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Relationships

Author Jenny Oliver on what happened when she bumped into ‘the one that got away’ 15 years later

The idea of losing ‘the one that got away’ is something that women are told to regret, but when one writer bumped into her lost love, her fantasies immediately changed.

I’ve always thought that blond men were bad for me. It started in my early teenage years when I snogged a boy in the park. He never called, and when I saw him again, I kissed him again. When my mum prised out the problem, she said, “Jenny, if someone gave you a dud £10 note, would you really go back for more?” The boy was forever known as ‘dud 10 pounds’. He was blond.

Cut to my mid-20s and along comes another blond. Dirty straw colour. Chocolate box good looking. His name was Will, and he was the older brother of a friend of mine. When I was younger, he was well out of my league. Four years older was everything at 15. But in my 20s it was nothing, and when we bumped into each other in London – he wore a suit now and worked in the City – there was that hint of recognition that led to a coffee. When we said goodbye he kissed me on the cheek and asked casually if I was going to some guy I knew vaguely from school’s party that weekend. Of course I said yes. I was obsessed. Since my days of making shrines in my bedroom to the likes of Zach in Saved By The Bell, I can indulge in a proper obsession.  

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I already had plans for Saturday night – a lovely birthday gathering in east London that I was going to with my friend and her boyfriend, which was an hour or more on the train from where we lived. Because of me, we stayed for an hour and then chugged back across to Notting Hill to the party Will had said he’d be at. Confused by the exhausting trek, my friend’s boyfriend, who was Spanish and had limited English, asked, “So you have arranged to meet him?” I remember at the time feeling a bit desperate as I replied, “Kind of.” When we arrived, I scoured the place and, of course, Will wasn’t there. The party was full of people I didn’t know and not half as nice as the one I’d dragged us from. That party dictated the dynamics of our ensuing relationship. Me always a step behind.

I lingered on the street where we’d bumped into each other, and when I saw him again I marvelled at the serendipity. That time he suggested a drink but left early because he had plans for later – always mysterious events I was never invited to that kept up his elusive aura. Nothing was ever set in stone. If we went to the pub, his friends would turn up and Will would disappear outside for a fag. Talking to his friends wasn’t a problem; it was that I wanted to be with him, yet he was always slightly out of reach. 

Looking back, the power imbalance was crystal clear from the start. I was in awe of him. When we were together, I was never myself. I bought new clothes, listened to different music. He went out more than I did with lots of different people, and keeping up that level of energy was exhausting.

Best-selling author and author of One Lucky Summer, Jenny Oliver
Best-selling author Jenny Oliver.

All the time I felt who I was wasn’t right – that I wasn’t gregarious enough because I didn’t want to do all the things he wanted but I felt that I should. That his way was the right way because he was older, cooler, better looking. Being with him, I had stumbled into a much-coveted role and I wasn’t going to let it go however bad it was for me. I was unhappy but I blamed myself for that unhappiness. I thought the things I liked, and my friends, weren’t good enough for him, so we saw his friends and did his things. He rang, I waited. My obsession was all-consuming.

It ended very casually on his part. He didn’t want to be tied down. For me, it was like being one of those cartoon characters scrabbling for hold and finding only thin air so plummeting to the ground. I had no grip on him and I knew it. He disappeared out of my life as quickly as he came into it. But still I hung around in the street where we’d first met, hoping to bump into him for an impromptu reunion. But he didn’t walk down the street again. I made my friend go to one of the pubs he drank in, and sat at the bar all done up waiting on the off chance he’d appear. Just as we were leaving, he walked in as part of a group, threw me a look of surprise and carried on inside. It had gone full circle; I was back to chasing him across London. 

His unattainability made him my one big regret. The man I held all others up against; in looks, in swagger, in the cocky grin and easy sociability. He lived in my subconscious, popping up in dreams and in faces on buses.

That was about 15 years ago.

The other day, I was in the park with a friend walking her dog when I saw this guy struggling to get an angry toddler into a pushchair. He had all the paraphernalia of parenthood; a chaotic nappy bag, the scooter of an older child to man-handle, a pack of wet wipes to clean up ice cream. I knew it was Will because of the angle of his nose and the shape of his eyes. But the brightness in them had gone. The dirty grey hair was thinning. There was no swagger, just exhaustion. The kids weren’t paying the slightest attention to what he was saying. I know this was all just the stress of early parenthood, but as I got closer to this vignette, I felt something I wasn’t expecting. Relief. 

One Lucky Summer by Jenny Oliver looks at the one who got away
One Lucky Summer by Jenny Oliver explores how two sisters are able to overcome the past.

Relationship-wise, I have since met someone who I can be completely myself with. Who likes to do what I do. Who veers from the mundane of conformity. Who answers my WhatsApps because it would be weird not to. His hair is blond in the summer; in the winter it’s brown.

Watching Will, older, stressed, struggling with his kids in his average 40-something life, I felt laughter bubbling up inside me, a childish giddiness that came from the sudden disappearance of a regret. I finally understood that the image of him in my head was a fantasy. The cookie-cutter perfection that seemed like the holy grail at the time. A time before I had any idea who I was or that it was OK to be myself and expect to be liked for that fact. As I got closer, Will looked up. Our eyes locked, but I couldn’t say if there was recognition because this time I looked away. I felt the memories release their clutches in one euphoric instant and had to hold in a smile as I threw the ball for the dog. 

One Lucky Summer by Jenny Oliver (Published by HQ in Paperback, eBook an Audio) is out now.

Images: Getty, Jenny Oliver

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