The dog beneath the skin

Call me a sadd-oh anorak1 if you like but I had a profound sense of loss the day my virtual dog died. I'd raised him from a floppy. He used to scamper around my monitor, apparently learning attention-seeking tricks that stole more than his fair share of the affection I had previously given Raffles, the RL (real-life) cat.

I felt stupid grieving over 6 megabytes of corrupted software. But what are we grieving when an animal dies? What do we love when we love a pet? We love the personality we projected onto the animal — as if pets were people.

Even if I paid for a replacement it would never be the same dog. Hed been a gift from a woman I was seeing last winter. And he reminded me of her. Not that shes a dog. Men find her so attractive that shes convinced herself she can "make you fall in love" with her. She calls herself Sophy on the Internet Relay Chat and that was where I first met her in the small hours of a November morning.

Now, you can call me a nerdy geek if you wish, but when the cab pulled up outside her flat in Shepherds Bush I wasnt hyped up for a definite shag. I had an open mind and clean underwear. Misogynists have a saying that women on the internet usually conform to the three Fs — "Fat, Forty, or a Feller" IRL (in real life). Sophy hadnt sent me a .jpg picture of herself down the modem. Wed only chatted online for about 40 minutes before shed said: "Come over. Bring your grass, and well watch the sunrise together."

And this posh babe answered the door. Afterwards, in the afternoon sunshine, when she led me blinking across Shepherds Bush Green and paid for lunch, I was ecstatic. "It was a fun fuck." she explained. Emotions project their own interpretation on stimuli: but why shouldnt there be days when everything is so right?

We exchanged an average of three e/mails a day for a while. Wed both logon to IRCnet and chat most evenings until shed invite me over. On my mountain bike I perfected a route that took me across each royal park in fewer than 40 minutes door to door.

She used to send flowers to my shabby little flat and we tried not to mention Love. I didnt want to know who else she was seeing. She went through a phase of telling me I was the only man she wanted. Maybe she meant it. Maybe I wanted her to mean it. Pretty soon we were mentioning Love, and indulging in wild talk about making a home together and raising kids like real people do.

One afternoon a window opened on my screen and Sophy told me shed been scared shitless by news that I was a screaming queen with HIV, and that this was common knowledge around the internet. Ive never been meticulously heterosexual but, when last tested, I was HIV negative. Wed discussed this on day one, when wed commited ourselves to condom use.

But Tomb, another of her IRC friends, was at her place visiting from Liverpool. Hed noticed that her mIRC software notified her whenever Byronik was online. Sensing dangerous competition, hed made up the scare story and tried to install himself for the night.

At my computer, I was trying to calm her down in one window while at the same time confirming from the channels #England and #GB that nobody else had heard any rumours about my HIV status. Funny how mere words on a screen can make your blood rush in your ears.

Sophy seemed convinced she was going to die from this computer virus. Tomb had struck a low blow against my credibility and I was powerless to shut him up.

At around midnight she invited me over. I asked, "Is Tomb still there?" She said he was, but hed be gone by the time I arrived. I told her: "Thats good. Because if he is there Im going to have to beat him up." Steaming through Hyde Park in the darkness Im wondering whether Im going to have to live up to this. Tomb may have chosen his nickname from a computer game but he's reputed to be a veteran of the Gulf War. Maybe hes a life-taker, and I'm sure-as-hell not.

By the time I got there he was a pathetic balding man sitting on her sofa, actually wearing an anorak. IRCers are full of fight when they know they are thousands of miles away and the internet promises them some anonymity. When I walked in and said: "Im Byronik. Whats all this about me being HIV+ then?" he blanched and stammered something about having heard a rumour.

I must have looked ridiculous too. Forty minutes pumping adrenaline through my arteries had made me tremble until I could hardly speak. Every time I lifted Tomb by his anorak he seemed to slide down inside it to the floor. Sophy was telling me she was outraged by my behaviour and, every time I turned to reply, I was expecting Tomb to get in his first punch. I dragged him as far as the hall before she persuaded me let him go. I stepped into the bedroom to let him pass. How he got home to Liverpool at 1.00 a.m. was his problem.

Sophy was "appalled", but Id never known her so turned on. I was an animal. Now I have some idea why bullies like to show off in front of their girlfriends.

To put her mind at rest I took another HIV test at the first opportunity, but by then it was all over. Maybe I should have let her win at Trivial Pursuit. When she came back from spending xmas with her family she offered a list of reasons, but its a bullshit list of social faux pas concerning misuse of cutlery and clip-on braces. The truth was, shed already started seeing another man she met on the net and I was only a bit of rough. "Youll never be PLU." she said. Whats PLU? "People like us."

Now, you can call me an unreconstructed Bolshevik if you must. Wed spent a weekend alone at her parents' country house. Shed bought me the dressing gown and slippers that I wear most nights when Im IRCing. But I was never real people. To her I was no more than a virtual lover. The tail was wagging the virtual dog. And there are plenty more where I come from.

Explanatory note: 1The term anorak passed from the Danish name for a showerproof hooded zip-up jacket, to denote any kind of geek, mainly because of the garment's popularity among Britain's train-spotting and pigeon-fancying set.

Michael Burgess 1997