Wednesday 21 March 2018

A Season Of High Romance

Joe Jackson

'Do you want to get married?" These words, amazingly, given that I have always been wary of marriage, practically leapt from my lips less than an hour after meeting Susan Bofin in Fitzgerald's pub in Sandycove, at 10.06pm on June 12, 1978. Sure, I was being flippant, responding instinctively to the fact that she'd told me her birthday was April 24, the same date, six years earlier, I'd written my first poem, and now we'd arranged to meet, ostensibly, to read each other's poetry.

But love moves in mysterious ways, and six hours later I'd write in my diary, "If ever I was swept off my head, and heart, by a girl, it was tonight, by Susan Bofin. Strange forces draw us together, and I do believe we are destined to be true lovers."

Thankfully, Sue was as ridiculously romantic as I am. And, the next time we met, admitted she'd awakened the next morning, "unbelievably blissed" after a "deliciously troubled sleep", remembering how she'd watched me walk away, closed her hallway door, fallen against it, clasped her chest, "thought 'God, what has happened?''' and had "prayed our beachside walk in Salthill would never end".

In ways, it never did. And what happened that night, I still believe, is that Susan Bofin and I fell in love at near enough to first sight as makes no damn difference. I also believe that because our love affair was finally killed by, let's say, extenuating circumstances, rather than died, or even dimmed, we never fell out of love. But what torments me is the thought that the loss of our love affair, or more specifically, losing me, "something Susan never recovered from" says one of her friends -- may have contributed, over time, and however tangentially, or not, to the circumstances that led to her tragically premature death nearly 30 years later.

Yet, Sue was one of the great loves of my life, and that summer we owned in 1978 was -- to cull a concept from Scott Walker's song Joanna -- what we both called 'A Season of High Romance'. That also was the title she hoped I'd use for a book I started writing about us, but have yet to finish. In the meantime, in her memory, and for all those who find true love then have it ripped from their grasp, I'll try to celebrate with this article, that remarkable season, and a remarkable woman.

I first saw Sue, from a distance, at a Dory Previn concert in May 1977, and thought, as a professional photographer myself, "She's far too gorgeous to be running behind that photographer, carrying his lenses; she should be in front of him, and the lens. I wonder if she's his assistant or girlfriend?" The second time I saw her was in Dun Laoghaire Shopping Centre, where her graceful elegance was as out of place in that architectural disgrace as it had been in Dublin's dingy National Stadium and, again, stopped me in my tracks.

So, did I fancy Sue? No. Simply because I never was that besotted by blondes and already dating, I now am ashamed to admit, no less than five women, as I lived out what I even admitted to some was, "my very own, retarded adolescent, Elvis-movie fantasy" partly because, in my teens, I'd been such a flop with girls. But that 'movie' ended, fittingly enough, on August 16, 1977, when Elvis died, and even more so, nine months later, when I found my father dead at home. Consequently, I regressed into my lifelong loner mode and was not on the market for romance.

At least, that's I believed until I finally met up with Susan. When she, then, in effect, became my archangel, dragging me away from my dad's graveside and, during a six-hour conversation, making me smile, laugh, dance, sing and dream in a way I thought life, or rather, death, had pushed out of my reach. I'd even focused on this fear in the final two verses of a poem I wrote, titled A Song for My Father.

It is true that spring this year was stillborn/But perhaps by August I may find the strength/And a reason/To smile again/I may even learn to give again/From the heart/And not just from the crust/Of my body/How to love/And live once more for moments/As though all I had to do/Was make one phone call, take/One eight-minute walk/And be back here beside you/Be back home

But I know/That if ever again/A woman gets close enough/To examine my eyes/In what you would call/The wee small hours of the morning/She will see cracks across the surface/Of my soul/And learn that all it takes to break me/Is that one word/'Father'.

