Countdown to Half-term

At some point in the early days of 2016, I noticed that Wimbledon Man and I weren’t Facebook friends anymore. I will admit that I felt a sense of loss . . . I never stopped liking him – he merely had poor timing. And, to be fair, I had a chicken that hated him with passion seething. But apart from all that, I thought that we could remain friends; he was a successful film nerd, which I loved. Voluntarily, he ran a cinema museum in Lambeth which I had anticipated visiting, but as our relationship never took off (unlike Dorothea), it never happened. I looked him up to see if he existed at all in Facebook World and it appeared that he didn’t – unless he’d blocked me. I confided in Rhiannon and she said that he’d probably come off Facebook but I doubted it. He was pretty active – if our relationship had taken off, there would have been a serious talk to be had about his use of social media.

She was wrong and I was right. This was the third man to block me in less than a year. The Dude blocked me when he dumped me, although he soon unblocked me and sent me a new friend request, amidst a flurry of apologies. The Rastafarian blocked me, for no good reason, although he mumbled words like ‘protection’ and ‘own good’ as if he worked for MI5. (He did imply this was the case once, in whispered tones, so I whispered back that I did too. I asked if the whole poverty thing was a cover, in which case I would just pretend to give him money from now on. Nothing more was said.) Obviously, he’d had deceitful motives when he hid me from his social media (or his social media from me – not really sure). And now Wimbledon Man. Our last interaction was him messaging on the umpteenth morning in a row, with ‘How are you?’ and my replying for the umpteenth time, ‘Good thanks. How are you?’ He knew I was in a new relationship so I said that it was getting weird. He said ‘ok’ and fell silent. I don’t know exactly when communication was severed, but I do know that by the time I noticed, when I reflected on the situation, I realised that I couldn’t recall have seen any evidence of his existence for a while. I couldn’t help thinking that if it had taken that long for me to notice, maybe he wasn’t that important to me. I knew that I had been blunt, with my opinions on his Groundhog Day-esque message popping up, without fail, morning after morning, but if I’d thought that offence was in danger of being taken, I would have sandwiched my evidently hurtful remark between niceties.  One of my Y11s remarked recently that I was very blunt. Another member of the group quipped, ‘and that’s why I love her!’ which was flattering, of course and so criticism turned into praise, but maybe I need to work on my tact and diplomacy . . .

Returning to Wimbledon Man, I figured that the cinema museum was still available to visit and to put a positive spin on the matter, I wouldn’t know of its existence at all, had we never met.

So, the countdown towards half-term was gathering momentum. Many years ago, when I taught at a girls’ boarding school, there used to be a countdown marker in the bottom right-hand corner of the white-board in the staffroom. You wouldn’t notice it unless you were searching for it, but we were ordered to remove it as it was seen as promoting a negative attitude towards our jobs. So we just pointedly reminded each other on a daily basis, how many weeks were left. And days. And how many lessons with that one year group for which you had to summon hidden reserves of everything to teach (because there is always one. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever in THAT year group at school). The countdown to the next break has been the same story in every school in which I’ve taught, but I’ve rarely taught with teachers who were actually negative about teaching. It’s the sort of running joke that facilitates your passage through the day. You couldn’t survive the job if you didn’t want to have good relationships with your students and if you didn’t want them to do the very best they could, but it does drain you over a period of several weeks, so when that break arrives, it is a timely one that serves to replenish your resources as well as to give you valuable time to spend doing non-teacher things, like regrouping with your family and/or pursuing leisure interests (whether it’s doing The Three Peaks Challenge or loafing around in nightwear all day). And there is a sense of togetherness in that journey through the term, because, unlike most jobs, you will be taking your holiday simultaneously with your colleagues.

In that last week before half-term, it was also Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day. Whenever this delicious annual event presents itself, I wonder why I’ve neglected such a delectable dish for a year. For the last few years before the children went off to uni, I had a pancake frenzy for weeks afterwards, both sweet and savoury, but for the last couple of years, being on my own, I’ve squeezed the pancake frenzy into a ‘one night only’ event and then deprived myself of heavenly things such as cakes, biscuits and chocolates for Lent. Sweets too, but for many reasons I’m not hugely enamoured with them so relinquishing them for six weeks doesn’t seem a big deal. On Pancake Day, after a savoury pancake stuffed with avocado and Greek style natural yogurt, I created a range of sweet pancakes for my own, singular pleasure. Lemon and sugar, Nutella, maple syrup, golden syrup . . . until I’d used up all the mixture. After all, that is the idea: one eats all the ingredients in the house that you could use to make nice things, so you’re not tempted to indulge in loveliness throughout Lent. And then I deprived myself of sweet loveliness. I’m halfway through my deprivation period and it’s going ok. A couple of years ago my priest told me that you’re allowed to indulge in the forbidden excesses on Sundays throughout Lent, because Sundays are mini-Easters. And of course, you can gorge on sins of the flesh (talking chocolate/cake/biscuit sins here) at Easter because it’s a celebration of the resurrection and therefore a feast day. It all made sense but most people to whom I relay this, see fit to reprimand me for ‘cheating’ and the funny thing is, I don’t think a single one of these people has given up anything for Lent! I’m very grateful that he enlightened me – I’d never succeeded in lasting six weeks without goodies beforehand. I still have the problem of The Lenten Police; those who closely monitor my progress. Last year, I made the mistake of saying I’d given up sugar and The Lenten Police questioned my consumption of bread, fruit, even some vegetables. There is a saying that ‘assumption is the mother of all mistakes’ which, generally speaking, I don’t uphold, because we have to make assumptions to get through our day; however, my assumption that people would get what I meant, was misguided. Therefore, I have been specific this year in my commitment to giving up chocolate, biscuits, cakes and desserts.

Also, in that last week at work before half-term, a block of chocolate appeared in my pigeon-hole. I ignored it for a while, thinking that it may have been a mistake, but it was still there at break-time, so I slid it out, held it up for general viewing and vaguely enquired if anyone knew why this had appeared? Sometimes students’ parents bring in gifts for teachers and so random treats appear and we are grateful. But no-one knew the provenance of this mysterious chocolate, whose destiny would not be fulfilled until my self-inflicted prohibition was in recess. I took it home and stood it on the mantelpiece as a reminder that I was part-way through a drought of sweet things, but also as a reminder that the drought would have a temporary reprieve on Sunday. I couldn’t walk past it without picking it up to feel it and smell it.

It just so happened that I was in on Saturday night and so, when midnight came I felt I deserved the chocolate. Not least because the Rastafarian had been in communication. He’d wanted me to drive him to Haywards Heath but resolutely, I declined his request. He was in denial, as usual, about my ending the relationship and suggested that I collect him from work and we go out to celebrate Valentines Day. Even if he wasn’t accepting that the relationship was over, I pointed out that he had no money. He was in arrears again and wanted financial help but obviously, I was not forthcoming. He agreed that yes, I would have to pay for both of us. And it wasn’t even Valentines Day, I stated, incredulously. But it is, he said, as soon as it’s midnight, which works perfectly because I finish work at midnight! Midnight? I questioned. Who wants to start a Valentines night out at midnight? What would we be doing? Going on a pub crawl that I would pay for and I wouldn’t be able to drink because I’d be driving . . . Sounds great. What’s wrong with going out on Valentines Day? You’ve got work the next day, he said. But I didn’t, because it was half-term and he’d never worried about that before. You’re so negative, he said . . . The thing is, I knew why he didn’t want to see me on Valentines Day. He had to see his actual girlfriend on Valentines Day. That thing I thought I was for several months. I don’t know why he was trying to resurrect our relationship. He told me he loved me and missed me . . . maybe he did but his attempt to make a romantic gesture was wanting in so many ways, so I stayed put and ate my chocolate instead.

Then I felt guilty in case it wasn’t meant for me . . .

 

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A Bit of History

In 1988, following the demolition of a 1950s office block, archaeologists uncovered two-thirds of a ground plan of the first purpose-built theatre to grace London’s Bankside, The Rose. Built in 1587, on reclaimed land from the Thames, it sat amongst other Elizabethan attractions also considered to be unsavoury, such as brothels, gaming dens and bull/bear-baiting arenas. It pre-dates The Globe by 12 years and in fact, the latter probably owed its original creation to its success. Ironic, therefore, that it should fall out of use and disappear from the map in the early 1600s, in contrast to The Globe, which was going from strength to strength.

