The mystery of the disappearing men

    23 March 2017

    Asked in an interview what superpower she would choose to have, Joan Bakewell replied that it would be the ability to eat anything she liked without getting fat. Hear, hear, although that would be number two on my list. Laura Kenny, like most people, answered that she would like to be invisible. I would argue that, as a middle-aged woman, I already am. Anyway, while invisibility could — does! — afford some amusement, it’s a rather modest gift. You could only hear what people are saying. Top of my superpower list would be to know people’s thoughts. Men are difficult to read in general but, in dating mode, with their mixed messages, they become beyond puzzling.

    The children’s author Helen Bailey, 51, was an educated, middle-class widow who met her new partner, Ian Stewart, on a dating website and obviously did not have the faintest clue what was going through his ghastly mind. He poisoned her for months with debilitating drugs before disposing of her and her dog in the cesspit at her house in Hertfordshire last April. All this time, she thought he loved her and was excitedly planning their wedding.

    In the photographs he looks like a plump, middle–aged bloke with a grey beard; ordinary and harmless in an extra large denim shirt. They are smiling together and their smiles attest to a standard middle-years relationship most probably characterised by box sets, M&S Meals for two, chats about wedding cake and a smattering of Viagra sex.

    Apparently, Bailey once joked with her brother that a cesspit would be a good place, in a crime novel, to hide a body. She clearly didn’t see the lightbulb switching on in Stewart’s astonishing head and the words inside screeching: ‘D’oh! That’s a great idea and then I can get my fingers on her £4 million.’

    I take away two things from this story. First, when anyone asks me why I never touch internet dating — as they continue to do most days — I shall shut them up with, ‘Largely because I don’t want to wind up in an underground pool of shit.’ Second, the old cliché that we can never know what is going through anyone else’s head has been confirmed once and for all.

    The amount of hours I have spent speculating about why a certain man in — or partially in — my life, has or hasn’t done this or that does not seem a sensible use of my time. It certainly doesn’t get me anywhere. I rarely do find out, although I guess that mostly the answer is they are thinking about me not very much, if at all. But I cannot help speculating because it is endlessly fascinating how their behaviour in my presence differs so dramatically from that when we are apart.

    Just one example (I have an endless number in my lexicon): an attractive fellow with whom I had been on a few dates (coffee shops, galleries, the Wolseley) rang and asked me to join him in his club. It was freezing, foggy and late, but an irresistible summons all the same. By the time I arrived, there were few other members still there. The clever but slightly humourless man and I sat on the sofa for hours by the dying fire. We had a lovely time. I made him laugh a lot. Perhaps that made him uncomfortable. I have never heard from him since.

    I think that’s quite odd. Not as odd, obviously, as making a life with someone — walking their dog, sharing bottles of wine, going to bed with them every night, merrily joining in on the wedding planning — and, having dispatched them to an infinite cesspit, ordering a Chinese takeaway, as Ian Stewart apparently did. The odd I come across again and again is rather more bog-standard odd, but still bloody odd nonetheless. I would love to have known what was going through the heads of men who have led me quite far along with dates and texts and come-hither promise. Why, in the humourless one’s case, the loaded invitation if nothing was to come of it? He gave every appearance of having a wonderful time and fancying more of it. And told me so, several times. But then: total silence.

    WTF was that about? I thought it was me but, no, apparently it’s a phenomenon called ghosting, and is pandemic. Preferable to actually being turned into a ghost I suppose, but dispiriting all the same.