The Boy I Loved Beforeby Jenny Colgan
While attending her best friend Sashy's wedding, Flora Scurrison realizes that this monotonous, nine-to-five, cookie-cutter life is exactly what's in store for her. While it might be okay for Sashy, it's certainly not what she envisioned for herself when she was sixteen. So when her boyfriend proposes to her during the reception, Flora makes a wish to go back and… See more details below
While attending her best friend Sashy's wedding, Flora Scurrison realizes that this monotonous, nine-to-five, cookie-cutter life is exactly what's in store for her. While it might be okay for Sashy, it's certainly not what she envisioned for herself when she was sixteen. So when her boyfriend proposes to her during the reception, Flora makes a wish to go back and do it all over again. The next morning she wakes up to find that she has been given the ultimate second chance--she's sixteen again. As Flora navigates school, first loves--new and old--and discovers what it really means to make adult choices, will she stay in her new body or try and find her way home?
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.71(d)
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THE BOY I LOVED BEFORE
The rain was beating down on the windscreen, as we tried to navigate (rather damply) along the winding country road.
'I hate the country,' I said gloomily.
'Yes, well, you hate everything that isn't fifteen seconds from an overpriced cappuccino,' said Oliver crossly, although in his defence he had been driving from London for six hours.
'I don't hate everything,' I said. 'Only ... those things over there.'
'Those ... oh, you know.'
'Yes, that's it.'
'You can't recognise a cow?'
'Remind me.' He used to think this was really cute.
'It's where your latte comes from,' he said, sighing.
Oliver does like the country. He was born, bred and boarding-schooled here. He couldn't understand why someone who'd lived their whole life in London wouldn't want to getout of it once in a while. I had patiently explained to him several times the necessity of all-night Harts the Grocers, proper bagels, and the choice, if one so wished, to pay six pounds for a bottle of mineral water in a nightclub, but he would bang on about fields and animals as if they were a good thing.
I examined his profile in the dimming light. He looked tired. God, he was tired, very tired. So was I. Olly worked for a law firm that did a lot of boring corporate stuff that dragged on for months and was fundamentally big rich bastards (Ol excepted, of course) working out ways to screw other big rich bastards for reasons that remained mysterious, with companies called things that sounded like covers for James Bond. I worked as an accountant for a mega firm - there were thousands of us. I tried to tell people it was more fun than it sounded, but I think after eleven years they could tell by my tone of voice that it wasn't. It had seemed like a nice safe option at the time. It was even fun at first, dressing up and wearing a suit, but recently the sixty-hour weeks, the hideous internal politics, the climate of economic fear, and the Sundays Ol and I spent with our work spread out over the kitchen table were, you know, starting to get to me. I spent a lot of time - so much time - in the arid, thrice-breathed air. When we were getting to the end of a deal I'd spend twelve hours a day in there. That was about seventy-five per cent of my waking seconds. Every time I thought about that, I started to panic.
It wasn't that we didn't have a good lifestyle, I reflected, peering out through the rain, and thinking how strangely black it was out here: I hadn't had much total darkness in my life. I mean, we both made plenty of money - Olly wouldprobably even make partner eventually, as he worked really hard. But the shit we went through to get it ... Jeez.
We took nice holidays, and Olly had a lovely flat in Battersea that I practically lived in. It was a good area, with lots of bars and restaurants and things to do, and if we got round to having kids, it would be a good place to bring them up too. Parks nearby and all that. Good schools, blah blah blah.
Good friends too. The best, really. In fact, that was why we were here, splashing through the mud in the godforsaken middle of nowhere. My oldest friend from school, Tashy, was getting married. Even though we'd both grown up in Highgate, she'd come over all Four Weddings when she and Max got engaged, and insisted on hiring some country house hotel out in the middle of nowhere with no connection to either of them.
I was glad she was getting married, give or take the bridegroom. We'd planned this a lot at school. Of course, not until we were at least twenty-two (we were both now thirty-two). In the manner of Princess Diana, if you please (although I'd been to the dress fitting and it was a very sharp and attractive column-style Vera Wang, thank you very much), and we'd probably be marrying Prince Edward (if we'd only known ...) or John Taylor.
Olly caught me looking at him.
'Don't tell me - you want to drive.'
'Do I fuck.'
He grimaced. 'Look, I know you're tired, but do you really have to swear so much?'
'What? We're not driving the Popemobile. We're all grown-ups.' I wrinkled my nose. 'How would you start to corrupt a lawyer anyway?'
'It's just not nice to hear it.'
'From a lady?'
He sniffed and stared through the windscreen.
