The next big love in my life

The cheese that started it all.

The cheese that started it all.

‘I don’t want to eat in any of these places.’

Gia and I stared out of the bus windows.  My sister had come down to visit me for a few days and we had been out in London for the day and were looking for a restaurant.  We weren’t much impressed.

‘Oh I know, let’s get off here and go to Carluccio’s for salami.  We can change onto the 38 and then go home and have a picnic.’

We walked up through Covent Garden market, past street entertainers and the throngs of people queueing for the Hard Rock café and northwards past the tube station.  Gia and I have a long standing love for Italy, having holidayed in the same house in the Abruzzo every year since she was born.  As a consequence, Italian cured meats and olives are not only tasty in their own right but are also a nostalgic reminder of sun drenched days, friends who have watched us grow up and treat us as extended family, relaxation and happiness.  We made a beeline for Carluccio’s, selected our cured meat purchases and carried on towards Shaftesbury Avenue.

For some reason at one of the road junctions, we looked up towards Seven Dials and saw the cheese shop.

‘Hey, let’s go there!  It’d be like the shops in Boulogne!’

Part of the cherished family tradition had been that as both our parents taught, they too had long summer holidays and we usually went out to Italy for at least 6 weeks every year.  My Dad taught Italian so for him it was invaluable in keeping in practice.  We needed a car when we were out there and low cost airlines weren’t anything more than a glint in Michael O’Leary’s eye so we drove out, putting the car onto a train at Boulogne and then taking the train on through to Milan where we arrived for breakfast the following morning.  In the hours we had to kill between the time the ferry arrived and the time the train left, we had got into the habit of buying a particularly superior picnic for the train: Camemberts, Chevres, Baguettes, Celeri Remoulade, Carrots Rapees, Tartes aux Fraises and, when we were considered old enough, Normandy Cider.

We had never seen a cheese shop in the UK that looked even remotely like the fromageries of Boulogne.  Cheese in the UK seemed to be kept away from customers, behind glass, vacuum packed in plastic, its personality and character suppressed.  Not in this place.

The door creaked open, we entered the richly cheese scented, cellar cool air.  We had no idea what to buy.  An enormous slate counter stretched in front of us, piled high with every sort of cheese our hearts could desire.  All around the shop walls, shelves were bursting with cloth wrapped huge truckles of what I would later recognise as Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire.  We scoured the counter looking for a name we recognised from our French cheese purchasing that we could identify and purchase and we found nothing.

A cheery man of about 6 foot tall with short cropped blonde hair greeted us and tried to get us to try something.  We needed a minute to take the experience in and, being British, we were reluctant to say yes.

‘Go ahead and look,’ the blonde man I would later call Jacob said.  He turned to one of his colleagues.

‘The Wigmore is escaping again.’

A girl in a white chefs jacket and white wellies emerged from behind the counter and picked up a wooden board with the offending Wigmore cheese.  It was liquid and was heading off the board and onto the floor.  It looked great.

She brought it back behind the counter and noticing that we were following its progress with our eyes, Jacob offered us a taste.  It was vegetal, cauliflower-like even, savoury and cheese in liquid form.

‘It’s a bit over the top to be honest,’ he said, ‘I prefer it when it’s not gone quite that far.’

We loved it.  We bought a whole quarter of a pound.

I now look back on that purchase with a modicum of embarrassment.  We bought three very small pieces of cheese.  I paid for them with a cheque, which I now know is the most fiddly way to pay imaginable.  These days I rarely buy anything under 500g of cheese – if you’re going to buy cheese, you may as well seriously BUY CHEESE.  I spent under a tenner and I took ages about it too.

If this was in any way frustrating to Jacob (and in retrospect, I suspect it was), he gave absolutely no sign of it whatsoever.  He was helpfulness personified.  Whatever we wanted to taste, we could.  No need to say thank you, it was just what they were there for.  We left with our 3 small pieces of cheese in a little white plastic bag and resolved to return.  We had to bring our Dad in there.  We now realised that we didn’t recognise any of the cheese names because all those very many cheeses were all British or Irish!  Not a French one among them. Remembering my father’s laments over the no longer being able to buy the Tasty Lancashire or unpasteurised Stilton of his childhood, we knew he would enjoy this shop.

