Where's My Happy Ending?

Matt Farquharson | 26 mins



One Love

Why do we bother?





I swear about Anna when she’s not in the room. Typically it will be a huffed ‘fuckssake’ and it tends to happen for the following reasons:

  1. I’m doing laundry (because I do 95 per cent of the laundry, and she has lots of clothes).

  2. I’m paying bills (and discover that money from the bills account has been used for non-bills activity).

  3. I’ve trodden on her hair tongs again, which have been left on the floor and are probably a fire hazard.

There may be other reasons, but these are the main three. They are not big transgressions. They are not an affair or a secret gambling habit, and they do not merit muttered swearing about someone you’re pretty sure you’ve loved since the day you met them.

And yet the swears come out. Sometimes they’re even embellished to become ‘doafuckinwash’ or ‘everyfuckintime’. Partly I think this is because I’ve mentioned the issues before, using my nice ‘hey, honey, by the way’ voice. And I’ve mentioned them so often that each time they now happen has begun to feel like a deliberate slight: that she is silently saying, ‘Pipe down, husband, you can’t control me.’

The frequency of my muttered swearing increases according to the broader state of our relationship – how often we’re laughing, how much sex we’re having, the ratio of fun chats to discussions about to-do lists.

These are ‘first-world issues’, of course. At the time of writing, the UN lists four extreme humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East. Wealth inequality in most Western nations is at its worst since before the Second World War. The planet’s top scientists have made their ‘final call’ to avoid a climate catastrophe, and several nuclear-armed nations are getting tetchy. All of these things are more important than who does the laundry in our home.

They’re not even the most important things in our relationship. I’m aware of all the good stuff – how she is with our daughters, what she wants for us as a family, and how important it is to me that she laughs.

But these resentments exist, and I wonder how much harm they do. If I’m moved to swear and huff about such things, perhaps they are signs of deeper issues. Perhaps every ‘fuckssake’ slowly builds, like a drop of water onto a stalagmite, until you’re left with something large and unmovable at the heart of your relationship. And it’s made me think about my own parents, and how much of an impact your upbringing has on you as a grown-up. If you’re from a shouty clan, does it make you the kind of person who squawks in rage whenever your partner forgets the milk? If every issue was solved with a family meeting over herbal tea and dairy-free biscuits, will you be one of those who can muster empathy and calmness in the face of all twattery?

When I was eight years old, my family moved away from our small flat in Golders Green, north London. It was a place with yellow and orange curtains in giant floral prints and a view of a Tube track. It had a big, brown leatherette sofa that was excellent for jumping on and a sacred place in the corner of the living room for Zebedee, a much-loved (and frequently thrown) two-foot plastic character from The Magic Roundabout. I remember that flat mostly as a place of play – of watching Sesame Street while sat on the carpet and of crashing toy cars into each other in the hallway.

I have three vivid memories from that time. The first is discovering my younger sister, El, sitting on the kitchen lino and being covered brow-to-chin in chocolate after stealing my Easter eggs. The second is carefully unpeeling the coloured stickers from my Rubik’s cube then replacing them in the correct blocks, to fleetingly convince my mum that I was a tiny genius. It was only as she phoned my nan to tell her of this three-foot Einstein in the family that guilt overwhelmed me and I confessed. And the third – unrelated to the second – was El and I finding Mum sat on a tiny chair in our bedroom one afternoon, weeping into her hands.

The place we moved to was a semi-detached house in Sydenham, south London. It had laminate cladding on the living-room walls and a thick purple carpet. The carpet was so deep it held little pockets of Christmas tree needles all year round and would act as a tiny alien forest for my toy soldiers. My dad had a new job that came with a blue Ford Escort, and the suburban dream had been realized.

I remember this house mostly as a place of arguments. There were rows about the carpet and why we couldn’t afford to replace it. There were rows about the local area and the ‘big school’ that I would attend at age eleven, where a boy had recently been stabbed. There were rows about where things were and who put them there. There may have been a few muttered ‘fuckssakes’. It was normal for there to be bickering, and my sister and I would watch, waist-high to the action.

