I once joked, standing by the kettle, that I could write a book about relationships. It was one of those things I say, threaded to a thought, that comes with all the thinking, weight and suddenness as an unexpected sneeze. The girl I was speaking to burst out laughing at this, at hearing me say something so obviously stupid, so un-self-aware, spraying tea on me as she burst out laughing in the kitchen. I stood there looking at the girl, feeling sad, that she thought me such an idiot, that girl my girlfriend then, partner, lover - whatever you want to call her, a woman not a girl really, but a girl to me. I guess that laugh was honest, and telling, because not long after, we stood in the same place, my back to the worktop, my back always to something then, her beside the sink, no laughter, just a punch in my guts, her crying.
I think we all have stories like this, that moment when love breaks down. I imagine some would rather not dwell on such things, bullshit mindfulness no answer, best keep them in the past, locked away in boxes or buried deep. I used to think I was good at this kind of thing, of compartmentalising as they call it. But it turns out I never was. You get the corpse of some bad feeling, emotional crap you can’t deal with, drag it a grave and bury it as deep as it can go, bury it with distraction, hope it rots away and is forgot.
I used to have a next-door neighbour who lost most of his skin in fire, well as much skin as a man could lose and still survive. He looked like a Yorkshire Phantom of the Opera, and if you flick through one of Charles Bronson’s books in WH Smiths, the violent one, not the one from the Great Escape, but the one who never will, you’ll see a picture of that neighbour playing pool with Bronson, see what a state he was in. When you see someone like that, his face just about burnt off, you wonder how someone can take so much pain and survive. He’s model, a lesson, in pain. You wonder how you could live through that inferno, from that first lick to the day when the pain turns to ash. But it does, flayed by flame one day, dead scar another, a man again of sorts.
One day you sit at the table and laugh with people like family, a clique of intimate knowledge, and the next your name is a curse never spoken. Who wants to be a curse? Who wants to hold a curse in their heart?
Ella once said she didn’t understand why there was so much pussyfooting around ex-girlfriends and boyfriends with couples, that she thought that once you’re over your over. But she’s yet to fall in love, or have her heartbroken, to box up her share of a life that once belonged to them both. She is yet to understand the world, two senses missing still to its code, love and hurt.
We pussyfoot around, the ones who’ve had their hearts dashed already because we know you’re never free, you can’t run from hurt, not really, not if you’re really in love or had something worth being bitter about. I guess it’s like that old Joe Simpson question, is he lucky or unlucky, to be hurt in love a sign that at least you once felt it.
Relationships are tough, hard to fathom, like a crappy script. Sometimes when we are so angry it’s hard to grasp what is really there, what’s driving those words, those emotions, me calling my ex-wife a ‘fucking bitch’ as I stamp up the stairs to get my stuff and leave her house, upset at some daft thing she said, that I’m ‘not as articulate as Frankie Boyle’. We got divorced ten years ago, and there we are arguing, me upset, her angry, her husband Mark staying out of it. When I come down and put my hand on the door I want to make my grand exit, I feel like I’m going to cry, but instead, I reach down into the hole where that love and life we once had is buried in a shallow grave. “I don’t fucking know why but what you think about me means more than what anybody else thinks,” I tell her. “She does say nice things about you,” says Mark, and I know she does, but never to me. But why not, why should she, there is still a hurt that is yet to be forgiven, a hurt that has nothing to do with her.
Feelings don’t heal like skin.
To make peace and to make amends takes time, a dangerous and painful act, to judge when that pain has passed. How long is that? Do you want to know? If I had to give an answer it would be the answer I was once given, his stupid answer that sounded crazy at the time, of half that life you once shared. Only then could you hope to pass each other in the street and wonder what on earth you ever had. But for some, the pain works its magic before they go. For others, it’s a wound that always weeps.
And if you rush it?
Sometimes you can push too soon for reconciliation, usually to ease the guilt, the forgiveness often no more than a clear conscience. You may have made terms with the pain, but they haven’t and so as you embrace, to make up, ‘no hard feelings’ you feel their blade in your guts, stabbing hard. And you have to take it, not back away, but let them open you up, until your guts are at your feet, and never stab them back. Let her, let him, let them, plunge in the knife until their hands cramp, their bloody fingers slip, the blade breaks, that they feel the pain they want to inflict is hurting them more. Take it like that well-deserved punch, because really they’re only kisses of a different kind. People do things that often seem strange, hurtful, murderous, beyond what you imagine people could do to one another when once they had so much love. But pain, inflicted or accepted is often not so far from love as you’d imagine.
