drink on the first date would be out of the question and Genuine Guy, who sounded like he had the personality and panache of Baldrick from Blackadder; my optimism was starting to wane somewhat and reality was setting in.
Just as I was starting to lose faith in all mankind (I’m not known for my patience and resolve) and was about to turn to the TV listings, I spotted this one:
“Friendly, affable, funny, open-minded M artist; single parent of three wonderful kids, would like to meet a similar F for shared love of life.”
Call me fickle, but immediately my mood changed.
His voice was deep and smooth, he lived within driving distance, he was funny, clever and well within his expiry date so ohmygod ... I left a message.
“Hello, my name is Frances,” I purred in my sexiest Kathleen Turner voice, “... and I think we might have a lot in common. If you would like to contact me my number is ”etc.
He contacted me a few days later, on a Friday, and wanted to meet me that same evening. When I asked what was the hurry, he explained: “I’ve drawn up a shortlist of possibles and I want it to be a done deal by Monday.”
I should have told him where to get off then and there but he had sounded so perfect in the paper! So, like a lamb merrily gambolling to the slaughterhouse, I agreed to meet him.
What I did next, broke the most important rule of every dating agency anywhere: “NEVER, under ANY circumstances, arrange to meet a man for the first time at his or your home.”
But, once again, because he had sounded so nice in the paper, I immediately agreed to go to his house because he said that as a single parent of young children he had to stay put, so I blithely wrote down his address and arranged to be there at nine, after his kids were in bed.
I then proceeded to break the second most important rule of blind-dating: “ALWAYS tell friends and family where you are going. Give them precise details and ideally leave contact numbers if possible.”
I instead told nobody what I was doing or where I was going. I didn’t have time. Besides, I guessed they would have tried to talk me out of it and this was one adventure I did not want to miss!
By 8pm I was ready, wearing a black dress, which was figure-hugging but didn’t reveal any actual flesh at all, so I decided it was a perfect compromise. I then took a large swig of vodka to calm my nerves and called a taxi.
The second ominous sign came as we were approaching Belfast. My phone went and it was he: “Get me a bottle of red wine and a packet of Marlborough Lites on your way would u luv??”
As we pulled up at the off-licence and I shelled out £13 on his doggy bag I was starting to wonder if romance was actually dead after all.
He might have been an artist, but he was certainly no oil painting himself. But nevertheless when I arrived, he looked me up and down and then asked me to walk around his living room so he could “assess me from various angles.”
I decided to ignore this and sat down on the opposite sofa so that I could “assess” him, although by now I knew he most definitely wasn’t the man for me.
After a few minutes of “small talk” where he asked me how much I earned on average in a year and what was the value of my property (I kid you not!! But I didn’t divulge anything to the nosey sod) he made his pronouncement:
“Look luv, you’re not my type. I’m really into brunettes, and want someone a bit more demure than you, but I was willing to take a chance ’cos you had a sexy voice, a bit like Kathleen Turner,” (laughs to himself) “but, since you’ve come all this way, and you’re here now, how about a bit of no-strings fun all the same?”
I was incensed and humiliated, but also very uneasy. Suddenly, after being so full of adventure and gung-ho, I realised what a vulnerable and potentially dangerous situation I had got myself in. I had no idea how he would react if I turned him down and i didn’t want to wait to find out.
Instead I used my feminine guile.
“Well hang on while I go to the bathroom will you?”
Before I had even reached the door I could hear the sound of him unzipping his jeans, no doubt with a smug look of satisfaction on his face. Once I was out of the room, though, I grabbed my bag and bolted, never to return.
It was icy outside, I had no coat, I was miles from home and had no transport but I was so glad to be out of there. What an idiot I had been! I may have been 40 but didn’t even have the sense of a 14-year-old!
It may have been a disaster, but my determination to succeed pushed me onwards and upwards thence to the world of online dating. I had read about one organisation which was an all-Ireland concern so I checked out the website.