The picnic was very satisfying by the way.

My graduation, my parents wedding anniversary, a belated 21st birthday bash for me and an early 18th birthday bash for Gia was held at the end of the year.  As a special treat, we decided to try out the Neal Street Restaurant, Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant at the time.  Since we were in the area, we took my dad to the cheese shop.  It was Saturday, the place was heaving but as he spent a full 45 minutes in there tasting everything and spending a considerable amount of money, we hung around at the doorway so other customers could actually get inside.  We were a group of 6 (including Jack).  That’s all the people the shop could fit on the customer side of the counter.  As it turned out, this meant we had plenty of time to read and re-read the notice in the window that said they were looking for cheese loving staff.

I had graduated by this point and was hoping that inspiration would strike me as to what I wanted to do.  The only thing I did know is that as the child of two teachers, I wasn’t going to follow them into the teaching profession.  My dad was counting the days to his retirement already and sadly he still had several years to go.  I had vaguely voiced the idea of working in a shop just to pay the rent and was hoping that somewhere along the line a blinding revelation would happen and my future career would become clear.

‘Well you could definitely do worse than working here,’ my Mum pointed out.

It was idiosyncratic, characterful, cheery, welcoming, the staff banter indicated that they were all great friends and they were selling some delicious cheeses.  I gave them a call.

Move in with me

Average student fare.

Average student fare.

Maelle and I had a very civilised house in London.  We invited people for Sunday lunches at which we made roast chicken with all the trimmings and served up a poached pear tarte for puddings.  She had regular care packages sent over from France so there was often a good supply of Rillettes de porc in the fridge, home preserved tuna in oil in kilner jars lurked in our cupboards next to tins of cassoulet and jars of choucroute garnie.  I made a point of demonstrating to Jack how much better it was than his life in Leeds which wasn’t quite unfolding as he had hoped.  He hadn’t got the Antarctic Survey job, nor had he found anything that really used his degree of Marine Biology.  Finally when the landlord asked them to leave, he moved back to London and moved in with Maelle and me.  The uncertain times were over.  We were together again.  I shouldn’t have looked at it like this, and it’s symptomatic of how our relationship was about to develop but in my eyes, I’d won.

Going the Distance

A year into my first proper relationship and I was a bit out of my depth.  I was in London, he was in Leeds and a year of weekend meetings followed.  He would catch the coach to London one weekend and I would get the train to Leeds the following weekend.  I got to know Leeds train station and Victoria coach station very well.

I didn’t feel very welcome in his house in Leeds.  His friends were a bit reserved but above all it was a house of 4 lads.  It wasn’t very homely and washing up never happened.  However we were getting used to the situation of our weekend travels when Jack applied for a job with the Royal Antarctic Survey.  Yes, seriously, the Royal Antarctic Survey.

You couldn't get a great deal more remote from a girlfriend in London.

You couldn’t get a great deal more remote from a girlfriend in London.

‘Moving to Leeds wasn’t far enough away?’  I asked.  ‘What does your family think about it?’

‘They think it would be an amazing opportunity,’ he replied, ‘My mum says I will always regret it if I don’t give it a go.’

I had never been all that sure that she liked me. The first time I visited their house, she turned to the dog and said,

‘Well Gonzo?  Shall we let her stay?’

