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.

 

The Kiss

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Band Aid Marriage Project

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

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

Signs of not caring. 

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

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

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

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

‘You have nothing in common!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But do you still love me?’

‘Yes,’ he admitted, ‘I do.’

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

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

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

The urge to win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going the Distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well Gonzo?  Shall we let her stay?’

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

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

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

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