I hate it when we get snippy like this, but really, I was exhausted. And now we'd have to go in and be super jolly! And Fun! All Evening! So I could keep Tashy's spirits up. I wondered who else was going to be there. Tashy was a lot better at keeping in touch with people than I was. When really, all I wanted to do on a Friday evening was pour an enormous glass of wine, curl up in front of the TV and drift off before the best of Graham Norton, which might, just might, mean I woke up rested enough either to go to the gym or have sex with Ol (not both).
Oliver stayed quiet, staring out into the darkness. I turned up the radio, which was playing 'Colourblind' by Darius. Eventually he couldn't stand it any longer.
'I can't believe you still listen to music like that.'
'I'm breaking - what - the after-thirty pop music bill of rights?'
'It's just so childish.'
'It's not childish! Darius wrote this all by himself!'
01 gave me a look. 'That's not what I mean.'
'I'm not listening to Dido, OK? It's not going to happen. I'd rather die.'
'At least she's your age.'
'And what's that supposed to mean?'
01 shrugged it off, and I let him. I knew why we were squabbling anyway, and it was very little to do with the respective ages of pop musicians.
It put a lot of pressure on a couple, especially our age, when one's friends baled out and got married, I reckoned. Imean, who was next? I was worried it was going to be like musical chairs, and we'd all sit down at once, wherever we happened to be.
I looked at Ol, who knew already I wouldn't know. He turned anyway, and a hedge brushed the window. It was very dark.
I mean, everyone was rambling along, having fun, working their guts out all week to get ahead, and pissing away the weekends for fun ... then suddenly, ding dong, the first thirtieth birthday party and engagement bash invites had fallen on the doormat all at the same time, and we kept finding ourselves trailing round Habitat, buying the same vase over and over again.
I knew Tashy would try to do things slightly differently - everyone does, even if it's just a new place to stencil their initials ('Aren't the salt and pepper cellars in the shapes of our names adorable? And so reasonable!'), but it was still a wedding, wasn't it? There'd be a traditional Church of England service, the one everyone likes with the 'have and holds, for richer for poorer' stuff in it, even though our Sunday religion is strictly the Observer and the People; there'd be champagne on a lawn somewhere, there'd almost certainly be cold wild salmon at some point, and twelve-to-fourteen hours of pointless drinking before we had to stumble back to some horrid b. & b. somewhere for three hours before pulling ourselves out of bed to stuff full English breakfasts down our necks before piling back on to the motorway, leaving the bride and groom somewhere in a plane en route to the next forty-five years of togetherness, early nights, screaming babies and movingto Wandsworth because the council tax is cheaper and the schools aren't too bad.
Which was fine, of course. Lots of people did it. In fact, at the moment, it seemed a hundred per cent of everyone was doing it. I glanced at Olly. I had a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that he might be thinking it was about time that he, too, did it. Just little things. Like he took over my bill paying because it would make it more convenient. (It did too; for an accountant I'm shocking with my money, like all those dipso doctors telling you to cut down on the booze. I always leave it till somebody's threatening to come round and total my kneecaps.) Or, maybe we should get a kitten? (If I wanted a small malevolent creature crawling round my kitchen demanding food I'd have a baby, thank you.)
Of course, my mum loved him. He was nothing at all like Dad; he was smartly spoken, and well off - oh - and hadn't left her.
'Not long now,' Olly said then, rubbing my knee in a making-up gesture. And I believed him. It wouldn't be long. Until Olly and I did what Tashy and Max were doing, and all our other friends were doing. Which should make me a lot more excited than I felt.
I shivered involuntarily.
'Are you cold?'
'Do you ever feel old, Ol?'
'Erm, cold or old?'
'Oh,' he said. 'Yes, of course. Well, I suppose, not really. I mean, I thought it might be a bit strange when I turned thirty, but it was all right really. I'm pretty much where I expected to be, don't you think?'
I was surprised at this. 'What do you mean, where you expected to be?'
'You know - by this stage in my life.'
'You mean, when you were younger, you thought about how close to a corporate law partnership you'd be in your thirties?'
He shrugged. 'Well, I took the A levels to get on to a law degree course, so I suppose I must have done.'
'You didn't just take your A levels because your parents wanted you to, but secretly you were going to be a rockstar or a footballer?'
'No! I think I knew by the time I was sixteen I wasn't going to make it as a footballer.'
'Really? I didn't give up on being a gymnast until last year.'
'The only gymnastics I've ever seen you do is accidentally falling out of bed.'
'That's not the point, is it? Don't you ever wonder about how we ended up just here?'
Olly was slowing to a junction, and as he stopped he turned to me and took my face in his hands.
'And what's so wrong with right here?'
The lights of the country hotel were twinkling ahead. Inside were old friends and good company. Here at my side was a decent man. Nothing was wrong at all.
