Marian Keyes: ‘Why do I dig a hole and jump in feet first?’

Put bestselling novelist Marian Keyes in a social situation and you can guarantee she’ll say something she really wishes she hadn’t… 

Marian Keyes
Photograph: Laurence J. Hair and Make-up: Tish Curry using Skin Regimen and Mac Cosmetics

I’ve had an email from my friend Suzanne who’s on a speed awareness course. (Something to do with learning to drive slowly, I believe.) Apparently the instructor asked the group, ‘What do you call it when the car behind you is too close?’ Some man called out, ‘Up your arse?’ Suzanne dissolved into convulsions but the rest of the group were aghast and silent, including the instructor. Who walked to his whiteboard and, with compressed lips, wrote TAILGATING.

I am with that poor man. I share his shame! We probably all do, while dying a thousand deaths of gratitude that we weren’t the one to have opened our mouths. How many times have I woken at 4am, straight into the horrors: Oohh Goooddd, I can’t believe I said that!?

Too many to count, that’s how often.

At a work do last night, nine other authors and I had been released into a room overlooking the Thames and instructed to ‘mingle’. The other guests were reviewers, bookers for radio and TV shows and – perhaps most terrifying – buyers for the UK’s biggest book retailers. The idea was that we authors would charm the influential types, thereby convincing them to support our books. So I was nervous… and I’m far from my best when I’m nervous.

Within moments I accidentally stress-blanked a powerful book reviewer whom I’d previously met. ‘Sorry,’ I said, erupting into a full-on Body Sweat of Fear. ‘Of course I remember you and the lovely lunch we had at – The Wolseley? Not The Wolseley? The..? I’m so sorry, my memory is… you know, round thing, lots of holes in it?’

There, having semi-extricated myself, I should have left it. No. I kept going. ‘…just I meet so many people…’ Big mistake. Huge mistake. I sounded as though I was consigning Mrs Important Book Reviewer to the realm of The Nobodies.

Badly shaken, I retreated to a corner with a couple of other authors, who were also looking a little shell-shocked. Within moments, though, we were hoicked out, like naughty girls who’d been caught smoking behind the bike shed, and ordered to recommence our ‘mingling’.

My mood improved when I was introduced to a man with a reassuringly kind face. Even though he was one of the country’s most important fiction buyers, I felt able to relax. His name was Reggie. ‘Reggie?’ I said. ‘My sister’s friend’s dog is called that!’ Suddenly on high alert, my brain commanded, Do not say another word. But my mouth had gone rogue. I heard myself say to nice Reggie, ‘You sort of look like him too. The dog,’ I added. ‘Not the friend.’

‘What kind of dog is Reggie?’ Reggie-the-man asked, his warm smile cooling. I paused, on the brink of a lie. What was a noble dog, one a person would be proud to resemble? But dogs aren’t my speciality. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘Just a… mix?’

‘Right. A mongrel.’ I wanted to be taken outside and shot.

When I got home the real work began, as I relived the entire evening, flinching at every stupid word I’d said. I had told the most important book buyer in the UK that he looked like a dog. The worst part was that I’d been stone-cold sober. In the past, my first conscious thought on waking was usually, ‘Who do I have to apologise to this time?’ I’d expected that stopping drinking would coincide with the end of me putting my foot in things. Sadly, it hasn’t.

My only comfort is that we all do it, and it’s never done with malice. I asked friends to give me their most mortifying stories, but almost no one would. ‘Mine is so bad,’ said one woman, ‘that it still wakes me in the middle of the night.’

Nerves are usually the cause of the Idiotic Remark. But there’s also something called the Pink Elephant Test: you’re told to not think about a pink elephant and immediately you think of little else. According to my friend Posh Kate, before she had cancer and chemo, no one had ever said to her, ‘I’ll get out of your hair.’ But from the moment she went bald, every second person was using it as their default goodbye. She didn’t mind, but ‘I could almost hear their sphincter tightening as they realised,’ she says.

Then there’s my friend Jenni. Her brother’s wife Magda had managed to knock her 40-a-day cigarette habit on the head. A reason for celebration? Absolutely! However, the subsequent weight gain was making Magda so miserable that she was considering starting on the cigs again. ‘Whatever you do,’ Jack (Jenni’s brother) said, ‘don’t mention her size. Just tell her what a great thing she’s done. Not a word about her weight.’

Jenni took this seriously; encouragement and praise it would be. So the next time she met Magda, she rushed up to say, ‘You must be so happy!’ At the last moment she changed it to, ‘You look so healthy!’ It emerged as, ‘You look so hefty!’ Pink Elephant Syndrome, see? No escape.

Funerals are Pink Elephant Central. At my neighbour’s dad’s send-off, I apologised for my husband’s absence: ‘He’s in bed, dying with flu.’ Sudden appalled pause. ‘Not dying dying. Not the way your dad was dying…’

Another occasion for the kill-me-now comment is when bad news has arrived and someone is attempting to provide much-needed levity. My friend’s sister had just learnt she needed a double mastectomy. ‘It’s s***,’ my friend consoled. ‘But on the upside, you’ll never have to wear a bra again!’

Lead balloon, my friends, lead balloon. Apologising is usually the best way to mend an awkward situation, but with a faux pas, the person who said it is usually so horrified at the time that they’re incapable. The following day, though, when the dust has settled, is almost worse – I can hardly email last night’s Reggie with, ‘I’m sorry I said you looked like a dog.’

Sometimes we’ve got to accept that our mouth says stuff our brain hasn’t signed off on. We’ve just got to suck it up. I’m not the only person who ever said something so stupid. Neither are you, so forgive yourself for it.

(That last paragraph has just reminded me that I once said ‘Suck it up’ to my friend’s mother. When she was on oxygen for pneumonia. Aaargh!)

Marian’s latest novel Grown Ups is published by Michael Joseph, £20