Getting to Know You

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A year or two after that, an opportunity arose to work with Eadmund on a project.

We had moved our wholesale department to a new site just south of the Thames.  The new premises bordered on a nocturnal fruit and vegetable market was the only remaining aspect of a once a thriving produce selling area known as London’s Larder.  Now, it was largely empty.  Its spaces were used for parking cars but the market structure and empty warehouses around it was still impressively Victorian.  It just cried out to have food stalls in it.

I was at a career ceiling.  I had added being the assistant Mail Order manager to my list of roles but there wasn’t enough work in the department for it to be anything more than holiday cover, a day a week and then an even more seasonal and intense Christmas sales period than when I’d worked retail.

I had appreciated the support, cheering on and hugs even more than ever.  I had seen Jack less than ever.

I was also at the end of my tether with matters rota-related.  It was like trying to solve a huge Sudoku puzzle and it just didn’t appeal to the way my mind worked.  My attempts to solve the Sudoku weren’t good enough for the new shop manager, James (Isla had taken on HR) and he didn’t hold back with his criticism.  I announced my intention to give up the rota and train someone new.  I didn’t tell anyone but it was the first step of my plan to hand in my notice.

Eadmund needed someone to help with a plan to develop the market as a thriving food area again: to call in stall holders, to take advantage of momentum created by open warehouse days the local traders had held and a Food Lovers Fair that had generated great publicity and introduced some amazing food producers from all over the country to this atmospheric corner of London and its wrought iron Victorian market building.  The fair had been exhilarating.  The iron and glass structure echoed to the sounds of traders selling food and all of the food was superlative.  The space came alive.  At the end of our long retailing days, we cheesemongers mingled in the local pub, with other traders from the market.  We were all buzzing.  Many drunkenly enthusiastic conversations were had, starry eyed about the potential for restoring it to a full time food market.

Eadmund had a plan.  The open warehouse days had been fine but now we needed a bigger market.  A monthly market.  In time, a weekly market.  He always suffered from having more ideas than there is time to execute them, so he needed someone to put his plan into action.  Would I be interested in working with the best food producers in the country to establish the best selection of produce in the UK at a market?  Would I?  Is the Pope a Catholic?

From being miserable and failing in my job, I suddenly had a lifeline and one with hugely exciting possibilities.  Eadmund and I met and worked together for a day each week.  I loved the job.  I loved working with him.  We worked extremely harmoniously together.  I was doing something I could succeed in and succeed I did.  I was learning all the time and I began to blossom again.

We started to get to know each other a little.

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.

Christmas

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In the cheese retail world, Christmas is a big deal.

‘We will take more money in the week before Christmas’ Eadmund told the assembled new mongers as part of a special Christmas training session, ‘Than in the whole of July and August put together.’

We’d be asked to work longer hours and more shifts than usual and we would be depended on.  We were to look after ourselves and be on time because with the extra pressure it would be easy to get ill.

What were we about to go through?

‘Christmas is fun too though,’ I was told, ‘People who normally work in the office like Eadmund and Catherine and Jacob are on the shop all the time which makes it a bit of a party atmosphere.’

‘We have a competition about who can sell the most sides of smoked salmon.  Oh yes, we sell smoked salmon and it is the best smoked salmon you will ever have in your life.’

It actually is, incidentally.

Turns out they weren’t exaggerating.  It was as full on, intense, exhausting and exhilarating as they said.  I had never seen so many people queuing up just to buy cheese.  In the rain even.  They waited from twenty minutes to half an hour and the queue stretched all the way past the clothes shop next door and further down the street.  They clothes shop even had to put out an A board to remind our queue to leave their doorway accessible for their own customers.

It was a baptism of fire but addictively enjoyable too.

After waiting patiently for half an hour, we had to give our customers the very best service of our lives; be more welcoming, friendly and helpful than ever.  In the pursuit of being ever better, it generated energy.  There were eight of us packed behind the tiny counter – you couldn’t afford to be shy as arms, legs and torsos jostled past you on all sides.  It was like a complicated dance to keep out of each other’s way but somehow it worked.

It was also my first experience of working with Eadmund.  He was positive, joking, encouraging.  He made everyone up their game.  We worked non-stop and he made it fun.  He created systems where we were too tired and busy to know how to make order out of chaos.  He looked out for us, making each person take 5 minutes for a coffee and a sit down when we looked like we were flagging or getting stressed out.  At the end of the week, he bought everyone champagne because we’d smashed sales targets.  In the tactile atmosphere, with so many people squeezed into a small space, he gave bear hugs that seemed entirely natural, lifted your exhausted spirits and made you feel like trying even harder.  And most importantly he said a heartfelt, genuine thank you for all our hard work.  I felt valued and important.  I learned so much, I had just packed a lifetime’s experience into one week.

