The Secret Relationship

Now that we were in a relationship, we needed to regularly set time aside to be together.  Eadmund was clear that for the relationship to work out, we couldn’t just seize the moment the way we had been doing.  We would have specific nights to spend together.  Conscious that he had much more experience at managing relationships (secret ones too) than me, I was happy to go along with whatever he suggested.

‘I don’t just want to be in a pub or restaurant with you either,’ he carried on, ‘We need to be alone together.’

But where?  He didn’t want to be at his house with his children.  He felt they had enough to deal with that their mum had a boyfriend.  He didn’t want to spring on them that Dad also had a girlfriend.  They were scared that their parents would divorce as it was.  Obviously we couldn’t be together at my house either.  Jack would be there.

Eadmund had an idea.  The building he rented for the shop in South London came with 2 floors upstairs that Jacob had used as a flat when he separated from his wife.  Things had now moved on, however.   He had a new girlfriend and as the flat above the shop had been warehouse cool and atmospheric but a bit basic, they were living in her flat at the moment while they got some cash together to make the shop flat more easily inhabitable.  It was empty.  I wouldn’t have dared ask Jacob something like that but Eadmund reassured me that he and Jacob knew each other well enough that he could ask the favour.  Jacob agreed.

I told Jack that I had agreed to work late on certain days and wouldn’t be home to eat.  Eadmund and I met up after work, went up to Jacob’s flat, ate a picnic meal, made love and lay for hours in bed together talking, touching, kissing and inevitably making love again.  At the end of the evening, he drove me home, parked a couple of blocks away from my house so it would look like I was walking home from the bus stop and with one last kiss, we’d say good night.  I would go home and get into bed with my fiancé.  Often, in the interests of fairness, I felt I ought to make love to him too.  The contrast between the two broke my heart.

Jack loved snowboarding.  He had discovered a passion for it a few years ago and every year he went to the Alps for a couple of weeks break to snowboard to his heart’s content.  I had tried it.  He won a week’s snowboarding holiday in a magazine competition.  I got to learn to snowboard a little in a lovely Swiss village called Scuol which also had an amazing spa.  I loved the village, I loved the mountains but I hated snowboarding.  So Jack’s snowboarding holidays were alone time for him.  He liked that too.  Most years could only afford to holiday in France or Switzerland.  This year he had saved up and was going to Lake Tahoe.  He was also going to be away for an extra week as it was a special trip.

Eadmund had recently got in touch with a branch of his family in Uruguay where his father had been born.  His father had been sent to school in Edinburgh but then war broke out and his aunt stayed in Uruguay.  As a result, she had married a local farmer and stayed in South America whereas Eadmund’s father became a surgeon, met his mother and moved to Hong Kong.  Eadmund’s big sister had arranged a three week trip to Uruguay to visit their cousins.

From being very busy balancing two men in my life, all of a sudden I had three weeks alone.  I didn’t know what to do with myself, it was so long since I’d had time by myself.  I thought I would miss both of them, but I didn’t.  I just missed Eadmund.

We emailed and I got in to work early so that with the time difference, we could speak on the phone privately.  His holiday had a big emotional impact, reconnecting with family he had never seen.  With each new discovery of his family and each crazy coincidence that resonated with his life (his Uruguay family were dairy farmers and he had never realised this before), he wanted to talk to me about how it made him feel.

Jack didn’t ring me from his holiday.  This was pretty normal behaviour for us.

When both men were back in the UK, I felt that something had changed.  I had realised that I didn’t care enough about Jack.  Especially not for someone who was planning to get married to him.

‘You can always separate to get some space and perspective,’  Eadmund said when I had admitted my misgivings, ‘It doesn’t have to mean you’re splitting up permanently.  Relationships are what you make of them.  There aren’t rules.’

That idea comforted me.  We could separate without it being the end.  But by now we’d started planning the wedding.  The momentary sense of freedom I felt disappeared.  The walls started closing in again.  I couldn’t leave Jack now.  My parents had spent money on marquees.  We’d ordered material to make a dress.  I had never understood how people could get so caught up in wedding planning that they went ahead with a loveless marriage.  All of a sudden, I did.  The event gains a momentum of its own.  My mother and I went shopping for dresses.  I tried on a whole range of styles in white and ivory.  I opened the curtains to my changing cubicle for her to look and give an opinion.

‘Oh Anne.’

Her eyes filled up with tears.  She looked so happy and proud.

I couldn’t let her down.  I couldn’t let everyone down.  I would just have to marry him.  Even if I didn’t love him.  I couldn’t disappoint them all.

One night as Eadmund and I lay in bed together, breathing in each other’s scent and luxuriating in tingle of electricity we experienced when our bodies touched skin to skin, my newly acquired mobile phone rang.  I had turned it off earlier that evening so we could have time to ourselves and only just switched it back on again.

With a shock I realised that I had multiple missed calls from my mother and from Jack.  I answered the phone,

‘Where have you been?  We’ve been calling all evening.’  My mother’s voice was worried.

‘In the pub,’ I lied, ‘Sorry, it was noisy and I didn’t hear the phone.  I’ve just gone outside.’

‘It’s very quiet,’ she sounded utterly unconvinced by my story, ‘Are you really outside a pub?  Your voice sounds strained.  Are you lying?’

‘No, no!  It is surprisingly quiet but I am outside the pub.  What’s happened?’

My sister was in her final year of university.  She had been doing final exams.  A paper she should have found easy and expected to get good marks on had gone extremely badly.  Her watch had stopped.  She thought she had plenty of time left for her final essay when in fact she only had twenty minutes.   All the stress and exhaustion of revision and exams combined and, though she had made it to the end of the paper, she left the building in tears.

She’d rung my home and I wasn’t there.  She rang my mum and wept on the phone to her.  My mum had been trying to get hold of me so I could meet her and look after her.  Jack had been ringing me for the same reason.  My sister almost never got upset.  She was resourceful, sensible, practical and nearly always sunny.  The one time she really needed me to make her feel better, I had been in bed, with a married man, cheating on my fiancé.  I felt like the lowest of the low.

