No. 93/94 Sergeant Darren and Liz’s Lonely (hole in the) heart’s Club Band – Part 1.

Do you remember Blind Date when they did the older people? And you thought “Oh no it’s the older people.” I’d often fantasized about going on Blind Date, but not as an older person. One of the Beastie Benitses boys (No. 80) went on once, I’d seen the episode before but watching him on the repeat was just as exciting. Ian my therapist still provided most things for me, but no physical intimacy, thankfully (unlike Brian Thorn who was a person-centred psychotherapist we studied in college who gave a client (the vicar’s wife) a naked embrace! (This truly does warrant an explanation mark)).
Since Niall I hadn’t had sex for at least 2 months, possibly the longest time I’d gone without since breaking my virginity with The Rat (No. 5) in 1979.
In the mid/late 90’s blind dating (apart from Cilla Black repeats) was limited. No internet, no mobile phones, it was such a taboo practice I never told anyone that I trawled through the few heterosexual age appropriate men listed each week in the Time Out Lonely Hearts and the Guardian Soulmates (in the back of the Saturday A3 Guardian Guide).
Each day I would pick one and leave a short but expensive message on the 090 number provided, leaving my landline number 071 231 2600, an easy number to remember which I’m sure helped with my call backs.
My first caller was Richard who wasn’t as age appropriate as he’d let on. He was old, bearded and jolly like Rolf Harris before he got caught. Richard made an effort and travelled to Bermondsey from North London and bought me Sunday lunch in one of my local pubs. I was hugely disappointed and the fear of someone I knew possibly seeing us, put me off my food. Richard however troughed though his food and my left over’s. He smelled of fry ups and reminded me of Dame Clod from Cardozo Road. Even though I didn’t want to see or smell him again, I felt rejected that he never called me back after the date. I wasn’t over Niall and I’d blurted out to Richard on the phone that I had MS and wondered whether it had put him off, hence I rehearsed new lines for my next dates.
“I’ve done my knee in at the gym” (they may ask you where you go to the gym”
“The local one but I’m not going at the moment” (they may ask you what is actually wrong e.g.“Have you seen a doctor?”)
“Yes, I’m having physio, it’s a meniscus tear”
“Are you having an op?”
“No, it’s not that type of tear”
I had it all worked out.
The next man to respond was Darren who didn’t lie about his age, he was 35, Scorpio, year of the water tiger. Welsh accent, he sounded good. From our brief phone conversation at 39.5 pence a minute I’d learned he was in the army and had a motorbike, a big one, a really big one, a Kawasaki GTR 1000.
We met at a bar near Tower Bridge and drank non-alcohol drinks. Darren had ginger, tight curly hair, he was tall and his face scarred, but not like Fraser No. 31’s sexy scar from the flying symbol, it was more like he’d picked his acne or chicken pox spots as a child, it was still kind of sexy. He reminded me of Peter Gilmore, star from the 70’s BBC drama The Onedin Line, I fancied him.
Darren had been in the army since leaving school, he now trained cadets somewhere in East London, I saw no reason not to give him a go. At the end of the date I showed Darren my Fiat Panda and he showed me his golden ticket to sex.
“That’s nice,” I said. “Really, really nice. That’s one sexy bike.”
“Thanks” he said, rubbing off a grease mark with his elbow. He retrieved his leathers from somewhere around the body of the beast. He had proper leathers, not the gear I was used to with boyfriends on scooters and Honda 250’s. He got into the fitted leather suit, covering his Levi jeans and gleaming white Adidas T-shirt.
“I’m thinking of going to the Lake District at the weekend, fancy a bit of touring about? Can you get Friday off work?”
I only worked Wednesdays, of course I could, would just mean missing one session with Ian. I felt like a break, we were approaching our ending and the therapy had been ramping up.  I’d been having recurring nightmares where I kept seeing a baby strapped onto a machine, screaming.

Ian and I talked more about what life was like when I was born. I knew my sister had been a text-book baby and my birth had been difficult, Mum had gastroenteritis twice whilst pregant and when I came out I just cried and cried. My Dad had told me that they took me to the doctors on a number of occasions but the doctor just said I was “grumpy”. My parents must have persisted because at 6 months old I was diagnosed with having a hole in my heart, and from then on I was closely monitored by Great Ormond Street Hospital GOSH!
“I wonder that it may have been hard for your mother to bond with you.” Ian had questioned. I went back to Rayleigh to specifically ask my mother what I was like as a baby. She clearly had struggled, she couldn’t talk much, it just wasn’t her way, but she got out her copy of the 1960’s Glaxo mother and baby book. Inside were notes in her hand writing of our baby development.
For me there were just two lines ‘Reduced to 3 meals at 3 weeks. Started solids at 3 weeks!’
“And Ian, I promise you the explanation mark was there. No wonder I had an eating disorder. Poor mum. Maybe she had post-natal depression.”
The recurring nightmares stopped when I realised they were flash backs, I was looking at myself, as a baby, being x rayed at Great Ormond Street, in a monstrosity of a machine, held up naked, in a room so stark and frightening, crying my eyes out. My previous early memories of Great Ormond Street had been the three rocking horses of different sizes in the reception area of the hospital. I was never allowed to go on them, initially I thought perhaps it was because I was too small, then as I grew older I realised this was not so. I was discharged from GOSH age 12 when the hole in my heart finally closed, thanks to a lot of swimming, so the doctors said. By then I had grown out of rocking horses.

No wonder I wanted to get on the back of Darren’s bike and ride off into the distance. No wonder I’d done a parachute jump and joined the dangerous sports society to do undercover bunji jumping when it was illegal and had gone underground after the Noel Edmunds Saturday show suicide jump, and so it went on …  always craving adventure.

