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Wednesday, March 1st

March 1, 2017

Well, I’ve had two “more please” messages, so here goes…

In Hamburg it had been agreed that John would be the keeper of all the receipts, that when we were back in London we would meet up and share them out to cover the expenses we would need to claim. An after work pint is arranged. John doles out receipts to Ernie first. We both panic slightly when, as soon as he’s collected his receipts, Ernie says he’s off to meet Clare. Neither John nor I want to be left alone together, but there is really nothing we can do to prevent Ernie leaving. After he’s gone we look at one another, smile, shake our heads.

I tell him that meeting him in Hamburg had been exactly the medicine I needed, that I’d only just said goodbye to the love of my life and had supposed it would take me a long, long time to get over it, but thanks to him it had been a short, painless process.

He looks a bit sheepish, tells me our rendezvous had also been fortuitous for him, providing, as it had, one last adventure before his girlfriend was due to move in. Girlfriend? Girlfriend? Well, in fairness to him, I had only asked if he was married and he’d answered that question honestly.

We sort out my receipts. We have another pint. Possibly another. And inevitably decide that one last roll in the hay is an excellent idea. Off we drive to Finchley Road.

Of course it was game over then. We had something serious going on in the bed department, John and I. I remember no specifics now, other than him being a magnificent kisser. (Let’s face it, so many Englishmen aren’t.) We both know it when he leaves: he’ll be back.

The following weekend his girlfriend, Suzanna, is supposed to be moving into his flat in Surbiton. He can’t face telling her she can’t move in with him. She’s given up her flat share. She has nowhere else to go. I say of course I understand. What else is there to say? He has a plan: he’ll let her move in, then be such a bastard she’ll move out of her own accord. It’s a pretty crappy plan, but I understand. I’ve never been good at conflict myself.

We start to meet up at lunchtime every day. We can’t go to the Stamford Arms (one of my two work locals) together, because that’s where John meets Suzanna after work at night. We can’t go to the Rose and Crown, my lunchtime local, because too many people we work with will be there. It’s not so much that we don’t want to be seen at the Rose and Crown together by colleagues, it’s that we want to be alone. So we find another pub nearby, one which no one from work ever ventures into, and meet there every day. We also go there after work for at least one pint every evening – including Tuesdays when I should be hard at it in the office finishing off the news section for the press deadline the next day.

On the Monday after Suzanna was due to move in, I ask how it went. He tells me he put her things in the spare room, acted surprised that she’d ever thought he’d been suggesting anything other than a flat share, says she didn’t take it well, but has acquiesced, clearly hoping this arrangement will change. He claims he’s no longer having sex with her. I neither know nor care if this is true. My only concern is that he is having sex with me. It seems I am once again having an affair with a man who might as well be married.

John, who’s starting another conversational German course, tells Suzanna that it is three evenings a week, rather than the two it actually is. Thursdays are our night.

Eventually I tire of the pints after work ending so early with him off to meet Suzanna and me with nowhere to go but home alone. Besides, the pub no one uses has no decent ale. We start going to the Rose and Crown after work where we end up drinking with my trustworthy friends, Hilfra and Maureen. They both love him immediately and, more importantly, agree that he and I are perfect for one another.

Then there are the business trips, his and mine, trips at the end of which we meet one another’s return flights and head back to Finchley Road – dinner first, blowing whatever’s left of our travel expenses, then bed.

That summer Patti Smith is headlining the Reading Festival and John and I are going to see her. It’s her only UK gig. Heaven, heaven, heaven. The concert is on the Sunday night of the August bank holiday weekend. John is going to come over on Saturday and we are going to have an entire night together, actually able to sleep and wake up in one another’s arms. I can barely contain myself. I cook some dinner, we wander up to the pub in Hampstead, come home, go to bed. There is sex, of course, wonderful sex, but even more special, for once the luxury of falling asleep in one another’s arms, the joy of waking up in one another’s arms and, of course, the thrill of sex in the morning.

