I’ve been renting a colleague’s spare room for the last few months; Oscar tried to insist I stay on in the flat, but there was no way I could.
‘Not because of anyone else,’ I add. ‘It just didn’t work out.’
We pick up our drinks and do our worst. ‘Fucking awful,’ she says as we slam them down. I’m not sure if she means the drink or our predicament. She splays her left hand flat on the bar and pokes her wedding ring with the end of a straw. ‘Time to take it off, really.’
I do the same, placing my hand alongside hers on the bar. ‘Me too.’
We stare at our fingers, and then she looks at me. ‘Ready?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you ever going back to him?’
Not long after we separated, I wavered late one night and called Oscar in Brussels. I don’t even know what I wanted to say, I was just overwhelmingly sad without him. Perhaps it’s as well that Cressida answered his phone in a loud bar; I hung up and he didn’t call back. I don’t need a crystal ball to know that, in time, she will be the one who picks up his broken heart and pieces it back together. It’s as it should be; perhaps she’s always held on to a piece of it anyway. I’m embarrassed by how often I publicly cried in the aftermath of our marriage break-up. I cried silently on the bus going to work and again on the way home to my empty bed. Sometimes I didn’t even realize tears were rolling down my cheeks until I caught sight of my reflection in the dark bus windows. I recognize it now for what it was: a grieving process – for him, and for me, and for us.
I shake my head at Vanessa, downcast. No, I’m never going back to Oscar.
‘Then you’re ready. We both are,’ she says.
My ring hasn’t left my finger since Oscar placed it there on our wedding day. I can’t imagine ever feeling ready to take it off, but this bizarre moment has presented itself to me, and I can’t wear the ring for ever. I nod, then feel sick.
She reaches for her wedding band, pausing to look pointedly at mine.
I take a big swig of my disgusting cocktail. ‘Let’s get it over with.’
We watch each other and keep pace, turning our rings a couple of times to free them. Mine’s looser than usual anyway; my appetite has disappeared of late. The diamond-set ring slides up over my knuckle and I take it off slowly, because once it’s off I can never put it back on again. Tears prick my eyes, and beside me Vanessa slips her ring all the way off and lays it on the bar.
I take her bravery for my own and follow suit, my mouth trembling. I can’t hide a sob, and she puts an arm of solidarity round my shoulders as we sit side by side and stare at the two wedding bands.
I’ve cried more tears than I ever thought possible over the last year. Perhaps it’s time to dry my eyes.
Amanda’s angling for a ring for Christmas. She’s dropped every hint in the book, from leaving magazines open on the pertinent pages to studiously watching Don’t Tell the Bride every Thursday, and now we’re walking through town on the coldest Saturday afternoon of the year and she’s stopped to gaze into a jeweller’s window.
It’s become a difficult subject since she first mooted the idea of marriage in Norway, and I’m not really sure how to address it.
Now she’s pointing out one with a massive diamond – fuck, is that really the price! It looks like a weapon, not a piece of jewellery.
‘Shall we go and get drunk?’ I say, looking at the pub across the road.
She frowns. ‘Is the thought of marrying me so bad you need a drink?’
‘No, but shopping is,’ I say, and hate myself when she looks wounded. I don’t look directly at the rings, because I don’t want to have this conversation today.
‘Okay,’ she sighs. ‘Beer it is.’
I should say no. We’ve been in here for three hours now and we’re really quite pissed.
‘Go on,’ Amanda says. ‘You said you wanted to get drunk.’
Maybe I’m getting too old for this game, but I’ve had enough.
‘Let’s go home instead,’ I say, swaying a bit as I stand up.
‘We don’t have a home,’ she says. ‘It’s your flat or mine.’
‘You sound sexy when you put it like that.’
She doesn’t get up. She folds her arms across her silvery metallic jumper and crosses her long, denim-clad legs, a dangerous glitter in her vodka-bold eyes.
‘Propose to me.’
I blink a few times to focus. ‘Amanda …’
‘Go on. Do it now, I’m ready.’
Clearly those diamonds are still on her mind. She’s laughing as if she’s larking around, but there’s a steely edge to her voice that warns me of incoming trouble.
‘Come on,’ I wheedle. ‘Let’s get out of here.’ I’m aware that the couple at the next table overheard her and are trying not to make it obvious that they’re watching. She’s a vaguely recognizable face from TV; the last thing either of us need is a public row.
‘You said that to me the very first time I met you,’ she says. ‘At that party. Let’s get out of here.’
I nod, remembering. ‘I did say that.’ I sit back down on the stool, my elbows on my knees as I lean in to make our conversation more private. I’m struggling to hear her properly in here.
‘No, I did,’ Amanda says, contradicting herself. ‘I did as you asked, and I’ve been doing whatever you ask ever since. And now I’m asking you to ask me something instead.’ She frowns, tripping up over her confusing speech.
‘That’s a lot of asking for one woman.’ I smile, going for light-hearted, aware I’m probably grimacing more than smiling.
‘Ask me now or we’re done.’ She’s not going to let it go, and I’m feeling increasingly backed into a corner.
‘Don’t be daft.’
‘I’m deadly fucking serious, Jack,’ she says, too sharp, and I fall quiet because it’s clear that I’m not going to cajole her out of this pub. ‘Last Christmas’ starts up on the jukebox and Amanda’s mouth twists at the irony.
‘This isn’t the place,’ I say, my hand on her knee.
‘Probably not,’ she says, shaking me off. ‘But then there isn’t a good place to propose to someone you don’t love, is there?’
Fucking hell. ‘Please …’ I start, not even knowing what I’m going to say next. This isn’t going to be okay.
‘Oh, please yourself, you usually do. You know what, Jack? Forget it.’ She’s angry now, tears on her lashes. ‘Forget the whole fucking thing. I’m done with waiting for you to decide if you’ll ever love me enough.’ A tear runs down her cheek and she dashes it away. She stands up, wobbling on her high boots. ‘This is officially the last time you get to say no to me.’
I wish we hadn’t had a drink. She’s saying things, I’m saying things, and they’re the kind of things that stay unspoken for a reason. I stand, picking up our coats. ‘Come on,’ I say, because all I want is to get out of here.
‘No.’ She lays her hand flat on the centre of my chest. It’s not a loving gesture; it’s a ‘stay there’. ‘I’m leaving and you’re not. I’m leaving you because you don’t deserve me. Because I won’t be your girl in reserve any more. Because you can’t love someone if you’re already in love with someone else.’
We stare at each other, knowing there’s no coming back from this. I feel winded. Is that what I’ve done to her?
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I –’ I stop, because she’s already turned away and is pushing a path through the busy Christmas drinking crowd.
I sit back down again with my head in my hands, and a few minutes later the bloke from the next table lays a whisky down in front of me.
I nod, try to say thanks, but the words clog in my throat. Someone puts ‘Lonely This Christmas’ on the jukebox, and I close my eyes and feel like a fool for a million different reasons.