Sunday, 2 December 2012

41. I think of Chris with a tinge of regret

**ANNOUNCEMENT - I'm going to be taking a break from Contact over December. This is because over the next four Sundays I will be, in order: in Eastern Europe; recovering from being in Eastern Europe/dealing with the annual Christmas party pile-up; at more Christmas parties/having a Christmas; recovering from December as a whole. So the next Contact update will be posted on Jan 6 2013 and normal service will be resumed from that point. I hope you all have a lovely holiday season****

Following last week's unnecessarily melodramatic blood-fest, my doctor and I have mutually decided that I need to go back on medication.

Amanda and I did not tell anyone at the hospital that I had been self-harming, because I was worried they wouldn't let me go home. This was probably not true, but I didn't want to take the risk, so I convinced Amanda to let me tell them all I fell over on a broken wine bottle and they dressed the wound and sent me off.

However, the incident meant I scared myself enough to go back and see my doctor. He is a gruff 60ish man, who likes to deal with things like ingrowing toenails and sprained ankles; women with histories of sex abuse who sit in his office and won't stop crying are out of his comfort zone and make him extremely uncomfortable. His tendency, whenever I bring my mental health problems to him, is to throw drugs at me till I go away. This suits me fine. I like drugs.

I’ve been on antidepressants, off and on, since I was 17. My doctor likes to give me selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Before these were in common circulation I was on tricyclics, which I didn't like as much. They made me fat and they made me feel like my head was stuffed with cotton wool. SSRIs don't have such bad side effects and also have the double-whammy effect of treating anxiety as well as depression, which works well for me since I suffer from both.

This time he threw in a prescription for sleeping pills too. 

The only things that really bother me about drugs are - firstly, when you start taking them and your body is still adjusting they knock you out. The last time I was on them, I remember a day in the first week when it took me nearly 20 minutes to put my socks on (sit on edge of bed staring at socks. Pick up first sock. Stare at it. Stare into space. Lift foot. Stare at it. Drop sock. Stare at sock on floor. Pick sock up and work it over toes, rinse and repeat) I occasionally wonder whether the reason anti-depressants work is that they force you to concentrate so hard on everyday tasks that you haven't got time for any depression any more.

Secondly, they make not only my sex drive but also any attraction to and sexual interest in other people disappear completely. Effectively, while I'm on them, I'm not a sexual being. This is a common side effect and considering my sexual issues it is one that I quite often welcome. On this occasion, though, I think of Chris with a tinge of regret. Something might have –


Much as I loathe Matthew, on this occasion he actually does have a point. At the moment it’s quite possible that, rather than capturing Chris’s heart, I would have a meltdown and freak the shit out of him.

I know a lot of people with mental health problems, probably because I have them myself and we can all relate to each other much better than we can to allegedly mentally healthy people. We all deal with each other’s various meltdowns, crises, phobias, depressions, and fits of the screaming heebie-jeebies with aplomb, so much so that I sometimes think as a group we forget that behaviour of this kind makes people who aren’t used to it freak the hell out.

I strongly suspect that Chris has not dealt with stuff like this. I like him. I’d rather not put him through it. I will probably, now, never get to go out with him, but that’s ok. I’m too scared to be with anyone anyway. He needs a nice normal girlfriend he can have a good time with, not me.

Outside the doctor's surgery, it is a beautiful sunny day. Amanda is waiting in her beaten- up, bright yellow car. A tiny penis carved out of dark wood hangs from the rear-view mirror, with a voodoo doll in a bright red dress. Buffy is sitting on the back seat on a blanket and barks at me when I open the door.

How did it go?” Amanda says.

Go back on your meds. Go directly back on your meds. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred pounds,” I say.

Congratulations,” Amanda says. “Better living through chemistry.”

Sunday, 25 November 2012

40. The coffee is black and bitter

Amanda and I are sitting in a cafe on the ground floor of the hospital. It is 9.10am on a Saturday.

We have bought cups of coffee. The coffee is black and bitter. It looks like tar. The cup is thick white industrial porcelain.

Amanda tears open a beige paper tube of sugar and dumps it in her coffee. The fluorescent lights are making her look ill. They are probably making me look ill as well.

"Do you want anything to eat?" she says. It's the first time we have spoken for a while.

"No," I say. This isn't true. I'm hungry. But none of the food in the chiller cabinet or on the counter is appealing. It all looks greasy and brown.

Sometimes when you have had too much of everything and not enough sleep, reality makes you feel sick.

"How's your arm?" asks Amanda.

"It hurts."

It does hurt. Whenever I move it.

Yesterday I had one of my days. It culminated, last night, in one of my episodes.

There are many good things in my life. I have a good, well-paid, prestigious job, a number of qualifications, a great circle of friends, my flat, Rammstein...

But it upsets me that I'm 35 and I've never figured out how to begin to form a romantic relationship with another human being. It makes me feel like a reject. It makes me feel like a failure. It makes me feel singled out.

I feel challenged by Chris's interest in me. I don't want to date him. I don't want him in my life, because I don't want to get attached to him, because if I do it's going to break my heart when he eventually walks away from me.

