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.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

30. The same one you get standing on the edge of a cliff

It is 11.31am precisely and Chris is looking at me.

I know he is looking at me because every time I look at him he drops his eyes. If someone is just staring into space and you happen to be in their line of vision they don't react for a moment or two when you catch their eye. If someone is looking at you with intentions to speak to you or say hello, they'll smile when they see you've noticed them.

But if they are looking at you for some other reason, and they don't want you to know this is what they are doing, then they will flick their eyes away as soon as you look over. This is what Chris is doing. He is sitting three seats down from me.

I look down, shuffle the papers in front of me. I look around again. This time he holds my eye, and he smiles, and I know he wants to sleep with me.


You see, the thing is that he has an enormous amount of power over me. This is the moment of clarity when I realize precisely how much danger I’m in, the same one you get standing on the edge of a cliff. I cannot be falling in love. It is a hazard to my already fragile mental health, and I’m not ready for it, and it’s not convenient, and I’m terrified of his rejection, of his reciprocation, of his beauty and his ambiguous smile. Also I know what this means. I’ve been here before.

Fuck that. I don’t need anyone. I don’t want to need anyone. I want to be left the hell alone, to hide in my flat with Rammstein, with the occasional visit from Amanda and Gin. I don’t understand why the real world keeps intruding, why it keeps flinging curveballs like Derek and Chris at me, why I can’t just be left alone to live the best way I know how. Just me, happy in my shell, “happy as a clam” people say sometimes, happy as a clam shut tight and closed and blissfully alone, unnoticed in the silt at the bottom of the sea.

Except that's not the only thing I want and a lot of the other things I want directly oppose it, and it's going to be impossible to reconcile my life so I have everything. Which means I need to find another option.

I want I want I want. The eternal whine of my inner toddler. I want love. I want sex. I want to be left alone. I want to be rich. I want to be adored, but only on my own terms. I want space. I want the jacket made of creamy-soft wine-red leather with the bronze zips. I want an icecream. I want a Barbie. I want THAT ONE. Shut the hell up, stupid kid.

The decision is no decision. There is only one choice in the end. I have to step up. If I don’t – if I back down from something like this, even just once – I’m jeopardising everything I’ve achieved, all the self-esteem I've worked so hard to create.
All my instincts are to run away, to blank him every time I see him until the problem goes away and I can go back to my solitary life and dream of men I'll never have. That's a kind of unhappiness I can feel comfortable with.

But this has to be done, because I don't fucking back down. I step up. I always step up.

Backing down is when you repeat, right along with Matthew, “I will take what I’m given because I am not allowed to ask for what I want.”

So, what now? I continue to cultivate a friendship. I wait. Sooner or later the time will be right, at a drink after work one night or at another thing like Jena's barbecue, and I know now, I read in his eyes, that (barring unforeseen events) it'll happen.

Is he what I think he is? What do I think he is? Who is he? Is he safe?

I don't know. I can't tell.

The meeting finishes and we walk out. As I leave, Chris falls into step beside me. He smells great again. He smiles. His teeth are very white.

"Hello! How was your weekend?" he says. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

29. Ross and D-Train wanted to be rappers so badly it hurt

Matthew told me a lot of things. I don't remember the words, but I absorbed the gist. All of them were lies.


I remember.

When I was 19 or 20, I was very into the whole dance music/Ecstasy/free party thing. This was back in the mid-90s, when everyone was covered in fluorescent paint and tribal tattoos and we all used to say "Mental!" a lot.

One summer night, I went to a free party in a wood. All the trees had been wrapped in glowing streamers. I was with, who was I with? Frankie. Frankie, with her long dark hair. Frankie was going out with a guy called Ross. There were four of us; me, Frankie, Ross, and Ross's friend Kev, who everyone called D-Train for some reason I still haven't worked out (although it may just be that Ross and D-Train wanted to be rappers so badly it hurt). D-Train fancied me but at that time I wasn't interested in sex. Or rather I was - I still am - but I have many conflicting feelings about it. I loved the trippy, happy, hippy hedonism vibe when it came to taking drugs, drinking, hugging people and dancing till I fell over, but the sex? Not so much. Easier just to avoid the whole thing.

I remember D-Train and I were drinking vodka out of the bottle in the back of the car. Voodoo People was playing at top volume as country lanes blurred past.

The two of them were low to medium level drug dealers. They always had pills and they always had coke, and the pills and coke were always free for Frankie and me. That night Frankie and I drank an entire bottle of Malibu between us. We then proceeded to take two pills and a line of coke each.

Unsurprisingly, this excess resulted in me lying on a mattress in the back room of a small house nearby which was part of the party. I have no idea whose house, room or indeed mattress this was. I was enjoying myself, as far as one can when one's brain has crashed.