But the biggest arguments came at night. After school and cartoons and tea, El and I would be put to bed, where we’d whisper to each other – me in the top bunk and her below – as we listened for Dad’s return from the pub.

Most nights we’d fall asleep to be woken later by raised voices: Mum shouting, Dad dismissive, sometimes shouting back. There was no violence, just the frustrated clatter of domestic rage as hands were banged on tables and doors slammed shut.

Eventually they would give in to weariness, often with Dad heading to the box room or couch. Some nights he’d come into our room and stare at us both as we pretended to sleep and wondered what he was thinking.

And then one night we were woken by blue flashing lights. There was no shouting, but there were new voices. Two policemen stopped by to tell my mother that they had my father at Brixton police station after he had drunkenly crashed his car.

‘Well, you can keep him,’ she said. ‘I don’t want him back.’

And that was the marriage done. On a Saturday morning soon after, with me still in my paisley pyjamas, Mum sat me down in the bathroom to explain that we were going to live with her parents, Nan and Pop.

I told her it seemed like the sort of thing that only happened in EastEnders. There were tears that day, and probably in the days that followed, but I also remember thinking that it was probably for the best. And if nine-year-old me knew that separation was a good idea, it must have been clear to the grown-ups for a long time.

So was he selfish or just suffocated by domesticity? And was she unreasonable or just unwilling to accept unhappiness?

There must have been signs along the way – little niggles that went unchecked, unhealthy habits that dripped away to build their own stalagmites. Dad died aged sixty-one, which means there’s only one person left to ask.


My mum, Paula, is sixty-nine now and lives in Dorset on the south coast of England with my stepfather, Andy. They have a bungalow at the top of a hill and a view of the distant sea from their kitchen sink. We’re visiting for a few days around Christmas, and in their cream and dark-blue living room, I set up a camera. She’s sitting on their purple couch, and has washed her hair especially.

‘There wasn’t a lot of love there,’ she says. ‘Certainly not from him to me,’ and we immediately pause to calm wobbly voices. It suddenly seems strange that we haven’t talked about any of this before, and I wonder if we ever would have without this book.

‘I sometimes ask myself, “Why on earth did we get married in the first place?” but it seemed like a good idea and I thought I loved him and I suppose I thought he loved me.’

They met in 1972, when my mother was twenty-three and living with her parents in north London. My father, Stuart, was five months younger and had left Aberdeen – and the prospect of a life in the shipyards where his own dad worked – a few years before. He had planned to explore the world with a mate but they only made it as far as southern France. The first time he saw a bidet, he thought it was for storing fruit and filled it with water, apples and bananas, much to the confusion of the owner of his digs.

Then the money ran out and, after a few nights on the beach, he hitched back to London and stopped, staying on the couch of a distant relative and earning a little cash by putting out deckchairs in Green Park. He got work at a printers, which eventually led to a job selling advertising space for a magazine publisher called IPC, where my mum was a secretary.

They had their first kiss behind a filing cabinet and she felt a spark of static electricity as their lips came together. Seven months later, she was walking down the aisle.

‘I remember actually standing at the altar thinking, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t know this man.” But I put that down to wedding nerves. It’s very sad now I think about it.’

She talks about his alcoholism, and about him coming home with love bites, and she talks about going into labour with me.

‘I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I was in a lot of pain, I tried walking around, I tried sitting down, I tried lying down. He went and slept in the spare room because I was disturbing him. He said, “Wake me up when you think you need to go to the hospital.” I think that had to be the beginning of the end, to be honest, but I still went on and had another child.’

The more we talk, the more it becomes clear that for her the issues were all around partnership and support. That all those times of rolling over to ignore a wailing baby eventually took their toll.

‘I thought, “What a bastard, that he can’t help me.” You were his child as well, so why was it all left to me? Yes, he did have to get up and go to work the next day, but then I had to look after you all day – and all night apparently – so I could have done with some help, but he wasn’t very helpful.’

I ask if there was a single moment when she knew it was over.

