There is a thin line between love and obsession...
It is strange how love can destroy you. Maybe you can even see how it’s going to end, but at the same time you still fool yourself that everything is fine. I met Maeve at university. She was a mature student, already married with a couple of kids, so she stood out from the rest of the undergraduates. I stood out as well but for different reasons. No parents; I grew up in a care home. And I was a scholar. I liked studying and I studied hard. To tell the truth I found it easy. All I had to do was read books and express an opinion. What more could a serious young man want? I enjoyed the lectures and the seminars, and even more I enjoyed sitting around in the refectory talking with my friends about the books we were reading. Was Dickens the greatest novelist? Was Pope the greatest poet? We were naïve of course, but also enthusiastic.
Maeve was beautiful. Tall with green eyes, lots of red hair, always smiling. But more important than that she was confident, sure of herself in a way that most students never are. She dressed in a slightly bohemian style with long skirts and high-heeled boots and a denim jacket. People assumed she was a lecturer rather than a student. It was a book that brought us together. Great Expectations, ironically. I had seen her around a lot and spoke to her often, and I would seek out her company if I could. She was attractive and intelligent, so why not? But that day she came looking for me. She had missed the lecture and wanted to borrow some notes.
“I know you always get everything down," she said. She smiled, and I was flattered.
“Yeah, it’s easy with Professor Downey. He’s great on Dickens.” I felt myself grinning like an idiot. I had the maddening compulsion to say something witty and elegant, or just funny. But at the same time I was aware that she was unavailable, so in one way the pressure was off. This was not a someone I was ever going to ask out.
“Look, I’ve got a tutorial now.” She looked at her watch. “How about we meet up in the refectory at three?” Again the smile and the confidence.
“Sure. I’ll pop into the library. I remember a book in there that you might find useful. I’ll bring it along.”
“Oh you star! See you!” As she turned to go she reached out to touch my arm. Just a friendly gesture, a fleeting touch of the fingers, barely felt. But as I walked to the library I felt ten feet tall.
We met at three and talked for a couple of hours. We talked about Dickens. We both thought Great Expectations was great. She also liked A Tale of Two Cities; I liked Hard Times. After that we spent more and more time together. We would sit next to each other in lectures and seminars, eat lunch together, go to the Union for a drink or sit in the park if the sun was out. And always there was the little touch of the arm, as a greeting or farewell. Of course I would never touch her. The etiquette for men touching women is more complicated. There was no question of anything more happening between us. She was married, she had children. We were friends, nothing more, never would be.
I never saw her in the evenings. She would always leave promptly at four to pick up her children from school. I didn’t go out much in the evenings myself. That was when I got most of my studying done. I had always made a point of reading more than just what was on the list, rather than going to the pub with the rest. When she phoned me I was over the moon. One of our tutors had put together a list of numbers, so that people could get in touch and help each other. I had looked at her name, just a few places above mine, and tried to think of a good excuse to call her. But I knew I never would. I never needed anyone’s help, not in academic matters. I had gone as far as to look her up in the phone book in order to find out the address that went with the number. It gave me a warm feeling to know where she lived.
She had phoned me because she wanted to talk about the end of term essay. She said she couldn’t get a handle on it. I was happy to oblige her. I had what I thought were some inspired insights on the subject and I was glad to share them with someone. We discussed the topic, the lecturer, the other students, what was in the news and what was on the telly. She told me she was up in the back bedroom of her house where she had her desk and her computer. I could hear her drinking wine from the glass in her hand. We talked for over three hours and by the end of the conversation I knew I was in love with her.
After that we talked on the phone a couple of times a week. Usually she called me but sometimes it was the other way around. There was always the pretence that it was about the work but we would soon move on to other subjects. Politics was a favourite topic, especially the short-comings of the government, which we both felt strongly about. But just about anything would do. We could talk for hours about the most trivial things. We didn’t always agree but I felt that she enjoyed an occasional argument. She was used to people agreeing with her. I would provoke her with some outrageous point of view and she would gasp with indignation until I would agree that she had a point, and say that it was a pity she wasn't in government so that she could put the world to rights. That used to make her laugh.
"Yes," she would say, and I could sense the smile on her face, "There's a lot I would do if I were in charge."
"I can believe it."
I began to plan my life around her. During the day I would try and meet her without seeming too eager and in the evenings I would wait for her calls. As the term came to an end there was talk of everyone going out to the pub one night. I listened carefully to hear what Maeve was going to do.
"Yeah, I'll be there. What about you Paul?" She was talking to me.
"Yeah, I'll be up for it." I felt an unreasonable surge of pride. She had asked me specifically.
The plans were quickly made. The last day of term we would all meet in the Union and then go to the West End. Drinking and dancing. It wasn't my usual thing at all. I found that I was feeling slightly nervous. The day before I went and got my hair cut and made sure my best shirt was clean. In my head I rehearsed funny things to say.