I had to repeat the same lie to Jack who had by then become worried that I was in trouble and that was why I didn’t answer the phone.  I managed to convince him but I felt like a murderer.  Coupled with the growing realisation that I no longer loved him, the guilt spurred me on to make a decision.  I couldn’t do this anymore.

Two days later, in spite of the wedding, the money, the disappointment to friends and family, I split up with him.

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Losing Isla

On one level, I had what I had dreamed of for years.  Eadmund and I were together.  But the cost was yet to be experienced.  Naturally Jack would become collateral damage but first in the firing line was Isla.

It was not her fault, nor mine, that we ended up in a bizarre competition together.

We had been friends.  When she started work, I quickly learned that she grew up in a town just over the hills from me in Marple.  We were from very similar beginnings.  She had gone to university in Manchester.  We had even been to the same clubs.  She too arrived at the cheese shop and was shell-shocked by all that she unexpectedly had to learn.

With Isla, I had a manager who could be a friend.  And she became a good friend.  Before her marriage hit the rocks, Jack and I used to go out with her and her husband in Shoreditch.  Afterwards, she and I used to meet up every week for excessive red wine drinking and gossip.  Yes there was Eadmund gossip exchanged (and in retrospect this would be around the time she was getting close to him and really needed to talk it out too) but I also learned a lot about her as she did about me.

When things started getting complicated and also competitive over Eadmund, we didn’t withdraw from each other.  In fact we needed each other more than ever.

We spent time together.  We talked about what we had both done, the effort of secrecy, the way it made us feel towards each other.  After long heart to hearts, lubricated by gin and tonic or red wine, we cuddled publically in the pub, on the tube escalators, saying goodbye at the end of the night.  I went home with her.  For comfort, rather than anything sexual, we slept in the same bed.

‘At least it’s a work tradition,’ Fi giggled as we settled into her bed (fully clothed) and alluding to Adrienne (her friend before she had joined the company) and Erin the former retail manager’s lesbian fling,

I giggled too.  We slept in spoon position.

It will come as no surprise to learn that this closeness couldn’t last.  The competition got in the way.  We both were drawn to him more and more.  Inevitably we respected our friendship less and less.  Eventually, and after he had first chosen her then rejected her, Isla and I had our last heart to heart.

‘I have to cut off from you both.  You and him.  I’ve tried to stay open, but I can’t do it anymore.’

She tried to warn me that once cut out we could never be so close again but I couldn’t comprehend it.  Besides, part of our relationship up to then had been a mentor-student one.  She, being the manager, had been the mentor.  As is often the case with this sort of relationship, the dynamic relied on me being inferior, immature and subservient, as much as the friendship thrived on a mutual acknowledgement of origins and experience and humour.  With the Food Market development job and then even more with my relationship with Eadmund, I was growing up already.  This is always a threat to a mentor relationship.  The mentored needs the mentor less and less and listens to what they have to say less and less.  In some ways Isla and I had to grow apart for me to be independent but I didn’t have to hurt her like this.  The Eadmund factor really complicated things.

But I loved him so much already that no one else mattered.  Not Jack.  Not my family.  Not Isla.

It is to her eternal credit that a year or so later, when I really needed a friend, she recognised that and softened her defences to let me in again.  When she invited me to her wedding a few years ago, I was touched more than I could say.  I am not really in contact with Eadmund these days.  Life has moved on too much between us, or perhaps it hasn’t moved on enough yet.  I am, however, still friends with Isla.

She is an exceptional person.

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The Choice

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After we’d finally made love, Eadmund decided, with Cloe’s blessing, that he should choose someone with whom he would settle and commit to having a proper public relationship.

He talked to everyone he trusted most about it.  He made his decision.  Isla.

I shouldn’t have been expecting anything else.  I was engaged, for Christ’s sake!  With Isla he could be open and public.  With me it would have to be a secret, sneaking around.  These were all valid reasons for not choosing me, but it killed me.

Isla was so happy.  After hiding their previous fling and then the current situation from everyone including his wife, she could be open at last.  In her new role at work, she was not only employed by the cheese shop but also by Cloe’s company.  The decision made, she had to go to a meeting with Cloe that afternoon.

‘I was so relieved,’ she told me as we were packing up to leave work, ‘I was off to a meeting with the wife of my boyfriend.  She never knew about us before.  I was so scared… but she gave me a big hug when I got there and said, ‘It’s ok, Isla.  It’s ok.’’’

I sympathised.  I tried to be appreciative but I was dying inside.  He should have chosen me!

We understood each other.  We got on well together.  We were compatible on so many levels.

Why had he not chosen me?

Eadmund could tell I was devastated.

‘If it’s any consolation,’ he said, ‘Joe thinks I made the wrong choice.  He thinks I should have chosen you. But I think it’s better this way.’

He was trying to make things easier for me.  I was, after all, engaged, a fact I had conveniently neglected to remember.  This way, I didn’t have to choose.  I could go back to my boyfriend with no second thought.  What he didn’t know was that made me feel like my dreams had come to an end.

‘I do care a lot about you,’ he continued, packing papers into a satchel to carry home, ‘It isn’t completely clear.  The thing is, I love you…’

He coughed, realising the impact of what he’d just said and immediately tried to back track, ‘Um that is, I think I do… in as much as one can say that of course.  Ahem and shares can go down as well as up.’

By choosing Isla he had been trying to take the simpler path for him but also for me.  By blurting out that he loved me, he had just made things much more complicated again.  But he’d said it.  It was out there.  He loved me.  Of course I loved him too.  I had done for years.

I spent the rest of the weekend at a friend’s house.  We drank wine and chatted then the following day we watched blockbusters on DVD.  I watched Titanic and have never identified more deeply with over-emotional issues of love, loss and separation.  I was quiet.  I think I got away with disguising my emotions as a hangover, which I did also have, but inside I was resigning myself to a slow death.