‘I think it was the build-up. I thought, “I’ve had it. I can’t do it any more”,’ she says. ‘I used to sit on the floor in your bedroom while you were asleep, crying my eyes out because I was so bloody miserable. I was thirty-six and saw myself as a sixty-year-old woman looking back on a completely miserable life, and I thought, “I can’t do this. I need to get out.” I think that’s what made me do it.’

She’s now sixteen years into marriage number two. Andy, my stepfather, is a non-drinker. He’s slim and quiet and doesn’t like spicy food. He spent most of his working life as a quantity surveyor and spends much of it now fixing things: toys for grandchildren, things about the house, overgrown foliage at the miniature railway where he works a few mornings a week. They have well-tended borders in their garden, and life seems calm and content.

‘I suppose you know what you’re doing more the second time. You know it’s not going to be a bed of roses, and there will be times when you think “Why the hell did I do this?” There still are those moments, and I’m sure Andy feels exactly the same, but on the whole, it’s good,’ she says. ‘We’ve had a few humdingers of rows, we really have. I think now we’re both a bit wary of having rows, so I think we both hold back a bit when we feel one brewing. I bottle things up a lot, and then I go out and have a silent scream.’

Silent screaming, we both agree, might not be the best method of dispute resolution, but maybe it’s no worse than me quietly swearing about Anna’s attitude to domestic life.

I think that, as an adult, you become more aware of the imprint that your parents have left on you, and I have inherited my mum’s impatience. Her screams are not always silent, and sometimes come out as strangled noises (imagine a goose stuck in traffic) when her printer doesn’t work or a grandchild won’t follow teeth-brushing instructions. For me it comes in sharp sighs (imagine a bicycle tyre deflating) when the children are being petulant or the remote control is not where it’s supposed to be. But I think I inherited some of her silliness too, and part of the reason I always want to invent stories for my daughters rather than read to them from a book is the lingering memory of the poems that she wrote for us as children – rhyming nonsense about toes that come to life or a cat that can sing.

So what does the happy ending look like to her?

‘If you’re in a fairy tale, it’s where they get married and walk off into the sunset together,’ she says. ‘But I think it’s where you can actually live together without killing each other.’

In which case, Anna and I are doing fine so far.


So who’s been selling us this fairy tale and why is it so appealing that people are ready to run down the aisle to someone they barely know?

It’s there from childhood in the first stories we hear and remember, but it’s reinforced throughout our adult lives in films and books and music and our quiet, guilty obsession with the love lives of others.

I decide I need to speak to one of the yarn-spinners.

Megan Crane is one of the world’s most prolific and successful romance novelists. Working under her own name and the pseudonym Caitlin Crews, she has written eighty-eight books when I speak to her and that figure is likely to be past a hundred by the time you read this. Titles include Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy; Edge of Temptation and Undone by the Sultan’s Touch.

She grants me an interview by Skype from her home in southern Oregon, and with my pre-conceived ideas of romantic fiction, I partly expect an American version of the UK’s Dame Barbara Cartland: all pink frills and gushing adjectives.

But Crane does not fit the stereotype. She’s at her desk in a pale, long-sleeved top, has a tumble of shoulder-length brown-blonde curls and a tiny silver nose stud.

She lives with husband, Jeff (they married in the textbook-romantic island of Maui, Hawaii, in 2008), has a PhD in literature and a succinct explanation for why tales of love remain so popular.

‘I’ve yet to meet a human being who didn’t want love,’ she says. ‘Whatever they might say – to be seen and loved for what they are and have someone think they were wonderful: who wouldn’t want that? I think that love is a basic human need.’

Romantic fiction is worth around $1.5 billion a year in book sales in the USA, twice the value of crime fiction, the next best-selling genre. The appetite for these tales of heaving bosoms and rugged heroes clearly suggests they tap into something, even if we’re all a little shy about admitting it.

‘We’re told that there’s something wrong with seeking love – women particularly are looked down upon. Isn’t that why Bridget Jones is supposed to be so funny, because she was so desperate to find that? What’s desperate about that? Everybody wants to find love.’

