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Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Story of Us: Ten Year Anniversary Post

Wednesday, 17th June, 2015. 10 years, 11 months and 364 days post courtiship commencement.

I’m taxiing out of JFK as I write this to return to London after a beautiful New York wedding and a precious few days spent re-exploring and adoring the wonderful city that I was once, for two years, so lucky to call my home. My eyes always dart around expectantly the various paths leading from gate to runway because I am so accustomed to this being the place I depart from, not just to return to London, the town I call my home, but to return to Mat, my now husband, but always lover and friend, who is my home.

Cutting the cake on the happiest day of my life

Again and again, by habit, I look out of the window as once I did aged seven on my first ever flight. “Will this be the turn that takes us from ground to the sky?” “Surely we’re travelling too slowly? How will we ever get off the ground?” “Surely we’ve been taxiing for hours. When will we take off, when?” “Is it time to take to the sky now? It must be, it must.” “Are we nearly there?” At every turn or surge of the engine from the plane my heart beat quickens, my breathing shortens. I am, with each slow turn of those three small aircraft wheels one step closer in my mind, always, from here, to being back ‘home’: back to my beloved.

Goodbye JFK and NYC. See you soon!

Tonight it is different: here we are together sitting side by side on the aeroplane. I’m not finishing up wiping my eyes and ordering Thai food from Enthaice to help create a carbohydrate food coma and lull me to sleep as he flies off. He’s not sleeping already as I excitedly board the plane and wait for every tiny movement forward towards being at home with him once more. We are travelling, hand in hand, to the place we have made our home, but which is, in reality, wherever we are together in all of the world, as long as together we are.

Here's a little more about my husband, whom you know less well than me. Mat has just jeopardised any chance of sleeping soon by delightfully extracting a stray eyebrow hair (very discretely, of course) with a spry finger and thumb, and now sits with eyes watering and nose recoiled beside me. I’m changed into my flight gear, i.e. comfy jungle pants and sweatshirt, wiggling my toes in sadly non-couture red and navy striped furry flight socks. We are – as ever – carrying on the life that we have built with one another day by day since we first met more than ten years ago, and since we started “going out together properly”, as I put it, ten years ago this day.

In The Smith, having brunch. Note Mat's inability to smile naturally 
for the camera. I love it when Facebook friends comment that
 he's looking as if he would rather be anywhere else. <3

I have planned to write a post to celebrate our ten years together for at least the last two months. “Mat,” I said (although we call each other by different, special, just-for-us names which I will refrain from citing here, since something of our private life must, I believe, be preserved just for us) “would you mind if I wrote in my blog the story of how me met and started going out as a celebration post for our tenth anniversary? I would so love to tell it because it makes me happy every time I think of it.”
“No,” he replied, neutrally, “that’s fine sweetheart. That sounds like a lovely idea.”
He is so giving. One of the shyest people I know, and he consented to my whimsical fancy of describing the miraculous wonder of our two separate souls coming together as one. Thank you, my love, for giving me this anniversary gift. The fact that you have shared it is yet another display of your acceptance that I am the way that I am and that we are especially suited to one another in spite of our differences.

Friday, 19th June, 2015, 10 years, 1 day post courtship commencement.

So, how did it all begin? Like many of the great romances, it began by being a total non-starter. I had just left Oxford after my final exams and a great friend and tutor had recently passed away, which had left me spinning in grief and devoid of my usual structured direction; A kind mutual friend of my late friend helped me to continue to live my dream of being in London despite the additional complexities that grief brings to moving away from one, safe, known life to a sprawling metropolitan new one, by arranging a short term position from me at the Institute of Education, working for the (then named) London Leadership Centre. It was an admin position paying a basic starting salary for such a city-based public sector post, and we were to be based in Tavistock Square. After leaving all my designs on a Brideshead Revisited life in Oxford, here was the entrance to another such dream-like existence, among the Bloomsbury set and within one of those talled terraced houses with their Juliet balconies and French doors, from where I continuously expected Mrs. Dalloway, or one of her descendants, to emerge.

Such was (is?) the lack of any kind of disability accessibility support in those buildings that it was to the third floor (i.e. up three tall flights of stairs) that I must climb each day to my new administrative post. Our office rooms were tiny and housed at most two desks at a time. Dorian* was my office mate, a thirty-something officianado of the place who not only knew everyone who was anyone (or wasn’t) but could also tell me how to swing two council flats out of the London borough of Hackney, plus apply Touche Eclat and eyeliner to perfection before our (many) outings for lunch and dinner in the area. 

(*not his real name)

Bloomsbury, where romances begin...

Dorian was a gossip specialist, and with an extremely practised and rarely convincing air of disinterest, politely asked me for my background: university education, origins, love life etc. At which point he declared when I confirmed that I was without a boyfriend currently, that he had the perfect match for me, a Cambridge-educated Philosophy graduate with a PhD who was to be found somewhere in the basement of the building, and apparently was also single and potentially slightly melancholy and quiet. Dear reader, I confess these qualities did not present themselves to me as recommending traits for a future suitor. Added to which, the thought of being matched on a blind date I found abhorrent in the extreme: think: if you are matched up with someone by a friend, if you find yourself going out with someone who is markedly less a) intelligent, b) funny, c) good looking (okay, clearly ‘c’ was ‘a’ but I didn’t want you to have ultimate confirmation of my propensity (especially in my early twenties) to be shallow).