The next day we saw each other again. I told him I couldn’t bear it.

He told me it was a more sensible choice. I didn’t care.

Joe had said I was right for him.  His own best friend said I was right for him.  He loved me.  He too, thought that I was right for him.

To be in a relationship with someone he didn’t love when he loved me was wrong, not only on my account.  It wasn’t fair on Isla.

This time I convinced him.  Despite my fiancé, Isla and the toll it would inevitably take on me, we were officially in a relationship.

An Interlude: Guilt

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‘You don’t say anything about guilt.’ commented a friend of mine on reading my last post.

It’s true, I didn’t. In that moment, I didn’t feel any.

It felt so right, joyous and life affirming to love him and to express that physically just felt natural.  It never crossed my mind that something that felt so natural could possibly be something I would be ashamed of or guilty about.

I don’t mean to say I felt no guilt about the relationship.  Oh boy did I ever feel guilt.  But I never felt guilty about love and a natural expression of love.  I felt guilty about dishonesty, about not telling Jack.  I felt guilty about hurting him – that I wasn’t brave enough to tell him I wanted to leave him and that I used the relationship I had just started with Eadmund as a catalyst to force me to leave him.

I have come to realise that, unlike a lot of even my dearest friends, I have scant regard for social constraints.  If they don’t make sense to me, then I don’t hold with them.  I value kindness, honesty and being caring to other people.  Where I’ve failed to do that, even in difficult circumstances, I feel ashamed.

‘You don’t need to worry, Anne,’ Nia once told me, as she, Jack and I shared copious bottles of wine and she insisted on him giving her a hug, as she did with many of her male friends once she’d had a few, ‘I wouldn’t ever do anything with someone else’s boyfriend.’

On the other hand, as I was finding out, I would.  I was engaged to a nice man, I was in what Hollywood would undoubtedly call a ‘love triangle’ with Eadmund and Isla and in addition to that, my boyfriend (as opposed to my fiance you understand) was married and I never for a minute doubted that loving Eadmund and sleeping with him was the right thing to do.

In part, of course, I was in exceptional amounts of denial about my actions and their repercussions still and the realisation of what I’d done was yet to hit me.  But even when the realisation and the guilt did come, it was hurting people that made me feel terrible.  It wasn’t loving someone.

Love is a joyous feeling.  It’s a positive feeling.  It is a huge power for change and change, of course can bring disruption and upset. We all have to deal with the consequences of that disruption.  But love is never something to regret.  It’s the single most life affirming emotion we are capable of.  It’s entirely natural.  We are biologically programmed to feel it.  Nature would not give us an emotion like that and intend for us to feel bad about it.

Guilt on the other hand is almost exclusively negative.  Allowed to develop, grow and take over, it festers and destroys people.  Its function as far as I can see is to prompt us to realise that another time perhaps we should do things differently, in a more honest or kind manner.  Beyond that it has ceased to serve its useful purpose and we should step back from it and all it entails.

It’s easy to say that now of course.  It’s only taken me 14 years to get this rational about it.

One of the reasons I didn’t feel guilt at the time, denial aside, is that I’m not and never have been, religious.  I went to church at Christmas and Easter to sing nice hymns, smell the incense and because the vicar handed out satsumas or Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.  In some families it’s the done thing to be seen to go to church every week which is as much social conditioning and a way of social climbing as it is moral or religious impulse.  My mother used to worry sometimes that we didn’t attend church often enough, my atheist father didn’t give a damn.

I don’t want the trappings of what society deems a successful life.  I never wanted the career in the city, the Oxbridge degree, the flash house in the country with its media room and gym in the basement.  I want the things that will make me happy.  I want to hang out with people not because they will advance my career but because I enjoy their company, they make me think about things in a different light and above all they make me laugh!

I also don’t look at social convention and accept it.  If someone tells me I ought to do something, I immediately want to know why and usually want to do the exact opposite.  I thought, I would never have sex with ‘someone else’s’ man until I did.  Then I realised we are all sentient beings with the possibility of choice.  We act, we take responsibility for our actions and we cope with the repercussions.  If we are brave and realise what we want to do might hurt someone else if we do it secretly then we confront them, explain and ask permission.  If we’re lucky they will realise they don’t have a right to own our actions any more than we have a right to own theirs.  I’ve been ‘cheated on’ as much as I’ve cheated and what hurt was being made the victim, being lied to, being disrespected because of someone else’s cowardice.  I’ve been that coward and it was the dishonesty and hurt and making someone else the victim that made me feel guilty.

So no, as I lay in Eadmund’s arms, I didn’t feel guilty.  I knew we were both in so much trouble, but I didn’t feel guilt.

I hadn’t hurt anyone.

Yet.

Not Quite Sleeping Together

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Not even Isla’s news stopped me.  It might have been a day or two until the next time Eadmund and I found ourselves alone together but I doubt it was even as long as a week.

The kisses became more passionate.  The arms wandered. It was a bit like the teenage fumblings I’d never had, in one way, because for all that we both evidently found the encounters breathtakingly erotic, it remained quite innocently chaste.  All clothes stayed firmly on although shirts and t shirts were untucked from trousers.  Even now, it makes me smile to remember how thrilling it was to just feel the skin of his chest with my fingertips and to feel his hands on the small of my back.  Back home, I was still having sex with my fiancé; full foreplay and penetrative sex with earnest attention that I should have an orgasm and yet it felt disconnected and predictable.  These strangely chaste yet passionate encounters were more fulfilling.

‘Be careful not to confuse the thrill of the secrecy with sexual chemistry,’ Eadmund warned me, ‘I’ve had affairs before,’ and he smiled ironically in acknowledgement of work gossip, ‘Oh so many affairs,’ in a mock world weary tone, ‘and the sneaking around gives an urgency and excitement of its own.  It’s easy to confuse the two.’

