Loss, Love, Emotion, Nationality

The Dolomites, last August

The Dolomites, last August

A friend of mine died today.

He had had a good enough innings as they say.  He was in his eighties, I think.  To be honest I never knew his age exactly.  He had seemed timeless.  I hadn’t known him all that long either and as he was Italian and I’m not there as much as I am in the UK, it’s a while since I last saw him.  But something about his irrepressible spirit, love of life and just plain heart on sleeve Italianness had touched my buttoned up English heart.

I have been very lucky in that I feel to have a dual nationality.  I’ve had parallel lives.  I’ve grown up in the UK with a lovely family and great friends.  Then, every summer, we all piled into our car and spent the best part of the summer school holidays in Italy, in the Abruzzo.  Consequently I also have a lovely Italian family to match my English one: the family my parents befriended out there who have known my parents since before I was born and have watched me grow up.  I have great friends there too.  And finally, although it’s taken a decade or so to reconcile, I consider myself not only my own mixture of Cheshire / Scottish / Yorkshire but an honorary Abruzzese too.  I may not have the Italian temperament, but I will always consider it home and when I leave, I take it with me in my heart.

A few years ago, having spent many years fascinated by the nearest peaks of the Appenines to our Abruzzese home, we joined our local section of the Club Alpino Italiano which is where we met Mino.  Mino was one of the founding members of the local section and a passionate mountaineer.  We knew him in his later years when he could no longer scale the highest peaks and when his declining energy levels meant that he was happy just accompanying his wife Giulia on the lower slopes, having given up on the head spinning views for the less elevated pleasures of woodland, alpine flowers and collecting mushrooms.  Some people might regret no longer being able to scale the peaks, but Mino always seemed content.  While he may not have reached the summit, he would glory in telling us of the amazing plate of tagliatelle and funghi porcini he ate while we were punishing our bodies up the mountain.

Over the summer, my Dad broke his elbow quite impressively when the brakes on his bike seized up sending him flying over the handlebars as he tried to gently slow down and ended up crashing to a halt.  What should have been a piece of solid bone on his x ray, looked like a jigsaw puzzle.  He was operated on and healed up but not in time to join the CAI group on their annual away trip which, this year, was to the Dolomites.  Someone had to take my parents place so I manned up and took one for the team.

To say it was magical would be to understate it considerably.  The mountains were beautiful, beyond what I’d seen before – changing subtly as the sun rose and then set.  The colours, the light and shade, the shapes of the rocks all infinitessimally changing every time you looked up.  I took millions of photographs.

I also spent a week with the whole group of Italians that, until then, I had only really spent time on a once a week basis at the most frequent.  Being Italian and perhaps above that, being Abruzzese, they welcomed me in with open arms.  They were surprised that I didn’t talk more.  I am, after all, English by birth and shy by nature, but they soon took that in their stride,, discovering that in one on one situations where I had more time to try and express myself in a language I speak pretty well but which is by no means as fluent as my native one, I could hold my own in conversation.  They joked with me.  The included me in their banter.  They made me feel one of their own.  Yes, there would be the usual curious questions trying to ascertain what it was like to be British: the weather, the Royal family and what do we eat over in God forsaken England where there’s no pasta con fagioli and a nice bicchiere of Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo to wash it down with.  But that’s just a way of expressing interest in where you come from.  At heart there was always the feeling that we had things in common, we were the same underneath that cultural stuff.  I was welcomed.

Mino was one of the jokers of the group.  In his prime he had been a charismatic leader, I could tell.  Now he was the adopted grandfather of the party.  He couldn’t walk up to the highest summits in the Dolomites either but after a longstanding love affair with the area, he certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to visit them again.  He greeted me every morning at breakfast solicitously enquiring if I was enjoying this part of Italy, if I had liked the excursion yesterday, if I was looking forward to today’s excursion.  He joked with me and with the others.  He bantered.  He made it fun.

In Abruzzo they instinctively welcome you.  Until the 1950s they were a region with medieval seeming poverty: children running around in ragged clothes without shoes, food on the table because they kept chickens and rabbits and grew their own vegetables in their market garden or orto.  The only things they might buy in would be flour for bread or pasta.  Everything else; the bottled tomato passata that lasted them through the winter, the dried borlotti beans, the peppers, aubergines and courgettes which were eaten fresh through summer and pickled for the winter, all came from the orto.  And not only do they welcome you, they do so with an almost medieval hospitality.  In an attempt to impress and provide a suitable welcome, you will be invited to a lunch of six or seven courses and at least three types of meat (meat having been, in the past, the most valuable food they could provide for a visitor of course). All of this happens so naturally and without conscious effort that it washes over you like a warm wave of friendliness.  You can’t help but respond with affection.  It’s not like the more restrained friendship that an English person might give.  There is no irony.  There is none of the saying one thing politely but meaning the exact opposite that I actually love the twisted nature of in the English character.  It’s in your face, heart on sleeve and honest.  It’s almost childlike and yet I don’t mean that patronisingly.  And so you respond to it as you would to a child that welcomes you and wants to be your friend.  You love them.

Mino’s best friend at CAI and the founder member of the section, posted on Facebook, the sad news that Mino was now scaling the final and highest summits.  The outpouring of sadness and commiseration was immediate.  In posting their thoughts and best wishes, they didn’t hold back.  None of that English reserve that says

‘Oh I never know what to say at times like this so I’d better not say anything at all.’

They were sad, they would miss him, they were glad to have known him and they just said so.  So I did too.  I mustered my best Italian and the resources of Google translate.  I checked other comments to make sure I was copying their idioms in the hopes of not detracting from what I wanted to say by clumsy use of language and I wrote that I was sad to hear the news, would always have lovely memories of times spent in the mountains with him and that my life was richer for having known him.

After doing a walk (there is one every week in the season from March to October), the CAI group put together a semi film of photographic stills set to music.  It is sometimes appalling Italian ballad music, sometimes strangely inappropriate English music which only demonstrates that they haven’t quite understood the lyrics.  If I were feeling cynical, I could laugh at so much about it: the rather enthusiastic but extremely novice use of either photoshop or powerpoint to put the images together, the emotionally theatrical music,  But it is all done with the intention of communicating a love of the walk, the scenery, the mountains and the enthusiasm they all have.  So once more, you can’t help but respond emotionally, even while your critical and cynical brain notes the idiosyncracies of it. And so, of course, they have put together a film of photos of Mino, to say farewell.  Memories of a good friend, enjoying his life, set to some Italian pop ballad that I’ve never heard before sung by a gravel voiced singer.  The film is honest, unsophisticated, openly emotional and yet also dignified.  It ends, exhorting us all to seize the day: Carpe Diem.  Needless to say it has reduced me to tears every time.

I didn’t know him for very long and I didn’t see him all that often, but I will miss Mino very much, I find and I am truly glad that I knew him.  I have only just realised how much, but he touched my life and made it better in his own small way.

My other Italian friends knew him better and feel this more keenly.  Unlike me, who usually mourns and grieves the loss of someone by bottling it up until it eats away because I don’t understand the emotional response well enough to give vent to it at the right time or even know how to express it, they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  They are sad, they know they are and in their emotional eloquence, they are expressing that sadness immediately, openly, honestly and without shame or embarrassment. I can’t help feeling that if I could learn to be a bit more like them, I would be a healthier person.  I hope, perhaps, that being part of their group will give me chance to learn how to do that better in future.

Grazie Mino e Ciao.

Mino & Giulia

(Saying Goodbye the Abruzzese Way).

Lazy Sundays

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Eadmund’s room had french windows at the end of it that lead onto a small balcony on which he had huge terracotta pots full of plants.  In nearly all weathers, we left a window open to let in the cool and surprisingly fresh air from outside, as we slept at night.

Beyond the balcony was one of those hidden gardens like a secret courtyard, that Victorian areas of London reveal only to local residents.  The outsiders see immense white, ornate and elegant homes rising up from the pavement in squares and don’t realise that, behind the stucco facades, lies a tranquil oasis of green grass and trees.  A piece of calm amidst the bustle of the city.

Weekdays were heralded with the ringing of the alarm clock, putting on the radio to let the Today programme slowly seep into our consciousness before it was time to shower, dress and get to work.  Saturdays too were busy.  There was shopping to do, lunch to cook for the kids, errands to run and housework to do.  Cloe worked six days a week.  We tried to make sure that she would come home to a tidy house, a delicious meal and a well-stocked larder and fridge.

Sundays, on the other hand, were a day on which everyone could rest.  Always the early riser, Eadmund would wake first.  We slept touching each other, even if, on the hottest summer days it was only my leg draped over his.  As he woke, he would move closer to me, even half asleep, I moved in to put my arms around him.  Inevitably we would touch, stroke, hold, kiss and make love.  Then he would get up, make cups of tea for everyone in the house and come back to bed to bring me tea and toast.