The Lake District on the back of the Kawasaki beast would be an adventure. The following morning I booked 2 nights at the Regent Hotel in Ambleside.

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No. 92 Part 3 …. Niall’s apart

The hotel receptionist said she would contact the out of hour’s doctor and they would ring me ASAP, the wait felt like an eternity and I was worried that Niall would get back to the room before the call.
When the English speaking doctor finally rang, my suicidal feelings dispersed, I just felt stupid and guilty that I may have taken him away from his family Christmas.
“I can’t sleep” I said. “I’ve been travelling and the insomnia is making me depressed.” The ‘elephant in the room’ non-wedding still not mentioned.
“I’ll write a prescription for something to help you sleep,” he said calmly. “You can pick it up at reception in the morning.”
“Thanks” I said, concerned that although Niall may not find out about my call from the doctor, there would likely be an extra bill when we checked out.
I felt better knowing that if I didn’t sleep tonight, I could take the pills in the morning. I tried to step outside of my experience, think about what I could do to feel better, I had so much experience now as a counsellor and my Samaritan volunteering, but why was I such a ‘wounded healer’? I thought, what a good idea it would be to have multi lingual Samaritans on duty 24 hours at every hotel in the world, I wondered about the many celebrities and business people who were found dead in hotel rooms. I wondered whether Princess Diana felt suicidal at times, I’d watched her documentary the month before on Panorama, she’d had bulimia too and had put the disorder on the map so others didn’t feel so shameful, she was alright, maybe I was too?  But she had kids , more to live for …. and so it went on. I wrote down my thoughts, using up all the hotel stationery, I would read these out to Ian on my return, so he could really understand how low I could get. I tried to get to sleep again, counting past boyfriends in my head, it seemed more interesting than counting sheep but left me feeling like a failure again.
A few hours later and Niall still hadn’t returned, remembering it would be daytime in England I slung on the purple and green ‘non’ wedding beach dress and walked back to the empty reception. I asked the night receptionist if I could make a call to England.
“Gill, it’s me”
“Happy Christmas!” she said. “Or was yours yesterday? This is gonna cost you a fortune”
“Just wanted to hear your voice”
“You not having a good time?”
“Shit”
“Why?”
“It’s just shit. I think we’re splitting up” I sobbed, not caring what the reception staff thought of me.

“Ok, you’re back soon, try to make the most out of it. Do you want to stay at mine for a bit when you come home?”
“Maybe, thanks. I’m gonna check flights home in the morning. I’ll ring you again when I’m home.”
“Bye darling. You’ll be fine. Christmas is shit anyway, wherever you are.”
I don’t know what time Niall came to bed but I slept through. In the morning I went back to reception to see if I could get flights back to England sooner but it was practically and financially hopeless. I didn’t feel the need for the prescription so mentioned nothing of it, neither did the receptionist. Back at our room Niall was up and we packed to go to our honeymoon destination, both in a lighter mood. Now the ‘non’ wedding day was over we could move on – a little.
On arrival at Treasure Island we were greeted with garlands and a welcome song by the authentic Fijian clan who owned and worked the land and the resort.
“Congratulations” said the Treasure Island receptionist as he took our cases and showed us to our bure on the beach.
“Thank you” I said. “They’ll be free bubbly.” I nudged Niall, my humour returned. He had forgotten to tell the resort about the ‘non’ wedding/honeymoon, the bed in our bure was covered in rose petals, a congratulations sign, origami towels in the shape of a heart (no birds this time) and the expected bottle of bubbly with two champagne glasses.
“Let’s get fucked” I said, popping the bottle.
The ‘non’ honeymoon wasn’t nearly so bad as the ‘non’ wedding, just a few wobbly moments and arguments when we were left to our own devices. I quickly got into The island lifestyle, I loved the large and beautiful Fijian women who soon had me measured up and making me a grass skirt, bra and headdress to flaunt around the beach in. The men were fit as fuck and played their light reggae sounds at every available moment, as their music lifted my esteem with ukulele and mandolins, the heaviness in my legs lightened and I was able to jog in and out of the little aqua waves, meters away from our bure.
With a Barcardi and coke from the minibar I saw in the new year of 1996 alone on the beach in the front of our bure. I watched fireworks from all over Fiji touching the stars, the coloured explosions awakening my creativity, why had it left me? Why hadn’t I got my ukulele with me? I was determined to be more creative this next year. Niall had always said he needed space, I would give him all the space he needed, or maybe it was just me he needed space from? Maybe I was too much for him? Maybe I was too much for anyone? I was never far away from darker thoughts.
On return to our bure after our final breakfast on Treasure Island the maid had made an origami elephant with our towels. We’d already showered and the towels remained intact as a centre piece in the honeymoon bure, we propped an envelope on the elephant’s trunk with our tip, the elephant to remain in the room, perhaps as a symbol of our difficulty in communicating with each other.
Back in England our relationship rubbed along until my birthday in the June when Niall got a job out of London and moved out of the flat. We’d lasted two years. He wrote me a letter the following week, a kind, honest, well thought out letter, admitting that the decision to split was his own, not his parents. He apologized deeply for hurting me, he listed my attributes that he envied, he told me there were times I’d intimidated him with my strength of personality and he acknowledged that was coming from his childhood stuff. He reassured me he wouldn’t leave me stranded financially re my job as his company secretary. But ultimately, I wasn’t for him, he didn’t want me.
I wrote back, with a kind and honest, well thought out letter expressing sadness and frustration that we weren’t able to work things out, “I too felt intimidated at times with our differences, especially financially, that was my stuff, I did always pay my way and had we got married I know my father would have contributed greatly to our wedding and trip around the world. I feel so sad that all the work we did put into our relationship and this new-found honesty will not be used for us as a couple, of course this work will not be wasted, but that does not feel relevant at this time of grieving. I deeply care for your well-being and happiness.” I tagged an M. Scott-Peck quote at the bottom of the letter, corny I know, but I hoped it had meaning for us both.
‘If you are determined not to risk pain, then you must do without many things: having children, getting married, the ecstasy of sex, the hope of ambition, friendship – all that makes life alive, meaningful and significant’

