Sunday, 28 September 2014

90. Black suede peep-toe stilettos

It makes me look like a cow,” Gin complains, turning in front of the cheval mirror.

The beautiful navy dress ties with a satin ribbon. It runs under her breasts and round to her back, where it ties in a large bow. She is wearing black suede peep-toe stilettos, slightly scuffed at the back, and I notice her thin, pretty feet are starting to look veiny. We are all getting old.

Gin tries to catch the tag to see how much the dress is, but it's tied to the zipper in the back of the dress and she ends up going in circles like a cat chasing its tail. Finally she gets hold of it and pulls it towards her face, craning to see the price.

Not worth it just for six months,” she says.

It's not just a maternity dress,” Amanda points out. “You're not showing much yet, and it still looks nice.”

The beauty of this dress is that its softly pleated front has room to expand with a burgeoning pregnancy, and the long length of the ribbon under the bust means Gin will be able to wear it as easily at nine months pregnant as she does today.

Don't forget the baby weight. You'll have that for a while,” says Amanda.

Gin disappears into the changing room. Her voice floats back: “We are not mentioning weight gain ever again.”

As you may be able to tell, Gin currently faces an uncertain future. She has made what some people might think is a rash decision.

Do I think it's a rash decision? I don't know. If Chris had accidentally got me pregnant, what would I have done? I don't know. I picture a tiny newborn, a cuddly toddler, a five-year-old coming home from school with finger-painting to put on the fridge door. First steps, first words, home-made pine cone decorations for the Christmas tree. For a second my entire body aches with love and need but children aren't for me so I put that to one side. I can't even take care of myself properly; any child I brought up would end up in therapy for years. Or possibly a serial killer.

Anyway, it would have Chris for a father. I would have to tell him. I'd never get rid of the fucker then.

It's going to be bloody hard for Gin. I'm terrified for her. All of us find it hard enough to survive in David Cameron's Britain even without a helpless newborn in tow. Babies cost money, and lots of it, and Gin is currently refusing to discuss any of the practicalities.

I understand why. If she thinks about the practicalities for too long, she will have to admit that what she is doing is going to be near impossible and it is still not too late. Physically, I mean. Mentally it was too late on the day she found out.

Gin is trying on a short pink dress with long full sleeves and tight cuffs.

Very Mad Men,” says Amanda, appreciatively. “You look like you belong in The Shirelles.”

Gin twirls in front of the mirror. She likes this one. I'm tempted to say that she should save the money for the baby, but she will run out of money in seconds flat anyway. There's no way she will have enough money to live on. She has debt, no savings, no home of her own, and her job doesn't pay enough to afford childcare. This is going to be rocky, to say the least.

At least this way she will have a decent wardrobe to see her through. And something to sell on eBay when the two of them can't afford to eat.

Can you sound Jena out about the 25th?”she says. “For my baby shower. Find out whether it's good for her?”

That feels like a sharp knife to the ribcage. Jena isn't answering my texts or calls, and I know that she doesn't want to hear from me, and sooner or later Amanda and Gin will have to know. It doesn't seem fair to have to drag them into it. Well, I will have to email Jena and copy Gin in; at least then she will have to decline herself.


I hope she'll decline, anyway. Getting given the cold shoulder at my best friend's baby shower will be more than I can bear. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

89. Someone you will eventually have to leave

Lately I have been preoccupied with escape. I'm not sure what I want to escape but it's impossible to mistake the tendency in my imagination.

When I watch thrillers, or read books about people in peril, when I see news stories about women captured and kept prisoner, I find myself imagining how I'd escape, and how I'd disappear, and how I'd stay disappeared.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a good example. If I was Ana, how would I escape from Christian? Because, eventually, she's going to have to. Anyone who gives you a mobile phone, uses it to clandestinely track your movements, and then swoops in to confront you when you are doing an activity they have unilaterally “forbidden”, is someone you will eventually have to leave. It doesn't matter how much you love them. And this man, this man will not take that well. She'll be lucky if she doesn't end up stuffed on display in the Red Room.