Tea would be drunk in the quiet of the sleeping house, half asleep myself and nuzzled in his arms as we listened to the radio or music and he made more progress on completing a crossword puzzle.  Dozing though I was, I would still attempt to answer the clues.  Then it would be time to get up, shower and greet the day.  Often the first to come downstairs, we began the ritual of preparing breakfast.  Cutting bananas, mangoes and papaya into chunks, squeezing lime juice over them fruit as it was arranged on an oval platter, skewering the odd piece of fruit with bamboo satay sticks and placing it in pride of place on the table, was the first job.

Next it was time to make toast and plenty of it.  Some would be buttered hot and garnished with Marmite, other pieces in their butter drenched glory would form the base on which the cooked breakfast was served.  Bacon sizzled gently in a cast iron frying pan, slowly caramelising as its fat rendered down and became crisp and golden.  Eggs were beaten with knobs of cold butter which later melted to make the scrambled eggs we made, yieldingly creamy and gloriously rich.  Cherry tomatoes, almost confit-cooked in olive oil, garlic, ginger or galangal and coriander slowly heating to soft, aromatic sweetness.

Orange juice was freshly squeezed and, when she came downstairs, enticed by the smells of cooking and refreshed from a good night’s sleep following a gruelling week at work, Cloe set to making filter coffees for us all.  Sometimes she had brought home ready ground coffee from work.  At other times she ground the beans from scratch.  She filled the filter cones generously with coffee following the advice she gave to staff and customers alike daily which was that you can always dilute strong coffee with water, but if you make coffee too weak and watery there’s no way to make it right again.  The kettle just off the boil and allowed to cool slightly, she poured a little water over the grains to let them moisten and swell and then, before they could cool down or dry out, she filled the entire cone with water and let it drain through, taking the aromatic rich and eye-opening coffee goodness with it.  With an expert eye, she added just the right amount of milk for each person, remembering their preferences perfectly. It was, as Agent Cooper used to say in Twin Peaks a damned fine cup of coffee.

Breakfast served, we added condiments; chinese chilli and garlic sauce, indian green coriander chutney (both of which were a revelation with scrambled eggs) and tucked in.

With no sense of rush we carried on about the rest of our day’s business.  Watering plants, perhaps walking along Regents canal, a trip to Portobello Market or to some local shops.  Cloe revelled in her day off, sometimes luxuriating in being able to have a long and relaxing bath and not feeling the need to get changed out of her nightgown and dressing gown until the middle of the afternoon and yet as was her wont, carrying the look off with her usual aplomb.  Eadmund often had to travel out of London to visit farms and select cheese the following day so he would prepare for the busy week, packing his case, perhaps doing a bit of meditation or Tai Chi, pottering around the house, putting his things in order.  The kids had friends to meet up with or homework to do.  During the afternoon we all did separate things returning together for the evening when a proper, unhurried family meal would be prepared.  This might be a gloriously roasted rib of beef, chicken cooked in the French style (Cloe’s influence naturally) with lashings of butter and its cavity stuffed with whole lemons and a bunch of thyme.  Or it might be oven baked fish or gloriously enormous prawns bought the day before at the market near both Cloe & Eadmund’s shops.  Or dived scallops with a sweet chilli sauce that used to be a signature dish at Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club Restaurant.  The latter was a particular treat as it was one of Cloe’s favourite dishes.  Friends might be invited round or might not.

The sun set.  The air from the garden cooled.  Aperitifs were prepared: chilled Cremant de Bourogne or expertly mixed Gin and Tonics (the secret was a splash of fizzy mineral water at the end and lemon, never lime).  Wine uncorked.  The table set.  Eadmund would get one of the kids, but usually his daughter, to choose appropriate music.  ‘Something mellow but not too spacey.’

Rupert might join us, or again he might not.  We could be a group of five, six or up to sixteen depending on how many people had been invited over.  The meal, conversation around the table and a sense of relaxation at the end of a productive but peaceful day coming to a close, we might all retire upstairs with bowls of ice cream or whatever delicious pudding Cloe had concocted for us all to watch a film.

Eventually those who rose early would head to bed.  As the film finished, the others would follow, chorusing good nights if it wasn’t too late.

Night fell.  The house slept.

Sunshine, cicadas, hopes and dreams

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It was the middle of July.

I had flown out from Gatwick to Skiathos to join Eadmund’s family for their annual holiday on mainland Greece.

To be invited to join them was an honour that had not been mine until we’d been together for about four years.  To say I was looking forward to it would be an understatement.

He met me at the airport.  We waited for their local taxi boat to take us back to the mainland.  It was baking hot and we spent lunchtime by the sea, basking in warm waters but in the shade to avoid sunburn quite so early on in my holiday.

Skimming over the waves, the sunlight glinting off them and all around me warmth and blue sea and sky, we made our way to their house by the sea and its jetty where his daughter sat sunbathing and reading.  As we clambered out of the little boat and manoeuvered my suitcase up onto the wooden boards, she greeted me with a hug and:

‘Welcome to Pelion!’

The family holiday had been sacrosanct.  With all the changes to the family dynamic, this one last vestige of the past had been preserved.  For a month, whatever might have changed back in London, they were all together as a five once more.  Until this year.  Rupert had already been with them for a week before my arrival.  I had my own annual holiday in Italy to attend.  As Cloe had wanted him to join the family this year, the invitation had also been extended to me.

It was an intoxicating week.  The weather was a little stormy for the first couple of days and we lit wood fires indoors and cooked.  Soon it became warmer and clearer.  We barbequed on their little private cove.  We took the boat down the coast to find tiny and beautiful chapels glittering with gold and frescoes.  We walked inland high above the sea amongst olives and pine trees.  We ate at their favourite restaurant walking there and then after a quick walk to the coast, swimming around the headland to the house again.  There were fireflies at night, glowing greenish white.  The sea had a beautiful phosphoresence as we swam in the dark.  We visited a bay littered with green agates.  We dived beneath rock arches under water.  We jumped off high staggered rocks into the sea.  We even visited a series of caves, blacker than any night with a tiny white beach at the end and pungently smelling of guano.

By night, Eadmund and I slept outside on the balcony, the sea breezes caressing our skin as we slept.  The gentle roar of the wind in the pine trees proving an effective lullaby.  We awoke with the dawn and watched the world turn from dark to silvery light and brighten into gold.  Then, fortified by cups of tea, we ran down to the beach to swim out into the bay and bask in the morning light and the cool, cool water.  We breakfasted on thick tangy yoghurt and rich treacly thyme honey with the most succulent fresh peaches.  We spent most of the day in and out of the water.

After lunch as the sound of the cicadas reached their loudest, we lay down to siesta together.  The house was silent with sleeping people avoiding the heat of the day.  We were outside, hardly private, and yet in the heat and stickyness of the middle of the day, lying skin on skin, langorous and languid touching became more sexually charged.  Relaxed with the freedom of being on holiday, in the sunshine and basking in warmth, we both experimented with things we had never tried before and felt more unified, more trusting and closer than ever because of it.

Intoxicated with love and sex and summer, we talked about our future.  It was no secret that a big stumbling block between us was the loud and insistent ticking of my biological clock.  The more in love with him I fell, the more every atom of my being wanted to carry his children.  It filled my heart and womb as we made love.  But he had been clear from the start.  He already had three children.  He was sensible of how much of his time, energy and freedom they had taken and he didn’t begrudge them a second of it.  But he didn’t want any more.  He didn’t want to start the whole process again just as he was getting glimpses of the freedom that beckons as your teenage children approach the time when they might leave home.

‘It’s the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done,’ he had told me in our early days,’I wouldn’t take it back for the world, but I’m glad to be where I am now, as they are growing up.  I can see myself getting a little bit of my time and my life back.  I don’t want to go back into giving that all up a second time.’

My hopes dashed, I had wept bitterly over this and my heart broke time and time again.  When everything between us felt so overwhelmingly right, how could he not share this dream with me?  How could he not see that this time, with me, it would be different, easier, that I would make it easier for him, sensible that he had already given the past twenty years to raising a family with Cloe.

But for all that I argued, persuaded, cajoled and begged, he was adamant.

Yet under the Grecian sun, lying in each others arms, sated and warmed, in hushed whispers, we approached the subject again.

‘I’m making no promises,’ he told me, ‘but I have never felt so close to someone as I do to you.  I’ve never felt a relationship to be as effortless as it is with you.  I know how much it means to you.  I will really and truly think hard about if I can go through being a father again.’

The sun had never shone brighter.  There had never been more beautiful music than the sound of the sea, the cicadas and the wind in the pine trees,  The whole glittering and brilliant little cove on which we holidayed took on a magical air as if it were the setting of a fairytale.  For a brief moment, it seemed that I might really be able to have it all: the man I adored, the passionate yet effortless relationship of my dreams and his baby too.

