Sunday, 12 January 2014

80. Plastic boxes that go beep

Gin is sitting at the other end of the sofa with her feet in my lap, and I am painting her toenails. Amanda is lying on the floor painting my nails, with her legs crooked up into Gin's lap so Gin can paint hers. I would love to see what we look like to the outside viewer.

It's seven o'clock. We are listening to the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show and drinking our way through a jug of Gin's homemade margaritas. The original plan was to go out for dinner and then on somewhere, but it's starting to look as if it has been cancelled due to not moving.

Gin has chosen bright parrot green nail varnish, Amanda sunshine yellow. I've picked midnight blue.

"How's Martin?" says Amanda, slyly.

Amanda and Gin don't mention Martin all the time. They sometimes go weeks without mentioning his name. I think the plan is that if they drop him into the conversation suddenly I might react somehow.

"He's fine," I say.

"Have you made a move on him yet?" Gin is flank-attacking from the right.


"Has he made a move on you?" Amanda again.


They look at each other.
"Did you get the tickets for next Saturday?" I say, hastily.

"Yeah," says Amanda, stroking blue across my big toenail.

"How much do we owe you?"

"Nothing." Amanda blows on my toenail softly to dry the varnish. "I got the tickets for free."

"Free? Free?" Gin says. "What? Who from?"

Amanda suddenly looks caught out and I realise she's said more than she intended.

"The box office website is a bit - antiquated..." she says, trailing off. Oh dear. I know where this is going.

"You hacked into it and got free tickets?" Gin says.

Amanda looks wounded. "Well, if you want to put it that crudely."

"I do," says Gin. "I do want to put it that crudely."

"Music should belong to everyone. I hate the way it's become just another way for The Man to make money."

"Don't turn this into some kind of political rebellion against the system," says Gin. "I don't want to be caught with a skeevy ticket at the door. I have more self respect than that."

I don't know a lot about computers. Amanda doesn't talk about her job much and I am not sure exactly what she does, except that it is freelance and she seems to make quite a considerable amount of money. She works from home, in a room full of happily humming plastic. She ignores the usual sleek black minimalist computer-geek style in favour of covering all her equipment with street art stickers she bought from Redbubble.

Machines respond to Amanda in exactly the same way as animals respond to animal-loving humans. Everyone she knows brings her their laptops with screen-freeze, sulky touchscreens and PCs shivering with viruses, and she delicately presses and searches with her long, sensitive fingers until the hidden door pops open or the screen flickers, and she smiles.Then she presses a couple of buttons, maybe types a word or two, and they work. Sometimes she hands it back and says there is nothing she can do, and she always looks sad to break such terrible news.

This leads me to some strange conclusions. A machine is a machine. How can it know? But there's no denying that some people can make anything work and some people break everything they touch. Is it just a matter of being heavy handed? Or is it some fundamental lack of sympathy?

"Alice! Tell her!" Gin's despairing voice makes me tune back into the conversation. I've lost track of what's going on and I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to tell Amanda, but fortunately Gin launches straight back in with: "There's more to life than plastic boxes that go beep!"

Amanda grins at her. "Look, if you're not comfortable, I'll give your ticket away. You don't have to come."

Gin looks uncomfortable. This promises to be a fantastic gig, and it's sold out. This is the only way she's going to get in, and she knows it.

"I'm not happy about it," she says, capitulating. "Musicians should get paid for their work."

"It's sold out," says Amanda. "They're sold out all over the country. They'll make enough to eat tomorrow."

"But if everyone had the same attitude as you - "

"If everyone had the same attitude as me, all gigs would be free because musicians would receive billions in state funding from the Ministry of Music. I consider that a much better use of public funds than nuclear missiles." 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

79. I kept getting turned down

I remember a time once when I was unemployed. I had been made redundant. At this time I was overqualified and underexperienced. I kept going for jobs. I kept getting turned down.

But of course, I'm ok. I'm middle class. I have a degree. The politicians and pundits aren't talking about me when they talk about unemployment and benefit scroungers and zero hours contracts and whether benefits give you enough money to "live" on.

Except they are. The "they" who try and exist on benefits is also "me". I could tell you about all the adding up of pennies and the counting down of days, the 10pm visits to the supermarket to see what had been discounted because it would save a precious £5 which would allow me to buy deodorant or a chocolate bar or a couple of halves of lager in the pub on Amanda's birthday, the realisation that living is more than just staying alive.

