Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘My Year of Saying No’ by Maxine Morrey.
My Year of Saying No
I inhaled deeply, sucking in a big lungful of grimy London air as I finally squeezed myself out of the rowdy, celebratory throng who were now linking arms with each other and making up random words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The air was sharply cold and dry and I shivered as it cooled me from both outside and within. Slumping down on to a garden bench, I let out a breath in a long, slow release, watching it cool and cloud in front of me. It was over.
‘Fancy starting the new year off with a bang?’ My questioner let out a braying laugh, amused by his own clever repartee before punctuating the question with a loud belch.
I looked up at the man, his tie askew, expensive suit quite possibly ruined by whatever that was he’d spilt down it, and tilted my chin up.
‘That would absolutely, most definitely, be a no.’
I stood and walked past him back into the party, found my coat and left, closing the door behind me. Thank god. The Year of Saying Yes was finally over.
* * *
Admittedly, on paper, it had seemed like a good idea. Jess, my best friend, certainly seemed to think so. After seven years with the man I had assumed I would one day marry, we’d both realised that that would, in reality, probably be a very bad idea. It wasn’t that we didn’t care for each other any more, but something had changed. Neither of us could put our finger on what, or when, but there was no denying it had happened. Being together had turned into more of a habit than a passion and that was not a strong enough foundation to build a marriage on.
Of course, just because we both felt the same way, and there hadn’t been any dramatic bust-up or throwing of dishes, didn’t mean it wasn’t sad. We’d had dreams and plans and realising that those hadn’t come to fruition, and now never would, was still heartbreaking.
Jess had tried to encourage me to get out and meet new people, but I was in no mood for company. I’d had to say goodbye to something that had been a big part of my life and I needed time to grieve. Once again, I’d been thankful for my job as an online virtual assistant. I still did all the tasks I’d done before when employed as a Personal Assistant to an Executive – skills I’d honed over the years and was good at. But striking out on my own and going ‘virtual’ had been the best thing I could have done. The thought of having to go into an office, with everyone knowing your business, and gossiping about it behind your back, still made me shiver. But for the last couple of years I hadn’t had to deal with any of that office-politics rubbish and I couldn’t have been happier about it. Also, I got to wear pyjamas to work. I mean, if that isn’t a major perk, I don’t know what is.
Setting up my own business had been a bit scary, of course, but I’d started small and on my own time, working in an office in the day and on my own company in the evenings and weekends. It was exhausting at times, but I kept my goal in sight and that magical day when I was able to hand in my notice and hang up my suits was utter bliss. Life was good! And then it wasn’t.
Jess had let me mope for a couple of weeks and then got bored. Which sums Jess up. Her attention span is not the longest, but it’s a quirk that makes her fun and spontaneous and I wouldn’t change her for anything.
‘OK,’ she’d begun with a mouthful of the spaghetti carbonara I’d cooked for us both one Friday night a little while after I’d moved into my own flat, and my newly single life. ‘Time to move on. God, that’s so good. You need to give me the recipe.’
‘You don’t cook anything, apart from cakes.’
‘I might start one day.’
I couldn’t argue with that, so I nodded and hoped the carbonara had been enough to distract her from whatever it was she’d been planning on saying. It wasn’t. I was good, but not that good.
‘That it’s time to move on.’
‘I’m not stuck.’
‘You kind of are.’
‘No, I’m just… here. And I’m OK with that. I’m not mooning over Tom and what might have been. I’m fine, really.’
Despite what Jess thought, I truly was content with my current situation.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘OK. Let me put it another way. You’re being boring.’
‘It’s said with love!’ She grinned at me as she forked up some more dinner.
My mouth full, I responded by arching an eyebrow.
‘I know what!’ Jess said, her fork suddenly clattering against the side of the pasta bowl. ‘Oh my god, this is totally brilliant!’
I had my reservations and I hadn’t even heard the idea yet. I had, however, known my friend a very long time, so against my better judgement I let her continue.
