dreamt of Brian.
Well, that was hardly news except, as it turned out, at the same time a boat he was in began to sink.
Other occasions Brian came into sleep, vivid and present, I had no idea what might be happening to him. We lived with an ocean between us. But talk of the boat with Brian on board soon reached me.
We had, as young lovers four decades before , been planning to marry and plenty of people knew that much.
What else did they think they knew?
Over the years various certainties expressed by family and friends amazed me.
Had I offered a packaged version of the split with Brian? – a neat story, seeming true enough at the time, to be taken up by others as the last word on the matter?
Presumably a simple explanation was sufficient for them, though not for me with my jagged tie to Brian.
He was my first lover though not my first love and met with much approval.
“A fine young man,” was Mother’s verdict.
“A good catch, “ my bitchy aunt said and did not forgive me for “letting that one go!”
She apparently believed that had I paid more attention to appearance and worn the type of “smart” tweed suit she advocated, Brian and I would be happily married. (She dislikes the man I am with.)
My sister, Hilary, rang to discuss the boat disaster immediately she heard, which fortunately was not until after Brian and the boat’s owner were rescued. Others were not as lucky but those two were in intensive care.
Hilary declared herself sorry, then added, “but he was a bastard to cheat on you!”
The more I tried to argue the greater Hilary’s conviction that, now Brian was so weak, I felt sorry for him and re-wrote history.
“You don’t have to be all forgiving. Don’t stick up for him.”
I wasn’t very forgiving of her or others and didn’t let myself off easily.
I had hurt Brian. This further hurt to him felt distressing but there was something else . What if he did not recover? How then could I ever rebuild torn connection or know how much he held against me?
Only months before Brian and I met, my father had a heart attack.
He was there at breakfast and dead before dinner.
In those days, with no mobile phones, it took hours to get in touch with Hilary and myself.
Mother choose to call for her sister rather than send anyone to find two daughters.
The family usually divided with Hilary being a mother’s girl while I was father’s. There was some flexibility – occasionally the camps were adults versus children.
Father was only fifty-three and, before he died, seemed healthy.
After his abrupt death trust shrank.
Over my nineteen years I hadn’t registered how daily existence felt sufficiently safe until the day it didn’t.
Not that things had seemed set or predictable – clashes with my mother, or her punishments when I was younger, might drastically alter the course of a day, locking me in hatred or defeat for hours, but such cycles were of another order than the earthquake underfoot as they dug a grave for my good father.
Brian’s kindness felt sturdy through that complicated time and there was ease between us.
After three years we got engaged and it was fifteen weeks to the wedding, the following year, when I fled to Australia.
That was the chorus from everyone at first.
It’s not obvious how my family switched to a different view.
Certainly a battered Brian was seen with a disapproved of “bottle blonde,” too soon for their taste.
Presumably he was supposed to be pining the loss of his bride not seeking solace.
Then Mother and Hilary somehow fixed a version that Brian’s involvement with the blonde was a very good reason for me to bolt. They liked neat explanations.
But this one did not fit the facts.
I am not entirely sure what I formed as my initial excuse.
Though I recall how the vista ahead flipped, after I put two pieces of bread in the toaster.
They would pop up done.
Brian was waiting with the marmalade at his mother’s table.
I stared at the shiny, new toaster, an engagement present, and saw predictable slots ahead.
Surely there had to be something more!
Might whatever that was be found if I had the courage to seek it?
Fervour and fireworks must have felt possible – tales of them were in print.
It did not occur to me that what I sought might be within myself, waiting to be unlocked.
It was, back then, too hard to see any relevance of my father’s recent heart attack to the initial attraction of “dependable” Brian.
Over later years of attempting to love well, impediments showed themselves only slowly.
Now Brian was said to be “fighting for his life” and I seemed to be fighting those around me.
While I felt driven to reconsider my years with him, others blocked any opening with their own closure.
“Well of course we all feel sad for him.”
“Why should you have anything to question? Love ends. Full stop.”
“Everyone gets sentimental over first loves.”
“You didn’t want him when you had him, so why any claim on him now?”
“You can’t be sure you harmed Brian. If you mattered that much how come he took up someone else immediately?”
Even my closest friend, who had never met Brian, sounded confident with , “He wanted the question of his woman settled, so he could get on with other things. He didn’t make love important the way you always try to do – not a good match! Besides you were too young to marry.”
I sought a different conversation.
As Brian lay with tubes and beeping machines tenderness revived- rather it had never gone away.
What changed after the toaster morning was how I saw what we had and it no longer looked like a basis for marriage.
We were not ready to imagine ourselves parents. Had I sought potential father material Brian might have appeared just right.
Though barely aware of what I wanted to find , would later claim conviction that greater sexual excitement must be somewhere.
And I knew Brian well enough to recognise that his being seen with the blonde, he didn’t marry, came out of wounding.
Although I did not face the rejection and humiliation inflicted by my escape, I don’t think either of us had let out and looked at the intensities of desire.
We explored as if on the sidelines – making it a cautious curiosity about sex, even if reliable contraception was not yet available and pregnancy pre-marriage a great disgrace.