Tash had that massive, slightly manic grin people get when they've been welcoming people for hours. She looked splendid, as well she should, given the draconian diet she'dbeen on for the past six months 'so my bingo wings don't flap all through the service'.
I gave her a huge hug.
'Elle Macpherson or Martine McCutcheon?' she asked, turning round 360 degrees.
'What, are you kidding? Kate Moss,' I declared.
She beamed even wider. 'Excellent.'
We'd been spending quite a lot of time, in the last few months, going through celebrity magazines and slagging off people getting married. We particularly liked those who go rather - ahem - over the top, like Posh Spice and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Max thought we were being incredibly childish. Oliver didn't know about it, in case he thought I was trying to give him hints, which I wasn't, in a way, although I was also getting to the point where I thought it might be a bit embarrassing if he didn't ask, which I know isn't very romantic.
Tashy is small, occasionally a hit chunky, but thanks to the no-fat, no-bread, no-booze, crying-oneself-to-sleep-with-hunger-pains regime she's been on lately, there was not a pick on her. Her hair was currently extremely glossy and straight, though was, once upon a time, very wild and curly, and her sparkly green eyes betray her past when she went through a career a week and was constantly getting into scrapes. Now she'd settled into being a software designer, which sounded more glamorous than it was (and doesn't sound very glamorous at all, really), and was marrying Max, who also worked in computers and who was tall, bald, and very, very dull, but a much better bet, on the whole, I suppose, than the good-looking unruly-haired rogues Tashy had spent most of her twenties waiting to call her,then get off with somebody else. And her boho look had gone too. Feather earrings and deep plum clothes had given way to a slightly more appropriate look for a nice middle-class North London girl. In fact, Good God, was she wearing Boden?
She grabbed me by the arm. 'Come on! Come on! They can't mix a Martini, but I'm getting married so we're starting on the champagne we towed back from France.'
'Yes, but you're getting married tomorrow. Isn't not having a full-on death hangover meant to be part of the whole big idea?'
'Oh, sod that. One, I'm not going to get any sleep anyway, and two, someone's coming in with that full body foundation spray thing Sarah Jessica Parker uses. Believe me, you won't be able to tell if I'm alive or dead underneath it. You won't believe the work that goes into making all us haggard over-thirties brides look like freshly awakened virginal teenagers.'
'You want me to take the bags up then?' said Olly, standing grumpy in the chintzy hall, which was filled with copper kettles and random suits of armour.
'Well, do you mind?' I said guiltily.
'Then what am I supposed to do whilst you two go off and cackle like witches for three hours?'
I stared at him. I looked into his big likeable face. Why was everything he said tonight really irritating me?
'Can't you go and talk to Max?'
Olly dislikes Max in the way that you're always a little chippy about people in whom you recognise a bit of yourself. Plus, he loves Tash to bits and has always been overprotective, vetting anyone she goes out with.
'Is that Ol?' came Max's loud voice from the bar. 'Thought I recognised that clapped-out XR5.'
'I've got some work to catch up on,' said Ol. He yawned ostentatiously, winked and headed upstairs.
'Don't work too ...' my voice petered out.
I heard the general sound of merriment through the big oak doors that led to the original ye olde trusty inne section, and sighed.
'Can we not go to the bar?'
'I think if there was ever a good minibar-emptying excuse it's tonight,' said Tash.
I rolled my eyes. 'Yes, because we usually require a parental consent form.'
'How's the lovely Ol then?' she asked as we quietly crept upstairs to avoid the revellers. 'Getting in a romantic mood?'
I think it's a bit insensitive to ask after someone else's love life when you have a big white dress hanging on the back of your door.
'It's fine,' I said. 'I think we must have one of those relationships where you bicker a lot to show you care.'
'Is that true?'
'Yes. People who are too affectionate are overcompensating,' I said blithely. 'Apparently.'
'OK,' said Tash.
'I took a test in a magazine.'
I bounced on the bed in her honeymoon suite. 'Well? Are you excited then?'
'Do I look excited?'
'Not as much as I'd expected, actually.'
She threw herself dramatically on the bedspread to join me, widening her eyes. 'Oh, Flo, I just can't believe it ... you know. It's the dreamiest thing that's ever happened! I'm the luckiest girl in the whole wide world.'
'Oh, shut up. You know what I mean, though. You must be a bit nervous, or something.'
'I am. I really am. It's just, what's as exciting as it's cracked up to be? Nothing.'
'Getting into our first nightclub?'
'Yeah, we were twelve.'
'It was very exciting.'
She grinned. 'Still. It is quite cool.'
'You're actually doing it!'
I rolled over onto my stomach. 'So is it not going to be what we always thought it was going to be?'
