‘Looking for love?’ said a junk-mail invitation to join an online dating site free of charge. They’d hit the nail on the head. I signed up and followed the step-by-step instructions to compiling and posting my profile. First I had to describe myself in at least 28 words. Then I had to tick boxes about whether I eat meat, or smoke, or want children and so on. Finally I had to display a photograph of myself.
I have few downloadable digital photographs of myself and resorted to a snap of me taken on holiday in Guyana. I’m stepping out across the savannah at first light on the trail of a giant anteater. My luggage hadn’t turned up at the airport, and I’m wearing a yellow flat cap with ‘I love Guyana’ embroidered across the top; a shirt comprised of the red, yellow and green triangles of the Guyana national flag; and a painfully tight pair of swimming shorts; all of the above hurriedly bought in a department store in Georgetown. The username I chose for my profile was ‘the Thurrock Mangler’.
Amazingly I had a nibble almost immediately.
Queen Tracy left a message in my inbox saying that she thought I looked very smart and quite handsome. She had also registered herself as one of my fans. In a fever of excitement I went to her profile and looked at her photograph. It was a head and shoulders shot. A mass of blonde hair, big blue eyes, tanned skin, and drop-dead gorgeous. I couldn’t believe my luck.
In her profile, Queen Tracy described herself as ‘warm’, ‘tactile’ and ‘sexy’. She was looking for anything from a quick fling to matrimony. To describe her occupation, she had ticked the box next to Arts/Creative/ Writing. Her hobby was ‘making love’. She lived in Kensington. She was 25 years old.
My first instinct was to leave Queen Tracy a message telling her I could be in Kensington in about 20 minutes. But then I thought I’d go through the motions and indulge in a bit of flirtatious chit-chat via email first. Was she sure she hadn’t made a mistake by sending a message to the wrong person, I asked her.
No reply to that came for two days. Perhaps my little joke had in fact been the stark truth. The only other message in my inbox came from a hideous old crone called Gather Ye Rosebuds. She said I sounded like a very strange individual and did I class myself as ‘unusual’. In her profile, Gather Ye Rosebuds described herself as ‘a child of the new age’, which I took to mean she was hairy and gullible.
Then a message from Queen Tracy arrived and despair turned to joy. She felt attracted to me and wanted to know everything about me. How many brothers and sisters did I have? (She had seven brothers and five sisters.) I must write down everything, she said, and send it by ordinary email instead of relying on the website’s messaging system. I emailed a potted autobiography to her and about half an hour later I received another long email. This one included a sort of blueprint for our marriage. She said that she ‘believed that mens [sic] should be treated with respect and as an equal partner in a relationship and not just as a piece of meat, or whatever’. I replied that on the contrary I had no objection to being treated like a piece of meat and when could I see her? What about tomorrow afternoon, for example?
In her next email she said that unfortunately she’d had to ‘relocate’ from Kensington to Nigeria to look after her mother because her father had been beaten to death by the police in a case of mistaken identity. And then — misfortune on misfortune — yesterday her mother had been attacked and fatally injured by armed robbers. So now here she was, alone in her tiny apartment in Nigeria, ‘thinking about my new good friend, Mr Mangler’. She had a powerful feeling, a premonition almost, that we were destined to marry, and she wished she were with me now, ‘whether it is on the bed or on the couch or wherever’.
And then my laptop lit up like a fairground attraction, with alarm bells and whistles going off, alerting me that somebody had hacked into my laptop. Over 500 Trojans were active inside my computer, a pop-up warned me. Also worms. Instead of replying to Queen Tracy, I sent a message to the website moderators telling them that I suspected Queen Tracy of being a computer hacker with a novelist’s imagination. A few hours later the moderators replied that they had ascertained that my assertion was indeed true, and that Queen Tracy’s profile had been taken down and that they apologised for any inconvenience. No bother, I replied; even a fantasy relationship via email with a Nigerian hacker is better than nothing.