‘I’ve had nothing but bad dates this year, and you’re suddenly single after, like, forever.’
‘Not exactly forever.’
She waved a perfectly manicured hand at me, dismissing my protest. ‘So, next year – basically in two weeks’ time, on the first of January, we begin the year that’s going to change our lives!’
I gave a mental eye roll. ‘Change our lives?’ I asked, not too worried. Jess had gone to drama school and although she ran a PR firm now, the training, and her natural inclination towards the dramatic, had never disappeared.
‘Yes! Next year is going to be The Year of Saying Yes!’ She threw her hands out and her head back like she’d just finished a West End show and was, apparently, waiting for the applause to begin.
I chased the last of the spaghetti around my bowl instead.
‘Well?’ Jess asked, looking slightly annoyed.
‘What do you think about my plan?’
‘Go for it, if you want. Sounds like something you’d enjoy.’
‘It’s a joint plan. For me. And you.’
It definitely didn’t sound like something I’d enjoy. Quite the opposite in fact. I enjoyed the quiet life. I worked in my pyjamas for goodness’ sake, and it suited me perfectly. The Year of Saying Yes, I knew, would not.
‘Oh. I’m not sure it’s something I’m ready to embark on just yet. But you should totally go for it.’ I hoped that encouraging Jess to pursue her latest idea would distract her from remembering that I was supposed to be a part of it. It was a tactic I had employed in the past on several occasions to good effect. Unfortunately, she seemed to have cottoned on.
‘Oh no, you don’t! Not this time! This is something we’re doing together!’
‘Jess. I really don’t want to.’
‘That’s because you’ve forgotten how to have fun!’
‘I have not! I just have a different concept of what’s fun than you do! Bars and dating apps are not my idea of fun. You know that.’
‘I didn’t say it was only going to be bars and dating apps.’
Which clearly meant they were definitely still included. This was not good.
‘Look,’ Jess said, calming down a little and taking my hand. ‘You’ve had a rough time, and you were in the same relationship for a long while. Let’s take the opportunity to do some fun things together. It’s not necessarily about meeting someone else. It’s more about adventure, getting out there, grabbing hold of life and saying “OK, show me what you’ve got!”’
What I had was indigestion.
* * *
‘How bad can it be?’ Seb asked when I told him the day after New Year’s Day as we had a catch-up Skype meeting.
‘Bad,’ I said, laying my head on the desk so that he was left looking at the top of my head. ‘Very, very bad.’
‘Things often seem worse than they really are at first.’
I made a noise that could have been agreement but most definitely wasn’t.
‘What’s the scar from?’
‘Huh?’ I asked, pulling my head back up to look at the screen.
Seb tapped the top of his head. ‘Little scar. There.’
‘Oh,’ I put my hand over it automatically. ‘I was playing tug of war at primary school and hadn’t quite learned all the laws of physics yet. When I let go, I went flying back into some railings and cut my head open.’
‘Yeah. Jess had a right meltdown!’ I laughed, remembering back to those playground days. ‘She’s always been a bit of a drama queen, in a good way though. But I think I properly traumatised her, with blood pouring down my face. She was screaming her head off.’
‘And what were you doing?’
‘Asking her to shoosh because I had a headache!’ I grinned at him and, as he returned it, my tummy did a little flip. OK, a big flip. It really was inconvenient to have quite such a huge crush on my biggest client, but I couldn’t help it. It was just there. And I’d been dealing with it just fine. After all, lots of people have crushes. An incredibly happily married friend of ours admitted to a huge crush on one of their kid’s teachers. Her husband knows and isn’t worried. It’s just one of those things that happen in life, and Seb is my secret crush. Even Jess doesn’t know about it. I am professionalism personified with my work, except with Seb, with whom it is a little more relaxed. The veterans’ charity he ran had been my first full time client and was still a major part of my workload. Most clients I caught up with over email, by message, or occasionally the phone, but Seb had asked from the start if we could catch up face to face, as it were. I’d agreed and prepared for the first meeting as I would have done for one in my old job – smartly dressed, with make-up and hair all done. But the moment Seb had come up on the screen, given me a wave and smiled that smile, all the formality seemed unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, we got the work done, but there had never been any awkwardness, and there was a lot of laughter which, after my last job, I was both surprised at and very glad about. Today, though, even Seb’s smile couldn’t unknot the tangle in my tummy at the thought of Jess’ plan.
