Help! Who’s in charge here?

Being controlled by someone else, feels at one level, safer than being in charge of yourself. At one level.

If nobody is checking what I do and say, how do I know if I’m doing it Right? What if I’m Doing Everything Wrong? Nobody is punishing me, so I don’t know if I am ok or not. My constant state of hypervigilance is pointless because nobody is there to explode at me, but I can’t stop it. It’s exhausting. It’s frightening. I am not used to this.

It took ages to start being ok with nobody controlling me. I looked for it everywhere, searching in people’s faces for approval or disapproval. My therapist worked so hard with me, to get me to accept that it was ok, allowed, even, to get shit wrong! I could be loud or rude or upset people. It was normal. I didn’t have to bend myself into any shapes to please anyone else, she said. I just could be. So what shape was I supposed to be?

I realised I had spent pretty much all my life as Barbapapa, the pink fluid blob-creature who could turn himself into useful things for other people, but had no real shape of his own. It made me sad, because as a kid, Barbapapa had been one of my favourite television characters. Poor old pink blobby B-man. Poor abused creature desperately trying to save everyone else, hopelessly lacking in self-identity. Maybe I was over-identifying. Probably.

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In the early weeks and months after I left W, I felt a desperate need to be heard. To be believed. I needed my voice to be out there, even though it was terrifying. I kept waiting for the aftermath. A necessary element of controlling another person is maintaining control of their ability to communicate independently with others. Maintaining the flow of information, knowing and titrating what others know is essential. And so, to make another person feel that nobody will listen to them whatever they say is absolutely essential to the controller, if they themselves are to feel secure. The only person you can really talk to, you come to believe, is them. Only they can make you feel alright. You start to rely on the weather vane of abuse to know who you are and how you are.

All of my daily movements were monitored by him, and my communications with others had to be repeated to him afterwards: texts, conversations, even chats with my children. He had to know what I was thinking at any time and would fly into a rage if I said that I didn’t feel like telling him what I was thinking, or that it wasn’t his business. Even writing my diary was mocked as puerile and adolescent: I gave it up, because his vicious comments started to dirty how I felt about my lovely notebooks, and I couldn’t bear that.

Despite the glossy exterior and clean-cut image of us as a couple, a family, I was threatened with occasional violence and I constantly moderated my behaviour to avoid terrifying temper tantrums from my partner. I was frightened of his responses to things I said or did. I lived in a state of hypervigilance.
The key to undermining someone else’s control of us is to refuse to remain silent however. Talk. Write. Question. Listen to the alarm bells and believe your judgment.

It’s often unsafe to do that to your abuser, because they will escalate the tactics they use to keep you quiet: intimidation, emotional blackmail, humiliation, physical threats or violence. Throw an even bigger tantrum than usual. And we are so ground down, that we make excuses for them and we don’t believe our own instincts. We have learnt we are not able to do that.

Often we, the controlled, put our own barriers to escape in place: I couldn’t tell anyone how awful things were because nobody would believe me (he’s so lovely, darling, you’re very lucky to have him!),  because I would look like an idiot (I chose to be with him), because it was embarrassing (I’m a professional, for god’s sake!), because maybe I was wrong? And, of course when it was good, it was very good. He could be lovely. He could be extraordinarily lovely.

And actually, being controlled is a familiar dynamic: I am used to it. It’s what I grew up with. I know those dance steps and I do them without thinking. I probably seek out a partner who knows them too. I’m not blaming myself, though it’s tempting (“I brought it on myself. I wanted to be controlled.”) but it is easy to fall into a familiar pattern of behaviour. Like an ex-smoker who really doesn’t want to take up the habit again, who desperately needs to light up with a glass of wine on a hot summer’s night sitting by the pool, because that’s what they always did. Associations are strong. If you are used to love being qualified by your behaviour from a parent or primary care-giver, by needing to merit affection by being good, then it is second nature to seek out a partner who withholds affection. It is natural to assume that you don’t deserve unconditional love, because you have never had it.
But here I am. And this is my new-found state: I am out of other people’s control. Nobody else is in charge. It’s wonderful! It is terrifying! Nobody else is in charge! Fuck! Whose approval should I be seeking? Who am I trying to please? Where are my limitations? Who is providing them? Aaagh. TELL ME WHAT TO DO!

Well. The answers are obvious, of course. I am in charge of me. I provide my boundaries. My own approval is what I should seek. Please myself. I can be who I am. I am who I am. I am flawed, I am human, I am enough. (I tell myself this daily, several times daily and yet I still don’t believe it).

My therapist told me it takes practice, and of course, I am always a model patient (yes, I know – whose approval do I seek?) so I practise assiduously, hoping that one day this belief will be implicit and I will believe it. I do love me a bit of approval. (Oh Good girl Charlotte, have a gold star and a lollipop)5624EE3E-86DC-41E2-A1B3-B0926BF71B2A

Thing is, I thought I’d have a few months of therapy and be absolutely fine. Tickety boo in fact. And years on, I find myself wobbling, completely not tickety boo. I’m cross about that. I would like to put it all behind me, Keep Calm and Carry On. I want to be FINE. I want to have a gorgeous, boring life. And I don’t. It’s unpredictable, scary and I have sudden phases of nightmares and flashbacks. I get triggered by things: I don’t want to be that person, but I am. I take various medications to help, and they do, but it’s not sorted. I want to be sorted. And this is where I remind myself, with much help from others, friends on Twitter, my kids, my family, that we are all a little bit broken,  a little bit not tickety boo, but perfectly acceptable works in progress. We are all taking a step forward and a couple back, followed by three to the left and a pasa doble.

Oh, and actually, to answer my first question, nobody is in charge. Nobody useful anyway. We will just have to make it up as we go along.

