By Patsy Collins
Reproduced by permission of the author, exclusively for The Globe
I WAS tempted to start this off by telling you I have a good sense of humour. That I like fun, travel and adventure and hope to meet someone similar for friendship, possibly more. But that would have given completely the wrong idea about my connection with the dating agency. Plus only the first bit is true. Although I’d been single for quite a while, my involvement with the Kisses and Cuddles dating agency was entirely professional.
I’m a computer programmer and website creator, and yes, I’m aware I don’t fit the stereotype. People expect a boy, barely past his teens, hiding behind glasses, the name of an obscure fantasy film character, and all black clothing. I’m thirty-two, dress normally and use the name Willow only because it’s on my birth certificate. I’m not a numbers obsessed loner either; I’ve had boyfriends. We’d always had plenty in common. Perhaps too much as we spent most of our time talking about code and broadband speeds or debating the merits of Flash over HTML 5. Frankly I got enough of that in the hours I was paid to think about it.
Although I advertise for programming work, I’d mostly only had boring jobs updating existing websites, so I was a bit surprised to be asked to write a programme to match up the dating agency’s romantic hopefuls. The Kisses and Cuddles office is quite near my home, so I walked round there. My neighbour would be pleased if he knew; Craig’s always telling me I don’t need the car for short trips. He’s a bit of a nag, but also right – I really should try to get more exercise.
Maybe I should have been better prepared for the owner of Kisses and Cuddles not fitting my preconceived ideas. She isn’t some romantic, cat loving old lady. Nor is she a hard-hearted cynic in a power suit and killer heels. Norbert is just a regular businessman; not cold and calculating when compared with my other clients, but his attitude seemed a bit that way for dealing with romance. He’s tall, dark, and if you like that brooding Poldark sort of look, I guess you’d consider him attractive.
Almost the first thing he did was to name the rather low fee he was willing to pay. “I’m just starting up and it’s all I can afford, just now.”
I appreciated him coming to the point and I believed him. I’d struggled to get going when I started my own business. Actually the struggle was ongoing. “I can probably do it for that amount if it’s nothing too complicated,” I said.
“I’m not technologically minded enough to be sure, but I think and hope it’s straightforward. Would you like tea or coffee?”
He had a tiny fridge and kettle in his office, so accepting wouldn’t waste much of our time. “Tea please. Plenty of milk and two sugars.”
He placed my tea and his black coffee on the desk, then took a box of biscuits out of his desk. “Sorry, there are only those strange pink wafers left.”
“My favourite.” I took three. As I saw it, if he didn’t like them, I was doing him a favour.
A subtle buzzer sounded.
“Will you excuse me a moment, Willow. It seems I may have a client.”
As Norbert left the office, I couldn’t resist a glance after him into the tiny reception area. Looking uncomfortable in the tiny space was a stocky, blond man who looked familiar. Probably just my imagination though. All that pink upholstery, swirly wallpaper and floral displays would make anyone’s eyes glad of something a bit plainer to look at.
Norbert was soon back. “Sorry about that. Thankfully I’ve been able to increase my receptionist’s hours and she’ll be full-time from next week.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I promise that if you take on this job and my business is successful I’ll hire you for any future computer work I require.”
I decided I’d probably take the job. A repeat client would be good – if Norbert kept his word. “So, if you could run through your requirements?” I invited.
“I need a way to collect the personal details both of each client, and the person they’d like to meet, and to match up those people with an appropriate percentage of compatibility.”
“Just standard data gathering and a mathematical calculation?” I asked. That would be dull, but easy.
“And what percentage of compatibility do you consider acceptable to create matches?”
“Why?” It seemed an odd figure.
“It’s high enough that the clients will have enough things in common, not so high that there would be too few matches to make the business viable. And it’s my door number.” He told me he’d been working out the matches himself so far, but could no longer keep up so needed a programme. That made me feel more optimistic about the repeat business.
“I notice you don’t wear a wedding ring. If you’re single I’d like to offer you free membership,” Norbert said.
I declined that. Call me a romantic, but I wanted to meet someone by chance as though we were made for each other, not as the result of an algorithm.
