She

It’s time to write about B. I can safely say she is the woman I have loved most in my life. She is the woman with whom I shared both my happiest and unhappiest moments with. There were days, weeks, of ecstatic joy; and weeks, months even, of utter misery. That’s what love can do to you I guess. I wonder sometimes, when I think of her, of what she did to me. She changed the course of my life, and I can’t say if that was for good or ill. I know that for a while she changed the person I was, and that was to my detriment, though I didn’t know it then. I’m grateful to have known her for all that, and glad to have loved her. I can’t forget her, and don’t want to. I fear she was the love of my life. Now, she is the tragedy of my life.

God, it’s amazing how things can start so innocently. She turned up one day at the place I worked and I hardly noticed her. I was 25 going on 26. She was a few months younger. I was in that exuberant period of my life, tall, good-looking, master of all I saw, or so I felt, and with the world at my feet. She was different. I flew while she was earthbound. In many ways that was the pattern of our relationship to come, something she liked, and often commented on. She was from the country and had that earthy common sense country folk so often have; I was from the city, and a typical product of it, in her mind. I was slick and charming, a townie, she called me, with the soft hands of a man who has not done a days hard work, or so she mocked. It was in that dichotomy we fitted though, and it was what made each of us fall for each other – and in truth, like most generalisations, neither characterisations were strictly true.

The first time I ever really noticed her was one day when we left to go to lunch at the same time. We talked as we walked down the street to the market, and she asked questions of me. I had the feeling that she liked me, and more than that, was attracted to me. Like so many times when that happens, I looked at her differently and, flattered, came to appreciate her also.

From that moment on we walked to and from the station together, Flagstaff, and to catch the same train. On some occasions she would drive, and give me a lift home. One day I asked her in, from politeness. I showed her around, we had a drink. Now I can imagine you at home, she said as she left, and to that comment I clung with growing hope. In the weeks following I often missed my train stop and continued on to hers, accidentally the first time, but deliberately every time after. One night she told me she would give me a lift home, but had to go to her hairdressers first – did I mind? No, of course not.

While we waited she picked up a magazine. Without prompting she started to read out my horoscope in a happy, theatrical voice. Turning to hers she began to read aloud and then stopped, without explanation. While she had her hair styled I opened up the magazine and turned to the horoscopes, and read hers. You are going to meet a tall man, it read, and will feel attracted to him. Don’t fight it – he could be the one you’ve been waiting for!

Reading that I felt a warm glow spread through me. I looked up to see her watching me in the reflection of the mirror. She smiled, knowing what I had read, and I smiled back.

From that point on I felt as if the die was cast, but it didn’t stop me from feeling nervous and uncertain. I can recall the first night I rang her at home. I sat on the floor and stared at the phone and picked it up and put it down again. Finally I rang. Her sister answered. Can I speak to B, please, I said, like a pimply boy. I had lived through my wild years, had partied hard and often, had become familiar with all manner of women and felt thrilled and aroused by them. I was far from being wet behind the ears, but here in this simple call I felt my life hanging by a slender thread.

Of course it was alright. I think she felt just as nervous as I did, but relieved also. And so we talked and relaxed and in the background I heard her sister and her boyfriend talk, and felt as if they were smiling at us – and I didn’t mind. And that was the start of us.

She was a marvellous woman. She had dark, Irish hair, and had gone to school at a catholic boarding school up country. I always argued that you couldn’t beat that background. It seemed to me there was something earthy and sensual about catholic women, as if they were fully aware of the sins they committed. It seemed doubly true of those who had gone to boarding school, as if living with the nuns and having the commandments daily drilled into them instilled in them the desire to commit sins so long repressed. There was some of that to B, though it was weeks before we slept together.

As I wrote earlier, she had that earthy common-sense of country folk, and called a spade a spade. She was generous and warm and intelligent. She was silly sometimes, in ways that made me love her more, and sometimes meltingly girly. When she was on there was this irresistible life to her, a shiny thing that compelled people to her and made them smile. I was one of them. What I remember best of her perhaps was her wit. I considered myself a great raconteur then, I was a big man full of ideas and hope and humour. I beamed with these things, high on the possibilities, and there were times I’d be riffing so well that people would just sit back and smile. All but B. When she was on she’d join in, giving me as good as I got and sometimes better, while everyone watched, vastly entertained and somehow happy to have witnessed something like the two of us. It was not because we were so brilliant, but because it was clear in all the to and fro how much we liked each other, and well suited we were. It made people feel benevolent and wise: here was something good.

