Benjamin Duffy is a stand-up comic/temp who, like many men in their late twenties, is forced to face the eternal question: "To commit or not to commit?" After four years of biding her time, Benjamin's girlfriend has proposed, issuing an ultimatum that sets Benjamin's head spinning. He knows that Mel's the one for him, but should he swap his stellar record collection and fridge full of beer for dinner parties and trips to IKEA? Maybe if Benjamin could swap "till death do us part" with "renewable on a four-year basis" he'd be happy, but the choice--as far as Mel sees it--is all or nothing. Now or never. Mel or no Mel.
After a lifetime as Mr. Irresponsible, does Benjamin have what it takes to become Mr. Commitment?
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A long-forgotten conversation
Her: [Pause] Do you love me?
Me: Of course I do.
Her: How much?
Me: I don't know . . . loads. To infinity and then some.
Her: [Contentedly] Good.
Me: That's that sorted, then.
Her: [Playfully] So what would you do if I ever split up with you?
Me: Are you going to do that?
Me: Then why are we talking about it?
Her: It's called conversation. People do it all the time.
Me: So let me get this straight, the question is what would I do if you hypothetically dumped me?
Me: Hypothetically nothing.
Me: Well, as we're mad about each other it'd take me doing something pretty stupid for you to want to get rid of me. [Pause] Like if I started biting my own toenails or something. I'd dump me if I started doing that.
Her: Do you always have to be so logical?
Me: [Laughs] I'd be devastated. Destroyed. Dismantled. And other words beginning with "D."
Her: But what would you do?
Me: Do? [Pause] I would do everything in my power to get you back.
Her: Like what?
Me: Climbing the highest mountain, crossing scorching deserts, fighting man-eating tigers--that sort of thing. Granted there aren't that many tigers, mountains or deserts in Muswell Hill. But you get my drift.
Her: What if the odds were impossible?
Me: Then I'd die trying.
Her: What if I told you I didn't love you anymore?
Me: I wouldn't believe you.
Her: But you wouldn't ever give up trying?
Me: Nah. Some things you can't give up on, can you?
Her: Mr. Duffy, you've answered every single question correctly.
Me: Great, so what do I win?
Let's talk about us
"Have I missed something here?"
It was an ordinary Thursday evening in January--at least I thought so. I was round at my girlfriend Mel's flat and it was to her that I'd aimed my question, as for some unknown reason she'd just turned off the TV even though I'd quite clearly been watching it. What really wound me up, however, was the fact that she'd used the remote control to do it, adding insult to injury. It was an unofficial rule of ours that I looked after all TV-channel-changing duties--in the same way that Mel got first grazing rights on the top layer of any box of chocolates that came into our possession. We'd arrived at these and various other rules through a process of trial and error over the course of our four-year relationship. These rules made me happy. I always knew where I stood. But when you abandon rules there's bound to be chaos, and right now what I had on my hands was a serious case of anarchy.
My obviously deranged beloved pursed her perfect full lips together and blew into the end of the remote haughtily as if she'd just battled the TV for my attention and won. There's no need for you to be quite so pleased with yourself, I thought. After all, it was only a repeat of Star Trek--the episode where Kirk and co. go back in time to earth in early 1920s America and Spock has to wear a woolly hat to cover his pointy ears. A young Joan Collins is in it, and Kirk, surprise, surprise, snogs her. I wasn't a Trekkie but I'd seen this episode a million times before and the more I thought about it the more irritated I became that Mel had curtailed my intergalactic viewing pleasure.
Mel, who had disappeared into her bedroom when I'd arrived at her Clapham flat, only to reappear an hour later and turn off the TV, was now looking at me intently as if studying some unknown creature under a microscope. Her face bore the look not of someone annoyed, or angry but intrigued. Even so, I signaled an internal green alert and continued to feel on edge. She stood up--still holding the remote control--and walked across the room to the table in the corner where a bottle of Chardonnay sat. She poured out two glasses of wine, put them on the coffee table, seated herself on my lap and kissed me.
