Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘What If?’ by Shari Low.
Millennium – Robbie Williams
I love that word. It has a ‘don’t mess with me, I’m a hormonal lethal weapon’ ring to it. I’ve been muttering it dementedly since I got out of bed this morning, because I can’t think of a single thing that’s right with the world today.
I reach over to refill the kettle, dropping the arm of my dressing gown in last night’s dishwater and knocking over my ashtray in the process. It’s not going to be one of my better days. Before you start reaching for the telephone to summon a counselling service to my kitchen, can I just say that I’m having a midlife crisis. I look and feel like Liam Gallagher after a night on the tiles and I can tell you in years, months, days and minutes how long it is since my last sexual experience. But, according to every reputable (trashy) women’s magazine, this behaviour is typical of a single female of my age. One who’s having a midlife crisis, that is.
Do you ever think, ‘What if this is all there is to life?’ Do you ever contemplate your lot and wonder why you’re not a supermodel in Milan? Or the director of a multinational corporation? What about married to an international business tycoon with homes in seven countries? For the purposes of this ponderance, I’m going to ignore that I’ve got forty pounds on any supermodel, I have no cheekbones, zero entrepreneurial skills, I’m a hopeless commitment-phobe and I couldn’t handle seven houses because I get irritated having to run the Hoover round my tiny flat.
But all that aside, look at me now. I’m sitting at my breakfast table alone, having called in sick to work with an ever more ridiculous reason (‘I stubbed my toe in the garden’ isn’t a bad excuse, except that I live in a third floor flat), with absolutely nothing to look forward to except a chocolate croissant and a long linger over the latest edition of Hello! magazine. I can’t help thinking, ‘What if this is it?’ What if this is the way my life is going to be until I’m having Zimmer races up and down the corridor of my retirement home, flirting with old men and cheating at bingo?
I suppose I owe you an explanation for this sudden outpouring of self-pity.
My name is Carly Cooper. I’m careering towards my thirties at terrifying speed, and I pay an obscene portion of my monthly salary to live in a studio-cum-cupboard in the desirable area of Richmond, near London. I arrived here from my native Glasgow via a multitude of countries, adventures and disasters (mostly due to Mr Rights who inevitably turned out to be Mr Couldn’t Be More Wrongs). I’m 5’8”, with long blonde hair (extensions), blue eyes (coloured contact lenses) and ample curves (in many of the non-supermodel places).
I earn a great salary doing a job I detest and therefore spend every penny of it doing things I enjoy to take my mind off work. I am officially a National Accounts Manager for one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tissue-paper products. Translated, this means that I persuade buyers of large multinational companies to sign annual contracts for the supply of their toilet rolls. Don’t laugh. There’s a future in toilet rolls. They’ll be here long after all this modern technology like CDs and carphones are on a scrap heap somewhere.
I’m officially enjoying the single life with no significant other to answer to. Believe me, to paraphrase Jerry Maguire, I absolutely know that I don’t need a man to complete me. I should just be content being a single, cosmopolitan woman of the world. But unofficially, off the record, and with apologies to my fellow singletons everywhere, I’m bored, fed up and itching to be in a couple again.
I’m beginning to despair of ever finding someone to snuggle up to in front of the TV, and snog the face off when I’ve had one too many glasses of whatever vino is on sale in Tesco. I’ve started fantasising about settling down and having a family resembling one of those nauseatingly happy ones in cereal adverts. There’s no denying the irony of this situation. I spent the first ten years of my adult life avoiding commitment, and now that I’m up for it there are no takers. Karma is a bitch.
My only consolation in this sad existence is my trusty group of girlfriends, who, when they can extricate themselves from their children/jobs/husbands/boyfriends, love nothing more than girlie nights out with nachos, cheap plonk and buckets of salacious gossip.
We’re like family, which is just as well because my when it comes to actual blood relatives, support is thin on the ground. My parents divorced a few years ago, thank God. It’s not that I’d have been opposed to them living in happily married bliss, it’s just that their relationship had all the compatibility and cuddly warmth of a civil war. My mum is a teacher, very sensible, very intelligent and very proper. ‘I definitely found you in a skip, darling,’ she utters dryly whenever I disappoint her in any way, which is depressingly often. She’s lovely really, just as long as we don’t stay under the same roof for long enough for her to remember that she wholeheartedly disapproves of most of my personality traits and the way I’ve lived my life.
My dad, on the other hand, is a salesman. If you need a pension, ISA, zeros, gilts, stocks or shares, then he’s the man. He’s totally incorrigible, unbelievably irresponsible and the life and soul of every party until his friend, Jack Daniel’s, possesses his body and turns him into the kind of aggressive, overbearing bore who makes you hope you got none of his traits in the gene-pool lottery.
