- Published: 1 December 2020
- ISBN: 9781405945714
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $19.99
The Flip Side
'Utterly adorable and romantic. I feel uplifted!' Giovanna Fletcher
One hundred and thirty-five metres above London, with one of the most spectacular city views in the world as your backdrop, who could say no?
I now know who could say no.
Jade Toogood. The girl I had called my girlfriend for four years. The woman who, until just a few moments earlier, I planned on spending the rest of my life with. The person who I am now trapped inside a glass capsule with, 443 feet above ground.
She could say no.
Rather, she had said no.
New Year’s Eve. The London Eye. The girl of my dreams. A ring. A future together.
What could possibly go wrong?
I planned everything so meticulously. It was all meant to be perfect. The perfect end to the year, the perfect start to the next. I spent months secretly scouring websites, magazines and shops, looking at rings, thinking of ways to ask, waiting for the right moment. It was only when Jade mentioned how much she wanted to go on the London Eye that I settled on it for the chosen place. The venue for the story we would repeat over and over again to our friends, family and future grandchildren.
The glossy brochure advertising the ‘Proposal Package’ certainly sold it – if you ignore the exorbitant cost, what could be more romantic than hiring a private capsule? The pages were full of joyous couples smiling, laughing, kissing. It featured beautiful-looking people shedding tears of happiness. There were high-definition images of the magnificent view. The word ‘magical’ was emphatically printed in bold type. ‘Special’, it said. ‘The perfect romantic setting’. There was no disclaimer declaring that it might not always be perfect. There was no small print proffering the warning she may say no. There was no money-back guarantee if she did. After all, as the tagline declared, who could say no?
We are not even high enough to witness the promised iconic skyline when it all starts to go wrong. We have only just boarded our capsule. Our private capsule which, for the next thirty minutes, is reserved for just us, a box of luxury chocolate truffles and a bottle of champagne. I don’t even like champagne. But what with the nerves, and the pressure of the situation, I down a glass before we even set off.
I pop both the bottle and the question too early.
If there is a playbook for London Eye proposals then I imagine it would instruct you to get down on one knee as you reach the highest point of the rotation, when you have the maximum impact of the spectacular 360-degree view. Not before you even leave the ground.
But I don’t wait.
Maybe she would have said yes if she had been faced with the wondrous sights of Big Ben, Wren’s baroque architecture and the modern metropolis of the City. Instead, as I utter the fateful words ‘Will you marry me?’, we are face-to-face with the London Dungeon. The question scares her more than the blood-soaked billboards.
‘No, Josh, no.’ Jade stares straight into my eyes. A horribly blank expression. She looks at me like I’m a stranger she’s never met, rather than the man she lives with. The man she is meant to love.
We met while working together in Bristol, the city in which I grew up and where we live. I took what was intended to be a temporary job at a hotel after studying History at King’s College London, simply as a way to tide myself over until I decided what I wanted to do in life. Jade started a few years later, after her father, the owner, found her a job as a receptionist. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but just as we both fell into the career, we soon fell into a relationship. Four years later, after we’d been a couple for three and lived together for two, did she not think that I would ask soon?
‘Marriage, Josh? Really? What are you thinking? I said I wanted you to take me on the London Eye, not for you to propose to me on it.’
It can’t have come as too much of a surprise. Does she think you get champagne, truffles and a private capsule all for your standard £24 ticket?
‘OK, I’m sorry. Obviously I’ve got the timing wrong. But why would you not even consider it? Why are you so adamant we’re not ready? You know how much I love you, right? We want to spend our lives together? Isn’t this the next step?’
‘You can stand up now,’ she says bluntly, ignoring my questions, as I realize I am still on one knee, ring in hand. For someone who is usually so touchy-feely, she moves as far away from me as is possible.
I get back on my feet and look out of the capsule in disbelief. Just as the perfect moment is annihilated, so too are all the happy times I have spent around this area. Forever ruined in my mind. The childhood memories of family trips to the capital, when everything seemed bigger and brighter and generally more impressive, to the student days and nights spent catching an art-house film at the BFI, pretentiously perusing the stalls of the booksellers underneath Waterloo Bridge, or getting a last-minute discounted ticket to a play at the National, which I wouldn’t understand but I’d pretend to enjoy.
The South Bank has always been my favourite place in London. The paved street snaking alongside the river, encompassing so many of the city’s sights, full of tourists pulling suitcases and mums pushing prams, joggers navigating flocks of schoolkids, skaters weaving in and out of pigeons, couples holding hands, cameras and coffee cups. I know the area well. So well that I could tell you that the roof of the National Theatre is home to around 60,000 bees, or that the Shell Mex House opposite has the largest clock face in the UK. I could tell you all these things but I couldn’t have told you that my girlfriend doesn’t love me the way I love her. I couldn’t have told you she would say no. And that is now all I can think of. I now never want to see this place again. Most of all, I don’t want to be here right now. I want to be somewhere else.
