As a boy, I was an Arsenal supporter. I made the pilgrimage to Highbury more than once, and was riveted to the Grandstand videprinter every Saturday evening. But being an Arsenal fan in Swindon in the 70s and 80s was a dispiriting experience. With the exception of the FA Cup in 1979, they won nothing; they were a mediocre, mid-table side, capable of impressive victories over top teams on their day, but just as capable of being stuffed at home by Watford. There wasn’t even anyone to share my pain with, as everyone else at school carried a Liverpool bag.
In my early teens, I devised an ingenious coping strategy: I stopped caring. It was hard at first, but after a few months’ practice, the agony of defeat had faded to a pinprick. From then on, whenever I did watch Final Score, it was with a serene disinterest.
But the strategy had an unexpected side-effect. In 1989, when, thanks to Michael Thomas’s stunning last-gasp goal at Anfield, the Gunners became champions again, my celebrations were strangely muted. In deadening myself to the pain of my team’s failures, I had lost the ability to feel any joy at their victories.
At the age of 32, I worried that a similar process was affecting my love life. I was now so practised at handling rejection that even the cruellest blow barely left a dent. I was sick with terror. Well, a dull unease. Was my toughened hide, impervious to harm, now equally impervious to love?
The Guardian’s 2002 spring drinks at the Saatchi Gallery was a turgid affair even by the standards of Guardian drinks. The venue had all the intimacy and ambience of an aircraft hangar; the music was muffled to an intermittent thud; the majority of my coworkers were too busy applying the 12 Tenets of Effective Networking to contemplate having fun; and most of the people I liked had sensibly arranged prior commitments. Even the B-list celebrity count was abnormally low, thanks to last-minute cancellations by Maureen Lipman and Germaine Greer.
Just as I had resigned myself to an evening of solitaire Name That Tune, I saw her.
Lucy had joined the company three weeks earlier. In her mid-20s, petite, with long brown hair, huge eyes and a life-affirming, whole-body smile, she managed simultaneously to evoke my paternal instincts and some entirely contradictory ones.
I’d been praying for a chance to talk to her ever since. But while her desk was only yards from mine, she worked on a different section of the paper, so opportunities for interaction had been scarce.
Now here she was, six feet away, engaged in awkward conversation with Adam from the website. The manner in which I interposed myself between them is unlikely to be remembered for its nonchalance.
Minutes later, Adam obligingly departed in search of a refill.
Lucy was lovelier than I’d hoped: bright, modest, unpretentious, curious about the world. Although I wasn’t on the best form of my life and she was on her guard, our backgrounds were just similar enough and our opinions just different enough to keep the conversation lively. We didn’t click so much as slide gently into place.
The next day, we took two cigarette breaks together. The day after came our first lunch. That was swiftly followed by an evening drink, which became an impromptu meal, which, being round the corner from her place, became an impromptu tour of her flat. After introducing her cohabitees, Lucy ushered me to her bedroom. Then she made us coffee, invited me to lie on her bed, and read me intimate passages from her diary.
In the normal scheme of things, I might at this point have attempted to lower the tone of the evening. But I had come to a decision. Even though Lucy was more or less my idea of perfection; even though we fitted together so well in so many ways, and even though I wanted to hold her until gangrene set in, I had already resolved that I would never make a pass at her. Because whichever way you sliced it, I did not deserve this woman. I wasn’t young enough, I wasn’t handsome enough; I wasn’t rich, successful, well dressed or well tressed enough to assert the right to take Lucy in my arms. It would be reward enough, I told myself, for her to call me friend.
Over the next couple of weeks, we started emailing regularly – nothing flirtatious; just thoughts, anecdotes, background info. The fag and lunch breaks became routine, and we shared a post-work pinot once a fortnight. It seemed I’d got my wish.
