When a daggy but twinkly-eyed stranger approached Good Weekend writer Stephanie Wood via her dormant online dating profile, she responded with due diligence and low expectations. Live a little, said her friends. She did. And learnt a lot.

HE LAUGHED when I pointed out the axe. "Well," I said. "That could have ruined my weekend." I joked about axe murderers. "What was I thinking?" I said. "I still have no idea who you are." I considered the concept of me as a headline; something sensational, something like, "Journalist slain in farmhouse love-tryst tragedy."

But by the time we'd found the axe, it was the morning after the evening before and I was a bit loved up. The playlist I'd made had drifted through the night, through Peggy Lee's Fever and April Stevens' Teach Me Tiger. The high anxiety I'd felt about spending a weekend away with a man I barely knew had subsided. It was a crisp, lovely morning in June 2014 and we were brushing close. Easy then, to find comedy value in a horror trope. Besides, this man wasn't an axe murderer. He was daggy and gentle and his green eyes twinkled.

Photo: istockPhoto: istock 

The man had found my dormant profile on a dating website some weeks earlier. Generally, I'd rather stay home and clean the oven than venture into the badlands of 21st-century dating. The things you do in the search for simpatico: the weary keyboard hours, the assaults on eye and sensibility. And then, as despair descends, someone marginally interesting flashes up. One minute you're looking at a tattooed torso with a come-hither trail of abdominal hair and a rescue-shelter expression; the next, there was his message.

He said he had retired from his architecture practice and now divided his time between caring for his two children in Sydney and his small sheep farm south of the city. I was encouraged because he put apostrophes in the right place. We exchanged photos. In one, he wore a battered Akubra and looked thin and sullen. In another, he was in a boat and looked friendlier, chubbier. I emailed to say I liked his hat and that I didn't get seasick.

I WAS LATE for our first meeting at a city bar, stuck in a cab in traffic. He texted me: I'm here, a tad early. Inside the front door, in green jacket, warming myself by this roaring candle and feeling like a total wallflower. He had a glass of pinot noir waiting for me when I rushed in. I think we shook hands.

Low light and the nervy exertion of conversation with a stranger made it hard to form much of an impression of the man with whom I was now committed to spending a polite amount of time. I had a notion he was short. I could see that his belly strained against a crumpled shirt's buttons. But I noticed his hair: thick, dark, sprinkled with grey.

He presented his credentials: he'd worked in the city, he said – at his own architectural practice and, later, at a private equity firm – but he never wanted to wear a suit again. They were all packed away; some had come from Savile Row. I asked questions about meat and livestock. He showed me photos of his sheep and his farm's accommodation – a tumble-down shack little bigger than an outdoor loo. He said a house he'd designed was soon to be built on the land, which he was regenerating with indigenous grasses.

I asked more questions. He talked – about the harbourside home he'd built years ago for his young family in the suburb where he'd grown up; he'd retained it after the divorce and his little yacht was moored below it. He told me about his late grandfather, a prominent businessman.

A photo the man sent and the accompanying text exchange. "The boys" refers to sheep off to an abattoir. He painted a ...A photo the man sent and the accompanying text exchange. "The boys" refers to sheep off to an abattoir. He painted a self-portrait of himself as a decent man, perhaps a bit eccentric, a bit-bruised.

 

Eventually, he asked me about me, about my work. "You must be well-connected?" he asked. The man had an ugly broken top tooth and I didn't like that. I didn't like that question, either. Pretentious nong, I thought. Two strikes, you're out. But when he stood to pay the bill, I saw he was tall, over six foot, and for a moment I imagined running a hand through that thick hair. I remembered what women are told about men: "Don't be so picky."

We met again a week later. The conversation turned to matters of culture: he talked about the script he'd written for a comedy series about office cleaners, and said that sometimes he went to the ballet on his own. I told him I liked gardening. He said that, next time, he'd bring me some sheep shit. He told preposterous stories and laughed uproariously at himself. He had an odd, old-man sense of humour but I laughed with him. On our third date, he forgot to bring the sheep shit but showed me photos of his children and said he baked cakes on Sundays for their school lunches.

