Sunday, 27 May 2012

14. One ordinary day, with lobster

I am sitting in the park with Amanda. We have bought a bottle of prosecco from Marks and Spencer, some crusty white bread, and two half lobsters from the market. Amanda lies stretched on the grass, sucking lobster off her fingers. She is wearing a brief halterneck top and a short denim skirt, and the three teenage boys skulking under the oak tree are watching her as though their eyeballs are attached to her legs with string.

We decide we want ice-cream. She walks over to buy two, a lemon sorbet for her and rum and raisin for me.

Matthew comes to me then, like a cloud over the sun.


"Pretty rich coming from you, you fucking loser," I say out loud. I lie back on the grass and think.

When you actually have to make a conscious decision about it, there are very few things other people can do to you which are utterly unforgivable. I've met people who have bullied me, people who have told lies about me, boyfriends who've cheated on me, people who've stolen from me and betrayed my trust. There is only one person who has permanently made it on my "to get" list.

I'm not going to go out of my way - because I fail to see why I should waste one second more of my time allowing Matthew to dictate what I do and how I do it - but if the opportunity ever arises then I will fuck him up as hard as I can. And that's my promise to myself. Some people tell you to forgive, and I say you would have to be a fucking saint, and why should I anyway? What's in that for me? The satisfaction of doing the right thing? Matthew was never arrested. He zipped himself up and he walked away, and he got away with it. He's out there somewhere right now. Why should I do the right thing, when not even God does?

But it does make me think. Matthew claimed to know me, and he didn't. But I know him. I know something about him that I bet none of the people he meets in his day to day life know, and if they did know it, they'd melt out of his life faster than snow in sunlight.

I do feel sorry for him, in a strange way. He's so alone. I have no secrets; I try never to have them. I keep other people's secrets, but I have none of my own. They are a burden. I've given and received love, I've shared all of myself.

Matthew is made of secrets and he can never tell them, except maybe to strangers online, other faceless child fetishists. But not to any of those people he meets every day. The life he's constructed is as hollow as an empty box, and he's the only one who knows it. He's done a wonderful job of fooling them all. But what use is that, when you can't tell anyone you've done it? When you can't tell anyone your essential truth? Poor, pathetic, lonely monster.

How can you do anything when you know you have - calmly and with premeditation - held down and raped a child? How can you meet your own eyes in the mirror? How can you kiss your girlfriend? How can you go to work and sit in meetings and solve problems like you deserve respect? How can you smile at the cashier in Tesco like you're a normal human being? How do you not just...die of shame?

I'm not having a go or anything. I genuinely want to know. There are a lot of child molesters in the world, and they hold down jobs and 90 per cent of the time have normal lives, and I want to know how. I want to know how they do it. How they live with themselves.

Sometimes I have a little fantasy about Matthew and me. We're both somewhere where no-one knows us. (A black gondola in Venice, a carpeted café in Marrakesh, a red and gold restaurant in Hong Kong.) And we communicate, like sometimes you do under the right circumstances in a foreign country with the drink flowing, where you are enough yourself and yet far enough away from yourself to say things you've never said before. And he tells me why, all the whys, everything that took him to the place where he could, and I tell him everything I feel and everything I've felt. And we both walk away from the encounter changed.

The reality is that this would not happen. It could not. One cannot get to the place Matthew reached without telling an awful lot of lies - to yourself, most of all. I doubt he even allows himself to come near honesty. How can he? If he ever, genuinely and with empathy, understands what he has done to me he will fall apart. Lies are all that hold him together, like a witch in a fairy story; find the right words, cut off his little finger, kill the enchanted deer with the ruby in its throat and he will turn to dust and blow away...

Amanda comes back with the ice cream. She sits down beside me and I remember what we were talking about. Matthew fades away again, dissolving into the air.

"Do you ever have regrets?" I ask.

She thinks.

"No," she says. "I feel like...we're here. This is where we are. In the present. The rest, the past, it's all frozen, it's gone. A moment ago we were in M&S and that moment is unchangeable now. It might as well be 20 years ago. We went there, we bought the food, and we left and came here. That's what happened. I can't change it.

"I made the right decision for me at the time, and looking back, I still think it was the right decision. And I'm happy now. Well, happier. It's not always easy, but you have to have the bad times. If you don't, you'll never know how good it can be, to sit in the park and eat lobster in the sunshine. How sweet it can be to have an ordinary day."

