Saturday, March 5, 2011
It's All Bob Geldof's Fault
I was living in London and looking for something to distract me from the usual sameness of life. One day I got an email from a mailing list I'd joined a few years earlier. The email invited people to join a writing group that had been set up as a vehicle to share stories about Zimbabwe. Though my parents were both born there, I'm born in South Africa, so technically I'm not Zimbabwean. The group sounded like just the kind of hobby I was looking for so I asked to join anyway. The organizers said they'd love to have me along.
The first meeting was scheduled for a date in February, at a small fringe theatre in south-east London. I went along, putting on my best 'Sally Sunshine' face, which is my alter-ego who I bring out when I'm walking into a room full of strangers. As one of the organizers, Patrick was sitting at the head of the table, looking very stern but dignified. I vowed to give him a wide berth, feeling a bit intimidated by his quiet presence!
The group met weekly and began to develop a script for a play. Over time we all got to know each other and I began to feel intrigued by this strong man who gave away so little about himself. By the middle of the year, we decided as a group to approach the theatre about producing our play. In parallel, however, life was changing for the group: four of the six were leaving London. We agreed that as Patrick and I were left behind, we would keep working together to finalize the script, secure the funding and get the play on stage. But there was a brief hiatus in the project's momentum: I was travelling, the other members were moving on, and Patrick moved away for a few weeks. So we put things on hold until further notice. I was living with a boyfriend at the time, and Patrick was also involved in a long-term relationship. I didn't know much about him, and what I did know was gleaned from snippets of overheard conversations.
In December of that year, my relationship fell apart. I was feeling devastated, unworthy and lonely, so I maxed my credit card and flew home to South Africa to be with my family for Christmas. It was an emotional time, but the beach break did me the world of good: family, food, love and sunshine. Patrick was also in South Africa at around the same time, on a road trip with friends. We didn't make any plans to meet as we would be on different coasts. I returned to the UK just before new year, flying via Paris. At around 6am Paris time, waiting to board for Heathrow, I switched my phone on. Patrick had left a message to say that he would be in the area and it would be good to meet up. I couldn't of course, but I was intrigued that he'd called me, calculating that it was 8am South African time when he'd left the message.
When he returned, I discovered that his relationship had also collapsed. We moved out of our respective homes and into our new, independent lives on the same day.
The New Year started and he and I began to spend a lot of time together, working hard to secure funding for the play. We would meet pretty much every weekend and sometimes during the week. We would talk for ages on the phone and email each other multiple times a day. It dawned on me that I was looking forward to each email; would grin and giggle throughout each phone call; and would feel simultaneously relaxed and self-conscious during each meeting. But, feeling emotionally raw and vulnerable, I didn't consider for a moment that I wanted to get involved again. Besides, I rationalized, he was 11 years older than me, he wouldn't be interested in me, I was too busy building my new life...
We had an enormous amount in common, from shared experiences of African childhoods, to a love for a certain late night radio DJ whose 'agony aunt' show had us in stitches. Our families lived close to each other in Devon, so we exchanged lunch invitations. It was a very confusing time for me: I didn't know where his head or his heart was. I didn't know where mine was. I tried to convince myself and my friends - who laughingly disagreed with me - that there was nothing between Patrick and me. I found out that he was dating again, and a tiny little part of my heart lurched.
One evening I joined him and some friends for Sundowners at my favourite place in London: the South Bank Centre. He walked me across the Thames to the tube station afterward. I left him there, thinking that things were changing. But I didn't dare think more than that. I felt damaged by the way I had destroyed my last relationship and was very wary about opening myself up again. I was particularly wary about repeating the patterns that had characterized my previous relationships.
On the Monday after that, I received an email from the same mailing list, about a lecture taking place at St Paul's Cathedral. Bob Geldof was delivering a talk about Africa. A man I admired talking on my favourite subject at a spectacular venue. I booked a ticket for one and forgot about it. That night, at home, I was doing my ironing, random thoughts running through my mind. Work, the play, Patrick...Patrick...Patrick. And then, in that moment, I discovered I had a crush on him! My first thought was: "I have a crush." My next thought was: "Dammit, now what?". There was so much at stake: our friendship, honest, true, pure, fun and light. The play: a labour of love; we were close to getting the funding we needed. My history: broken relationships, disappointment and heartbreak.
So I made myself a deal: I would tell him only if there was an appropriate moment. If there wasn't, I would keep schtum. I mentally shook hands on the deal and pulled the next shirt out of the basket.
The next night I rushed to St Paul's after work. I found a seat about halfway up the main aisle, in the middle of the row. From there, I scanned the room and saw the back of his head. He was deep in conversation with someone. Unthinking, but with a sense of haste and, dare I say it, desperation, I clambered apologetically over ten or so disgruntled people in the row. I skittered up the edge of the aisle, bags and hair flailing. I rushed up towards him, seeing nothing. I reached him, breathless and said, with all the casual spontaneity I could muster: "Hi!". He was surprised, then smiled. We chatted a bit. There were empty seats next to him. I heard:" There are people sitting here, there's no space."
He later insisted he said: "I'll see if I can create more space so you can sit here."
I slunk away, feeling embarrassed and slightly gawky.
At the end of the lecture, I was sitting on a bench in the rain, changing my work shoes for more sensible trainers, feeling pretty miserable. I would go home, have some wine and go to bed. Instead, my phone rang.
It was Patrick, asking where I was, what I was doing, and inviting me for a drink. I hesitated for a moment, then agreed. He was with a few people I already knew and so we settled into an evening of chit-chat, cold beers and catch ups. Much later, sometime around closing time, Patrick announced he was leaving and suggested we share a cab to the tube station. My first thought was: "Why?". My second thought was: "Oh, okay."
We jumped into the cab. It was a dark, wet April night. The lights of the south bank twinkled on the ripples of the Thames, as the cab droned from Blackfriars towards the Embankment, which was my stop. He was going to Victoria. There was a moment. It was appropriate. I took a deep breath and said: "Would it be appropriate to tell you I have a crush on you?".
He said: "Yes."