Wedding Guest Beware
As our new columnist approaches the final year of his twenties, he finds himself newly single after an ill-fated reception.
Hold that thought. That was the last thing I said to her. As closing lines go, it’s no “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. But what can I say? Things don’t always work out like they do in the movies. Real life tends to be messier. A little less tightly scripted. And with fewer explosions. This column concerns events happening in real life. There’s no script to speak of, and I have no idea where it’ll end. All I can tell you, for now, is where it begins. And that’s with me, 28 years old, getting dumped at a wedding.
We’d been together for more than a year. Nearly two if you trace it all the way back to the day we first met. It was a Saturday afternoon in July, and we’d both arrived at the same east London pub for the birthday of a mutual friend. Nana – it’s a Ghanaian name, she’s not my grandmother – was newly single and out to have fun. Me? I’d just negotiated my way out of an accidental affair. After three months of clandestine trysts and dodging death threats from vengeful boyfriends, I desperately needed to get back on the straight and narrow.
I was in a cream cable-knit sweater, navy chinos and a pair of old grey deck shoes: a ploy to appear wholesome when, in reality, I felt anything but. Nana was tipsy and beautiful, with a husky laugh and the biggest hair you’ve ever seen. There was a tattoo on her wrist that said “kiss me” and, summoning all the courage that the half a gin and tonic swirling around my stomach could afford, I did. The “wholesome” look must have worked: I didn’t get slapped.
"I was on the makeshift dance floor, several peach bellinis to the good, having taken it upon myself to teach the pageboy how to salsa"
In hindsight it seems an uncharacteristically brazen move, the sort of thing that a self-proclaimed “pick-up artist” might refer to as a “closer”. But then I’ve learnt to suspend judgment when looking back on that summer. We all lived a little faster, a little more recklessly. And why not? We weren’t concerned about the future; we were still under the impression that nothing would ever change. But those two years passed in an instant, and before we knew it, everything had.
My “job” had somehow become a “career”. My CV could no longer be compressed onto a napkin. I had a flat with a fixed-term mortgage. My wardrobe, which had once consisted almost exclusively of Converse sneakers, black jeans and grey T-shirts, now had not one but two blazers – two! – and a burgeoning collection of suits. Shoetrees had appeared in my shoes. And when I looked in the mirror I saw a different person staring back: sterner, more introspective – and worryingly beginning to resemble my dad.
Nana had changed, too. She’d left her job in publishing, committing herself fully to the dating agency she’d set up a few years earlier. In her new capacity as a matchmaker, she’d spend her days in bars sipping mocktails and lending a sympathetic ear to her lovesick twenty- and thirtysomething clientele. Relationships became her profession, and she quickly became an expert in them: how to make them work, and knowing why they fail.
Like Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge only to realise what a shitty boyfriend Adam had been, this newfound wisdom had the effect of casting our own relationship – which had reached a stage of blissful familiarity but hadn’t progressed much in the conventional sense – in a harsh, unflattering new light. It didn’t help, of course, that most of the couples we knew had moved in together already, whereas I’d just bought a place with my college friends.
Sometimes, in the dead of night, she’d try to tell me that she wasn’t happy. That she loved me but wanted more than I seemed willing to give. I’d feign sleep, knowing that by the time the morning came her tears would have dried and everything would be OK again – for the time being at least. We trod water for as long as we could, gripping more and more tightly onto each other as we drifted further apart. But something had to give, and before long it did. Just not quite in the way I’d expected.
It was May, and night had just fallen on the first wedding of the season. Victoria, an old college friend of mine, had been married to her new husband for a matter of hours. Speeches had been exchanged, the lights had been lowered and, thanks to a generous alcohol-to-food ratio, an air of hazy intoxication had begun to descend. I was on the makeshift dance floor, several peach bellinis to the good, having taken it upon myself to teach the pageboy how to salsa.
I’d learnt the basic steps criminally late in life, and now considered it my duty to provide the younger generation with the start I never had. But disapproving glances from onlookers, whom I suspect may have been his parents, soon alerted me to the possibility that my good intentions had been mistaken for something altogether more sinister, so I beat a hasty retreat, leaving my young disciple to try out his new moves on the bridesmaids. Nana was sat alone at the side of the room, so I moved in beside her and planted a drunken kiss on her cheek.
“Hi Elvie,” she said.
That was her pet name for me. Elvie. Elvidge. A little cutesy but it worked. She’d been using it for a few months, despite the mockery of a few of my male friends, who’d pointed out that Elvie also happens to be the name of a pelvic-floor training gadget for post-pregnancy mothers. The association was potentially ruinous to my personal brand but I liked it, and in Nana’s defence, she claimed never to have made the link. Anyway, I digress.
“Hi. Sorry, I got a little carried away.”
She didn’t reply, only smiled the faintest smile.
“Listen,” she said, turning to me and clutching my hand. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while…”
“And?” I said, adopting the enthusiastic expression of a man about to receive a piece of good news.
“I want to break up.”
My jaw dropped. “But… Nana, we’re at a wedding. Isn’t this supposed to be a romantic occasion? Can we talk about this later?”
She started to reel off her reasons. That I’d chosen to live with my friends over her; that we didn’t see enough of each other; that she’d tried to tell me all this before but I just wouldn’t listen. That last point wasn’t without basis. I wasn’t really listening now. I’d been distracted by the sight of the bride and groom, who were twirling each other around on the dance floor, booze-blushed and beaming.
One man gets hitched, another ditched: one of the benefits of getting kicked to the kerb at a wedding is that it does at least provide you with an easy point of comparison. As the happy couple paraded before me, I couldn’t help but picture Mr Jim Bowen, host of the 1980s TV darts gameshow Bullseye, just left of shot, inviting me to “come and have a look at what you could have won”. And I’ll admit it, I envied them. Envied the relief that they must have been feeling at having fulfilled one of society’s great expectations.
"I was on the property ladder, had a job I loved and a beautiful girlfriend ready to take the next step. But none of it was enough to silence the voice in my head"
My generation was barrelling headlong towards the big three-o. Our first blooming of youth was by now a fast-receding memory, adulthood proper was lurking just around the corner and we suddenly found ourselves under pressure to fall in line. For me, the pieces were already dropping into place: I was on the property ladder, I had a job that I loved and a beautiful girlfriend who was ready to take the next step. But none of it was enough to silence the voice in my head. Not yet, it told me. Not yet. You’re still a young man. A young man in a hurry, admittedly, with less time than you once had. But there’s still time.
“Elvie?” She was looking at me bemused, that faint smile still lingering on her lips. “Are you even listening to me?”
It’s a common criticism of men generally, and of me specifically, that we’re only able to compute things in hindsight. For once, though, I saw everything with perfect clarity. The path to maturity is so often taken with two steps forward and one step back. I’d bought a flat – life achievement unlocked – but in my short-sightedness I’d lost the one person I should have been sharing it with. Nana was right; I was only destined to disappoint her.
And I wish I could have thought of something better to say. A sign-off Rhett Butler himself would have been proud of. But I didn’t. Instead, I muttered the first three words that came to mind – hold that thought – and wandered off into the night.
Illustrations by Mr Timothy Hunt