Blogger's Digest: a Novel
I was completely unable to relate to people who had sensible grown-up calm and amicable break-ups, where they remained friends with their ex. It felt to me as though it was a betrayal of my whole "jump in with both feet" ethos, regarding the pursuit of love, to simply drift apart and then one day decide to separate: a simple and straightforward life decision like any other, akin to purchasing a refrigerator, or switching energy supplier. In my version of a breakup, there needed to be tears and passion, breaking up, making up, taking a break, getting back together - it needed to be messy and complex, and emotional. Where was the love if two people just decided one day to go their separate ways, and then divided their possessions and moved on with their lives?
"Falling out of love" was something I was a little familiar with, but not something I would tolerate. I'm not an idiot: I know if somebody is deliberately picking fights with me, or sulking, or otherwise acting in a way that suggests that they'd really like to end the relationship - probably because they are flirting with somebody else - but they are too spineless to do the honourable and honest thing, and take the plunge before having secured their next relationship. I'm not the kind of person who wants to have anything to do with anybody who's continuously trying to 'trade up'; lacking in any loyalty or moral fiber.
I took my relationship commitments pretty seriously. I'd never had a casual girlfriend. In fact, I'd only really had Caroline. I'd been on some dates and had a fling with a friend while Caroline and I were on a lengthy 'break' but I was quite unfamiliar with anything other than monogamy and it never occurred to me to look outside the relationship for anything extra, or better.
One of my friends had an open marriage for a few years, and another friend had a girlfriend who was very promiscuous, which he seemed to grudgingly tolerate, but on the whole, my entire circle of friends and colleagues were all married, engaged, or in serious long-term relationships: I was never aware of any infidelity, and break-ups and divorces were virtually unheard of. Of course, investment bankers often tended to be regular patrons of strip clubs, escorts and many had a mistress, which was handled extremely discreetly. None of that was my 'scene' - I wanted a plain vanilla monogamous committed lifelong relationship with somebody who I was head over heels in love with, and I knew that it would require non-stop work to keep a great relationship alive.
The death of my relationship with Caroline had begun with how she had reacted when I got sick, when I quit my job, when I wanted to be an electrician and when I wanted to move to Brighton. Each time, she had made it abundantly clear that our relationship was predicated on an unspoken agreement, which I had never signed up for: I was expected to remain healthy and earning big bucks in investment banking, supporting her in her underpaid charity job in London, and to not expect any such reciprocal arrangement. I often thought of the marriage vows "for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" and this was the standard to which I tried to adhere. Caroline wasn't at all supportive when I quit my job or started business as an electrician - in fact, she constantly complained about the decline in our living standards, however her blanket rejection of any better paid job was something I'd had to accept. She'd flatly refused to discuss moving to Brighton.
She'd paid little or no attention to the appointments I had been attending, over the years, since the first visit to my local doctor's surgery in my adult life. At first, I hadn't wanted to worry her, but it had become increasingly apparent that she just didn't care about my health or wellbeing: she just wanted me to bring home a massive income, doing a job which was killing me. She placed the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed as the top priority, and the delivery of all of the extra anticipated things she would be getting in future - an extravagant wedding, a private school education for our children, a bigger house, trust funds for university - were non-negotiables. She wanted what she wanted, and the only route to getting that was me or somebody else, but she certainly wasn't going to compromise one little bit.
Left with no other options, I confronted Caroline with the opinions of my doctor, psychiatrist and therapist.
"Caroline, I'm not sick. I need to make lifestyle changes, because this life - London and investment banking - is making me unwell. I'm not saying I want to move to Brighton because it's a selfish dream of mine. It would have been great if I could have carried on with our old life, but it wasn't sustainable."
"What are you saying?" she asked.
"I tried all the different anti-depressants, but they didn't work. It wasn't safe. I was suicidal. I tried switching a different way of making money, but I simply couldn't earn enough money to support the lifestyle you want; I can't give you the future you want. I've found a compromise: this job in Brighton pays incredibly well and we'll be able to afford a much bigger house than in London. I can work fewer hours. I can work from home sometimes. It's so much better for my health."
"But all our friends are in London. Everything is here. What about my job?"
"You're a solicitor. You can work anywhere. There are plenty of legal firms in Brighton" I replied.
"I like my colleagues. I like my clients. I like the charity I work for. I'm not doing it. I'm not moving. I'm not discussing this. No. The answer is no."
"This isn't brinksmanship. This isn't an ultimatum. I don't like it any more than you do, but this is the situation. The only way I can earn enough money to maintain our standard of living and give you everything you want, and not kill myself, is to take a less stressful job in Brighton."
"You could take a less stressful job in London" she suggested.
"You don't understand. You can't leave before your boss. Leaving at 7:30pm is considered early. People are answering emails at all time of the day. All the banks are moving their middle office and back office functions out of London. This is the only chance I have to keep my London salary, without having to keep the London working hours and the pressure of the front office."
"Tell Human Resources that you're not well. Tell them you need to work part-time."
"You don't understand. That's career suicide. I'd be paid off. They'd offer me a hefty amount of cash to leave, but I'd never be able to work in investment banking again. I'd be blacklisted."
"They can't do that! There are employment laws!" she bristled.
"Yes. We would get a very large financial settlement, but I've done the maths and it doesn't add up: it's not enough money to support the lifestyle ambitions that you have. We won't be able to get the house in Zone 2 with a large garden, like you wanted. We won't be able to afford private school for three children. We won't be able to send three children to university, without them having to go into debt. We won't be able to buy them their first car. We won't be able to pay the deposit on their first home. We won't be able to pay for their weddings."
