Boxing Day, 1997
Liz. Where do I start? I suppose the end is as good a place as any.
Despite that dreadful first date – sitting in a near empty pub, trying to conjure sparks of conversation out of the void between us – I clung to the possibility that behind that cold, hard exterior was a warm heart, a sensitive soul, and someone whose yin was a close match to my less than melodic yang.
I was wrong, of course.
Liz was not the girl I’d hoped she would be. Any fantasies I’d had of ‘romantic happy ever afters’ soon gave way to a cast-iron certainty that I never, ever, wanted to see this girl ever again. And three years later I finally got around to telling her.
On Christmas Day.
Right after she’d proposed marriage.
I hung my head in shame, and tried hard to blend into the background. But The Tulip, with its garish Christmas decorations, antler-wearing bar staff, and ‘Now That’s What I Call Christmas’ thumping out of the juke box, was really only adequate cover if you were a high-spirited festive drinker. Right now I was struggling to look like a drinker, let alone high-spirited or festive. I hadn’t touched my pint. It was as lonely and dejected as I. Which made it all the more annoying when a chubby hand appeared and swept it away.
“This mine?” asked Alex. He drained two thirds, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, let out a satisfied belch, then sat down next to me. “Where’s yours?” he asked, after a moment or two. I stared at a fleck of melting snow caught in the stubble on his face and the pathetic strands of damp blond hair glued to a forehead that had once sported an impressive quiff.
“That was mine!” I said.
“You only bought your own?” asked Alex. “You selfish bastard.”
“I didn’t know how long you’d be, did I! Happy bloody Christmas.”
“Yeah,” said Alex, “you too.” He glanced in the barmaid’s direction and gave her a nod to indicate that one of us required another beer. “Look – can’t stay long. Mum’s serving lunch in half an hour. I only sneaked out by volunteering to walk her dog. Poor sod’s tied up outside. Weren’t you supposed to be spending the day with Liz’s grandmother?”
I let out a long, tortured sigh.
Alex stared at the side of my head. “What? Did she die or something?”
“We broke up.”
“You and Liz’s grandmother?”
“Me and Liz!”
“Oh right,” said Alex, nodding sagely. “Yeah, that can happen. Christmas gets them all worked up. Really brings out the bitch. Don’t worry about it,” he said. “By the time you get home she’ll be standing on your doorstep, dressed in nothing but a raincoat, holding a four-pack of beers …” He tailed off and stared into the distance, still holding the pint glass in front of him. I let out a single, humourless laugh as I massaged my eyes with my palms.
“Now you know that isn’t Liz,” I said. Alex frowned, then let out an exaggerated sigh.
“Ok,” he said. “I give in. What the hell happened?”
* * * * *
We’d just left my parents. The first few flakes of snow had started to fall. As I drove, eyes fixed ahead, Liz broke the silence.
“Jason,” she said. “I think we should get married.” Then, when I didn’t react in any way, she added: “Or break up.”
* * * * *
Alex’s frown deepened.
“So?” he asked. “What did you say?”
I blinked. “You know what I said.”
“No I don’t,” said Alex.
“Well, you can probably guess!”
“Let’s assume,” said Alex, “that I can’t.”
* * * * *
I said nothing. Not immediately. Not until I realised that this was it. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, the past three years.
“Then we should break up,” I said.
The rest of the journey felt like a bad dream. I clung to the steering wheel and stared forward, mesmerised by the way the flakes swarmed in huge silent clumps, right before they rushed at the windscreen. Rushed at me. Occasionally I’d steal a glance at Liz, sitting there with a hand to her mouth, her sleek jet black hair shielding the side of her face. Every now and then her body would jolt and shake as if someone in the waking world was using a defibrillator to bring her back from this nightmare.
And when we finally got to her place, I switched off the engine and we sat outside for what seemed like a lifetime.
“Want to come in?” she asked eventually. Just as she had done a million times before.
“No,” I said. “No, I think I ought to make a move.”
“Jason Smith!” said Liz, still facing forwards but raising a good inch and a half in her seat. “I believe you owe me an explanation!” I said nothing for a moment whilst I considered what to do next.
“Ok then,” I said eventually.
“Fine!” said Liz, getting out of the car and slamming the passenger door behind her. I watched as she marched up to the communal entrance of her flat and started attacking the door with her key. Then I put my hands back on the wheel and took a dozen deep breaths.
* * * * *
“You didn’t go in?” asked Alex. I waited for a moment or two whilst the barmaid put two fresh pints before us. Alex dug around in his pocket for some change, and whilst he did so I handed her a five pound note.
“Of course I went in,” I said, once the barmaid had returned to the till.
“Are you mad?”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“She’d have only phoned!”
“Or come over!”
“Change the locks!”
“In the middle of the night? On Christmas Day?”
Alex raised a finger, but when no further words of wisdom were forthcoming, he lowered it, picked up his pint, and brought it to his lips.
* * * * *
By the time I’d removed my coat and hung it on my allocated hook, Liz was in the kitchen. And for the first time in months, possibly years, I took a good look at my now ex-girlfriend.
She was wearing one of my sweaters. And though it was gigantic on her petite frame, it looked good on her. Certainly better than it did on me, although any hint of a bosom was lost within its deep woollen folds. Still, I liked the way her hair fell long and straight to the centre of her back, and though I’d long since given up on seeing her in some sort of skirt or dress, those skinny jeans were very flattering. I could almost fancy her if she wasn’t – well, if she wasn’t Liz.
In many ways she was a woman out of time. Forced to live in a century which required her to at least acknowledge some sort of feminine side. In another era she’d have been commanding armies of bloodthirsty, muscle bound warriors. Crushing her enemies. Bending whole nations to her will. Expanding her empire. But here there were no nations to conquer. No empire. Only me.