If reading this, you feel any anxiety or need to read more – and golly gosh, I’m no expert here, can I recommend the very wonderful videos at The School of Life YouTube channel.This is my favourite, on Self Compassion. I watch it often, because it’s a genuine tonic. Enjoy.

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Absolutely nothing is good for you

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Somebody asked me the other day, what I had been up to. How had I been enjoying my free time on a lovely sunny Sunday? I answered semi-truthfully, that I had not done much. That it had been a low energy, lazing-about kind of day and that I was recouping my strength. It was a nice nothing-day. Their reply was ‘Is that a thing?’

I wasn’t sure what they meant. Is it a thing to have days which are lower energy than others? Is it a thing to feel fluctuations in energy and emotional reserves? Is it acceptable to allow yourself to flow with the fluctuation? Is it ok to do nothing sometimes? Is it ok to do nothing brazenly and openly, or do we have to qualify it to ourselves and other people?

I don’t know, honestly. I find myself in conversation with my own thoughts on this. Or more accurately, in heated discussion with myself as I argue the toss internally. On the one hand, it is absolutely acceptable to do nothing. To schedule doing nothing into a timetable of doing things. Purposeful, planned nothing. In fact I think it is a necessary part of staying sane. I have no qualms about this. But my problem is the guilt I feel when I look at all the non-nothings that I have not achieved during my nothing-time, and I don’t know what to do with that. I become a mass of shoulda-woulda-coulda, spiralling with guilt and anxiety, as I stare around the demanding mess of my home, the piles, the stuff, the living to-do list. And so my lovely nothing becomes a state of uncomfortable paralysis, overwhelming me to the point where I couldn’t achieve anything even if I tried.

I thought back to the point where the paralysis took over my life most recently, and I realised that I was fighting it still.

Coming up to three years ago, I split up with my partner W of almost 3 years. These things happen, and we survive them. I got through an earlier divorce ok and relatively untraumatised. It was painful of course, but it had its own explanations and I understood the process fairly well. It was what it said it was.

Except that when I split from W, it was in a whirl of mystifying events and discoveries that cascaded into an avalanche of trauma, and shock and it knocked me right down. Like a comedy piano falling on your head and killing you, you just don’t expect that to happen to YOU. I lived in an out of body state for months after the non-move, the day it all fell apart. In those first shocking days, when I was dealing with the practical, logistical fall-out of the Non-Move, and all that it entailed (massive debt, no money to buy food or petrol, no job, no schools for children, no explanation as to why W had suddenly informed me that we had no house or money, my traumatised kids, everything we owned packed into stacked up boxes, all of our furniture in a removal lorry, the ensuing mortification of explaining to family and friends why we were still here, not being able to explain to anyone else why it happened..) I went to my doctor to get advice for my children and myself. I had stopped sleeping, had constant palpitations until I thought I was going to pass out pretty much all the time, was nauseous and vomiting, unable to concentrate. The children were the same. We cried all the time. We lived off biscuits and lemonade for days, as it was all we could keep down. If I did fall asleep, I would wake up sweating, in a panic, sure we had been attacked. I had nightmares, every night, throughout the night. My lovely doctor listened to me, took me seriously and prescribed me beta-blockers as a stop-gap, which helped me sleep and function. Like another, smaller piano on my head, he diagnosed me with PTSD, acute anxiety and depression: better than the heart failure I thought I had, I decided. He told me that PTSD wasn’t just something you suffer post-combat or from near-death experiences, but I felt fraudulent anyway. He told me I had been abused. I just stared at him.

We got through those first few weeks in a blur. I found schools again for the children, though my eldest found the shocking change of plan too hard to cope with at school, starting A levels and spent the next academic year mainly in his bedroom. I couldn’t blame him. He needed the security of no change whatsoever. I started to unpack the boxes one by one, the most necessary and unavoidable first and tried to make everything ok again. The children couldn’t face opening boxes. So I did it for them, trying to make their bedrooms nice and safe again. I used to vomit doing it some days, just retching, like I needed to get rid of poisonous stuff inside me. Weird. I wondered if I was ever going to wake up. Cliché cliché cliché.

Luckily for me, throughout this grimness, I had the love and practical support of friends and family, who stepped in and bailed me out when I needed it the most. I honestly could not have survived those days and weeks and months had I not known my sister believed me, my brother in law believed me and my closest friends believed me. I barely believed myself. They held me together like string round a badly wrapped parcel. I discovered from my super-sleuthing sibling that W had never inherited any of the money that was “coming, next week probably”, that he never had any in the first place. He could never have bought the house he had told us we were moving to, or paid for the school fees that he’d so wonderfully, grandiosely suggested (“you’re so lucky to have him in your life!” Quotes from numerous folk up to this point) and that my children had sat exams to be admitted for. My sister told me too, persistent bloodhound to the end, that he could not have sold his cottage for many hundreds of thousands of pounds, as he had told me, since he had never owned it. She was so sorry to tell me the awful things, but she wanted me to know the truth. Nothing made any sense to me at all. Truth or lies. In fact, the truth was so insane it made the lies look boring.

A wonderful friend came over the night my sister told me this insane stuff, and stayed with me while the locksmith changed all the locks. I just shook uncontrollably for hours. It was so frightening to think that a person I had trusted completely and lived with for years had lied to me systematically, methodically, remorselessly, and denied it all, right up to me presenting him with documentary evidence of the truth. Nothing made any sense at all, and I was frightened he might come back in the night and I would have no way to keep him out. It still wakes me in the night in a cold sweat, though I know that it is both highly unlikely he’d try and completely impossible he’d succeed.