"I'm sure we'll manage."
I laughed at the ridiculousness of the notion.
"MANAGE! I've had to put up with nothing but complaint after complaint ever since I quit my job, about how much pain and suffering it's causing you, having to tighten our belts" I retorted, unable to keep my built-up frustrations and resentment under control.
"So how do you propose we split everything? 50:50?" she asked. The coldness of her tone - the lack of emotion - utterly enraged me. I could not have felt more used. I felt like nothing more than a walking wallet. I was completely speechless that she could segue so effortlessly into a discussion about who was going to get the crockery and who was going to get the vacuum cleaner. It was heartless. It was brutal.
* * *
Life in the marina was unusual, but it was novel. Instead of having supermarket shopping delivered, I had to drive to the supermarket, buy my shopping, drive back to the marina and load the bags into a trolley, which I would then wheel through a security gate and down to the pontoon where my yacht was moored.
I was not supposed to discharge my yacht's toilet while moored within the marina, but I was damned if I was going to walk all the way to the toilet block every time I needed to use the loo. Out of paranoia of being reported by a busybody fellow berth holder, I ran the shower every time I pumped out the contents of my toilet. A little seawater circulated every time the marina's lock was used, but the water was essentially a stagnant pond, so the discharge of raw sewerage - my untreated bladder and bowel movements - was quite an antisocial practice. I justified my actions, because very few people lived aboard their boats, and fewer still used them on any regular basis.
Caroline hadn't the money to buy me out of our shared mortgage on our London house. Her wealthy family were notoriously stingy and had refused to lend her the money, despite the huge financial gain she stood to make. I could have bought her share, but having no use for a London home anymore, I knew that she would try to manipulate me into allowing her to stay there rent-free, or at least at a hugely discounted rate: she had already made several attempts to emotionally blackmail me, saying that she had made terrible sacrifices for me, when I had quit my job and become an electrician. Essentially, she felt entitled to a vast sum of money - who knew how much she felt entitled to? It was my closest friends who begged me to be firm but fair, and to take back the hefty initial deposit which I had paid, and to split the remaining sum equally. In fact, my friends begged me to give her a share in proportion with her contribution, which was my legal entitlement, but I didn't want to face the court battle which she was threatening, and neither did I particularly begrudge her the hefty extra sum of money, if she was enough of a bad person to demand it - she could live with the guilt of knowing she picked my pocket, but I could not live with the guilt of knowing that she would struggle with the sudden drastic change in her financial circumstances, without a golden parachute, gifted to her by me... not that she was grateful, of course.
I was left with easily enough money to buy a very nice house in Brighton, with very little mortgage, if any. London property prices were so vastly over-inflated versus the rest of the country. However, I wanted to keep my options open. Perhaps I wouldn't like it in Brighton. Perhaps I would miss London. I decided to defer housebuying, and instead bought a yacht.
My new - but second-hand - yacht, was large and well appointed, but more akin to a floating caravan than anything luxurious. I bought it because of its spacious interior: enough space to sleep 6 in 3 cabins, with extra beds in the saloon too. The bathroom, galley and other aspects of the yacht were a world apart from the small yacht I had purchased when I was 22 years old. There was a fridge, a shower, an oven. With mains-voltage shore power hook-up, I could use regular household appliances without worrying about draining the batteries. There was enough headroom to accomodate my 6 feet of height, in most parts of the vessel, although I did have to duck through doorways and shower in a rather awkward position.
Life aboard the yacht lived up to my expectations mostly. There were minor inconveniences, such as having to cart anything I wanted to load onboard or take off, having to be done using a trolley. Putting out the rubbish became something which I did little and often, on my way to work, as opposed to carting heavy black bin liners all the way to the marina refuse dump. Shopping was an almost daily chore, because the fridge had such little capacity and I had no freezer.
There were problems which I had not anticipated, which were a little more difficult to deal with. My colleagues had begun to notice that I smelled of diesel fuel. The smell had entirely escaped my notice, because it lingered with me constantly. A small amount of diesel fuel inevitably ends up in the bilges of any vessel, and it's virtually impossible to eliminate the smell, which permeates all soft fabrics. Yacht owners are quite used to the smell, and no longer notice it after a while, but to my colleagues it was a topic which nobody had been brave enough to broach - it was only by chance that I overheard one colleague saying to another "you mean the guy who smells of diesel" in a context where they could only have been referring to me, that I realised there was a problem. My solution, of keeping all my work clothes at work - my suits and my shirts - required an extra locker, and I had to get up earlier than I would have done normally, in order to be able to shower and get changed at the office in the morning.
The thin, light and strong walls of the hull of my yacht were a quite ideal building material for a seagoing vessel, but provided inadequate sound insulation for a home. As the spring turned into summer, and an increasing number of people decided to have parties on their gin palaces, the noise pollution became rather problematic. I purchased an excellent pair of earplugs, but these were so effective I was often unable to hear my alarm clock in the morning, and they irritated my ear canals, causing inflammation and pain.
My new life in Brighton, despite its teething problems, was on the whole a very happy one. My commute was short, I worked far fewer hours, and the atmosphere in the office was generally less competitive and high-pressure than it was in London. The laid-back attitude of my staff rubbed off on me, and I felt that the culture was much better for my health and wellbeing. I was optimistic that I might have found the route to a sustainable and contented life. I was hopeful that I had seen the last of depression and suicidal thoughts.