FINDING MY FLAMINGO
‘You genuinely want to send me to a remote island to marry myself?’
A warm flush creeps up my neck as I sit across the desk from Ali, my terrifyingly enigmatic boss at Women Today. She’s asked me to do some fairly out-there things over the years but this one tops the lot.
‘It’s not legally binding,’ she says, as if that makes it better.
‘Look.’ I pinch the bridge of my nose, choosing my words carefully. ‘It’s one thing for an A-lister to declare she’s “self-coupling” for an interview in Vogue, Ali. It’s altogether different for an almost-thirty-year-old dating columnist to claim she’s doing it too.'
I stumble as I say my age; the number sticks like glue in my mouth. Thirty felt like just another year until I was twenty-nine and three-quarters, but now that my landmark birthday is a few weeks away, I’ve started to experience all kinds of unexpected and unwelcome anxieties. I was – I am – determined not to make a big drama out of it, but with every passing day it’s as if someone adds an extra weight on to my shoulders – one of those mini cast-iron ones you get with old-fashioned kitchen scales. I’m disappearing under tiny, invisible kitchen weights and Ali has noticed my diminishment because Ali notices everything. She didn’t get to be the editor of one of the UK’s leading online lifestyle magazines by resting on her laurels; her meteoric rise is well documented in the industry with both green-eyed envy and huge respect. I consider myself lucky to work for her; I’d even go so far as to count her as a friend. A laser-eyed, ball-of-energy friend who terrifies me and makes me do things I don’t want to. Such as decamping to a remote Irish island I’ve never heard of to marry myself.
‘Look, Clee, you need to do something to mark turning thirty. It’s a seismic moment in a woman’s life.’ Ali pauses in that specific way she does when something bad is coming next. ‘It’s this or the tattoo.’
I sigh; I really should have seen that coming. The tattoo has become a bit of an in-Joke at team meetings. Any time I’m struggling for column content, someone gives me the side-eye and then suggests I get a flamingo inked indelibly on my skin, preferably in a place it can’t easily be concealed.
‘Okay. Look, I always kind of liked what Emma said about self-coupling,’ I say cautiously. ‘I get it. She was saying she’s enough already, alone but not lonely.’
Ali nods. She doesn’t interrupt me; I know she’s hoping I’m going to talk myself into it. She’s excellent at deploying silence to get what she wants.
‘She’s a vibrant, independent woman who understands that there’s more than one way to achieve a fulfilled life,’ I say. ‘She isn’t a failure because she doesn’t have a partner and a hoard of kids, and she wouldn’t let the fact that both of her sisters and her brother are married with their own broods pressure her, or feel forced to defend her singledom at every family gathering, even if she is drowning in an ocean of wedding and baby shower invitations – I mean, I’m genuinely happy for them all but do they really need to wave it in my face in gold italics, for God’s sake?’
I stop, realizing my voice had grown loud and somewhere in there I’d switched from talking about Emma Watson to talking about myself. Besides, it was unfair of me to include my brother, Tom, in my list of grievances – he’s the only member of my family who never mentions my waning egg supply or lack of a significant other. Of my three siblings, he’s furthest in age from me, seven years to be precise, yet we’re closest in every other way. It’d be easy to cast him as a father figure in my life, given that I was a baby when our father died, but Tom was the one slipping teen-me an illicit cigarette under the table and covering for me when I stayed out late at night. We both take after my dad, apparently – dark hair and eyes full of trouble, if Mum is to be believed.
Ali sits back down, absolutely unfazed by my speech, her fingers steepled in a way that suggests she’s either thinking or praying. ‘Exactly my point,’ she says finally. ‘This is the perfect opportunity to get away from the pressure of the huge surprise party your family are planning for your birthday, a valid reason to politely duck out of any impending weddings and baby showers, and the chance to catch your breath for the first time in three years.’
‘My family are planning a surprise party?’
Ali nods. ‘Your mum emailed me last week to check if you’d be able to take some time off and to ask for a list of all of your “London friends”. I use air quotes because she used actual quotes. She also mentioned looking up your old schoolmates on Facebook. Old boyfriends. Your funeral without you dying, basically.’
My fingers itch to text Tom for the lowdown. I love my family dearly, but surely they know me well enough to know that the ghosts of my past jumping out at me in a darkened room would be my personal hell? I’d rather get that flamingo tattoo. On my face. ‘So basically, it’s a huge birthday party, or accept your proposal that I self-couple alone on a remote island no one’s ever heard of off the Irish coast?’ I say, summarizing the meeting.
‘Salvation Island,’ Ali says. Her satisfied expression tells me how pleased she is by the serendipitous name of the island. She probably changed it herself by deed poll, or whatever it is you have to do to change the name of an island. It’s the kind of stunt she’d pull if she thought it would boost readership.
‘All expenses paid,’ she adds, as if that’s going to be the clincher.
‘Can’t I self-couple in my flat?’
‘Not all expenses paid, no.’
‘Will it be cold?’
Ali’s face contorts with the effort of trying to turn a grimace into a smile. ‘Come on, now. Who ever wrote their best work under a beach umbrella? Think inspirational log fires and steaming cups of ambition.’
‘You totally stole that line from Dolly Parton,’ I grouch, not at all happy with the situation.
Ali’s eyes gleam. ‘No nine-to-five on Salvation Island,’ she says, slowly reeling me in.
I weigh up my options. Just thinking about turning thirty spikes my anxiety levels again. Marking it with a huge party surrounded by people I no longer know, who will no doubt be sporting wedding bands like medals, has my heart reaching for its suitcase.
‘I do love Ireland,’ I say quietly, feeling Ali’s web closing around me. As it was always going to.
She nods. ‘The lodge is so beautiful, totally off-grid.’ She pauses. ‘A writer’s dream.’
She’s saying words she knows will speak straight to my heart. I may be a dating columnist right now, but thanks to wine-fuelled confessions, she knows about the secret novelist hiding out inside me, the fragile teen dreams all but buried under London life. I begrudgingly admire the way she says just enough to trigger a flare of tender hope.
‘How do you even know about this place?’ I say, wavering.
Ali sighs. ‘Carole sent me the details. One of her hippy friends used it as a reiki retreat or for rechannelling her negative energy, something like that. You know what she’s like, always thinks I’m on the edge of a breakdown.’ Ali’s sister-in-law, Carole, expresses her concern through birthday and Christmas gifts: cupping vouchers, life-decluttering manuals, a Tibetan gong Ali sometimes whacks when she wants everyone’s attention. ‘Think of it as a honeymoon,’ she says, getting the discussion back on track. ‘Or a . . . unimoon.’ She doesn’t even try to hide how thrilled she is with herself at that.
‘Is there Wi-Fi?’ I ask, clutching at straws. I can’t go if I can’t file my column.
‘Technically, no, but would I send you somewhere without it?’ She shudders. ‘They have it in the village – it’s just a ten-minute stroll away, apparently.’
Great. Cold, damp and no checking Insta while I’m on the loo. ‘You’ve already booked it, haven’t you?’ I say, resigned.
She hums the bridal march as she reaches into her drawer and slides a red pom-pom hat across the desk. ‘You fly on Friday.’
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