So, the sadistic billionaire with all his Master of the Universe power and money at his disposal is obsessed with keeping your prisoner. How would you escape?

Like everything else, you can type “how to disappear” into Google and get a lot of hits. I'm clearly not the only one who wants to do it.

If you really wanted to vanish there are manuals, whole websites. The first thing you need to do is close your bank accounts and use cash for your travels and expenses. Cards are trackable, so cut them up. Use public transport, not cars. Cut your hair. Dye your hair. If you're a man, grow a beard. If you are a woman, get contact lenses if you wear glasses and plain non-prescription glasses if your eyesight's good. Wear a bright jacket or headscarf when you're getting your money out or buying tickets. Sounds a bit odd, I know, but if someone later asks for a description people will remember the colour, not your face. Avoid anything which will leave a paper or computer trail. Delete all your social networks and email addresses. Get casual cash in hand work.

..But I don't want to disappear! Not completely. I want Amanda and Gin. I want Sally. I want Rammstein, how could I take Rammstein on the run? It would be cruel to him, and I couldn't give him to anyone else; he might end up abandoned, tipped out of a car onto a motorway shoulder and left cold and hungry to fend for himself. What about all my plants, who'd take care of them? I want to be able to buy my morning latte from the cafe on the way to work. I want to drink margaritas in the sunshiny garden of my favourite cocktail bar. I want to see Martin DJ again. I want my life.

I guess it comes down to a basic psychological fact – just like the rest of humanity in general, I want all the things I want and not the things I don't want.

But it's not possible to live a life which is made up entirely of things you want. Not even if you have enough money to give up work and build walls, all the alarm systems and doormen and first-rate security and barrages of lawyers.

Sometimes things you think you want, things you welcome into your life, turn into things you absolutely don't want. For example, my relationship - or whatever it is - with Chris. It's too late now. I wished for Chris, I wished for him with all my heart, and the universe gave him to me, and now I have to live with however my wish plays out.

It would be so sterile. A life without other people. So lonely. We aren't meant to live that way, but the deal is that other people are unpredictable, they all have their own opinions and obsessions and madnesses, and by accepting them into our lives we have to accept a lack of control over what they bring with them and sometimes it would be so nice not to have to do that.

My phone pings. It's Amanda. As if to reinforce the point, it simply says: CUNT!

It's hard to tell what brought this expletive on without more information, but my guess would be a shop assistant has just been rude to her. Either that, or she's telepathically sensed my mood and is attempting to bring me back down to earth. Or it was meant for someone else. Who knows?

There was another bunch of roses outside the door this morning. Bright yellow, with red blushing through the petals. Beautiful. A blank card again.


I wish I had enough money to move. 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

88. Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die

The design I've chosen as a tattoo cover-up is ready. I'm waiting for the tattooist so we can go through it.

The first time I got tattooed was in the late 90s. That was the rose I have on my big toe. The tattooist was an almost completely silent skin-head in a Jack Daniels branded vest, operating out of one room. He had covered the walls with yellowing, taped-on paper stencil designs, and you just walked in and pointed to the one you wanted.

They were the kind of tattoos you hardly see any more; skeletons riding flaming motorbikes, chained-up naked girls, the Devil swigging whisky, blood and crossed pistols. Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die. Kind of like the over-the-top covers of 80s rock vinyl; the tattoos you would expect Spinal Tap to have.

People are too clever for those tattoos now. Even if they have something like that, they have to give it an ironic twist, or theme it round 50s retro, or something like that. After all, you wouldn't want to be taking it seriously. I hardly noticed they had gone, but I miss them. I wonder, briefly, about getting some proper old-school outlaw rock biker tattoos. It might be cool. I've had enough of being clever.

Tattoo studios have clearly changed too. This is a complex of rooms like an upmarket beauty salon, with pale wooden floors and walls covered in framed pictures of vintage tattoos. You can still pick a design, but the stencils are kept in leather folders on the reclaimed wood coffee table. There is an orchid on the reception desk. There's a reception desk. I don't like upmarket beauty salons.

