episode two: falling for a photograph

in which love arrives unexpectedly, in the form of a photograph…a photograph of a woman I recognise and yet have never seen before…

It was full night when we arrived at Phil’s broken down farmhouse.

Nothing had changed. In fact, everything was just as it was when he’d moved in twenty years before. A Belling oven, peeling wallpaper dating back to the thirties, concrete floors painted to imitate tiles, bare wires protruding from the walls. The window of the French doors was still broken, just as I remembered, held together with peeling yellowed Sellotape, the result of an incident involving his ex, the psychiatric nurse, and a shotgun that fortunately didn’t go off.

The three of us chatted and were easy together through the evening, sitting by the wood burner eating pizza my daughter and I had picked up on the way. We drank a lot of wine, more wine than usual to recover from the journey and the sense of dislocation. To amuse us in the small hours, I brought my laptop to the table and signed in to Guardian Soulmates.

For those who don’t know, Guardian Soulmates is a dating website. The idea is to attract those people who read the liberal-left broadsheet certainly, but more especially to filter out those who don’t, thus ensuring the fish in the net are likely to be alike and therefore likely to be liking each other, streamlining the whole love business and making the search time vastly more productive.

I had only taken the pledge in an ironic, thoroughly post-modern spirit, as a kind of house warming present for Phil and myself. We were, after all, two single men of a certain age in danger of losing our perspective under the joint barrage of bad luck and malign fate. I’d figured that a dating website full of women we would never be able to date, might distract and might even amuse. That was my excuse. As with so much of what I do, I’m not proud of this less than serious attitude to the women in question and to the whole business of love, but there it is.

To be fair to myself, I had another motive for signing up. I wanted to state publicly that I was done with the past, free of all that, and thinking now only of the future. Done with my ex-wife certainly. Though we’d been divorced for ten years, we still spoke almost daily for reasons hard to fathom but easy to rationalise when you have children.

And then there was the ex-girlfriend I mentioned. We’d lived together for five years or so, post my divorce. She was—is—a woman who makes me nostalgic, though we were always perhaps ill-suited.

Taken together,  I felt I’d been in two car wrecks, one after the other, and leaving all that debris behind was now something I could do if I wanted to. I was, after all, single, and I had been single for the longest period in my entire life—admittedly only a year—so there was no reason I shouldn’t take my seat on the love train that was Soulmates.

I’d never before thought of doing such a thing, because for a man of my age—I’m mid-fifties, he says rather coyly‑there’s something of a stigma attached to online shopping for human beings. I mean, isn’t there? Cars and clothes and books, fine. I was always an Amazon addict for the inanimate. But can you really do the same with a potential lover? Pick a model, add in some extras, negotiate on terms and sign a deal for a fling, a friendship, a long-term relationship or possibly marriage? Of course, you couldn’t phrase the process like that, but still some part of me felt that internet dating, if not for no-hopers, was for those who’s mistake was in hoping too much, indeed expecting too much, from love and life.

As I read the profiles more closely, I felt I was being led as an innocent through dark passageways to reveal candlelit chapels of penitents praying for salvation. The words were individual and the faithful were all alone, but the message was universal and the hope palpable. I was frankly overwhelmed by the sensitive self-portraits stating outright life’s disappointments and hurts, whole paragraphs of confessional prose charting the slow process of healing through time, hinting at permanent scars and new-found strength of character through suffering. There were touchingly tentative suggestions for an ideal mate from the women in question, as if asking for anything more than a sense of humour and a whiff of fidelity might be tempting the Gods. I was clearly not the only one with low expectations and I was genuinely moved, but also paralysed. The thought that I too was now a member of the congregation, left me unable to act, let alone click ‘like’ or send a message. Not on that first look.

But things change, wine works, and I’m in France. So, moving the remains of the pizza to one side, I suggest the three of us could window shop for fun, comparing notes in a way cruel to think of in hindsight, but causing no actual harm to the hopefuls because none will ever know. No clicks will be involved, no likes, no messages of encouragement, merely judgement by committee, a purely aesthetic exercise without real world implications. Thirty two pounds is a lot of money, after all.

My daughter is immediately up for it. And as we kick off, her opinions on the women whose profiles we look at quickly become both outspoken and occasionally uncharitable.

“Hold on, she’s a kook. Satisfy my spiritual needs? What does she want, a priest? Moving on.”