He didn’t want to sleep with me, he said.  Behind the hugs to co-workers, never mind what had happened with Isla and was happening now with me, he had spent years looking for emotional reassurance, support and love that his marriage wasn’t able to supply.  The need had driven him and at times it got him in deeper than he realised.  It felt warm and fulfilling until they had sex.  Once that was over, he would realise it was wrong and that he wanted to be somewhere else.

‘I don’t want to feel like that with you,’ he said, ‘Actually I think there’s a good chance I won’t feel like that with you, but that raises a whole other set of questions and you have a fiancé.’

Things were still going on with Isla too.  He told me each time anything happened.

‘I’m not looking for it with her anymore,’ he explained, ‘Don’t get me wrong, in the past I have been.  Not now.  I think for some reason she still wants something from me and for me it’s a bit like a habit I’m trying to break.’

Each time it was a dagger to the heart but each time I got better at not letting it shake my confidence in the relationship we had with each other.  I didn’t like it but we had never agreed that we were having a relationship with each other and as such there was no reason to ask for exclusivity.  Besides, I still had Jack.

I wanted to take it further.  Knowing how much I enjoyed the encounters we did have, I knew that we would be sexually compatible.  My sex life with Jack had always been good enough.  We had very close moments and we’d tried out all sorts of positions, techniques, toys and saucy underwear.  Judged by the standards of Cosmopolitan magazine and girl chat with my friends, I’d always thought we had a great sex life.  Besides, most women didn’t have an orgasm from sex did they?  Pretty much all women liked the foreplay best. And yet… and yet… there was a bit of me that wanted that Mills and Boon, From Here to Eternity style passionate sex where it doesn’t take vibrators and toys to get you off.  I wanted to feel it just from the thrill of our shared sexual energy.  The electric charge I got from the touch of his skin made me think that, with Eadmund, this might happen.

We talked about it.  I reasoned.  I persuaded.  I was as eloquent as I have ever been in arguing my case and trying to make him see my point of view.  I couldn’t win.  I couldn’t make him do what I wanted.  He kept to his original point of view.  Either it would spoil everything because it would make him regret something that was, at the moment, giving him comfort and warmth or it would kick open a whole hornet nest because it could mean we should have a relationship.

Needless to say, this made me only want it more and want him more.  I couldn’t argue him round as I could Jack.  He stuck to his own views.  I knew already from our talks on all manner of things that he listened to my point of view, thought I was insightful and respected my opinions.  It wasn’t a matter of disrespect that kept him from agreeing with me.  He felt he was right.

And of course there was the undeniable charge between us.  I don’t know if I was a slave to my hormones but I was awash with anticipation for something that with each kiss, I felt more and more sure would be amazing.  The idea of not experiencing it was almost more than I could bear.

Into this hotbed, came my best friend from school days, Elena and her husband, also called Jack.  They were having a holiday in London and staying with us.  I had it all planned.  We had a birthday party to go to first and then we would get the tube up to Camden to go clubbing.  The following day we’d go back to Camden and meet up with one of their friends in the World’s End pub.  I outlined my plan to Jack and assumed he would come clubbing in Camden with us.  To me, it was only the hospitable thing to do.

‘I don’t want to go to a goth club,’ he told me grumpily, ‘I’m not coming.’

I couldn’t persuade him.  Rather than making me respect his point of view, it just made me angry.  I felt he was being rude to my best friend and her husband.  I was getting it out of proportion as Elena and her Jack didn’t mind in the slightest, but it rankled.  So the following day I was even more rude because ‘I had to go into the office just for a bit.  I had to go round the Food Market and talk to the stallholders.’

I did usually do this every Saturday.  Eadmund and I would do the rounds and talk to everyone.  How was trade going?  How were the facilities?  Had setting up the stand gone ok?  Any issues?  It was no problem for me to skip a week.  He’d happily do it without me.  But after Jack had been in a mood and been rude to my friends I thought, sod him.  I knew if I went to the Market there would be another moment where Eadmund and I would find ourselves alone and that things would happen.  I didn’t care.

I came back via Covent Garden market where some of the our Market regulars were taking part in a new annual Fair.  I chatted to them and bought chocolate then headed up to Camden.  I found Elena, her Jack, a friend of theirs from University and Jack all in a group several pints down and proceeded to catch up.  Life was getting too complicated and the simplest thing to do at this stage was to blot it out.

‘Jack and I were remembering that holiday the other day,’ Elena said to me recently as we both laughed over what an exceptionally alcoholic Saturday it turned out to be.

‘He said, “In retrospect, we should have guessed that something was wrong.  We were drinking lots because we were on holiday but I think they were drinking to escape.”’

At work, my responsibilities increased.  The wholesale manager left with a month’s notice which was in line with his contract but didn’t leave much time to find a replacement.  The sales drive was taken on by Jacob.  The admin and fulfilment was taken on by me.  I was the most experienced member of staff in wholesale at the time.  Ironically the mail order manager had also left and Isla took on running the department.  Two departments, with new managers and each requiring a bit of an overhaul.  Eadmund ended up spending a lot of time checking in with both of us and we both were working together in a tiny office.  You would think that there would be all sorts of tension: competition between Isla and me (and there was an element of that), unease for him as two women with which he was engaging in varying degrees of sexual activity were in close proximity.  There must have been tension and an edge on occasion but Isla and I were still friends.  We still talked about things.  We were both scared of the impending Christmas and the new challenge facing us both.  We looked out for each other.

I started to miss it if he wasn’t there.   December came round and he was based in Covent Garden.  Supervision of me and Isla became Jacob’s responsibility. Eadmund had to work on the shop.  The days dragged.  I missed him.  I found myself making excuses to head up to Covent Garden when my shift ended so I could snatch a moment with him.

‘You’re a very passionate person,’ Eadmund told me as we broke away from kissing on the rickety staircase that lead from his office to the shop, ’I don’t think you even realise.  Hasn’t anyone told you before?’