For Niall, my requests for more intimacy were met with rejection, I was too much for him and I was needing to be needed and so frightened of rejection I would go along with anything and everything, I had serious work to do on myself,  despite all my therapy, but how could I change who I was?  I’d already tried to do that.  Was it just my personality?  I was who I was surely?  I was confused as fuck.
A few weeks later my father made an unexpected visit to my flat.  This was the first time either of my parents had visited me in any of my london accommodations.  Despite Niall’s financial generosity I was in some difficulty and it seemed my parents were actively concerned about me now I was living on my own again, and disabled. I had sorted out some social benefits and was in the process of looking into getting a motability car with disability living allowance. Ian had told me he was retiring as a psychotherapist and we were working towards ending our relationship. In the light of my struggle in communicating with Niall, I felt I wasn’t ready to end, I had so many things I needed to talk with him about, there were pieces of the jigsaw yet to be found, but at least I had some time to work on my puzzle.
“I see a woman with MS” said Dad, having a rest from mowing my small yet large garden for a one bed council flat. My Dad had recently retired from his job as a welfare officer but was continuing to visit pensioners as a volunteer. “She’s a lovely woman, a spinster, she lives alone, she’s quite happy with her life.”
I knew Dad was trying to be kind, but it irritated the fuck out of me and I wanted to tell him to fuck off, instead I cried. He carried on with the mowing, he couldn’t cope with my tears, or any upset, but he knew he’d said the wrong thing.
“I want a family,” I said, unplugging the mower and chucking the lead at him from the kitchen window. He put the mower away in my tiny shed and I made us a cup of tea. We sat on my wooden pub type bench in the garden.
“I don’t care about your spinster old lady, that’s not me, I want to be normal, like everyone else, I want a husband, kids, all that normal stuff.” I sobbed and sobbed.
My father did what he could only do and gave me some money to tide me over and pay for Ian’s next therapy bill. Ian was doing my parents job, my father right now paying for it, literally – ironic.
Another few weeks later I did what I should have done years ago, and perhaps this was partly what Niall had meant re him needing space from me, I needed an outlet to explore MS, come to terms with it in a way I hadn’t before. I got in contact with the MS society (ironic again as my parents had a standing order for £20 a month with them). The Society directed me to a local MS group in Bermondsey where I met two women I grew to adore, for the first time I had friends who I could talk with, outside of my therapist, friends who were up for talking about mortality, relationships and MS. Friends who I could call upon to talk about the basics of life with MS, they understood and we laughed and laughed.
Friends however could not take away my longing for a relationship. I was 33 now, every time I got a period it was like a tick toc, tick toc, a time bomb, if I didn’t sort out my shit I feared I would become that spinster in a one bed council flat being ‘quite’ happy.

 

No. 92 Cont. Niall’s away …..

Unlike Archer (No. 91) a ring was on the cards. Niall and I took a taxi to Hatton Garden and I chose a vintage emerald and diamond ring. A visit to both sets of parents was planned to celebrate our engagement. I felt like a princess.
“Lovely” my Mum said as she took my hand and studied my ring “It’s just like Granny Bentley’s”. I missed Granny Bentley and hadn’t been aware I’d chosen a ring just like hers.

Mum presented Niall and I with a full set of Botanic Garden Portmierion dinner plates, cups, saucers and a gravy jug. This wasn’t cheap stuff, they were taking us more seriously than my previous attempt at engagement. All were excited and happy in the Bentley household.

In Cork, Barbara and Tom welcomed us too. Barbara also studied my ring and showed me other engagement rings from her deceased family. I was touched and thought the visit had gone well until we were back at Cork airport. Niall had just bought me a Barbour jacket from one of the duty free shops, I was delighted and we’d gone to the bar to have a drink while waiting for our flight.
“Mum said she had a friend with MS” Niall said.
“Oh?” I hated it when people talked about MS third party.
“She said that when her friend had a baby she couldn’t hold it.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this, I couldn’t find my usual humour – I just felt like a knife had gone straight through my heart. Why hadn’t she talked with me about MS? I could have reassured her like I’d done with Niall. We sat in silence, by the look on Niall’s face there was probably more to tell, but he’d learned quickly to keep anymore of the conversation he’d had with his mother to himself. Something changed right there and then and I began to think more about the Cork visit. I had been excluded, like when Barbara had visited London, no one’s fault, it was just how it was, I couldn’t walk round art galleries.  Niall’s parents lived in a 5 storey house, I slept on one floor and Niall on another. I understood that because they were Catholic and we were only engaged, why should we sleep together?  But I would go to bed and he and his parents would stay up drinking. I wondered now what else they’d been talking about – me? our engagement?  Again, I didn’t blame them, why would anyone want their son to marry someone with such a condition?  It raised so many questions about everything, I felt overwhelmed.
I went back to the bar to get more drinks, more conscious than ever of gliding like a Goddess, this wasn’t going to get to me, fuck them, fuck everyone. I ordered us both double gin and tonics.  The flight was delayed, we ordered more, and more. I felt sick but the gin allowed me to forget about the visit, the comment and that Niall perhaps had a responsibility to stick up for me as his fiancé. Alcohol helped me to focus on denying there was a problem with his family, with me, with us or perhaps with him and his family.

