Eleven years ago I tried to date my ex-boyfriend’s best friend. They were flatmates at the time. I thought this was a good idea. I thought it would be great to revisit the home where I’d slept with my ex-boyfriend for roughly three years and instead of going into HIS bedroom at night, wave at him and disappear into his FRIEND’s bedroom.
I can hear what you’re thinking. Class act Steph, you’re thinking to yourself. How considerate. And so comfortable.
You’ll be glad to know I was prevented from this monstrosity of a choice by the best friend himself. Who held me by the waist in front of my house, turned his head up to the dark spring sky and shouted ‘Sweet Jesus, assist ME!’ before telling me he couldn’t, he couldn’t – he wanted to, was desperate to but it would kill his mate, before walking away and cursing the stars that wheeled o’er his head the night he was born.
He was Irish.
He was slightly intense.
Not that I’d notice.
(My brother once shared the most loving interpretation of my character when I moaned to him that I was a Very Intense Person. He thought, and agreed that I was, but ‘not in a knife-wielding way.’)
The strange twist in the sordid tale of my suspect motives towards my ex-boyfriend's best friend (aka XBFBF) is that I had a great deal more in common with him than my boyfriend. He was a loud, dancing, garrulous, company-loving, Shakespeare-quoting, mystically-inclined musician and composer. I brought MY best friend on a third date with the XBFBF as an air bag and she, meeting him for the first time, managed to whisper ‘He’s perfect for you!’ as he slipped to the loo.
When she slipped to the loo, after three garrulous, riotous, literature-loving hours, he and I shared two minutes of unbroken eye contact during which time he said ‘Those fellas across the pub were watching you all the way back from the bar’ and ‘It’s the top, it’s the top and your breasts, my god’ following it up with ‘I’ve been imagining you naked and having you on the table since about 9:30.’
I told you he was Irish.
And I punched the virtual sky with my virtual fist thinking ‘Take that! Ex-boyfriennnnd!’
Satisfyingly for you, the audience, I got everything I deserved a scant eighteen months later when that ex-boyfriend had a relationship with a very dear friend of mine. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened – finally shoe-horning me out of my obsession with the ex - but at the time it just felt like the ancient Greeks were in charge of my life.
However, in this pub in NW8 on a warm April night, staring into the intensely blue lakes that passed for eyes in the face of the libidinous Irishman, that comeuppance was a long way off, and I had plans for the rest of the evening. Plans for - let’s call him Seamus. He’ll never read this because he lives in a hut near a hill surrounded by bog somewhere in the Republic, writing concertos and refusing to get on line so I could actually call him by his real name, which is Declan O’Herlihy, but I won’t do that.
Naaaah! That’s not his real name.
Actually, it is. That’s his real name, Declan O’Herlihy, and I have his address, if you want it.
No. I don’t. It’s not true. I wouldn’t do that. That’s not his real name but I will tell you his initials are Declan O’Herlihy.
So Seamus and I were in aura-melding mode when it was time to leave the pub, there was only one wave length between us and it was throbbing. My friend, gracious and excited for me, had left a decorous thirty minutes earlier and Seamus offered to walk me home. It was misting slightly and the blossom arching over the white-washed walls of the Regency homes in this quietly wealthy neighbourhood made me feel drunk.
Seamus should have been actually drunk because he’d had four pints of Guinness and two huge glasses of wine but his demeanour now at 11 15 betrayed no difference from at the beginning of the night. I was warm with two helpings of cider but I needed my faculties given my mission for the evening, a mission we can call SS – or Seduce Seamus (DD – Do Declan).
We strolled through the village heading up towards the road that would lead back to my place. If I turned left, we’d go straight home and I’d have less time to thread myself into the fabric of Seamus’s heart – or at least his loins. If I turned right, we’d be lost and it would take us two hours to get back.
I turned right.
He wasn’t tall, but my stature is barely legal for most amusement park rides, so he had a good five inches on me. His hair was rock-and-roll long, to his collar, even though he was a classical musician (that contrast thrilled me – so cultivated and so rough). He told me stories about dodging bullets on his estate during the Troubles, about growing up with twelve siblings, the son of a mother with nine and a father with ten. He is related to most of the country.
‘One night I was walking a girl home and I was preparing to strike, about to make my move, smooth as you like and we find out, Holy Mary mother of God, thank you THANK YOU, that she’s my cousin. My first cousin.’ He has 131 first cousins.
I think I have seven.
I thanked him for coming out, for spending time with me – as though admitting I had ulterior motives and he was doing me a favour. I felt a small thrill to think of what my ex-boyfriend must think about us being together. Seamus shook his head.
‘I didn’t tell Phil. He didn’t need to know.’
I felt a combination of disappointment – what? He wasn’t at home consumed with jealousy at the thought that another man was admiring my…top? – and coy pleasure. I was important enough to protect.
The conversation in the pub had see-sawed between art and blurted whispers of desire. Now we were alone, the night was like a warm, dark room and almost too intimate. Our voices became polite. He looked at his feet as he spoke.
‘I felt something. The moment I met you. There was a spark. You must have felt that too. You don’t feel that by yourself.’
I thought back and remembered the moment. We’d shaken hands, discovered a mutual love of Seinfeld, Rilke and early 70s rock, and were now seated at either ends of the very long, ugly, yellow sofa my then-boyfriend kept across from the television in his flat. Seamus was looking down at his knees, studying them as though they bore an invisible map for a very important journey. I listened to my boyfriend preparing tea in the kitchen below as I glanced at Seamus and I felt a great surge of energy charge between us. I couldn’t tell if this was because I was extremely thirsty and looking forward to the tea or caught up in the thrill of finding out my boyfriend knew someone I could talk to (classical musicians are not all blessed with the gift of social ease). But I was in love with Phil and the energy meant no more than that.