I sometimes feel like Matthew put some kind of an invisible mark on me. To say I was his. It's what keeps other men away. They might say I didn't think it worked or I don't feel that way about you, but the truth is - they don't even realise it - they're repelled. He's cursed me so I belong to him just like he said I did. I have no choice about it; for the rest of my life, it'll be me and him. Me hating him but tied to him. And there isn't ever going to be anyone else, because he won't allow it.

I also know, intellectually, that this is one of my more stupid ideas.

I tell Amanda this.

"He's not supernatural," says Amanda. "He's a shit head paedophile. He's a nobody."

Last night I took a kitchen knife and ran the blade across the skin of my arm and the blood sprang up red. It made me feel better. It's ridiculous to think anyone could love me. Come the fuck on, who would want me? How could I be so stupid? It's offensive that I even thought I was as good as other people. That someone like Chris could want me. That anyone would want me.

Unfortunately I was drunk and my hand slipped the wrong way and ten seconds later I was sliding down the kitchen cabinets, holding my arm. Blood sprayed through the air, round drops landed on the blue vinyl floor, and I looked at how fucked up I was with amazement. Really? This kind of shit happens in films.

I got it together and picked up my phone. My fingers were slippery with my own blood. I called Amanda.

"I need help," I said. "I need help."

The feeling is still there, bubbling under the surface, as I sit in the hospital cafe with Amanda. I can feel it, self-hatred and pain like a river of mud. I know that it will erupt again, but for now it's under control. My main, conscious feeling at the moment is embarrassment. I'm very embarrassed that Amanda had to get out of bed and come and get me and take me to hospital.

"I'm sorry," I say.

"You should be," says Amanda. "If you want to kill yourself you cut along the wrist and not across it. Every idiot knows that. Pretty fucking poor effort."

I start laughing. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to stop. Amanda starts laughing too, and then she puts her hand across the table and takes mine. Her hand is warm around my cold fingers.

Breathe in out. Breathe in out. Breathe in out.

I have the right to choose. I am not his. I choose money that I have earned myself, friends that love me, a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes, the freedom to do things I want and to either choose to compromise on or not do things I don't want. I choose to try and take the lovers I want and deny the ones I don’t want. I choose to say "No" to people I don't love and who don't care for me. I choose sunshine, anger, love, passion. Music and colour. I choose to try and come out from my citadel of ice and be vulnerable, even though it's hard and I don't really know how.

I'm a fighter, so fight. So fight.

Fight. Bleed. Smash the wall down.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

39. Amanda is fully in love

Amanda has a new girlfriend, who is transitioning from a man into a woman. I'm not sure how far along the process is. Amanda is fully in love.

" - and then we met up the other day and we went for lunch and we talked non-stop for four hours. She's so amazing, Alice, she's a really deep, thoughtful, beautiful person - "

I order more wine. While it is one of the duties of friendship to listen happily to this kind of bollocks when one of your closest friends falls for someone, it doesn't mean you have to be sober.

Also, I want to talk about Chris.

" - it's like we just understand each other. The first time we met, we just clicked emotionally on this fundamental level. We've got so much in common, it's incredible - "

This is reminding me of the hours of rubbish Amanda listened to from me when I was in love with Andreas. I suddenly get distracted by all the As - Amanda, Alex, Andreas, Alice, what does it mean? - and then get aware I'm losing the thread and try and tune back in. I am happy for Amanda but people are just impossible to have a two-way conversation with at this stage in a new romance. It must be something to do with hormones and pair-bonding. We are designed to get obsessional about our mates, at least until one half of the couple gets pregnant.

I might as well just resign myself to the fact that she's going to be boring for the next few weeks.

Amanda met this woman, Alex, at a party given last weekend by another transwoman we both know, called Lisa. I was invited but hadn't gone because I had already said I'd spend the evening with Sally. Gin rang me the next morning and told me that Amanda had met Alex within an hour of attending and they had almost immediately buggered off together to Alex's house and left Gin stranded in, as she put it: "a decomposing mass of Goths, transsexuals, hippies, drag queens, herbalists and maths teachers," leaving her with no option but to get drunk on Cointreau and monopolise the Singstar.

Since that evening Amanda and Alex have been almost inseparable. I haven't met Alex yet, but I've gone through her facebook out of curiosity. She is blonde with brown eyes and very pretty, with some beautiful tattoos, but she has publicly posted a lot of pictures of herself in lingerie which I always think is a bad sign. Also, Gin described her as pretentious and Gin tends to have a good instinct, so I have reservations.

I was reading The Secret History a while ago. In the first few pages the narrator, Richard, is talking about fatal flaws. A fatal flaw is the literary trope that some people have some major weakness, some compulsion or obsession or need, which will destroy them if they aren't careful. Othello's jealousy, Dorian Gray's susceptibility to corruption, Norma Desmond's narcissism.

