I still think of my early 20s as a genuinely happy time in my life. I had made the break from the toxic relationship that had defined the previous 4 years and without that controlling, panicky knowledge of constant disapproval haunting my days I finally had some friends, real friends, from the office job that I had started to do alongside my degree in order to save enough money to live on my own.
My little girl was independent and bubbly and cheerful and suddenly so easy. Tony Blair’s government felt like a soft cushion beneath me of tax credits and subsidised childcare – I had enough money to eat, to feed my daughter, to pay rent and to buy lipsticks, to go out for dancing and cocktails whenever I could find a babysitter.
One of these babysittered nights, much later, found me in an Italian restaurant crowded with staff from all of the regional offices of the firm I was working for. Across the grey Formica table I caught the eye, repeatedly, of a shy, skinny and very tall young man, wearing possibly the ugliest shirt I had ever seen. My friend, my constant dancing companion in those days, told me his name and also told me that he was renowned firm-wide as being utterly “lovely”.
I latched instantly onto that word, “lovely”. Lovely sounded, well, lovely. No one, not a single person could have ever used the word “lovely” about my daughter’s father. He had been many things, many attractive things to me, many less attractive as time went on, but he was definitely not “lovely”. Lovely sounded so safe and warm and kind.
I decided in that wine-hazed moment that I wanted to get to know the lovely man in the truly shitty shirt. I wanted to know someone lovely, and to have someone lovely want to talk to me. I walked up to him, looked him in the eye and uttered the classic, unignorable, inventive line: “So. I hear that you’re…lovely?”
And so it was that true love entered my life. Not with drama or histrionic midnight phone calls or shivering in a taxi and wondering if I’d ever get another chance or what I’d done wrong. Not with “I’ll die if you leave me” or “you make me behave like this” or “I just wish you were a bit less…”. Not with wild declarations or moonlit serenades.
Love arrived in the form of date after gentle, laughing, inventive-because-we-were-skint date. It was cheap daffodils in a pint glass vase, clumsily-cooked pasta dinners that he painstakingly memorised the recipes for, and Sunday morning croissants from the reduced basket at the Spar shop. It was being cared for and caring right back.
I didn’t really think I was worthy of the love I was getting, but I uncurled in its uncomplicated warmth like a cat before a fire, and I loved him back. I did.
I wish, now, that I had never lost sight of how truly lucky I was to have found – so young! so easily! – someone so perfectly matched to me, to share my life. Someone who is calm where I am screechy, quiet where I will flap, but who shares my happy-go-lucky attitude to airport journeys and who has always been happy to run laughingly across a departures lounge in the nick of time.
Someone who has never said “I told you so” when my clever shortcut on any car trip inevitably leads us straight into a snarling mess of traffic, or when I try to fit 3 hours’ work into two and disappoint myself, or when I decide to make home made pizza for 10 people without a recipe.
Someone who has been a father to my daughter in a way her own father never managed. Someone who has never not brought me armfuls of flowers whenever he happens to see my favourites, who has never not told me he loves me every morning he’s woken next to me, never not held me close when we fell asleep in the same bed, never not had my back 100%. Never not found me attractive. Never not reminded me of that.
I wish I hadn’t taken him so instantly for granted, filed him so quickly into the ticked box of being entirely my reward, my deserved due for the few years of misery I had suffered due to my own piss-poor teenage choices.
I wish that I had not seen him diluted in my own eyes by perceiving him somehow as my own achievement, seeing my outwardly perfect relationship as a validation of my ongoing good sense.
I wish, basically, that I had truly recognised what a catch he was. I told people he was a catch, I nodded when people said it to me, I agreed he was a good man. He IS a good man. But I don’t think I believed it in the way I should have believed it.
We got married in 2003. I was 22 years old and I meant every word of my vows. I didn’t even need to think about forsaking others. I’d forsaken them. I was home and dry and safe.