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Recreating Frances

Frances Hepton had never been pretty. Of course, in her early teens she had cherished fantasies in which the ugly duckling turned into a swan, swept into a ball and knocked the assembled onlookers off their collective feet, but she came to her senses quite early on.

No fantasy could withstand a long hard look in the mirror, Frances found. She had a slim, well-toned body, yes, but short and broad of frame. Good skin, clear and translucent, but sallow. And nothing could disguise the flatness of the features, the breadth of the nose, the small eyes. Her hair was dark and coarse and stubbornly refused to shine despite the attention of the most expensive shampoos and conditioners. Not a princess, however hard you looked.

In her own way though, Frances was popular. She spent her time on the edge of the crowd, always included but never in, with, but not of. The beautiful girls found her a sympathetic listener when romance wasn't romantic enough, the glittering boys found they could talk to her about the woman's mind so they could be more appealing to the beautiful girls. She was clever without being intimidating and people found her pleasant, easy company.

Quite often a less than glittering boy asked her out, but Frances, poor Frances, plain Frances, though she lacked it herself, had an eye for beauty. So while she went out with them from time to time (she didn't want the crowd to feel sorry for her) her heart remained untouched, yearning always for a prince rather than a peasant.

Frances grew older, as everyone does, and in time left home and went to university. Here too, she found herself in a group of friends, even more bright and shining than the ones she had left, and overall, she was happy. Her social life was active, if not spectacular, she enjoyed her studies, she was well liked; and if she wasn't exactly loved, well she didn't feel the lack. Frances was headed for a life of modest success and reasonable contentment.

Of course, because even beautiful girls and glittering boys don't live in a fairy tale there were couples who had unhappy endings, and more often than not, one party ended up in Frances' room crying on her shoulder. Sometimes it was the girls, and she would offer them chocolate, drinks and sympathy. More often however it was the boys. They found their way to her flat, where she was warm and welcoming, undemanding and understanding. She kept a bottle or two in the cupboard so they could drown their sorrows and fed them comfort foods. She held their hands and hugged them. And occasionally, very occasionally, when they were particularly drunk or particularly unhappy she comforted them in a more intimate fashion. And in the morning, when they woke, they would look at her and say 'God, Frannie! I'm so sorry. I didn't mean... um...' And Frances would smile, stroke their cheek and tell them it was OK, that she was their friend, she understood. And they would leave thinking what a wonderful girl Frannie was and what a pity it was she was so plain.

Until David.

Now David was a prince. He was golden. His hair was golden, his skin was golden, his eyes were a shade of blue that made any description inadequate. He was academically brilliant and, of course, an incredible sportsman. The answer, as Frances' mother would have said, to any maiden's dream. And though she tried, Frances couldn't help dreaming about David.

He didn't look in her direction of course. David knew what he deserved, and he deserved the best. He dated Serena, dark and beautiful Serena, who played the lead in the college plays and who was guaranteed an 'A' average simply by smiling at her tutors. These were the undisputed rulers of the social scene and everyone thought it would last forever. It didn't.

So one night, like so many glittering and disappointed boys had before, David found himself on Frances' sofa, with a drink, a sympathetic ear, and a warm body beside him. And never giving a hint of her feelings, Frances held David while he cried, stroked his hair and murmured sympathetic banalities. And, when at last he pressed his lips and his body on her Frances responded eagerly and ardently, not caring that his touches held no tenderness.

But, afterwards, lying in the dark, David's head cradled on her shoulder, her hand stroking his hair, Frances realised that this time she couldn't bear to see the shock and embarrassment in the eyes when he woke up and realised what he had done and with who. So, before the sun was up, she disentangled herself, slipped out of the bed, and went through to the kitchen. Lovingly she laid a table for her prince, and beside a breakfast of orange juice, cereals and coffee ground and waiting for water, she left a little note, that took her an hour to write.

"David," it said

"I hope you feel better this morning. I'm afraid I've had to go out as I have an early study group, but help yourself to breakfast. Please lock the door as you leave.

And don't worry, everything will be all right.

love, Frannie"

So she crept out of her flat and slipped away to sit in the park beside the lake, so that she didn't have to watch her princes face cloud over with disillusionment. Her day was spent in bittersweet recollection and her lectures went past her unheeded, till she returned at last to her empty flat, expecting a long evening alone.