I was dizzy now at the thought he’d interpreted that feeling. That it meant something to him.
I hadn’t expected that.
Because Seamus was a means to an end – a way to elicit howls of regret from Phil and make him think he SHOULD have had children with me! As I had demanded. And begged and cajoled. But that he’d had the good sense to see was a ridiculous idea if, for no other reason than because someone who demands children from a guy who doesn’t want them would make a numero uno crap mother.
In the face of Seamus and his quiet declaration I felt wrong-footed and very slightly out of my depth.
I liked the feeling.
He asked me my favourite tune in the world. I asked him his ideal dinner party. He taught me to say ‘Are you stuffin’ yer fis again?’ and we compared our favourite plays.
‘Othello?’ he said ‘No, no, Othello’s too sad, I can barely stand it. I can barely hear it, that duplicity, that manipulation and he puts the pillow over her face. There’s no bearing it. Twelfth Night. Malvolio and the garters. I love that.’
He defined love.
‘It’s running down the dining room table, flat out, leaping into the air and into your father’s arms. That’s love. It’s supposed to feel like that.’
I said that put a lot of pressure on his dad. What if the phone rang or he bent down to tie up his shoe? Splaaaaaat. And then a lifetime of bitterness for the son who would protest that ‘Dad wasn’t there for me. And I have the scars where I ground my face into the linoleum to prove it.’
‘If they love you, they catch you.’
I was charmed that he’d even thought about love long enough to decide what it should feel like. I was charmed by his accent, by his hair, by the breadth of his shoulders. The walk home was changing everything I’d felt about Seamus in my campaign to make use of him. This wasn’t about some insane competition for Phillip’s attention. This was about Seamus.
My friend’s observation felt right.
He was beginning to seem perfect.
We reached my street, lit with yellow lamps and fragrant with wisteria. I was willing the pavement to stretch under our feet, our destination to recede. I was enjoying his company enormously and had a dreadful conviction I never would again. I wanted to claw back time and re-date him. Re-dating seemed like a good idea. I was inventing a sub-genre of romantic intercourse. Can’t we all think of someone we want to re-date? I wanted to start re-dating the date I was on.
We stood at my neighbour’s low stone wall. We looked at each other and finished quoting as much as we could of ‘Spring and Fall’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He knew the middle lines that I couldn’t remember but I raced him to the finish, calling out -
‘It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.’
His eyes moved all over my face, from my hair to my mouth. He said I had a lovely voice. And lips. And he kissed me.
A room opened up over my head. It was huge and dark and lit at the same time. It lasted a second. He pulled swiftly away, looking shocked.
‘I went somewhere then,’ he said. He gazed at me. ‘So did you.’
I frowned and my pulse raced. It wasn’t just that I had gone somewhere – it was the fact he knew I had. I was spellbound. He put his hands on my arms, then up along my back, and onto my shoulders, moving, restless.
‘Oh Jesus. I’m like a kid in a candy shop. I don’t know what to have first.’
I didn’t care. Anywhere was good. He couldn’t settle and I was about to make a suggestion when alarmingly and suddenly, as though he’d been tasered, he lurched back. His hands dropped to his sides. He looked down.
‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I can’t. I want to, I want to, I’m desperate to, oh god, how will I get home? I can hardly walk, I’ll be knocking out fence posts in the railings if I turn sideways, but I can’t. It would kill him, it would kill Phillip. I can’t.’
A panic spread through me. Phillip? Phillip? What did he have to do with it? I reached for his hand. He squeezed my fingers and let go, then put his palms on my waist. He looked up to where I’d gone when we kissed – that dark room over my head.
‘Sweet Jesus, assist ME!’ he laughed and he dropped his hands again.
‘I can’t. I can’t. It would kill him. I can’t.’
He muttered a curse about stars as I watched him walk all the way down the end of the street until he was a small figure under the lamplight. He turned right at the corner. Then he was gone.
I never saw him again.
I am attending a funeral today. I have been in mourning for three weeks, having been told, shockingly and unexpectedly, that Phillip, with whom I’d resurrected a sweet and affectionate friendship, has died, insanely, of heart failure. He was very fit. He was well-loved and happier than I’d known him to be. I’ve been in a daze of memories and heartache, resisting the urge to imagine the rest of my life without his music and his company.
Desperate for companionship in this grief, I wrote to the one person I knew who would be as debilitated as I.
Seamus called back.
I cried and he called me ‘sweetheart.’ He said he was stunned 'like he'd lost a limb.' We compared notes about Phil and for the next three hours discussed our love for and friendship with him, and eventually spoke of ourselves. Seamus is single and has a daughter. She lives in Spain. He’d not forgotten me.
He remembered what I wore that night in front of my house.
I will see him today.
In spite of the 11 years, I know I'll recognise him. We'll be kind and supportive to each other. We’ll talk with his family about Phillip and how little he liked formality and how much he’ll want us to lighten up. At least one of us will cry. I don’t know what else will happen.
But I can confess to you what I want to find out, someday and it doesn't really matter when. I want to find out if a dark, warm room that opens in the sky above your head can open again (I have no idea if it will or if I'll be given the chance to find out) – after a good man, for good reasons, locked it shut forever a dozen years ago.