Today, it is an interesting mix of an archaeological dig and a small, modern theatre with a slightly gothic feel. With an old (as in long-standing, seeing as he’s probably reading this) friend, I attended a ‘readathon’ there last summer, before I broke my wrist. This involved the reading through of the abridged versions of several well-known plays. I had a commitment in the evening, so I could stay for the first four only: Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors and Frankenstein. At least, I think those were the plays … Long-standing Friend can correct me if I’m wrong.

We met outside the theatre and wandered round the corner to have a bite to eat. It was really not much more than a bite, with London prices. Then we wandered back to the theatre. It was a strange sensation, walking into the auditorium; some of it was sectioned off for the dig and there was a distinct cold blast. But it was lit up and looked pretty (I never thought I’d describe a dig as pretty). I was reminded of the only time I’ve been on a dig; a few years ago I joined a local archaeological group and found myself at a site called Rocky Clump. I arrived with a trowel and a fork and lots of trepidation. Having studied Latin to ‘A’ Level, I’ve always found Ancient History interesting and have visited a few amazing archaeological sites in my time. Rocky Clump was not amazing. It was a rectangular hole, filled with people, all holding trowels and forks, with nothing interesting in it. I didn’t even last the day. I scraped, scraped and did a bit more scraping, just in case I needed to scrape a bit more and I found enough earthworms to start one of those wormeries, but nothing else. I left at lunchtime, claiming I didn’t think they’d be there all day and I never returned. Hats off to all those people who dig and scrape and dig and scrape for so little return. I reckon for every minute of Time Team that’s aired, a whole day of digging and scraping is on the cutting-room floor. Anyway, it isn’t all a sad tale of digging and scraping – I enjoyed visiting some pre-dug digs during my time as a member, along with joining some great historical walks both across the Downs and through the streets of Brighton. The latter is where I found out the origin of North Laine and so I have some evidence to support my insistence upon it being called so. A laine was a farming plot and there were 5 laines surrounding the old town of Brighton. In 1977, the area we call North Laine was going to be developed into high-rise buildings, a flyover and a car park, but Ken Fines, the borough planning officer for Brighton at the time, struck by the charm of the area, fought to protect it from development and so the North Laine Conservation Area was designated, the name a recognition of its mediaeval roots. The Lanes have nothing to do with this: they are, as the name suggests, made up of a series of lanes, unlike North Laine which refers to an area and is actually a series of quaint roads (ok, you could call Kensington Gardens a lane). But anyway, we have Mr Fines to thank because without him, bohemian Brighton would not exist.

Back to London! The readathon . . . so, we pulled names of characters out of a hat and then we had to play that character in the shortened play. In Frankenstein I had a few bit-parts which was fine, because I teach it every year to Year 8. It was the same story with Comedy of Errors but that was fine too, because back in the day when I was young and thin, I played Luciana. But we did Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in a row and I pulled out ‘Olivia’ for the former and ‘Juliet’ for the latter. I played Olivia first which was pretty cool and Juliet second, which was even cooler. I agonised over whether or not to replace the name, as I’d just played a big part, but I ran with it. I’m too old to play Juliet now, so I figured that this was my last chance. And Long-standing Friend played the nurse, so actually, it was perfect. I doubt that he will ever get to play the nurse, so no doubt, he was thinking the same.

When I told Long-standing Friend that I’d cried off my audition, his reaction was:

‘What? You enjoyed acting with me last summer!’

He was right. I had. So why was I doing this? I can’t really explain why, but I brooded over it for quite some time. Then I thought: it’s ok. I can do the readathon again, every summer if I want to. That’s what I enjoyed. Just because I liked the redathon, doesn’t mean I want to be in plays any more. Only I am in a play, but not to play a part.

I broke my wrist just days after the readathon so I’m thankful for that. Not that I broke my wrist, just that Fate allowed me to play Olivia and Juliet before pushing me into that chalky puddle. If I’d managed to play Joan of Arc too, or Alison from Look Back In Anger, then it would have been a hat-trick. I think they are my only two regrets.

Changes

I didn’t possess an overwhelming desire to frequent the establishments I’d visited with the Rastafarian, apart from The Folky Pub. I had pre-Rastafarian (a bit like Pre-Raphaelite but really different) memories of The Folky Pub and I didn’t wholly associate the pub with him. However, I still needed some time to recover and so I let things roll at The Folky Pub without me for a bit. I’m certain that no-one noticed my  absence. But I noticed my absence and after just a couple of weeks I was back there.

‘It’s good to have you back,’ said Original Blues.

‘It’s good to be back,’ I smiled and pushed him away as he tried to turn that inch I’d given him into a mile.

‘The Call?’ the guy that ran the Open Mic leaned over Original Blues and was looking right at me.

‘Sorry?’

‘I’ll learn it and you can sing it,’ he continued.

I looked at the profile of Original Blues because he was making a sterling effort to not look at me, but I could see his cheeks puffing out like they do when someone is wearing a MASSIVE smile. I laughed, defeated and said that yes, that would be great.

‘What have you done?’ as soon as Open Mic Guy Mark II (I named some other Open Mic guy Open Mic Guy) had leaned back to continue doing Open Mic stuff I rounded on Original Blues.

‘I knew you wanted to do some Open Mic stuff and he’s here to support you, so he’s gonna learn that song you said you wanted to sing.’

‘I did? I said that?’

‘Well, I asked you what you would sing if you sang and that’s what you said.’

So that was it. I had to learn it. And I did learn it. But when I went the following week, he apologised for not learning it because he’d forgotten it. Which was fine, because much as I loved that song, I figured it was a challenging initiation into Open Mic, so I gave him a different song to learn. And when I went the next week, with the song learnt, Original Blues wasn’t there and Open Mic Guy Mark II failed to mention anything about a song, so I failed to do so too and it didn’t get sung. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. I had such a good feeling about this going well, but it was out of my comfort zone, not having done Open Mic before.

But there was an audition coming up and so I let the Open Mic ambition slide for the time being and concentrated on preparing myself for this audition that, if successful, would propel me back into the theatre.

A few days previous to audition day, I’d gone out in town and parked outside Browns (a restaurant). I was aware of a homeless-type person in a doorway bang opposite my parking space and when I got out of the car, and was generally adjusting my attire, he said, are you alright? I looked around, to check that he was actually addressing me and as I was not sharing this particular patch of pavement with anyone else, I figured he was talking to me. I smiled and thanked him for his concern and said that yes, I was fine. Curiously, he said that he thought I looked like I was going to an audition. I said that that was very strange, as even though I wasn’t, I would be in a few days. He was very interested in my forthcoming audition and wanted to know the whereabouts of the theatre, so I told him, without a second thought. Maybe I should have given it a second thought, because then he said that he used to work in special effects and lighting and that he might pop along there on audition day. Eek! Before you judge me, one does not just ‘pop along’ to a theatre group in the middle of the city on audition day and expect to be taken seriously. So, when audition day arrived, the thought of a vagrant turning up and mentioning my name probably contributed towards my decision to swerve the auditions.

If you’ve read my blog entitled ‘The Theatre’, you will know how important the theatre has been to me for most of my adult life and so the decision to renege on my plan to audition was a pretty momentous one. I realised that I actually didn’t want to go. For a few hours I was pretty down . . . It was a strange feeling of acceptance and sadness. I reflected on all the plays in which I had performed and I was so grateful for the memories, but slightly mournful for a passion I’d lost.

Then The Dude messaged me. We’d resurrected communication but just as friends and I’d told him about my Open Mic plans. He was enquiring after my plans and so I told him the situation.

‘I can learn a few songs for you,’ he offered, ‘if you give me the titles.’

Wow. I had something to look forward to.

Then another message came through. Would I like to sing in a forthcoming play? Everything went a bit wobbly; the very day I was mourning the loss of a huge part of my life, was the very day when two more opportunities popped up and introduced themselves. Yes, yes, yes. I was ready for all of it. I’d covered all the performing arts: dancing . . . From the age of three and into my twenties; acting . . . From my teens and up to a couple of years ago; singing . . . Kind of all my life but apart from a brief sojourn with a band, always alongside one of the other performing arts or as a member of the chorus. Acting had received most of my attention and  I felt like a change, a challenge. This sounds cliché-ridden, but I needed to move on. Acting wasn’t a challenge anymore, but singing was. I had done plenty of it, but acting had been my bag so now I had a new venture; a new adventure.

