'Problems, problems' Jane muttered as she opened her mail bag on Monday. 'Problems, problems,' she repeated testily. 'As though I don't have enough of my own.' The thirty or so letters seemed almost to vibrate with indignation, resentment and rage. There were brown envelopes and white ones, airmail and Basildon Bond. There were typed ones and hand-written ones, some strewn with Smileys and hearts. Jane's practised eye had already identified from the writing the likely dilemmas within. Here were the large, childish loops of repression, and the backwards slope of the chronically depressed. There, the stabbings and scorings of schizophrenia and the cramped hand of the introvert. Jane fancied she could hear them, like childish voices, whining and pleading for help.
'Dear Jane,' she read, 'I have a problem... Dear Jane, I just can't sleep... Dear Jane, I'm so terribly lonely... Dear Jane, I feel so bad. Dear Jane, she thought to herself bitterly. Dear Jane. Dear, dear, DEAR. 'Oh dear,' she repeated testily as she turned on her computer. 'Off we go again.'
For Jane was neither an enthusiastic, nor even sympathetic, agony aunt. She had always regarded the Post's problem page - she still did - with something close to contempt. 'But here I am - in AGONY,' she muttered. She longed for some anaesthetic to ease the pain. But 'Ask Jane' was undeniably popular; more importantly, it paid the bills. Because for two years Gavin hadn't earned a penny, having given up his job in the City to write. He'd been 'trouble shooter' at Debit Suisse. 'But I'm the real trouble-shooter now,' thought Jane. And it sometimes amused her to think that Gavin's literary career was subsidised by the co-dependent, the abandoned and the bald. Jane had been a journalist for ten years; but her spell as an agony aunt had never featured on the imagined trajectory of her career. She had visualised a seamless progression from the diary to the news desk, to signed interviews, to glamourous features (with photo byline) and thence to some highly visible - and frequently controversial - column in some respected broadsheet. Her readers would gasp at her erudition. No subject would elude her grasp. She would pontificate on Britain's entry to the Euro, on drugs and welfare and defence. Her trenchant opinions would be regurgitated at lively dinner parties in Islington and Notting Hill. She would be invited to appear on 'Newsnight', on 'Today' and 'Question Time'. Instead, she found herself dealing with premature ejaculation, nasty neighbours, infidelity, impotence and debt. This unexpected professional detour had happened entirely by chance. Two and a half years previously Jane had been doing a reporting shift on the news desk of the Sunday Post. As she put the finishing touches to what she thought was a rather good profile of Cherie Blair, she noticed a sudden commotion. People were running. Doors were slamming An atmosphere of tension and panic prevailed. Enid Smugg, the Post's ancient but hugely popular agony aunt, had gone face down in the trifle at lunch. Before Enid's stiffening body had even been stretchered out of the building, Jane had been deputed to complete her page. Keen, above all, to appear willing, she had gritted her teeth and agreed; and despite her lack of experience, or even natural sympathy, she'd acquitted herself pretty well. Too well, she now realised bitterly, because she'd been stuck in the job ever since. Still, forty grand was good money, she reminded herself, and God knows they needed the cash. Their flat in Regent's Park was gorgeous, but the mortgage on it was vast. But Jane adored her husband, Gavin - 'Gorgeous Gav' - and she believed that his boat would come in. Moreover, she was secretly quite happy to be the bread-winner - it placed Gavin firmly in her debt. And she especially like the fact that he no longer went to work. Jane had been to Gavin's office a few times and had been disconcerted and demoralised by the sight of so many sweet-faced, lithe-limbed blondes. For Jane was a very plain Jane - tall, big-boned and rather flat-faced, and she knew she'd married out of her league. She quite liked having her handsome husband safely at home, out of harm - and temptation's - way. But above all she luxuriated in the knowledge that it was her professional sacrifice which enabled him to write. He'd probably dedicate his book to her she mused contentedly. When it was published. Which it would be, quite soon, The phone would ring one day and it would be an editor from HarperCollins or Faber, begging Gavin to let them publish his Intergalactic thriller, 'Star-Quake!' Jane had to admit that Gav's books weren't quite her thing. But then she'd never really been a Sci-Fi fan. Gavin was an avid amateur astronomer and aimed to become the new Arthur C. Clarke. Jane had a sudden, happy vision of them attending the Royal Premiere of 'Star-Quake!' in Leicester Square. There they were, standing next to Nicholas Cage and Michelle Pfeiffer in the line-up to meet Prince Charles. Gavin had not yet allowed Jane to see his manuscript. But a few nights before, when he'd left for his astronomy evening class, she'd gone into his study and sneaked a look. She'd found the story a little hard to follow, with its huge floating aliens, and exploding supernovas and fur-clad talking snakes. But still, it was genre fiction, Jane reasoned, and there was a huge market for that. In any case, she supported Gavin unquestioningly, because she adored him. She always had. That's why she was prepared to be 'in agony' as she jokingly put it - so that Gav could fulfil his dream. And at least - and thank God for this - none of her friends knew that 'Ask Jane' was her. For she had resolutely refused to have her surname or her photo on the page. 'Got a Problem? Ask Jane', it announced above a photo of a disembodied - and clearly female - ear. Jane had assumed, when she first started doing the agony column, that her stewardship of it would be short-lived. She'd imagined that before long some celebrity would be hired to take over, or some famously humiliated political wife. For a while there'd been talk of Trisha from daytime telly, and even Carol Vordeman. But weeks had gone by, then months and here Jane still was, over two years on. But not for much longer, she thought to herself happily, because soon Gavin's writing career would take off. 'You're my rock, Jane,' he'd say with a smile which made her heart swell and tears prick the back of her eyes. 'You're my asteroid - no, my shooting star.' Well, she certainly shot from the hip. Or rather, from the lip. But that's why people wrote to her. They wanted firm, robust advice. She turned back to the day's bundle of letters with a weary, regretful sigh. Christ, it was tedious - and it wasn't as though any of the problems were NEW. She had long since covered every conceivable dilemma - low libido, domestic violence, bad breath, bereavement and debt. Pregnancy, both wanted and unwanted - nasty neighbours and thinning hair. She'd helped Divorcing of Dagenham, Paranoid of Petersham, and Borderline Bulimic of Bath.
