Loss, Love, Emotion, Nationality

The Dolomites, last August

The Dolomites, last August

A friend of mine died today.

He had had a good enough innings as they say.  He was in his eighties, I think.  To be honest I never knew his age exactly.  He had seemed timeless.  I hadn’t known him all that long either and as he was Italian and I’m not there as much as I am in the UK, it’s a while since I last saw him.  But something about his irrepressible spirit, love of life and just plain heart on sleeve Italianness had touched my buttoned up English heart.

I have been very lucky in that I feel to have a dual nationality.  I’ve had parallel lives.  I’ve grown up in the UK with a lovely family and great friends.  Then, every summer, we all piled into our car and spent the best part of the summer school holidays in Italy, in the Abruzzo.  Consequently I also have a lovely Italian family to match my English one: the family my parents befriended out there who have known my parents since before I was born and have watched me grow up.  I have great friends there too.  And finally, although it’s taken a decade or so to reconcile, I consider myself not only my own mixture of Cheshire / Scottish / Yorkshire but an honorary Abruzzese too.  I may not have the Italian temperament, but I will always consider it home and when I leave, I take it with me in my heart.

A few years ago, having spent many years fascinated by the nearest peaks of the Appenines to our Abruzzese home, we joined our local section of the Club Alpino Italiano which is where we met Mino.  Mino was one of the founding members of the local section and a passionate mountaineer.  We knew him in his later years when he could no longer scale the highest peaks and when his declining energy levels meant that he was happy just accompanying his wife Giulia on the lower slopes, having given up on the head spinning views for the less elevated pleasures of woodland, alpine flowers and collecting mushrooms.  Some people might regret no longer being able to scale the peaks, but Mino always seemed content.  While he may not have reached the summit, he would glory in telling us of the amazing plate of tagliatelle and funghi porcini he ate while we were punishing our bodies up the mountain.

Over the summer, my Dad broke his elbow quite impressively when the brakes on his bike seized up sending him flying over the handlebars as he tried to gently slow down and ended up crashing to a halt.  What should have been a piece of solid bone on his x ray, looked like a jigsaw puzzle.  He was operated on and healed up but not in time to join the CAI group on their annual away trip which, this year, was to the Dolomites.  Someone had to take my parents place so I manned up and took one for the team.

To say it was magical would be to understate it considerably.  The mountains were beautiful, beyond what I’d seen before – changing subtly as the sun rose and then set.  The colours, the light and shade, the shapes of the rocks all infinitessimally changing every time you looked up.  I took millions of photographs.

I also spent a week with the whole group of Italians that, until then, I had only really spent time on a once a week basis at the most frequent.  Being Italian and perhaps above that, being Abruzzese, they welcomed me in with open arms.  They were surprised that I didn’t talk more.  I am, after all, English by birth and shy by nature, but they soon took that in their stride,, discovering that in one on one situations where I had more time to try and express myself in a language I speak pretty well but which is by no means as fluent as my native one, I could hold my own in conversation.  They joked with me.  The included me in their banter.  They made me feel one of their own.  Yes, there would be the usual curious questions trying to ascertain what it was like to be British: the weather, the Royal family and what do we eat over in God forsaken England where there’s no pasta con fagioli and a nice bicchiere of Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo to wash it down with.  But that’s just a way of expressing interest in where you come from.  At heart there was always the feeling that we had things in common, we were the same underneath that cultural stuff.  I was welcomed.

Mino was one of the jokers of the group.  In his prime he had been a charismatic leader, I could tell.  Now he was the adopted grandfather of the party.  He couldn’t walk up to the highest summits in the Dolomites either but after a longstanding love affair with the area, he certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to visit them again.  He greeted me every morning at breakfast solicitously enquiring if I was enjoying this part of Italy, if I had liked the excursion yesterday, if I was looking forward to today’s excursion.  He joked with me and with the others.  He bantered.  He made it fun.