Tashy stuck her lip out a little as we remembered the many hours we'd spent sprawled over her bed (I always liked going to hers; her slightly sluttish mother let us eat in front of the TV) in pretty much the same positions, discussing how it would be.
'Well, I suppose I've had sex already ...'
'You haven't! You filthy bitch!'
'So that's out of the way. And, also, he's not royal and there aren't six million people lining The Mall with flags to cheer us on our way.'
We were quiet for a moment, and I jumped off the bed and ceremoniously declared the minibar open. It even had Baileys in it. Ooh, we used to love that. Sugary milk!
'Hey - remember these?'
Tashy eyed one up balefully. 'A feature of my first night of unmarried intercourse ... and, possibly, my last.'
I tore them open and we toasted each other.
'To true love,' I said.
Actually, I'd meant it. I took a swig.
'Just think - you'll never have to make love to a man who slaps you on the rump and calls you a filly ever again!'
'Or date ANYBODY SHORT.'
Olly and Max were both very tall. These were our minimum requirements. We'd always reckoned that short men for girls were the equivalent of that horrible joke blokes tell - 'What have fat girls and scooters got in common? They're both fun to ride, but you wouldn't want your mates seeing you with one.'
'Or snog anyone for a dare.'
'Christ, yeah. Remember Norm?'
'It was charity work,' I replied indignantly. 'Helping the less blessed in the world.'
Norm had been something of a mistake, something of a long time ago.
Norm had been a snuffling pig, outright winner in an ugly pig competition.
'Anyway, why are you starting, Bridezilla? What about Pinocchio?'
Pinocchio told a lot of lies and had a very long narrow woody.
'Pour me some more Baileys immediately,' demanded Tashy.
'I don't want to give you a headache.'
'Are you joking? We've booked singers from the local choral society to sing the hymns. No one's getting out alive without a headache.' She rolled over.
'It's turning out all right, though, isn't it?'
'We thought that at sixteen.'
'Oh yeah, when we hadn't gotten pregnant. God, we knew nothing.'
'I think we thought that was it, didn't we? That we'd cracked it.'
'And at any moment, the knight in shining armour was just outside putting money in the meter ...'
'Can you believe both of our Prince Charmings are going bald?' said Tash meditatively.
'Yours fastest,' I said defensively.
'It's all the testosterone building up from me being too tired to shag him after planning this damn wedding.'
'Does not shagging them make them bald? We could have saved Prince Edward after all.'
'No we couldn't.'
The thing is, when your friends fall in love - seriously - it gets very difficult to discuss the boys with them any more. It's fine to completely and totally dissect someone you've seen twice because they look a bit like Pierce Brosnan and can get gig tickets, but once it creeps into the full time - watch telly with, wash socks of, etc. - it becomes impossible. It's like discussing somebody's naked dad.
Max was just so sensible, so safe. He just ... he just didn't get it. And he didn't seem to know the lovely Tashy I remembered, haring down the seafront at Brighton with her heels in her hands at four a.m., or marching us off throughBarcelona because she thought she knew the way and was buying the sangria, or dancing all night on top of a bar, or taking her stuffed rabbit on holiday until she was twenty-six ... I know people think this about all their friends, but Max ... he was all right, but I didn't really think he was good enough for my her. I wanted someone who could match her, dirty giggle for dirty giggle, not someone who could help her work out her SERPS contributions and had strong views on the education of children.
Of course I knew this was how it was going to work. We'd even devised the Buffy scale of life relationships: you start off wanting Xander, spend your twenties going out with Spike and settle down with Giles. Which seemed to mean Tashy had never had a chance at an Angel. And, I suppose, neither had I. I didn't believe in angels, anyway. I didn't believe in much.
We leafed through a celebrity wedding edition of OK! magazine for the last time together as single girls. For one of us at least (and me too, of course, I'm never having bloody gold-rimmed parasols), the chances of ever having an elephant attending our wedding, being carried in on the shoulders of gold-painted slaves, spending over $2,000,000 on flowers, marrying someone older than our dads because they were very, very rich indeed, insisting all the guests wore a certain colour and weren't allowed to talk to you, the press or the special bought-in soap celebrities, were about to vanish for ever.
We sighed as we flicked over to some other minor star, who had designed her own dress (which showed, in that itlooked exactly like the highly inflated numbers we used to draw in primary school, complete with more flounces than Elton John playing tennis), and had fifteen flower girls, including seven she barely knew but who happened to be in a similar television show - plus one girl who was so ugly she had to be close family, but had been zipped into skin-tight, bust-squeezing fuchsia anyway, next to the telly lollipop girls, looking like the unhappiest whale in captivity.
'"I haven't been able to sleep for months with the excitement,'" I read the bride said. 'Really? Do you think? Months?'