However like all mums she wanted what was best for Jack.  He had studied Marine Biology.  That was one of the things I liked about him.  I had always enjoyed Biology in school and very nearly took it to A Level.  It was a subject I might even have been studying if I hadn’t gone down the route of languages and literature.  I loved the fact that he could tell me things I genuinely found interesting and that he was studying how sea urchins moved for his thesis.  We went to the Natural History Museum and visited aquariums and he told me cool facts about fish that glowed in the dark.  It was like dating a National Geographic Magazine!  However it was a very limited field.  To get a job that was directly related to the degree, you’d need to be one of the students who excelled.  He wasn’t one of them – competent, by no means unintelligent, not hugely original and not one of the ones who would be invited to stay on and carry out research.  While living in Leeds, he was scouring the broadsheets job adverts for something where he could use his qualifications in Biology and he wasn’t finding much.  He was working in an airless lab, sieving soil and providing data to a road building company on soil composition.  He was very bored and not a little fed up too.  The Royal Antarctic Survey was a bit extreme but it was the first thing that had caught his eye and captured his interest.  He asked if I would let him go, if his application was successful.

Jack and I sat in bed talking about the practicalities of him working in Antarctica, how at the time (this being pre-internet) he would only be allowed 1 airmail letter every month and that included hearing from his family too.  It seemed pretty clear to me that as things stood if he did get the job, that would be it, unless he was coming back for something committed.

‘OK,’ I said eventually, ‘if you get the job, you can go, but if you do, I need you to be coming back for something definite.  Let’s get engaged.’

He agreed and with very little idea of what exactly marriage entailed when it comes to keeping a relationship going long term, we hugged each other and basked in naïve happiness that we were going to get married and were now engaged.

My first boyfriend and THE FEAR

‘I’ve got a boyfriend! I’ve got a boyfriend!’

I rang my parents, I wrote to my school friends, I wrote to my sister.  I was so excited, I turned back into a teenager.  From kissing, we moved pretty quickly to sleeping together and while our first attempts at sex didn’t go as planned, after about the third attempt things were most definitely looking up.

A further week, and in the middle of a seminar on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, I realised I was in love.  Full on hearts and flowers, makes you feel a bit queasy in a good way, can’t eat, want to be with them all the time.  I went home to his room where we spent every evening now (his bed was marginally bigger than mine) and told him.  All sorts of things could have gone wrong here but I was in luck again.  Jack had realised he loved me too.

From that point, it was LOVE in big capitals. We barely managed to stagger out of bed to lectures.  I wore his clothes so I could smell him when he wasn’t with me.  I met his sister.  I heard all about his past girlfriends and he heard about my lack of boyfriends and the coal shed.  I met his friends in the third year and sat with them in the Union Bar.  He met my parents.  I met his.

I would love to say that we were love’s young dream for the next year but unfortunately once I’d got my boyfriend and should have been revelling in enjoying being with him, I went a bit mental.  A terrible fear came over me, that Jack loved me more than I loved him.  I felt, although I didn’t want to, that I should break up with him for his own sake.  With the benefit of hindsight, I now think it was becoming apparent that the relationship had a use by date and I was becoming aware that I could, if I wasn’t careful, make him very unhappy indeed when we hit that date.  But it had taken so long to actually get a boyfriend, I couldn’t bear to give him up now.  You might ask why on earth I was worrying about the end of our relationship when we’d only been together a couple of months but it was always on our minds that he was in third year, the end of the year was coming, he would sit his finals and we had to think about what to do next.

Jack wanted to move to Leeds with his best friend from school.  They’d had a summer hanging out in Leeds where his friend was at university, before he came back for his final year.  It had taken on fairly legendary proportions in his mind, like a 1980s American coming of age teen movie.  He hadn’t really enjoyed his university years in London that much, it’s too big a city to have the college culture of a university town, and he wanted a bit more carefree living with the boys.  I had no other friends at my college.  The people I met at lectures and seminars were passing acquaintances to meet for coffee but no one who was going to become a life long friend that I would be happy flat sharing with.   Jack was adamant he wouldn’t stay in London.  We didn’t want to break up either.  My school friend Nia saved my bacon by putting me in touch with a friend from her course who had been living out of halls in Essex at the home of a schoolfriend and who had, like me, not found a group of people to share a flat with.  Maelle, who is a proud Breton but will also admit to being described as French, couldn’t come over to flat hunt so she trusted me and my dad with the job of finding a flat for us both and we came up trumps with a flat in the upper two storeys of a big Georgian house in Hackney.

