Waldo was loved in something of the way that Molly is loved; as the intelligent, receptive, deserving animals of couples without children are loved. These animals acquire a preternatural sensitivity, a knowingness, a closer-to-humanness. This is not to say that they are made into grotesque parodies of babies, although that does happen, but they are loved with similar visceral intensity. Respectful and sensible humans recognise their companions' essential animal nature; they also know that their love for them will, in the order of things, exact a parlously high price in grief. This form of love, of child-substitution, is met with at best incomprehension, at worst contempt, by those who don't experience it. I have seen and heard of people who lavish this affection on an animal and then go on to have children; the scales fall from their eyes and the emotion is directed where, from an evolutionary point of view, it is supposed to go, to the human child, and is withdrawn from the animal. This phenomenon makes me glad of the finality of my childlessness; I would not want to be guilty of such betrayal. I never want to be guilty of betrayal again.
Waldo showed up behind the wholefood restaurant in South Wales where I was working, still young, still with his balls, but with his handsome face yet unblemished by tom-cat skirmishes. I took him home, had him seen to, and for some years he lived with me and my flatmate, then with me and my boyfriend. I left him and the boyfriend, together, at the same time.
The relationship with this man took up the greater part of my twenties and into my thirties. It was a mistake. He was a dear, good, intelligent person, but it shouldn't have lasted more than a weekend. Two weekends maximum. It lasted seven years because, like Chaucer's Criseyde, I had a sliding courage. I entered into it out of weakness and I stayed out of weakness.
I was at an impasse; life in London had palled, I was tired of the noise, the hardness, the edgy demands of it, the judgemental, personal-is-political attitudinising around me. One relationship had ended, work supported me but was not serious, I fantasised about getting away from it all. It should have been an opportunity really to go forward, to develop confidence and talents, but I opted for a retrograde move back to my university town, for an ill-conceived business project ( the wholefood restaurant ), and to filling this man's need, finding comfort in his undemanding kindness and gentleness.
I knew I couldn't stay, but I couldn't leave either. I lived a torn existence immersed in the relationship, but keeping my family largely in ignorance, visiting old friends always alone, generally denying the matter. About mid-way through our time together, I went back to my parents' house while my father was dying. On my eldest brother's direct enquiry, I admitted the existence of the relationship. Interpreting my tone correctly, he urged me that no one should settle for half, at least not knowingly and at the outset, and if I knew that was what I was doing I shouldn't do it. Hearing the truth made me miserable. In the searing light of the courageous truthfulness with which my father faced his death, I almost found the strength to finish it, but I was drawn back, in part because I feared the alternative of my mother's neediness, of a destiny as stay-at-home youngest child; my life may have been a poor thing but was mine own. Anyway, I missed my cat.
Exhausted by my seemingly pointless and unjustifiable resistance to commitment, a couple of years later I gave in and agreed to live with him, rather than go on maintaining nominally separate addresses. This was the beginning of the end. I fled hither and thither, drinking too much, having futile and short-lived affairs, often with quite nice men who quite rightly didn't see it as part of the deal to help me clamber out of the emotional morass I was in. When these failed I drifted pathetically back. I behaved atrociously but he took it all in the hopes that I might one day come back and stay. I went back to Mum, I took a postgrad. course, but still the quicksand of the tender trap kept dragging me back.
In the end, I tore myself away once and for all by a move of such an hideous, humiliating, drastic idiocy that my rational mind can still barely encompass that I did it, but that is another story. All I can say is, when your stuck in the gooey fat of the frying pan, sometimes the fire seems to be the only possible option. I walked through that shameful fire, ultimately, to where I am now, and I would be nowhere else.
Remorse about him hung around a long time; the memory was like bathwater too hot to put more than my toe into. But I think now I am free of it. In Monica Ali's novel 'Brick Lane', the vicious, sneaky, hypocritical old loan shark, from whom the couple borrowed to buy necessities to improve their life, keeps coming back with her thuggish sons to extract usurious interest. In the end, the central character says, in effect: enough, break my arms if you will but you are not having any more from me. The shark and her cohorts slink away. Remorse is like that. It will go on squeezing you until you turn around and say enough, no more, I have paid my dues to you and then some, break me if you want but then leave me alone.
And looking back on my younger self with the compassion that time brings, I understand that in some measure I was wronged too, that weakness and need and tenderness can be powerful and ruthless weapons when their target is susceptible.
The other day we took down a box of old, pre-digital photos and decided on a thorough sort out. Soon a satisfying pile of discarded prints had accumulated. There was just one very small envelope of pictures from before. Before what? Before I knew what it was to love someone not for what they needed from me but for what they were, from before there was stability and a balance of forces in my life. There was stasis, years of stagnation and boredom, but not stability, because of an inward restlessness, a heavy knowledge that this was not right. And, as another man said, if something's not right it's wrong. It was a time without grace. I choose to keep these pictures for the record, and because I find now I can look at them without that corrosive remorse, without pain, without grief.
All except this one.