5. I thought I could keep it separate, he said of our love. But I can’t. You are always here. I’m singing happy birthday to a grandchild, and there you are. I’m trying to talk to my wife about plants for the garden, a new kitchen, chickens, and there you are.
Perhaps you should tell her. Perhaps you shouldn’t keep on struggling to keep it separate.
I will lose everything. I will lose you. It’s impossible. We are in such a fucking pickle, it’s impossible.
It occurs to me that keeping things in compartments was something I used to be very good at. A childhood during which so much had to be hidden from public view taught me how.
We live in a culture in which we are expected to keep at least binary compartments of public and private, in the form of work and home. The personal is political, the feminists said, but that wasn’t hammer enough to smash patriarchal disdain for life outside the requirements of capitalism.
His struggle to keep our love in a separate compartment provoked anxiety. The dissonance of maintaining his view of himself as a good man who always told the truth and treated people equally, while simultaneously concealing the unforeseen changes that continued to occur in him because he was illicitly in love, caused him at times to panic so wildly he had to flee the house with the dog in case his wife noticed, and walk until he could bring his breathing under control and his heart back to normal rhythms.
Talk to me, he wrote on these occasions. Tell me you love me still. Let me suckle at your breast.
I can’t do this anymore, I told him one day. I’m no good at it. I can’t be a mistress, I hate it, not you my darling, but the circumstances, I hate them.
I can’t bear the secrets. I’ve spent half my life learning to live without secrets and now here I am going backwards, hiding what is going on in my life from my family, my friends. It’s destroying me, love, it’s destroying my life, I don’t even know who I am anymore. I can’t, please understand. I can’t.
I sat in the car on the edge of the cliff, writing these things on my laptop. I was crying so hard I couldn’t properly see the ocean through the windscreen.
Scattered in the dank soil of misery were seeds of relief. No more compartments. I could, after a while, be open again with the people who mattered.
He wrote: After reading your emails I think I do finally fully understand. I want to see you, in the flesh, in private. And we must talk, in private. Can you fly to………? And how about 19/20 June as a starting point for working out dates? Love. Love.
And I knew he hadn’t taken in a word I’d written.
It would take a long time to list the secrets I had to keep, and I don’t know how to order them. As they occur to me, I think, and because I am considering societal order as well as the order of my personal grief, what occurs to me now is the secret of my origins.
As a child I was not allowed to reveal to anyone that my grandfather was a coal miner and my grandmother had been in service. They raised me with love for the first seven years of my life, but I could make no reference to them, except to say they lived in another country. Such was my mother’s shame.
She made, my mother, an upwardly mobile marriage. We left behind our humble beginnings and travelled to the other side of the world where we had status, money, and a big white house with a blue front door, an orchard with cherry and apple trees, and a garden outside my bedroom window filled with roses.
I remember the sound of my stepfather’s key in that blue front door. I remember the sound of his heavy footsteps as he strode down the hall, home from his surgery, or the hospital where he operated.
I hid in my bedroom. Hands over ears. Eyes squeezed shut. Come and get me I whispered to the grandmother and grandfather of whom I was not allowed to speak.
There was the compartment where my mother and stepfather lived. There was the compartment where my grandparents lived. There was the school compartment, and the compartment that was home. I thought of them as different coloured boxes. That made it easier to remember who and what belonged where.
After a while sorting became as normal as breathing. I didn’t have to think about the colours anymore.
There are three white baskets on the top of my wardrobe that I can see from my bed where I’m propped on pillows, laptop balanced on my knees. They contain things I don’t immediately need. They are reminding me of my childhood boxes but unlike them they have no lids, and I can easily peer into them and take stock of their contents.
After many years I learned to open my coloured boxes. I remember to this day the liberation when in my thirties I spoke for the first time of my beginnings. From then on I spoke of everything, and my spirit soared and my mind expanded and I knew freedom.
I can’t go back, I’m trying to tell him. I love you, but I can’t go back.
I don’t think he had any sense of the destruction in store for me. He only saw the potential of his own.
I love you and I want to see you. And we must talk. Can you fly to…..? Love. Love.
I should have ended it then. But I could not tell him, no.