You’ll know if it’s happened to you; mad love. When it strikes it’s the only adequate translation for the French L’Amour fou. All the more crazy, when, as in my case, it was unrequited.
I was in my early 50s, divorced, and living alone in a rented apartment in north London. To break the work-sleep-work cycle I signed up with an arts group for a course of Saturday guided visits to the capital’s galleries.
The possibility of meeting a woman of a similar age from among my fellow students added extra spice to my anticipation. And when we met up that first Saturday, now more than 10 years ago, there were indeed a number of suitable ‘candidates’ in the group. That was until I saw Lucy.
She looked as though she had stepped out of my Sociology class in the Sixties dressed in a long white cheese cloth dress which one moment would cling to her hips, the next sway from her body as she moved.
Shortish, a brunette, I don’t remember Lucy as a great beauty, but O, her eyes, her smile, her laugh. I wasn’t to know a web of lies, sleepless nights, tears – all mine – was to be my fate for the next two years.
For the first couple of Saturdays I only exchanged a few words with Lucy. But perhaps because she was by a good way the youngest in the class – 31 as I was to learn – she didn’t team up with any of the other cliques. We began to discuss the paintings in front of us as we walked round.
By the last few Saturdays we took our sandwich lunch breaks together. The final afternoon the two of us had a farewell drink in the Thames-side pub close to Tate Modern.
The setting sun bathed St Paul's; I glowed in the presence of an angel.
Lucy was an English teacher at a secondary school in the East End of London, one of the country’s most deprived boroughs. She had been privately educated.
“On the front line now,” I joked. She chided me on my flippancy and explained she felt driven to use her advantages to help youngsters to whom fate had dealt such a poor start.
The woman was perfect. She was better read than me; knew more about art, film and the theatre. Lucy was about the best-hearted person I’d met in a long time. There didn’t seem to be a ‘significant other’ and, yes, I ached to take her to bed. This last consideration was the reason the “fou” got added to the “amour.”
I had told Lucy I’d been divorced three years and it seemed so right to say I was in a long term relationship which was on its last legs. I reasoned if Lucy was to see me again, she had to be reassured I wasn’t a sex-starved letch (you be the judge on that).
I invented a girlfriend Annie (probably after Annie Hall), a neighbour; an embellishment I would regret.
We did see each other again. As soon as I could I intended dumping fictitious Annie for flesh and blood Lucy.
Art galleries at weekends, some movies during the week. I once took Lucy to a black-tie dinner at the Royal Academy (I was disappointed she didn’t make more effort to dress up) where a journalist chum slipped me a note: “Introduce me to your daughter.”
But mostly we met for supper in the West End. Reader, take my word; she was lovely in candle-light.
Sometimes we went dutch but mostly I paid. As a journalist I was earning a lot more than her and I never once got the feeling I was being used. I talked about taking her to Paris but she never took the bait. We never ate anywhere I hadn’t first checked out the location of the nearest hotel just in case the extra Sambuca did the trick.
My biggest extravagance was taxis. When I got to dropping her back to her place and then turning the cab round to take me home, I told Lucy I would be charging the fares on my work expenses. To be caught fiddling meant instant dismissal and I never risked it.
She refused to visit me; she said Annie wouldn’t understand if we bumped into her. But I always tided the place up before we met just in case she changed her mind.
Eventually I got to cross the threshold of her small council flat. I’d bring a bottle of wine and we’d order a tepid takeaway, listen to music, discuss books, and talk. We’d sit in chairs with a few feet of insurmountable carpet between us – and the hours rolled by.
I learned how tough it was being a conscientious teacher in the East End.
There was nothing else going on in my life so I’d talk about Annie. Or Sarah as I once called her with my brain muddled by Merlot.
“Did I say Sarah? I meant Annie. Sarah’s Annie’s daughter.” Why not? Expanding the cast aided the narrative. Lucy liked it, for example, when I helped Sarah leave her abusive boyfriend.
A year came and went; I reached a point where I’d all but given up hope that Lucy would see me for what I was – a sensitive, intelligent, humorous if older man; one still with a man’s needs for all that.
Given her generous spirit perhaps I could worm my way into her affections via a different route by becoming one of the sad case, lost causes she supported
Annie and I had a reconciliation; quite a passionate one if you get my drift. Then we broke up again bitterly (hence the tears). I still couldn’t make it across the carpet.
Lucy began to make excuses and our dates became fewer. I was even more watchful for evidence of a boyfriend when I did successfully invite myself over. There were no razors or multiple toothbrushes in the medicine cabinet.
One night I took a cab and had it park a few doors away from Lucy’s building. I had intended to stake her place out from behind an abandoned car or whatever. But one look at the dark, threatening streets encouraged me to tell the cabbie to take me back home.
It started to look as though Lucy wasn’t taking my calls. After about a dozen attempts one Sunday evening she picked up.
“I know it’s late but I must see you,” I blurted with a catch in my voice. “I can’t explain over the phone.”
“I had to get dressed,” Lucy complained as she opened her door. “What's the matter?”
“Annie’s a lesbian.” I recited the speech I’d composed in the cab. I told her how I’d been shaken to my core when Annie came out during another argument. How unmanned I felt losing my lover to another woman. Meaning, Lucy, take me in your arms and make it better.
Lucy made me a cup of tea and said she was pregnant.
I never found out who the father was of baby Tomas (without an ‘h’). Lucy never said and I didn’t really care. I saw her twice during her pregnancy and once after the birth and he didn’t seem to be around.
At first I felt pretty stupid. “You must get out more; all work and no play,” I’d chide her over the phone. I’d kidded myself that without me Lucy would have become a hermit, or was that a nun? Clearly she was neither.
Dylan or someone sang you should not be where you don’t belong. And I had no place in Lucy’s life; certainly not her bed.
But no damage was done. Not even to my pride; if I’d had any I wouldn’t have been such a dick in the first place. And then I would have missed not fun, no it wasn’t fun. I would have missed the chance to feel alive – alive as a first parachute jump.
The chance to will the cabbie to jump every stop light. The chance to stand at her door; the chance to draw the cork and pour the wine. The chance to talk, the chance to invent a parallel life. The chance to kiss cheeks goodnight. The chance to come away in despair and frustration. To lie awake and replay the night.
The chance to know mad love.