That night out with my friend was to see the start of something that would consume the next two and a bit years of my life. I should have stayed in.
Standing at the crowded bar, I was chatting to colleagues, and having quite a good time, despite the noise. I was not drinking much at all, as I had to drive back to Harrow that night, and turn up for an early shift the next day. I felt a tug at my sleeve, and looked down at a table nearby. There were three nurses seated there. I knew them all very well, and was on first names terms with each of them, as we had all been around the same casualty departments for many years. One of them was pointing at her mouth, indicating that she wanted me to give her a cigarette. I was in a playful mood. ‘Do you want a kiss?’ I asked, speaking loudly above the hubbub in the bar. She shook her head, and made a smoking motion, also pointing at the chest pocket of my shirt, where she could see the outline of the cigarette packet. ‘Is it my heart you want?’ I continued, ‘Are you trying to tell me that you love me?’ I gave up the teasing and sat down, proffering the cigarettes. ‘I will expect a kiss though’, I persevered, and she reluctantly planted a peck on my cheek.
She had recently returned to the hospital where we took most of our patients. After starting there years earlier, she had moved around, left to get married, and had recently had a child. She was now back in a senior role, managing nurses, and not always in the same department. Armed with with a University Degree, a Masters Degree, and a qualification in teaching as well; her sights were firmly set on a serious career. We had been friendly enough a few years earlier, but no more than that. I had never really talked to her outside of work before, and saw a very different side to her immediately. At work, she was confident, assured, almost brash. That evening, despite the social atmosphere, she seemed vulnerable, and unhappy. Very soon, we were talking just to each other, and ignoring the crowd around us, and those we had arrived with. She was 12 years younger than me, but that did not raise any issues, as we chatted easily, relaxed in each others company. I told her what had happened to me since we had last met, keeping it brief, and trying to add irony and humour. I even said that I envied her the marriage to her teenage sweetheart, and the birth of the son she had hoped for. It wasn’t long before she was telling me that her life was far from enviable, and that she was desperately unhappy.
This wasn’t how I had planned to spend the evening, and I looked for a exit strategy. However, something was niggling me about her, and I couldn’t leave. In fact, I felt compelled to stay, to hear her story, and to spend more time in her company. Some time later, I brazenly said that I would have done it all different, if it had been me that she had married. I told her that I thought her to be too intelligent for the man she had chosen, and that she had drive and ambition that he could never hope to match. She was from Ireland, and that background was stopping her from moving on; the Catholic guilt would not allow her to consider divorce, and her family would not countenance it either. I reminded her that it was 1998, not 1898, and that she could do as she wished, and to hell with the consequences. When it was time for the bar to close, she left with her friends, and thanked me for the chat.
I drove home, and found myself unable to stop thinking about her. As I got into bed that night, I had the uneasy feeling that I might well be in love with this woman. I discounted this idea as complete nonsense. I did have trouble sleeping though.
The next day at work, I was as busy as ever. Late that morning, I turned up at the hospital, and saw a colleague waving to me, from across the parking area. He had a message for me, written on a piece of paper. It was a phone number, and I was to call it when I got into this particular hospital. He had been sworn to secrecy, and entrusted with this delicate task. I never really knew why he was chosen, though I suspect it was because he was from an Irish Catholic family. I rang the number, and it was her of course. Could I meet in the coffee bar, main entrance, in ten minutes? I asked my crew mate to cover me for a while; if anyone asked, he was to say that I was ringing my elderly mother. I went to the meeting, for some reason, expecting to be reprimanded for cheekiness, or talking out of turn. I was convinced that I had gone too far, and that the friendship would be dissolved forthwith. I could not have been more wrong. Back in the work environment, she was in possession of her confidence once more. She asked me not to interrupt, as she had something to say to me. Then, to my complete surprise, she told me that she had been thinking about me all night, and had been unable to sleep. She had been imagining a life with me, something that would normally never have occurred to her. She asked me if I was serious about her too, and if I had meant any of the things I had said the previous evening. I told her the truth; that I had also been thinking about her, and amazingly, considered myself to be in love with her, although I could offer no sensible explanation as to why this had happened. She wasn’t outraged, or even surprised. She simply said, ‘What are we going to do about it then?’
If I had a Time Machine, I would go back to a few minutes before that moment, and then not go for that coffee. I had no idea what we had set in motion, and no concept of the heartache ahead of me.
