“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?”
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?