Here are the opening pages of my debut novel, Ready to Love. It’s a sitcom-in-a-novel and a rom-com about making your own luck in love and life. I hope you enjoy it.
In a decade of adulthood, Minna Jepson had had three proper boyfriends, which was neither feeble nor excessive. She went with the tide, but there were gaps when nobody floated her boat, and moments when ‘any port in a storm’ applied. But she wanted to be in love. It wasn’t just because everyone else seemed to have a partner. She was self-sufficient but, well, there were times when she felt not lonely, not needy, but that life would be so much sweeter if there was someone with whom to share it. Knowing she could love (because she had done so before), she wanted someone else who would, in turn, love her.
Minna was a staunch believer in commitment. She considered herself lucky to have parents who were still happy together. Grandparents, too, whose like-minded friends were also in for the long haul. They had rhyming names like Jill and Phil and Ray and Kay – the exception being Paul and Pauline. Her younger sister was partnered constantly, if not consistently. Lisa discarded boyfriends like pairs of tights. She must have worn them in layers, because there was always some new, unladdered lad at the ready. In short, if there was a gene for romantic longevity, Minna hoped she’d inherited it.
Minna really thought she’d hit the jackpot with boyfriend number four: Leo, who was her junior by eighteen months. When she listed the qualities she was seeking in a partner – a list she regularly revised, changing fonts and indentations – by and large, they were attributes of Leo’s. But after fourteen months together, Leo told Minna that he was gay.
Callie, her best friend-since-school, had been comforting but curt. By the time Leo dumped Minna, Callie was deep into her idyllic marriage to Todd, whom she’d met on a blind date arranged by a magazine. All Minna got was a lip gloss.
Callie said, ‘Don’t give yourself such a hard time. It won’t be long before you’ll look back on all this, and shrug it off.’
Minna dabbed the tears from the corners of her eyes. ‘What makes you think that?’
‘It might have gone wrong for worse reasons, Min,’ said Callie. ‘Relationships fail all the time.’ It was clear she was referring to a world beyond her own blissful realm. ‘But the way it’s happened, you get to walk away blame free.’ Callie spread her hands. ‘So move on, Min. Count yourself lucky and move on. Leo’s a nice guy – it’s not as if he’s suddenly turned into a demon – but he’s not for you. Just go out and find someone who is.’
It might have been intended as encouragement, but suggested only that the woman who had taken five weeks to decide between two near identical shades of apricot for the tablecloths at her wedding could, if required, be decisive.
In the year just gone, Minna turned had thirty, and two months after that, begun dating Julian Callender. (There had been nobody special since Leo. Until she met someone fabulous, Minna was, by and large, cool with being a solo unit.) Julian had come to work at Macsamphire Strutt burnished with a reputation for troubleshooting, just a few weeks before Minna joined as an analyst. The recruitment freeze that had swiftly followed was unconnected to either appointment. Julian proved his worth so fast that his one day a week soon became two. His contract was extended from three months to six. The day the memo circulated announcing he had agreed to stay on as permanent part-time was one of unmitigated joy. Minna herself had received an e-mail confirming that her probation was over, and was now a fully-paid up member of staff. She felt relieved: Julian was so impressive that she’d feared he’d be a shoo-in while she’d be surplus to requirements.
Julian was a likeable guy. You got the sense that Adam, the only other man on the team, wanted to enlist him as a regular drinking buddy or partner in some blue-sky business scheme. The other women, Kerry and Stephanie, were flirtatious, but no more so than those on this floor, the ones above and below, and in the sandwich shop over the road. If Minna were honest, she remained a little jealous that Julian’s was the more creative role. Her cultural life was by no means barren: she could happily spend a Sunday with a bonnet drama box set, and she never missed the new Cathy Kelly. But the way her colleagues enthused about some technical or creative problem Julian had solved, or how he’d won over a truculent client – each comment liberally laced with awe and devotion – made her feel out of step, which she did not much like. And then, one Friday evening, early in June, she found herself regarding Julian afresh.
Minna’s team were in their favourite haunt, a pub called Monroe’s, just off the Euston end of Tottenham Court Road. They ordered tapas and the wine flowed.
