WORDS BY MEGAN NOLAN
WORDS BY MEGAN NOLAN
Food can be cheap and careless, but glorious because it's an excuse to bring people together. Irish writer Megan Nolan recounts the days of a heady but ill-advised affair which lead to a new life in London, where she experienced the highs and lows of Britain's infamous pub chain.
Three years ago I was in love with a handsome and charismatic artist, which is the worst kind of love to be in. He was very tall, 6”4 or 6”5, and had the slightly bad posture of someone who became so very early and tried to hide it. His bones seemed somehow more beautiful than anyone else’s. His features were lovely too, but the way he was structured is what you noticed first. The way his cheekbones were so high that they made his eyes wolfish and cruel; the way his long fingers grasped purposefully at the air as he spoke as though arranging decorations.
We met when both of us had just left long-term relationships. I was looking only for the decadence of an ill-advised affair, to counteract the plodding domesticity I had recently rejected. We went to hotel rooms and disgustingly expensive cocktail bars and made out obscenely in the smoking area. We ate steak at intimate French restaurants on Saturday nights and oysters for brunch on Sunday. Because I had a real job and he didn’t, I paid for most of it. I didn't mind. I was falling in love, without entirely meaning to.
I was looking for the decadence of an ill-advised affair, to counteract the plodding domesticity I had recently rejected
The year passed, and the accumulated months we had spent in a state of profligate shared mania began to catch up with us. When we talked about the future he became agitated and restless. He didn’t know where he wanted to live – Dublin was too suburban, London too expensive, Berlin too has-been. It was all too stressful to talk about. Why couldn’t we just go for dinner and have a nice time and forget it for now? Because I had come, by then, to live for him, my own future was alarmingly unknowable and void. I lived week to week, nothing in it mattering except when we could be together. There was no world outside of our bed. There was only a single moment, the one with us in it together, and all the others were just padding.
That April he went on a residency in Copenhagen and I went to visit. By then we had been together-but-not-together for a long time. I was constantly trying to convince myself that I didn’t need to know where we would live in the future, that being in love was the important thing, and it would get me through it all. In Copenhagen we played at being a real couple for a week, living in an idyllic bungalow near the river. We ate crab at the food market, and walked around hand in hand. We ate falafel in Christiania, the declared free-town where weed is sold in little cabins covered in camo; we walked through the forest for almost six hours getting high and laughing at the rabbits who did not seem to fear us at all. We ate bowls of venison stew outside the bar around the corner from our house as the sun set.
This story was originally commissioned for the first Voices At The Table event. For more events, click here
On our final evening we got dressed up and looked beautiful and happy and I took him to a restaurant called Fiskebar. We ate scallops with hazelnut, plum and geranium. King crab with mead and wild roses. Cod roe with Jerusalem artichoke, malt and fermented pear. Blue mussels steamed in cider with plenty of herbs. Squid with roasted celeriac, black garlic, pickled seaweed, and blueberries. I know what we ate because I wrote it in my notebook afterwards. It was the best food I had ever eaten. When the bill came my throat thickened in alarm, but I paid it and turned back towards him, not wanting the time we were having to end.
As we left and walked through the meatpacking district, I asked when he would be back in Ireland. As ever when I asked about a time beyond the immediate present, a torturous and incomprehensible argument began. I screwed my eyes shut in the middle of the street and tried to stop hearing his panicked rambling. Something was breaking inside of me and I knew all at once that there would never be anything beyond a single moment with him, that it didn’t matter how much I loved him, or even how much he loved me, there would never be anything there for me once the night ended because he didn’t have it to give.
I flew home the next day with a playlist of depressing songs and a bill for a month’s rent’s worth of fish. A few months later I quit my job, packed up my things and moved to London.
When the bill came my throat thickened in alarm, but I paid it and turned back towards him, not wanting the time we were having to end
In London I was a stranger to everyone and myself. I cut all of my hair off and regretted it instantly. I bleached it and then dyed it back to normal. I wore cutesy dresses with bows and frills, and then I wore his old death metal t-shirts and black hoodies. I thought of one afternoon in Dublin when it was laundry day and I was wearing leggings and an old Adidas hoodie of his. I was stood taking care of his bike outside a shop, smoking as he bought chewing gum, and when he came out the combination of the androgynous clothes and the cigarette and the bike made me seem an entirely other sort of woman than I am and he liked it and he told me that he liked it. And there were often moments like that one, where I could nearly identify the sort of person I would have to be to make him love me, but they would pass too quickly for me to get a hold of.
And I would list the things that were wrong with me and try to know which ones were the culprits.
I hate to exercise.
I sleep for thirteen hours at a time most weekends.
I eat very little fruit.
I am not an artist.