Tashy glanced at the gushing copy. 'They've only been together for six months. It'll all be over by Christmas. She'll be able to give hundreds of interviews about her heartache. It'll make her feel really famous. No wonder she's excited.'
'Huh,' I said. 'Plus, you know, celebrities: they have to fall in love ten times harder than the rest of us.'
'I know,' said Tashy. 'It must get really boring for Jen and Brad. They've been married for ever and people keep asking them if they're still as divinely in love as they were when they first met. Well, they aren't. Nobody is,' she said, addressing the magazine sternly.
'Do you remember when we were bridesmaids for Heather?' I asked suddenly. Heather is Tashy's big sister. She'd had to ask me too because we were so inseparable. We had had an absolutely great time. It was the eighties, so our dresses were enormous. We were allowed to wear a huge amount of blue makeup, white tights, and dance with all the boys wearing shiny Jonathan Ross suits. As Heather pointed out later, in a rare wistful moment after the divorce, we'd had much, much more fun than she had. At the time, we wouldn't havebelieved that to be possible. We thought she was the most beautiful and enviable living thing we'd ever seen.
'Oh, yeah. Don't. I asked her if she wanted to be my matron of honour, and she snorted and said, "Thanks, but if you want to get involved in all that garbage, please do it without me, Natasha," and went back to doing yoga and eating muesli.'
'It is a real shame he got the sense of humour in the divorce,' I said, and Tashy nodded glumly.
Then she popped her head up from the magazine. 'Um.'
She jumped up and got us another Baileys.
'What?' I said.
'Well, you know when you were talking about us being stupid at sixteen?'
'You'll never guess who my mother ran into at the post office. Invited the whole family.'
I rather love Jean, 'Tashy's mother. She is giggly and dresses too young for her age and drinks too many gin and tonics all the reasons she embarrasses the bits out of Tashy. It's amazing how, even though we're both in our thirties, we still turn into sulky teenagers when confronted with our mothers. It had been worse recently, with all the wedding arrangements for Tash, and there had been at least two occasions when Tashy had slammed out of the house shouting - and she was ashamed to relate this, even after a couple of glasses of wine - 'Stop trying to control my life!' She had also decided that since she and Tashy's dad (they were divorced, and got on a lot better than my parents) were paying for most of this enormous bash, they got final say in justabout all of it, which included the guest list, the napkins, and those tortuously crap little sugared almond things. ('Why am I crying over sugared almonds?' Tashy had asked me. 'I'm not going to talk to her for a week. Cow.') She is so different from my mother, who does indeed have nightmares after Crimewatch.
But this wasn't solving the problem.
'We're over it now, right?'
And I knew straight away.
'This is why you stashed all this Baileys up here, isn't it? To soften me up?'
She nodded shamefacedly.
'You invited Clelland.'
'His whole family,' said Tashy, at least having the grace to look a bit embarrassed. 'You know our parents were friends first, before any of us lot even went to school. All those seventies kaftan parties. Probably all throwing their keys in bowls.'
'Let's not think about that,' I said. I might be an ancient grown-up, but I still didn't like to think about my parents doing it. And also, my heart was pounding, and my ageing brain was trying to take this on board.
'Anyway, they lost touch, but my mother ran into his mother at the post office - seriously, if she thinks she's going to be thinner than me for this wedding then she's got another think coming, upstaging bitch - so, anyway, they get talking and, of course, Mum can't stop shooting her mouth off immediately and'
'Hang on,' I said, interrupting her nervous chatter and sitting dramatically upright. 'Clelland is coming?'
'OK, so can we forget the boring post office stuff ...? '
'Gee, gosh, you're right, Flo. How selfish of me. It's not like I'm busy or anything.'
'It's just ... God, you know, I could have done with some warning.'
'Me too,' said Tashy. 'I don't think they'll even all fit under the marquee.'
Of course, even though she'd been through it, I couldn't really expect Tash to take this as seriously as I did. And, of course, Clelland isn't his real name. Nobody's called that, except probably some American soap star. Our parents were friends, and his dad is John Clelland, so he is too. The grown-ups called him little John, which he hated with such a vibrant passion he refused to answer to anything except for his surname until we got used to it. Then we discovered that porn book Fanny Hill, author John Cleland, and it was even worse.
That's Clelland. Passionate about things. He had been my first crush. Tashy's first crush had displayed her painstakingly homemade Valentine card all over the sixth-form common room to loud and lewd guffaws. Mine had been completely unaware of my existence for months. I'd really envied Tashy.