I glanced into the lounge. If I went in and waited for her to come and find me I could put off the inevitable for at least another minute or so. Then I saw the two seater sofa and thought better of it. Rock hard cushions stuffed to within breaking point, upholstered in the textile equivalent of sandpaper. If doilies had been in fashion there’d have been doilies.
“So, that’s it then?” she asked, as I walked into the kitchen.
“What do you want me to say?” I asked. She stopped what she was doing and turned to face me, one hand perched high on her hip, the other gripping the edge of the kitchen worktop like she might break off a chunk and use it as a blunt instrument.
“I want to know why you want to break up!” It hadn’t occurred to me that this was something I still ‘wanted’ – I’d assumed the deal was done.
“You gave me a choice,” I said.
“But you didn’t even have to think about it,” spat Liz. “It was like your mind was already made up.” I said nothing. “It was, wasn’t it!” continued Liz, but all I could do was shuffle. “How long?” she asked.
“A while,” I said.
“What – a week? A month? A year?” My mouth opened, but no words came out. Liz frowned. “Longer?” she asked. I took a deep breath, then blew it out through puffed out cheeks. “Jason! That doesn’t make any sense! You can’t have spent the whole of our relationship waiting to break up!”
“I wasn’t,” I said. “I was …”
“Waiting. For things … to get … better.”
“Better? What does ‘better’ mean? How can our relationship get any better? I love you, you love me – at least I thought you did. We get on with each other. We like the same things, sort of. I cook. I put up with your mess. We don’t even argue that much! I don’t see what I could do to make it ‘better’! Other than magically transform into bloody Kylie Minogue, of course!”
“Don’t be silly,” I muttered, but the blood was already rushing to my cheeks. Liz stood there. Her jaw clamped shut, her lips thinned, her eyes flickering with rage. Then she pushed past me and marched out of the kitchen. A second or two later the bedroom door slammed with such force it shook the whole flat.
* * * * *
Alex shook his head.
“You should have dumped her months ago,” he said.
“Probably. But I didn’t want it to end that way. This way.” Alex’s face contorted into a mixture of confusion and disbelief.
“How did you expect it to end?” he asked.
“I dunno. I kinda hoped that she’d meet someone else.”
“That was never gonna happen,” said Alex, shaking his head again. “She’d pegged you for a keeper from the start.” I turned and gave Alex a long hard look.
“She didn’t even like me at the start!”
“Probably not,” said Alex, working on his drink, “but she saw potential. Thought she could change you. Women think like that. It’s why they get so frustrated. We’re a major disappointment when we stay as we are.”
“That’s just cynicism.”
Alex shrugged. “It’s true,” he said, and drained his second pint. I looked at mine, still untouched. Then I picked it up and put it in front of my friend. Alex took it without question. “So?” he asked. “Then what?”
I sat in the hallway with my back against the bedroom door. I’d more or less given up trying to explain how I felt without actually explaining how I felt, and the various sounds of Liz punching pillows or sobbing into them had long since stopped. For all I knew, Liz had climbed out of her bedroom window and was slashing my car’s tyres whilst I sat holding the watch she had given me for Christmas, watching the seconds tick by.
I opened my mouth to speak. “It’s not you,” I wanted to say, “it’s me.” But that would have been a lie. Of course it was her. Liz had been manipulative, devoid of humour, and at times cruel. She’d spent the first few months of our relationship calling me James because, and I quote, “I don’t really like the name ‘Jason’.” She’d even tried to change my name. That was how controlling she really was!
Then why was I feeling guilty?
Because her real failing wasn’t her faults, but the fact that she wasn’t the person I’d hoped she would be. And once I’d realised that I should have come clean, set her free, returned to my miserable single existence. Instead I started waiting. For a miracle.
Any miracle would have done. I’d have settled for a slight thaw in the Ice Queen’s demeanour. Or an opportunity for us to part with a minimal amount of bloodshed. But in truth, the miracle I’d set my heart on was to be rescued – for someone specific to walk back into my life and give me the impetus I needed. That sounds ridiculous, I’m sure. But against all the odds it had actually happened. And when it had, Liz had done what Liz did best: She’d rallied her armies. And crushed the opposing nations.
From that moment on I no longer wanted to be a part of her empire.
“Are you still there?” she said eventually.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” I said.
“If it’s not me, just what is it that you do want, Jason Smith?”
I said nothing for a moment. “I don’t know,” I lied.
“I’ve been such a fool,” she said after a pause. “You never loved me. I see that now. I too was waiting. Waiting for a moment – one that was never going to come.”
I shivered. Partly at the coldness of her words, partly because I knew what it was like to spend your life waiting for ‘a moment’, but mostly because she was right; I’d never loved her.
“Jason,” she said eventually, “just leave.”
I left the watch on the side as I left, then crunched through the fresh snow to the car and somehow summoned the courage to glance up at her window, just in time to see her draw the curtains.
And that was it. In typical Liz fashion, she’d decided on a course of action. The three years of her life, with me, were over. Why then did I feel so wretched?
* * * * *
“Stupid,” said Alex. I looked over my shoulder to see if he was talking to someone else. He wasn’t.
“What’s stupid?” I asked. Alex stared back at me for a moment, then shook his head.
“Mate, I know I’m your best friend, but when it comes to women, you don’t have to be a genius to know what you want.”
“How can you say that?” I asked. “I’m not even sure I know what I want!” Alex said nothing. Just frowned slightly and stared into the space in front of his nose like he was attempting long division in his head.
“Fifteen years,” he said eventually.
“You’ve been hung up on the same girl for the past fifteen years.”
“What girl?!” I asked. But Alex said nothing. He just turned his head slowly until he was looking right at me.
He was right, of course.