In Abruzzo they instinctively welcome you.  Until the 1950s they were a region with medieval seeming poverty: children running around in ragged clothes without shoes, food on the table because they kept chickens and rabbits and grew their own vegetables in their market garden or orto.  The only things they might buy in would be flour for bread or pasta.  Everything else; the bottled tomato passata that lasted them through the winter, the dried borlotti beans, the peppers, aubergines and courgettes which were eaten fresh through summer and pickled for the winter, all came from the orto.  And not only do they welcome you, they do so with an almost medieval hospitality.  In an attempt to impress and provide a suitable welcome, you will be invited to a lunch of six or seven courses and at least three types of meat (meat having been, in the past, the most valuable food they could provide for a visitor of course). All of this happens so naturally and without conscious effort that it washes over you like a warm wave of friendliness.  You can’t help but respond with affection.  It’s not like the more restrained friendship that an English person might give.  There is no irony.  There is none of the saying one thing politely but meaning the exact opposite that I actually love the twisted nature of in the English character.  It’s in your face, heart on sleeve and honest.  It’s almost childlike and yet I don’t mean that patronisingly.  And so you respond to it as you would to a child that welcomes you and wants to be your friend.  You love them.

Mino’s best friend at CAI and the founder member of the section, posted on Facebook, the sad news that Mino was now scaling the final and highest summits.  The outpouring of sadness and commiseration was immediate.  In posting their thoughts and best wishes, they didn’t hold back.  None of that English reserve that says

‘Oh I never know what to say at times like this so I’d better not say anything at all.’

They were sad, they would miss him, they were glad to have known him and they just said so.  So I did too.  I mustered my best Italian and the resources of Google translate.  I checked other comments to make sure I was copying their idioms in the hopes of not detracting from what I wanted to say by clumsy use of language and I wrote that I was sad to hear the news, would always have lovely memories of times spent in the mountains with him and that my life was richer for having known him.

After doing a walk (there is one every week in the season from March to October), the CAI group put together a semi film of photographic stills set to music.  It is sometimes appalling Italian ballad music, sometimes strangely inappropriate English music which only demonstrates that they haven’t quite understood the lyrics.  If I were feeling cynical, I could laugh at so much about it: the rather enthusiastic but extremely novice use of either photoshop or powerpoint to put the images together, the emotionally theatrical music,  But it is all done with the intention of communicating a love of the walk, the scenery, the mountains and the enthusiasm they all have.  So once more, you can’t help but respond emotionally, even while your critical and cynical brain notes the idiosyncracies of it. And so, of course, they have put together a film of photos of Mino, to say farewell.  Memories of a good friend, enjoying his life, set to some Italian pop ballad that I’ve never heard before sung by a gravel voiced singer.  The film is honest, unsophisticated, openly emotional and yet also dignified.  It ends, exhorting us all to seize the day: Carpe Diem.  Needless to say it has reduced me to tears every time.

I didn’t know him for very long and I didn’t see him all that often, but I will miss Mino very much, I find and I am truly glad that I knew him.  I have only just realised how much, but he touched my life and made it better in his own small way.

My other Italian friends knew him better and feel this more keenly.  Unlike me, who usually mourns and grieves the loss of someone by bottling it up until it eats away because I don’t understand the emotional response well enough to give vent to it at the right time or even know how to express it, they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  They are sad, they know they are and in their emotional eloquence, they are expressing that sadness immediately, openly, honestly and without shame or embarrassment. I can’t help feeling that if I could learn to be a bit more like them, I would be a healthier person.  I hope, perhaps, that being part of their group will give me chance to learn how to do that better in future.

Grazie Mino e Ciao.

Mino & Giulia

(Saying Goodbye the Abruzzese Way).

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.

 

Interlude: Loneliness

I was living in a city with a population of eight million.

I had caring friends who gave me a place to live for as long as I needed, helped me move my belongings out of the Jack’s flat and now I lived on my own, who I still met up with about once a week.

I had a partner who loved me, who I saw each day at work, whose house I stayed at every weekend, being domestic, pottering with him and the kids.

And yet I was very lonely.

Loneliness isn’t company or how many people you know.  I have felt more alone in the middle of a city than I do in absolute wilderness.  It’s a reflection of how understood you feel.

My friends who I had known since pre-teens had all ably demonstrated that they cared about me.  They also showed me that they worried about me.

‘But you are happy,’ they repeated as a refrain.

They thought the set up was weird.  Which it was.  But they saw that as a bad thing.  I don’t mean that they judged me.  They just couldn’t understand why I would settle for sharing ‘my’ man.

