The criteria are strict: he has to be local, he has to be tall and he has to be professional. A respectable man, in other words, well-groomed and hygienic. A man in a suit always featured in her fantasies, and if he were besuited then tallish would do – not six foot ten, that would be silly. At five foot on the dot, if I could stand unaided, I am hardly in a strong bargaining position there. Age not too much of a problem though I would prefer him to be fit, active and vigorous. Who wouldn’t?
He had to be local because my travel options are strictly limited, and if I found the right man I want to see him often without having to book months in advance. Not that I am unwilling to travel, far from it. In my mind I skip wildly between the wonderful places of the world; it is my body that remains rooted to the ground by a debilitating disease that causes endless pain and suffering, makes every day a struggle as I attempt to lead a normal life, as normal as it could possibly be when you live on your own in a rented house and no money.
It goes without saying that he has to be interested in me and to overlook the limitations of my life. Not overlook, look beyond them, to see how romance could work in spite of the obstacles placed in my way by nature. Logically he would have to be tolerant of disabilities, endlessly patient, charming, and love me with such an intensity that he could turn a blind eye and be proud of me, to want to show me off to his friends and family. I am unlikely to be a trophy wife, but just to be with a man who was not ashamed to be seen out with her would be a damn good start.
He would very definitely need to be a regular fixture in my diary too, be happy to transport me to social engagements, maybe a bit of culture and fine dining, whisk me off for dirty weekends. He had to be a master at kissing and cuddling, and sex too. Why the hell not? Being a frequent wheelchair user does not stop you getting horny. Only, I want to be wooed first; I definitely don’t need a hump-’em-and-dump-’em merchant. That comes under the heading of respect.
So not just any man will do… but in my worst moments her depressive mind mocked her: who would want a woman like me when there are better options everywhere. Bryony-Jane Burrows, spinster at 44, albeit with a grown-up child from a youthful fling, is probably not top of the hit parade.
Good point: what does Bryony-Jane have to offer? Blokes seemed to know what they wanted, and the stereotype seemed to be a sophisticated leggy blonde supermodel with green eyes, big tits, athletic figure and tinkly laugh, dressed to kill. I have the tits, no doubt about that, and the tinkly laugh, plus a good complexion, long and lush chestnut brown hair, hazel eyes that looked greenish in the right light, and even the odd hint of sparkling and witty conversation.
Not that it mattered: my man would be the one to see past the façade of the empty-headed bimbos, and maybe appreciate me for the subtleties of her mind. I want a man who sees my inner beauty.
Seemed a bit of a vain hope though. It is fully 11 years since my last relationship ended, and even then it drifted for some while before I put it out of its misery. The ensuing time was eaten up by a repeated cycle of medical appointments, tests, diagnoses, treatments, time off work and family crises. My daughter has her own issues to deal with so was never around to help, and did not in any case approve of mother seeing men, since it might interfere with her getting attention on her own terms when she wanted it. Kids – who’d have ’em?!
But it’s time to do something for me and to let her get on with her thing. But where to find the mythical creature, the ideal man? Every local chap worth having seemed accounted for, not that very many would fit my criteria anyway. Would I want to be a bit on the side for a dashing married man? Obviously not, though you would probably have to be more glam for that gig anyway, and the supermodel image is probably beyond me anyway.
Internet dating? Tried that before. It did not go well:
- Date 1: Endlessly distracted by mobile phone, barely two words to say to me, found an excuse to get out early and did not contact me again.
- Date 2: Lived in Scotland but did seem very keen. Loved a long chin-wag on the phone. Finally caught a train so we could go out for a night in the pub. Turned out to be more keen on drinking the pub dry, and very nearly succeeded in the whisky department.
- Date 3: Married, but admitted it. Progressed to a second audience, which included much moaning and wailing about said marriage. Third meeting was called off because the wife wanted him to paint the spare room. I cancelled the fourth.
- Date 4: Married but didn’t admit it. Body language gave him away, that and the fresh dent in his finger where his wedding ring had been removed. Given marching orders.
- Date 5: There was no date 5. I stopped my subscription at that point. All the other hopefuls went unanswered.
No, that’s a lie. There was a date 5: that was the worst of the lot. I didn’t use my wheelchair that day. Instead, I staggered into the coffee bar with my wheeled walking frame. It’s not like I hadn’t told the guy about my physical condition, but his face told me clearly he was not prepared for this. Every cliché about able-bodied reaction to anybody with any deformity came true. For all he cared I might have been drooling. He didn’t need to say the word, but I could read it in his eyes: spastic. The hurt of that encounter took months of recovery and very many spilt tears, though it did expose a real chink in my egotistical armour: I don’t use self-help groups because that would require me to admit weaknesses in public.