It feels to me that this must be as true of men as it is of women. Through my twenties I often wondered if I’d ever find my ‘one’. And in those moments I decided that she would be a fair-haired journalist and we’d live in London in a place with original wooden floorboards, being all barefooted and witty. It was a middle-class smug-topia and didn’t consider postnatal depression or work-related stress or school runs or swearing at domestic appliances.

I wonder if, partly at least, this ideal affected my thinking when I first met Anna. We met on a training course for the magazine publisher where we both worked. I was supposed to have gone the month before but, being mildly shambolic, had cancelled at the last minute.

It was one of those tiny administrative tweaks that can change a life. I walked into a quiet training room and she was there, glowing like a beacon. So I sat down next to her and immediately fell in love. If I was a cartoon dog, I’d have had a red heart beating out of my chest and my eyes shooting forward on stalks.

I’ve never felt anything truer, before or since, but I also occasionally think that if I’d been more organized and gone on the course I was supposed to, we might never have met and I would probably have settled down with someone else.

I feel certain I would be less happy, and can’t imagine being without her, but it also feels impossible not to be curious: to wonder what I’d see if I was led around like Ebenezer Scrooge to peek at alternative versions of my life.

I once heard it said that people who are afraid of heights are really just afraid of themselves: that sufferers are scared they might be overcome by an urge to pitch themselves off something very high up. I am one of those people. Three steps up a ladder, my head feels light, partly because I think my limbs might betray me. Clifftops and balconies make my heart beat faster. I think this is because I’m curious about the sensation of falling. I wonder how it would feel to have that sensation of absolute tumbling freedom for a few fractions of a second: to have the urgent embrace of cold rushing air and nothing more.

Fortunately, I am clear enough about the effects of landing not to do this. But still, a tiny part of me – perhaps 0.5 per cent of my decision-making lobes – will always wonder.

It’s one of the reasons that, despite being an able-bodied forty-two-year-old dad, I do not drive. We didn’t have a car when I was a teenager, and I’ve always lived in cities. But also, that 0.5 per cent in the back of my mind is curious about what it would be like to drive into a lamppost. I can only be 99.5 per cent sure that my arms won’t take over at some point and fling me into a large cylinder of steel. I understand it would be painful. I understand that it would be financially unwise and could cause harm to others. But part of me – that nagging 0.5 per cent – wonders if the microseconds before the airbag opened might be thrilling.

And it’s that part that wonders what it might be like to flee married life. I know that, for all the domestic frustrations of child rearing, if I’m away from my daughters for more than a day then a strange ache starts to develop in my chest and lungs. I know that Anna is – to me, at least – the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met, and I’ve never had a closer connection to another human being.

But there’s that 0.5 per cent.

Because I could also go tomorrow, couldn’t I? Take a little studio apartment and set up a Tinder account. Still fulfil my parental duties but do it from slightly further away, and live somewhere most of the time where the only needs that mattered were my own, and where the bathroom (or, more realistically given London prices, shower/toilet cubicle) only needs one bottle of shampoo.

Or even go further: hand over my card for the joint account, walk to the nearest motorway, stick out a thumb and see where I end up.

These are the familial equivalents of deliberately driving into a lamppost. I know the long-term results may not be nice, but wouldn’t there be the tiniest thrill in the meantime?

And perhaps there’s something to be said for moving from one happy ending to the next. Because if you keep moving, you never get to the part where you’re swearing about hair tongs and laundry.

Other humans can be deeply annoying. They have opinions and needs. They have odd habits and want to do things in ways and at times that inconvenience you. So why do we bother? What if the romance writers are wrong, and humans aren’t really meant to be together forever?

Maybe the happiest ending is being alone. The only way to know is to find some men who’ve tried it.


My browser history reveals a search for denim Topshop harem pants, a Miffy weaning spoon and a ‘bright and airy’ studio apartment in East Dulwich on .

The flat isn’t for me, it’s for my friend Jessie who has just separated from her husband. But I scroll through the photos of this small, overpriced space and fleetingly wonder what it would be like to leave Matt.

