The publicity asked us to "surrender to an intimate individual experience". I had heard reports that a man might show you photos of his penis, and that a woman would show you her breasts. I knew that the tits woman was called 'Aurelie', and had seen a picture of her in the Scotsman, a strikingly attractive model. David had been to see it earlier and advised me that I ought to enter into the spirit of the thing to get the most out of it, and that I probably would learn something about myself through the process. I was very much wanting not to be paired with one of the men, and rather hoping that I'd get Aurelie.
A Traverse usher lets me into a locked conference centre foyer and asks me to wait at a table. One woman is already here, who looks quite shy and normal. If I were to guess her profession it would be a teacher, probably about my age. A younger Chinese woman appears. then a group of three slightly laddish types turns up, not the sort of men whom I'd get on with. They have three tickets for last Saturday. The usher tells them to hang on in case the other ticket holders don't turn up. They don't, so two of the lads join us, one of them in Ben Sherman-type casual clothes, the other looking a bit new age, unkempt long hair and cut-off jeans, but whom most women would clearly find to be buff.
We stand in a row on five crosses and are told to look ahead of us. A curtain rises and I'm pleased to be presented with the sight of Aurelie, who is my height. But then the performers shuffle around - there's a spare sixth male one who then goes away, and Aurelie swaps with another woman, a bit shorter than me, darkish hair tied back, black dress. We look at each other for a long time. I try to keep my face looking open and friendly.
The woman takes my hand, tells me her name is Sophie, asks mine and leads me to a darkened booth, chairs either side of a small table, a bottle of red wine and two glasses. Muzak plays. She tells me that I know how to stare at a woman, I tell her that it was a bit odd and that she has a small flake of glitter on her cheek. She asks me if I'm alright and when I ask her back says that last week was odd, but that she feels more at home now.
She offers me a drink and I tell her that I don't. When I'm asked why I tell her the old story of how I was sick on my thirtieth birthday and realised that I never really liked drinking. Just a taste she says, okay I say, like being in church. Red wine certainly tastes potent if you haven't drunk it for about ten years.
Oh, they're playing Send In The Clowns, I observe, that's a sad song. No, yes it is strange Sophie replies, laughing slightly.
What follows happens very quickly. Am I a happy person? God no, a sad one, I say. Me too says Sophie. I'm sorry to hear that.
What is your job? I'm a PhD student and a University teacher. I find work quite stressful, some people are more calm and rational about it, but I still get that feeling of fear before I teach and relief afterwards, perhaps like you do before you act... I really want to be liked by my students.
How about relationships? asks this very attractive and solicitous Belgian woman, looking sympathetically into my eyes. Oh, nothing, I do things wrong, I explain, in fact I'm feeling particularly sad this week because of a rejection from a woman I love, I'm not like other people, most people base their lives around desire, flirtation, the thrill of strangers, I don't, I only really fancy women who I love and love women who I know, which is the wrong way to go about things. So these women? asks Sophie. They seem rather disappointed in me when I do express a romantic interest I explain, this being my preoccupying doomy thought of the last few days.
I'm aware that this conversation is rather one-sided. I feel that normally I'd be asking Sophie questions about herself, and feel a bit sheepish and guilty about this, but time seems so compressed and accelerated in this situation.
I can't remember how Sophie phrases the question, but she asks me something about women in the past. I tell her my feeling that I had when I was at University that this was clearly the point that my life was leading towards and away from, and how when I got the minibus home from the department for the last time after the final party having failed to make any final connection with the two women there who I wanted to be close to, this overwhelming feeling of "That's it, I've lost then" and that being twelve years ago and the numb sensation that I had for years after that...
(That sensation that I get when I'm talking intimately about myself, of the words coming out in a rush and slightly wrong, and that I must be revealing something else about myself other than what the words are saying.)
This is an odd conversation to be having with a stranger, especially a partially fictitious one.
Sophie holds my hands, looks into my face, and tells me to close my eyes. She wants me to take her somewhere, will I do that? Eventually my imagination starts to form a picture. We're in Greenwich Park, which I explain to Sophie is in London ("Do you live in London?"). We're on the very steep pathway on the hill with the Royal Observatory and the statue of Admiral Woolf at the top.
(The feel of the tendons in Sophie's hands, flexing and supple.)
What are we doing? We're walking down the hill, holding hands.
How do you feel, being with me? I feel a bit uneasy at first, but because the gradient of the path is so steep, and we both find walking down it difficult that makes us less self conscious in each others company
Do you like being with me? Do you think that we might have something together? Yes. Yes, I do.