A few weeks later I was sitting at our desk at home, calculating Niall’s quarterly dividends.  He stood behind me and massaged my shoulders, he had a soft, gentle touch, one of the many things I loved about him.

“Let’s go away and get married” he said.
“Gretna Green?”
“I was thinking of something more exotic.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“I want to visit Russel in New Zealand, I want to do a trip round the world. We could get married at the same time.”
Before the week was out, Niall had spent a fair few thousand pounds on a four week trip around the world, Bangkok, Sydney, Auckland, half way through getting married Christmas day in Fiji, followed by a week honeymoon on ‘Treasure Island’ (a Fijian island) before a final stop in Los Angeles.
“Please don’t tell your folks,” I asked Niall with my new awareness that they may not be best pleased.
“You’re telling yours aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but they wouldn’t care where we got married, they just want us to be happy. Your folks are different, different culture, everything.”
“That’s not fair.”
“What about if I don’t tell mine either? We’ll keep it a secret, as much as one can when we’re taking a month away from work and friends.”

Secrets are always shite, I almost knew before I said it, but I was desperate to marry and it seemed like a good plan, perhaps the only plan available to us.

“Do you think this is posh enough for a Fiji wedding?” I asked Niall, holding against my body a cheesecloth purple and green full length beach dress.  It was a week before our trip and I’d been counting the days down before I would be a Mrs.

“It’s perfect” he said, there was a pause as he looked at me and I knew it was coming “I can’t do it.”  Niall had spilled the beans to his father, since he’d made the mistake of telling me what his mother had said about MS, he’d been keeping all contact with his folk’s away from me.  “But we can still have an amazing time, and we’ll still stop off in New Zealand and see Russell.”

“My second honeymoon without getting married, the dress will be great for the beach.” My humour miraculously returning, making light of the reality and the reality was that I felt unworthy of Niall, he didn’t love me enough to stand up to his parents. Or was it just me?
With this doubt in mind I went along with it. I hadn’t told anyone about our wedding plans, including Ian my therapist, everyone just thought we were having an extended break. There was no shame around upsetting anyone, or looking like an idiot – again. It wasn’t until we arrived in Bangkok that my internal shame and rejection began working its way out of my system. My MS symptoms didn’t like the new reasoning behind our worldwide trip so my shite walking meant I was restricted to hanging out in the 5 star hotel pools. I tried, mildly successfully, to focus on sunbathing and swimming, ticking off the countries we visited, feeling privileged to be where I was, but the reality was that Niall and I were on the slippery slope to the ending of our relationship.  I was lonely when Niall was site seeing and we argued when we were together.  My skin getting darker with each sunny day, my mood darker with each moon.
We arrived in Fiji on Christmas Eve. One of the most beautiful places I had ever been to, palm lined beaches, coral reefs, clear lagoons and the people were so happy and friendly it made it worse, I wouldn’t have believed it could get any worse, but the isolation I felt became intolerable, I hadn’t been sleeping and was exhausted.
The hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmas and filled with large family groups from all over the world settling down for Christmas dinner. Niall and I walked passed the room where we would have been married, neither of us bearing to peak in.   We sat down to eat, we were the odd ones out, the only couple, not speaking with each other because we didn’t want to argue in front of the celebrating groups. We would have been married now.  I had no idea what Niall had told the hotel, how he had cancelled the wedding, did all the staff know?  I wished I was back in Goa with Gill, this was far, far worse, I couldn’t laugh about it.  It felt too tragic.

When we’d finished the Christmas meal Niall went to the bar and I went to our room. It was best we weren’t alone in our room together, arguing over the elephant in the room ‘the wedding’ never to be talked about. I’d decided to do the trip, my internal voice repeating ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’.  So I lay in the beautifully made bed with crisp white sheets, shifting the origami towel birds over to Niall’s side of the bed, trying not to disturb their heart shape. I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t want to be anywhere, I felt out of my depth in a country I didn’t understand, where I thought no one could understand. I wanted to be back in London but I couldn’t be further away, I wanted to be on Ian’s couch, telling him how rejected I felt. While I was away I would be paying for the sessions I was missing, I wondered if I could just get home now, take the next flight home. I didn’t feel I could get through another night of insomnia, feeling worthless with Niall asleep by my side. I picked up the phone from the bedside table and dialled 0 for reception.
“I need to speak with the emergency doctor please.”

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No. 92 Niall’s and Niall’s …. (Part 1)

“It’s in one of those new yuppie flats in Wapping, a friend of a friend, “Gill said, “the guy is going to New Zealand and having a goodbye shindig. Thought you could do with some fun. ”

I’d had to leave my job at Marie Stopes, I wasn’t sad about that.  I’d seen a social worker and between him and my GP, they’d signed me off work and I was getting incapacity benefit.  I continued volunteering at a counselling community service and kept up my therapy now 4 x a week on Ian’s couch, he’d reduced the fees further.  I spent most days studying and resting, moving about was uncomfortable.  I’d just completed the final 5,000 word case study for my course, surely I deserved a night off?  I was fed up of being a hermit, missing sex and I was wondering whether I could still pull as an over 30.

Gill and I arrived by taxi to Tobacco Dock, the party was in a tiny flat/bedsit. The bed was hidden away behind the cupboard, fold away, a modern version of the one in the Samaritan’s telephone room. There was nowhere to sit, I found a wall outside in the corridor to lean up against, my glass soon filled with different cocktails by the man who lived in the adjacent flat.
“Sex on the beach,” I said as he refilled my glass “hmm, nice.”
I sipped at the drink, not taking my eyes off this Irish, stout bald man wearing a suit on a weekend, flitting between his and the party flat.

