by Barbara Latham
hilip pierced me with loss. Not that there hadn’t been defeats before, some more serious, yet those had not penetrated acutely, or cleanly. His incision felt precise – I was not wanted – my love was of no account – there was nothing to be done to change that – I was powerless.
Before he set me reeling through rejection, Philip’s capacity for disconnection carved its mark.
Two pigeons faced me through his stairwell window, as if inside and boxed into glass. Philip said they had a nest, those birds, fattened with city feeding and puffed feathers.
We’d had a magical night and Philip enticed me from work the following afternoon. I went at his request. By the time I arrived he was in no mood to give anything, so I lay alongside his unresponsiveness – water rolling over the stoniness of him – water to colour and bring to visibility various shades of rock. I stayed in that chill and called it love; it was part of what Philip was. If I had fallen for a man who would, inevitably, be quite cold, then warm again, hadn’t I better learn to swim in varying waters?
I whispered, I soon had to leave for a meeting at work, and he turned tighter into cut off, then snoozed.
As I climbed down the stairwell, the unmoving pigeons were exactly as before.
They refused to register when I banged the window, aggressive with hurt. I hit till my hand ached.
I had insufficient cash for the journey, and went to a cash machine. The card was swallowed – metal as closed as Philip had been.
My shoes were for seduction, not the long distance, and rubbed me to blisters well before the walking was done.
Having flung myself in, giving meaning to my own days, I’d found a passion Philip no longer met. Never-the-less, back then it seemed impossible that my wanting him, as I continued to, would make no difference.
It was only later I began criticising, with words of analysis, to take back some power. Many women have tried to shape him up to partner material. He’s been unable to stand by his word with any of them. I tried convincing myself it is Philip’s trial to seek too many bodies, finding the seducible to work his magic, as a means of forgetting the inconstancy of his heart.
He continued to drift zig-zag through my life, seeing me on each return, checking he’s still lovable. Though “return” suggests he picks up old threads, while, in fact, he arrives wiped clean of memory, or so he says, as though to imply “don’t hold me to anything past, or to my words, they are dropped mid-flight, to be forgotten.” That way he can continue with promising. He turns up in a flurry of offers – tossing them out front, though they are unlikely to be fulfilled – the detail of follow up evaporates. Whereas I am meticulous in making sure of what I offer.
Philip might consider I have been relentless in following up on what was given to him. He expects forgetfulness. His engagement was light, though his desire was mobilised for a time. For me our affair had a different weight.
In his books, he makes something out of a small event in his life, yet he could make nothing much of what mattered intensely to me.
I agreed to meet him each time he visits partly because I can’t make so little of what there was between us: a passion is not common currency.
I woke from a dream that was busy, busy. Images and activity crowded in. Leaping too quickly to the day simply wiped out the night’s endeavour. It slid just out of reach, palpable, despite an impenetrable membrane.
Much of the past has that quality of being shed, yet certain incidents with Philip have not been sealed off. Not infrequently he appears in dreams. One recurs: I am walking with him, sometimes others too, when we come to a pool. At one end a social party play in water, however, I go on further, to a quiet spot, before diving in. Details vary, suddenly it’s a huge lake, or open sea, but each time I am caught unawares by strong current, and am swept rapidly into a distant whirlpool, unable to swim against such force.
Tossing in circles I recognise defeat, yet don’t drown. It’s not clear how I get rescued and I wake knowing I did not get myself back to land.
I wonder if Philip will continue coming into dreams? His flying through my sitting room might be an end.
When Philip said it was over, obviously it was no neat conclusion for me. I took to my bed, claiming shock at nearly going under a Tube – a half truth. I did not trust myself to go out, and threw away every pill in the flat. I paced rooms at 4 am and drowsed during the day, especially if anyone was around. The need to blank others was just enough to push me under to semi-sleep, otherwise I stayed awake to misery.
Once past the worst months, tears rolled mostly during sex.
The man before my husband got used to soaking pillowcases. I wanted him in the hope of getting over Philip, but the flood turned on automatically as soon as I let go.
It was only after Philip’s first return that I accepted the much kinder man would not do as a substitute. When I met a new partner, I married him once the crying stopped: I did not want children conceived in tears. There was no thorough escape from loving lost, but there was joy as young lives let me back in to something of myself, when they gave so much themselves. By now, those almost grown children keep me more or less on the outside. It can feel unbearable, yet I’m also relieved to be left more alone, pottering with a husband, who occasionally reaches out surprisingly, a man who can delight and with whom there are bursts of connection in our calm existence. With less sexual pull, it can feel odd to be with him on days we seem adrift – so familiar and yet strangers. Whatever love we have known blows softly now – floating and, no longer tied tight as if to necessity, it can look arbitrary.
If Philip felt lust easily, my amazement over what was roused in me made little impact on him. He was not me. And he wanted no responsibility, whereas I yearned for ties pulsing with blood and desire, and a connection that had history.