‘So, explain to me again. What exactly does this Year of Saying Yes entail? You have to say yes to everything?’
He paused. ‘Even if you don’t want to?’
‘Especially if I don’t want to, which, bearing in mind it’s me, is going to be pretty much all the time!’
He frowned, then nodded. ‘You know you don’t have to do this, don’t you? You have a choice.’
‘I have already agreed now. After the third glass of wine, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Now I’ve had time to think about it in the cold and sober light of day, it seems like a terrible one!’
‘I gave Jess my word I wouldn’t.’
‘You don’t know Jess. Also, when you give someone your word, I’d bet my eleven o’clock doughnut you don’t go back on it.’
‘You have doughnuts?’
I leant over and then waggled the bag of Sainsbury’s jam doughnuts at him.
‘Lottie. That’s not one, that’s a bag of five!’
‘Well, they do say it’s important to have your five a day.’
‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re not referring to doughnuts.’
I shrugged. ‘You wouldn’t though, would you?’
‘OK, no. But I’d also probably not have agreed to something whilst half cut either.’
I snorted into my mug of tea. ‘Must be hard work being so angelic.’
His eyes sparkled with amusement. ‘It’s got nothing to do with being angelic.’
I flicked a glance at the screen. Seb’s dark eyes and cropped hair were complemented by him being broad and well-built and, although the T-shirt he wore wasn’t close fitting, there was no hiding the fact there was a pretty damn good body beneath it. It wasn’t exactly hard to imagine that angelic was quite the opposite of what he might be. If ever a body was made for sin, I was pretty sure I was looking at it right now.
I hid my face in the huge mug for a moment. Imagining anything with regards to Seb was probably not a good idea. The last thing I needed was for him to find out I thought he was almost as delicious as those doughnuts. Possibly more so.
‘Anyway. I’ve agreed, so I’ve just got to get on with it now.’
Seb gave me a considered look and nodded. ‘I guess so.’
* * *
‘Well, you look happier than you did this time last year.’ Seb grinned at me when I answered the video call, pulling my knees up to my chest as I hugged a mug of ginger tea. ‘Happy New Year, again, by the way.’
‘And to you, and thanks for the message on New Year’s Eve. I’d just had the most awful proposition. I can’t tell you how glad I was to be reminded that that hideous year was over!’
‘What was the proposition?’
I told him and he shook his head.
‘Would you have said yes if it had been a few minutes earlier?’
‘Actually, no. Not in a million years. It might have been a year to say yes, but I still have standards. Thankfully, though, I could say no with absolute certainty and belief, because I, my friend, have come up with my own plan for this year.’
‘Is that so?’ Seb looked amused, settling back in his chair and crossing his arms across his broad chest, the scar on his forearm tracing a pale line through the dark hair, a silvery trail that ended just past his elbow.
‘Do I get to hear this magnificent plan?’
‘You do! In fact, you are the very first person I’m telling, so I hope you’re feeling suitably honoured.’
‘Of course. Come on then, don’t keep me in suspense. Out with it.’
‘After a year of going on dates I didn’t want to, terrifying myself doing adventure activities I wouldn’t ordinarily have done if you’d paid me, and shelling out to go on a holiday to see a level of drunkenness and behaviour I couldn’t quite believe instead of a nice, relaxing hotel in some quiet corner of the Med, I am drawing a huge, thick line under it all.’
‘And how exactly are you planning to do that?’
‘Because I am declaring this to be The Year of Saying No!’ Having now put my mug down, I threw my hands out in a dramatic gesture that even Jess would have been proud of.
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/2SKu6u5