More text exchanges between the writer and the man included photos of the NSW Southern Highlands property the man ...More text exchanges between the writer and the man included photos of the NSW Southern Highlands property the man claimed to be buying. 

Using the subtle brushstrokes of a watercolourist, he painted a self-portrait of himself as a decent man, perhaps a bit bruised, perhaps a bit eccentric, but gentle, kind. Studying that artwork from all angles, leaning on instinct, unreliable narrator that it is, and, finally, blinded by flattery and desire and too many glasses of wine, I was inclined to take a risk. We kissed on our fourth date. I emerged for breath and could see the lights sparkling on the Harbour Bridge.

In a text message that pinged as a taxi's easy-listening radio romanced me home, he asked if I'd go away for a weekend in the country with him. A week later, as I drove down a highway to meet him at a rental cottage in a valley, quivery with nerves, another text arrived: Fire will be on. Dinner cooking. If my dog bails you up, her name is D----, she's very friendly.

Of course I Googled him. Wouldn't you? It would be foolish not to establish the basic truth of his identity before things went much further.

I pulled into the driveway behind a battered Land Rover Defender ute as the day's last glow fell behind the mountains. And there he was, on the veranda, tall, with that hair, a kelpie bouncing around his boots.

We ate the lamb he'd barbecued for dinner and drank red wine beside the fire and I fed him oozy French cheese on sourdough. I cooked him eggs and applewood-smoked bacon for breakfast. We walked through a dewy garden and discovered an old hut, a mini-museum of pioneer photos and farm equipment: shovels and pitchforks, scythes and saws, an axe. But I didn't see the sinister. I wasn't looking for it.

OF COURSE I Googled him. Wouldn't you? The man sat in a context of his own making; it would be foolish not to establish the basic truth of his identity before things went much further.

My search threw up a link to an ancestry-site family tree that included his name and those of his siblings and ex-wife, matching what he'd told me. I found a photo of his grandfather – they shared the same extreme nose and dastardly brows – and evidence of the family's connection to the harbourside suburb. (Later, when he opened his wallet in front of me, I glimpsed his licence and a waterfront address.)

The bio line on a fallow Twitter account supported his story, with a list of interests that intrigued me – the environment, politics, science, agriculture and ideas. There was little about his architectural work online. Innocuous: a bus shelter design registered under intellectual property laws. Worrisome: a 2010 news item on an architecture website about his co-director in the practice – he'd been struck off the architect's register for professional misconduct. 

I asked the man about it and he said he'd known for a long time that his partner was a problem. "I stuck by him for too long." He seemed exasperated and I retreated.

He took me away for another weekend, to a little house on a river. I took the tiller on a tinnie and we explored inlets and shorelines. His dog stood with his front paws on the foredeck, sniffing the muddy air. I nearly upended us with an amateur's manoeuvre. He grabbed the tiller and we laughed. I lay on a divan in a boathouse while he cooked us salmon for lunch up in the house. I tried to concentrate on a book but my mind roamed. Boat shed is rather lovely … I texted him. So are you, he texted back. At the end of the weekend I drove home, music blaring, feeling like a teenager.

One day soon after, the man arrived at my place and pulled a toothbrush from his pocket. "I'll leave this here," he said. One night in a whisper he told me he was thinking about things he'd thought past. "Commitment," he said, was a word on his mind. He'd had a fond vision of me with grey hair, he said. For my birthday, he gave me a tiny silver antique box, finely engraved with a floral design. He guided my hands to open the oblong piece. Inside was a slim pencil. "For a writer," he said.

A routine of sorts emerged: in the weeks his children were with their mother, the man and his dog divided their time between his farm and my apartment. His Sydney house was about to be remodelled, he said; everything was in boxes and he was looking for somewhere to rent for the duration. Besides, he said, it held unhappy memories; he'd rather not be there for now. One day he sent me a photo of bush falling into the harbour. My Tintagel (just in the trees there somewhere), he wrote. I didn't want to crowd him. I didn't push to see the house.

He worked more detail into his self-portrait: He sent me photos of a dirt track running through scrubby land. Heading off up the back to slash today, he captioned it, with a comment about the curse of Sifton bush. His dog with sheep. His shack. The front of his ute, axle-deep in mud. My day, he tapped out.