No one had. Jack said I was kind.  I was a good girl.  He thought that I hadn’t rebelled as a teenager, that I was conventional and straight forward.  I loved the idea that I was passionate.  I felt like a movie heroine.

Christmas came and went.  Jack and I were apart again. I was at home in Marple and preoccupied by memories of kissing Eadmund.  At the least appropriate moments, the memory of his lips on mine, the taste of his mouth, the electric charge as my fingers touched his skin would intrude into my mind and I could think of nothing else.  For a moment I would be absolutely lost to the outside world.

With the winter months of January and February came the usual Christmas comedown. Against all odds Isla and I had both done well at very little notice.  We were both still engaged in ‘not quite relationships’ with Eadmund.  As usual in the cheese shop, everyone was low on energy.  This included Eadmund.  The shock of Cloe and Rupert had worn off, but dealing with it day to day was still difficult. The person he emotionally connected with most was me, but I was marrying someone else.  We were emphatically not going to have a relationship.

The business was moving its office to a new space just round the corner from the South London shop.  The new office was empty, waiting for us to move in.  It was a new project and I felt uneasy about not being part of it.  We had another of our talks down the pub.  He was quiet, subdued, unhappy and I couldn’t work out why or make it better by talking.  We left the pub and he took me up to the new office space.  As usual we held each other.  We kissed each other.  Normally it would be left at that.  On this occasion, though, he took my hand and lead me to the back room which looked out on the roofs between the trainlines in and out of London Bridge Station.  We lay down on the coat that he spread on the floor.  He tasted of roll up cigarettes and IPA.  We were more measured and slow than usual and for the first time, we actually made love.

The minute I felt him inside me, I felt secure, loved and that, at last, I was home.

‘I don’t want to be anywhere else,’ he whispered to me as we lay together afterwards.

The hornet nest was kicked right open.

Beyond the point of no return

When we talked about it in later years, he didn’t understand why I was so shocked.  It was a measure of how far in denial of reality I must have been, but it did come as a massive shock.  It was a line in the sand.  Before that kiss, I could kid myself that it was all in my head; that nothing was going on really.  After the kiss, I had to face facts.

I did talk to him.  I said something ineffectual about having a fiancé and how he shouldn’t have done it.  We shouldn’t do it again.  I went on holiday to Nice with my mother for a long weekend and it was at the back of my mind all the time.  I could still feel his lips on me.  The scent and taste of him returned to me so vividly it was as if he was still kissing me.  I replayed it in my mind like a movie.  I didn’t say a word to Jack.

I did talk to Isla.  I told her over the phone and tried to laugh it off as if it wasn’t serious.  Her response was brief and in a tight voice:

‘He should not have done that.’

‘It’s my fault too,’ I admitted, ‘I’ve been warned what he’s like but I’ll be more careful in future.’

‘He should not have done that.’

The hugs didn’t stop.  Why I thought kissing wouldn’t happen again if the hugs continued, I don’t know, but I suspect it had less to do with reality than it did with how very much I wanted to feel him close to me again.  And of course we kissed again and this time I kissed him back.

The following day, Isla took me for a walk before work.  She needed to talk to me about something.  She needed a minute to work up to it and I remember talking about something inconsequential to fill in the silence until she came out with it.

‘He should not have done that, because he’s also doing it with me.’

It took a minute to sink in but my blood drained down into my boots.

‘You weren’t expecting that were you?’ she sounded kind and amused.  My jaw must have been hanging open.

‘I’m actually surprised you didn’t notice something was going on a couple of years ago,’ she continued, ‘I thought you must be able to tell.’

Her marriage had been on the rocks.  She went to explain to him why she was being a bit flaky at work and they began talking.  He was supportive and kind when she needed a shoulder to cry on.  Needless to say there was hugging.  There was kissing.  There had been other things but surprisingly, although they had done everything but, there had not been sex as we’d traditionally define it.  It had run its course and they had gone back to being friends and co-workers again, but then, when he was hurt and vulnerable, she couldn’t help feeling the old emotions stir up again and the hugs had become kisses and more.

I sleep-walked through the day, numb.  I was devastated.  He hadn’t told me.  She hadn’t told me.  I felt childish and stupid.  An interloper.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’  I asked him.  We were both alone working in the same, small office.

‘I didn’t think of it.  The thing with Isla was over years ago, really.  If anything, I thought she would have said.’

This reverberated in my head and heart all day along with something Isla had said before we went back in to work.

‘I had to tell you, so you don’t get started on anything.  You’re going to get married.  You don’t want to be in an affair with a married man while you’re planning a wedding.’

She was right of course, this was the get out clause that would let me go back to Jack with no harm done.  He was my fiancé after all.  He was going to marry me and provide me with a future, family and stability.  Given that we were engaged, he should have been the one I loved more.  I should have been relieved and happy that I could get myself out this situation and settle down with him.  Why, then, did it feel like a prison sentence?

I went home and told Jack I was exhausted from work (an all too believable excuse) and would be going to bed without eating that evening.  He stayed up and watched tv.  I cried myself to sleep as quietly as I could.

The Kiss

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

In 1999, after years as, ostensibly, the patient partner to a philandering husband, Eadmund’s wife Cloe met someone.

He was a customer in her shop, prone to outspoken declarations and intensity.  He was a fashion designer who at the time was considered an up and coming talent.  He asked her to model for his latest collection.  She was approaching 50 years old at the time and thought he was taking the piss.  She even rang up Eadmund and his best friend Joe to ask if they’d put him up to it as a practical joke.

They hadn’t.  Rupert Wallace Black was deadly serious.  He thought the world of her.  She was his muse.  She is and was an immensely elegant, striking and stylish woman.   The show apparently was quite something.  Their kids were partly disturbed and partly deeply impressed that mum was a model.  The elder two were approaching their teens and just trying to forge their own ideas of style, dress and image.  Having a mum who was a model, even if you did go to private school in Holland Park, did make her very different from the other kids’ mums.  But in what a cool way!  Cloe was in love and happy as she hadn’t been for too many years.  She blossomed.

