On my birthday when I was little, my staunchly Tory grandmother would place a warm, pillowy kiss on my forehead and with mock gravitas announce, ‘They march in Red Square to celebrate the day you were born you know!’ I think I believed her until I was about 8 years old. With all its odd pagan traditions – maidens washing their faces in the dew and dancing round a ribbon clad pole – the day of my birth always made me feel like I just might be a little bit special. Yes, I am May Day’s child: A characteristically bullish Taurean born in the Chinese year of the Rooster if you are concerned with any of that old toot.
I have defiantly never been one of those women who wanted to ignore my birthday. A little bit of fuss to mark the day I came into the world seems more than appropriate: I’ve stopped short of expecting massed ranks of troops these days, but a few cards, a cake, a couple of presents to stuff in the mitbringsel cupboard. What’s not to like?
But as I lurch into middle age, I’ve realised, not only am I far from exceptional, birthdays have become something I dread.
Please do not assume I fear the natural process of ageing. Like most sensible people I am only scared of what is within my control. Instead, like many I fret about not succeeding, not fulfilling my potential and failing in what I need to do before I drop off this plane. But even though birthdays are a stark reminder of jobs not done and ambitions not reached, these omissions are not wholly responsible for the sadness I feel as the dreadful day approaches.
If you’ve read the About section of this blog you’ll know a little about me. While all of it is true, there are other components to the long relationship I had with C that I don’t cover in that initial post. As in any enduring partnership we went through our ups and downs. (Nothing surprising there.) But my last birthday with him, marked both the zenith and nadir of our love. And yet like most of my birthdays up until that day, it had started joyfully.
May Day in Munich is wunderbar. The Englischer Garten is glorious, the brauhausen are buzzing and late into the evening, the elegant balconies of Haidhausen are home to gently chattering Bavarians, listening to ‘oompah’, eating bretzel and drinking white wine. One of my warmest memories of that last May Day in Munich, is being led down the street wrapped in C’s arms in an all-too-rare display of fairly competent dancing. I can remember looking up at him smiling down at me, and being overwhelmed with the sure and true sense that I’d never been happier.
It was warm that evening and we slept with the window open, the sound of celebration drifting over us as I lay there waiting to mark the beginning of first full day of my fifth decade on earth. Next morning I was roused by the smell of coffee – but unusually no breakfast. We were going out. We would eat my favourite weisses wursts and weisse bier appropriately at the Weisses Brauhaus in the centre of town. The idea didn’t require any persuasion on my part and I was heart-sore to see what was waiting for me there: Two of my best friends from London, soon to be joined by another two, and gloriously another couple soon arrived, all having flown in to share this wonderful weekend.
I had never enjoyed a birthday more and dared to allow myself to feel just a little bit special.
For the rest of the weekend we visited the Kunsthaus for an exhibition by my favourite artist, Gerhard Richter, we sailed on Lake Ammersee, we ate pork knuckle and drank beer in the monastery at Andechs and after two days of fun, I sent my friends home with as much love for Bavaria as I could spare. What I kept were memories I was determined would live with me forever.
On Monday morning I kissed my beloved as he left for work and looked proudly at the beautiful gifts he had bought me: A small triptych of paintings for which I’d casually professed a liking at an exhibition months before, a sketchbook in which I would collect my memories of a trip to Florence that we were never to take that Autumn, and a bottle of perfume he remembered I’d worn when we first met. He said he had smelled it on a stranger a few days previously and turned round expecting to see me. By the time I hadn’t worn it for 10 years but he such is the power of memory and he wanted me to start wearing it again. With a sentiment like that behind a gift of scent, I’d have worn Old Spice if he’d asked me.
I was literally counting my blessings as I floated round the apartment in C’s robe that morning. I had the whole day to myself and was relishing it. But I couldn’t resist reliving the weekend for just a few more minutes. I would download my photos from the weekend into C’s laptop.
I plugged in my camera and turned it on. iPhoto opened and then, with one click of a mouse, my world fell to pieces.
The most extraordinary thing about seeing photos of the man you love fucking another woman are the moments just before the awful truth hits you. They are the infinitely long seconds when you don’t really believe what you are seeing. You rack your brains for a reason that would explain away this ridiculously bad pornography. Once it hit, I searched for clues: The date, the views…items in the back of shot. There was a bottle of champagne in a bucket. I remember that hurting more than the other corks being popped. It looked like he was in New York of all places. On a weekend he’d told me he was at a conference. The lie was so banal I remember being annoyed at his lack of creativity. She looked young, at least younger than me. Thinner, or at least not as fat as I suddenly felt. But she definitely wasn’t prettier. In fact, plain would be a more that generous epithet.
Needless to say, I hated her with the kind of irrational passion that allows you to understand the mind of a murderer. My feelings for C weren’t nearly so simple.
I surprised myself with my ability to destroy. I learned later, with no small degree of shame that the havoc I had wrought before he’d returned home had been left untouched for almost a week. He wanted to live in it. The visible reminder of my hurt was something he felt he deserved to see.
