The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2012 Results

Under the Influence of Jane Austen

Copyright © Fiona Skepper 2012

Date: Tue, 4 June 2011 16:19:16

Dear Susan,

It’s a well-known truth, or at least a truth of many women’s magazines, and desperate grandmothers-to-be, that girls who reach a certain age should stop being too fussy.

I start my message to you with this as I want to correctly answer the question you asked when we met at Mariah’s wedding, ‘What’s been happening?’ It was great to catch up with you again after all these years as we somehow managed to lose touch.

I think it might be a good idea to explain everything, step by step.

My mother didn’t want me to replicate her life and get married too young, so when I was in my early twenties she encouraged me to date widely, travel and experience life. In my later twenties she told me that I should aim for someone who could provide a certain standard of living, as couples have enough to fight about without adding financial problems. In my early thirties there were fewer criteria cited by my mother and the conversation turned more to whatever happened to Robert, or John, or eventually that one with the limp who liked fishing. When I passed thirty-five she grew silent; she rarely spoke of my settling down at all, just occasionally throwing me a disappointed glance. These looks happened the most when women with these aeronautically engineered prams would go by in the street. Maybe her silence was from a fear that if she pushed it any more I would suddenly declare that I was a lesbian. These were words my mother’s sister had finally had to accept along with the fact that the woman my cousin had lived with for the last twelve years was not simply her room-mate. I did try to calm Mum on this point by commenting on how good looking the player’s backsides were when my Dad was watching AFL on TV.

Surprisingly, my mother’s painful acceptance that my chance had passed did more to give me a push than a decade or so of hints and suggestions. If she had given up on me, did that mean that was truly it? So I decided to make a genuine effort to embrace the social scene more. I packed away the TV guide and cancelled planned evenings of making jam, reading, decorating or running up a new dress on my machine. I decided to make myself available. That can be best described as when the shit really hit the fan.

I realised I’d blocked out most of my experiences of modern dating. Thinking back I remembered several frustrating times when I had made an effort of getting to know a possibly datable man, only to discover that he was attached already, or gay. These two categories I found common amongst men who were attractive or good conversationalists or had table manners.

I asked around. The internet appeared to be the best worst option.

Online there were a range of attractive websites with pictures of smiling, happy people (often at sunset). One website advertised the added service of an in-depth evaluation of your compatibility by using a detailed questionnaire. I decided not to follow this up after they asked for my income and banking and/or credit card details.

I left a message and ‘profile’ on the one that advertised it was the biggest in the country, thinking it would increase my options. I got a small but interesting number of responses. After I’d deleted the ones that discussed things that didn’t sound attractive, and a small number suggesting things I didn’t completely understand, I found a few to make contact with. The list was narrowed down further by those who didn’t reply, or asked me not to continue to try and contact them. However, I finally had what I thought was a breakthrough. I began to correspond by email with ‘Charles’. Charles mentioned his work and his interests and often included the opening or concluding line that he has just come from, or planning to go, for a jog. He mentioned it so often I was surprised he found the time to respond at all and I wondered if he had sent his emails from a blackberry as he was running. We had text discussions on the issue of global warming, American politics and who should be eliminated from Masterchef.

I was feeling a little excited as I approached the spot where we had arranged for our first meeting. He’d decided not to put a photo on his profile. He had described himself as a ‘large bear of a man’. However, he wasn’t hairy - at least not on his head; and by bear he meant large, very large, mostly in belly width. However I was willing to give it a chance and attempt to get to know him.

I have to finish up and get to Zumba class.


Date: Sun 16 June 2011 01:40:42

Did I give you my email address?

Date: Sat, 8 June 2011 12:14:22

Susan Hi.

I got your new email address from the temp receptionist at your work. I told her I was your sister! (By the way how is Julia?) Your regular secretary was very uncooperative, luckily that week I decided to call on a Thursday instead of Friday.

Looking back on the email chain to where I left off…. I’d just met Charles. Right! He returned my hello and that was about the best part. He looked disenchanted as soon as he saw me. Maybe he’d been hoping to crack the nymphomaniac models group, and had gone to the wrong website. His disappointment enveloped us and deflected all my attempts at conversation, which fell to the floor like paper airplanes hitting a wall. He didn’t even offer to pay for the over-iced drinks we both ordered, and disappeared as soon as he could gulp his down.

It was a painful shot to the ego, not even rating as a possibility in the considerations of a 45 year old, obese accountant.

This confidence-annihilating experience discouraged me from continuing for a while. However, after a particularly horrendous family gathering, where in spite of my recent promotion, five years of postgraduate study and presenting my nieces with some patchwork quilts I’d spent six months of hand sewing on, the only question everyone from the age of five to approximately eighty-five (my family is never totally in agreement regarding Aunty Celia’s age), was whether I was ‘seeing anyone.’ I resolved next time to have an escort even if I had to inflate him. I went back to my desk and logged in.

The next meeting was with ‘Tom’. He was ‘open to new experiences’, and his profile featured photos of him wilderness trekking, although I think it was inside a museum as there was one picture of him posing next to, and in the same position as, a fibreglass prehistoric raptor posed for an attack. I met him in a bar after work. He rose from the table and looked at me, uncertain, but at least not threatening.

