Sunday, 24 June 2012

18. Industriously chewing her purple squeaky bone

When one looks back, it's hard to decide where a particular sequence of events starts. Life rolls on. One time and place and set of people shades, sometimes imperceptibly, into another. One moment you are seven and losing your favourite marble down the drain in the school playground. The next you are 33 and standing drunk and bleeding under the departures board at Liverpool Street Station, contemplating which train would be best to end your life under. Having lost some entirely different marbles.

(Obviously, I didn't commit suicide. Otherwise this would be a very different blog, I would have many interesting things to report, and I would probably be gaining significant media attention.)

I am half-awake, lying in a nest of dirty sheets on Amanda's sofa. Her Highland terrier Buffy is in the room with me. I can't see her, but I can smell small dog, and I can hear her industriously chewing her purple squeaky bone somewhere near my feet. It sounds a bit like someone blowing up an air mattress, or a couple having vigorous sex on a very old bed.

Amanda is in the kitchen playing Velcro Fly by ZZ Top (Amanda, like me, dates to pre-Nirvana. We both spent our early teenage years listening to GnR, Poison, Alice Cooper, Jovi, AC/DC, Quiet Riot - any band where men were men, hair was huge, and trousers were tight. I pretend I don't still love it. She, on the other hand, is utterly unashamed)

I can hear her singing along. "You need just enough of that sticky stuff, to hold the seam on your fine blue jeans...." Amanda loves to sing, but the truth is she really can't.

I am not thinking about anything very much. The way time passes, maybe. It feels like yesterday I was standing under that board. I can feel the blood running down my arms, I had been cutting myself. I can feel the beer can in my hand. I see the station security staff gathering. I remember - I remember -

Tyler Durden said: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." I like this. You don't really know who you are or what you are capable of until you hit bottom. That's when you find out. When you find out if you are going to throw yourself under a train, or if you are going to come back up fighting. Whatever else happens I know that about myself - when I hit bottom, I bounce right back up and start throwing punches. That's my instinctive response.

I remember the moment I put the beer can carefully in the bin and walked away. The moment I chose to live.

Velcro Fly finishes and is followed by Bad Medicine by Bon Jovi. I loved this when I was 14. I still - slightly more circumspectly - love it now.

I lie back and listen.

First you need
(that’s what you get for falling in love)
Then you bleed
(you get a little and it’s never enough)
And then you’re on your knees
(that’s what you get for falling in love)

I remember being in love. I would far rather never feel anything again than feel that dreadful need, that addiction to someone’s presence, the way one person’s opinion of you has the power to crack your world in half. I never again want my emotions burnt to the ground by the cold eyes of someone I love with all my heart.

I reach out. I sleepily roll a spliff. I stick it through a hole in the sheet, light it, and inhale.

Amanda pokes her head round the door. "I thought I could smell weed," she says. She has made me a cup of tea. I offer the spliff to her and she sits on the end of the sofa and smokes.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

17. Anonymity is one of my favourite feelings

One of my favourite places in the world is London.

I don't live there, but I go there from time to time. I love its hugeness, its immediacy, the way every time I go I see giant buildings being demolished and rebuilt. Constantly in flux, never settled, always the same. I love its incomprehensible vastness, the huge numbers of people who never look at you, the way you can melt into it like a drop of water into the sea. I feel comfortable. I feel safe. I feel anonymous. You could do anything, in London. You could be anyone and no-one would ever know. You could find a tiny flat, a room of your own, a nook high somewhere among all that dizzying multitude of roofs, and no-one would ever need to know where you lived. You could have a safe place, all yours and only yours, with no-one else ever invited in.

Anonymity is one of my favourite feelings. Sometimes I sit in my flat, watching a film I have chosen or reading an obscure book, and revelling in being alone and unknown. Sometimes I'm watching something, or doing something, cooking a meal on my own and a sudden feeling of freedom sweeps over me, the knowledge that nobody has any idea that I am here doing this particular thing. This feeling that my essential being is free, that I am a person separate from other people, that I exist in my own right.