Irishandsingle.com (now, sadly no more) was a great introduction, although members were limited to just a few hundred spread out across the entire island. I typed in my requirements, very straightforward, and very much like if you were booking a flight or requesting a brochure.
Within seconds, I had a list of potential “matches” — many of whom had photographs, some I even vaguely recognised!
This was definitely the easiest way of “meeting” people. I contacted one or two at first, chatted online or emailed for a few evenings to find out a bit more about them and eventually agreed to meet — in a public place with friends close by. Although love never blossomed for me using this website, it was a convenient way of making new friends who not only lived nearby, but were in similar circumstances. However, being a very small fledgling company, the selection was too limited.
So from there I decided to branch out and go global, joining the world’s biggest dating agency, Match.com.
This involved a fee of about £15 per month but gave members access to literally millions of potential dates from every country in the world. At first I felt like a child in a sweet shop, spending hours ogling photos of tanned surfer dudes from California and heavy metal bikers from Australia. I even invited my friends round for a private viewing with a bottle of wine and a lot of cheap laughs. Far more entertaining than an evening in front of the TV watching EastEnders!
But soon as I posted my own profile on the website, then the fun really did begin.
Of course, I only used photographs that showed my “best side” on “good hair days” and I also must admit that I airbrushed my teeth a bit whiter and my eyes a bit bluer, but my God, what a reaction!
I switched on my computer the following morning to see: You have 436 new messages. And that was just day one. The list grew and grew until I had thousands of contacts.
Now don't get me wrong; I didn't for one second imagine that these same men had done anything more than look at my photo and see exceptionally white teeth and unnaturally blue eyes and think “BINGO”. In fact, I suspect that as soon as a new member was flagged up, a lot of members would automatically send out a welcome email as standard, like a sort of blanket coverage, in the hope that sooner or later they would get lucky.
Still, there were loads of emails, far too many to reply to. I needed to filter somehow. I could afford to be as fussy as I liked over the tiniest minutiae of detail, without being too shallow of course. So I narrowed my search criteria to within my absolute ideal parameters.
Height: 5ft 10ins to 6ft 4ins”
Interests: Cinema, Music, Theatre, Arts, Travel, Dining, etc etc.
I basically just thought of all the men I'd ever fantasised about (Clive Owen, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, James Bond, Captain Scarlet ...) and created a virtual boyfriend with a few clicks of a mouse on a mousepad. “If he exists, no matter where that may be, I'm going to find him!” was my rationale.
The results soon came flooding in. A few really stood out. There was a doctor from Guyana who said my eyes were “like shiny, shiny amethysts”; an Aussie cricketer who was visiting Dublin in the summer on a tour and wanted a “glamorous guide”; an ex-priest from New York who said he had left his vocation “because of people like me”; a wildlife photographer who lived in the Outer Hebrides and described me as “an exquisite rare bird”; and a Chinese Kick Boxing enthusiast who sent a photo of Jet Li and expected me to fall for it — to name but a few.
It all made very amusing reading and definitely gave my flagging ego a huge boost into the stratosphere, but I was too long in the tooth to fall for any of that blarney.
Nevertheless, according to the other old saying “Faint heart never did win fair lady” I started to draw up my own shortlist of guys whom I felt might be enjoyable and compatible company.
And so, the dating game began. In earnest, this time. Which, coincidentally, was the name of my first date from Match.com.
Ah, Ernest. A lovely bloke in many ways ... very friendly, very affable, very affluent! But also, sadly, very dull, too. He was a chartered accountant ... need I say more? I sat through a four-course dinner at one of Belfast's poshest restaurants but after struggling to keep the conversation going throughout it, I came to a new conclusion.
From now on, coffee comes first.
If a potential date does makes it past the coffee test (I survive the length of a Cappuccino without falling asleep or wanting to jump off a cliff) then I’d agree to a dinner date. So here are a few who failed the coffee test and why.