Meanwhile, I had attempted to maintain a friendship with the Rastafarian which culminated in my driving him on a 40 minute car journey to work. To date, this is the last time I saw him. It was a Friday night after a particularly tiring week at work. I drove him to Haywards Heath and then began the journey home. He had commented on the way that he couldn’t find his gloves so he must have left them at home. I offered to return home, but he would have been late, so he cut his losses and I continued on to Haywards Heath. Just to clarify, when you’re working ‘on the door’ as a security officer in the coldest part of winter, warm extremities are important. So anyway, I began my journey home but on stopping to fill up with petrol, I noticed the elusive gloves by the side of the passenger seat. I returned from whence I’d deposited him and gave the gloves to a smiling Rastafarian. He was visibly grateful and kissed me as I pulled away. The journey there and back took 1 hour 20 minutes. Originally, he had said that he finished at half past midnight, so I planned to leave at around 11.50 to collect him. But he messaged me at around 10.30 to ask me to come at 11.30, so I left at 10.50 instead. I arrived bang on time and he came over to the car. I could tell by the immediacy with which he approached the car, without his bag or coat, and by the way he came to the driver’s side and not the passenger side, that he wasn’t ready.

‘Come in and have a drink,’ he invited, ‘for an hour because honey, I don’t finish till 12.30.’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘you come in the car now and I will drop you home, or I’m going.’

I won’t bore you with the next several interchanges; I’ll just give you a few key phrases and words like ‘honey’, ‘what am I supposed to do’, ‘come on’ and ‘the boss say’. My replies included key phrases and words like ‘no’, ‘for a whole hour?’ ‘I’ve driven all this way’ and ‘I’m going.’ Then one key phrase started to stand out which was ‘I have no money to get home’ so I grabbed a tenner from my wallet and held it out of the car window, whilst advising him to enjoy the last bit of money he would ever extort from me.

I had driven for just under 3 hours for him that night, yet as I arrived home, having left him there to (perish the thought) slum it on the Bedford train, 40 minutes later, a message pinged onto my phone saying he’d finished and could I possibly pick him up?

Just no.

Karaoke

One Thursday when we went to The Cosmopolitan Bar in the centre of town, the Rastafarian had suggested we pop over the road to a newly-opened karaoke bar. One of his Rastafarian friends was already there and whereas he usually looked kind of dead, when I dropped my love of karaoke into the conversation, his face was resurrected to life and he suggested a duet. Fortunately, the Rastafarian was at the bar and so didn’t hear this faux pas (which wasn’t really, of course, but it would have been to him) so I quietly rejected the suggestion. However, I put my name forward to sing on my own and as it wasn’t busy, within 5 minutes I was on the stage. As I walked back to the table, the Rastafarian went to the loo and so I was left alone with Rastafarian Mark II.

‘You can sing!’ he enthused.

‘Aw, thank you!’ I was quite pleased with my renditions of Beautiful South’s Don’t Marry Her followed by The Velvet Underground’s I’m Sticking With You, although it was difficult to sing the male part of the latter.

‘Join my band,’ he invited, ‘because we need a female vocalist.’

The Rastafarian was heading back towards the table and so I hurriedly rejected the second offer made by Rastafarian Mark II that night and whereas I wanted to stay in The Karaoke Bar for longer, suddenly we were going. And then there was a row. He hadn’t even heard Rastafarian Mark II make some arguably controversial suggestions to me but apparently my behaviour was unacceptable because I dared to sit next to him while the Rastafarian was in the loo.

So, I was both suspicious and surprised the following Thursday, when, after he’d played in The Cosmopolitan Bar, he said ‘let’s go over the road’. The previous week, I’d asked the karaoke chappie for a particular song and although he didn’t have it, he promised to have it by the following week. As we walked in, Karaoke Chappie came straight over and announced, excitedly, ‘I’ve got that song! Shall I put your name down to sing it?’ I said ‘yes’, of course and the Rastafarian looked bemused. I did not expect him to have either recall of my singing the previous week or interest in my singing that week. If Karaoke Chappie hadn’t been so obviously gay, he would have had more than a passing interest in the way we interacted with each other though.

A short while later, Karaoke Chappie stopped me on my way back from the loo to say that I was next. The Rastafarian had been sitting at a table when I’d stopped to talk to Karaoke Chappie, but by the time I’d finished chatting to him, he was by the door, jacketed and scarfed up, holding out my coat.

‘But I’m about to sing!’ I protested.

‘But I’ve got you a drink over the road!’ he argued.

And he had.

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t just stay. Not only had I listened to him sing countless times, but also I had praised him and immortalised him on video and in photos. But anyway, this is leading somewhere other than just another Rastafarian anecdote. After the winter of Rastafarian discontent, one of the first places I planned to visit was The Karaoke Bar. I invited some friends along to trill with me and warned them that we might run into the mythical (they’d never met him) Rastafarian. We met in a pub near the bus stop where we planned to catch a bus into town. They were well on their way to carefree drunkenness by the time I arrived so, as Friend 1 appeared to have a whole bottle of fizz all to herself, I felt like I was the welcome band of reinforcements to aid in the serious business of alcoholic libation. We were feeling a little fizzy ourselves by the time we alighted on the bus but a bracing walk from the bus-stop to The Karaoke Bar composed us a little.

I shot a quick sideways glance to check that the Rastafarian wasn’t outside The Cosmopolitan Bar on the other side of the road (he wasn’t) and we made our entrance into The Karaoke Bar. It was very busy, but filled only with the noise of chatter, not singing.

‘I guess they haven’t started yet,’ I explained.

It seemed like a function; there was something unusual about the intensity with which people were chit-chatting.

We made our way to the bar, wondering why everyone was wearing stickers.

‘Is there any karaoke tonight?’ I asked the barman, before investing in drinks we might not want if we were to be disappointed.

‘Why are all the men looking at us?’ said Friend 2 to Friend 1, simultaneously with my question to the barman.

He smiled, realising our mistake:

‘No. Speed dating tonight.’

‘Stay for speed dating!’ a blonde woman with a slightly manic look in her eyes commanded my friends, whom, evidently, she viewed as fresh meat.

Friend 2 and I looked at each other as if discussing the matter telepathically, then shook our heads whilst grimacing apologetically. We looked round for Friend 1 but she was already part of the speed dating scene, chatting to people at a table. She might even have been sporting a sticker. We went over to rescue her but she was difficult to rescue.

‘Let’s do speed dating!’ she cried.

‘Nah. Let’s not,’ Friend 2 and I agreed to disagree.

We managed to extract Friend 1 from the clutches of Paul 2 but she showed no gratitude.

‘But I liked Paul 2!’ she insisted.

Looking back, Friend 2 and I were a little harsh on Friend 1 but she was out-voted so we continued our search for karaoke. We’d had a tip-off that it was all happening on the other side of town so off we went, only to be let down again. We went to the nearest pub instead and a group of men heard our woeful story of the fruitless search for karaoke and said that they would listen to us sing outside. But it was a bit nippy by then and we weren’t blown away by any of them so we passed up their offer and I took Friend 1 and Friend 2 to The Folky Pub for a final drink.

Friend 1 wanted another whole bottle of fizz, of which I partook no more than a soupcon and I’m ashamed to say that half of it was left behind in the pub, but we didn’t want the walk of shame to the bus-stop to be made more shameful by swinging half a bottle of booze. To round off the evening, Friend 1 showed me her new dating app which looked very complicated, but maybe it was just because it had been a long evening.

I didn’t sleep well that night; my phone kept pinging but I was too tired to acknowledge it. In the morning I picked it up and I had a ridiculous number of notifications in . . . my new dating app . . ? I didn’t get it – I hadn’t engaged with this app at all so how did I have notifications? (I didn’t even remember downloading it to be honest.) I went into the app and after my eyes had adjusted to being open, I understood. You got notifications just when someone viewed your profile. I had a quick scroll through but no-one was knock-your-socks-off amazing and even if they had been, I couldn’t be bothered. I needed time to lick my wounds so I held down the app until it wobbled and with a tap on the cross I cut dead any potential relationships before they became so much as a nod in the right direction.

 

 

They Think It’s All Over (and it is)

‘Do you think she knows you’re gonna dump her?’

‘She should know by now. I’ve dumped her the last four times I’ve seen her.’

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

‘And so my sister said ‘no’ . . . And I just said ‘yes’!’

‘Jane . . . It’s over between us.’

‘I don’t accept it.’

‘No, no, no. You can’t not accept it. I’m breaking up with you.’