We drive to Reading, arrive at the festival, pay our entrance fee. The festival is horrible. Although I’m only 24, I feel as if I’ve left my festival days long behind (and, indeed, it will be decades before fate conspires to send me to another one). Acres and acres of tents and bloody hippies (one of which I used to be) wandering around. We stay in the car for quite a long time. It’s getting dark by the time we head toward the stage. We’re carrying a blanket, under which I’ve hidden his tape recorder. Recordings are, of course, forbidden, but we are determined to get one. The show starts and it’s fab. I am so happy. John and I are somewhere together, somewhere other than the pub or my bedroom. We are holding hands. We have our arms wrapped around one another, swaying to the music. We are, for today, a proper couple. It is a taste of what life could be like if bloody Suzanna would take the hint, leave Surbiton and open the door for John and me to be together openly.

A few days later he gives me a copy of the tape we made of the concert. The sound quality is awful (no surprise), but the tape starts with a commentary from him. As I sit here writing these words I find myself wondering whatever became of that tape, suspecting it is long, long gone and wishing I could listen to it, hear his voice again. It took me so long to realise how much I loved that man, convinced as I was that he was still little more than the bloke who got me over the bloke I’d been madly in love with. By the time I did realise, ah, well, that’s a way’s away…

In October my mother is coming to visit. John asks if there is anything he can do to help. I tell him it would be great if he could drive me to the airport to pick her up, as taxis from Heathrow cost a bloody fortune, but I can’t drag her home on the tube. He agrees immediately, apologising that he won’t be able to take her back to the airport at the end of her stay, as he will be in Amsterdam on a business trip. During Mum’s visit he is a perfect boyfriend, taking us out for dinner one evening, driving Mum out to Theydon for a stay with her sister Jess and driving me back to collect her a few days later. Mum obviously likes him a lot. I do not tell her about Suzanna.

John has come up with a plan. He suggests I book a flight to Amsterdam, departing after Mum’s return flight to Toronto, says he will meet me at Schiphol, then we can drive to Hamburg for the weekend, stay with his friend Hans, whom I’ve met a couple of times. I like John’s plan.

I see my mother off at Terminal 3, make my way to Terminal 1, board my flight to Amsterdam. I’m reading on the plane, rarely glancing out the window. It’s early evening, dark already, I can see nothing except the cloud through which we are descending. I’m startled when the wheels touch down and I realise the “cloud” was actually dense fog. I find John in arrivals, white as a sheet, asking if I’m okay. He is, I suddenly remember, phobic about flying. Even though he wasn’t on the plane, the thought of me flying through such dense fog has almost given him heart palpitations. I assure him I’m fine and we set off.

There are roadworks and we quickly get lost, pull over to look at a map. With that well known extraordinary Dutch courtesy, another motorist pulls up in front of us, comes to ask if we are lost, explains the detour. We set off again. Some miles later we pass through a surprisingly brightly lit village. A man in uniform waves at us. We wave back. The Dutch are so friendly. Soon afterwards John comments that he cannot believe how accommodating the Dutch are: close to the border, they’ve started putting the road signs in German. It takes us a moment to realise that the road signs are in German because we are now in Germany, that what we’d taken as a tiny village was actually the border crossing which we’d shot straight through. (Within weeks there is a story in the press about a shoot-out at the same crossing when a car carrying members of the Bader Meinhof crashed through the same crossing. Yikes.)

It’s late by the time we get to Hans’s flat in Altona. Hans has arranged to spend the weekend with his girlfriend so we can have the place to ourselves, use his bed instead of sleeping on the sofa in the lounge. We chat for a while. Hans leaves.

At some point since John and I met, we’ve started giving one another tapes of albums we like. One of his greatest successes was a tape he gave me of Bat Out Of Hell. I loved it, absolutely loved it, glad when I finally saw the album in the shop that I’d had no idea what Meatloaf looked like before listening to the tracks. John and I have adopted one of the tracks as our song. The album is playing as we make love in Hans’s bed and when the song comes on, we serenade one another: ‘I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. Don’t look sad, ‘cos two outta three ain’t bad.’ That this should be ‘our’ song speak volumes, doesn’t it? (Short pause as I get up from the desk, go to the CD player and put the album on. Christ, how long is it since I listened to this?)

Saturday we drive with Hans out to the countryside to visit some friends of his and buy some of the grass they cultivate. En route we call in on some elderly relatives of his, who give us cakes and beer. At the commune we lounge around with Hans’s friends. One of them puts Ian Dury’s album on. It surprises me that these young Germans should be so keen on Dury, given the very English nature of his lyrics. At one point one of them asks me, “Anne, could you tell us please, what is a Billericay?” I have to stop laughing before I can answer.