Instead, where her own note had been, she found a single long-stemmed rose and a card, which said:

"Frannie, dear Frannie,

Thank you for being the best friend I could have had last night. I imposed on your hospitality, and much, much more, but if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to impose again tonight. If you can't face me, and maybe you can't, seeing that you slipped out this morning, just don't answer the door when I knock. If you can, however, I'd really like to spend some time with you.

Love

David"

Frances was dumbstruck.. She had never, in her wildest dreams imagined that the prince would come back. Frantically she cleaned the flat, put on her nicest clothes and tried to relax. When the knock on the door came, she walked, outwardly calm, to open it; and smiled gently at the golden boy who stood there.

David stayed all that night, and the next and the next. For a month he came every night. His lovemaking was gentle, and sweet. He was kind and caring. He was everything that a prince should be and for the entire month Frances was in heaven. And even at the end, when the idyll ended, as idylls must, he was princely and charming as he told her that he loved her deeply, that she was his dearest friend and he would never forget her. He said he wished it could be more, and the reason it wasn't was him, not her. He was a perfect gentleman, a perfect prince in each and every way.

So though it hurt, Frances was content. Always the pragmatist, she had never expected it to last, she had noticed how he always came to her rather than taking her out, had known that princes didn't marry beggar girls, unless they were pretty beggar girls. She held the memories to herself, and having known heaven, she settled for something a little more down to earth. She started dating a man, Josh, on a regular basis, a witty, pleasant, intelligent man of whom she was very fond and who cared deeply for her. They became friends, then lovers, and talked in a quite serious way about getting married someday. And Frances had her idyll to remember and her present to enjoy and everything looked rosy and fine.

Then, one day, shortly after finals had finished, when the sun was shining brightly Frances was walking with Josh towards the library, talking about the jobs they had both been offered. They were approaching a corner when they heard voices from the other side.

'I tell you, I was desperate when Stacy left me' came the first voice.

Then the reply, laughing, David's voice:

'You were desperate? I'll tell you when Serena left me I shagged Frannie Hepton for an entire month! I mean that's desperate.'

And there it was. The coup de grace. Destruction of Frances' world in 3 sentences. Her cherished idyll reduced to a coarse comment. To be fair, David's face, when he turned the corner and saw her standing there was stricken. He hadn't meant to hurt her, of course, would never have spoken if he'd known. She looked at him, at the laughing faces of the boys around him, at Josh. Then she dropped the books she was carrying and bolted for home as fast as her legs would carry her. Behind her she could hear Josh calling "Frannie, FRANNIE" but she didn't look back. She would never, ever, be able to face any of them again.

She locked the door, and refused to come out. Josh knocked, David knocked, a queue of people came knocking, but she kept the door adamantly shut. She packed her things and slipped away early one morning to take up the job she had been offered, so that when Josh came round he found the door open at last, but no sign of Frances, no forwarding address.

************

Frances was angry. She had never expected much out of life and had always made the best of the little she got. Now David, and glittering careless boys everywhere, had taken even that little away. She had to find a way to make them pay back pain for pain the hurt they had given her.

At first she had nothing but intention. She had no idea what she could do -- after all how does a plain girl cause pain to a prince? A number of amorphous ideas crossed her mind but she was patient, and until a way presented itself she worked like a slave to advance to a position of power in the graphic design company she worked at. After all, maybe one day a prince might need a job.

She spent no time, however, on building friendships. Men and women alike were awed by her stamina and her competence and she soon became greatly respected, but not liked. She seldom spoke unless she had something significant to say and a smile from Frances was considered high praise. She rose fast, and by the age of 23 she ran a design team of 20 serious-minded designers who turned out critically acclaimed logos and packaging. When the company was taken over by a corporate raider, her section was one that it kept.

One day, the company chairman called her into his office and explained that rents in the city were becoming prohibitive. How would she feel, he asked, if her section was moved to a rural location in Wiltshire, where rates were much cheaper? He explained that the company owned a large house, which could be used as a headquarters, and had a flat in the top story, which he offered to her, rent free, if she would head up the new operation. Communication could be done over the internet and she would have sole charge of policy making and decisions.

