Case of the Ex: the brief hello

Playgrounds, by in large, are made of Tarmac. Cheap, durable, and able to withstand the ravages of time and weather. More recently, however, I’ve started to think that maybe they should be made of whatever type of material has the potential to open up, swallow you, and promptly close over whenever you are in danger of dying a cringe-related death. Along with my beloved child becoming an amateur MMA fighter and me becoming a social pariah in the first week of school, here’s the straw that broke the camel’s back for me this week in the playground.

One of the mums that I haven’t fallen out with (yet) is a lovely girl who I met at a few toddler activities a few years ago. She is friendly, cheerful, and sociable. Everything I’m not. Actually, I’m doing myself a disservice there because I am friendly and I’ve got good manners. I just hate people. I make concessions though, because I can’t force my natural predisposition onto my son who is the friendliest creature you’ll ever meet.

So you know, this is great. Someone friendly who is not showing any premature indicators of being a playground Hitler. Maybe I’ll have a new friend here, maybe our kids can have play dates, maybe – hmmm, hang on, how come her surname is so familiar…?

“Oh, you know Kieran” she says, smiling. I’m not quite sure if she’s asking me or telling me. Ah, yes. I know Kieran. Or should I say I used to know Kieran. Her husband Kieran. Small world, isn’t it?

“He remembers you” she adds. This is too much. She could have just left it at me knowing him, let’s not reverse it and put the spotlight on me here pal. I wonder which bit he remembers: meeting me off the bus after he’d done his paper round and then walking me home? That’s quite cute. Nothing wrong with that. It was a long time ago and I hadn’t seen him since we were teenagers. It’s not like there can be any uncomfortable closeness between our short lived teenage crush and their proper, adult relationship.

But there’s a reason I don’t feel quite ok about it, something else that’s bothering me, and so as I look blankly into her face while I consult my mental files of ‘things from the past that I try to forget’.

Bingo.

Yes maybe he just remembers a few innocent rendezvous at the bus stop or maybe he remembers that Facebook message when I told him I’d thought about him when I drove past his Mum and Dad’s house? Thought. About. Him. Why would I even say that? What kind of creepy, vague, scraping-the-barrel kind of message is that? I mean maybe I had thought about him. In the same way that if you drive past the house of any old friend or acquaintance or relative jogs your memory. But whyyyyyyy would I say it?

He didn’t reply. Which as you can imagine makes it so very much worse than it already was. And it was already really really bad.

I haven’t been on Facebook for many years so cringe inducing memories like this are more often that not avoided, thankfully. As I write this, though, and Spotify cruelly plays East 17 and The Prodigy from its suggested ‘Time Capsule’ playlist, I can feel the cringe climb up my chest, leak across my cheeks, and settle into the space between my jawbone and ears. I think it might be some sort of cringe gland.

She says he remembers me, and I don’t know how to respond. “Oh lovely stuff. Does he still taste of Polo mints?” doesn’t seem appropriate, nor do I want to play my hand and begin some gushing and apologetic attempt at an explanation re: the thought about you message. It was surely before they were an item and hopefully he has genuinely forgotten and not even mentioned it to her, not sat around in their massive house with their very expensive cars on the driveway and their functional family tucked up sweetly in bed, laughing their perfectly married heads off at me and relishing the details of teenage fumblings from long ago that I have forgotten but he perhaps recalls.

I never usually cringe about ex boyfriends or flings. I either assume that I’m still loved by exes and loathed by new partners or if our paths tend to cross then I’ll be very friendly with both parties (because why wouldn’t I be – its all water under the bridge). But then again I don’t usually see their wives at 8am when I am in the worst shape of my life and have been sporting a scabby zit in the middle of my forehead like a knackered cyclops for more than a fortnight.

Instead, I respond with a disconcerting smile and emit a noise which does not quite commit to a proper laugh, and doesn’t even require opening my mouth. It all comes out of my nose – the awkwardness, the rolodex of memories and trying to pick out one redeeming feature that could help me not to look like such a dick right now, the lack of anything cool or confident or even intelligible to say. It’s the same noise that horses sometimes make. It’s not the kind of noise that helps you make friends in the playground.

