I had been with Marian since September 2005, three years and four months. The honeymoon period had lasted about three weeks, until about half way through October 2005 beyond which point I spent a great deal of time telling myself that things would even out and get better if I could just hang in there and have patience. I was wrong. Nothing I did ever seemed to be good enough for Marian, and the central issue of any disagreement always became my problem, my poor attitude, my refusal to listen, my inability to respect Marian's innate right to be the forever injured party in any given situation, my stubborn refusal to attend expensive self-help workshops held in Leeds by an organisation of dubious qualification. It became exhausting, but I hung in there having decided that it was somehow better than being single.
Three years later I felt like killing myself in an absolutely literal rather than figurative sense. I could see nothing positive in my future. I was trapped both economically and emotionally, and all the fight had been passive-aggressived out of me. I was resigned to a future with Marian, one in which I would forever be in the wrong, and in which my performance as a purveyor of caringness, acceptitude and other qualities invented by snake-oil peddling authors of self-help literature would be under constant evaluation; and I would be found continually wanting. Each time I lay soaking in a hot bath after a tough morning at work, just before that day's roll call of ways in which I had been found wanting, I was aware of the possibility of my opening up a wrist and just letting it happen. I could see no other way out of this slow death. I no longer had the energy necessary to achieve escape velocity.
Nevertheless, the fight or flight response eventually kicked in, possibly brought on by the prospect of my third Christmas with Marian, another one spent listening to her explain how I had ruined everything, how she hadn't liked the presents I had bought her, and how this had once again exposed my essentially selfish nature. I began looking for a flat of my own. I had been living as a lodger in Marian's spare bedroom for nearly a year. I knew I would be most likely unable to afford even a medium-sized flat despite my working full time and bringing home a reasonably respectable wage, but it was get out or die, and almost anything would be better than the situation as it stood. I would get out and then, from my newly secured position of relative safety, I would tell her it was over and that it had been over for a long, long time. I would once again have a front door of my own which I would be able to close and lock with Marian on the other side.
'I'm moving out,' I told her. 'I'm looking for a flat. It's too cramped with us living on top of each other like this.'
She didn't see it that way. She worked a part time job, usually a few days a month, and had become reliant upon what I paid in rent as her principal means of income. This was a good deal for her, in addition to the satisfaction she clearly took from reminding me what a big favour she was doing me. As my stated intentions now represented a clear deviation from Marian's vision, they were essentially selfish and inconsiderate. She stopped talking to me, which was actually surprisingly pleasant. When I entered a room, she would leave. Terry at work proposed that I should stand at the entrance of whichever room she was in, and then walk backwards and forwards across the threshold, in and out, in and out, over and over, just to see what she would do.
I began to look at other flats. They were all tiny, horrible, and ridiculously expensive. I was returning from looking at one in Peckham, happening to arrive back at our front gate just as Marian returned from the shops. As we were no longer officially speaking to each other, she had taken to making her own shopping trips under protest. This replaced the existing system which had entailed her sending me out with a list of obscure and pretentious ingredients no-one had ever heard of, then blaming me for the failure of local shops to stock whatever it was which had been demanded by this week's ostentatious fad diet.
'Where have you been?'
'I've been to look at a flat,' I told her. 'It was horrible.'
'Good,' she exclaimed with undisguised pleasure, and we went inside to resume hostilities. The silence lasted until, I suppose, Marian realised I was sort of enjoying the admittedly somewhat icy calm, and so she changed tack.
'When are you moving out?' she demanded testily. 'I need to know. Either you're staying or you're going. You need to stop dragging your heels. It isn't fair on me.'
Now it couldn't come soon enough. She had allowed me to move in with her, albeit as a lodger, in good faith, and she had known all along that it was a mistake; and she had been right. I had let her down, as usual.
