Losing Isla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I giggled too.  We slept in spoon position.

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

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

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

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

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

She is an exceptional person.

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The 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.

Move in with me

Average student fare.

Average student fare.

Maelle and I had a very civilised house in London.  We invited people for Sunday lunches at which we made roast chicken with all the trimmings and served up a poached pear tarte for puddings.  She had regular care packages sent over from France so there was often a good supply of Rillettes de porc in the fridge, home preserved tuna in oil in kilner jars lurked in our cupboards next to tins of cassoulet and jars of choucroute garnie.  I made a point of demonstrating to Jack how much better it was than his life in Leeds which wasn’t quite unfolding as he had hoped.  He hadn’t got the Antarctic Survey job, nor had he found anything that really used his degree of Marine Biology.  Finally when the landlord asked them to leave, he moved back to London and moved in with Maelle and me.  The uncertain times were over.  We were together again.  I shouldn’t have looked at it like this, and it’s symptomatic of how our relationship was about to develop but in my eyes, I’d won.