Sunday, 29 April 2012

10. The closest thing I have had to sex for quite some time

Chris is kissing me hard. He has his arms round my waist, and he's pressing into me. I can feel the whole length of his body against mine. He's holding me so tight, he really wants to do this, I run my hands over the smooth skin of his upper arms. I'm so turned on I feel like I'm going to faint. I vaguely wonder where the yowling cat is.

I - I -


I roll over in bed. Rammstein is howling plaintively outside the door. I check the clock. It is 5.45am. My alarm is not due to go off until 7.30am. Rammstein knows he does not get his breakfast until after the alarm. That’s his usual cue, but today he has spontaneously decided to wake me up early and disturb the closest thing I have had to sex for quite some time.

"My BOWL'S empty! My BOWL'S empty!"

Bugger off!” I shout and throw the nearest available hard object (a shoe) at the door. I hear a scrambling thud as he runs away. I lie in bed, thoroughly awake and extremely pissed off. Get up and feed him? No. If I feed Rammstein even one time before the alarm goes off, he’ll do this every single morning for the rest of eternity. Masturbate? No. Now I've woken up properly, I violently need a wee. Pretty much a guaranteed mood-killer.

I lie in bed and stare at the cracks on the ceiling. “Fucking cat,” I say out loud.

I'm still in a bad mood four hours later. I'm preparing for an initial meeting with the new manager in the Boring Department.

I go to the printer at the end of the corridor to collect my notes, and just as they come out Chris walks into the room. In the light of my dream last night, this is highly, highly embarrassing.

Chris started as a researcher in the Department of Doing Things Especially Slowly three weeks ago. He has brown eyes, which I've always liked for some reason, and hair which he dyes blond. It is growing out an inch of black roots at the bottom. His tie is crooked. And yes, at this point, I am going to have to admit I fancy him. Awkward.

He smells good. Kind of like coffee and shower gel, but everyone smells like that in the morning. So clearly the nice bit is just...him.

"Morning," he says.

"Uhmorn," I mutter, with my eyes on my notes. And then leave as fast as I can.

I'm still cursing myself for my cowardice as I knock on the new manager's door and he asks me to come in. I push the door open. He is sitting behind his desk. He is fiftyish, overweight, balding. His eyes -

He's one of them.

I feel my whole body stiffen with fright.

Werewolves, real werewolves - as I think of human predators - are vanishingly rare. You might ask how I know, and the truth is - I don't. 

I could be wrong. This man in front of me might be a fine, upstanding example of a human being. He might give generously to charity and treat everyone he meets with humility and respect. But there's something, the luminous, amused certainty in his eyes, that I recognise. The first time I saw that look I was eight years old. The last time I saw that look, it was in the eyes of a man who locked on to me in a club. He wouldn't leave me alone and he scared me to the point I needed to leave. He followed me out and cornered me and began grabbing my breasts. Fortunately I'd already rung a cab from inside and it arrived almost straight away.

You see, just as I recognise the predators, they recognise me as prey. I get...targeted. They sense my low self esteem, my vulnerability to manipulation, that I already know the drill. This is why I know that I cannot, must not allow him to recognise me. This is at work. This is right where I live.

He shakes my hand.

"Hi, I'm Derek," he says.

I sit down opposite him. I see his eyes check my breasts and where the hem of my skirt ends and I wish I'd worn something more professional today. I hope he doesn't recognise what I am. God I hope I'm wrong. I hope I hope I hope I'm wrong.

"Do you want a Rolo?" he asks. He has a packet on his desk.

"No, thank you," I say.

"One won't hurt," he says.

"Really, I don't want any chocolate," I say. "Shall we begin? I have a schedule here."

He smiles, spreads his hands.

"Let's do this, Alice," he says.

The meeting lasts half an hour, as short as I can make it, and afterwards I go to the canteen and buy myself some coffee and a Danish. I sit and pick at the Danish and stare into the coffee, imagining a protective shell around myself. It's silver, my shell. Nothing can get through it. No-one is in it but me.

I return to my desk. Nina says: "That new guy, he came in and dropped some papers off for you. He left them on your desk."

