I went to the dentist this morning. As I'm sure many of you are all too aware, it's actually quite hard to get yourself onto the lists of an NHS dentist, so if you're lucky enough to have one, you stick to them like glue in case you can't find another one who'll have you. So it is then that even though I moved long ago and there are probably hundreds of dental practices closer to me, I am still visiting the dentist I registered with when I first moved to Nottingham ten years ago. I now live on the other side of the river in a much nicer part of town down by the cricket ground, and every time I make the journey to the dentist, I always get a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's not because I have any great fear of the dentist - God knows I had enough orthodontic work done as a teenager to have no great worries about that. The feeling comes from the history I have with that particular part of town.
I didn't really know the area at all when I first moved down here from York, and I ended up living in a little off-shoot of the city up near the motorway junction. It's not a particularly nice part of town, and certainly not as nice as leafy West Bridgford, but I didn't really know any better at the time and it seemed quite convenient for work, so that was that.
My then-girlfriend moved down to Nottingham with me. Unlike me, she didn't have a job lined up, but we'd been going out for nearly two years, so without ever really talking about it, we just kind of assumed that we'd make a go of it and drifted down together. We made the journey down the M1 on the same day that Princess Diana died and moved into a comfortable but fairly basic semi-detached house with the satellite dish that had been it's major attraction. I started work a week or so later and, after a bit of searching, she found a job too and we began to settle into a routine: we registered with the doctor and the dentist, worked out where the nearest supermarket was and, through a process of elimination, decided which curry house we liked the best. The job was good and we seemed to be doing okay. We were okay.
After a little while, we started to talk about buying a house. She was really keen and wanted to put down roots, but without ever really understanding or being able to explain why, I was totally opposed to the idea. We carried on as normal, but I increasingly found myself stewing on this. I thought I was happy and I knew that buying a house and settling down properly was probably the logical next step. I was puzzled at my intransigence on the subject, and eventually it dawned on me that it wasn't that I didn't want to buy a house per-se, it was just that I didn't want to buy a house with my girlfriend. At the time I realised this, I still thought that I was in love with her, but this revelation highlighted a pretty fundamental lack of commitment to the relationship made me realise that I was drifting and that this couldn't go on. To my regret, I made this realisation and did nothing about it for a year - I certainly didn't discuss my feelings with my girlfriend . I think perhaps I was trying to fool myself: we got on very well and we made a good, solid couple. I also got on really well with her family and she with mine. We seemed so settled that breaking up seemed ridiculously drastic, and so I pretended that everything was going fine and hoped that I'd get over it in time.
This limbo went on and on, and most of the time I was able to dismiss my doubts as background noise to the everyday routine of our lives. Her job was going well and, on the face of it, everything was tickety-boo. Then, one week, I went away on a residential course down in the Mendips and everything changed.
I'd known C. for a couple of years by this point and although she tells me that she'd had her eyes on me from the start, I remained utterly oblivious... until we went on this course, and it became apparent even to me that we had a connection. Nothing much happened, but as I drove back up to Nottingham and to my girlfriend, I knew I had to end it, and the sooner the better. I walked back into our little house in this grimy little town on the edge of the city and I was greeted by my loving girlfriend who was delighted to see me after a week away. For a couple of hours I kept my thoughts to myself and was clearly a bit withdrawn, but eventually I just came out with it: I wanted to break up. I'd been thinking about this for a year, but the poor girl never saw it coming. At first she didn't believe what I was saying, then she tried to suggest that we live apart for a little while, but finally it sank in and she was absolutely crushed. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I had done something genuinely bad to someone else. It probably sounds arrogant of me, but I was everything to her. She had moved her life to be with me and now I was bringing the whole thing crashing down around her feet. There was nothing I could say or do that would make her feel any better.
Throughout the whole, awful conversation I felt dreadful, of course, but I was also absolutely certain that I was doing the right thing for both of us. It was difficult and it was painful, but once it was done we would both be able to move our lives forwards.
Today, on the way back from the dentists, instead of heading back up towards the motorway junction and heading back into work as normal, I drove through the town to try and avoid the traffic I had seen coming the other way. Along the way, I was unable to resist taking the turn that would take me past our little house to have a little look. It's not really changed much over the years. The gates have been replaced with a wooden fence and the windows are now double-glazed, but otherwise it's much the same as it was when we lived there. I looked at it for a minute or two before getting back onto the road and heading into the office.
I saw her once or twice after the breakup, but I haven't seen her now in eight years or so. I think she still lives in the area (she's still in touch with my parents), so I sometimes wonder if I might bump into her one day. Perhaps I will, but I imagine that if she saw me first she would walk quickly in the other direction. Frankly, I wouldn't blame her.
On reflection, I'm sure that it was the right thing to do, but I delivered the killing blow to a relationship of some three-odd years with brutal abruptness. I felt awful enough about it at the time, and 9 years later I still feel awful about it. God knows how she felt about it or how she feels about me now. I hope she never gives me a second thought. The memory of it still pricks my conscience.