Oh, I just noticed the time! I’ll try to get back to you after vegetarian cooking class.



Date: Sun 16 June 2011 01:40:42

Ahh really busy at moment. Maybe you could try contacting someone qualified on the list of services I attach.

Date: Wed 12 June 2011 18:19:30

Hi Susan! OK, I have got a few appointments from those friends of yours you listed thanks. Everyone was so friendly and wanted to meet me when I called. Now I was talking …. Ah!

So we met and sat down, and an awkward silence fell for a moment, until he broke it with halting conversation.

"I was worried you wouldn’t find this place."

"Oh, I knew where it was."

"Right." He smiled and knocked over his water glass.

In an effort to throw a life-line to the situation, I tried to bring up what I could remember of his profile. "You have an interest in cars don’t you?"


"Yes, I think I read that every March you spend time with cars?"

"What? Oh, no, Cairns, every March I go to Cairns fishing."


"Yes, Red Snapper mostly."


"Very tasty fish."


"Popular in restaurants."

The silence bubble, blown large, enveloped us.

Despite all this, Tom didn’t want the bubble to burst. He talked me into meeting him a second time. The first date was some enchanted evening in comparison to the next.

After absolutely excruciatingly long silence and stilted conversation, there was still no hint big enough for him to stumble over. No ‘really busy at the moment’… ‘It takes a while sometimes to find the right person’… ‘I don’t think this is working out’.

He possessed tenacious, wilful blindness and I eventually had to tell it like it was, then ran and jumped on the next tram (I think as the doors were closing and it was moving off).

This whole event simply widened the hole of depression I was sinking into. However I continued to dig and a series of less memorable but equally awful dates followed.

One man I met was completely monosyllabic in his conversation. There were probably more words present in his emails than he spoke during our meeting. The only time he strung a few sentences together and seemed a little animated was when he discussed his work in financial planning.

"Have you really considered your financial future?" he asked.

I could honestly respond that I hadn’t.

He thoughtfully had some pamphlets in his briefcase.

There were many emotions I felt as result of my dates, but I never felt fear (unless you count being afraid of having the entire plot of Steven King’s ‘The Stand’ and its hidden literary allusions being explained to me over coffee, which one guy kindly began to do), until my most recent meeting with a man I’ll just call ‘H’. I walked in to the Carnegie RSL, determined not to be put off by the flash and whir of the clock-less, pension-destroying room of pokies (he had picked the venue), and made my way to the public bar area. He was sitting near the fireplace, not looking happy. I began with the fairly classic opening of, "Hello." He decided to respond in a more direct manner.

"So what are you looking for in a man?" he demanded before I’d actually sat down.

"Well, there’s nothing specific…"

He saw the need to answer for me.

"You are not sure are you? You women never know what you want."

After these words I realised what I wanted, at least right then, was to be home in front of The Amazing Race.

"You say one thing then a guy gets in trouble for not doing something entirely different. You want men to be mind-readers."

He obviously couldn’t read my thoughts about wanting to be the hell out of there.

I’d attempted to look ‘nice’, as some people had recommended, and had spent time on my ‘look’. He leaned over the table fairly close and commented quietly, “You dress up to get a guy excited then you won’t follow through with it.”

I shivered.

Damn, sorry Susan, just noticed the time, LOL…

Date: Wed 12 June 2011 18:28:12

OK what happened?

Date: Sat 15 June 2011 15:30:27

Hi! Ah, well, after his comment about getting excited, I guess I realised I was, or at least close to terrified. I was willing to go out on a limb here and say ‘H’ had a few ‘issues’. I started wondering what he would have to do before I would be justified in calling the police.

I think my conversation turned a little brainless at this point. I let out a little scream when he stretched out his hand to grab his beer. I waited until I noticed there were independent witnesses in the room. I mumbled some ridiculous excuse and, well, I suppose you could describe it as ‘ran’ to the exit. His last words as I flew out were, "I’ll call you." It managed to sound like a threat. I removed my profile and changed my email and considered changing my phone numbers, but luckily persistence was not one of ‘H’s many qualities.

Maybe I was over-reacting. I remember what you used to say about my over-analysing things as well as your recent advice about personal space, and electronic harassment.

So looking back over it all, and I guess the reason why I contacted you in the first place, is that now I have to admit I’m a failure. I can’t manage what everyone else seems to do easily. Is not having a significant other something that is so bad that I should make every effort and compromise to avoid it? I wasn’t actually that unhappy. Even when you don’t have a genuine connection with a person, is anybody better than nobody?



Date: Sun 16 June 2011 01:40:42

Dear Beth

I don’t really think there’s a one size fits all when it comes to this issue. If you find your singleness right for you then don’t worry what everyone else thinks. Only you can decide.

Ok also please don’t contact me again.


I live in Melbourne. I work in criminal prosecutions. I study writing at TAFE, one subject at a time in the evenings. I've a few things published in magazines. I would like more time to write, to write more, and to write better (including my entries in this competition).