“Maybe she left you because you’d become – I don’t know – boring.”
If it had been anyone other than Jerry who came out with the words, I might have reacted differently. But this was the most boring person I had ever known, the man nicknamed Captain Sensible at college, and it hurt.
It hurt because it may well have been true.
And whenever I run through the possible reasons for taking on the bet (I was drinking more than I was used to on that particular evening, I was saying goodbye to one of the most miserable years of my life etc.) I always come back to that particular comment, the cruelty of that final word ironically sharpened not only by the nature of the man delivering it but also by the mock uncertainty, the savage hesitation, of the “I don’t know” that preceded it.
It was New Year’s Eve, a night when you would normally find me at home, looking forward to seeing out the year with an evening in front of the telly or an early night with a good book. But that year had not been an ordinary one, and when Jerry rang up and asked me out for a New Year’s Eve drink, the idea of seeing the year off in some kind of public way, or at least in some place other than the house which, in recent months, had become so empty and so unhappy, seemed attractive, or at least more attractive than it had seemed in previous years.
What’s more, I could, for the first time in as long as I could remember, find fewer reasons for staying in than I could for going out.
“Here’s to a better one,” said Jerry.
“Yeah. A better one,” I said.
“And to Alex.”
“Yeah, of course. To Alex.”
We sipped our beers, licked our lips, and looked at each other with uncertain half-smiles.
“This time last year…” said Jerry.
“Yeah. I know.”
This time last year Alex would have been throwing his annual fancy dress party.
“Makes you think, doesn’t it?” said Jerry. I nodded. “But I’m sure Alex wouldn’t have wanted us to be – you know – maudlin or anything.”
“Of course he wouldn’t.”
“He would have wanted us to get on with things. To have a drink and get on with things.”
“Of course he would.”
We raised our glasses.
Alex had always been the one who got on with things, the wild one, the one who had been there, done that and worn out the t-shirt while we were still consulting the map. And now he had gone, knocked down by a car in the fast lane, meeting his end in the place where he had metaphorically lived for so long.
“You know what Alex would have said, don’t you?” said Jerry.
“Go on. Tell me.”
“He’d have said you’ve got to—”
“Got to what? Look forward? Be positive?”
“Make the best of things. Make the best of it because you don’t know how long you’ve got. Ironic, eh?”
Jerry sighed and moved his glass around the table in slow circles as if he was about to try to contact our dead friend.
“But we’re not here just to talk about Alex, are we?” he said.
He sipped his beer, licked his lips and looked around the pub. Then we looked at each other. Now that we couldn’t talk about Alex, the conversational options seemed dramatically reduced, and when Jerry gave me a must-be-tough smile and cleared his throat I sensed what was coming. I just knew what he was about to ask.
“Look, Rick,” he said, “We go back a long way, don’t we?”
“We do,” I nodded.
“So I hope you don’t mind me asking you a personal question.”
“And I think we’ve had enough to drink for me to ask you this.”
“Just ask it.”
“And it’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time—”
“For God’s sake, Jerry, just ask it!”
“OK.” He took a breath. “Why do you think Sarah left you?”
I sighed and looked towards the bar. Another drink suddenly seemed a very good idea.
“Maybe,” I sighed, “Things just weren’t working out.”
“And what does that mean?”
I shrugged. It was a question I had asked myself with depressing and baffling frequency over the last couple of months.
“Look,” I said, “I came out for a drink not an inquisition.”
“That’s fine.” Jerry held up a pair of back-off hands. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I quite understand. These things can be… difficult.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it—”
“No, honestly, I understand, I really do. I can see you’re sensitive about it—”
“I’m not sensitive about it, it’s just that I don’t really know the answer, and it’s easier to say things weren’t working out than it is to try to find the real reason.”
“And what do you think that real reason might be? What, deep down, do you tell yourself in your darkest moments? When you ask yourself why? Why, after over twenty years of marriage did she walk out on me for another man?”
I had forgotten Jerry’s habit of asking questions. Once he got hold of one he didn’t like to let it go. It may have made him a good lawyer, but it didn’t make him good company.
“Do you know what, Jerry?”
“I don’t really know.”
“And I don’t really believe you,”
I paused and looked round the pub – the large groups at smiling tables, the intimate couples in corners, the crowds at the bar, all laughing, all talking, all getting on with each other.
“Maybe we just didn’t get on with each other any more.”
“And what does that mean – not getting on with each other? It doesn’t just happen, does it? There has to be a reason.”
Jerry liked finding reasons for things.
“Perhaps,” he said, “you’d become a little predictable?”
“Predictable? What do you mean?”
“It can happen, you know. It’s easy to get stuck in a routine. Easy to do the same old thing.”
I looked at Jerry. If anyone knew about being stuck in a routine it was him.
“For example,” he said, “When did you last surprise her?”
“What do you mean? Creep up behind her and go ‘boo’?”
“No. Surprise her by doing something different, something unexpected?”
We paused, while I trawled my memory for moments of surprise.
Jerry leaned forward, started to say something and stopped. He sat back, took a breath and then leaned forward again.
And then he said it.
“Maybe she left you because you’d become – I don’t know – boring.”
“Yes, boring. Perhaps you’d become a little boring.”
I had only had three pints but suddenly the pub, the world, the universe, swayed out of control. From the mouth of the man whose mind wore a cardigan, whose life carried a kite mark, who had more than one pair of slippers, had come a word which began to scroll across my mind, getting larger and larger: Boring. Boring. Boring. Boring
“What?” I spluttered.
“Only an idea,” said Jerry, holding his hands up defensively.
But the word had taken hold and was now anchored in a sentence: Sarah walked out on me because I was boring.
“Did she ever say anything?”
“What do you mean – say anything?”
“Anything about you becoming, you being – you know…”
Boring.“No. Never. Well, not in so many words.”
“What did she say, then?”
“Just the old clichés. We’d drifted apart, become different people, the spark had gone, it wasn’t my fault.”
“And you think that’s the real reason?”
“No one ‘drifts’ apart. There has to be a reason. Maybe you didn’t go out enough.”
“I never go out if I can help it.”
“Are you trying to tell me that if I had gone out more my wife wouldn’t have left me?”
“It’s not that simple, obviously, but it’s symptomatic.”
“Oh it’s symptomatic, is it? Symptomatic of what?”
“Of a state of mind.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake! No wonder I don’t go out if it means listening to this sort of bollocks!”
“But you admit that you didn’t go out much?”
“And Sarah did.”
I nodded again.
“With this Colin bloke?”
“I suppose so. I didn’t ask.”
“And what’s he like?”
“Yeah, this bloke Colin. What’s he like?”
“Look, Jerry, I’m not sure I really want to talk about Colin.”
Colin was a teacher at Sarah’s school. More than that, he was a PE teacher at Sarah’s school, one of those angular-jawed, Neanderthal types who sing Swing Low at Twickenham. It had never occurred to me that this was the man who Sarah had been with when she had said she was going out with people from work. People always sounded plural to me – I never imagined it was just one person, let alone one person called Colin.
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