‘Well, don’t I get a say in it?’

‘Of course you don’t!’

‘Well, if I don’t get a say in it then I don’t accept it! Anyway, my sister just looked at me and said ‘no, no, no!”

Just in case you think I’ve broken into script-writing, I really haven’t. This isn’t my own literary creation – this is courtesy of Coupling, an under-valued (in my opinion) sitcom from around a decade ago. The first series opened with Steve attempting, for the umpteenth time, to sever all ties with the stunning yet eccentric Jane. Swap genders and this was me and the Rastafarian. Only ‘eccentric’ is too generous an adjective for him. This scene was played out time, time and time again. Jeff (Steve’s friend) has a coarse expression for partners who won’t be shown the door, which I can’t write here but if you watch the first episode, you’ll find out.

I still have conversations on my phone to refer to in the unlikely event of needing reminding why I ended our turbulent relationship. He had no control over his temper and it was difficult to argue with him face-to-face, because he had only one tactic, which was to shout continually over everything (apart from when The Current paid us a visit and it would seem that that was her tactic also, so he stood in silence). It was easy to argue with him via What’sApp because the more passionate he became about his cause, which was to carry out a full character assassination of me and therefore the less fluent his English became with more and more expletives with every message, the more lucid and pragmatic I became. It is fascinating to note how many times he accused me of trying to make him seem stupid. I didn’t need to try; he did it all on his own, within the confines of arguments. He was not a stupid man, to be fair, but his worry over appearing so was borne out in every row and his inability to argue properly made him an easy conquest. If anyone remembers Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, whose catchphrase became ‘don’t call me stupid,’ this was the Rastafarian.

Christmas arrived as expected, three days after our move. Not ideal, but as is usually the way with moves, one does not have as much control as one would like over the ultimate decision on the moving date. The person at the end of the chain had died, which, obviously, was not expected, least of all by the person themselves. Inconvenient for us, to have the move put back by a couple of weeks, but a horrible pre-Christmas tragedy for the family at the end of the line.

Christmas went and the three of us felt somewhat underwhelmed. I think it’s fair to say that we’d placed much hope and expectation on the festive season and it had not delivered. The previous Christmas, we were still dazed from (soon-to-be-ex) hubby’s/stepdad’s shocking departure but we were all agreed that that was a better Christmas. Now, a year had passed since that grey period and it had not been an easy year for any of us. The unexpected visit of (soon-to-be-ex) hubby on Christmas Eve possibly had had some impact but for whatever reason, we weren’t sorry when normality resumed.

I went back to work, the children went back to uni and the new house seemed huge without them. Their dedication to gaining a semblance of order in the house had been remarkable. Joseph spirited copious amounts of stuff into the loft and even on the first night there, I nipped out to the local chippy for dinner and on my return, Rhiannon had cleared a whole room full of boxes and moved furniture into all the right places.

On my own once again, I had too much time to think about recent events with the Rastafarian. The relationship had had to end. It was still difficult to recover from it, though. My mind had started to allow pleasant memories more air time than I wanted, like the time he followed me to Cheshire. I’d gone to visit Joseph for a few days and he asked if he could accompany me. I said ‘no’ but on my penultimate day there he’d rung and begged to be allowed to come up just for the last day, because he missed me. I ran it past Joseph who was fine about it and so he took the extremely long train journey up there. He arrived late and we went out for a drink. He wanted to find an Open Mic somewhere but I said there wasn’t one. He’d said that there was, he’d checked and I could drive there. I stood my ground and said no. So he settled for a drink in a pub and around midnight I wanted to go back to the hotel. He didn’t. We argued and eventually, we returned to the hotel and I asked for another key-card from reception and he swaggered out of the hotel, just beginning his night out while I settled down for the night. He’d had sufficient money to see him through a night of drinking, yet the following day, I paid for every morsel of food he ate. Strange how that memory began life as a pleasant one and ended as a typical Rastafarian one. And up until he’d rung me, I’d lost all contact with him for a couple of days. He had some strange story of being robbed, which didn’t make sense. He had a few strange stories which didn’t make sense. Like when I ‘lent’ him £50 and he tucked it inside his bible and his lodger stole it. He’d needed it for a court appearance, so the loss was disastrous. I didn’t understand why it was in cash form anyway, as I’d transferred it straight to his account. I was unyielding for days, refusing to replace it, as it was clear that he’d drunk and smoked the £50 away, but eventually I yielded, when I could bear his ingratiating behaviour no more.

There was the high security Rwandan reunion he took me to, where I lost him. I knew no-one there, apart from a fellow Rastafarian who had been pleasant to me when first introduced, but was strangely unpleasant to me when I asked him if he’d seen the Rastafarian and a lovely lady who’d introduced herself as a friend of his, who found me wandering alone and looking upset. She knew the Rastafarian like I knew him, which meant she knew his faults and her support towards me that day was like manna in the desert. Interestingly, he’d decided that day that he didn’t like her, as she commented on his drinking habits. I’d had to deal with security who tut-tutted at me for secreting around 20 mini bottles of free chilli sauce in my bag. It was my boyfriend who put them there, I half-sobbed, as they spilled out of my bag onto the shiny floor. I’d left the reunion to search for him, but re-entered when my search produced no Rastafarian and because the security was like airport security, I couldn’t take all that liquid back in. And the Rastafarian’s ire that day was as hot as the chilli sauce in the only bottle that had escaped the probing hands of security, when he realised that his unethical efforts in taking the bottles of sauce had been for nothing.

Did he love me? Maybe, to continue the cat metaphor, he had cupboard love for me. Is that love? My cat displays overt affection towards me when she is hungry. However, she shows affection at other times too, just not as much. I would suffer sloppy YouTube videos professing love for me, but this was more prevalent when a favour was needed.

The cynics say that he was using me only. I don’t know, to be honest. The thought that he didn’t love me throughout our relationship is a tough thought. I feel that he did, but I guess I’ll never be sure. I will learn to live with that uncertainty.

The End of the Rastafarian

There was a time when the Rastafarian held dominion over the relationship. He ended it on a whim and usually that whim was his random, unfounded decision that I had done something wrong. He engineered arguments. For example, he wanted me to swing by his place one morning on my way to work, but I said I couldn’t, as his place wasn’t on my way and I didn’t have time for such a detour and if I did, it would be a flying visit, so what was the point? I didn’t say all those things all at once, of course; at first, I laughed off the suggestion, thinking he was being playfully needy in a slightly mocking, but ultimately loving way. I could not have been more wrong. He would not accept that his place was not en route to my work, which perplexed me, as he had visited my house many times. His temper was almost bursting out of my phone, so tangible was it. I even screen-shot maps to show him how long it would take me to get to work if I popped round to see him, but still he vented via What’sApp, accusing me of cheating (?) on him. This type of situation occurred repeatedly and so many times he ‘ended’ the relationship. This particular time, I abandoned his vitriol for work and hours later, he rang, cheerily, telling me all about a dream that he’d had that I’d cheated on him. Other times, the ending was more unpleasant and dramatically, he would end the relationship, his messages almost flouncing out of my phone (the endings were never face-to-face).

But as I grew fatigued with his stylised, almost Noel Coward-esque ‘exits’ from my life (which weren’t really exits – they were temporary breaks and he could always be found in the wings, loitering with intent to drop back in), I learnt to put my phone away and get on with my life until he contacted me.

‘Why haven’t you replied to me?’ was a typical message from the wings.

‘You ended our relationship,’ was a typical reply from centre stage.

‘Who said that?’

‘You did . . ? Check back through your messages.’

The power had shifted, but this was still only Phase I.

For a time, it was great. I didn’t worry about upsetting him. I didn’t leap on my phone to reply. (In his mess of a head, if I wasn’t with him, there was a good chance I was cheating on him. I had resorted to sending him selfies if out with friends, so he could see I was with other females.) I spoke my mind, risking an over-reaction because he knew I wasn’t going to challenge his words of finality anymore. I made arrangements outside of our relationship to which he was sometimes invited and he could come or not. One such arrangement was with an old friend. I always want to say that he was an old ‘school-friend’ even though we didn’t go to the same school; but suffice to say, we had been friends since schooldays and grew up a few roads from each other.