1. The Anonymous Alcoholic
This guy arrived borderline drunk (For coffee at 11am) and spent our first (and only) meeting openly staring at my cleavage — which I feel compelled to add was only partially visible — with jaws agog. Any conversational gambit of mine was answered in single words or grunts as he drooled into his Espresso (presumably to try and sober up). He then decided it would be funny to play a game of “guess the breast size” and, when I refused to divulge my vital statistics, he called the waiter over and asked him to offer a ball-park figure.
2. The Barrister
This fella was a lawyer whom I had conversed with online but had never actually spoken to. But despite being hugely successful in his field, he had no social skills whatsoever. From the moment we sat down he proceeded to fire questions at me as though I was a hostile witness in the dock at some momentous trial.
After half an hour of cross-examination and attempting to catch me out he finally let me ask him a question. It was “Could you please pass me my coat?”
3. Angry Guy
I had arranged to meet this man for coffee at 10am but arrived at 10.05 only to find him pacing up and down outside the cafe, looking at his watch theatrically.
After only a couple of minutes in the queue the audible sighing and tutting began about understaffing. Then he noticed to his utter horror that “the incompetents” had inadvertently forgotten to sprinkle chocolate on his cappuccino, so, rather than reach for it himself, he called the poor frazzled waitress over to complain.
Next he launched into a tirade about his ex wife. “I cannot understand, to this day, why she left me!” he hissed, banging his fist so hard on the table that cappuccino foam went flying into the air.
“I can” I thought as I reached for my coat...
4. The Married Man
Despite having a member's profile on a dating website, I guessed this guy was married from the start. Certain clues — he was wearing dark glasses and a hat in his photo; he was reluctant to give any details away before we met; he was only online very late at night (probably when his wife was in bed) and he wanted to meet for a coffee somewhere out of the way and quiet. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and agreed to meet him because he was quite charming and funny in his emails but when he asked if we could meet up in future at my house the alarm bells went into overdrive.
He was either married, or a serial killer, neither of which were on my wishlist.
5. The Really Rude Bloke
In this case, I agreed to meet for lunch because he was travelling a distance to meet me and it would have seemed rude not to. I shouldn't have bothered. He was the rudest man I'd ever met. He began by laughing at a disabled child on the next table. He then criticised what I had ordered for lunch, saying “that probably explains the weight problem” (Please note, I'm 10 stone) He then tried to make up for the affront by saying I was “wearing remarkably well for a 40-year-old”, but when I pointed out I was actually nearer 50, he replied: “Ah, well that explains the frumpy clothes.” The Cheeky %&*****$$£!!!
Now those were some of the more extreme non-starters. But that hasn't always been the case, I have had a few very romantic and enjoyable encounters too.
One semi-success even lasted a few months, with a fabulous guy called Dan from Canada. This transatlantic romance was a real adventure from start to finish. It all began with an email, (he had Northern Irish roots and was curious about the “talent” over here) then a few more, then a phone call, then a few more ... within a couple of weeks I found myself standing at Arrivals at Belfast International Airport, with my heart in my mouth, waiting for him to emerge from Customs.
He stayed for two weeks at the Europa and during that time I showed him around the town, took him on day trips up the coast and for a weekend down to Dublin. My two teenage sons met him, too, and liked him (“his accent is so cool!!”) and it felt like the beginning of the end of my search. When he left we both cried and immediately started planning part two of our whirlwind romance.
That took place in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta Canada amid the fresh spring snow of March 2008. This time he showed me round his territory. I met his parents; his two kids; his workmates; then we went up into the Rockie Mountains to a log cabin for a wonderfully romantic long weekend. But all too soon it was over and I was on a plane home — a hefty 10 hour flight — wondering what would happen next.
Sadly, nothing did happen. I had no intention of emigrating and uprooting my life and disturbing my kids’ childhood so dramatically; he would never leave his kids but he couldn't take them from their mother; before we knew it the decision was made for us: there was no point in continuing. Again, I cried a river for a few days, but life as always carried on as usual and a few weeks later I rejoined the dating website for round two.
This was when I met JM and we hit it off immediately. For a while we were like teenagers, holding hands, smooching, phoning and texting night and day... the whole shebang.
