Grazia Book Club: Okechukwu Nzelu’s The Private Joys Of Nnenna Maloney

'Sometimes, Joanie thought, people can hurt you so badly that the apology is almost as bad as the act itself.'

The Private Joys of Nnenna

by Grazia Contributor |
Updated on

The Private Joys Of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu: It is not difficult to make conversation with strangers at a wedding breakfast but, Joanie found, it is often difficult to make good conversation. This is due partly to the nature of the event, which necessarily involves giving over at least 40 per cent of your time to people who have nothing interesting to say beyond the intensely boring minutiae of their lives, but an awful lot to say about those minutiae (‘Oh! Why yes, I would like to see more photos of your new home gym. How . . . darling!’). Sadly, Joanie’s friendships with many of her Cambridge classmates had become strained not long before graduation. Also sadly, guests at wedding breakfasts are usually seated in circles so that, even if you are sitting next to someone you want to talk to, the home-gymmers of the world tend to muscle their way into the conversation.

Cornered by a man who was in the throes of divulging to her the vast depths of the knowledge he had acquired twenty years ago from his Latin GCSE, Joanie cast a longing look over her shoulder at Jonathan: he was being similarly detained by a couple who were taking advantage of the strides made in technology by showing him what looked like eighteen physical photo albums’ worth of photographs in the happily condensed form of a mobile phone’s image gallery.

Then again, a part of Joanie was glad that she was trapped; being free to talk to Jonathan Tucker meant confronting what a terrible friend she’d been to him. She’d barely kept in touch at all since graduation, and she knew he’d needed her. Her more than most. His church friends had melted away when he’d got out of hospital. But things had got so scary, so quickly. She’d been too ashamed to speak to him for years afterwards.

‘I suppose you’ll know “Caecilius est in horto”, won’t you?’ said Max, a (presumably single) television producer. Joanie wasn’t sure, but he seemed to be hoping that a woman who’d studied Classics at Cambridge might be delighted by the Latin equivalent of ‘the cat sat on the mat’.

‘Err, yes,’ said Joanie. ‘Rings a bell. I mean, I did my undergraduate dissertation on—’

‘I loved my Latin GCSE. Such a rich subject, isn’t it? And so diverse.’

‘Yes, absolutely. At university, we studied a lot of different—’

‘Everyone should study Classics. I have so many happy school memories. We had the most marvellous teacher, easily my favourite; had the most exciting lessons. Mr . . . Mr . . . Mr . . . ’

As Max laboured to recall the name of his beloved school teacher, Joanie took the opportunity to take a swig from her glass of wine.

‘Quick,’ Jonathan said to her, in an urgent whisper.


‘Just look like you’re saying something to me.’

‘ . . . I am saying something to you.’

‘Something important.’


‘Because if I have to look at another holiday photo, I’ll ask the bride to cut me instead of the cake.’


‘You as well?’

‘The charming gentleman to my left has spent the last two courses bringing me up to scratch on Latin grammar.

Despite her thirty-eight years, Joanie still found the boldness of people’s stupidity surprising – men patronising her at social events, people making casually racist remarks about her daughter in public, people referring incessantly to refugees as ‘immigrants’. Even though she knew full well that it happened every day, she somehow always forgot that it could happen (and did happen) to her. It was a bit like realising that the creature you used to think was hiding under your bed at night – the one you’d told yourself was imaginary – was real, all along. And that he spoke rudimentary Latin.

‘Ah,’ said Jonathan.

‘Yes. I think I might be able to construct whole sentences by the time they clear away dessert. Good thing I spent three years at university preparing for this dinner, or I’d be stumped.’

‘Didn’t you get a first in the end?’

Joanie smiled. ‘In the end, yes.’

‘And what are you doing these days?’

‘I write crosswords, mostly. I do the odd bit of journalism to make ends meet, but I’ve never been able to find anything steady, unfortunately. What about you?’

‘Financial auditor.’

‘Oh. How . . . darling.

Jonathan cut his eyes at Joanie playfully and then looked over at their neighbours; they were fully occupied with their new victims. Max appeared to be busy informing an A&E doctor about his A* in GCSE Biology.

‘Joanie, I—’

‘Jonathan, I want you to know . . . I’m so sorry I never kept in touch.’

Jonathan didn’t say anything. For a moment, Joanie looked down at her hands in silence; she’d only blurted it out because a part of her had hoped that Max would interrupt her too quickly for Jonathan to reply. How many times had they found themselves in the same room at weddings, birthdays, anniversary parties? How many times had she wished that she was courageous enough to confront what she had done to him, and apologise? How many more times would she hide from what she had done.

Maybe one more, at least in part. She was sorry, and she wanted Jonathan to know that she was sorry. But she couldn’t bear to know what he must think of her.

Eventually, Jonathan said, ‘I know why you didn’t. I understand.’

Joanie looked at him sharply and nodded. That was Jonathan for you. A less honest person might have said, ‘It’s okay.’ But of course, it wasn’t okay. What she had done to him could never be okay.

‘I’m so sorry, Jonathan. For everything. Everything.’

Jonathan said, ‘Joanie . . . ’ But then he fell silent. He didn’t look as though he was thinking of something to say. He just wanted her to stop. Sometimes, Joanie thought, people can hurt you so badly that the apology is almost as bad as the act itself.

‘Okay,’ she nodded. She realised suddenly that she was crying and dried her eyes.

‘Don’t cry, Joanie,’ said Jonathan, putting his hand on her knee. He always was such a warm person. How could he comfort her now? After everything? He gave her a mischievous smile. ‘Dry your eyes. We’re at a wedding.’

She laughed.

‘And,’ he said, as he saw Juliet and Cressida approaching, ‘we’re in marvellous company.

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