There is a neat pile of paper beside my keyboard. On top is a twist of silver paper wrapped round a small round object. My heart sinks. I unwrap it.

A Rolo.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

9. Dead-eyed club-issue trolls

It's Friday night and I'm out with Jena, Susie and Michelle. We have had a lot of vodka. We are in a huge and very crowded club, decorated with animal print everywhere, I forget what it's called. The DJ is playing a remixed Katy Perry track. I've left the three of them grinding on the dance floor and gone to get a drink.

Three men are standing beside me at the bar. Two of them are standard dead-eyed club-issue trolls, pumped up at the gym, gelled hair, their different aftershaves clashing so badly with each other it makes me feel sick. They both look me up and down in a practised way without even bothering to hide it - like a farmer assessing a cow - and then flick their eyes away and dismiss me; clearly I don't look like I give much milk, or something. They move on to mentally rating a group of girls nearby.

The third guy is fat. Not just a little overweight but very obese, with fat rolls bulging under his T-shirt and an enormous stomach, slabs of thighs stretching his jeans. While his friends are scanning the room, he stands back, his shoulders slumped and eyes dropped. He's actually not bad looking - better than the other two - he has pretty eyes and thick dark hair, but standing at this bar in this club he's like a hippo in a pool full of slim water-snakes and he knows it. I guess at an evening out spent following these two dicks in the Hollister t-shirts around watching them watching girls. I guess he didn't want to come here.

I lean over to the barman and ask for a Corona, and while I'm waiting for it I suddenly realise the fat guy is stealing looks at me in the mirror behind the bar. I catch his eye twice. Both times he drops his fast. He doesn't think he's allowed to look at me. He doesn't think I would like it.

I feel a surge of fellow feeling - I never feel like I'm allowed to fancy people either, for different reasons - and I'm surprised by a sudden and amazingly strong urge to take him home. Simply because, because no-one expects me to, least of all him, and I like confounding people's expectations; because his stupid smug friends will feel really insulted if he pulls before them and I think they deserve to get a smackdown; because he looks lonely and unhappy and pissed off and I want to see what he looks like when he smiles; because he has nice eyes and it's Saturday night and I damn well feel like it. Because it amuses me to do so. So the next time he looks at me I smile at him.

His face stiffens and he goes red. He doesn't smile back and I curse myself as I realise he is probably used to being patronised, that probably a lot of girls smile at him, because throwing a crumb of attention to the fat guy is an easy way to give yourself a little ego stroke about what a nice person you are while also secretly getting off on feeling powerful, and he is clearly smart enough to know this and he hates it and he is not grateful and he wants them but he also wants to tell them to fuck off. This sense of his perceptiveness attracts me even more and now I really want to get to know him, but before I can frame what to say he shoulders his way off through the crowd. I contemplate going after him but if he is that sensitive then I don't think he's going to be able to understand that I'm not taking the piss, so I resign myself to the fact that we've misunderstood each other and he'll go home tonight on his own and if he thinks about me at all he'll probably resent me.

I pull my mobile out of my bag and check the time. It's 12.30am. I'm tired. All the others are falling-over drunk, and the generic chart dance and RnB is pissing me off. I decide to go home. I text Jena to say I can't find them - I know where they are, but they'll all try and persuade me to stay and I don't want to - collect my coat and walk out into the cold. It's mayhem outside. The street is busier than at midday, and everyone is off their faces. A bald man is waddling up the middle of the road with his dick hanging out, leaving a zigzag trail of wee like a big inebriated snail. Two girls in bandage dresses and four inch heels are screaming fucks and pulling each other's blonde hair extensions. Another girl is sitting on the pavement crying.

Back at the flat it is warm and quiet. Rammstein jumps off the sofa and chirrups hello. He's just woken up and he bends himself into a hoop to stretch his back. I pick him up and stroke him and he cuddles into me and starts to purr. I press my face into his soft ginger fur.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

8. Sniffling into a red napkin

Gin has had an argument with Jason. We are at Pizza Express. She's sniffling into a red napkin. Often in films you see women crying prettily with one sad tear rolling down their cheek. Gin looks like she's been hit in the face with a brick.

