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The truth about goodbye
An appreciation of beautiful and dramatic farewells, and the opportunities they hold.
I’ve long been obsessed with finding something beautiful and romantic about an ending. I’ve never warmed to nostalgia or what-ifs, but to be somewhere and know it’s for the last time, and to anticipate the feeling of loss, to miss the person you are at that exact moment and never will be again, it’s always appealed. It’s the final second of innocence before the curtain draws back; the very last moment of joy before the scales fall from your eyes.
I remember exactly the moment I started to feel this way. As a child growing up on a council estate, one of my favourite things to read were twee books about precocious middle-class white children and their extremely staid adventures. In the opening chapter of The Children of Willow Farm, the eponymous, entitled brats are to leave the house where they grew up in London for a new life in the country. They are excited at what’s to come, but already nostalgic for the good times they’ve had in their now empty London flat, running from room to room shouting their goodbyes, reliving everything that’s happened there and promising they’ll never forget. I recall being envious of them heading off to start somewhere anew, to have the luxury of saying goodbye to their childhood home. I knew if I was ever going to escape to the country, it’d have to be by my own hand – no rosy-cheeked relatives were going to rescue me.
So call me romantic or fatalist or a sadist whatever, but I quite enjoy that lurch in the tummy you get when you’re at the end of the road in some way. You know something is coming next, but you’re not sure what. You know you’ll look back on this moment as insignificant, a stepping stone, but right now it is everything, and huge, and you can’t picture life beyond it. The trouble with living in the moment is you think you’re as strong or as tall or as wise as you’re ever going to be. You have no idea.
When I originally wrote this piece, seven years ago in a Starbucks in Slough, something had just ended for me. A client, who I was with for seven years, let me go. It was a very corporate job, and one that could be very stressful at times, but it was only 2–3 days a week, and was steady, the freelancers’ holy grail. It allowed me to do what I guess amounted to more fascinating and enjoyable – if not entirely glamorous – writing for terrible money, that rite of passage we tell ourselves we must all endure. As for the job I was losing, a combination of budget cuts, Brexit and new brooms sweeping right into every corner meant that freelancers – for so long the invisible backbone in companies that fudged head counts to avoid activating staff benefits – were to be cut, with immediate effect. Ordinarily, as I work mainly from home, I’d have got a phone call and that would’ve been that. But I had tec to handover and wisdom and passwords to impart, plus I didn’t want to be denied my final moment, so I travelled into the office, in Slough. The very least someone can do when they’re telling you it’s over after seven years – be it professionally or romantically – is look into your eyes one last time as they say it. I’ve always believed in doing the right thing, no matter how painful; I was determined to have it done to me. You can’t force a happy ending, but you can manage the severity of the blow of a sad one.
I don’t really know what I was expecting. Although we live in an age now where everything that happens in our lives can easily be presented as content, existing in our own strange scripted reality where there is no room for the flat or the mundane, I was hoping to avoid dramatics. I guess I wanted to go out with dignity, perhaps even to make them see exactly what they were letting go. But go I would. If I’m honest, I was mainly interested in making sure they paid me what they owed me, and guilting them into a light severance. At the time, I’d just moved in with my boyfriend and the rent wasn’t going to pay itself.
As soon as I got to the office, the never-agains started. Such sentimental twaddle filled my head, I cringe about it now years later. Never again would winters lash my face or summers roast me as I trudged from the train station. Never again would I spell out my surname – ‘No, not M-A-Y, just M-Y’ – to the receptionist. Never again would the woman in the deli bar double-check it was definitely decaf I wanted. Never again would I step into the lift and wait until the doors closed before turning to the mirror and checking my hair. Never. There would be no next time. So final. No tears, no hysterics, but the feeling of rejection. I revelled in the odd hopelessness and beautiful desolation of the moment.
The final meeting, in a side room with two much furniture crammed into it, was bright and respectful. They said I smelled nice. They were sad. I didn’t say too much. When you don’t know what to say and someone’s telling you it’s over, it’s best to keep quiet. It forces them to talk; you are handing them the rope. I controlled my moment. And they agreed to give me a month’s money as a goodbye kiss. There was no drama.
Exits, however, should always be dramatic. Walking out of rooms doesn’t have to be loud or hysterical or bitter – but you don’t want to be forgotten, either. Sadly slow-motion is not available in real life, and incidental music plays only in your head, but after I shook their hands and looked warmly into their eyes, I turned and walked purposefully down their gleaming corridors, my expression blank. Did they watch me walk away? I’ll never know, but I engaged my glutes as much as you can when walking, just in case. It seemed that time slowed, and, in my imagination, the weary, swaggering opening of George Michael’s ‘Praying For Time’ began to play. As the imaginary music got louder I pushed open the doors and walked out into the murky cloudiness of day. I did not look back. I never look back, not even when someone calls my name. It was gorgeous. The DRAMA. If I hadn’t been already gay when this moment occurred, I’d have to become so immediately.
As I strode away, feeling majestic and victorious and invincible, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the security guard – I’d forgotten to hand in my entry pass. Typical. Denied my soap opera moment even to the very last second, I handed it over with the tiniest roll of my eyes, put my headphones back in and turned away again. I felt lighter. Free.
Or so I said in the post at the time. Oh, hindsight never needs spectacles, does it? Goodbyes can bring opportunities, but they can also be a bruising slam of the door.
In reality, for all my bravado, I was frightened that everything was falling away, that I’d never find work again. For a while, it was tough. A couple of months later, I got an email that would take my life in a new direction. I signed my first book deal that November.
Goodbye isn’t always the end – sometimes it’s just a hello in a voice you don’t yet recognise.
The original version of this post appeared on my website theguyliner.com in 2016. I was on holiday, you see.
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