He describes his as "a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs" which made me smile because it chimed with something in me. I like, no, I require things and people to be exotic and strange and exciting and beautiful. While this is fun, it also means that relationships don't tend to last that long, because the people I'm attracted to are by definition not good bets for the long haul.

I strongly suspect Amanda has the same tendency. I hope this Alex does turn out to be everything she wants, but I'm worried Amanda may be falling in love with a fantasy rather than a real person.

" - watching Firefly and drinking tequila -"

What? I realise I have been minimal back-channelling without paying attention. I suddenly feel very guilty because Amanda is trying to share something with me which is important to her and, while I'm bored, she's my friend. The least I can do is look interested.

I hug Amanda and tell her I'm delighted. I ask when I can meet Alex.

"Soon," says Amanda.

"So what about - " I say, and then stop. What I want to do is ask about sex simply because I'm really curious to find out what Alex has going on in her pants, but it occurred to me halfway through the question that this is probably offensive.

However, on second thoughts, this is Amanda and I'm asking her, not Alex.

"So what does Alex have going on in her pants?" I say. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

38. A jumbled-up pile of chairs

When I walk out of the building Chris is waiting at the bottom of the stone steps, under the piece of corporate art which looks like a jumbled-up pile of chairs and is supposed to represent striving towards excellence.

The day is sunny but chilly and a fresh breeze is blowing his hair into his eyes. He is checking his phone and frowning.

I take the opportunity to study him before he sees me. We’ve just had a hot summer but he’s still pale. He’s fit, but not skinny - he has a gym-toned look, there’s muscles. I involuntarily visualise what he looks like with his shirt off. Good, I would imagine he looks good. He has beautifully shaped hands, long-fingered, with slim wrists.

I try to imagine what it is like to be him, what he’s feeling, but it’s a blank. It’s all tied up with what I want him to feel. I’m too invested to empathise with him. This bothers me, because it means I’m going to be too wrapped up in how I’m coming across to be able to pitch the conversation properly. When I meet people, any people, I can usually - after a few minutes of observation - figure out instinctively how to relate to them. How to make them feel comfortable, how to make them laugh, how to get them to open up to me. It is a remarkably useful ability when developing relationships of all kinds, especially professional.

The difference is that sometimes, when I very badly want someone to like me, I can't do it. It's always a shock when this happens because that invisible sixth sense is usually with me. When it suddenly disappears, it feels like I've gone blind in my emotions and I'm left panicky and rudderless. I'm terrified it will depart today.

Chris is wearing sunglasses, brown aviators, a white shirt which looks like quality, and grey trousers. No tie. Again, no designer labels, no identification. He’s a No Logo man, and I like that. I tend towards it myself.

He sees me. He smiles, takes his sunglasses off and folds them and slides them into his pocket.

I reach him. I’m unable to think of anything to say. I’m suddenly not sure whether the physical response I have to him is lust or fear.

I thought we could go to the pub down the road,” he said. “Just get a beer.”

Sounds good,” I say.

The pub is nearly deserted. He orders a Guinness. I have a pint of Fosters. He wants to sit at a table near the back, with a deep leather sofa, near the window. He sits down beside me, not across from me.

We talk about the city. He doesn't like it here.

"Don't you think it's a bit provincial?" he says.

I'm not sure what to make of this comment. I've never really understood how people use "provincial". The strict definition is "of or relating to a province of a country or empire" which is meaningless in this context. It appears to be used to mean somewhere or someone that is backward or behind the times and I think that is how he is using it.
I don't think the city is backwards or behind the times. It offers me decent coffee, a cinema with a good range of independent films, a lot of bands, clothes shops, art, restaurants serving food from a variety of cultures, and many good pubs. Besides, in the age of the internet, can anywhere really be said to be behind the times? These days you can broaden your mind, see great art, and learn interesting things whether you live in New York or on a remote Scottish island. All you need is broadband.

Conversely, you can also choose to be ignorant as hell in the centre of a thriving world-class metropolis. It's not the place you choose to live but how you think that matters.

Does he mean it's not a fashionable place to live? Which is also meaningless.

"Well, you must know what I mean. You must have been a bit disappointed when you moved here."

"I've lived here all my life," I say.

"Really?" He looks at me, brown eyes wide with surprise. "I thought you came from London." There's a faint trace of disappointment in his voice.

"No," I say.

"You don't look like you're from round here. You know how to dress. The first time I saw you I thought you had style. I like this."

He reaches out and strokes one finger lightly down the cameo brooch I've pinned to one side of my grey cardigan. I consider telling him that the only reason I'm wearing it is because when I got stoned with Amanda two weeks ago I blimmed this cardigan and I used the brooch to cover up the burn hole. But I'm very distracted by the way he is nearly stroking my breast and anyway I don't think he will find it funny.

"Thanks," I say. 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

37. I love films with visual flair

********Early update this week because my internet is getting switched over tomorrow******

I remember the first time I saw the film of Sin City. I went with Amanda and Gin and Freddy. All three of them loved it, and I hated it. I hated it passionately, from beginning to end.