Personally, I think Jason is an idiot. He has one of those Britpop Paul Weller/Oasis mental hospital haircuts that are the 90s equivalent of the mullet, he openly stares at my cleavage when talking to me, he always insists on ordering champagne for "the girls" even though he has no idea what champagne should taste like and he is invariably rude to bar and waiting staff. I would rather chew my own arm off than voluntarily spend time with him. But Gin likes him and now she is upset, so I don't think that analysis of the situation will help in any way.

"I think he's a total knob," says Amanda. "Get shot."

Someone comes to ask what food we want.

"I don't want anything to eat," says Gin. Amanda and I order. Gin bursts into tears again.

Sometimes I think I would like to be with someone. I'm not sure who that would be. And I'm also confused about whether it's something I actually want myself or whether it's something a lot of other people think I should want, like a mortgage, or a pair of Jimmy Choos.

Gin has had four long term relationships (and several affairs, since she's constitutionally incapable of being faithful). Amanda has had dozens and dozens of boyfriends, usually lasting an average of two weeks. I've never known anyone who wanted to be publicly acknowledged as my partner, but I have had five or six nebulous involvements which generally fall under the catch-all title "things" with various people. These generally drag on for a couple of months before getting cancelled due to lack of interest.

I have, however, fallen in love (never with anyone who has been in love with me) and it's a difficult experience. The levels of vulnerability are terrifying. I like to control when and how I connect with people and love takes any element of choice away. It feels like someone else has come along and effortlessly opened you up, prising your dark comfortable little shell apart and letting in the light and the air and the wide open outside world. While this can make you dizzyingly high all it means, in my experience, is you have further to fall when the crash comes.

The problem is, never having really been in one, I'm not entirely sure how romantic relationships between people work. In order to have one, I probably need to change and I'm not sure how. I'm not sure what to do differently. I'm not even sure I could do it differently if I knew how to change.

I do know that (physically speaking) I'm a reasonably attractive woman. People look at me, and they approach me. During the course of our conversation I generally manage to confuse or alienate them even when I'm trying not to, and then they back off and find someone else. I do understand. Personally speaking, I wouldn't want to get involved with me either. Why bother, when there are plenty of women out there who are perfectly normal? Women who are fun and happy? Women who don't have post-traumatic stress disorder, or Matthew, or screaming nightmares, and who can have normal conversations with a beginning and a middle and an end, and who don't watch David Lynch films at 7am?

Not that I'm disparaging any of my own choices. In the end, I made them. Well, apart from Matthew. 

I've been celibate for nearly four years. In the sex-obsessed third millennium, where we are all defined by who we fuck and how often, where do I fit in? And, in the great scheme of things, I mean, cosmically speaking, does it even really matter if I never touch anyone again? And, more importantly, how do I get over myself? Is there any way of just discarding your own personality? Stepping out of it, shedding it on the ground?

Later, I articulate some of this to Amanda. “Christ,” she says. “You really are such a classic cult victim. Don’t come crying to me when you’re living in a forest commune with a bunch of glassy-eyed hippies."

"I need to take the red pill," I say. 

She brushes her blonde hair out of her eyes and smiles at me.

"Look, I'm not going to give you any sympathy. Not because I don't have it, but because you don't need it. The only thing that's wrong with you is that you think something's wrong with you. That's it. You aren't going to get given a magical solution to your entire life by Laurence Fishburne in a black leather trenchcoat. Attractive as that idea is."

She stretches her arms above her head, yawns, and says: "You'll feel happier if you stop obsessing about being judged by other people and start judging all of them instead. It works for me."

Sunday, 8 April 2012

7. A paralytic spiral of indecision

I am lying on the single bed in the back bedroom at Sally's flat in my underwear. My arms are crossed, my left palm on my right shoulder and vice versa. My wrists are tied to my chest with intricate knots of black cord. My thighs and ankles are lashed together with a series of intertwining loops.