I left with a contract, warm handshake and the list of questions clients were asked. That was all fine in theory, but lots of the boxes were for things such as height or eye colour. I wasn’t convinced most people looking for love would be so shallow that if a person was an inch shorter than they’d requested, or had honey rather than caramel coloured eyes, they wouldn’t be interested. I adjusted the calculations so that physical attributes would have less influence than interests and personality traits. Even so I wasn’t satisfied. In real life people with apparently little in common are often thrown together and get on surprisingly well.
When I got home again, my neighbour Craig’s bicycle was still in our shared hallway, so it probably wasn’t him I’d seen at Kisses and Cuddles. Like me he often works from home. I’d have invited him in for a mug of tea if I hadn’t just had one. We take our breaks together a couple of times a week to make a change from working alone. Usually that happens when we don’t actually have much work to do and right then I had.
I decided to build some randomness into the selection programme. Not too much. Most would be calculated mathematically, with those having a minimum 67% compatibility rating being matched. Then every Tuesday there would be a wild card. I retained a few checks. Vegetarians wouldn’t be partnered with butchers and those with violently opposing political opinions would be kept apart, and they’d have to have a minimum 11% compatibility rating. Other than that, two people would be matched entirely at random. Eleven is my door number, in case you are wondering.
When I visited Norbert to deliver my work, I walked again. I was already feeling, and I hoped looking, fitter. I’d taken extra care to dress nicely. Anyone who saw me there might mistake me for a client and I didn’t want to harm his business by looking like an undesirable date. I very much wanted Kisses and Cuddles to be a success and generate further work for me.
When I was greeted by Clare, Norbert’s receptionist, I was glad I’d made an effort. She was pretty and stylish enough for me to want to hate her, yet so charming I just couldn’t. Although I’m not exactly hideous, I’m no looker compared with her. Even so Clare didn’t make the obvious assumption that I was a prospective client, instead simply asked how she could help me.
Norbert again made tea for me and coffee for himself. This time his biscuit tin contained a wider selection, but still included my favourite pink wafers. We spent a while testing the system. First by putting in our genuine details and requesting a match. Despite us being the only two entries on the new system at that stage, the computer didn’t pair us up. Naturally I’d taken the precaution not to try this on a Tuesday, and as we’re very different in many ways we didn’t reach the 67% compatibility rating. Actually it was barely half of that.
Next Norbert transferred in the data from his most recent clients and was soon able to print out a selection of possible matches for each of them. He appeared very pleased with what I’d done, although I did wonder if he suspected I’d exceeded my brief, as a couple of times it seemed as though he was about to say something, but changed his mind.
A couple of weeks later I had a call from Norbert and was initially concerned that he might have realised what I’d done, especially as he was calling on a Tuesday. I needn’t have worried, it was just a courtesy call to say my programme was running well, that he’d paid my invoice, and to reassure me that he’d offer me any further computer work he might require in the future.
I started getting much more business after that. My neighbour Craig put some work my way and several new customers said Norbert had recommended me. That was a form of matchmaking I definitely approved of. Other than a few emails, I didn’t hear from Norbert until he asked me to come in and discuss the possibility of creating a brand new website for Kisses and Cuddles. Again I dressed in clothes which I hoped wouldn’t scare off any of Norbert’s clients I might happen to meet.
“What a lovely blouse,” Clare said. “That colour is perfect for you, Willow.”
“Thank you. Have you had your hair done?”
“How sweet of you to notice!”
Norbert must have overheard our conversation as he told Clare her new hairstyle looked nice. To be fair, they might have been too busy for him to have had the chance to remark on it before, but as it was three in the afternoon, I’m not absolutely sure that was the case.
“I’m delighted with what you’ve done for me so far,” Norbert said as he made my tea just the way I like it. “And as you know, technology isn’t really my thing, so I’m relying on you to guide me.”
After agreeing the routine stuff, such as a contact page, data input and payment sections I made suggestions. “You could feature some of the couples you’ve successfully matched, if you think they’d be agreeable.”
“Good idea, Willow. I’ve had lots of thank you letters, so I think some might be willing to do that.”
He told me about some of the happy relationships which had started thanks to Kisses and Cuddles.
“I believe you, Norbert, but I still don’t want to sign up.”
“I didn’t mean… I’m sure you already have someone special in your life.”
I’m not sure why, but I admitted that wasn’t the case. “I’ve been so busy lately that I really only meet people through work and so far none of them have… ”
“Been over 67% compatible?” he suggested.
