Twenty Days Earlier
I’ve bought him an engagement ring. Was that a mistake?
I mean, it’s not a girly ring. It’s a plain band with a tiny diamond in it, which the guy in the shop talked me into. If Richard doesn’t like the diamond, he can always turn it round.
Or not wear it at all. Keep it on his nightstand or in a box or whatever.
Or I could take it back and never mention it. Actually, I’m losing confidence in this ring by the minute, but I just felt bad that he wouldn’t have anything. Men don’t get the greatest deal out of a proposal. They have to set up the occasion, they have to get down on one knee, they have to ask the question, and they have to buy a ring. And what do we have to do? Say “yes.”
Or “no,” obviously.
I wonder what proportion of marriage proposals end in a “yes” and what proportion end in a “no”? I open my mouth automatically to share this thought with Richard—then hastily close it again. Idiot.
“Sorry?” Richard glances up.
“Nothing!” I beam. “Just . . . great menu!”
I wonder if he’s bought a ring already. I don’t mind, either way. On the one hand, it’s fabulously romantic if he has. On the other hand, it’s fabulously romantic to choose one together.
It’s a win-win.
I sip my water and smile lovingly at Richard. We’re sitting at a corner table overlooking the river. It’s a new restaurant on the Strand, just up from the Savoy. All black-and-white marble and vintage chandeliers and button-back chairs in pale gray. It’s elegant but not showy. The perfect place for a lunchtime proposal. I’m wearing an understated bride-to-be white shirt, a print skirt, and have splashed out on stay-up stockings, just in case we decide to cement the engagement later on. I’ve never worn stay-up stockings before. But, then, I’ve never been proposed to before.
Ooh, maybe he’s booked a room at the Savoy.
No. Richard’s not flash like that. He’d never make a ridiculous, out-of-proportion gesture. Nice lunch, yes; overpriced hotel room, no. Which I respect.
He’s looking nervous. He’s fiddling with his cuffs and checking his phone and swirling the water round in his glass. As he sees me watching him, he smiles too.
It’s as though we’re speaking in code, skirting around the real issue. I fiddle with my napkin and adjust my chair. This waiting is unbearable. Why doesn’t he get it over with?
No, I don’t mean “get it over with.” Of course I don’t. It’s not a vaccination. It’s . . . Well, what is it? It’s a beginning. A first step. The pair of us embarking on a great adventure together. Because we want to take on life as a team. Because we can’t think of anyone else we’d rather share that journey with. Because I love him and he loves me.
I’m getting misty-eyed already. This is hopeless. I’ve been like this for days, ever since I realized what he was driving at.
He’s quite heavy-handed, Richard. I mean, in a good, lovable way. He’s direct and to the point and doesn’t play games. (Thank God.) Nor does he land massive surprises on you out of the blue. On my last birthday, he hinted for ages that his present was going to be a surprise trip, which was ideal because I knew to get down my overnight bag and pack a few things.
Although, in the end, he did catch me out, because it wasn’t a weekend away, as I’d predicted. It was a train ticket to Stroud, which he had biked to my desk with no warning, on my midweek birthday. It turned out he’d secretly arranged with my boss for me to have two days off, and when I finally arrived at Stroud, a car whisked me to the most adorable Cotswold cottage, where he was waiting with a fire burning and a sheepskin rug laid out in front of the flames. (Mmm. Let’s just say that sex in front of a roaring fire is the best thing ever. Except when that stupid spark flew out and burned my thigh. But never mind. Tiny detail.)
So this time, when he began dropping hints, again they weren’t exactly subtle indications. They were more like massive signposts plonked in the road: I will be proposing to you soon. First he set up this date and called it a “special lunch.” Then he referred to a “big question” he had to ask me and half winked (to which I feigned ignorance, of course). Then he started teasing me by asking if I like his surname, Finch. (As it happens, I do like it. I don’t mean I won’t miss being Lottie Graveney, but I’ll be very happy to be Mrs. Lottie Finch.)
I almost wish he’d been more roundabout and this was going to be more of a surprise. But, there again, at least I knew to get a manicure.
“So, Lottie, have you decided yet?” Richard looks up at me with that warm smile of his, and my stomach swoops. Just for an instant I thought he was being super-clever and that was his proposal.
“Um . . .” I look down to hide my confusion.