The lights of a descending jet glimmered in the distance as she gazed out breathlessly across the sleeping city, replaying the night’s events in her head. Dinner at Sheekey’s, cocktails at his private club, then a romantic moonlit walk along the river back to his place. And what a place! A spacious, exquisitely decorated pad on the top floor of an exclusive harbourside development, with a view that would have had Sex and the City’s Mr Big spitting out his single malt. Even though she’d known he was a high-powered broker, she hadn’t dared hope for anything as opulent as this.
She darted her eyes to one side to drink in his toned six-foot-plus frame, immaculately clothed in bespoke Armani suit and handmade Ferragamo loafers.
“It’s a beautiful apartment,” she gushed, barely able to keep her voice steady.
A lock of his thick, dark hair flicked across his forehead as he turned and speared her with his smoky gaze.
“I designed it myself,” he crooned, with an irresistible hint of braggadoccio. “Although I’ve never really felt at home here. It’s always felt … empty somehow.”
His deep blue eyes twinkled as his strong, manly arm reached out to pull her towards him. She couldn’t have resisted if she’d wanted to. His breath flashed hot against her delicate alabaster skin.
“But you know,” Ben growled as his lips closed on hers, “suddenly it doesn’t feel so empty.”
After about a month, Lucy asked me to accompany her to a birthday bash in Islington. Since neither of us knew many people, we both drank too much too quickly, and after about an hour and a half she confessed to feeling unwell. “Would you please take me home?”
She fell asleep on my shoulder almost as soon as we got in the cab. I asked the driver to wait outside her place while I helped her to bed, then continued home.
At work, we were inseparable. The frequency with which we smoked and lunched together prompted more than one colleague to ask whether something was going on. Their suspicions would have been raised further if they’d seen the emails – 30, 40, 50 a day were zinging between us. We left no subject uncovered: hopes, fears, secrets, how the Romans would have played bingo.
What endeared and annoyed me most about these exchanges was Lucy’s absurd lack of self-esteem. If she wasn’t down on her weight (“Aargh! Eight stone!”), she was fretting about her job, her hair, or what others might think of her. Her bum wouldn’t have looked big in the Greenwich Observatory telescope, but I had to remind her of the fact at least once a week. It made me angry with her sometimes, but, as I was usually able to put her mind at rest, it also made me feel needed.
It must be said that Lucy wasn’t always the most conscientious friend. She cancelled our arrangements at the last minute with exasperating regularity, and two or three times forgot them altogether. But she usually made it up to me; and I always forgave her.
A tendril of cannabis smoke drifted lazily across the ceiling lights as the tanned, powerful hand that had been so deftly manipulating the instrument panels returned to its owner’s dimpled chin.
“And that, gorgeous,” crooned Carl, “is how we make a hit single.”
The corner of his mouth kinked as he leaned forward, probing for her reaction.
The day had been such a whirlwind, Lucy didn’t know what to think. Three hours before, she’d been walking along Oxford Street, window-shopping and minding her own business, when a limousine had pulled up to the kerb and the window wound down. “Hey, gorgeous. Come here!”
She wasn’t particularly into chart music, much less boy bands, but even she couldn’t fail to recognise the cheeky grin that beamed from within. Carl, the one member of Hi5 who could actually sing; and also, she now noticed, the best-looking.
She’d declined at first, of course; one doesn’t simply jump into a strange man’s car, even if he is impossibly rich and famous. But when he had gone on to reassure her that there was no pressure, that he’d just thought she looked like fun, and that she might like to do something different this afternoon – and more importantly, when the grin widened to reveal those gleaming, spirit-level teeth – her resolve had dissolved. Well, you only live once.
Now here she was, sitting in a state-of-the-art recording studio, having just watched one of the bestselling groups in the country lay down a track for their new album. She barely knew Carl, he was fully two years younger than her, and he was maddeningly cocksure. But he had behaved like a perfect gentleman, he was talented, and he was undeniably cute.