In messages, he shared photos of his children, often in boats: his daughter cuddling the dog on a little wooden boat (we have pulled up after a sail with our seadog); both kids on a large wooden pleasure cruiser he'd told me he was renovating (isn't she a beaut? A little more work, if the rain stops this week). But I observed early-days decorum. I didn't push to meet his sheep or his children or his boats.

The wooden cruiser the man said he was renovating. He also sent photos of his children on the boat.

The wooden cruiser the man said he was renovating. He also sent photos of his children on the boat.

Oh, I was good: I let his dog dig up my garden and I fed him well and often. He liked steak: medium to well-done. He liked fire: he built timber towers in my barbecue and would stand staring into the flames. One day – my God, had I become a Stepford wife!? – I washed his clothes. And, as a new routine started to emerge – his cancellations, mostly via text message, of plans made – I forced back eruptions of anxiety.

When he told me he had to rush to the farm to deal with a bore pumping out mud and wouldn't make it to mine one night, I texted no probs … I'm on deadline anyway. I was sympathetic when a business deal went "tits up"; when he had a reaction to sheep drench – the doctor reckons I've become sensitive to it through overuse; and when he had to keep his children unexpectedly – sorry, there's a kerfuffle with their mother. 

There were so many things to go wrong: school carols and his son's cricket and footy trials and his daughter's tennis. There were meetings with business partners, solicitors, real estate agents and builders, with two men he described as "the Yanks" for whom he said he scouted for Australian investments, and with an agronomist to look at a larger farm he was considering buying. One day, we explored the vast property, opening and closing gates as we drove through it; he pointed out wombat holes and a spot above a lake he thought would be good for a new house.

He spoke endlessly about his plans. And here was another reason for my anxiety: I worried about how little interest he seemed to have in me and how glib he was when I talked about myself or my work.

Just before Christmas 2014, he failed to appear for a lunch at which he was to meet my family and his phone rang out when I tried to call him. I curled up in a ball. The next day, as the sisterhood on my shoulder raged, I sent him a meek text message asking what had happened. God, sorry, he replied. His daughter had had an asthma attack. 

I confided in a friend about the man, the romance, its deficiencies, my apprehensions. She happened to work for The Sydney Morning Herald's investigative team. "Let's do some title searches on him," she suggested. I shook my head. "No, no," I said, and rolled on my chair back to my desk. "I have to try and trust him." He wasn't a story, he was a love affair.

IN EARLY January 2015, the man arrived at my place and pulled a string of pearls from his pocket. I didn't need the pearls, but my need for the message their lustrous charcoal surfaces seemed to emit was acute. The next day we had morning tea with my brother and his family. My nieces and nephew giggled. "You looked so natural together," my sister-in-law told me later.

It was as well that I held elation in check. Lost my dog, he said in a text mid-afternoon the following Friday. He was due to drive up from his farm for a weekend with me. A few hours later, another message pinged. Just got to the vet. Looks like a snake bite. Can't see me driving tonight. I replied suggesting he call me.


My phone remained silent until the following morning; he texted to say his phone connection had been hopeless and he'd just got my message. [She's] on a drip and will be here for a few days, so I may as well come to Sydney. She's very quiet and has her head on my lap. In messages during the afternoon we discussed what I'd cook for dinner. Steak. 

Around 3pm he texted to say he was leaving. It was a three-hour drive. At 9pm another text arrived: he'd decided to get a second opinion from a vet friend in Moss Vale; he and the dog were now there and he'd stay there overnight. Sorry about all of this. He arrived at my place mid-Sunday afternoon. He sat on my couch and his tears welled as he talked about his dog's near-death experience.

Still, anxiety's skin-tingle and stomach-churn took up residence in my body. Was he seeing someone else? What's going on? His stories seemed so insane. 

"Stop stressing," my brother said.

"You're going to ruin it," my brother's wife said.

"It's fine," a girlfriend said. "It's fine."

The psychologist I saw from time to time, a wonderful woman who had helped me cope with my father's death, tried to calm me. She wasn't seeing red flags, she said; the life of a man with two children, a farm and business interests was going to be complicated.