Watching her carefully I began to wonder if she was trying to seduce me. Being seduced was a nice idea, but she really had no need to go to all this effort. When it came to Mel--who was beautiful in a wonderfully understated kind of way--Easy was indeed my first, last and middle name. No, this isn't about seduction, I decided. This is about me doing something wrong. There was something about this whole situation that had a suggestion of forgotten anniversary about it, only it wasn't our anniversary. Was it?
"It's not our anniversary," I said unsteadily, attempting to add a dash of confidence to my voice. "That's not until June eleventh."
"The eighteenth actually."
She smiled and kissed me again.
"It's not your birthday, either . . . that's not until April sixth."
"Nearly." She smiled. "The fifth."
She smiled and kissed me once more.
"It's not my birthday, is it?" I said, grasping at nothing. "I can't be so crap that I've actually forgotten my own birthday, surely?"
"What are you like?" said Mel, laughing. "Your birthday isn't until October the seventh."
All out of commemorative occasions, I continued to rack my brains. Mel loved any excuse for a celebration. It was bound to be something strange like the anniversary of the first time we had a Chinese takeaway, or four years to the day since we first cooked for each other or . . .
"I've got it," I said victoriously. "It's the anniversary of the day I first told you I loved you."
"It is?" said Mel quizzically. "Are you sure?"
"I dunno." I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. All I could remember about the day in question was that it had been the Friday Channel Four repeated the very first episode of Cheers. I'd been looking forward to the moment all week and then five minutes before it was about to begin, I'd felt a sudden urge to tell Mel about the intense emotional turmoil she was causing within my normally placid frame. Such was the sense of exhilaration caused by my outburst that we ended up missing Cheers altogether. It was worth it though. Well worth it.
After some moments of quiet contemplation attempting to work out why Mel had turned off the TV, was sitting on my lap and acting so strangely, I resorted to basic questioning in order to try and find out what was wrong, carefully avoiding the question I really wanted to ask: "Why have you turned off Star Trek?"
Like a panther of passion stalking her prey, she leaned forward and kissed me again, slowly, carefully and seductively. Maybe she was trying to seduce me after all.
"Can't a woman be nice to her boyfriend once in a while?" she purred.
"No...I mean... yes." I looked at the TV forlornly. "I mean if that's all it is."
"I do have an agenda," she replied, whilst gaily fondling my earlobes.
I knew it . . .
"So what is it?" I asked carefully.
"Us," she said calmly. "Let's talk about us."
I felt my whole frame sink heavily into the sofa. I'd suspected she was up to something and I was right. Mel had invited me round to her flat on a Thursday night under false pretenses. I thought we were going to watch TV and order a Chinese takeaway (me: Chicken Kung Po; her: King Prawn Egg Foo Yung) and moan about our days at work because that's what we always did on Thursdays. But it wasn't to be. Now we were in this horrendous situation where she wanted to talk about "Us" while all I wanted was to watch Star Trek.
There was never a good reason to talk about "Us." Talking about "Us" always ended up as talking about "me." Mel would, metaphorically speaking, get out her list entitled "Things that are wrong with Duffy: Part 1," and go through it item by item. I would of course nod and murmur in the right places and promise to reform, because generally speaking they were usually reasonable requests along the lines of "Will you pick your clothes up off the floor?", "How about washing out the bath sometimes?" and "Why don't you look at me the way you used to when we first met?"
"Duffy?" Mel asked. "How long have we been going out . . . together, that is?"
I knew the answer to her question but racked my brains for additional information in case this was a trick. "Four wonderful years," I ventured tentatively.
"Exactly," she replied. Against my will my mind began to drift--right about now Spock would be heading to the hardware store to buy some chicken wire to aid his efforts to construct a primitive communicator out of a radio set. "Four years is a long time, you know--"
I interrupted, even though it was very bad to interrupt. I didn't like where this was going at all. "It's not that long. If you were a four-year-old child you wouldn't even have started going to school yet. You wouldn't be able to read or write but you could probably just about tie your shoelaces . . ."
"Duffy, don't drivel on, will you?" She glared at me, exasperated, then removed herself from my lap and rested her bottom on the arm of the sofa instead, with her stockinged feet on the cushion next to me. "You know what I'm getting at."
