Sunday, 25 March 2012

5. A chillingly inevitable story arc

I am walking home. I am shivering. The sky is smoky grey. I am scared. Today is One of Those Days.

Everyone has Those Days. We all say to each other "I'm having one of those days," and nod, and smile, and grimace. However, this statement is like any agreed truth; we all mean different things by it. Some people mean the days when they lock themselves out, forget everything, accidentally wee on their boss's shoes, whatever.

I don't care about that kind of shit. When I have One of Those Days, I mean the days when I can't not think about Matthew. When he has an almost physical presence. When it feels as if he's constantly behind me.

Those Days are rare, fortunately. They run at about one every three months; I can live with that, well, I can live with it when I'm my usual self. On Those Days I can't live with anything.

They are characterised mainly by an overwhelming but diffuse sense of fear and uncertainty. Everything from the sky to the shop-assistant who sells me my lunch seems like a threat. On Those Days I don't like to sit with my back to doors. My arm aches constantly (there is a lot I don't remember about my encounter with Matthew, but one thing that appears to be fairly certain is that he somehow pulled or wrenched my left shoulder. While there's no physical injury now, it hurts whenever I feel threatened or under stress. One of my many therapists called it a "body memory" which is as good a word as any)

I also don't like to be around anyone else, especially not one on one, because I don't trust anyone. I remember enough to know Matthew appeared to be a perfectly normal, even handsome man, and I went with him without question when he told me my mother was waiting for me. It's hard to convey the terror of the moment when you realise the person you are with is not what they appear to be. I had a vague idea about sex but I was certainly not aware of even the concept of an orgasm, and I am sure you are all aware even ordinary people can get a bit...intense...

I was a well-read and imaginative child, with a decided liking for fantasy, and my encounter with Matthew led me to conclude I had just had a close encounter with a werewolf.

To be honest, even at the age of 34, I still don't have a better metaphor for the predators that live among us disguised as human beings. The people who look absolutely normal, whose hands you shake, whose jokes you laugh at. The people who go home and beat their partners and rape their children and then bring doughnuts into work the next morning. And 90 per cent of the time, they are normal. Of course they are. But sometimes they are something else.

And once you know the werewolves know that they could be anyone. They could even be a policeman, or a nice lady. And you'd never know. So yes. On Those Days I don't like other people.

There's not much I can do when I feel like this, so I do what I always do; I don't go out, get drunk and find someone to hurt me (this may not sound like a thing I am actively doing, but I can assure you it is. I want to drink until I have to go to hospital. I want to find the biggest, nastiest man I can and offer him all my money to beat me up. I want to wake up tomorrow bruised and bitten, memoryless, hungover) Instead I go to the Tesco at the end of the road and buy a bottle of red wine and a ready-made pizza. I pay for them at the self-service till, the "help yourself" as Gin calls it, avoiding the tills with cashiers. I do not meet the eyes of anyone in the store. I get to the flat and lock the door behind me. I check all the rooms in the flat, opening anywhere people could hide, and satisfy myself that there's no-one here but me. I open the wine and start heating the pizza. I change into jogging bottoms and put on and zip up my special hoodie, the one I use to comfort myself. I take the pizza and wine to the sofa. I eat the pizza. I roll a spliff and light it. I put on The Godfather. I get on the sofa and lie down. I wrap myself in a duvet, pulling the hood of the hoodie and the edge of the duvet over my head until I feel safe.

I like The Godfather. I like it for three reasons: firstly, it is a brilliant piece of film-making with sharply observed dialogue and a chillingly inevitable story arc; secondly, it is full of intense, emotionally nuanced and absorbing performances; and thirdly, I'm aware that if I was connected to the Corleone family and the Don found out about what happened, the last thing Matthew would have felt would have been his own severed penis being stuffed into his mouth. This sometimes pleases me.

Also it helps that, in his youth, Al Pacino was hot as fuck.

You'd think I wouldn't want to think about sex on One of Those Days, but actually those are the times when I miss having a partner most. Affectionate physical contact is really comforting.

