THE LETTER began: 'Dear winos,' and the photograph was reminiscent of Jeremy Irons. Well, Jeremy on a foggy day, perhaps. The handwriting was a beautiful, elegant scrawl. 'Fun letter, nice face. Any takers?' I asked.
'Not my type. Now he's gorgeous. Looks like Tom Hanks,' sighed Rachel, drooling over a passport photo with a gooey expression. 'Hey, I opened it first, he's mine,' insisted Claudia.
Three weeks had passed since the three of us had sent in our joint advertisement to Private Eye. The amount of responses hadn't ruptured the postman's back, exactly, but we had enough letters to feel flattered - about 40. Tonight was 'dishing out the dishes' night.
We had expected letters specifically addressed to each 'type'. But hedging their bets wisely, replies covered the field with witty openings such as 'Dear Syrah, Dolcetto and Muscadelle'. How was I supposed to distribute the pile of letters that had thumped onto my doormat? Should they be dealt out unopened, or should we open them all together, read each one out, and cast votes in preference of first, second and third choices?
A master of diplomacy, I solved the dilemma by opening them all beforehand. 'That's so unfair,' bleated the others, spotting the two letters poking out of my handbag. 'Look,' I reasoned, 'you can have all the others - I'll just keep these two.'
I clutched the picture of a man with designer stubble and Ray- Bans in a sports car. 'He looks like a thug. I thought you wanted 'intellectual',' sniped Rachel. 'Let's see the other letter.' Claudia snatched out the photo. 'A beach holiday snap. Looks like an Australian toyboy.' 'Not at all,' I retorted. 'He's obviously a world traveller - his letter says 'Let us explore hidden continents together'.' 'I'm not sure that's what he means,' said Rachel.
Uninterested in my choices, they excused my pilfering, but banned me from making any more until they had each picked two letters themselves. Sophisticated, sharing, Nineties women, we finally sorted out a fair system. Native bartering. 'I'll swap you 'Tom Hanks' for 'man standing outside French villa',' volunteered Claudia. 'No way. 'Tom Hanks' and 'The Barrister', and I'll throw in these three,' replied Rachel.
The next step was to draw up a shortlist: not on it was the cheeky cad who wrote one simple line, no address: 'Much sought after vintage 1951, single, successful - has corkscrew.'
Enigmatic, maybe. But none of us wanted to risk the fact he may also have a hacksaw. Nor were we impressed by another applicant. A solitary photograph with the message: 'Too tired to woo you with a letter, girls. Telephone: xxx.'
Finally it was agreed. I was to contact 'Ray-Bans' and 'The Traveller' - they were both going to ring 'Tom Hanks' and 'The Barrister', plus another each.
Five days later, none of us had made the initial telephone contact. How do you start the call? 'Hello, you don't know me but I advertised . . . .' Finally, fired by the desire to explore exotic places, I rang 'The Traveller' with an opening gambit referring to our advert.
'I believe sir, you ordered some wine?' It didn't register. 'Yes you did, sir. A mellow white, a burgundy and a claret. Well, we only have the claret in stock.' Luckily, his 'I don't remember ordering any' gave me time to register a passion-killing nasal voice incompatible with his bohemian gypsy photograph and eloquently penned epistle. 'I think you've got the wrong number,' he added. I agreed. And our affair was grounded before we'd even explored the local Chinese.
On the other hand, Rachel and 'Tom Hanks' had now met for a glass of wine. 'Very attractive, but drank too much.' (Coming from Rachel, he must have been on the verge of liver failure.) Another hiccup was he lived in Manchester.
Rachel embarked on another meeting. 'I could kill you,' she screamed at me. 'He didn't match the photo with his letter.' I must have mixed them up. The only way to find 'The Barrister' was for Claudia and Rachel to ring up 20 men and ask them to describe themselves. Neither was inclined, and I was blamed for losing what each claimed to be their soulmate.
Meanwhile, I'd had a pleasant phonecall with 'Ray-Bans'. Inviting me for Sunday breakfast (original), I was surprised that without his dark shades on, he looked nothing like the super-cool image in the photo. Actually, I'd been attracted because he reminded me of an ex-boyfriend. However, he had more charm than the ex-boyfriend. He talked, for a start.
Claudia then rang with some startling news. 'I'm getting married.' Now, that's what I call results. 'No, idiot. To Julian (her ex-lover). This whole thing helped. He found out what I was doing, and worried he'd really lose me - so I've cancelled my dates.'
Two days later, 'Ray-Bans' was passing, and asked if he could drop in for coffee. I agreed, then panicked. I begged a girlfriend to come round at the same time. He walked in. She stood up. The bells rang. Electricity crackled.
Three hours later, still failing to get their attention after stripping naked and singing 'Knees Up Mother Brown', I decided they were made for each other, and gave them my blessing.
So magnanimous. So giving. So easy . . . when you've got 36 more letters in your bottom drawer.
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