I wonder what it would be like to live without the low-level hum of another adult human. I wonder if I would like just making a cup of tea for myself instead of asking, ‘Fancy a cuppa?’ I wonder if I’d miss the sex and what my Tinder profile might say. I wonder why I’m wondering these things.

When I was eleven, I remember rifling through More magazine with some friends in the toilets of the strict Roman Catholic girls school I went to. The highlight of this well-thumbed rag was the ‘position of the fortnight’ column detailing sex moves that looked impractical. There was once an illustration of an expressionless woman doing the ‘reverse cowgirl’ with an expressionless man. This, along with the scene where Tom Cruise touched Rebecca De Mornay’s leg in Risky Business, was close to what I felt love was. I had a head brace with alternating pink and neon-yellow rubber bands. A poster of Prince William’s face was Sellotaped to the inside of my ring binder with a postcard of the actor Edward Furlong from Terminator 2 laminated on the front to divert attention from my royal ambition.

My only other reference was my parents.

In the years before I turned eleven, we would drive down to the Loire Valley in France in a white Audi 100 that seemed to prompt car sickness at every turn. The car itself looked like the design team had taken inspiration from a bar of Imperial Leather soap. For the eight-hour journey I was strapped into the back with only my sister, Karen, and a battered Groov-e cassette player for company. I would listen to Now That’s What I Call Music! 23 on repeat to distract me from my sibling’s presence. It was a cassette compilation that had highlights (Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Caballé’s operatic rendition of ‘Barcelona’ to commemorate the 1992 Olympics) and lowlights (the Tetris music as a club anthem by Doctor Spin).

But that vehicle with questionable aural accompaniment delivered us to our rented gîte in Vendôme year after year and, as soon as my sister and I dumped our tie-dyed rucksacks, memories of my parents, Chris and Lucy, fade for memories of paddling pools, hyperglow T-shirts and Nerds sweets packed with more E-numbers than should have been legal.

On those journeys there were three constants:

  1. Phil Collins blasting out of the car speakers, often interfering with my own music (I now struggle to listen to ‘Easy Lover’ without instantly feeling nauseous).

  2. My mum being in charge of map reading in a time before satnav.

  3. My dad taking many wrong turns.

A twelve-hour journey with two carsick children, no GPS and few linguistic skills (‘It said droit, Chris. What is droit?’) should be a prerequisite for every marriage. It feels like there are tests for everything from maths and general studies to driving and chlamydia and yet there’s no regulatory body questioning a union that signs off with ‘till death us do part’.

I am now twelve years into a relationship with a man I don’t want to be parted from – through death or a sordid Tinder affair – but as I sit here writing, red-eyed after another argument, I do wonder if there should have been some assessment before we drove off without a map. Something to qualify that, even when the road is bumpy and petrol dangerously low, the car is at least pointing in the right direction.

A friend once said that before getting married the vicar at her local church asked her and her fiancé what they wanted out of life. She wanted three kids and a pedigree chocolate-brown Labrador, he wanted one kid and a rescued tabby cat. She wanted to live in the country, he wanted to live in the city. She wanted monogamy, he was intrigued by polyamory. They’re still together but sleeping apart because he snores like a freight train and she wriggles like a beached octopus. They seem OK.

All I know is that those road trips to France would always be laced with bickering and tense periods where Phil Collins would get louder, but generally my parents were going in the same direction. It’s a direction they’ve been going in for forty-seven years.

What’s gone on behind closed doors inspires equal measures of intrigue and aversion. No child wants to think of the more amorous side of their parents’ relationship – hugs in the kitchen and pecks on the cheek are enough qualification that all is OK. But as I sit here questioning my own relationship, what I can say is that my mum and dad are Olympic-gold standard teammates. The marital equivalent of Torvill and Dean but with sequins exchanged for M&S V-neck jumpers, and faux smiles swapped for crinkly-eyed laughter.