I stay on the sofa, watching the film, smoking and drinking, until I am drunk and stoned enough to not to have to think any more. 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

4. Perfection is death

Gin, Amanda and I are all at Amanda's flat. We are hung over and none of us really feel like talking, so we're all reading. I am sitting in the basket chair with Amanda's well-thumbed Transmetropolitan trades. Gin and Amanda are sitting one each end of the vast sofa, propped up by identical purple velvet cushions. Their legs are entwined, Amanda's luminously pale skin against Gin's dark brown. Amanda is reading Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Gin is reading a magazine with a picture of Jennifer Aniston on the cover.

"Listen to this," says Gin. "They've made a list of 20 items every woman should have in her wardrobe. These are all the clothes you will ever need, right here in this list, to look well dressed at all times and on all occasions. Like, if you own these clothes, you'll be complete.That's it. You'll be done."

Amanda puts her book on her knee, face down.
"Tell me how to be complete, Gin," she says. "Tell me how to be well dressed at all times."

Gin flicks through the pages. "You need a classic white shirt, a pair of knee high leather boots, a trench-coat, a V-necked t-shirt..."

"This is such fucking bullshit," says Amanda. "They might as well call it 'how to conform to society's expectations of you' because God forbid you should ever wear something you haven't been told to wear."

"You need a basic black dress as well," says Gin, "and some classic black trousers."

"No, I don't," says Amanda. "I need a pink tutu skirt."

This naturally leads on to what items we would suggest as essentials if we were in charge of fashion. We come up with our own list of items we think every woman should have in her wardrobe, and write it on the back of Amanda's final demand for her council tax with an eyebrow pencil.
The list runs like this:
  • Knee-length fake fur coat
  • Full-length cheongsam with cap sleeves, because none of us have ever seen a woman who didn't look good in one
  • Leather dog collar, with spikes at least half an inch long, because it'll give edge to any outfit
  • Steel boned underbust corset (looks good under or over clothes)
  • Opera-length gloves (you never know when you will need to go to the opera)
  • Good quality feather boa, at least 180 grams
  • Leopard print anything (leopard print is never out of style as far as we're concerned)
  • A tight black lace top with sleeves (you can layer it or wear it on its own - versatile)
  • Kilt (wear it with a ripped t-shirt and it's punk, wear it with a smart top and it's work)
At this point Gin and I get into a furious argument about whether to include high heels. I loathe high heels, she lives in them. She says they are empowering because they give you height and height symbolises power. I say they are the western equivalent of footbinding and you can't run away from rapists in them. Amanda sides with Gin. I point out she is over six feet tall in her bare feet and doesn’t need high heels. She tells me to fuck off. We all sulk briefly and then take a vote, which I lose.

We get bored with making lists.

"I think we should go and find the editor of this hack rag, break into her house and stuff our list up her ass," says Amanda, flipping through the magazine.

"I don't want to go to prison," I say.

Amanda looks at me darkly.

"You're already in prison," she says. "You can't walk out of the door, switch on the TV, go on the internet, without someone telling you about how you're not good enough. You need to own these 20 essential items. You need a pair of Louboutins. You need to learn to cook the perfect pancakes. You have to shave your minge or no-one will ever shag you again. Your taste in music isn't good enough, listen to this new band. These people are having a better party than you, drink Russian Standard. You need to dye your hair. You need to wear this perfume. You need to get married, then have a baby, and then you need to buy your baby a shitload of crap. You need to have matching plates. I am fucking sick of it! I'm not interested in being perfect! Perfection is death!"

"Chill out, Amanda," says Gin, sharply. There is a moment, a silent moment.

All three of us look at each other.

"It's OK," says Amanda, smiling. "I'm just having a rant, not a relapse."

