I recently turned 23: not a particularly momentous occasion but hey, any excuse to order in a shedload of curry and dance to Fleetwood Mac until the wee hours. It was an odd feeling as I thought back to twelve months before, freshly-graduated with no idea what had been happening IRL for the last three years, realising what 6am looked like, discovering council tax. The biggest difference as I woke up was that I was alone and, for a bit, that made me feel sad. And then I got some texts and phone calls and went to work and saw my friends and everything was, once again, fine and lovely. It creeps up on you, but it's especially grim when it ought not to - when you know, even as you try to shake the chest-clench, that it's really time to stop hashing it out and just crack on.
Some background: a year ago, I'd decided to take the day off work for my 22nd birthday. My ex, with whom I was living at the time, was delighted: 'me too!' he crowed, jumping over a kitchen chair to pull me down onto the sofa. 'It'll be great! We'll spend the day eating crap and drinking posh wine and having sex on the rug.' Unfortunately we didn't have any posh wine, or a rug for that matter and anyway, I'd made other plans – with a seven-inch piece of plastic from LoveHoney with a gyrating thrust function (£30). I left the house once that day: to trot down to Tesco's and buy an 8-pack of double-A batteries and some cream to make Dauphinoise potatoes. And though I had a great time, and told him to go to work (because he should, because we were adults now and he had obligations, because I certainly wouldn't take my hard-earned holiday period off for his birthday) I only began to realise how much of a problem this little episode had signified much later. You never do at the time.
We met at university, though it wasn't until well into our second year, when we lived in an eight-bedroom student house and decided to go hitchhiking to Morocco on the Easter holiday, that things began to tick. I was nervous about the whole thing and he was great, pulled me out of a shell, showed me that travel could be fun and not simply scary and full of Things Going Wrong. On the second week, in Paris, the third person we were travelling with had jazzed off to meet friends and we were left by ourselves, trailing through the streets with muddy rucksacks and a badly-packed tent. We wandered into the park at 11am with a bottle of something warm and delicious picked up along the way, and, about three hours later, staggered into a hostel, despite the fact it was agreed we'd leave the city that night. It's so odd, but of all the rooms I've ever slept in I remember that one the best. Too-long green curtains hung down limply around a pair of bunk beds - an enormous window bordered by coiling black iron grates looked out into a courtyard. The dark prism of the Louvre rose behind it all: the place was deserted, our friend was staying out late. We ventured out just once, to sit staring moonily at each other across a Macdonald's table, where the Big Macs were made with brown burger buns.
And that, as they say, was that.
I use the vibrator as a funny example, but what's interesting now I look back on the event was how normal it seemed, how I refused to see anything unusual about it. Being an immensely proud person meant I chose not to notice what was laid out face down on the table, as though everyone in a card game had revealed their hand and I'd covered my eyes for the hell of it. All the hilarious, devil-may-care aspects of his personality, which had seemed so exciting at first, had taken on a darker tone: he was drinking too much, he became suspicious, he resented the amount of time I wanted to spend with anyone that wasn't him. Even if I'd not had this experience with other boyfriends, and all the other men in my life are and always have been, lovely people, I still feel now that I'd read enough books (!) to spot this sort of thing.
Not long before my finals started we were driving home one weekend: my parents, his mum. He was drunk in a way I'd not seen before, spitting out snide backhanders, laughing nastily and, when we dropped her off, stomping into the house before his mum to filch a litre bottle of vodka from her fridge. We argued at home, me attempting to manoeuvre him outside so my sister wouldn't wake up and, after half an hour of increasing hysteria, he made his final point by lashing out and pushing me - hard - from where I was sat onto the ground. I can remember staring up at him, feeling the cold of the decking on my back and thinking, this cannot, cannot, have just happened. He burst into tears when I told him the following morning - and with bigger fish to fry I decided to wait until exams were over before dealing with it. That image - of him in boozy, confused tears is one that began to recur.
Two months later and uni had finished and we were still together. In fact, we were living together. As we all stumbled back to the flat after my birthday - the LoveHoney birthday - my friends ordered pizza and, when it came, he perceived some (absent) slight from the delivery man, and I found him stomping around the kitchen brandishing an enormous carving knife. Not something I ever thought I'd have to do - coaxing and soothing him to put it down, then depositing him in our bed and going off to sleep with my friends. It was only then - as I tried to make light of the situation, that their horrified faces began to niggle. And, not long after that, I stood shivering in the middle of Upper Street whilst a friend from uni told me that she'd been sleeping with him for a year.
We'd had a big trip planned - South East Asia, all the moneys saved, all the flights booked, the jobs postponed or left altogether. With a month to go and all my stuff to cart back to South London I cancelled everything, and don't remember a whole lot from the weeks that followed. On the day he flew to Bangkok - 2nd January, when the streets were still full of New Year and everything was misty - I got on a £14 Megabus (bless them, bless them all) and left Victoria Station with a suitcase full of tights, a Kindle and the address of a dingy, heatless room in Paris that, for the first week, I did nothing but sleep in. And then, finally, I went out – and there were people, and great things to do, and it snowed for three solid months or seemed to and things began, slowly, to get better.
Weirdly, perhaps unhelpfully, I don't hate him, I never have. (Or her, for that matter: and babes, it's cool, and if I see you around I will hug you as tightly as I did when you told me outside a pub and offered me your wine. You're cool, we're cool, let's leave it, yeah?) What's important to remember for me is that sense of voluntary blindness, of scrabbling around in the dark when things go wrong, of waiting anxiously for the next big blow-up. I think it's good that my heart's racing like a fucked clock writing this – finishing it, putting it to bed at last.
And I'm eternally grateful to the women – for they were largely women – who pulled some shoes on my feet and took me outside, who turned Beyonce up loud and sent me links to this very magazine which (bloody GODSEND that it is) made me laugh so much that I failed even to notice when the batteries, eventually, ran out.