In Notes On Heartbreak, Annie Lord delivers an unflinching and raw exploration of a relationship as it ends, taking in all the joy, pain and messiness of being in love. Read an exclusive extract here.
I don’t feel anything at first. I’m actually laughing by the time I get home from dinner.
’You’ll never fucking believe what’s just happened,’ I tell our flatmate Molly, and she pauses Mario Kart and bites her lip, bracing for the punchline. ‘He dumped me,’ I say, and she jerks back so suddenly the cat jumps off her knees and runs into another room.
’I’m sorry’ just feel like two words so she hands me a joint, when normally she’d say ‘if you transfer me a fiver’ first, and I thank her as my mind fizzles out into something like flat cola. Romance feels like a bad idea, so we watch a film where men with serrated butcher knives are chasing women. The baddy pulls a body up and her neck creaks against the rope he closes around it.
‘What did you say to him?’ Molly shouts back from the kitchen, where she’s pouring herself a giant bowl of Crunchy Nut.
‘At first I thought he was just saying he wanted to move out and I was like, “If you think you’d be more comfortable that way then sure,” and then I realised what he meant and so I said, “You know this means you won’t get to see me ever again?” and he sort of nodded. He couldn’t even look at me, and then I said, “Have a nice life,” and walked off.’
‘Nice,’ says Moll. ‘Bet he was gutted.’
‘I did feel a bit like I was in Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or something. You know when they drop a fiery comeback before the commercial break.’
‘If only you’d had a drink you could’ve thrown at him.’
They say it takes half the length of a relationship to get over its ending. Has anyone managed to get over it in a night? I want to wake up out of a coma two and a half years from now having missed the entire thing. A doctor shining one of those tiny torches in my eyes. ‘Morning, it’s 2022 and you’ve forgotten all about him and you have a new boyfriend and great hair.’
I text Josh, a guy from back home that I worked in a pub with. Joe didn’t want me to be friends with him because he knew there was something between us. It makes me feel giddy, as though what I’m doing is against the rules. I’m allowed to do whatever I want now. Josh responds with a voice note: ‘Now then, Annie Lord, tell me you’re out tonight?’
There’s something so hot about someone referring to you by your full name. It reminds me of being told off by a teacher. I listen to it again. I like how his thick Yorkshire accent curls over the Ts until they disappear, smooth as a beach pebble. Josh sends a photo from where he sits in the pub, gums shining pink through his smile, beer froth bubbles popping on his top lip. I message other nearly-sort-of-but-not-quite men and try to build some kind of scaffolding of attention that will prevent me from ever hitting the ground.
‘What’s he said?’ asks Moll, but Josh has stopped replying.
I wonder if I should ring my parents, but then I remember the way Dad held onto Joe’s shoulders after dinner.
‘You’re a good lad, aren’t you?’ he said and then slapped him hard on the back in that way men do when they don’t want shows of affection to seem affectionate. I want Dad to preserve Joe in his mind that way because what if Joe changes his mind and I’ve already told my parents? It would be tense next time he comes over for dinner.
There’s all this adrenaline in me; it sparks in my stomach like electricity, it heaves through my lungs. I suppose I’m anxious, but it feels more like excitement, anticipation, as though I’m off to a house party later or going on holiday in the morning. I remind myself of what has happened, but I can’t yet feel the solidity of understanding close down around me. All my wires are tangled up.
What was it that made Joe end it? Stopping and turning around under the shadow of a big glass office building, so nervous he was scraping the sole of one Reebok against the other.
‘I think I just need to be on my own.’
Was it my bloated too-much-plastic-cheese stomach? Or when I made him list the Kardashians in order of hotness and then screamed that he was wrong when he placed Kourtney so far down? Or perhaps I was so perfect that it made him think it was time to cut me out before he hurt me more than was necessary.
Not that any of this seems necessary.
He must have been planning it for a while; no one breaks up with someone after five years on a whim. Knowing that he was keeping all this private knowledge from me is hurtful. I thought I knew everything he was thinking, which friends he was annoyed with, the consistency he liked his porridge. I should have known he was about to break up with me. We always made decisions as a team. Maybe that’s why he did it, because he wanted to start making decisions all on his own.
I wonder if I am focusing on the idea that he kept this secret because the reality of him actually leaving is too big to comprehend. I can’t picture what that would look like. I can see a house without his belongings, I can see me cooking for one, but he’s always there, getting jealous, bumping into me at parties; he always comes back.
