Andy Bodle goes for a gorgeous girl with low self esteem, and finds himself mysteriously outclassed by everyone.
“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire; the other is to gain it.”—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
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 parties. 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 early 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 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 in September, when there was a brief resurgence in my own love life. Fiona was no Lucy, but she was a sweet, gentle creature, and I wouldn’t have hurt her for the world; so I pushed my feelings for my friend further to the back of my mind. But when Fiona and I split up just before Christmas, 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.