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The Only Story by Julian Barnes

Man Booker prize winner Julian Barnes' latest novel The Only Story is a poignant and tender portrayal of first love. Read on for an extract

But here’s the first problem. If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure. One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse. To come out worse might indicate that you are being more truthful. On the other hand, there is the danger of being retrospectively anti-heroic: making yourself out to have behaved worse than you actually did can be a form of self-praise. So I shall have to be careful. Well, I have learned to become careful over the years. As careful now as I was careless then. Or do I mean carefree? Can a word have two opposites?

The time, the place, the social milieu? I’m not sure how important they are in stories about love. Perhaps in the old days, in the classics, where there are battles between love and duty, love and religion, love and family, love and the state. This isn’t one of those stories. But still, if you insist. The time: more than fifty years ago. The place: about fifteen miles south of London. The milieu: stockbroker belt, as they called it – not that I ever met a stockbroker in all my years there. Detached houses, some half-timbered, some tile-hung. Hedges of privet, laurel and beech. Roads with gutters as yet unencumbered by yellow lines and residents’ parking bays. This was a time when you could drive up to London and park almost anywhere. Our particular zone of suburban sprawl was cutely known as ‘The Village’, and decades previously it might possibly have counted as one. Now it contained a station from which suited men went up to London Monday to Friday, and some for an extra half-day on Saturday. There was a Green Line bus-stop; a zebra crossing with Belisha beacons; a post office; a church unoriginally named after St Michael; a pub, a general store, chemist, hair- dresser; a petrol station which did elementary car repairs. In the mornings, you heard the electric whine of milk oats – choose between Express and United Dairies; in the evenings, and at weekends (though never on a Sunday morning) the chug of petrol-driven lawnmowers.

The Only Story

'Most of my friends were far-flung, and – by some unexpressed but clear parental mandate – use of the telephone was discouraged. A letter, and then a letter in reply. It was all slow-paced, and lonely.'

Vocal, incompetent cricket was played on the Village green; there was a golf course and a tennis club. The soil was sandy enough to please gardeners; London clay didn’t reach this far out. Recently, a delicatessen had opened, which some thought subversive in its offerings of European goods: smoked cheeses, and knobbly sausages hanging like donkey cocks in their string webbing. But the Village’s younger wives were beginning to cook more adventurously, and their husbands mainly approved. Of the two available TV channels, BBC was watched more than ITV, while alcohol was generally drunk only at weekends. The chemist would sell verruca plasters and dry shampoo in little puffer bottles, but not contraceptives; the general store sold the narcoleptic local Advertiser & Gazette, but not even the mildest girlie mag. For sexual items, you had to travel up to London. None of this bothered me for most of my time there.

Right, that’s my estate agent’s duties concluded (there was a real one ten miles away). And one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather. I don’t much remember what the weather has been like during my life. True, I can remember how hot sun gave greater impetus to sex; how sudden snow delighted, and how cold, damp days set off those early symptoms that eventually led to a double hip replacement. But nothing significant in my life ever happened during, let alone because of, weather. So if you don’t mind, meteorology will play no part in my story. Though you are free to deduce, when I am found playing grass-court tennis, that it was neither raining nor snowing at the time.

The tennis club: who would have thought it might begin there? Growing up, I regarded the place as merely an outdoor branch of the Young Conservatives. I owned a racket and had played a bit, just as I could bowl a few useful overs of off-spin, and turn out as a goalkeeper of solid yet occasionally reckless temperament. I was competitive at sport without being unduly talented.

At the end of my first year at university, I was at home for three months, visibly and unrepentantly bored. Those of the same age today will find it hard to imagine the laboriousness of communication back then. Most of my friends were far-flung, and – by some unexpressed but clear parental mandate – use of the telephone was discouraged. A letter, and then a letter in reply. It was all slow-paced, and lonely. 

My mother, perhaps hoping that I would meet a nice blonde Christine, or a sparky, black-ringleted Virginia – in either case, one of reliable, if not too pronounced, Conservative tendencies – suggested that I might like to join the tennis club. She would even sub me for it. I laughed silently at the motivation: the one thing I was not going to do with my existence was end up in suburbia with a tennis wife and 2.4 children, and watch them in turn find their mates at the club, and so on, down some echoing enfilade of mirrors, into an endless, privet-and-laurel future. When I accepted my mother’s offer, it was in a spirit of nothing but satire.

I went along, and was invited to ‘play in’. This was a test in which not just my tennis game but my general deportment and social suitability would be quietly examined in a decorous English way. If I failed to display negatives, then positives would be assumed: this was how it worked. My mother had ensured that my whites were laundered, and the creases in my shorts both evident and parallel; I reminded myself not to swear, burp or fart on court. My game was wristy, optimistic and largely self-taught; I played as they would have expected me to play, leaving out the shit-shots I most enjoyed, and never hitting straight at an opponent’s body. Serve, in to the net, volley, second volley, drop shot, lob, while quick to show appreciation of the opponent – ‘Too good!’ – and proper concern for the partner – ‘Mine!’ – I was modest after a good shot, quietly pleased at the winning of a game, head-shakingly rueful at the ultimate loss of a set. I could feign all that stuff, and so was welcomed as a summer member, joining the year- round Hugos and Carolines.

