In the summer of 2002, four years or so into my sobriety, I was throwing myself into volunteering as part of my plan to reinvigorate the life I had left in idle for so long. Health-wise, career-wise, and in many other aspects things were not just back up to speed but positively bursting through the light barrier. However, despite signing up to several dating agencies both online and old school, I remained resolutely single. There had been dates but no-one sparked anything inside me.
Then John Mitchell, one of my Toc H friends, asked me to help out at the Aga Khan Partnership walk in Hyde Park. I agreed and a few days before the event travelled to the Aga Khan Foundation in London for a briefing. Outside, milling about on the pavement before we went in, I met a number of fellow Toc H volunteers; some I knew previously some I didn’t. There was one in particular I didn’t know and felt I wanted to. Tall and thin, she was bouncing around outside on nicotine and nervous energy.
And then we went in. I hadn’t noticed the hearing aid in her ear – perhaps she only put it in as we got inside – but I did notice her stroll up to the organisers desk demanding to know why they didn’t have a hearing aid loop in place. Feisty too! My eyebrows raised, at least metaphorically. Her name, I discovered, was Hazel Schofield and she had spent her working life supporting people with disabilities, a subject close to my heart. This was looking interesting.
On the Sunday of the walk, I arrived in Hyde Park early and went to see my friend Jo who was organising the volunteers. Essentially we were safety marshals manning road crossings whilst several thousand young Muslims walked to raise money for various good causes. I asked Jo to pair me up with Hazel and she obliged, thus I got to spend a summer Sunday getting to know this woman who both attracted and interested me. However, we weren’t very far into the day when Hazel came out to me as a Lesbian. I’ll be honest, at first I thought she had picked up on the fact I was interested in her and was letting me down gently, but when the photos of her current girlfriend came out, I realised she was being honest.
Despite my disappointment we not only became friends but Hazel agreed to help me lead a project I was planning for adults with learning disabilities. So over that winter we met a few times both in London (Hazel lived in Brixton) and at my flat in the mill at Roydon. Come April, and the holiday to Devon, we knew each other quite well and had an almost flirtatious liaison, safe in the knowledge that nothing awkward like a serious relationship was ever going to come out of it! Except on the penultimate night of the holiday – it did! Hazel, responding to confusing and overwhelming feelings she had been having, well, jumped my bones!
From that April day in 2003, we have had the most wonderful life together, but that first year or so was a high. Because back then Hazel was well and fit. More importantly, she was independent. That was important to me. I didn’t want a relationship where we were tied at the hip nor anything resembling what I thought of as a ‘standard’ relationship. We were ten years apart in age, had different tastes in many things yet had a highly similar in outlook in life. Liberal, open-minded, and favouring the unconventional, everything was rosy…and the sex was pretty awesome too. The drunk and dyke were doing OK.
Then Hazel got bronchitis. It never went away. Well, the bronchitis did but she was left exhausted. Something was up. She had changed jobs and worked mostly from home but eventually even that had to go. She needed to rest lots. Even brushing her teeth took it out of her. Thankfully I had health insurance through work and we were able to get her to see various specialists in reasonably quick succession. The only way we could deal with this mysterious illness was to get other serious problems eliminated. With my insurance we could be passed from one consultant to the next without too much delay. Even so it took a year before we arrived at the National M.E. Centre in Romford and got a diagnosis.
I won’t take up paragraphs here writing about how Hazel and my existence has been affected since. Most of you know us; you know how it affects everything we do (or don’t do). What I want to do is make clear how quickly one person’s life can change so quickly and so enormously. Of course, I write this against a backdrop of Covid 19 so there are others out there who have felt the cold hand of a virus on their backs and if your life has been affected by this then I wish you well.
We have probably been less affected than many. We don’t have a busy social life so haven’t had to cancel many engagements. A holiday postponed sure but otherwise mostly health and medical trips cancelled or postponed.
And when this is all over, and the pubs and parks are full again, we will be going back to our settled, slightly self-isolating, carefully regimented lives. And we will still count our blessings because we know there are others with M.E. who are totally bedbound, shuttered behind drawn curtains, and wasting away because of this ghastly bloody illness that still has no cure. So when Covid 19 is a fading memory, please don’t forget about us.