Our relationship was like that, full of verve and friendly abuse, pooh-bag she might call me, or slime. Ms Scumbag I might respond, or catching sight of her might poke my tongue out, to which she would respond with a pulled face. Sometimes we would wrestle each other to the ground, or else try and trip the other up. Sometimes she might tease me: “you love me, you love me…”, to which I would answer with a horrified rebuttal. It is true though, I knew it, and so did she. It was exuberant and joyous and not always good.

B had her issues, that became frustratingly clear. In some ways she was like a man in her inability to commit. We would go so far and then she would back off. She was subject to moods, in the morning she might be delightful, and in the afternoon, silent. It tore me this behaviour. I didn’t know truly what to make of it, what it meant and how I should respond. Over the coming years we went through a pattern of breaking up and getting back together. Everything would be sweet between us and would then gradually sour until the inevitable confrontation would occur, and we would break up. Each time I was left bereft and confused, but gradually I to understand the cause of all this.

She had in her background a terrible episode that I never got the full story about. I’m not sure I wanted to know. She had travelled to Europe some years before and had hooked up there with another man. He had treated her terribly, in ways I pieced together only in random comments and in her behaviour. He had basically used her, had dehumanised and abused her. She had been left a hollow shell, ashamed I think, and desperately lost. He had abandoned her finally with no money, alone in a foreign city with no-one to call on. She was broken, I think. Eventually her parents had to bail her out to get her home. This she felt desperately ashamed of. And so she had returned home, irretrievably scarred. What was left was the core of her, the core that I loved. She could not love herself as I did though, and that was the pity of her life.

Every time I heard the story of those days, rarely told, I felt a kind of hopeless rage. I felt wild. I wanted to punish the man who had done this thing to the woman I loved. And I wanted to hold her, to shelter her from misfortune and whisper in her ear, everything is alright, you are loved, you are wonderful. And this I tried to do.

I figured out that each time we started out she was full of hope. For a little while she was willing to suspend her disbelief. She felt, as I did, those lovely tendrils of love. And for a little while all would be good. We would laugh together and speak of the future. We would go to the movies or dinner, or sit at home together snuggling, watching a video. Slowly though the mood would turn. Did she become afraid of her feelings? Did she remember how she had been hurt before? I think so, sub-consciously if not consciously. She would turn from me to protect herself – it was better to feel nothing than to risk that agonising hurt once more. And somewhere in all that I became tainted. Groucho Marx once said he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. B felt something of that. Her self esteem was such that if I loved her, as clearly I did, then there must be something wrong with me.

I grew patient with this. I tried not to get upset. I turned the other cheek. I tried to turn things around and there were occasions I seemed to succeed. Often I was full of hope, thinking we had turned some invisible corner. I can recall one occasion in the middle of one of these episodes where I spoke to her softly, soothingly. You deserve love too, don’t you? I said. I remember, my voice was low, coming from my chest. I spoke quietly, looking into her eyes as my words caressed her. She watched closely without words as I continued my incantation. Slowly I began to unfold her, physically and mentally, until she came to me. That night she believed.

Yet it was always short-lived. This cycle repeated itself 8-10 times. It was hardly surprising I questioned it sometimes, and yet there was never any real chance of giving it away. I loved her, with my heart and soul. And I wanted to make her better.

This went on for 18 months or so. We had some wonderful times through that period. I remember at a party sitting by her on the couch all night, 6-7 hours of it, not stirring, just talking while the party whirled around us. We would walk down Brighton beach often and talk, and something in the simplicity of that touched me. She had studied horticulture, and I can recall often sitting in the park she would pluck an innocuous piece of greenery from the ground and explain to me what it was, testing me afterwards in her mischievous way. And many nights when we would drink wine and listen to Cat Stevens and Van Morrison, laughing and teasing and talking before finally snogging to all hours of the night. There were nights we would smoke cigars together staring up at the stars. Once I tapped dance for her to cheer her up – she laughed: I was very bad. And there days we sat in the sunshine and discussed dispassionately our wedding – in a garden, we figured. Interspersed throughout that were the bad times too, and they were just as true as the good.

Then one weekend there seemed to be a critical breakthrough. We had seen a movie, ‘Thelma and Louise’. We went back to her place and I stayed the night. We made love in the morning and we talked afterwards.