Years later, post break up, I took myself to the cinema to see Mamma Mia.  It promised to have sunshine, seaside, silly music and be camp and unrestrained.  I was depressed.  It should be a tonic, I thought.  As soon as the titles finished and the introduction of the first song began, I realised with a pang like a knife to the heart that the beautiful scenery I saw on screen was exactly the same as this magical place of my holiday, the place in which I had been the happiest I had been in my entire life.  The lump that rose in my throat threatened to choke me.  My shoulders shook with suppressed sobs as the music rose in happy, life affirming cadences.  I was in a cinema full of people who were laughing, sharing drinks and popcorn. This wasn’t a weepy movie.  There was no way I could give way to the tidal wave of emotion that I felt.  So I sucked it in, suppressed it and although trembling for ever minute that the film lasted, I got to the end and survived the bus journey home without giving the heartbreaking grief free reign.

The house was empty when I got home.  I was destined to be on my own again.  I turned round, grabbed my purse and headed up the road to the off licence.  I bought a 750ml bottle of gin and enough tonic water to match it.  I spent the rest of the evening drinking the whole lot and crying my eyes out as I mourned what could have been.

Just the 4 of us: Cloe

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Eadmund’s wife impressed everyone with a sense of poise, elegance and style.  She was striking, tall, deep voiced and had an intensity about her.  When she was happy, she shone.  When she was sad it was impossible to ignore.

She had not had an easy upbringing.  Her parents had been struggling with their own relationship.  They divorced at a time when divorce had a huge stigma attached to it.  Cloe’s mother, a formidable French woman with most defined views that she wasn’t afraid of voicing, was the sort of person you respect immensely, but was about the furthest from natural earth mother that it’s possible to be.  Cloe’s father, who never quite lived up to her expectations, was a subdued man whose proudest moment in life had been his involvement in the D Day landings and for whom the adrenaline rush, responsibility and feeling of mission the war experience provided him, had never been recaptured in civilian life.  He used to recreate this when playing with Cloe as a young girl, making her crawl, army-style, along the ground and it was their way of trying to be close.  All the while, her mother would be looking on and giving the impression that her husband disappointed her… and that her daughter did too.  Years later, after his death, when she spent time with his new wife and second family, Cloe was shocked to find the distant and quiet man she remembered had been the centre of a happy family life.  Having felt there was no real relationship between them for her to pursue, it cost her no small amount of heartache to realise that under different circumstances he could have been a very different father to the one she remembered had she only reached out to him in time.

Cloe learned stoicism, to suppress emotion and the British stiff upper lip from watching her parents; ironic as she is half French.  She was insecure, feeling she never measured up to her mother’s hopes.  She was conscious of a rich, cultural, french legacy in her family which she sought to reproduce and cherish, particularly in her cooking, in the antiques she collected and her sense of style.  She was interested in art, history and learning but never got the chance to pursue it, having to work as soon as she finished school.  She is a highly intelligent woman who did not have the chance to study and because of that, she felt insecure about her intellect as well.  She had no idea of how strikingly attractive she was.  Her mother had not done the usual mother’s job of telling their little girl how beautiful they are and, caught up in her own world, her busy world, she didn’t notice the effect she had on people around her.  Which only made how attractive she was even more potent.

She had more than looks.  She may not have realised it but she was formidably intelligent with an artist’s eye for colours, shapes, interior design.  She loved fashion and since meeting Rupert was really coming into her own experimenting with an edgier look, enjoying her looks, her body and clothes more than she had ever done before.

It’s not a good idea to compare yourself against someone like Cloe, but of course I did.  Every woman at the cheese shop or her own business did and we all felt inferior but in particular she and I could not have been more different.  Where she was tall, dark and willowy, I was short, blond and plump.  Where she was elegance personified, I would be the one who had spilled coffee down my top.  She could charm a room of people when she switched on her charm.  I was tongue tied in groups of more than about four.

We got on well.  We helped each other out.  We shared jokes.  As a three, Eadmund, Cloe and I would talk about things that bothered her or him; how to cope with insecurities the kids were having, domestic problems, dealing with Rupert’s increasingly erratic behaviour and we listened to and respected our different opinions but at the end of the day Cloe and I were very different people.  It was interesting and educational to listen to points of view that were different to mine.  I liked that it stretched me to see the value in them even when I didn’t agree and, for the sake of everyone’s harmony, we put aside any differences in order to maintain a unified extended family.  Initially, when Eadmund still wanted to keep our relationship secret, she helped cover for him with the kids so that he could take a night out from being at home and stay with me.  She invited me over at weekends so I could be with him and with the family.

At that time, she was open about her relationship, where I was hidden, secret and disempowered.  She was very generous, but it’s easier to be generous when fortune is smiling on you.  As the mother, head of the family and instigator of the relationship that had lead to them finally opening up their marriage, not to mention glowing from the boost to her self esteem the relationship was giving her, she was in a great place to be kind to me.  It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it.  She didn’t have to make things easy for me and I appreciate that she tried to help me and to make our relationship easier at a time when I was struggling, but the fact that I felt subordinate, made me resent her.  I’m not proud of that.  It wasn’t her fault.  It was a result of the situation and not in response to anything she had done.  But I was resentful.

When I stayed at their house at the weekend, I was put in the makeshift guest room.  The kids who were adjusting to a new family set up would sometimes want to sleep with Mum or Dad for security.  I tried hard not to be jealous of them sleeping with Dad.  Of course if they wanted to revert to childhood and sleep in a parent’s bed, I wasn’t going to protest, but I needed security and reassurance at the time too.  I wished with all my heart that I could sleep in his bed, just for comfort, but as the dirty secret, that could never happen.    On a couple of nights when she was feeling out of her depth with Rupert, Cloe slept in Eadmund’s bed for old time’s sake too.  She looked grateful as we said good night and I went to my guest room, alone.  I knew in my heart of hearts that there was nothing physical or sexual between them anymore but I still had nightmares all night that, for comfort, they slept together again; that she could still get pregnant; that she did and that as the entire family welcomed a new baby with joy and relief, I had to cope with feelings of loss, betrayal and devastation by myself with none of their children understanding why I was so hurt.  With everything else I was trying to cope with at this time, I knew this would send me over the edge, if it had happened.  The following morning, embarrassed that I couldn’t handle it better, I asked Eadmund if it would be ok that he could be supportive and comforting to Cloe in a different way next time.

Yet this was the woman who, on the day I should have got married, bought me a beautiful and impeccably tasteful posy of golden cream roses tipped with delicate pink, because she knew I would be feeling sad and wistful.

This was the woman who, the day after Eadmund confessed his affair, found me looking desolate in the kitchen of our shared offices at work and enveloped me in the warmest hug as I cried and cried and cried.  He heard the sounds and came looking to help, but she closed the door in his face, which actually was exactly what I wanted.  As the wronged wife, she understood exactly how I felt and knew just what to say to help me get through the day.  A perfect mixture of sympathy and pragmatism without casting blame anywhere.

She was also the woman who even early on in our relationship when I was still a secret, told Eadmund that as soon as he was ready, she would be happy to let me live in the family home.  This was a privilege she didn’t afford to her own boyfriend and I was honoured.  I was also gutted that he didn’t accept.  Later on, when everything was in the open, she happily accepted my presence in her home, cooking in her kitchen, looking after her children, sleeping with her husband.  Like I say, extremely generous.

Why weren’t we friends?  We certainly shared a huge and life changing experience together and there will always be a bond because of that.  We are more like friends now when we meet.  We are happy to see each other and we’ll chat and catch up.  We’ll never be really close and we don’t keep in touch though.  It’s the differences that mean we aren’t closer.  Knowing we saw the world in different ways meant we found each other interesting but there was always a wariness and lack of trust because we knew the other one wouldn’t understand our point of view without explanation.  We couldn’t relax and know that at the most basic of levels we would be accepted.

But we’d both had to work with people who weren’t kindred spirits before.  We both understood how to be part of a team in order to achieve a goal.  We were co-operating flatmates.  And for a while, it worked pretty well.

 

Knives and Self Image

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‘Holy shit,’ my friend commented when I posted a link to the last blog entry in our Facebook group, ‘More exploration around the cutting is needed.’

I did rather refer to it in about three sentences.

The thing is I always felt a bit embarrassed about referring to it as cutting.  I mean it was hardly life threatening and it most certainly wasn’t done with anything serious like a razor blade which always seemed like it would be just too darn painful.  It was more like extreme scratching.  But in that it involved a state of distress, my own body and metal implements causing it to bleed (although not always), I suppose it does count.

I used to do it in moments of such extreme tension, frustratedness or utterly wretched distress when I was at my wits end what else to do or how I could ever feel better.  The sort of stomach-churning mixture of anger and hurt that clenches up your entire abdomen and makes you buckle over at the waist as if you’re trying to vomit out the hurt somehow.  Doubled over, my mind would be whirling; internally howling at me like my very own Banshee.  By taking a sharp ended pair of scissors or a paring knife and scoring a line down my arm or across my stomach, the shock of the sudden pain took away the internal screaming.  Like a self administered slap around the face to a someone who is hysterical.  Because I had been hysterical.  Just not out loud.

