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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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EVERYONE WARNED US ABOUT GETTING
married so soon. On the telephone from Australia Ro said, ‘You're getting
what
? Wasn't it you who made the jokes about “better dead than wed”?' Steph and I had the first and only falling-out of our friendship: she sent a postcard of her heroine, Emma Goldman, scrawled with a quote: ‘On rare occasions one does hear of a miraculous case of a married couple falling in love after marriage, but on close examination it will be found that it is a mere adjustment to the inevitable.' Beneath it, she wrote, ‘Deb, why not have the honeymoon without the wedding? Why not wait to see if you like him first? It doesn't sound like a good idea to me, marrying someone you've known for three weeks.'

I replied, in writing trembling with emotion, ‘How dare you, Steph! Never in a million years would I advise you not to get married, or not to have a baby, or to have one. That's between you and Nasser. These decisions are intimate, deep, personal, the most private decisions any of us can make. I would never offer you my opinion on such a thing and I'm shocked that you would.' I later learnt that after reading this Steph rushed around to Ro's tiny house in Balmain, sobbing.

Clementine said: ‘Why rush? He will still be there in six months. If he loves you, he will still be there in a year.'

She began a campaign to win me back, to sanity if not to her arms. She took me to the opera, to a house on the cliffs of Normandy for a weekend, to a private soirée at the Hôtel de Marigny. She took me to a ball at a chateau near Fontainebleau, a ball that lasted till dawn, with baccarat tables and jazz bands in rooms with gilded ceilings, rock bands in tents in the gardens, peacocks on the lawns, waiters moving along hallways that resembled Versailles' golden passages, painted, mirrored, dazzling. There were real peasants staring through the locked fences as we drove in. ‘Celestine, you secret aristocrat,' I said. She laughed, wound down her window, and shouted, ‘
Liberté, égalité, fraternité!
' The peasants cheered.

Horatia said: ‘You are like a child who wants to eat up all the ice-cream in the world. Being grown-up means stopping before you make yourself sick.'

I replied: ‘Thank you, Dr Freud. I didn't know you were an expert on these matters.'

She looked at me and smiled. ‘Well, my dear, I can see that your mind is already made up. When you want something, you really want it, don't you?'

I really wanted my dream lover.

I really wanted my perfect lover, my prince, having waited and waited.

I really wanted to hand myself up, as if on a plate, a liver, a heart, dissected for his delectation.

I really wanted to eat up all the ice-cream in the world until I was sick.

I really wanted to die in his arms, just like in a fairytale, going up, incandescent.

I saw that in choosing him I was closing the door on that intimate room in which Ro and Steph and I had dwelt so long, that cosy room in which we told each other secrets about men who loved bottoms and lovers who fell in love with desire and soft-eyed Arab boys who wore silk cravats. I knew I had to join that world of responsible emotional engagement before I was lost, stranded forever on the shores of adolescence, where girlish intimacies stood in for adult intimacies between women and men. I had never before burdened myself with the responsibilities of a mutual adult relationship.

We rushed, laughing, him and me, down the rue de Rivoli to buy the golden rings inscribed with our names.

We rushed, love at our heels, flying to our future.

I was wearing the orangey-red dress I was in love with, holding the hand of my perfect lover, arrived at last.

We were married in the Mairie du quatrième, just us, with no-one else present. I wore a lace top I had found at a
marché aux puces
, which I dyed by leaving it in a bowl of tea overnight.

Our first night married we washed each other's bodies, tenderly, the palms of each other's hands, the soles of each other's feet. With a soft cloth and a bowl of warm water we anointed each other.

Afterwards we lay in each other's arms on his creaking boat and all the happiness of the world came to rest upon our heads. We felt a kind of religious beatitude.

EIGHTY-SEVEN
The unrequited lover

THERE HAS TO BE ONE
unrequited love in a life.

My unrequited lover was romantic love, which naturally and properly never gave me what it promised, exposing me as a child who believed she was growing up to turn into a swan.

