Saturday, 11 October 2014

92. A two-hour bubble bath

I am late for work. Phenomenally late.

It's nearly 10am, and I haven't left the house. I know this, and I'm still curled up in my dressing gown on the sofa, drinking coffee. I don't seem to have the impetus to move. Everyone will be cross with me. I'm cross with myself, in a sort of distant way. But I'm still not moving and it's getting to the kind of “late” where I will have to call in sick just to save face.

I want to call in sick. I want to stay at home and have a two-hour bubble bath, drink wine all day, and listen to Type O Negative. And then call in sick again tomorrow, and do the same thing. Maybe Amanda could come over tomorrow afternoon. And then it'll be the weekend.

It's been two years since I had a day off sick. Maybe I should just do it. And today I'm supposed to be meeting Martin for lunch, and I need some time.
We had lunch together Monday and Tuesday and he stayed over twice this week already. We have been in constant text and email contact. Maybe if I tell him I'm ill, he'll leave me alone long enough for me to regroup.

It's not that I don't like him. I do like him. He makes me happy. At least, I think he makes me happy. Somewhere among all the buffeting waves of emotion I can see glimpses of contentment and happiness. Something I can nearly grasp, it's right there, I just have to swim through all the other stuff first and then when I'm used to having him with me, when we are used to each other, when it isn't new any more and I can actually relax, I'll be able to enjoy it.

But at the moment the conflict between my desire, for him and to be with him, and my fear, of how vulnerable that desire makes me feel, is such an intense combination that I can barely function.

I suddenly realise I'm shivering as I sit on the sofa. I'm hunched up too, squashed into just one corner of it. My knees are to my chest, and my arms over my breasts.

I decide to call in sick. Fuck it. This isn't physical, true, but it is definitely some kind of existential sickness and the truth is it's not like anyone will miss me. It's not like my job is even worthwhile, or important. Pushing press releases no-one will publish on how great our new loan package is. Justifying why the firm are hiking the interest on debts, when we declared a large profit last year and the economy is so bad that we are likely to be actually causing suicides -

My eyes close. I don't want to think about it.

Why do I do what I do? Why do I hate myself so much? Why can't I just be happy that I've met someone? I've wanted this for so long, and there have been so many failed attempts, and this might actually work and I'm so terrified I'm calling in sick to work.

My phone beeps. Someone's texted me.
I honestly don't know what I would do without Amanda sometimes. I try to remember the next line of the song to text it back, but I can't and I can't be bothered to google it so instead I text “Smoke Meth and Eat Pussy”, which I think is probably a decent guess.

I call Jeremy and get his answer machine. I'm not supposed to leave messages on the answer machine when I'm calling in, but I do anyway. I text Martin to say I'm sick, add in that I'm going back to bed for some more sleep so that he won't worry when he texts back and I don't answer, and then I turn off my mobile, unplug the landline and run myself a bath.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

91. Facing each other

Martin and I are lying on my bed, facing each other, staring into each other’s eyes. His left little finger is wrapped around my right little finger. We have not said anything for at least a minute. I have a horrible suspicion that we are in love.

In love. Alice Chambers in love.


And why is that, Matthew, may I ask?


Martin likes me.


We had sex ages ago, so if he’s that bored and repulsed by me why hasn’t he put his trousers on and fucked off then?



Yeah, you don’t have an answer for that, do you? You fucking loser.

Martin gives me a slow smile. It makes his brown eyes crinkle up underneath. It is a sly, shy, happy, utterly beautiful smile. I feel my own smile start in response and in this moment I feel there is nothing more I want from life. I have now tasted the best - the absolute best - that the world can offer a human being. This is the pinnacle. Anything good from here on in is just a bonus

I remember, just for a second, that what I think is Matthew is actually me. Of course it is me. The real Matthew, from what I remember, could hardly string a sentence together and is unlikely to use “verboten”.

He's probably graduated to internet chatrooms now. Course he has. Stalk children in the comfort of your own home why am I thinking about him now? I'm lying on my bed with a beautiful half-naked man who is - however improbably - apparently interested in me. Why am I thinking about Matthew now?

Is this not ever going to go away?

The answer is no, it's not. It doesn't ever go away. You just learn to accept it as normal and live with it. Or spend your entire life out of your head on drink and drugs, or selling yourself, or hysterically scrambling to the top of the corporate ladder in a desperate struggle to be someone different, or any of the other variations on “not living with it” I have seen in my time.

Sometimes I live with it, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I should just fucking forget about it.

I'm suddenly terrified. I can't have sex with Martin, what if he thinks I'm laughably crap in bed? What if I freak out and have a flashback at a crucial moment? What if he gets upset by my pubes?

(One of the insecurities I have, sexually speaking, is that I flatly refuse to shave my pubic hair. I don't know why that is, exactly; I have no trouble with armpits or legs, but the thought of anything more intimate provokes an immediate and hysterical emotional response along the lines of: "I WON'T DO IT AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!" As a result, my hair sprawls where it pleases, wild and untamed. Occasionally I clip it a bit, as I have a couple of very long tufts which give a kind of Mohican effect if left, but usually it just does its own thing. The idea of shaving makes me feel like a prepubescent and, for obvious reasons, I hate that. But it's also the norm. People expect it. Martin probably expects it.)

He's kissing me again. It's really nice. No, it's more than that, it's great. He smells lovely, and I want to bury my face in his neck but I don't because I'm not sure whether he wants me to. Whether this might not be real, or somehow might turn out to be some huge hurtful joke. There are so many conflicting emotions – happiness, lust, astonishment, guilt, shame, fear, insecurity, the overwhelmingness of being this close to another person after so long – that I'm starting to feel nauseous, which isn't helping on any level.

Oh God. I can't do this. 

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.


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.