She knows something’s up as soon as I walk in. I’m a little late for a start, which is a first. Normally I’m here before she is - eager to get started.
‘What’s up?’ she says.
I don’t know how to tell her. ‘I think we shouldn’t see each other any more’ I say. I know it sounds like I’m ending an affair. That’s how it feels to me.
‘You’re dumping me?’
She sits there, apparently aghast, and I notice her gather the collar of her tunic together, covering her cleavage.
‘Well thanks a bundle’ she says.
It really hadn’t occurred to me she’d take it this badly. I’d assumed that, yes, she liked me well enough these days in a professional kind of a way but that it wouldn’t mean too much to her. There’s an awkward silence.
‘Why?’ she says at last.
I want to say ‘Because I love you’ but I don’t think it’ll help. I don’t even know if it’s true. Looking back on the women I’ve “loved” I can’t help thinking a lot of it was just lust and loneliness. Greater minds have made the same mistake.
‘I can’t deal with this all just being about sex’ I say finally. ‘You just thinking all I need is a damn good screw...’
I know that’s not what she means but I want to be dramatic. I feel like starting a fight. She frowns at me quizzically through narrowed eyelids.
‘Can’t you see what it’s like for me?’ I say, trying to get something articulate and insightful assembled. ‘I don’t want to stop coming here. It’s just...’
‘Then don’t’ she says simply.
‘Ok, I wont’ I say, hugely relieved. I hadn’t really wanted to stop. I hadn’t really thought it out properly. I needed to make her understand something though. This had just been a rather melodramatic way to do it. ‘I’m sorry’ I say and sit back in my chair.
We sit for a while and let the atmosphere thin a little.
‘It’s not just about sex’ she says eventually.
‘It is a lot about sex’ I say, and she smiles guiltily.
‘I thought it was an important issue for you.’
‘It was...and is, I suppose. It’s just, with you...’
‘What about me?’
‘I can’t be cool and... detached about it talking to you.’
‘Because you want to sleep with me.’
‘More than that.’
She nods and thinks for a while. ‘What would you prefer we talk about?’ she says eventually, coolly.
‘Oh look...’ I say, laying my cards on the table as it were. ‘I would love to talk about sex with you. I would like nothing better, except of course actually having sex with you, but that’s just the point. You can’t, or won’t, so it’s just so...’
‘To say the least. And look. I’ve been an old man, quite recently. I’ve had the most chronic sexual frustration all my life, and then it was over and I was free. I could relax, give up on it.’
‘Now it’s all come back again. Worse.’
‘Not worse. You’ve got me to talk to about it. You can’t have me – not like that – but you can learn. Look, you’re not just an old man – you’re a young man, or you’re a baby, or you haven’t even been conceived yet – don’t you get it?’
‘I do, really, but I was thinking – what about the fact that I never had a proper job in my life? What about the fact that I hardly had a close friend all my life? What about the fact that I hardly spoke to my father the last ten years of his life? Don’t we need to think about some of that?’
Now I’m beginning to choke up but I get myself under control. She contemplates me a while.
‘We can talk about those things, absolutely’ she says softly, ‘but tell me this – when you look back on your life, which do you regret most – the fact that you never had a decent job or the fact that you never had a proper girlfriend?’
She stares at me seriously for a while. A voice in my head insists that the lack of a girlfriend was trivial, irrelevant, whereas the unemployment was like mortal sin. It’s my dad’s voice. That’s why I couldn’t face him all that time.
‘It’s not just about sex anyway’ she says eventually. ‘I’m not saying all you need is a damn good fuck. What I’m saying is you need the love of a good woman. Which, if you remember is exactly what you said you wanted at the start.’
‘I was being flippant.’
‘No you weren’t.’
We sit for a while after that – regrouping.
‘How was it with your parents in the end?’ she asks conversationally.
‘I don’t know if I do want to talk about it actually, to be honest.’
‘You did tell me your dad was made redundant.’
‘Yes, when they privatised the parks and gardens department – put it up for “compulsory competitive tendering”.’
‘How did he react to that?’
‘Hard to tell with him. None of the landscapers that took over would employ him – said he was too old.’