A joss stick burns on top of the chest of drawers near my head, in a holder shaped like a long green leaf. I watch the smoke spiral up into the air. When I was a child I loved the smoke from joss sticks, the way it's so heavy, the way it curls with the slightest movement of the air.

Sally has been working as a dominatrix for about a year. She often works with people who want to be tied up. I had never thought about this before Sally began doing it for a living, but tying people up isn't something that comes naturally. If you just get a rope out and start knotting, you won't be very good, and your client won't be pleased, and they won't come back. Sally needs to practice tying people up before charging £200 a session for it, and she likes to use me.

In return she'll usually cook me dinner, which is what she is doing at the moment in the kitchen; she checks on me periodically, but I like her to leave me alone as much as possible. Because of this, she is always careful not to tie me near the neck.

 I can smell the food. Salmon marinaded in honey and soy sauce. Rice. Steamed kale with melted butter, sprinkled with sesame seeds. A glass of sharp white wine cold from the fridge.

Sally is currently learning Japanese rope bondage. This requires thin rope, intricately looped and knotted. It needs to not only work as restraints, but also as a work of art. I look down at myself, as far as I can. Black cord on pale skin. Sometimes Sally takes pictures of me.

I'm not sexually turned on by bondage, or indeed by any variation of BDSM. I find it fascinating, both psychologically and aesthetically, but it doesn't arouse me. I do feel a certain amount of kinship with people who are interested in it, because they can be insightful, interesting and thoughtful people. I've often found this to be true of people whose mentality or inclinations are not widely socially acceptable. You're more or less forced to think beyond surface level in order to reach a compromise between yourself and the world. (My personal sexual needs are, by the standards of the people Sally knows, vanilla to the point of boring. I require a consensual and friendly sexual encounter with 1 (one) attractive and pleasant man in a private location. There are no accessories or acts I feel to be essential).

However, I do find being tied up extremely relaxing. You can't do anything but wait to be untied. You surrender everything, all choice, all power. All the crap we have to do every day - watch TV, go on the internet, eat, write blogs, all the decisions we have to make every five minutes - it all has to be put aside. All you can do is exist, staring at the white Aertexed ceiling, at the joss stick, for the indefinite period before being untied. And there is always the possibility you might not be untied for some time.

While Sally is my friend, and I know that she'll untie me as soon as I ask her to, she has absolute power - if she chooses to say no, I have to stay tied up. I don't even have that much choice. Of course, she doesn't ever say no, and if she did it would be a difficult point in our friendship, but the possibility is there so the decision, technically, lies with her. This means bondage is essentially a complete abdication of any responsibility whatsoever, even the responsibility for my own body.

As someone who always shops in small supermarkets simply because the level of choice in big ones sends me into a paralytic spiral of indecision (I have been known to spend 15 minutes walking up and down the cornflake aisle staring at the 50 different boxes and freaking out about which one I want) this is an extremely attractive state of mind. The complete lack of any control over externals leads - well, for me, anyway - to a state of meditation approaching trance.

Thoughts float randomly in and out of my head. I remember, with hallucinatory clarity, standing on the quayside of a fishing village (the sky is steel grey and at my feet the sandy marshes stretch out towards the water. Two seagulls quarrel over a fish head. The after-taste of an oyster is on my tongue like the essence of the sea).

Put out the lamps. Light the moon. Light the stars. I'm tired of bright unwavering electric light. I'm tired of sex without passion and laughter without joy, tired of concrete instead of trees. I'm tired of having control, of being in control, of having to be controlled. I'm tired of my world, tired of advertising, Facebook, television, being lonely, falling in love with the wrong people, having to be in charge. I wish I was anyone anywhere else. I wish I could start again.

Sally comes in. She is whip-thin, with long black hair. Her eyes are such an intense blue they look like they're lit up from inside. She wears black, she always wears black, it's an image thing. She leans down and starts working at the first knot with her thin musician's fingers.

"It's time," she says. 

Sunday, 1 April 2012

6. Darren is asleep

I am in a meeting. I don't need to be in this meeting. I'm not sure why I've been invited. We are fifteen minutes in, it's scheduled to be two hours, and so far, nothing of any interest or relevance has happened or looks likely to happen. And we don't even get any biscuits these days because of the recession.

