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I told him I was busy for the next three weeks and made my escape: Heart Searching: Sometimes there are hearts and flowers, sometimes non-starts and glowers. Two readers describe their very different experiences

IN 1982, when I was 32, a seven-year relationship ended and I spent the next nine months discovering that I enjoyed my own company and that of my women friends.

Teaching in a girls' school, I was unlikely to meet anyone through work, and in any case there's not much incentive to go out on wet Friday nights in February. But when the summer came I thought I might enjoy being part of a couple, so I tried the only avenue I could think of - Time Out's lonely hearts column.

I received lots of replies, but they took a fair bit of weeding. Out immediately went the misspelt, the ungrammatical and those written in green or purple ink - sorry, I'm a bit of an intellectual snob - and also out went those who wrote of their interests in fast cars or Club 18-30 holidays.

In the end I made arrangements to meet only three: Mark, who described himself as a 'headhunter' in 'the media'; Tim, a lawyer; and James, who described himself as 45 (a bit over my undeclared age limit) but who sounded quite promising - interested in food, wine, the theatre and all the other conversational currencies of my like-minded friends.

Mark was much less attractive than his photograph, which had showed him smiling quirkily, suntanned and relaxed on holiday - possibly some years earlier, since his hair, black in the photograph, was now nearly grey. He spent a great deal of time establishing that he didn't 'need' to use ads to meet people, and his conversation consisted mainly of lists of all the fascinating and beautiful women ('Ah, yes, Ingrid,' with a self-consciously quirky smile of amused reflection) with whom he spent his time. He'd come armed with photographs of himself and all the Ingrids on various holidays/house- parties/barbecues.

I decided I simply wasn't interesting enough to distract someone so clearly fascinated by himself and didn't - as I'd said I would - ring him later. But why had he answered my ad? Did all the Ingrids find him as boring as I did?

I arranged to meet Tim a week later at a restaurant. Tim was a company lawyer, and an expert on Saudi contract law. My mother had been very excited at the prospect of my going out with a lawyer (though I hadn't told her how I'd met him - there is still a stigma, and there certainly was in 1983).

The evening was a disaster for me, however. We began by exchanging the usual sort of personal details - jobs, preferences in music and so on - but I dislike talking about teaching when I'm not at work (everyone went to school, so they're all experts on 'education'). That gave him a clear field on 'great Saudi contracts I have negotiated'. I started by trying to nod encouragingly, but he hardly needed it. He clearly loved his work, and couldn't imagine that I didn't find this as fascinating as he did. At the end of the evening I told him I was very busy for the next three weeks, and made my escape.

I'd arranged to meet 45-year-old James at Sloane Square tube station, and, circumspect this time, said I'd be wearing blue, but went in pink. There was only one possibility at the tube station - a dapper gent (there's no other phrase for him) of at least 65, wearing a striped blazer with a carnation in his buttonhole. He looked at me with a kind of doggy hopeful yearning - despite the pink - as I walked past and I guessed he'd been stood up many times in the past; but I'm afraid I went straight home.

Lying seems to be endemic in these arrangements: my ex-boyfriend's 58- year-old mother was advised, when she joined an agency, to say she was 10 years younger since 'men don't want women over 50'. I'm told I don't look anything like my 42 years - but am I now a hopeless case?

Shortly after the James incident I met someone, and the relationship lasted nearly six years. I'm on my own again now, but I'm still more inclined to trust to chance. I don't really think I'd ever meet anyone suitable through an agency - otherwise, why is it that for every female journalist who does one of those 'I joined a dating agency' articles, the outcome is always the same? The men are hopeless.

And then there are the 'dinner- party' groups. I read two articles shortly after these appeared on the scene, and the writers made the same point - the men were really just hoping for more sexual partners. It was the women who were exchanging phone numbers and arranging to see films, go shopping together and so on.

One of the problems of the agency method, it seems to me, is that it takes no account of chemistry. My friends invite me to dinner with 'nice' men who, on the surface, have everything I like: they're interested in films, theatre, food, art galleries, gardens, music, country walks and politics.

I work with a nice man who theoretically ought to suit me; and there's another who lives two flats away who also likes the same sorts of things I do. But I don't fancy any of them, whereas the six-year realationship was with someone all my friends thought completely unsuitable - 'What on earth do you have in common?' - but who made me laugh.

Marilyn, London