‘What did he do?’
‘The last job he had was on the checkouts at the local superstore.’
‘That must have been humiliating for him.’
I shrug. If it was he really didn’t show it. Not to me anyway.
‘I went to the shop a couple of times – I watched him. He always had this diffident, courteous, slightly subservient way about him. I watched him methodically packing people’s bags, so precise and efficient and it was like watching him handle his plants, taking care not to crush the roots, bruise the leaves – because you know, usually if you let the staff pack your bags it all goes in any old how. I watched him – he took such pride over it. He didn’t say much, just, you know, polite, time of day stuff. It was pathetic.’
‘That they’d reduced him to that and he just put up with it. He could have been head gardener at some big country estate, he had that much knowledge and experience and he was so diligent and conscientious and they just took advantage because he wouldn’t put himself forward.’ Now I am near tears. I look up at her.
‘You don’t think perhaps he was content to be that way?’
‘I think he accepted it. Well, he accepted the menial work. The most angry I saw him was when they made him prune the Elaeagnus when it was in full flower simply because it fitted in with their maintenance schedule. I don’t think he ever accepted people’s attitudes but he never did anything about it. He always looked bruised – like a dog. You know he really reminded me of one of those sorry looking dogs that always look like they might get kicked any moment.’
‘That’s a sad image.’
‘Hmm...’ I say, noncommittally. It really is, but I can’t show it.
‘What was your mum doing all this time?’
‘God, she worked until she dropped, almost literally. They died within a couple of years of each other.’
‘How do you think she felt about your dad?’
‘At the end they were quite close I think. He had some sort of a breakdown, a seizure or something. Then he had to stay at home, and mum and Justine and I took turns keeping an eye on him. I remember the day we suddenly realised... It was very odd.’
‘All his life he’d been into these alpine plants – these ridiculous tiny plants that are so ill suited to growing in the UK you couldn’t even go away for forty-eight hours in case they keeled over and he was out there every day, with his tweezers and his badger hair paintbrush in this special alpine house he’s got, and he’s got his magnifying glass and a torch strapped to his head and he’s peering at these plants that look like little green blobs in their pots, and he’s teasing out dead leaves which might rot and brushing away aphids and it’s unbelievable. He got prizes for his Dionysias.’
‘These tiny crevice plants – come from somewhere in the Middle East – little green mounds, in gravel, in a pot, and if they get too damp at the wrong time, or slightly the wrong watering that’s it. Game over.’
‘Do they have flowers?’
‘Oh yes, if you get it right, they absolutely cover themselves in little pink or yellow flowers. You can’t see the leaves, if you get it right.’
‘And he did?’
‘Absolutely. Drove my mum nuts. It meant they couldn’t go away on holiday at all. She was doing quite well financially and she wanted to travel, but no, we had to stay home in case one of his prize Dionysias got a chill or something.’
‘Couldn’t she go on her own? Or couldn’t you take over, do the watering or whatever?’
‘Yes, that’s exactly what she did, and no, he didn’t trust me, or anyone for that matter. Miserable old git.’
‘Seems like a funny name for such a feeble plant’ she muses. ‘Dionysus – god of robust over indulgence.’
I smile. That’s my girl. ‘I did mention it once or twice.’
‘I think they might have been named after a Turkish botanist or some such.’
‘It’s still funny.’
‘Not to him.’
‘Anyway, you were saying...’
‘Yes. It was weird.’
I very rarely miss my dad. I look about the room and wait for a feeling about him to materialise – sadness, loss, anger? But no. I seem to have frightened it off again, but I know it’s there – a little lost yearning at the edge of my consciousness.
‘Well, after he couldn’t get about so easily he gave away his collection and went in for easier stuff, rare bulbs and things, but I don’t think his heart was in it. It was always hard to tell with him. And then one day... he’d been retired for a few months I think. I hadn’t been round there for a while...
Anyway one day he came home and he said to mum “I’ve bought you a little toy windmill.”’