Sometimes I wonder what they ever saw in each other. I can only suspect it was a rash decision based on a full moon and alcohol. Their marriage survived years of both shouting and stony silences before they finally threw in the towel. I’ll tell you more about it later, but my brothers and I breathed a hearty sigh of relief when they finally called it a day.
Strictly speaking, us Cooper kids should have scar tissue on our souls after surviving the parent wars, but miraculously we seem to have emerged relatively unscathed. I’m the eldest, and a year later came Callum, who is 6’3”, perfectly formed, with abs that look like a toast rack and a face that adorns billboards up and down the country. And no, having a model for a brother isn’t as great as it sounds. I’m the ‘slippers and starting the diet on Monday’ kind of girl, while Callum is the aftershave guy, the sports car guy, the designer underwear guy. I once overheard a woman on a bus saying that he’s the guy that she would nominate to look for her G-spot and not care if he didn’t find it. Queasiness at that mental image aside, it was a proud moment and I adore the perfect bones of him.
Three years after Callum, Michael came along. Less chiselled than his Adonis of a brother, he’s the sweetheart you can rely on to cheer you up when you’re having a bad day, because his life trundles from one crisis to another. You could lose your job, bury your budgie and forget to tape an episode of ER, yet still his day will be worse. Michael is a computer genius. He spends his days locked in a world of animated psychopaths, perfecting the graphics for the nation’s teenagers to fixate on as they save the world with their PlayStations.
Whereas Callum has no time or desire for a relationship that lasts longer than a weekend, Michael is more likely to crumble into a heap at the first sight of a potential girlfriend. He could write a manual on unrequited love, but his overflowing heart stops him from giving up. Every week there’s a new goddess who’s ‘absolutely, positively and completely right for him in every way’, and every week she spurns his advances and he’s back to square one. He’s been chucked more times than an Olympic javelin. If only they could see that he’s funny, interesting, sweet, giving and he donates 10 per cent of his salary to Save the Whales.
But no, when girls look at Michael, they see a tall, almost good-looking guy, with an eccentric dress sense and ‘Sucker’ tattooed on his forehead. And he unfailingly chooses the ones who will chew him up without even having the decency to warn him that he’s about to be spat out at the speed of a Scud missile. I adore him no matter what the rest of the female population thinks. His goddess is definitely out there, I tell him, he’s just going to the wrong temples.
I speak to Callum, Michael and my closest friend, Kate, every day. Sometimes it’s for two minutes, other times it’s for two hours, depending on the excitement or trauma of the day. Yes, my phone bill’s high, but it’s cheaper than therapy and wine is allowed.
Since the onset of my official midlife crisis, they’ve been on the wrong end of many of my ‘how did I get this life?’ conversations. The thing is, I don’t understand why we weren’t properly prepared for reality when we were young. We were bombarded by propaganda about how girl meets gorgeous guy and they ride off into the sunset together. No one ever tells you men are like knickers – after a time, they get grey and washed out and they can have a tendency to fall down when you least expect it. Or, even worse, you find a perfect pair that you love, only to discover that your shape is changing and they don’t fit any more, no matter how much you try to pull them up.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bitter and twisted man hater. On the contrary, I love them. Perhaps a little too often, granted. Sweeping confession coming up. I’m just going to blurt it out and get it over with. I’ve been engaged to be joined in the holy vows of matrimony no fewer than four times and had two further near misses, before I pulled on my Reebok high tops and did a runner. Metaphorically speaking, of course. If you ever see me jogging, you can be pretty sure it’s because someone is chasing me with a weapon.
It’s just come to me that I could form an ex-boyfriend five-a-side football team, complete with substitute. I realise that to some my serial chucking may seem a tad unstable, heartless, cruel or indecisive, but it was none of these. No, it was down to optimism. You see, no matter how great the guy was, no matter if he was loving, faithful, made me laugh, and set my knickers alight, there was always some incident of conflict or disaster. Whereupon, instead of persevering and trying to make it work, I ended the relationship before careering headlong into the next fiasco. I was just always sure that the next romance would be the perfect one – one that wouldn’t require work, compromise or sacrifice on either side. Naiveté and optimism won the day, time after time. And look where that’s got me.
The ringing of the phone stops me from slipping deeper into my abyss of self-reflection. I reach for the green handset with the big white buttons that hangs on my wall. The company I work for issued us all with a high-tech mobile phone a few years ago, but the accountants get twitchy if it’s used for personal calls, so it usually languishes at the bottom of my briefcase, the perfect place to ignore it when it rings. My boss has started typing inspirational and nagging messages on his and sending them to us. Why, oh why, are those text thingies necessary? Whoever invented that little method of communication needs to have a serious word with themselves.
I put the green handset to my ear. ‘Hello?’
‘I called your office and they said you’re sick, so, let me guess, you’re still in your dressing gown, aren’t you?’
