Sunday, 8 December 2013

78. Ferny herbivore duvet

Amanda and I are in a very loud bar. Everything she's saying is being drowned out by early 90s house music.

I am wearing a red lace catsuit with silver platform shoes. Amanda is wearing a green latex corset over a green net tutu and green striped tights with green boots. Earlier she informed me she was drinking only absinthe tonight, but we can't find anywhere which serves absinthe so she is substituting with shots of Apple Sourz.

"Ferny herbivore duvet!" shouts Amanda. She is grinning like a lunatic.

"Yes!" I shout.

"Soliciting android anal-beads sambuca?" She gestures towards the bar. The last word sounds like bad news.

"Maybe not a good idea," I say, cautiously.

"Okay, wait here by the circus!" She heads off towards the bar brandishing £20, and I resign myself to being hungover tomorrow. I look round and see that I am, in fact, standing by a large poster showing a 1920s circus scene.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing here. I have somehow managed to misjudge my drinking, and even through the fog of alcohol I'm annoyed with myself. I don't often get to the point where I have trouble standing up. I'm there now, and this is the point at which drinking stops being fun. I am dreading Amanda coming back and making me do a shot of sambuca. I want water, and lots of it.

But Amanda thinks I said yes, so she might be offended if she buys me a shot and I don't drink it. Bugger.

Maybe I could spill it. If I stand a little further out on the dancefloor, I could dance around a bit and then accidentally spill it on the floor. Not a bad idea.

At that moment I look round and see a short bald man standing next to me staring at me intently.

"Hi!" he says.

"Hello," he says. "I'm a happily married man."

"Good for you," I say, scanning the bar for Amanda.

"I'm Tyler Alligatorfloss," he says. Damn this music.

"Alice Chambers," I say, and we shake hands.

"I'm a happily married man," he says.

"Why do you keep saying that?" I ask. "I'm not trying to come on to you."

"What's my name?" he bellows.

"I didn't think you were that drunk, dude."



"What's my name?"

"Uh...Tyler Alligatorfloss," I say. Apparently this sounds enough like his real name to be convincing. He smiles and nods at me.

"Add me on Facebook," he says.

"Why?" I say. "You're a happily married man."

"I'm a happily married man," he says, attempting to stare deeply into my eyes. He can't focus, and neither can I, so it isn't working.

"Fuck this conversation," I say.


"Gotta go, bye!" I say and head off in the direction of the loo. It's quieter outside in the corridor and I take a moment to lean against the wall and sulk about my life. 36 years old, in a job I hate, overly drunk in a loud bar being chatted up by happily married men called Tyler Alligatorfloss.

"It shouldn't be like this," I opine, drunkenly, to the corridor.

"How should it be then?"

Chris is standing next to me, leaning against the wall. His blonde hair has grown out; it's all dark again, and I have to say it suits him.

"Better," I say. "More fun."

"You're not having fun?"

"Not really. I was earlier, but I'm not now."

"Don't you ever think you're a bit old for clothes and bars like this?" he says. "Most mid-thirties women have grown up. Settled down."

This is exactly what I was just thinking.

"Yes," I say. "I do think that sometimes."

"I mean, it's a bit undignified when you're starting to go grey." He pauses. "I'm here with Jena tonight."

I am drunk enough to be rude. "Okay, no need to clobber me over the head with subtext," I say. "Jena's younger than me, and therefore has more value on the open market. I get it."

Chris looks at me. His eyes narrow. He leans in and whispers: "You don't get it. You dumped me, you skinny old bitch. You dumped me by text. How fucking dare you? Who do you think you are?"

I sober up instantly. It's funny how quickly that can happen. I can feel the stubble on his chin against my cheek as the alcohol drains out of my body. It feels as if it has been replaced by ice. I'm shivering.

He smiles. Turns. Walks away back into the bar.

I stand in the corridor. I don't move. I don't move a muscle. Out of the three fear responses - fight, flight and freeze - my natural inclination is to deploy the least useful. I stare at the floor and wait for the situation to change. Some time later, I can't tell how long, it does.

