Carol knew what she liked: a man who enjoyed pub lunches and gentle drives in the countryside on a Sunday afternoon.

Not that she had a great deal to offer, on first examination, in the mating game. She didn't have much money, her address was a nursing home on the windswept Lancashire coast (no view; her room had a skylight, but at least it was warmer than her daughter's house) and she hadn't had a man for 13 years, since she was widowed. Oh, and she was aged 77.

But Carol was a woman open to possibilities, and when her daughter's friend suggested she advertise for a companion, she did. Moreover, she was bold enough to contact a man she thought sounded very suitable (Harold, six months younger, enjoyed pub lunches, neither smoked nor drank) who had also advertised.

Now it's Harold and Carol, happy in the warmth of a Weymouth flat, living together on the grounds of financial benefit in rather gloriously decadent un-marriage, toasting the new year together, the only cloud on the horizon the draughty windows and Weymouth and Portland council's reluctance (so far) to install double glazing.

And what possible use is this to you, heading into 1994 on a solo wave that could break at any second, leaving you in the usual heap on the shingle of life? More than you might think, for others have landed there before you and have picked themselves up and shaken themselves down, and learned from the experience.

It's the season for fireside stories. Here are a few from the annals of 1993, with customary morals in their tails. None follows the usual conventions, but as you have every right to expect, all have happier endings than beginnings.

Alastair and Susanna

The year dawned miserably for Alastair and Susanna. He was a widower with a 7-year-old daughter, in need of adult company and a life outside the bed and breakfast he had taken on to bring up his child. She was about to have it confirmed that her husband, the father of her two young children, was having an affair.

They met at a social group and were attracted instantly. By the time Alastair asked Susanna out, however, the affair involved an unusual third party: Susanna's unborn child, the result of a failed reconciliation with her now former husband.

As they grew closer, she grew larger. The baby was born in November. 'It didn't bother me at all and it didn't bother her either,' said Alastair, who knew from the outset that Susanna was pregnant. The baby will be raised as Alastair's. Susanna moved in officially last month and they intend to get married this year.

Moral: Things don't have to be conventional to be successful.


Alex is a commercial property lawyer aged 45. He and his wife separated eight years ago after a particularly disastrous holiday, which crowned what had become a troubled marriage.

He had two affairs which came to nothing, then sank himself into work gatherings and active membership of a sailing club on the Somerset coast - but his life lacked sparkle. He wanted female company and last autumn joined Cascade, which describes itself as a youth club for the divorced, separated or unmarried over-30s.

'It's not a dating agency but a sort of middle-aged social club. I thought I'd be much happier doing that without the hassle and stress of a singles club, where the men hang round the bar and the women stand in the corner.'

He feels much more relaxed about relationships and is currently in the throes of a fledgling liaison, begun without strain when he wasn't looking.

'I don't feel that marriage is the be-all and end-all; it doesn't change a good relationship into a fantastic one. I would love to have the feeling of being prepared to enter into that sort of commitment, but it doesn't matter because it will either go there or it won't. To limit a relationship to that goal is ridiculous. Things grow and mature like plants; you can't take a little sapling and say it's going to be a fantastic tree.'

Moral: Let relationships take their course; to steer at full steam towards marriage could be a voyage on to the rocks.

Christopher and Sian

He was a retired vicar who found life alone hard to bear after his wife died. She was a widow working as a school matron and, in the holidays, as a private nurse. She was putting her daughter through Cambridge.

Rattling around in their own lives, they each placed an advertisement with Natural Friends, an introduction agency whose clients mostly have an 'alternative' philosophy.

He liked the description of her (a nurse with a farming background, a quiet faith in God, and homely interests) and he liked the sound of her (Welsh, spirited, not unfailingly malleable).

There were setbacks at the beginning, but they were married six months after they met, in the shortest possible time to have the banns read. Christopher says he knew she was the right woman when he heard her voice.

Moral: Trust your instincts.


Diana has just had the best Christmas she can remember, at the age of 49, 10 years after her divorce, with a gathering of total strangers in a hotel in Usk. This took place within weeks of a stomach-churning debut at the social group she had decided to join.

Her job as a ski instructor led to introductions to many men, but most were younger. She had had a two-and-a-half year relationship with a man 12 years her junior, which collapsed when he realised she would not have more children.

'This year, I don't know why, I started to think seriously what was going to happen to me in my life. I needed mature people of my own age and in my own circumstances.' She too joined Cascade, expecting 'oddball rejects' but finding friends and a social life.

'When I went to my first disco - travelling along at 8.30 at night like a teenager; I couldn't believe it - I didn't dance much, just stood and looked. I couldn't believe all these people were in the same boat as me: all single, all shapes, all sizes. I thought, 'what have I been doing for the last 10 years?' I'd wasted so much time feeling sorry for myself, all that TV I'd watched, all the going to bed early. I honestly haven't looked back. It's completely changed my life.'

Diana is unconvinced that her life could be better with a man. 'Whatever else you do, you must go out and meet other single people. To stay in the married scene is a mistake. I couldn't have had one more Christmas in it, where I'd be invited round by couples who were very nice but at the end of the night you'd go home even lonelier. Don't look for a man. Go for having a good time.'

Moral: Life on your own can be tremendous.

If there appears to be no common thread in these stories - well, that's the way it is. Heart searching is a funny old game. Here's to your own best year in 1994.

The Association of British Introduction Agencies has a list of clubs and meeting agencies, telephone: 071-937 2800. Natural Friends is at 15 Benyon Gardens, Culford, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (0284 728315). Cascade operates in Wales and the South West and be contacted on 0222 704653 or 0495 755309.