Our ideas of relationships as we grew up were based around strong heroines busting balls in the corporate world and taking no crap from any man or the counterpoint, subservient, dutiful Stand-by-your-Man Tammy Wynettes.  It was the 80s.  We’d all watched a lot of Dallas and Dynasty. None of us wanted to be Krystle Carrington when you could be Alexis Colby.

They saw relationships with men as an arena in which the woman had to stand up for her rights.  She had to respect herself enough to accept only what was her due which was complete commitment, adoration and a promise to get married to you.  The fact that I was in a relationship with someone who was not leaving his wife for me and already had three children seemed to them to be a serious retrograde step.

They wanted the white picket fence, the good man as a husband.  They wanted the security and the commitment.  Apparently, I no longer did.

We’d known each other since we were about 8 years old.  We’d gone through adolescence together.  We’d fretted over boys, worries about our changing bodies and whether periods would hurt.  We’d earnestly talked about morality.  We’d never sleep with a friend’s man.  We’d always respect her territory where boyfriends were concerned.  We’d never sleep with a married man.  That was wrong.  But largely we had contempt for him for not keeping is vows, he should know better.

It was simple and black and white.  Real life is lived in shades of grey.

I had embarked down a path they didn’t want to follow me on.  When we talked now, they would listen to my point of view, interested but without the slightest hint they would ever want to do what I was doing.  I couldn’t explain the concept that I was trying to adjust to that your boyfriend wasn’t YOUR boyfriend but was a person with whom you chose to spend time, who you loved and who was free to go wherever he wished.  They thought I should expect promises.  Together forever.  Forsaking all others until death do you part.  I was struggling myself with the idea that in this relationship there weren’t comforting certainties.  I was brought up to expect those things too and I was making a big break from them in favour of freedom, the idea of open horizons, endless possibilities, living without limits.

I had assumed I would always stay conventional, provincial and uncontroversial.  I hadn’t been happy with that idea.  Now the very last thing I was was uncontroversial.  But in being so, I had very few people who understood my choice.  Eadmund did.  Cloe did.  Joe did.  Everyone else tolerated it and my unease at being able to explain these newly forming ideas and share them with my friends made them uneasy about approaching the subject.  And so we talked less and I cut myself off more.

Guilt.  Feeling misunderstood and having to explain myself.  Feeling I had no right to the friendship of my colleagues who might have been more likely to understand.  Fear of insomnia.  Self destructive cutting and drinking that then needed to be hidden from everyone.

It snowballed.  I was surrounded by people.  I had friends and family who loved me.  But no one who really understood my choices or understood how hard it was to change my life so much. I needed someone to appreciate my emotional journey, understand what I was hoping for and to support me as I struggled with it.  But in order to do that, they would have had to understand it.

Yes, in the middle of eight million people, I was very alone.

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Sometimes Freedom is too much

5

He chose me.  I chose him.  It was a little naïve but I assumed that, whatever had gone on before now meant we were exclusive… apart from his wife of course.

Eadmund didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t have any intention of finding someone else right then, nor did he think I was looking for someone either.  The important thing was that we should both feel free to do so as and when we wanted.  The key concept here was freedom.

He and Cloe got married because she was pregnant.  He made a commitment to be her partner and parent with her but he knew he would always be available to connections with other people.

‘I meet a lot of people,’ he explained, ‘and I’m very open to people.  I make friends very quickly and I am attracted to all sorts of people a lot of the time.  I don’t necessarily act on it, but the attraction is there.’

He sought out people in his life with a certain vitality, who could energise him but ground him.  Not necessarily for sex or a romantic relationship but to have that sustaining, enlivening force in his life as much as possible.

‘It’s all about energy,’ he continued, ‘and energy needs freedom to survive.’

When he got married, this idea wasn’t yet fully developed.  He hadn’t been able to voice it but he realised over time that the structure of marriage couldn’t accommodate his nature.  He hadn’t been able to talk to Cloe about this, so many years of sneaking around and secret affairs had followed.  He hated the lying but their communication was strained since the death of their first son.  Different ways of grieving can force a couple apart and in their case it did.  They continued trying to make the marriage work and parent the three children they went on to have, but knowing as they now did how differently they experienced emotion, the trust in each other’s ability to understand, support and provide the emotional resources they needed, had gone.  Without that trust, communication suffered.