I’d arranged to meet the Rastafarian in a bar in the centre of town. The Friend was staying in a hotel on the edge of town and I’d arranged to meet him there in a short while. I passed it on the bus, thinking that it would have been better for us all to meet there instead; the rain was hurtling towards the ground as if giant hands were tipping giant buckets of water downwards and I was not enjoying the prospect of crossing town in my nice dress, nice shoes and nice hairstyle. However, I had not been able to contact the Rastafarian for some time and that had been our last arrangement, before The Friend confirmed his hotel. The Friend and I wanted to go to some specific bars near the hotel anyway, so I prayed for a change in the weather.

The Rastafarian was not in the bar. I looked around. I texted him. I went to the toilet. I rang him. Exasperated, I left. My prayers had not been answered. If anything, the giant hands were filling even more giant buckets of water and my cotton scarf was offering little protection to my face and hair now, as it had started to resemble a dishcloth. I traipsed across town, cursing the Rastafarian. My trek in this monsoon had been for nothing. I arrived at The Friend’s hotel and he didn’t recognise me.

‘Come up to my room,’ he offered, ‘I’ll get you a hairdryer.’

‘It’s fine!’ I smiled back, ‘I’m rubbish with hairdryers,’ I confided, trying to remain upbeat on the outside, even if, on the inside, my whole being was pulsating with pent-up rage, quashed a little by my cold, wet, state. The bouncer on the door was holding out a tea towel that he’d got from behind the bar, out of pity for me.

‘Lisa,’ reassured my friend, ‘We’ve been friends for most of our lives and I’m gay. You can trust me. And I’m not going out with you looking like that.’

I capitulated and after my hair was dry enough to not be plastered to my face any more, we left.

By this time the Rastafarian was messaging me, frantically and after a few angry interchanges he made an entrance at the bar where The Friend and I had begun our night out. I’d got chatting to a psychologist and when the Rastafarian walked in, he could tell by the look on my face that I was expecting him.

‘Is that your boyfriend?’ he enquired.

‘Well . . . ‘ I wasn’t prepared for the question but he continued anyway.

‘Dump him,’ he advised, ‘I can tell by the way he’s walking through the pub that he’s cheated on you. There’s no way he’s remained faithful to you. Trust me – I know these things – and I don’t have an agenda here because I’m gay anyway.’

I gazed at this handsome, smiling figure, greeting people he didn’t know as he picked his way over to us.

The Friend told the Rastafarian to go home, because, he felt, clearly he’d indulged a little too much already. But he didn’t, he hung around like a pigeon in Churchill Square, only he was scrounging drinks and tobacco instead of crusts from sandwiches. It was an unsatisfactory night out, the karaoke bar we favoured refusing to let us in and at some point the Rastafarian and I parted company from The Friend and after one last drink in a pub, I decided to head home. We had an umbrella, borrowed from The Friend’s hotel and he had asked if we wouldn’t mind ensuring it was returned there. It was on the way to the taxi rank, so after much manoeuvring (if you’ve ever tried to get a drunk person to do something against their will, you will sympathise) I congratulated myself at our arrival outside the hotel.

‘I’ll just take the umbrella in,’ I held my hand out for the umbrella as he’d been carrying it.

‘No.’

This went on for around 10 minutes until I was almost crying with frustration. His preoccupation with the brolly could have been for one of two reasons. Either, he saw a chance to steal an umbrella (I had realised by now that if he saw a chance to get away with a wrongdoing, he would – Piaget would have had enough material for an entire conference on this guy and his childlike scruples), or he was fixated on it as people can be when they are ‘under the influence’, without wishing to put too fine a point on it. He blathered on about ‘not being able to go into the bar’ which I knew, because he’d told me, although I didn’t know why. I’d witnessed him returning to drinking places from where he’d been barred, time and time again, until they allowed him in out of boredom with saying ‘no’, so I was curious as to why he took this prohibition seriously.

I deferred in the end and got in a taxi, alone, even though the Rastafarian had said he would see me home. I looked back at the wet, lanky figure swinging his new toy as he splashed along the pavement and wondered if he had ever cared about anything apart from his own well-being.

The next night I went to The Folky Pub, regardless of whether or not he would be there and he was. I felt indifferent to him and I doubted he remembered when he went home, whether or not I was there, as he seemed no different from the previous night. The following night I received a string of abusive messages, containing false accusations of me  never turning up to the original pub where we’d arranged to meet, shouting at him in the street, deliberately embarrassing him by trying to make him go into a place he couldn’t and accusing him of stealing an umbrella. It was embellished with the usual insults and expletives but I was off out to the cinema with my mother, so I put the phone away to plan my retorts for another time.

That other time was the following day. I had written out cool-headed answers to his ridiculous abuse and saved them, so I could send them at a rate of my choosing. Still, it shocks me to say this, but I received an apology.

Phase II of the power shift began, whereupon I became the one who ended the relationship. I want to say that there was a clean break after the whole business with The Ex, whom I renamed The Current, but I will admit that I found it difficult. He insisted that he had remained faithful to me and that she was deluded and when I missed him, I chose to believe him. But I had plenty of other reasons to shove him out of my life and I did, from time-to-time. But he would message me the next day, after I was quite sure that it was over, as if nothing had happened which made it easy for me to shrug and run with it, because what else was I going to do night after night, on my own? I would agree that we would remain friends and then the line between friendship and more became blurred.

He rocked up on moving day, because eventually I got the house I wanted and the children and I moved in three (yes, three) days before Christmas. In my head, our relationship was definitely history and consigned to being cathartic writing material only. I hadn’t seen him for some time and the children, having arrived home for the break, were in full knowledge of the facts about this deceitful character. I’d bought pizza for my team of helpers: the children, Jamie and my nephew, but the Rastafarian put away a good proportion of it, even though my lovely team had been lifting, carrying, dragging, placing and generally doing a sterling job since early in the morning and he’d wafted along late in the day and in comparison did nothing. He wanted me to drop him back home, but I dropped him at the bus-stop instead and he complained that I was ungrateful. I thought about the huge amount of money that I’d loaned him, the money that I’d just given him out of pity, the lifts I’d given him, the beer I’d bought him, the tobacco, the papers, the food, milk, sugar, bread . . . the emotional support of which I now felt drained. And then I thought about the false accusations he’d levelled at me, the times he’d shouted at me, ended the relationship on a whim, blocked me from seeing him on social media, sworn at me, sent me messages poisoned with insults and abuse. And the things he said he’d do for me, like cut my grass, clean my patio and clean my car, when my wrist was broken and how he hadn’t done any of them. I just looked at him and he left the car.

It was over.

Bunbury

Fans of Oscar Wilde (actually, anyone who listened to their English teacher at the relevant time in secondary school) will recall the (meta?) fictitious character of Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest. Bunbury is the invalid friend of Algernon Moncrieff who is the play’s secondary hero, a charming but selfish dandy. Hmm . . . sounds familiar. To be precise, Bunbury isn’t anything because he doesn’t exist. He is pure invention by Algernon and provides the latter with a reprieve from real life: that is, any social engagements that he wishes to swerve. As his creation, Algernon has the power of life or death over Bunbury or, to be less extreme, the power of health or ill-health. Bunbury ‘becomes’ ill at very convenient times, therefore providing Algernon with ideal escape routes.

 

Most probably, you can see where this is going. The Rastafarian had a ‘Bunbury’. The Rastafarian’s Bunbury was his neighbour. At the start of our relationship, the Rastafarian played in pubs every night from Sunday-Thursday, but then this became less regimented, until he was playing maybe two or three times a week. I used to call in after work sometimes and then, possibly, we would spend the evening together, eating at his place, going to my house to walk Rusty, then going to a pub for Open Mic.

 

Then, one week, everything was different.

 

Most days that week he’d messaged me at work, asking if I could call in as soon as I’d finished. Most times he’d had an expertly prepared meal waiting for me, but shortly after finishing, every time, he’d looked at his phone, anxiously and said that he was going to see his neighbour or his friend. He alternated between the two, but I don’t view The Friend as his Bunbury, as it could be a different one each time. But not so with The Neighbour; I had enquired about The Neighbour, with whom he seemed to have an overbearingly close relationship. He was a family man and like the Rastafarian, was here from overseas, possibly from Rwanda too but I can’t be sure. He visited him more than most people visit their neighbours and I imagined that he had a fridge well-stocked with Kronenbourg 1664, as I had realised that the Rastafarian was, sadly, driven by drink and decisions were largely based on what outcome would provide him with the most beer.

