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.

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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Meeting Jack

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As I was psyching myself up to approach the grunge rock hero of my halls of residence, he beat me to it.  I was waiting for a tube at Mile End Station, staring down the tunnel hoping for a train.  I didn’t actually notice him until I had sat in the carriage and he sat opposite me.

‘Oh my God’ said the voice in my head, ‘That’s him.  You have to talk to him.’

Of course, I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  My throat constricted and my heart was pounding.  Fate solved the dilemma for me, when the train was delayed at Leytonstone.  Jack started up a conversation with a worldly wise comment on public transport and I pretended I’d taken the tube enough to comment back.  We talked all the way back to halls.  I discovered he was from Yorkshire which was a big bonus because it meant he was a Northerner too.  I was impressed because he was a third year student who was doing his finals that year and already knew his way round London.

We hung out as friends for a week.  I went round to his room for cups of Nescafe Blend 37 after lectures and listened to records.  We talked as people do when they are getting to know one another and after a while, I started to think,

‘I wish Jack would kiss me.’

And, luckily, not long after, he did.

‘…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.’