“What’s your name , how old are you and where do you come from ” I mimicked Cilla Black.

Niall was 26, 4 years younger than me and from Cork. I liked that he was short enough not to look down on me and that he worked in computers, he was eager to tell me he earned £70,000 a year which seemed like a ridiculous amount of money, a far cry from my most recent non-salaried boyfriends.
“I’m moving next weekend,” he said. “Can I get your number and take you for dinner in town, in  a couple of weeks, when I’m sorted?”
“Sure,” I said. “Where you moving to?”
“Pimlico, I’m renting this flat out.”
“Very nice” I said, wondering whether I was punching above my station, I looked ok so maybe my looks counterbalanced the money and disability side of things.
“It’s a penthouse. It’s grand.”
As the cocktails kept coming and going, Niall’s Irish accent began to take a hold, just like Fraser’s Scottish accent had. But Niall was the complete opposite of Fraser or Archer, or any of my past dalliances. He was also interested in psychotherapy and we became locked in conversation about Freud and the ‘Narcissism of Small Differences’, me secretly hoping our different cultures and financial status would pale into insignificance.
“I’m flat sitting this amazing penthouse for two weeks from Monday, why don’t you come over and I’ll do dinner.” I said, ever impatient for intimacy. “It might be a break from the chaos of moving.” I’d agreed to do the house-sit for the Samaritan’s director and his boyfriend, but was beginning to regret it, worried I’d feel more isolated without my landline. With a new boyfriend I wouldn’t be so lonely and I figured if he got the impression I knew ‘proper’ people that had penthouses too, it may counterbalance more of  our differences if he ever came round to my council estate. 

Living was difficult on the Longfield Estate.  I was keeping a diary for the housing re noise pollution from the druggy flat next door. I was becoming more and more sleep deprived, internalising the heavy beats that had become part of my nightmares. I had tried to join in when it started, but I was the only white person in the flat and although I didn’t feel unwelcome, I was bored with getting ‘off my head’ so I didn’t fit in. The estate had also just been used as a location for I.D., a film about John (Reese Dinsdale) a nice friendly undercover policeman with a lovely wife who changes into a neo-nazi fascist, and if I remember rightly rapes her (there was certainly marital conflict). One day about a hundred extras (likely to have been paid extra for a skinhead shave) ran up and down Dunton Road outside my block. I couldn’t have Niall see my accommodation, not yet, it might put him off me, and that would be before telling him I had MS, or him working out I had an unconscious fast ticking biological clock.
The first two weeks of our relationship took place at my friend’s Borough penthouse, when I moved back into Dhonau House we spent our dates hanging out in Pimlico in nice pubs and posh restaurants, and staying at Niall’s penthouse.
The following Friday afternoon I was running late to meet Niall. I’d just found out I’d passed my Advanced Diploma in Counselling and had been celebrating with peers the night before, that on top of the lack of sleep from continued noise pollution next door, the numbness in my legs and feet was seemingly worse. I rang Niall at work.
“I’m not feeling great, but we need to celebrate, I’ll be on my way soon”
“Grand! I’ve got to work a bit later, meet me in The Gallery, get a cab, I’ll pay.” I’d hoped Niall would offer the cab up, there was no way I could do the buses.
I had previously read that MS attacks could come on quickly, but I’d never anticipated how quickly. Surely not as quickly as a taxi ride from Bermondsey to Pimlico? The taxi pulled up on double yellows on the corner of Lupus St. Funny, as I was still seeing Dr Hughes at the Lupus clinic in St Thomas’s even though I didn’t have it, they were still a source of support and respected my more alternative approach to managing MS. It was all neurological stuff. I was learning from Dr Hughes that everybody’s condition was so different anyway, it all seemed a bit pointless.
I pulled myself out of the taxi but without the vehicle to lean on I collapsed. I couldn’t walk. I could not put one foot in front of the other, I couldn’t lift my legs, the numbness of my feet had crept up my legs and I couldn’t feel a thing from the waist down. I sat on the curb watching the taxi creep away in the rush hour traffic, I didn’t expect the driver to notice his last passenger’s predicament. He had a pick-up in Soho to get to.
I sat there, calmly on the cold pavement, wishing I’d worn something warmer, watching commuters come out of Pimlico tube and their legs walk past me. Niall would probably be in the pub by now, wondering where I was. I rummaged around in my bag for the homeopathic pills I carried for shock.
“Do you need any help?” I looked up to see an old woman sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket round her legs, but the voice came from the woman pushing her. “You look like you need some help.” They both smiled at me.
“Yes, thanks, I’m not fine, I’m not drunk, I’ve had an MS attack. I can’t walk, I don’t think.” I was surprised to hear myself saying I wasn’t ok. We used to joke about it in college, FINE stood for Fucked up and In Need of Emotional Support. I knew my symptoms were complex, there was a link between my mind and my body, but right now I was fucked up and in need of practical help.
“Where do you need to get to?”
“The pub” I pointed at The Gallery which was yards away. “I’m meeting my boyfriend. I’ll be alright when I get there. I just need to sit down and rest.”
“Do you want to sit on my lap?” asked the woman in the chair. I laughed, she was tiny and ancient. I was contemplating how it could possibly work without damaging her when another woman appeared at the scene.
“Liz!” It was Mary from the Marie Stopes Annexe. “What’s happened?” It was such a relief to see my old colleague, it had been months since I’d seen her, a coincidence alright, the younger woman put the brake on the wheelchair and her and Mary took one of my arms each and carried me the few yards into the pub. I fell onto a comfy padded seat by the door. Mary ordered me a gin and tonic and the other woman left.
“70 grand!” She said when I told her about Niall.
“He doesn’t know I have MS yet” I said.
“He will now” she said as Niall walked through the pub door and joined us.
“I’m not staying.” She said. “Look after her,” she said to Niall. “She’s a special lady, MS or no MS”
“Fuck off Mary” I said and turned to Niall. “I don’t need looking after.”
Niall and I talked over many more gin and tonics. I explained that MS wasn’t a big deal, and that I was just having a blip. He didn’t seem to know anything about it and we celebrated my diploma.
“How are we going to get you back?” He said after last orders were called.
We were drunk and the alcohol helped my confidence, I leant on Niall and we giggled as we stumbled to the house, usually a minute’s walk from the pub it took us fifteen. Niall’s penthouse was on the 5th floor, he was stronger than he looked, he grabbed my waist and pushed me stair by stair up to the top. It took us another thirty minutes, stopping on each landing, laughing and snogging. Once in the penthouse we drank vodka and tonics then Niall lifted me onto the queen size bed and we had sex, it was weird, I couldn’t feel what was going in or out, but all closeness I welcomed.
A few months went by and we became an ‘item’, Niall had even stayed at my flat. Despite the MS all was well, I was thinking a lot in therapy about how my MS symptoms were my way of dealing with emotional states and stress. I wanted to learn how to express anger and rage rather than shame and guilt but I wasn’t sure why or with whom I would feel so angry. The counselling in the community service was going well. Sitting down was probably the only job I could have done, a fine choice for someone with MS, and I had a status for the first time in my life. I was a professional with an advanced diploma.