The time when my only decent pair of shoes got a split in the sole and I cried because I couldn't afford new shoes. I just quite simply could not afford them and still eat. But I had to have new shoes, because these were my interview shoes, and if I started turning up for job interviews for professional jobs in trainers then I would have no chance whatsoever. So I lived on value pasta. With no sauce. For a week. 

I could tell you all that, but instead I'll tell you the story of Joe. I knew Joe vaguely through friends; loud, obnoxious, given to making generalisations about immigrants. Estate agent, too much hair gel. I did not like Joe, and I avoided him at parties, because he would get drunk and attempt to grab my boobs.

But one day he asked me out. He said: "Can I buy you dinner?"

I had £5 in my bank account, nothing to eat at home but beans on toast, nothing for breakfast tomorrow, five days till the money came through, and he was offering to buy me dinner. Oh the idea of dinner, a proper meal out, with meat, and a starter, and green veg, and dessert, and in that moment I understood how skint people have ended up as prostitutes and courtesans throughout all the millennia of human existence.

Just because you are struggling to get by doesn't mean you don't have eyes, brains or a stomach and the satisfaction of doing the honourable thing lasts about as long as it takes for you to stare at your plate of Tesco Value tinned spaghetti hoops and think: "I could be sitting in a restaurant knocking back red wine and eating steak."

It's not even so much the spaghetti hoops themselves. It's the knowledge that you will be eating spaghetti hoops pretty much forever. That for the foreseeable future there will not be a time when you don't have to watch the pennies, that if you're careful things might get easier - but they will never actually be easy, not while you are living like this.

This is the thing I think politicians and people with money in general don't understand, that it's not about the lack of cash, exactly. It's about the knowledge that there is no end in sight to the lack of cash. There will never be a time when you can relax about money for even a second. You live in a world where one piece of bad luck - the electricity company has miscalculated, for example, and you've been underpaying a direct debit without your knowledge, and you suddenly get a demand for £400 - could tip you over into homelessness, because you live in a world where people might as well ask you for a million pounds as for £400. You've got about as much chance of meeting either request, after all.

And that or something like it could happen at absolutely any time, and you have no control over whether it does or not. You live on a knife edge.
But just because you live in a world with no room for fripperies doesn't mean you don't like them.

At this time, if I was invited to someone's wedding, I had to make the tough decision of whether to spend £15 on a new dress from Primark, whether to wear an old dress and take them a better gift, or whether to wear an old dress, take a cheap gift and eat properly that week. I remember spending time walking round really high-end clothes shops and department stores. Just to be in them. Just to look at clothes which weren't cheap, and smell perfume which wasn't market store knock-offs, and see how there was a designer vase for £100 - £100! Imagine that! Imagine a world where I had enough money to spend £100 on something to put flowers in! It was almost beyond imagining in a world where every pound I had was earmarked as soon as it fell into my bank account for necessities like food, or rent, or knickers without actual holes in, or shampoo.

On the rare occasion I could afford flowers, they were £1 daffodils and they lived in a converted coffee pot. And people who had money came round and said "Ooh, isn't that cute, what a lovely idea," and the truth was they were in the coffee pot because it was better than putting them in a saucepan, which was the only other option I had because I had sold everything I owned which would sell. I can speak from experience when I say there is but nothing more annoying than people with money admiring your desperate skint contrivances as if you chose to do them because it was cool.

Did I let Joe take me out to dinner? Yes, and I ate and drank as much as I could, and stole all the rolls in my handbag when he went to the loo, and took all the uneaten cheese off the cheeseboard home wrapped in napkins, and flirted and smiled and laughed in all the right places in the frantic hope he would take me out again. I did not agree with his racist statements - but I also didn't exactly disagree. I was embarrassed and horrified with myself about that at the time, but I felt a lot less awful when I woke up the next morning with a wealth of fancy cheese and handmade luxury bread rolls for breakfast.

Did he ask me out again? No. Not surprising, to be honest. In some ways it was a good thing, because it saved me from the next dilemma: if he had, would I eventually have slept with him so he kept funding my food?

Probably. It was a rough time. A girl has to eat.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

78. Ferny herbivore duvet

Amanda and I are in a very loud bar. Everything she's saying is being drowned out by early 90s house music.