With the shock and the feeling of pain transferred to a localised spot, I’d feel calm again.  Tired even.  Then, because I am basically quite sensible when not in extremis, I would make sure that any cuts or grazes were washed properly and annointed with antiseptic cream if I had any.

For as long as it took to heal, I’d have to be careful about what I wore.  I didn’t want to raise the issue and have questions asked.  In fact, as I did it more often, I’d take that into consideration when deciding where to cut.  Where won’t it show?  What will work best with my wardrobe?

A popular site to attack was across my stomach.  It’s a part of my body I never loved.  Or the top of my arms.  On the day I discovered the emails which told me the truth about Eadmund’s affair, I cut down the skin of my breasts, stomach and arms,  I had to wear high necked tops for weeks.  But that was the last time I did it.

When I was younger, when she was tense, my mother used to bite into her fist.  I remember her doing it one time when, thanks to my father’s terrible sense of timekeeping, we were setting off desperately late to go to the theatre…in Bradford.  We made it with seconds to spare and she was wound up like a spring as he drove at approaching a hundred miles an hour down the motorway.  I wasn’t aware of the speed we were going, nor was I hugely aware of how long it should take us to get to Bradford and how long we had lef,t now that he’d made us late.  I was still at the age where I confidently assumed the grown ups had it under control.  I did notice the big bruised indentations on my Mum’s fingers and I remember that I asked her to stop, which, when she had calmed down a little more, she did.

You learn by example and great parents though mine were, no one is perfect.  As a frustrated teen, I used to find that biting down hard onto a thumb or finger did help release tension.  When I’d stopped biting my nails so that they grew long enough, digging them into my skin until I broke it had the same effect. When I hit the self loathing, no one is ever going to find me attractive age, it was a natural progression to scratching the sharp point of a pair of nail scissors down parts of my body I knew would be hidden from the family.  I stopped, grew out of it but would come back to it periodically when the pain of emotion needed a physical release.

Of course, in those early and secretive days with Eadmund, my entire evaluation of myself, my place in the world and moral structures as I had assumed them were falling into pieces as I realised I that my moral compass’s due north is not the same as most people’s. I hadn’t forgiven myself for causing hurt.  I didn’t like myself for having done so.  And in being someone’s secret rather than the person they acknowledged proudly to the world, I was perpetuating my own lack of self worth and feeding my self loathing.

Self image and self loathing are a big part of it.  You have to hate yourself in order to inflict pain on yourself.  Ironically, I don’t actually like pain.  I can put up with it when it happens but I don’t go looking for it normally.  It doesn’t thrill me sexually either.  Jack and I, in our early days had gone through a checklist of trying out most sexual possibilities which covered going through every position in both volumes of The Joy of Sex (despite chuckling over the very 70s illustrations) to shaving to bondage to light pain.  It did absolutely nothing for me in that context.

In terms of why I did it and why it worked, it was very much the slap around the face to the hysteric.  I didn’t neccessarily realise at the time that I was hysterical because it was all internalised.  I was often absolutely silent except for breathing – hyperventilating.

Cutting / Scratching my arms was handy because they were easy to access.  What was less easy was hiding it later.  Cutting my stomach would happen because it was the seat of everything I hated about my appearance and coincidentally the clenched diaphragm in my hunched-over state of distress was there too.  Sometimes in the back of my head, when I was that upset, I would imagine that if I could just cut myself open, perhaps I could reach in and straighten out the clenched and tensed up internal organs inside my abdomen that were the physical manifestation of the hurt, frustration and anger I was feeling and then I would feel relief.  Sometimes I visualised a hand reaching into my chest and pulling out my heart, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the fucked-up thing was, the idea of removing my heart from my body made me feel better.

My issue with my stomach has been there ever since I entered puberty.  Just before I started to grow breasts and have periods, which happened when I was twelve, I put on a lot of weight.  I suddenly weighed about two stone more than any of my friends, even the ones who were taller than me.  Obviously it didn’t happen overnight. My dad had taken a sabbatical from his job at the University and we spent three months in Italy during which time I became permanently ravenously hungry.  I ate a lot of pasta to gain those two stone.  But I did come back from holiday looking like a small barrel.  Then, almost equally quickly, I began to redistribute the fat stores, developed a waist, breasts and hips and needed to be bought a bra.  I loved developing a woman’s shape.  I felt grown up and powerful and glamorous although I most certainly didn’t look it yet – my idea of fashion still involved knee high socks in a completely non ironic way.  But I still felt that my stomach made me look fat.

In vain, my Mum told me I had a lovely figure and that it was much better than hers had been.  I liked my curves…except one.

As I got older, I somehow managed to make friends with taller, thinner girls.  When we changed for sports or swimming lessons, I knew that my stomach stuck out, where theirs lay flat.  When my friends and I started to act out our extremely amateur theatrical ambitions, again in the changing rooms I sneaked a look to my left and right and there again was confirmation.  They had flat stomachs.  I didn’t.

I have an overly flexible lower back that curves in and is naturally a little concave rather than dead straightave.  I also have lazy abdominal muscles.  It might have helped if I’d known that at the time.  Mind you, I’m not so sure that knowing the biology of it would neccessarily have helped me much with the psychology of it.  It looked different and it stuck out.

When I went to university, I managed to put on nine pounds.  I felt enormous.  I didn’t realise it’s pretty common to put on weight when you leave home.  I just thought I must be a pig.  I went on stupid diets of meal replacement milkshakes that I had first tried in my late teens and a particularly ill-advised detox cleanse which left my blood sugar so low I woke up to find the room spinning and spinning before my eyes.  I lurched to the university nurse who told me to not be so stupid and go eat a sandwich.  Ever conscious of what a fat pig I was, I bought one from the diet range all the same.

It was a boost to the ego that Jack found me attractive of course, but he warned me that he didn’t go for fat girls.  If I put on a lot of weight, he wouldn’t still find me attractive regardless.

In the end it was Eadmund who told me he loved every inch of my body whatever size or weight it was.  When I still hated my stomach, he loved it.  It wasn’t flat.  Neither was his and he’d never cared.  He positively loved the curving shape of mine.

‘You aren’t flabby.  You aren’t small but you’re taut and powerful.’

When we were in bed together, he would whisper to me how strong I felt as I moved on him and with him inside me.  He told me how controlled and powerful my hips felt, moving up and down on him.  He marveled over every curve of my body above him.  And then he’d say the same thing after orgasm too.  Gradually, over the course of our seven years together, it began to sink in.  Part of me felt that he was the only man in the world who would ever feel that way about the shape that I am.  But part of me began to believe that I really was attractive.

Cutting myself was about more than just my body.  It was a response to hysteria and feelings of self negation brought on by a challenging set of circumstances which I wasn’t entirely equal to.  Already existing feelings that I wasn’t good enough, insecurities about my body and about my abilities were magnified by being his secret girlfriend – not good enough to admit to the children.  But if I hadn’t hated my body at times, I would not have felt a release by hurting it.  Confirming in that moment that it really was hateful and deserved pain even as the shock of the pain brought on a sense of calm.  Being in a relationship with Eadmund was hurting my sense of self very badly on both emotional and physical levels.  And yet at the same time, he told me I was amazing.  He told me I was beautiful.

After telling the children what was really going on and when we could finally be open about what we were to each other, I could finally begin to listen properly to all the positive things he kept telling me.  And in the end I started to believe him.

Secrets, Self Medication and Happy Families

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It wasn’t only Rupert that found it difficult to cope with time limitations.  In the early days of our relationship when Eadmund and I were still keeping it secret, it had been one of the many things that had brought me to rock bottom.

Looking back at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, I am not sure I would chose to structure the relationship differently.  I still like the idea of being limitless and of freedom.  I like that it removes guilt and insecurity from your interactions with other people and promotes openness.  Or it does if you handle it right.

What I know now is how much communication and work this sort of relationship needs.  I also know that it was a big ask of myself, inexperienced and naïve as I was then, to take this on at the same time as processing enormous amounts of guilt and then to keep the relationship a secret from kids, friends and co-workers into the bargain.

While we were extremely well matched to each other in many ways, Eadmund and I did process emotion differently.  He would react immediately, talk it through and be back on track quickly.  I would need more time.  My initial reaction would be shock, then once that was over, I would need to take my time as new thoughts and opinions became liberated and could be brought up for discussion.  If we argued, I always needed twenty four hours longer than him before I was back on an even keel emotionally.  It meant that I wasn’t able to bounce back from the cancelled wedding, the disapproval, hurting Isla.  It took time.