Which is odd, because I’m very visual and I love films with visual flair, and there's no doubt Sin City has that. And it’s based on a comic book, and I’m a big fan of both comics and comic-based films.

When I feel a strong emotion like that which seems to come out of nowhere, I like to work out why I would feel such a thing. It took me some time with Sin City. I had to think about it.

In the end, I realised that I hated it because it was one of the most misogynist films I'd ever seen. I hated it because there was no place in it for me or for any other woman, despite its plethora of female characters.

How does Nancy, who was sexually assaulted when she was 10, make her money? How is she getting through law school? She strips. And she's in love with the man who saved her life, because when a man saves a woman's life it automatically inspires sexual desire. She's a fantasy. And Gail, the wild prostitute Bad Girl, she's a fantasy. And the lesbian parole officer, she's a fantasy.

The women perform sexual services, or they get saved, or they patch up the men. The only ones allowed to have the right to shoot people through the head are the prostitutes, who obviously are beyond the pale anyway because they have sex with men for money. Anyway, all you have to do is smack them around a bit and they'll fall in love with you, so the natural order can easily be restored.

There is one always-easy way to tell a film's political agenda. That's to immerse yourself in it and notice who you are becoming, whose point of view you're expected to adopt. In Sin City, you're never given a woman's eyes to look through. Not even second-hand. In Sin City, you're one of the men looking at Nancy. What is she thinking, night after night, dancing on that stage? What does she think of all the men who must hit on her? What does she see when she looks down at their faces? Did she really never learn any survival skills at all despite years working in a notoriously dangerous industry? We're never given the chance to know. She exists to motivate the men around her.

I think this is one of the main problems I have with sexism. The lack of dialogue. People not only don't listen but don't think they should listen. So you try and have a conversation, you earnestly try and put your point of view across, and their belief in a superior gender is so unshakable they assume you are lying or deluded. You can talk at them for hours and they will laugh at everything you say because the mere fact that you are even mooting men and women might have quite a lot in common is hilarious.

It's enough to make one want to shoot their kneecaps out with an AK47 just so they have to take you seriously.

Once I started watching films in this way, I discovered some interesting things. There are some films which one would think should be sexist which aren’t – Sucker Punch, for example. Sucker Punch has all the trappings of a sexist film. The fetishistic outfits and full makeup, the sexy girls. But still…it isn’t one. It shows a group of women working together to achieve a goal – a group of women who are so bonded that at one point one of them dies to save another member of the group.

In a sexist world, women can die to save men, or children. But to save another woman, a friend? Never. That would be a real, fundamental threat to the system. The role of women – the meaning of their life – is to compete for the attention of men. Not group together and protect each other with the band-of-brothers loyalty you've seen in every war film since cinema began.

I like Sucker Punch. I think Zack Snyder is a clever guy. I think it is a beautifully done (and deliberately provocative) undermining of both mainstream feminists, who were jumping up and down about the outfits and the brothel setting, and misogynists, who were pissed off to be forced into the position of identifying with the female characters and surely in a film with outfits like that you would expect the women to strip off and have sex with each other.

And all of that was masquerading as a piece of brainless eye-candy. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy very much, having a highly developed outsider mentality.

Sexism does not just damage women. One makes these assumptions about women; therefore one has to make the opposite assumptions about men. Where we aren’t allowed anger, a sexist world does not give men the opportunity to love. Where we are not allowed to be violent, men are obliged to be. Where we must feel the loyalty of a slave, men have to be cast as the master. These attitudes limit everyone.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

36. It's political

I am disagreeing about a publicity campaign with Mark Gordon.

Mark is head of the Department of Doing Things Especially Slowly. He is about 40, I think, but comes across as older. He's overweight and wears cheap shirts that don't fit him properly. He doesn't understand publicity work, but he thinks he does.

We are having a work argument, which is different from a normal argument.

I say: "Mark, while in principle I think this is a fantastic idea, I'd just like to raise some concerns about what you're proposing here."

(Translation: this is crap and it isn't going to work)

He leans back in his chair.

"Of course I welcome your feedback, Alice," he says.

(Translation: I have no intention of listening to a word you say)

"We're talking about a lot of staff time and resources and I think the resulting publicity will be limited at best. I would like to go on the record to say I don't think we should be running this campaign on behalf of an external company."

(You will be haemorrhaging money on organising a PR disaster and the company in question has its own PR people anyway, so I don't really understand why it's our job to do this)

"I understand the points you're making, and I think they are all valid. But we will need to do this anyway, because it's political."

(Shut up and do as you're told)

"It's political" can mean a number of different things, usually variations on: "We have to keep these people happy because their happiness will benefit us/their unhappiness will cause us a problem."

It can mean: "So and so is the brother of/married to/friends with/having an affair with someone high up in our own company and if we don't do as we are asked our lives are going to be turned into a living hell quicker than you can spit."

It can mean: "I'm afraid of this person and I want to give them no reason to pick on me," or "I want to impress them because I have my own agenda."