There are three other people waiting; a blonde in a floral dress clutching a vintage handbag, who I hate on sight. A guy in a white vest and a bowler hat who looks like he is probably the bass player in a terrible indie band. A n overweight 40ish guy in a charcoal pinstripe suit, who has floppy blond hair like Boris Johnson's.

However, there is a white-board on the wall in the staff area behind the desk, presumably for messages. Someone has neatly written “Please do not draw dicks on here as clients can see this board” in green marker, and under that someone else has drawn a very detailed cock, complete with hairy balls. That makes me feel a bit more at home.

The girl working here looks a bit like Kat Von D. I watch her covertly, studying her style. The moment I get out of here I am going shopping to buy a red Bardot top and a black velvet choker. And I am definitely getting more tattoos. I wish I had waist-length black hair.

Alice, you can admire the tattoo-studio receptionist without trying to turn into her, I think. I've tried having black hair before and it doesn't suit me. But the Bardot top is happening.

I wonder what the others are getting done. Boris Johnson looks like a middle-manager at an insurance firm. I really hope he's getting an dick piercing, or some roses tattooed on his bum. That would be awesome. The band guy is probably getting a simple square of black ink, or a lightbulb, or an ironic Tweety Pie, or some other hipster-by-numbers bollocks.

The blonde...well now, that's interesting. She doesn't look like the kind of girl who would go for body modification, or even the kind who stays up past 10pm drinking. And I would have expected her to have brought a friend or her boyfriend, and she hasn't, she's on her own, so she's obviously getting something done just for herself. Maybe I don't hate her after all.

I want her to be getting a huge industrial tattoo, an armful of gleaming Terminator steel. She's so girly that it would be a great contrast, but looking at her pretty tan Mary Jane shoes I would imagine it's probably flowers or butterflies, or possibly even a fucking cupcake. Oh well, you can't have everything.

At this point the tattooist arrives with my design. I asked for something abstract with the following elements; spiderwebs, skulls, black lace, blue orchid flowers. She's done a great job. It will be much bigger; extending up on to my shoulder and rolling down to my bicep. It's going to hurt like fuck. It will be worth it to cover up Matthew. I don't want a permanent reminder of him on my skin. I can't remember why I ever thought that was a good idea. 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

87. When my thighs go numb

I always feel the first effects of alcohol in my thighs. They get warmer, feel almost liquid. When I smoke weed, I know I'm starting to get stoned when my thighs go numb.

How strange it is. Why do people always say “That drink went to my head”? I look around the table. Jena, Suzy, Michelle.
“That drink went to my thighs,” I say.
“You what?” says Michelle.
It's shaping up to be a strange evening, full of awkward silences and jokes going flat. I'm tired. I don't want to be here, but I want to connect with Jena. I haven't seen her for a little while. After the incident with Chris, I'm concerned about her.

You should have told her the truth when she first asked you about him, Alice, I think.

Yes. I should have done. I let her down. She wouldn't have listened, but that's not the point.

I look at Jena. She's cut her hair. It's gone from elbow-length blonde curls to a chin-length wavy bob.

She's lost weight. She's wearing a beautiful burgundy lace dress, but it's not something I would have thought she'd buy; the high neckline and knee-length skirt is not to her usual taste. She's wearing less makeup, but the colours are much better on her skin. 

She's changed her style, I realise, from sexy to elegant. It's an unnervingly quick transformation. A matter of weeks.

But she really does look amazing. She's always been a pretty woman, but her sense of style was basic; she dressed and did her hair like everyone else in the bar. Now she's genuinely striking. A proper blonde femme fatale. When she went to the bathroom I noticed people – both men and women - staring after her as she walked across the room.

You look great,” I say. “I love this whole new look,”

Thanks,” she says, and gives me a quick smile.

What brought on the change?” I ask.

She shrugs. “I don't know. Bored with myself, I guess.”

There's something...some imperceptible change in her manner to me that I don't like. There's a chill on her friendliness. She's being polite, rather than pleased to see me. No “I haven't seen you for ages! It's been too long! How are you?”

I remember that Michelle texted me about tonight, not Jena. Jena hasn't texted me for weeks. There was a time I couldn't get her off my phone.