One of the reasons Amanda and I are so close is that we have both, at varying points in our lives, been treated by a doctor for mental health problems. (My personal breakdown came when I was 27 and I was forced to acknowledge that I had been raped by Matthew. You see, your mind's primary goal is self preservation at all costs. If you can't cope with reality, it will keep it from you. This means that when I was 22 I would have told you that no, sir, thank you, nothing like that ever happened to me. Child sex abuse? Not ringing any bells. And I believed it, too. The day the memories started coming back was the most frightening of my life so far.)
Amanda's problems are very different to mine but our shared experience of therapists, various pills and their side-effects, and terrifying black cracks in reality is one of the things which keeps our friendship glued together. 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

3. A seminal punk band

It is 1am. I don't know whose house this is. I vaguely remember being introduced to someone called Laura, but I'm not sure if it is her house. It is a good party. There is a lot of screaming, running around, people dancing and falling over. Some men are burning things in the back yard.

I sit on the leather sofa in the living room. I look at the white carpet. I don't know why people have white carpets.

I have drunk all my own wine, so I stole someone else's Sailor Jerry. It's a bit too sweet for me, I like my rum less sugary, but I drink it anyway. You do what you have to do.

The last time I saw Amanda and Gin was a while ago. Amanda was attempting to perform a improvised and violent piece of contemporary dance to Fight For Your Right to Party and Gin was talking to a man with cropped blonde hair, running her index finger up and down his thigh. I'm happy, enjoying being quiet, feeling drunkenly mellow.

A man sits down next to me. He is wearing a Ramones T-shirt. He has brown eyes.

Hello,” he says. “I’m Will.”

Hello Will," I say: “I like your T-shirt. I like the Ramones.”

Will says: “I don’t know who they are really, I just bought it because I thought it was cool. I like your boobs. I’ve been looking at you all night.”

There is a crash, a smash, and a chorus of screams from the direction of the kitchen, suggesting Amanda's dance routine has come to its inevitable conclusion.

I say: “The Ramones were a seminal punk band. You really should listen to them, especially if you have their name emblazoned on your chest. How can you wear a t-shirt endorsing a band you’ve never listened to? What if it emerges that you think they’re crap?”

Will looks confused.

He says: “It’s only a T-shirt.”

I say: “But by wearing it you are basically telling a lie. It is making a statement about your taste in music - and, by extension, your lifestyle and personality - which is, in fact, not at all accurate. Don’t you want to be a truthful person?”

"I, uh, I think I just saw my friend come in," Will says, already scanning the crowd for another prospect. “I’m just, uh, I need to go and say hello to him.”

He leaves quickly, as if a speedy exit will somehow erase our entire conversation. He is immediately replaced by Amanda, who is looking shifty.

"We need to leave," she says. "I've just broken the glass in one of the kitchen cabinets."

On the way home, we stop at the petrol station because I have a sudden craving for a Mars Bar. Amanda stands at the magazine rack and sneers at a copy of Grazia while I queue.

Then I realise the man behind the counter is beautiful, which is a problem.

"Beautiful" is not something you often hear said about men. This is a failing on the part of society. I like to say what I mean, and sometimes I don't want to say "He was hot," or "He was goodlooking", or whatever. I want to say "He was beautiful." But one is not really allowed to say this of a man.

Nevertheless, it is true.

I look. I have no idea how to react. This is one of the problems with beauty. I have to carry the Mars Bar, walk, find my purse and give him money, all in the face of his complete overwhelmingness, while drunk. This is going to be an issue, damnit.

There is a difference between prettiness and beauty. Prettiness is manageable. Prettiness is not threatening, which is why everyone likes it. To meet a pretty person brightens your day, leaves you smiling.

Beauty, on the other hand, is usually shocking because it it is so blankly unexpected. It leaves you feeling stunned, especially when you come across it growing wild in council estates or insurance offices, or wearing a Tesco uniform. Like an orchid perched on top of a pile of garbage.

(Once I was spending the day in court - for reasons I may or may not tell you about later - and a woman was being tried for GBH. She was a heroin addict, a repeat offender - shoplifting, theft, assault, burglary. She had got into a fist fight with another woman over drugs, kicked her in the chest when she was down and cracked two of her ribs. She was almost certainly heading for prison, not for the first time.

