Falling in love on the eve of their 1988 college graduations, Dexter and Emma embark on a heady relationship marked throughout subsequent decades by their disparate personalities, conflicts and misconceptions, in a tale told on the anniversaries of the day they met. Original.
David Nicholls trained as an actor before making the switch to writing. He is the author of two previous novels—Starter For Ten and The Understudy. He has also written many screenplays for film and television, including the feature film adaptation of Starter For Ten. He lives in London.
*Starred Review* Having already established his comedic chops in A Question of Attraction (2004) and The Understudy (2005), British author Nicholls now moves into Nick Hornby territory with this wonderful romantic comedy, which visits Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley on the same day each year over two decades. They first meet as college seniors in Edinburgh in 1988 and forge such a strong connection that it sees them through many rough patches, including Dexter's success as host of a wildly popular if vapid TV variety show and his subsequent all-night partying with D-list celebrities, which turns his once-affable confidence into an insufferable egotism. Meanwhile, Emma struggles to earn a living as a waitress and to maintain her relationship with her boyfriend, a shockingly unfunny stand-up comedian. As Dexter's career wanes and his marriage to an upper-class ice queen fails, Emma finds success as a children's author. When they finally do turn to each other, it's a beautiful moment, not only because they bring to the relationship self-knowledge that has been painfully earned through private heartbreaks and midlife compromises but also because they are their best and truest selves when in each other's company. Nicholls writes so effortlessly and with so much wit and wisdom that he seems poised to earn the same recognition here that he currently enjoys in the UK. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.
Friday 15TH July 1988
Rankeillor Street, Edinburgh
'I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,' she said. 'You know, actually change something.'
'What, like "change the world", you mean?'
'Not the whole entire world. Just the little bit around you.'
They lay in silence for a moment, bodies curled around each other in the single bed, then both began to laugh in low, pre-dawn voices. 'Can't believe I just said that,' she groaned. 'Sounds a bit corny, doesn't it?'
'A bit corny.'
'I'm trying to be inspiring! I'm trying to lift your grubby soul for the great adventure that lies ahead of you.' She turned to face him. 'Not that you need it. I expect you've got your future nicely mapped out, ta very much. Probably got a little flow-chart somewhere or something.'
'So what're you going to do then? What's the great plan?'
'Well, my parents are going to pick up my stuff, dump it at theirs, then I'll spend a couple of days in their flat in London, see some friends. Then France-'
'Then China maybe, see what that's all about, then maybe onto India, travel around there for a bit-'
'Traveling,' she sighed. 'So predictable.'
'What's wrong with travelling?'
'Avoiding reality more like.'
'I think reality is over-rated,' he said in the hope that this might come across as dark and charismatic.
She sniffed. 'S'alright, I suppose, for those who can afford it. Why not just say "I'm going on holiday for two years"? It's the same thing.'
'Because travel broadens the mind,' he said, rising onto one elbow and kissing her.
'Oh I think you're probably a bit too broad-minded as it is,' she said, turning her face away, for the moment at least. They settled again on the pillow. 'Anyway, I didn't mean what are you doing next month, I meant the future-future, when you're, I don't know...' She paused, as if conjuring up some fantastical idea, like a fifth dimension. '...Forty or something. What do you want to be when you're forty?'
'Forty?' He too seemed to be struggling with the concept. 'Don't know. Am I allowed to say "rich"?'
'Just so, so shallow.'
'Alright then, "famous".' He began to nuzzle at her neck. 'Bit morbid, this, isn't it?'
'It's not morbid, it's...exciting.'
' 'Exciting!' ' He was imitating her voice now, her soft Yorkshire accent, trying to make her sound daft. She got this a lot, posh boys doing funny voices, as if there was something unusual and quaint about an accent, and not for the first time she felt a reassuring shiver of dislike for him. She shrugged herself away until her back was pressed against the cool of the wall.
'Yes, exciting. We're meant to be excited, aren't we? All those possibilities. It's like the Vice-Chancellor said, "the doors of opportunity flung wide..."'
'"Yours are the names in tomorrow's newspapers..."'
'Not very likely.'
'So, what, are you excited then?'
'Me? God no, I'm crapping myself.'
'Me too. Christ...' He turned suddenly and reached for the cigarettes on the floor by the side of the bed, as if to steady his nerves. 'Forty years old. Forty. Fucking hell.'
Smiling at his anxiety, she decided to make it worse. 'So what'll you be doing when you're forty?'