The Hugos liked to tell me that I had raised the club’s average IQ while lowering its average age; one insisted on calling me Clever Clogs and Herr Professor in deft allusion to my having completed one year at Sussex University. The Carolines were friendly enough, but wary; they knew better where they stood with the Hugos. When I was among this tribe, I felt my natural competitiveness leach away. I tried to play my best shots, but winning didn’t engage me. I even used to practise reverse cheating. If a ball fell a couple of inches out, I would give a running thumbs up to the opponent, and a shout of ‘Too good!’ Similarly, a serve pushed an inch or so too long or too wide would produce a slow nod of assent, and a trudge across to receive the next serve. ‘Decent cove, that Paul fellow,’ I once overheard a Hugo admit to another Hugo. When shaking hands after a defeat, I would deliberately praise some aspect of their game. ‘That kicker of a serve to the backhand – gave me a lot of trouble,’ I would candidly admit. I was only there for a couple of months, and did not want them to know me.

After three weeks or so of my temporary membership, there was a Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament. The pairings were drawn by lot. Later, I remember thinking: lot is another name for destiny, isn’t it? I was paired with Mrs Susan Macleod, who was clearly not a Caroline. She was, I guessed, somewhere in her forties, with her hair pulled back by a ribbon, revealing her ears, which I failed to notice at the time. A white tennis dress with green trim, and a line of green buttons down the front of the bodice. She was almost exactly my height, which is five feet nine if I am lying and adding an inch.

‘Which side do you prefer?’ she asked.


‘Forehand or backhand?’

‘Sorry. I don’t really mind.’

‘You take the forehand to begin with, then.’

Our first match – the format was single-set knockout – was against one of the thicker Hugos and dumpier Carolines. I scampered around a lot, thinking it my job to take more of the balls; and at first, when at the net, would do a quarter-turn to see how my partner was coping, and if and how the ball was coming back. But it always did come back, with smoothly hit groundstrokes, so I stopped turning, relaxed, and found myself really, really wanting to win. Which we did, 6–2.

As we sat with glasses of lemon barley water, I said, ‘Thanks for saving my arse.’
 I was referring to the number of times I had lurched across the net in order to intercept, only to miss the ball and put Mrs Macleod off.

‘The phrase is, “Well played, partner”.’ Her eyes were grey-blue, her smile steady. ‘And try serving from a bit wider. It opens up the angles.’

I nodded, accepting the advice while feeling no jab to my ego, as I would if it had come from a Hugo.

‘Anything else?’

‘The most vulnerable spot in doubles is always down the middle.’

‘Thanks, Mrs Macleod.’


‘I’m glad you’re not a Caroline,’ I found myself saying. 

She chuckled, as if she knew exactly what I meant. But how could she have?

‘Does your husband play?’

‘My husband? Mr E.P.?’ She laughed. ‘No. Golf’s his game. I think it’s plain unsporting to hit a stationary ball. Don’t you agree?’

There was too much in this answer for me to unpack at once, so I just gave a nod and a quiet grunt.

The second match was harder, against a couple who kept breaking off to have quiet tactical conversations, as if preparing for marriage. At one point, when Mrs Macleod was serving, I tried the cheap ploy of crouching below the level of the net almost on the centre line, aiming to distract the returner. It worked for a couple of points, but then, at 30–15, I rose too quickly on hearing the thwock of the serve, and the ball hit me square in the back of the head. I keeled over melodramatically and rolled into the bottom of the net. Caroline and Hugo raced forward in a show of concern; while from behind me came only a riot of laughter, and a girlish ‘Shall we play a let?’ which our opponents naturally disputed. Still, we squeaked the set 7–5, and were into the quarter-finals.

‘Trouble up next,’ she warned me. ‘County level. On their way down now, but no free gifts.’

And there weren’t any. We were well beaten, for all my intense scurrying. When I tried to protect us down the middle, the ball went wide; when I covered the angles, it was thumped down the centre line. The two games we got were as much as we deserved.

We sat on a bench and fed our rackets into their presses. Mine was a Dunlop Maxply; hers a Gray’s.

‘I’m sorry I let you down,’ I said.

‘No one let anyone down.’

‘I think my problem may be that I’m tactically naive.’

Yes, it was a bit pompous, but even so I was surprised by her giggles.

‘You’re a case,’ she said. ‘I’m going to have to call you Casey.’

I smiled. I liked the idea of being a case.

As we went our separate ways to shower, I said, ‘Would you like a lift? I’ve got a car.’

She looked at me sideways. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want a lift if you haven’t got a car. That would be counterproductive.’ There was something in the way she said it that made it impossible to take offence. ‘But what about your reputation?’

‘My reputation?’ I answered. ‘I don’t think I’ve got one.’

 ‘Oh dear. We’ll have to get you one then. Every young man should have a reputation.’

Writing all this down, it seems more knowing than it was at the time. And ‘nothing happened’. I drove Mrs Macleod to her house in Duckers Lane, she got out, I went home, and gave an abbreviated account of the afternoon to my parents. Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles. Partners chosen by lot.

‘Quarter-finals, Paul,’ said my mother. ‘I’d have come along and watched if I’d known.’

I realized that this was probably the last thing in the history of the world that I wanted, or would ever want.

Perhaps you’ve understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; whereas the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise! One of the things I thought about Susan and me – at the time, and now, again, all these years later – is that there often didn’t seem words for our relationship; at least, none that fitted. But perhaps this is an illusion all lovers have about themselves: that they escape both category and description.

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