Over the next few months, W texted me constantly. He was full of remorse, but would not or could not give me an explanation for what had happened. I stayed in touch because I needed answers. He said he would try to explain as soon as he could. I wanted and needed repayment – I had people I needed to repay large sums of money back to, when they had bailed me out, for example, to pay the removal men £2500 to load and then immediately unload their lorry. Twice. And I desperately needed to know why someone I thought had loved us would treat us so wickedly badly. Even then I didn’t see the behaviour as abusive: I just couldn’t understand. And, incomprehensible as it may seem, I still loved him. Christ what a freak.

W revealed over those autumn weeks of 2015, that he was undergoing psychiatric assessment, that he had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. He was having twice weekly therapy sessions, he told me the name of his therapist and where he went to have it. I was really glad for him! It was a kind of explanation for the incomprehensible. He described to me the kind of things he was learning during the sessions, and his behaviour appeared to change radically. The mood swings lessened, the aggression seemed to be gone. He swore he was only telling me the truth now. But when I asked him why he had behaved the way he had, why he had lied, he couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. He would shut down on the phone, wouldn’t speak to me, only would text. His explanation was eventually that he had been in a type of psychotic fugue-state and couldn’t tell me reasons why he had lied about everything. I researched BPD and psychosis. I looked up therapy and read as much as I could. I felt really sorry for him. What a dreadful diagnosis to receive, I thought, to be told that your personality was actually disordered. He told me that as soon as he was able, he would explain everything to me, he would pay back the thousands and thousands of pounds he owed me and I took him at his word. So I waited.

And gentle reader, you guessed it, I kind of forgave him. I allowed him back into my, our lives. Such shame and anger at myself for this now. But I loved him. My children had loved him. He had been such a huge part of our lives. And he made it very difficult to live without him actually: I was terrified of everything without him. God, I hate writing that. But he had made me weak on my own. Now of course, with so much more knowledge of narcissistic and abusive behaviour, it makes complete sense to me why I let him back. He literally tugged the strings he’d attached to me and used the fear, the insecurities, all those little cuts and jabs, to put me back in my box as well as he could. I followed the script I knew best I suppose.

His behaviour seemed better, his mood swings less erratic, but I had these persistent alarm bells ringing and ringing. He started talking about buying houses again. He talked about his family deciding to cut him into a share from the will. He thought he’d buy a cottage near me. I would not let him move back in with us, but he was still here often. He started working in London, in a bakery and I was happy that he had found something practical and wholesome to occupy his days. I was touched too, as I had introduced him to his first baking of sourdough, lent him my baking bibles and kitchen. Baking seemed like something you couldn’t do dishonestly. Bread rises or it doesn’t, but it doesn’t lie.

But of course it couldn’t last. You can only keep up parallel lives for so long – and things will go wrong. Texts arrive when they shouldn’t and someone (especially someone who has already had the worst happen) might phone a rental company to confirm the date of a family holiday. Imagine the feeling of “oh no, not again” as I hear a long pause on the line and the embarrassed woman saying, “oh I’m afraid you don’t have a booking with us, as we never received payment from your partner. I emailed him 3 months ago.” Daughter and I listened in disbelief, sitting in the car in the dentists car park, both crying. “That’s it,” I said to her, “That is the end. The absolute end. No more.”

The following day he came back to my house, having ignored my phone calls. I told him what I had found, that he had lied again. That once again, we had believed him. Believed his utter bullshit. He couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why he had said he was paying for a holiday that wasn’t going to happen, or why he’d kept the fantasy going right up to the week before we were leaving. Right up to organising suitcases, dog beds, swimming towels.. no explanation. That morning it took all of my strength to get him to go. He begged, he cried, he shouted, he hung onto my arms and shook them. He said he’d break me. I said, you can’t do that twice. He threatened to kill himself if I made him leave. I said, I’ll take the risk. He said he’d probably be dead by the end of the day. I just pulled his hands off me and flattened myself against the kitchen units. Turned the radio up to drown his horrible crying.

The children all hid in their rooms upstairs. He ranted in the kitchen, begged to say goodbye to them. They did not want anything to do with him. I said he could not. That he had to go. And go now. Eventually he left, refusing to take any of his clothes or things with him. Just him, his phone and wallet and car. He walked out the front door in July 2016 and he disappeared. I never saw him again.

For several weeks I wondered if he had actually killed himself. I wondered if I would ever know. Then I got a text out of the blue asking for his stuff. Could I put it on the doorstep. He’d collect it in the middle of the night as he was working full time at the bakery. He would pay me a thousand pounds. He would explain. I felt sick. Most of his stuff I left outside in bags. Locked the doors, put the chain on. The next day they were gone. Some stuff I kept, as a kind of insurance policy. Just in case he never paid me back. Just in case.

Fast forward to January 2017, 6 months without explanation or repayment. I decided to cut my losses. But then via serendipitous contacts and chance conversations, I found myself in contact with people for the first time, who had known W before I had met him. Very quickly it became clear that he had never been honest with me about any part of his life, nor had he stopped lying after the Non-Move.

I discovered that he had, in fact, been living with his wife for the entire time that he had been in a relationship with me. Even before we met, he had lied about how long they had been married, and weird little irrelevant details. Despite him telling me she had moved out and that they were separated. No. Not at all. He had been leading one of those classic double lives that you read about in crap reality magazines. Those stories where you think, “How did she not know? Surely you can’t lie to that extent for all those years and get away with it?” I felt so stupid and duped. Every time he disappeared and couldn’t answer his phone, of course he was at home with his wife. Money that he spent with her, he’d got from me. What he spent with me, he had got from her. She was working two jobs, I was teaching full time and trying to pay off credit card bills, look after three children and run a house, and he was flitting between the two of us, living off the proceeds. I expect he had also moved on to the next person somewhere towards the end with me, but that frankly, is irrelevant.