He lit his cigarette thoughtfully. 'Well the thing is, Em-'
'"Em"? Who's "Em"?'
'People call you Em. I've heard them.'
'Yeah, friends call me Em.'
'So can I call you Em?'
'Go on then, Dex.'
'So I've given this whole "growing old" thing some thought and I've come to the decision that I'd like to stay exactly as I am right now.'
Dexter Mayhew. She peered up at him through her fringe as he leant against the cheap buttoned vinyl headboard and even without her spectacles on it was clear why he might want to stay exactly this way. Eyes closed, the cigarette glued languidly to his lower lip, the dawn light warming the side of his face through the red filter of the curtains, he had the knack of looking perpetually posed for a photograph. Emma Morley thought 'handsome' a silly, nineteenth-century word, but there really was no other word for it, except perhaps 'beautiful'. He had one of those faces where you were aware of the bones beneath the skin, as if even his bare skull would be attractive. A fine nose, slightly shiny with grease, and dark skin beneath the eyes that looked almost bruised, a badge of honour from all the smoking and late nights spent deliberately losing at strip poker with girls from Bedales. There was something feline about him: eyebrows fine, mouth pouty in a self-conscious way, lips a shade too dark and full, but dry and chapped now, and rouged with Bulgarian red wine. Gratifyingly his hair was terrible, short at the back and sides, but with an awful little quiff at the front. Whatever gel he used had worn off, and now the quiff looked pert and fluffy, like a silly little hat.
Still with his eyes closed, he exhaled smoke through his nose. Clearly he knew he was being looked at because he tucked one hand beneath his armpit, bunching up his pectorals and biceps. Where did the muscles come from? Certainly not sporting activity, unless you counted skinny- dipping and playing pool. Probably it was just the kind of good health that was passed down in the family, along with the stocks and shares and the good furniture. Handsome then, or beautiful even, with his paisley boxer shorts pulled down to his hip bones and somehow here in her single bed in her tiny rented room at the end of four years of college. 'Handsome'! Who do you think you are, Jane Eyre? Grow up. Be sensible. Don't get carried away.
She plucked the cigarette from his mouth. 'I can imagine you at forty,' she said, a hint of malice in her voice. 'I can picture it right now.'
He smiled without opening his eyes. 'Go on then.'
'Alright-' She shuffled up the bed, the duvet tucked beneath her armpits. 'You're in this sports car with the roof down in Kensington or Chelsea or one of those places and the amazing thing about this car is it's silent, 'cause all the cars'll be silent in, I don't know, what - 2006?'
He scrunched his eyes to do the sum. '2004-'
'And this car is hovering six inches off the ground down the King's Road and you've got this little paunch tucked under the leather steering wheel like a little pillow and those backless gloves on, thinning hair and no chin. You're a big man in a small car with a tan like a basted turkey-'
'So shall we change the subject then?'
'And there's this woman next to you in sunglasses, your third, no, fourth wife, very beautiful, a model, no, an ex-model, twenty-three, you met her while she was draped on the bonnet of a car at a motor- show in Nice or something, and she's stunning and thick as shit-'
'Well that's nice. Any kids?'
'No kids, just three divorces, and it's a Friday in July and you're heading off to some house in the country and in the tiny boot of your hover car are tennis racquets and croquet mallets and a hamper full of fine wines and South African grapes and poor little quails and asparagus and the wind's in your widow's peak and you're feeling very, very pleased with yourself and wife number three, four, whatever, smiles at you with about two hundred shiny white teeth and you smile back and try not to think about the fact that you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to each other.'
She came to an abrupt halt. You sound insane, she told herself. Do try not to sound insane. 'Course if it's any consolation we'll all be dead in a nuclear war long before then!' she said brightly, but still he was frowning at her.
'Maybe I should go then. If I'm so shallow and corrupt-'
'No, don't go,' she said, a little too quickly. 'It's four in the morning.'
He shuffled up the bed until his face was a few inches from hers. 'I don't know where you get this idea of me, you barely know me.'
'I know the type.'
'I've seen you, hanging round Modern Languages, braying at each other, throwing black-tie dinner parties-'
'I don't even own black-tie. And I certainly don't bray-'
'Yachting your way round the Med in the long hols, ra ra ra-'
'So if I'm so awful-' His hand was on her hip now.
'-which you are.'
'-then why are you sleeping with me?' His hand was on the warm soft flesh of her thigh.
'Actually I don't think I have slept with you, have I?'
