What could possibly go wrong? One writer confronts her exes

·9-min read
 (Photography: Matt Writtle,  Location: The Coral Room, Bloomsbury  -  www.thecoralroom.co.uk)
(Photography: Matt Writtle, Location: The Coral Room, Bloomsbury - www.thecoralroom.co.uk)

In High Fidelity — the Nick Hornby novel that later became a cult blockbuster — protagonist Rob Fleming, fresh from the end of yet another relationship, decides to go backwards. He rings his “desert island, all-time, top five most memorable break-ups” to find out why he was always left by the woman he’d been in love with.

Having just written a memoir, Lucid, which is out in a fortnight, I decided to do the same. Technically, I couldn’t ring my top five. So, I glugged a glass of wine and picked up the phone — and spoke to five exes who are still speaking to me (and who I still want to speak to).

It was just first love. We were just very young... doing everything for the first time

Pidge

Pidge was my first boyfriend and first everything. He was the year above me at school and it was Normal People love — hyper romantic and extremely cheesy but for two kids ticking off sexual bases like A-level coursework. We were obsessed with each other and spent all our time together. But we were unusual for first love too, because a very rocky home life made my parents offer him a sanctuary with us. I wondered, years later, whether that had carved my idea of what was normal, given I lived with almost every boyfriend I had in my twenties.

We’d broken up when I was 17, met in person again for the first time in a decade last year, and have been speaking on and off since then. “Was I a true brat?” I ask him. “Not to me,” he laughs. “It was just first love, wasn’t it?” he says. “We were just very young... doing everything for the first time.” Basically this is his way of saying we got rid of our virginity together, in a bed surrounded by candles like a Buffy the Vampire séance. I’d made a Morcheeba and Portishead soundtrack because a girl at school had told me her dad played the latter’s Music To F*** By when he had dates round; now I wonder why I was taking tips from a divorcee in his fifties. Pidge didn’t know this — and collapses laughing.

Maybe that’s what these conversations are for, I wonder, to fill in the gaps with more hilarious memories. “We grew apart in the end but it was great — we were so open about everything.” Ah, the days before baggage, I think. “We were absolutely clueless,” he says. “But so cute.”

We were both so young, we were doing very different things... the world was pulling us apart

Sid

Sid got me my first job because after I’d walked into the restaurant he chefed at with my CV, he’d begged the manager to hire me because I was “well fit”. Different in every way to safe, sensible Pidge — Sid was exciting. The classic bad boy, he was 19 when we met, I was 17, and quickly skiving school to meet him. Horrified, my parents banned him from the house, so then he clambered through my bedroom window most nights. (The police were only called once by a neighbour who thought he was a burglar).

Somehow we did three slightly-chaotic years together, little in common bar a need for excitement. He once took out a loan so we could go to The Grand Brighton hotel and live it up like kings and we went Interrailing around Europe. We eventually broke up when I went to university at 20.

He’s in town with his girlfriend when I text him, so it’s probably not a good time to call, he says. He rings me back two hours later. “Epic break-up,” I say. “Me flying to Australia two days later on a one-way ticket.” “And then getting back with me when you came home,” he adds. “We were both so young, we were doing very different things... the world was pulling us apart. But you were my first proper relationship. And I’d do all that Europe trip again.”

He was hurt when I’d suggested we’d mostly just rowed in 15 cities over 30 days. “Climbing through your bedroom window was a bit embarrassing — but that’s young love isn’t it? I was really into you.” “So I wasn’t just f***ing demanding?” I ask. “No...” he says. “We had a great time.”

I just wanted to get to know you better and didn’t feel like you wanted me to

Liam

And then the baggage hit. Liam didn’t know what had happened to me at 21 until he heard me talking about it on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week as part of my book press. I’d been sexually assaulted at a New Year’s Eve party and he was my first boyfriend afterwards. I’d never gone to the police and was trying to pretend it had never happened despite the fact it was already beginning to harm all my relationships with men. He said he wanted to text, but didn’t think I’d want to hear from him. Of all of my exes, we have the trickiest relationship now because we always had the most in common and might have been great together if I hadn’t put up the emotional Great Wall of China just before we met.

