Heart Searching: Not enjoying the thrill of the chase: While not actively hunting for a partner, Susan Wood is blooded when her worldly friend gets the bit between her teeth

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'Hampshire Gentleman, Country Estate, Own Business, seeks . . .'

MY FRIEND did not need to read any further. She was on the telephone to me immediately. 'I have the perfect man for you,' she said. 'You have got to write to him now.'

I should explain that I am quite a straightforward person, comfortable with my own company. I do not hanker for the high life; left to my own devices, I would happily keep myself to myself. But my sophisticated and worldly friend has other ideas.

She periodically pokes me with the metaphorical pointed stick, in an attempt to push me out into the world. It is often easier to give in rather than to resist.

Anyway (I reasoned), I'm very fond of Hampshire, particularly enjoy the countryside, and (I admitted) it would be rather nice to meet Mr Right. This decided, I selected writing paper appropriate to the occasion, and penned a letter which I hoped would meet with the approval of 'Hampshire Gent'.

Several days later found me in one of the positions often adopted by people living alone - fixing the shed roof, accompanied by the telephone (just in case). And who should choose this moment to ring but Mr Hampshire.

His well-modulated tones told me he had really enjoyed my letter, and how refreshing it was to receive something both grammatically and stylistically correct, and when could we meet? Having graciously offered to pay my train fare to Hampshire, and having been equally graciously refused, he agreed to see me on neutral territory in London.

At this point, I should mention that I have a somewhat relaxed relationship with time. Try as I might, I find it difficult to be punctual. Especially in London, events conspire to delay and distract me.

On this propitious day, true to form and despite my best efforts to make a good impression, I arrived at our meeting place distraught, inelegant, red-faced, perspiring and late.

'Please, let him be late too.' But my prayers were unanswered, and on rounding the corner to meet the man who might possibly change my life, I came face to face with a newspaper. I introduced myself to the newspaper, which was gradually lowered, revealing a man of distingushed bearing, well-cut suit, white hair, and piercing blue eyes which appeared to have a hint of amusement about them.

He rose to meet me; I murmured my apologies (feeling acutely windblown in the presence of such cool elegance), underwent his blue-eyed appraisal, and followed him in to lunch.

Logic told me Mr Hampshire was not unpromising. He certainly had something about him and the eyes certainly were compelling. Why then, could I not rid myself of a disconcerting feeling I could not immediately identify, but which eventually took shape as that more usually experienced by a niece accompanying a slightly fearsome uncle?

The soup arrived; before I had had a chance to compose myself, the eyes locked on to mine, narrowed slightly, and the interrogation commenced. The first question homed in on my childhood. 'Tell me where you went to school,' he instructed. I was momentarily puzzled. Why should my schooling have any relevance or interest now? I tried to tune into his wavelength. Would the question have been more honestly phrased: 'Where do you fit into the scheme of things, then?'

I (somewhat defensively) answered literally, while simultaneously experiencing a sense of irritation with myself for being so accommodating.

'What did your father do?' The questions continued relentlessly, with the occasional excursion into fulsome descriptions of a very grand-sounding house. 'Do you ride?' he asked abruptly, with heavy emphasis on the 'ride'. Now I can ride, after a fashion, lazy animals of gentle dispositions. I thought affectionately of my friends, who view my riding with amused tolerance.

I somehow didn't feel this answer was quite appropriate to these circumstances, however. (An unbidden image, of him saying approvingly: 'She's got a good seat on her, fine filly, what?' did not help me to formulate an answer which was appropriate.)

Ever the optimist, and with a touching faith that the situation - far from having been a lost cause from the first moment - was still recoverable, I leaned forward, and arranged my features into an expression of interested attentiveness.

Mr Hampshire almost barked the next question: 'Do you hunt?' The word 'hunt' was clipped, and slightly too loud. Momentarily, I was distracted by the intrusion of a second image - more vivid than the first - of myself (clad only in a fox's brush) running round a large four-poster bed to the sound of Mr Hampshire shouting 'tally-ho]' whilst in sweaty pursuit.

The true horror of the situation suddenly came into focus. I was being interviewed for a 'position' I did not actually want, by a pompous, unimaginative man I did not want either. The mask slipped.

'I don't actually approve of people killing animals for fun,' I said. He looked at me coldly. 'You clearly do not understand the country,' he replied. 'We are clearly not going to get on.' With these words, the interview was drawn to a close. I had not got the job. With the meal briskly concluded, we went our separate ways, me feeling battered, but faintly relieved.

One of the perks of being my friend (the one with the pointed stick) is that, after these adventures, she enjoys the vicarious satisfaction of being treated to the most entertaining account I can muster.

It is essential to maintain both a sense of humour, and of proportion. The accounts are related over a bottle or two of wine. And so this tale was told. And in the telling, it emerged that Mr Hampshire had been the victor in the oldest contest of all - and I too nave to realise we had even been on a battleground.

There was something inevitable, then, about the outline of the plot - the revenge - which slowly began to take form, and gather momentum.

Using the vital pieces of information in our possession, it was not too difficult for my intellectual friend to compose and craft a letter that stood every chance of being irresistible to Mr Hampshire. A letter in impeccable English, telling of her appreciation of the 'country', her lovely houses and, en passant, her love of riding. And every word the truth.

We posted it to the box number, having convinced ourselves that there was only the remotest possibility of an answer, as the original advert had been placed some time previously.

The impact of The Letter Writer should never be underestimated. The telephoned reply came within days. Mr Hampshire could hardly wait to meet my friend. This time, the chosen venue was a hotel in Cambridge; firmly in my friend's territory. He was already installed, behind his newspaper, when she arrived (immaculate as ever, despite suffering from a hangover from a party the night before).

The cold blue eyes (cruel eyes, my friend thought) penetrated and appraised for some moments, before she was invited to 'take a pew'.

And so battle commenced. 'Where did you go to school?' inquired my friend, without a flicker of irony. Soon followed by: 'Is your house centrally set in its land? I do think it is so important for a house to be centrally set, don't you agree?' These lines were solemnly delivered with no hint of pretension. Both the house and the school came to assume their true (and modest) proportions. They discussed politics - 'Hang them first, and ask questions afterwards - that's my motto,' opined Mr Hampshire).

And women . . . here was territory into which I had dared not stray. 'What are you looking for in a woman?' my friend wanted to know, it having transpired that his marriage had foundered as soon as his wife had come into an independent income, and taken her chance to escape. 'Apart from being a suitable consort at hunt balls?' At this point, she closed in: 'What are you actually looking for in a relationship?' There was a hesitation, a pause, then Mr Hampshire uttered the immortal words: 'Um . . . well . . . there would have to be some, you know, activity in the, er, horizontal position.'

My friend managed, somehow, to keep a straight face.

Mr Hampshire continued: 'You would do, you know, you are clearly a woman who knows how to go on.'

Lunch was over, and Mr Hampshire was in no hurry to go. My friend - who does, indeed, know how to 'go on' - therefore treated him to a guided and instructive tour of the more interesting university buildings, drawing his attention to the finer features of the stained glass, then bade him farewell as he returned to his house in the country. And we will never know whether it is set centrally in its land.

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