With Niall and my new status I began to feel underdressed and/or not posh enough, I began toning down my ‘Liz’ quirky/punk dress sense and became more ‘normal’ looking. I let the bleached hair and shaved sides grow out and by the very nature of eating out so much I began putting on weight.  I’d learned that eating disorders where just a symptom of something, I knew something was working in my therapy as this symptom had fallen off, it was like I’d never had it.  I had no interest in throwing up, it was becoming comfortable to have a full tummy and I was morphing into a female Niall, a ‘proper’ short and round couple, me with a lot of curly hair, him with none.

We lived in luxury on Niall’s rental income, him still able to save up to buy another flat. He would hire cars and take us to five star hotels and spas. Life was great.

“What’s she doing with him?” some ignorant man at a bar said within earshot one weekend. They couldn’t see I had MS, I’d left my stick in the car on that occasion, meditating my way through the pub like a gliding goddess. They couldn’t see how lucky I was that this kind, interesting man loved me and he was earning £70,000 a year. We glided out of the bar.

I adored Niall so much so that I began to feel ashamed of my past so I tried to get rid of it.  I sold my keyboards, my record collection, and put all my leather and suede dresses, skirts and jackets in a second hand shop in New Cross. Whilst decluttering I came across the shoe box, full of Fraser’s prison letters, I was wondering what to do with the box when the phone rang.
“Och aye” No surprise to me it was Fraser, I was now a keen believer in Carl Jung’s theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ “How you doing? Douggie gave me yer number.”
“I knew it would be you”
“You been missing me?”
“I’m sorry Fraser, I’m in a relationship and I don’t want to hear from you again.”
The phone went dead, no persistence, nothing. I had changed, he could tell in my voice. The shoe box went into the outside bin. For a moment I almost retrieved it, but the lid had slid off and the once ordered blue prison letters were now merged with spaghetti hoops from another flat.

One weekend Niall’s mother flew over from Cork. We met her in a pub on the Friday night. I got a cab from Bermondsey into the West end and Niall met her straight from work. I was nervous. They were both there when I arrived, Niall had saved me a seat in the bar that was crammed with office affairs having Friday drinks, snogging in suits and high heels.
“Lovely to meet you” Barbara said with her soft Irish lilt, she got up and shook my hand while Niall pulled out my saved seat from the table, “it’s packed.”

Barbara looked me up and down, her eyes stopped at my stick. I sat down and discreetly slid it under the table, wondering whether Niall had told her of my MS.
Mother and son sat close to each other enjoying pleasant chit chat about the art galleries they would visit over the weekend, I remained quiet, listening as best I could above the pub noise. I didn’t have a clue about art and felt excluded but happy I’d been invited to meet her. The pub thinned out and Niall talked business with his mum about his flat and job and property income. I was interested in their close relationship, so different from mine with my mother. I’d told my parents of my diploma and the response I’d got was as if I’d told them I’d got a certificate for an aerobics class. Niall and I had laughed about how it might at least get in the church magazine, like the MS diagnosis had. It wasn’t their fault , they didn’t understand what counselling was, not many did.
“Shall we call it a night then?” asked Niall.
“Grand.” Barbara said.
“Okay” I said. Wondering where she was staying.
“I’ll get us cabs.”
The penny still hadn’t dropped. Niall hailed a cab. The driver wound down the window,
“Where to mate?”
“Bermondsey”
I kissed him, said goodbye to Barbara and got into the cab clutching stick and bag in one hand and the £20 note Niall had given me for the fare in the other. I didn’t see him for the rest of the weekend, he was doing the galleries with his mum and sorting out business. I guessed they hadn’t invited me because I couldn’t walk round galleries. Barbara stayed in Niall’s big bed and he slept on the sofa in the same room, this I found strange. When I told Ian about the arrangement in my next therapy session I popped my head up from the couch, I wanted to see his reaction, did he think it strange too? I left the session still wondering.

