The Kiss

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infatuation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What on earth did we have in common?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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