On this occasion I strongly suspect it means: "I was mouthing off about being the Big Man Who Gets Things Done in a previous meeting you weren't at, and I have already guaranteed you'll do the work no problem. And I don't want to backtrack because I'll lose face."

But he's in charge. And as far as I'm concerned it's political not to argue, in the sense of: "When you want to disagree with someone in charge, you need to pick your battles carefully in order to maintain a pleasant working environment for yourself."

This is not an important battle so I smile and agree and leave to get started.

Outside Mark's office, Chris is leaning against the wall, obviously waiting to go in.

"Hey, Alice," he says.

"Hello," I say.

Chris runs his hand through his hair and smiles at me.

"So when are we going for a drink then?" he says.

I did not expect him to say that, and for a second I'm flummoxed. It's smooth, he doesn't look nervous. He clearly has a lot of confidence that I'll say yes.

"You free after work tonight?" he asks.

"Yes," I say. It's true.
"Great," he says. "I'll meet you out the front at 5pm."

Then he does something unexpected; he leans forward and runs his fingers very lightly up my forearm. His eyes are fixed on mine. His touch is so subtle it's barely there, but my skin heats up in the wake of his fingers. I can feel myself blushing.
I watch him assessing my response. He smiles. He's pleased.

"5pm," he says.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

35. I was using it as an example

"But I wouldn't want to be famous for the sake of it," argues Gin. "You ought to be famous for something, because you've contributed something to the human race, whether it's a song or you saved someone's life or discovered a new element in the periodic table -"

"Elements in the periodic table?" Amanda says. "What are you talking about? There's like a million elements and no-one is famous for discovering any of them. And why would you be famous for discovering something that is basically a rock anyway? Who's interested?"

Gin draws herself up to her full height of five feet three inches and says, with dignity: "I did not necessarily mean exactly discovering elements. I meant making a scientific discovery of benefit to mankind. I was using it as an example."

"Look, I've discovered Bourbonium," says Amanda, pouring another drink.

"How about if someone invented a teleporter? They'd be bloody famous for that. That's a scientific discovery that would benefit humankind. Steve Jobs is famous and all he basically did was make computers white and put an apple logo on them."

"How is it going to benefit humankind when Jeff Goldblum gets trapped in one with a fly? Because you know that's going to happen."

I sip my drink and think about being famous. I don't want fame. I would rather be anonymous. The idea of being a public figure, recognised wherever I go, scares and depresses me.

But I do want money. Money, money, money, like an invisible protective blanket, buying me time and freedom and safety. Buying me people to deal with unpleasantness so I don't have to look, and cleaners to clean up the shit so I never have to touch it again, and big men and steel doors to protect me. Buying me plane tickets at a moment's notice whenever I felt like running away and hotels wherever I want to go. Bringing all the physical and mental comfort and pleasure I need. Absolving me of the need to work every day. Life could be clean and simple and beautiful.

It's the same instinct, the avoidant instinct, that leads me to lie sometimes.

Most people lie, at least to some extent. In my opinion, people who say they don't lie are generally liars.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think of lying as a positive thing. I try not to do it. When I do do it, I feel guilty when I get away with it and embarrassed when I'm caught.

But you can learn a lot about yourself - about who you are, what you want, and what scares you - by looking at when and how you lie.

So when do I lie? I lie when I panic, when I've been caught out in a mistake or a failure. I lie when I'm afraid telling the truth would lead to the other person feeling let down or angry. I lie when I don't want to hurt someone's feelings. I don't outright lie to impress, but occasionally, if I am with someone who makes me feel insecure, I'll exaggerate. I also occasionally exaggerate when I get carried away with telling a story just because I want it to be a better story.

My instinct to lie tends to relate to other people and their thoughts and feelings rather than my own. In essence, I don't lie for gain or personal advancement, I lie to avoid - to avoid confrontation, to avoid feeling like I'm a failure, to avoid anger and disappointment, to spare everyone's feelings, because it's easier.

That's why I want money. Because it's easier. If you have enough money, you can live one step removed from all the crap in life.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

34. Bees drone around the lavender bush

Sally carefully pours me another glass of wine.

"But you say he hasn't done anything," she says.

We are sitting on her balcony in the evening sun. She has planted flowers and herbs in cobalt-blue pots. Bees drone around the lavender bush next to me.

My shoulders ache from my session with my punch bag last night. I never bothered getting past the basic moves. Never saw the point. I learned the basics, and then concentrated on getting them perfect. If you're not facing a martial artist, they're enough. If they're perfect.

Jab, cross, uppercut. Front kick, roundhouse, side kick, back kick. Elbow smash. Inside block, outside block. Upper block, lower block.

I made up my mind when I was old enough that I would never be defenceless again. What's the point? Someone attacks you, why make it easy? Sometimes I'm afraid, sometimes I'm angry. Anger is easier to use as a driving force.

Here's how to break someone's grip on your wrist. The weak point is the gap between thumb and finger. Twist your arm so your wrist is sideways on to this gap, and then pull it sharply towards the weak point so your wrist hits it hard.