He was tall for his age, dark-haired, with expressive eyebrows: he was studious and intense-looking. He stalked around on his own a lot, which at the time I thought made him romantic and individual rather than, as I supposed now, horribly lonely and 'going through an awkward stage', as my mother puts it. And he had double English on Mondaysand Thursdays, which was good, as, crossing over from chemistry, I could accidentally be there to say hello to him, Tashy stumbling along beside me, giggling her head off. He had to say hello to me because our parents knew each other, even though he was two years older and thus anything else would have been completely verboten.
At family parties he would sit in corners, dressed all in black, grumpily reading Jean-Paul Sartre or The Lord of the Rings, listening to Echo and the Bunnymen on his Walkman, refusing to eat meat from the barbecue, and the adults would all cluck and giggle over him and I would be furious with them on his behalf, but never brave enough to go up and say more than hello, red-faced and twisted up inside.
So, for a long time I was just one of the annoying people buzzing around him, trying to get him to clean out his bedroom. Until the year I turned sixteen. Big year that one.
And now I had one day's notice to see him again. Sixteen years on.
At my birthday just a few weeks before, when I turned thirty-two, we went to Bluebird, and had a nice posh dinner out and drank Veuve Clicquot and everyone talked about someone we knew who was getting divorced, which made us feel better about most of us not even being married yet, apart from Tashy, who was about to get married and looked green for most of the evening. Then someone kicked off about house prices, and none of the women would eat the delicious bread, and the smart sex toys and silly things people had bought me started to look a bit stupid, and I started to feel almost impolite to insist that everyone cameout and spent what turned out to be an absolute ton of money to celebrate with me for seemingly no reason. Then we got home and I was unreasonably rude to Olly and spent half an hour with the magnifying mirror counting wrinkles, then I wondered if I was ever going to have a baby and then I went to sleep. It wasn't always like that.
Tashy and I had planned my sixteenth birthday party with almost as much precision as we planned this wedding, and with a lot more excitement. There was going to be some sort of sparkling wine, a punch. 'I'm making it!' said Dad sternly. 'I don't want anyone being sick.'
'But you're not going to stay upstairs!' I whined.
'Of course we are. Do you think we've never been to a teenage party before? We'll be patrolling upstairs. With guns.'
'PLLLEEEEAAASSEEE! It'll be the worst birthday party ever.'
Finally, bless them, they'd borrowed Clelland's little brother's baby monitor and set it upstairs, then gone to the pub next door with it practically stapled to their ears. I was the only one who threw up.
There was a reason I was looking forward to this party. I had my first ever boyfriend.
Clelland had actually been away most of that summer. I'd moped around like a nightmare, working in the Co-op and contriving to make my parents' lives a misery. Then, right at the end of one afternoon ... he'd walked in, brown, thin, and heartstopping.
'Hello,' said Clelland, looking up from his bag of vegetables, which he had to buy and cook himself, in his parents' efforts to get him out of this stupid vegetarian phase he was going through (I thought this was thrillingly noble).
I gulped. My international crush - more than Paul Young, John Taylor and Andrew Ridgeley in one - was here, standing right before me ... looking fit and tanned. I had to be cool. I had to be!
'Haven't seen you around,' I said dully.
'Hi,' he said, swallowing too. 'Well, 1 went off travelling for a bit.'
'Really?' I stuttered. 'Nice.'
'Not really.' He shrugged unconvincingly, looking around the dingy dungeon and nylon uniform I'd clearly spent my summer in. 'But I met a few people, you know. Students and stuff, hanging out. Then we all went to Spain, found this really cheap place, we worked as grape crushers and slept out under the stars. They let us drink as much wine as we wanted. Then we took the money we made and all went to Glastonbury for five days. But it wasn't that great or anything.'
'Good!' I said. 'I mean, sorry you had a rotten time.'
'Yes? What's been happening?'
'Well, erm ... Ratboy kicked in the bus shelter and they had to put a new one up. Then he kicked it in again.'
Clelland bit his lip. 'What time do you get off?'
I felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach.
'Um ...' I said. I genuinely couldn't remember.
We walked home that evening in the warmth, and he bought me a bag of chips and we lay on the heath and ate them looking at stars maybe not quite as good as those over Spanish vineyards, but I liked them. Then we kissed and kissed and kissed, salty sticky kisses for hours and hours and hours in the way only teenagers can, entwined like two vinesgrowing together. Then, finally, when the adults - the seedy, the dispossessed - started to arrive, we slowly headed for home, my insides turning somersaults all the way.
We had a few glorious weeks. Kissing, reading, talking, slumping around complaining about our parents, drinking cider, pretending not to know each other if we ran into anyone from school in town, not having sex. Actually, that rather amazes me now. I assumed everyone was like me, and now I find that even my most respectable friends (in fact, the posher they are the more like rabbits they start) were romping in the hay from their early teens whilst I was pushing his hand away, desperate to do more, but desperate not to put myself out on a limb.