The months raced by. Christmas in Pimlico came and went, and soon Niall and I were celebrating our year anniversary. Southwark council finally took my pleas for a flat swap seriously, the noise pollution was affecting everything and I was struggling with the stairs so I was transferred to another one bedroom flat but on a new estate, opposite The Den (Millwall football club) – and it had a garden. Niall made me his company secretary and I became his property manager, I could work from home and I opened a private counselling practice at the flat. Making it into a bedside and a therapy room /office. I was so in love and life was suddenly comfortable and accessible, even my walking was slowly improving.

One night, after watching a porn video together, Niall got down on one knee, his dressing gown open. I laughed, unprepared for his obvious question.
“Will you marry me?”

Would I?  Could this be third time lucky?

No. 91 A Twin Room in the Honeymoon Hotel

I’d chosen a romantic hotel in the South of Goa for Mr and Mrs Bentley-Livingstone. The hotel was quite magnificent for a cheap package, set in front of a long/wide stretch of sandy beach. On arrival we were pleased to be able to swap the double for a twin room, the hotel reception insisted on Gill and I keeping the free bottle of bubbly that had been put in the original room to celebrate the wedding that never happened. I got the feeling all the staff knew of my non-wedding, they were very kind during our two week stay. We were only disappointed to be located miles away from the cool Goa places my Pelekas friends had spoken about, but we soon found that taxis were cheap and/or we were able to hitch to Baga beach where there were parties and huts with DJ and disco light (a lone Indian turning on and off the centre piece lone red bulb from a switch by the door).
Normally I would have loved the hippy vibe of this part of Goa, but the day after Archer had left, MS symptoms had flared up and my walking was shite. Sand was uncomfortable, walking on the beach felt like dragging wellies out of Glastonbury mud, tired after a festival of rain, with wet sand in the wellies – under the feet, over the feet and between the toes. Drinking was the only thing that relieved the discomfort and I was happy to be in a hot country, the best place for recovery.
I spent most days round the pool, eeking every bit of vitamin d out of the sun. Gill needed more stimulation so her and another singleton we’d met in the hotel paired up and explored the surrounding areas.
Every evening a band played in the dining area outside by the pool. Sometimes Gill stayed out late with her new friend which conveniently left me with nothing to do but eye up the lead guitarist of the band. It was hard deciding whether to go for it sooner rather than later, but the build-up left me with something to fantasize about while I dozed by the pool. I never saw my prey/his prey in the day until he appeared from nowhere on our last afternoon and crouched down by my sun bed. We smiled at each other and I gave him a cigarette. I was trying to cut down by smoking Silk Cult, the guitarist tore off the filter before accepting my lighter which was one from my Greek collection, the classic naked Greek God with huge penis. He laughed, I’d been writing my college therapy journal and I showed him my pen, also from my Greek collection but not so Greek, the pen was the classic man at beach with trunks on, turn it upside down, man’s trunks come down (not so sexist cause all the hetro men had the women whose bikini top and bottoms came down). My Indian guitarist laughed again, he needed no more encouragement.
When the band finished playing that night I hung about in the foyer, leaning on an ornate pillar, smoking. The guitarist appeared guitar less. I kind of realised he could get in trouble for what we were about to do, we needed to be discreet. We walked out of the hotel separately, I caught him up a few meters along, then we turned down a side lane together. We did it standing up against a building of some sort, nearly erotic, but not quite, it seemed such a Goa package hotel guitarist moment and reminded me of Essex Music Men time (No. 25-29), but I didn’t want to go back in time.
Gill and I travelled home the following day, my legs a little more steady and feet less fizzy after my liaison with guitar man, shagging I believed to work better than MS drugs on offer.
“I want to settle down, I’m so bored” I said to Gill as we sat on the plane, pouring out our third gin and tonic. Gill had had her children and two marriages really young, she was a decade older than me, I considered her a proper person, settled, she had her own flat, a proper job and sons not much younger than me. I was beginning to envy everyone who had a children.
“You will.” She said.
“Life’s pretty shit though, generally I mean.” I could talk like this with Gill, she was like a surrogate aunt and a bloody good Samaritan, even better than me.
“You’ve had it tough, you’ve had a huge disappointment, MS is shite, you’re doing really well.” She stopped to suck on the tiny piece of lemon from the plastic glass. “Things will get better. I always think if you get one good day out of two, or about 100 good a year, life’s worth living.”
Gill hugged me as our taxi from Gatwick dropped her off at New Cross, she waved me off as the driver turned into the Old Kent Road.
I began counting the days that were good, if I had two bad days in a row I would expect two good the next, and so on. A few months later our manager told us that the Marie Stopes Annex was closing down and she would be retiring. I was transferred to work in the Marie Stopes House, just down the road. Working with people who could afford private health care was completely different, clients didn’t respect clinic staff in the same way as the women coming for abortions and I found myself resenting them. Sensing my displeasure in the front line, my new manager allowed me to do the fertility and vasectomy counselling, this began with a week of studying fertility counselling and sitting in on a few vasectomies. Tim Black, the then big boss of the Marie Stopes organisations, carried out these ‘little op’s’. The men didn’t seem to mind me witnessing their balls being mucked about with by this grand doctor, but I can still recall the smell of burning skin.
A few months into the new job my Annexe friend Mary left the House and there was now no one I felt I could relate to. I counted the bad days, and I counted the bad days.
It’d been nearly a year since I’d met Archer, I’d had my 30th birthday and the summer was ending. My legs weren’t great again and I’d given up going to hospital appointments and had started seeing a homeopath, I’d take little white pills and hope for the best. With no men to talk about (or avoid talking about) my sessions with Ian became mostly about my past and family. Despite having my private landline, I hadn’t spoken with my parents in a while. I invested in an answering machine, hoping that might make me more accessible to others but it was depressing to come home from work or college with no flashing light so I turned it off. One Saturday I was counting the bad days and making a graph of their ascent when Gill rang.
“Fancy a party tonight?”

