My love life was and always had been a disaster. It started badly and it went downhill from there.
I had my first kiss at age eight, during a game of “kiss chase” in my primary-school playground. When it was my turn to do the chasing, I knew exactly which hapless lad I was going for and poor Justin Ashford didn’t stand a chance. When someone shouted “Go,” Justin was in the middle of tying a shoelace (he was eleven before he cracked bows), but I showed no mercy. While he was still on the ground, I pounced on him like a vampire bat on a squirrel and my passionate lips squashed the words “not fair” right back into his gorgeous pouting mouth. Later that day he pinned me against a wall by the school gym and stuck chewing gum in my hair. I had to have both my pigtails cut off.
The next three years flew by in a haze of similarly rebuffed advances and Chinese burns. When I was nine, Justin Ashford sent me a Valentine’s card with the charming message “Drop dead” written rather neatly inside. For my eleventh birthday he gave me three de-winged bluebottles in a matchbox. You have to admit that shows imagination, but it’s not exactly Tiffany . . . Things didn’t pick up when I went to secondary school. It was an all-girls school and the only opportunity for mixing with the opposite sex during term time came via doing handstands at the far edge of the playing field to incite the local flasher.
At the age of fourteen I did manage to get my second kiss from a boy named Malcolm who lived at the top of my street, and that blossomed into my first “relationship.” We spent every moment we could together. But while our parents assumed we were up to no good and I received lectures on the perils of teenage motherhood at least twice a week, our romance was much more chaste than that. It was largely based on a mutual appreciation of horror comics. And when I say “mutual appreciation,” what I actually mean is that Malcolm was obsessed with horror comics and I pretended to be interested so that I could tell Lucy Jones, the hardest girl in my class, that I had a boyfriend and therefore she had no need to scratch lezzer on the lid of my brand-new metal pencil case.
Alas, Malcolm and I parted ways as soon as hormones reared their ugly heads. One Saturday afternoon, when my parents were at Sainsbury’s and we had the house to ourselves, I asked him if he’d like to take my virginity. We were both seventeen, after all. He went quite pale and said, “No.” He wouldn’t. And he didn’t. Our romance had reached its end.
Instead I lost the virginity that seemed to weigh so heavily to the first chap I dated at college. His name was Steve. He was a chemistry student. We shared almost three years of baked potatoes and the missionary position. Steve was a big fan of Depeche Mode. I still can’t hear “Just Can’t Get Enough” without remembering those lost afternoons when Steve ground away like the Duracell bunny and I worried he might be wearing a hole in the condom.
My relationship with Steve was fairly unremarkable, but it was the first real indication of the more serious trouble I would have with love later in my life. Looking back, I can’t honestly say I even liked him that much. Steve had the looks of Shrek without the personality. When he broke up with me, though, I dedicated my entire life to getting back together. I spent hours and hours, when I should have been studying for my finals, writing poems and letters in an attempt to convince him that ours was a star-crossed love. Steve was not swayed and I had to resit my final exams, while he took first class honors, found a top consulting job, and married a model less than a year after graduating. “Sorted” was one of Steve’s favorite words. When it came to love and relationships, “hopeless” was rapidly becoming mine.
Degree belatedly in hand, I set course for London and a shared house with a bunch of the college friends who had been so patient during the Steve years. While they worked diligently on finding a place for themselves in the world of work, I was like a girl straight out of Jane Austen, hell-bent on finding my place as somebody’s missus. My first five years in London were a blur of bad dates and brief, nasty relationships, but somehow I kept my sense of optimism. After each frog I kissed that turned out to be a toad, I managed to convince myself that the very next one would be the prince. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next.
My optimism remained high as my friends started to pair off in a serious way. The year I turned twenty-six was the summer of eight weddings. I was almost bankrupted by the hen weekends and the extravagant wedding lists at Peter Jones, but I was grateful and excited to attend each and every one of those ceremonies because I’d read in the Evening Standard that 27 percent of people meet their future spouse at a wedding reception. Eight weddings! Surely I had to get lucky that year.
I didn’t, needless to say. At one wedding I actually found myself at the children’s table. But my dance card was rarely blank. Five out of seven nights I would be on a date of some description. I believed in making an effort—turning every stone—so I went out with anyone who asked me, from the brother of a girl I’d sat next to in a lecture on Italian futurism to the chap who worked at the dry cleaner’s next to the Tube station. (After two dates at Pizza Hut he refused to pick up the phone and I had to take my cleaning elsewhere.)
If you were making a movie montage of years six to eight in London, you would definitely have to include the man who brought his own sandwiches to our lunch date in a pub garden (and didn’t offer to share), and the man who asked me to wear his ex-girlfriend’s T-shirt while we were in bed together, since he could only be aroused by her smell, and the man who came with me to a former coworker’s party at the Pitcher and Piano and went home with the birthday girl while I sobbed into my shandy. Then there was the corporate lawyer who told me he couldn’t wait to settle down and start a family. The only problem with him was that he already had a wife and three children in Dulwich. After him came the bodybuilding champion who decided he was in love with his best friend. (Another champion bodybuilder. Male.) And then there was the guy who stood me up after I had dropped everything (including the best part of a grand) to meet him for dinner. In New York.
Yep, stick me in the corner of any party in any town and I would seek out and start falling for the biggest loser in the room within seconds. I attracted jerks like iron filings to a magnet. I went through pigs faster than swine flu.
“I just don’t understand why you keep picking such awful men!” my mother exclaimed in despair when I called her from a phone box in Manhattan at the bitter end of my brief NY-Lon romance.
Back then I didn’t understand it, either. It wasn’t as though I was always going for the same type. I dated actuaries and actors, bakers and bankers. I dated Christian Scientists and cruise-liner captains. There were no obvious similarities in the worlds they inhabited or in the way that they looked. But in the way things turned out? That was a different story. No matter how promisingly things started, after two to three months I was planning a wedding and they were planning a speedy escape. Scratch any one of my princely ex-boyfriends and you would find an amphibian beneath.
So you probably won’t be surprised to hear that after the Manhattan incident, in which I blew three days’ holiday allowance and nearly a month’s wages on a flight to the mini-break that became a mini-breakup, my confidence suffered a bit of a knock.
“That’s it,” I said to my best friend, Becky. “I am giving up on men.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Becky said.
“Believe it, Becks. This time I’m serious.”
The following day I went to a thirtieth birthday party at a flat over a nail bar in Balham and met my Mr. Right.