Against expectations, I had soon found a flat in Linwood Close, Camberwell, small but very clean and nice enough, and I was already moving stuff in there, one box at a time. It didn't really seem like there would be much point keeping Marian informed. The only reason she was even interested was for the sake of ammunition, whichever detail of the latest development could be weaponised as evidence of my continuing failure as a human being. It wasn't so much that Marian was unable to feel good about herself, as that she was unable to feel good about herself without pushing down on someone else so as to achieve the desired elevation. She needed the failings of others for the sake of contrast by which she was able to see herself as roughly functional.
I packed and moved as quickly as I could, keeping out of her way and then hiring a man with a van to take the great bulk of all my crap in one big hit. Marian had said she would be out that Saturday morning, but of course she wasn't, having failed to get out of bed on time followed by the customary change of plan. She complained as the man with the van smoked in her hallway, specifically she complained to me. I relayed the objection and my hired hand shrugged and put out his cigarette. We brought boxes down the stairs whilst Marian glowered and offered the occasional objection to the noise or the disruption to the ordinarily smooth running of her household. Eventually we carried the two large bookcases I had built myself down the stairs. Some paint was scraped from a banister, and Marian added sixty pounds to my final rent cheque to cover the cost of paint and general distress. As we carried the bookcase along the hall and out of the front door, I brushed against a woollen hat hung from the hall stand. I had asked if we could move the hall stand out of the way whilst carrying all my stuff out, but this would apparently have been too great a disruption, and so the precious woollen hat was knocked from its hook and fell to the floor.
'Are you going to pick that up, or were you just going to leave it?' Marian almost screamed, emerging from the front room.
My hands were full of bookcase, the transportation of which was of such difficulty that I wasn't even able to turn my head. I didn't bother to offer a reply.
'Jesus fucking Christ,' mumbled my driver. 'I can see why you're moving out.'
Later that day, I was in my own flat in Camberwell, a bus journey and a ten minute walk away from Marian. The silence was wonderful. The sense of freedom was incredible. I unpacked and began to settle in.
Three weeks had passed since I told her I was moving out. I had not yet told her that our relationship was over so far as I was concerned. I had not yet summoned the courage. Christmas had been and gone, and had been roughly as much fun as anticipated. I hadn't eaten for an entire three days prior to Santa's visit, not even a packet of crisps. I was dimly aware of this being unhealthy and possibly indicative of a serious degree of stress, but I got through it because I was at last on the home stretch. I told Marian that I had been so unhappy as to have not eaten for three days, and naturally she took it as further evidence of my basic psychological deficiencies resulting from my failure to take her advice, or even to listen to anything she ever said. New Year's Eve was coming up, and she was already thinking about which party we would go to, what I would wear and so on. We were apparently on talking terms again. I suppose she had grasped the falsehood of my moving out being ultimately for the best in terms of our relationship because she preferred it to the thought that I might wish to end that relationship. It had seemed politic to let her believe as much whilst I arranged to move out, because I had feared coming home to find she'd made a bonfire of all my stuff; but now that I was done, there no longer seemed much point in prolonging the agony.
'I can't live like this,' I said, 'flaming rows over nothing every single day.'
'All couples argue, Lawrence,' she told me as though it were self-evident. 'It's the sign of a healthy relationship.'
I smiled and told her it was over.
She ranted and raved and made numerous accusations, all of which could have been levelled at her with some justification.
'You're projecting,' I observed.
'Ooh projecting,' she parroted in a ludicrous attempt at sarcasm. 'Do you even know what it means?'
Marian had the shelf full of books with titles like Success Be My Rainbow, had attended expensive self-help workshops held in Leeds by an organisation of dubious qualification; and I had made a psychological observation without first seeking her permission. I was impinging on her territory. Only Marian understood such things. I myself was far too simple, which was why I never listened.
I laughed because it was funny. 'I know what it means, and that's what you're doing, because it's what you've always done, and what you will always do. Nothing is ever your fault, is it, Marian? Nothing is ever your responsibility.'
It felt good telling her that, and even better saying 'oh just fuck off,' in response to the subsequent stream of psychobabble drivel she unloaded in further illustration of my inherent uselessness.