Luckily, the tapas plates had been emptied and cleared away when Kerry checked her phone and let out a bark of alarm. Enquiries were made and the source was revealed as a tenant SOS. She and her partner didn’t have children or pets: ‘We rear maisonettes,’ she joked. ‘They’re just as demanding, though a lot more profitable.’ The situation wasn’t urgent but Kerry was nothing if not diligent.
Minna wasn’t intentionally prying, but she happened to glance at Kerry’s phone and was confronted by a close-up of a pair of hairy male feet submerged in water.
Julian voiced mutual puzzlement. ‘I can’t quite see what this has got to with repairs to one of your properties …’
‘It’s actually really helpful,’ Kerry informed them. ‘We encourage tenants to send photos of damage. It helps us diagnose the problem and plan the solution.’
‘Oh now I see it,’ said Adam, taking the phone from Kerry and enlarging the image. ‘The tap’s come off. You would have thought he’d have got out of the bath before taking the picture, wouldn’t you?’
The evening never really recovered after that. But they’d done well. Minna surveyed the discarded bottles and considered the conversations that had poured forth from them. She mused on the marvel of wine: it has no knowledge, and yet it harbours many views and the skills to disseminate them.
Minna didn’t feel drunk, just mellow and end-of-weekish, but even so, she found herself engulfed by melancholy. She recalled that Julian had set the mood plummeting with a story about disadvantaged countries. Travel was his thing, which Minna did not find very relatable. Apart from university, parental trips across the channel to purchase alcohol for Christmas, a spot of inter-railing, a skiing trip to Switzerland, and summer hols with her sister, she’d been London-based. Travel seemed so effortful, but Julian was a dab hand who could negotiate the trickiest situations. He’d winkle out the most co-operative camel in a pack; he’d know which noodles in a market stall were cooked fresh and not reheated. He knew the precise local price of a beer and its correct temperature for serving.
By now, aside from the staff, Minna’s team were Monroe’s sole occupants.
‘Just off to the gents,’ said Adam, as Kerry snapped shut her phone.
‘I’d better ring Dave,’ said Kerry, ‘and see how we’re off for gland nuts.’
‘I need a fag,’ said Stephanie.
Julian and Minna found themselves alone. He smiled. ‘Something I said?’
It wasn’t an especially comical remark. She should have still been irked that Julian had droned on about poverty at a birthday celebration – it was as appropriate as planning a picnic in Ramadan. Actually, you could question his motives. There he was, stomping on carbon feet, but not as an aid-worker or a peace-promoter or anything beneficial to the greater good, but as a tourist— But all that mattered, was that he seemed to be flattering Minna now. So she smiled back. Her spirits lifted immediately. She regarded her wine glass and saw that it was empty. But whatever agency had promoted this delicious new contentment, it was not working under the auspices of alcohol.
Minna smiled again. Julian had a nice smile, she thought, as if noticing it for the first time. She felt as if she was catching up with everyone else at last.
But silence loomed. One of them had to say something, but all Minna could summon were the results of an office-wide poll in which the majority had chosen to reinstate Fair Trade Coffee over supplying the bathrooms with anti-bacterial handwash.
‘Personally,’ she told Julian, ‘I’d like both but there must be cost implications, and I’m not sure the handwash is eco-friendly.’ Mercifully, she stopped there, although privately, the sentence trilled on: ‘Actually, you are quite sexy, aren’t you?’
Mercifully, again, Minna realised that she was not toiling alone. Julian rewarded her attention lavishly. He made jokes that she found so hilarious that she was convinced he’d scripted them for her. He delivered revelations perfectly tailored to enhance her own points of view or to introduce new and instantly life-enriching perceptions.
All this took place within a time frame of roughly three minutes and when the others resumed their positions, Julian and Minna were mid-snog.
‘Don’t let us interrupt …’
‘And there I was feeling bad about abandoning you.’
‘Only said the other day you don’t see Minna and Julian chatting very often …’
‘So how long has this been going on?’
Julian drew back from Minna slowly, so that she did not feel an abrupt detachment. He said, ‘Anyone fancy another drink?’
Adam hesitated, as if tempted. ‘No, I’ve got to be up early to take the girls swimming, so I’d best not stay.’ He was referring to his twin daughters, who were three.