"I've been looking everywhere for you," Amanda says. "I had a shot for you. But I couldn't find you and then it went in my mouth."

Sunday, 1 December 2013

77. People are fractals

Children die every day at the hands of people like Matthew.

Not all paedophiles are like Matthew. Like all groups of people, like punks, like feminists, like Muslims, like all the other groups people make across-the-board assumptions about, viewed from a distance the group is homogenous. When you get closer, when you look harder, it fragments into separate and distinct camps. Look even closer and the camps fragment again; people are fractals. For example, one can learn a lot just from Wikipedia. Not always a reliable source, to be sure, but for things like scientific classifications it's usually reliable as these are things which are easy to spot and update and wiki-geeks thrive on that kind of thing.

Wikipedia tells us that Holmes and Holmes, 2002, looked at types of paedophile and their psychological profiles and came up with seven classifications.
              Does not prefer children, but offends under certain conditions.
      Typically has relationships with adults, but a stressor causes them to seek children as a substitute.
      Morally indiscriminate
      All-around sexual deviant who may commit other sexual offenses unrelated to children, otherwise meaning some rapists are so into raping they pretty much tend to rape everything that stands still long enough.
      Often mentally disabled in some way, finds children less threatening. (Having learning difficulties unfortunately does not preclude having physical sexual feelings. As a society we like to pretend it does, and we make no allowances for the sexuality of people who are physically or mentally disabled. Because people with learning difficulties are not very good at the finer points of social interaction, their response to frustration is to act to relieve it. A lot of the time they genuinely don't understand why they are not allowed to do so, or that they're harming the other person. My personal opinion is that people who fall into this particular group could probably benefit from some kind of government-sponsored sex worker scheme, but I don't think Britain is there yet. And nor are we likely to be there any time soon.)
              Has true sexual interest in children, ie a fixed orientation emerging before or       during  puberty and stable over time. Still is non-consensual and causes significant harm, though, so let's not start making coming-out banners for paedophiles just yet.
      Sadistic and violent, targets strangers more often than acquaintances. Why, hello there Matthew. You have your own classification. How nice for you. Did you know I still have a knife scar on the left side of my ribcage?
      Little or no activity with adults of own age, described as an "overgrown child."

Interesting. Even with this basic information, we already see the fractals. We see that an autistic man who has no understanding of his crime and offended because he was sexually frustrated should be handled differently from a sociopath like Jimmy Savile who offends because he can.

As a society we will blame everyone else rather than deal with the human reality of paedophiles.

We rave and rant at the social worker who should have removed the child. The legal system which lets sex offenders out. The mental health worker who should have picked up on the signs. The teacher who should have seen the bruises. All these cries for heads to roll and local authority witch hunts and we ignore the elephant in the room.

A paedophile is not a monster, but an adult human being. He or she makes a decision to force sexual contact on a pre-sexual human. And that decision belongs to that person. It's not anything to do with anyone else. Other people should keep an eye out, yes. They should be aware of the signs. But the majority of the blame has to rest squarely on the shoulders of the person who fantasised about child sex abuse, planned how to do it, and then did it.

We are freaked out by sex offenders - and so we should be. They are terrifying. They damage people for life. They scare people. They physically hurt people. Sometimes their desires are so extreme that they can only be satisfied by murder. No-one wants to admit sex offenders are just another facet of humanity. That's even more scary than monsters.

We lock them up and throw away the key. We pretend they don't exist, they don't have needs, they're not people, they're not there. As a society, we are doing the equivalent of thinking that if we just stand still and keep our eyes closed for long enough the bogeyman will go away.

This does not work. It's not a question of right or wrong. Or a question of what "should" or "shouldn't" happen. It simply does not work. It doesn't work just like the much-vaunted war on drugs doesn't work. Shouting "But you shouldn't take drugs!" at people does not change the fact that they do take drugs, and debate about whether drug laws are "right" or "wrong" does not change the fact that they don't work. They do not work. I could make two phone calls and be off my face on pretty much anything I chose to ask for within three hours. So could you, whoever you are, whether you move in druggy circles or not. If you think about your circle of friends and acquaintances, I bet you can think of someone to call. Or someone who would know someone to call. No matter how straight you are, if your life depended on getting some coke, or some heroin, or some acid or whatever - you could have it in your hands within three hours. It is a huge and stupid waste of time and money and it does not work. Neither do the laws against prostitution. Neither does any other law our society has put in place to eradicate an aspect of humanity it doesn't want to admit exists.

