I was walking about in town today, doing some last minute Christmas shopping. I had dropped my little one off at nursery, sat through the 10 minute Santa visit and had a cup of coffee, refused a mince pie. I had driven through the country lanes, with the radio up loud-ish and there were some great songs on (to my indie taste) which helped me relax. I had found a parking space with relative ease, and had even double checked that I had my wallet with me so that I didn’t repeat last week’s humiliation of pleading with the voice in the box at the exit-gate that I really had no way of paying for my 12 minutes of parking. I had actually finished my chores – I had been to the library and exchanged some books for my daughter, I had been to Paxton & Whitfield and bought the cheese for Christmas day, thus avoiding the inevitable hour-long queues in the shop from the 20th onwards, bought the remaining Christmas cards to send out overseas and finally, completed the small bits of present-shopping that was left over. I was feeling good. Useful. I was out in town on my own, unencumbered by a toddler who wants to fiddle with everything!
And then, the fates decide that today, of all god-damn-days, is when I will walk past him again.
In the split second that I register who is coming towards me, I get a mental mirror flash of exactly what I look like today. Before, I hadn’t cared in the slightest that I had no make-up on. That I was in a fairly standard mum-sy, no-effort, doesn’t-matter-if-it-gets-jam on it outfit. I cared, but not enough to worry about it this morning, that I hadn’t washed my hair for 2 weeks (it’s very thin so doesn’t need constant washing, but 1 week is the norm). I hadn’t worried that I was in the process of getting over 3 weeks of colds and eventual tonsillitis and was still fairly croaky. This image of me slammed into my conscious mind and then added that I was laden with shopping bags – including one that obviously contained some ‘fragrant’ cheese – and was ever so slightly sweaty with dodging slow crowds of winter tourists and other shoppers, and going in and out of overheated shops. So I panicked and kept walking past, eyes down. Then I had to hurry into the nearest coffee shop, before I was too overwhelmed to function.
Now it’s a fairly common occurrence to bump into old friends at awkward moments or when you least expect it. I don’t deny that, so this meeting (or almost meeting) is nothing extraordinary in itself, but it was who it was that has got me into such a tizzy. It was him.
I’m sure you’re thinking ex-boyfriend. Nope, you’d be wrong. This person was someone that I was in a youth
drama group with from 1995-1999. I became his friend, nothing more. I was one of the youngest in the group as I joined when I was just 14. He was 4 years (and 4 days) older than me. He missed the first show I did with them and re-joined for the next one and sort of ‘took me under his wing’, if you like. He treated me like a kid sister, and I was so grateful for the attention. I had always felt like an outsider in that group, except for when I was with him. He looked after me on audition days. He bought me my first beer in a pub, though we were promptly kicked out as I was obviously still underage -16- at the time (I told him that would happen, but we laughed about it anyway). He saw me through excruciating Christmas parties with karaoke duets from Grease and cared for me when I got my first ever migraine during a rehearsal.
We were so close, in fact, that others in the group started to wonder if there actually was something going on. We always sat together whispering in the pub. But no, there never was because, to him, I was just a surrogate little sister. I, however, worshipped the ground he walked on. I was utterly, utterly obsessed with him. I knew exactly when I would see him next, and anxiously counted down the hours. I thought about him continually during school. I thought about what I would talk about with him. I imagined our conversations. I went out of my way to see him after school by dropping into the shop where he worked. If he mentioned something I didn’t know about, like a song or a film, I would look it up when I got home. I knew it was an obsessive crush. I knew it was doomed and unrequited, but in some ways that was absolutely fine, because I was terrified of the thought of anything other than the brother/sister relationship we had. I was far too young for him anyway.
I’m sure I embarrassed myself on countless occasions where my devotion to him was clearly written on my face. In lower sixth form, his name was banned from the common-room by my friends because they were sick to death of hearing about him. (Sorry/Not sorry.) But even if he did twig what my feelings were for him, he never acknowledged it and I am grateful to him if that was the case. Inevitably of course, he got a girlfriend and ‘dumped’ me. I was incandescent with internal rage against her. She was obviously NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR HIM in my eyes. As you can imagine, I hated her as passionately as I loved him. He still was my friend within the group though, until he left for Drama School. The hanging-out ‘outside’ of group time stopped though and he sat with her at the pub now, but still he was the only one I actually listened to when he saw me smoking with school friends – he gave me a massive lecture and threatened to tell my parents. I believed him and stopped for a while.
During spring 1999 I left the theatre group to concentrate on my A-levels. He was now at a Theatre School and only visited sporadically. I believe that the end of my friendship with him, combined with the pressure of A-levels and my imminent departure for Uni were key factors in my relapse with my eating disorder that year. In fact, outside of school he was the only person who seemed to notice my sudden drop of 20lbs. He had guessed that I had ‘food issues’ but had not seen me at my worst and took me aside to question whether I was ok, but I just brushed him off with platitudes. I was secretly thrilled that he had noticed and also slightly disappointed that he had not grilled me about it more. But as with many differently-weighted teenage friendships, ours didn’t survive post school.
I went to Uni and became a completely different person. He’s now a successful television and stage actor. He actually married her, which meant I had to forgive him for ‘dumping’ me. And 15 years later I am mightily confused about what he still means to me. And if I had stopped him to chat, what on earth would I have said? Any small talk would have to have been the inconsequential lies we deliver to protect the social masks we wear and therefore be ultimately futile. And I could hardly tell the truth outright either:
Him: so how have you been?
Me: well, I got married, but had to give up work because I was going to kill myself. I got better!
Him: oh dear, that’s not good… so what do you do now?
Me: umm, I’m still not well enough to do a 9-5 type job, but I had a child and I have a couple of part-time self employed endeavours that keep me busy…
Yeah, that would be a great catch-up conversation.
And so I have come to believe that I probably did the right thing by walking by and assuming he didn’t see me. I have convinced myself that the past me – the me that he knew – doesn’t exist anymore, so what point could there be? And he’s one of the ‘beautiful people’ now anyway. An Aragorn to my Eowyn. I tell myself this because, in all honesty, if I had have said hello, and he hadn’t recognised me, or even remembered me, I may have broken a bit inside again. His fleeting presence in my life pulls at me like a thread on an unravelling jumper. He knew me in a moment when I was happy with myself. I already know that I hold up the way I looked at 17/18 as the weight I want to get back to. In my rose-tinted hindsight I see my youthful enthusiasm for life, the freedom I had, my potential. I don’t tend to see the awkward, misunderstood bits. He knew my ideal me. And I would like to talk to him again one day, to find out what he remembers from those years, as scary as that would be.
But preferably when I am in full health, with clean hair and decent clothes and make up on, 50lbs lighter and don’t blush profusely when I run out of things to say.