‘I’ve got a quiet day planned,’ said Stephanie. ‘But in the evening I’m going to the theatre with Janine.’ Interchangeable to the uninitiated, the members of Stephanie’s social circle fulfilled specific functions and operated on a rota. Along with prescribed activities, they had designated meeting points. Days of the week varied but a tennis friend never angled for an invitation to cake decoration, or vice versa. She added, ‘There’s a new play on at the National and we got ten-quid tickets.’
‘What’s the play?’ asked Julian.
‘I’ve no idea. Janine read about it in the Metro.’ The request for specifics overstretched the brief. ‘I’m going to the theatre with Janine.’
‘Dave’s making noises about an early trip to B&Q.’ This was Kerry, of course. ‘Think that means I should make a move.’
Minna suddenly had an incredible thirst. ‘I’ll stay,’ she gushed. And so they did.
Wasn’t dating a colleague asking for trouble? Didn’t everyone know that? Then again, when you thought about it, colleagues should date all the time. We see more of the people we work with than family and friends. It’s friends you shouldn’t go out with – that’s the line that can’t be crossed – and Julian wasn’t a friend. None of the team was. And aside from having little in common other than sharing an office, Minna had never dated someone with such curly hair – it could do with a cut – and despite the fact that none of her other relationships had lasted, she saw no reason to switch policies now.
Minna found she very much enjoyed the business of getting acquainted with Julian. He was the only person she knew who didn’t own a television. But who needs TV when you’ve got a million real-life stories running through your head? Julian showed her photo albums and played home-made videos on his iPhone. Minna quickly found herself in thrall to his every word. Soon they were a couple.
Sometimes, Julian and Minna spent the whole weekend in W2’s living archive. Julian would cook an authentic African or Indian meal, with Minna’s assistance. It was summer, but she was more than happy to forgo picnics in Greenwich or swimming in the ponds at Hampstead Heath. She didn’t go clothes shopping because there were no parties to attend. It appeared that she dropped out of several social loops, which she was slow to realise, because she spent less time on Facebook and on the phone to girlfriends. She told Lisa to find someone else to take her place on the Ibiza holiday, even though she had begged to be included back in the depths of winter.
Sunny days sailed over Praed Street and swallowed Minna and Julian with them. When they ventured out, things invariably went wrong, but that only added to the fun. It was hilarious to think that Julian had made it through Amazonian rain forests with just a scratch on his left ankle and a thirst, and yet the car he borrowed from a mate – someone never seen by Minna – died just before Hillingdon en route to their Oxfordshire B & B. Trains were cancelled, bus timetables expired, and taxis sailed past, despite having their lights on.
As the weeks went by, Minna came to notice the way Julian’s stories tailed off, as if their retrieval had unearthed disappointment, not fulfilment. She wondered if Julian had pursued travel as an act of evasion. She didn’t want to spoil their days together so she didn’t ask for reasons. Besides, as his girlfriend, wasn’t it her privilege as much as her burden to see what was hidden to others?
‘This is nice, isn’t it?’ said Julian, squeezing her frozen hand on the way back from somewhere cold and muddy.
She squeezed back. ‘Yes, it is.’
She kept telling herself it was, and would be even nicer when she told the team on Monday morning. How they relished tales of Julian and Minna’s weekends. She always managed to satisfy their curiosity, which made it so much easier to conclude that she too was satisfied. Even so, it seemed as if the rest of the world was wearing rose-tinted spectacles, and Minna felt excluded all over again.
After four months, Minna realised that she had made a big mistake and she ended the relationship. It happened in Australia, which was an expensive way of doing things, but effective. The occasion was the wedding of an old friend of Julian’s. The team at work was, naturally, thrilled. Callie was impressed, because her own honeymoon had taken her no further than Torremolinos.
Minna embraced the opportunity and the end of the summer sales. It was a privilege to be invited when she and Julian hadn’t been together all that long – and you couldn’t ask for a better public induction than a wedding. It chimed with the extremes of Julian’s life as described, if not experienced. And how romantic! Sex between them was great, but Julian wasn’t a great one for public displays of affection. Maybe his hands were so used to carrying maps and compasses or those walking sticks – the ones for the outdoorsy, not the elderly – that it felt unnatural to entwine his fingers with smooth, human flesh. All that could change.
