Some names in the following have been changed (I’ve always wanted to say that). You’ll see why; and you’ll see why that sentence resonates, too. Some people who read this will know the real names of the people I’m talking about; I ask those people not to reveal them. I have no desire to ‘out’ anyone and any reply that does so will be immediately deleted.
Other than the names, every word of what follows is true.
It’s ironic that I should find myself writing this so soon after my comments on the characterisation of the internet, in ‘Two Boys’, because this real-life story is a companion-piece to that work. It starts (or, my part in it starts) in early 2002, when, as a slightly late adopter, I started posting on the Popbitch website. I’d been reading it without posting for a while (‘lurking’, in internet parlance) but one day I spotted something inaccurate and unfair about an actor I’d worked with, and logged in to put it right. Then I stuck around.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve spent a fair deal of time on messageboards, and have made a good many close friends as a result. They all sprang from Popbitch; in the early noughties, when PB became too lacking in genuine information, too desultory, and above all too spiteful, various former posters set up other discussion boards for those as were interested. Unlike PB, there was no need to have any ‘gossip’ if you wanted to post- conversations would ramble on nicely in any direction. More than anything else, it was an early form of social networking; the kind of thing you’d put on Facebook or Twitter is very similar to the kind of thing people discuss on this kind of board (not a chatroom; never call it a chatroom, because that’s a totally different thing. On a messageboard you can get easily immersed in an interesting conversation, it’s not just people shouting LOL! at each other. Or not always).
One of the people who migrated over to one of these offshoot boards was a poster whose username was MitheredMark. Although we hadn’t met, he’d been at Cambridge (several years after me) and this kind of common ground is meat-and-drink to online interaction. At this point, a friend of mine was dating someone who would have been MitheredMark’s contemporary at Cambridge, and I remember asking her if she remembered him, sketching in the not-very-many details I had about him. She couldn’t remember any such person, and I thought no more of it; there are a lot of students at any big university, after all.
But, as regular readers will know (another thing I’ve always wanted to say) online communities have a habit of becoming offline ones. A large group of friends (made up, as such groups often are, of various smaller ones) developed from the messageboard via post work drinks or mass-meetups. When you’re in your twenties and early thirties, it’s great to get to the end of the working day and write ‘Anyone fancy a pint after work?’ in the knowledge that as many as fifteen or twenty people- some of them already friends, some of them new ones- might reply in the affirmative.
And so, inevitably, I met MitheredMark in person. When asked for his name, he gave an eye-roll and deadpanned ‘Er, Mark’, making anyone who had asked feel a little stupid for having done so. He could be a little spiky, but he was witty, warm, generous, and immensely entertaining company; we became good friends.
Or rather, we became part of a wider, hugely supportive group of good friends. These are people who came to my sister’s wedding, and some of whom married each other. I ran the marathon in memory of one of them, with another. I’ve been on holiday several times with people from the board, alongside other friends to whom I’ve introduced them. At the height of our mild hedonism, before things like marriages and babies intervened, it wouldn’t be unusual for there to be post-work drinks three or four times a week, often- for god knows what reason- in the Phoenix on Charing Cross Road.
And Mark, who was now dating Andrew, another poster from the messageboard, would often be there. He had led a fascinating life- after Cambridge, he had studied journalism, as well as having a brief career as an actor, which he had abandoned despite being represented by one of the most prestigious agents in London. He’d also written, under a pseudonym, a couple of romantic novels. Given that he was 23 when we met, only two years out of university, this was an impressive CV.
But there was always an air of mystery about Mark, always a few things that were unexplained. Despite being a regular guest at various other people’s houses, invitations to the flat he eventually shared with Andrew were very few and far between. On one occasion I was chatting to the writer and performer John Finnemore, a friend of mine who, it struck me, must have been an exact contemporary of Mark’s at Cambridge. John didn’t remember him, an oddity which I recounted the next time I saw Mark. He was furious and, hilariously, even looked a little scared. ‘Don’t you EVER talk to John Finnemore about me again’ he said. Those of you who know, or who are, John Finnemore will agree that he is an unlikely casting for ‘terror-inducing nemesis’ but there was nothing I could do bar chalking it up on the list of ‘things about Mark I might never understand’.