She was one of the most shockingly beautiful women I have ever seen. Half-starved, feral, unwashed, sulking in handcuffs and a pair of dirty trackie bottoms, and you couldn't look at anything else. When she was brought in, the room went still)

I walk up to the counter. My palms are sweating. He smiles suddenly at me and I feel my IQ drop 50 points. Great. Now I've lost the ability to form sentences as well.

I pay for my Mars Bar. I mumble a thank-you without meeting his eyes. I walk away. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

2. I am dreaming of six vampires

I am dreaming of a sunny, cold seaside town, plagued by six vampires. By the white pavilion on the seafront, a fat man is sweeping the chalky pastel-coloured flagstones.

In midair behind him, a woman with long blonde hair materialises. She floats horizontally, surrounded by billowing black rags of clothes, her face a mixture of lust and terrible anger. The woman reaches out her hand to the fat man's shoulder. He turns and looks directly at me. He is trying to convey something - sad resignation? I've been expecting this? This is the way life is? - but before I can understand she touches him and both of them vanish into the sunlit morning air.

I wake up. The dream starts disappearing immediately, fading like smoke, but it has already cast a shadow over the morning; it leaves me with a vague sense of unease, as if something somewhere is out of joint, like someone has unfastened one of the invisible zippers that attach me to reality.

It's Saturday. It's 11am. I make pancakes for breakfast, filling them with king prawns, peas and lemon juice. Rammstein stands on his hind legs next to me, shouting "PRAWN! PRAWN!" I give him a prawn.

After I've finished eating, I make coffee and wander through to the bedroom to pick out my underwear.

I love pretty underwear. I spend a lot of money on it; I have five full drawers. I like to spend time picking out the set I'm going to wear every day: shall I wear the cream silk bra embroidered with tiny pink roses? How about a suspender belt, if I'm wearing stockings? Shall I wear the striped grey satin corset I had made for me?

There's an art to buying good underwear, and one has to think about it. It's very easy to fall into tacky. The red lace, the black nylon, the thongs...all the itchy, pinchy, badly made shit that's supposed to be sexy.

Let's get one thing straight though; I don't wear my pretty underwear for anyone else's pleasure but my own. When I know I'm likely to sleep with someone (it doesn't happen often, and I never pick people up spontaneously because it makes me feel uncomfortable) I put on a plain black bra and black cotton knickers. You can touch me, but I don't want you to know me. You don't like that? You want me to dress up for you? Bad luck.

I meet Amanda for lunch in our favourite bar, the Royal. We like it because of its slightly gone-to-seed opulence; the stains on the red velvet seats, the gilt flaking off the walls. Amanda is sitting on one of the sofas by the big window, in her pink fake-fur coat. Her hair is, currently, a towering blonde beehive. The glass beads festooning her emerald-green dress catch the light. She is drinking a glass of prosecco and the rest of the bottle is in a bucket in front of her. I sit down.

One of the things Amanda and I have in common is a love of wearing costumes, rather than clothes.
             "Who are you going to be today?"
             "I'm going to wear my see-through lace blouse with the long black pencil skirt and high heeled lace-up boots. And a hat. Kind of a Victorian slut thing. Who are you going to be?"
             "I've got this long black dress which is basically Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice. I just need to work out how to wax my fringe into points."
             "Want to meet up after work?"

Amanda pours me a glass of prosecco and asks: "Do you want to come to a club where people wee on each other?"

She's imitating Old Gregg from The Mighty Boosh - a major character in our personal pantheon of icons - but the middle-aged couple at the table next to us overhear. They stop talking for a moment, look at us, and take in Amanda's foot-high hair and my silver snake-print blazer. I can see them thinking that we do, in fact, look as if we would probably go to clubs where people wee on each other. They catch each other's eyes and then lower their eyes to their plates and start frantically pretending we don't exist. I'd like to make this right - they look genuinely disturbed and I don't want to ruin their lunch - but past experience has taught me that attempting to interact with them will just scare them even more so I drink the rest of my prosecco and put it out of my mind.

Just for the record, while I have been to some interesting places, I have never been to a club where people wee on each other. I wouldn't go, either. I'm not keen on bodily fluids.