I look at Sally. I see worry in her eyes...but no belief. I'm listening to myself telling this story about Derek and it even sounds mad to me. Like the fault lines in my personality have finally cracked, and I'm having a full-on breakdown.

"The thing is," Sally says "there's no reason he shouldn't have been there. Maybe it was just a coincidence, Alice."

I turn the heavy crystal goblet in my hands, watching the sun shine through it. The wine swirls slowly. It is the colour of venous blood. Outside, on the lawn, a single small child - maybe five or six - is under the tree doing not much, and for a second I want to go down and ask where its parents are and why it is alone. To warn it not to listen to charming strangers who say I know where your mother is and she's worried, or come with me and I'll show you something amazing, or aren't you pretty?

I’m 35, so sometimes – inevitably - I think about having children. Of course I do. Like all women my age I know I only have approximately five years in which to have them. 

Fewer women would be so desperate to have children if there wasn’t a time limit. Knowing your reproductive ability must eventually fail - may already have quietly failed - induces blind panic of the SALE ENDING TODAY EVERYTHING MUST GO type. I think some women maybe have children even when they aren't really sure, just in case they regret not having them later.

And considering that popular culture tells us that women who don't or can't have children are weird and will probably go mad when they are 50 and start stealing babies out of prams, I can understand this.

I've never come to a conclusion about whether I want children. I'm not really comfortable around them till they are about 12. I tell myself this is because they are boring and they have germs, which is partly true. The rest of the truth is more complicated.

"I know you've - I know you've been through a lot in your life. Enough to make anyone scared. But to be honest I think you're overreacting."

How can you protect your child from Matthew? This is an unpleasant fact, but it is a true one: people who want to abuse children badly enough will find a way to do it. There will always be a way. The simplest being, obviously, to make sure you have no criminal record and then patiently work your way into a position of trust until you are – eventually – allowed to work with children one to one.

And the media can yell for crackdowns and hangings and heads to roll as much as it likes, but unless every child is taken away from its parents at birth and locked in a sterile single room until it is 18 with no contact with other people, it is in danger. We just have to live with that.

"Alice, are you listening?"

There is also the other fear.

There is a common myth that children who are sexually abused grow up to be sex abusers. When you actually look into it, there is no evidence for this. In fact many organisations working with rape survivors and rapists are actively trying to discourage it because it is unhelpful to everyone. Especially survivors.

But the myth is there, part of society, and you hear it, growing up. And other people hear it too. Everyone hears it. It's one of the reasons it's very hard to tell people you were sexually abused. One worries - I worry - they will make assumptions.

But not as much as I worry that one day I will wake up and find that, despite my best attempts to be a good person, I've turned into a monster without realising.

This fear is very common among people like me, so common as to be nearly universal. The only way I have ever found to deal with it is to be absolutely rational. My orientation is quite clearly towards adult men. My sexual fantasies and my sexual arousal focus around completely consensual heterosexual sex. My terror is utterly groundless.

Here, in the sunshine on Sally's balcony, my worries about Derek also seem lunatic. I'm paranoid. Anyone would be paranoid, given my background, but I have to keep a check on myself. I have to accept that some of my perceptions are skewed, my perceptions of myself and of other people. Werewolves are rare. He's probably a perfectly normal man. I'm assuming a lot. Just a - coincidence. A coincidence.

I suddenly feel bad about being rude to him.

"You're right," I say. "I just - I'm down to my last nerve."

Sunday, 7 October 2012

33. She usually gets quite a lot of applause

There is a pub on the outskirts of the city called The Man in Black. The landlord, in case you hadn't guessed, is obsessed with Johnny Cash. Normally he keeps this under control quite well and it is just an ordinary - in fact, a rather good - local pub with a lot of pictures of Johnny Cash on the walls.

But once every three months he holds a karaoke night where you can sing anything you want as long as it is by Johnny Cash. He gets stupendously drunk and sings I Got Stripes. This is invariably one of the highlights of the evening.

The Cashtacular, as it is known to those of us who attend regularly, is surprisingly popular. One would have thought it would only appeal to a niche audience, but in fact the pub is usually rammed.

Amanda always sings 25 Minutes To Go, wearing a man's baggy black suit, with a tight black shirt she unbuttons to show three inches of cleavage. She usually gets quite a lot of applause.

"Well, they're building a gallows outside my cell...and I've got 25 minutes to go," she growls into the microphone. She has informed me she always wears a black bra and knickers as well to "really get into the spirit of it". This is more than I wanted to know.

Midway through the song, my skin prickles. Something's wrong. I don't know what it is, but something has gone badly wrong, right now.

I turn and look around the room and see Derek, sitting at the table behind and to the left of me. He is wearing a black shirt and a black suit, like pretty much everyone else in the room. He has a heavy gold watch on his right wrist. Looks expensive.

He is watching me. When he sees me turn, he smiles and raises his glass.

On the stage, Amanda sings.

"Well I'm waiting for the pardon that'll set me free, with nine more minutes to go. But this ain't the movies so forget about me - eight more minutes to go...."