Good Lord, I was useless. And look what I missed out on, thinking all the boys would be so great. It took years after that to get the hang of it, and truly, I would have loved to have maturely and pleasingly enjoyed adult relations when I had a pin waist, boy's bum and upper arms that pinged. Life is a bitch.
But then, I thought it was perfect. We went down to Brighton, tentatively hired a scooter, and I felt that I was living la Dolce Vita. We kissed on rocks, behind trees, on trains, everywhere possible, and the sensitive introverted lad turned out to be funny, gentle, idiosyncratic and only inclined to go on about George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson and Holden Caulfield when I wasn't paying attention. We adored each other. Until -
'Aberdeen?' I stared at him.
He was trying to look sad and not excited by going to university at the same time.
'It was clearing. You know. I almost didn't get to go at all.'
'Where is Aberdeen? Is it on an island or what?'
'No, it's in the North of Scotland.'
'Do they speak English?'
'Yes, I believe so.'
I stared at him in disbelief.
I left him in the sitting room, went out to the garage, took out my dad's old road map and traced down the two boxes on the grid where places meet.
Aberdeen is five hundred and eight miles away from London.
'Aberdeen,' I said, taking a deep breath and trying to speak slowly, even though my heart was beating fit to burst and I wasn't sure whether or not I was about to start crying, 'is the furthest away from London you can possibly go.'
'I know,' said Clelland, half smiling that funny little crinkly smile. 'It's either that or the local technical college.'
'You're leaving me,' I said, and all the poise I'd sought to hold on to had lasted less than fifteen seconds. At the time too, though, I couldn't help but be slightly aware of the drama of it all.
'Oh, Flora sweetie ...' He took me in his arms. 'I'm going away. I'm going to university. It wouldn't matter where I was going. We're only young, you know?'
The lump in my throat was like trying to swallow a rocket. 'But we're in love!'
He hugged me and held me close. 'I know. I know. You and me. Taking over the world, remember?'
'From five hundred and eight miles away.'
He looked pained; he must have known then, or at least had an inkling, about what happens to childhood sweethearts when one of them moves on. And I think I saw it too.
'I'll be back at holidays,' he offered lamely, as if trying to meet me halfway.
My mother caught me pounding up the stairs to my room.
'What's the matter, darling?'
'NOTHING!' I shouted in true teenage style, completely oblivious to any concept that she might understand what was happening - only too well, as I was to discover in a year or two. How could she? How could anyone know? Nobody had ever been in love like 1 had. No one was as special as Clelland. Nobody could see.
From my window I watched him as, after waiting half an hour, he slouched awkwardly down the garden path, and I wept with the magnificently dramatic thought that I would never see him again.
Oh God, the party. I tried to call it off, but Tashy and my mother had persuaded me that of course Clelland would show up. Plus we'd invited everyone.
The thing is, popularity is a tricky thing. It's infectious. We couldn't help it. It was the local comprehensive, it was pretty rough and, for some reason or another, that year everyone had decided to hate us.
I hadn't thought it would extend to a party, though. After all, everyone likes parties, don't they?
I was wearing a faintly daring red dress from Clockhouse, which I absolutely adored and spent the entire evening pulling down and panicking about whether I looked fat. (As the photos show, I looked teeny. Why on earth didn't I realise how lucky I was before I had to wear long sleeves with everything and couldn't brave the miniskirt any more?) How depressing. When I see all the teenagers these days marching around wearing next to nothing, Britney-style, I don't think,ooh, look at that awful paedo-fodder. Well, sometimes I do a bit. But mostly I think, go for it, girls, because as soon as I became a student I went straight into dungarees and baggy jumpers mode, and I never got that body back again.
Tashy had done my makeup, which involved something we'd read in Jackie magazine. We tried to copy it laboriously and somewhat unfortunately, and I had two pin-sharp lines of pink blusher up each cheek and very, very heavy blue eyeshadow. Actually, it would probably be all right now; I'd probably look like Sophie Ellis Bextor. If she was thirty-two and average-looking, instead of twenty-four and some kind of alien high priestess.
I'd put on my nicest bra, brushed my teeth a thousand times and was desperately, desperately hoping that only one boy would ever walk up the garden path.
Not a single person came.
We sat and drank the punch and ate the crisps, and couldn't even speak to each other. Tashy and I clung and tried to pretend not to cry. I looked at my best friend and felt my heart shrivel and die. This was life's test. We were failing.
'After this, school is going to be so much better,' vowed Tash fiercely. We considered wrecking a few things anyway, just so my parents would think some people had arrived. But we didn't. We ended up watching Dynasty. It was the longest four hours of my life. My mascara ran down and soaked my Clockhouse dress.