Of course she leapt at it. Chances like that don't present themselves to many 24-year-olds and soon she was installed. The house was in a lovely part of Savernake forest just outside Marlborough and she loved it, although there was nobody nearby -- perhaps because there was nobody nearby. And there she discovered the internet. First it was just a tool for delivering her projects, then a way of finding out what the competition was up to. Then one day she was talking to a client when he suggested she get hold of some chat software. 'IRC, or ICQ, or both' he said, 'we can talk in real time, pass the images back and forth and so on. And you could have some company in the evenings.'

It seemed like a good idea. Frances got both sets of software installed, and learned to use it. She had been on ICQ for one evening when somebody first approached her and asked her if she wanted to talk about sex. The approach was a clumsy 'r u f or m?' type, followed by 'got pics?' but immediately Frances saw the potential of the medium as the weapon she had been waiting for. Here she could be exactly who she wanted to be, and wreak havoc if she chose. Of course, she didn't want to destroy the losers, for what were they, if not her spiritual soul-mates? She was hunting larger prey.

But was it out there? Did princes and princesses hang out in the ether with the lonely losers? Or, put another way, could the glitterati resist displaying their peacock charms to the widest possible audience?

Trembling, excited, stimulated, she pulled up a search. Hesitantly her fingers typed the words 'David Benfleet' And there it was. The third of 9 entries, she called up the information about the name and confirmed that this was her David. Typing fast now, she entered name after name. They weren't all there of course, but enough were. 7 targets. 7 people who were going to pay for her pain.

Obviously, she couldn't be Frannie Hepton for these people, so she set about recreating herself. First, a name. Something similar to her own, but not too similar. Francesca yes, Francesca. A surname? Savernake. She set up a new account. Profile: Francesca Savernake, Female, Age 24, Interests Books, fitness, arts and music.

Next she scanned in a recent photograph. Now obviously it wouldn't do without adjustment, but she was a graphic artist. Under her expert hands the nose became narrow and adorable, they eyes widened and cheekbones appeared where they had never been before. The hair took on a sheen. When she was finished, she smiled at it. A lovely woman stared back at her from the screen, recognisably herself if anyone looked closely enough, but she was sure nobody would.

Then she started to stalk her prey. She didn't begin with David, that was to be the climax. First she contacted another of his set. She talked with him over several days, found out he was working in the city, She told him she was a civil servant. She was witty, charming and light hearted, and he reciprocated. At the end of the week he asked to see a picture, which she sent. He was entranced. When he sent his, her heart gave a little lurch. He had hardly changed at all, and once she had liked him. But he was prey and she was predator, so she stiffened her resolve. They flirted lightly at first and she was coy and retiring, allowing him to push her a little further each time they spoke. It took maybe a month before he told her he loved her and asked her if they could meet. She procrastinated, and put him off as he became increasingly importunate, until one day he said he had to see her. And suddenly he found he couldn't reach her at all. E-mails and messages went unanswered, but not unread as he poured his heart out each mail, each message, more desperate than the last. And Frances watched him hurting with satisfaction. One down. Six to go.

She changed her name for each man. She was Francine or Frankie, Felicity, Fenella, or Fiona. She didn't want to take the risk that any of her victims would realise that they were falling for the same woman. And soon she was chatting with several of them at one and the same time, using the same tricks to lead each of them on into passion, and then friendship and finally love.

And when she was sure, really sure that they were completely, utterly infatuated she cut them off. Keeping the accounts open just long enough to hear the pleas for attention before she consigned her creations, and their lovers to the recycle bin in her PC.

Did she feel guilty? No, if the truth be told she was exhilarated. She had more energy than ever before and at work she smiled more. Her team were infected by her enthusiasm and the Design Mill had an unprecedented few months. And finally, finally she was ready to move against David. By this time he was a semi-celebrated author, writing populist psychology, for a weekly magazine which the critics panned but the public loved. This made her approach easy.

She sent a message:

I really admire your work, and the way you have made what can be such a dry subject so accessible. Can we talk?

His reply was cautious, but friendly, as you would expect from a prince among men.