I shrugged silently, turning my whole body into a question mark.
"Do I have to spell it out?"
"Duffy, do you love me?"
"Is that all this is about?" I asked incredulously. "You've got no worries there." I was pleased that was all. Mel quite frequently asked me if I loved her. Sometimes I think she got a bit insecure about "Us" and needed a little reassurance from me which I was always pleased to give. I reached out and held her hand and whispered closely into her ear, "I love you. I love you. I love you."
She smiled, leaned forward to kiss me and whispered back, "Then let's get married."
My first impulse as the words rocketed around my skull, causing all manner of brain damage, was to run.
My second impulse (a little more subtle) was to hide.
My third impulse (admittedly far less subtle) was to run and hide.
Maybe my crap impulses were due to my being a Libra. I hoped so. A dismal astrological sign was a greater source of comfort than simple cowardice.
In the end I didn't run or hide, because that would've really annoyed her, so I went with the only other option available to me--to curl up into a ball and hope she didn't want to do too much damage.
"You want to get married?"
"I do," she said, laughing.
"The one and only Ben Duffy." She stood up from the sofa, and pulled the hem of her skirt up slightly before getting down on one knee on the carpet. "I'm a modern woman, Duffy. Modern women don't have to wait to be asked anymore." She cleared her throat, knocked back a huge gulp of wine, and held my hand. "Will you Benjamin Dominic Duffy do me the honor of becoming my lawful wedded bloke, to have and to hold till death do us part?"
Till death do us part.
How did that ever get into the wedding ceremony? Prior to this moment it had been my fullest intention to live for as long as possible--where was the incentive now?
Till death do us part.
Why couldn't they have put in something less restrictive, like "renewable on a four-year basis," or "until either party gets bored" or, at worst, "for the foreseeable future"?
Till death do us part.
That is what you call a long time.
"I thought you didn't believe in marriage," I said, regaining my wits. "Didn't you once call it 'an outmoded concept created by a patriarchal society to keep women in their place'?" I was paraphrasing the contents of one of those late-night debates we'd had somewhere in year one. I always knew remembering that conversation would come in handy one day.
"Well, I changed my mind," snapped Mel as if she considered this reason enough. "Duffy, we're both twenty-eight. We aren't kids anymore. I want to settle down . . . I don't mean that . . . I want to settle up . . . I want a proper life."
Those perfect lips of hers were now pressed together once again, this time in confusion. This obviously wasn't the reaction she'd been expecting. I didn't understand where this had come from. I didn't understand at all. I studied her face to see if I could locate the answer there.
"Don't look at me like that," said Mel sternly.
"Like what?" I protested.
"Like this." She pulled a face which was both amusing and incredibly accurate. "Like I'm a tinned food without a label. Like I've just dropped in from another planet. Like I'm acting like a 'bloody woman.' "
I adjusted my look accordingly.
"I know what I've said in the past about marriage. You don't need to remind me what I've said before. I know it doesn't make sense. But it's what I want, Duffy. You want me to be ashamed of wanting to be with you for the rest of my life, like it's some sort of weakness. I know I can live life on my own, Duffy. I don't need to prove anything to anyone. But I don't want to live on my own. I want to live with you."
Whilst carefully maintaining my nonjudgmental facial expression, I studied her face again, hoping for some sign that she was winding me up--that at some point she was practically going to wet herself laughing and say, "Had you going there, didn't I?" I waited for this moment, but of course it didn't arrive because Mel was as serious as the Nine o'Clock News.
"Are you sure?" I asked timidly.
She nodded. "Yes. Aren't you?"
"Yes," I said instinctively. And then, "No." And then, "What I mean is . . ."
She took another long sip from her wine and swallowed hard. "What you mean is you're not sure."
I hesitated cautiously, hoping to make certain "not sure" was an acceptable response and not one that could and would be taken down and used as evidence against me. Once again I examined Mel's features for clues. There were none. The inner workings of Mel's mind were a total enigma to me. I'd often tried to get in there, in the attempt better to understand, but I could never bring all the strands together into a consistent book of law, because as far as I could work out she was making this stuff up as she went along.