My ex proposed on holiday in India. The fact that there was no ring did not impinge on me until we got back to the business school where we’d met, and people started asking to see it. It was clear that he was embarrassed. I suppose it cast aspersions on his manhood, generosity, ability to provide. (The irony is not lost on me today.) One day, passing through the market square in Fontainebleau, I stopped and bought a crappy ring. Three fake diamonds in a row: classic engagement design, I thought. That’ll do. It cost 10F, approximately one pound. Everyone admired it and I was happy to let them think what they wanted. I didn’t give a shit about diamonds, and still don’t. And, while we had business school loans, it seemed stupidity of the highest order to have a lot of money on my finger.
And do you know, it was only after he’d buggered off out of the blue after 20 years of marriage, that I stopped to wonder what the fuck he was doing with a business school loan, given that his company had paid his fees and even a salary the whole time he was there?
Maybe I’ve only myself to blame for my current predicament. But if we were looking back on 50 years of wedded bliss, human nature being what it is, we’d insist that the signs had been there all along for that.
When we moved to London after B school, it was into his flat. A shitty flat, but it was more than I had. I set about making a nice home for the two of us. We knocked down a wall, planted things, painted things, you know: did it up. He let me do what I wanted. It wasn’t only that he had terrible taste: he just didn’t care. But I did. Not about diamonds, but about my environment, yes.
It was the ground floor of a Victorian semi; upstairs lived an Italian lady of mature years. She had a Russian boyfriend who would come round for dinner a few days a week and stay the night from time to time.
She’d been the cleaner when BH lived there with his friend (who had sold his half of the flat to BH for a vast amount of money because BH always thought that everything touched by him was of great value). BH and his pal never cleaned anything, never threw away bottles of milk, no matter how off, and so on. Though she and I were civil to one another, I felt she always resented me for taking over the cleaning. And when I started working long hours, I chose a different cleaning lady, who stayed with us through various house moves over more than 20 years, and lord do I miss her.
Giovanna (not her real name) told me that she’d come to England from Venice as a teenager, and had soon found an English boyfriend. Timothy (not his real name) and she had dated for a while, even after Vladimir (not his real name either, which was Victor) entered the picture. She was carrying on with the two of them for some time before ditching the dull Brit for the exciting Russian. This exciting Russian was the same man who, 30 odd years later, was still coming round whenever he felt like it, for a home cooked meal and a bit of how’s your father. Giovanna was still waiting for him to propose.
One day her niece, who was working in the hospital where Giovanna herself had worked before she was able to get sickness benefits (though there was by her own admission nothing the matter with her) reported that a man had been in looking for her. It was the jilted Timothy. In the intervening years, while she was waiting for Vlad to make an honest woman of her, Tim had married someone else, had children (now grown up) and lost his wife to cancer. Having always held a candle for Giovanna. Or maybe he was just lonely. Over cups of espresso she told me that she’d started sleeping with him again. This time it was Vlad who was kept in the dark. Months passed, still she’d not decided what to do. Tim wanted her to move into his big house in Ickenham (a place which Giovanna described, in her strong Italian accent, as ‘a paradise’). She refused to move. However she did insist that his dead wife’s kitchen be ripped out and replaced with one of her choice.
One day she turned up at my door and started waving her hand in front of my face. There was what my mother would describe as ‘a great big clonk’. It was a copy of the famous Princess Diana engagement ring: a vast sapphire surrounded by diamonds. I was polite enough to admire it. Giovanna told me, indignantly, that Tim had popped the question with a similar ring, but with smaller stones. ‘I told him to get a bigger one!’ she said, as though that was what any self-respecting woman would do. ‘I’m going to keep my flat’, she said. ‘And anyway, we can always get divorced’.