Chapter Three

‘Wow, how romantic.’ Robyn lets out a loud sigh.

As I finish telling the story, I zone back to the bar. Elbows leaning on the counter, chin cupped in her hands, Robyn’s got a strange, dreamy expression on her face. Like she’s in some kind of trance.

She’s not the only one, I realise, noticing several people along the bar who have stopped their conversations and are leaning in to listen. Seeing my captivated audience, I feel a prickle of self-consciousness and glance around awkwardly, only to see a group of girls sitting at a table behind me, waiting expectantly.

‘So did you kiss underneath the bridge?’ asks one of them, mascaraed eyes wide.

I can feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment. I’ve never been much of a public speaker and now suddenly here I am, orating to an entire New York bar.

‘Well?’ coaxes her redheaded friend, clutching her martini glass to her cleavage with anticipation.

My mind wanders back to that evening, all those years ago. ‘We didn’t have enough money. We were totally broke in those days . . .’

There’s an audible groan of disappointment.

‘ . . . but Nathaniel bribed a local gondolier with some pot,’ I finish, laughing at the memory of the young Italian in his stripy shirt, stoned and giggly.

‘So did he take you?’

I hear a male voice and turn to see a burly banker type, shirt unbuttoned, tie loosened. The hope on his face is tangible.

‘Stop interrupting. Let her tell the story,’ shushes someone else loudly.

‘So we met at sunset . . .’ I continue, an image of the tangerine sky popping into my mind. It had been such an amazing sunset. Multicoloured streaks had lit up the sky in a blaze of colour, bathing the ancient buildings of Venice in a fiery glow. I’ve seen many sunsets before and since, but none has ever seemed as special. ‘ . . . and he rowed us out on to the canal.’

I can see Nate’s hand helping me into the gondola, feel his arm round my shoulder as we snuggle together on the worn velvet cushions, hear the water lapping against the banks of the canal.

‘Just as the bells started ringing, we reached the bridge . . .’

For a brief moment I’m right back there. The distant echoes of Venetian life are filling the warm evening air and I’m looking at Nate and he’s brushing the hair out of my face and we’re laughing like a couple of lovestruck teenagers. Because that’s what we are: a couple of lovestruck teenagers.

‘So do you think this is really going to work?’ he’s asking, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiles.

Catching the laughter in my throat, I gaze up into his pale blue eyes, at the dark grey flecks around his irises, the pale blond eyelashes. I want to absorb every detail. I don’t want to forget a single thing.

‘I hope so.’ I smile back, nuzzling my nose against his neck and inhaling the soft, warm scent of old T-shirt and second-hand suede jacket. Despite the heat of the evening, he insisted on wearing it, like always.

‘You don’t think it’s some scam by the old man and we’re going to get mugged under the bridge.’

‘Mugged?’ I laugh, jerking my head up. ‘By who?’

He gestures to the gondolier and does a mock-scary face.

‘You’re crazy,’ I giggle.

‘You say that now, but . . .’ He puts his mouth up close to my ear and whispers, ‘Have you never seen The Godfather?’ He draws a finger across his throat and makes a choking sound.

I crack up and punch him in the ribs.

‘Ow,’ he yelps, flopping back against the cushion. ‘That’s a mean left hook you’ve got there. I need to be careful.’ He grabs hold of my fist.

‘Uh-huh.’ I nod, meeting his eyes.

‘Very, very careful.’ He starts slowly uncurling my fingers, stretching out my palm and tracing the lines upon it with his fingertips.

I lie back, enjoying the sensation of his fingers brushing against mine, feeling the mood change, like a summer breeze. His touch is light, feathery, gentle, yet its effect upon me is like a thousand volts coursing through my veins. Now I know what people mean when they talk about electricity between two people. It’s as if someone has just plugged me straight into the mains. I feel alive. As if I spent the first nineteen years of my life asleep and it was only when I met Nate that I finally woke up.

‘Hey, can you hear that?’

Nate’s voice brings me back. His head is tilted, his eyes searching the air around him, a smile spreading slowly across his face.

‘What—’ I begin, but he puts a finger to my lips.

‘Ssh, listen.’

The warm evening air surrounds us with its pillow-softness, its scents of red wine and fresh pizza, cigarettes and aftershave, mingled with the sounds of music, voices, a woman in the apartment above us washing dishes . . .

And something else.

In the distance I can hear something. I listen closer. Is that . . .? Could that be . . .?

Bells,’ I whisper, feeling a sudden thrill. I glance back at Nate. His eyes are twinkling with excitement.

‘This is it.’ He grins and my stomach releases a cage of butterflies. ‘It’s happening.’

