Lucy has a problem. His name is Michael, and he’s married.
It’s the first day of a new project, and Lucy arrives at the office in Hammersmith at 9.30 am, hair freshly washed, and dressed to make a good first impression. She is met by the boss, who takes her round the building to introduce her to the rest of the team. There’s Soraya, the stressed-looking line manager; Katia, the young and eager assistant; and Duncan, the grumpy bloke in his 50s with whom Lucy is going to be working. She greets them politely, and then follows the boss into the next room.
“This is Michael,” says the boss. “He’s been working on this project for ages, so if you have any questions at all, he’s your man.”
Michael stands up. Unfolded from his chair he’s a full 6 foot 5, probably in his mid 40s, slim, with greying hair – and although not model-gorgeous has a kind face and the twinkliest eyes Lucy has ever seen. He gives her a cheeky smile and a warm handshake.
And bam! Just like that, she’s smitten.
Immediately her eyes flick to Michael’s left hand to check for the inevitable ring. And as predictably as a fuckboy on Tinder asking for a hookup, there it is.
She feels her stomach plummet into her heels with disappointment.
FML, she thinks. When am I ever going to catch a break?
Over the course of the day, she finds herself repeatedly needing to pop next door and ask Michael questions. Where is the printer? Where should she save her work? What is the standard company practice for this thing? What would be his advice about how to approach that problem? Every time Michael welcomes her and answers all her questions with a warm smile and a cheeky joke. They only met just a few hours ago, but already it feels to Lucy like they’ve just clicked, in a way that she has rarely experienced. And she’s pretty sure Michael feels the connection too.
But is she imagining it? Maybe he’s just a naturally friendly guy. Maybe he’s like this with everyone?
On the second day in the job, she gets her answer. She’s already started having serious problems with Duncan, her angry work partner. Technically she’s supposed to be leading on their bit of the project, but Duncan has turned out to be your typical misogynistic fuck who deeply resents taking direction from a younger woman. He’s constantly arguing with Lucy, questioning her decisions, belittling her experience, and making it extremely difficult for her to do her job. Lucy is struggling, upset, and deeply worried that this is going to affect her work and reflect badly on her with her new boss.
So because he already feels like a friend, and because he’s been so warm and helpful, she pops next door to confide in Michael. Her confidence is shaken, she’s upset, and she asks him what he thinks she should do. And there, alone in the room, he does something rather shocking. He steps squarely into her personal space, puts his arms round her, and gives her a hug.
Lucy is entirely discombobulated. This is a work colleague. Whom she met for the first time yesterday. Hers is a pretty casual, informal industry but even so, do new colleagues hug each other? Lucy doesn’t think so.
But already they are so comfortable with each other that hugging feels like the most natural thing to do.
In over 20 years of dating Lucy has never experienced chemistry like this before. Even with The Ex, with whom Lucy was most definitely in love, the connection took a while to develop. Sure, she fancied him straight away – in fact the first time she clapped eyes on him, in the bar at the top of Waterstones on London’s Piccadilly, she felt a very similar jolt of attraction, as though she’d been struck by Cupid’s arrow. But that was just lust, and the comfortable feeling that they had known each other for ever took a while to develop.
With Michael it’s been immediate and strong. But what can she do? He seems to be happily married. She can’t make a play for him – for starters, she’s so rubbish with boys that she can barely even flirt with the single ones, so she wouldn’t know how to begin to make a pass at a married man even if she wanted to.
And she doesn’t want to. He’s married: that makes him off limits. And if he were to make a pass at her she would be deeply disappointed in him. One of the things she likes so much about him is that he’s a Good Person – if he were to try it on with her that would make him a cheating shit like so many others, and Lucy would immediately lose all respect for him.
So there’s nothing she can do. It’s Ironic like an Alanis Morrisette song. Meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife. Though Lucy definitely doesn’t want to meet the wife.
Instead, she just wants to cry. In fact, when she tells her sister about meeting Michael, she does cry. She may seem confident and ballsy, but two decades of dating failures, liberally peppered with disappointments and heartbreak, have made Lucy brittle and fragile on the inside. Over the course of that time she’s watched most of her friends fall in love, get married, and have children. They all tell stories of the moment when they met ‘their person’, of how ‘when you know, you know’, how when they met that special someone all the pieces of the puzzle just magically fell into place. That’s what Lucy wants, what she’s been hunting for, for more than twenty years.