And maybe I was worrying about nothing. My mother visited from interstate and he took us out for dinner. He whisked me away for another weekend at a remote beach; one afternoon, he sat with pencil and architect's scale ruler and sketched out the chalet he wanted to build on a block of land he said he'd bought in the Victorian alps. I met his children over a suburban Thai meal. We had a weekend in Melbourne and dinner at the home of a couple he described as close friends. In late April we spent a week in Tasmania; on the flight across, he gave me an envelope holding three opals.

One morning at breakfast, he lifted his head from The Australian Financial Review and told me former treasurer Wayne Swan wanted to meet him to discuss his ideas. The cogs in my brain clattered as I decided whether to dispute or file the claim. I filed it – the man did seem to have an insider's knowledge of business matters – albeit with raised eyebrows. 

Another day he said quietly, as though he were embarrassed about it, "I have a disgusting amount of money." It had come, he said, from a couple of substantial property deals.

Meanwhile, his farm with the shack had sold, he said, but he hadn't been able to secure a new property. The one we'd explored had been bought, he said. Then a Southern Highlands spread called W------- came up: a mansion, cattle, grapes and olives. He told me he'd made an offer on it. One day, we drove down to see it and, while the man talked to the owner, a well-known fashion designer, his wife showed me through the house. It was vast and grand and I was relieved when we finally went outside and I saw a vista of lake and trees and found a neglected little vegetable parterre.

Would you like the study next to mine, or the one down the corridor?, he asked me soon after. He told me that the property's land would be put into his children's trust fund but the house itself would be in his name – so his ex couldn't cause trouble if I was living with him. Around that time, I was falling asleep one night when I heard what seemed to be a gasping sob; I embraced him; he'd never thought, he said, that he'd find someone who wanted to share a country life with him.

But the sale dragged on for months. It was on, it was off. There was a water rights issue, there were issues with contract inclusions. A neighbour from an adjacent property had barged in, claiming he had an option for first right of refusal. The neighbour was going bust. The neighbour was buying a sliver of land off the estate. The neighbour was buying the lot. And the man was full of doubt: he knew nothing about wine or olive oil, the house wasn't his style, he was a follower of the "tiny house" movement.

For months, it was all he talked about. I listened. I was not from this world of deals and numbers with many zeros. Perhaps this was the way it was for these people. But nothing made sense; his stories shifted and contradicted themselves. I told a friend that sometimes I wondered if the man was a fantasist. 

One day, I asked him how a farmer's hands could be so soft. "A grazier, not a farmer," he corrected me. He pointed to sunspots on his hands and said he wore gloves when he worked. He raised the subject again some days later. "I've been thinking about why my hands are soft," he said. "It's because of the lanolin in the wool." But you wear gloves, I said. "You can't wear gloves when you're working with sheep," he replied.

And the cancellations continued. Towards the middle of the year, he finally invited me for dinner at his Sydney house. I was barely surprised when, around lunch, he called to say his daughter was unwell – another asthma attack – and we'd have to postpone. My instincts were howling at me that something was awry. 

I bored friends witless rehashing each incident. Over sushi, one asked me how long I was going to stay with the man. But I'd lost my sense of self and reason and was barely functional. Around that time, I heard a radio program about domestic violence. "I was addicted to hope," a victim said, to explain why she stayed so long.

On a Saturday morning in October 2015, I stood in a toilet cubicle at Sydney airport, shaking and leaning against the walls for support. A plane I needed to be on was in the final stages of boarding. Close friends were to be married that afternoon in Townsville and the man and I were meant to be there. He wasn't answering his phone. I had no idea where he was. I flew without him, huddled in a window seat, choking, sobbing.

I DO an excellent curled-up ball. I know just how to place a pillow over my head so it blocks light and noise and reality. In times of personal crisis, I am an excellent faster. Any food other than ice-cream is of no interest to me whatsoever. I am always happy to see my scales at these times. But it is unwise to hold the pillow-over-head position for long.

My sushi friend got me upright. He brought coffee and pastries and was polite enough not to comment on my pyjamas. "Steph," he said. "Enough!" I emailed the man and told him I was done. That night, a Melbourne friend sat on the phone for hours with me as, at my laptop in Sydney, I became a journalist again and the man became the story.