He seemed a little too concerned with his appearance, though, considering he was only visiting The Neighbour. He often tied his dreadlocks into a ponytail or tucked them into a cute little hat but once or twice this particular week he tried to wrap them into a turban, which was not pleasant, because he asked for my help and when it still didn’t work, he actually had a tantrum.

In truth, I didn’t mind a week of not seeing so much of him; I had said that I liked quiet nights in as well as going out. Ideally, those nights would include him but, like a cat, nights were for going out as far as he was concerned and days were for staying in sleeping.

 

However, the following week brought the same scenario . . . going there after work, eating, him announcing his plans to see The Neighbour. He’d disposed of our Facebook friendship too and his anxiety manifest itself in his curious denim-plucking habit. He had behaved peculiarly at the weekend, also, when I collected him from work. He appeared to suffer from an attack of claustrophobia just as I turned into his road.

‘Stop the car! I need to get out! I want to walk the rest of the way!’ he screeched, like those children you see in supermarkets sometimes, who want sweets and have learned that the more noise you make, the more likely will your wish be fulfilled.

‘What? Why? What’s the problem?’ I reacted wearily, becoming a little jaded with his propensity towards being not so much of a drama queen, but more of a melodrama queen. But he bellowed even louder and I was concerned that he might do something really dramatic (and dangerous) like grab the steering wheel. He had shoved his degree certificate under my nose whilst I was driving once, because, despite the fact I was picking him up from town at the last minute to ensure he got to work on time, he was enraged that I hadn’t taken the day off work to attend his graduation. I contended with bitter words of venom all the way to his place. I was indignant I wasn’t going to drive him 40 minutes to work, after the verbal abuse he had spat at me between town and home, but because he needed a lift, he became fawning and submissive until I gave in.

Back to his claustrophobia. He started loosening his tie, frantically, as if it were suffocating him:

‘Hot – too hot – need fresh air – honey, I’ve been working all night!’

Although his performance was poor, I stopped and agreed that yes, he’d been working all night, but he’d been working outside . . ? In the cold? Did he really feel the need for more cold, fresh air?

But there was little point in arguing – I had neither the ability nor the desire to detain him in my ‘claustrophobic’ car. I had said earlier on the journey that I’d like to use his loo at his place before setting off for home but I figured I’d sooner tolerate another 10 or 15 minutes of discomfort than risk an over-reaction at the probably unreasonable request to use his toilet.

 

So, the following week, when the same pattern recurred, dinner, phone-checking, announcement to visit The Neighbour, I decided not to be so accommodating. OK, I said, I’ll get going soon.

 

Time passed.

 

The Rastafarian checked his phone . . . once, twice, I lost count in fact.

 

‘Honey, I do not want to pressure you . . . ‘

 

‘Oh I know you wouldn’t do that,’ I replied, provocatively, I thought, ‘but it’s ok – I’ll go soon,’ I said with pacifying tones.

 

The denim-plucking began.

 

‘So stressed!’ I commented, as I gently placed my hand on his, in a mock-comforting manner.

 

‘Honey,’ he started.

 

‘It’s ok,’ I said as I pretended to yawn whilst stretching, ‘I’ll just nip to the loo and then I’ll be gone, so you can go visit The Neighbour. Be sure to say ‘hi’ from me!’ I winked at him and slowly rose, secretly placing an earring I didn’t much care for, next to the sofa. If nothing happens tonight, I thought, at least I’ve set Option 2 in motion . . .

 

I sat on the edge of the bath, on my phone, for a few minutes only before something happened. I knew that I had pushed him perilously close to the sun and he was in danger of tumbling into the unforgiving sea.

 

There was a knock at the door and even though I had engineered this so that I witnessed it, I couldn’t help feeling slightly sick at the confrontation to come.

 

The voice belonging to the knock was female. It was a voice that was unaware of who was just feet away, the other side of an inch or two of wood. It was a voice of someone who was grateful to come in from the cold and I can only assume that during her entrance, the Rastafarian was not unlike a rabbit in the headlights of a car, fully aware of what was to come but powerless to stop the wheels that were already in motion.

 

I opened the bathroom door and just stood, so that the voice, which now had a face and a body, could assimilate the information now presented to her. Because of my suspicions and my deliberate procrastination, I was prepared for this, but she wasn’t and for that reason I pitied her. She was nothing like me: short, stocky, short blond hair, wearing sporty clothes that had once been brightly coloured but were now faded. She was exceptionally fair-skinned and had a troubled complexion, which may be why she wore no make-up, but the result was an unhealthy look. I said very little in the ensuing onslaught of words. She was Eastern European and had a heavy accent, so like the Rastafarian, wasn’t always easy to understand and some of her statements were phrased awkwardly, but that was, in part, due to her fierce rage, I expect, which the entrance hallway was too small to contain.

Evidently conscious of this, she moved into the lounge, where her ferocity continued to spill forth and although both she and I were clearly victims in the overall situation, she had assumed the role of ‘persecutor’ in this scene and the Rastafarian the role of ‘victim’ as she fired accusations and insults at him from across the room, because she needed some distance to be able to take good aim.

At one point the Rastafarian walked past me, winked and chucked me under the chin, in full view of The Ex (which didn’t seem to be an apt title for her anymore) and I was disabled by his brazenness. I wasn’t a part of the argument until The Ex asked the Rastafarian if he was seeing me.

 

‘Nooo!’ he drawled, with the manner of someone who was lying.

 

It was at this point that I assumed a role – I, too, became a persecutor and expressed my surprise to the Rastafarian with a shocked look and a pointed ‘What?!’

 

She asked me the same question and I told her candidly that I was his girlfriend and had been since August. At this juncture, she asked me to leave, which I thought was short-sighted of her. Far better, I felt, for the two of us to take this opportunity to expose the Rastafarian as a liar and a cheat, by having a conversation in his presence, so he couldn’t twist the truth with each of us afterwards. But, she was overwhelmed by wrath which can render the cleverest people foolish, so I welcomed the opportunity to exit such a distressing situation and left, stooping by the sofa to collect my earring which wasn’t needed anymore.

As I walked to my car, I reflected on my relationship with the Rastafarian and decided that if it were a movie, you would think it far-fetched. There are a few things that I’ve left out that, in the words of Hilaire Belloc, would make ‘one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes’ (for those who don’t know the poem ‘Matilda’ it contains random capital letters). Funny that I should recall a poem about a child who tells lies. Matilda pays a high price for her lies and, whereas I’m not keen on the current use of the karma phenomenon to suggest that people will pay for their mistakes, I feel sure that the Rastafarian’s use and abuse of people will work against him one day. I don’t relish in that surety; moreover I just know it will happen one day. I pity the Rastafarian. I look at his life and I wouldn’t want to live it but we’re all steering our own boats. I tend not to share Facebook memes, but I love the one that goes: ‘If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree.’ According to the Rastafarian, I was ‘lucky’ and it was ‘alright’ for me. You would think that my career just popped up and presented itself to me, or that I just stumbled across my house one day and moved in, because these are the things, apparently, that constituted my ‘luck’. Of course, I do feel blessed in many ways: I have two awesome children and I have my health, to name two blessings. And I do recognise that there are people in this world who are less fortunate than I am. But the Rastafarian’s ‘poor me’ aura is what stops people from living their lives to the full. I had to accept that I couldn’t fix him. My loans (which won’t feel like loans until they are repaid) of money, lifts to work, rounds of drinks, the emotional support and so on . . . were all just sticking plasters on wounds which needed more, but only he can help himself. It is all dependent on when he decides to do this.

I got in my car and drove away, feeling like a jumble of sadness, exhaustion and relief.

Fran and Mrs de Winter

In my first year of secondary school, my best friend was a girl called Nira. Nira had thick, auburn (not red) hair, a flawless complexion, brown eyes (that were also reddish and seemed to match her hair) and a smattering of freckles that, in my childish imagination, I envisioned Tinkerbell sprinkling, sparingly, onto her nose whilst she slept. I think Nira may be responsible for my lifelong adoration of red hair. It is no wonder that my eldest child is a redhead, as I am, most definitely a redhead on the inside. Just like my subsequent best friend, who claimed to be a ‘punk on the inside’. (And back then there was none of this nasty prejudice against those fortunate enough to sport the striking and unusual hair colour.) But anyway, Nira said that she chose me to be her best friend because I was ‘the prettiest girl in the form’, which I doubted, as I had never considered myself to be a pretty child and I felt seriously wanting in the early days of secondary school . . . wanting inches, wanting curves, wanting some sort of fashion sense.

