Last week I met an old friend for a drink. Despite spending a great deal of our childhood together, as we grew older and our lives diverged – different universities, different friends, different jobs – so we saw each other less and less. Last week was the first time we’d had a proper knees up for nearly a year.
This situation isn’t uncommon. However fondly you feel about someone, life can all-too-frequently get in the way. Weeks become months as time is consumed by work, family, and all those other people who are so terribly good at organising things. Dinners and drinks and parties seem to be happening all the time, but without many friends in common, it’s unlikely that the two of you will ever be in the same place at the same time.
Perhaps it is in part due to this widespread habit of an annual drink that David Nicholls’ One Day has been such a hit. Nicholls essentially has an annual drink with his two main characters: he shows us their lives on the same day, every year for twenty years.
A year is rather a special amount of time. It is a significant amount, enough for things to have changed. But it is also not long enough for that change to be utterly detached from the previous time. Traces of last year linger on and there is a grounding comfort of familiarity – most names are the same, much of the situation is similar. But, alongside, there is the thrill of everything that has changed – be it a new girlfriend, a new job, or a new flat.
And, of course, there is an inevitable self-reflective aspect to an annual drink. What’s your news? What’s changed and what hasn’t? Just as birthdays and New Year’s encourage a reflection on the past year, a resolution for the year to come (and sometimes a minor breakdown), so meeting up with a friend and catching up on the year that’s past can do the same.
And then there are the comparisons. Yes, there are those horrid comparisons which make you feel utterly rubbish. (Oh god, he’s earning five times as much as me.) And the ones that make you feel hideously smug. (Ha, she still doesn’t have a serious boyfriend.) But I think the biggest temptation – and probably the nicest – is the ‘me too’ impulse. Your friend articulates a problem or a worry and you can relate to it. You realise that you’ve been preoccupied by exactly the same thing. You feel overcome with relief that it’s not just you who worries about whatever neurosis it is – friends settling down, where to live, career crisis, friendship fall-outs – and you long to reassure them that you understand exactly how they feel.
And I think that’s what David Nicholls does particularly well in One Day. He manages to capture a neurosis from each particular time of adulthood, and the reader cannot help but empathise.
For instance, there is the early-twenties, post-university panic of ‘What on earth am I going to do with my life? My degree has left me totally unqualified for the real world.’ Dex, the rich, handsome, public-schoolboy deals with the crisis by going travelling, taking two years out to sleep his way around Thailand and Italy. Em, bookish and idealistic, briefly forms an experimental theatre group before coming to London, wanting to write and finding herself working in a Mexican restaurant.
I remember that time very clearly. The fear for friends who were endlessly sofa-surfing while trying to find a job which would earn them enough money to pay rent. Raging at the injustice of having to do all that unpaid work-experience which was always deemed necessary to get any job that wasn’t working in a Mexican restaurant. And the friends who vanished for a year or two, taking time out, putting off that horrid moment of engaging with the real world.
Swiftly following this initial panic, comes a weird new feeling as friends, who were all in much of the same financial boat at university, spread out along the fiscal spectrum. Now we can’t all stumble home to halls together, but there are friends who take taxis, and friends who take two nightbuses home. The ones who insist on going to a cocktail bar where nothing costs less than a tenner, and the ones who come round for cups of tea. In One Day, when Dex and Em meet for dinner in a trendy restaurant, Em has to take several buses to get from Hackney to Soho. She wears her smartest dress, which Dex, in his designer boxer shorts, having cabbed over from his swanky bachelor pad, privately dismisses as High Street muck.
The neuroses change as the characters get older. Weddings, babies, property ladders, affairs … But what I loved in One Day is that both Dex and Em, at different points in the story, have their own decisive moment of change. They each stop what they’ve fallen into doing and start doing what they actually want to do. They take the risk and step out bravely into terrific uncertainty.
When I quit my job in publishing to write a novel and work part-time in a bookshop, I felt utterly terrified and unbelievably excited. Various people thought I was an idiot. They couldn’t understand why I would step off a career ladder to work in a shop. Others, thankfully, were very supportive. It was definitely the right decision, but it was very hard to do it.
And, seeing my friend last week, all stressed and anxious, having quit his job to start his own thing. I wanted to say ‘Me too!’ Although his job is far more high-powered, and his something is much more impressive than a novel. But both of us, like Dex and Em, and like more and more of my friends, have been brave enough to leave comfort and safety behind, stepping out on our own into something new. It was a wonderful realisation to have during an annual drink. After all, there’s really no point in endlessly just saying, ‘One day …’
Tags: David Nicholls