New Year’s Eve 2022. Just think, tonight I might have been one of the luckiest men alive. Except I’m not.
The city in which I was born and still live is pinnacled by spires and towers. It has ancient medieval colleges, museums, galleries, theatres, amazing bars and restaurants and quaint shops. It’s also plagued by streams of tourists and having to dodge endless bikes. The river, the city’s soul, carves its way through the centre before its fast-flowing currents are controlled by locks further on. During the finer months, long narrow flat-bottomed boats known as punts, propelled by poles, grace stretches of the river. Proficient punting is said to be an art form and unless you don’t mind losing your balance and toppling in, it’s best left to the experienced. For those who are able to afford it, a series of exclusive tours promise unforgettable and exclusive views of the college ‘backs.’
Personally, all the grandeur and elitism leaves me cold. I much prefer investigating the city’s parks and vast swathes of green. Most of all, I’m bound by the river’s verdancy. I follow it like one possessed.
Late September, 2003
After my session with the therapy group, I broke one of last year’s resolutions. My parents would have been ashamed of me had they been alive.
I TRAILED DAWN.
Just in case anyone reads this when it no longer matters, Dawn is a member of my therapy group. We all meet once a week in one of the upstairs rooms of a run-down community centre to offer each other ‘non-judgemental support.’ We never call it advice.
This session Dawn described her hideout place along the embankment. It felt like déjà vu. It happens to be one of my favourite haunts too.
Keeping a discreet distance, I padded well-worn paths, passing walls of hanging ivy with green-yellow flowers opened up for last-minute pollinators. I managed to avoid tramping on deep brown conkers and split open acorns which had spattered onto the moist ground. When I was a kid I used to collect conkers, turning their shininess over in my hands. I dutifully gave them to dad who prepared to commence battle by making a hole and threading a piece of string through them. The one who broke the first conker was the victor. These conker battles carried on in spite of dire warnings of broken wrists from mother.
In the pale blue sky, a swarm of migrating swallows marked the start of their journey to warmer climes. While Dawn paused to take in their progress , I slunk into a hedge, waiting.
I got prickled by a blackberry bush for my pains!!
Following Dawn to her secret place makes me feel I’m part of her life. Less alone. In the group, she’s been solicitous, but unaware of my true feelings. I justify my actions by telling myself it’s just the once. After all, at a basic level, man is a predator. Did that instinct make me slavishly follow Claire who I worked with a few years ago? I’d been out for a few drinks with her and things seemed to be progressing, but when she discovered my secret activity, she told me to “get a life, stop being a creep, and get help.” In that order.
But at base-line, I’m not a stalker. One day I want a family of my own. My admiration for Dawn is not really stalking.
I’m troubled reading this. This entry was written nineteen years ago and in some respects, little has changed. I still work in one of the city’s industrial parks maintaining and installing computer systems. A ‘techie’, I like to think I see things logically. Except when it comes to women. They are the unknowable mysterious compelling other…Fascinating and terrifying in equal measures.
Back to the diary where:
Dawn surrendered herself to the cool earth. Spreading out her jacket, she sat under an ancient oak, closed her eyes and lifted her face to the late autumn sun.
I felt her sadness and longed to reach out, but that would have been fatal, a breaking of the bonds of trust built up over months of fruitless therapy. Unless I act fast, I’ll probably never see her again. Her time at the group is drawing to a close. I know she is single because she opened her heart and told the group about being in a destructive relationship which recently came to an end.
Terrified of being ‘caught’ and ruining my chances, I turned away. As I headed towards the lock, I savoured the strange death smells of river and green.
Did I actually write all that? I lay the diary aside, still wondering about the mystery of women.
Today, I’m working from home. The new normal after the Covid pandemic, the downside is it makes it even easier to be isolated. I hear Scatter, my demanding tabby, miaowing outside my door. I pick her up, stroke her warm fur and return to the diary:
Dawn’s been gone from the group ten weeks now. I’m unlikely to see her again, except in passing. As if her absence wasn’t distressing enough, Zach, a relative newcomer to the group, struggling with depression and fearful his wife will leave him because she’s had enough of his problems, vented. Unfortunately, I was the source of his repressed rage..
All I said was I missed Dawn.
Sarah, the sarky one who writhes with chronic back pain after suffering a work injury, shifted on her chair. “We all miss her.”