Time was one of the things we only had in short supply.  Not only did we need to take time to be together, but he also had to allocate time for Cloe, his children, his friends and for the business.  It needed him too.  The difference of maturity and experience showed.  Going into the relationship, he realised how much he would have to partition his time.  He had practical experience of juggling different people who all needed to spend time with him. He understood that as owner of the business, he was responsible for it, cared about it and that it absorbed his time and emotional energy.  I was hardly a clocking in-clocking out employee but, at the end of the day, I could leave the job at home.  My perspective and attachment to work, extreme though it was by most people’s standards was barely a tenth of the intensity of his.   I thought I understood all of this before going into the relationship but I only understood in theory.  When it came to the practical implications of it, I didn’t have a clue.

I needed time to do a lot of talking.  He did his best to make enough time for me but it could never have been enough.  I was using him as an unofficial counsellor.  It was too much pressure to put on a partner.  If I were to go through it again, I’d be right off to see a shrink, quick smart.  I now know that the benefit of seeing a counsellor is that they can listen without being affected emotionally by what you have to say.  They can advise, empathise and help you negotiate the minefield that is your own emotions and you never need feel a burden, not least because you are usually paying handsomely for the service.

It would also have meant that Eadmund wasn’t expected to be responsible for my mental health and emotional happiness.  I wasn’t in a place where I could take that responsibility for myself.  I had never considered emotion in that sort of way before either; that I was in control of my own happiness.  I didn’t know how to do it.  Eadmund tried his best to talk to me and teach me.  That he managed to help me learn as much as he did is impressive.  With each new day, I learned more about my own capabilities and strengths.  Sometimes these discoveries were hard won at the end of gut-wrenching weeping or catatonic depression.  At other times they came more easily.

Our early days after I left Jack, moved out of Nia and Helena’s and into a flat closer to Eadmund were a period of heightened emotion.  The highs were ecstatic.  The sun shone brighter.  The world seemed more new, exciting and beautiful than ever before.  Love had never felt more intense and all consuming.  Sex had never been so much an expression of love with every atom of my body and consequently was instinctively tantric and absolutely mind blowing.  I felt electric, alive and amazing.

But when the lows came, I had many demons to face.  When he couldn’t make time for me, the wretchedness was bottomless.  I was experiencing debilitating guilt and reassessing myself.  I thought I had been a simple, uncomplicated good girl and was now… what… a bad person?  I had hurt people.  For the first time in my life, I had really hurt people.   Sometimes I felt that life was stretching me, teaching me and that every day I was growing stronger, better, more of the sort of person I wanted to be.  Other times I wasn’t sure I liked myself anymore.  Certainly I was having trouble forgiving myself for the hurt I’d caused.

On top of that, I felt too immature to prove a good partner.  Maybe Eadmund should have chosen Isla after all.  I didn’t always notice when he needed to be alone with his kids.  I didn’t spot the signs.  With tension over this already heightened because of the way Rupert behaved, I felt under intense scrutiny and intense pressure to be the perfect and understanding supportive role to Eadmund and to the children.  Some of this pressure came from Eadmund driven sometimes to distraction by frustration at the way Cloe couldn’t reign Rupert in and the way it was hurting his daughter.  Most of it came from myself.  I loved this man.  I thought he was amazing.  I wanted to be perfect.  I wanted to lighten his load not add to it.  I wanted to make his children happy that I had come to stay for the weekend, not want me out of the way so they could spend time with Dad.  But I didn’t know his children as well as he did.  Sometimes, because they were polite and well brought up and kindly, it seemed to me that they were happy I was there.  I desperately wanted them to like me.  They didn’t know I was their dad’s girlfriend yet but I had already fallen in love with them too.

‘But don’t you think,’ he asked, ‘That maybe even though they like you, they would prefer to be on their own with me sometimes?  Of course they aren’t going to come out with it.  They’re only eight and twelve.  You need to be one step ahead of them.  You’re the adult.’

I was confused.  I thought things had been going well.  I hadn’t thought one step ahead.  He was already thinking about the week ahead, preparing them for school and the need for them to have a quiet Sunday afternoon relaxing before the week started.  I was just thinking that I had enjoyed spending Saturday night and Sunday morning with them so far and wondering what we might all do next.  His youngest son had just asked me to make lunch with him.  We liked cooking together.  Last time, we’d come up with a particularly tasty take on potato salad involving yoghurt and Indian green coriander relish.  The time before we’d re-invented spaghetti carbonara by adding ricotta in place of cream and letting the sauce sit in the pan picking up all the tasty caramelised bits on the bottom of the pan after frying the bacon slowly to perfect cripsness.  The sauce ended up being a funny brown colour but it tasted great.

‘It’s not that they don’t enjoy you being here,’ he carried on, ‘but the dynamic is different when you are around.  It isn’t their normal family dynamic and they need that.  I wish you would see that more.  I wish I didn’t always have to bring it up.  It makes me into the aggressor and it makes me always having to force a confrontation, they you are upset.  I hate feeling like this.’

I packed my overnight bag wordlessly and got ready to leave.  I couldn’t manage a cheery goodbye to the kids so I was hoping to slope off quietly and he could explain to them I’d had to get home.  But my fellow lunch-maker, Kester, caught me in the hall just as I was leaving,

‘But we’re going to make lunch!  You can’t go!  We always make great lunches!’

My heart practically broke on the spot.  I was going, although I didn’t want to, because his father thought it was better for the kids that I did, yet here was the youngest, asking me to stay and disappointed in me because I was leaving.  I just about managed to raise a jolly tone and promise we’d cook again next weekend.  I think I made some excuse about having to get home and do some shopping to get ready for a busy week at work, when what I wanted was to howl,

‘It’s not my fault!  Your dad wants me to go! I want me to stay and make lunch too!’

I gave him the best smile I could muster and promised we’d see each other again soon.  Then, with him happy again, I left the house and wept openly and without stopping the entire way home.  It was London, a sunny Sunday and a moneyed residential area.  There were people and families all around who could see me and I didn’t care one iota.  It being London, of course, they all looked the other way and pretended they hadn’t noticed.

It was wretchedly painful for me, when this happened, but it also made Eadmund feel like a murderer each time he had to point out that perhaps I should leave them alone.  He was in a quandary.  The naturalness and ease with which I connected to him emotionally was one of the fundamental reasons he loved me and yet I hadn’t learned to control it.  It overspilled into family time, work time, time that he needed to spend with Cloe.  Not even remotely to the extent that Rupert did, but we were all supersensitive to the dynamic because he was so extreme.  Eadmund was overly paranoid about upsetting the kids (who after all still had not been told we were a couple).  I was overly paranoid about being compared to Rupert the effect of whose behaviour, I had witnessed first hand.

I became self-conscious, unsure of how to behave or who I was anymore.  It felt as though, if I wanted to be with him, I had to become something else.  We connected to each other so instinctively, so effortlessly and so joyously when we were alone together with no pressures on our behaviour, no one else to worry about and no secrets to keep.  If felt fundamentally wrong and unbelievably unnatural to try and behave in any other way.  And I didn’t monopolise his attention.  I didn’t take over the conversatons so no one else could get a word in.  I wasn’t nervously intense.  I was quiet.  I listened.  I let him and his children talk and offered my opinions at what I felt were appropriate intervals.  I was calm and happy because I was with him and by being so, I helped him create a relaxing and homely environment for everyone.  Or at least my instincts told me I did.

Alone together, on our mid week ‘date nights’ when he stayed at my flat, we related as happily and uncomplicatedly as ever.  Left on my own, when he went back to the family and I wasn’t invited, I was at the mercy of the tornado that was my own whirling thoughts, guilt, grief and self doubts.  The skies darkened.

In the final months of our relationship, Jack and I had both started drinking more.  Drinking to forget, to find it easier to talk to each other, for courage to face up to the things we were avoiding.  Now, when I was alone, I carried on.  Having had insomniac episodes before, I was afraid that the fear, guilt and insecurity would mean endless, tortured, sleepless nights.  Drinking to pass out was one way to make sure this didn’t happen.

Alcohol, of course, is a depressant.  Self-medicating with it would only ever be effective in the short term.  In the long run, it made the dark emotions worse.  At moments of heightened distress, I began to cut myself; somewhere that people wouldn’t see of course and never all that deep but with long red scratched wheals down my upper arms or stomach inflicted with the end of a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife.  The shock of sudden physical pain cleared the emotional pain and restored a moment of calm.  I knew it was fucked up, but it helped.

Commuting in and out of work, I began to experience panic attacks on a crowded tube.  Claustrophobia, the walls caving in, needing to shrink away from people, I could feel myself receding down a dark tunnel into the back of my head, the sounds of the outside world dimming as all I could hear were the blood rushing in my ears and my own shuddering breaths, as my field of vision narrowed to two small circles in front of me and spots swam before my eyes.