In fact, after telling me that her birthday was April 24, and us critiquing each other's poetry, I was Susan's for the taking when she asked, "Did you ever hear Jim Webb's songs, as sung by Richard Harris?" I really had to fight hard not to reply: "Hear them? Honey, I've lived at the centre of those songs since I was kid!" and not to start singing the middle section of MacArthur Park -- one of my anthems. There will be another dream for me, indeed. So, instead, I said, "Yeah, I love them," then soared even higher when Sue added that her favourite songwriters were "Leonard Cohen, Dory Previn, Joni Mitchell, and Rod McKuen", all my favourites. We obviously were, in the purest sense, singing from the same hymn sheet, and I couldn't help but think, "I've met my soulmate, thanks for sending her to me, Dad!" But there was one tiny problem. That photographer was Sue's boyfriend and they were, she told me, "kind of" engaged. However, right or wrong, and maybe I was just romanticising again, my sense was that Susan sounded far more like she was nearer the end of a relationship than the start of a marriage. And so, at the same time she was falling against that door, clasping her chest and wondering, "God, what has happened?" I was leaning against a nearby railing and writing in my notebook. "It is four in the morning after the evening we first met, touched, deep, beautiful, and true and, Susan, strange as this may seem, I want and shall win you. I pray."

However, winning Sue was not easy. On the contrary, I'd soon be writing, "Never have I fought so hard for the love of a woman". Even though at the end of our second meeting, seeing how torn she was between her boyfriend and me, I was ready to back out. But when I'd gestured with my right hand, as if consigning us to fate, Sue had gripped that hand -- thus holding me for the first time -- folded into my arms, which opened to embrace her without me seeming to tell them to do so and, then, as she sighed into my chest, "Oh, Joe," I realised I couldn't break away.

Did I feel guilty about her boyfriend? Yes. But Sue soon eased that sense of guilt.

"I love your poetry, like you as a person and find you very, very attractive. There, I've said that, so, tell me, what am I to you?" she asked me the next time we met.

"A person to whom I am attracted on every level."

"Such as?"

"Physically, mentally, spiritually, you name it, I'm attracted."

"That's answer enough. But, Joe, you really do have me thinking about my boyfriend and me. It's like I was safe inside something for five years, since I was 16. And anything that came along to disturb that security, I rejected. But you have me thinking there could be far more for me in life. Maybe it will all sort itself out with [name deleted by author] but I'm not so sure anymore."

"In the meantime do I, as so often in my life, wander around on the outside?"

"You're not on the outside, Joe. You are closer to the centre than anyone."

That was the day I realised this was a fight for far more than Susan's love. As such, not long afterwards, when she told me that she was "going to try again" for her boyfriend and could no longer see me, I fell apart. But three weeks later Sue came back to me, torn and in what I described in my diary as emotional tatters. Incidentally, my diary also includes a far more detailed account of our exchange that day than I am permitted to print in this context -- a restriction that, sadly, applies to so much of this story. "He says, 'Don't listen to Joe Jackson -- all he has are words.'"

Seeing Sue cry for the first time in my presence, and hearing that comment, I responded in kind, "Maybe, Sue, but I'll tell you this, in words that many people would tell you are totally true . . . What's most important now is what's alive and growing . . . Another truth is that I love you. But I don't ask for pledges or promises that extend any further into the future than this embrace. And, above all else, I want you to grow and be not only who you are but also who you can become. Yet, in the end, only you can decide what you want."

At this point, my hands were cupping Susan's face, as if I was praying, which of course, even if I didn't realise it, I was. And her reply then answered that prayer.

"I have decided. Damn you, Joe Jackson, I want you!"

And so, our love affair really began. Or rather, we went public with our love affair. But this is an article, not a book. So, all I can offer here from the nearly 100 successive days we then spent together are highlights. The first was July 30 when, in the wee small hours of that particular morning I read for Sue that poem, A Song for My Father, and did break down when I reached the word 'father', which was the first time she saw me cry. Susan responded by saying, "If I were a man and had you as a son I would be proud of you, as I just know your father is." And if that wasn't balm enough, the next day she handed me a poem called Joseph, which is what my family calls me and Sue then, fittingly, began to call me during our most intimate moments.