Amanda pulls down her aviators and looks at me over the top of them. Her eyes are bright blue.

"Too bad I won't live," she says, smiling, paraphrasing Blade Runner, "but then again, who does?"

Sunday, 20 May 2012

13. A trail of cream and chocolate

Gin has got bored with her hair. She has had the bottom part shaved off, fixed the top part so it stands up straight and bleached the whole lot blonde. "It's a high-top fade," she says, patting it. "It was big in the 80s."

"It's fairly big now," I say. Gin's new hair is adding approximately three inches to her height.

"Do you feel left out?" says Amanda. "Now that both of us have blonde hair, you can't be in our gang."

"Now that both of you have blonde hair, I'm the one that stands out. You two look like my sidekicks," I say.

We are at Amanda's father's 55th birthday party. Amanda's parents are divorced and don't speak. She gets on extremely well with her father but not at all with her mother, who disapproves of some of her lifestyle choices. The last time I saw Amanda's mother was approximately nine years ago. She pointedly blanked us in the changing rooms of a high-end clothing retailer.

Amanda's father is a professor, or a lecturer, or some form of academic. I'm not entirely sure what the academic scoring system is, but I do know that he is very senior. He specialises in European history. He is currently holding forth about the cultural implications of The Only Way Is Essex to a group of Ph.D students.

His house is beautiful. It is the kind of home I'm fascinated by, partly because the nature of it, all these carefully chosen and expensive possessions perfectly arranged - the original paintings, the deep red and pink carpets and soft brown sofas, the souvenirs from travelling and the walls lined with books, the greenly flourishing plants - is foreign to me. I don't have a home like this, and nor will I ever have one.

Just as I think this, a profiterole slips out of my hand and leaves a trail of cream and chocolate down the front of my blue dress.
Gin pokes me in the arm. "You're why we can't have nice things," she whispers. We giggle. I wander off to try and clean myself up.

Outside the living room, where most of the people are, it's quiet. I seem to remember there is a bathroom upstairs and to the left, so I walk up the wide stairs, running my fingers along the banister.

On the landing is a dark-wood display case. A fern fountains greenly out of a white pot on top. In it there are a number of beautiful objects Amanda's dad has presumably collected. A small bottle of violet glass with a yellowed label; it is half torn off, but a couple of words of faded copperplate handwriting can still be seen. The polished white-and-orange shell of a pearly nautilus. Two kingfisher feathers and one bluejay feather, arranged in a tiny stemmed glass etched with flowers. The fragile, stained skull of a bird.

There are also three carved netsuke, one wood, two bone. A ball of rats tumbling over each other. An octopus with its tentacles coiling like fractals. Two puppies fighting, one on its back and the other pinning it down. All small enough to fit into the palm of my hand.

I really want to open the case and play with the netsuke, but I know I can't do that. Instead I crouch down beside it and stare at them. They are so intricately carved every wrinkle on the rats' tails is visible.

"Are you looking for the bathroom?" a voice says behind me.

I start guiltily, turn, and it's Marianne, a lecturer in English literature. She is Amanda's dad's...I'm not sure. Girlfriend? No. Marianne has never been anyone's girlfriend. Far too frivolous. Mistress? Definitely not; black lace underwear and afternoon shags in hotel rooms. Too sexy. Partner - with its connotations of political correctness and law firms - suits her perfectly.

Marianne is tall, toned and very well-groomed, with smooth shiny hair. She wears tasteful classic clothes, usually in greens, blues or purples, and small gold studs in her ears, and she has probably never been caught on her hands and knees staring at someone else's netsuke while covered in cream.

She frowns at my cleavage.

"Did you know you have cream on the front of your dress?" she says.

"Yes, I did. Uhm, thank you," I say. There is something about Marianne which always makes me feel as if I'm five years old and I have spilt glue on one of the other children. 

(I remember Amanda holding forth on Marianne one night when we were - well, I don't exactly remember where we were but we were sitting on wipe-clean brown sofas which had not been wiped clean, the lighting was low to non-existent, and the band was terrible. Amanda was wearing a silver lurex jumpsuit and a pink feather boa and was, at that point, approximately seven-eighths tequila. "Marianne wasn't born," she slurred. "A computer programme constructed her out of Allure by Chanel, the Times Literary Supplement, and a couple of old iron girders.")