I am wearing a red lace catsuit with silver platform shoes. Amanda is wearing a green latex corset over a green net tutu and green striped tights with green boots. Earlier she informed me she was drinking only absinthe tonight, but we can't find anywhere which serves absinthe so she is substituting with shots of Apple Sourz.

"Ferny herbivore duvet!" shouts Amanda. She is grinning like a lunatic.

"Yes!" I shout.

"Soliciting android anal-beads sambuca?" She gestures towards the bar. The last word sounds like bad news.

"Maybe not a good idea," I say, cautiously.

"Okay, wait here by the circus!" She heads off towards the bar brandishing £20, and I resign myself to being hungover tomorrow. I look round and see that I am, in fact, standing by a large poster showing a 1920s circus scene.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing here. I have somehow managed to misjudge my drinking, and even through the fog of alcohol I'm annoyed with myself. I don't often get to the point where I have trouble standing up. I'm there now, and this is the point at which drinking stops being fun. I am dreading Amanda coming back and making me do a shot of sambuca. I want water, and lots of it.

But Amanda thinks I said yes, so she might be offended if she buys me a shot and I don't drink it. Bugger.

Maybe I could spill it. If I stand a little further out on the dancefloor, I could dance around a bit and then accidentally spill it on the floor. Not a bad idea.

At that moment I look round and see a short bald man standing next to me staring at me intently.

"Hi!" he says.

"Hello," he says. "I'm a happily married man."

"Good for you," I say, scanning the bar for Amanda.

"I'm Tyler Alligatorfloss," he says. Damn this music.

"Alice Chambers," I say, and we shake hands.

"I'm a happily married man," he says.

"Why do you keep saying that?" I ask. "I'm not trying to come on to you."

"What's my name?" he bellows.

"I didn't think you were that drunk, dude."



"What's my name?"

"Uh...Tyler Alligatorfloss," I say. Apparently this sounds enough like his real name to be convincing. He smiles and nods at me.

"Add me on Facebook," he says.

"Why?" I say. "You're a happily married man."

"I'm a happily married man," he says, attempting to stare deeply into my eyes. He can't focus, and neither can I, so it isn't working.

"Fuck this conversation," I say.


"Gotta go, bye!" I say and head off in the direction of the loo. It's quieter outside in the corridor and I take a moment to lean against the wall and sulk about my life. 36 years old, in a job I hate, overly drunk in a loud bar being chatted up by happily married men called Tyler Alligatorfloss.

"It shouldn't be like this," I opine, drunkenly, to the corridor.

"How should it be then?"

Chris is standing next to me, leaning against the wall. His blonde hair has grown out; it's all dark again, and I have to say it suits him.

"Better," I say. "More fun."

"You're not having fun?"

"Not really. I was earlier, but I'm not now."

"Don't you ever think you're a bit old for clothes and bars like this?" he says. "Most mid-thirties women have grown up. Settled down."

This is exactly what I was just thinking.

"Yes," I say. "I do think that sometimes."

"I mean, it's a bit undignified when you're starting to go grey." He pauses. "I'm here with Jena tonight."

I am drunk enough to be rude. "Okay, no need to clobber me over the head with subtext," I say. "Jena's younger than me, and therefore has more value on the open market. I get it."

Chris looks at me. His eyes narrow. He leans in and whispers: "You don't get it. You dumped me, you skinny old bitch. You dumped me by text. How fucking dare you? Who do you think you are?"

I sober up instantly. It's funny how quickly that can happen. I can feel the stubble on his chin against my cheek as the alcohol drains out of my body. It feels as if it has been replaced by ice. I'm shivering.

He smiles. Turns. Walks away back into the bar.

I stand in the corridor. I don't move. I don't move a muscle. Out of the three fear responses - fight, flight and freeze - my natural inclination is to deploy the least useful. I stare at the floor and wait for the situation to change. Some time later, I can't tell how long, it does.

"I've been looking everywhere for you," Amanda says. "I had a shot for you. But I couldn't find you and then it went in my mouth."

Sunday, 1 December 2013

77. People are fractals

Children die every day at the hands of people like Matthew.