Amanda orders two brandy alexanders.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

1. Time passes, and a file

Sometimes I think about time passing.

Waking up, there's something we do a lot. Most of us do it every day. We leave reality every night and return every morning without ever thinking about what it means for our eyes to close - that helpless vulnerability. 

I think about all the places I have ever woken up. On a beach in another country, curled in the sand as the sun rises. In a stranger's arms in a dusty bedsit in Wolverhampton. In a sleeping bag on a living room floor, with someone else's toddler poking me in the eye with a Lego brick. In the dog's bed at Amanda's, with the dog and an absinthe headache. On a sofa with Rammstein asleep on my chest. In a hotel room full of pink orchids and grey satin, last night's champagne bottle upside down in the bucket. In a car seat at a service station. In my own bed, hungover and late, on a Tuesday morning. All those places, all those returns to reality.

It's one way to get a sense of the immensity of life.

Waking up is, of course, not the same as awakening. You don't have to be asleep to awaken. You can be in a club at 2.30am, a bottle and a half of cheap white wine sloshing around in your stomach, the speakers pounding out terrifying levels of noise, looking around at all the flushed happy faces around you and thinking: who am I? How on earth did I get here? Who are all these people who are acting like they're my friends?

Do I even like drum and bass?

It's sometimes difficult for me to remember where I end and other people begin. That's part of the reason I'm writing all of this down. I need it to help define myself, for those days when I'm not sure who I am, the days when the emotions and ideas of the people around me bleed into my own.

It's a...file, the file. The file you imagine the shady government guys having, you know, the ones in the dark glasses and the black suits, the ones who know everything. Everything.

Aren't they comforting, those guys? The idea that someone might want to know everything and might be able to find it out. The idea that someone, somewhere, actually has a plan and some measure of control. Much more attractive than the alternative idea; that the people who run the world coast along incompetently, always on the back foot, always responding to whatever the current crisis is. And there is no plan. And no control.

Here are the facts. Here's the file.

Name: Alice Chambers.
Age: 34.
Gender: female.
Sexual orientation: straight.
Eyes: brown.
Hair: brown, mid-length.
Distinguishing marks: tattoo on left bicep, approx 10cm by 3cm, graffiti-style font. Reads Left 4 Dead. Right nipple pierced.
Nationality: British.
Educated to: BA journalism.
Employment status: employed by public relations team of UK regional division of major global finance corporation. Low level. 
Pets: neutered male ginger cat called Rammstein.
Drugs of choice: alcohol, marijuana, MDMA when I can get it (which isn't often).
Aliases: None. 

High IQ. Highly articulate. Underperformer. Liberal politics. Socially anxious, but able to compensate well. At the age of eight, abducted out of a park and raped by a opportunistic paedophile who was never identified and is presumably still at large. 

(Ah yes, Matthew. I wonder if perhaps I should have waited to introduce Matthew. That's the idea, isn't it, the big reveal on round about page 200. The pat explanation for all my numerous personality flaws and antisocial behaviour. In some books it is almost pornographic, no? Sometimes, when I read stories like that, I can't help seeing sly titillation, the slightly-too-detailed description, the vivid accounts of smells and noises and sweat. It's become a bit of a cliche, I feel, this everyday horror given as the sole explanation for everything from multiple personality disorder to serial killing.

But no. Matthew, although he haunts my nightmares and does seem to have a lot to say for himself these days, is not allowed to be half as important in my life as he would like to be. Not a chance, mate. You don't get to be the defining incident of my life. You don't get to shape me. You can fuck right off with that one. All you are is an entry in my file)

Some mental health issues, particularly recurrent anxiety and depression. Also difficulty forming sexual relationships. Not in contact with family. Regularly self-medicates with alcohol. Obsessed with appearance and spends hours in shops and on the internet buying and looking at clothes and shoes. Encyclopaedic knowledge of 70s and 80s slasher movies. Known close associates: Amanda LeBrun, Sally Lloyd and Ginevra Roberts (known as Gin). See separate files.

I can't imagine there would be much more than that. After all, there's not much in my life to interest the shady government guys. Nothing, really.