Jack, meanwhile, moved into a terraced brick house in Leeds with his mates for a year of scoring drugs (conveniently 2 of his housemates were dealing) and what he hoped would be fun, clubbing and enjoying the city.  A year in, and on not too certain footings given my worries of earlier in the year, we were now in a long distance relationship.

fear-pic

Meeting Jack

Mile_End_tube_stn_roundel_2012_01

As I was psyching myself up to approach the grunge rock hero of my halls of residence, he beat me to it.  I was waiting for a tube at Mile End Station, staring down the tunnel hoping for a train.  I didn’t actually notice him until I had sat in the carriage and he sat opposite me.

‘Oh my God’ said the voice in my head, ‘That’s him.  You have to talk to him.’

Of course, I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  My throat constricted and my heart was pounding.  Fate solved the dilemma for me, when the train was delayed at Leytonstone.  Jack started up a conversation with a worldly wise comment on public transport and I pretended I’d taken the tube enough to comment back.  We talked all the way back to halls.  I discovered he was from Yorkshire which was a big bonus because it meant he was a Northerner too.  I was impressed because he was a third year student who was doing his finals that year and already knew his way round London.

We hung out as friends for a week.  I went round to his room for cups of Nescafe Blend 37 after lectures and listened to records.  We talked as people do when they are getting to know one another and after a while, I started to think,

‘I wish Jack would kiss me.’

And, luckily, not long after, he did.

‘…I guess it’s got something to do with luck.’

For some reason, with this as my hobby, I didn't have many boyfriends growing up.

For some reason, with this as my hobby, I didn’t have many boyfriends growing up.

I had a very sheltered life as far as boyfriends went.  Going to an all girls school was great for my studies, but it didn’t provide an opportunity to mix with boys.  My social sphere outside school centred around dancing, shopping, going to the cinema and sleepovers with my friends; all very girlie.  I found pop idols or film stars more impressive and fascinating than a boy my age could ever be, so although my mum did gently try to persuade me to join a local orchestra to meet people other than my school friends, I was happier dreaming of the day when I would be Mrs Pal Waaktaar or later Mrs CC DeVille or once I’d watched the Rocky Horror Show, Mrs Barry Bostwick.

To the childish affections, the famous celebrity has already achieved things in their life, they know things, there’s a glamour about them.  The gawky kid with acne who might possibly want to give you an inexpert snog at a disco party doesn’t really have the same allure.

But after a while it became apparent to me that my friends were managing to attract male attention.  We held disco parties, dressed up in our new Top Shop attire and kitten heeled court shoes, drank cider from plastic disposable cups and at the end of the evening, one by one, they had all been asked to slow dance and had their first kiss.

‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked my mother with the intensity and distress that only an angst ridden teen can have.

She told me I was beautiful of course but the cynical negative voice in my head said in reply ‘Well she’s bound to think that, she’s your mum.

Thus with warped logic, I decided that I was destined to die a virgin, alone and be eaten by Alsatians.  Whatever ‘sex appeal’ was (and to be honest I was a bit too young to have worked it out) I evidently didn’t have it.

Fast forward to my university years and the autumn of 1992.  I am not going to die a virgin any more.  I managed to dispatch that unwelcome state of being in a coal shed at a friend’s party with a German boy wearing a tan leather jacket.  It was not exactly love’s young dream but it was the start of a new chapter of life.

I am, however, a bit disappointed by university life in London.  I’d taken a year out and went to work in Paris at Le Quick Burger (oh the glamour) for a couple of months but otherwise rather bottled out of travelling.  I had been looking forward to the bright lights and big city. I found myself living in South Woodford, a suburb along the eastern edge as London meets Epping Forest.  If I were to revisit it today, I might find it quite pleasant in parts.  My halls of residence, however, sat bang next to the South Circular and according to student rumour were due to be knocked down ten years earlier.  There was mould in the shower and dirty cork tiles on the floor.

