Cascading into a torrent of social activities: Heart Searching: Lynne Curry spends an evening with members of a 'semi-mature youth club' for the over-30s

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RUDI the pianist is in a pounds 600 Versace shirt and Roger the electrical engineer is in a Harrods suit, Jaeger tie, Swiss cotton shirt (brought from Switzerland) and a pair of Van Cleef cufflinks. They can both trade designer labels but when it comes to meeting the opposite sex Rudi wins, no contest.

That is because he is 24, and at 24 there is no end to the number of suitable places to meet women: wine bars, discos, bus stops, city squares on a sunny afternoon, benches on a seafront. At 25 Roger, in fact, did meet a woman in exactly that way, giving her a lift in the rain from her bus stop, and marrying her not long afterwards. Twelve years later she left with his best friend. At 48 Roger now entertains a nightmare scenario: he talks to a woman in a pub seconds before her 6ft 6in male companion emerges and bops him on the nose.

The world is full of people like him, he says, vegetating fortysomething divorcees no longer invited out to dinner parties by erstwhile friends who move only in circles dominated by coupledom. 'If I go to a disco I meet girls of 22, 23, 24 who are great for my ego but thick as planks. How do I know people in the same situation as me? We don't walk round wearing a badge. If I walked down a high street on a Saturday afternoon I'd probably pass more divorced and single people than not, but you just assume they're happily married.' Not tonight, however. Tonight there is no need for assumption since everyone in the back room of Porters Wine Bar in Taunton (except Rudi, tinkling away elegantly on the upright) is definitely not happily married. They are - or rather, were - unhappily unmarried and mostly suffering from the L-word: loneliness.

The other factor they have in common is membership of Cascade, an 18- month-old social group which now has about 1,500 members in Wales and the South-West. Membership is limited to the divorced, separated and single aged between 30 and 50. This description perfectly fitted Harold James, the ebullient Welshman who set it up, until he became allied to Jan, a former teacher. They met, naturally, through Cascade.

Mr James is here tonight as usual, rounding up the solitary and joining them to the nearest cluster, bustling sitters-down on to their feet, making introductions among the 'troops', banishing isolation. The room is noisy with the combined chatter of teachers, nurses, policemen, lawyers, computer people and, this being Somerset, the odd farmer.

All will have been vetted by Mr James, who targets his advertising to attract the sort of people he wants and prides himself on shrewd personal judgement through years on the road as a commercial traveller. Occasionally, though, he admits to the odd lapse. One was when he found himself aiding and abetting a couple of married women interested in a fling.

'One was a personnel manager with a big concern in Bristol,' he recalls, mildly incredulously. 'One of the guys took her out for a meal then told me she was married. I was gobsmacked. I had a word with her and she said, straight out, that her husband worked in Saudi and she thought she'd have a fling.'

Hoping that his ideal market might be found listening to classical music rather than committing adultery in their spare time, he flirted once with Classic FM, but it was an unsuccessful experiment. Another doubtful area is that of single women over 45, some of whom have been found to be eccentric beyond reform, unlike divorced women of the same age.

Typical successful Cascaders have fair intelligence, not bad jobs (sometimes very good jobs) and a nine-to- five professional shell to hide behind. Only in their personal lives is the carapace cracked. 27 per cent of the population, Mr James points out, is divorced. He has styled Cascade as a 'semi-mature youth club' which meets for walks, drinks nights, dances and, increasingly, group activities such as golf and horse-riding. Last night a party set off for a weekend at a hotel in Lynmouth.

There have been four marriages and countless less formal liaisons between members since Cascade began, but Mr James is anxious to stress that it is not a marriage bureau or dating agency. 'The public perception of what we've created here is that it's tacky. It certainly isn't. We are like a youth club, but just for an older age. On the whole, men can't handle being on their own as well as women, but our groups tend to be a microcosm of British society in most ways. When people inquire I say that I apologise for being coarse, but this is not a pick- up joint.'

Cascade's members agree that there is no pressure to be anything more than friendly with the opposite sex. Ann, a barrister's clerk divorced after 25 years of marriage, says she feels totally comfortable at the gatherings.

'You reach an age where it's difficult to meet people. There are outings such as going to the theatre where it's so nice to go with a friend, but where do you meet new friends? When you are divorced you're easy prey and everyone thinks you're a poor little woman who needs a man. Married men are the worst - for years I wore a wedding ring for that reason. I wouldn't say 'never again' to marriage if the right man came along, but I'm not looking.'

Roger the electrical engineer, warmed by a bottle of German wine, confides that he was once seduced by a Cascade member but, on the whole, enjoys badinage and a little light flirting over lunches and dinners. 'Sex isn't a problem; it's companionship and friendship that were missing. I'm having the time of my life.'

His discourse was interrupted by Mr James, clapping his hands to silence the babble. 'Please, please, silence, children - tomorrow night at Weston-super-Mare we have a new meeting place, the Grand Atlantic . . .' Roger could not wait to hear the details. It was 11.30pm, and he had been invited for coffee.

Membership details can be obtained from Harold James or Jan on 0222 704653 or 0495 755309. Annual subscription pounds 30.

Next week: a selection of Heart Searching readers' weird, wild and (occasionally) wonderful experiences of meeting people through introduction agencies and personal ads.

(Photograph omitted)

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