Oh yes, and I won the smoked salmon challenge.  It might have been cheating that I also bought one myself.  My prize?  Another side of salmon.  Get in!

At home, my friends and boyfriend hardly saw me.  It was as if I’d disappeared for a month.  I got in late, ate and slept but otherwise I was at work.  It meant that January was an odd month.  Last thing Christmas Eve I’d headed back to Marple for rest, recovery and roast goose.  After Christmas, I headed back to London, reflecting a little ruefully that a 4 weeks per year holiday allowance is a shock to the system when you’ve been used to school and university holidays.  I was still tired.  I missed the energy and the fun of the pre-Christmas work.  I missed the extra boost and special feeling of having Eadmund and the gang on the shop floor with us.  At home, with little energy and coming down from my Christmas adrenaline high, I had to re-build a relationship with my rather shell-shocked boyfriend who was feeling severely neglected.  It was hard work.

The following Christmas, was even more intense.  By this time, I’d decided to take on a bit of administrative responsibility.  Catherine had left the company.  Eadmund was more present in the business and as ever, life seemed more fun when he was around.  He was around a lot more, in fact, because Erin, the retail manager, had also left and before her replacement, Isla could start work.  Consequently it was left to Eadmund among others to instil in her the ethos of the company: honesty at all times with customers and the mission and vocation to preserve, encourage and develop what was left of Britain’s artisan, farmhouse cheese industry.

As autumn rolled around , I was entrusted with the staff rota.  It was not a natural fit.  Trying to make the Christmas shift patterns requested by the department managers fit to the number of staff available was impossible and I was sinking under the weight of it.  I had already put myself down for so many shifts to fill the gaps that I was working 6 and 7 day weeks and it was only the end of October.  I was spending 12 hours a day on my rota admin days trying my best to make it fit.

Isla, as shop manager, refused to accept my compromises.  It was her first Christmas and the pressure was on her to deliver an organised shop that was well staffed enough to get the sales.

She, Eadmund and I sat down and thrashed it out together.  He and I had worked on it for a day beforehand and where I felt like an abject failure, he was kind and helpful and most importantly, with the benefit of many years’ experience, he knew we’d find a way to compromise.  He managed to find solutions where I hadn’t been able to and supported some of the ones I had found.  He didn’t think I’d been a failure; just that it was a damn difficult job.  I almost wept with relief.

The three of us then worked at it solidly, well into the night.  At about 9pm after 12 hours we hit the single malt whisky Eadmund kept by his desk, a present from a Scottish cheesemonger.  We didn’t hit it hard but just enough to give the evening a slightly warm glow.  Later, we tottered off into the night, not reeling from alcohol but from yet another mind bending 14 hour day with the satisfaction of knowing we’d finally sorted it.

That year I disappeared from my boyfriend for 2 months.

We’re not in Marple anymore, Toto

The canal near the house in which I grew up.  Marple.

The canal near the house in which I grew up. Marple.

‘And do you eat cheese?’ asked the business owner over the phone.  I had summoned up my courage and rung about that job.

‘Oh yes, when the diet allows,’ I replied with more hearty cheeriness than I felt.

‘Oh, do you worry a lot about fat then?’

‘Oh no,’ I bluffed (it had actually been a fairly recent panic of mine as I was eternally convinced I was overweight), ‘Just that you need to eat everything in moderation.’

‘Hmm,’ the female voice over the phone replied, ‘Yes, everything in moderation.’

Sweat was breaking out on my brow – I’d evidently said the wrong thing.  However we fixed a date for an interview and as I’d already got other jobs lined up for interviews that day, I turned up wearing my suit jacket and a pair of trousers that went reasonably well with them.  I felt the full suit was a bit over the top for jobs in retail.  In the weeks that followed, I realised that no one else did that.  Everyone else pitched up in their jeans.  However I think it might have helped my cause because Catherine, a partner in the business, liked me.

‘The shop is the heart of our business,’ she told me, sounding a lot more friendly in person than she had done on the phone over the diet faux pas, ‘but we do have other departments too which gives you scope for more varied work.  We wholesale to shops and restaurants.  I notice from your CV that you’ve studied languages, Jacob there,’ indicating the back of a blond head to the right of us, ‘uses his languages all the time.  He started out working in the shop and now manages our Export Department.  He’s even selling British cheese to the French.’

