A Dialogue Between A Former Couple

I am reminded of a moment I had shared with my ex-girlfriend in the wake of my final year examinations at University. We were sat in the back garden of my fourth-year house, it was summer and the grass was overgrown and sagging. My flatmates and I had all found legitimising reasons for why we should not be the ones to cut it. Sat amongst the limp vegetation, suffering under its own weight and interspersed with empty Tennents cans and roaches – the detritus of our existence, even then a sad reminder that all good things come to an end -, we were discussing the future.

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with my ex-boyfriend. Graduation was weeks away, meaning the safety blanket of education that had kept us warm for the previous two decades was about to be swiftly pulled from around our shoulders. It was a difficult time for me. I am someone who does not deal well with any form of change or the nostalgia that often follows. For some, reminiscing on fond memories fills them with a kind of gentle afterglow, a warmth in their chests and in their chuckles. For me, reminiscing almost inevitably results in self-induced sadness. For this reason, I tend to look forward more than I look back. And that’s exactly what I did. I got through that tough time by thinking about what I wanted from the next few years. What I could look forward to. What I could achieve.

She had come up with this notion, with three of my other friends, to spend her first post-university year in Edinburgh. It was to be, she considered though I applied the term, something of a half-way house. Living in Edinburgh would not be so different from University, she and her flatmates would be close to the friends we were leaving behind for a final year and, besides, close to another friend who still had three years left of a medical degree at Edinburgh University. She knew life was going to be different and drastically so, but she was trying to see the best outcome to a changing situation. I couldn’t take that away from her. All of us were doing the same in our own way. And, besides, what did I know?

Although he acted like I was tugging at his sleeve like an exuberant child, telling him about my unrealistic plans of a big girl flat and a big girl job and a big girl adventure, my plans were quite simple. I wanted to move back to Edinburgh, the town I grew up in, and fall in love with it all over again. I wanted to live with friends to have some semblance of the independence I was so fond of at university. I wanted to get a job in which I could put the skills and experience I had gained at university to good use. A job that would enable me to become financially independent and a job that would enable me to dream bigger when I eventually came to choose my career path. And then, at some point, I wanted to leave the UK for a while and work on the number of places I had seen and stories I could tell rather than the number in my bank account.

In Edinburgh, she was going to get a job, an adult job: a job in an office, behind a desk, with a title like ‘executive analyst’ or ‘research assistant’, a part of team, a job where you considered your wages per annum instead of what you received at the end of the week in a paper envelope with your name scrawled across it. And then after a year of working there, she was going to go travelling, that was her plan. She wanted to see the world, we all did. We were clichéd and did not care to be told so. She had just returned from a holiday in South America and had extolled the virtues of travelling alone, a unique experience she’d called it, before describing her carefully laid plans for achieving her dream.

So I told him all of this, and you can imagine my delight when I was met with what can only be described as a verbal pat on the head. He reacted as though I was a child planning my trip to Disneyland far too early and he was going to have to gently break it to me that it wasn’t going to happen. And I could see it coming from a mile off. As I was explaining my plans he looked at me with an expression akin to the look of an interviewer who already knows the interviewee will not be getting the job but smiles along encouragingly anyway. He then gave up that faҫade and began to wrinkle his brow. I browsed through the furrows in his forehead like I was browsing through a menu. And what was I getting that day? Scepticism with a side of cynicism. My favourite.

I’m sure there was once a time when I could hide my true emotions from my ex-girlfriend but at that stage of our relationship, a furnished, broken and rebuilt but still sturdy affair, she could read concern on my face as if etched across my forehead were scratchy markings made in inky blood red. I remember her asking me about it, the blotchy scribbling on my face. Indeed, I was concerned, and I let her know about it. When it comes to demonstrating my own cleverness, I seldom pull my punches, and, even though this would be an exceedingly long-game I felt confident in my pronouncement. Life has a habit of getting in the way of our plans, I told her. And my one big fear was arriving at the age of forty and looking backward thinking ‘damn, I didn’t do what I wanted to do’. That’s what I said even though I have many big fears and that is not even the scariest of them.