According to W’s ex-wife, they are now divorced. She left the country penniless and went back to the country of her birth last autumn, to live with her cousins. She lost everything. Ironically, she and I are in touch now. I like her. I like her a lot. She is sweet and funny and compassionate. We get on well. We are perhaps the only people that we know who can perfectly understand the position of the other one. We have been able to fill in many gaps that on our own we couldn’t have made sense of. She said to me once, “You know, if there was ever going to be another woman in my marriage, I am so glad it was you, because I like you.” I apologised to her. I told her that had I known that truth, I would never have had a relationship with her husband, and I was so sorry that she had suffered so dreadfully too. We agreed to stop apologising to each other, that it wasn’t either of our faults. We are helping each other to recover and get stronger. It’s nice, but weird. I like talking to her. When she wonders where her kitchen chairs went, she asks me if I know. “Yes, they are in my kitchen,” I say. I offered to send them to her, but she doesn’t want them. This week I’m packing up a rather nice painting that she bought on holiday with W, during a two week period in 2013 that he was off-radar for us, and I was going out of my head with worry that I couldn’t get hold of him. Of course he was on holiday with his wife and having a lovely time! Why didn’t I think of that? Silly me.

But of course I did think of that. I just didn’t believe it. The numerous times I said to him, “Is that’s why I am NEVER allowed to come to your house then? You’re actually living with your wife!” And he would have a whole list of plausible answers or strategies ranging from, the classic, “oh for fucks sake, of course I’m not. Why are you so fucking suspicious all the time? You are such a headcase!” to his favourite line, “but why would I do that? Why would I lie to you?”and I would think, Well indeed. I still don’t know why. Why would anyone lie and lie and lie? Why would he think I needed him to tell me he was wealthy? Why would I care if he rented or owned his cottage? How could he imagine he could simply lie to his wife, lie to me and live two lives simultaneously without it going horribly fucking wrong? He was clever, but seriously, nobody is that clever. Because the truth DOES always out. Eventually. It does. It seeps out like jam out of a sandwich. Like pus from a wound. Like an over-full nappy. You cannot juggle the cognitive dissonance of multiple selves forever and you cannot ever fully control the puppets you create. Shit goes wrong. People get a funny feeling, and alarm bells will eventually ring. Whether you choose to hear them or not.

So now I have some truths. They are my truths. They do not come from W. I don’t have the answers I have sought, and I won’t ever get them from him. I have worked hard over the last two and a half years to reprogramme myself. To rewrite some of those broken scripts and to listen to myself keenly. I am not in direct contact with W now, other than receiving a small monthly repayment that I calculate will take another 12 years to pay off entirely) that I see on my bank statement. It was my last message to him, when I suggested the least he could do was attempt some reparation by paying a minimum sum to cover the loans he needed me to take out, to bankroll his fantasies. I don’t feel grateful he sends it to me, or guilty that I don’t feel grateful. He bloody well should be taking some responsibility to help mend the damage he caused. He carries on, happily involved with someone else, his new life all bread and seaside happiness. Yes, I am bitter about that, when I struggle with flashbacks and palpitations, nightmares and paying bills. I try not to be, but honestly, it isn’t fair. Occasionally, his name will pop up on social media and I will have a panic attack, and a few more nights of awful chasing nightmares, running away, anxiety dreams. Takes me a little while to calm back down. Each time is a little easier I guess.

I don’t think he could ever answer my questions, even if I asked him now or in the future, because I think that his psyche is so very fragmented and damaged, that putting all those parts of himself together, joining it up would be too dangerous. I don’t think he could do it without the absolute destruction of himself. He is a survivor, cockroach-like, protecting himself from the worst fall-out by moving onto another host, another source of emotional and practical sustenance. He has had to be this crawling thing throughout his life, created from chaotic, sad and damaged beginnings. So he will carry on. I feel sorry for the neglected child he was. I feel sorrow for the desperately lonely, unloved little boy that is still causing mayhem and chaos wherever he goes, in his fifty plus years of travel. His life is a broken thing. He doesn’t understand love, though he craves it. He needs to be needed and adored, but he cannot simply be with another person without damaging them. He loses every close relationship eventually and breaks everything he values emotional, because he has to hide so much of himself from every other person, just to present the sides of himself that he believes are lovable. He is a mixture of vanity and self-loathing, arrogance and a terrible, all-consuming fear of being abandoned.

My pity for him however, does not truly extend to compassion: I do not want to help him, nor do I care about his future. I care about me and my children and our lives. He has had everything he could from us: love, kindness, care and empathy. We absolutely cherished him. Now, I want to stay a million miles from him forever, because he is dangerous and destructive and remorseless. And plausible. Like all very exceptional liars, his personal charm is outrageous. He exudes confidence and makes you just WANT to believe him, because he knows what you most desperately want to believe too. For me it was that I was loved, I was safe, my children were loved and cared for, I had a warm, loving future ahead of me. Ironic, isn’t it?

Equally, I cannot warn others about the risk of getting close to him, because he has already explained me away as a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as I knew he would. Of course. He has to protect himself. I understand this well. Gaslighting par excellence. DON’T BELIEVE THE BITCH WHEN SHE TELLS YOU HER LIES, SHES UNSTABLE, DONCHA KNOW?

But. I have digressed, haven’t I?

I started off talking about doing nothing, about nothingness. About not feeling guilty for doing nothing. And how the nothing begins, what it feels like inside. The weird niceness of the void.

