* Devon Prize Winner in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition *
Plane tickets to Paris (and three nights in a fancy hotel).
You spent most of our weekend in the hotel room because you said the city was too loud and too dirty. Too French. You were not impressed by the night-lit Eiffel tower. Nor did Notre Dame’s flying buttresses and decorative gothic windows impress you. The crêpes we ate in a little café on the Ile de St Louis, you admitted, were quite nice.
I took you to my favourite place, Père Lachaise. The mausoleums and effigies had awed me when I first visited, as a teenager. I’m amazed by their grandeur, the arrogance that verges on obscenity. You regarded them with apathy. ‘Can we go now?’ you said, as we stood over Victor Noir’s tomb and found a yellow rose in his hat.
64 photo booth pictures.
They were irresistible to you. Whenever you saw a photo booth, you grabbed my hand and said ‘let’s get our pictures taken.’ You loved silly poses – sticking out your tongue, pretending to throttle me, pulling our hair in front of our faces. Once, you made me turn upside down with my weight on my hands as you yanked my legs into position so it looked like you had your feet behind your head. The last photo shows us reeling, just before my arms collapsed and we rolled out onto the post office floor.
I think you liked the idea of riding a unicycle; you hadn’t considered how much practice you would need. It fitted with the ‘kooky girl’ persona you were still trying to cultivate at thirty-four. You tried it a couple of times on your birthday, then stowed it under the bed. You haven’t touched it since.
A gown for your work’s Christmas do.
I wanted to wear trousers, but you claimed it would encourage people to think I was ‘the man’ in our relationship. I said ‘if people are that ignorant, who cares?’
‘I care,’ you screamed.
So I spent £200 on a beautiful blue gown that didn’t suit me. I felt uncomfortable all evening and still heard myself referred to as ‘the butch one.’ I went to the toilet and stared at my reflection in the mirror, wondering what was wrong with my hair or make-up or demeanour. I wept and my mascara ran. I rubbed away the stains until my skin was raw. I was ashamed of embarrassing you by failing to live up to the image you wanted to create.
A woman who worked in your office, Jane, walked in on my distress. She gave me a tissue and said I was beautiful. She lent me concealer to hide the red, puffy pouches under my eyes. She squeezed my hand before she left and told me to ‘stand tall.’
Several weeks after the party, I realised that I would never instruct you on what to wear.
Croissants, pain au chocolat and Danish pastries.
I cherished those lazy Sunday mornings in bed. I believe you did, too. If there was anything pure and real in our relationship, it was those breakfasts.
Two sapphire rings.
We talked about getting married, but you said we didn’t need a party and a piece of paper to make a commitment. ‘A private thing would be more romantic,’ you said. ‘Just the two of us.’ We went to the jeweller’s in town and picked out a pair of rings. They were both pink sapphires, but yours was princess cut and mine was round.
In our cramped bedsit, we exchanged vows. You cried as we promised to love and protect each other forever. We drank champagne and ate takeaway pizza. When we made love, it was the most intense experience of my life. I asked if you felt the same.
‘Yeah,’ you said, flicking the television on.
‘Of course. Now shut up.’ You turned your attention to some inane reality show and that was the end of our honeymoon.
You said they would look good on me. They did not. You squinted at my streaked hair and said, in wonderment, ‘I thought it’d be sexy.’
You were always bored, keen to go somewhere. ‘Let’s follow our noses,’ you would say. We set off with great excitement. You never let me pause long enough to get organised, insisting we had to go straightaway. You would roll your eyes if I suggested taking a packed lunch. Five hours later, when we were hungry, miserable and lost miles from anywhere, you blamed me.
I don’t know why I didn’t stand up for myself, but I never pointed out that it was actually your fault. You would thrust the map at me and demand I get us back to civilisation. Not once did I refuse.
An aromatherapy course.
You were sick of your job and wanted to retrain. You wanted something as far away as possible from your boring office work. I still have no idea why you picked aromatherapy. You attended two and a half lessons of the ten I paid for. I urged you to stick it out, but you said it wasn’t for you.
You have a history of quitting things before you give them a fair shot. Marathon training, having a pet ferret, reading Shakespeare. I felt you were looking for excuses to give up. I accused you of doing that when you said it wasn’t working out between us. You didn’t deny it.
A signed picture of Jake Gyllenhaal.