In a moment when Hans and I are alone together he tells me he doesn’t understand why John and Suzanna are together when John so obviously prefers and is so much better with me. I tell him I don’t really understand either.

The clocks change on Saturday night. John says we will have to leave reasonably early to drive to Ostend as Benelux time loses us an hour. We cannot get the ferry back from Hamburg or Amsterdam as both of these will involve overnight travel and he has to be at work Monday morning. I tell him that I’m pretty sure Benelux time means we gain, not lose, an hour, but he’s convinced, just not having it. So we say our goodbyes and set off. Somewhere in or under the car is a bag of grass John is taking back to London. He doesn’t tell me where it is because he doesn’t want me giving anything away if we’re searched at Dover.

We drive and drive and drive, through Germany, into Holland, on to Belgium. (It is odd to remember all those border crossings in these post-Schengen days of open borders in continental Europe.) John is getting antsy, afraid we’re going to miss the five o’clock ferry. We pull into the terminal at 4:45. There are still cars waiting to board the ferry. He pulls up, asks a worker if we can still make the 5pm sailing. Yes, the man says, surprised, it will start boarding in an hour and a half. I look at John, laugh and cannot resist saying I told you so. We had indeed gained, not lost an hour.

A fortnight later it’s my 25th birthday. I am officially one quarter of a century old. Simon, my editor, is away and, because my birthday falls on a Tuesday, I must write the weekly editorial, as well as all my other press day work. John, Hilfra and Maureen are waiting for me at the Rose and Crown. After birthday pints he intends to take me to see Last Tango In Paris, one of his favourite films. Of course the work takes longer than I’d hoped. I receive a couple of calls from the pub, demanding to know how long I will be. I get there eventually. We have a drink, drive off to the cinema, arriving just after the film has started. I’m willing to go in anyway, but John says no. (Little do I suspect at the time what a good thing this is. When I finally did see that particular film there were no words to fully describe how much I hated it.) So we do what I actually wanted to do for my birthday: we go back to Finchley Road and make lovely love. After he leaves, I write the first poem I’ve written in some years:

birthday-poem

No, not the greatest poem ever written. Definitely not. But you get the general drift: I was confident that night of being loved and I was deliriously happy. (Oh, ha bloody ha.)

My wait is nearly over. Suzanna (who has been nicknamed the Div by Hilfra) has finally agreed to move out, accepting that whatever dreams she’d had about living with John are not going to come true.

John is away on a business trip somewhere. I go out to Heathrow to meet his return flight on Friday. We head for Finchley Road, dinner at our favourite restaurant, hours in my bed. I’d like him to stay the night. After all, we’re nearly there. This is the weekend Suzanna is leaving. On Monday we can be out in the open at last. But John says he has to go, doesn’t want to rub her nose in it, when she knows he was flying back that day. He leaves and I spend the weekend in a state of hazy anticipation, sharing with my friend and flatmate Dawn my excitement that as of Monday John and I will officially be a couple. No more sneaking around. No more lunches in inferior boozers, no more being the other woman.

Monday morning John does not come to work. His colleagues are vague about his absence and I don’t feel in a position to press. People know we’re mates, they probably suspect we are lovers, but it isn’t official yet. When there is still no word by lunchtime, I try ringing him at home. No answer. Hilfra and I go to the Stamford Arms for a pint. I spot a weedy young man I know to be a colleague of Suzanna’s. He approaches, asks if I’ve heard about what happened to her. I shake my head, the pit of my stomach filling with dread. It seems that on Friday evening, on her way home, as John and I were making love in my bed, Suzanna was mugged, her face smashed into a wall, teeth broken. I make appropriately shocked and sympathetic noises. When he walks away, I turn to look at Hilfra, panic, I’m sure, written all over my face. And she says: “I wonder how much she paid the guy to mug her?” I can’t in honesty claim the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

John returns to work the next day. Over a pint that evening he tells me the story. When he got home late Friday evening, all the lights in the flat were on, but there was no sign of Suzanna. On the table by the phone, a number he doesn’t recognise has been written down. He rings the number. It is Richmond hospital where it is confirmed that Suzanna has been admitted. He can’t get any details from them, so gets in the car and drives over there. It takes him some time to convince the nurses that Suzanna is not the victim of domestic violence perpetrated by him. Eventually they agree to let him see her. The first words out of her mouth when he appears beside her bed are: “You’re not really going to make me move out this weekend, are you?” Of course not, he says. What else can he say? He’s feeling guilty which is perfectly understandable. He tells me he feels he’s going to have to be as nice as he can to her for a while, that this means suspending our affair. I tell him I understand, that of course he must assuage his guilt.