They’ve been married 14,235 days longer than Matt and me. As we navigate the quagmire of Paw Patrol theme tunes, sleep deprivation, mortgage repayments, grouting and general disillusionment, I never imagined trying to find answers to my amorous questions so close to home. I never imagined asking my parents outside of the confines of that Audi 100, ‘Are we (Matt and I) nearly there yet?’

But there’s a game my dad plays on my mum. It’s pretty basic and involves putting fruit and veg in random places around the house. Most recently we’ve had a parsnip in the utensils jar, a pineapple on top of the grandfather clock and a heritage carrot in the kettle spout. There was once a slightly less laughable situation with a watermelon falling off the oven hood and nearly knocking Mum out. I’ll often hear high-pitched exclamations of ‘Oh Chris!’ followed by laughter and her appearing, banana in hand, as my dad chortles like Muttley off Wacky Races.

‘Don’t forget the hats,’ says my dad when I interview them on the faded cream sofa of our family living room. ‘She got very cross when I put her favourite hat on the car antenna. It was Gerry the postman that found it and asked, “What’s this, then?”’

While his efforts are unlikely to bag a ‘rising star’ award at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, laughter has been the anchor in their relationship, even when there was not much to laugh about. ‘No one really talked about it in the seventies and eighties, but we faced two late miscarriages,’ my dad says, speaking of the two boys, Paul and Mark, they lost late in pregnancy before having my sister and me.

‘I remember sitting on our bed, wondering how we would get through this,’ my mum continues, her usual chirpiness momentarily dampened. ‘But you have to go on and you cannot start lashing out at the other person when the going gets tough because you are both breaking. You need to learn to break together.’

My mum and dad live in Buckinghamshire, still happily ensconced in our childhood home. It’s a red-brick four-bedroomed house with a yew tree out the back that has our deceased rodents buried beneath it. The sofa they’re sitting on is the same one where I watched Risky Business for the first time with my friend Clare during an early-nineties sleepover. Then, like now, I want to know more about love.

‘Anyone who says they are happily married all the time is most unusual and not to be trusted,’ says Dad. ‘Marriage is a marathon not a sprint.’

My dad is dressed in a pair of unintentionally on-trend Adidas trainers and his favourite navy fleece, which cost £14.99 from a little shop in Dawlish Warren in Devon and he’s had to save twice from being donated to charity: ‘She [my mum] isn’t a fan.’ Mum is in a polka-dot jumpsuit that she saw me wearing one day and bought even though she thought it might be ‘too edgy’. She’s recently ditched the hair dye and gone grey, while my dad’s personal style hasn’t changed since the invention of the Post-It note in 1974. He wears a St Christopher pendant that he’s never taken off and they both check the other has a cup of tea.

They met in a pub called The Cock Inn in Harpenden. He was working as a financial advisor, had a Mini Clubman with dodgy brakes that was ‘like driving a sewing machine’, and she had flown over from her native Holland to be an au pair for a Dutch actress called Yvonne Vanger. At nineteen, with long bronzed pins and a shock of auburn curls under a big navy floppy hat, my mum and her German friend Ingrid were the talk of the small town.

My dad says, ‘One of my friends called Lucy a “low tree nibbler” because of her height, but I also call her Big Bird, Old Dutch Bean and Luce, depending on the mood,’ he continues, taking a loud slurp from a mug that reads ‘Shoe-aholic’.

She made an instant impression, partly because of that hat.

‘His first ever words to me at the pub were: “Ooh, look here, we’ve got a mushroom”,’ she says. ‘He always has a way of breaking down any awkward moments with a quip. I was saying the other day that I didn’t like a presenter on the TV very much and he said, “Well, I’m sure she speaks very highly of you, Luce.”’

My dad’s first home, bought before he met my mum, cost £3,750 and was called The Shambles, which – according to the Oxford English Dictionary – means ‘a state of total disorder’. There couldn’t be a more ironic place name for a man who dots Is, crosses Ts and enjoys meeting a tax-return deadline. He’s a man of complete law-abiding order. ‘Everything on his desk is at ninety degrees,’ says Mum. ‘The hole-punch and his highlighter pens are neatly in line with a two-for-one Odeon voucher and a purple Fimo [the moulding substance] monster you made when you were seven.’