He wasn’t sure if in the past, Cloe would have understood the sort of relationship he wanted without seeing it as rejection.  She did understand now, of course.

‘I so admire the honesty with which Cloe has gone about her relationship with Rupert,’ he ended, ‘She was afraid to begin with but she’s really taken it to heart.  There’s something brave, clean and liberating about how she’s conducting her life and that’s quite amazing.  That’s the way I want us to live.’

He had an idea that he was not the person I would spend the rest of my life with.

‘I seem to be the in-between boyfriend.  The one with whom you learn a lot and then move on to meet ‘The One’ and I’m ok with that.  Cloe has gone on to find Rupert.  Catherine went on to find someone who suits her better than I did.  It’s ok.’

He saw a pattern.  With the age gap between us, he felt that I would meet someone else who would give me stability, a family; someone closer to my own age.  I shouldn’t feel, just because we were together that I couldn’t find this person.

‘Just tell me about it before something happens, that’s the only stipulation.  Otherwise, you’re free.’

I didn’t quite know how I felt about this.

I loved the idea of liberty and that we were together by choice rather than need or because of social norms and expectations.  I had felt trapped in my relationship with Jack.  I wanted to spread my wings and feel that life didn’t have limits.   One of the things I loved about Eadmund was how his ideas made me challenge and question my inherited and assumed values.

On the other hand, when we’d talked about this before, I hadn’t just cancelled my wedding, upset the apple cart and disturbed my family and friends.  My oldest friends were unconvinced by our relationship as it was.  They saw me as ‘the mistress’; the one who would always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.  They thought he was taking advantage of me.  They even thought there was something suspect about the age difference.  Frankly they thought I was mad to get involved with a married man.  The night she took me in, Nia said,

‘Look we’ve all done it, Anne.  Helena got off with her boss too.  It’s only natural to be impressed by the authority. He’s the one who should know better.’

She meant it sympathetically but she didn’t realise that I did not see this as a relationship in which I was taken advantage of.  It was one in which someone thought I was utterly amazing just for being myself.  I felt loved, nurtured, appreciated like I hadn’t done in years.  It pained me that this wasn’t obvious to everyone.  I had to show them.

I was very immature at the time.  Less so than I had been a year ago, but I think people still tended to think they needed to take care of me.  In actual fact I had more inner steel than my outward appearance suggested and was a lot stronger than I seemed, something that only Eadmund appeared to see and appreciate.  To them, I was an innocent and Eadmund should have restrained himself.  They didn’t see me as an active participant in these events in my own life.  I had done things that they disapproved of but they didn’t want to condemn me.  Reconciling that I could be kind, supportive and a good friend and yet that I had kept a big secret from them and broken the moral code of getting involved with someone else’s man meant that rather than seeing me as someone they could criticise, the disapproval was displaced onto him.

I wasn’t quite sure what they would make of an open relationship.  I was pretty sure they wouldn’t approve.  I hadn’t admitted the Eadmund, Isla and Anne triangle, never mind that during that period he’d been going out with an ex-girlfriend who had also slept with him.  I thought if they knew, they’d have me sectioned.

The other problem was that at the moment I did need him.  At work, after losing Isla as a confidante, I felt isolated.  The guilt made me stay away from the work friends we had both had in common.  She needed them more than me.  I didn’t deserve them.

‘Are you sure you’re ok?’ the lovely Australian Kathleen asked me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a lick and a sniff?’ (It was an in joke about inappropriate puppyish workplace touching).

I told her I was fine.  Being the baby of her family, her self-appointed role throughout life was to try to make people happy.  She was great at it.  I knew she was just what Isla needed right now and I turned down her offer of support so she could have her all to herself.  In my mind, I had made my choices, now my punishment was to have to cope with the consequences on my own.

My friends from outside work didn’t understand what I was doing, although they had ably demonstrated that they cared about me.  My family, were struggling to accept this relationship.  No one apart from Eadmund really understood.  I felt alone.  I wasn’t secure enough to cope easily with the idea he might want someone else.

He was sure I would meet someone, but I didn’t have that confidence.  Unlike him, I didn’t meet people all that often or make new friends easily.  There is a reason that most of my best friends are people I have known since childhood.  I wasn’t attracted to a lot of people.