With the soft peal of bells being carried on the breeze, we glance up ahead to see the bridge. Arching majestically over the canal, it glows in the golden light, the white marble a blank canvas for the setting sun. Streaks of vermilion mixed with tinges of burnt umber and yellow ochre create a shimmering rainbow reflected in the water. We drift slowly towards it, both filled with anticipation, excitement, laughter, love . . .

Closer and closer . . .

And now the gondolier is falling into the shade and we are gliding slowly under the bridge. Inch by inch, by inch. We have only a few seconds. Our eyes lock. Our laughter falls silent. The joking stops. Everything stops.

In that split second everything slows right down. Like a movie gone into slow motion, the frame freezes. It’s just me and Nate. The two of us. The only people to exist in the whole wide world.

Two halves of one whole . . . Out of nowhere the old Italian’s voice pops into my head and I feel a shiver tingle all the way up my spine. You will have everlasting and eternal love. You will be together for ever and nothing will ever break you apart. As his words echo inside, the air suddenly turns cooler and goose bumps prickle my arms.

Something’s different. There’s an energy. A certainty. A powerful sensation all around me that I can’t describe. It feels like . . . like . . .

I look at Nate. He’s leaning towards me . . .The bells are chiming . . .The sky is blazing . . . and my breath is held so tight in my chest I feel as if I’m going to burst with the sheer exhilaration of the moment, of him pulling me close, of him telling me he loves me.

Magic. That’s what it feels like.

It feels like magic.


I snap back to see the barman standing stock still behind the bar, gripping the beer pumps as he waits anxiously.

A warm glow envelops me. ‘And we kissed,’ I reply simply.

It’s as if the whole bar has been holding its breath. All at once there’s a loud exhalation of giddy relief. There’s even a slight ripple of applause, and someone, somewhere whoops.

‘So what happened then?’ gasps Robyn excitedly. She looks joyous. As does the rest of the audience, I realise, glancing around. Everyone, it seems, loves a love story.

I pause, collecting my thoughts. I feel the moment quickly ebbing away, vanishing back into the past, swallowed up by the present. Like Venice itself, it’s fast disappearing into the water.

‘Well, it was the end of the summer, so he went back to Harvard and I went back to Manchester,’ I say matter-of-factly. ‘There were lots of letters, the odd phone call when we could afford it – it was so expensive to call transatlantic in those days and I didn’t even have the Internet.’ I smile ruefully. ‘We dated long-distance for almost a year . . .’ I pause. I can see everyone waiting eagerly for the punchline. For the big happy ever after.

My stomach knots.

‘And then?’ The redhead with the martini glass is almost beside herself.

I suddenly feel a huge weight of responsibility for everyone’s hopes. I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t want to let them down. And yet . . .

I feel a lump in my throat. Even now, after all this time, I can’t think about it without that crushing feeling in my chest. That feeling of not being able to draw breath. As if I’m swimming underwater and my lungs are going to burst.

I can remember it as if it was yesterday. I had just graduated and was sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London while I looked for a studio to rent. It was summer. I remember seeing forget-me-nots in the park as I walked home, remember wondering if they had forget-me-nots in America, thinking how as I bent down to pick one that I’d press its pretty blue petals and send them to Nathaniel.

My friend yelled to me as I opened the front door. Standing in the hallway, she held out the phone to me, a bright, excited smile on her face. It was him, Nathaniel, my American boyfriend calling. I rushed towards her and snatched up the phone, trying to untangle the wires that twisted round my hand, breathless with excitement about speaking to him, telling him all my news, hearing his voice.

But the moment I heard it, I knew. In that split second I just knew.

Zoning back to the bar, I take a deep breath to steady my trembling voice and say as nonchalantly as I can, ‘We broke up. He married someone else.’

The audience gasps. Robyn throws her hand over her mouth. Another girl looks gutted.

‘No fucking way!’ curses the barman in disbelief.

My sister, who until now has been silent, nods, partly in sympathy, partly because she’s heard this story a million times. ‘Way,’ she says matter-of-factly, answering for me. ‘I saw it in the New York Times. They got the full page.’

There’s a sharp intake of breath around the bar. Feeling all eyes upon me, I focus on my beer, swallowing the amber bubbles, trying to block out my emotions, which are swirling around inside me . . . Him saying he was sorry, that this long-distance thing wasn’t working and he’d met someone else, that he never wanted to hurt me but it had all happened so fast . . . Me dropping the phone, feeling my legs give way beneath me as I crumpled into a heap in the hallway, feeling as if my heart had split clean in half, just like that stupid coin pendant he bought me . . .

OK, stop right there. I pull myself up sharply. I’m getting carried away thinking about this stuff again. It’s in the past, and that’s where it’s going to stay.

‘See, that’s what happens when you believe in silly fairy stories about everlasting love,’ I say, quickly pulling myself together. And putting down my glass, I force a bright smile. ‘Right, who’s for more drinks?’

You're the One That I Don't Want