I had wanted a challenge and an adventure, but so much had changed in so short a space of time, I was falling, falling like Alice down the rabbit hole and I didn’t know when I would land.

As it turned out, my landing was Eadmund’s affair.  For all that was wrong about the way he went about it, it was the catalyst that made us finally admit to the children that we were together.  All of a sudden, the whole situation was less pressured.

In the family home, of course Anne would be round at weekends.  The children didn’t need to wonder why Dad’s new friend got to sleep over (in a different room) and what this might mean – they knew.  With the clarity of knowing we were in a relationship, they didn’t need to wonder if Dad was ok now that Mum had a boyfriend.  Ironically, considering the fears on their behalf that had lead to us keeping it secret, it also took away some of the fear that the parents might divorce.  Mum had a boyfriend and Dad had a girlfriend and yet neither of them had left home.  Perhaps it would all be ok after all.

For me, while I had to deal with hurt,betrayal and with rebuilding trust and this was no small matter at the same time I was also acknowledged and validated.  I wasn’t a dirty secret any more,  I was officially part of the extended family and accepted.  Keeping it secret had added stress, judgement, erosion of self esteem and self image, feelings of abandonment and inadequacy to what was already a complicated situation: integrating myself into a family group without alienating or trying to compete with the children’s mother.

There were still seven of us whose feelings and emotions needed to be managed and catered for as we steered our way through the somewhat choppy waters of life in our extended family and seemingly without a map to guide us but, at least, now, we all knew we were an extended family.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Secrecy corrodes.

Just the 4 of us: Rupert

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Cloe’s boyfriend was a fashion designer.  I say was because he was her boyfriend.  He still is a fashion designer.

He had a lot going for him: talent, a wonderful sense of visuals, imagination, creativity, enthusiasm and when free from his insecurities and demons, a caring and open-hearted man.  When she met him, he was feted as the next big thing, but finding fashion an unstable world after his regimented time in the army.  He had liked that in the army there was discipline and you had decisions made for you.  He had also rebelled from it too by his choice of career after leaving.  It couldn’t have been more different.

It is hard to write about someone that isn’t yourself.  I don’t feel I have permission.  It isn’t my story.  So I’m not trying to tell his story except in the way it appeared to me, as my part of our foursome.  Why tell it at all?  To understand some of the stresses Eadmund and Cloe were under.  To understand the stresses I was under.  He was complex, interesting and troubled.  He was a force of energy and intensity that it appeared he didn’t quite know how to control nor perhaps always want to control.  As such, he could be challenging to live with.  And we all lived with him in our own way.

In the first instance, he fell hard for Cloe.  I never asked but I got the impression that theirs was a passionate, dramatic relationship.  How amazing for a woman who had always seen herself as unattractive, to suddenly find herself centre-stage in her own drama.  She blossomed under his attention and adoration.

But, of course, there was a flip side.  He could be so absorbed in he,r that he wasn’t aware he was monopolising her time.  When he came round to the family house, he took over her conversation.  Even talking to someone else, his every comment was for her benefit.  Her children wanted to be his friend.  Not only was he important to Mum, but he was also a source of seriously stylish clothes which was a definite plus.  I think he surprised himself with how much he enjoyed their company, but even when chatting to them, he would still look across the room for her approval.

His obsessive nature and ability to take over the environment upset people.  Cloe & Eadmund’s daughter was upset that she didn’t get as much time with her mother anymore – even when her Mum was home.  It was suggested to Cloe, by Eadmund who could see his little girl’s face fall each time Mum’s attention was dragged away, that maybe Rupert’s time in the family home should be limited until the kids were more comfortable with the situation.

Rupert, while he may not have even been confronted about this, noticed when his time with Cloe began to be restricted.  His nature was addictive.  He needed her.  And so he rang her all the time.  When she was at work, he would call her mobile several times a day.  At home, having worked a long day, he carried on calling her.  Her children, home from school, wanting to chat to Mum about their day, found it unsettling that she kept being dragged off to the phone.  Meals didn’t get cooked until 10pm because she was tied up with hours of intense phone calls.  Then he would continue into the night after everyone else had gone to sleep, into the early hours of the morning.  She knew he wasn’t emotionally stable.  He’d been sectioned in the past, over a suicide attempt.  She was afraid of him relapsing and what he might do.  So she couldn’t refuse to answer when he called.  Every night, she promised to call him back again after bedtime.

At the same time, she had been clear with him from the start.  She had three children.  When their youngest was older, she might be more free to live with him or to spend more time with him but her youngest was still only eight.  She was needed at home.  I am sure Rupert didn’t protest at this, but he couldn’t do without her when the theory became reality.

Without her, he began to turn back to drugs and alcohol.  He reconnected with friends that did the same.  An all night party would medicate against missing her I suppose.  I was doing something similar before I hit rock bottom.

Before meeting her he had had a reputation as a dangerous, bad boy of design.  He courted the reputation – playing up to the self destructive artist with a death wish.  It may even have been thrilling for Cloe in the beginning.  But it was one thing for him to be unpredictable with her, another thing entirely for it to intrude into her kids world.  Cloe didn’t approve of drugs and she didn’t want her kids exposed to them at the ages of 14, 12 and 8.

Drugs, alcohol, lack of self control and an intense and addictive personality.  You know where this is heading, right?

She didn’t feel able to bring him into her home, as he became less and less predictable but she arranged weekends away with him to Paris.  They would walk and walk all day around side streets, quirky shops, flea markets, pausing to sit in cafes and then walk again.  It relaxed him.  The physical activity gave him a vent for his nervous energy as the flea markets gave him visual and aesthetic stimulus.  But as he drank more and took more drugs, their romantic getaways became listless as, worn out by a permanent hangover, he had no energy anymore.  He’d give up drinking for a few weeks but then he blew it again after a quarrel, or if she didn’t give him with enough time and attention.

She didn’t enjoy spending time with his party friends.  It wasn’t compatible with her life as a mother and it highlighted their age difference.  Rupert was in his mid thirties whereas Cloe had turned fifty.  He still considered himself a bright young thing, where she considered herself a mature woman.  I can imagine that it made her uneasy.

Years later, I met one of Rupert’s friends in completely different circumstances. My former flatmate Carina, having graduated as a shoe designer and worked for several years in Italy, had decided it was time for a change and moved to Paris.  One of her old contacts from Italy worked there as well and, as I happened to be visiting, we all went out for a meal.  He was frivolous, chatty, camp, self projecting for all he was worth and hugely entertaining.  Out of the blue, he mentioned Rupert.

‘Oh God, did you know his girlfriend, that Cloe?’ he exclaimed, when I asked how he knew him and explained my role in the foursome, ‘She was so snooty and aloof.’  He put on a semi-pretentious voice, ‘Oh I’m his mu-use.  I’m above you all!’

It wasn’t like that, of course.  Cloe was actually quite shy when out of her comfort zone and, in a crowd of coked-up self-proclaimed bright young things, she would really have been out of her comfort zone.  I’d already heard tales from Carina about her friend’s epic party exploits and heard her suggest that he’d been doing it so long, that it was a habit he couldn’t control.  While I was visiting, I was witness to a glimpse of this.  We all met for dinner on the Isle de la Cite.  He and their boss were already in the restaurant and were in high spirits, squawking and giggling together like best friends despite him only having known her for a fortnight at that stage.  Throughout dinner, they became ever more theatrical and expressive.  They seemed to have to leave the table several times where the rest of us didn;t.  In the end, with a flamboyant arm gesture that unfortunately coincided with a full bottle of red wine, Carina’s boss managed to utterly drench me.  Then they decided to go clubbing. Carina, more alert to the signs than I was, decided we both had to get home and made our excuses.   His parting shot was to stick his head in my cleavage as his boyfriend behind him shouted,

‘Stop it Angel!  You’re not straight!’

Then he headed into the Parisian night.

He was great fun but exactly the sort of person Cloe wouldn’t have wanted her kids to meet.

Relationship stress wasn’t the only thing Rupert may have been escaping from.  He struggled with the nuts and bolts of running a business.  Making sales, keeping accounts, placing orders on schedule, working to a deadline; in short, the boring and procedural aspects of the fashion business, were things he couldn’t or wouldn’t do.  Cloe, being highly organised, capable and having also run her own business for years, stepped in to keep the show on the road.  When he needed to move to cheaper accomodation, she rented him an apartment in a rickety old block in Covent Garden, above the cheese shop, that she and Eadmund owned. I rented a flat there too, for a while, which I sublet first to a school friend and then to my sister.  The building was like going back in time – a little corner of Victorian tenement-style dwelling, that looked down on Central London.  It was close to where Cloe worked.  They could see each other easily without the kids and he was even more indebted to her than ever.  She was his muse, she had found him somewhere to live and she’d saved his business.