Not all paedophiles are like Matthew. Like all groups of people, like punks, like feminists, like Muslims, like all the other groups people make across-the-board assumptions about, viewed from a distance the group is homogenous. When you get closer, when you look harder, it fragments into separate and distinct camps. Look even closer and the camps fragment again; people are fractals. For example, one can learn a lot just from Wikipedia. Not always a reliable source, to be sure, but for things like scientific classifications it's usually reliable as these are things which are easy to spot and update and wiki-geeks thrive on that kind of thing.

Wikipedia tells us that Holmes and Holmes, 2002, looked at types of paedophile and their psychological profiles and came up with seven classifications.
              Does not prefer children, but offends under certain conditions.
      Typically has relationships with adults, but a stressor causes them to seek children as a substitute.
      Morally indiscriminate
      All-around sexual deviant who may commit other sexual offenses unrelated to children, otherwise meaning some rapists are so into raping they pretty much tend to rape everything that stands still long enough.
      Often mentally disabled in some way, finds children less threatening. (Having learning difficulties unfortunately does not preclude having physical sexual feelings. As a society we like to pretend it does, and we make no allowances for the sexuality of people who are physically or mentally disabled. Because people with learning difficulties are not very good at the finer points of social interaction, their response to frustration is to act to relieve it. A lot of the time they genuinely don't understand why they are not allowed to do so, or that they're harming the other person. My personal opinion is that people who fall into this particular group could probably benefit from some kind of government-sponsored sex worker scheme, but I don't think Britain is there yet. And nor are we likely to be there any time soon.)
              Has true sexual interest in children, ie a fixed orientation emerging before or during           puberty and stable over time. Still is non-consensual and causes significant harm,               though, so let's not start making coming-out banners for paedophiles just yet.
      Sadistic and violent, targets strangers more often than acquaintances. Why, hello there Matthew. You have your own classification. How nice for you. Did you know I still have a knife scar on the left side of my ribcage?
      Little or no activity with adults of own age, described as an "overgrown child."

Interesting. Even with this basic information, we already see the fractals. We see that an autistic man who has no understanding of his crime and offended because he was sexually frustrated should be handled differently from a sociopath like Jimmy Savile who offends because he can.

As a society we will blame everyone else rather than deal with the human reality of paedophiles.

We rave and rant at the social worker who should have removed the child. The legal system which lets sex offenders out. The mental health worker who should have picked up on the signs. The teacher who should have seen the bruises. All these cries for heads to roll and local authority witch hunts and we ignore the elephant in the room.

A paedophile is not a monster, but an adult human being. He or she makes a decision to force sexual contact on a pre-sexual human. And that decision belongs to that person. It's not anything to do with anyone else. Other people should keep an eye out, yes. They should be aware of the signs. But the majority of the blame has to rest squarely on the shoulders of the person who fantasised about child sex abuse, planned how to do it, and then did it.

We are freaked out by sex offenders - and so we should be. They are terrifying. They damage people for life. They scare people. They physically hurt people. Sometimes their desires are so extreme that they can only be satisfied by murder. No-one wants to admit sex offenders are just another facet of humanity. That's even more scary than monsters.

We lock them up and throw away the key. We pretend they don't exist, they don't have needs, they're not people, they're not there. As a society, we are doing the equivalent of thinking that if we just stand still and keep our eyes closed for long enough the bogeyman will go away.

This does not work. It's not a question of right or wrong. Or a question of what "should" or "shouldn't" happen. It simply does not work. It doesn't work just like the much-vaunted war on drugs doesn't work. Shouting "But you shouldn't take drugs!" at people does not change the fact that they do take drugs, and debate about whether drug laws are "right" or "wrong" does not change the fact that they don't work. They do not work. I could make two phone calls and be off my face on pretty much anything I chose to ask for within three hours. So could you, whoever you are, whether you move in druggy circles or not. If you think about your circle of friends and acquaintances, I bet you can think of someone to call. Or someone who would know someone to call. No matter how straight you are, if your life depended on getting some coke, or some heroin, or some acid or whatever - you could have it in your hands within three hours. It is a huge and stupid waste of time and money and it does not work. Neither do the laws against prostitution. Neither does any other law our society has put in place to eradicate an aspect of humanity it doesn't want to admit exists.

