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.