I did not go to university.
I am at least ten pounds overweight.
I don’t read Theory.
I have bad circulation, so that when I wear short skirts, my legs turn a funny colour.
I cry if somebody raises their voice, even if I am at fault.
I drink too much wine.
I worked at a newspaper on a zero-hour contract, either 60 hours a week or none at all. On weeks when I was working I drank the free machine-coffee all day to overwhelm my hunger pains and then when it was over sat on the train with shocked tears falling down my face.
On weeks when I wasn’t working, I went to a Wetherspoons near my house to apply for jobs. Limitless refill coffee saw me through to lunchtime, and then a soup and half baguette for £2.30. The pub had the atmosphere of a barely-maintained care home mid-morning. I stared in appalled awe at the elderly Irish men who congregated each day, faces livid with booze. I remembered stories my dad had told me about men in his hometown who had moved to London and failed to find regular work. They lived in abject poverty in shared bedsits, but when they came home for a visit to Ireland would scrape together enough to buy drinks for everyone at the bar – they so badly wanted to pretend they had made it. What was going to happen to me?
It was the first time since I was fifteen years old that I had not been in love. Not only was I not in love, the idea of ever being in love again seemed repellent and insane to me. But that I had taken against love did nothing to help replace its total dominance in my life. I did not know what to do with my energy, my feelings, my time – things which all had been occupied by some man or other for a decade.
The pub had the atmosphere of a barely-maintained care home mid-morning. I stared in appalled awe at the elderly Irish men who congregated each day, faces livid with booze
I thought of the John Berryman poem which begins,
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
I, too, sitting in Wetherspoons, drumming my nails, anxious as hell, concluded that I had no inner resources. I sat there, and smoked, and fretted. I looked at pictures of my ex and his new girlfriend. I read newspapers and medical case studies and bad novels. I waited for my life to begin, for something to happen to me. When it didn’t, I began to write. You have to teach yourself, if you have never known it before, that conversation is a thing you can have with yourself as well as other people.
You have to teach yourself, too, if you’ve never had cause to find out, that there are other kinds of relationships than romantic ones – that they are not just a way to fill in space between lovers.
So I wrote and I made friends and tried to get up every morning and breathe until I could remember what sort of person I was, who I had been before I met him, and who I might like to be now.
John Berryman, Dream Song 14 from The Dream Songs (1964)
That was two years ago. Nowadays my friends and I go to the Wetherspoons near where we live once or twice a week to drink and eat some terrible but somehow very good food. Because what is good food? What is food for? It can be the most exquisite, beautiful thing, made for you with care by a genius, and still the loneliest experience. Or it can be cheap, and careless, and objectively quite gross, but glorious because it’s an excuse for you and your people to come together. These days I mainly make a living from writing, which means in turn I am horribly poor. It means no more hotel rooms, or Sunday morning oysters, or trips to Copenhagen. For this reason, I am grateful to Wetherspoons for being somewhere I know I can go with 15 quid in my pocket to get drunk and eat with my friends.
I still go there alone some hungover maudlin Sundays, needing there to be somewhere which always stays the same, and costs the same, and sounds the same. Even though I’ve been on my own so long now that I’m good at it and can barely imagine anything else, it can still be such work at times, to drag yourself around with nobody to help. And after years of letting my heart harden to deal with being here alone, I can recently, at times, feel a thaw begin, a jarring of my assumption I would be that way forever. I’ve begun to remember, only slightly, what it’s like to be close enough to someone that they might hurt you – to be able to let someone close enough that they might. It feels good, like I’m a season about to change, but frightening too.
Food can be cheap, and careless, and objectively quite gross, but glorious because it’s an excuse for you and your people to come together
And I’ll talk about this all with my friends when we meet, how strange it is to have feelings if you’ve forced yourself not to for a long time, what songs I'm crying to, who I'm sleeping with, who I'm sad about.
My friend Francisco has a verbal tic which follows saying something morose or serious; he’ll flick his cigarette ash and shrug and say “Fuck it, who cares,” and it always makes us laugh because we all care, care about each other and our own sorry lives; but he’s right, basically. It doesn’t really matter, at least not for a bit. We’re there and there’s food and booze and everything’s about alright enough for us all just to laugh for six hours.
It’s a bit like the good version of the psychotic moment I was always trying to live in with my ex, because this time I’m not trying to make anyone fall in love with me, and I’m not spending all of my money on things I ultimately can’t afford, things which are only going to make me unhappy when I finally have to pay for them. In this moment it’s just me and my friends and I’m not trying to prove anything or get anywhere else. The burger is only ok but it’s hot and greasy and it tastes good if you put enough mustard and ketchup on it, and the prosecco only costs a tenner, so fuck it, who cares.