No, oh please no, not the multi-coloured jeans and shell suit combo!!!

As it turned out, the mysterious basement man was as reluctant as I to proceed with the proposed blind date, and so it was called off. It was not until four or five months later that I finally came face to face with him, in the basement, which also happened to be the stash for stationery. In case you are not aware, allow me to enlighten you that working for an institution linked to education almost undoubtedly links you inextricably with a world where post-it notes are king. Scarcely a day goes by where the tiny sticky multi-coloured paper pages are not employed for a multitude of means. I ventured down to the basement in search of this very thing, but was almost mortified with embarrassment at the prospect of meeting someone to whom I had not been formally introduced (I really was still very much in the Oxford world) and with whom I had been suggested as a potential romantic target. Therefore I marched, face downcast, past this chap who appeared to be wrapped entirely within a navy overcoat covering all of his person except his slender neck (and it was a very cold room) and muttered a quick “Hello” before retreating once more to the safety of my tiny cubbyhole four floors up.

Not that we still have any of these. No, not at all.

For the next few months I drifted down from North London where I lived to Bloomsbury each day, enjoyed outings to the museums and bars nearby and felt quite the thing at times, especially when a good friend and I blagged our way into a London Review Bookshop event and he and I both ended up giving interviews to camera in celebration of its publication, in spite of the fact that neither of us had the faintest idea for which occasion we had crashed the party…and I ended up in the BBC2 programme about it (vague sentiments of praise are clearly useful to editors everywhere). I also dated a young French man and had a fun time visiting some swanky restaurants in my London-styled looks. That was not to last, but luckily it was my pride rather than my heart which hurt more as that liaison ended shortly after it began.

Great Shop. Great Party.

At some point I realised that I really must find something to do – some direction – and that this could not happen at the Institute. Over a lunch at Heals with the same wonderful friend who helped me to find the job there in the first place, she suggested I apply to the Teach First scheme, which apparently was ‘very up and coming’ and a good idea for a bright graduate. It appealed to me because it was a two year programme. I thought, “Well, I can probably stick it out for two years, if I get in, and it would be good to have something like that on my CV perhaps.” A tome-sized application form and an assessment centre later, I was lucky enough to gain a place. Great!

Heals: where great ideas are formed and great lunches had!

Wait, though, I don’t actually know anything about teaching. (Not so great.) So what will I do now?
During the time of this application, our Bloomsbury existence had been uprooted from its styled, decaying glamour, to a chic new location just off Tottenham Court Road, with security badges, glass and chrome and spacious open plan design. This meant a move, of course, plastic crates for the removal of our belongings I.e. the post-it notes) and a reshuffle of desk arrangements. And thus it came to pass that I was allocated a place in the ‘temporary staff’ section of the floor, opposite that same young over-coated gentleman who was my one-time blind-date to be, Dr. Matthew Carmody.
Mat (as he is known) came in once a week just for the afternoon, since he was administrator for the course “Working Together for Success” or something like that, and sat quietly at his (brand new) white desk eating a baguette sandwich and eating his Walker’s crisps, usually plain, sometimes salt and vinegar. Reader, I may have been too bashful to attempt a self-introduction when we had no reason to speak, but at the rustling of a crisp packet I could no longer resist. I. Had. To. Have. A. Crisp.

We started to make polite conversation, once a week, as I sat there pretending to work despite the fact that my programmes had largely concluded, and he sat there doing (I assume) the same. We chatted about this and that and then we went our separate ways until the next week. It was only when I received a telephone call from Teach First to accept my application that it struck me to ask Mat for assistance. I had learned from our chit chat over crisps that he was also a teacher aside from his IoE job – and I needed (I really, really needed) some advice in that respect. Mat – thank you, Mat! – accepted my invitation for an after work drink for the selfish purpose of my learning what on earth I was letting myself in for by signing up to teach a bunch of kids in Walthamstow and Chingford aged eleven to sixteen.

Now then, it is time to point out that in no way was this invitation issued as a date or anything like. I was asking for advice from a work acquaintance. End of. To illustrate this point I will introduce the following evidence: that en route to our chosen venue of The Sun pub on Tottenham Court Road, I asked Mat if he wouldn’t mind stopping off, on the way, so I could go to Boots, and then proceeded to buy a packet of feminine hygiene products which I (quite publicly) purchased in full view of Mat. This was not, therefore, I repeat, not, intended to be a romantic encounter.

A very serious Mat. A very amused me.

In The Sun, I think I remember Mat kindly got in the drinks, a large glass of red for me and a pint of London Pride for him. And we talked about teaching: what sort of lessons did he teach? What were the students like? Did he give homework? Did anyone actually do the homework (yes I know, former teachers, I never did it!)? What format did lessons take?

