There have been (and I dare say there still will be) periods when my life rockets out of control and improbable and dramatically disastrous things happen to me. I call it ‘Going Soap Opera’. The way I saw it is that there is a deceased Soap Opera writer (I call him Algernon) up there in heaven who ‘has something’ on God. He makes demands with menaces and for some reason God periodically placates him by giving him my life to play with and he comes up with some very creative but pointless dramatics. I like to cheat him by playing down the drama and becoming ultra practical. Eventually he gets bored and gets to play with some other poor sap’s life.
The days following the publication of my ‘ad’ turned out to be worse than my most pessimistic projections. I lasted without a fag for about 12 hours after The Easy Way to Stop Smoking and, on some days, my consumption was nearing 60 a day. This may seem excessive to you, indeed it did to me, but when life is spiralling out of your control and seeming to confirm that you are just as useless as everyone thought you were at school it is reassuring to keep doing something you that know you are really good at. Smoking was one of my few natural talents. I had all the toys; long cigarette holders, glamorous lighters that I could open and ignite in one seamless gesture and I had perfected all the moves based on every movie I had ever seen where smoking was a glamorous device. All that and a nicotine hit as well! How could I stop when every single night of my life my inspiration to keep going came directly out of Kipling’s poem, IF.
That last line (“And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son”) bothered me a bit, I mean you are going through all of that and your reward is to ‘become a man, my son.’ Do me favour! I had no ambitions to be a man. I wanted to be a terrific grown-up woman and I was miserably aware that I had lost all my sassiness and personality in the last few dreadful years of my marriage. Aware too that I might not have much time left to regain it, I was in a rush to find out who I really was.
Reading Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus had been a revelation to me. It had depicted a world where there could be meaningful communication and consideration between the sexes. I had tried to interest Robert in it but he was not big on books and had seldom been known to read a book without pictures written by someone other than Harold Robbins or Dick Francis so that was a non-starter. As soon as it was evident that our marriage was dead in the water I had started reading Mars and Venus Starting Over and Mars and Venus On A Date and learned a whole load of things I wished I’d known earlier. I think my ‘ad’ could be construed as a device for road-testing this new information.
There were over eighty men who, it appeared, were interested in meeting a quirky non-numerate couch potato with a penchant for Mae West one liners. I was amazed to discover what a universal currency ‘walks on beaches’ and ‘glasses of red wine in front of roaring log fires’ seemed to be. Mostly the respondents seemed to be sincere but, with Algernon playing Soap Opera Script with my life, I was in no shape to respond to anyone. It took all my strength to cope with the whirlwinds of heartbreak and stress that he cooked up on a daily basis. It got so bad that it seemed I was starring in six separate soap operas going out daily.
The letters and phone calls (this was the 1990’s!) enlivened my mornings, when the postman delivered envelopes in unfamiliar hands, and my nights when my son, who was devastated by the separation, was finally asleep I would have the furtive pleasure of listening to my voicemail messages at The Times. I donʼt believe I thanked them all for responding and giving me some distraction to get me through the endless days and nights of worry and pain. Some even provided amusement and a good story to lighten the otherwise depressing life landscape.
One caller intoned in a deep, rather actor-ish voice,
“Hello Kit. My name is Norman. I am in my late 50’s and I live on the coast of East Anglia. I really liked the sound of your voice and I found your advertisement intriguing. I enjoy walks on the beach followed by a blazing log fire with a glass or two of some good bordeaux and am looking for…”
A woman’s voice cut in, “Hello…?” she said and Norman’s voice (a couple of octaves up the range!) exclaimed with real horror, “Oh my God!” and he banged the receiver down. The woman’s voice said, “Hello? hello…?” and then the line went dead.
The ad first ran on July 4th but it was not until August that I responded to anyone.
His message stood out for me. There was a vigour to it. His voice was attractive and managed to sound both brisk and warm. There was humour and an upbeat cadence that I liked. I could hear the intake of breath as he paused for thought, which was effective and strangely intimate. After Justin departed to go on holiday with his father for three weeks, I finally got around to leaving a message on his voicemail. When he called me back we chatted for about ten minutes. We laughed in the same places. Let me repeat that, we laughed in the same places. Words truly cannot convey how that one detail stands out. I can still recall the feeling it gave me and that feeling is the sole reason that I surprised myself by agreeing to a meeting.
“So, shall we meet for lunch?” He was a successful business man and knew well how to move a conversation smoothly to the desired outcome.
“Yes, why not?” I said before I could stop myself.
“Where would you like to go?” I hadnʼt thought about that.
“Well,” I played for time, “where would be good for you?”
“I can come to wherever you choose. Where would you like to go?”
All of a sudden I thought of Mimmo dʼIsshia on Elizabeth St. It was local and I felt comfortable there. He said that was fine. “How will I recognise you?” I asked, thinking of green carnations and bowler hats.
“I will book a table and be there at 12.30. When you arrive at 12.35, you will say you are here to meet me and they will show you to my table.”
Wow! Was this man a bit smooth? Or what?
“It sounds like you’ve done this before,” I said and we laughed together.
“It’s just common sense,” he assured me.
We laughed in the same places and therefore I felt brave enough to agree to a meeting. A lot of very clever people have remarked on this through the ages…
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” said Plato. Viktor Borge observed that, “A laugh is the shortest distance between two people,” while Rabelais asserted that, “I’d rather write about laughing than crying. For laughter makes men human, and courageous” (of course when he said ʻmenʼ he meant women as well!)
We arranged to meet a few days later. As we rang off, I remembered an important thing I had omitted to tell him to aid with the recognition factor.
“Oh dear, I forgot to tell him I was bald.”