Why paedophiles happen, we don't know. No-one knows. Whether it's genetic, a product of upbringing or a rare combination of various factors is not understood. But the fact remains they are there. They exist. Pretending they aren't human - that they are a monster in the shadows - is pointless.The problem needs to be engaged with, because if it isn't engaged with it can't be solved or contained. The only way we will ever understand why these people exist and what makes them tick is by looking them straight in the eye, talking to them, and dealing with what we see. In other words, accepting them as part of us.

We can't figure out how to change them until we've stopped being afraid of looking at them.

One final point; victims of paedophiles are also people. I am not just a victim with a scarred ribcage. I am a woman with a job, with friends, with a cat, a woman who likes Vivienne Westwood shoes and listens to Bauhaus, a woman who hopes one day to have a family and a home of her own. A woman who hates being defined by less than an hour spent in some rhododendrons 27 years ago. You need to see them in proportion, so you can see us in proportion too. The knife against your throat doesn't break you, but the media witch hunts and celebrity confessions, the way everyone goes quiet and treats you like you might start crying or attack them, the assumption that when you have been sex abused you will never have an ordinary life, that might. That just might.  

Sunday, 24 November 2013

76. "I was just texting you."

Contact has a facebook page - if you'd like to receive my updates, ramblings, and occasional musical interludes please click here to like it. 

Lunch break is nearly over. I've been walking round the shops, buying lace stockings, eyeliner and macaron. I visited the market for lunch: half a lobster in a white polystyrene tray and a soft white bread roll with a crackly golden crust.

It's a bright, clear, cold spring day. It rained last night and puddles mirror the pale sky all along the pavement. As I approach work I see a girl standing on the steps outside, a slim figure in a black coat. Long butter-blonde hair trailing over a fake fur collar. I realise it's Jena. She is texting and when she realises I'm standing next to her she looks startled and then strangely guilty.

"Alice!" she says. "I was just texting you."

"You were?" I say. I haven't seen Jena for a little while, our paths haven't crossed.

"I need to talk to you about something," she says. She flips her hair over one shoulder, and looks away.

"Okay," I say. "What is it?"

"You dated Chris for a while. How would you feel if - I mean, he asked me out - " she says."I like him. But I don't want to tread on your toes."

I'm nearly knocked over by a wave of feelings. There are a lot of them. It will take me a while to disentangle and sort them all out. I'm not happy, in fact I am distressed by this news on a number of levels, and what I want to say is "No, you can't!"

But Jena is waiting, her eyes worried, hoping I won't flip out or be upset with her. It is clear there is only one thing I can say.

"That's fine," I say. "We had a thing for a little while, but it's well and truly over."

"Are you sure?"

I shrug. "It was just a thing. It was never serious."

It was.

"He's a nice guy."

He isn't.

Jena gives me a hug and thanks me, and we promise to meet up soon, and she heads off in the direction of the post room and I trudge back up to my office. I dump my shopping. I pretend I have a meeting and head off to the empty office where I sometimes meet Martin. I stare out of the window at the seagulls circling through the white sky and try and calm myself.

The first feeling that clearly emerges out of the mess of emotion is jealousy. Jena is younger, sexier and prettier than me. I thought Chris was emotionally involved with me; even after our breakup, I interpreted the way he reacted - the anger - as a sign he had felt something for me. It's clear that even if he did he has moved on, and that's upsetting. Why can't I find anyone? Why do men queue up for Jena and not for me? Is that fair? I'm not asking to be the hottest of them all, just for one nice guy -

Okay, enough. I put the self pity to one side as it's meaningless, unhelpful, and I've thought all these things before anyway. It's also wrong. The truth is I would rather be single than be with someone like Chris again. And he didn't like me. He just didn't like someone he saw as his possession walking away from him.