It was a good night out. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Of course, it was another term over and a couple of weeks holiday to look forward to. Everyone drank and danced and felt the pleasure of being young people full of life. After a few drinks I sat next to Maeve. We were crowded together on a bench-seat, our hips and shoulders touching. She was talking loudly to the rest of the group, making some point about Shakespeare. She turned to me.
"Don't you think so Paul?" She was looking for my agreement. I thought she was wrong, so I just shrugged my shoulders.
"Up to a point." I said smiling. She rolled her eyes and snorted in disbelief. She set out her argument again, and I answered her propositions, pointing out what I thought were inconsistencies and problems with her theory. Her eyes shone with enthusiasm as we talked. Occasionally she would push a strand of red hair back behind her ear, but her gestures would soon shake it loose again. I thought she had never looked more beautiful. I felt the courage of being slightly drunk, and I was sure that by the end of the night I would tell her how I felt. I would unburden myself of all the unspoken thoughts and she would understand and tell me she was very fond of me but nothing could ever happen between us, but we would always be friends. I would smile and kiss her on the cheek and walk away like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
The group began to break up as people started to head home. I found myself walking down Gower Street with Maeve. She hooked her arm through mine and leaned heavily against me. We weaved across the pavement, playing the game of pretending to be drunker than we really were. When we reached the bus stop, we were alone. She swayed suddenly and hit the bus shelter with her shoulder. She gave a little cry of pain and I pulled her towards me. I put my hands on her shoulders and looked at her upturned face. Her lips parted. I leaned forward and kissed her.
I sometimes find it hard to believe that I got involved with a married woman. Is this really my life? The most surprising thing is how easy it was. Not just the practical side of arranging the clandestine meetings and the afternoons spent in bed. No, the mobile phone has made that side of adultery fairly uncomplicated. But the mental and moral duplicity, the self-justification you need to somehow convince yourself that you're not actually a bad person, that's another matter. Maeve told me her husband had had an affair himself a few years before and she had asked for a divorce. But it was difficult because of the children, so they had decided to give it another go. But things were never the same. She had gone into further education which he had no interest in. They had nothing in common anymore, only the children. And now she was in love with me and I was in love with her, and somehow that made it all right and everything would work out in the end.
It had been going on for a year when she told me she was pregnant. We were sitting in my car in a pub car park on a Sunday afternoon. I had bought the car so we could drive out into the countryside where we wouldn't be seen by anyone we knew. I had taken a part-time job to pay for it. She held my hand and said she had good news. When she told me what it was I felt elated. I squeezed her hand and kissed her. Then I asked her what she was going to tell her husband.
"He already knows."
"What did he say?" I was puzzled. She had made a point of telling me right at the start that they didn't sleep together anymore.
"He was very happy." She looked down at her hands.
"I don't understand. How can he be happy?"
Of course he was happy. Why wouldn't he be? He already had two boys. Maybe this one would be a girl. He knew nothing about me.
"So you don't think it's mine?" I remember looking around the pub car park and seeing a couple walk past in the sunshine holding hands.
"No I’m sure. I'm sorry Paul." She twisted her fingers around mine, like a plea for forgiveness. I looked at her and saw the look of fear in her eyes. I kissed her again and pulled her close so that her hair was against my face. She started to cry.
"It'll be all right." I think I believed it when I said it.
I saw a lot less of her of course, but that was only to be expected. We had to be satisfied with talking on the phone again, as we had before the affair started, and when I did see her I was startled by the speed of the changes in her body. Being pregnant suited her and she looked happy. Then she was due to go into hospital and there were a few days of silence. I had to call her to find out that she had had a little girl. It was six weeks before I managed to see her and the child. We met in the park near her house, sitting on a wooden bench. All around us were young mothers and their children, shouting and playing, making the most of the warm autumn weather before winter set in. I leaned over the pram and looked at the tiny face trying to discern features, looking for any resemblance to me.
"She's lovely." I felt the small hand wrap itself around my finger. "Lovely."
"I can't stay long." Maeve looked tired and nervous. I thought that perhaps I was being unreasonable, expecting too much. But looking back I can see she was trying to let me down gently. She was kind in her way. But they say children change everything. They put things in perspective. I didn't really see Maeve or the baby again. Not properly anyway. I used to wait outside her house in my car, trying to catch a glimpse of them. Maeve had decided to take a year out and I had given up going to lectures. Sometimes I saw her with her husband and the boys, going out together on some family trip. He would carry the baby out and put her in the car, and they would set off, the ideal family. I followed her to the park one day and tried to talk to her. It was an embarrassing scene.
I stopped trying to see her, but I couldn't stop thinking about her. The various dead-lines for my course came and went. I left the letters from the university unopened. I knew what they said. If I had stayed on I suppose I would have graduated, but there just didn't seem any point anymore.
Today I used the last of my overdraft to fill up the petrol tank of the car and buy a length of hose-pipe. I'll drive out to Epping Forest, to a place where we used to go to watch the sun go down, and wait for the dark. It'll be quiet there.