Other times, on bad days, I feel spread out, owned, pinned under a microscope. A tiny and uninteresting insect dissected and then dismissed by an omnipotent giant. These are the days when it is a struggle to get out of bed.

All my life, I've attracted people who want to control me. Matthew, and people like him. Managers who insist on inspecting every piece of work I do. Friends who put me down, choose my clothes for me, tell me how to do my hair and who I should go out with, expect me to drop everything immediately just because they want to talk to me or see me. People who never see my point of view. Who never take the time to realise I have one.

It's one of the reasons I've never had a serious relationship. I'm scared of being in a relationship. Very scared. To spend that much time with someone, to let them in that far - if I choose badly, if I allow the wrong person to bully me into giving more than I want - then all that freedom could be annihilated.

I'm well aware that this is ridiculous. There would be nothing to keep me in a relationship that didn't work.

Except, except...some people know how to manipulate you. Some people like to control you. Some people hate it when they don't feel that you are giving them the respect they've decided is due to them, when you don't agree with them all the time. Some people walk into your life, sit down, and say: "I'm your friend," or "I'm your boyfriend," and it's only later that you think: did I make a decision about that?

But by then it's too late. This person who has unilaterally decided to be part of your life requires to own you and gets angry if you won't let them. Because my default position is to assume that other people are right and I'm in the wrong, I give in. I text them when they say I should. I apologise when they scream abuse at me. When they behave badly, I make excuses for them. And then I open the door and smile and let them walk back into my life and bully me again.

So imagine a boyfriend like that. I can imagine a boyfriend like that.

And it's difficult to tell, you can't always tell, you can't ever tell. I've been caught out before.

The issue is me, essentially. Me and my fucked up boundaries. Me and my inability to stand up for what I believe in, or articulate what I want. Me and my lack of trust in my own judgement, strength or ability.

Me, me, me, feeling like the only way to be free is to not be seen, like any small scared creature that hides in a hole and runs out when it's dark to steal seeds, any scrap of fur destined to end its life as a damp squeak in the jaws of something bigger and crueller. I have the same anxious instinct.

Hehh. Enjoying the fucking pity party, Alice? You don't have to obey orders just because they're given. You don't have to hide. You can stand up and say what you think and what you feel. It's your responsibility to ensure your own rights are protected, just like it's your responsibility to ensure you don't infringe anyone else's rights.

I know. It's just, some days, I don't feel it. 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

16. Tigers watching from behind the walls

I am standing on a third-floor landing in the crumbling block of flats where Sally lives. The landing is grey concrete. It smells of piss, uncared-for building, and despair. Upstairs a dog is barking in one of the other flats, on and on, and the noise is spiking into my head.

On the wall of the stairwell opposite someone has spray-painted KELLY TAKES IT UP THE ASS! in cheery hot-pink cartoon letters. It's not a rush job. Whoever painted it took their time and thought about how best to convey their message. However, without more information, it's difficult to decide whether the author expects the onlooker to be disgusted or delighted.

I wonder briefly who Kelly is, if she has ever seen this piece of art dedicated to her, and, if she has, what she thinks of it. I wonder what I would think if someone spray-painted ALICE TAKES IT UP THE ASS! on a wall, but since I am not a fan of anal sex and I don't, to my knowledge, know anyone who spray-paints walls I don't consider this scenario very likely. After some thought, I come to the conclusion that if someone felt it was this important to announce my sexual preferences to the world, I should probably try not to get in the way of their artistic vision.

Sally's front door is identical to all the other doors in the building, painted a depressing shade of dark blue, with a small rectangular window filled with glass strung through with wire until it looks like graph paper.

I knock on the door. The dog upstairs starts a fresh outburst of barking.

Sally opens the door and I smell cooking, incense, perfume. Walking into her home is like walking into another world.

The living room is dominated by a umbrella tree which spreads over one wall and across almost the whole ceiling. When it's dark like this and only the small side lamps are lit, the black branches and dark leaves spread over the red and gold wallpaper give the room the feel of a jungle clearing. As if there could be tigers watching from behind the walls.