Lucy blushed slightly as she murmured, “It’s fascinating. I had no idea so much work went into three minutes of music.”
Carl flicked a speck of something from the chest of his T-shirt, then inched closer. “The guys are going to a party later tonight if you want to tag along, gorgeous,” he purred, his masculine fingers snaking forcefully but gently between hers. “Or if you like, we could just stay here.”
Lucy was disarmingly upfront about her love life. While she spared me the graphic details, she rarely wasted any time in informing me when there was a new suitor on the horizon. And it was an exceptionally busy horizon. Every two or three weeks, it seemed, she’d be fizzing with excitement about some new stolen kiss or scribbled number. For a few days, she’d speculate breathlessly on how much he liked her and whether he might be The One; then the name would suddenly fade from her lips and our conversations would revert to normal – until the next intoxicating prospect.
I did feel a twinge the first time she mentioned another man. But with each successive annunciation, the sensation dimmed a little, until the advice I was able to give her was almost entirely objective. And since none of them lasted long enough for me to meet them, they somehow never felt real.
In any case, the point became moot when there was a brief resurgence in my own love life. For six months, I pushed my feelings for my friend further to the back of my mind. But when Rachel and I split up, the person I called to pour my heart out to was Lucy.
A couple of weeks later, after working late one evening, I decided to surprise Lucy on my way home. The voice on the intercom was breathy. “Come up!”
I was greeted at the door by Jennifer Beals. “Sorry,” said Lucy. “Yoga.”
I offered to come back in a few minutes. “God, no – exercise is so boring. I could do with the company.”
So as Lucy stretched and sweated and moaned and the smooth, firm flesh of her arms glowed in the light of the TV, I made small talk, and tried my hardest not to think bad thoughts.
In early January 2003, after a swift one that turned into a slow five, Lucy was in even more candid mood than usual. She told me about an incident a couple of years before, when she’d been to a party with someone, and even though she wasn’t interested, he’d talked his way into her flat, then her bedroom, then her bed. He had suggested sex; she had declined. He had suggested it again, and when she had declined again, he had had sex with her anyway. The craziest part was, she was worried that she had done something wrong.
I walked the three miles home that night planning in minute detail the alterations I would make to the scumbag’s anatomy if he ever had the misfortune to cross my path.
Lucy’s face fell as she saw the steel chain fastened around the gatepost.
“Locked,” she sighed. Well, it was two in the morning.
Harry’s limpid blue eyes twinkled in the lamplight as he shinned up a tree and leapt athletically over the fence and into the park. “Not to us it isn’t!”
Lucy couldn’t suppress a girlish giggle as his powerful arms reached over and hauled her in.
“We’ll get into trouble!” she squealed, half seriously.
“Funny,” teased Harry, his strong hand brushing her hair from her eyes. “I thought you liked trouble.”
Now that he mentioned it, after three hours guiltily bopping to an anarchic psychedelic rock band and a further two knocking back champagne on a yacht moored in St Katherine’s Dock (not, sadly, Harry’s – it belonged to one of his advertising colleagues), Lucy was in the mood for a little bad behaviour. Especially if it was with this sport-loving, smooth-talking, fast-living hunk of a man.
“Race you to the swings,” barked the floppy-haired executive, setting off like a thoroughbred before she could respond. He slowed down to let her catch up, then accelerated effortlessly to the finish line, and turned so that she fell breathless into his arms.
The swing chain creaked gently in the breeze as their mouths met hungrily, and she melted in his controlled yet passionate kiss.
“And now,” said Harry, as he forcefully guided her hand down over his collarbone, his manly chest, his heaving six-pack, “now, you’re going to do something really naughty.”
I hadn’t wanted to do anything special for my 33rd birthday. I’d already seen enough to prove my Theory of Diminishing Turnouts – 200 guests at my 18th, 100 at my 21st, 30 at my 32nd – and wasn’t eager to test it further. But Lucy talked me round. It had been ages since she’d had a good knees-up – and anyway, wasn’t it about time she met my friends?