We’d met via a mutual friend when I was 18, but didn’t get together until I was 21 and he 26. We only went out for six months but he’s always been the one that got away. “You were really difficult to communicate with,” he says, on the phone from Brighton where he now lives with his long-term girlfriend. “Now I know why, but then I didn’t and it made me quite miserable because I felt like I was doing something wrong.” This is the quietest I am on any of the calls. “I just wanted to get to know you better and didn’t feel like you wanted me to.” Why did you break up with me that day you did, I ask, on the street? “Because I’d thrown a glass against the wall the night before and it really shook me,” he says, which I’d forgotten.

“It scared me, where that could go if we carried on. Plus I was at a low ebb, career-wise, I was working in a call centre and you’d just finished uni. I felt like no doors were opening for me. It wasn’t your fault...I was just angry about what my life had turned into. And you could be quite antagonistic when you drank, that was probably just the trauma coming out but neither of us knew that then. I think I was trying to have some control over a situation. But it felt absolutely horrible.” Awful, I say, remembering the three-hour train back to Bath, in bits.

I’ve thought about it a lot, I’m just not sure I want to tell you

Sam

Sam got me over Liam, in the same way he’d got me over a banker called Johnnie who I didn’t dare call for this piece. We met at university, when Sam was a barman and I was a waitress. After a fling lasting a few months, we did three years together in London, Edinburgh and Amsterdam, as I moved for work and he followed. We left London thinking it was why we were going wrong — but Sam was one of two men in the only double break-up I’ve had. I’d been chased by an older, married, colleague and he didn’t stop, so I was dating two people and wondering who I’d become.

“You’ve put me on the spot, I need to think about it,” Sam says, when I ring him, us having become friends in the pandemic when we both needed a raft. “I’ve thought about it a lot, I’m just not sure I want to tell you.” I wake the next day to a text saying he doesn’t want to go into it. Soon after it happened he said he was worried I’d tried to emulate my favourite books which “all contain affairs.” I’m not sure that was true but the relocation did feel like a bit of a game. I did wonder, though, why I’d been put on a pedestal and why there was no grey for women: just black and white, “perfect” or “not perfect”. When we broke up I was 26, and by then completely and utterly lost.

I’ll always be thankful that you showed me what it was like to have a true connection to someone

Madison

Before Madi and I met we thought we were straight. We met playing netball in London when we were both 29 and she offered me a room in her (paid-for-by-work) flat when I needed one, having been sent on a year-placement from the States. She was in oil and we were opposite in every way, but somehow the chemistry raged. “I’m going to have a few drinks and then voice note you,” she says, now back in Texas. “But also, I wrote you a letter, can’t you read that?” she adds. In the letter, she wrote that she thought I was a commitment-phobe — but she was also leaving when her visa ran out so we knew it could never become anything serious.

“Aside from the tricky bits —like feeling I was in a one-sided, open relationship some of the time — it was just fun,” she tells me. “Even something like sitting squashed on the floor of a train, drinking rose and eating pork pies was fun with you. It was such a strange chemical connection that I’d never felt with anyone else before. But the sneaking out, when our friends didn’t know, was part of the fun, I guess. I’ll always be thankful that you showed me what it was like to have a true connection to someone. It broke the cycle of my life — it told me that I could base things on feelings, rather than what was traditional and expected of me. I thought for a long time about if it would have worked if my visa hadn’t run out, and who knows?”

Calls made, two things feel quite clear. Firstly, that I have some really, really nice exes and secondly, that I shouldn’t have blamed myself so totally for relationships that weren’t meant to last a lifetime running their course.

All names have been changed.

Lucid: A Memoir of an Extreme Decade in an Extreme Generation is out Feb 3 and can be pre-ordered now on Amazon

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