Sally has spread the small table with an antique, yellowed lace cloth and set it with dishes of sushi and crystal glasses. She will have made the sushi herself, rolling out the rice and nori on bamboo mats in her tiny kitchen. She believes in taking the time to do things well.

Sally's eyes are the same blue as the flames on a gas cooker. Her waist-length hair is dyed dead black and today it spills over the collar of a black velvet dress. Her fingers are loaded with rings. A red glass heart, a silver skull with crystal eyes, an inch-square deep purple stone. Her white skin has the smooth dull sheen of silk inside the rough darkness of the velvet.

Sally's ethos - charity shops, china, taxidermy, fur and lace and black eyeliner - is fashionable now. The objects she used to buy for pennies, finding them dusty and unregarded in flea markets, are now snapped up, cleaned and sold to people with enough money to buy an imitation life-style. Ready-made vintage romance.

She used to look beautiful and strange and now she looks like a fashion victim. But she doesn't care. When the trends move on, she'll still be here. She looks inward, not outward.

We drink wine, and eat, and talk. I find myself talking about Chris. Sally considers, shrugs, pours more wine. "You need to stop taking it all so seriously. It's only sex," she says.

"I take everything seriously," I say.

It's true. I'm intense about everything. It's my nature. The only thing that's changed over the years is that I've stopped feeling guilty about it.

Sally has had sex with a lot of people, while my experience is limited to say the least. Sometimes I think this means she knows more than me. Other times I think we just know different things.

"Are you going to ask him out?" she says.

My stomach does a nose-dive at the thought, but I know I will have to. I'll have to get to know him and see who he is, and then, if I still feel the same, I'll have to ask.

I don't want to. I’m scared. I’m not beautiful. I’m not sexy. I’m not even remotely interesting. What right have I got to even approach someone?

I'm annoyed with myself, suddenly; I want him, but I want him to be given to me without any risk on my part. There is no risk-free enterprise. If you won't put your hand out for food, then you starve. If you don't try and get what you want, then you won't get it.

When I meet people I'm attracted to, I'm simultaneously drawn to and terrified of them. The pull forward, the pull against. My desire to touch against my fear of rejection. My fear of rejection masked as rejection, because it is better for one's self-esteem to reject straight away than to risk once again being told you aren't good enough.

I've spent years trying to teach myself I am good enough, I am acceptable, I am a human being with the same rights as other human beings. One of those rights is the right to love and the right to ask to be loved.

However, both of these are rights I find difficult to exercise.

After the meal, Sally serves me brandy in a gilt-edged china teacup, painted with twining violets. She found it in a junk shop 10 years ago. "It's more than 200 years old," she tells me. We imagine who could have owned it first, who picked it out and where they lived and what they were like.

The hazy gold liquid distorts the violets until they make me think of a meadow underwater.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

15. They look exactly like a pair of astounded monkeys

Amanda, Gin and I have spent Saturday afternoon in a pub beer garden, drinking mojitos and fending off a gaggle of horny estate agents with Fred Perry shirts and buzz cuts. It is 6pm and we are drunkenly wandering around a supermarket. We are allegedly looking for something to have for dinner but none of us can really focus; so far all we have managed to agree on is a packet of ginger nuts, some asparagus and more mojitos.

Gin and I are standing in the biscuit aisle debating whether to replace the ginger nuts when I suddenly realise the shop's sound system is playing the Barbara Dickson and Elaine Paige version of I Know Him So Well. Gin realises at the same time. She stares at me, her mouth half open in horror.

Amanda skids round the end of the aisle, nearly falling off her purple platform stilettos. She spreads her arms, sending three packets of bourbon biscuits flying.


She climbs on to a cardboard box sitting next to the Garibaldis and waiting to be unpacked, grabs the packet of ginger nuts out of my hand and starts singing into it.

A young mum with dyed-red hair freezes in her tracks and stares. Her chubby, clean toddler leans out of the pushchair and stares. Their expressions are identical, and for a moment they look exactly like a pair of astounded monkeys. I love how sometimes people look like monkeys.


