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.

 

Fallout

I broke up with Jack, as I wrote before, on a busy Saturday in May with a bustling food market all around us.  I vanished from my shop shift and spent the day in our offices, upstairs in a fairly molten state.

After crying all day in the office on my own, I finally made the call to my mum and told her the wedding was off.

‘You’ve been having an affair?’ My mum was angry and disappointed, ‘I did not bring you up to behave like that.’

My dad sounded concerned, gentle, worried.  I explained that although I hadn’t said anything, things weren’t right with Jack.

‘I’ve always thought that he didn’t quite have enough of a spark for you,’ he admitted.

I didn’t feel I deserved kindness.  It made me start crying all over again.

‘Eadmund feels like home.’ I managed to choke before I couldn’t speak any more.

My friends dropped everything.  Nia and Helena, my friends since school, drew lots over who should look after me and who should look after Jack.  Helena drew Jack, grabbed her purse and a bottle of wine and headed for the flat I would no longer live in.  Nia came with her, grabbed a change of clothes and some things she thought would be important to me and returned home.  She arranged for Maelle to meet me at London Bridge Station and stay with me until she could get there.  Before I could even ask, they had decided they would take me in.

Eadmund had been spending the day out of London.  I had rung him earlier to tell him what I’d done.  As soon as he could, he had driven back to see me.  Before I went to meet Maelle, he hugged me, took me to the pub and bought me a pint.  With masterfully inappropriate timing, as I waited for him to be served at the bar, a CAMRA Real Ale bore complete with dandruff beard, shorts, socks and sandals decided to chat me up.  I was way to shell shocked to manage to politely decline his attentions but luckily Eadmund showed up and he got the message.  We sat on bar stools and I contemplated my glass, concentrating on it as if my life depended on it.

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‘I know you feel terrible right now,’ Eadmund said, touching my arm.  I looked up at him.  His eyes were shining and soft.  In a world full of anger, shock, sadness, disappointment and guilt, he was an oasis of happiness.  ‘It will pass.  And I may be the only one, but I’m really happy you’re not getting married.’

I learned over the next few days, that most people I worked with, thought I was right to call off the wedding.  The cracks in our relationship that I had been blind to were obvious to them.  Even more surprising was that my friends outside work agreed too.

‘The thing is, Anne,’ Nia told me, ‘You and Jack are both nice people but you’d started to bring out the worst in each other.’

Even Isla, though she couldn’t be empathetic or sympathetic, said.

‘You did the right thing.  If you can be in a relationship with someone else at the same time, you definitely shouldn’t be getting married.’

I was relieved to hear her say it but the contained tone in which she did so was a dagger to my heart.  Belated guilt for everything was washing over me in waves; guilt about Jack who was hurt, angry and heart broken; guilt about Isla whose friendship I had brushed aside because I was too preoccupied with Eadmund choosing me over her; guilt about my mother toying with her emotions by giving her the news of our impending wedding with all its celebrations and joys then snatching it away from her again – her happy and proud face in the wedding dress shop haunted me for over ten years afterwards; guilt about my sister who I had abandoned when she needed family.

I really needed a friend who understood why I had fallen for Eadmund, why he had affected me so much and why I loved him so much.  Only one person I knew understood that, but I’d hurt her too badly for her to be my friend anymore.  I missed her so much it hurt.

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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