B had always found it hard to express in words what she thought and felt towards me. The most she had ever said to me, but repeatedly, was that I had a ‘mighty heart’. There seemed some attempt at consolation in that: she knew how difficult she was. More than that she found hard to admit. She was wary of her feelings, doubting them and reluctant to say something she may later wish to withdraw. Saying them aloud was something like hope, and hope led only to pain and disappointment.

That morning though as we lay side by side in her narrow bed she told me that she trusted me. I said nothing, but my heart somersaulted. I could think of no higher accolade from her. Her life was about trust, about the betrayal and the withholding of it. Trust somehow led to hope, and yet as we lay there she told me she trusted me. I probably felt very emotional, probably felt some kind of vindication. I doubtless thought this was it. I know I felt a sense of wellbeing flood through me. And why wouldn’t I? I lay beside the naked body of the woman I loved with all my might, the woman I had strived and suffered for for so many months, the woman I had hoped for beyond hope. All that had paid off, or so I thought. She trusted me.

At that moment the phone rang. She jumped out of bed and into the adjoining room and answered the phone. “Hello mummy,” I heard her say in a girlish and very happy voice. I listened as she spoke. I have given you that joy, I thought. I have made you happy. That voice was for me, and I felt so proud.

As she spoke I sat up in bed and leaning over, flipped open the lid of a small wooden box she kept by the bed. Inside were scraps of paper and small objects. As I looked at them my curiosity grew: I knew what they were. There was a little pebble in it, rubbed smooth, that I had given her some day as some silly token. The scraps of paper were little notes I had written to her over the years, tiny, even insignificant sentiments, every one of which she had kept. They were some charms I had bought for on a visit to the country. And so on. The box contained every little thing I had given her, every little token of my feelings, it was all there. My happiness was complete. My heart was full. All the dark days were forgotten. I felt as if in some way I had been wrong all these months, that all the moments I had felt despair there was existing this little box of keepsakes that she had continued to add to. All this time she had said nothing she had felt. Here was her heart, in this box. And in this heart was me.

That was the high point. If I could go back now to that moment I could. It was like I had finally climbed some rugged peak and caught sight of the bountiful land beyond. I stood and surveyed it and felt full of satisfaction and happiness: I had only to descend now, the hard work was done. It was the last I saw of that valley though. I stood and saw, then tumbled back down the way I had come.

Even now I don’t know the right or wrong of what was to happen. We went to work the next day and while there I found out by chance that B was going away the next weekend, skiing. I felt strangely put out, but wasn’t sure if I had the right to be. I didn’t mind her going away, what I minded was her not telling me. But was that reasonable? I said nothing, but brooded. It seemed typical of her behaviour in trying to assert her independence: I won’t tell him because I don’t have to tell him. No, she didn’t have to tell me, and I would never presume to dictate to her. That was not the point though. You share those things not because you have to, but because you want to. There is nothing to prove when you are in love.

That night I got in the car and drove over to see her. I sat in the car outside her home and thought about what had brought me there. I sat for 10 minutes debating the rights and wrongs of it. Was I being oversensitive? Several times I nearly drove home. I should have, but what was to happen was not really my fault, but the rather a cruel twist of fate. I got out of the car finally, still deeply uncertain. I began to walk up the road that ran alongside her building. I walked up the end of it and then turned back. Halfway back a car cruising slowly up the road stopped where I stood. Two men got out and approached me. What are you doing? one asked. What’s it to you? I responded.

He reached into his pocket and took out a badge: both he and his partner were plain clothes cops. They explained that they had had a complaint about someone sitting in a car in the dark. Then they asked me to empty my pockets. Reluctantly I complied. They asked me what I was doing out walking. I told them I’d had an argument with my girlfriend. They’d have to check that out, they told me. Did I mind? Sure, I minded. Well, that was tough but they couldn’t do anything about it. They bundled me into their car and drove down to the corner. Knocking on her door they asked if she knew me. Yes, she knew me, and they left.

As soon as they were gone she exploded. “What the fuck do you think you are doing H”, she exclaimed. I could understand how my police escort would alarm her, but her reaction angered me. I had done nothing wrong and made to feel like a criminal. I exploded back. Soon I left, but in the conflagration hidden was the death of our relationship. For the first time I went to work the next day thinking it was not worth the effort. I was angry still, and would be for days to come. And somewhere in that we had a brief conversation calling it quits for all time. And so it proved.

Naturally I came to regret it later: I really did love her. I could not unlove her so easily. I remember I wept. I felt consumed by a grief I found embarrassing. Over the coming months we came close to getting together again several times. It felt as if we were bound together, no matter what we pretended. I knew her so well. She would walk into the room and immediately I knew her state of mind. And I think she knew just the same. I couldn’t turn this off, couldn’t suddenly disconnect.