‘And there’s nothing actually wrong with you.’
‘Except that you’re feeling sorry for yourself.’
‘Definitely. It’s a recognised symptom of a midlife crisis.’
Kate. My best mate. Or long-suffering mate, if we’re going for accuracy. We’ve been pals since we sat next to each other in Primary 7, and both got detention because we wouldn’t admit which one of us opened a can of Tango under our desk, causing an explosion of orange fizz that hit everyone within ten feet of us. Incidentally, it was Kate. I shared the punishment, but she’s been bailing me out ever since, so I think I got the better deal.
She sighs because she’s been listening to me moaning for weeks now. ‘Cooper…’ My pals all call me by my surname, because there were two Carlys in our Primary class and it just stuck. Now, when I hear my first name being uttered, I automatically fear that my mother is in the vicinity. ‘We’re going to have to make this quick, because I’ve got a Spice Girls tribute act due in for blow-dries any minute.’
When she’s not busy being my personal relationship advisor, Kate’s a hairdresser in an achingly hip Kensington salon. She came to London ten years ago, originally to be near Carol, another one of our teenage gang, who, like my brother, was hustling her way in the modelling world and looking for company. They shared a flat in Camden for a year, before Kate met a very lovely architect called Bruce, and was swept off her feet by his vaulted ceilings and elevated angles.
She lives in nearby Chiswick, with Bruce and their two amazing children: Cameron, six, and Zoe, four. Both of them have Kate’s features – long chestnut hair, huge green eyes and infectious grins. I can sense that there’s one on her face right now.
‘You’re not having a midlife crisis. You’re having a millennium crisis. It’s a thing. The psychological millennium bug. I read about it in Woman’s Own, so it must be true. Or maybe it was in Take A Break. I really need to cut down on my magazine subscriptions. Anyway, apparently, it’s not just technology that’s going to implode at the dawn of the new century. It’s making people reflect on their lives and relationships and make changes. They reckon the divorce rate is going to go through the roof. I keep stocking up on Bruce’s favourite biscuits just to keep him on side.’
I ponder that for a moment. ‘You can’t beat the contentment delivered by a Wagon Wheel. Anyway, maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis and a case of the millennium bug. Maybe it’s both.’
Kate laughs. ‘Nope, sorry. You don’t get to make claims on two different crisis situations. Pick one and stick to it.’
I get the feeling she’s not taking me seriously and, to be honest, I don’t blame her. In my defence, as well as doing my share of navel gazing, I have made some efforts to change. For the past couple of years, I’ve deliberately stayed single. In my quest to understand and analyse where it all went wrong, I’ve been spending long nights contemplating all my past relationships, trying to understand why they didn’t work out. I’m not sure it’s helped, but sales of those Marks & Spencer dinners for one have rocketed.
I’ve just realised that I’ve scoffed the whole croissant and don’t even remember doing it. And I’ve missed the start of Richard & Judy.
‘Is there a cure for the millennium bug? Other than educating yourself about life from the pages of women’s magazines?’ I ask.
‘Yes. Apparently you have to just get over yourself and take action, make changes, solve the problem. Okay, spell it out for me. Tell me exactly what’s bothering you.’
‘I just think…’ The words catch in my throat, so I change tack. ‘I just wonder if…’ Nope, can’t get that out either. I close my eyes, brace myself and prepare to tell her the thought that kept me awake last night. ‘I can’t get it out of my head that I might have made a mistake. What if one of my exes was my forever soulmate and I was just too stupid to see it? What if I trampled Mr Right in the rush to meet another Mr Wrong? Maybe I’ve missed my chance. How will I ever know?’
There’s a pause as she considers my dilemma. I’m hoping she’ll come up with something wise and insightful.
‘You could always win the lottery and go and visit them all.’
Hopes dashed. Although, she’s not wrong. You see, my exes are scattered all over the world. Oh yes, I did more to bring countries together than the United Nations.
I hear a bell ringing in the background at the other end of the line and Kate immediately wraps things up. ‘Hot N Spicy are here, I need to go. I’ll call you later and you’d better be out of your dressing gown.’
The line goes dead. I replace the handset, finish making my tea and carry it over to the sofa, Kate’s words playing in my mind. Lottery win aside, maybe there’s something in what she says. This is 1999. The last year of the century. How incredible would it be to have turned my life around and go into the 2000’s happy, fulfilled and in love again? Let’s face it, nothing is going to change unless I do something to make it happen. An idea begins to form in my mind. There’s an obvious way to find out if my happy ever after lies with an ex, but where would I start? I suppose I’d do it in chronological order. That would mean going back twelve years to my first love, Nick Russo, and to a time when I still had a connection to the word ‘virgin’, other than the fact that I’ve flown on their aeroplanes…
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