Read The Boy I Loved Before Online

Authors: Jenny Colgan

The Boy I Loved Before

BOOK: The Boy I Loved Before
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Ali ‘the Top' Gunn, Lynne Drew, Maxine Hitchcock, Fiona McIntosh, Jane Harris, Martin Palmer and everyone at HarperCollins, especially the reps; Nick Marston, Tally Garner, Camilla, Carol Jackson, Stephanie Thwaites and everyone at Curtis Brown; Rachel Hore, Deborah Schneider and Emma Draude.
 
Katrina, Karen, Shappi, Salty Sandra, Danuta da Rhodes, the Writer's Blockettes, without whom this wouldn't be half as great a job as it is; Mueller and Roni; Alex (especially for the website); Kate Rusby and John ‘the piano's my main instrument really' McCusker; Robin, Dominic, Michael and Mary Colgan. No thanks to Darius Danesh Management … next time we are definitely sticking with Justin Timberlake …
To Mr B, who
makes me feel
sixteen every time
he walks in the room. (The good way).
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.'
‘What things?'
‘Those … oh, you know.'
‘Cows?'
‘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 get
out 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 would
probably 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. I
mean, 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.
‘Turn here?'
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 moving
to 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?'
‘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.
 
 
‘Flo! Ol!'
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'd
been 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.'
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