No. 90 (part 2) The Posh Punk and the Spaghetti Bowls

“I’ve got a flat, I’ve got a fucking flat!”
“You’re beautiful Liz. Will you marry me, yah?”
“Yes, will you help me move in?”
Within two weeks Archer had moved into my one bedroom council flat, on the second floor of Dhonau House, a block on the Longfield Estate in Bermondsey.
I’d known Archer two weeks and one day when the vicar visited us and we booked the wedding in St Anne’s church for a Saturday in November, seven weeks away. We also booked a West African restaurant in New Cross for the reception, for our close family with food that Mr and Mrs Bentley and Lord Meredith and Lady Petronella Livingstone would hate.
Those seven weeks went by quickly, we were so loved up, I was so happy, he was so happy, I felt loved, adored and not so jealous of my sister who was now married and had recently given birth to my beautiful niece.
I took Archer to Essex to meet my parents before the wedding.
“Are you sure about getting married?” My father asked, mimicking what the vicar had said in our meeting.
“Yes.” I said, un-wrapping spaghetti bowls my Aunt had given my dad to give to us for an engagement present. That was family acknowledgment enough for me, even though I didn’t eat spaghetti.
That same week we visited Archer’s mother and step father in their  mansion in Hampshire. We stayed alone together in the summer-house at the bottom of the mansion’s 2/3 acre lush garden.  We drank bottles of champagne and crashed the night there where we dropped. At breakfast we ascended into the main house and his mother, Lady Petronella, seemed very happy with me as his chosen bride and she gave Archer a cheque as we left after a help yourself stand up breakfast.
Mary took me to Selfridges and I bought a dress, not a proper wedding dress, but it was reduced in price, cream coloured, longer than a mini, and it would double up as a fun dress to wear on honeymoon in Goa.
The week before the wedding I was sorting out a seating plan for our small reception when there was a knock on my flat door. Nothing unusual, next door were drug dealers and sometimes people got the wrong door in the dark.
“Where is he?”
“Archer?”
“He owes me money.”
“He’s working late”
“Bullshitting little twat. He’ll be in the pub, he’s usually there but he’s changed pubs cause he owes half the pub. And we don’t know what pub. Bet he ain’t paying you rent neither.”
Then it dawned on me, the engagement ring he said he’d bought and was at the jewellers probably didn’t exist, all the money he said he had probably didn’t exist and if Archer was prepared to lie about everything else, I guessed that meant he probably didn’t love me. I’d been carried away in a nugget of love I was so desperate for. This man standing before me was like my superego, ticking me off and my relationship was all bullshit. I felt shamefully stupid, ridiculously embarrassed.
When Archer returned late that night he crept into bed, me pretending to be asleep. We slept back to back. When the alarm went I got up and went into work as usual, leaving him sleeping.
“Go home Liz,” the Annexe manager said when she caught me in tears in the office. “You need to sort it out – now.”
Archer was still in bed when I got back to the flat, he knew it was over.
“You have to go.” And that’s all that was said.
He got up slowly and began packing 3 bin liners and a rucksack, each taking about an hour, I watched him while he put one item in, then sat on the bed with his head in his hands, and so on, I couldn’t bear it any longer and went into the kitchen and chain smoked, popping my head round the door every so often. I had mixed feelings and felt bad for him, he’d been with me when I got my new flat, he’d helped me clean layers and layers of grease off the kitchen walls, he’d tried to clean the chimney (even though the neighbour called the fire brigade as we filled the block with smoke) and he’d helped carry the double mattress from the second-hand shop on the Old Kent Road through the estate and up the stairs of the block, into my little 1940’s flat. He’d even stayed in to let in BT to put the phone in, at the time me thinking it was easier for him to have the day off work than me.

“The wedding’s off,” I told my mother on the phone “will you tell everyone please?” Despite the new realisation of my mother’s emotional neglect, right now I was able to forgive her, I needed her practical help, it wasn’t her fault, she’d been evacuated age 8, her father in both wars, her older brother died of lung cancer post WW2, her sister put in a mental hospital after ineffectual ECT and that was before starting on her relationship with my father. She’d had it tough and at this point in my life I was able to value my family’s non-judgmental and non- intrusive approach to my boyfriends and my life. “And Gill’s coming with me on the honeymoon.” Gill was a friend I’d met at the Samaritans and she’d agreed to split the cost of the trip I’d already paid for.
“You have a lovely time” Mum said.

That night was the first I’d been alone in my new flat, this was also the first time I’d had a proper place I could call home since leaving Essex.  I cried myself to sleep on the soft double mattress, it was comforting to know I couldn’t disturb anyone.  My relationship with Archer was nothing in comparison to the ten years on and off with Fraser. I knew I would get over him quicker, we weren’t so entrenched, but the pain was as intense and the shame I felt continued until Gill and I got on the plane to Goa.  My more empathic friends were kind and somewhat relieved of the outcome, they’d been concerned how quickly and how alcoholic things were heading with my new fiancé.  My less empathic friends took the piss which added to my shame, but it was ridiculous, and I didn’t blame them either, why would they understand my pain, my loneliness and the loss of a loving relationship I thought I  could, might have?
The person who knew nothing was Ian.  Maybe it was just as well there was never an engagement ring, like my cut eye from Fraser, I’d got away with it. I was no worse than Archer, I was keeping so much from my therapist, but unlike Archer I had no escape, I was locked into a relationship with Ian for at least three years while I was training.  The shit would come out soon enough.

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