'Well that depends.' He leant in and kissed her. 'Define your terms.' His hand was on the base of her spine, his leg slipping between hers.
'By the way,' she mumbled, her mouth pressed against his.
'What?' He felt her leg snake around his, pulling him closer.
'You need to brush your teeth.'
'I don't mind if you don't.'
'S'really horrible,' she laughed. 'You taste of wine and fags.'
'Well that's alright then. So do you.'
Her head snapped away, breaking off the kiss. 'Do I?'
'I don't mind. I like wine and fags.'
'Won't be a sec.' She flung the duvet back, clambering over him.
'Where are you going now?' He placed his hand on her bare back.
'Just the bog,' she said, retrieving her spectacles from the pile of books by the bed: large, black NHS frames, standard issue.
'The "bog", the "bog"...sorry I'm not familiar...'
She stood, one arm across her chest, careful to keep her back to him. 'Don't go away,' she said, padding out of the room, hooking two fingers into the elastic of her underpants to pull the material down at the top of her thighs. 'And no playing with yourself while I'm gone.'
He exhaled through his nose and shuffled up the bed, taking in the shabby rented room, knowing with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend. In his last four years he had seen any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album, and though he'd rarely seen the same bedroom twice, it was all too familiar. The burnt out nightlights and desolate pot plants, the smell of washing powder on cheap, ill-fitting sheets. She had that arty girl's passion for photomontage too; flash-lit snaps of college friends and family jumbled in amongst the Chagalls and Vermeers and Kandinskys, the Che Guevaras and Woody Allens and Samuel Becketts. Nothing here was neutral, everything displayed an allegiance or a point of view. The room was a manifesto, and with a sigh Dexter recognised her as one of those girls who used 'bourgeois' as a term of abuse. He could understand why 'fascist' might have negative connotations, but he liked the word 'bourgeois' and all that it implied. Security, travel, nice food, good manners, ambition; what was he meant to be apologising for?
He watched the smoke curl from his mouth. Feeling for an ashtray, he found a book at the side of the bed. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, spine creased at the 'erotic' bits. The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same. Another book: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Silly bloody fool, he thought, confident that it was not a mistake he would ever make.
At twenty-three, Dexter Mayhew's vision of his future was no clearer than Emma Morley's. He hoped to be successful, to make his parents proud and to sleep with more than one woman at the same time, but how to make these all compatible? He wanted to feature in magazine articles, and hoped one day for a retrospective of his work, without having any clear notion of what that work might be. He wanted to live life to the extreme, but without any mess or complications. He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph. Things should look right. Fun; there should be a lot of fun and no more sadness than absolutely necessary.
It wasn't much of a plan, and already there had been mistakes. Tonight, for instance, was bound to have repercussions: tears and awkward phone-calls and accusations. He should probably get out of here as soon as possible, and he glanced at his discarded clothes in preparation for his escape. From the bathroom came the warning rattle and bang of an ancient toilet cistern, and he hurriedly replaced the book, finding beneath the bed a small yellow Colman's mustard tin that he flipped open to confirm that, yes, it did contain condoms, along with the small grey remains of a joint, like a mouse dropping. With the possibility of sex and drugs in a small yellow tin he felt hopeful again, and decided that he might stay a little longer at least.
In the bathroom, Emma Morley wiped the crescents of toothpaste from the corner of her mouth and wondered if this was all a terrible mistake. Here she was, after four romantically barren years, finally, finally in bed with someone she really liked, had liked since she'd first seen him at a party in 1984, and in just a few hours he'd be gone. Forever probably. He was hardly likely to ask her to go to China with him, and besides she was boycotting China. And he was alright, wasn't he? Dexter Mayhew. In truth she suspected he wasn't all that bright, and a little too pleased with himself, but he was popular and funny and - no point fighting it - very handsome. So why was she being so stroppy and sarcastic? Why couldn't she just be self-confident and fun, like those scrubbed, bouncy girls he usually hung around with? She saw the dawn light at the tiny bathroom window. Sobriety. Scratching at her awful hair with her fingertips, she pulled a face, then yanked the chain of the ancient toilet cistern and headed back into the room.
From the bed, Dexter watched her appear in the doorway, wearing the gown and mortar board that they'd been obliged to hire for the graduation ceremony, her leg hooked mock-seductively around the doorframe, her rolled degree certificate in one hand. She peered over her spectacles and pulled the mortar board down low over one eye. 'What d'you think?'
'Suits you. I like the jaunty angle. Now take it off and come back to bed.'