I cling to the great big nothingness inside me, created maybe by the dissolving of what I thought had been true and real and mine. The story of me with the story of W. The paralysis I feel is perhaps the physical manifestation of the huge questions of what happened and why, that swim around my head all day and all night. The paralysis of not being able to trust my own judgments, to believe my own thoughts: how did I not work it out sooner? Can I trust my own spidey senses any more? What if I am just an idiot?

Writing is helping. It doesn’t answer the questions, but it is a way of creating something out of the nothing. It is a distraction from the nothing. It’s packaging. I’m not good at just allowing my thoughts to roll along, but I am learning. When I wail, I let myself wail now. It’s not fair! Why should I STILL suffer? Why did he pick me and my family? How could I let this happen? Round and round and round I go like a really shit and nauseating fairground ride. (Do you wanna go faster? No. I want to get off. Haha you can’t.)

My lovely therapist last year, helped me to allow the feelings and emotions (that are so horrible and scary and chilling and frightening) to exist, to just be. It is exhausting keeping the panic away and looking the feelings in the eye. I suppose that’s another reason for the nothing.

But, in the way that telling children scary fairytales helps them to practice emotional resilience, to have strategies for fighting their own dragons, I am retelling this narrative. Mine. Rewriting it. I feel in control of my own story. I am the author. It feels good. In a nasty kind of way. My words. My thoughts. Nobody putting them there, nobody to convince of anything. I can’t tell you how good it feels to create order in this black hole, even if I’d really rather forget the whole sorry fiasco.

And so I thank you for being my reader, for joining this dance with me: without you, it’s just an internal monologue, a rambling on by myself. With you, it is a story of me, an act of participation and the beginning of a dialogue. My steps and yours. You read, you listen, you see the picture I paint of the truths that are mine. In your own way. You think your thoughts, prompted by my words. You think your responses, whatever they may be, good, bad, harsh, kind, warm, impatient: I am ok with whatever you think. I am just pleased to be read, to know that the nothing is now something.

My phone rings. It’s my mother.

“What are you up to today? Doing anything exciting?”, she asks hopefully.

“Nope,” I reply, sniffing. “Nothing. I’m doing nothing at all.”

Which is just fine.

Me and Effie doing some really good nothing together Continue reading Absolutely nothing is good for you

Starting with a Hat

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I don’t know why you think I know Paris so well. You talk about places assuming I can see them as clearly as you. You talk about little streets and cafés. You say, do I remember that little place La Palette? On the rue de Seine? No, I don’t. But it sounds like somewhere I’d like. So why not?  Lets meet there. If you get there first, order me un petit café, would you?

You’ll know it’s me because I’ll be wearing a chic little Parisian raincoat, belted of course, long boots for the puddles, and a felt hat. It’s a great little hat, that I saw in a one-off shop in Oxford, that sells crazy handmade hats. It’s a pink felt cloche with floppy velvet flowers and an asymmetric brim. Not too practical in the rain, but just the thing for drinking coffee on a wintry late morning in Paris, on the rue de Seine.

It will be tempting to keep checking my reflection in the mirror behind the bar as I arrive, to see if my mascara has run in the rain, but I’ll do it surreptitiously. I don’t want you to think I’m concerned with my appearance. I will have run all the way from the metro, because I wasn’t sure whether I was going left or right at the exit and took the wrong turn. Why do I always do that? And I’m beginning to worry that you’ll have gone by the time I arrive, because we said eleven, and it’s nearly twenty to twelve. I’m not even sure you thought I’d really come. My stomach is churning. Be there. Please still be there, I can see the café now, dripping tables outside the door. They’ve put up a hideous plastic cover from the awning, that flaps in the wind. I can see the gold chairs behind the plastic and old men hunched over a beer. I’ll be calm when I go in. Breathe deeply and slowly. Steamy windows behind the plastic so I can’t see if you’re inside. Be brave. Push open the door.

Thank God for the mirror behind the bar. Mascara is fine. Hat is at a jaunty angle. Cheeks a bit too pink from my sprint and from the sudden bakery heat inside. Breathe. In. Out. Are you even there? If I step out slightly from the queue of people at the bar, I’ll be able to squint past the couples at tables and waiters bearing trays with cups, saucers, silver teapots and steaming coffee. But where are you? Oh God. Have you gone? Did you give up? Did you think I wasn’t coming after all? Oh thank God. There you are. You’re sitting there, your empty cup on the table, newspaper folded and notebook on top. I’m not sure you notice me come in. I’m right behind a man, taking off his heavy coat, hiding me. He stands between me and the rest of the room, shaking off the rain, folding his coat over one arm. I catch my breath, wait for my heartbeat to slow a little. I stay hidden for a moment longer. Gather myself.

And there you are! Still peering out the steamed up window, waiting to see me arrive. I think I get almost to your table before you realise it’s me. I smile a smile that I’m still smiling now. From ear to ear. You smiled the same one right back. And then I am wrapped in your arms and your coat and your scarf is falling on the floor. I don’t know how long we stand there, your arms tight round my waist, mine around your neck, my face buried against yours. You smell of coffee and soap and toast and familiarity. That hug is like a homecoming. And then we sit. We smile. No, we grin like idiots. And our hands reach across the table at the same time as we talk. I nearly lose the sensation in my fingers, wound tightly into yours.

You order more coffee, of course. Double espressos for both, little black coffees with an exquisite, perfect crema on top, steaming hot. I have an almond croissant, because I can never resist when I’m drinking coffee. My favourite. You show restraint and say no. But of course we share it, because actually you can’t resist either.  I get icing sugar on my coat sleeve. Naturally. I am messy even here. I start to lick it off, unthinking, but then I realise where I am: in a café on the rue de Seine, Paris. Neither the time nor the place for licking sugar off my coat, I remind myself. But you see what I’m thinking, you’re watching the thoughts flit across my face and you’re laughing at me. You offer to save me embarrassment by licking the sugar off for me. I don’t know whether I decline your offer or not. Either way, there’ll be a sticky spot on the sleeve of that raincoat that I have never sponged off.

