The man in the picture

The man in the picture smiles broadly; he shows a row of even white teeth. The smile is natural, spontaneous, etching crinkles around his eyes. And those eyes – clear, blue, welcoming the camera lens, not shifty, nor untrusting. He presumably knows whoever is behind the viewfinder – maybe it’s a friend, an old girlfriend, lover, brother or sister.

He stands in a large green space, surrounded by hills, limestone and mist on the horizon. The straps of a rucksack rest on his shoulders, his thick brown hair – closely cropped, a neatly trimmed beard. This coupled with his blue fleece suggest ‘outdoorsy, natural, low maintenance guy, up for fun and adventure.’ This alone draws me in.

The man in the picture is looking for ‘long term relationship, short-term relationship, fling, marriage, just friends, let’s see what happens.’ He doesn’t disclose whether he wants this all at once or which he would prefer – or maybe he would like a different woman for each. For this man, I would happily play six different roles and change my name, clothes, hair and voice for each.

The man in the picture is 38, 5ft 11ins, describes his sense of humour as ‘goofy’ and would happily bake a cake for that special someone.

He likes woman who are down to earth and comfortable in their own skin, but hates clothes shopping.  I feel I tick all these boxes and many more.

The man in the picture ‘likes’ me. I ‘like’ him by clicking on the word ‘like’. He writes me a breezy  ‘Hey, how are you’ message. I reply in a similar vein. The communication channels have now opened. We discover we both like crunchy peanut butter and walking in the hills. He starts calling me ‘hun’, I call him his name. He tells me he’s already been on ‘a few’ dates and clearly, he is picking up a virtual fan club of admirers, all vying for a date.

We have a frantic week of messaging, getting in touch at least twice a day. It gets quite heated in a virtual 70-miles-apart- way. We mention showers (of the spraying bathroom variety), underpants and stockings. My heart begins to leap every time I hear from him. I am infatuated with a photograph and some words. The idea of him excites and intrigues me.

Then, I am thrown back to the ground with a thud.

There is a longer than normal gap between our messages, not just a pause for him go to work, get on with his life. It is a gaping, empty, cold pause. His profile disappears; he has hidden it.

I am bewildered, lost, find it hard to swallow. I tell myself this is not even a whole person – it’s a part of him he has chosen to display on this forum, probably his best side, his shop front. So why should I feel so bereft?

Before I can stop myself I send him a message asking how he has disappeared – did he even know he had disappeared? Maybe it was a malfunction on the website, a page inexplicably lost.

But the man in the picture wanted to disappear.

He needed a break from the whole caboodle. Other stresses in his life were taking over so he needed ‘head space’ and not the added distraction of messaging strangers.  I would take distraction any day.

Seven long days pass. My heart is on the floor. I tell myself to stop being ridiculous. He is just a man in a picture, who manages to hold his smile, despite being stressed and a heavy rucksack weighing him down.

Then on the seventh day, a message pings into my silence. He treads carefully, asking how I am and how my life is.

I adopt a bright and breezy tone, suppress my excitement, joy and relief. And we restart our exchanges, but something has been lost. He is less interested, wearier.

The man in the picture is fading away; the camera lens is starting to lose focus.

How does it work?

With all my recent questioning and hand-wringing over relationships, which never comes to any satisfactory conclusion, I thought it time to look at those who get it right. Or appear to get it right in front of friends and onlookers.

Some couples just seem to make it work with very few problems – no pots and pans thrown across the room, no trial separations, not even one of them getting out of the car at the traffic lights and saying “right, that’s it – I’ve had enough”.

These case studies are based on real people, but with some details changed to avoid any future litigation.

Couple one – bovine woman and ant man

She spends many mornings lying around in bed, taking it easy, while he’s up at seven, buzzing around the house. He’ll be cooking a five star breakfast, putting on a machine wash and giving the lounge a quick vacuum.

Meanwhile bovine woman is still in bed, reading the papers, sipping coffee and totally oblivious of the outside world.

Yet still, bovine woman and ant man are very much in love after nearly 20 years together. He loves looking after her, keeping the house together and being the main provider. She revels in the pampering care she receives from her devoted lover and servant.