It is absolutely gutting, of course. So near and yet so far. The prize, which I had been so close to grasping, has been snatched out of my eager hands. But I do understand. I latch on to the words “for a while”. Of course John must spend sometime making it up to Suzanna for treating her so badly the past few months. Of course. It’s just a matter of time. Weeks, possibly months, but then he will come back to me, because, as Hilfra and Maureen have both frequently pointed out, John and I are clearly meant to be together.

We still go for a pint after work every night, but always now with Hilfra and Maureen,  never alone. Did the lunchtime drinks continue, too? I don’t remember.

I’m going to Toronto for Christmas and, truth be told, I’m dreading it. It will be lovely to see Mum, but there is something poisonous about that city for me. John says he wishes there were something he could do to help. At one point he even suggests he could come over for part of my visit. This astonishes and delights me, but, regretfully, I point out that it would involve sharing a sofa bed in the livingroom of my mother’s small flat and therefore would not be much fun for him. Besides, I say, I hate the place, so I wouldn’t be a very good guide. Still, the offer touches me. I tell him there is one thing he can do: he can spend the night before my flight with me and drive me to the airport. He agrees.

Comes the Saturday night before my departure. John arrives at the flat, telling me there’s a late screening of  some film he wants to see in Hampstead. This isn’t exactly what I want to hear. What I wanted was for him to arrive, eat the dinner I’d prepared then spend several hours making love to me. However, I agree to go to the film, which turns out to be dire. Back at the flat it’s clear to me that he is putting off going to bed for as long as possible. I ask him what the problem is. Somewhat sheepishly (having been there so often before) he admits he is feeling extremely guilty. Well, I say, what about me? How about feeling guilty about me for this one night? I’ve missed him and, even if this is going to be the last time we ever make love, goddamn it, I want a last time. I get it.

A fortnight in Toronto. Christmas with my mother, catching up with old friends and catching strep throat (which used to be an annual event during Toronto winters). My old doctor agrees to see me despite my lapsed health care status – a prescription for antibiotics and an instruction to see my doctor in London when I’ve taken the course. And, oh yes, I’ve realised the day after I arrived in Toronto that not only did I not take my birth control pill the morning of my flight, but I’ve forgotten to pack them.

Back in London, I make an appointment with the surgery where I registered when I was still living in South Kensington. The doctor looks down my throat, says I seem to be fine. Unfortunately my other potential medical problem turns out to be real: I am three weeks pregnant. Because it is at such an early stage, the doctor agrees to perform a termination in his office the following Friday. I tell no one, because it is no one’s business but mine. Yes, I could tell John, perhaps it might make him feel more guilty than the Div’s mugging, but I’m not going to win that way. Either he decides he wants to be with me because he can’t live without me or he doesn’t. I’m not playing Suzanna’s guilt game.

The following Thursday I surprise my editor by asking him to come for a pint with me after work. He agrees. We go to the Stamford Arms. I tell him I’m having a termination the next evening, that I’ll probably be fine to come to work on Monday, but I want to give him a head’s up that I might have to take the day off. He is surprisingly solicitous. We finish our pint, get up to leave. On the way out I realise John is at the bar with Suzanna (who I’ve seen in here with him before) and some other woman. Fuck it, I think. My editor leaves, I walk up behind John, goose him and say hello. He practically jumps out of his skin, but has little choice but to introduce me to Suzanna and her colleague.

I am on fire, more wildly entertaining than I have ever been in my life. At one point, Suzanna, laughing uproariously at something I’ve said, turns to John and tells him she can’t believe he’s never introduced us before. I look at John and I know my eyes are clearly saying: Yes, that’s right. You could have had me – gloriously, wickedly funny and entertaining me – but instead you’ve chosen this insipid dish rag. Take that.

When I get home, I go into Dawn’s room, tell her that I’ve finally met the Div, that I knocked her socks off. Then I make the mistake of telling her that I’m pregnant, that I’m having a termination the next day. She tells me I have to tell John. I tell her it’s none of his business, that he made his decision and it wasn’t me, therefore this has nothing to do with him. It’s my problem and I’m sorting it.

