It's August, I'm in Paris with my boyfriend of six months and I'm taking in some art at the Musee D'Orsay. It's a stunning building. The architecture of the old station is complemented by the vast display of art and sculpture. I should be happy but I'm feeling desperate. I haven't got the mental energy to look at anything. I just want this day to end, to be at home on my own hiding under the duvet and not here with this man whose interest and affection is ebbing away. The pit of my stomach is aching and I feel sick. My limbs feel too heavy to lift as we mount the glass walkway and I look over the railing with longing at the drop to the floor below.
I'd met Peter six months before, in February 2008. I'd been single for eleven months since I'd split up with Rob and it hadn't been easy. I hated being alone and found it disorientating and disturbing. I did however love having my own house and space. I'd had a brief dalliance with a good looking bad boy who made me laugh but was sleeping with all and sundry behind my back, which had hurt as much as I'd expected it to. I'd drunk my way through this. I'd been on countless dates, each one more demoralising than the last. I'd drunk my way through this too.
I met Peter in a bar in town. He'd wooed me on the internet by quoting lines from one of my favourite films, "A Streetcar Named Desire". I could easily fall for a man who knows his Tennessee Williams. He was a teacher in a public school and was a few years younger than me. Ironically we met in the bar where I'd met my abusive long term boyfriend, Barry, in 1987. This should have been an omen.
The date wasn't fantastic. I didn't find him all that attractive and his mannerisms were a bit odd. He was also from a different world from me. He was, however quite attentive and funny and when he kissed me a chaste good night kiss, I accepted his offer to cook me a meal in a few days time. He lived in at the public school and I thought it could be interesting to see his flat. I wasn't familiar with the inside of public schools.
He picked me up for a meal and drove me to his flat. He was clad head to toe in tweed and wittered away, making me laugh. He'd wheedled out of me what my favourite foods were without me noticing and we entered his big Georgian flat, which took my breath away. There were walls of books, a wing backed armchair and a fire was burning in the grate. His mother was an actress, which seemed exotic.We started dating.
I was a little concerned about his religious views. I'm a zealous atheist. My youthful experiences of the anti gay doctrine of the Catholic Church had left me with an almost evangelical atheism and a hatred of all things papal. He was a devout Catholic and had almost entered the priesthood. His flat shouted Catholic, loud and clear. There were icons and crucifixes everywhere, things that I'm almost allergic to and would normally have run screaming from, like Damien in "The Omen". I pushed my doubts away. He amused me and he became more attractive to me as time went on. The sex wasn't the best I'd had but it's not everything (or so I tried to convince myself). I was a little startled when on the second date he went to the toilet and left the door wide open. I was mortified. I like to get to know someone a bit better before I see them defecate. He thought my request for him to keep the toilet door shut was bizarre. It was only for solids that I minded though. I think it would have fizzled out in a few weeks but something horrible happened.
My dad had been ill with bowel and prostate cancer for 5 years. Initially he'd had surgery, radiotherapy and chemo and for a couple of years been frail, but free of cancer and relatively happy. The cancer had returned the year before with secondaries sprouting in his lungs, bones and on his scalp. Following a spontaneous fracture of his hip socket a year before, he'd been in almost constant pain. March 2008 he started to become weaker, walking was an effort, he had bouts of confusion. He'd wander the house at night aimlessly, unsure where he was and we had to get a hospital bed for the downstairs and start getting nurses in at night to sit with him. I filled in the gaps a few times and would spend exhausting nights idly flicking through the TV channels, desperately trying to stay awake in case he needed anything. I was trying to balance this with work, which was hard. Within a few weeks I had to take indefinite leave from work to look after him. He was in quite a state, bouts of pain and agitation troubled him and he needed constant observation. Having spent so much time in hospital we'd said to him we'd try to keep him at home, whatever and we did. He was on a morphine pump but needed frequent top ups. The GP provided all the stuff and I was allowed to give drugs by injection. I'd stay from 7am to 10pm every day and was glad to do this if it meant he could stay at home.
Peter phoned me daily and if he had time and my dad was sleeping and settled he'd drive over and take me out. I had a yearning for Spring time that year. I had a childlike need to see green shoots, lambs and daffodils. I needed fresh air and freedom from the sick room and someone to care about me. He provided this service, gladly and was happy to fuss over me. I'm normally fiercely independent but this time I was glad to let someone nurture me. I exclaimed like a child at the lambs and he lapped this up. He had a tendency for silliness.
My dad died six weeks later and I stupidly went back to work within a day. I was totally numb. My dad had converted to Catholicism when he first knew he was terminally ill and I struggled with this. The bumbling priest was a frequent visitor to the house and I was a frequent visitor to the flowerbeds at the bottom of the garden whenever he arrived. The lengthy Roman Catholic funeral was an ordeal lasting several hours. I was both angry and numb. Peter sat beside me glowing in my mum's adoration. He offered to do a reading which angered me intensely. He'd met my dad just a few times and had no right to take a part. I resented this passively. I didn't complain. It pleased my mum. I remember sitting glaring at him as he read out a passage from the Bible and my irrational rage focused on him. I sat chewing on dry Valium tablets as the hours passed slowly. I did anagrams in my head. I couldn't imagine it was anything to do with my dad and it was with great restraint that I didn't just stand up and shout swear words at the whole place.