Eadmund wasn’t exactly heart broken, it had hardly been the perfect marriage after all, but this change in their situation was big and frightening and hard.  He was shocked to the core and big questions like divorce had, of course, raised their head.  He lost half a stone in a week and took up smoking again.  At work, his best friends rallied round:  Jacob, who it always appeared he saw as ‘heir apparent’, Adam the American, Joe who was best friend of both him and Cloe and also Isla.  Isla was an open, warm and caring person.  I never realised that she and Eadmund had been all that close as friends, but she looked out for him, gave him supportive hugs and chatted with him in the pub as he poured his heart out.

‘He’s got so skinny, don’t you think?’ She said on one of our pub evenings together, ‘I just feel so sorry for him.’

I concurred.  The word on the shop floor had always been that he’d been a ‘naughty boy’.  There hadn’t just been Catherine, there had been others too.  Either he’d never been told not to dip his quill in the office ink or he just hadn’t listened.  Consequently no one felt that there was any aggrieved innocence about his reaction to Cloe’s new relationship.  No one condemned her either, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t feel jealous, hurt and afraid.  As his colleagues and friends, how could we not feel for someone who was so obviously hurting?

A couple of years earlier, the person who had started him in business and always been a huge influence on his life had died in a car crash.  A shockwave ran through the company at the time,

‘Did you hear? How is Eadmund taking it?’

He seemed to put a brave face on it.  I met him downstairs in the staff kitchen.  He was on the phone.  I was making coffee.  He was talking about the funeral.  Every one of my nerve endings was alert to his presence and proximity to me which was a fairly common reaction of mine by then.  This time, I also felt waves of compassion.  I wanted to help.

‘You have made me feel so much better when I was miserable,’ I thought, ‘You are always ready to give someone a hug.  Who do you have to hug you better?’

But he was on the phone.  I finished making my coffee and returned upstairs to my desk.

The memory remained with me.  Now that he was hurting again, this time I was going to do something to help.  We started going to the pub after work to talk.  I opened up about my relationship with Jack and whether I should be getting married.  Now that it was a done deal, I was starting to doubt.  He told me about Cloe’s boyfriend.

‘So my wife is sleeping with the man who’s sleeping with Kate Moss’

This was a rumour at the time and frankly may not have been true.  If he was, he dumped her for Cloe pretty sharpish.

We talked about commitment, loss, fidelity, monogamy.  He talked about letting people be free, about how the feeling of allowing her to go to someone else had its own bittersweet beauty.  He could see her grow and open up to the world in happiness and he couldn’t help feeling very happy for her.  It was absolutely right for her to follow this relationship and not stay within monogamous confines.  She had his blessing.  In fact, he had even encouraged her and persuaded her to go for it.  And yet, it also hurt.  Some days he almost felt elated just seeing how happy she was and setting her free.  Some days he felt inward looking, scared, jealous and vindictive.  It was a horrible, mean feeling.

I loved the way he talked about relationships and freedom.  I couldn’t quite conceive of not feeling distraught and jealous if your partner wanted to be with someone else.  I wanted to be that open-minded.  I wanted to have that expansive feeling myself.  My own relationship felt confined, predictable, conventional and a little claustrophobic.

From talking, a closeness and warmth developed very quickly.  I told him he needed a hug and did it.  It began to become a daily thing.  I had initiated it and I was far too embarrassed and self-conscious to do so publically but it continued to be a private thing, which, in turn, lent it piquancy.  The hugs became longer, tighter, more charged with emotion.  We always stood very still, close and I think I even held my breath.

‘You just held me so tight, for so long,’ he reminisced years later, ‘It steadied me. I think it saved me.’

But in time, it did more than that.  Standing as close as we did, my head resting on his chest, I was able to feel the shape of his body all the way down mine.  The day he found it sexual, I could tell.  Neither of us alluded to it but things had changed.

If I had truly loved my fiancé, if I had truly appreciated the partnership of marriage that I was about to enter into, I would have stopped and talked to Jack.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to see where it would end.

A few days later, we hugged as usual, but this time he gently turned my face up to him, looked softly down at me and kissed me.

The Band Aid Marriage Project

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Although there were any number of reasons why this was a resolutely BAD IDEA, I decided it was time Jack and I got married.  We’d been together for about six years.  We were comfortable with each other.  We lived together.  My friends were all getting married.  I didn’t imagine anything would happen with Eadmund nor was I admitting to myself that I secretly wanted it to.  I assumed that as Jack and I were reasonably compatible together, I should marry him and spend the rest of our lives together.

Being now so adept at turning a blind eye to reality, I ignored many warning signs but some things stand out in my memory that really should have made me stop and think.

Signs of not caring. 

Since our early days of relationship when I was having ‘THE FEAR’ and wasn’t easy to live with, if Jack had wanted to go down the pub with his friends, he hadn’t let me know.  Most of the time it would just be a quick pint and then back home.  On one occasion, it was the whole night.  To be fair, in the 90s and in a halls of residence, it would have been hard to get a message to your girlfriend as, inconceivable as it seems now, there were no mobile phones.  All the same, it was possible to leave a message with a receptionist who would put a note under your door.  It would have saved me panicking for the whole evening as I sat alone in his room waiting for him with no idea where he was, what he was doing or why he wasn’t coming home.  When he eventually did stumble in, he was far too drunk to explain himself.  He slurred something along the lines of talking about it tomorrow and then, reeking of beer and spread-eagled across the bed he fell asleep and snored.

