I met my old lover on the street last night. He seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled.
Well, that’s actually not true. I mean, part of it is true, but part of it isn’t. Sorry … I’m getting flustered now. He always had that effect on me, and he clearly still does.
So, with apologies to Paul Simon for using his lyrics, let me explain properly. I did see my old lover on the street. Dublin's Grafton Street to be exact. But it was yesterday afternoon, not last night. And he didn’t get the chance to be pleased, or otherwise, to see me. Because, as soon as I spotted him I ducked into a shop doorway, pulling a surprised Ella with me, and surreptitiously peered out at him.
He was with a young woman, and as they walked he had his hand on the back of her neck and she was smiling up at him.
I thought of how it used to be with us …
I met him in an upmarket city bar. He was one of the Celtic Tiger’s cubs - well-off and sophisticated. You might even have heard of him. It’s not that he’s famous, he’s not a household name or anything. But he’s well-known in business and finance circles. So I won’t use his real name, just in case. I’ll call him … Mark. Mark Whelan, let’s say.
I was instantly attracted to him. He was tall - just about six foot - and Mediterranean-looking. I originally thought he must be foreign, but no, he was 100% Irish … but from the west of Ireland, and it’s a family tradition that they’re descended from survivors of the Spanish Armada.
He was quite skinny, and that was his only flaw. His only flaw that I could see then, at least.
That evening that I met him, there were many women there more beautiful than I … in fact, I’d say that every single other woman there was more beautiful than I. I’m not being falsely modest, and it’s not that I’m ugly. But I’m just so … so ordinary I suppose. I’m like a little brown sparrow whereas the other women were confident, arrogant, iridescent peacocks.
So I was extremely grateful when he chose me. I didn’t realise then that my lack of confidence was the very thing which attracted him. That air of fragile vulnerability …
He effortlessly drew me into his circle of well-off self-assured men and their clone-like long-legged, long-haired big-breasted women.
As the evening wore on I marvelled at how much they all drank, and how well they were able to carry it. I couldn’t keep up - skipping most of the rounds and clutching the same glass of warm white wine as I smiled timidly.
He whisked me off later that evening, and I, reared on fairytales of handsome princes rescuing waif-like princesses, relished the romance of the whisking. I flew into his arms and clung to him and became his woman.
Without even discussing it, we were a couple, and soon we were living together. It was tacitly understood that I was way out of my league, and I was continually grateful for the fact that he had picked me. I was like a royal consort, walking a few paces behind, content to be the moon to his sun, shining only courtesy of his reflection and glad to have it.
But still, the unbalance in the relationship worked against me. I owed him and he was like an unscrupulous money-lender - the debt grew bigger rather than smaller. And he collected ruthlessly.
He drank a lot, and I was his chauffeur, coming out with him while he met his friends, hanging around on the periphery of the group, unnoticed and overlooked, smile fixed to aching cheeks, until it was time for us to go home. He would wave a cheery unsteady goodbye and I would link his arm - trying to make it look as if he was supporting me rather than me supporting him - and steer him towards the car, pour him into it and drive him home.
It wasn’t fun. But I put up with it because I was still so honoured to be the lover, the woman of the great Mark Whelan, to be chosen and picked. I still felt I was getting my share of the bargain. And I never questioned the bargain, I didn’t dare. Fear is powerful, and the fear of the unknown, of being alone, of going to a lonely rented bedsit rather than this plush well-appointed house, kept me there.
And maybe I even believed I loved him and that he loved me. Maybe I believed it, or chose to believe I believed it. Layers of self-delusion like layers of papier maché making a playschool version of a relationship.
It cost me my friends and my family too. I realise that now. At the time I thought it was about them being unreasonable and unfair when they tried to speak against him, and one by one I fell out with them all. The more isolated I became, the more I clung to Mark.
It was okay. It could have gone on like that. I could have survived that half-life. But over time he became jealous when he drank. As we drove home he would sneer at me, accusing me of eyeing up other men.
“I saw you looking at that guy at the bar.”
“I wasn’t looking at any man,” I would tell him, keeping my voice calm and my gaze on the road, even as I gripped the steering wheel more tightly.
“Don’t deny it!” his voice would raise. “I saw you with my own eyes! How can you deny it? Jesus but you must think I’m awful stupid to deny something I saw myself.”
I would say nothing.
“Do you?” he would insist. “Do you think I’m awful stupid?”
“No, of course I don’t, Mark. I don’t think you’re stupid at all,” I would reassure him, trying to calm him, not to escalate the situation. It was a delicate balance - I had to make sure there was enough sincerity in my voice, but at the same time not be at all patronising - because that could cause an argument too.
“Well then!” he’d say triumphantly, as though he had just proven something.
I’d say nothing.
“So you might as well admit it!” he would continue, menace in his voice, and determination. “Admit that you were looking at that man.”
I tried different tactics. I tried to continue insisting that I had looked at no man, not in any special way.
