When I was five I had a my first boyfriend. I’d play at his house and he’d play at mine, and in summer we’d play by the River Alt. This was when kids allowed to wander wherever provided you weren’t alone and home in time for tea. He liked the caramel wafer biscuits they sold in the school tuck shop and his breath smelt of caramel when he kissed me.
Teenage years were more problematic. I had a crush on the boy who worked in the local butcher’s. I wrote him a letter inviting him to a party – this was pre-mobile phone and internet – and asked my mother to hand it to him, but she absolutely refused to play Cupid, or Pandar. She was embarrassed, an odd reaction when you think of it given the range of available options. (I imagine my imaginary teenage daughter making the same request and can summon only amusement, concern, perhaps even outrage.)
The crush lasted until I overheard his older brother explaining how the shop’s customer demographic had changed since his brother had started working there, or, as he put it, ‘girl’s queuing round the block.’ That wasn’t how I saw myself. The attraction evaporated. I can’t now even recall his name.
And so on and so on, through school, university, work. There was the boy I met at a gig in New Brighton, who snogged me on the bus home but didn’t show up to meet me the next afternoon. (He was drunk. I like to think he forgot.) The boyfriend I threw a mug of tea at, ruining his new shirt. (He pretended to throw a spider at me but I didn’t know he was faking.) He dumped me not long afterwards, though I think I was already on the way out avant le deluge, given his reputation as serial monogamist.
The posh politico I verbally assaulted in the back of a taxi (so viciously, I still wince at the memory). The one I fancied, who seemed to avoid me, only to discover years later (a chance meeting in a bar, when we were both married) that he’d wanted to ask me out but I always seemed to be surrounded by people and he could never quite pluck up courage to talk to me.
And so on and so on. So many people, so many impressions, so many life-collisions; even the briefest encounter can leave a lasting mark. It’s some such small, indelible moments Margaret Atwood captures in Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories.
I’m a big fan of Atwood’s as previously attested on this blog; less so of short stories, finding them more ephemeral than a novel. And writing this a few months after I’ve read the book, of the 12 stories in the collection I’m pushed remember more than two (rising to five, after a quick skim read).
But the two I can remember, Uglypuss, in which the proverbial ‘woman scorned’ unleashes her inner fury on her ex’s cat, and Scarlet Ibis, where lives and a marriage are saved by a big bum and some birds (you need to read it), made their mark – the former so much so I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it.
Which is like people, really: some stay with you forever, sometimes for the unlikeliest of reasons.
** Worth reading