I stayed up distraught and wondered whether, if he could care so little about how upset I had been, I should end it there and then.  I wrestled with this all day through lectures which I somehow managed to stay awake in.  I calmed down, we talked it out and he apologised.  Disaster averted for now.  But it set up a pattern.  Even when we had a house with an answerphone and worked in places with an office phone (still no mobiles) so we could easily call at the end of work, we didn’t bother.  In the end, the tables turned.  At the cheese shop, I had a group of people whose company I really enjoyed and who I would happily head down the pub with to have a post work pint.  We were good friends.  On the other hand, he didn’t get on that well with the people he worked with.  When it came to stumbling home the worse for wear without having rung first, I was the major offender.

‘You used to hate it when I did this to you!’ he complained, ‘I’m not saying don’t hang out with them, but just give me a ring and let me know you’re going out.’

I tried to be better at it and for a while I was, but I resented him curtailing my freedom.  And I didn’t stay home any more often.  Looking back now, I can’t quite believe I didn’t see it, but the real relationship in my life was with the company I worked for.  We used to joke that it was a cult around a charismatic leader.  We even called ourselves the White Welly Cult (white wellies being part of the uniform).  One thing was for sure though, my job, my friends at work, our shared passionate interest in hand made cheese and the fact that they were all unique, unconventional and interesting people to be with was far more important to me now than my boyfriend.

‘You have nothing in common!’

A few years into our relationship, Jack had a phone call from his mother.  She was upset, she’d had a nightmare in which we divorced and since waking up she had had a bad feeling.

‘She was really worried,’ he told me, ‘She’s convinced we’re going to split up.  She says we’re really different people these days and she thinks we’re not going to work out.’

Given that I’d never been entirely sure she liked me, I took this personally.  She didn’t like me.  I was changing Jack to be more like me.  She wanted me out of the way.

‘That’s stupid,’ I said, ‘We have loads in common.’

‘That’s what I told her,’ he replied, ‘I said she really didn’t need to worry and we were fine.’

Both of us were choosing not to face up to the fact we had largely separate lives.  We were also forgetting the one day break up we’d had a few years earlier, before we bought a flat of our own, when Jack had faced me, miserable, eyes downcast and said he was unhappy and we should split up.

I took rejection badly.  I flew out of the room and retired to our bedroom to cry my eyes out and reflect on my misery.  My flatmate Carina, gave me a pep talk and promised that she’d make sure I didn’t remain single for the rest of my life or get eaten by Alsatians.  I rang my sister, who by this time lived in London and was at university and she promised to leap out of bed and come round to see me.

I returned downstairs, where Jack sat red-eyed  on the sofa.  He could barely look me in the eye.  I had been the picture of devastated womanhood and he felt awful.  I looked at him and I felt removed.  I had no empathy and no pity for his distress.  He had wronged me.

He tried to apologise and it started a conversation.  He tried to explain himself and his reasons but it was difficult and he wasn’t very articulate.  I tried to understand but to this day, I don’t really know exactly what had made him unhappy, just that he was.  I asked him if he had stopped loving me.  He tried to re-explain.  I repeated:

‘But do you still love me?’

‘Yes,’ he admitted, ‘I do.’

‘Then don’t split up with me,’ I replied, ‘If you still love me and I love you, we can work it out.  What’s important is that we love each other.’

He agreed.  We got back together.  As usual when we had a difference of opinion, I had won.

Gia arrived shortly afterwards having raced out of bed, into the shower, thrown some clothes on and run to the bus in order to come and comfort me, only to find that everything was ok again.  I took her out for lunch in Islington and felt justified in having a strong pre-lunch cocktail.  I was impressed by the fact that she didn’t.

The urge to win

Unfortunately for Jack, who, at home, had been the cleverest of the bunch, winning arguments with his dad, mum and sister, he had met his match in me.

My dad recently admitted that he wanted my sister and me to be independent thinkers and to that end he encouraged us to argue our case with adults and with him.  He felt it was not only good for us but that he would enjoy our company more if we were capable of independent thought.  There is such thing as making a rod for one’s back.

In addition to this, I have inherited from him, by nature or nurture, a very stubborn streak.  It has even been described as pig headed.

I was by no means the most intelligent of my friends at school but I was always quite good at formulating an argument or debating.  University honed these skills.  With my parents we delighted in the intellectual exercise of arguing a case or making a point.  While I could be shy, quiet, loving, caring and gentle, I could also argue black was white if I felt like it.

Poor Jack didn’t stand a chance.  Early on he reflected ruefully that I tended to beat him in every argument.

‘And I’ve always been so good at it with my family,’ he laughed.

I laughed with him, not unkindly, but felt proud of myself.  I liked winning arguments.  I liked being good at it.

As time went by, though, my laughter became less kind.  My enjoyment of winning began to erode my respect for him.  I could think quicker, I could think more inventively, I could reason where he lost his temper and got annoyed.  I remained calm.  I was persuasive.  It was an intellectual game.  I had even managed to talk him out of leaving me.

So, of course, what better idea than to spend the rest of our lives together?

My two best friends were both getting married.  They were both doing it for the right reasons and were blissed out.  We met up and they could talk for hours about flowers, place settings, design of dresses and tiaras.  I felt left out.  It seemed they had changed.  I now recognise that this wedding fever happens to all brides as they start the immense planning that is a wedding, but at the time, I was disturbed.

‘Who are you and what have you done with my friends!?’

It made me think about my own life but still with a blind spot.  I was conscious that they had a ceremony and a joy that I didn’t.  I should have noticed that they were more committed in their relationships than I was.  I should have observed that with their partners they functioned as a team not as two diverse individuals linked largely by a shared mortgage.  I didn’t.

So, on a cold autumn day when I was in the company van with Eadmoud and another of my fellow cheesemongers on a visit to cheesemakers in the midlands and north of the country, I looked at the autumn leaves, thought they would look very pretty on wedding photographs and decided we should get married. We were as good as married anyway, I reasoned to myself.  We owned a flat together, we’d lived together for years.  Why not have the piece of paper, the party and the fancy frock?

I described it the same way, when I talked to Jack, two days later.  As usual, I persuaded him.