Trying to establish some orde,r in the business of someone who enjoyed the anarchy of chaos, must have been extremely hard work.  In the run up to each collection, they would work 24/7 sewing clothes with a couple of assistants, re-modelling things, re-designing things right up until the last minute.  He created individual pieces outside of the show times but it was always a last-minute, frenetic rush.  Sometimes, to blow of steam, he went out and got wrecked, then came home and ripped up all the things he’d been working so hard to make.

As time went on, Rupert became angry, aggressive and depressive when he partied.  He began not to be thrillingly dangerous, but actually dangerous.  Cloe was afraid of him, but with his business dependent on her now, even when she had to end the relationship, she couldn’t leave him.  No longer her boyfriend, he didn’t even try to restrain the drugs and alcohol.  If he wasn’t in a fit state to work, she just left him to it until he could be productive again. He fliirted with and slept with star-struck girls, who were impressed that he was in fashion.  He paraded them in front of Cloe.

Rupert began to be violent.  He scared the other inhabitants of the flats above the cheese shop, most of whom worked there.  In drug fuelled rages, he rampaged up and down the central staircase threatening other people.  One of his girfriends was pregnant.  He threw her down the stairs.

Through all this, Cloe still helped him with his business and was his landlord.  He depended on her, he owed her his business, she inspired him and she had rejected him.  He loved and hated her.  Eventually, a company offered to take on his business.  In return for majority share in his own name and label, they would handle cashflow, provide him with back up in marketing, buying and general administration.  In some ways it was selling out but they could turn his business into a profit making one.  They could move on from each other.

It was hard for him to move on.  I think he managed eventually but not before he too, hit rock bottom.

He and the girlfriend had a baby.  This didn’t stop his drugs and alcohol.  It was a shock when I read, in the local paper, that he was in court for domestic violence; attacking his girlfriend while she was breastfeeding and in front of a team of assistants who were trying to restrain him.  A shock, because you hoped it would never have got to this, for all of their sakes and a grim sense that, perhaps, you could have predicted it after all.  I am not in touch with him, of course.  We weren’t all that close even when we were in the foursome.  However, before writing this, I did put his name into Google and crossed my fingers that I might find out good news.  There wasn’t much information but it appears that, on the testimony of his girlfriend who had told the court he was an affectionate, loving father when he was sober but had a Jekyll and Hyde personality around alcohol, the judge gave him a suspended sentence on the condition he went into rehab.  He seems to be designing still today.  He even has a Twitter account which he most definitely doesn’t write himself, but it appears that the business is functioning and that must mean that he is functioning again too.

It’s a relief and I hope it means he’s ok.  He was hard to live with.  He caused us all pain, stress and complications in our dealings with one another as we all tried to relate in an extended family.  It was due to his nature that we were all trying to cope with even more dysfunction than your average open relationship with teenage kids.  But it wasn’t contrived.  He couldn’t be any other way.  Besides, everyone deserves to be happy.  That includes the mother of Rupert’s baby, their son and it also includes him.

Interlude: Happiness

hummingbird-happiness-living-color-photography-lorraine-lynch

When I explain the twists and turns of my relationship with Eadmund, most people reach this point with:

‘What the hell?’

It is very hard to read the scenario in a different way from ‘innocent abroad, used and abused by self-indulgent older man’.  But it wasn’t like that.  In order to see it that way, you’d have to assume that I was a victim.  I am nobody’s victim.

I am quiet.  I am still relatively shy in large groups of people.  At the time I most certainly was pretty inexperienced and naïve.  I am also strong willed, although not unreasonable.  I know my own mind.  I am stubborn as an ox and because when I make my mind up on something, I will have thought about it thoroughly, I am often sure I’m right.  As Isla once told me (in a work context on this occasion),

‘A loud personality isn’t necessarily a strong personality.  You are a strong personality.’

And without apologising for Eadmund, I was far from easy to be with during the secretive, guilt ridden early days.  I don’t feel guilty about that anymore.  I did a bit at the time.  What I wish I had known then was that my happiness is my own responsibility and it’s in my own power to create it.

One of the things Eadmund and I did talk about was happiness.  He is lucky enough to be able to bounce back quickly, even in extreme circumstances.  In his early twenties, he had a serious girlfriend who he thought he was going to marry but who slept with his best friend.  They sat him down to explain and to tell him they wanted to be together. He didn’t see a problem with it.  He loved her, he loved his best friend, they all loved each other why shouldn’t they be together?  Then she had to break it to him.  They wanted to be together without him.  He was heartbroken.  And yet, the following morning, whilst doing the washing up, he found himself singing.  It still took time to process the rejection and hurt but a mere twenty four hours later he had a sign that he was going to be ok.  Over the years, he developed this ability and took the decision to cultivate happiness and take responsibility for his own enjoyment of life.

I don’t bounce back that easily but even in the blackest times of my life, I’ve been able to smile at little things like spring blossom, a sunny day, or laugh if someone cracks a joke.  My problem back then was that I didn’t appreciate or value those little things enough.  I was a hopeless romantic and escapist, forever living out dreams in my head.  My favourite film, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ in which Rosanna Arquette, trapped in a going nowhere marriage escapes to New York and ultimately ends up living a bohemian life with Aidan Quinn, was a classic story of a romantic escape.  In leaving a conventional life with Jack, I felt my horizons opening up and in my romantic mind, I was the heroine in my own movie.  Set against what felt like an epic love story, the little things that briefly lift your soul didn’t seem so important.  I know now it’s the accumulation of those things and being open to seeing them and prioritising them that tips the balance from sadness into being happy.

The soaring highs of being in love, while amazing and exhilarating were really just an adrenaline rush.  Happiness is something else.  It’s in the little things, it’s how you see the world and most important of all, it’s a choice.

Addictive, ecstatic highs of love are amazing.  I don’t regret a single one of them.  But like a roller coaster, it’s just a ride.  I had the beginnings of an idea of how to choose to be happy, but as with many emotions going on in my life at this point I didn’t know how to balance them.

Part of the issue is that, women are educated, without realising it, to cater to other people.  The traditional role of wife and mother is selfless, nurturing and caring.  I was brought up with a father who wanted me to know my own mind and argue my case.  I went to a school founded on the principles that women should not be educated in the traditional feminine subjects but allowed to learn maths, sciences and physical education.  This was pretty radical in the 1890s when it was founded and they maintained their attitude to educating women to believe there were no gender-defined career boundaries.  I have in many ways had quite progressive influences in my life and was hardly the downtrodden female, but I still had not learned that putting myself first isn’t a selfish act.  In fact, it’s the reverse because if you aren’t in control of your own happiness, you can’t support, love and nurture someone else properly.

While I was displaying classic implosion behaviour, drinking, self-harming, spiralling into depression, I was needy.  I didn’t mean to be, but by not taking control of my own life, I exerted emotional blackmail on the very person I wanted to nurture.

Within that relationship he hurt me, of course, and in turn, I hurt him.  People do.  Beyond that, life, circumstances and the repercussions of my own actions hurt me. There was too much for me to cope with and it was an extreme situation but my happiness was too heavy a burden to place on someone who loved me.  It was not his responsibility.  He could contribute, help and love me but the choice to be happy was mine.  At the time, I couldn’t understand that I had a choice and that while I might feel guilt, I could still permit myself to be happy.  I wasn’t a bad person.  I wasn’t unlovable.  I got some things wrong and it hurt people but I was still worthy of love.

If I couldn’t do understand how to get to that realisation, alone, I could also choose to talk to someone professional to help me clear through my confusion in a space without judgement.  I could choose, with the benefit of clarity, to let my friends and family into my emotional life and not care if they found it unconventional and down-right weird; not even care if they disapproved as the more I could talk, the more they would get used to the idea.  I did none of those things.  I was confused and didn’t understand that I had the right to choose happiness and the ability to create it.

The best lesson learned from this time, even better than our relationship finally being publically acknowledged, is that I have the right, power and choice to be happy.

It isn’t a mystical state that is visited upon me.  It’s something I can create for myself.

And I do.

And I will.

It’s not an Open Relationship When it’s Cheating

cheating

If we had no hold on each other, if we were together by choice and free to love other people too, why, after Eadmund admitted to his fling, was I feeling so betrayed and angry?  He seemed to feel it was entirely permissable under the terms of what we had agreed but it didn’t feel right to me.

At the time and with no other ideas of how to conduct a relationship, I just assumed the whole open thing wasn’t for me, that I’d agreed to something I couldn’t fulfill and that I had no right to be feeling the way I did.  Now, I think differently.

The sort of relationship Eadmund described, the sort I agreed to, would not, if we had managed to communicate, have unfolded like this.  He would have met someone, sure.  He would have felt an attraction.  He might even have wanted to take it to a sexual relationship.  But he would have told me at every stage how he felt, what he wanted.  We would have had the chance to talk.  If it was going to hurt me and hurt us, we would have acted accordingly, leaving me feeling part of the discussion and not presented with a fait accompli.