Perhaps to guard against that, I found myself looking at strangers, sizing up whether I would find them attractive or not.  Each time I met someone new, I wondered if they would find me attractive… if I could find them attractive.  I couldn’t, of course, not with that self-inflicted pressure.  Besides, I didn’t want anyone else at that besotted stage.  I only had eyes for him.

But, on the other hand, I wanted this adventure.  I wanted to challenge myself, to grow, to discover my inner strength.  I was having nightmares in which I found myself still trapped in my relationship with Jack.  I wanted freedom.

So I agreed.  We were together by choice.  We were free.

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.

odyssey2

Not Quite Sleeping Together

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Not even Isla’s news stopped me.  It might have been a day or two until the next time Eadmund and I found ourselves alone together but I doubt it was even as long as a week.

The kisses became more passionate.  The arms wandered. It was a bit like the teenage fumblings I’d never had, in one way, because for all that we both evidently found the encounters breathtakingly erotic, it remained quite innocently chaste.  All clothes stayed firmly on although shirts and t shirts were untucked from trousers.  Even now, it makes me smile to remember how thrilling it was to just feel the skin of his chest with my fingertips and to feel his hands on the small of my back.  Back home, I was still having sex with my fiancé; full foreplay and penetrative sex with earnest attention that I should have an orgasm and yet it felt disconnected and predictable.  These strangely chaste yet passionate encounters were more fulfilling.

‘Be careful not to confuse the thrill of the secrecy with sexual chemistry,’ Eadmund warned me, ‘I’ve had affairs before,’ and he smiled ironically in acknowledgement of work gossip, ‘Oh so many affairs,’ in a mock world weary tone, ‘and the sneaking around gives an urgency and excitement of its own.  It’s easy to confuse the two.’

He didn’t want to sleep with me, he said.  Behind the hugs to co-workers, never mind what had happened with Isla and was happening now with me, he had spent years looking for emotional reassurance, support and love that his marriage wasn’t able to supply.  The need had driven him and at times it got him in deeper than he realised.  It felt warm and fulfilling until they had sex.  Once that was over, he would realise it was wrong and that he wanted to be somewhere else.

‘I don’t want to feel like that with you,’ he said, ‘Actually I think there’s a good chance I won’t feel like that with you, but that raises a whole other set of questions and you have a fiancé.’

Things were still going on with Isla too.  He told me each time anything happened.

‘I’m not looking for it with her anymore,’ he explained, ‘Don’t get me wrong, in the past I have been.  Not now.  I think for some reason she still wants something from me and for me it’s a bit like a habit I’m trying to break.’

Each time it was a dagger to the heart but each time I got better at not letting it shake my confidence in the relationship we had with each other.  I didn’t like it but we had never agreed that we were having a relationship with each other and as such there was no reason to ask for exclusivity.  Besides, I still had Jack.

I wanted to take it further.  Knowing how much I enjoyed the encounters we did have, I knew that we would be sexually compatible.  My sex life with Jack had always been good enough.  We had very close moments and we’d tried out all sorts of positions, techniques, toys and saucy underwear.  Judged by the standards of Cosmopolitan magazine and girl chat with my friends, I’d always thought we had a great sex life.  Besides, most women didn’t have an orgasm from sex did they?  Pretty much all women liked the foreplay best. And yet… and yet… there was a bit of me that wanted that Mills and Boon, From Here to Eternity style passionate sex where it doesn’t take vibrators and toys to get you off.  I wanted to feel it just from the thrill of our shared sexual energy.  The electric charge I got from the touch of his skin made me think that, with Eadmund, this might happen.

We talked about it.  I reasoned.  I persuaded.  I was as eloquent as I have ever been in arguing my case and trying to make him see my point of view.  I couldn’t win.  I couldn’t make him do what I wanted.  He kept to his original point of view.  Either it would spoil everything because it would make him regret something that was, at the moment, giving him comfort and warmth or it would kick open a whole hornet nest because it could mean we should have a relationship.

Needless to say, this made me only want it more and want him more.  I couldn’t argue him round as I could Jack.  He stuck to his own views.  I knew already from our talks on all manner of things that he listened to my point of view, thought I was insightful and respected my opinions.  It wasn’t a matter of disrespect that kept him from agreeing with me.  He felt he was right.