On his windowsill is a photo of my mum looking ethereal and beaming on their wedding day in 1975.

Having been in their company for thirty-eight of their forty-seven years together, I can report that happiness has definitely ebbed and flowed. Yet their benchmark of joint happiness – even when faced with difficult times – has undeniably been set high. (I once believed the only couple happily married were Heidi Klum and Seal – that break-up quashed any hope I had for marital utopia.) But what I’ve seen is my dad translate his own unsettled upbringing into an incredibly solid family unit.

And so often that’s been shown in tiny moments. It was his ability to raise a smile before my exams with a badly drawn cat sketched on a Post-It note that read: ‘Good luck, Top Cat’. Or my mum peeling a satsuma, removing the white bits and wrapping it in kitchen paper so she was always ‘with me’ on a school lunch-break.

Increasingly, I feel as if Matt and I are getting bogged down in what should be domestic bliss – a set-up we thought would lead to that elusive ‘happily ever after’. We’ve had the wedding, we’ve had the kids, we’re doing the jobs but, after chipping hardened porridge off tables and scraping squashed peas off floors, it feels like the spark is fading with every passive-aggressive exchange and that all I have to relight it is a packet of damp matches.

‘We would never have made it if we thought marriage was some endless exciting affair,’ confides Mum. ‘It’s really about the small things and enjoying them together. Some of the richest people I know are the poorest in their marriages. I bought some jars of chilli gherkins from Tesco recently and I’ve never seen him happier.’

She counters this with: ‘He has never changed a loo roll, though.’ But my dad has never failed to make her a cup of tea in the morning, either. So it is, perhaps, a long journey (like those long drives to the Loire Valley) with a few bumps in the road along the way.

But is their happy ending really what I want for me and Matt? I don’t really like gherkins and I’ve bookmarked , so I need to find someone with a bit more scientific authority on matters of the heart. I head upstairs to my childhood bedroom, with Blu Tack still imprinted on the walls where posters of the now Duke of Cambridge once loomed, open my laptop and search for ‘love’.

Alongside ‘Love Rat’, ‘Love Ring’ and many other intriguing associations with the word, I find ‘The Love Lab’.

Run by the world-renowned relationship psychologist John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure: A Five-step Guide to Strengthening your Marriage, Family and Friendships, this Washington University laboratory opened up the science behind ‘happily ever after’. It saw 130 newlyweds in the first throes of love stay over in a B&B setting to have their behaviour monitored by Gottman – truly romantic times. But he established a few helpful patterns that I’ve seen play out in my mum and dad’s relationship.

Gottman says that partners would make requests for connection – what he calls ‘bids’.

For example: one partner is a bird watcher and notices a stunning goldfinch fly across the garden. He or she might say to his or her partner, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ This isn’t just a comment about a bird, it’s a request for a response – a sign of interest or support – hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over that rare feathery friend.

Exchange the goldfinch here for a Pizza Express voucher and you’ve got my dad. I remember, one insignificant Monday, an envelope landing on the doormat and him hollering ‘Luce’ to my mum. He made a bid for her attention, which she happily responded to, leaving the dishwasher door open and toast burning. While I had algebraic equations on my mind, I remember them buzzing about the abundance of dough balls that came with being a loyal consumer. As someone who has worked as a waitress at this chain restaurant, it doesn’t surprise me that happiness can also be found in a 20 per cent discount on a Sloppy Giuseppe.

I feel like Matt has tried to get my attention over the last two years – he’s tried to point out rabbits in parks, flowers in gardens and has recently carved toast into the shape of a penis – but I sometimes haven’t been able to hear him fully through the din of postnatal depression, WhatsApp messages and social-media-induced self-doubt. I remember people speaking about ‘the baby blues’ and thinking it didn’t come close to the numbing weight of that postpartum period. It’s a hole I sat in for eight months and, even though I’ve had professional support, I’m still not sure I’ve fully emerged from it.

In fact, I don’t think we’ve heard each other properly since our second daughter was born in June 2017.