Something about the story of them meeting on the buying trip bugged me.  The shock, anger and rejection died down in the main.  Life moved on.  The happiness and relief that we were at last being open about our relationship in front of his children and therefore in front of everyone was more than enough compensation.  But something still didn’t seem right and I was really struggling to make sense of it.  How could he meet someone and in so short a time be ready to sleep with them?  He had taken so long to make love to me.  He had been so cautious about approaching it.  It seemed out of character.  It made her seem as if she must be some superbeing, irresistible.  Yet he told me that he found me more attractive.  He didn’t love her.  He said he enjoyed my company more. He didn’t intend to carry on any relationship with her from now on.  Did she have an amazingly strong and individual personality that had transfixed him?  Not really.

Something didn’t add up.

One day before I set off for work, I noticed his computer was still on.  His email programme was open.  I didn’t have to leave straight away and there was no one else in the house.  Curiosity overcame me and with a sense of shame at the fact I was prying through personal things, I clicked on his email archive.  It wasn’t at all hard to find the emails.  He kept all correspondence neatly filed with a folder labelled with the sender’s name.  I found the folder for their correspondence and opened it.

As I read the emails, the story unfolded.  They had met months before at a fair in Italy.  They felt a connection at the time and kept in touch.  The emails carried on for five months, their tone becoming longing, romantic.  I recognised phrases he had used to me in the beginning.

‘I know we’re apart but you feel so close to me tonight, it’s almost as if I can smell you.’

Numbly, I read on.  I was distantly aware of a strange sound.  Whimpering.  Animal.  In pain.  It took a few seconds to realise the sound was me.

It was another visceral sensation of pain but at least it made sense now.  Yes, if I’d imagined him having a relationship with someone else, there would be a meeting, a courting period, consummation.

I admitted, later, to having read his emails.  I confronted him with what I’d found out.  On this occasion, he crumpled, ashamed.  He had meant to be brave, to talk to me if he found himself attracted to someone else.  He had meant to be open, to be honest, to be free.

‘Instead, I reverted to old habits.  I went back to sneaking around and being dishonest like I used to.  I talked this big talk about freedom and honesty and then I didn’t live up to it.’

At the time, I was relieved to have things out in the open.  We weren’t trying to keep a secret any more.  We were more open, we were happier with each other, communication was better again.  Finding the emails when I did was a huge step in being able to move on and rebuild trust with him.

But there, if you press me to it, is the difference between non monogamy and cheating.  An open relationship should be just that, open.  It should respect the needs of both people.  It shouldn’t be about compartmentalising love and hiding it away in boxes.  During the better moments of the Anne, Eadmund, Isla triangle, I had had a glimpse of how things could work.  When we all talked, we understood each other, we were close, we supported each other, we looked out for each other.  It’s not that ego and competition didn’t intrude, it certainly did.  We weren’t open enough to try and confront and deal with that.  He didn’t categorise either as an actual relationship although frankly he was kidding himself.  I was hurt from not knowing about their relationship until too late and it put me in the role of victim which made me fight back.  Isla was hurt about finding out about mine with him when her own with him had just been re-kindled.  She fought back too.  Again there had been lies, secrecy, hiding things.  But Isla and I did talk.  We supported each other.  The three of us talked less, but we did do so.  When we did, when we understood each other and when we were open with each other, there was a nurturing sense of love, support and community.

It wasn’t a successfully open relationship with honest open communication but new, strange and scary as it was at the time, this was where I first got a glimpse of how it could work.  Including other people doesn’t have to mean deceit, betrayal, pain.  It doesn’t have to have a victim who gets hurt.  It can also create a close knit group and increase the love, caring and support.

Cheating is a whole lot different.

Interlude: Secrecy

secrecy

Here and now, in the present, I am giving internet dating yet another go.  It doesn’t always click with me.  If you are used to going with your gut instinct, to suddenly choose someone based on a load of facts figures and a theoretical percentage compatibility feels a bit like doing your monthly supermarket delivery order.  I’d like one male, open-minded, sexually adventurous but not into pain thanks or blindfolds, who likes to talk about issues, politics and ideas and doesn’t end his messages with lol.  Pick up in aisle 3.

What it does do, though, is get you to think about who you’re well matched with.  What bits of your personality do you want to be able to develop and share.  What things are you just not prepared to accept.  Luckily, I’m pretty open minded and liberal myself but today I had a message from someone that did make me stop and think.

‘Hi

Write back if you feel you can.

Ax’

I’m intrigued, not least because we apparently share an initial.  It’s the little things that make you decide to write to somone in an impersonal setting like the internet.  He hasn’t uploaded a photo but I check out his profile to see what he’s like.  Apparently based on having answered many many questions on sex, morality, religion, love and other issues besides, we’re compatible.  I read the paragraph everyone writes as a summary of themselves:

‘Naughty…adventurous,,,no inhibitions,’ He begins.  And then

‘OK, I am married and being secretive so any ethical minded creatures should probably report me somewhere…’

He concludes that he’s looking for someone open minded and casual.

And there’s the deal breaker.  No, not because, after previous experience I’ve decided never to get involved with a married man again.  If it’s ok by his wife again then I’d never say never.  The deal breaker is secrecy.

After my own experiences of being secretive or uncomfortable about a relationship, I have made a promise to myself that I am never doing that again.  Eadmund’s affair actually ended up being a catalyst for change, but on balance I would far rather the change had happened in a way that didn’t involve me being lied to.  It was the state of mind I managed to get myself into by trying to keep the relationship a badly kept secret that I will never put myself through again.

I’m a terrible liar.  I hate doing it.  I’m not very believable.  I recently read a quote from Mark Twain that said

‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.’

I couldn’t put it better myself.  So as the person trying to keep a secret, you not only have to behave in a way that feels deeply unnatural and seems to negate yourself and your presence, you are also always under the stress of remembering who you’ve told what to.  It’s exhausting and unneccessary.  In contrast to the freedom of relationship we were trying to achieve, we had created ourselves another prison far worse than the claustrophobia of my impending marriage to Jack. I wanted to feel limitless and on occasions I still did, when we were alone together and could stop looking over our shoulders.  But most of the time, when we were at work, or at his home those moments were snatched and furtive.  The walls were closing in again on us both.

I also found that by keeping the secret and having to behave as if the whole company didn’t know I was in a relationship with Eadmund, I cut myself off from my friends.  I couldn’t talk to them and because they were aware there was a big area of my life that was off limits, they avoided socialising with me or talking to me.  It was very lonely and it wasn’t until later, when things were out in the open that one of my colleagues finally said to me

‘As long as you’re happy we don’t care what you’re doing and who with.  It makes people uneasy if you won’t talk about it though.  We don’t want to say the wrong thing.’

Then a few years later, ironically as I split up from Eadmund, my sister got involved with someone who she had met through work.  They too decided to keep their relationship a secret.

‘It’s not like it’s a big secret,’ she told me when I asked her why we needed to pretend they weren’t together, ‘I just don’t want to be gossipped about.  It’s none of their business.’

Again, not something you’d think would be a big deal, just being discreet so that the workplace rumour mill doesn’t take off but from a different viewpoint, this time, I observed how corrosive secrecy is.  It starts as a little act of being discreet and then through the stress of not telling it how it is, openly and honestly, you create relationship problems for yourself, you argue and can’t admit to anyone that you know why your eyes are puffy, red and swollen.  People around you withdraw because they don’t know what to say or what to do.  They don’t understand, when as far as they can see it’s a good thing that you are in a relationship with the guy, why they can’t admit to people that they know about it.  Just as people pulled away from me, I found myself avoiding Gia and her boyfriend because I didn’t want the hassle and stress of their secret.  The early years of their relationship were a bit tortured.  He’s a great guy but he’s not easy to be with.  He’s force of energy which when he’s good is very. very good and when he’s bad is horrid.  She could have done with more support before she hit her rock bottom.  If she’d had it, hitting rock bottom could have been avoided.  But the secrecy made us not know how to act or what to say.  It made me keep my own counsel and keep away from her.  I wasn’t the only one.  I’d run into one of their mutual friends around the Food Market on occasions and we’d let out some of the tension of the situation by royally taking the piss.  It was a huge relief to be able to just laugh about it.

So now I’ve seen it from the point of view of someone keeping the secret and from the point of view of the friend forced into secrecy and not really understanding why it is neccessary.  I’m not going there again.  I feel it very strongly that whatever relationship I go into next, absolute honesty and openness has to be the cornerstone.

My reply to A was easy to write:

‘Hi

Thanks for your message and what a conundrum you present.  You sound like a fun guy to get to know and I’ve been in an open relationship before and been in one with a married man so there are no judgements here but the need for secrecy is a deal breaker.  If your wife agreed to it and it was all above board, I’d probably be interested but I’ve been someone’s secret before and it did bad things to my psyche.  Sorry and Good luck.’