Why? Because I don’t want to accept I have a degenerative illness, that’s why. I see myself as no different to anyone else. Nothing wrong with my mind, not my fault my body doesn’t behave instructions, and I’m damned if I’m going to be prey to maudlin self-pity. Any bloke worth his salt should accept me for who I am, and any that pigeonhole me can go fuck themselves. Nothing wrong with my brain, other than the occasional fog caused by my condition. It deserves respect. That word again.
In fact, dating agencies of every description can go take a running jump too, including those aimed at those of us with MS. Fuck them! I don’t want to meet a mini-me, I want a man with life experience we can share; a different life experience to mine, that is.
My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to hurry along serendipity and find tactics to ensnare a man worth having – in the event he ever appears. The difference is that rather than waiting for him to come to me – which might well never happen – I have to find him and pursue him. Do the wooing, in other words. No more Little Miss Passive – I have to wear the pants!
This isn’t entirely a negative picture, though. There was a guy I worshipped from afar. Used to see him in Tesco every now and again, with a mane of dark hair, the hint of a dimple in his cheeks when he smiled (and he smiled a lot, plenty of white teeth too), tight jeans and a suit jacket (a look that always appealed to me – best of both worlds), and just the right side of chunky without losing the hunky. I knew his name too – Don. Not that he looked like a Don, but you can’t blame him for his parents.
Problem 1 was that every other woman silently adored Don too, and competing with other women has never been my forte. I want to be accepted for who I am, but am not so deluded that I can’t see my disadvantages. I have a very small number of friends in my social circle, one of whom, Ruth, confessed to me that she fancied the pants off him and wondered whether she should talk to him and make a present of herself to him. I told her what a bastard he was and that she should avoid him like the plague. She ignored me and did it anyway.
Problem 2 was the greater obstacle. After Ruth plucked up courage to talk to him, the truth became readily apparent, no matter how hard he tried to let her down lightly. It was that he was gay, though I suppose he could technically be bi. Suddenly it all clicked, since he was often to be seen in the company of an older guy and displaying much public affection. I know women are supposed to forge great friendships with gay guys, but there didn’t seem much point – and the chances of me “converting” him, even assuming he was willing. Wholly undignified, I say to myself, makes me look desperate.
Nobody wants to look desperate – even if they are. If they are worth it, the trick is to be myself and dazzle them with personality, so they overlook the inherent restrictions of multiple sclerosis – but it’s not easy to feel positive when you see yourself as a cripple.
So everywhere I go I trawl the faces I see, critically but discreetly, maybe a hint of a smile on my lips in the vain hope of a smile back. I look for signs of warmth and connection. What I usually find are signs of embarrassment, avoiding eye contact, or worse still – failing to notice me at all. If you’re in a wheelchair you become invisible. Maybe that makes me a superheroine? Even that is better than the pitying shakes of the head, the gormless stares or the patronisingly wistful looks that spell out “concerned.”
Maybe I’m being unfair. Some people talk to me, self-consciously – either scrupulously avoiding the subject of my incarceration in a wheeled prison (perhaps I should call it my ‘elephant in the room’?), or being bluntly direct about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone was interested in me for who I am, for my personality, interests, conversation, hell knows – maybe even the fact that I’m a woman and have all the right bits in the right places?!
With waning enthusiasm for this humanising strategy, I visit the supermarket two or three times a week, occasionally the swimming pool, sometimes a trip to the local cinema. I eat at restaurants, even go with friends to the pub – which is definitely not the place to find Mr Right.
I said I don’t talk to friends, but there are two provisos to that: one is that my friends know I am lonely; even the man-man Ruth steps outside her own little world long enough to see through the proverbial chink in my armour (amour?) The second is that if they feed me a few gins and tonic I can’t help myself – my tongue develops a life of its own and is soon dancing merrily around my mouth and forming sounds I never intended, such that the mood rapidly becomes maudlin and self-pitying – which is a very good reason why my New Year resolutions always include giving up alcohol.
My friends know this too, so it’s not unknown for them to get in a few drinks and peel away the layers of my inhibitions. This was one such occasion, coming soon after the truth about Don became plainly evident. Two drinks in and the banter subsided, then Ruth turned to me and smirking:
“OK then Bryony, so who are you chasing?”