It's nothing I can put my finger on, but it's there. She's closed off to me. And she hasn't mentioned Chris once. Suzy asked how it was going with him and she said: “It's great,” without any detail. That is not Jena. I knew everything about her last boyfriend, from his habit of eating Pop Tarts at 3am to the “weird” bend in his penis. I knew when he took her out to dinner and what they had to eat. I knew his brand of shower gel.

I have a sudden thought. I feel my stomach drop. If I was Chris....I might not want us talking so much. After all, I could tell Jena about our relationship, such as it was, and I have – or had – some influence with her. If I was Chris, I might tell Jena some things about me. Get in first, so to speak. It would be a win on several levels; she would end up more isolated and under his thumb, he'd discredit anything I said to her about him, and he'd have the pleasure of destroying one of my close relationships into the bargain. It's the obvious move for the up-to-date modern abuser. Of course it is.

OR MAYBE SHE HAS JUST FINALLY WORKED OUT YOU ARE AN IRRITATING ASSHOLE, offers Matthew. This is unhelpful.

There is no way of knowing for sure that Chris has said something to Jena. Could have done. Or, as Matthew has just observed, she could be pissed off with me about something else. But either way I don't think this new Jena likes me any more. I can feel the chill rolling off her in waves.

My body rebels when I'm in a situation I find emotionally stressful. I get severe stomach cramps and sometimes diarrhoea. I can feel the nausea beginning now as I look at the way Jena's eyes are not meeting mine. This is not conducive to relaxation, nor to thinking about how I can possibly resolve this with her. “Are you pissed off with me?” sounds whiny. “Has Chris said something about me?” is obviously completely fucking impossible.

You all right?” I ask. It's a feeble opening, but I'm hoping she'll take it and talk to me.

Fine,” she says. “I'm absolutely fine.”

Sunday, 24 August 2014

86. A silence has fallen


 I am in Derek's office. This is the first time I have seen him since what Amanda has taken to calling his “indecent proposal”. I think he has been avoiding me, but in the end I'm his PR officer and he can't do it forever.

We have talked about current and future media issues in his department, and now a silence has fallen. He has not apologised for his completely inappropriate invitation, but neither has he pressed the issue. This surprises me. I was expecting that he would.

I realise there is a picture of his wife pinned to the cork-board by his desk. She looks much younger. She is outside. She is grinning at the camera, her blonde hair blowing across her face. Her arms are around two toddlers.

"Alice," he says, without looking at me, "I think that we work together well. It would be a shame if anything was to cause a problem in that relationship."

He is fiddling with some paper on his desk, shuffling and reshuffling it. I suddenly realise he is embarrassed, or doing a very good imitation of it.

"I believe there's a distinction between a professional relationship and a personal one," I say. "We do work well together."

And it's true, we do. I've noticed Derek has an instinct for PR - what is a good story, what is a bad story, what would interest the public. He's capable of handling reporters very well and needs little in the way of media training or hand-holding. He might, in another life, have made a very good reporter himself. 

His adroitness at working with the media doesn't change the fact that I dislike and fear him, but as I have just said the professional and the personal can be kept separate. Some of the people I like best at work are people I would never let near a journalist. On a personal level I hate being around Derek; on a professional level he is an asset.

Sometimes it just is that way.

Today Derek is wearing a blue tie over a white shirt. I can see he's put on weight since he bought it; it's cruelly tight around the neck. There are sweat stains under his arms. I wonder why. It's not especially warm.

He leans back in the chair, stares at me.

I don't understand you. What's it like in your world?” he says.

Every day is Hallowe'en,” I say. He laughs.

That's what I like about you. You're so funny,” he says. “So different and quirky.”

And for a second I see, not his life, but my own. And I recognise just how far I am from anything most people would recognise as “normal”, and it terrifies me. I'm not quirky; that's Zooey Deschanel doing her rom-com thing. I've been told I look like her, and I can sort of see it. We're both pale-skinned brunettes with long curly hair and thick fringes, except my eyes are light brown where hers are blue. But for all my long hair and pretty dresses, and my habit of saying whatever comes into my head, I'm not her, I can't fix your life through the power of cuteness, and when I say every day is Hallowe'en it's not a joke and I don't mean candy and dressing up. I mean the dark.