In that time she has ridden the ups and downs of the dating rollercoaster more times than she can count, meeting nice men and shits, mediocre guys and boring guys, falling for guys who coldly reject her, and trying to give the decent ones a fair chance just because they seem not to be psycho and reply promptly to messages. For all that she’s got good at Keeping Calm and Carrying On, underneath her resilient exterior there’s just a lonely little girl who would really, really like to meet someone lovely and be happy. For once, she thinks, just ONCE, I would really like it to be my turn! Where is MY missing puzzle piece?
And then, suddenly, here is a guy who feels like he’s just that. And he’s taken.
So friends it is. Over the course of the next few weeks Lucy and Michael spend more and more time together, lingering in the kitchen over a cup of tea and going out together at lunchtime to eat their sandwiches by the river.
During these extended lunches she tells him about The Ex, and her dating life, and Michael repeatedly expresses astonishment that a gorgeous woman like her should have trouble finding a decent guy. Lucy pointedly tells him it’s because now she’s reached her late 30s all the Good Ones are all taken, and so she’s waiting for them to get divorced so she can have her chance. After all, lots of marriages end, for all sorts of reasons; it’s a fact of life. Michael doesn’t seem to get the hint.
He tells her more about his wife, Laura, whom he’s been with for 17 years.
Seventeen years? Surely a breakup must be long overdue, right? But Michael seems very happily married – almost certainly thanks to the fact that they don’t have kids. So as much as deep down she might hope they might, Lucy can’t rely on lack of quality time together, or arguments caused by over-tiredness, or disagreements about the best way to deal with a child-related issue to split them up.
Laura and Michael met through work – Laura was his boss and is four years older than him. They immediately fancied each other but nothing happened because Michael was two years into a relationship with someone else. But soon he realised that he wanted to be with Laura, and not with the girlfriend. So he split up with the girlfriend and got together with Laura instead, causing a huge scandal in the office. But it was obviously worth it, because they’ve been together ever since.
So Lucy is forced to accept that for now they will just be friends, and concentrates on being the charming, funny, and gorgeous woman Michael appears to think she is. It’s all she can do. She knows spending time with him isn’t good for her, but she can’t help herself. If she can’t have him, at least she can enjoy his company, and she’d like to have him in her life in some way, even if it’s not quite the way she would like.
Michael, in turn, is full of charm and compliments, funny, supportive, and tactile. When, after five days, Duncan actually loses his shit and calls her ‘an incompetent little girl’ to her face, it’s Michael who gives her a much-needed hug after she goes to him in tears. It’s Michael who supports her as she has to go and make a report to her new boss after less than a week on the job, and Michael to whom she tells the good news that Duncan is being transferred. She gets another hug, a congratulatory one this time.
Lucy, who is starved of physical human contact, melts into his arms yet again.
“Gosh, you do give good hugs,” she comments.
“I hug everybody,” Michael explains. “I’m just a naturally tactile person.”
After a couple of months her time on the project ends, so she has a few leaving drinks with the team. The other colleagues might as well not be there, though, since she spends the entire evening talking to Michael. Someone snaps a few photos of the evening – later when they’re sent over, Lucy sees that she has been caught in several shots gazing adoringly at her forbidden crush like a lovesick teen.
At the end of the night, after a few glasses of wine, she walks with Michael back to the tube station, where they say goodbye. He puts his arms round her for a hug, and holds her. For a really long time. Lucy finds herself sinking into his embrace, breathing him in. He continues to hold her tight and they stand in silence for what must be over a minute. The experience is so overwhelmingly emotional that Lucy finds herself tearing up. She pulls away.
“Hey, why are you crying?” Michael asks.
“You know why,” Lucy mumbles, and runs away.
The next day, he texts her.
As much as possible. In other words, he knows what would make her happy, and it’s simply not possible.
Part 2: what happened when Lucy went for dinner with Michael, is here.