Friday afternoon Dawn rings me at work. She’s never done this before. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I thought I’d better warn you: I’ve just called John and told him what’s going on today.” Fuck, fuck, fuckety fuck. She says she’s made him promise not to tell me she called. Fuck. Five minutes later my phone rings again. It’s John. He asks what I’m doing after work. I tell him I have a doctor’s appointment. He says he has a German lesson, but thought we could meet up afterwards. Afterwards. An all telling word. Whatever he’s thinking it doesn’t involve trying to stop me going to my doctor’s appointment. And that tells me everything I need to know. Okay, let’s play this game out, now that it’s started. Sure, I say, let’s meet for a drink. My doctor’s office is in South Kensington, I say. I give him the name and location of a pub there.

The procedure doesn’t take long. My young male doctor looks, I realise, a bit shifty and I begin to wonder if this is actually copasetic. Is it possible he’s agreed to do this because he’s worried I might complain about him, on a previous visit, saying my pants were pretty when I went in for my pap smear, a comment which I had at the time informed him was somewhat inappropriate? Well, it doesn’t matter. The job’s done now, problem solved, the growth in my body removed.

I get to the pub before John, buy a pint, find a seat, wait. When he arrives I ask him point blank if Dawn has rung him. He feigns surprise, asks why she would. I let it go. He gets a round in. God knows what we talk about, I’ve no recollection whatsoever. I do remember how solicitous he is when, a short time later, I tell him I’m feeling uncomfortable and ask if there is any chance he could give me a ride home. Of course, he says, of course. This will be the first time he’s driven me home since November.

Back in the flat I open a bottle of wine, pour two glasses. Seated in the lounge I ask him again if Dawn has rung him. Again he denies she has, asks why she would. I could tell him I know she rang, because she’s confessed to me, but I let it go. What the hell, I decide, he already knows, I can’t be bothered to maintain the pretence. So I explain the nature of my doctor’s appointment.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks and I can see it written all over his face. I’ve won. My terminated pregnancy trumps Suzanna’s mugging. He’s mine. If I want him. And I do want him – more than anything. But not this way, not through guilt or remorse, but because he loves me and wants to be with me and that’s more important to him than anything else.

I manage to keep my gaze level and my voice matter of fact. “I didn’t tell you,” I say, “because I didn’t know if it was yours.” This is, of course, a lie. Of course it was his. There has been no one else. But this is the only way I can make those puppy dog eyes stop looking at me. It works. A light goes out. Job done.

Soon afterwards John leaves and moments later Dawn arrives. They’ve run into one another outside the front door. He’s made her promise not to tell me that she rang him. I tell her what I’ve told him and why. She disagrees, says I shouldn’t have done that. Eventually I make her see that I simply could not win that way.

And that, as they say, is that.

No, it wasn’t completely the end of us seeing one another. We still had pints after work – always with other people. I even had John and Suzanna over for dinner with my friend Trefor one night, before the four of us went to a George Thorogood concert. And in the following months business trips put us together in the same European city three times. (Oslo, Amsterdam and I can’t remember the third.) On each of these occasions we ended up having fast, furious, hungry sex, because, well, because we couldn’t help ourselves. Then John took a job somewhere else and that really was that.

A few years later I heard from a friend of a friend that John had moved to Colchester and was married. Not to the Div, so that was something.

I have over the years told a few people about that conversation – the “I didn’t know if it was yours” conversation. On a couple of earlier occasions these conversations were with people who knew John. It’s funny. The men always thought I was wrong to lie. The women always got it, understood that I was not prepared to play the guilt card.

I still think I did the right thing. If he didn’t love me enough to want to be with me no matter what, then he didn’t love me enough. But I confess I have also over the years from time to rime wondered how things might have turned out if I hadn’t lied.

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2 Comments
  1. Irmani permalink

    Think you were right not to lie, and to take the moral high ground. He sounds like a spineless piece of work though and no great loss, either to the Div or the wife, but that the fun was fun. Thanks for sharing – hope you found the fun delightful (sounds like you did).

    • Well, actually, I did lie – which was how I took the moral high ground. And, yes, it turned out he was a spineless piece of work.The fun was indeed a great deal of fun. And what the hell, for a while he did make me very happy. Longterm verdict: Lucky escape.

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