Except I can’t. I can’t be anywhere else, not for another twenty-eight minutes at least.
I pace lengthways across the capsule. Even though the transparent pod normally holds twenty-odd people, it suddenly starts to seem very small with just two. I feel claustrophobic. Her Dior perfume, a smell synonymous with happy times, consumes the capsule and now suffocates me. Can they not just let us out? Or put the system into reverse? Is there not a panic button somewhere? There must be a way to escape in an emergency. And this really is an emergency.
Her words continue to echo inside my head and reverberate around the capsule, getting louder and louder as they bounce off the windows.
No. No. No.
What does no even mean? Is that a no for now? Or a no for ever?
I check my watch. Twenty-seven minutes to go. What is wrong with this wheel? Is it broken?
Jade is silent. She runs her painted nails through her bleached hair. She has been blonde for as long as I’ve known her, but her dark eyes give away her natural colour. Her hands stop when they reach the back of her head. She looks at me, exasperated. I can tell she wants to say something. I’ve seen that face before, when she broke the news to me that she’d accidentally smashed my favourite Bristol City mug.
‘I didn’t want to tell you this. Not now. Not over Christmas. I’m sorry, Josh. I’ve actually been meaning to tell you . . . well . . . I’m just going to come out with it, I actually think we should . . . break up.’
‘I’ve met, I mean . . . I’ve been seeing someone else.’
Talk about sticking the knife in. I can barely breathe.
This can’t be happening. Is this a wind-up? An elaborate prank? It must be one of those candid camera TV shows.
I look around, trying to spot the hidden cameras.
There are none.
‘What do you mean, you’ve been seeing someone else?’ I nervously take a sip from my glass.
Despite the champagne, my mouth has gone dry.
‘I thought it was obvious we haven’t been working well recently. It doesn’t excuse my seeing someone else but –’
‘Who is . . . ?’ I struggle to speak.
‘His name is . . . George,’ she stutters hesitantly back.
Who the fuck is George? George Bush? George Clooney? They are the only Georges I know of, and as far as I am aware she has never met, let alone had an affair with, either. How could Jade know any more Georges than I do? We work together. We live together. We have the same social groups. What other George is there?
‘Who is he?’ I repeat, wanting to elicit more information than just a name. As I ask it, I realize I am not entirely sure I want to hear the answer. ‘Do I know him?’
I’m surprised my voice doesn’t crack as I ask.
‘Umm . . .’ She pauses before delivering the fatal blow. ‘Yes, you’ve met him before, but you don’t really know him. He’s stayed at the hotel . . . Mr Henley?’
Oh God. George Henley. He is one of our regular customers. One of the businessmen who stay every week. The same routine, the same room. Smart, always in a suit, and I’m pretty sure married. Have they really been business trips? No wonder she has been getting such good TripAdvisor reviews. Those recently published comments race through my mind; the words friendly, helpful and attentive suddenly conjure up different connotations.
‘Look, I’m really so sorry, Josh. Obviously I didn’t want to hurt you.’ She rubs her hands over her face, holding them in front of her mouth, before fiddling with the necklace I bought her last year.
I wonder if she takes it off when she sees George? I wonder if he’s bought her a necklace too?
I try and shake these thoughts from my head.
‘I’m just trying to be honest.’
‘It’s a bit late for that now.’
How did I not realize? Why didn’t she tell me this before we spent Christmas Day together, cuddled up under the tree, kissing under the mistletoe, exchanging presents?
I got her a fucking rabbit for Christmas.
It was meant to be the start to our new modern family. Pet, engagement, marriage, kids. That was the life plan.
‘But what about Jeremy? How could you do this to him?’ I ask indignantly, speaking as if the rabbit we’ve had for a week is our seven-year-old son.
‘I guess we’ll have to sort that out. And the flat.’ She looks at the floor, not wanting to make any eye contact.
‘What am I going to do about work? I can’t carry on working with you now. Especially with him staying at the hotel every week.’
‘I’ll have a word with Dad and see what we can do,’ she says apologetically. ‘I’m sure he can pay you for your notice period,’ she adds, as if she has already thought all of this through.
Living in a flat owned by your girlfriend’s father and working in the hotel he owns is all fun and games until your girlfriend starts having fun with somebody else.
I want to be angry. I want to cry. But I can’t do either. I am just in shock. Physically shaking. I can’t look at her beautiful face. Instead I glance down below, at a London which now appears to be a toy set. Miniature boats float down the river as if they are remote-controlled, Hornbyesque trains shoot across the Hungerford Bridge. Black cabs and red buses play a game of Connect4 across the streets. Loved-up couples browse the German Christmas Market, sharing mulled wine and laughter. Young lovers hug and kiss. Terrys and Julies cross Waterloo Bridge. Why can’t that be us?