So one evening after work, after scouting the neighbourhood for suitable venues, we booked a pizza place in Angel for the Saturday night.
The invitees filed in bearing the usual burnt offerings: mugs, clockwork penises, the books they’d got for their birthdays. Then Lucy arrived, looking unbefuckinglievable, and handed over a bag containing not one, but five parcels. She called it a “writer’s kit”: bottle of wine, wine glass, gourmet coffee beans, silver coffee cup and saucer, silver ashtray. I’d been harping on about writing my sitcom for too long, she said. This might be the kick up the arse I needed.
I was speechless. In all my born days, no one, but no one, not girlfriends, not parents, not even Nana Rose, had put that much thought into buying a present for me.
The rest of the evening passed in a pleasant daze; no one got punched or poisoned, and everyone seemed to get on.
As I lay in bed that night, the cogs refused to stop turning. I’d established nine months before that I wasn’t good enough for Lucy. But with the presents, things had changed. More to the point, I had changed. Round about the time I’d met Lucy – perhaps not, it now occurred to me, coincidentally – I had cut out the excess boozing and started going regularly to the gym, with the result that I could now face the mirror again. I’d started to put more thought into the way I dressed. I’d joined the office choir and discovered a reasonably impressive tenor voice. I’d had a couple of half-decent articles published and was building a reputation as one of the more able subeditors on the paper. I’d had one relatively normal six-month relationship; and as my party had just proved, there were still at least 25 people in the world who liked me. Most of all, I’d got my confidence back. I was, as much as I’d ever be, a marketable proposition. Was there a glimmer of hope after all? Was it time to reassess the situation?
Five days later came the perfect opportunity to do just that. Lucy and her flatmates had decided to flick the Vs at the accursed saint by throwing an “anti-Valentine’s” party for their single friends. Since available men were in short supply, Lucy asked if I could help. Only two candidates sprang to mind: Guy and Phil. While Phil wouldn’t have been my first choice for Phone a Friend on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, he was usually a fun addition to a gathering, and was as far from Lucy’s type as I could imagine; and Guy, for all his flaws, wouldn’t dream of screwing me over.
Things warmed up fairly quickly thanks to a crate of champagne courtesy of Lucy’s rich friend Quentin and Phil’s patented icebreaker games. Then, after about an hour, Lucy retreated to her room. Personal phone call? Makeup adjustment? Five minutes passed. Was this the time to say something? I might never get a better chance.
I was steeling myself to knock when a squeal came from behind the door: “Phil!” I’d never heard her sound so … girly before. “Come in here.”
As I stood frozen in the hallway, Phil strolled up to the door, winked, and pushed past me into her bedroom.
An ambulance wailed in the street outside as Phil closed the door behind him. Lucy, glancing up from the bed, tried to look as insouciant as possible.
“What’s occurring, babe?” drawled Phil, depositing his can of lager on the bookshelf and wiping a blob of guacamole from his lip.
“I wanted to talk to you … alone.” Lucy rose from the bed and wafted elegantly across to where he stood.
Phil gazed up at her through his inch-thick glasses and smiled, revealing his crooked, yellowing teeth. “Phwoarr. D’ya fancy it then?”
He stroked his hand contentedly over his paunch as Lucy stepped back and unhooked the straps of her dress.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” ejaculated Phil. “Well tasty!”
I recognised the feeling straight away. It was the same twinge that had hit me the first time Lucy mentioned another man, only a thousand times more powerful. It was all I could do to stop myself throwing up on the spot. I asked Guy to pass on the message that I wasn’t feeling well and ran into the street to find a cab.
That night, unable to sleep, I weighed up my options. The correct thing to do, clearly, was nothing. The grown-up course of action was to take a deep breath and keep quiet. Except something wonderful had happened.
I felt shit.
