In which The Author’s worst fear gets real
‘Do you hear that, Mr Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.’
Agent Smith, The Matrix
Last night I was out in Aberdare with my old pal Gareth L. (In fact, we were out on Thursday night and Friday night as well. We’ve had quite a few sessions over the past few months.) Until last night, though, we’d somehow managed to evade a topic of conversation which was bound to crop up eventually.
As I related in Business As Usual
, Gareth and I seamlessly re-established our friendship last summer. He rocked up unexpectedly in The Gloster Arms one Saturday afternoon, when it seemed that half of Aberdare was in the pub.
Gareth appeared beside me at the bar, said ‘Hello, Steve’, and we started chatting just as easily as if I’d seen him the previous day. I hadn’t even realised he’d returned from Australia until that point.
Gareth and I hadn’t spoken for somewhere north of thirteen years. Way back in 2009, I told the whole sorry tale about the reason I broke off contact in From a Land Down Under
. I won’t attempt to précis it here. I’d strongly advise you to read my (very) long account of how we came to fall out before you go any further with this one.
However, as Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams sang: ‘There’s three sides to every story, mine, and yours, and then the truth.’
My version of events is factually accurate with regard to people, dates, places, and so forth – although some names have been changed to protect the guilty. On the other hand, it is necessarily highly subjective. As such, it should not be taken as a definitive record of events. Gareth’s eyewitness testimony of my eight-day emotional rollercoaster ride would probably be quite different.
The other key players in the game would also have their personal versions of that week’s shenanigans. Unfortunately (bar holding a séance any time soon) we’re unable to hear from one of them. Gareth’s partner Anne tragically passed away when they were living in Australia.
The other missing piece in the jigsaw could only be provided by the fourth person involved: Anne’s daughter, Emma.
As I told you in that earlier entry, Emma was the girl who erupted into my life without any warning one Sunday night late in June 2001. Appropriately for an Australian, she turned my entire world upside down. She didn’t so much break my heart; she totally annihilated it; she smashed it into a hundred billion whatever pieces are called when they’re even smaller than smithereens.
I spent a very long time trying to put it back together. Unfortunately I found myself in a self-fulfilling and self-destructive feedback loop. Instead of pairing up with someone sensible (like, say, Rebecca), I embarked on a quest to find Aberdare’s least-suitable woman and try to hook up with them (Karen, Carys, Jenny, Clare…). When I wasn’t doing that, I managed to make friends with beautiful, intelligent but totally unattainable women (Shanara and Jamila), knowing full well that anything would ever come of it anyway.
It was a futile mission from the outset. None of them would ever measure up to Emma. I wasn’t simply comparing apples with oranges. I was comparing apples with the rarest and most exotic fruit I’d ever encountered. I honestly doubt if any other woman will (or even could) ever come anywhere close to Emma in my eyes.
The last time we spoke face-to-face, she was getting on a bus in Aberdare town centre. As we parted company for the last time, Emma asked me why I thought she was the One.
I told her, ‘Emma, I know you’re the One. (That’s partly why I’ve quoted the little epigram from The Matrix at the top of this chapter. Like Morpheus in the movie, my long search for the One had finally produced the desired result – at least temporarily.)
When Gareth and I met up again last summer, he told me briefly about Anne’s death. I offered him my condolences, as you do. Almost immediately we started chatting about all the stuff we used to chat about back in the days PE. That doesn’t stand for Physical Education, by the way. Ever since the end of June 2001 I’ve mentally divided my life into two distinct time periods: PE (Pre-Emma) and PH (Post-Heartbreak).
Since then, over a large number of boozy sessions, Gareth and I have compared notes on countless books and films; we’ve talked about our various writing projects; we’ve reminisced at length about the pub culture which isn’t around any more. Gareth’s told me about his time in Australia, and we’ve discussed various ideas about where he wants to go next (both literally and metaphorically). All the while, though, I’ve been staring inevitability in the face. I was always conscious that, sooner or later, the one topic I’d been dreading would crop up in conversation
By some quirk of fate, Gareth hadn’t even said Emma’s name to me until Friday night. While we were chatting, he mentioned her in passing and we moved on quickly.