And we will talk. Oh my god, will we talk! How long we shall sit there, I don’t know. Perhaps we won’t notice, perhaps time will just pass us by and the sun will carry on in its arc over the sky. You ask me everything. I will tell you. We will be endlessly sidetracked by each other, by the extraordinariness of sitting in La Palette, on the rue de Seine, sitting and talking and laughing. I will have to ask you questions that I thought I’d forgotten. You will have to forgive me that, humour me a little. And what tense will we use when we talk? Will it be past, present or future? Will we stay in the conditional? Would we? Could we? Maybe there will be a whole new tense for just this moment out of time. And as we talk we will rediscover our shared passion for the pleasure in words, just the sheer delight in exchanging words. We will rewrite our own language of intimacy, of words that mean something only to us.

The rain will stop, of course. I know you say that it always rains in Paris and you do love to grumble about that. I shan’t spoil that pleasure for you. I’ll let it rain a little longer. That way, we can shelter in La Palette for a while more, watch people come in and out. See if we can sneak the pocket backgammon board onto the table without being noticed. That will panic me a bit, because I’ll be remembering the time we were thrown out of a café for illicit gambling, when you were trying to teach me how to play. I was incensed, do you remember? Gambling? For goodness sake, I barely understood how to bear off, let alone take a punt on a double and wager actual money. But this time, we’ll laugh in the face of such danger. Because we’re older and wearing better clothes. That counts for a lot in Paris.

I’d like to think that when we play, we are now evenly matched. All those years of practice on my own, against virtual partners will have paid off. I will begin by losing. You will smile kindly, not really surprised, and you’ll be magnanimous, patronising in your victory. But a game or two later, I’ll be on a winning streak. You will be amazed, impressed and slightly cross. You thought I’d forgotten how to play, that I gave up when I lost you. That I’d not got any better in twenty years. You will be determined to thrash me. For old times’ sakes. There’s a steady clonk of dice in the pot, the clack of magnets as they move around the board. You will be waiting for me to knock your pieces willy-nilly onto the bar, because I never could resist that, and then I’d be whipped. Resoundingly beaten. But today I will be canny. I will be ruthless. I will not be tempted into any easy trap. I shall enjoy this, skipping round the board. And it will be joyous. We’ll be quiet, reading the dice as we tip them out, enjoying the thrill of the perfect throw at the perfect moment. Five and a three to start. Double six, double one. Six and a one. The numbers speak their own language as we play.

As you concentrate on a move, I will watch your face, your hand as it hovers over the board. You’ll look up at me, catch my eye, we’ll smile. But you’ll raise an eyebrow and carry on playing: nothing gets in the way of the game. Time will go by. I will watch you move those wooden pieces, two fingers sliding a pair from one spike to two.  I know that I’m a better player than I was. I know I can wait, I can take my time and not rush into immediate moves. The dice don’t scare me like they used to and I can take defeat so much better. If you win a game, I can only learn for the next one. This is the beauty of the game. I can step outside my normal niceness, my desire to please and be sweet and I can be ruthless, vicious, take no prisoners. It’s the only real thing I play to win. So  I shall watch you across the board, across the empty coffee cups and the sugary table: and you will smile as you win a gammon. And I take your lovely hand and squeeze. We smile and I know we’re both thinking of old times. You put a ring on that finger once. It took my breath away. It weighed my hand down, made my fingers heavy.

I’m keeping my hat on, though, not because I’m cold, but because it’s a treat to wear. Makes me feel as though I’m acting a part. I’m someone better. Eccentric and beautiful. Tall and enigmatic. You know, feels lIke I can carry anything off with this hat on my head. Something about those velvet flowers, the way they flop. Something winning about the way the brim curves down over my ears, just framing my eyes. I put my faith in this hat. Rain hat, sun hat, it’s my raspberry pink cloche with the damp velvet flowers. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Outside the café, we are walking. We will look into  gallery windows. Choose ourselves objects and paintings for homes we don’t live in. We’ll despise some. Laugh at some. Love a few. I ask you to choose me something that will make me laugh. I’m still thinking about my hat. When I glimpse a reflection of it in the shop windows, I can’t help smiling.

The shady street opens out onto a broad embankment.  We climb down steps onto the pressed gravel pathway by the river. Barges glide along below, traffic chunters over the bridge ahead. The Seine flows on. What is it about light on water that lifts the spirit? I wonder as we walk along, avoiding little piles of dog-mess in the gravel, between square stone pots of privet.

“So  bloody French.” You say, morosely, pointing out the mess. It is, I suppose.

But I’m lost in the spectacle of light on water, in the watery shadows on the underside of the bridge ahead, in the rhythm of our feet walking. I don’t notice the dog-shit. I’m lost in the dream. The dream that takes me to streets I’ve not walked, to cafés I’ve not visited, with the ghost of a dream of a man I once knew. If I close my eyes I can keep walking. I can hold onto the dream for a little longer. If no one speaks, no one moves, I can feel my arm through his arm, his side against my side, shoulders bumping as we walk. I can still smell the coffee, hear the steam shooting through the milk. I can feel the wooden dice in my hand, the sugar on my fingers, taste the almond paste inside the flaky pastry. And I can feel the hat on my head, the pink felt, the cloche, that hat I fell in love with once. The hat that can work magic, a travelling hat for dreamers. A hat with flowers that flop to one side, that still are a little damp from the rain. I love that hat.