Derek ambles over to my table. He chooses the chair closest to mine. He rests his knee against my thigh. I move my thigh. He moves his knee so he's touching me again.

"Hello Alice," he says. He smiles again, and then he licks his lips. He has a large, wet tongue. "What a coincidence." There is no surprise in his voice.

"Hello," I say. It's funny how, when you are faced with someone who is behaving in a disturbing way, you try as hard as you can to act like everything's normal. Like the person you're talking to is normal. Until you can't pretend any more.

"It's good to see you. I could give you a lift home after the show if you like," he says. His voice is thoughtful, musing. "It's on my way. You live in that block of flats just off Jefferson Street."

It's a statement, not a question.

"No, thank you," I say. "I've got plans tonight."

"With your pretty blonde friend?" He nods towards the stage. "What are you doing?"

I'm not sure how to answer, so I take a sip of my drink and smile.

"Perhaps I could buy you a drink," he says.

"We'll be leaving very shortly."

"That's a shame. Are you sure I can't tempt you?"

Derek's eyes are full of shining amusement. They are focused on me, all his interest is on me, he's like a man watching a wasp drown in a glass of beer. He has scared the crap out of me. And he knows it. And he knows I know who and what he is. And he loves that I'm scared.

Amanda finishes singing and Derek leaves my table without waiting for an answer. He doesn't want to be here when Amanda gets back. Of course not. She could corroborate.

I run back through everything that's happened. I could perhaps say that it was inappropriate for him to take me out to lunch and buy me wine, but the truth is I drank the wine and I didn't say anything at the time - not to him, not to anyone else - so nothing would happen. HR might have a quiet word with him, but nothing would happen.

Apart from that, there's nothing. A handful of looks. Some emails which, even to me, look completely professional. He's never touched me. He's never even made any off-key comments. I have nothing except the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice to back up my dreadful sense of fear.

And now here he is; and why shouldn't he be here? It's a bar full of Johnny Cash fans and I'm sure he will turn out to have a copy of Live from Folsom Prison or American IV at home because he is a tidy man who doesn't like loose ends.

I had hoped that he was smart enough to leave me alone. Smart werewolves don't target people they know, because connections can be traced back. But it turns out he's only half-smart and he's coming after me anyway.

I am now at war. I didn't want it and I didn't ask for it, but it's been brought to me anyway and I will have to defend myself or go under.

The bit of my brain which has been sticking its fingers in its ears and singing while frantically trying to pretend that I'm imagining it, that I'm crazy, that Derek isn't what I think he is, suddenly comes to life and I coldly wake up all the way.

I know what I'm meant to do - what he means for me. What he wants from me. I'm meant to be scared. I'm meant to be as paralysed with fear as a mouse hiding from a cat. He thinks that I'm like every stupid bitch in every Hollywood thriller who curls up in a ball and starts crying instead of figuring out how to take the psychopaths down. I'm meant to be making him feel powerful because, for him, that's the good shit. That's what gets him off. And the reason he's picked me is because he thinks he can do that to me.

He's wrong. I'm not that woman. I just look like her.

I plan. I need to go home and drag out my punch bag from the cupboard. I need to revise my self-defence techniques, my escape routes, and my protection routines. Then I need to sit down and figure out how the fuck I'm going to take the fight to him.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

32. Objects are a nuisance

It is my birthday. This is always an uncomfortable occasion.

I don't really like birthdays. Firstly, the people I know expect something special to happen and I am required to come up with a fun event that everyone will enjoy. Secondly, it involves gifts.

Presents are a source of immense anxiety for me. People give you something they have bought you, and they expect you to open it in front of them, and they watch your face. If you don't like it, they know. When someone likes me enough to take the time and trouble to buy me a present it feels like I'm rejecting them and their friendship when I don't like their gift. This is made even more problematic by the fact I dislike owning objects unless they are a) beautiful (which is a subjective perception and difficult for others to get right) or b) useful (which is also subjective). Ideally I like them to be both.

Objects are a nuisance. They need to be displayed and taken care of and packed up when you move house. Too many objects in a room, crowding each other on all the surfaces, clamouring for attention and cleaning, make me feel closed in and - in certain particularly cluttered places - even induce something close to a panic attack.

Sometimes I dream of being the kind of person who can own four outfits, a mattress, a box with the minimum kitchen equipment and a bag with soap and a sponge.

Of course I own a lot more than that, because this is a first world country in the 21st century and we all have too many objects. Piles of objects. Mountains, rivers, deluges of them. Some objects that we don't even look at, touch, or use from the beginning of one year to the end of the next. Objects which have no function and are not aesthetically pleasing or well made. Pointless objects like pizza wheels and garlic presses. Clothes we have bought and never worn. Ornaments we were given. Jewellery that doesn't suit us. Nests of inexplicable cables. Old things. Broken things. Half-used hair products and moisturiser and medication. Bags of weird ingredients, bought for one recipe we tried once which didn't work, which quietly go off in the kitchen cupboards. Hair slides belonging to people we don't know any more which make us sad whenever we find them behind the sofa.