London falls silent for a moment, as if out of respect for our fallen relationship. I can just make out the music playing from the speakers down at ground level. With Now That’s What I Call Christmas! having been played on constant loop in the hotel foyer since September, I have heard nothing but festive songs for the last few months. Just from the few notes that penetrate the glass, I recognize it immediately.
‘Lonely This Christmas’.
As I stand there eating the truffles, trying valiantly to get my money’s worth, I can’t help but laugh. It is as if a DJ is playing a soundtrack to accompany my life. Jade doesn’t seem to find it as amusing. She, in what has been demarcated as her side of the capsule, sits down and begins to cry.
Why is she crying? It should be me crying. She has no right.
‘Get ready to pose for your official London Eye photograph,’ the tannoy announces with devilish timing. ‘Smile!’
When they publish their updated marketing brochures, I think it is highly unlikely the team at the London Eye will use the photo of us, standing at opposite ends of the capsule, Jade in tears, me laughing manically and stuffing my face with chocolates, to promote their Proposal Package.
In contrast to the happy couples and families in the other pods, who I can see laughing and joking away, enjoying the experience together, we don’t speak for the rest of the ride. There seems little point. Of course, there are more questions I could ask, more answers I want, but what would it change? I know it is over.
‘There you go, take that,’ I say to Jade, as I shove a plastic card into her hands when we step back onto solid ground.
‘What is it?’
‘The room key to our suite at the Sea Containers. It was all meant to be part of the surprise. We were going to see in the New Year watching the fireworks together from our hotel room, as an engaged couple. But that’s not what you want, apparently.’
I’d secretly checked in earlier while she was looking around the shops, but I don’t want to stay there now, not alone.
She waits, and pauses, and looks as if she is going to say something big and meaningful.
‘Josh, I can’t. I can’t stay there alone,’ is all that follows.
‘Why don’t you ask George to stay with you?’ I know full well that George Henley doesn’t even live in London. After three years, those are my parting words to the woman I wanted to marry.
She takes the key and turns left, walking away through the buskers and the human statues, past the vintage carousel carrying excited kids, through the various aromas of the Christmas market, past the repurposed double-decker bus selling frozen yoghurt and towards the hotel and our suite which was meant to be for the two of us, but now will sleep just one.
I watch her until she’s out of sight, the truffles still in my hands, before I turn right.
As I cross Westminster Bridge, I don’t take note of the iconic and illuminated buildings which line my peripheral vision. I don’t want to look up. It feels like everyone is watching me, judging me. As if they all know what just happened. Even the fish sculptures entwined around the lamp posts appear to be staring. I am all alone in one of the world’s busiest cities. Nine million people, and I have no one.
As I focus my gaze firmly on the ground, I notice a fifty-pence coin glinting in the descending darkness. I need all the money I can get to recuperate the cost of today so I bend down and pick it up. What was it Mum always used to say? ‘Find a penny, pick it up, all the day, you’ll have good luck.’
Does this mean I will get fifty times the amount of luck?
I have never been one for superstition like she is, but if I ever needed a change in fortune, now is the time. As I put it in my pocket, it jangles next to the ring box.
Why the fuck did I get the ring engraved? What am I going to do with that now?
I battle on against the hordes of partygoers walking in the opposite direction, bottles in hand, trying to secure the best vantage point for tonight’s celebrations. As the clocks tick closer to midnight and to the New Year, the world’s eyes turn to watch the London Eye. Images will be beamed across the planet of fireworks exploding from where we’ve just left. It will be a scene of jubilation, of triumphant celebration. Along the River Thames, hundreds of thousands of revellers will be singing and dancing merrily. Millions more will be snuggled up at home in front of the TV, all counting down. Counting down to sharing a kiss with their loved one. Ten, nine, eight . . .
That was meant to be me. I was meant to be mumbling along to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and kissing my fiancée as we watched the spectacle from our perfectly positioned suite. Instead I spend the last few hours of the year squashed up next to an absurdly large man eating his Sainsbury’s Meal Deal on the Megabus back to Bristol. Back to an empty flat I have to move out of. Back to a job I have to quit.
The realization hits me. I’ve lost my girlfriend, my home and my job all in one evening.
Happy New Year indeed.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.
Madison Locke’s heart lifted like the birdsong that woke her that morning – joyous, clamouring, excited.
Love at first sight is a hypothesis (Roland Barthes) – I don’t believe in love at first sight.
Astrid Strick had never liked Barbara Baker, not for a single day of their forty-year acquaintance...