And of course there was the undeniable charge between us.  I don’t know if I was a slave to my hormones but I was awash with anticipation for something that with each kiss, I felt more and more sure would be amazing.  The idea of not experiencing it was almost more than I could bear.

Into this hotbed, came my best friend from school days, Elena and her husband, also called Jack.  They were having a holiday in London and staying with us.  I had it all planned.  We had a birthday party to go to first and then we would get the tube up to Camden to go clubbing.  The following day we’d go back to Camden and meet up with one of their friends in the World’s End pub.  I outlined my plan to Jack and assumed he would come clubbing in Camden with us.  To me, it was only the hospitable thing to do.

‘I don’t want to go to a goth club,’ he told me grumpily, ‘I’m not coming.’

I couldn’t persuade him.  Rather than making me respect his point of view, it just made me angry.  I felt he was being rude to my best friend and her husband.  I was getting it out of proportion as Elena and her Jack didn’t mind in the slightest, but it rankled.  So the following day I was even more rude because ‘I had to go into the office just for a bit.  I had to go round the Food Market and talk to the stallholders.’

I did usually do this every Saturday.  Eadmund and I would do the rounds and talk to everyone.  How was trade going?  How were the facilities?  Had setting up the stand gone ok?  Any issues?  It was no problem for me to skip a week.  He’d happily do it without me.  But after Jack had been in a mood and been rude to my friends I thought, sod him.  I knew if I went to the Market there would be another moment where Eadmund and I would find ourselves alone and that things would happen.  I didn’t care.

I came back via Covent Garden market where some of the our Market regulars were taking part in a new annual Fair.  I chatted to them and bought chocolate then headed up to Camden.  I found Elena, her Jack, a friend of theirs from University and Jack all in a group several pints down and proceeded to catch up.  Life was getting too complicated and the simplest thing to do at this stage was to blot it out.

‘Jack and I were remembering that holiday the other day,’ Elena said to me recently as we both laughed over what an exceptionally alcoholic Saturday it turned out to be.

‘He said, “In retrospect, we should have guessed that something was wrong.  We were drinking lots because we were on holiday but I think they were drinking to escape.”’

At work, my responsibilities increased.  The wholesale manager left with a month’s notice which was in line with his contract but didn’t leave much time to find a replacement.  The sales drive was taken on by Jacob.  The admin and fulfilment was taken on by me.  I was the most experienced member of staff in wholesale at the time.  Ironically the mail order manager had also left and Isla took on running the department.  Two departments, with new managers and each requiring a bit of an overhaul.  Eadmund ended up spending a lot of time checking in with both of us and we both were working together in a tiny office.  You would think that there would be all sorts of tension: competition between Isla and me (and there was an element of that), unease for him as two women with which he was engaging in varying degrees of sexual activity were in close proximity.  There must have been tension and an edge on occasion but Isla and I were still friends.  We still talked about things.  We were both scared of the impending Christmas and the new challenge facing us both.  We looked out for each other.

I started to miss it if he wasn’t there.   December came round and he was based in Covent Garden.  Supervision of me and Isla became Jacob’s responsibility. Eadmund had to work on the shop.  The days dragged.  I missed him.  I found myself making excuses to head up to Covent Garden when my shift ended so I could snatch a moment with him.

‘You’re a very passionate person,’ Eadmund told me as we broke away from kissing on the rickety staircase that lead from his office to the shop, ’I don’t think you even realise.  Hasn’t anyone told you before?’

No one had. Jack said I was kind.  I was a good girl.  He thought that I hadn’t rebelled as a teenager, that I was conventional and straight forward.  I loved the idea that I was passionate.  I felt like a movie heroine.

Christmas came and went.  Jack and I were apart again. I was at home in Marple and preoccupied by memories of kissing Eadmund.  At the least appropriate moments, the memory of his lips on mine, the taste of his mouth, the electric charge as my fingers touched his skin would intrude into my mind and I could think of nothing else.  For a moment I would be absolutely lost to the outside world.

With the winter months of January and February came the usual Christmas comedown. Against all odds Isla and I had both done well at very little notice.  We were both still engaged in ‘not quite relationships’ with Eadmund.  As usual in the cheese shop, everyone was low on energy.  This included Eadmund.  The shock of Cloe and Rupert had worn off, but dealing with it day to day was still difficult. The person he emotionally connected with most was me, but I was marrying someone else.  We were emphatically not going to have a relationship.