People love the idea that time heals, but really it only erodes I reckon, takes off the sharp edges of a painful memory, that fills the hole where joy once sat. Time erodes until it’s hard to grasp, this sharp bitter thing, then it’s time to let slip. Grip it to you too tight and one day that’s all you’ll ever be. To resign the most important connections in our lives, lips and tongues, sparkling eyes, held hands, laugher and ideas, supernovas of blissful emotion, to nothing just bad memories, to wrap them up with all that hurt, disappointment, regret and rejection, and cast them down a dark hole of forgetting, that’s not good. You should not bury something many spend their lives digging to find.
So back to this book I wanted to write about relationships. What was I thinking! Yes, I’ve been a fuck up. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but then how else was I to learn, no real guidance for those around me growing up. What does perfect look like? I grew up on an estate of single mums, fathers emasculated by unemployment and violent and pissed husbands. A healthy relationship is like cutting the Sunday roast in front of your perfect family, an operation learnt through trial and error, and a little blood. I’ve never cut up a Sunday roast. No, that’s all just an excuse. Relationships are simple really, all those hours of people bitching and crying in Relate probably distilled down onto an envelope, even a stamp. My advice: find someone worth more to you than gold, who you know feels the same about you (you see it in their eyes). Finding this person is not easy, but not as impossible as books and films make out. The hard part is not becoming complacent, to let that gold tarnish or corrode. That’s often the skill we lack, I lacked. Gold is soft. It wears away. It needs to be looked after and polished.
The other day I had to travel back to the UK, an early flight better than a late one, a few hours to drive when I landed. But instead, I flew late, going down the climbing wall in Dublin close to the airport. Climbing up and down, taking turns with Vanessa, I kept looking at the clock, afraid I miss another flight. Lowering off, with time for more, I just said ‘I think I need to go’, to which Vanessa replied ‘You’re already gone. These words stuck in my head on the flight, then in the car, driving to the Lakes in the dark. ‘Already gone, two words that had a lot of weight, that had some real truth from the lips of a woman gold to me. Was that not always my problem, that I was never there before, that now I was, to be gone to mean at least I was there. To polish that gold would be to simply be there, so simple an idea, yet one so many of us fail to grasp.
But back to that kitchen in the start, that bad memory of love breaking down. We talk now, me and that girl at the sink, the one who made me laugh so much, gave me more joy in so short a time together than she’ll ever know. She has never been a curse in my house, my heart, nor on the lips of anyone who ever met her. Her name always a celebration. Maybe she knows this now, the words we sent not like at the start, no longer laden with hidden meaning or hurt, anchored in old pain that clings and pulls chains tight enough to snap. Sooner or later you have to respect the past, your choices, your complicity, be true to what seemed right. For a long time, I suspect she thought she meant nothing at all, that she just filled space between one love and another. She had little to spare you see, but it was so her to give me some anyway. But now the tears have dried, I hope she knows she was one of the most important people I ever met, she showed me what it was to feel loved, to be worthy of someone like that.
And now? Now we both have others we can share our tea and jokes with, in other kitchens far away, people we may never have allowed to love us as we do, if not for that short painful life together. Life’s too short to let good people go just like that, to not acknowledge what they did, to be brave enough to say, even if it’s only in substandard Grey’s Anatomy shit like this. That pain, life burning down, was just the transformation of both of us.
Some people are so bright and dazzling you can’t help reach out to touch, to maybe even hold for a time, but not always forever. If someone was worth the risk of being burnt, then they are worth forgiving of the pain that touch brought, the scars as well. When I said I could write about relationships back then, I think she misunderstood, in my mind, I was thinking like a junkie writing about addiction, rather than a nun. I knew little of what was right, how to have a perfect marriage, but quite a lot about what was wrong. Somehow she taught me enough to work out the good stuff, she set me straight. And so in that book I’ll never write, there would be a short chapter like this, about forgiveness and healing, of allowing yourself to escape the hurt, like Charles Bronson, the star not the prisoner.
I will always love her, that girl, that’s why I think we need to come to terms. I will always be grateful because she gave me something anyone who knew me, knew I was lacking, some small love for myself, that broke the link in that chain, to the past, to that relationship, the most important one of all, with myself.