He even took me away on a fabulous holiday, too, to Jamaica, and I in turn took him to England to meet my family there.
Problems only arose when he started to become jealous of my closeness with my kids. That is one thing that to me is sacrosanct and can never be called into question. He did, and as soon as he started to interfere, criticise and complain about it, I knew our days were numbered. They were.
One night, when I was staying with his and my boys were at their dad's, he demanded that I switch off my phone.
I refused, in case there were any emergencies and, well, the rest is history...
So all things considered, you could say I've become something of an expert, albeit in the art of doomed relationships and how to spot them early on.
It's not something I'm particularly proud of as a specialist subject. I certainly wouldn't want to go on Mastermind with it.
However, for all you women out there in the same boat — and I know there are legions — I feel it's only right to pass on my findings. I've made the mistakes so you don't have to.
First and foremost — don't believe the adverts!!
Never forget, the world of online agencies isn't reality, it is virtual reality, seen through a rose-tinted computer screen. They are selling you an ideal via lots of hype and hyperbole. Their publicity often couldn't be further from the truth.
In the fantasy world of the dating agency there are no couch-potatoes. There are no beer-bellied lager-louts or boy-racing chavs or male chauvinist pigs.
Their world is populated by poetic Brad Pitt lookalikes who keep their toned bodies swathed in rippling six-packs and their heads bristling with thick and glossy hair; to a man they are ruggedly handsome and yet in touch with their feminine side and they love to cook, go shopping and iron their own shirts. Or so they would have you think.
You won’t catch them staring at football on a plasma screen across a noisy pub, shouting expletives at the referee whilst topping up their beer with one hand and shovelling pork scratching into their mouth with the other.
Their typical man spends his free time gazing at you across a steamy candlelit bubble bath, topping up your champagne with one hand, popping an occasional strawberry into your mouth with the other, whilst deftly massaging your feet with both of his. And all this after having spent half an hour reading bedtime stories to your kids and two hours cooking your dinner (and clearing up afterwards).
Some dating sites — such as eHarmony.com — claim to take a different approach to matchmaking. They talk of psychological profiling via a series of in-depth questionnaires. This way, they claim, they “get to the heart of the real you” and “the issues, qualities and traits that really matter” .
I decided to give this a go next, as I was so sick of seeing the same old faces being beamed up onto my computer screen from the chief Cupids at Match.com.
So there I found myself again, filling in forms, uploading photos and describing my “likes and dislikes” to facilitate the magic that the eHarmony had vowed to conjure up. I was dubious, if not downright pessimistic about my chances of coming up trumps with a match made in cyber heaven.
But then, after much self-analysis and soul-searching, they found him.
There, in my inbox. The man whom, according to the online love gurus, and countless in-depth questions, was my perfect match.
So who was he, I hear you ask? Did it really work? Did love conquer all my doubts after all?
Did it hell. Remember that Really Rude Bloke from last year who implied that I was fat, frumpy and past-it because I didn't laugh at his jokes?
And whom I'd vowed never ever to contact again? It was him.
So much for eHarmony! What a waste of time that was.
Which left just one stone unturned — the only completely free of charge dating website that everyone was talking about: Plenty of Fish.com
In the time since I'd started my personal love quest, It had gone from a tiny obscure operation to a mega-global concern akin to FriendsReunited for one reason and one reason only (I think). It is free, therefore no awkward bills to explain to the wife/girlfriend at home. This alone had been enough to put me off signing up... just the thought of all the charlatans who would be lurking behind the facade.
There are no security checks; no way of knowing who you are communicating with; anyone but anyone could join up and, to make matters worse, there were very few rules, guidelines, or company policies to put anyone off. Add to that the fact that complete anonymity is also freely available, whereby members are under no obligation to post pictures of themselves, then hey presto!
You've got an online site where every Tom, Dick and Harry can join up.
Heck, the Pope himself could have a profile on Plenty of Fish. com and no one would ever find out.
