*A Ghost in the Machine

To my mind, the miracle of the Internet is that I can Google the name of any man in whom I have ever had any sexual interest and find out what he is up to these days. I don’t mean actual ex-boyfriends, because, sadly, they are few enough in number for me to be able to keep track of without the help of technology. Instead, I mean those men with whom I had much more fleeting interaction.

One such man came into my life in 1992, when I had a summer job at the Sydney office of an enormous company that manufactures computers. My then brother-in-law worked in advertising and this mega corporation was one of his accounts. The company had run a promotion in the newspaper for some new type of contraption and included a telephone number for people to call if they had inquiries about it. They hadn’t realised that they didn’t have anyone on board with the requisite spare time to answer such queries. So, I ended up with the job, even though no one could have been less qualified than I to answer questions about anything, let alone about a computer.

I remember that my brother-in-law had very kindly organised for one of the women who worked at the corporation to give me a lift there every day. The offices were in a business park in a justifiably uncelebrated suburb; somewhere with too much bush for my liking and that could only be reached by means of infrequent private buses. This woman – let’s call her Elsie – had been having a fight with her boyfriend on the first morning she picked me up, and the last thing she wanted was to have a stranger in the car. Her hair was wet in an accusatory ‘I-didn’t-have-time-to-dry-it-thanks-to-you’ way and I remember trying, to no avail, to make conversation with her about some lugubrious song on the radio that, I felt, matched both our moods.

Things didn’t exactly go with a swing after we’d arrived at our destination, either. I sat dreading the sound of the telephone’s ring and was only one step away from total panic whenever I spoke to a (rare) caller, and, while the people there tried to be friendly, I was in that awkward situation of not quite being of the office; when you know that you’re never going to be asked to sign a birthday card or be included in a coffee run.  After my first day, I sat in front of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in tears at the prospect of returning.

Pretty much everyone who called me in my professional capacity thought I was a damn fool. But then there came a day that I actually hit it off with a caller. I was unable to give him any useful information, but we did have a few good laughs about my ignorance and incompetence. Then, this man – let’s call him Bob – called back the next day and asked if I wanted to have lunch with him. Naturally, I said yes, because I simply could not have been a bigger fag hag in those days and knew that I was going to have to operate outside the box if I were ever to get a boyfriend.

Bob and I arranged to meet at the Barracks Café in the city, an establishment that was all about being outside under umbrellas. I don’t like to dine al fresco and knew that I would be sweating into my hair. When I arrived, I was relieved to see that Bob looked like a normal human being: what’s more, I liked his hairy wrists. While the conversation did flow, it flowed like just enough sauce to cover a slice of steamed pudding. I didn’t feel confident that, having covered the essentials, we would have anything to say to each other if we were to meet again. This must have been why, when Bob called me the next day, I didn’t pick up the phone, even though, as I say, I didn’t meet a lot of heterosexual men and going out on this date had been the most exciting thing that had happened to me for about five years. I didn’t call him back and he never rang me again.

While watching Dexter the other night, I finally realised who the actress who plays Dexter’s sister (and who is – to my mind, weirdly – married to the actor who plays Dexter) reminds me of: a girl, Catherine, who was part of my group of friends at high school. I recall that we celebrated my fourteenth birthday by hiring American Gigolo on video. And this realisation about the actress who plays Dexter’s sister reminded me of my Bob encounter, because of what I learned a couple of months after he and I had our lunch. It turned out that Bob was a recent ex-boyfriend of Catherine’s, and that he was still completely obsessed with her, calling her up and leaving messages on her answering machine all the time. When I heard this, I felt pretty good about not having picked up the phone. I assumed that had we ever become a couple, he would have, for instance, insisted that I have cosmetic surgery so that I looked exactly like Catherine, which I would hope he would at least have paid for.

The thing now, though, is that I can’t find any mention of Bob on the Internet. I recently saw the film An Education, about a sixteen-year-old girl’s affair with an older man, who is (spoiler alert!), it turns out, married with a child, and who has done this sort of thing before. He was actually the one I wanted to know about, though, not the girl – how did he manage to get out of the house so often, for example? – but because the film was based on her memoir, rather than on a novel, you only really find out about her motivations and fate, unfortunately.

Similarly, I would like to be able to tell you about Bob, about what happened to him and about whether he ever got over Catherine, and I am annoyed that I can’t, and that I have only myself to blame for this because I didn’t pick up the phone that day. After all, pretty much all that I was doing instead of being involved with Bob was watching television and reading magazines; if I had picked up the phone, I would have, perhaps, got a proper ending to my story, which I could have, you never know, converted into a slender, yet bestselling and critically acclaimed, autobiographical novel. On the other hand, admittedly, I might also have ended up in pieces wrapped in freezer bags in Bob’s back garden.

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