They would stay with Julian’s older brother, Adrian, who lived practically on the water. So far, Julian’s family had been as scarce as his friends. Not even Minna’s mother had succeeded in extracting more than his parents’ names. Julian had promised to take Minna to meet his folks but the logistics were difficult, because they had retired remotely to a hamlet in Dorset. So she was fascinated to meet Adrian. Cut from the same cloth, how alike were the Callender brothers? She and Lisa were evidence of just how wide and deep a gene pool could be, but since there was only two-year age gap between the boys, perhaps they had been close. Then again, Adrian had lived in Sydney for nearly a decade.
‘He married an Aussie girl when he was twenty-one,’ Julian explained.
‘Wow. And they’ve been there ever since? Have they got kids?’ Julian hadn’t mentioned any nephews or nieces.
He shook his head. ‘The marriage only lasted a year. She went back to Perth and Ady stayed in Sydney. He must like it, I guess.’
‘That’s so sad,’ said Minna. ‘What went wrong?’
‘They got bored of each other, apparently,’ said Julian.
‘After only a year?’
Julian shrugged. ‘You wouldn’t think it possible, would you?’
Minna decided to leave the subject there.
But she was not cast down! Spring in Australia as a London autumn closed in promised so much. At last, she’d see Julian’s spirit of adventure. It would rub off on her, and she’d learn new skills.
Minna read a charity-shop-purchased Lonely Planet guide on the plane. Every now and then, she nudged Julian, who was watching back-to-back movies, and shortlisted possible excursions. Without looking away from his screen – and without exception – he said things such as, ‘Oh, I went there. No need to go again.’ ‘It’s really not up to much – just desert really.’ ‘But I swam with dolphins in the Galapagos.’
They arrived in Sydney at six a.m. on the Friday, body clocks out of synch – wasn’t Julian used to crossing time zones? – but wired with excitement. As their taxi pulled in, Adrian greeted them briefly, handed over a set of house keys, and cycled off to work. They’d see little of him after that.
The tourists showered and changed and had coffee. Then Minna said, ‘Right. Our first day in Australia. What should we do?’
Julian was scanning a listings supplement from the weekend paper. How thoughtful of Adrian to provide it. Unfortunately, as the morning wore on, it became clear that reading was all Julian was intent on doing.
‘I feel a bit knackered, Min,’ he said at noon. ‘Think I’ll have a kip.’
‘I thought the best way to fight jetlag is to stay up all day and go to bed at your normal time.’
‘Maybe it’s not jetlag,’ he said, ‘it could be something I ate on the plane. I’m feeling pretty rough, actually.’
‘OK,’ she said, kissing him on the forehead. ‘Have a sleep, but I might go for a wander. After all, it’s my first day in Sydney. Don’t want to waste a minute.’
He squeezed her hand. ‘Good idea. Ady’s bought plenty of food, but if you come across a chemist, something for a dodgy tum wouldn’t go amiss.’
Minna savoured opening the front door to a view of the boats on the harbour, and the scent of eucalyptus. Then, all of a sudden, the air was filled with a screech and Minna was surrounded by an angry cloud of black and white. No one had warned her about magpie nesting season. The notion of a week-long house arrest was only marginally less attractive than being dive-bombed whenever she stepped into the street. She respected the birds’ protective instincts, but regretted the fact that her summer sale purchases wouldn’t look quite as gorgeous as intended when teamed with a patchwork of surgical gauze.
Julian recovered in time for Saturday’s wedding, so it was a genuine shame to arrive at the gardenia-garlanded venue to be informed by the groom’s parents that it had been cancelled at short notice. The bride had announced the night before that she was pregnant. By someone other than her husband-to-be.
‘Well,’ said Minna, ‘that’s a shame for them, but it got us here, and we’ve still got three weeks to fill.’
But six days later, in Melbourne, during an episode of Australia’s Got Talent, Minna found she could go on no longer. She turned to Julian, who had not stirred from the television for twenty minutes, and said, ‘I’m sorry, Julian. But I’m not happy and I can’t do this. I’m going to use the internet downstairs and change my ticket and book a flight back to London.’
Julian looked perplexed. ‘I don’t under– I mean, I didn’t realise – Min, does that mean we’re splitting up?’
Minna’s heart began to thud. ‘Yes, Julian,’ she said. ‘We’re splitting up.’
His expression looked as though she’d pulled the world apart and stranded him – the intrepid traveller – without a passport, or money, or any local lingo. As if Minna was the bold adventurer, when she’d never felt less courageous in her life.