In the hour and a half that passed I learned two things: one, that teaching in 2005 was different than anything I had experienced or was thus far expecting from my next job; two, that Mat Carmody was definitely amusing, interesting, and someone I felt suddenly a sense of sparkle in my stomach for. I did a figurative double take. “Huh. He’s really nice. Was there a frisson?” We parted and I went on back up to north London to see a friend, to practise some singing together and catch up post Oxford. “So, how's your love life, Jessica?” he asked (or something like that. Bridget Jones eat your heart out!). And I looked at him, straight, and said, “Well, maybe, because I think I actually just had a drink with someone who is really nice.”
And so, reader, we all lived happily ever after. 


Of course we didn’t! This is Britain. It took me long enough (and him for that matter) even to say “Hello,” let alone to acknowledge an interest beyond simple, uncomplicated, no strings friendship. What did happen was that we were very definitely friends after that night.

Truckles: Where much red wine was drunk in the London summer sunshine

We arranged drinks again, this time just for fun, in a couple of weeks, and spent a happy two hours drinking red wine in the courtyard at Truckles near the British Museum talking all things, Classics (me), Philosophy (him), music (both of us) and his dashing tales of derring-do, such as being so squiffy at a friend’s wedding that he looked out of the window and his glasses fell off his face, to be retrieved the next day in the flower patch outside, and the fact that in the car going back the combination of hangover plus student car vibrations meant he temporarily lost sensation in both arms. (I then went off to the opera, quite half (or more) cut, myself, after that. The opera I saw is a distant memory. But I’m sure it was very good and the Champagne at half time was excellent.)

No idea what was happening but it was surely very good.

We had another such drink, and by this time I knew that I was, pretty much, in love with Mat Carmody. He was so funny, interesting, kind and gentle that I had set my cap at him, but even had I not my heart had decided that he was for me. At this point he had still not asked me out, but I had invited him to attend my birthday party with other friends, a dinner in central London in a few weeks’ time. I had had a long experience of the classic Oxford ailment that is unrequited love throughout almost the entirety of my degree, and had no desire to repeat two and a half years of a similar experience. Therefore, I thought, there is only one option. You cannot wait for him to make the first move in case he never does. You must ask him out. And so I (sort of) did. And what is more, I told myself, you must hope that something happens before that, but if nothing does, then you must ask him out (properly!) yourself, and if it doesn’t work out, never see him again until your heart has 100% moved on. No more nonsense waxing and waning. Get on with it!

At our last drink before this event, knowing we were both soon to leave the IoE anyway, there was little risk of meeting Mat again should my bid (if it had to be me who made the move) so I had a plan in place which meant I could thoroughly embarrass myself at my birthday party, in the presence of all my closest friends (which, in reality, doesn’t separate this birthday from any other). Unfortunately we had relatively little time together at this drink as Mat had to go home to mark essays.
At this point I wasn’t exactly optimistic. I mean, what guy picks essay marking over drinks with me? Answer: someone who is clearly not interested.
Despite this, we walked together to the bus stop and I still hoped that we might at least reach that ‘awkward moment’ where, waiting from the bus, we might share a first kiss? As we walked there I said, gesturing towards Rathbone Place, “So, I’ll see you on Saturday?”
“Yes. Hang on, so when you said you were having your party at the Eagle, I assumed you meant somewhere in Clerkenwell, not the Eagle round here.”
Great. Not only is he dashing home to mark third rate philosophy essays rather than staying in town for dinner and drinks with me, he very nearly lost any chance of turning up at my party at all by heading to a place miles away from the actual venue.

And no. Transport for London did not deliver our first kiss, because, contrary to every other time, the bloody bus turned up right on time. Thanks a lot TFL. You really outdid yourself this time in your support for romance.

Thanks a lot TFL. Crushing romantic liaisons by turning up on time. How dare you?!

So how did the story end? With the help of my best friend and me drinking Champagne at 10am (as she couldn’t attend because of a very serious back injury), we had our little birthday brunch of our own with some cheesy chick flicks and brut Champagne to give me Dutch courage before we left.

Champagne, giving la courage to les braves everywhere.

And at a dinner on one of the hottest days of the year, surrounded by my friends and being grilled by all sides, my beloved Mat (who hates hot weather and was looking massively annoyed and about to expire) took the oh so subtle hint I dropped as a practised flirt with the classic, never again to be used line, “Please come and sit next to me because I want you to sit next to me,” and finally. Finally. At after dinner drinks he bought me a gin and tonic, and as we waited for it to arrive, he put his hand on my hand. And that was the start of us.

Our first date venue. Happy Memories!

Ten years later, here we are, still holding hands. A fair few challenges along the way, the path to true love never did run smooth, and there were job changes, commutes, many tough times with our health and trying to be together across London and also across continents, but here we are. We went back to our first date venue - Putney's Boathouse down by the river for a celebratory drink to toast ten years together.

Thank you Mat Carmody for sticking around with me, and for being so understanding about everything. My partner in life, love and laughter. I love you always. (And thanks for all the post-it notes. They've come in very handy over the years.) x

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