She was still living with her husband, in the marital home. Despite her telling him that she wanted to split up, he was hanging on, hoping it would all go away, and understandably reluctant to leave his son as well. The one good thing about this, was that she had a baby sitter, which meant we could meet in the evenings. She would not throw it in his face, but pretend to be out with friends or colleagues, a frequent occurrence anyway. Thus began a series of encounters, not always sexual, but invariably intense. Sometimes she would come to mine, having to leave early, other times we might stop at a hotel. We even managed a short break away one weekend, miraculous considering the circumstances. She wasn’t comfortable with the situation though, and eventually succeeded in getting her husband to move out. He rented a flat in the same area, and they came to an informal arrangement about childcare. We were now suspected to be an ‘item’ at work, and she feared the day when she would have to tell all, both to him, and her family.
This was also my first experience of having a partner who had a child. He was also a very small child; not yet at school, but attending a nursery when she was at work. I had no game plan for children, and simply treated him as an adult, expecting him to respond accordingly. Naturally, that was destined to fail. Before too long, I had adjusted to hours of mindless, repetitive, kids’ TV, along with the same games, played over and over, without a trace of boredom, at least on his part. I occasionally collected him from nursery, and took him to play at the park, if she had to work later than expected. The other parents around the sand pit just presumed that I was his grandfather; after all, I was old enough to be. He readily accepted me stopping over in the house, and being around a lot. Another lesson learned; kids are incredibly adaptable. I found myself choosing restaurants with a kids menu, where previously I had chosen them because there were no kids inside. I was getting used to the little terror, and I was beginning to grow very fond of him.
She faced the demon of breaking the news to all and sundry. A weekend trip to Ireland, followed by a ‘showdown’ meeting with her husband, on her return to London. The reactions were very strange, and both unexpected. Her parents only concern, was that I had been divorced before. In their eyes, that meant that I was still married, to my first wife. Apparently, my second marriage had not counted at all, as it was not in a church. This was my first experience of this medieval Irish viewpoint, held by many I encountered then, and since. They agreed to meet me though, and said that I could be invited over to the house, the next time they visited London. As for her husband, he was fuming. Not because she had a new boyfriend. He had already found solace in the arms of a young East European girl, who later had his child. No, his anger was directed at my age, and the fact that I was spending time with his son. He did not want some ‘old fella’ treating his son as family, and that was that. Although she put a brave face on it all, she was consumed with guilt. Thirty-four years of Catholicism had left its mark, despite her move to England, and progressive attitudes in other areas.
I finally met her parents, and her sister, a couple of months later. I dressed very smartly, kept my opinions to myself, and behaved impeccably. We met at the house, and went out to a restaurant, as a large group. Later, I made my farewells, and was naturally interested to hear what they had said to her. I got the news a couple of days later, after they had returned home. They thought that I was a ‘nice man’, but far too old for her. I would never be welcome overnight at their home, as I was still married, as they saw it. If I ever wanted to visit her in Ireland, I would be expected to stay in a hotel. Should we ever decide to get married at some time in the future, they would never recognise the legality of it, as she had married in church, in Ireland. I found all of this too farcical to take seriously. We had only been together a few months, and it was like coming up before the Spanish Inquisition. I was sure that they would come around, and that my loving girlfriend would not let these archaic attitudes spoil things in the long term.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nurture 1. Nature 0.
With Christmas coming up, we decided to go very public, and appear at the hospital Christmas Party, as a couple. To enhance the mood of celebration, we even booked a night at the outrageously expensive Tower Hotel, on the river in London. The party was a smart affair, at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and we arrived arm in arm, telling the world. They already knew though. Our big reveal was a damp squib, and nobody could understand why we were making such a fuss about it. The only real downside, was that the casualty staff I saw every day, were now much more careful about what they said and did. After all, I was going out with their boss.
I then had an opportunity to move. One of my friends at work had married a nurse from Belfast, and he was joining the Ambulance Service in Northern Ireland, and obviously going to live there. He wanted to keep his flat in Hertfordshire, as it was rented very cheaply from a Housing Trust, and he might later have the option to buy it. He asked me to take it over, pretend to be staying with him, if anyone asked, and just pay the bills. It was good news for me, as the rent was less than half what I was paying in Harrow. In addition, the flat was well-decorated, warm and bright, and much bigger. I had also applied to rent a property from the Crown Estate, as they had subsidised rent flats available, for government workers. The waiting list was notoriously long though, so I took the offer of the Hertfordshire flat. I moved in during the spring, and looked forward to a better way of life, and being able to enjoy the large garden. Although it was a lot further out than Harrow, it took no longer to commute to work, as the route was less congested.