Why paedophiles happen, we don't know. No-one knows. Whether it's genetic, a product of upbringing or a rare combination of various factors is not understood. But the fact remains they are there. They exist. Pretending they aren't human - that they are a monster in the shadows - is pointless.The problem needs to be engaged with, because if it isn't engaged with it can't be solved or contained. The only way we will ever understand why these people exist and what makes them tick is by looking them straight in the eye, talking to them, and dealing with what we see. In other words, accepting them as part of us.

We can't figure out how to change them until we've stopped being afraid of looking at them.

One final point; victims of paedophiles are also people. I am not just a victim with a scarred ribcage. I am a woman with a job, with friends, with a cat, a woman who likes Vivienne Westwood shoes and listens to Bauhaus, a woman who hopes one day to have a family and a home of her own. A woman who hates being defined by less than an hour spent in some rhododendrons 27 years ago. You need to see them in proportion, so you can see us in proportion too. The knife against your throat doesn't break you, but the media witch hunts and celebrity confessions, the way everyone goes quiet and treats you like you might start crying or attack them, the assumption that when you have been sex abused you will never have an ordinary life, that might. That just might.  

Sunday, 24 November 2013

76. "I was just texting you."

Contact has a facebook page - if you'd like to receive my updates, ramblings, and occasional musical interludes please click here to like it. 

Lunch break is nearly over. I've been walking round the shops, buying lace stockings, eyeliner and macaron. I visited the market for lunch: half a lobster in a white polystyrene tray and a soft white bread roll with a crackly golden crust.

It's a bright, clear, cold spring day. It rained last night and puddles mirror the pale sky all along the pavement. As I approach work I see a girl standing on the steps outside, a slim figure in a black coat. Long butter-blonde hair trailing over a fake fur collar. I realise it's Jena. She is texting and when she realises I'm standing next to her she looks startled and then strangely guilty.

"Alice!" she says. "I was just texting you."

"You were?" I say. I haven't seen Jena for a little while, our paths haven't crossed.

"I need to talk to you about something," she says. She flips her hair over one shoulder, and looks away.

"Okay," I say. "What is it?"

"You dated Chris for a while. How would you feel if - I mean, he asked me out - " she says."I like him. But I don't want to tread on your toes."

I'm nearly knocked over by a wave of feelings. There are a lot of them. It will take me a while to disentangle and sort them all out. I'm not happy, in fact I am distressed by this news on a number of levels, and what I want to say is "No, you can't!"

But Jena is waiting, her eyes worried, hoping I won't flip out or be upset with her. It is clear there is only one thing I can say.

"That's fine," I say. "We had a thing for a little while, but it's well and truly over."

"Are you sure?"

I shrug. "It was just a thing. It was never serious."

It was.

"He's a nice guy."

He isn't.

Jena gives me a hug and thanks me, and we promise to meet up soon, and she heads off in the direction of the post room and I trudge back up to my office. I dump my shopping. I pretend I have a meeting and head off to the empty office where I sometimes meet Martin. I stare out of the window at the seagulls circling through the white sky and try and calm myself.

The first feeling that clearly emerges out of the mess of emotion is jealousy. Jena is younger, sexier and prettier than me. I thought Chris was emotionally involved with me; even after our breakup, I interpreted the way he reacted - the anger - as a sign he had felt something for me. It's clear that even if he did he has moved on, and that's upsetting. Why can't I find anyone? Why do men queue up for Jena and not for me? Is that fair? I'm not asking to be the hottest of them all, just for one nice guy -

Okay, enough. I put the self pity to one side as it's meaningless, unhelpful, and I've thought all these things before anyway. It's also wrong. The truth is I would rather be single than be with someone like Chris again. And he didn't like me. He just didn't like someone he saw as his possession walking away from him.

With that, another thought emerges and this one is more important.

I'm worried about Jena. I'm not sure Chris is going to be a good partner for her. I'm not sure he'd be a good partner for anyone. And Jena - as I just thought - is young. She's clever enough to get by, but not experienced enough to be astute about people. She's capable of playing the ice queen with men she doesn't care about, but I've seen her with the ones she likes. She reminds me of a golden retriever, a silly loving dog, jumping up, tail wagging frantically: please love me!

And she likes Chris. Yes, I can see why. For the same reasons I liked him. Because he is physically attractive, and emotionally aloof. Makes you want to crack the facade open, see what he looks like when he lets go. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

75. A pair of red flares and a fitted ringer t-shirt

I am sitting at my desk dreaming of clothes. We get paid tomorrow. I'm thinking about what I want to buy.

