The other weekend, we drove to Gloucestershire to stay with a friend and his parents. We cooked dinner and opened bottles of wine as Cat – their aptly named cat – sat on the dresser, looking on. The house was covered in family photos. So many photos; some in frames, some pinned to cupboard doors, all telling the story of a life – a couple married in 1982, followed by four sons. Protected from the cold of the sprawling fields outside, the fires crackled in the cottage as we sat looking at someone else's memories. I felt like I was in a Christmas card or a Shirley Hughes sketch or a Richard Curtis film.
The real fairytale, however, was the story of my friend’s parents. They’d met at a dinner party, they began to tell us. On their third date, they went to Paris, where he proposed on the bank of the river and she said yes. They were married in months. And here they sat, 35 years later, round a table in a kitchen with Cat and so many photos of babies and toddlers and smiling faces of small boys and of young men – young men who are all brilliant and kind, like their parents. We poured more wine. Candlelight softened the cold winter afternoon. Cat arched her back before rearranging her paws and settling back down. “So, what’s the secret?” I asked my friend’s mother. “Keep going,” she told me.
I’m enthralled by their tale – I love a reckless love story. Even when they don’t have happy endings. My parents took witnesses off the street and married on Christmas Eve of 1980 without telling a soul. It didn’t work out, but that moment must have been pure magic, like sitting next to a man you barely know on the banks of the Seine and agreeing to spend the rest of your life with him. When I see these things in films, like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks holding hands on the top of the Empire State building, I feel more cynical and nauseous than overcome. But when you realise they actually can and do happen, that people take gambles – life-altering gambles – that people dive head first into things we, for the most part, don’t believe fit into real life, that’s when I become starry-eyed. And, in many ways, I’m more in love with the recklessness than I am with the love story. I’m more romanced by the idea of hearing precisely what everyone tells you not to do, and doing it anyway.
I’ve never been reckless, romantically or otherwise. I’ve dated men much older or run around with men I know will leave me high and dry, but for that window of time, it’s perfectly worth it because you feel like a bolt of electricity. But I’ve never accepted a proposal from a near stranger or fled to another country to follow a man I’d only met once. Mostly, I have always played by the rules.
'Don’t overthink things,' my friend’s mum said to me. And maybe that’s what recklessness is – it’s doing what you feel, not talking about how you feel
But would it be as shocking if I married in secret or got engaged on my third date, now in 2017, as it was in the early 1980s? Maybe, but not in the same way, I don’t think – not in a corner of the world where women (and men) are rejecting societal norms on a daily basis and tradition is only fashionable when it comes to baby names. There has been massive generational shift in attitudes; whereas my grandmother was heartbroken she didn’t see her daughter wed, my mother is doubtful I’ll ever wed. Plus, the stakes are nowhere near so high. I have grown up in a world where divorce is more than an option, it’s a statistical likelihood – stigma- and, increasingly, hassle-free. So, is something still reckless if the fallout has a much softer landing than it used to?
And would it be reckless to up sticks and move to another country? No, in fact, that might even be sensible, given the omnishambles of Brexit and the impending economic doom we face. Would it be reckless to chuck in my job and start a new career? Erm, well, perhaps, if I couldn't pay the rent, but we’re in the age of side-hustling millennials who quit jobs as regularly as they order flat whites. For a generation that is factoring out stability, simply because it’s not the option it once was, where does recklessness come in? Where does the thrill of doing something that makes people gasp around a table, 35 years later, as you tell the story for the umpteenth time, over candlelight and red wine, come from? How do we feel like we’re swimming against the tide? How do we do something that we’re not supposed to, when we don’t really know what it is that we’re supposed to be doing now anyway?
“Don’t overthink things,” my friend’s mum said to me. And maybe that’s what recklessness is – it’s doing what you feel, not talking about how you feel, like our world of therapists and blogging and internet forums and introspection encourages us to.
Tucked away in the Gloucestershire countryside, my friend began to make champagne cocktails as his godmother arrived. Yes, I thought, this really is a Richard Curtis film and, yes, I thought, in all this comfort of family and friends and photos and Cat sat by the fire, there’s a lot to be said for being reckless.