The film When Harry Met Sally has a lot to answer for. Although the tagline for the film was: “Can men and women be friends or does sex always get in the way?” the conclusion was foregone. By the end of the 96 minutes, it was perfectly clear that the answer to both parts of that question was a resounding “Yes”. Yes, they could be friends, but yes, sex did eventually get in the way. It’s a good film, but I’ve never quite been able to accept how very neatly Harry and Sally swanned off into the sunset together. I’m sure they’re divorced by now.
When Harry Met Sally came out in 1989. Surely, in 25 years, we’ve learned that a man and a woman can be friends without sex playing any part in the relationship? Come on, there must be someone whose company you enjoy, who has a different mix of chromosomes to yours, but whose physique leaves you completely cold. There is, isn’t there? I knew it.
Mariella Frostrup knows it, too, which is why she’s done something that aficionados of When Harry Met Sally will never understand. The story goes like this: Mariella, her husband and two kids had booked a trip to south-west France. Then, at the last minute, her husband found that he couldn’t go because of unexpected work commitments.
At first, as many of us might, she considered this development to be a “disaster”. Then she thought twice. Rather than cancel her holiday, Mariella decided to find someone else to go with. Her best friend, Penny Smith, has a partner called Vince, and Mariella asked Vince if he wanted to come along. He did, and the four of them had a whale of a time on the Canal du Midi.
Mariella says that Vince turned out to be “a top-of-the-range companion” and that “I have seen the future and it’s partner sharing… I don’t mean in some sordid, 70s, throw-your-keys-in-a-bowl sort of way but a modern, squeaky clean, no-sex-please-we’re-British manifestation.”
Since Mariella went public with this information, there has been a lot of snickering from people who can’t imagine a sociable connection between a man and a woman where sex isn’t involved. However, for those of us able to remain in the company of someone of the opposite sex for a day or two without ripping their – or our – clothes off, “partner sharing” sounds like the ideal solution to the problem of absent other-halves.
I only have one question about the Frostrup/Smith partner-sharing agreement: I haven’t yet managed to find out whether Mariella first asked Penny if she wanted to go on holiday with her. If she didn’t, why not? I would find that strange, simply because Mariella and Penny are best friends, not Mariella and Vince. However, if we assume that Penny wasn’t available, but Vince was, then I have nothing more to ask. My jury is returned and the verdict is innocent. In fact, not only innocent, but inspirational.
Many’s the time I have been let down by a busy husband. It’s one of the pitfalls of modern life, but most especially of self-employment – you can’t be sure that much-needed work won’t suddenly interfere with your best-laid plans. Thankfully, I’ve never had to rearrange anything as expensive as a holiday, but on several occasions I’ve been left dangling, Cinderella-like, good to go in my ballgown, with Prince Charming on the phone saying he’s sorry, but I’ll have to go alone.
But I don’t like going out alone; I like going out with people whose company I enjoy. A couple of times I’ve asked a girlfriend to come with me, but more often than not I’ve just sat there like a very sad pumpkin. I just wish I’d had the gumption to phone a friend and say: “I’m picking up the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Husband’s cried off. How does your delightful man feel about being my plus-one? There’s an open bar and I’ll have him home by midnight.”
The only reason the Frostrup family’s holiday arrangements have caused controversy is because the partner being shared is male. If Mariella had called a lesbian friend and asked to borrow her wife, nobody would have blinked an eye. What their critics need to remember is that Vince is not some random bloke Mariella picked up at the airport; he’s already a mate. They have an established and trusted relationship. Unfortunately, simply because an otherwise-engaged man and woman get on with each other and think it would be pleasant to share some quality time, Society says it’s weird.
If Society has a problem with purely Platonic relationships, Society should really get over it. Does Mariella’s husband mind? No. Does Penny mind? No, so why the heck shouldn’t Mariella, Vince and the kids enjoy themselves? In the interests of propriety, would Society rather see the holiday cancelled and everybody stuck at home, gloomily making loom-bands while freezing rain trickles down the window panes?
I’ve asked myself: how would I feel if my best friend asked to borrow my husband? My first response would probably be: “Are you sure? You know he only showers in June?” But once that was out of the way, I wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, I’d be flattered that he’d made the grade of being on someone’s stand-in list.
Not only that, but I’ll gladly substitute for any of my girlfriends at social engagements, if their partners agree. My mothballed posh frocks will finally get an airing and I can prove once and for all that When Harry Met Sally was wrong to suggest that men and women can’t have frisson-free fun together.
However, to be fair to Harry, he does finally admit that a man and a woman can be friends if “both of them are involved with other people”. So, now we agree on that, to paraphrase the old lady in the diner, I’ll have what Mariella’s having.