Marian Keyes on the agony of small goodbyes

From awkwardly waiting for a taxi to mastering small talk, Marian Keyes relives the horror of trying to slip out after a night of socialising

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By Marian Keyes on

My life would be so much easier if I never had to say goodbye. I’m not talking about the big goodbyes – like break-ups and moving jobs and people pegging it – because, horrible as they are, there is no way round them, and it’s best to just strive for acceptance. No, I’m talking about the small goodbyes, particularly those that happen at the end of a night’s socializing.

Like, say I was at a dinner party (although does anyone, these days – other than newly-weds keen to showcase their new plates and napkin rings – have something as irredeemably grim as a dinner party?) . . . anyway, let’s just say that I was, and I was having a nice time and all that, you know how it is – these things can happen. Then, without warning, I hit my saturation point and I’ve had enough and I want to go home. No. I’ll be more specific – I want to BE at home. 

But first I must say goodbye to everyone present, and frankly I’d rather swim across a crocodile-infested river. It’s the lengthy small talk that accompanies all valedictions that I find so daunting and exhausting: ‘We must do this again soon’ and ‘Stay well’ and ‘Text me the name of that place’ and ‘No, please, don’t give me any buns because I’ll only eat them and then I’ll hate myself.’

It’s unfortunate that goodbyes happen at the end of an encounter, when most of my chat and liveliness have been used up, because last impressions count. Giving good goodbye is a real art, and when I leave a group of people, I’d like a rosy glow to remain in my place. 

I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve wasted, sitting at a table, afraid to get up, my face aching from the lactic acid generated by holding a fake smile, because I simply can’t summon the vast amounts of emotional energy that a decent departure requires. I eye the door and yearn to be on the far side of it, having wrestled with all the obstacles in my path and made good my escape. 

What makes things worse is that I’m always the first to leave anything, which is a source of great shame. (According to a personality quiz, I’m an extreme introvert, which means I can only handle other people in small bursts of time. Also, I have a very short attention span. And I don’t drink. I’d make a top-notch recluse.) 

I must say goodbye to everyone present, and frankly I’d rather swim across a crocodile-infested river. It’s the lengthy small talk that accompanies all valedictions that I find so daunting and exhausting

So I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am on those rare, rare occasions when someone ‘goes’ before me. Suddenly I feel as debauched as Keith Richards – a stay-out-late, round-the-clock party animal. Better still, if a person is leaving, they’ve also given me permission to leave and often I try to ‘bundle’ my parting in with theirs, so that in the flurry of farewells, I make my exit almost unscathed. 

But mostly I’m first to go, probably by several hours, so round the table I go, kissing people goodbye, and because of my mortification about my premature departure I overcompensate by complimenting everyone. However, due to giddiness about my forthcoming escape, my bon mots always end up being a little strange: ‘You have a lovely nose’ or ‘Stay away from sudokus, you’re obviously a left-brain thinker.’  But then I’m free to go and I skip out into the street, happy as can be. 

However, things aren’t always that simple because sometimes a departure involves waiting for a taxi. And now I’m going to use a metaphor: there’s a thing in hill-walking called the false summit, where you’re staggering up the side of a mountain, gasping for breath, your legs trembling with exhaustion, and you manage to keep on climbing because the end is in sight. In a few more minutes, you’ll be on the top of the mountain and you’ll feel fantastic. You’re nearly there, nearly there, your lungs are bursting, your legs are like jelly . . . but you’re nearly there. Then, due to the curvature of the earth and the funny angles of mountains you make a shocking discovery: hiding behind the summit you’re looking at is the REAL summit. 

So when my hostess ends the call to the taxi company and says to me, ‘Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour,’ that’s my false summit. To all intents and purposes, my night is over and I just want is to sit on the stairs and sob quietly. Instead, I have to resume my place at the dinner table and dredge up anecdotes from an empty well, while my every sinew strains to hear the beautiful sound of the taxi. 

When the half-hour mark passes, panic rises and grabs me by the throat and next thing I’m on my feet. My hostess tries ringing the taxi company again but can’t get through, and I grab my bag and say, in a shrill, tight voice, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine. I’ll just . . .’ Stand out here in the snow. ‘If I start walking, I’ll probably hail one on the street. Blizzard? Hardly a blizzard, just a few snowflakes.’ 

So what I’m asking is, is there any way round having to say goodbye? Manners morph over time, don’t they? Look at how the rigid protocol of Victorian times has been largely dismantled. Surely we can move into a new way of taking our leave?

What I propose is a coin system – colour-coded to mean different things. So a person could tiptoe from the room, making vague ‘I’m going to the loo’ gestures, but in fact leave the building. The only sign that they had actually gone would be the little pink coin they’d left in their place, of which the general gist would be: ‘Thank you, I had a lovely time but I’m all used up now and have to go home.’ 

And it could work the other way also. When you want to get rid of rowdy guests who show no indication of leaving, you could slap a large black coin before them which implies: ‘Thank you for coming, you’ve been a delight, I particularly enjoyed your story about the chipolatas but you’ve overstayed your welcome by five hours and I’ve called you a cab.’ 

What do you think? Is anyone with me on this? Anyone . . .? 

 Extract from Making it up as I Go Along by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph, £14.99 hardback)


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