And I could pretend for a while, to be that cute girl, and I'm happy to do it if it makes other people happy. But I'm not cute. I'm alive and awake, with everything that entails and, Derek, you could take me back to your house with the huge TV and no books and no art, all your friends who are sleepwalking through their lives, and I'd be suicidal within days. I wish it was different. It would be so much easier if I could just...delude myself. Fall asleep again, forget my life is ending one minute at a time, and make visiting the mall the highlight of my week. Stop fighting, stop talking, stop trying to understand. Just exist. But once you start asking questions – once you wake up – you can't go back.

The truth is that, no matter how badly it hurts, you don't want to fall asleep again. Knowledge is better than ignorance, even if it's knowledge you'd rather not have.

Derek is still staring at me with his round owl eyes. He openly looks at my breasts, my legs, then back to my face. Incredibly, he says: “I've been married a long time. My wife doesn't understand me any more. We were in love once, but we've grown apart - ”

Come on,” I say. “If you can't be good, at least try and be original.”

He blinks twice, looks hurt. Oh dear. Not cute, Alice. 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

85. It's only a minor fetish

****No Contact for the next two weeks as I am on holiday****

I walk down the corridor towards my office. I'm safe for now, and I know it; Chris isn't going to tell on me just yet. That wouldn't be any fun at all. No. He'll want to play with me a bit first.

I was at Martin's house last night. It was the first time I had been over. We went to the pub and then I went back to his flat and he got some vinyl on the decks.

I watched the concentration on Martin's face as he pulled off some impressively tricky scratching, which I knew was intended to let me know he wasn't just an amateur. I've known him for years. I had no idea he could do this. I had no idea he was even interested in it.

He was trying to impress me and he succeeded. I wasn't sure how I felt about that, and I was feeling disturbingly sexed-up and I wasn't sure how I felt about that either. So I said goodnight to him and went home. I wondered afterwards whether I should have done anything about it. I probably should have done something about it.

Is there ever a “should” about sex?

I've always found DJs sexy. It's something about the way they flick the buttons and rub the records with their fingers. Makes me wonder what else they can do with their hands.

All that scratching is making me itch.

I have the same reaction to guitarists, drummers, piano players. Physical dexterity combined with intense concentration, the creativity, the beautiful noise. There are men who I wouldn't usually look twice at in the normal way of things. Then they start fiddling about on the piano, or pick up a guitar, and I fall in love with them.

I mean, it's only a minor fetish. And as fetishes go, musicians are pretty socially acceptable. Not quite as socially acceptable as the big tit fetish which is so common no-one even believes it is one (but it is; if you require a woman to have large breasts in order to get turned on, you have a fetish. Sorry, that's the way it is. Same goes if there's anything else which automatically gets your motor running. Fetishism is normal; the people society thinks of as “fetishists” are actually just people whose sexuality is attached to something different from boobs or abs).

Martin's going to get fired. He's been targeted because of me. It's quite possible I will get fired as well, once Chris has extracted whatever humiliation he requires.

I wonder what I did to deserve Chris. What I did to deserve Matthew. Why these people keep cropping up in my life. Whoa, not these niggas again, these grown-ass ignorant men with hair-triggers again....if I was Dr Dre, I'd deal with Chris and Chris would stay dealt with. I wish I was Dr Dre. I wish I was anyone else. I wish I was a big motherfucker with biceps you couldn't get your hand around and terrifying tattoos, with a samurai sword strapped to my back. I wish I could grab his neck and pin him up against the wall and talk to him in a language he would understand. I wish I was someone not to be fucked with.

But I'm only Alice, five foot five and out of shape, with a habit of looking at the floor when I meet someone intimidating. I look like a fucking mark, like a big fat “come on over and screw me up” victim, and I know it.