We spoke on the telephone a week later, by which time I had become a much happier person. Her tone was light, conversational, as though no exchange of harsh words had occurred. She was working on Thursday afternoon and for most of the evening, and wanted to know would I be able to stop by and feed the cats for her. She had no other friends to whom she could turn for such favours, for reasons which are probably obvious.
'I live in Camberwell now,' I pointed out, in illustration of why this was quite a lot to ask. I was actually surprised she had asked me.
She began to rant and rave about how selfish I was, and how she was glad to at last be rid of me.
'I don't have to listen to this shit any more, Marian,' I said. 'If you want a favour from me, it's in your best interest to keep a civil tone, and use of the word please wouldn't hurt either.'
She immediately calmed, and even sounded a little shocked by my response; and I said yes because it was the cats, and they were the only thing about life at Marian's house I would ever be able to recall as a fond memory. So I cycled over one evening, still with my own front door key, and fed the cats.
It happened a couple of more times, and I didn't mind because it was the cats and I was at last in a position to say no without my failure to obey orders incurring some sort of character assassination. Then she came over on the pretext of using my PC to look up jobs on the internet. I wasn't entirely happy about this, but it seemed like it would be more awkward saying no than not. She twittered away happily, complimenting me on my new flat, acting as she had done when we first met, the happy little elf girl with the sparkly eyes. She fell asleep on my bed for two hours, having failed to find whatever it was that she had been looking for on the internet, and then I said, 'I'll walk you to the bus stop.'
As we walked, she talked and I realised that she understood our separation to be merely a hiatus, that we would be together again before too long. It was just something I had needed to get out of my system, me with my poor simple man brain. It was a mid-life crisis.
'I expect you'll find a new partner before I do,' she joked, or suggested with the inflection of a joke, now contradicting her previous assessment of our new relationship.
'I already have,' I said, because I had.
We walked on along Grove Park, and I couldn't tell whether she had heard me or not. We crossed Camberwell Grove, and then went along Stories Road towards her bus stop.
'I'm sorry if I was a bit school ma'am-ish,' she told me, and put her arms around me as we reached the shelter on Dog Kennel Hill. School Ma'am-ish didn't really seem to cover those years of passive-aggressive bullying, but I didn't care enough to argue and I was more bothered by this apparent resumption of physical affections.
'Did you not hear me saying I'd met someone else?'
She leapt back as though subject to an electric shock. Evidently she hadn't heard. 'But what about us?'
'We are no longer in a relationship. I thought that was pretty clear.'
'We're just having time apart.'
'No. We aren't.' Despite everything, it was difficult to take pleasure from this awkwardly distended termination.
'I wish you would make sense.' She was getting angry as usual, telling me I had been playing a game, leading her on. 'How am I supposed to feel about that, Lawrence?'
'I don't know. It's up to you.'
She fell silent and furious for a moment, then, 'Who is she?'
'Someone I've met. We get on really well. She's American.'
'How old is she?'
I lied, adding five years to Bess's age, having recognised Marian's idiotic assumption that the only reason I could possibly have chosen someone over her was due to my being mid-life crisis man seeking the younger model.
The bus arrived and Marian climbed aboard, taking that last wonderful ride out of my life.
Five years later and I am only beginning to process some of this stuff, and I am constantly astonished at how generally wonderful my life has become in comparison to the crawling misery of the years with East Dulwich's most violently well-adjusted bachelorette. Sometimes I think back and feel sorry for her, forever lost to the misery of her own making and unable to understand why. Other times I am tempted to send her a postcard:
Very happily married four years and not one flaming row in all that time, so I guess it really was you all along!
I like to think I'm better than that, and generally I am. I cannot take pleasure in someone else being unhappy, no matter how big a twat they may be or how deserving, and so I write in order to make sense of it all, and in order to turn some of this shit into something which, if not quite gold, is at least no longer shit.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as they say.