Reader, I wish I could tell you it didn’t get any worse. That I somehow managed to come out of this looking absolutely normal and not at all embarrassing. But the very next morning, Kieran – once the paperboy and now a married man with children and a very successful international business – did the school run.

In a slight concession by fate, I spotted him before he spotted me. I had arrived early and was in the car, waiting for the right balance of not too early/not too late to take four year old Spaghetti Legs into the playground before the bell went. I saw his fancy car, his personalised plate, and I spotted him – now a man who, apart from not having his school uniform on, had not changed a bit.

I got out of the car and ushered my own child towards the playground. If I get there first, I reasoned, I can strike up a conversation with someone else and can just give a brief hello and quick smile when he arrives, but carry on chatting with another parent. That way, when he goes home, he will be able to tell his nice wife that I smiled and said hello, which would be a great result: friendly, polite, not too over familiar.

As I grabbed the nearest other parent and frantically engaged them in the usual morning pleasantries, all the while glancing over their shoulder at the gate, I mentally scanned myself, preparing for the brief ‘hello’. It’s fine, my brain whispered to myself, you’ve brushed your teeth and you haven’t got egg on your top today. After my silent self pep talk I felt prepared to see him, but he didn’t arrive in the playground as quickly as I expected, and as the bell went, the children started to drift closer to the classroom door. Ah, I thought, I’ve avoided it after all. Result.

But perhaps having sort of built myself up for the brief hello and being robbed of my moment to be brave explains my decision making process later on the same day, when I saw that Kieran had come to pick his child up at the end of school. My son was already out of school and ready to come home with me by the time I spotted him: standing on his own, waiting for his own kid to come out. I’ll just let on, I thought. You were prepared to do it this morning so just do it now. Just do it from over here, a safe distance away, so you don’t have to go beyond the brief hello.

“Hiya Kieran” I said. He looked up when he heard his name. He looked at me. And not a flicker of recognition crossed his face. He looked down at my son whose hand I held, perhaps trying to place the child in a desperate attempt to identify his parent. And back at me. Nothing.

Then he gave an apologetic half-smile and offered across the playground “Sorry! Can’t remember everyone”.

My cringe gland pulsed and my brain raced. Either he’s doing this on purpose because he thinks I’m a crazed Facebook stalker from 2007 who is going to skin him and wear him as a freckled catsuit, or he didn’t recognise me because I’m so beyond recognition – clearly instead of continuing on my projected path (I was good looking when I was younger  and it’s long enough ago that I can say that without it being vain) I grew up to be the lovechild of Miriam Margolyes and the shorter one of the Hairy Bikers.

I should probably add by the way that it’s not that I want to impress or appear attractive to Kieran, the paper boy turned successful adult. I just don’t relish the idea that I’d be the subject of uncharitable “Have you seeeeeen the state of….” type conversations which I know people have. I just wanted to get it out of the way, so that we could all be normal adults (or they could be, and I could just pretend, in the same way that my dad used to let me drink Canada Dry out of a half pint glass when I was 7).

The noise levels in the playground swelled as more kids poured out from the classroom. I’d done enough. I’d said my brief hello. There was nothing more to add.

Or was there?

My brain, which apparently hates me, hadn’t had enough. What you ought to do next, it prompted me, is a fucking mime, mate.

Because that’s normal isn’t it, when you should really cut your losses. Act out your reactions to a childhood sweetheart who’s just basically indicated that you look like boiled shite.

Oh! I began my performance, nodding.

Haha! I added, mouthing theatrically.

Why not have a go at explaining who you are to him, but in total silence, from 20 feet away, my brain suggested.

It’s me! – I mimed, pointing with my own finger to my own face to illustrate this particular point.

He looked at me blankly.

Never mind, doesn’t matter came the finale. I began to wave goodbye but began to think he might mistake it for the next instalment in my improv performance.

He gave one last half smile, this time a combination of pity and confusion and was then relieved of his duty to watch my painful charade by the arrival of his child, while my own mercifully tugged on my arm wanting to know if I’d brought him an after-school biscuit. I gave a brief smile goodbye, and shoved a Jaffa Cake into my son’s mouth to stop him repeatedly asking very loudly indeed (clearly a stranger to the subtleties of the art of mime) “Why is your face going all pink Mummy, are you hot?”.

I used to be kid, I used to be.

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