Looking for Mr Even Vaguely Normal

A string of women have met their deaths in the past year after answering lonely hearts ads. Didn't they realise the person they'd met was dangerous, or at least different? Esther Oxford set out to see if she could trust a total stranger
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The Independent Online
I am standing outside the Haagen-Dazs ice-cream bar in Leicester Square trying to spot my lonely hearts date. Every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be catching my eye tonight - but nobody matches up to the photograph in my hand. Time ticks by - then suddenly I see him. The grubby, faded trousers. The T-shirt with the jutting pair of breasts splayed across it. Unmistakable. The man catches my eye. An approving leer. "Hi - I'm Jason," he says, ambling across. "You must be Esther."

Yes - I am Esther, I think to myself. But who the hell are you? I know from your letter that you think you "deserve the best" (whatever that means). That you're "dishy". That you're fed up with "dodgy relationships", "travel light", and like answering lonely hearts small ads.

But what about the other side of you? A married man posing as a single, perhaps? A recent divorce with an ante-room of emotional baggage? A liar with a fantasy persona to deceive and confuse your victim? A rapist? A killer?

A string of women have met their deaths in the last 12 months doing what I am doing. Like me, they received a bag of mail from lonely heart hopefuls and spent several hours chucking out the duff ones. Like me, they assumed they could tell the good from the bad and met up with their chosen suitor, confident that everything would swim along smoothly.

But they got it wrong. Rita Mitchell, 66, was the most recent victim, a woman known to use personal columns in her hunt for the "right" man. She was killed with a blunt instrument at home in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in June. Ann Mead, a 35-year-old GP from south London, met her killer through the lonely hearts column of the New Statesman magazine. He beat her head against a wall from sheer jealousy. Then there was 22-year-old Sandra Parkinson, a waitress working at a hotel in Salcombe, Devon. She was gagged, raped, then throttled, before being thrown into undergrowth near a coastal path.

"Female, 22, warm, affectionate, honest", her lonely hearts advert had said. "GSOH, slim, curves in all the right places, cuddles, seeks male to share and enjoy life. Photo if possible. Genuine replies, please."

What was Sandra's mistake? Talking about her luscious curves? Being too earnest? Too naive-sounding? Too needy? Would Sandra have fared better had she met a stranger in a pub, at a party, at a disco? I would find out, I decided. I copied out her personal ad and sent it off to Time Out, the London listings magazine, with a pounds 60 cheque. Three weeks later a brown envelope containing 20 replies landed with a thud on my doormat. I picked it up, fingering it doubtfully.

The first letter set the tone: "I'm tall, lightly hairy and heavy chested (with proud nipples). I'm into long, leisurely, varied rhythmic 'exploring' sensual sessions ... Write back - and please feel free to be as frank as you like."

Then there was the "Grant Mitchell lookalike without the psychopathic tendencies", the chap who enclosed a picture of himself "looking mean ... but at least you can see that I haven't got two heads", and the dentist who describes himself as "a bit anal".

There were some sweet ones ("Sorry about the peach paper - it was supposed to be warm but looks sad"); some funny ones (postcard of a grumpy gorilla saying "Thinking of You"); a few bitter ones ("I came home one day to find my wife sat on the sofa, saying she didn't love me any more ... but I wouldn't want her back anyway") and the pompous ones ("One of my greatest strengths is that I am a brilliant but socially liberal conversationalist, who can formulate opinions on a wide range of subjects").

And there were the pathetic letters: "I see myself as a caring but often lonely individual," wrote a 22-year-old, "with a heart that has been hurt a few times but still beats strongly in my search for that special someone ... I have so much love in my heart and all I want is to be able to share it with somebody. Could you be that special someone? Perhaps."

After some perusal I selected three (narrowly rejecting the Dirty Den lookalike who describes himself as having a "good sense of humour"). The chosen ones? Jason (the chap with the jutting breasts T-shirt), who works in a hostel for homeless people and insists that he is "not carrying baggage from failed relationships"; Patrick, 23, a chemistry teacher at an independent school in north London, who says (jokingly) that his favourite film is Deep Throat; and Tim, an Uxbridge carpenter in his "thirtysomethings", who admits that he is "not well-practised in the art of chatting up" but is looking for a "strong, loving and sexual relationship". I stagger them: Jason at 6pm, Patrick at 8pm and Tim at 9.30pm.

Jason is not "dishy". He has weirdly intense eyes, a punched-around nose and foul teeth. He has replied to six lonely hearts adverts in the last few weeks. Two called him up: me and another girl. What happened to her? "I turned up a week early. After that she didn't seem too interested." Why did you choose my advert? "I liked the bit about the curves in all the right places," he admits.

"I was seeing a girl for two years," he continues, "but the sex wasn't good - far too passive. I like to feel that I am not alone when I'm having sex. I'm quite demanding." What do you do if your partner is not active? I ask cautiously, visions of him tying the unfortunate woman up and beating her until she shrieks. "It depends," he replies thoughtfully. "If I cared for her, I would be patient. If I didn't, well ..."