On one of our first dates, he'd dropped a clue. Then, I'd decided to trust rather than snoop. To protect identities, I can't reveal more, but now the clue led me to another woman's public social media accounts. Another girlfriend.

She seemed to have been dating the man for a year or two before he contacted me, and he continued to see her after he met me. Her Facebook and Instagram accounts show they took similar outings to those he and I had: restaurant meals, a Tasmanian trip, drives in his ute down bush roads. In some photographs, they're holding hands. She looks like an excellent woman. We have friends in common. Sometimes we share the same links and we both love a glass of champagne.

The man went away with her in January 2015. Storms threatened, but at the expensive Central Coast resort, Bells at Killcare, he enjoyed a swim and quiet time on their veranda – reading the book I'd given him for his birthday, Don Watson's The Bush. Later, in the Hunter Valley, they stopped at wineries and a pub. It must have been a nuisance for him to keep me informed about his snake-bitten dog's wellbeing. Or perhaps it was sport: through the days they were north of Sydney, and I was at home in Sydney fretting about his dog and his honesty, he sent me 14 text messages spinning a bush yarn about the unfolding veterinary emergency in which he said he was immersed south of Sydney.

The man's stories were never simple little lies: instead they were sturdy things – minutely choreographed, episodic and sprinkled with wry humour and elements of truth. And multiple times, they matched occasions when the woman's social media accounts revealed he was with her. 

One afternoon in June, for example, he had texted to say he couldn't see me that night as planned – a problem with the babysitter. Around 8pm, he texted to say he was with his sister at the fashionable city restaurant where my brother is the sommelier. My brother had been looking after them well, he said, adding that his sister had needed to confide in him and a neighbour was watching his kids. Bewildered, I called my brother. He was cross with me. "Of course it was his sister," he snapped.

Scrolling through the other woman's social media feeds, I found a photo match for the date. Alongside a photo of a basket of dumplings, she named the restaurant and thanked it for the complimentary food and Veuve Clicquot. My brother realises now that, as he guided them through the rowdy space to a table, the woman was ahead when the man quietly told him that she was his sister. A risky game, but what fun.

You'll be wanting to know what fable he told to explain why he missed the Townsville wedding: he offered the first chapter the night before our flight when he claimed his ex-wife had failed to collect his son from a school disco, and developed the plot over the following days with a family crisis. Sorry for not keeping my drama at bay, he texted. 

The other woman's photos show they were enjoying scallops at a northern beaches restaurant while I lay in a ball in my Townsville hotel room, sick to the stomach and wondering how I'd make it to the wedding.

I've had better nights than that which I spent online discovering the extent of the man's mendacity while, on the phone from Melbourne, my friend kept me calm. But the process of discovery proved to have healing qualities; it would be beneficial, I decided, to continue the therapy.

When I finally searched the public record, as my colleague had suggested months earlier, I found that the name of the man's ex-wife was on the title deeds of the harbourside house: I believe he couldn't show the home to me because he no longer lived there. Then I discovered something else: the cheat I had dated for 16 months was also an undischarged bankrupt with a criminal record.

INTERNET SEARCHES reveal only so much. Phone calls are more illuminating. The nice woman on the end of the phone at the country abattoir where my ex-boyfriend claimed to have his sheep slaughtered looked up her books but couldn't find any record of him or his sheep. The head of the private equity firm at which he'd claimed to have worked in his Savile Row suits said my ex-boyfriend had brought a joint-venture proposition to the firm years before but, in the middle of discussions, oddly, disappeared. He was never employed by the firm.

The architect who had been a co-director in my ex-boyfriend's architectural company, and who I'd read was suspended for professional misconduct, had a great deal more to say. Let's call the architect Peter. 

"He's a compulsive liar," Peter said, when I reached him on the phone. "He can't accept failure, so he will hide and hide things from you until he can't hide them anymore." Peter says he was best man at my ex-boyfriend's wedding. He worked alongside him for years before his true character became clear.

In 2008, my ex-boyfriend used a forged document. A subsequent NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal hearing into the case nearly ruined Peter, who was the nominated architect responsible for the firm's work. The tribunal found that Peter's handling of the matter was unsatisfactory and he was banned from applying to re-register as an architect for two years. (He regained his registration in 2016.) "It was devastating," Peter says. "We were like brothers."