“I probably glanced at somebody, Mark,” I’d say, trying to meet him half way, “the place was crowded, no matter where I looked there would be some man in my line of vision, wouldn’t there? But I wouldn’t have been looking at anybody as such. Sure why would I?” I’d say playfully, going for flattery, “aren’t you the most handsome man in Ireland anyway?”
For a while this tactic worked. Until the evening he harangued me for the whole journey home, so much so that I was weeping tears of denial, and still he browbeat me to confess to this imagined crime.
And then, once we were inside the hallway, he abruptly pinned me against the wall in a travesty of passion. But this passion wasn’t for me, it was for his obsessive jealousy.
“Now,” he breathed down at me, and the smell of stale beer was hot in my face, “now we’ll have the truth. I’m sick and tired of you lying bitches, you’re all the same. Tell me the truth, you were looking at that blond man in the bar. Weren’t you?” he hissed.
I shook my head in denial and fear, unable to speak through my terror. Who was this man staring down at me, hatred and fury in his eyes? Was this really Mark who had told me he loved me?
“Don’t lie to me!” he yelled. “If you tell me the truth we’ll say no more about it. But by God if you continue lying to me I won’t be answerable …”
Terror won over my pride. “Okay, okay,” I said, “I was looking at him, I admit it.”
“I knew it,” he said, satisfied now. “I knew you were looking at him. I knew I was right!”
I took a deep breath, thinking it was over now, that the lie was more worthwhile than the truth.
Until he continued speaking, a new source of fury consuming him, “But you lied to me! You told me you had been looking at nobody. You bitch.”
He lifted his hand and with all his strength he hit me across the face. My head was pinned against the wall, I couldn’t move to dissipate the force, and the pain bolted through me.
The shock and pain were so strong that I couldn't even respond, I think I gave a tiny gasp, but that was all I could manage.
Immediately he was contrite.
“Dear God, what have I done? Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, weeping now, “I’m so sorry, I never meant to hit you. I was just so angry about you looking at that man, I love you so much, it just hurt me so much, I’m so sorry, please forgive me. I’ll never do it again, I swear. Please forgive me,” he begged.
And so I ended up comforting him. But I didn’t mind, I was just grateful to hear his apologies and promises it wouldn’t happen again.
It did calm down after that one occasion. But it was a new dynamic now; one in which the rules had changed. Now I knew that it could happen again, if he was provoked again. Now I had to be wary, and careful.
So I kept my eyes down when we were out together, never letting my gaze rest on any other man no matter how briefly or inadvertently. I tried to avoid going to the toilet, and if I needed to go I would pray there was no queue to delay me.
I’m not proud of this, but if there was a queue I'd lie to skip to the front. sometimes I lied to skip the queue. “I’m pregnant,” I might tell the other women, “do you mind …?” Or, “I’m so sorry, but I have to use the toilet right now, I’ve got a dodgy tummy, and if I don’t go now …” I’d leave it to their imaginations what might happen, and it always worked.
Looking back it’s hard to believe I lived like that, in fear and terror. But it happens so gradually that you slide into it. It helps, of course, if you have little self-esteem to begin with, which I did, and which - I’m now convinced - he knew immediately. That was the source of my attraction to him.
Then I got pregnant.
I stared horrified at the blue line, that bleak evening in early January. We had always been so careful - Mark was adamant he didn’t want babies at all. Something about his own dreadful childhood and he was inflicting that on nobody. And to be honest, I didn’t want a baby either. I was too young, too dependant on Mark, too messed up myself.
An abortion was the obvious solution. It really was the sensible decision - absolutely everything pointed to it.
But yet, I couldn’t. This baby existed now, and something primeval in me stirred. I swore to protect it no matter what. It would be safe within me until it was time to be born.
But I had yet to tell Mark. My stomach churned and my palms were slick and foetid as I approached him.
But he surprised me. Not that he was thrilled, I can’t say that. But he accepted it philosophically enough.
“What’s done is done,” he said, “we’ll make the best of it.”
So that was grand. At least, it was grand until later that evening. He opened a bottle of wine with his dinner as usual, and as he drank it I noted that he was becoming quieter and quieter.
Then he had two very generous whiskeys.
There was a palpable tension in the air. I busied myself with clearing up the meal, and tried to ignore the leaden atmosphere, but my heart was beating too quickly and I was aware of the acid taste of apprehension in my gut.
“Tell me …” he said at last, conversationally.
“Yes?” I asked, my voice squeaking a little. I had learned to distrust that pseudo-chatty tone.
“Who exactly is the father of that baby you’re carrying?”
Dear God! I gasped with the shock of the question.
“The father?” I repeated stupidly, “You are, of course!”
He was shaking his head.
“No. I’ve been thinking about it. We have always been so careful. There’s no way you could have conceived with me. You must have been screwing around on me, got pregnant and are now trying to palm the bastard off on me.”
“No!” I tried to make my voice firm, and I looked him straight in the eye, willing him to believe me. “That is absolutely not so. I know we were always careful, and I don’t know how it happened either, but I have been with nobody but you, and you are the father, Mark.”