"You're one of Amanda's friends, aren't you?"

"Yes," I say.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

12. His eyes are round like an owl's

I am walking along one of the long carpeted corridors on the fifth floor of my building at work, thinking about Chris. Today he was waiting behind me in the canteen queue while I bought my coffee. When I turned round he gave me a huge smile and said hello. He is clearly aware of me and wants us to have some form of friendship, or similar interaction. This panics me. He is far, far too attractive to behave normally around, and why is he interested in knowing me anyway? I spend most of my work life trying not to look interesting. I don't want people just coming in and deciding to be friends with me...or whatever...could he be attracted to me?

Oh, come on, Alice. He is at least five years younger than you, and he has the kind of looks which would get him attention from much more exciting women. This is some kind of a, I don't know what it is. But, whatever it is, it is making me nervous.

I push open the door to the Vague Department.

Jena is in the far corner, pretending to file random pieces of paper while in fact enjoying the far more interesting pursuit of ogling Josh from the Overworked Department as he discusses a complaint with her boss. I wander over to her.

“Check it out, Alice,” she says. “It's enough to make a grown woman cry.”

I can see Josh is attractive, but he doesn't do a lot for me. I like my men darker and more intense. But Jena made up her mind about three weeks ago that he was going to be her next conquest, and she's very good at this kind of thing so I watch with amusement as she starts work on melting his mind.

She moves on to the next filing cabinet as it is marginally nearer to his biceps. I watch her flip her hair and lower her top slightly with one finger. I see Josh's eyes slide towards her. He drops his eyes, then raises them again.

Jena grins and then shamelessly blows him a kiss behind her manager's back. His mouth drops open, he flushes, and he forgets what he's talking about. I get the giggles and have to look away. For a moment I love Jena unreservedly; her uncomplicated sexuality, her wicked sense of fun.

Then I realise Jena's colleague Rob is watching them flirt. Or rather, he is watching Jena.

Rob is colourless, fortyish, balding, overweight, quiet. The kind of man who is wallpaper to pretty girls in their middle 20s in every office in the country.

His eyes are fixed on Jena, the pupils the size of peas, and I realise he is in hell; this fat nobody in his cheap work suit, whose conscious intellectual resources stretch no further than Chelsea's line-up, knows as much of love and pain as any of opera's tragic leads. Cavaradossi kissing Tosca an hour before his execution, Don Jose losing his job, his freedom, his self respect and eventually his mind for Carmen.

I feel awed. I feel the same way I did standing in the Uffizi in front of Botticelli's Venus, overwhelmed, the painting like a giant chord of colour and music pulsing through me.

In this century we don't do passion, we're afraid of it. We analyse, we rationalise, we talk it out of existence. We'll take sex but not sensuality. We'll take aggression but not rage, contentment but not joy, lust but not love.

We do not like extremes, here in the 21st century, we no longer understand how to give ourselves up to something bigger than us; we don't have God, we don't have true love, we don't believe our politicians can change the world for the better. There is nothing worth dying for and nothing to believe in. There's just us, and our sterile little internal politics. That's all we believe. That the dull dramas in the backs of our brains are the most important things in the world.

And here is someone who knows nothing and believes everything. He understands love, intuitively, and gives himself up to it. Gives himself up to what he sees as beauty. He spreads his arms and closes his eyes and falls into his passion. Falls. Gives himself away.

To Jena. What a gift. What passion, given to such indifference. There is no way in the world that Jena would ever regard Rob as anything other than reality's version of an extra in the crowd scenes. I doubt she is even aware of him as a human being with his own life. His opera will be a tragedy.

I feel for him. I hope it's not unbearable.

Jena is so attractive, and so fundamentally...not stupid, exactly, but unthinking. Happy to accept the surface version of the world. It's incredibly frustrating. Like seeing someone being given a Lamborghini when they have no idea how to drive.

I drop off the press release I came to deliver and walk out of the room. As I leave, Derek is outside in the corridor. He sees me and smiles widely. The air is cold around him.

"Alice!" he says, with delight. His eyes are round like an owl's and they study me the same way. "You're looking very well today. This is a lovely dress you have on."

