Losing Isla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I giggled too.  We slept in spoon position.

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

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

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

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

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

She is an exceptional person.

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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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