‘Well you know Niamh, life tends to get in the way of our plans.’ He told me. He explained that there is no point planning because ultimately what we want will change and resultantly so will our plans. He also explained that if I go straight into a full-time job, I probably won’t go travelling because financial security will soon become more important to me than travelling the world. Essentially, it just wasn’t going to happen. And then he threw in something about not wanting to look back at 40 and realise he had not achieved what he had wanted to. It was kind of him to pose these concerns as though for himself and not for me, but his tone gave him away. He had life all worked out so obviously he wouldn’t end up in that position. He was somehow exempt from the fate he predicted for the rest of us, so he was allowed to choose his path.


I felt myself preparing to fight back and I knew exactly how he would interpret my getting defensive. ‘No one likes being told they’re wrong’ – an aphorism of his that he self-affirmingly resorts to whenever met with confrontation. And I suppose he was right. But it was more than that. It was that I was being told I was wrong by someone who has just as much knowledge of the future as I do. I was also being told I was wrong in a conversation that can’t possibly have an objective right or wrong conclusion. Maybe I will end up at a desk job from now until retirement but hoping that I don’t does not make me wrong. Believing in my own resolve also does not make me wrong and if that belief turns out to be misplaced, I’ll still believe in my resilience. I reckon those who have the courage to dream also have the ability to make the best out of whatever situation they find themselves in. I know I do.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘but …’, she was being patient with me despite the fact that I was trying that patience. As if she were the owner of an oft-misbehaving pup, she knew how to interpret the signs and the signs said she wasn’t going to enjoy what she’d hear next. I could see her back coming up, she was preparing a defence – no one likes being told they are wrong. She was not going to fall into the trap, she told me. She really wanted to go travelling, she had loved it and there was so much to see. Her passionate longing for a life on the road was explained to me again, this time with more colour and one or two metaphors.

I remember feeling confused. I didn’t understand why he felt it necessary to hit me with this ‘hard truth’ when all I was doing was planning for the future in an effort to avoid mourning what was very soon going to be my past. I wasn’t hurting anyone by doing so. I also didn’t understand who or what his pessimism was meant to benefit if not his own ego, because it certainly wasn’t for me or mine. Perhaps most importantly, I wasn’t entirely sure what his point was. The overarching idea seemed to be that what you want will change over time. If this was the ground-breaking point to be made then it was rather underwhelming. I’m pretty sure most people know that life is not going to be a straight trajectory to what you wanted post-university. It also seemed somewhat invalid coming from the same mouth that had told me only weeks prior, his plans to move to Senegal to learn French or maybe move to Zimbabwe to buy a houseboat.

I believed in her passion then, as I do now, but still, I persisted. Either I am a purist who believes in the value of the hard truth no matter the circumstance or else I’d superciliously decided my point was a valuable one and, in its demonstration, it would prove the value of its creator, perhaps to himself. Maybe that’s the same thing. I confess, I did not even take the time to consider the concerns she might have addressed in the formulating of her plan. Choosing my words carefully, presenting them as if they were missives for myself and not for her, though I had already chosen my path, I suggested that it doesn’t matter how we feel now. If our plans change it will not be because life has forcibly, and against our will, kept us from the dreams we let root and nurtured in our youth. It will be because we change in accordance with life. Small decisions at every juncture will take us further from the person we once were until eventually we no longer see the same picture. If life diverts us it is because we will, over time, have chosen that diversion.

Of course, he was correct that my priorities might change and make me lose sight of what I once wanted in my adventurous youth. This is something I can’t argue with but again, it’s not news to me. I am aware this happens to many people which is why some might describe my plans to travel as a common cliché rather than a common consequence. What I believe I can argue with however is his choice to knit darkness and doubt into the new safety blanket I was trying to make for myself, all in an indulgent effort to demonstrate his own cleverness. At this time in our lives we are at the starting point of a marathon, only we have no idea where it leads, where it ends or what kind of hurdles will crop up along the way. All we can do is blindly put together a training regime that we hope will prepare us for whatever lies ahead, and then when we hear that gunshot, start running. Some will run towards hard truths, some towards happiness, and some might just run for the hills. But I do not believe that any one of us is within our right to try and convince others to adopt our methods of preparation or the route we plan to take when we are all just as clueless as each other. No collation of aphorisms or realisations or bets or predictions will prepare us for what life has in store, but until I find out, I’d rather spend the time hoping for the best than waiting for the worst. Everyone has their own way of surviving this shit-storm we call life, and this is mine.

Written by Cameron Grant & Niamh Kidd

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