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 three-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, whose idea of safe sex was to only fuck virgins.
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 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 nice, intelligent 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.
According to a 2008 study at New Mexico State University, men who are narcissistic, thrill-seeking liars and all round “bad boys” tend to have the greatest success in finding sexual partners. College students who scored high in the “dark triad” of qualities—a tendency to lie and manipulate others, narcissistic selfishness, and an impulsiveness that gave little thought to consequence—generally had more partners and greater desire for short-term relationships. The authors of the paper theorised that the root of these males’ good fortune was simply that they tried it on with more women, and were therefore, by the law of averages, likely to ensnare more.
Image credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser/Flickr