Last night, though, the inevitable happened. We were sitting in The Cambrian, quite late in the session. (We’d had a couple of pints in The Lighthouse. At about nine o’clock, we were driven out by a professional karaoke artiste performing The Great Valleys Songbook with the volume turned up to 11.) There were fewer than a dozen people in The Cambrian, so we were able to chat comfortably.
And Gareth raised the subject of Emma.
In return, I went into considerable detail about the impact she’d had on my life. I told him that not a single day has passed without my thinking about her at least once. I said that, as far as I was concerned, she was the only woman I’d ever want to become involved with if the opportunity arose again. I also explained that nobody I’ve ever met since has come anywhere close. I’m fairly sure that I was on the verge of tears a couple of times.
And I hypothesised various outcomes if Emma were to walk into the pub and into my life, totally out of the blue, exactly as she did on 24 June 2001 PE.
In one universe, I’m polite and civil to her, but emotionally cool. I wouldn’t want to give her any idea that I’m still remotely interested in her.
In the universe next door, I blank her entirely, leave my pint unfinished on the bar, pick up my stuff, and make a beeline for the nearest exit.
In the universe next door the other way, I fall on my knees and immediately ask her to marry me.
In another universe a short distance away, I wait for her to say hello. Then I look at her blankly, and say, ‘Sorry love, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else’.
In yet another universe, I go straight home and knock back a hundred prescription-strength Co-codamol and put myself out of misery.
And so forth…
In this universe, of course, I honestly don’t know how I’d react in that situation. It might be even more unpredictable than I can imagine.
Gareth told me last night that he wants to phone Emma, just to catch up. He also told me a piece of information to which I wasn’t privy at the time. It certainly cast a lot of light on Anne’s decision to pour cold water on our brief romance. I’m glad he told me what he did, as it made the situation a hell of a lot clearer. (It didn’t make it any easier to bear, of course, but it made it clearer!)
While he was talking about the long-distance call, he asked me if I’d like to be remembered to her. I said, ‘No, probably best not.’
For one thing, Emma’s already in a relationship. Furthermore, while I’ve thought about her every single day, I’m pretty sure she won’t have given me a moment’s consideration since she left Aberdare. Finally, when you’ve burnt your fingers as badly as I did, you keep well away from the fire.
I know Gareth meant well. I was grateful for the opportunity to finally discuss the situation which drove a wedge between us initially. But (and it’s a big ‘but’) I don’t want to risk opening up old wounds, and possibly ruining our friendship again.
Emma’s on the other side of the world. I’ll probably never set eyes on her again. Even if I did: I’m pushing fifty; she’s still only in her early thirties. Why would she want to team up with someone who’d old enough to be her father? If she suddenly decided to hop on a plane and rocked up in Aberdare, would we even still like
each other? We don’t fit into Matt H.’s famous Half My Age Plus Seven
equation. (That would have been three years ago, so she can’t be my perfect woman any more.) For one fleeting week, a very long time ago, my life was illuminated by a brilliant flash of Australian sunshine. Since then, the darkness has returned. In spades.
What would be the point of trying to re-establish links with Emma? I’ve changed beyond recognition; she’s undoubtedly changed too. Even if she were single and available; even if she turned up in town tomorrow; even if we were able to rekindle our relationship as though nothing had happened to split us up, what would be the point? I’d only risk getting hurt again. The past is a foreign country. My visitor’s visa ran out nearly fifteen ago; I got deported and I’m unable to return.
More to the point, as I said a couple of months ago, I’m not interested in getting involved with any woman. I’ve been single for so long that I don’t know the rules of the game any more. I was never very good at playing it anyway, and my various injuries incurred in training would preclude me from any success. It was very kind of Gareth to offer to hold out an olive branch. I’d rather live on my memories and keep that blaze of sunshine alive in my heart. Better safe than sorry, eh?