We would joke that if you ever met him, you would turn straight. You insisted you admired his talent more than you were attracted to him, but admitted there was something about his brooding eyes that made you melt. It didn’t occur to me to be jealous – I watched his films and listened to you gush.
I bought the photo for your birthday. Its cost was obscene, but you loved it. You kissed me over and over. We kept it on the windowsill, so you could see Jake from anywhere in the room. You made me giggle, acting like a silly teenager who thinks she will marry her celebrity crush.
Ballroom dancing shoes.
You started going to dance classes most evenings. You were inspired by Strictly and wanted a fun way to get fit. I offered to accompany you, but you said there was no point because we wouldn’t be dancing together. I bought the shoes to show my support. You opened the box, laughed and pushed them aside. Later, I wondered if they were ever worn.
Dancing took hold of you. Soon you were travelling across the country at weekends to participate in competitions. Whenever I asked to come, you said your dance class was going as a group and there wasn’t room for me. If I complained about our lost weekends, you told me to find my own hobby.
A box of overpriced chocolates and a bunch of tulips.
I began to blame myself for your coldness. I was too demanding, too needy. I told myself you were too good for me. So I gave you chocolates and flowers like a good girlfriend. I told you I loved you and that I was sorry for my behaviour. You smiled and hugged me and I pretended not to see the emptiness in your eyes.
27 bottles of wine.
I was alone in the bedsit. If I tried to ask questions, you accused me of nagging. I drank to stop myself worrying. I drank enough to ensure I would be asleep before you got home, to prevent an angry row. I refused to hide the empty bottles, but you never mentioned them. The wine stopped me from wondering what you were doing and with whom. At least, it almost did.
Lingerie, for both of us.
I was trying to win you back – that’s how I knew you were gone. You returned to our bedsit a few times a week, but you were detached. You no longer asked me to buy aubergines or peanut butter when I did the weekly shop. You fashion and gossip magazines no longer arrived in the post. You didn’t lounge in front of the television, but perched on the edge of the bed as I babbled on about where we should go on holiday and whether we ought to move to another city.
We never did see each other in the lingerie I bought. Not that it would have made a difference.
Texts and phone calls: too many to count.
I begged you to give us another chance. I pleaded with you to come back, just for a week or two. I cringe when I think about how pathetic I sounded. I never used to be like this – I wasn’t the type of woman who chased after others. I used to be aloof. I let lovers slip between my fingers. You turned me into a blubbering, blathering mess.
In the end, you called me back and said ‘we’re over. I don’t love you. I don’t think I ever did love you. Stop harassing me.’ I obeyed; probably because I was accustomed to obeying you.
Dinner with your ex-colleague, Jane.
When she called, I was delighted that she might be interested in me. I looked forward to our dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Much of our evening was pleasant; we chatted and laughed throughout the meal. We went back to my bedsit for a nightcap. She complimented my painting of Lulworth Cove – the one you said was garish. She said I had talent. We watched Newsnight and kissed a little. Then she told me about you.
A train ticket to London.
You were shocked to see me in your new life. Your beige and cream basement flat left me aghast; I never pictured you living somewhere cold and sterile. The kitchen, tiny and crammed with appliances, boxed you in. You leaned against the worktop as you waited for the kettle to boil and folded your arms, but it didn’t hide the swell of your belly. We had split up just six weeks before.
I wonder if you planned this all along. I was a convenient way to have fun while you waited for your real life to begin. Never mind what I gave you during the four years we were together. Never mind that you tossed me aside like an orange you sucked dry. I should have known it would end this way. The only question left is, why are you still wearing your sapphire ring?
I went with Jane and was looking forward to an evening of fun and company. The play was a farce about a woman who is married to two men and struggles to lead her double life when she falls pregnant. I didn’t know – all I had heard was that it was very funny. I ran outside.
Jane followed and held me as I sobbed. She took me home and made a cup of tea. She said ‘perhaps it’s best if we’re just friends for now.’ I wanted to protest, but the fight has gone out of me. I am too scared to tell her what she means to me. You did this: you turned me into a wretch. You stripped me of my confidence, my generosity and my trust. I didn’t try to grab her as she slipped away.
A teddy bear and a set of five romper suits.
I don’t know why. I probably won’t send them. If I did, would you think I was wishing you well? I don’t want to forgive you. I don’t want us to send each other Christmas cards and write trite messages on Facebook. I don’t want to know you are happy. Or that you have regrets.