I also hadn’t found anyone to be friends with.  The girls on my floor hung out together in a group for a day or so because we didn’t know anyone else.  I was surprised, though, to find I found them rather young.  It wasn’t like I’d had stretching and challenging experiences on my year out but the fact that I wasn’t straight out of school did mean I felt older than them.  This was going to be a problem.

I looked around the halls at mealtimes for someone who I felt I could strike up a conversation with.  I only saw one person.  He had shoulder length dark hair that was shaved close at the sides.  He was tall, wore skinny jeans and had a nose ring.  He wore a Nirvana T shirt under a lumberjack shirt (it was the 90s) and army surplus combat boots.

‘Right,’ I told myself, ‘He’s the person to make friends with.’

Emotional Endoskeleton

 

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Yesterday evening, Gwyneth Paltrow announced the end of her marriage to Chris Martin.  She described their separation as a conscious uncoupling and emailed subscribers to her website with an explanation of what that phrase means, written by Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami.

Within that explanation, one particular passage resonated with me.  They described the break down of a relationship and its attendant guilt, shame and regret.  They explained that in order not to have to face these emotions, we put on a body shield to protect ourselves, like an insects exoskeleton.  It is firm, rigid, keeps us safe but it can calcify and entrap us.  A better process is to develop an emotional endoskeleton which means supporting ourselves from within, laying our exterior open to harm.  It essentially means being vulnerable, but it gives us flexibility.  We can move, grow and develop.

Until very recently as I began to write about my last relationship and the experiences I had during it, my exoskeleton has been firmly in place.  It has protected me and it has limited me in equal measure.  The good doctors are right.  If you don’t let yourself become vulnerable, you can’t grow.

At the end of a relationship, as the sadness, grief and anger rage through you, it’s time to recognise how much those emotions really direct inwards, what they can teach you about your insecurities and how conquering your inner demons can make you stronger.  Most importantly, it’s time to recognise the person you are uncoupling from as someone from whom you have learned.  Your experiences together have helped you develop.  The negative feelings as the relationship ends are still teaching you and guiding you towards a more powerful, strong and more amazing version of yourself.

Conscious uncoupling recognises the shared journey you’ve both undertaken that is now at an end and welcomes the new journey you will take as a separate entity.  It recognises that your partner was a fellow learner and also a teacher. It respects what they have allowed you to learn and in doing so it respects them and their experience.  It’s the only way to be truly free.

Thanks Gwynnie, for bringing that concept into my frame of reference.  Thanks and Good Luck.

The Break Up

Borough Market

It was the third weekend of May 2000 and I was in our newly acquired offices, sitting at what was going to be my desk and crying my eyes out.

As the person responsible for managing development of the burgeoning Borough Market, under the auspices of my cheese shop employers, I was supposed to be working a busy Saturday as the monthly market rolled around.  I’d got in bright and early for a 6 o’clock start.  We had set up an immense display of cheese, the shelves of the shop were brimming over with chutneys, pickles and condiments, outside on the cobbles a veritable harvest festival display of bread beckoned people in off the streets.   The shop looked fantastic, it was buzzing with happy shoppers and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away.  So  I had rung my fiancé and told him that that not only could I not marry him, but I’d actually been in a relationship with my boss, for the past eight months.

‘You are not breaking up with me over the phone!’ he told me, ‘I’ll come in.’

To be honest it was a bit of a waste of his time.  He was never going to change my mind.  He came.  We talked.  I agreed that I wouldn’t go back to our flat that evening and he left.

It wasn’t that long before I became aware that I wasn’t alone anymore.  Jacob, one of my managers who was also a friend, had come in.   He was a bit surprised.  I have no idea what I looked like – vaguely molten I expect.  I just about sobbed out that I’d called off the wedding and he left as well.

I didn’t get any more work done that day.