Amanda, standing on her box, is an example to us all. (Do I mean embarrassment? Yes. Sometimes Amanda is an embarrassment to us all. But, also, an example.)

Here is a fact: you can do anything. Anything you want, anywhere you want, at any time you want. You need to be prepared to run the risk of being a) arrested b) humiliated and/or c) ending up on Youtube, but - technically - you can do it.

All of it.


Convention is a strong force in our lives, but it is nothing but an agreement. In the end, the police only have power because we agree they do. The Prime Minister only has power because the majority of the country agrees to observe the idea that he does. Your manager at work, your teacher at school - they're only in charge because everyone agrees that they are. When it's warm enough to walk round naked, the only reason we even wear clothes is because everyone has decided that's a good thing.

(A small crowd has gathered. The store manager arrives, wearing the self- important expression of someone who thinks being in charge actually means something)

Power does not reside in people, but between them. It is not an absolute force, it's a dynamic. Laws and social conventions are not absolute forces either. They are arrangements which the majority of people agree are necessary for us all to live together with minimum violence, exploitation and social awkwardness. Once you realise kind of stop taking it all seriously. This is not always a good thing.


Key change.


(The manager is squawking "You're banned! You're banned! You're banned!" over and over again, like a parrot on speed. However, the store is clearly understaffed, he is pudgy and about five feet high, and Amanda's full-on musical theatre mode is enough to scare Bruce Willis in Die Hard. So he's made the wise decision to shout from a safe distance rather than intervening physically.)

There is no such thing as the unsayable. You can say it. Everything you've ever thought. All those things you think you can't possibly say, the things that eat you up inside. Just open your mouth and enunciate. Say "I love you," or "I hate you," or "I quit," or "I'm good at that, why don't you give me the job?" or "I'm not coping," or "I think we should break up," or "I'd like 15 Cadbury Creme Eggs and a litre of whisky please," or "Fancy a shag?"

Feels better, right?

Yeah. Yeah, it feels better.

Because while you don't know what happens when you say it (well, except in the case of the creme eggs and whisky, when the ensuing chain of events will be fairly inevitable) you do know exactly what happens if you don't. If you don't say it, the status quo will remain the same. Your life will be exactly as you expect it to be. If you don't quit your job, you'll remain in your job. If you don't say some variation on "I love you" you'll end up going home on your own and watching a film you've seen before and then going to bed by yourself while the person you want with all your heart is somewhere else with someone else. If you don't say "I think we should break up," you'll end up coming home to someone you don't love every night for the rest of your life.

And that's fine, if that's what you want. And I know that sometimes it is not as simple as that. And sometimes Amanda's approach is not the best one. But if you know what you want and you have nothing to lose, and you don't ever say fuck it I'm doing this, then eventually you'll be old and smelly in a wheelchair and everything will have been exactly the way you were always afraid it would be and just as disappointing as you expected it to be, and you will never have been banned from a supermarket for standing on a box belting out one of the more melodramatic hits from 80s musicals.

The flip side, of course, is personal responsibility. If you accept that you have complete control over every action you choose to make in your life, then you must also accept that some of those actions may have a negative impact on yourself or someone else and that you have to take responsibility for that negative impact. For example, we are now banned from an extremely convenient supermarket. That doesn't really matter. But if you decided to kill someone, for example, you would have to accept responsibility for taking that person's life. For the impact on them, the impact on everyone else, the impact on you and the probable loss of your freedom. But I think that often people who treat others badly don't ever think about responsibility; it's always someone else's fault. They were forced into that position. You can hear it in every interview: my mum abused me, he provoked me, she came on to me, I can't get a job because the immigrants are taking them all, my parents pressured me, I needed the money, I'm an addict, it's not my fault. I had no choice. Honest.

Of course it's your fault. Your choice, your fault, your responsibility. That's what freedom means.

Amanda finishes, to a scattering of applause. She steps down off the box.
The store manager steps forward and gets ready to deliver a lecture.

Gin grabs my left hand and Amanda's right, and we run giggling for the door.