I'd like a pair of polished high heeled black brogues, like the ones the witch wears in Suspiria when she is walking round and round the corridors of the ballet school. I'd like a pair of red flares and a fitted ringer t-shirt like a Japanese girl wore in a horror film I saw once, I forget the name.

I'd like a bright red coat with a huge furry collar and long fluffy cuffs. After some thought, I recognise it as one Asami wears in Takahashi Miike's Audition, which makes me pause for a second because I'm not sure I want to look like her, but I decide that, while she is a horrifying person, that doesn't mean I can't admire her sense of style. I can endorse her coat without endorsing her actions. Then I wonder if this is a terrible thing to think. I should despise everything to do with Asami. It is not, after all, acceptable to say: "Hitler was a terrible man, but I quite like that one coat he wore."

Then I decide that Audition was a film and Takahashi probably picked the coat out for the actor. He quite clearly has excellent taste when it comes to sets and costumes. So that's fine.

I want purple fake fur and gold sequins. I want a 20s-style flapper dress embellished with beads; I waver towards white for a while, and then settle on midnight blue.

My wardrobe is crammed with beautiful clothes. Rose-pink satin jumbled in next to green feather boas and grey fake fur jackets. I have a particular weakness for tweeds, plaids and sequins - although not together. The current craze for embellishment is driving me insane. One sees what looks like, from the back, a very nice simple dress. One picks it up, hopefully turns it round, and sees that the designer has vomited a splash of multicoloured gems all over a randomly chosen section of its front. It is not aesthetically pleasing, continues to be a disappointment, and should be stopped immediately.

I adore clothes, but trends in general pass me by. I don't read style magazines or fashion blogs. Just never got into the habit. I took advantage of the obsession with lace two years ago to pick up a number of items, but other than that I don't really pay attention to this season's must-haves. I don't know anyone else who does, either. I don't know who buys them. Every woman I know thinks about how she looks, but we all have very clear ideas of what we want to buy which bear little or no relation to what is supposed to be fashionable.

All my wish list comes from films and music videos. Helena Bonham Carter's grungy-glam black wardrobe in Fight Club. The yellow latex dress Beyonce wears in Lady Gaga's Telephone video. Wednesday Addams' plaid. Molly Ringwald's pearls, hats and sweaters in Pretty in Pink and Mary Stuart Masterson's gloves and shorts in Some Kind of Wonderful. Everything everyone wears in Desperately Seeking Susan and any given John Waters film. Everything Tank Girl has ever been drawn in, whether in comic or film form.

I realise suddenly that it's not even so much about how I look. It's about a dream. An idea. It's about making life more like a movie, because in the end I prefer movies to actual life. And who wouldn't? The bright colours, the excitement, the sense that there is a point to all of it. So much more satisfying than the grey pointless grind of working at a job you hate, in close proximity to people who are so stupid and unthinking you can't stand to talk to them for longer than five minutes. And at the end of the month you get given just enough money to pay your bills.

When you buy clothes, you are buying a fantasy. It's a dream about who you want to be, who you really are on the inside, how you want to live. You're in a shop. You see a dress or a top and you say "It's me!" It's no wonder we get in debt, because you have to have that dream. Having it means you are the person you want to be, you could be someone else. Not having it means you are exactly what you are always afraid you were.

I suddenly realise that I just thought I hate my job. And in the same moment I realise it's true. I do hate my job. I hate this open-plan office. I hate pushing paper. I hate the endless round of tough negotiating and kissing other people's asses which defines public relations as a career. I hate that, when something goes well, all my incompetent bosses congratulate themselves for a good idea without noticing me but when it goes badly it's my fault. I hate the word "appropriate" as in "your clothes are not appropriate" and "your attitude is not appropriate". And most of all, I hate the way I am expected to not just do it - I have to do it, I need the money - but to love it with all my heart and soul, to make it my reason for existing. You don't get put in prison and then told you're lucky to be there so you'd better look like you're appreciating it.

As if anyone could love PR. It's not a job with a point. It's not like helping disabled children, or nursing, or doing ground-breaking science, or making clay pots, or mending clothes. There is no visible end result. I'm not even working for something like a charity, where at least you could feel you were publicising something which would actually help people. I'm working for the kind of large financial organisation which makes money off miserable people's debts.