EIGHTY-EIGHT
Horatia

HORATIA LIVED THROUGH THE SECOND
World War. She was in the army, the ATS, and wore a soldier's khaki uniform. She once showed me a picture of herself in it, a pretty girl with a Veronica Lake hairstyle swept over one eye.

Horatia was a driver. For a time she drove a general around a bomb-struck London and he was so impressed with her that she was recruited to the team who looked after the prime minister.

Sometimes she took out Clementine (that is, Mrs Churchill) for a secret night drive around the blackened streets. Clementine referred to Horatia as her ‘blue-eyed girl' and sat in the back, rarely talking. Horatia said that these speechless night drives sometimes return to her now in her old age: the city without lights, driving in blackness, hardly recognising what she was seeing.

Horatia drove Winston Churchill and King George VI up from London to the wilds of North Yorkshire on a secret visit to inspect the preparations for D-Day. The army was using a beautiful twelfth-century Augustinian priory as a training site. When they arrived troops were scrambling all over the medieval walls, practising on them in preparation for the ruined stones of northern France.

Horatia did not know that she was witnessing preparations for the biggest invading force the world had ever seen. All she remembers is that on the way up the king asked Churchill for a cigar. And Churchill had very dirty fingernails. ‘I'd have hated to sit next to him at dinner,' she said. ‘They were enough to put you off your food.'

Horatia, history's bit player like the rest. Horatia, that cleverest of women, not clever enough to know history when she fell over it. Horatia knew Churchill was the prime minister, of course, and that the king was the king, but all the while as she was driving them north she was thinking only of her heart, broken at the time, and how she couldn't give a fig for anything but the lover who had deceived her.

My new husband and I lay in our floating honeymoon bed, while above our heads a spaceship reached Neptune and in Berlin the statues of Lenin came down. The world was roaring but we were deaf, dumb and blind to everything but each other's breathing faces.

EIGHTY-NINE
Gelato

I RECOMMEND EATING AN ITALIAN GELATO,
freshly made so that it dissolves upon the tongue, a cascade of sugar and fruit and happiness. Eat standing up on ancient stones, surrounded by Florentine housewives lugging their shopping and schoolchildren shouting at each other. Eat it so you can marvel at the creaminess, the sugar content expertly balanced, mixed with air. Originally made from ice and snow brought down from the mountains, gelato eaten on a honeymoon rail trip from Paris to Florence, via Milan, tastes like love.

NINETY
Breath

EVERY NOW AND THEN YOU
have to stop and acknowledge that you are breathing. Notice the rise and fall of your chest, the inhalation and exhalation of your breath, the faint vibration of your beating heart. Notice sounds coming to your ears (birdsong, the distant sound of traffic, a tractor in a field close by). Notice the smells of early morning: coffee, toast, the lovely scent of fresh earth washed by overnight dew. Can you stop and smell the world, hear it in your ears, feel the breath in your body? Can you send up a prayer of thankfulness, to God or whoever or whatever is responsible for the creation of yourself and your moment of breath? So soon breathless, we come breathing and we leave stilled. Count your blessings, count your breaths, each individual breath invisibly inscribed with a number.

NINETY-ONE
Australia

ROMANCE BETWEEN THE AVERAGE COUPLE
dies two years, six months and twenty-five days into marriage.

Romance might be said to have died between my new husband and me earlier than statistics suggest. Precisely one year, two months and twelve days into our marriage, when he came home from work to our leaking boat and found me still sitting in the same clothes I was wearing when he left (my pyjamas), our new baby son screaming in my lap, surrounded by the scattered pages of the book I was supposed to be editing. ‘Christ,' he remarked, before turning and walking away.

‘Christ,' he said again when he came home three hours later. ‘What's the matter with you?'

I was tempted to say ‘Everything' but I did not.

I cried. I have noticed that most men do not enjoy it when women cry, especially dishevelled women sitting in their pyjamas with screaming babies in their laps.

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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