A couple of days ago, I had an email from the charming @VeroNorton, my publicist at Headline, asking me if I’d want to do a piece for the Telegraph in support of David Nicholls’ book ONE DAY (which I’ve not read, but it sounds like a good concept; BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET in longer form, almost). What they wanted was a tale of a young/university relationship - whether or not it worked out - and how it had affected you in later life. (Five hundred quid too - “Woo!” thought I. I’d forgotten how the going copy writing rate differed from book writing.)
Anyway, I had something I could do for it, and it seemed like it would be interesting - I don’t often get to write this sort of thing. I sent a quick synopsis and got cracking, what with the deadline being tight, but they turned it down; what they were looking for were people still pining for that long-ago love. Since I’m not and I was going to run in a different direction, there endeth the article and the enormous pile of money. Easy come, easy go. But since I’d got it sketched in my head, I figured, why not write it anyway and run it here, for nowt. So here it is.
(Names, for those who know me and the events described, have been changed to protect the innocent (changed to names which belong to no one I know so there’s no confusion (I think (hey, nested brackets!))), but otherwise I think my memory serves.)
“What I need to know,” she says as we near the station, “is that you’re totally OK with being friends.”
It is early summer 2009. I am in a car with a girl — a woman, now — with whom I had once been very much in love. The first girlfriend I’d ever moved in with, the first one with whom I’d ever contemplated the possibility of a long life together. Sally is dropping me off after a weekend visit to where she lives and works in the depths of Shropshire. A brief holiday for me in a part of a country I’d never been to before, and a chance to catch up, and for me to see something of her life now, some five years after she broke my heart.
(As a result of a spectacular level of alcohol consumption on my part during the first night, I am nursing a wrist injury after falling headlong into a wall while trying to find my way back to my B&B in the depths of night and nearly walking clean out of town by mistake. The scar will remain a lasting souvenir of what has been a fun trip.)
Sally has recently rekindled her relationship with a former long-term boyfriend she met at university, and wants to be sure that there is no emotional hangover between us, no lingering reason to sever links again. There’s not, and I’m happy for her. Our lives have gone in very different directions — both physically as well as metaphorically — since our relationship ended, and while we still get on well together, it’s nice to just be friends with no baggage or regret.
My train pulls away under the relentless sun.
It is the turn of May 2007, and in my arms is the smallest and youngest human being I have ever held. In the windowless delivery room, I have only the wall clock’s word that night is falling outside. He is quiet, and awake, staring at me and a world he sees for the first time with very wide, very dark eyes. In less than a year and a half, his mother and I will split, long-running and fundamental differences we’ve tried to ignore made inescapable by the pressures of parenthood. He will never remember his life before this happens, and I will never abandon him.
It is January 2004, and I am walking slowly through the streets of Birmingham. The pavement underfoot is treacherous with refrozen ice and the streets are gridlocked and caked in gritty slush. I notice very little of this. I’m feeling adrift, shocked and hollow. While we have rather optimistically talked about “taking a break” and “seeing how things are in a couple of months”, phrases I will come to realise were mostly intended, consciously or unconsciously, to soften the blow, Sally has left me for someone else, and I’ve had little warning. I won’t deal well with it — in fact, I become a whiny, miserable, depressed jerk for a time — and it will take me nearly six months to return fully to my old self.
I don’t know it and wouldn’t want to hear it now, but in the end I will come to realise that this ending was inevitable. It is hard to expect someone to spend their whole lives with the first person they become seriously involved with. For them to go through life wondering all they might have experienced, all they might have done, all the ways they might have grown as a result. It’s also the case that I’ve been, from my own point of view, taking the relationship for granted and being a poorer partner for it. Inexperience, on both sides. These are lessons that are hard to learn, but they will stay with me and my later relationships will be the better for it.
For now, I crunch across the ice, feet sliding and threatening to tip me over more than once, and try to hold it together.
It is another January, 2010, and I wait to meet Lara, a friend of mutual friends, one of whom is Sally’s step-brother, in an ancient pub for a drink. A series of wildly unlikely and in some cases outright tragic events over the past six months have jinxed any chance of a proper meeting save for one woefully-timed double date (I nervous, she woozy from giving blood a couple of hours before and mildly freaked out, I will learn later, by my resemblance to her most recent ex; before we can meet again, after I catch Lara before she leaves and say what a mess of an evening it’s been and maybe we should try talking just the two of us, she will be asked out by someone she already knows and will politely explain and call it off) until an equally unlikely event conspired to make it a possibility again out of nothing.
“I was afraid you’d turn me down,” Lara says when she arrives.
“And shoot myself in the foot over some stupid male pride thing? That’d be crazy,” I tell her. Her eyes are very sparkly. We will talk all night, until the pub closes and I walk her home.
It is winter 2008, and I meet Sally for the first time in years. A couple of months before was the first time, indeed, that we’d spoken in a very long while. She had read online about my break-up with the mother of my child and initially emailed me to make sure I was OK. When she visits our home town again, we meet and catch up properly. I tell her at length about my son, the flat I live in that I have nicknamed ‘the Beige Horror’, work. She tells me all about her life in the Midlands and the way her studies are steering her into a career in heritage management, the infuriating Italian guy who she can’t figure out if he fancies her or not. As we wait for her dad to pick her up at the end of the day, I take the opportunity, knowing I might not get another, to apologise for being a depressive arsehole after we split, and for laying a lot of things on her which I shouldn’t have. I’m not sure if it’s the done thing, but I’d regret not taking the chance.
It is late February 2011. I am sitting in the same pub, at the same table, where Lara and I first properly met. In the midst of a conversation about something else, taking her completely by surprise, I ask her if she’d like to marry me.
It is April 2002. Sally and I are in my bedsit and she is upset, frustrated at the stresses of living with her mother and sister. She is finishing college and about to take a year out working before going to university. “We could always move in together,” I say. “I’m going to be moving anyway, so it makes sense.”
She looks at me and says, “Are you sure?”
There is the sense of crossing a line, one from which there’s no retreat. But then my life — our lives are in the midst of massive change anyway, and I want to do this. I have just signed my first book contract, although I’m waiting for the money to arrive, looking at the dwindling remains of my final paycheck from the job I’ve had since my student days ended and the small overdraft beyond. It will eventually arrive when I have £15 left and no way of paying the rent. When it does, we celebrate by blowing all fifteen pounds on pizza.
It is August 2011, and I am checking over piles of sheets, blankets, and tiny baby clothes. The house where Lara and I live is a mess of stacks of as-yet unsorted tidying and rearranging. Later, I will assemble a Moses basket. There are only weeks to go now.
“I’m trying so hard to do the right thing,” Sally says in 2004. I have taken the late train up to see her, afraid that I’ve come 200 miles to be dumped. It will be another miserable day before we bow to the inevitable, but that’s precisely what will happen. She’s trying to decide between me and her feelings for the guy she’s met, trying to do what will turn out to be right.
From 2011, down the long, strange road of the future-past that rings faintly with the echoes and lessons of that former relationship and the others since, I can see that she did.