This couple understand each other completely and will be going strong long after many others throw in the towel. There is also a hint of an exciting sex life when the curtains are drawn. She won’t say any more to me, other than “he’s a total perv” and suggested there was a box of toys somewhere in the house. Maybe that’s their recipe for success – he serves her in return for unadulterated bedroom action.

Conclusion: I couldn’t be waited on hand and foot all the time without feeling guilty. I would prefer to share the work. Although right now, a foot massage and cup of tea would go down a storm…

Couple two – chalk and cheese

I don’t really know how these two have lasted over 15 years. Nothing outwardly about this relationship could even suggest there was ever an attraction in the first place. Him: overweight, spends much of his time playing video games or horizontal on the sofa, drinking cans of cider. Her: petite, avid yoga enthusiast, busy social life and friends who regularly outpour their problems to her or entrust her with their secrets.

But yet, nothing will ever tear them asunder. They have had their rough patches – family bereavement, work worries – but still they carry on in their separate worlds, under one roof, only coming together for certain TV programmes or bedtime. I then picture him snoring and her curled up in a foetal ball on the edge of the bed.

Conclusion: I am mystified by the success of this union. It’s fine to have different friends and interests, but leading virtually separate lives with no overlap is taking things a bit far.

Couple three – Sporty couple

These two have been together since they were 17. They have grown up, gone through their 20s and 30s together, been best friends, almost seem related to one another after almost 25 years’ exclusivity.  Except for one thing many would envy: They still fancy the pants off each other.

Even now, if they are sitting side by side, he puts a protective arm around her shoulder, or she rests her hand on his thigh.  This must be one of the 21st century’s miracle couples – no exaggeration.

Both are athletic, sporty and probably fit the same clothes they wore in their teens. They run, walk, rock climb and mountain bike. And to complete their perfect partnership, they have two sons who do the same. The four of them make an attractive team in their hoodies, gilets and cargo pants.

Sporty guy is rather quieter and more serious than sporty girl, who is confident and outgoing. This pair probably have their five a day, sex at least three times a week and a family session of sit-ups and squats each morning.

The only hint of mutiny seeps into the outside world when she is out with girlfriends and sporty guy is home with the kids. One of our group asked if she ate healthy food all the time, to which she looked a little sad and said “yes, I’m afraid so.” On very rare alcohol-fuelled occasions, she has also been witnessed partaking in a sneaky cigarette. “Don’t tell X – he’ll kill me!”

Conclusion: While I envy this enduring commitment and still-present spark, there are small signs that he is in charge of the health regime. He needs to loosen up a little or quiet frustration may turn into out and out revolt.

Couple four – Like and like

Stress is a foreign word in this partnership. Granted, Bloke is a worrier while Bird goes with the flow a little too much, but their level of calm is quite breath-taking.

These two make having a house full of children – charging about, eating buns on the stairs, spilling drinks on the sofa cushions and bouncing on beds – look like a carefree past time.

They are so serene and in tune with one another that they are almost like the same person split in two.

Most Halloweens, Christmases or Easters, they organise events that bring dozens of their children’s friends to their house. Bird will have a big pot of casserole or chili bubbling on the stove, while Bloke idly reclines in his armchair, or plays the clown with the kids. And all the time they are unscathed by the pandemonium around them.

I have never heard a cross word between them in these situations or when they are on a night out without the kids. Bloke will tease Bird affectionately while she jokes about his little foibles, like insisting on reading three Sunday papers or still struggling to work the DVD player and they playfully elbow one another.

They do both, however, have difficulty knowing when to stop drinking on a night off and are the two most likely to be stumbling along the pavement, dodging lamp posts and litter bins, gurning through their slurry sozzled faces. I imagine they wake up in the morning after such a night, half-dressed, face down on the bed, not knowing whether they ‘did it’ or not.

Conclusion:  This is bordering on the kind of partnership most of us would want, but I do worry that these two reach the bottom of a bottle too quickly on their nights off. I like a drink, but sex is far more enjoyable and orgasmic when you are not completely paralytic.

So, readers, as usual I have gone around the houses and come back with very little – aside from a pint of milk and packet of biscuits. There are probably bits of each of these relationships which make them a success – but the reality of how they work is probably a secret recipe known only to the cooks themselves.