Read an extract from Emma Forrest’s mesmerising new memoir, Busy Being Free

Written by Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest’s mesmerising second memoir reflects on her move back to north London from glitzy Los Angeles following the breakdown of her marriage – and the joy she found in solitude along the way. Read an extract from the book below. 

Not long after my forty­-second birthday, my ex ­husband puts his arm through mine and tells me about a 21-year­-old Brazilian girl he is planning to make his girlfriend. The divorce had finally come through and I was in LA bringing our daughter, CJ, to visit him from London, where she and I now lived. Things had become friendly enough to catch a movie together – just the two of us.

Walking the graffitied Eastside pavements before the film starts, he explains his plan to ‘clear the deck’ of other girls, as he had once ‘cleared the decks’ for me. Paula is young, he says, too young (he shakes his head). He wishes she wasn’t twenty­ one. Having started my writing career as a columnist on a national newspaper when I was a teenager, I feel protective of the very young. Ben feels protective of me, both as I was then and as a result of what I was then, since he, too (via the medium of Australian coming­ of ­age films) was out in the world too early. He also knows what it is to have a minor spritz of fame that isn’t worth the cost once the top note of success has burned away. He knows the waiting until middle age to have people pick up on your scent again.

We’re both old enough to remember Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl (visceral memories of turning over to the B side, where revelation lives) and young enough that the vinyl was handed down from our mothers. We both have early childhood memories of Abba, though they’re differ­ent: his a recurring dream of discovering his parents – who were in the midst of a bitter divorce – happily in bed with the four band members. Mine a suspicion, garnered from their videos, that the cheerful bearded men were holding the stricken ­looking women against their will.

Busy Being Free is Emma Forrest’s second memoir

We arrive at the Vista cinema, to find the manager – having lovingly maintained the theatre’s 1920s Egyptian revival columns, ceilings and murals – has dressed up thematically, as he often does on opening weekend. We hired it out for CJ and Ben’s joint birthday three years in a row, Finding Nemo, then Singin’ in the Rain, then Kubo and the Two Strings. We packed the aisles with friends and family, who were first worrying about the state of our marriage, then looking uncomfortable at how close the event fell to our divorce filing, then, the next year, marvelling at how well we seemed to get on. We were so determined not to divorce the way his parents had.

Some have suggested our friendliness is the reason I fail to countenance dating. It’s hard to convince people: I just want to be alone with myself, who I genuinely thought I might never get to see again.

So my ex­-husband and I walk, arm in arm, to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is a very long film. In the aisle, he’s approached by someone he’s worked with, then by a fan, each time introducing me: ‘This is my beautiful ex-­wife.’

We take our seats in the middle of the row and at first he is delighted by Tarantino’s fake trailers. Then, a while into the movie, his leg starts shaking. Then forty minutes before the end, he hisses ‘Fuck’s sake,’ then stands up and barks at the screen: ‘Get on with it, Quentin!’ And, pushing past all the knees and handbags in our row, past the fan who had approached him, he walks out. I watch him bolt up the dimly lit aisle, as I have watched him turn cars around, take off his wedding ring in a fight, call time, again and again. As I’ve seen him clutch his face and wail ‘No more tricks!’ when he opened the cupboard and found Marmite when he’d expected Vegemite.

In the Vista cinema, he is a retreating figure and I freeze, trying to figure out whether to stand up or sit down, thinking how to pick past people who are watching. I’m also thinking how much I’d like to be a man who remon­strates with the screen in packed cinemas or, like the love before, wears pyjamas to the 24-­hour supermarket to get ice cream at midnight. Or the boyfriend before that, who, feeling hot, left his new leather jacket behind a bush on his walk to a meeting, then shrugged when, on his return, it was gone. But instead, I’ve dated them.

Men who have sent love letters from four points of the globe, hand­sewn clothes for me, even though they’d never picked up a needle before, FedExed a T­shirt that stinks of them, enclosed with details of a plane ticket. They’ve inked beautiful inscriptions to me in the books that meant the most. They’ve bought jewellery for me. Not Liz Taylor diamonds – my collection is more tactile than that: a corn goddess ring, an onyx heart pendant inlaid with curling gold leaf, a heavy Mexican silver life­size rose brooch. There’s a whole novella to be written just about the rings Ben gifted me. There’s a different novella about the shelf of Do It Yourself mugs into which he baked love letters when he was still unemployed.

My love for these men dictated everything – the clothes I bought, the trips I took, the work I turned down or flaked on, the cities I moved to. Leaving journalism in my twenties, I had a meeting with a respected Hollywood manager who had travelled to my hotel to talk about breaking me as a screenwriter – and fifteen minutes before our breakfast I cancelled because my boyfriend was flying back to New Zealand that evening and I felt I needed to resolve a fight. She said she understood and I assume what she understood was this: that I was a talented idiot, and that I would always put men above myself and the pursuit of passion above that of career.

Loving other people with all of my heart has not unlocked who I am and what I deserve, and since that hasn’t been transferred by osmosis from these bold and admired men – and it hasn’t, not by saliva or semen or even by holding hands – now what?

I think, again and again, of the Rilke lines:

Work of the eyes is done

Go now and do the heart­work

On the images imprisoned within you.

Busy Being Free: A Lifelong Romantic is Seduced by Solitude by Emma Forrest (Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £18.99) is out now.

Images: courtesy of publisher 

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