D-Train came into the room. He was in an equally bad way and collapsed on the floor beside the mattress. I was not able to have much in the way of thoughts but one which kept recurring was that D-Train was probably uncomfortable on the hard floor and would be much better off on the mattress instead. I managed somehow to inform him of this fact and he got on the bed with me.

He then began kissing my neck and putting his hand up my skirt. This had not been my intention in any way whatsoever (although, with hindsight, I can see how he could have misinterpreted my invitation to get in bed with me). I was too drugged to move, which meant I couldn't move away. But I managed to mutter "don't want to."

And D-Train immediately took his hands off me, said: "You're a bit mashed up right? Why don't you have a sleep?" kissed me on the forehead, and got up and left the room.

D-Train fancied me. We were both extremely high. If I had got unlucky and been with another Matthew that night, another werewolf - 

It would have been rape. But can you imagine trying to explain the scenario in court? Trying to tell it to the police? Let's be honest here. The defence would have crucified me.

But this drug-dealing unemployed Daily Mail readers' nightmare, with his white trainers and his tracksuit bottoms, understood more about sex, women and respect even when he was horny and off his face on vodka and Class As than many well-educated, middle-class, clean-cut men I have met ever will when sober. Which tells me not just a lot about men, but also a lot about prejudice, because the assumption of society in general is that a guy like D-Train wouldn't think twice.

This memory cheers me up whenever Matthew tries to convince me that he is completely normal and all men are just rapists waiting for an opportunity. D-Train saved me from that particular lie. I hope he's good, wherever he is; here's to him, and may all his coke deals go well.

The world turns, things balance. For every lesson we are taught by the Matthews there is a lesson we are taught by the D-Trains. We choose which we want to apply to ourselves.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

28. On this occasion, our milk had run out

It is ten past four on Friday afternoon and I am in a little-used meeting room on the fifth floor with Martin from the Boring Department. We have put papers on the table and if anyone walks in we will be having a meeting, but in fact both of us are hiding from everyone until it's a reasonable time to go home.

Martin works in the office next to mine. He does something admin-y, something that involves shuffling paper. He doesn't meet customers, so he doesn't wear a suit and tie. Instead he wears worn-in denim and leather and cotton in blues and browns and blacks, T-shirts he’s had for years washed till they are as soft as felt. He has shaggy black hair. No-one cares what he looks like.

He doesn't say much until you know him well. If you talk to him, he mumbles and looks at the ground. A lot of people interpret this as stupidity or inarticulateness but it is, in fact, deep shyness. 

He has brought in his copy of Pan's Labyrinth to lend me because I've never seen it. He thinks I'll like it.

We've been friends - work friends, I have no idea what he does in his free time or who with - for nearly nine months. We have bonded over a shared desire for everyone to leave us alone, in particular Martin's boss Patty.

Patty micromanages everything Martin does and makes it clear she believes him to be incompetent. She hates me.

She does have a reason to hate me, and it goes like this. On each floor of the building there is one kitchen with one fridge. Each fridge contains various items belonging to people working in each office on the floor, in particular milk. On this occasion, our milk had run out and I was making a cup of tea.

Patty came in just in time to see me stealing some milk from the bottle which she had (naturally) clearly marked with her name and the name of her department (I have since found out from Martin that milk is only bought by Patty, and is rationed).

However, Patty prefers manipulation to directness. Instead of saying "I would like you to stop using our milk, please," she gave a special not-at-all-amused laugh and said: "If you need some more milk, I'm sure I can pick some up for you next time I go."

I'm not sure why I did what I did next. I think it was partly because I respond badly to people who try and manipulate me emotionally, and partly because I did not want to admit I was in the wrong. But instead of apologising - as she clearly expected - I found myself saying: "Thank you, that would be helpful. I'll let you know when we need more," replacing her bottle in the fridge and walking out with my tea.

I'm ashamed of this incident. I should not have been drinking her milk, the correct thing to do would have been to apologise, and the truth is I behaved badly. However, it is all very well feeling like that but it is far too late to mend my relationship with Patty.

These days she likes to take every opportunity she can to contradict, obstruct or otherwise undermine me; since she has little power and is not generally liked or listened to, this doesn't bother me in the slightest. But it does bother me sometimes that I deliberately baited her. It conflicts with my hope that, at heart, I'm basically a good person. If I have a right to live my life in my own preferred way unbothered by other people, then Patty has a right to live hers. The fact that I don't understand or like her does not mean I can treat her with disrespect.

Martin slides a hip flask out of his bag and offers me a sip. It's whisky.

"Happy Friday," he says, and I laugh.

I stand on a chair and lean my forehead against the window. Outside it is sunny. There is a view across the park and I can see people sitting on the grass. A group of them have beer cans and dogs and a man with red dreadlocks is playing the guitar. I wonder what it's like to live like that. It probably has its downsides, but from a distance it sometimes looks like it might be fun.