With that, another thought emerges and this one is more important.

I'm worried about Jena. I'm not sure Chris is going to be a good partner for her. I'm not sure he'd be a good partner for anyone. And Jena - as I just thought - is young. She's clever enough to get by, but not experienced enough to be astute about people. She's capable of playing the ice queen with men she doesn't care about, but I've seen her with the ones she likes. She reminds me of a golden retriever, a silly loving dog, jumping up, tail wagging frantically: please love me!

And she likes Chris. Yes, I can see why. For the same reasons I liked him. Because he is physically attractive, and emotionally aloof. Makes you want to crack the facade open, see what he looks like when he lets go. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

75. A pair of red flares and a fitted ringer t-shirt

I am sitting at my desk dreaming of clothes. We get paid tomorrow. I'm thinking about what I want to buy.

I'd like a pair of polished high heeled black brogues, like the ones the witch wears in Suspiria when she is walking round and round the corridors of the ballet school. I'd like a pair of red flares and a fitted ringer t-shirt like a Japanese girl wore in a horror film I saw once, I forget the name.

I'd like a bright red coat with a huge furry collar and long fluffy cuffs. After some thought, I recognise it as one Asami wears in Takahashi Miike's Audition, which makes me pause for a second because I'm not sure I want to look like her, but I decide that, while she is a horrifying person, that doesn't mean I can't admire her sense of style. I can endorse her coat without endorsing her actions. Then I wonder if this is a terrible thing to think. I should despise everything to do with Asami. It is not, after all, acceptable to say: "Hitler was a terrible man, but I quite like that one coat he wore."

Then I decide that Audition was a film and Takahashi probably picked the coat out for the actor. He quite clearly has excellent taste when it comes to sets and costumes. So that's fine.

I want purple fake fur and gold sequins. I want a 20s-style flapper dress embellished with beads; I waver towards white for a while, and then settle on midnight blue.

My wardrobe is crammed with beautiful clothes. Rose-pink satin jumbled in next to green feather boas and grey fake fur jackets. I have a particular weakness for tweeds, plaids and sequins - although not together. The current craze for embellishment is driving me insane. One sees what looks like, from the back, a very nice simple dress. One picks it up, hopefully turns it round, and sees that the designer has vomited a splash of multicoloured gems all over a randomly chosen section of its front. It is not aesthetically pleasing, continues to be a disappointment, and should be stopped immediately.

I adore clothes, but trends in general pass me by. I don't read style magazines or fashion blogs. Just never got into the habit. I took advantage of the obsession with lace two years ago to pick up a number of items, but other than that I don't really pay attention to this season's must-haves. I don't know anyone else who does, either. I don't know who buys them. Every woman I know thinks about how she looks, but we all have very clear ideas of what we want to buy which bear little or no relation to what is supposed to be fashionable.

All my wish list comes from films and music videos. Helena Bonham Carter's grungy-glam black wardrobe in Fight Club. The yellow latex dress Beyonce wears in Lady Gaga's Telephone video. Wednesday Addams' plaid. Molly Ringwald's pearls, hats and sweaters in Pretty in Pink and Mary Stuart Masterson's gloves and shorts in Some Kind of Wonderful. Everything everyone wears in Desperately Seeking Susan and any given John Waters film. Everything Tank Girl has ever been drawn in, whether in comic or film form.

I realise suddenly that it's not even so much about how I look. It's about a dream. An idea. It's about making life more like a movie, because in the end I prefer movies to actual life. And who wouldn't? The bright colours, the excitement, the sense that there is a point to all of it. So much more satisfying than the grey pointless grind of working at a job you hate, in close proximity to people who are so stupid and unthinking you can't stand to talk to them for longer than five minutes. And at the end of the month you get given just enough money to pay your bills.

When you buy clothes, you are buying a fantasy. It's a dream about who you want to be, who you really are on the inside, how you want to live. You're in a shop. You see a dress or a top and you say "It's me!" It's no wonder we get in debt, because you have to have that dream. Having it means you are the person you want to be, you could be someone else. Not having it means you are exactly what you are always afraid you were.