The business was moving its office to a new space just round the corner from the South London shop.  The new office was empty, waiting for us to move in.  It was a new project and I felt uneasy about not being part of it.  We had another of our talks down the pub.  He was quiet, subdued, unhappy and I couldn’t work out why or make it better by talking.  We left the pub and he took me up to the new office space.  As usual we held each other.  We kissed each other.  Normally it would be left at that.  On this occasion, though, he took my hand and lead me to the back room which looked out on the roofs between the trainlines in and out of London Bridge Station.  We lay down on the coat that he spread on the floor.  He tasted of roll up cigarettes and IPA.  We were more measured and slow than usual and for the first time, we actually made love.

The minute I felt him inside me, I felt secure, loved and that, at last, I was home.

‘I don’t want to be anywhere else,’ he whispered to me as we lay together afterwards.

The hornet nest was kicked right open.

Beyond the point of no return

When we talked about it in later years, he didn’t understand why I was so shocked.  It was a measure of how far in denial of reality I must have been, but it did come as a massive shock.  It was a line in the sand.  Before that kiss, I could kid myself that it was all in my head; that nothing was going on really.  After the kiss, I had to face facts.

I did talk to him.  I said something ineffectual about having a fiancé and how he shouldn’t have done it.  We shouldn’t do it again.  I went on holiday to Nice with my mother for a long weekend and it was at the back of my mind all the time.  I could still feel his lips on me.  The scent and taste of him returned to me so vividly it was as if he was still kissing me.  I replayed it in my mind like a movie.  I didn’t say a word to Jack.

I did talk to Isla.  I told her over the phone and tried to laugh it off as if it wasn’t serious.  Her response was brief and in a tight voice:

‘He should not have done that.’

‘It’s my fault too,’ I admitted, ‘I’ve been warned what he’s like but I’ll be more careful in future.’

‘He should not have done that.’

The hugs didn’t stop.  Why I thought kissing wouldn’t happen again if the hugs continued, I don’t know, but I suspect it had less to do with reality than it did with how very much I wanted to feel him close to me again.  And of course we kissed again and this time I kissed him back.

The following day, Isla took me for a walk before work.  She needed to talk to me about something.  She needed a minute to work up to it and I remember talking about something inconsequential to fill in the silence until she came out with it.

‘He should not have done that, because he’s also doing it with me.’

It took a minute to sink in but my blood drained down into my boots.

‘You weren’t expecting that were you?’ she sounded kind and amused.  My jaw must have been hanging open.

‘I’m actually surprised you didn’t notice something was going on a couple of years ago,’ she continued, ‘I thought you must be able to tell.’

Her marriage had been on the rocks.  She went to explain to him why she was being a bit flaky at work and they began talking.  He was supportive and kind when she needed a shoulder to cry on.  Needless to say there was hugging.  There was kissing.  There had been other things but surprisingly, although they had done everything but, there had not been sex as we’d traditionally define it.  It had run its course and they had gone back to being friends and co-workers again, but then, when he was hurt and vulnerable, she couldn’t help feeling the old emotions stir up again and the hugs had become kisses and more.

I sleep-walked through the day, numb.  I was devastated.  He hadn’t told me.  She hadn’t told me.  I felt childish and stupid.  An interloper.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’  I asked him.  We were both alone working in the same, small office.

‘I didn’t think of it.  The thing with Isla was over years ago, really.  If anything, I thought she would have said.’

This reverberated in my head and heart all day along with something Isla had said before we went back in to work.

‘I had to tell you, so you don’t get started on anything.  You’re going to get married.  You don’t want to be in an affair with a married man while you’re planning a wedding.’

She was right of course, this was the get out clause that would let me go back to Jack with no harm done.  He was my fiancé after all.  He was going to marry me and provide me with a future, family and stability.  Given that we were engaged, he should have been the one I loved more.  I should have been relieved and happy that I could get myself out this situation and settle down with him.  Why, then, did it feel like a prison sentence?

I went home and told Jack I was exhausted from work (an all too believable excuse) and would be going to bed without eating that evening.  He stayed up and watched tv.  I cried myself to sleep as quietly as I could.