That was a good summer all round. My girlfriend had finally agreed an amicable set-up with her husband, and I was becoming tolerated, if not accepted, by anyone who mattered. We tentatively began to talk about the chance that we might buy a house together. She could sell the family home, and with both jobs, we could afford a very nice house in the Thames Valley area, this side of Oxford. There was nothing concrete, but favoured areas were discussed. That would all be a long way off though. For now, we enjoyed life, and had nice times together, as well as with her son. One thing worried me. She was visiting Ireland a lot more. As well as missing her family, and taking her son to see his relatives, she was also working out there, attending Nursing conferences and seminars, and recruiting for the hospital in London. On her return, she stopped over less and less, and although we both seemed to be as much in love as ever, no future was ever discussed, or even hinted at. As the end of that year approached, we were static. I was still in another bloke’s rented flat, and planning to spend Christmas pretty much alone, as she was off to Ireland for two weeks. When she returned in January, she came round to see me, and we had a massive argument. A lot was said, by both of us, and she left without stopping the night, with the pair of us raging, and unrepentant.
The following week, I received a letter to say that I had come up on the waiting list for a Crown flat, and would be interviewed the week after. The situation I was living in was ideal for this, as I could truthfully say that I was staying with a friend, and had nowhere to live otherwise. At the same time, my girlfriend’s house sale went through, and she moved with her son, into a hospital flat, a stone’s throw from her work. She had put all her personal stuff into storage, until deciding what she was going to do. I visited this flat sometimes, and they occasionally came to Hertfordshire. However, every part of me knew that she was ‘off the boil’, and things were not right. My flat came through, with a moving date of 1st March. It was going to be in Camden, and priced almost the same as the current rent I was paying. It was ideal, and I was really pleased. I arranged the move, and she arranged a trip to Ireland, an early Easter visit. Very early.
When I saw her again, it was almost April. We had chatted on the phone, but she had been evasive, non-committal. I could tell immediately that the news was not good, as her face was flushed. However, she suggested a trip to Brighton the next weekend, which threw me completely. As a fan of the seaside, I readily accepted. Her son was going to stay with her best friend, all was arranged. I should have realised, the condemned man always gets some treats before sentence is carried out. Maybe I was blinkered, or perhaps I just didn’t see it. I hardly remember now. The first night in Brighton, we went to a very good Chinese restaurant on the front. I was babbling on, all good-humour, seaside excited, and pleased to be with her again. She said that I should listen for a while, as she had to talk. I ordered a second bottle of wine. I had a feeling that I was going to need it.
What she told me was much worse than I had anticipated. I had thought that she was going to just break up with me, and that was that. But it was more painful than that. She was going to buy a house in Ireland, and had accepted a job there. It would be good for her son, as he would go to better schools, and get a more disciplined upbringing. Although her husband would stay in England, with his girlfriend, and new baby, her son could come over for visits, and it would all work out for the best. He could have more space, go horse-riding, and be brought up near his family. Her parents were getting old, and it would enable them to see their grandson, without travelling; they were delighted at the news. I would not be able to visit her at this new house, if her son was there at the same time. This had been agreed with her family, and her husband. She would still come to London at least three times a year, and would be happy to see me on those occasions, and to stay at my flat. She did not want to end our relationship.
It took a while for that to sink in. She did not want to end it, but was going to live in another country, and only see me three times a year. Had I got it right? She said that was about the size of it. I found myself getting upset, as it suddenly dawned on me that I would never see her son again. The small boy that I had befriended, and loved in my own way, for almost three years, was gone to me now. I looked across the table at someone I no longer knew. I felt the affection drain out of me, replaced by tiredness, and the familiar weight of failure, like a heavy overcoat, wet from the rain.
We went home the next day. I did not accept her deal, but wished her well, and told her that we would never meet again. We did speak a few times on the phone after that, but we never did meet again.
It was the year 2000, and I had a fresh start, in a flat in Camden, with all my life ahead of me. Well, not quite. I was 48 years old, and alone once more.