I made noises of incredulity and indicated that I was impressed.

‘… and I run the business with my partner Eadmund,’ she continued indicating the back of another blond head, this one atop a big tweed coat, khaki trousers and what I would later know to be VeldSchoen but at the time I recognised as classic leather English mens shoes.

Evidently a look on my face indicated that I thought she meant life partner, as well as business partner.  It seemed that sort of family place where a couple might run it together.  I was to be put right however, as she quickly clarified, ‘my business partner that is.’

When I later recounted the story of my interview to Felicity, the wholesale manager who was working with me during my trial month and who also happened to be an incorrigible gossip, she set me straight,

‘That’s because until not that long ago they were partners, not just in business.’

‘But isn’t he married?’

‘Yes and she was married too – to Eadmund’s best friend!’

Her assistant manager, Naomi chimed in,

‘They were together for years without either his wife or her husband knowing then it all came out and it was pretty shocking.  But it’s not long since they split up so that’s why they’re really awkward around each other.’

She went on, ‘He works at home a lot these days, which to be honest isn’t best for the business, but it’s better than the two of them working together and creating a bad atmosphere.  She works in the office but spends a day a week on the shop and he’ll usually come in and use the office from time to time and most likely when she’s working on the shop.’

Crikey, thought I, it’s like something out of a novel.  They had a passionate affair, that’s all finished now and she’s with someone new and they obviously still have feelings for each other or it wouldn’t be so awkward.  How very star crossed and romantic.

Highly charged passion between business partners wasn’t the only exotic aspect of my new job either.  It turned out that quite a few relationships were made and broken over the selling and maturing of cheese.  Michael, the cellarman, in charge of all the cheese maturing, due to a somewhat camp Yorkshire accent had been assumed to be gay until one day Naomi piped up

‘I think Michael might fancy me.’

One day they went on holiday to visit her family and when they came back, they were married.

There was the frightfully English aforementioned Felicity who had at one point had a fling with the shop manager Erin. Since then they used to compete over any of the female chefs that came in to buy cheese in the shop.  Erin had also had a rather charged relationship with the ex-mail order manager, Adrienne which was complicated further by Erin having a psychotically jealous girlfriend and Adrienne a commitment phobic boyfriend whose idea of flexibility in relationships did not extend to his girlfriend having a girlfriend.  It was, it goes without saying, a deadly secret and was also, Adrienne told me later, the best sex of her life to date.

It was a tangle of intermingled lives and unique people. I soaked up every new story, wide-eyed, insatiably curious and fascinated.  I felt like I was in a soap opera only way more cool than that.  A long way from home and yet exactly where I always wanted to be.

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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.

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.

My first boyfriend and THE FEAR

‘I’ve got a boyfriend! I’ve got a boyfriend!’

I rang my parents, I wrote to my school friends, I wrote to my sister.  I was so excited, I turned back into a teenager.  From kissing, we moved pretty quickly to sleeping together and while our first attempts at sex didn’t go as planned, after about the third attempt things were most definitely looking up.

A further week, and in the middle of a seminar on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, I realised I was in love.  Full on hearts and flowers, makes you feel a bit queasy in a good way, can’t eat, want to be with them all the time.  I went home to his room where we spent every evening now (his bed was marginally bigger than mine) and told him.  All sorts of things could have gone wrong here but I was in luck again.  Jack had realised he loved me too.

From that point, it was LOVE in big capitals. We barely managed to stagger out of bed to lectures.  I wore his clothes so I could smell him when he wasn’t with me.  I met his sister.  I heard all about his past girlfriends and he heard about my lack of boyfriends and the coal shed.  I met his friends in the third year and sat with them in the Union Bar.  He met my parents.  I met his.

I would love to say that we were love’s young dream for the next year but unfortunately once I’d got my boyfriend and should have been revelling in enjoying being with him, I went a bit mental.  A terrible fear came over me, that Jack loved me more than I loved him.  I felt, although I didn’t want to, that I should break up with him for his own sake.  With the benefit of hindsight, I now think it was becoming apparent that the relationship had a use by date and I was becoming aware that I could, if I wasn’t careful, make him very unhappy indeed when we hit that date.  But it had taken so long to actually get a boyfriend, I couldn’t bear to give him up now.  You might ask why on earth I was worrying about the end of our relationship when we’d only been together a couple of months but it was always on our minds that he was in third year, the end of the year was coming, he would sit his finals and we had to think about what to do next.