It was hard for both of us, but in one bitter way she had her consolation. In this outcome was confirmation of her worst fears, but in that confirmation there was a kind of sad vindication also. It was foolish to hope, after all, and here was the proof of it. And it seemed to me as I watched her distantly in the year that followed that she had given up on ever hoping like that again. It was a game for fools, or at least a game for women stronger than what she was. Seeing this made it even harder for me: I wanted her to hope, wanted her to be happy, I wanted her to live happily ever after, just as we had spoken of.

We continued to work together for a year after our parting and with each month that passed it became harder. No matter how much we tried what was there could not be denied. We had parted, foolishly, prematurely, but nothing now could bring us back together – much to my agony at least. And so from that there came conflict, conflict that grew as the year went on until one day a friend of mine at work came up to me. Something has to happen, he said, it can’t go on like this. You two need to sort things out because it is disrupting the office.

That night I spoke to her. I told her of what he said. We can work this out, I told her. I think I still hoped for the fairy tale ending.

The next day the first thing she did on coming in was to see the manager. There she resigned. Her last day was Christmas Eve.

Can you imagine how I felt? I was distraught. I felt in a way that I had betrayed her. She was leaving because of me and going to her family home in the country, without a job. And I was losing her.

Come her last day we had our usual little Christmas break-up. All day I felt the tension in me. I didn’t want to see her go but didn’t know how I could stop it. Early in the afternoon she said her farewells one by one and left. We said nothing beyond goodbye and good luck. I watched as the lift doors closed on her, then rushed to the window to watch her walk to her car. I watched, knowing that she was leaving my life, knowing I would never see her again. As she drove away I felt something in me burst. I could not stand to remain there, I had to leave.

I went in to see the manager to let him know I was going. As I started to speak I felt my vocal chords tighten until I could barely whisper. Tears sprung to my eyes; I turned away. I was tall and fit and good-looking; I had fought for years for something, had loved with all my heart and now all that was for nothing, gone, driven away. I felt the master, not even myself. I wanted to sob. Looking out the window I tried to complete what I had began to say. Finally the manager contemptuously waved me out, go, go… I have never forgiven him for that, though later I was to get my unintentional revenge.

I worked for another year there until I resigned. I too finished on Christmas Eve, not by accident. From the day she drove away I never saw her again, nor heard from her. I loved her still, but in time that mellowed into a deep, unspecified affection. In my heart B was someone I had loved dearly; she was someone I had trusted with all my heart. I believed her still to be one of the ‘best’ people I had ever met, and one of the most tragic. At times of uncertainty I would often sit down and write letters to her, explaining my circumstances and always affirming the kind feelings I had towards her. I never sent them.

I was a different man though. Gone was that bright and shiny boy, gone forever. The words were still in me somewhere but unspoken. For a while I was barren, like soil with the nutrients leached from it. I had become numb. I changed in other ways, consciously. I had felt so embarrassed at my unchecked grief that I determined that it would never happen to me again. I was single-minded, and managed to eradicate from me those elements I considered weak. Now I ruled my emotions. Now I was the complete master of myself. What I failed to realise was that the qualities I had squashed were the same qualities that made me gentle and warm. I became invulnerable, to the eye at least, I was the man who needed nothing, admirable perhaps, but hard to warm to. I was the man without a chink, bulletproof as so many thought me, but without the openings to let people in. And I paid for that.

In time I reversed that, but the man I once was is gone forever. The man who writes these words today is some compromise between the two. And the fact I write these words can be attributed to the ongoing attempt to be more open, to show my soft underbelly. This is my therapy.

For years I thought I had done all I could in our relationship. It failed despite my best efforts. With the knowledge that time gives and the maturity that goes with it I know now that is not true. I could have done more. I could have been different. I wonder what could have changed had I been more mature. I wish desperately that I had have been, because then maybe I could have saved her life.

That is another story. One day I discovered she had died. I was shocked, but somehow not surprised. Our paths had crossed, before going in separate directions. I had hoped always that hers had taken her to happiness and peace. I had imagined sometimes that she might be married. She had not found happiness, or peace, and this was the outcome.

And so it ends. I wonder if it was meant to be between us but wasn’t for reasons I’ll never understand. And I wonder if she was the great love of my life and spoiled me for all others. But then I don’t what to become a tragedy as she became. I can’t forget her, and don’t want to, but I realise I must make things good again for myself.

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