Which just goes to show how little either of us knew about what marriage really is.

Getting to Know You

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A year or two after that, an opportunity arose to work with Eadmund on a project.

We had moved our wholesale department to a new site just south of the Thames.  The new premises bordered on a nocturnal fruit and vegetable market was the only remaining aspect of a once a thriving produce selling area known as London’s Larder.  Now, it was largely empty.  Its spaces were used for parking cars but the market structure and empty warehouses around it was still impressively Victorian.  It just cried out to have food stalls in it.

I was at a career ceiling.  I had added being the assistant Mail Order manager to my list of roles but there wasn’t enough work in the department for it to be anything more than holiday cover, a day a week and then an even more seasonal and intense Christmas sales period than when I’d worked retail.

I had appreciated the support, cheering on and hugs even more than ever.  I had seen Jack less than ever.

I was also at the end of my tether with matters rota-related.  It was like trying to solve a huge Sudoku puzzle and it just didn’t appeal to the way my mind worked.  My attempts to solve the Sudoku weren’t good enough for the new shop manager, James (Isla had taken on HR) and he didn’t hold back with his criticism.  I announced my intention to give up the rota and train someone new.  I didn’t tell anyone but it was the first step of my plan to hand in my notice.

Eadmund needed someone to help with a plan to develop the market as a thriving food area again: to call in stall holders, to take advantage of momentum created by open warehouse days the local traders had held and a Food Lovers Fair that had generated great publicity and introduced some amazing food producers from all over the country to this atmospheric corner of London and its wrought iron Victorian market building.  The fair had been exhilarating.  The iron and glass structure echoed to the sounds of traders selling food and all of the food was superlative.  The space came alive.  At the end of our long retailing days, we cheesemongers mingled in the local pub, with other traders from the market.  We were all buzzing.  Many drunkenly enthusiastic conversations were had, starry eyed about the potential for restoring it to a full time food market.

Eadmund had a plan.  The open warehouse days had been fine but now we needed a bigger market.  A monthly market.  In time, a weekly market.  He always suffered from having more ideas than there is time to execute them, so he needed someone to put his plan into action.  Would I be interested in working with the best food producers in the country to establish the best selection of produce in the UK at a market?  Would I?  Is the Pope a Catholic?

From being miserable and failing in my job, I suddenly had a lifeline and one with hugely exciting possibilities.  Eadmund and I met and worked together for a day each week.  I loved the job.  I loved working with him.  We worked extremely harmoniously together.  I was doing something I could succeed in and succeed I did.  I was learning all the time and I began to blossom again.

We started to get to know each other a little.

Infatuation

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From the very beginning, for me, there had been a glamour about Eadmund: the strange married life, the affair, the way he looked after us but kept apart.  With each Christmas that rolled around I found myself looking forward to him being around more and the ‘thank you for working so hard’ hugs.  I used to hang around in the hopes of catching a quick conversation with him and make excuses to deliver him a message and then hang back to watch as he got on with work.

To his credit, he didn’t find me stalker-ish, creepy and downright weird.  He just waited and wondered if I would start a conversation.  He knew that I was fascinated by him and drawn to him and luckily he also realised I was harmless.

I didn’t admit any of this to anyone of course.  It was a bit teenage and embarrassing to be so in thrall to someone.  To outward appearances, it would also seem an absurd match.

He was 17 years older than me, the owner of his own business, had grown up in China as an expatriate, was married and had three children.

I had only ever been in a relationship with my one boyfriend, was in my first job, had grown up in a little town in the north west of England and although we’d got engaged before Jack applied to the Royal Antarctic Survey, we’d kind of let that slip and acknowledged we weren’t really engaged anymore.

Eadmund had a passionate interest in preserving the artisan cheeses of the UK that had almost become extinct in the 1980s and had studied Food Chemistry so he knew about that alchemical process whereby milk becomes what is practically an infinite variety of cheeses.

I was learning the cheesemonger’s craft but to me the world of cheesemaking was a great mystery that … had something to do with rennet.  I wanted to help further the shop’s mission but would I ever have had the courage to start something like that myself?

What on earth did we have in common?

And yet, the touches of his personality I felt around the company, sense of humour, affection for fellow workers and desire and ability to create a happy environment, follow a path where we tried to do the right thing by each other, were things I felt too. Could it possibly be that we had things in common?  That if he got to know me, we would be friends, perhaps even more?

I realise as I’m typing this quite how Fatal Attraction it sounds.  That’s why it became my secret.  Obviously I couldn’t tell Jack I had an unhealthy fascination for a man who most certainly wasn’t him.  I couldn’t tell my friends and flatmates.  They would think I’d lost my mind.

I couldn’t admit it to my work colleagues either. They were the ones who had told me all the gossip.  From the tone in which they relayed the information, I didn’t feel they approved.

‘He hugs you a lot these days,’ Felicity warned me one day, ‘You should watch yourself around him.’

‘I know his reputation,’ I replied but finding it deliciously thrilling that I might need to watch myself, ‘I’ll be on my guard.’

To them, my line was that I wasn’t interested.  To myself, my line was that I wasn’t interested.  I had a boyfriend.  We’d been together for years.  We now lived together on our own like a proper grown up relationship in a flat we’d bought.  I couldn’t admit to myself that it was all a lie.  Besides, although there were more frequent hugs these days, and it felt like a bit more than a normal working relationship, I could hardly say he’d made a move on me.

When I look back on it now, it was as though I was sleepwalking.  I relinquished control of my actions.  Part of the reason I wouldn’t tell anyone was because I knew they would try and talk me out of it.  I also just knew I had to follow where this was going to lead.  It was as if I had no other choice.

The closest I got to a confidante was Isla.  We became good buddies, sharing many a bottle of red, chatting about work gossip and to be honest chatting quite a lot about him.  It gave me an outlet for all the thoughts and wonderings in my head to find out more about him and understand how his mind worked a little better.  It was also great to have a good friend at work.