And yet, like I say, this was the last resort. I'd tried everything else and failed spectacularly. So one night, a few weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly alone and lonely, I decided to have a wee peek ... just to see what all the fuss was about. Looking can't do any harm, can it? So of course within one hour and one rash decision later, I had a profile up and running.
WHAM! Literally within seconds my intray was filling up with messages.
‘Such&suchabody likes your profile ...’
‘Such&suchabody wants to chat with you ...’
‘Such&suchabody has sent you an email ...’
‘Such&suchabody wants a date with you ...’
So after staying up all night enthralled by this chaotic cattle market where hundreds and hundreds of guys seemed to be bidding for my attention, I finally spotted one who seemed interesting.
‘MarcoDiSicily has sent you an email.’
Interesting, I thought. I bet he's Italian (I'm quick that way).
Italians are often attractive... I'll have a wee look and find out a bit more.
Now, to cut a long story short, MarcoDiSicily sounded like he might be a very exotic and interesting candidate indeed. He wrote that he was the great-great-grandson of a famous Mafia boss.
His family owned a vineyard in Sicily and also had the sole distribution rights to a certain make of popular cocktail cherry.
He was a hugely successful cosmetic surgeon who had trained in Rome and was now in Belfast to set up a new clinic and surgery here.
At the very least, I thought, this guy would make a great story for my column in Business Month magazine. Who knows ... he might turn out to be Belfast's most desirable and eligible single man!
So we swapped phone numbers. We spoke.
He had a very strong Italian accent and kept saying “Mamma Mia!” and “Fantastico!” after everything I said.
He sounded like an absolute stereotypical Italian right out of the Dolmio adverts.
Sure, he emailed a few pics ... one of him standing next to a Lambourghini, another of him in a swimming pool somewhere exotic, another of him in “la familia vineyardo” and in them all he looked perfectly acceptable.
Dark hair, dark eyes, swarthy skin... nice enough to arrange to meet for a coffee at the very least.
So we met.
Instantly, I had a feeling I'd seen this guy before somewhere. I asked him had we met and he replied: “Eeez no possible Signora, I only arrive 'ere ona Friday!” Nevertheless I was suspicious.
Especially when, after a few minutes, his accent started to slip ... into what sounded to me more like Punjabi.
So I decided to call his bluff. I know, I thought I'll speak to him in Italian and see what he does.
“Ave, Maria, piena di grazia,” I began in my finest Dolmio. “Il Signore è con te. Tu sei benedetta, benedetto è il frutto del tuo seno, Gesù.”
Which, roughly translated, means ‘Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’
Well, it was the only thing I could remember from Italian O-level!
What did he reply?
“Mamma Mia! You speaka the good Italiano! I like-a you too!!”
It was then that I remembered where I'd seen him before.
And it certainly wasn't in the parched fields of Sicily or the Spanish Steps in Rome.
It was in Belfast. He was an Indian waiter, from a popular Tandoori restaurant I regularly frequent.
Mamma Mia? Here I go again I thought as I reached for my coat...
Because everyone loves a happy ending....
Now, that was a month ago and I'm delighted to say that since then, things have definitely started to improve. Just when I was about to give up altogether and resign myself to a future playing Solitaire, (the only game in town) something happened that made me feel like I may have finally come up trumps.
I got an email, (a lovely, lovely email) from a man, originally from Northern Ireland, who has lived abroad for many years but had kept in touch with news from home via the Belfast Telegraph Online website.
Whilst on the other side of the world he would read my columns, articles and features and decided to look me up when he returned this spring, just to tell me how much he had enjoyed my weekly missives. And, as a single parent himself, from out-of-town, how much he could relate to my experiences.
“I felt like you were writing them just for me!” he said when we eventually met. He passed the coffee test with utter aplomb.
Did coffee lead to dinner, then dessert, you may be wondering? Or breakfast, even?
Well for once, I could not possibly comment. One thing I will tell you though is that I've been smiling ever since the first sip. And laughing, sighing, even singing!
In fact, one song in particular has been in my head from the first day we met :
At Last, by Etta James
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song’
What you need to know before dating online