I don’t have the words to describe the pain we both went through over the next few days. I had already left the apartment and we separated for 2 weeks only coming together to talk. It was terrible – for both of us. I was distraught much of the time but I had the sense of injustice and betrayal to keep me warm.
C had nothing.
Surprising myself, I forgave him almost immediately. It was the only thing I knew I could do take control of the situation and, ironically, help him. But he found it harder to forgive himself especially as he realized very quickly my compassion didn’t mean I would stay. I asked him why he’d left the broken paintings and the shattered bottle of perfume, the roses with their heads cut off for over a week. “I needed to see what I’d done. Seeing the photos like that with you there. I felt… shocked” he said.
“But why? You must have looked at them before” I threw that at him as an accusation.
“For the first time in my life, I’ve seen myself through someone else’s eyes,” he said. “And I loathe what I see.”
My heart broke again. For him.
But as painful as it all was, as I look back now, I can honestly say, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to both of us. I’d always thought we were open with each other, but we weren’t really. This forced us to talk honestly for the first time. We shared our deepest feelings, hurts and stories from the distant past that we’d never shared for fear of judgment. And when there were no more words we just sat. Calm in each other’s company, waiting for the next emotions to emerge.
“You now know me better than anyone in the world” His words after one heartfelt silence was broken.
That shouldn’t have been a surprise after the years we’d been together. But I realized I hadn’t really known him. I’d known pieces of him. But not enough. Those words brought with them a subtle shifting of power. Not power that allows control, but a kind of empowerment for me, the person in the relationship who’d never felt good enough, always felt like a consolation prize, and had allowed herself to be at the end of a long list of other priorities. I’d always assumed I had to love him more than he did me. I don’t know why that was – some deep-seated childhood inculcation probably – but there, in the midst of the horror, for the first time I knew he wanted me more than anyone or anything else in the world. And it felt good.
We worked hard to repair things, both individually and together. I knew I wasn’t wholly innocent in the relationship. In a sense I’d facilitated his betrayal. I tried to understand why I’d suppressed my true feelings. During this time I honestly admired him for his efforts and I know he respected my bravery in staying. It wasn’t easy and there were still moments of anger and doubt. But on balance, I felt happier than I had in years.
Three months on from May 1, when I was more in love with him than I’d ever been, I was home in London. He called me from Munich and said he loved me. I was in a supermarket. It was the middle of the day. He rarely called me before evening. I couldn’t talk but I remember feeling pleased he’d called. It was another tiny victory.
A few hours later, and a thousand miles away, he left forever.
I still feel I’m somehow to blame for what happened; I fear that the stress he endured during those weeks caused the heart attack that came with no warning, but I also feel I am still being punished for allowing myself to be happy for those last months. To think I might have finally be able to find a kind of partnership I hadn’t realised was possible. I know it’s irrational. But the nagging feeling is always there. Now that I know when the feelings are bubbling up, I work hard to find equilibrium and keep these mad internal ramblings to one side, but then sometimes things happen that encourage them to creep out again. And it was with a need to punish myself again that I found myself booking a table for my birthday at one of London’s most sought after restaurants. Kitchen Table.
Recently I met someone who said they’d take me to this restaurant. It was a relationship I should never have entertained…I’m struggling to understand my decision – a need to find more self-fulfilling punishment perhaps – but he made me laugh, and I admired his energy and drive. More than anything, I was really excited at the gesture and the idea of meeting someone who shared so many things I liked too. Principally, food. It was all trundling along quite nicely until suddenly the phone is going unanswered and I’m no more than a stranger. So I can only surmise that this promise is not to be made good upon. A relatively minor romantic disappointment in the scheme of things but, I feel foolish for allowing myself to feel like I might be worthy of being spoiled. That said, I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve being dropped so absolutely, with no warning and nothing but a wall of silence. (And no, he’s not dead. That I do know)
I hope it’s obvious that despite the occasional introspection of this blog, I don’t dwell and don’t feel I’m particularly special for having to endure the disappointments and sorrow of loss. That is part of the human condition we all have to work through in our lives. But some men really do deserve to have their dicks barbecued and served to them in an award-winning burger bun.
So although sad, I was resolved to go to Kitchen Table alone. Dinner at one of London’s best restaurants may seem like a curious away to test myself but if I could get through this and at the end still feel content, perhaps I might be able to put the self-destruct button into the off position for a while. Could this, the ultimate test of solo dining, help me be less nutty? A kind of litmus test for my soul? If I could celebrate my birthday alone and not feel sadness or worst of all guilt, then surely I can live the other 364 days of the year in relative good heart.
My challenge was looming upon me when an email announced that James Knappet wouldn’t be cooking on the night I was due to go to Kitchen Table. I was disappointed, but took it as a sign. Instead I stayed at home until dragged from my melancholy to a splendid evening at The Wolseley with lots of champagne, pretty mediocre food but the best friends a girl could wish for – one with a jet. ‘He’ phoned while I was there. I can’t speak. I’m at dinner. So happy to hear from you. Can I call you later?… Yes, yes, of course…My heart lifted but it would seem to be another excuse to twist the knife.
But what of Kitchen Table? I’ll wait to go another time…when the bitter taste has left my mouth. In the meantime, where can I get really good burger buns?