During this period, roughly from 2004-2008, Mark was at the top of the list of my closest friends. If any social occasion were being arranged, he’d be one of the first names on the teamsheet. But after he split up with Andrew, a couple of slightly disturbing things started to happen. Firstly, a friend of mine checked the British Library listings for the titles of the two romantic novels Mark had written. They weren’t there, nor were they in the complete catalogue of the publisher he claimed had released them. On another occasion, he was invited by another friend to her work Valentine’s Party. He left early, in tears, after a cigarette break; while out on the balcony, two women had come up to him and homophobically abused him. My friend, rightly furious that such a thing should have happened to her guest, went straight to security and asked to see the CCTV tapes of the night before. And what they showed was Mark, alone on the balcony, calmly having a cigarette then walking back in. Other, smaller lies became noted; people just put it down to Mark being a little baroque when drunk. And if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it. I’m terribly sorry for the previous sentence.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Mark split up with a chap he’d been dating. The dumpee was a smashing, gentle fella; everyone wondered why Mark had ended the relationship so abruptly. Then, shockingly, Mark told us why. I’m not going to spell out the reason he gave, but if it had been true then it would have been a matter for the police.
Of course, it wasn’t. When challenged by various different people, Mark told a variety of different stories, depending on who he was speaking to, so it soon became apparent that this was the deal-breaking lie. There was no big falling-out; I certainly never took the decision that Mark was someone I didn’t want to hang out with. But at the same time, he wasn’t the first person I dialled when I fancied meeting someone for a pint. Gradually, the friendship ground to a halt. I regretted this; he’s a clever, funny, warm, interesting man. But I’d been told more than enough things which weren’t true.
And that’s where it would have ended, were it not for a random tweet. I was aware that Mark and Andrew were back together, but hadn’t seen either of them for a while, when I saw on Twitter that Andrew had been promoted at work. I was pleased about this, so I had a look on his timeline to see how it had come about. And there it was: Andrew making a reference to ‘him indoors’ and someone else replying using a name I’d never heard before.
You’ve probably twigged by now. ‘Mark’ didn’t exist. Both his first name and his surname were entirely different to the name we knew him by. A quick google revealed that the person who had been my friend for eight years was a completely fictional creation. His family, his employers, the state, knew him under one identity; and the rest of us, under another. A lot of mysteries were solved by this, to be fair. Suddenly it was apparent why, whenever anyone called him at work, the operator wouldn’t have a clue who we were asking for. When he was headhunted we'd wondered what his new job was, and assumed it was another lie; in fact, the job was true but the name wasn’t. He’d swanked about using a credit card belonging to an ex; in hindsight, that was probably his own card.
I can understand using a different name when you meet people for the first time; I’ve even done it myself. What I can’t understand is continuing the subterfuge when you find yourself going to people’s weddings, meeting their families, becoming a part of people’s lives. In many ways, this final lie isn’t a big deal, compared with some of the others. ‘You thought I was called XY, in fact I’m called AB’ isn’t much of a betrayal in the grand scheme of things. But my god, it must have taken a lot of work. For year after year after year, Mark and Andrew kept the lie alive. Mark answered to a name he knew wasn’t his, from the mouths of his friends, thousands of times. He set up a facebook page under a false identity, accrued a hundred or so friends, commented on their posts. Even when he was drunk as a lord, somewhere he managed to maintain the deception. And that’s what is so odd, so hard to process.
I wrote much of the first part of this post a couple of months ago, when I’d just discovered the whole bizarre story. Then I thought better of posting it; I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest. But, in the way of these things, there was no great drama. Mark and Andrew styled it out, replying to the various ‘What the FUCK?’ emails and tweets and texts with anodyne, ‘you don’t know the full story’ responses, followed by silence. Actually, I’m not wildly interested in knowing the full story, because I’d have no reason to believe a word of it. But, a few weeks down the line, it feels like such an extraordinary thing to have happened as to merit these few words. I had a friend. We hung out for the best part of a decade. We grew apart. Then I found out that he’d never been there in the first place.