I have to stop for a moment there, look about the room, think what to say next. Such a stupid thing…
‘It was just some cheap ornament from the garden centre – painted white, with little wooden peg people on the balcony. The sails were supposed to go around in the wind I think. We all just sort of looked at it and then at each other and tried to say something helpful. He took it down the garden and set it among his precious alpine plants on the rockery. He never would have let anything like that in his garden normally. He wouldn’t let mum have so much as a bird table...’
I look away toward the door. I remember he looked so happy that day. Poor old sod.
After a while I realise I haven’t said anything for a while and Andrea is waiting for me to go on. I find myself leaning forward, my hands covering my nose and mouth. I make myself lean back and keep my hands in my lap and try to look normal.
‘What happened next?’
‘Er, well... we all just stood around, watching him trying to get the bloody thing to stand upright in the mud. I remember mum going out to help him, which was not like her at all. Eventually she had to come in and leave him to it. He was still fiddling with it at midnight and she just came in and sat down and wept. I’d never seen her cry...’
I look out of the window. I feel sort of dull – stupid – can’t get my thoughts in order. Andrea is watching me, waiting. The sky is clearing. Perhaps I’ll go up and sit outside later on.
‘It sounds like it might have been a brain tumour of some sort’ she says after a while.
‘That’s what they said.’
‘What happened in the end?’
‘Some sort of stroke I believe. It was quick at least. I wasn’t there.’
‘And you never really talked to each other?’
‘No...’ I look around, feeling a bit lost. ‘Men didn’t though, did they, not his generation.’
‘What would you have liked to have said?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. I’ve thought about it so much but there’s nothing I can think of.’ I sit quietly for a time, thinking about him. She watches me. It’s getting dark outside. I can hear the others going through for dinner.
‘You know, it seems to me that so much of what parents say about their children is about pride. It’s all about being proud of what their children have achieved, what they’ve done with their lives. But what if they’re not proud of them? What if their children got everything wrong? What if they didn’t do anything to be proud of? What then? Is it ok for the parents to not have anything much to do with their children?’
She looks at me for a moment. ‘I don’t think so’ she says. ‘They’d still love their children.’
‘So they say, but if they have nothing to say, don’t particularly want to do anything with them – or they just do their duty – then what does this “love” actually mean? It might as well not exist surely. It makes no difference.’
‘I think love always makes a difference’ she says finally. ‘Come on, it’s dinner time...’
I stand to go but wait to let her go first. I think we’ve got maybe a couple more sessions together. I can’t tell if she is looking away deliberately as she passes.
I went up on deck and looked at the view, then up into the bows and looked at the waves parting and at the dolphins that were not dolphins but something else, something more primitive, surfing. How do they move like that, with no apparent effort? I went down to the bar but didn’t fancy anything to eat. I saw the others by the window but I didn’t go over. I went to the library and then the games room but there was nothing I wanted to do so I went back to my cabin and had a lie down.
When I awoke it was dark and all I could hear was the water outside. I guessed everyone must be asleep. I lay there naked and couldn’t even summon up a decent erection.
‘Love’ I thought.
I didn’t even know what the word meant. ‘Dependence’ I thought. Dependence and desperation. Lust and loneliness, and dreams that bear no relation to actual people whatsoever. I had been infatuated almost all my life, obsessed, possessive, jealous, depressed, and then lonely. Once you take all that away what’s left?
People I hung out with back in the 90s used to go on about love. I don’t know what they thought they were talking about. The Second Summer of Love they called it but the people I knew who went on about it the most were among the most self-serving, self-indulgent, self-obsessed people I ever met. It suited them to use the word because it specified no particular action or effort on their part, save a kiss and a cuddle – it was a handy password excusing all transgressions. Once you’d told someone loved them you didn’t have to try so hard. That was how it looked to me anyway.
And my parents... What did they think it meant? Did they even mention it? I don’t think so, but then parents didn’t back then. Hippy parents said it all the time. Their children were like tiny dinosaurs on the rampage, trashing everything they encountered – generosity, tenderness, treats – snatched or dismissed with scorn or spite. And yet their parents said they ‘loved’ them. So that was alright.
And yet what would I not have done to have someone I loved tell me they loved me too?
I can’t begin to imagine.