“She came on a lot, I envy her.” Bert, a man with claustrophobia and terrified by the sex act, says. I admire him for being brave enough to admit such private terrors. I’ve never discussed my one experience of intimacy with a woman, or they’d have a field day! The one time didn’t end well. My parents interrupted our fumbling after returning early from their holiday. My mother was not best pleased. The whole thing was mortifying and Debbie left the country soon after for Australia. As far as I know, she still lives there.
In the therapy session, Josh, the lanky facilitator, piped up. “Whilst we are pleased Dawn gained from her time with the group, we have to move on and focus on the here and now.”
Zach, however was clearly not interested in letting the past go. In a display of latent masculinity, he stuck his horns into me.
“If you liked her so much, why didn’t you do something about it?”
“I did. I asked her out, but she didn’t want to. She said she didn’t think it would be a good idea.” STORY OF MY LIFE.
“Well, there you are.” He said it angrily.” If you will insist on going for unavailable women, what can you expect?”
Like a wounded stag, I took it all. Even though I wanted to charge. Shut that horrible mouth of his.
“This is hardly helpful Zach.” Ronnie, the female facilitator spoke gently.
“With the greatest of respect, I’m only trying to help, Ronnie. Roger has been here a while now and we never get to grip with his problems.” In for the kill. “ WHY ARE YOU HERE ROGER?“
The male facilitator nodded when Ronnie looked to him for guidance.
“I’m here because I want to have better relationships. With women..”
Then, out of the blue. “Do you maybe think you go for unavailable people because it’s safer than a real relationship?” Shelley, a gentle type who could no longer bear the strain of firing people from her Human Resources position, asked.
WHAT? YOU TOO. I THOUGHT YOU LIKED ME.
“Isn’t it easier to fantasise about someone you can’t have rather than run the risk of a real relationship which can be messy?” The darts aimed my way were coming from every direction.
“What about your friend Lily? We haven’t heard you speak about her recently,”Ronnie, asked.
Actually, Lily has been in touch, but less so than usual. Every few days or so, she texts me about her experiences in Manchester. No one was more surprised than me when she jumped at the chance to go and help set up a new community group there. Andrew and Carole Edwards, the church’s power couple, have spearheaded the new group, spending months raising the necessary funds. The idea was that people in our community would go and welcome people in the new ‘sister group.’
“Have you ever considered going on a date with Lily?” This from Sarah.
“Lily’s just a friend. Nothing more.” I fondly think of the last time I saw Lily. She was wearing a pink fluffy cardigan and a tight white dress with yellow daffodils which made her stomach bulge slightly. In many ways, she’s the funniest, brightest, and most engaging girl I know. It’s like yin and yang. She’s like the sun to my moon. She’s also got a history of choosing the worst men. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve lost count of the number of let-downs she’s had. But she’s never down for long.
I can’t believe the last time I saw her, the weather was stifling hot.
Sarah’s eyes met mine over horn- rimmed glasses.
“It’s just she seems important in your life. I’ve never heard you mention any other woman.”
A lot of other things were said. I felt my neck redden.
My last session. The day before New Year’s Eve. There was a big discussion about my future. Bert tried his best to scribble down positive things about me on a notepad so that I could look back on them later. Nothing like the level of attention Dawn got on her last day though.
“Maybe you can learn to be more open-minded when it comes to women.” The parting shot from the smug Sarah. Nods of approval all round..
Ok. They obviously see me as this narrow-minded conflicted type. They may have a point. But what a way to end a session!
I suddenly remembered. The church members are having a NYE party at Ken and Bab’s house and it’s Fancy Dress. Not my scene at all. Also, I’ve done nothing to prepare for it. Everyone’s expected to chip in and I’m supposed to be making one of my trademark rice dishes. When my parents died within a few months of one another (another thing I didn’t mention to the group in case I got slaughtered), I was forced to learn to cook. I’m actually pretty good.
Another thing I didn’t say was that Lily will soon be coming home after her adventures helping set up the new community group (I didn’t tell the members because they’d have gone to town on it). She hasn’t said anything about attending the party, but you never know. I hope she’ll be there.
I have a history of hating these New Year celebrations, but this time I’m going to make the most of it.
When the group session finished, I practically ran out of the building. I trawled the city centre checking out places for a suitable outfit. I didn’t get anywhere until the third charity shop, when it hit me. A man’s brand new fancy dress outfit still sealed in its wrapper. Completely zany. Lily will be impressed – if she makes it back in time. She’s never been scared to make a fool of herself.