Jack wanted to move to Leeds with his best friend from school.  They’d had a summer hanging out in Leeds where his friend was at university, before he came back for his final year.  It had taken on fairly legendary proportions in his mind, like a 1980s American coming of age teen movie.  He hadn’t really enjoyed his university years in London that much, it’s too big a city to have the college culture of a university town, and he wanted a bit more carefree living with the boys.  I had no other friends at my college.  The people I met at lectures and seminars were passing acquaintances to meet for coffee but no one who was going to become a life long friend that I would be happy flat sharing with.   Jack was adamant he wouldn’t stay in London.  We didn’t want to break up either.  My school friend Nia saved my bacon by putting me in touch with a friend from her course who had been living out of halls in Essex at the home of a schoolfriend and who had, like me, not found a group of people to share a flat with.  Maelle, who is a proud Breton but will also admit to being described as French, couldn’t come over to flat hunt so she trusted me and my dad with the job of finding a flat for us both and we came up trumps with a flat in the upper two storeys of a big Georgian house in Hackney.

Jack, meanwhile, moved into a terraced brick house in Leeds with his mates for a year of scoring drugs (conveniently 2 of his housemates were dealing) and what he hoped would be fun, clubbing and enjoying the city.  A year in, and on not too certain footings given my worries of earlier in the year, we were now in a long distance relationship.

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‘…I guess it’s got something to do with luck.’

For some reason, with this as my hobby, I didn't have many boyfriends growing up.

For some reason, with this as my hobby, I didn’t have many boyfriends growing up.

I had a very sheltered life as far as boyfriends went.  Going to an all girls school was great for my studies, but it didn’t provide an opportunity to mix with boys.  My social sphere outside school centred around dancing, shopping, going to the cinema and sleepovers with my friends; all very girlie.  I found pop idols or film stars more impressive and fascinating than a boy my age could ever be, so although my mum did gently try to persuade me to join a local orchestra to meet people other than my school friends, I was happier dreaming of the day when I would be Mrs Pal Waaktaar or later Mrs CC DeVille or once I’d watched the Rocky Horror Show, Mrs Barry Bostwick.

To the childish affections, the famous celebrity has already achieved things in their life, they know things, there’s a glamour about them.  The gawky kid with acne who might possibly want to give you an inexpert snog at a disco party doesn’t really have the same allure.

But after a while it became apparent to me that my friends were managing to attract male attention.  We held disco parties, dressed up in our new Top Shop attire and kitten heeled court shoes, drank cider from plastic disposable cups and at the end of the evening, one by one, they had all been asked to slow dance and had their first kiss.

‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked my mother with the intensity and distress that only an angst ridden teen can have.

She told me I was beautiful of course but the cynical negative voice in my head said in reply ‘Well she’s bound to think that, she’s your mum.

Thus with warped logic, I decided that I was destined to die a virgin, alone and be eaten by Alsatians.  Whatever ‘sex appeal’ was (and to be honest I was a bit too young to have worked it out) I evidently didn’t have it.

Fast forward to my university years and the autumn of 1992.  I am not going to die a virgin any more.  I managed to dispatch that unwelcome state of being in a coal shed at a friend’s party with a German boy wearing a tan leather jacket.  It was not exactly love’s young dream but it was the start of a new chapter of life.

I am, however, a bit disappointed by university life in London.  I’d taken a year out and went to work in Paris at Le Quick Burger (oh the glamour) for a couple of months but otherwise rather bottled out of travelling.  I had been looking forward to the bright lights and big city. I found myself living in South Woodford, a suburb along the eastern edge as London meets Epping Forest.  If I were to revisit it today, I might find it quite pleasant in parts.  My halls of residence, however, sat bang next to the South Circular and according to student rumour were due to be knocked down ten years earlier.  There was mould in the shower and dirty cork tiles on the floor.

I also hadn’t found anyone to be friends with.  The girls on my floor hung out together in a group for a day or so because we didn’t know anyone else.  I was surprised, though, to find I found them rather young.  It wasn’t like I’d had stretching and challenging experiences on my year out but the fact that I wasn’t straight out of school did mean I felt older than them.  This was going to be a problem.

I looked around the halls at mealtimes for someone who I felt I could strike up a conversation with.  I only saw one person.  He had shoulder length dark hair that was shaved close at the sides.  He was tall, wore skinny jeans and had a nose ring.  He wore a Nirvana T shirt under a lumberjack shirt (it was the 90s) and army surplus combat boots.

‘Right,’ I told myself, ‘He’s the person to make friends with.’