As we left the church to go to the crematorium I spotted a fine looking pine dresser propped in the porch of the church. I wanted it. My desire to shop was reaching mad proportions and every time Peter picked me up he'd ask what I wanted to buy that day, pandering to my insanity. I'd bought a picnic hamper the day my dad died (unusual choice for a snowy April day), a chair the day we went to the undertakers, countless new clothes, mugs and plates. I was indiscriminate. I usually hate shopping. I asked the warden of the church how much she wanted for the dresser and she looked shocked. I was following my dad's coffin and trying to shop. Peter suggested I think about buying it later and I think I whispered an obscenity back. I bought it during the wake. It was a bargain.
I felt adrift after the funeral. I had three basic moods: angry, exuberant and sad. I drank through it. I also took it out on Peter. I attacked his views, criticised his behaviour and picked fights. He couldn't handle me at all. I recall waking up on a bad day and feeling very low. I was crouching in the garden, smoking and he appeared in a dressing gown and did a little comedy dance to try and cheer me up. I'm not impressed by comedy dances at the best of times. It was my dressing gown too.
He suggested that if we were together in a year's time we might think about marriage. I laughed in his face and gave him a 30 minute lecture about why I don't believe in marriage. We came upon a car crash in a deserted country lane, late at night and I shouted at him to grow up when he screamed at the sight of a boy in the road covered in blood (the boy lived, it was a broken leg with a protruding bone). He invited me to go with him to Rome to stay with his friend who was a priest and I told him why I thought all priests should be flogged and why I would never meet his priest friends. He told me anecdotes about his time in the seminary, training to be a priest and I hissed through clenched teeth about the hypocrisy of gay Catholics. He leant me books and showed me films and I told him how much I hated them. He expected me to embrace everything he liked and like it too. Whereas I saw a relationship as two individuals being together but remaining individuals, he saw it as merging of two people into one unit. I was his first proper boyfriend.
I wasn't a complete monster, at times. On the sad days I'd withdraw, hiding under my duvet and needing solitude. He fretted about my prolonged drinking sessions. On the exuberant days I was exhausting but fun to be with, entertaining him with tales from my life and laughing endlessly. He loved the wild side of me and the occasional flashes of childlike impishness. I became obsessed with board games and he smiled with delight when I got excited about winning at Cluedo. I was very sullen if I wasn't allowed to be Miss Scarlet. Naturally, he was Reverend Green. We went to the theatre a lot, visited London and attended school functions. Naturally I had to buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes to fit in with the public school crowd. We walked a lot, shopped a lot and laughed a lot. It wasn't all bad for us. He told me I was "erudite" and on looking it up, I found it meant "knowledgeable", the irony being that I had to look it up.
Paris had been planned for several weeks. I didn't realise it was a series of tests for me. He explained this much later. Apparently it was my last chance to be "decent and charitable". Had I known, I'd have chosen to fail them anyway. Paris coincided with a raft of moods. I was happy to be there. It was August and hot. The hotel was by the Sorbonne and was luxurious if small. We walked for miles and ate and drank. We read a lot and didn't kiss or touch. I was enchanted to see people ballroom dancing in the evening sun by the Seine. I loved the "Paris Beach" which was a series of imported beaches along the banks of the river with temporary lidos and groups of stylish Parisians sunbathing. The Pompidou Centre thrilled me with its deranged architecture and improbable art. I was irritated by the horrible sandals he wore, which looked like they should have been on a five year old schoolboy.
I failed in the Scare Coeur. As we walked in a small bell rang and Peter fell to his knees with a sickening thud of kneecap. I winced and walked away briskly, hideously embarrassed. I saw what looked like a budgie cage, covered in a cloth. Peter saw bread turned to Jesus' flesh. Peter marvelled at the massive gold statues. I griped about the injustice of a church gathering wealth whilst people starved. He asked me to leave after I suggested that the rather plain nuns had entered their profession because they were too ugly to get men. I was bad. He was bizarre. I was stubborn and didn't apologise.
I left him there to sit through a lengthy mass and felt free to be myself. I sat smoking outside a pavement cafe and watched people go by. I shopped too. I was quite happy.
Unsurprisingly we split when we got back. He told me, ashen faced and shaking that he never wanted to see me again and if I found any of his belongings about the house I was to bin them. I unravelled a little. My grief surfaced and I felt abandoned, ashamed and lost. I drank a lot. He turned off his mobile and disappeared. I sent messages and rang. Nothing too psychotic, just one text and one call a day. The content of the messages depended how much I'd drank. After a few weeks I pulled myself together. He finally answered his phone and we met for a drink in the bar we first met in.
Apparently I was the most small minded and mean spirited person he'd ever met. I looked at him in the cold light of day and my guilt felt burdensome. How had I been so mean to such a kind man? Tellingly, I felt no yearning for him and was glad he was no longer my boyfriend. I apologised but couldn't resist pointing out how irritating he was at times. He pointed out gleefully how much the other teachers had disliked me. I pointed out that I had been grieving and he replied that I hadn't. Grief apparently, only lasts two months. I was evil. This was me. I left the bar with my head held high feeling gratified and a little less guilty. I was glad to be single and remained so for a long time afterwards. I also regained my normal personality. I cut down on the drinking, read and saw my friends. The meanness faded away as my sadness and anger dissipated.
I don't think there is a villain in this piece. There were just two mismatched people: one hoping he'd find a man like him, who'd embrace his eccentricities and another, hoping someone would care enough to rescue him and would see through his attempts to sabotage his own life.