One day of course, I will find that hat I fell in love with. Sitting in the window, worn on a wooden head. And no matter the price, I’ll buy it, if I have to beg, borrow or steal. And I shall wear it out of the shop. I shall wear it and wear it. It will take me places. Maybe to the rue de Seine, to La Palette, where I’ll see you sitting drinking coffee, waiting for me. It might take me to the river, arm in arm with a memory, a ghost.

I breathe out slowly, and my breath steams against the glass, obscuring the pink felt cloche. And then he’s right behind me, solidly encased in wool and disapproval.

“Darling, seriously, you don’t need another hat!”, says the other man, steering me away from the shop by my elbow, fingers tight on my woollen sleeve, around shoppers, through the rain. “Honestly. You and hats. I will never understand the fascination.”

BBC Homes & Antiques Commissioned - ALL RIGHTS

Finishing the hat.

Hardy perennials 


One day in March, a few years ago, I stopped at my local garden centre to take a breather from a long car journey to top up my blood-caffeine levels. I sat outside the coffee shop and watched a pair of elderly women choosing from the effusive pick and mix of spring planting. They were debating over a choice between bedding plants or, my favourite things ever, the hardy perennials.

In early March, perennials are pretty much all foliage: greens, greys, smooth leaved or furry, but essentially, flowerless. They look relatively dull, compared to big, blousy hyacinths, pink and red tulips, or the enthusiastic open faces of multicoloured pansies and primulas. I think that is why I love them, actually. I love the way that in mid-spring the first signs of foliage squeeze their way through the earth. I love spotting the first tight curls of alchemilla mollis, tiny grey-green roundels, hairy and ready to catch the first dew drops of the day. I get very excited when I see a green fistful of hollyhock buds and leaf tips pushing past the stony detritus of my poorly tended borders. And I do just adore wandering around garden centres and nurseries, dreamily fantasising about new lupins, potentilla and geraniums to tuck into any available spaces in the flower-beds.

But what I really love about the hardy perennial is that they do what they say on the can, so to speak. Hardy enough to flower all spring and summer, yet die back in the winter, and survive snow and frost and the kind of general neglect they can expect in my garden. And being perennial, they come back every year. Pretty much. So every time you add to your collection, you know that it’s not a one off pleasure, but something that is going to keep turning up every flipping spring to wave it’s foliage at you and generally be gorgeous for a couple of months. Just brilliant!

It struck me that my favourite kind of people are hardy perennials too. None of your temporary bedding plant buddies, in it for the short-haul, sunny days and brief warm spells. Nope. They won’t survive a drought or a frost, fun though they are for a season. They’ll probably need replacing next summer. Even your winter pansies have a finite life-span, pretty though they are, and useful for filling spaces. No, for me, it’s the hardy perennials who, though they may recede and retreat to pause and quietly restock, come back each time a little stronger and more vigorous, who I adore. In the winter, while those beautiful, determined stems are fermenting their spring growth, I am looking forward to their emergence. At the start of each growing season, I greet my hardy perennials much as I would greet a long lost, deeply missed friend – with great warmth following their absence, with relief that they are healthy and well, and with joy that despite my neglect and lack of care, they have chosen to come back.

Friendships move in and out, grow, die, stagnate. New ones can germinate quickly, old ones slowly mulch down under new plantings. But those hardy perennials that come back year on year and fill the place with colour and joy are the treasure in my garden and in my heart. You can plant new ones, you can add to the colour scheme, sprinkle the odd seed here and there, but you know what? Just be a hardy perennial and I’ll love you forever.

Music to dance to

The one thing they both remembered was the music. They met to music, they fell in love, one at a time to music, they fell apart and tumbled back together. More than once. All to music. There was never a day together without their own personal soundtrack. Until they were apart for the longest time. And then she put their music away, turned down the volume, left behind the libretti and turned to silence for relief.He immersed himself more deeply in shared tunes, drowning the loss in harmony and dissonance. He played more, listened more, never left the music behind.

She left many of her belongings with him, unable to take away any more than herself from their shared life, and their music was just part of what she left behind. More practical things were easily missed, like the wooden ironing board rooted out at a charity sale, and the second-hand blue and white stripy cornishware plates. They could be listed, their utilitarian value clear. But the music was the greater loss, one which she could not estimate. She had no idea as she packed the memories away, that their music would track her down and find her anyway.

It was Tchaikovsky when they met the first time. Two schools, boys and girls coolly, separately navigated plastic seats and stands in the orchestra. She had hoped she’d make first flute for this gig, had been counting on it, but to her chagrin she found herself on second bank. And not even, as she had liked to imagine, in her all-girls’ school, sitting with a fluting sex-god. No, she was playing second flute to a pompous youth with lank hair and a fluffy embouchure. It was all very disappointing. Until the arrival of the last clarinettist, skidding across the sports hall floor, the conductor tapping his stand irritably.

She remembered fondly that it was the nape of his neck that she first fell in love with. He thought it absurd. But she was adamant she had fallen in love first because she had had longer to gaze at the back of his head. It was perfect. She did not have to take her eyes off the tanned skin above the white shirt collar, the dark hair cut extra short for the beginning of term, the dip above the vertebrae at the very base of the skull, just above the music on the stand in front of her. She played Tchaikovsky in a daze and memorised the shape of his head, the angle of his earlobes to his cheek, the line of his jaw as he reached forward to turn a page. Years later, seeing him again, it was just that sideways glimpse which melted her heart, that shadowed line from ear to chin, half an eyebrow and just a millimetre of lash.