“Let’s try it,” was our line – not for us the obliteration of the careful, which I imagined ardour would have demanded.
We did not risk being too unguarded.
Though Brian and I were young we hardly had pure hearts. We colluded, where it suited us, with a prevailing notion of “innocence” – that semi virtue – and no one warned me it was a euphemism for not having found a fuller sense of yourself.
Nobody pointed out that, though marriage might appear a solid institution, love and desire were never quite reliable.
As for looking to see if what we had bore any relation to a childhood of longings, that was far from our agenda. Brian and I were both heading forwards and away from home.
My ambivalence towards a “difficult” mother was to be left behind.
Any incapacity in loving, which Brian and I inevitably brought with us to our beginnings, was not admitted. Just as it was not done to question declarations of “maternal love,” except in extreme situations of cruelty and neglect. Certainly there was to be no room for doubt with my mother – and no conversation about our fights.
Yes, she saw me as a child in need of discipline and hit me, for my own good. She had been hit and loved, that was the way of it.
Any hatred for the pain or her power to force submission was to be stifled.
When I caused pain to Brian, did I expect his reaction to be as hidden?
It is more obvious now, than at the time, how he suffered, but I could not stay facing that and also get out of the planned marriage.
We were seen as a decent, lovely couple heading towards my white dress, with bridesmaids in blue.
We dropped fast from full social applause to being the subject of gossip.
Only years afterwards would I ask, “ how could having sex not stir sleeping forces?” – waking possibilities of new life and old killer wounds?
I proved not so gentle after all, though the cruelty shown in cutting off was not quite acknowledged.
And what of Brian keeping me at a distance, while expecting the intimacy of sex?
But I was unable to articulate my wanting and feeling not met – my being “looked after” yet kept out.
As the unsaid festered , to protect myself, an invisible wall grew effortlessly, just as one had grown up years before between me and my mother.
Why would it not? To live on the edge of uncertainty over her acceptance of me was not bearable.
Confusions with her stayed obscured behind the wall and that standard mantra , “ mothers love their children as best they can.”
And probably I loved Brian “as best I could” from one side of the wall on which we continued to be good playmates.
When the fact of some barrier shutting something out finally registered, it was all put on Brian. HE kept me out!
It was a time of turbulent dreams leading up to the toaster moment, so I don’t know why one in particular remains permanently etched and detailed.
Brian’s claiming mother – he was supposed to comfort – was there in our bedroom under covers , in a separate bed, with her presence between us as we started to make love. Saying I needed to pee disrupted the amorous unfolding. In a toilet, a climb away, I realised blood was draining out of me – more a miscarriage than an ordinary period. Some vital life was not staying there between us.
Was it soon after this dream I left ,nearly as abruptly as my father had done?
When I did, eventually, fall into love with passion, it made no sense that it had seemed impossible if I stayed with Brian.
Had I just given up too easily and gone?
Such questions were un-untieable knots – love for Brian never really went away, only I did.
Long after he ever curled around me as we slept , comfort from it travelled with me.
All I could hope was that he, too , had found his way to challenging lovers.
If I did not let it sink in there might be revenge in turning my back on him, Brian showed only one alarming flash of fury. He did not chase or fight.
Though all these years later, as he was struggling to live, I recalled details which had reached me, of his being defeated by my leaving.
I, too, had threatened some life force in him, but clearly not enough to kill.
Although sadness came in unrelenting waves soon after I left, a sea of it was undifferentiated – it felt an ending for everything – endings for me as much as Brian.
And was I protecting the image of myself as a “good person,” despite beginning to resent the way a pretty picture of “good mothering” had been stuffed in my mouth, to stop anything else being said?
It was her death which brought another shift in perspective.
Mother’s decline, unlike our father’s, was slow and I spent long hours with her , accepting my mix of love with frustration and sharing the care with Hilary.
Brian came to the funeral – he was gentle and I dissolved into an overwhelming ache for him “to make it better” as the coffin disappeared for burning.
It was a stark reminder, making obvious what had been obscured from sight: Brian had stepped in to “make things safe ”, when nothing felt reliable.
Father left me reeling, having stood firmly there for me since birth, his biggest smile my treasure.
Security just vanished. Yet how precarious everything felt, made little sense to me back then – my arms simply reached for Brian to keep tight hold.
He had his own reasons for liking to stay in control.
What neither of us saw was how far we failed to let go in surrender to sensuality.
While Brian was to keep us steady , what we could not also do was drop into unpredictable, unruly desires, or let the body take over.
It took some years before there was the confidence in myself to surf ride lust.
Not until my mother’s inevitable and far less disruptive death did I recognise a simple fact – see where, as I walked out on Brian, I took that block within me.
If I was left on alert, newly afraid of the unexpected after Father died that could not be helped.
But in frustration with it , I blamed Brian, then pushed him away.
I tried to leave the fault as his and he was stung.
Now he was suffering again.
Even if he recovered , there was little chance he would see our break up as I now saw it.
Where I had been broken, he had not been able to help me recognise it. And torn lines continue.