I suddenly realise that I just thought I hate my job. And in the same moment I realise it's true. I do hate my job. I hate this open-plan office. I hate pushing paper. I hate the endless round of tough negotiating and kissing other people's asses which defines public relations as a career. I hate that, when something goes well, all my incompetent bosses congratulate themselves for a good idea without noticing me but when it goes badly it's my fault. I hate the word "appropriate" as in "your clothes are not appropriate" and "your attitude is not appropriate". And most of all, I hate the way I am expected to not just do it - I have to do it, I need the money - but to love it with all my heart and soul, to make it my reason for existing. You don't get put in prison and then told you're lucky to be there so you'd better look like you're appreciating it.

As if anyone could love PR. It's not a job with a point. It's not like helping disabled children, or nursing, or doing ground-breaking science, or making clay pots, or mending clothes. There is no visible end result. I'm not even working for something like a charity, where at least you could feel you were publicising something which would actually help people. I'm working for the kind of large financial organisation which makes money off miserable people's debts.

At this point, I decide enough is enough. This train of thought is foolish and unhelpful. I'm going to buy myself a latte and a chocolate doughnut and sit in the cafeteria for twenty minutes. It's not like anyone will miss me.

But as I walk down the stairs the thought stays with me, a tiny nagging itch somewhere in the back of my brain: what would it be like to have a job with a point?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

74. Its accretions of overlaid memories

What with all the difficult relationships with men, work's become somewhat hazardous recently. Everywhere I go, I see Derek. Or Chris. Both problematic, in different ways. And then there's Martin. It's enough to make a girl scan the media jobs on offer in London with the concentration of a prisoner trying to dig through a stone wall with a spoon.

It would be so easy to run away. And so tempting. All the stuff I could leave behind: the flat and all the useless junk I've accumulated, the city I've lived in all my life with its accretions of overlaid memories round every corner, the people. All the people. Just me, and Rammstein in a box, and a suitcase with clothes and a couple of books, getting on the train. A new phone with a new number in my pocket, the old one in the bin. Take down my facebook and twitter, change my email address, just....disappear. Be anonymous in a huge new place -

"Have you finished the Life's A Pitch press release yet?" asks my manager Jeremy at my shoulder. He is clutching a huge steaming cup of pitch-black coffee. We live on coffee in my office and we let it brew for far too long and it is like drinking a combination of tar and pure adrenalin. Considering the job of any media and communications team is usually highly adrenalised anyway, I'm surprised no-one has yet had a psychotic breakdown.

"Not yet," I say. "I'm waiting for the guy to come back to me with the finalised quote."

"Because it needs to go for approval."

"I know. I'm waiting for the guy to come back to me. He knows when it needs to go out."

"It needs to go out tomorrow."

"I know that."

"So you need to get it done."

"He knows I'm waiting for him. I rang him half an hour ago."

"Perhaps you could call him again."

"Will do."

I won't do. I've rung him three times already this morning, and the last time he sounded like he was getting pissed off. I don't want to risk making him angry, because we have to work together on this project for the next six months. He knows it's urgent, because I stressed that the last three times. Also, if I'm on the phone talking to him, then logically he cannot at the same time be doing what I have asked him to do, so I will actually be holding the process up by calling again.

However, Jeremy likes to feel involved, and I know from previous experience that these conversations generally end with something along the lines of "stop arguing and just do it", so it's easier to pre-empt the shouting by lying to him.

Jeremy returns to his desk. It is 20 feet away, and he cannot hear the substance of any phone call. I can see him sliding suspicious glances at me to see what I do. I flip through my notepad busily to give myself some thinking space, then pick up the phone and cradle it between my ear and shoulder and - with a little flutter of apprehension in my stomach which I pretend is not there - call Martin.

"Martin Falco, how can I help you?" he says briskly.

"You can stay on the phone and pretend I'm aggressively pressuring you for a quote," I say.

"Please hold," he says. Two seconds later an email pops up.

patty is on my case. ill help you if you help me.