A few weeks later, my dad left us. About this time of year, in fact, as far as I remembered. Well, that would be a nice anniversary for my mum tomorrow.
Tashy was still talking, but I wasn't listening. I was remembering the night I turned sixteen.
'Your problem is, you think you only have one true love,' Tashy was saying, bringing me back to earth.
'Yes,' I said.
'NO!' she said. 'That's not it at all! What I mean is, it won't feel quite the same, but that's just because it's not new any more. It's just different.'
'Well, you can't experience everything as if it's the first time round forever.'
'That's why being grown up is so sucky,' I said. 'I can't even remember what it was like the first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But it was the most exciting thing that had happened to me at the time.'
'Oh, you wouldn't want to be sixteen again, would you? It was hell. Oh God, do you remember that party ...? '
'No,' I said. 'It was hell then,' I agreed, thinking about all the times Tashy and I had sat eating lunch, worrying madly about whether one breast was growing faster than the other and whether Loretta McGonagall was talking about us (she was) and whether we'd get invited to Marcus's party (no, even though we asked him, the bastard. Just because we didn't wear stiletto heels and make out. Well, of course that was the reason). 'If I had to do it all again with what I know now I wouldn't make such a hash of it.'
Tashy sat up. 'You haven't made a hash of anything!' she said. 'Look at you. Good job. Smart car. Lovely bloke.'
'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' I said, staring at the ceiling. 'Do you remember what you and I said we were going to do when we finished school?'
Tashy thought for a moment and then laughed out loud. 'Oh, yes. We were going to buy a car, travel through Europe, drawing cartoons and portraits, end up in Paris, rich and famous, live in a garret, buy a cat, then ... let me see ... I was going to marry a prince of some sort, and you were going to move to New York and look a lot like Audrey Hepburn.'
Since I've turned thirty I've become a bit pissed off with Audrey Hepburn. We all grow up with her, and it can't be done. Get your tits fixed and you could look like Pamela Anderson. Get cow arse injected in your lips and you could probably handle Liz Hurley. Wrinkle your nose and brush your hair a lot and you might get to marry Brad Pitt. But nobody, nobody but nobody, has ever looked as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn, and it causes untold misery in the interim. Have you seen the actress that played her in a mini-series? She looks like a cross-eyed, emaciated, buck-toothed wren compared to Audrey, and that's the best they could get from the population of the whole world. Anyway.
'Anyway,' I said, 'call me crazy, but maybe I'd have planned for that better by not immediately going to university to study accountancy then working for a company for ten hours a day for eleven years.'
'I am calling you crazy,' said Tashy. 'There are hardly any princes left in Europe, and we don't want Albert, thanks.'
'Hmm,' I grumped.
'Flo, we did everything right, you know. Everything we were told. We looked after ourselves. And this is our reward. Good lives. Fun.'
'If I was sixteen again ...' I said wistfully.
'I'd shag Clelland to within an inch of his life.'
'I wish you had,' said Tashy. 'Then you could have found out he was a weedy little indy freak, as nervous and teenage and odd-smelling as the rest of us, and then you could have stopped going on about him every time you got drunk for the next decade and a half.'
'I do not!' I protested. 'And anyway, you do not have a romantic soul,' I said, pointing at her.
'Yeah? Well, what's that, BABY?'
And she pointed to the dress hanging on the back of the door.
'You seem distracted,' Olly said as I slowly ironed my Karen Millen trouser suit. I'd loved it when I bought it, but did it now seem a bit ... matronly? Old? Not exactly the kind of thing I wanted my first love to see me in?
'Not at all,' I said, in a completely distracted kind of a way, staring straight out of the window.
'Are you pissed off your best friend's getting married?'
'You know, I've heard of people who got married and survived,' I said. 'Not many, though.'
'Well, don't worry,' he said, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye, and suddenly I got a really strong feeling that he was planning something. In fact I knew he was. And I wasn't sure how that made me feel. It might have made me nervous, if I wasn't already incredibly nervous at the thought of coming face to face with Clelland again. Ridiculous, I know; so immature. It was just, I'd never run into him whenever I'd gone back home for Christmas or anything and ... well, it was just interesting, that was all. He wasn't on his FriendsReunited page either. Not that I checked a lot. I checked all the time, mentally giving points to people I thought were doing worse or better than me.
'For God's sake! Those bloody dry-cleaners have shrunk my trousers. Useless bloody bastards. I'm going to sue them.' Olly sucked his stomach in.
'Yes, dear,' I said, suddenly realising, as I stood there with an iron in my hand, how much I was starting to sound like my mother.
THE BOY I LOVED BEFORE. Copyright © 2004 by Jenny Colgan. All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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