There were three forms in each year group, each form comprising approximately 30 girls (considering it was a public school, they really packed us in) split according to where the initial letter of your surname fell in the alphabet. Nira bemoaned our placement in ‘Upper III M’ as she had a strange fascination with the nerds (meant in the nicest possible way) in another form. I use the word ‘strange’ wisely; she did not present as a nerd. This was a girl whose uniform fitted where it touched, whose hair always looked freshly coiffed, who was so keen to show off the minuteness of her waist that she wore her purse-belt (yes, we had purse-belts) outside her jumper. But the nerds were quite happy consorting in their own nerdiness and made it clear that the group was closed to potential members. So, seeing as Nira didn’t care for the other girls in our form, we found ourselves in a rather exclusive little friendship of just the two of us. At break-times, we performed our own little comedy sketches which no-one else found funny but we would sometimes cry, we laughed so much at our own jokes. Some of our sketches were pretty dark . . . I remember one based on the problems at the time with DC-10 aeroplanes, only our plane was an EF-11. We were still sniggering in the next lesson; we only had to catch each other’s eyes and ridiculous snorting sounds were finding ways to escape from our mouths and noses. No-one else knew the source of our jollity and as we didn’t really socialise much with the other girls, I don’t think anyone else much cared. But the teacher did and we actually got told off; just to clarify, we were proper goodie-goodies, so this was new territory. We did typical girls’ school stuff, like inventing our own little language so we could pass notes in class and no-one else could read them. The fact that we couldn’t read them either, half the time, as they took so long to decipher, didn’t matter – we felt like spies which seemed of utmost importance at the time.
Nira left after the first year and returned to London, but we wrote to each other for years and she would always sign off with ‘Your best friend Nira’. Maintaining the friendship was difficult, as my parents were not enamoured with the notion of my joining Nira in her busy, dizzy, socialite world. I was, of course, but while Nira was making her debut in The Big Smoke, I was probably still building sandcastles on the beach in Gower (which, by the way, I was very fond of doing. It is possible to want to be a debutante and to enjoy building sandcastles). But we did meet up from time-to-time and her last letter to me was to congratulate me on my engagement. She told me that she was moving into a flat with an old friend called Simon. And then we lost touch.
I tried to regain contact with my funny friend – we’d had quite an intense year at school together and did all that ‘best friends for life’ stuff and had stayed friends for the rest of our childhood – but to no avail. Then, years later, (soon-to-be-ex) hubby insisted upon sharing one of his favourite sitcoms with me (which I have stolen as possibly my absolute favourite sitcom): ‘Spaced’. He was in disbelief that I’d never watched it and so was I, after I’d watched the first episode. It was pure brilliance. If you’ve watched it, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, stop reading my blog and find it somewhere to watch it. Especially if you grew up somewhere between the ’70s and the ’90s. And especially if you embrace the geek in you (go on – admit it – even if it’s very insignificant, like being partial to the odd Star Wars movie).
But it got better: there, at the end of the credits, was my funny friend’s name as the producer! Turned out she was also the producer of some great movies like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, to name a couple. I was glad I already liked her work whilst being unaware of her involvement. What with her being a bit of a name and all, she was quite easy to track down and so we were back in touch. On recounting the anecdote to my sister, she pointed out that she must be the producer of the award-winning Black Books and to my shame, I had not watched a single episode. So, my sister very kindly provided me with every single episode on DVD, the following Christmas which leads me onto the next instalment of the debacle that was my relationship with the Rastafarian . . .
‘Honey,’ he said, looking at me directly in the eyes. This was familiar . . . this was the look and the sound preceding an awkward request.
‘My sister is coming here.’
‘That’s great!’ I enthused, ‘I’d love to meet one of your family.’
I knew there was going to be so much more to this conversation than just being told that his sister was arriving, by his serious countenance and grave tone to his voice, but until things became heavy with complications, I would treat the news at face value.
‘Maybe we can arrange that,’ was his reaction to my enthusiasm. I noted the coolness of his comment.
‘Could you collect her from the airport?’ he continued.
‘Sure,’ I replied, thinking that this must be the complication, ‘as long as you could recompense me for petrol,’ I clarified. My funds were running low and I knew that I couldn’t afford any extra expense.
‘She will fly into Heathrow,’ he elaborated.
‘Whoa – wait a minute – Heathrow? That’s quite a drive – can’t she make other arrangements?’
‘Honeeee,’ he whined, ‘this is my sister!’ he seemed offended at the suggestion that his sister should slum it on public transport like the rest of us.
‘Ok – ok! It’s fine!’ I reassured him, ‘But like I say, I have to have petrol money and obviously, only if I’m not busy.’
‘Of course, of course,’ he affirmed, ‘but if it is in the week, then you will have to take the day off work.’
This is where Fran – the hapless female in Black Books – and I become synonymous with one another.
In Series 2 there is an episode entitled ‘Blood’ where Fran seeks out her Eastern European roots and finds herself a whole new extended family. The feelings she experiences on becoming united with her new-found relatives are as deep as their feelings for her are shallow. While she struggles to contain her glee at getting to know her family and their cultural differences, they seem fixated on her Astra and before she can say ‘poliknish’ three times, they’re plotting, shamelessly to use her as an unpaid chauffer.
I won’t spoil it for Black Books novices, but you can see the similarity, I’m sure.
‘Take the day off work? I can’t take the day off work to collect a capable person whom I’ve never met before from the airport!’ I ranted some more, to be fair, because the Rastafarian was unresponsive. He didn’t argue but he didn’t seem to understand, either. Even though I had made myself clear and I had no intention of granting his request, I felt wholly unsatisfied that I had not managed to impart any understanding to him concerning the cheek of his request.
It worsened, though. Shortly before her arrival, he asked me to remove anything of mine from his place. There wasn’t much but the request was unacceptable. His excuse was that she was close to The Ex and he didn’t want her gossiping about him to this ghost that was haunting our relationship. The only reason I stopped feeling like Fran was because I was starting to feel like the new Mrs de Winter . . .
The airport collection issue ceased to be an issue when it turned out that she was flying into Birmingham and staying here and there with friends, apparently, before descending upon the Rastafarian. The only time I met her was when I went round to give him a lift to work one night (despite his unfair proportion of musical talent, he was lazy and had let his band slip away, so he played, alone, for nothing at Open Mic nights and work had become providing security on doors of pubs). He rang me when I was on my way to ask if I could take her to church. Back to being Fran then. The rain was of biblical proportions that night, I was already behind schedule and if I’m blunt, I thought it was rude of him to call a favour for someone I hadn’t met at the last minute, especially as I was already doing him a favour. The weather had been grim all day, so the heavenly outpouring was no surprise. I said I’d do my best but by the time I arrived, it was too late. She was sitting, looking glum, on a hard-backed chair.
‘I guess I’m too late,’ I said apologetically, without actually apologising because I didn’t feel the need, while rain trickled, uncomfortably, down my face.
She was terse with her reply which was something along the lines of ‘it’s ok’ but I sensed that it wasn’t ok. She mentioned that she didn’t want to walk in late and I agreed, trying to find some common ground and ‘church’ seemed like it would suffice. She was the most interested I witnessed during the hour or so that I was with her, when she realised that I was a church-goer. I knew that she had been raised a catholic, like me, but she almost seemed affronted with this new knowledge about me. There was no comment; just a hard look.
She ended the interchange by turning to her phone and seemingly preferring to interact with that.
Then, she cooked me a meal, which was unexpected. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and accepted the gesture in the spirit in which I felt it had been given. It was a meat dish, so I had to avoid the meaty bits and she noticed. I couldn’t confess to vegetarianism; she’d progressed from grumpy to giving, so I didn’t want to risk her mood sliding back down the scale, even halfway towards grumpy. So I said I didn’t really eat much meat. There was an awkwardness about the meal and when the Rastafarian spontaneously referred to me as his ‘good friend’ and his ‘angel’ who had helped him, I realised that she was not aware of the nature of our relationship . . .

More of the Ex

As previously acknowledged, many people struggled to converse with the Rastafarian, so phone conversations, without any visual clues could be almost impossible. Attempting to locate him one night – not an uncommon situation – having agreed to meet in the pub with the cabaret-style Open Mic, I rang him. One of his friends who ran an Open Mic night in another pub, who happened to be there, listened to my half of the stilted conversation with fascination.

