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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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.