It was as if I’d been Arsenal’s most loyal, most passionate supporter my whole life, and they’d just been beaten in the Champions League final by a last-minute goal from Man United. There was a cavernous void in my stomach. I was crying. Heck, for the first time in 15 years, I actually wanted to kill myself.
If I could still experience misery this profound, this intense, then I could also, theoretically, still feel joy. And if it was Lucy who was inflicting this misery on me, then surely she was the key to any possible future happiness. I had to tell her how I felt.
Besides, this was Phil we were talking about. Phil, who openly boasted of having bedded more than 300 women. Phil, whose reaction on meeting Mirjam had been to pull a face and suck air in through his teeth. Phil, who was, in short, exactly the sort of womanising throwback that I had vowed just weeks before to protect her from.
So on Monday morning, at work, I asked Lucy to join me for a cigarette in the corridor. “I’m sorry,” I said as she took her first puff, “but I love you.”
I admitted that my timing could have been better; and I assured her that I was not deliberately trying to undermine her budding relationship with Phil. (Although I may have let slip that if she did carry on seeing him, I couldn’t see them lasting more than two weeks.) I was simply acquainting her with all the relevant facts so that she could make an informed decision.
Lucy’s initial handling of the situation was masterful. She took me out to lunch for a sneaky couple of vodka and oranges. Her emails were sweet and perfectly judged: she was “so flattered”, she said. I’d made her feel “amazing”. She promised she wouldn’t see Phil again for a while, at least until she’d had some time to think. And she agreed to go on a “zeroth date”, a no-pressure drink and meal that ended up back at her place with Lucy sitting on my lap as I read parts of her novel on her computer.
I also, of course, had to explain things to Phil. He was less understanding. But eventually I persuaded him that the matter would be settled more conclusively by Lucy than by fisticuffs.
The games evening we had scheduled for the following weekend turned into an emergency summit meeting where the rival parties put their cases. Lucy’s options, essentially, were to choose neither of us; to go for a short, thick Essex paparazzo who’d known her for 90 minutes and wanted her because she was, and I quote, “a fit bird”; or to go for the nice, intelligent guy who had been her closest companion for nine months, who had seen every side of her, and who loved her more than life itself.
She pleaded for more time to think.
The first clue as to which way the wind might be blowing came a couple of days later. Lucy was telling me about another male friend who had fallen for her: “He’s another one I wish I liked,” she said, without any apparent premeditation.
But things were not yet set in stone. There was still time for my closing statement, and I knew just when to deliver it. Lucy’s birthday party was the following weekend, and Phil wasn’t going.
I took the three days before the party off work. I got out the wine, the glass, the cup and saucer, coffee beans and ashtray, threw in two bottles of vodka, and buckled down. Sod the sitcom – this was my metier, my chef d’oeuvre, my raison d’etre.
I’ve explained how Lucy, despite her abundance of natural advantages, suffered from a crippling lack of confidence. A large proportion of our emails and most of our conversation had consisted of me reassuring her about her weight, her looks, her writing ability. But as I wouldn’t always be there to give her that support – even if we did get together – I figured she needed a more permanent resource.
And at 8am on the morning of her party, the “Little Blue Book” was finished. A handmade volume of 366 pages – one for every day of the year – each featuring a different reason to be cheerful. So if ever Lucy woke up one day and felt a bit down, she could open it to the relevant date and find a joke, an aphorism, a poem, a memory or a cartoon reminding her how special she was.
And she took it, and spent so much time reading it that she hardly spoke to any of her guests, and at the end of the night she looked up at me with tears of gratitude and begged me to hold her all night long.
Well, that was the plan. In the event, of course, she had no time even to open the book. In fact, she didn’t get back to me the next day, or the day after that.
When we did finally meet, she was odd, terse, guarded. She loved my present, she said, but … yes, she was seeing Phil. And she had been since Valentine’s Day.
Their relationship lasted 13 days.