At this point, I decide enough is enough. This train of thought is foolish and unhelpful. I'm going to buy myself a latte and a chocolate doughnut and sit in the cafeteria for twenty minutes. It's not like anyone will miss me.

But as I walk down the stairs the thought stays with me, a tiny nagging itch somewhere in the back of my brain: what would it be like to have a job with a point?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

74. Its accretions of overlaid memories

What with all the difficult relationships with men, work's become somewhat hazardous recently. Everywhere I go, I see Derek. Or Chris. Both problematic, in different ways. And then there's Martin. It's enough to make a girl scan the media jobs on offer in London with the concentration of a prisoner trying to dig through a stone wall with a spoon.

It would be so easy to run away. And so tempting. All the stuff I could leave behind: the flat and all the useless junk I've accumulated, the city I've lived in all my life with its accretions of overlaid memories round every corner, the people. All the people. Just me, and Rammstein in a box, and a suitcase with clothes and a couple of books, getting on the train. A new phone with a new number in my pocket, the old one in the bin. Take down my facebook and twitter, change my email address, just....disappear. Be anonymous in a huge new place -

"Have you finished the Life's A Pitch press release yet?" asks my manager Jeremy at my shoulder. He is clutching a huge steaming cup of pitch-black coffee. We live on coffee in my office and we let it brew for far too long and it is like drinking a combination of tar and pure adrenalin. Considering the job of any media and communications team is usually highly adrenalised anyway, I'm surprised no-one has yet had a psychotic breakdown.

"Not yet," I say. "I'm waiting for the guy to come back to me with the finalised quote."

"Because it needs to go for approval."

"I know. I'm waiting for the guy to come back to me. He knows when it needs to go out."

"It needs to go out tomorrow."

"I know that."

"So you need to get it done."

"He knows I'm waiting for him. I rang him half an hour ago."

"Perhaps you could call him again."

"Will do."

I won't do. I've rung him three times already this morning, and the last time he sounded like he was getting pissed off. I don't want to risk making him angry, because we have to work together on this project for the next six months. He knows it's urgent, because I stressed that the last three times. Also, if I'm on the phone talking to him, then logically he cannot at the same time be doing what I have asked him to do, so I will actually be holding the process up by calling again.

However, Jeremy likes to feel involved, and I know from previous experience that these conversations generally end with something along the lines of "stop arguing and just do it", so it's easier to pre-empt the shouting by lying to him.

Jeremy returns to his desk. It is 20 feet away, and he cannot hear the substance of any phone call. I can see him sliding suspicious glances at me to see what I do. I flip through my notepad busily to give myself some thinking space, then pick up the phone and cradle it between my ear and shoulder and - with a little flutter of apprehension in my stomach which I pretend is not there - call Martin.

"Martin Falco, how can I help you?" he says briskly.

"You can stay on the phone and pretend I'm aggressively pressuring you for a quote," I say.

"Please hold," he says. Two seconds later an email pops up.

patty is on my case. ill help you if you help me.

I send back: ok

"Hello, Mr Lehane," says Martin.

"Hello, it's Alice, we spoke earlier about the Life's a Pitch release? I just wondered whether you'd had any luck with that quote."

"I spoke to you about an hour ago about the post-it notes missing from the stationery order. Have you been able to track down what happened?"

"I appreciate we only gave you two days to do this, but we do need to get this resolved immediately. It needs to go through the approvals process before being released tomorrow."

"I've checked the order form and it's correct." Martin is doing very well, but I can hear a wobble in his voice as he tries not to laugh. "I'd appreciate it if you can look into what's happened as soon as possible please."

"Yes, I understand the difficulties. But if you could get me something within an hour, that would be great. Could you call back and let me know how you are getting on at half past?"

"Perhaps you could update me this afternoon?" says Martin. "Coffee?" he whispers.

"4pm's the absolute deadline," I say.

"Sounds good."

"But we need something before that so I can work it into the story," I say.

"3pm?" asks Martin.


We say goodbye to each other and hang up. Jeremy, placated, is on the phone himself. I return to the report I was correcting. Five minutes later, my phone rings. It's the actual Life's a Pitch man, with the quote I wanted.

"Thanks so much," I say. "That's great. I'm sorry it was a short deadline."