“Lying bitch,” he said calmly. He took another swig of his whiskey.
I stared at him, transfixed with fear and uncertainty. I didn’t want to do the wrong thing and by so doing provoke him to anger. But any action could be the wrong thing, and so I did nothing.
Then he erupted anyway. From being outwardly calm he transformed in an instant into this hatred-spewing, spittle-flying, obscenity-yelling monster. He stood up abruptly, knocking over his glass and spilling the urine-yellow viscous liquid onto the smooth laminate floor. He didn’t notice though, or didn’t care, as he came for me.
He called me names I can’t repeat, I can’t bear to think of them. He grabbed my shoulders and shook me violently as he accused me of sins of which infidelity was the slightest. All his anger and hatred at his own mother, his own father, his other girlfriends, at everybody and everything, up to and including Life itself - came rushing out onto my bowed and shaking head.
“You’ll have an abortion,” he told me, “you surely will, I’m raising no man’s bastard.”
“Okay, okay, I will,” I promised him through my tears. Anything, anything, once he stopped this assault. I wouldn't have an abortion. I was determined upon that. But if agreeing to it would calm this storm ...
But that didn’t appease him. Maybe he saw the truth within me. Or perhaps I had given in too quickly, before he had the satisfaction of spewing his anger.
“We won’t even wait for an abortion, I’ll knock that bastard out of you now,” he roared at me, “I’m not having my woman carrying another man’s child in my house, not for one instant.”
He lifted his fist and aimed for my stomach.
“Nooooo,” I yelled, and I curled myself over my stomach, determined to protect my baby.
I slipped under his blow and turned away, and fled towards the door to the hall. He reached for me, his long pale fingers brushing my sleeve. But before he could grab me, he slipped on his spilled whiskey. There was a poetic justice to that, although I did not have the leisure to appreciate it then. But it meant I could safely reach the sitting room door.
“Come back, you bitch,” he yelled, scrambling to his feet. But he was drunkenly clumsy and slipped and I heard him fall again as I reached the doorway to the hall. "Come back you fucking fucking cunt or I swear I'll fucking make you sorry you were ever born!"he roared after me as I grabbed my bag from its place on the banister, opened the front door and fled the house, banging closed the door behind me to try to delay him.
Where to? If I ran out onto the street he’d surely catch me. There was no guarantee of anybody being around to help me. I ran to the gate and pulled it open, but instead of leaving the garden I back-tracked a little and crawled into the hedge, ignoring the scratches from its thorns.
No sooner was I hidden than the front door opened, spilling its light carelessly onto the front garden, and he ran down the short drive and out onto the street, cursing me viciously all the while.
I stayed where I was, hunkered uncomfortably, bitterly cold in the January night with no coat to warm me. My heart thudded hard against the inside of my rib cage like a bird trapped behind a window and I tried desperately to breathe quietly.
I heard his footsteps slow and then stop, and then start again, slowly this time, unsure. He was clearly wondering which way I had gone. He walked a little bit one way, then the other, clearly uncertain as to what to do next.
They say there are no atheists in fox-holes - well there are none in suburban hedges either, when a violent man is hunting, and you’re his quarry. I fervently prayed that it wouldn’t occur to him that I was hiding.
It worked. Cursing mightily he came back into the driveway, passing within a foot of me, and I heard the front door bang furiously shut. I waited for over an hour, cold and cramped and sore from the thorns, unsure whether it was a trick or not. Eventually, when I judged it to be safe, I carefully unfolded myself and extricated myself from the hedge.
Cold, cut, bruised, shaking, I half-walked-half-ran, breaths juddering, taking random turns to shake off the pursuit which I knew rationally wasn’t there at all but which terrified me all the same.
Eventually I arrived at a pub and went in, grateful for the warmth of its light, laughter and blazing fire. I ignored the stares I got, and with shocked and scandalised whispers following me I made my way to the toilets. Once there I took out my mobile phone and dialled it.
After a few rings I heard a voice I hadn’t heard for over a year.
“Mum?” I said, “Mum, it’s me. Can you come and get me?”
I didn’t see Mark again for five long years. My father and brother went to collect my belongings and I never asked what transpired between them and him. I allowed my family to nurture me and love me and heal me, and in time I gave birth to Ella who is the light of my life.
I try not to read too much into it whenever she loses her temper.
And yesterday in Grafton Street I hid in the doorway of the shop and watched Mark with this other woman. I saw her timid ingratiating smile targeted towards him, and his possessive hand on the back of her neck. I noted his grim expression as he surveyed the other men on the street, and the way his grip tightened at her neck.
I realised that he hadn’t changed, that he was still crazy, even after all these years.
Ella said, puzzled, “What are you looking at, Mummy?”
“Nothing, darling,” I told her, “nothing at all.”
I smiled down at her, took her hand, left the doorway, and we walked in the opposite direction.