‘Wow. You can actually understand him on the phone? I can barely understand him when he’s standing in front of me!’ he marvelled as I ended the call.

‘It wasn’t easy,’ I laughed in reply, ‘if you look outside you can see him. That’s what I had to speak to . . . ‘

‘How does he get like that with no money?’ enquired Open Mic Guy. ‘And yet you still managed to understand him on the phone?’ he continued.

The Rastafarian wasn’t that far from The Cabaret Pub but the climb up the slight incline was, evidently, a huge effort for someone who had had an afternoon of heady fun somewhere. Open Mic Guy and I chatted some more . . . I commented that the Rastafarian liked to have the radio up loud in the car just to raise the stakes of conversational comprehension to impossible levels.

‘Tell me it is you who drives?’ he mock-pleaded. I assured him that it was and to my surprise he stood and kissed me, on the top of my head.

‘Good luck with that Princess,’ he winked as he headed into the Open Mic room and with that the Rastafarian was in the pub.

I was concerned that he might have seen the kiss; it was an innocent kiss, but my chatting with Open Mic Guy made him kind of grumpy. Open Mic Guy was one of just a few people I had met through the Rastafarian who made an effort to chat to me. One night in The Tiny, Tiny Pub, he had given me the drumsticks while the Rastafarian was playing, so I could accompany him on the drum machine. My wrist was still recovering so I’d removed my removeable splint for the task, which was a big deal. Nothing was said at the end of his set. So eventually, I said something. He was just being nice, he said, without even looking at me and no more was said about Open Mic Guy . . . until the next time he chatted to me and apparently it was unacceptable. And so it was with most men who chatted to me after that; sometimes I was flirting with them and sometimes they with me, apparently.

But anyway, the point is that he was difficult to understand, especially on the phone, especially when worse for wear and especially when angry, and it was the last of these complications that was added into the mix when he rang me one day from work. After some time, I managed to group the initially incomprehensible sounds into words and figured out that I was being asked, ‘has my ex contacted you?’

‘No,’ I said and the cacophony of sounds died down and I was left with just the one clean sound of the call ending.

‘Why did you ask me that?’ I puzzled, later on that day when I collected him from work, but he was strangely defensive, questioning my questioning and I was treated to schoolboy responses such as, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ His secrecy forced him to skirt around the truth and I had become accustomed to ensuring, in these situations, that my language was clear, simplistic and unambiguous.

‘There is no reason why you shouldn’t, but you have to expect this type of reaction to such random questions.’ I stated.

‘Something made you concerned that your ex may have contacted me, so please will you tell me what that was?’

But when he was cornered, he found diversion tactics which usually involved criticising me and in this instance, I was ‘checking him out’. I couldn’t resist correcting him: ‘checking up on you, you mean,’ I suggested, as an alternative. But then, I was trying to make him look stupid . . .

Getting back to the offending little message on my phone, telling me that someone else was the Rastafarian’s girlfriend, I recalled his concern over The Ex contacting me.

‘Block her!’

This was his initial reaction.

‘If you add me on Facebook again,’ I bargained.

His frustration filled the room. It had filled him but it had spilled out through his furious eyes and the deep-throated growl which indicated that he had temporarily lost the power of speech. We had become ‘uncoupled’ on Facebook (apologies to Starlight Express – I think they own the rights to that word in this context!) by him and whereas I didn’t much mind per se, I did mind that he felt the need to either hide me from someone or hide someone from me. So, we became ‘coupled’ on Facebook once more and he explained that she had not coped with the break-up and denied her claims. To be fair, we were together so much, particularly at his place, that I struggled to see how he could fit in another love interest. And would he want to be in a relationship with a woman who was responsible for his wrongful arrest? So I blocked her on Facebook and I thought that that was the end of the matter.

Mr Chatterbox

I heard the Rastafarian play many, many times. He would play between 2 and 6 songs each time, up to 5 nights a week (sometimes playing at 2 venues in a night).  He recycled songs, obviously, but most weeks he would have at least one new song, as a result of ‘jamming with the brothers’. But given that I heard him play many, many songs in the time I was with him (and the months previous to that, when I was watching him without knowing him), it is worth noting that I heard him play only 2 covers. Both were Bob Marley: one was ‘Three Little Birds’ and the other was ‘Mr Chatterbox’.

I hated hearing him play the latter. I pulled him up on it afterwards. You don’t normally play covers, I queried. They requested it, he explained. He was right; a chap next to me had nominated the request and someone else had seconded it. For the reggae novices, the lyrics describe Mr Chatterbox as ‘always to receive, never to give . . . Mr Chatterbox, you are a big disgrace’.

I watched the Rastafarian sitting on the stool, with that warm, inclusive smile, singing about this disgraceful character and I marvelled at how he could brazenly sing about himself. I actually started to wonder if he had a personality disorder. You can only sing about disgraceful people if you acknowledge their disgrace, surely? Yet he was Mr Chatterbox!

He knew most people in most pubs we visited. Women were ‘sisters’ and men were ‘brothers’. He was gentle and quiet and everyone treated him gently and quietly. To be fair, much of the respect he was shown was probably due to his musical talent and I would not wish to question that. But these relationships were superficial, as he gave so little of his personality to these ‘friends’. He would quietly ask me to buy him drinks, which I did, if I had money. If I didn’t have money, he had a subtle knack of procuring drinks from others. Sometimes, he had money and he would buy drinks for both of us. Despite my pleas for him to stop throwing money at the gradual destruction of his liver and to start repaying his debt to me, he mumbled incomprehensible arguments and my money went to the upkeep of local hostelries every time. As I started to realise that I needed to employ new tactics for the return of my money, I also started to realise that I may as well accept drinks from him, because at least I was receiving something.

The adoration he received was totally incongruous with how deserved it was. His audience was enchanted by his playing and believed that the beauty of his songs was a reflection of his persona. I longed for just one person to witness The Angry Rastafarian, The Manipulative Rastafarian, anything other than this sweet, sycophantic lie. I have to admit that resentment was creeping up on me. Maybe it wouldn’t have if he hadn’t attempted such control within our relationship. You don’t smile enough while I play, he complained, everyone in the pub talks about it. I doubted this, but nonetheless I made an effort to smile more next time. Why did you shout at me about going home, he asked, everyone heard. I never shout, I replied, I simply said that I was going home because we had agreed on a time yet you wanted to stay. There was no agreement, he said . . . He was paranoid. And not forgetful – just a very spoilt man who resorted to lying to get his way.

There is a saying that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and he was that empty cup . . . a broken, empty cup because no matter how much I poured in, whether it was financial or emotional help, it was never enough; it was seeping out through a crack. He was broken and I admitted defeat; I couldn’t fix him. And I was becoming an equally empty cup.

One day he said to me: ‘Honey, I want you to bring your troubles to me. Never suffer alone.’

So I did.

Bear in mind that I had listened to his troubles, helped him financially, massaged his tense shoulders and neck and never once cried on his shoulder; to be frank, I had doubted his shoulder could cope with anyone else’s troubles; not even a tear drop.

And it would seem I was right. Now, just to get things into perspective, I realise, in the big scheme of things that my woes are not in the league of living through a genocide or never seeing my children. Also, as previously stated, I do realise that I have never suffered either of these things and so I didn’t need to be told. However, I do believe that people are allowed to feel a little self-piteous from time-to-time about things other than surviving a genocide or not seeing their children. (And I would like to add that as regards the latter, I was very concerned and arguably more pro-active than he was.)

I didn’t intend taking my troubles to him; I was just feeling a little down and he noticed, so, recalling his offer, I confided in him the source of my upset. His reaction was bizarre; he became cross and shouted, to the effect of ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’. In a horrible, twisted way, he managed to quell my upset because I was fascinated with his absolute inability to cope with someone else’s troubles. Wow, I mused, this guy is completely egocentric. I stared at him, the narcissist, and then my phone made a noise.

He had taken centre stage and so, whilst he delivered this remarkable, improvised soliloquy to me, his only audience member, I took my phone out to read the message that had just pinged, happily, onto my phone.

His voice became white noise and as I read the message, I could feel the colour leaving my face to make that white too. The words on my phone seemed to be moving around against the white background and my hand shook as I turned it round to show him.

‘What’s going on?’ my voice was small but as he saw the words too, on the screen, he stopped ranting so he heard me clearly.

But he wasn’t quiet for long. The message infuriated him. The message that told me that someone else was the Rastafarian’s girlfriend and was there something going on between the two of us?