Okay Billy, open your eyes, I want you to meet some friends of mine. And so Sophie leads me by the hand to a circle of chairs, with the other performers and audience members. Apart from Sophie and Aurelie - who paired up with Ben Sherman lad - the other actors are a blonde woman in a white dress with Mr Buff New Age, a tall darkish man with crazy wiry hair with the Chinese woman, and a rather suave and arch looking blonde Russian man with the teacher woman.
This second half of the show is a lot less interesting to me, largely because, apart from the teacher woman, the other audience members don't strike me as being very interesting people, and partly because my major interest is now in what Sophie is going to say about me and I'll be asked to say, with the subsidiary question of whether we'll get to see Aurelie's tits also an interesting proposition.
We report back. Mr Buff New Age took his date to a beach, and has an interesting job as an animator, but he already has a girlfriend. 'Oliver' tells us that the teacher woman is quite a shy person. At one point the funny-haired performer tells the Chinese woman to leave the circle while he tells us a secret about her, but all he does say is that she comes from Singapore and he thinks that they might have something because he likes girls who come from there.
Aurelie and Ben Sherman answer the same questions differently; We hung out together, he was okay, he's quite hot, etc. I slightly suspect that Ben Sherman might be a plant.
At one point Sophie calls Oliver 'Yuri' by mistake, and the spell is broken a bit, though we are all playing such a game with artifice that it doesn't matter much.
Sophie tells the group that Billy took me to the park. I think that we might have something she says, do you think so too, Billy? Yes.
What are Billy's good points, Sophie? "He has an artistic imagination, he is very open and he has a steady income". What do you think about Sophie, Billy?
"I think that she is very imaginative and empathetic, as well as being pret- beautiful, actually". I look into her face. She looks encouragingly back at me.
Was there anything less good about Billy, Sophie? "He has very little confidence, and should have more"
"Yes" I reply, still looking into Sophie's face, with an expression that I imagine might have looked humble.
I am asked to give Sophie a mark out of ten. I say that I'm not sure that I believe in giving marks. Come on, we can take it, you're a teacher, says Sophie. Well, then nine. And what mark would you give Billy, Sophie? Eight. I feel slightly flattered, but mostly relieved.
Aurelie looks into Ben Sherman's eyes. "Is this what you want?" and drops the top of her dress. Her breasts are more pendulous than you might have expected without having a droop, with rosy nipples, not much darker than the rest of her skin, and quite puffy aureolae. Aurelie's face has an expression that isn't quite a pout, defiant, amused by everyone's discomfort.
"Yes. No. Maybe!" answers Ben Sherman, which is a pretty good line.
(Later on, David tells me that what happens if you get Aurelie is that she doesn't speak to you, but rubs her legs against you and gets you to stroke her. When he got the tits thing his reply was rather defensive and graceless and he instantly regretted saying it. I imagine that if I had got Aurelie I would have found the experience quite upsetting and it might have make me cry, although the prospect of touching up a really attractive Belgian girl is also obviously, on the face of it, a very appealing one as well.)
The circle disperses. "Billy, I think that we might have something. I would like you to give me your address. Is that okay?" Sophie asks me. Yes, of course. She fetches a note card. When I've written it down, she reads it out and asks me if she's got it right. This really answers some need in me to be wanted, although the effect is a bit diluted when I see that everybody else is giving their addresses, too.
Sophie asks me to dance. I accept willingly, but apologise for my clumsiness. "Oh me, too" she says laughing in a kindly fashion.
The performers are dancing us towards the curtain. it's time for us to say goodbye, Billy. Give me three kisses. Her right cheek, her left and then the right again. Stand on the cross.
The curtain slowly descends. No more face. No more body. No more feet.
No more Sophie.
We all reel away a bit. "Oh man, that was awesome!" Ben Sherman tells Mr Buff New Age. The Traverse usher shows us a wall of letters that have been written to the characters, and asks us not to give the game away to the next group waiting in the foyer.
Four days later I get a letter from 'Sophie'. It's set out like a school report card. My eight out of ten is because I failed on Weakness and Adventurousness. That is undeniably true. However, I passed Appearance, Artistic Interest, Profession/ hobby, Honest/ open, Income, Creativity, Trustworthy and Interested in me. I think that of that list, I least deserve Income, am most surprised to get Appearance and am most relieved to pass Interested in me.
Funnily enough, discovering that Sophie's conversation was evaluating me so systematically makes the event feel more intrusive than it did when it was actually happening.
'Sophie' also writes;
I just wanted to thank you for the nice conversation we've had in my cabine and also for our time together in Greenwich Park London. I really enjoyed your company... Hope to see you again some day.