You cried for your father last night/I was there/A hundred miles away/So many empty words/Cannot ease the hurt/And pain/That you have seen/See and live within/And carry with you/In your crying breaking heart

Work/Work to gain deliverance/From the circumstances/Which have made your life/Find release from/What has made you/I feel you know/That peace will come/But how/From where/Do you really know that?/I am not a part/Of your past/But what that life has made of you/I can accept/Our potentiality/Lies within our base/But the realisation of our dreams/Lies in the footage/We can lay between/The scalene growth/And our erect/And pointed guerdon

That line, "work to gain deliverance" is still my motto. And, better still, by August 1, in fact, as if consciously giving form to another of my prayers from that poem about my father, Sue taught me how to "give again from not just the crust of my body but from my soul", when we finally made love for the first time. She even said for her "it was like making love for the first time". All of which adds a kind of other-worldly beauty to the fact that on that night, Sue got pregnant.

But here, I really must fast forward, and rush though a part of our story I'd rather not write. We both were fully aware that child was conceived in love and desperately wanted "our baby" and even joked, "it probably will be born with a pen in each hand!" Sadly, on the 67th day of her cycle, Sue had what she later told me her doctor said was called "a spontaneous abortion", a phrase neither she nor I had ever heard before. Needless to say, that night we wept deeply. Indeed, I was almost catatonic, realising that in little more than a year I'd lost my original musical archangel, Elvis, my father, and, now, the child I wanted with Susan.

Even so, Sue obviously believed deeply enough in us, and loved me enough, to say, one night soon afterwards, while we were having a drink in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire, "Joe, did you ever think that what you've found in life is what you've always been dreaming of and that you'll never find anything better?"

Susan later told me this was "as close to a proposal" as she could get and that I failed her "miserably" by not reading between the lines and responding in kind. Much to my eternal regret, I must admit, I did know she was trying to broach the subject of marriage but simply didn't know what to say to her. However, later that night I did respond in another way. And afterwards, when I asked her, "Do you realise what we may have just done?" and Sue said: "So be it, if the baby is born this time, it will be the luckiest child in the world. I do love you so much, Joe," I hadn't the slightest doubt that I would happily marry her if that's what she wanted. And that was the very night the circumstances of Sue's life led to the savagely abrupt ending of our love affair. However, the ending wasn't entirely unexpected on my behalf; warning bells had been sounding in my skull from the start. But it wasn't until one afternoon, four months later, in January 1979, when I bumped into Susan in Rice's pub, at the top of Grafton Street, that she fleshed out -- again, during a conversation that lasted roughly six glorious, if bittersweet hours -- the full story of why she had disappeared, so suddenly, overnight, out of my life.

"Joe, my father is dying. It is a slow caving in of the arteries and if he gets too excited or emotional about anything, he could collapse and be dead in 10 minutes. I couldn't go against his wishes . . . Do you understand, Joe, please tell me you do?" I did understand but that didn't ease my pain. It never has, never will. And that pain was compounded a thousand-fold the next day when Sue gave me this note.

"Dear Joe, Since last night, every part of me has been burning with life -- the fire of some of the most powerful feelings -- joy, for what we still are (together), sorrow because of its prevention, love, for you. Also, anger, Joe, but not hate. Anger and frustration, as I honestly feel I am powerless to right the situation now, as you are. It was wonderful to be home again, in your apartment, and more so, your warm embrace. There is an overwhelming rightness about us being together . . . maybe I'm wrong and you are right, I hope so, and that there will be, A Time For Us."

A Time For Us -- or, to give the song its full title, the Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet -- as sung by Johnny Mathis, was one of the songs I played for Sue that final night. Tragically, there never again was a time for us. We'd met again, on three occasions over the following decade, and I learned that her life had turned into a hell in ways that I am not at liberty to reveal.

Then one night around two years ago, I suddenly felt the need to contact Susan, keyed her name into my computer, and up came the Arklow Parish News from December 2005, which disclosed that she was dead. How did I respond? I'm still responding, in part, with this article. Largely because it seems that the Susan Bofin people remember in Arklow had changed to an almost unrecognisable degree from the Susan I knew. But this is Sue, as I will always remember her.

I also happen to believe that Sue may have been at her best, and purest, when we were together and that, maybe if we'd married, we might just have realised that potential Susan alluded to in her poem about us. Furthermore, to paraphrase MacArthur Park, after all the loves of my life, I suspect that Susan Bofin will be the one.

Sunday Independent

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