"Thank you," I say, stiffly. I want to run away.

"We need to have a meeting about the issues around internal communications. Are you free on Monday about 1pm?" he asks.

"I'll have to check."

He smiles. "Do," he says. "We could go out and have a lunch meeting."

Sunday, 6 May 2012

11. "I thought I'd paint the whole fucking thing gold."

"I thought I'd paint the whole fucking thing gold," says Amanda. "And then I'll sand off the gold from the edges and corners, so it looks battered."

We are looking at a chest of drawers lying on its side in a yellow skip. The pale sun is glinting off the puddles in the road from last night's rain. The air is fresh and cold.

It is good quality, solid dark wood. Deep drawers, lots of space. There's nothing wrong with it - it's not broken, just a bit old and scarred on the top - so why would anyone put it in a skip? You could give it to a friend, or put it on freecycle, or give it to charity. It doesn't need to be thrown away. It's still good. The whole thing is so wasteful it makes me hugely angry.

Amanda blows out a plume of blue-grey smoke.

"I'll just finish this," she says, waving the cigarette. "And then we'll haul it out of there."

(When she rang me and asked if I wanted to go for a walk this morning, I knew there was going to be an agenda. Amanda doesn't go for walks. Ever)

"Yeah, you'd better finish inhaling your future cancer before we get on to the heavy lifting," I say. I climb up on the edge of the skip. One of us, if not both, will have to get in to make this work. As Amanda has apparently decided stilettos are the best choice for moving furniture, I imagine this will be me.

"Take all the drawers out first," Amanda advises, continuing to smoke. "Then it'll be easier."

"Whatever," I mutter, and start pulling the drawers out. A large black beetle runs out of one near my hand, making me scream. I mostly love all insects, but not when they're - sudden -

"How are we going to get this back to the flat?" I ask. "Seeing as how neither of us can drive, and even if we could drive, neither of of us have a car."

"It's not far," says Amanda.

"You don't seriously mean carry it? It's going to weigh a ton!" I fold my arms and glare at her. The flat is 15 minutes' walk away unencumbered with a piece of vintage furniture.

"What do you think we should do? As you point out, we don't have any other method of getting it back."

"We?" I say. "Where's 'we'? I can quite happily go home and leave this in the skip. How about 'you' don't have any other method of getting it back?"

It is an hour later. We are sitting on the chest of drawers, which is now halfway between the skip and Amanda's flat. We are taking a break. I rub my aching biceps. Amanda swings her feet and I watch as her bright blue shoes flick in and out of a patch of sunlight.

A sparrow is hopping around the cobblestones nearby, eyeing us up hopefully. It is out of luck. I don't have anything to eat, and if I did I would be eating it myself.

A man walks down the street towards us. He's wearing jeans, black boots, and a knee-length Afghan coat embroidered with red and gold flowers. Even though it's a fairly cold day in May, the coat is open and he doesn't have a shirt on under it. He's too thin, shoulder-length messy black hair, pale skin, a bird the size of my palm tattooed either side of his navel. I suddenly realise he has a scar, a Y-shaped scar running down either side of his neck and joining to run down his belly. Like an autopsy scar. I wonder if it's a mark from an operation or an accident, or if he has done it to himself as some kind of a statement.

As he passes me, I catch his smell; incense, weed, sweat. Where's he going so purposefully? Home? A mansion, a squat, a hotel, a tent in a field, a terrace with a wife and three kids, a terrace with his boyfriend and three dogs? Where's he been? I surmise from his smell that wherever he has been he has had a special cigarette, but apart from that I don't know. I feel my way into being him; the wind chilly on my stomach, the warmth of the coat over my shoulders, the shopping bag in my right hand and the cobbles under my boots, a little stoned, a little tired maybe.

I shake my head, stand up. I am not interested in self deception. Sometimes – regularly – my own perceptual filters piss me off.

I don’t know what he’s thinking; how can I? I know what I imagine he is thinking - what I would think if I was him - but that’s not the same thing as reality. My ideas of him are filtered through my own perceptions and preconceptions. I know enough to understand that whatever he's like, he's like nothing I have imagined.

Amanda stands up too. We each pick up one end of the chest of drawers again and start staggering towards her flat and a cup of tea.