Thank you. I'm very busy, but I'd be happy to chat with you some time. If I could add you to my contact list, I'll be in touch.

Recognising a potential brush-off, Frances added a little more bait to her hook. Knowing David as she did, she was able to choose a subject she knew he wouldn't be able to resist and so she replied:

Please do. I was fascinated by your article on Jungian theory, and felt that you hadn't said all you had to say. I realise you probably don't have the space in your column to fully explore the subject.

I'd love to hear more.

And bingo! First followed a long scholarly discourse, where Frances flattered David by putting forward opinions she knew to be his own. Stunned by her insight he asked more about her personally. She was devastating. Modestly she told him she wasn't particularly interesting, or important and sketched a career for herself in which she was a personal assistant in a large corporate. She painted someone with an eager but untrained mind, thirsting for knowledge; but not just any knowledge, the knowledge that only he could provide. It was a masterly portrait and David was captivated.

She took much longer with this seduction, firstly to savour it and secondly because she had learned early on that David had married in the 3 years since university. Since he was still practically a newlywed she knew she was going to have to use subtle approaches if she was going to make him hers. So slowly, very slowly she drew him on. Telling him nothing about herself that he didn't ask she soaked information from him like blotting paper. And the more she wanted to know about him, the more he wanted to know about her. He sent her his picture, and she saw he had gained a little flesh since she last saw him. She sent him her picture and he saw a woman of the type he particularly liked.

When he started flirting in earnest, Frances resisted. She told him she admired him enormously, but she couldn't forget he was married. She responded a little, of course, but reluctantly, allowing him to coax her, hesitantly giving a little more of herself with each conversation. She gave everything eventually, in an orgy of simulated passion that challenged her imagination but didn't touch her emotions at all.

Very shortly not an evening went by when a little flashing icon didn't announce David's presence. He was obsessed, addicted. He couldn't get enough of her, or at least he couldn't get enough of the person she was pretending to be. He told her she was wonderful, beautiful, intelligent. He told her he dreamed about her. He told her in lyrical words that should have swept her off her feet. And if they'd really been for her, they probably would have done.

Her replies indicated that she was being swept, but at home, in front of her PC her eyes sparkled in triumph. She had him, he was lost. And he told her:

I adore you

You are incredible, amazing, a dream come true

Why didn't I meet you, before I met her?

I must meet you, I have to meet you

I have to have you

And she smiled. And she replied

You are married. It's your wife you adore

Thank you, but you are married.

Just the breaks I guess

It wouldn't be right

I won't be the other woman, so don't even think about it

Until, at last he wrote:

You are everything to me Fliss, I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think. I have to meet with you, be with you. Nothing else matters. Nothing at all.

Please, please meet with me.

It was her moment. Her revenge. And she took it. She sent a message which read:

Dear David,

I'm sorry, but this can't happen. Even if you weren't married, which you are, you are not the type of man I could be happy with.

I'm fond of you, I've enjoyed our games, but could never seriously be with you. I think it is best if you don't contact me again, since you can't keep things in perspective.

Goodbye

And she waited. And sure enough they came, the pleas, the increasingly frantic calls for attention. He called her a witch and a sorceress, a bitch and a whore. By turns he was begging and insulting, trying every approach to get her to respond. Steadfastly she ignored him until at last he sent just one line:

You have destroyed me

And in her mind, in the dark places it had come to inhabit, she though 'Good'.

Then she deleted everything, every contact she had ever had with him and put it out of her mind. The account, gone. The profile, gone. A chapter closed forever. She read about him of course. First the failed marriage, later the binges. Coldly she thought she should feel guilty. Coldly she acknowledged that she didn't. When she read later that he was recovering, was rehabilitated it affected her not at all.

********

And for Frances, life went on. A cold life to be sure, but satisfying nonetheless she had her work, and the respect of her peers, she had a home she loved. Perhaps a little of the edge went out of her work, but if it did nobody ever noticed. She didn't seek for new game, nor did she seek for love. She had done what she wanted to do -- she simply lived, and worked, and life, such as it was went on. Oh, were you looking for a happy ending? Well, sometimes there simply aren't any happy endings, there are just endings, and as endings go this isn't too sad, after all. Life goes on. It always has, it always will.

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