I sometimes have a fantasy about Matthew. How he might turn up in my life again, asking for my forgiveness. People find God, get raped in prison and realise the error of their ways, get therapy, get counselling, it happens. I know exactly what I would ask him for. An simple apology just won't do it. Money? There isn't enough in the world.

No, I want the little finger off his left hand. I want him to cut it off himself. I want to see him fucking bleed. Then maybe I can say he's paid.

What the fuck am I going to do? 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

84. The new online fast-track system

I'm sitting under the desk in the disused office on the third floor, drinking whisky. It is 11.30am and I'm supposed to be in a meeting about the roll-out of the new online fast-track system.

It's quite possible I am having a breakdown, I speculate, as I swirl the whisky around the glass and breathe in its clean disinfectant smell. Oh well. It's been coming for a while. Just one thing: if I am to be insane, I don't want to be dirty or badly dressed, please. If I end up standing in the middle of roundabouts “directing traffic” with a vibrator, or some similar activity, I fully intend to continue to look and smell as fabulous as is possible under whatever my current financial circumstances are at the time.

Being smelly and unhygenic, and wearing ripped or dirty clothes, is something I find deeply distressing. It upsets me in myself, and it disturbs and scares me in other people. It's some kind of deep fundamental association with lack of control, it's like people are actually choosing the ugly side of life.

I'm also distressed by rooms where the furniture is all over the place and doesn't flow properly, and by ugly ornaments and pictures, and by cluttered environments. It's not just dislike, it is actual, physical distress and I can't stay in places like that or around people who don't take care of themselves for very long. One of the reasons this office has become one of my safe spaces is because it has nothing in it except a desk, which is in its right place. Calming.

I think of the picture of two owls which was doing the rounds on the internet a while ago. One owl is saying to the other owl: “I have CDO. It's like OCD, but all the letters are in alphabetical order, AS THEY SHOULD BE.”

I think I probably have some kind of mild OCD, but then I also probably have post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and the treatment for all of these things is the same and involves a lot of pills and it doesn't get fucking fixed unless you do it yourself anyway because the doctor's surgeries are full of people with mental health problems and there are just too many of us to get the concentrated attention and tailor-made medication required to fix us. You do it yourself, or you stay ill. Lie down and die, or get up and start fighting. Up to you.

At that point, Chris walks around the front of the desk and squats down in front of me. He is half-smiling.

I've been wondering where you and your boyfriend disappear to,” he says.

I stare at him. I am under a desk, clutching a glass of whisky. I didn't hear him come in. How did I not hear him come in? Although, to be honest, in this situation I was fucked the moment he opened the door.

Martin's not my boyfriend,” I say.

He takes out his phone and takes a picture of me.

You know I'm with Jena now?” he says. He is still disturbingly hot. It sickens me that I am fucked up enough to feel turned on by him in this situation. It's also strange that we are communicating better – seeing each other better – than we did when we were actually dating.

I realise I haven't seen Jena for a while. I need to get in touch with her. If this is the guy she's with, she needs me.

What do you have to say for yourself?” he asks.

About what?” I say.

He waves a hand. “This,” he says. “All of this.” His lips twist into a sneer.

Amanda would have a comeback – or a roundhouse - that would send him reeling. Gin would smile, make a joke, charm him till he'd do anything for her. Sally would play the submissive, oh how he would love that.

I am Alice. I say nothing. I realise my skirt is rucked up to my thighs and my hair is greasy. I say nothing. It's my gift to myself, I will never say another unnecessary word to this man.

I'm going to get your geek boyfriend fired, you know,” he said. “The hearing's next week.”

I see how much he's enjoying this. I also see that I have done exactly what I set out to do to him. I've cracked his facade. This is the man behind the mystery. He is having an emotional response to me, just like I had one to him. He might be having sex with Jena, but his emotions are with me. 

Christ, this is actually a love affair. We are tied to each other and, because he doesn't know how to do anything but hurt and I don't know how to do anything but get hurt, there is some horrific way in which we are absolutely perfect for each other.

Oh, fuck that train of thought. I replace the cap on the whisky and put the glass down next to it and stand up.

Where are you going?” Chris asks. “Where do you think you're going?”

I walk out of the room without answering.