30 December 03
Shattered but happy. So relieved to be home. Kylie was pleased to see me. She kept wagging her tail and following me from room to room. Mum and dad seemed happy too. It’s been an amazing four months setting up the new community group. I’ve met so many interesting people and learnt a lot about myself. I even got asked out by two guys which boosted my self esteem. I turned them both down because they weren’t right for me. That’s a first. Janice, one of the women who’d taken me under her wing says I don’t have to go out with people just because they ask me. “There’s a lot of leeches out there. You’ve got to learn to put yourself first.” But I hate upsetting people.
Travelling on the train back home, Janice’s voice played like a track in my mind. Keep away from unhealthy relationships. Be more more choosy.
Just time to write before I go to bed. I haven’t told Roger I’m back yet. I want to surprise him at the New Year’s Eve party. We always go. I can’t wait to see his face when he sees me. I no longer want to be unlucky in love. This year, my new year’s resolution is to change all that.
On one of our walks in the country, I once told Roger I loved him and he immediately friend-zoned me. Said he didn’t see me that way. It made me feel like shit. Not sure you easily get over something like that.
1 January 2004
What a party that was! Fireworks in more ways than one. Lily was the life and soul in her Superwoman outfit. Not that I expected her to come in anything quiet, but she looked amazing in long red boots, a red cape and tutu skirt. All the men were goggle-eyed, especially Tim who kept complimenting her. “You look incredible,” he said. Her leotard had a shiny red S on it and her blond-streaked hair, now set in a stylish bob, took years off her. She was wearing a spicy perfume with a hint of something intoxicating. Maybe chocolate? If only she’d been a few inches taller, she’d have been perfect.
Her face lit up endearingly when she saw me.
“You look……” I struggled to find the right words. I knew I was going to have to come up with something better than my usual ‘nice.’ I finally settled on“great.”
“Thank you, you don’t look bad yourself.” She giggled mischievously. “What a pair we make!” She was obviously referring to my complimentary Superman Outfit. It was a bit of a coincidence having matching outfits!
By now the party had extended into the garden which was lit up with a line of Chinese lanterns. People weaved between house and garden dipping cups in a bowl of rum punch. Lily laughed when Tim added more rum to it. He put his fingers to his lips and grinned.
A few seconds before midnight, Lily suddenly produced a sprig of mistletoe and held it aloft her head, smiling expectantly.
But I just couldn’t.
That familiar crushed look. In Her eyes.
WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GO AND SPOIL THINGS AGAIN? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH JUST BEING FRIENDS?
Normally, she’d have swallowed her disappointment. After a few minutes, she’d have been carrying on like nothing had happened
But, in the moonlight, her eyes glinted dangerously.
“Nothing ever changes with you, does it?” She swept back her cape before disappearing into the house.
Above my head, the blitz of fireworks continued remorselessly. The sparkler I had planned to offer her remained unlit.
Tim joined me in the garden. “You timed that one well, man,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what more do you want? Lily’s positively cracking tonight and you couldn’t even give her a new year kiss.”
“But it would mean so much more than just a kiss.” The words sounded colder than I intended.
“You mean you’d have to step out of your comfort zone for once and consider someone other than yourself.” OUCH. I DIDN’T SEE THAT ONE COMING! He bared his teeth slightly. “Well, if you’re not into her in that way, I’m sure you won’t mind if I try my luck.”
This was all happening way too fast! “What? Wait. Hang on a minute.”
But my voice was drowned out by the sound of fireworks crackling in the midnight sky. Dismayed, I watched Tim make his way back to the house.
While some of the older people were huddled round a plasma screen listening to the chimes of Big Ben ushering in the New Year, others were emerging from the house holding their plastic cups and forming a conga line which extended from the hallway into the garden. Tim tagged himself onto Lily who was laughing.
I’d never felt more alone since losing my parents. Even worse, I felt obliged to avert my eyes when I saw the pair of them kissing passionately outside the garden gate later. I can’t understand why I feel so bad. I’ve decided it must be because she’s a great friend and her getting into a relationship will mean seeing her less. Either way, it was pointless saying goodnight. They wouldn’t have heard me anyway.
Utterly deflated, I left in my ‘Superman’ outfit and began the long walk home. Somewhere along the line, I’d got it wrong. Again.
Everyone who said it wouldn’t last between Tim and Lily were proved wrong. Not only do they have two amazing boys to prove it, it turns out I’m their favourite ‘uncle.’
Here I am at their doorstep armed with a bottle of bubbly. I’ve been invited to join them in their their New Year celebrations and I wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Hearing shouts of laughter coming from within, I’m reminded of something Ronnie once said in that dreadful therapy group.
“Sometimes it takes years.”
I realise now she could well have been speaking about me.