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.