'Who have we got today?' she muttered. 'Phobic of Finchley? Suicidal of Solihull? Jealous of Jupiter would make a nice change,' she added sardonically, 'or maybe Miserable of Mars.' Jane never felt guilty about her lack of sympathy for her readers. If these people wanted lovely, 'mumsy' kind Clare Rayner, then they could damn well write to her instead. But 'kind' simply wasn't Jane's style. Her advice was uncompromisingly tough. She prided herself on being as sharp and to the point as an assassin's blade. Oh yes, Jane like to tell it straight, She didn't mess about. First off was Sandra from Suffolk. Not getting on well with her husband's mum.
'Dear Sandra,' Jane typed. 'It's a GREAT pity you spoke to your mother-in-law like that. Let's face it, calling her a 'twisted old battleaxe' is NOT going to make relations more cordial! May I respectfully suggest that you try and THINK a little before you open your big trap. In the meantime I enclose my leaflet on Tact.' Jane re-read her letter, sealed the envelope, tossed it in her out-tray, then turned to the next. Oh God - another fatso with low self-esteem. 'Dear Terry,' she wrote. 'I know you'd like me to tell you that looks don't matter, and that some nubile blonde is going to fall in love with your 'great personality.' But the fact is, poppet, that no self-respecting woman is going to be seen dead with a guy weighing eighteen stone. Here's the Weightwatchers number for your area. Ring it right now and lose the lard. On further consideration, she decided the letter might be a little harsh. So she scribbled, 'Do let me know how you get on' at the bottom to soften it a bit. Not that anyone ever did 'let her know'. They never got back to her. Her replies went out into the void, like meteorites hurtling through space. In the two years she'd been 'in agony' she'd never heard from anyone again. Occasionally, she would wonder why, but she had long since concluded that the brilliance of her advice obviated the need for further help. Now she earmarked the four letters she would feature on this week's page - money trouble, transvestism, booze and menopause - then turned to the final letter in the pile. 'Oh God, Betrayed of Barnes,' she said irritably. 'You poor thing - boo hoo hoo!' 'Dear Jane, I don't know what to do,' she read. 'I've been married for seven years and love my wife dearly but fear she has started to stray. She is far more attractive than I am and I often feel insecure.' Jane felt a sudden pang of recognition which she did her best to suppress. 'I have no hard evidence,' the writer went on, 'but I believe she's seeing a colleague at her TV company, because she talks about him a lot. It's 'Ronnie this,' and 'Ronnie that,' so I assume it must be him. What's more she's been dressing particularly well lately, with a new hair-do, and once or twice I think I've detected alien aftershave on her clothes. I have never been possessive,' the man continued. 'I've always encouraged my wife to see her friends, go to the gym, attend classes etc. but I'm now so anxious that I feel ill. Please, please advise me Jane. Yours in desperation, Alan.'
'Well Alan,' Jane wrote back. 'It seems to me you've got three options. You can a) Stick your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away. But the problem with having your head in the sand, sweetie, is that you leave your backside dangerously exposed. Or you can b) confront her. But if you do, you'd better prepare yourself to hear something you're not going to like. Or you can c) Have her followed. Go to a private detective - just look one up in Yellow Pages - and get a Dick Tracy on the job. At least that way you'll know for sure. So bite the bullet, Alan, and best of luck.'
Jane finished the letter with a sense of satisfaction She'd given him the best advice she could. She wondered what the upshot would be, but knew that she'd never get to know. So she was rather surprised, a fortnight later, to hear from Alan again. 'Dear Jane,' he wrote. 'Thank you for the excellent advice you gave me recently. I had my wife followed, as you suggested, with surprising results. It turned out that her colleague, 'Ronnie', was in fact a woman - 'Ronnie is short for Veronica apparently.' Well then you're a lucky bunny Alan, thought Jane as she raised her coffee cup to her lips. 'However,' she read on, 'my suspicions about my wife were sadly proved right - in an unexpected way. The detective's dossier revealed that she HAS been having an affair with a man who attends the same evening class. It appears they share a passion for amateur astronomy. He's a married man, very attractive, a former banker, who's trying to write. I'm devastated, as you can imagine. But what I need to know NOW is, should I get in touch with this man's wife?'
Published 'You' magazine, the Mail on Sunday, 2002