Norbert called me a few days later to say he’d obtained photographs and quotes from happy clients and asked me to come in.
“No need, you can just email it over.”
“There’s another matter that I’d like to speak to you about in person.”
Clearly his business was doing well as not only could be afford the new website, but he had to reject several of the dates I suggested for the meeting.
Norbert greeted me just as warmly as before. “When I went through the lists of people who’d notified us that they’d begun relationships with their dates, I found a few anomalies.” He passed me a photo of a statuesque blonde and a short, tubby man of about the same age. At their feet were three labradors.
To gain thinking time, I ate a couple of the pink wafer biscuits. “It says they’ve got engaged,” I pointed out. The couple looked so happy that I was keen to put that image on the website.
“Yes, that’s good but very surprising news.” He pushed two profiles towards me. “He was looking for someone short, dark and mature with a liking for cats. She hoped to meet someone younger and sporty.”
“It says here he plays… oh, chess.” I was beginning to think they might not be such a good advert – and was certain they’d both signed up on the same Tuesday.
“Thankfully they’re delighted with the services of Kisses and Cuddles.” Norbert shrugged. “And there’s these two.” He indicated a photo of two women. “Chris and Pat both declared they wanted to meet men, so naturally assumed the system would match them with someone male. Both have small children who demand a lot of attention, so didn’t realise the other was female until they arrived at the restaurant.”
“Ah.” It seemed my Tuesday wildcard matches were a little more random than I’d intended.
“They decided that as they’d gone to the trouble of getting baby sitters and dressing up, they’d share a meal anyway. They realised sympathetic company was what they’d really wanted, and have become good friends, so although they suggested the blip in the system be investigated they didn’t want their money back.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Hmm. And here we have two widowers who were matched up and have also became friends. They assure me they had a good laugh about it and their friendship has stopped their kids worrying about them and pushing them into trying again.”
Those three were the most extreme, but he’d uncovered more happy couples whose compatibility rating shouldn’t have allowed them to be paired up. “It’s happened once a week since you installed the programme and always on a Tuesday.”
He was easily intelligent enough to work out this was no coincidence, so I decided to confess. “I’m sorry, but sticking so rigidly to mathematical calculations just didn’t seem romantic and well, that didn’t feel right. If you’ll give me another chance, I promise I’ll fix it.”
“No. You took a liberty with my programming.”
What he said was true, but I’d thought from his tone earlier on that I’d been forgiven for my silly, romantic addition. I’d even started to convince myself that not all his clients hated pink wafers and he’d actually saved some just for me. Now it seemed I was going to lose not only the new business I’d been promised but my existing contract too.
“And I’ve done the same with these.” He showed me the forms we’d each completed the day I’d demonstrated my system for matching couples.
“You’ve put me onto the database?”
“No. Us. Want to wait whilst I run today’s matches?”
Of course I did; haven’t I proved I’m a romantic? While the programme ran, it occurred to me that Norbert and I had met pretty much by chance, had very little in common. I also realised it was a Tuesday.
As I said, I’d have liked to start this by telling you I have a good sense of humour. That I like fun, travel and adventure and hope to meet someone similar for friendship, possibly more. That would give the wrong impression though. You see I’m no longer single. In fact a photo of Norbert and myself feature on the success stories page of the Kisses and Cuddles lovely new website.
Oh sorry, I’ve jumped ahead a bit and missed telling you about the reports, haven’t I? When the computer beeped to say it had created matches, Norbert just stared at the computer. You know the look actors in the old silent films used to show they were horrified? Well, he was doing that.
I didn’t want to ask, but eventually I had to. “Another blip?”
Norbert turned the screen towards me. The profiles which showed an 11% compatibility match belonged to his receptionist Clare and my neighbour Craig. They’re both really nice people, but…
I reached across and squeezed Norbert’s hand. Then I pressed the delete key. “Run it again tomorrow,” I said.
He did. Norbert and Clare were almost perfectly matched at 92% compatibility. Craig and I are one better at 93%. I’ll leave you to work out which couple are having a swirly, pink and floral themed wedding.
This story, and 23 others, can be found in Patsy’s new book Love Is The Answer. It’s available as an ebook, through kindle unlimited and a paperback. It can be ordered online, or from The Bookshop at Lee-on-the-Solent, or requested at the library.