Fierce friendships forged in a virtual world

Torbay Weekly

I'm always slightly dubious about online relationships, a reticence roused more by safety concerns rather than any preconceived prejudice about the 'right way' for people to meet and get to know one another.

Certain circumstances have conspired to cajole me into seeing the benefits of such partnerships; my lovely niece, having experienced the ravages of heartache on more than one occasion - despite (or perhaps because of) being a charming young lady, and a most eligible match for any discerning bachelor - tried her hand at internet dating, swiftly pairing up with a worthy partner.

Six years on, they are the proud parents of two enchanting children and are a constant reminder that love can be located online just as successfully as through traditional methods.

Perhaps my innate scepticism stems from a regrettable exposure to a scurrilous selection of scandalous stories which paint a dark picture of online-origin relationships, highlighting the pitfalls and perils of meeting strangers on the web.

Amusing anecdotes aside - and who hasn't giggled, albeit guiltily, over cautionary tales regarding hilariously misrepresentative photographs and descriptions? - the stories are sobering, a sombre insight into the dangers of dallying with unscrupulous scoundrels intent on duping their unsuspecting victims - or worse.

Properly researched and scrutinised, however, I imagine internet dating sites must be a gratifyingly comprehensive way of finding a partner; they can winnow out unsuitable suitors at the preliminary stage and effectively eradicate potentially disastrous duos before any harm is done - reassuringly efficient.

No doubt they are strategically employed to tackle the crucial issues - questions of marriage, children, geography and so forth that can be make-or-break subjects but are a challenge to raise sensitively.

Perhaps they could also prove indispensable in advance identification of the niggly foibles that can become a source of irritation further down the line: snoring, hair loss, incompatible television choices - I am not speaking from experience there. Or, at least, not fully.

During the pandemic, many of us found our lives growing smaller; our windows on the world were increasingly contained within the parameters of the computer screen as, without warning, our ability to meet friends, new and old, was strictly restricted.

Two of my children found enormous solace in nurturing online pursuits, linking up with like-minded individuals who shared their interests and had a similar wealth of time at their disposal.

In these fertile fires, fierce friendships were forged; some floundered, some have endured.

One of our children began a correspondence with an American pen pal whose sensibilities were appealing.

They have extended the hand of friendship over international waters, exchanging postcards of their hometowns and comparing differences, subtle and obvious, in their countries' cultures.

Another amicable alliance one of the children has cultivated with an internet chum has been even more fruitful, born through a common passion for a niche acting troupe that enjoys an impressive web-based following.

The pair swiftly formed a strong bond, finding a firm foundation for their friendship and building upon it gradually over the weeks and months through text messaging.

They quickly moved onto video calling, spending hours at a time chatting to their hearts' content, conversations punctuated by frequent bursts of hilarity and hysteria - gratifying to witness in the current climate.

I was an infrequent party to these communications, and was able to satisfy myself that the person on the other end of the line fitted the description they had provided - a great relief.

As their friendship blossomed and deepened, the two of them began to plan a face-to-face meeting, marking almost a year since their initial encounter.

They spent long periods scheduling the get-together, expending a good deal of energy on honing the details to the nth degree and developing a jam-packed itinerary.

As the date approached, our whole family became fully invested in the proposition, offering advice, pep talks and apparently mortifying suggestions of gate-crashing the meet-up.

At the appointed hour, we swarmed around the rendezvous point like fretful fruit fly, nerves and anticipation building to unprecedented levels until, to the soundtrack of piercing shrieks, the two protagonists spotted each other in the street, launched themselves into a huge hug, and, parental pleasantries dispensed with, flung themselves at our nation's capital with the full force of their teenage vim.

As they walked away, I could clearly hear high-pitched exclamations over how weird it was finally to be meeting.

It was somewhat surreal, I acknowledged to myself; but when our offspring was restored safely to the bosom of the family later that day, beaming sunnily, brimful of joy and bags full of shopping, I have to admit it was also pretty good.