Of course the answer will be “yes.” A big, joyful “yes.” I can still hardly believe we’ve arrived at this place. Marriage. I mean, marriage! In the three years Richard and I have been together, I’ve deliberately avoided the question of marriage, commitment, and all associated subjects (children, houses, sofas, herbs in pots). We sort of live together at his place, but I still have my own flat. We’re a couple, but at Christmas we go home to our own families. We’re in that place.
After about a year, I knew we were good together. I knew I loved him. I’d seen him at his best (the surprise birthday trip, tied with the time I drove over his foot by mistake and he didn’t shout at me) and his worst (obstinately refusing to ask for directions, all the way to Norfolk, with broken sat nav. It took six hours). And I still wanted to be with him. I got him. He’s not the show-offy kind, Richard. He’s measured and deliberate. Sometimes you think he’s not even listening—but then he’ll come to life so suddenly, you realize he was alert the whole time. Like a lion, half asleep under the tree but ready for the kill. Whereas I’m a bit more of a gazelle, leaping around. We complement each other. It’s Nature.
(Not in a food-chain sense, obviously. In a metaphorical sense.)
So I knew, after a year, he was The One. But I also knew what would happen if I put a foot wrong. In my experience, the word “marriage” is like an enzyme. It causes all kinds of reactions in a relationship, mostly of the breaking-down kind.
Look at what happened with Jamie, my first long-term boyfriend. We’d been happily together for four years and I just happened to mention that my parents got married at the same age we were (twenty-six and twenty-three). That was it. One mention. Whereupon he freaked out and said we had to take “a break.” A break from what? Until that moment we’d been fine. So clearly what he needed a break from was the risk of hearing the word “marriage” again. Clearly this was such a major worry that he couldn’t even face seeing me, for fear that my mouth might start to form the word again.
Before the “break” was over, he was with that red-haired girl. I didn’t mind, because by then I’d met Seamus. Seamus, with his sexy Irish lilting voice. And I don’t even know what went wrong with him. We were besotted for about a year—crazy all-night-sex nothing-else-in-life-matters besotted—until all of a sudden we were arguing every night instead. We went from exhilarating to exhausting in about twenty-four hours. It was toxic. Too many state-of-the-nation summits about “Where are we heading?” and “What do we want from this relationship?” and it wore us both out. We limped on for another year, and when I look back, it’s as though that second year is a big black miserable blot in my life.
Then there was Julian. That lasted two years too, but it never really took. It was like a skeleton of a relationship. I suppose both of us were working far too hard. I’d recently moved to Blay Pharmaceuticals and was traveling all over the country. He was trying to get partnership at his accountancy firm. I’m not sure we ever even broke up properly—we just drifted apart. We meet up occasionally, as friends, and it’s the same for both of us—we’re not quite sure where it all went wrong. He even asked me out on a date a year or so ago, but I had to tell him I was with someone now and really happy. And that was Richard. The guy I really do love. The guy sitting opposite me with a ring in his pocket (maybe).
Richard is definitely better-looking than any of my other boyfriends. (Maybe I’m biased, but I think he’s gorgeous.) He works hard as a media analyst, but he’s not obsessed. He’s not as rich as Julian, but who cares? He’s energetic and funny and has an uproarious laugh that makes my spirits lift, whatever mood I’m in. He calls me “Daisy,” ever since we went on a picnic where I made him a daisy chain. He can lose his temper with people—but that’s OK. No one’s perfect. When I look back over our relationship, I don’t see a black blot, like with Seamus, or a blank space, like with Julian. I see a cheesy music video. A montage, with blue skies and smiles. Happy times. Closeness. Laughter.
And now we’re getting to the climax of the montage. The bit where he kneels down, takes a deep breath . . .
I’m feeling so nervous for him. I want this to go beautifully. I want to be able to tell our children that I fell in love with their father all over again, the day he proposed.
Our children. Our home. Our life.
As I let my mind roll around the images, I feel a release inside me. I’m ready for this. I’m thirty-three years old and I’m ready. All my grown-up life, I’ve steered away from the subject of marriage. My friends are the same. It’s as though there’s been a crime-scene cordon around the whole area: no entry. You just don’t go there, because if you do, you’ve jinxed it and your boyfriend chucks you.
But now there’s nothing to jinx. I can feel the love flowing between us, over the table. I want to grab Richard’s hands. I want to envelop him in my arms. He is such a wonderful, wonderful man. I’m so lucky. In forty years when we’re both wrinkled and gray, perhaps we’ll walk up the Strand hand in hand and remember today and thank God we found each other. I mean, what were the chances, in this teeming world of strangers? Love is so random. So random. It’s a miracle, really. . . .