I’m so stoned my head dissipates into this murky puddle. I breathe and then I look over at Moll and wonder if the last breath I took was weird. I nearly say something about one of the characters’ outfits, but then I decide it’s too much effort to complete the thought, so just say ‘as if’ instead. The film ends and Moll gathers up her laptop and the blankets she brought down from the room she shares with Danny.
Just before going up to bed, she turns around and says: ‘You can’t take him back, you know.’ I nod at her but I’m not even sure I know what ‘back’ would look like.
The next morning I wake up and book a train home to my parents’ house in Leeds because it feels like something that a person who has just been dumped would do. It’s there on the 11.15 North Eastern service that I feel my heart break. Walkers sharing-packets, pre-downloaded episodes of The Wire, the guard’s voice saying, ‘We will shortly be arriving at Stevenage’ – and something in my chest snaps; the separate halves of it drift apart like rubbish in the ocean caught by two different tides.
I met you on the way to our first lecture. I walked into the big red university building rubbing my arms because September didn’t feel as summery as I thought it would when I set off in a crop top. I got lost in the long corridors, every turn met with the same yellow flecked paint and worn-out carpets, room 11a where 12b should be.
‘Did you say you’re looking for the Philosophy Department?’ you ask, a few paces behind me.
‘I didn’t,’ I reply. ‘But that is where I’m going actually.’
Together we found a map, worked out which floor we had to get to and squeezed into the packed lift, my face pressed too close to your chest, my backpack nudging the girl behind me.
We will dissect this moment years later when we know each other better. Maintaining an air of smugness over our former selves who knew so little about what would pass between us. I’ll tell you that I couldn’t stop giggling at everything you said. You’ll say, I know. You’ll say you thought I was hot, though. And I’ll wonder how that was possible given my tangerine-orange box-dyed hair, eyebrows shaved into little half-moons.
When we walked inside the room, I pulled out a chair and you picked the one next to me. I could see the bones of your shoulders poking up through your white shirt. ‘Lion’ said a swirling tattoo on the soft underside of your forearm. I don’t know who calls you that, but you could be one: skin the colour of a well-brewed cup of tea; floppy posh-boy curls; a huge mouth, big enough to fit a fist into, bigger when laughter is falling out of it.
You sat with one leg over the other, like how girls are supposed to sit. Damp feet from walking over wet grass with those holes in your Vans. You made your jeans look expensive even though there was a safety pin over the busted zip.
One day you will ask me who the best-looking person I ever met was and I will make up some lifeguard from a family holiday in Wales because it’s embarrassing that the answer is you.
After Custard Creams and a slideshow about how, if we are lucky, philosophy might help us get a job in advertising, I followed you out of the lecture theatre. You and a girl called Esme smoked and talked about friends of friends in West London. ‘Such a small world!’ Maybe your world is just small? I thought but didn’t say. Back then I still believed that everything that came out of my mouth was stupid. You talked about the house parties you both went to last night and I placed a palm over my Freshers’ Wristband. I couldn’t believe how cool you were. I couldn’t believe I went to a lame foam party. You and Esme exchanged numbers, then you asked for mine too.
It’s hard to describe quite how bad I feel right now. I learn later on that this is normal. Pain is so difficult to convey to others that in 1971 two scientists developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire to help medical patients explain to doctors the precise nature and dimension of their affliction. Overall there are twenty sections and throughout each, the patient must choose which adjective best aligns with what they are feeling.
Is it …?
Is it …?
Is it …?
There are another sixty-four adjectives to choose from. I keep looking for the right words, but each time they escape me, like when you turn around to try to see your own shadow. I find that too often words fall short, reducing the overwhelming swell of feeling to an isolated sensation as though it was just one thing and not all of you at that moment.
‘It hurts,’ I say when I ring my best friend Vicky from somewhere outside Grantham. The same phrase that comes out of me when I have a cold or period pains.
I get off the train and leave the station, and Mum’s there in the car park, walking towards me, leaving the door of her Polo wide open. ‘Oh, love,’ she says and wraps her arms around my neck so tightly I feel some of the hairs on my head popping out. On the drive home I cry with my head pressed against the warm glass of the window. When I look up, I see that there’s a shininess in her eyes too.
Notes on Heartbreak by Annie Lord (Orion, £14.99) is out 23 June 2022, you can preorder from Waterstones now.