“Me, I’m not chasing anyone. Nobody cares about me!” said nonchalantly, followed by a deep mouthful of mother’s ruin.
“Come off it, you’d have been in Don’s pants like a shot, if you could.
“Maybe I would, hypothetically…” raucous laughter from around the table, “…but I’m looking for someone dedicated to me.”
“Let me test drive him first then!” giggled sex-mad Maisie.
“Maybe, maybe,” with extra emphasis, “I’m just being patient. He’ll find me someday, I know he will.”
“What’s he playing at then?” chipped in Gemma from beneath her large vodka-tonic, “he should be here!”
“Nah,” said Ruth scornfully, “You ought to try a woman next, all the men are bastards.”
This brought a murmur of agreement, followed by a whole lot more giggling.
I mustered up as much dignity as two large G&Ts could afford. “I’m not gay though.”
“You don’t have to be gay, just human!” Ruth yelled, “Give us a kiss!”
I batted off her advances, but then realised that the quietest and most pensive member of our small group was speaking. Beth was not quite like the rest of us, any more than we were all the same (says me, the only wheelchair user!) Beth had had her share of issues, not least systematic abuse from her ex-husband, now known to the group as Mr Hyde.
“If you find someone just to be with because you hate to be alone, you’ll soon find fault with them. The glitter wears off and you realise that they’re crap, but you can’t change your mind by that time. That was what I did wrong.”
“Sorry Beth, don’t understand,” was all I could think of. Either the gin had clouded my brain, or Beth had drunk more than me.
“I think everyone is due a shot at happiness, but if it means you’re going to end up more unhappy then is it worth it? Either you’re going to give up altogether and create a booby-trapped wall of barbed wire for a genuine guy to climb, or you’ll start rejecting every guy because he doesn’t meet your standards. Either way you’ll be miserable as sin.”
“What you saying, Beth?” Gemma looked puzzled, “You think she should just stay single and buy lots of toys?”
Cue more giggling, but Beth was serious. “You’d be alright like that, but what about the rest of us? Sometimes it’s better to be by yourself than be in a destructive relationship…”
“And be a sad old maid? Screw that!” yelled Maisie as round 3 hit the table. I knew my round would be coming along soon and that I would soon start to sound like a doom merchant, unless something startling changed.
“Nobody’s perfect,” she continued, “but better to be the least worst alternative. If you wait too long your tits will be so saggy nobody will want you!”
I think the alcohol began to talk, because I blurted out, “But who wants a cripple?” That killed the conversation stone dead! Until, that is, Ruth spoke quietly.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind if he had a physical issue. I mean, obviously I would prefer him able-bodied, but so long as it was someone I cared about and who cared about me, well, that would be what matters. I could deal with his flaws and issues, and he could deal with mine.”
“Yeah, but what about sex?” Maisie asked with a huge leer, “If I don’t find love it’s no big deal, but we all need a good shag. Don’t we, girls? He’d have to be able to satisfy you.”
I looked around the table and found broad agreement, apart from Beth who chose to stay quiet and look around the room. I felt a flush of anger.
“And who says people with disabilities can’t shag, Maisie? I may have some issues but actually I’m a woman, same as all of you.”
That silenced the group, but spurred on by the third G&T I started blathering on about my outlook on love and life, taking control, being positive….
“Go on then,” said Gemma.
“If you’re taking control, no time like the present. Any blokes you want to chat up here?”
My mouth hung open, frozen in mid-speech. I stopped, regained my dignity, thought about it, then looked around: this was a Friday night so the place was humming. It was not entirely a “young person’s pub” so a few older guys sat at the bar in what had evidently been their local for many years. Crowded in front of TV screens, a group of blokes wearing football shirts downed lager, their eyes fixed on the game. Another band of women sat giggling at the other end of the pub, and a few couples stared philosophically down at their drinks in-between. This did not strike me as prime turf for finding a potential life partner.
“No,” I said firmly.
But then I spotted something new. A guy in a wheelchair disentangled himself from behind a table some distance away and wheeled himself towards the loos. He looked maybe early 30s, had a mop of brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. His jeans, lumberjack shirt and boots did not look out of place, but somehow perversely they made me do a double take.
“So what you looking at?” Gemma taunted me.
I tried to look prim and proper. “Just checking up on the score.”
“Yeah, right. Like you can name the centre forward?”
“I bet he’s not interested in me either,” I replied with disdain.