Present are Jane, Jane, Fiona, and Jane, all from the Overworked Department (I find the preponderance of Janes to be an issue in this team) Darren from the Department of Doing Things Very Slowly, and Ray from the Boring Department.

I compose haiku to keep myself awake.

Haiku are three lines and 17 syllables long. The first and last lines must be five syllables long, and the middle one must be seven. Their length means they tend to be snapshots; single emotions, scenes, or thoughts.

We drown in paper.
The minutes are accurate;
the coffee is cold.

One of the Janes frowns vaguely in my direction and I realise I'm counting syllables on my fingers. Better stop that.

Darren is asleep.
A flurry of acronyms.

I am deeply jealous of Darren’s meeting face. It naturally falls into an attentive yet thoughtful expression and when he closes his eyes, it looks as if it is to better hear and understand the debate. He is, however, asleep. I once tested this by discreetly pinging an elastic band at him, so I know it's true.

I am well aware that my face, on the other hand, reflects whatever I am feeling or thinking at any given time (which, in meetings of this type, is usually “I wonder how long it would take me to bleed to death if I bit through my own wrist?”) and this is not endearing to my superiors.

In my last appraisal my manager said he was concerned about my attitude. I asked if there was a problem with my work. He said no, my performance was uniformly excellent, there was no performance issue. I asked what the issue was if this was the case. He looked uncomfortable and then he said: "I feel you aren't emotionally involved. You don't really care. You aren't a team player."

He's absolutely right.

Work is a transaction: I need money to live, eat, and buy clothes with. I have made a deal with the company. They give me money, and in return I will be at my desk obeying orders to the best of my ability between nine and five on week days. I understand this bargain and I uphold my end of it.

But it puzzles me why I'm not only expected to do my job, but also expected to feel deep emotional involvement. The report's delivered on time, the report's delivered a week late. It's better if it is delivered on time, because people get unreasonably excited about things like that and I hate being bothered with boring disciplinaries and so on, but the reality is I don't give one shit.

To return to my appraisal: we spent the next 20 minutes discussing How He Could Help Me, although personally I think he would have been better off accepting that I do my job and leaving me alone with my bad attitude. It's bad enough having to work every day without people coming around insisting you should enjoy it.

I excuse myself from the meeting and go for a short stroll around the building. On the way back to the room I bump into Jena, who works in the Vague Department.

"My soup looks like man juice," she blares. She is holding out a polystyrene cup. I can't imagine why she thinks I'd be interested in this observation. Sometimes Jena distinctly reminds me of Ralph Wiggum from the Simpsons, if Ralph was 25, female, orange and had a barely-contained 36G chest.

She's still holding out the polystyrene cup. I look into it. It is filled with something that, if I'm honest, does look like semen.

"Yes, it does," I agree.

Jena squints into the cup.

"The guy in the canteen said it was cream of mushroom, but I reckon he just had a couple of wanks and thought he could make a profit on it," she says.

She's a nice girl really, without a thought in her head beyond X Factor and marrying a footballer. There are worse people.

"He's a pervert. Every time I go in there he looks at my boobs," she informs me.

This is not a surprise. I'm a heterosexual woman and I look at Jena's boobs. They're just...there. Constantly. Bobbing around, getting in your field of vision. I cannot imagine how any of the men in her department get anything done at all. 

"Are you coming out on Friday?" she asks.

This is difficult. Jena thinks of us as close friends - although I'm not sure where she gets this from - and she often asks me to go out with her and her friends Susie and Michelle. They like to get drunk on bottles of something that looks like radioactivity and then fall in and out of the city's less salubrious bars, with the general aim of getting groped to Beyoncé by men who wear white shirts with their jeans.

I went through this stage of my life some time ago and I'm not really ever up for it now but, since she always looks like a sad puppy when I say no, sometimes I accidentally end up going. Fortunately this Friday I have already been booked to help bleach Amanda's roots (a delicate process, involving copious amounts of alcohol, Clairol and screaming) so I decline.