All I do know is the ratio of tears to laughter has been skewed since that first wonderful infant cry and, despite being together every day, I sometimes feel more alone than ever.

Delving deeper into Gottman’s work, I am a little reassured that the mortar that holds couples together is kindness. There are apparently two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle that needs to be built up. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. The pertinent question Gottman asks is: are you willing to try?

There was one day in the summer holidays when we were kids, when my mum made the dramatic declaration that she was off. She was clutching a badly packed suitcase with clothes hanging out of it that looked like deflated zombies trying to escape. I was playing with my hamster (the since-perished Bubbles) and I’d never heard their exchanges reach such a crescendo before. So I peeked through a crack in the door, part-scared, part-curious. It was an argument that started with some domestic irritant like congealed dishwasher salts but really the subtext was that my mum missed having a career and she’d grown weary of feeding, wiping, school running, and generally feeling like an au pair – a position she’d left thirty years before.

‘There’s stubbornness in both of us,’ says Dad, ‘but kindness trumps that. It’s sometimes the difference between giving them the last Jammie Dodger or just scoffing it in the kitchen and pretending there weren’t any left.’

My step-grandfather, John, a towering man with a baritone voice, gave his definition of kindness in a reading by Ogden Nash that he chose for our wedding:

To keep your marriage brimming,

With love in the loving cup,

Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;

Whenever you’re right, shut up.

Since that wedding day, I can definitely highlight where Matt has gone wrong. There’s currently a carpet of crumbs adorning the kitchen surfaces and he won’t think to sweep those remnants into the bin. I know many wonderful things about this heavily browed bastion of goodwill that I said ‘yes’ to, but I also know he has never changed the Hoover bag in the twelve years we’ve been together. Sometimes in my meaner-spirited moments, I consider asking him to do it, knowing he’ll struggle to locate the bags, let alone master the exchange. We know how to live.

How this pedantic, miserly woman emerged, I couldn’t say. It was definitely not overnight, more in the day-to-day build-up of little things that Matt and I haven’t done for each other. Small disappointments that have turned ‘I do’ into ‘Why can’t you . . .?’

He’s not an inconsiderate man. He’s wiped my tears after painful work altercations and built me up again with bum squeezes and cottage pie. He repeated this when we navigated the hopelessness of recurrent miscarriage. He is, despite the curmudgeonly brows, a kind man in the big moments.

When it comes to things like redundancy, loss and injury, we seem to navigate the marital waters with relative aplomb. The adrenaline of potential disaster unites us like a tired Starsky and Hutch (accompanied by a laundry pile that could prove fatal if prodded). It’s in those moments that I know he’s definitely The One. It’s just in the daily grey where I wonder fleetingly if this is it.

I read a book recently called The Science of Happily Ever After by Ty Tashiro and this bit stood out: ‘Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing. A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.’

Having used many things (hunger, general disillusionment with the world, losing at Monopoly) as a reason to start an argument with Matt, I have to disagree slightly with Tashiro. Our intentions can sometimes be wonky and laced with sleep deprivation.

But I am proud of this poem I penned for him on 21 November 2006 after we’d had an argument about my flirtatious manner towards other men (and women – I was even-handed) in social situations:

Matt, Matt, you’re not a twat,

You get on my norks but so does Postman Pat.

Matt, Matt, you’re a hairy man,

When it comes to your chops, I’m your biggest fan.

Matt, Matt, I’m a bit of a bell-end

It was 73 per cent my fault, The End.

But it’s not the end. And if we’re constantly striving for some grandiose happy ending, and only being kind in times of trouble, are we missing the flickers of joy along the way? Happiness isn’t a constant, it isn’t something you’re rewarded with on your death bed – ‘Congratulations you’ve reached death without killing each other! Here’s a lifetime of joy as you expire!’ – it’s yours for the taking now. Life’s not a box of chocolates necessarily but it can, perhaps, be a jar of piquant pickles.

And then my newly single friend Jessie excitedly sends a photo of her exposed-brick lounge in East Dulwich, and I make the possible mistake of wondering, ‘What if?’