His conversation swung from the banal ("Where do you live? Where were you born?") to the creepy: "So, are you demanding when it comes to sex?" Luckily, 8.30pm soon came ticking round, but he insisted on walking me to Haagen-Dazs to meet my "friend".

We stood there just near the shop. Jason leant across and pecked me on the mouth (yuk). "I'm very attracted to you," he said. "You are ... um ... quite lovely. Do you want to come to Luton this weekend?" "No, thank you," was the short answer. I turned round, spotted my next date immediately and walked across. I saw him choke on his Burger King Coke, spluttering it over the pavement. "Hello, Patrick," I said.

Patrick was a dish: six foot three, sexy body (he rows) and ears that stick out. We went for something to eat and a drink. Patrick said he'd never tried lonely hearts dating before, but liked my advert because "most of the other women advertising were in their 30s and looking for marriage". So what are you looking for? "Fun. A girl who is sleazy but respectable at the same time."

Three of his friends, he said, had met their partners through the lonely hearts columns. One is getting married this summer. Plus, he'd found it hard meeting the right woman through conventional routes. "I seem to end up choosing the wrong women," he says. "None of my relationships ever lasts more than two months."

I find myself pushing a beer bottle round in circles. "An amateur psychologist would have a field day watching you," he says. "A circle," I say thoughtfully. "Well, I guess that could symbolise a sun, or an 'o' for orange."

"No, no," he breaks in impatiently. "A circle is symbolic of the female genitalia." So what symbolises the male genitalia? "A long line," he says. How long? "How long is a piece of string?" is the reply.

There was more in the same vein: when I drew a square, he said, "Oh, so you're saying I'm square?" I asked him if he liked dancing, then I asked him how he danced. "It depends who I'm with," he said. "Dancing style is supposed to be a vertical version of the horizontal." Oh. Giggle, giggle.

I found myself enjoying Patrick's effrontery (he insisted I pay pounds 1.10 for my beer because "there is no such thing as a free drink"). His worrying taste in films aside (Blade Runner, Deep Throat), I felt strangely safe with him. He didn't talk about "relationships", he didn't try to jostle me towards the bedroom and, best of all, he didn't come across as "needy". If I'd been looking for a "male to share and enjoy life", he might have fitted the bill - as a friend, anyway.

I said it was time to go. He said: "Ah - so you're off to interview the next interviewee?" Laugh. Well - since you ask, yes. For a moment we stand together debating what to do next. Then he kisses me, briefly. I find myself wanting more and say so. Too bad. Tim is waiting.

Tim turns out to be a gnome-like creature with a goatee beard. He is 39 and just recovering from a relationship which was "Uh ... yah ... you know ... painful." So why did you break up? "Uh ... I wasn't as 'there' as I should have been." You mean you had sex with someone else? "Uh ... no." You mean she wanted to get married and you didn't? "Uh ... yes ... yes! That might have been it," he says thoughtfully.

So what kind of a relationship are you looking for, Tim (I'm getting into the swing of things here)? We are sitting in a crowded tapas bar where a flamenco guitarist is strumming away at full pelt. Tim inches forward, wrapping his arm around the back of my chair. "An uninhibited sexual relationship," he says in my ear. "What?" I yell. "An uninhibited sexual relationship!" he bellows, looking around and blushing with embarrassment. "Preferably with someone younger than me."

"What are you looking for?" he returns after some seemingly meaningful eye contact. "Mad, passionate sex," I reply, bored now. "Mad, passionate sex," he repeats, askance. A long silence. More flamenco storming. Then: "Do you have that often?"

He thought some more. Then: "I don't believe it's possible to have mad, passionate sex. Anonymous mad, passionate sex. I mean - emotions always come into it - don't they?" Yes, yes, yes. Look, I have to go home now.

He walked me to Tottenham Court Road station. It felt ridiculous - me towering above him, him trotting excitedly along behind. We got to the entrance. I stood there, wishing he would suddenly expose himself or start breathing heavily into an oxygen mask. Instead he stood on tiptoe and planted this dry, rasping kiss on my unresponsive lips. "Yes, yes. Lovely meeting you," I managed, desperate to be formal in the hope that he would piss off quickly. "Bye." I waited until he was out of sight and then spat.

On the Tube home I sat there and thought about Rita Mitchell, Ann Mead and Sandra Parkinson. At what point did they decide that the stranger they had met was trustworthy enough to go home with? When did it dawn on them that something was not quite right, that perhaps it was time to say goodbye, to run, to scream?

I know they wouldn't have opted to see Jason again. You'd have to be mad - those eyes, that knocked-about face, that arrogance, those relentless references to sex, sex, sex. Tim? Well, forgetting his unshaven face and vagrant-like dress-sense, he seemed harmless enough - too easily shocked to have a darker side. But why does he want a 22-year-old when he is 39?

But Patrick. Now he was a pleasant surprise. Casual, cheeky, sexy. Then again - what might charm like that conceal? Charm that persuades you to flirt, to kiss ... And then?

The names in this article have been changed.