In the course of the hearing, it emerged that my ex-boyfriend had never been registered as an architect in NSW and likely had never even qualified as an architect. In 2011, three years after he used a forged development application, my ex-boyfriend stood and faced a magistrate in Manly Local Court. The magistrate didn't buy his stories and gave him a two-year good behaviour bond.

And there were more shocks: he had been concealing debt: as a result, in 2009, both men were declared bankrupt. After a set period of three years Peter was discharged from bankruptcy. But my ex-boyfriend's furtive proclivities continued. He failed to disclose crucial pieces of financial information to his bankruptcy trustee and is still listed as an undischarged bankrupt. He is not due to be discharged until 2018.

A man who is bankrupt faces some impediments in the pursuit of a high-net-worth lifestyle. Generally, he is not in the business of buying and selling properties in the Southern Highlands of NSW or the Victorian alps, or of renovating expensive wooden boats. But a skilled tyre-kicker with delusions of grandeur, a quick mind and an amiable manner can pretend he is.

One Saturday during our relationship, he said he'd take me to see the wooden boat that day; the builders were just about finished. Through the afternoon, in front of me, he made three phone calls to inquire about the work's progress. At the end of each call, he said the builders weren't ready for us; another couple of hours, he said, explaining in some detail the challenges of a particular bit of joinery. 

A man scrambling for false status and self needs to have a few tricks up his sleeve: I can see now that the calls that day were pure pantomime. No one was on the other end of the phone. While we were together, I never saw the boat. He never owned it. 

On a sultry morning early in January 2016, some weeks after I'd told him I was done, and as I adjusted to my own private post-truth world, I decided I wanted to see it. It's moored at the Point Piper marina, down the road from the prime minister's harbourside home. Someone going into the members-only marina had left the gate open and I slipped in after them. 

The boat is beautiful. She's made of mahogany. "She is considered to be one out of five most classic motor yachts in the world," reads a marine sales company's ad for it. The asking price is $135,000. I know now that she's been on the market for years.

THERE ARE things I still don't know about my ex-boyfriend: I don't know how he found the money for our weekends away or our restaurant meals or the tips he gave to taxi drivers. I don't know if he gave investment advice to "Yanks". I don't know if he has ever laid a hand on a sheep, or slept well in a shack after a day's labour on his own land. I don't know where he lived. I don't know how difficult he made his ex-wife's life. I can only imagine.

I do know, though, that photographs can lie, too. Take that shot he sent me in 2015 of his ute bogged in a creek with the caption, my day. Google's reverse image search function unearthed the complete shot from a Land Rover owners' forum: my ex-boyfriend had cropped out the central body of the vehicle and two blokes standing looking at it. He was not one of the two. The photo was taken in Queensland in 2012. The vehicle was the same model and make, but the full picture showed it didn't have the blue-striped doors of my ex-boyfriend's ute. He'd embellished his self-portrait as a rugged man of the bush with a doctored photograph of someone else's ute, someone else's day.

We had no plans on the day he sent me the photo. He didn't need to think of an excuse for cancelling. It was a gratuitous folly. Or a missive from a hollow man lost.

In texts, the man embellished himself as a rugged country man. The writer later found this image was another man's car, another man's day.

In texts, the man embellished himself as a rugged country man. The writer later found this image was another man's car, another man's day.  

WHEN WE start these things, in that gloriously alive state of vulnerability and excitement and hope, we can see so few pieces of the puzzle. We are primed to believe in the goodness of people, and truth as the default position. We want so much that we turn our heads away from the flaws and the oddities. Don't look, we think, they do not matter. We are complicit. And once immersed in intimacy, extrication can seem impossible. This is the human condition in the effort of love.

My ex-boyfriend conscripted me to play a bit part in his chimerical life. He was the magnificent lead character in his own Neverland, trapped in a pathology a lifetime in the making, enslaved by his own wild needs.

I remember now, a night at home. I'd cooked a meal. We sat on my couch. The television was a background hum. We sat close. He asked me a question. "Can I put my head on your lap and will you stroke my forehead?" 

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Follow Stephanie Wood on Facebook.

Source: This article was published smh.com.au By Stephanie Wood

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