In part he just became an old love song stuck in a groove – a preoccupation to fill a vacancy. Certainly he can take on the energy of moving away in a fast train, gliding out of the weight of every day – where my husband is a reality check, taking me back to having aged and not being captivated by desire, as I once was.
But this version does not quite satisfy in accounting for the hold of memory. Had there been a noble ending with Philip, might I simply treasure my brief encounter and honour having slid so far into wanting? Was I caught in a force greater than my comprehension by falling into something before I knew him? Or just thoughtless – “reckless” as Philip said?
What kind of act is it to slide between the legs of a man who loves lightly?
It’s one way to guarantee finding pain!
Was it a path in, to get to otherwise carefully avoided hurt?
Feeling unwanted played its beat, too deep to catch and haul up for surface consideration, long before I met Philip.
Did he force me to know what I’d failed to register?
Despite having begun as an unwanted pregnancy, which forced mother to reluctantly enter marriage, and despite her increasing restlessness as I hit adolescence, which took mother to university before me and out of the marriage soon after, and despite the early death of a more easily loved father, it took Philip to write into my flesh, in a way I had to read, that an opened heart inevitably gets wounded.
That is one story. The other is that Philip simply set me on track to be more cautious. I shut down; closing an unobstructed opening to him became necessary. I manned the barricades, determined to get over him.
I guess I wanted children and some man who could be grateful for my love.
Thankfully I didn’t live in an era where the respectable got one chance at love, and lived on poetry after failed passion.
I read Philip’s books, though they are not the kind I usually choose.
Each shows men unable to give much and ever eager to take more. All his male characters have time on their hands, as Philip did, and use it for seduction. None find a satisfactory place to stop seeking. His men are a crude reduction of his own worst ways, not one reveals the best of him.
There is, or was, a softness in Philip that he seemed not to recognise, or give to characters, though he relied on it to tune in and capture the way people spoke. He also used it to win women with an attentiveness and sensitivity which was not integrated with the rest of him. Perhaps he was on guard not to be caught by that current. Since he was permeable, he encrusted himself with hard, enclosing shell.
This analysis grew out of that “recover from Philip” effort, as I struggled to unclamp desire from him and waited, too long, for it to shrivel down to manageable and annoying.
Philip would ring the day before he flew to London and arrive at dinner with offerings flung out like strutting ducks walking a pace in front and flying off forgotten. Such is the way he enters; I took them differently at first, then grew to want no empty promises, only his company for an evening before he stepped away, as ever uncaught by desire or his word.
I used to go along, tied up in an agenda. The first round was fury with myself for letting him matter too much. The next was determination to spot faults in his character, ready to fight him as a shifty seducer who moved to the next with little consideration, except mild curiosity, for the anguish left behind.
It took twelve years before we could meet with no protest from me lurking.
I was tired on one arranged dinner, probably too weary to fight, though I’d made some effort to look as good as I could. After years of pecking holes in him, or turning on myself for stupidity, I went in neutral to have dinner with a man I’d once known.
Old chemistry was back, alive and accessible, but gentle. It had no future, yet whatever there had been between us made sense again. After that, our too few hours together were a gift. No longer set on burial, it made me absurdly happy, until my friend punctured it with, “it’s obvious you still love him.”
It could not be as straightforward as that.
Philip, as always, was curious over my response to him. That was the writer in him and it was not to be gratified; I had no wish to be over exposed again.
My last words were gratitude I no longer hated him and that he’d kept a place somewhere in my life.
I did not say those two pigeons fixed behind glass were my image of his coldness.
I would not admit to fingers tingling with longing to touch his neck again. Or that it remained beyond me to make sense of his casting aside, as not worth having, my deliciously erotic surrender between his best tan shoes. He left me to stew in all the juices he’d wanted to make the most of for a time.
He recalled some fun we’d enjoyed, despite his usual claim to memory erasure. I remembered how each time we were in his car at dusk, there was a lurid sunset. Only to realise I’d said too much; acknowledged how everything, including wretchedness, became more alive beside him.
It was through him I hit hard stone. It was also with him that together we found the lightness of air currents, catching hold as if we were gliders untied from a plane.
And then I made heavy weather of all I’d found.
In his final book, at the printers when we last met, Philip has a different character – one who has as his compass a possibility he can’t meet – one who gauges his own coldness against the warmth of his lover. She is directly engaged by loving, while he remains shut in to self-preoccupation.
This hero is something of a lost soul, in my reading. He quotes, “life, as they say, is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’”
She replies, “I’ve thrown myself in and enjoyed most of it.”
“No need to gloat! It’s not what I could have.” He might have touched and moved her; he had not been moved enough himself.
And there, right at the end, are two pigeons. A pair trapped behind glass, as though carved in warning. In the story they are outside the main character’s bedroom and he lies in bed watching them glued together and glued in place. They are fixed and claimed by sharing a nest – an omen which makes him realise he needs a muse to keep him writing, not a wife.
His lover sees her undertaking as sharing as much of her heart as possible – she would not fritter away the seriousness of loving.
But this could never be his charge. His serious task is to write. That is what he can do.