Phil is frankly horrified, certainly by the extravagant fee I’ve paid for the privilege, but it’s more than that. His is not the cynic’s reaction, but the romantic’s. I can see from his frown and his reluctance to engage that he thinks I’ve somehow desecrated the very notion of love and it takes him some time to warm to the game. A minute, maybe two. Then he pulls his chair closer to get a better view. The more my daughter and I pass swift critiques based on whatever it might be— looks, religious belief, therapy choices—and move on to the next candidate, the more he is tempted to hold us up with a benevolent reservation about the dismissal we’ve issued. His charity doesn’t last. Six or seven candidates later and his own verdicts become almost as perfunctory and soon after, nearly as cruel.

That said, there are several women we’ve seen who are completely beautiful, utterly charming in their self-deprecating words, apparently grounded and very alluring. Out of my league might be another way to put it. The ‘like’ button is only a click away and the temptation to give what is, after all, merely an innocent compliment with no expectations, hovers. Such an action might be seen as a way of taking the women we’re admiring or dissing seriously; showing respect for those who have the courage to put themselves online, and on the line, in search of love. No?

No. This is entertainment, nothing more. In a week my daughter and real life soulmate, along with her sister, will be returning to the UK. I don’t know when I will see her again and I know I will be bereft. I want her to think of her Dad, and indeed her Dad’s best friend, as okay. We’re still in the game, still hoping for the best, just like the women whose thumbnails we’re scrolling through. Like them, we’re survivors. That’s all.

And then it happens.

Her name is GreenGenie, or rather her user name is GreenGenie, and written like that, one word and two capitals. She’s pretty, but then so are many other women on the site. She says she’s environmentally aware, works in the sector, and is extremely independent, but I hardly bother to read the words of her profile because already, I recognize this woman. And all because of one photograph.

It’s a grey day. She sits on a wooden breakwater on a beach somewhere, with one leg extended. She’s looking down, long brown hair worn loose, swept from right to left, tousled by the wind. She’s wearing jeans ripped at one knee only, not a fashion statement, not a tear at each knee, but a careless thing, a fact. A thin, pinkish-purple cardigan over a white t-shirt, a long back, and her pose – one hand between her legs, the other behind her – show her straight shoulders to perfection. She has a walker’s small green rucksack, just visible, holding what? And she wears loafers for shoes, relaxed, impractical, insouciant. I notice her fingers are long and slender. If she doesn’t play piano, she paints. For sure. And she’s smiling, laughing really, her eyes averted from the camera as if shy at the moment of having her photo taken. By whom I wonder? I study her face. She has something reserved in her expression, thoughtful, maybe even sad, an untouchable core, and yet I can tell she’s also strong, down to earth and completely of this world.

She is also, in short, the one.

“That’s her,” I say, without for a moment doubting my absolute instinct that this stranger is everything I’ve ever desired or admired in a woman. When I look at my daughter and my oldest friend, I can see they think I mean Genie is fanciable or my type or just plain beautiful. And she is. But what I’m trying to say is so much more than that.

Because I know her intimately even though we’ve never met. Perhaps, I think, I’ve been waiting all my life just for her. Perhaps everything that has led me to this place and this time, all the confusions, the mistakes and crimes, every success, every failure, every happy love affair, every miserable break up, every tiny, insignificant decision I’ve ever taken, to get on a bus, to turn left instead of right, to wear shorts all year round, the accumulation of the whole kit and caboodle, has been an elaborate journey designed to bring me to this woman and bring her to me.

“She’s the one, don’t you see?” I say plaintively.

I look to my daughter for support.

“She’s pretty,” she says.

Not even my own daughter understands, and as for Phil, skeptical doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It’s late. The wine has flowed and we’ve smoked some of Phil’s homegrown weed. My two companions are on the same side in this debate and they look at me indulgently, like I’ve got carried away or I’m stoned. But I haven’t got carried away and whilst I may be stoned, I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. I’m in the grip of an epiphany, and the only way to prove it, the only thing I can do under the circumstances—short of jumping into the car and driving back to England—is to click ‘like’.

Phil looks stern. “You said you wouldn’t do that,”

“I know.”

And it’s liberating. All reservations about myself evaporate in that instant. I haven’t forgotten who or what I am, it’s just no longer relevant. Of course I’m unworthy, just as all lovers feel themselves to be unworthy in the presence of the loved one. But this is an epiphany, this is love at first sight, the real thing…this is how it’s supposed to be, how it’s meant to be. Isn’t it?


The next day, there’s a message in my inbox from the Guardian Soulmates support team. The subject line reads: ‘Someone at Soulmates likes you back.’

It can’t be. I open the mail and click on the link. My heart beats faster. I allow myself to hope. I’m nervous and sweaty and my hand shakes as I go through to the site. It’s from her. It’s Genie.

Barely able to focus, I read this:

I’d like to reply but I don’t have a subscription right now. I’ll be in touch when I do…’