Over the years, I've shed a lot of stuff. I don't have so much now, and the things I do have tend to be possessions I've consciously chosen or chosen to keep. I can pack up the flat in two days if I need to.

In previous years, I've had a big party at the flat. This year, I didn't really feel like it. It upsets Rammstein and involves a lot of cleaning up and there are always people there who I don't really know and I get stressed for days beforehand.

This year, I've decided to go to a restaurant. It's rather an elderly middle of the road crowd here, and Amanda's short purple latex dress has been much stared at, as has Sally's black veiled hat and plunging cleavage. Amanda and Sally are sitting next to each other, which surprises me; they tend to treat each other with the elaborate courtesy of two cats who have had to call a truce due to proximity and I strongly suspect they don't really like each other. Gin is eating asparagus, dipping it in hollandaise, and talking to Jena about her break-up with Jason.

I look at the pile of neat packages in front of me. A square box from Sally, wrapped in a length of grey lace and tied with a perfect bow of silver ribbon. A book-shaped package from Amanda, wrapped in untidily sellotaped pages from an old issue of X-Men. Gin has got me something large and round in pink paper printed with Hello Kitty. Jena has contributed a small blue package.

These turn out to be (in order): a set of vintage 60s shot glasses in their original box. A copy of Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip. A 20-inch plush replica of an Ebola virus. A diamante choker.

I like all these presents. I'm touched by the thought that has gone into them.

We eat. We move on to a bar. Everyone gets drunk. Gin and Jena decide to go shopping together and swap mobile numbers. Amanda tries on Sally's hat and Sally tries on Amanda's green high heels. Sally tells us all the story about the time she fell over in front of Marilyn Manson. Everyone puts on Gin's bright pink lipstick. Amanda has a long rant about a man who asked her for a mobile number and then contacted her by texting her a picture of his erect cock ("I was eating breakfast!") and we agree that we have all had similar experiences and there is an epidemic of cock-texting which needs to be firmly discouraged. Amanda and Jena then join drunken forces to interrogate some of the better-looking men in the room about whether they would text a picture of their cock to a woman. Personally I feel this question is open to misinterpretation and will probably result in exactly the situation they are trying to avoid.

Gin is lying on the sofa with her head in my lap. "Happy birthday, Alice!" she says, and smiles up at me.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

31. Clutching a champagne flute

Gin opens the door to me, wearing an orange Kiss t-shirt and tweed shorts. Her feet are bare and her toenails are painted blue. She is clutching a champagne flute in one hand.

"I'm making cocktails," she announces.

I follow her into the house. Her room is on the ground floor, to the left, and she leads me in. Her room looks like someone took the possessions of a kawaii-obsessed Japanese teenage girl, combined them with the possessions of a middle-aged Metallica-obsessed English drummer, and then blew up the result.

I sit on the Pokemon bedspread and look at the Lars Ulrich poster. I notice that Gin appears to have been playing her drum kit again; the last time I came round, it was shoved in a corner with clothes piled on it, and now it has been pulled out and dusted off. I'm pleased about this. Jason didn't like her playing the drums; he thought it was weird and unfeminine. It's a good sign that she's started again. Perhaps she is finally starting to get over him.

When Jason met Gin, she was playing with Freddy's band Appleseed. He pursued her for months. Wherever we went, there he would be. It got to the point where we would be out and Amanda would say: "Look, Gin, it's your stalker."

Once she said this to Jason, which was inadvisable. Their friendship never really took off after that.

Gin was never particularly interested in Jason and Amanda and I were surprised when she started seeing him. It might have had something to do with the fact that she had fallen in love with Freddy and they had a tempestuous affair, with a lot of ups and downs, ins and outs, and screaming rows in the street. This left Gin unhappy, vulnerable and shaken up and, as Amanda observed later, it was then that Jason saw his chance.

Jason and Gin were together for a little over two years. For the first nine months it was great. Then, slowly, things changed.

I've noticed this before. Sometimes people fall in love with someone and when they get in a relationship with them they then proceed to work as hard as they can to change the person they fell in love with into a different person. When this inevitably works, they blame their partner for not being as exciting or interesting as they were at the beginning of the relationship. I find this kind of hamster-wheel logic both very common and completely pointless.

In Jason's world women aren't drummers. Black people should be slightly ashamed of themselves. Women don't really ever enjoy casual sex, they just do it for attention. There are strippers and there are wives.

It interests me that he was so attracted to Gin. I think perhaps it was that he could take this woman, this bright, vital, experimental, sexually free person, and control her. Teach her that he was right. That she had to be someone else to be loved, that what she was, who she was, would never do.

I remember Gin telling me, very seriously, that Jason had saved her from herself. The memory still makes me shake with anger. There was nothing she needed saving from.

Gin makes me a cocktail. Prosecco, jasmine tea, sugar. It's very nice.

There's a knock on the door. Amanda comes in, all six feet of her, filling up the room with blonde hair and silver high heels. She flings herself down next to me on the bed, squashing a plush Totoro in the process. She picks it up, looks at it, puts it down next to the bed.