Shock of the old

Emotional Time Lords have the power to travel from our past lives and wreak havoc in the present. But unlike Doctor Who, you don’t need a Tardis to escape.

Published in The Observer August 25, 2002

‘Ian’, a middle-aged politician who normally copes successfully with his peers, Parliament and the odd whiff of personal scandal, has never been able to escape one personal female Time Lord: his lover from university. Although they haven’t seen each other for years, just the thought of her sends him spinning back to their turbulent emotional past. ‘She haunted me for years. She was 19, dark with PreRaphaelite looks, and her opening gambit to a young man was persuasive. She said she was a virgin, but didn’t want to be one with me for very long. ‘It was my second year at Oxford; her first. We revelled in excess. We wanted it to last forever but managed a year. I’d done no work for months but finals loomed and so I explained I couldn’t go on seeing her every night. Her ultimatum was delivered in person on my doorstep: ‘If you close this door, I will leave you.’ I shut it in her face and got my degree. She kept her word.’

Ian rarely sounds vulnerable but now his face betrays unaccustomed distress. ‘I later heard a variety of rumours that she was married, divorced, pregnant, gay – none substantiated – though not a peep from her. ‘For years I went around unconsciously searching for her. My subsequent relationships were all with dark, pre-Raphaelite women. I would automatically scan the crowds on the off chance she’d show. ‘Then one day, in Upper Street, Islington, I saw the long black hair as usual, only this time it was her. I was banjaxed. We started talking and I left my bicycle and a pound of smoked salmon on the pavement. I never saw either of them again. She was still wary, admitted she had a baby and would meet me one more time and show me the child that might have been mine. We had a cup of tea and haven’t seen each other since. I still sometimes search for her in other people’s faces. If we met, it would hurt, although her hair by rights should now be grey.’

Like Ian, many of us have been thwarted in love and still bear the scars. It’s the effect of a love that is ruptured and incomplete, traumatic and over-symbolised, like the affair between Bridget Jones and Daniel Cleaver, the character played by Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’s Diary . Or it may just be too damned big to go away. We cannot download the experience into mere memory. ‘Please insert a larger disk,’ says the computer, and all we can reply is, ‘I haven’t got one.’ Sometimes it’s first love; or maybe we are overwhelmed by the charisma of mentors or teachers. But whatever the status of the relationship, one impact of it is the same. Time literally becomes relative in a way we don’t normally experience. The personalities that have this effect on us seem, like Doctor Who, to possess their own personal Tardis and travel through our lifespans at whim. You never know when they are going to turn up next and squirt a new bout of adrenaline into your system. They are Time Lords of the human heart, and not always very nice fellow travellers.

Fans of Channel 4’s Sex and the City know all about Big. Carrie Bradshaw, the otherwise sane and thoughtful New Yorker with a fetish for designer handbags and colour clash, only has to clap eyes on Mr ‘Big’ to turn into his dippy co-dependent sex toy. As the name implies, he is the Big One. There is no subtlety in the romance. In a programme as strongly in favour of feminist free love as the early Russian Revolution, Carrie loses her dignity with her underwear. It is not an affair of equals; she is effectively begging him to notice her, want her, cling to her and take her. Meanwhile, he is peering so deeply into her eyes to check his own reflection in her pupils that there is no chance he will reciprocate. This Doctor Who is definitely Doctor No.

Dr Jane Leigh is 39, divorced with two children, a lecturer in psychology, and has all her wits about her. However, it has taken her 12 years to get one particular man out of her system, and even now she can’t completely make the break. Her friends disapprove of the fact that she still occasionally sees her former lover – minor showbiz ‘royalty’ – on his terms. ‘At the outset, Michael was everything I ever wanted,’ she recalls. ‘But I overstayed with him. He had the inevitable wife and child and wouldn’t leave them. I tried everything I knew to get him to see that we had to move on even to stand still. I had seven good years and five horrible ones and it almost cost me a breakdown. Even now that I have a new partner, I am always disturbed when he calls. Just the sound of his voice on my mobile phone is like a dealer to a junkie. I crave another fix. In the end, I give in and meet him, maybe once or twice a year.’

By now, any good Freudian would be nodding into his beard about the ‘return of the repressed’. We all have bottled-up damaged feelings we are loathe to revisit. Even a trauma psychologist would be muttering about an ‘absence of closure’ and the logic is not over-complicated.

As human beings, we try to make sense of life by referring the present to the past. What we need from our upbringing is a gradual introduction to unpleasant experience, which is why we shield children from the worst. If, out of the blue, we are dumped by a lover, or betrayed by a friend, we feel traumatised. The emotion does not make sense to us because it contradicts all our past self-assumptions. There we were thinking, ‘I am a reasonably nice person whom others will like,’ and now suddenly we are told the opposite. We not only get a shock; we begin to doubt our very ability to think. Time Lords nearly always operate by threatening us with overwhelming abandonment. We try to cope by going into denial. This doesn’t work because we get flashbacks. Then we practise avoidance, telling ourselves that if we don’t make new friendships then we can’t repeat the old patterns, can we? But the catch is that, unless we express our miseries, we are almost bound to remake our mistakes.

Time Lords have the power to override the natural grieving process. We don’t want to move on because that means cutting our losses when the market is at rock bottom. Big may be out of the frame a lot of the time but remember, he’s a Time Lord, and deep down Carrie is still waiting for him to raise her price. She and every other abandoned lover want to hear those magical words: ‘I’m so sorry, I got it wrong.’ The power the Time Lords possess is natural deception. We mistake them for the sort of people who would or could apologise. It’s the reason why female victims of physical abuse in the home are physically hit 32 times on average before they finally decide to leave. The victims of Time Lords always have trouble drawing a line.

My view is that we get deceived because they probably fit some part of the family ‘template’ with which we grew up. Perhaps Ian, the politician, had a dark-haired mother who made him feel wanted only if he gave her constant attention. He therefore recreates the pattern in a love affair. Because he had never sorted out his maternal relationship, he cannot exorcise his new ghost. It isn’t just an interrupted grief he feels with the ending of the affair. It is a continuing sense of something fatally flawed in him. But Ian is wrong.

Instead of listening to what people say, we need to look at what people actually do. Rather than looking inside himself for the answers, Ian should face the truth: his dark-haired lady was never on his side. In many ways, she did not love him, and she certainly did not care for his interests or fulfil his needs. In other words, it is over because it never happened the way you imagined it.

Next time your personal Time Lord comes back to haunt you, tell yourself it is in the past, you are worth more than abuse and that his or her opinion of you is worthless. When you get the twinge, tell yourself you are better off without him/her. Another way to disable a Time Lord is to cut off their original source of energy.

Perhaps Ian was expecting an immature mistress to be a part-time foster mum? Perhaps Dr Leigh mistook a light entertainer for a heavyweight mentor? In which case, fine – we all make mistakes.  Own up, and move on.

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