She could never remember when exactly they first spoke, but somehow they found themselves together between rehearsal and performance. Just chatting, walking and of course, listening to music. Later, she kicked herself for forgetting the tracks he played her, since that was the start of another love affair for her. Who was it? Clarence Gatemouth who? Just a blast of record after record, trumpet, sax, piano, voice. Then weeks later, a brief afternoon walking in Christchurch Meadows was enough to send her heart spinning, to set the wheels in motion forever. “I’ll write”, he said, as she boarded the bus home. He didn’t.That was the first heart-break.

Years later she was listening to Billie Holiday, sat on a window-sill in the rain. “I get along without you, very well.” Rain dripped off her feet, falling on the concrete, 3 floors below. Lady Day sang out a shared loneliness and longing, her vocal chords wrecked by age and narcotics, and she remembered watching him lift the needle onto the records, the scratch, the blare, the Symphonie Pathetique and gazing at the back of a beautiful boy’s head. She wondered when the last time she really genuinely felt happy had been, and she thought of that study room, smelling faintly of socks, of books and teenage boy. She wondered why he had never written, why she had waited. Ah enough! Enough of waiting! So she wrote instead. Just to put herself out of her own misery, to put a lid on that lost moment, she wrote a letter with no hope of intention of it finding its way to him. Just a letter that had been promised, that hadn’t been written. And once posted, she breathed again, and Lady Day went back in her box.

The letter, via anonymous friends and helpful porters from a wrongly remembered college, by some strange chance, found him. Fate, they agreed, or perhaps serendipity, had this time conspired with, rather than against them. And this time, she brought opera with her. She sat on another window-sill, framed by stone, as he revised for his law finals, absorbing Madame Butterfly through headphones. That was his abiding memory of those days: looking up from this case study or that, to see her profile in the window, eyes closed and far away in the music. In the evenings he played Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and she loved everything she heard. Mostly though, she loved him. He fell for Puccini, for Verdi, for tragedy and romance, for her. She fell for Bill Evans and Ella Fitzgerald, for his silly jokes and the softness of his lips. Their soundtrack grew. But always in a hurry, always impatient to be at the next step, they rushed through the days and weeks, through bliss and rapture, into boredom & fear, until much too quickly they were apart. She left, sure that self-realisation could not be achieved together. And that was the second heart-break.

The third heart-break was the one that stuck. Both hearts broken simultaneously. And this time, the music went away for good. She absorbed the pain since she had caused it. Her beautiful boy moved on. He told her he would. “It will be nothing to do with you!” he said. She watched from a distance, always aching to know how he was, what he was doing, but in the end, he was too far away. So she moved on too. The music quietly crept back. She took someone else to the opera, told herself that it was just notes after all. Through the years she checked in quietly, sought out news and changes, author searches on websites, book reviews and comments: some made her laugh, some left her just a little sad. Always there was that gap in her, an absence of him somewhere inside. It maddened her that she had not really managed to move on without him. And the music kept creeping in. Track by track.

She borrowed a saxophone. Taught herself to play old tunes and irritated her children with the noise. She stumbled across his latest novel in the local library, and over months, took it to the librarian’s desk more than once. Never quite persuaded herself to look beyond the cover for fear of what was inside. Until one day she simply took it from the shelf, sitting on the floor between the stacks of fiction and began to read. And in moments, there she was in the cheap seats of the Opera House, listening to La Boheme, sitting next to him , red velvet seats prickling through her skirt, and tears streaming down her cheeks, all in the first three pages. Once again, the music had found her when she wasn’t looking for it. It turned her upside down and inside out. Scrambled. So she succumbed. She began to listen again, to visit old places, to be brave. She checked in again to see where he was, and now, with the plethora of social networks she found a wealth of information. There he was, writer, family man, beautiful boy, and he was doing what he’d always said he wanted to do. He was writing. She felt so proud, ridiculously proud, but, as he’d said, it was nothing to do with her. (Except of course, it was.)

And always she had wished she could just say sorry. Tell him how much she wished she’d done things differently, how pleased she was that he had achieved so much. She read what he wrote online, read his twitter updates, his blog posts, for weeks and months until it became a habit. Her own daily news stream straight to the heart. When one day he cracked a joke about hay fever, and she unthinkingly replied, she honestly could say afterwards, that it had been an accident. She really had not intended to talk to him. She had always vowed she would never bother him again, not cause any more upset. Not because she didn’t want to know, but because she felt she didn’t have the right to know. And the fear that perhaps it had never existed in the first place. He replied. And then came the flowering, blossoming of remembrance and a new narrative across distance and time.

Now all they really had was music. Geography made sure of that. So they found one another new songs, old tunes. They found new words to the old songs and new music to play out new stories. Sending songs across the ether, the exchanges became a process of healing and forgiveness, of rediscovery and reassurance. But above all, this new story was made of music. Not a day went by without sharing their soundtrack, apart and in different time zones. He would fall asleep to what she was waking up with. The songs took on a life of their own, speaking in voices that lulled and soothed, excited and thrilled. It was a whole new language.

He sent a song and a message, “I want to dance to this with you.”

She began to gather dance tracks in anticipation of a day when they would dance. It was a compilation for all seasons, all venues, because who knew when or where they would finally be in the same place. She picked songs to dance to under trees, in a garden, at parties, by rivers. Songs to sing along to in the car. Songs to jump about to while cooking, songs to barely move to, just to cling together and sway to. Songs to sort socks to, songs to walk dogs to, songs that just made your body move. The music was back, bigger, more expansive, more wonderful than ever. It filled days and nights, was the backdrop to everything they did. One day, they vowed, they would dance together to the music. They would listen together, sitting in the dark with Violetta’s lament all around them. They would dance and dance until the sky turned black and the needle skipped and jumped and bumped in the middle of the record and the music never stopped, but crackled into a whisper.

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