'Deep breath,' I thought to myself, and then I rang the bell. There weren’t any conveniently located bushes into which I could now fling myself, Adam Sandler-film-style, and besides, I’d come here to say something, so I had to say it. Still, it didn’t stop me from feeling exposed, standing behind street door and a brick wall.
I could hear him coming down the stairs. Next he would have to perform the complex ritual required to open the door. The handle needed to be turned just enough so that the upper catch could be jiggled, leaving both hands free to turn the lower catch and the handle simultaneously. It was Fort Knox. Almost.
He opened the door and smiled. He had nothing on his feet. He invited me in. Whilst I was kicking off my trainers and arranging them on the almost-desolate shoe-rack, he moved off towards the kitchen and called back to me:
‘I’m making lunch. Want some?’
Even if my mind hadn’t raced to my newly emptied and scrubbed kitchen cupboards, it would’ve been rude to refuse. At least, I would’ve been offended if I’d offered and then been refused.
‘Lunch would be lovely, thank you.’
I padded off towards the kitchen in my turquoise socks.
The kitchen seemed bereft. On the day that I left I didn’t notice how empty it looked. I suppose that I was too exhausted and too upset. There hadn’t been any time for reflection; no energy to indulge in the ritual I’d picked up as a child of saying goodbye to every room in the house before I moved out for good. The corner beneath the larder cupboard, where my scales and mixer used to stand, was empty. What used to be my kitchen was a barren desert.
I stood leaning against the countertop beside the fridge. It was where I had always used to stand when he was doing the washing up. Pinioned to the fridge by a magnet was a dinner party menu. There was my hastily scribbled recipe for caramel and hazelnut parfait, too. I wondered where it had gone.
Lunch was taking shape on the table: houmous, pita, olives, salad. I offered to make salad dressing.
‘Ooh, yes please! Could you make an entire jar, please? There should be plenty of olive oil.’
There was plenty of olive oil. I swept up everything that I needed. Despite its emptiness, the kitchen was still familiar. Everything and nothing had changed.
My stomach was beginning to knot and my chest was beginning to tighten in that unmistakable way that they do when you’re confronted with having to say something that you really don’t want to have to say. Of course my mouth was dry. I could feel my heart beating so hard I was surprised he couldn’t see it thumping in my chest. I shook the salad dressing even harder, to distract myself.
I took the dressing to the table and sat down. He was already dolloping out houmous onto plates.
‘I need to tell you something.’ (Step one complete. Breathe, Missy.)
‘That sounds ominous!’
‘I’m leaving.’ (Step two. I’d barely given him a chance to finish his sentence; I’d needed to get out the words.)
‘You’ve already left me once, so I’m not sure where you’ll be leaving to this time!’ He said it and then flashed a grin. I smiled back weakly. He knew that I was serious.
‘I’m leaving Manchester. I’m moving away.’ (Step three. Look up. Look at him. This is important.) If you’ve ever seen someone truly speechless, this was him now. He was moving his mouth, but the words weren’t coming out. I reached out to take his hand; he snatched it back.
For so many other ex-couples the news that one of them was quitting town—hitching up and moving out—would be met with fanfares and street parties. But not us. The decision that I’d made had almost broken my heart. Looking at him, I was breaking his. You see, we weren’t your average ex-couple. We’d not broken up because of infidelity or abuse or boredom or that horrid sense of mutual contempt that seems to overwhelm people who’ve been together for a long time. No, it was far more mundane than that. We couldn’t live together.
We’d been together for three years and known each other for five years before that, when we decided to try co-habiting. It was a dismal, destructive failure. Neither of us had been as miserable as we were in those six months spent under the same roof. The day that we decided to end it all was the very worst. Neither of us had ever faced such an epic sense of failure head-on. We thought that we were forever—so did everyone else, for that matter—but we had to realise for ourselves that there wouldn’t be a wedding, there wouldn’t be children, and we wouldn’t grow old together. For all that living together was hell, this was even worse.
I was the one who moved out. I threw my clothes into bin liners, I took my pictures off the walls, and I emptied the kitchen of my gadgetry. My sister came to collect me and my possessions. Within twenty-four hours of us making the decision, the house was devoid of my presence. Except for the recipe on the side of the fridge.
We didn’t speak for six months. We couldn’t. Just thinking about his voice, let alone him being in same room, was physically painful for me. We didn’t hate each other; we felt horribly, terribly, desperately sad.
Then we quite literally bumped into each other in the street, as he was wheeling his bike out of the repair shop and I was walking my niece home from school. We said hello. We apologised, of course. We smiled. And then Melissa, my niece, leapt into his arms. (I was holding his bike by this point, having knocked it out of his hands in our sit-com moment collision.) He always had been her favourite uncle. We took Melissa for a milkshake.
So we began again. We tried to mend the friendship that started queuing for tickets to a gig. And it worked. We were able to share jokes, and films, and fancy coffee, and live music without feeling as if the world were caving in around us. It felt normal. Until the day it dawned on me that I was falling in love with him all over again. Or that I'd never stopped loving him, but I was letting myself do it again. Even though I desperately didn’t want to admit it, I knew that for as long as we lived in the same city, as long as I was surrounded by memories of us, as long as he was a physical presence in my life, there would be no letting go and no moving on. So it was time to leave. Again.
We were looking at each other across the kitchen table with silence hanging between us. He had turned this horrendous shade of white, tinged with green. It was what he looked like when he went into shock. I had no idea how I looked. I’m not sure that I wanted to know. We both carefully pushed aside our plates. So much for lunch.
‘Why?’ he whispered. I gulped.
I stuttered the beginning of a sentence. It didn’t make any sense. I don’t think that it was even real words. I tried again.
‘I’ve never stopped loving you. But I think you know that. And I don’t want to stop loving you. But, but we have to find some way to get on with our lives, to get over each other. And I think that you know that, too.’ He nodded. I never wanted to make him cry, but his eyes were slick and shining. There were tears slipping down my cheeks.
This was every shade of awful.
‘Where will you go?’ He said this very quietly. He knew where I’d go. Or at least he knew where I would start as I looked for somewhere new to call home.
‘I fly to Auckland on Thursday.’
‘So soon?’ It was Tuesday.
‘Last time, last time I should have left straight away. This time, this time I’m not leaving myself the opportunity to think about it.’ My voice was cracking. He nodded.
I’d said what I had come to say and I didn’t know what to do next. Crying a bit harder was the obvious solution. Slowly, oh-so-slowly, he got to his feet. He came and stood behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders. That resigned touch made me heave; my chest was hurting. Then, very gently, he helped me to my feet and turned me around. He used his thumb to wipe away my tears and he brushed some strands of hair that had escaped from my chignon behind my ear.
He bent close to my ear and whispered: ‘I’ve never stopped loving you, either. And neither do I want to stop.’ I don’t know why he whispered: it was just the two of us, standing in the kitchen. There was no one to hear us, and no one to see what he did next.
He kissed me. He kissed me tenderly and passionately. It was delicate and fierce. It seemed to last for an age and it did not go on for long enough. It was everything that a kiss should be and it conveyed everything that could be said about the way that we loved each other. It was terrible and wonderful and a fleeting, all-consuming moment in time.
He asked me not to forget. How could I possibly? My lips are still burning, still touched with fire.