I send back: ok

"Hello, Mr Lehane," says Martin.

"Hello, it's Alice, we spoke earlier about the Life's a Pitch release? I just wondered whether you'd had any luck with that quote."

"I spoke to you about an hour ago about the post-it notes missing from the stationery order. Have you been able to track down what happened?"

"I appreciate we only gave you two days to do this, but we do need to get this resolved immediately. It needs to go through the approvals process before being released tomorrow."

"I've checked the order form and it's correct." Martin is doing very well, but I can hear a wobble in his voice as he tries not to laugh. "I'd appreciate it if you can look into what's happened as soon as possible please."

"Yes, I understand the difficulties. But if you could get me something within an hour, that would be great. Could you call back and let me know how you are getting on at half past?"

"Perhaps you could update me this afternoon?" says Martin. "Coffee?" he whispers.

"4pm's the absolute deadline," I say.

"Sounds good."

"But we need something before that so I can work it into the story," I say.

"3pm?" asks Martin.


We say goodbye to each other and hang up. Jeremy, placated, is on the phone himself. I return to the report I was correcting. Five minutes later, my phone rings. It's the actual Life's a Pitch man, with the quote I wanted.

"Thanks so much," I say. "That's great. I'm sorry it was a short deadline." 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

73. One thing led to another

Gin is pregnant.

"What happened?" says Amanda.

"I went round Jason's to get the last of my stuff and we had a few drinks. One thing led to another. You know how it does."

She thinks.

"Or it could be when I slept with Freddy after the Silver Street gig. I have to stop fucking my exes."

"Freddy doesn't count," I say. (Gin went out with Freddy for four years and in the end I lost track of which of them had had more affairs. Amanda has had sex with Freddy at least twice. I have never had sex with Freddy, but that's not because of lack of trying on his part and I am well aware that I have a standing offer. "There's always Freddy," is something we traditionally say to each other after break-ups and knock-backs.)

Amanda giggles. "Freddy vs. Jason," she says. "Sure you haven't done Michael Myers as well?"

"Which of them do you think it was?" I ask.

Gin shrugs. "I could speculate but in all honesty I don't know. The two um sperm donations were within a week of each other. I'd forgotten to buy any condoms."

"Seriously?" says Amanda.

"I know." Gin looks shamefaced. "I've been tested for everything and I'm clear."

Amanda says: "You need to wait until it's born and see whether it has a Paul Weller haircut and a little trackie top -"

" - or comes out covered in tattoos and making rock devil horns," I finish.

We are sitting in the sun outside Amanda's local pub. I am drinking wine. Amanda has a pint of Old Bumscratcher. Gin is drinking orange juice. The man at the next table has two scruffy dogs and one of them keeps sniffing my left foot.

"What are you going to do?" I ask.

"It's not really a decision, is it?" Gin says. "I'm single, I have no family locally, no savings, no assets, and I live in a shared house. I can't give a child a proper home. Childcare costs too much to work at the same time, so it would mean four years - at least - of trying to survive on benefits by myself. You know what kind of money we're talking about? We wouldn't be able to eat properly, let alone afford shoes and winter coats and toys and all the other stuff children need. It's not practical."

Amanda inhales, breathes out smoke.

She says: "I hate the Government. It's fucking depressing that people literally can't afford to have kids. That's not how we should be taking these decisions, doing sums."

"I know," Gin says sadly. "But that's the way it is. It's just impossible."

Amanda says: "Yeah, it is. I know it is. I'm just saying it's not right." She thinks. "If things keep going the way they are, civilisation is probably going to collapse within the next ten years anyway. You don't want to be burdened with a child when we're all fighting roving Mad Max gangs over food."

"I want children," Gin says, offended. "Just not right now."

There is a moment when we all look at the table. I'm not sure what everyone else is thinking, but I'm thinking about the fact that I'm 35, Gin is 34 and Amanda is 37. The countdown to infertility kicked in some time ago for all of us. I think Gin is probably the most likely candidate for motherhood - Amanda would probably end up in the Daily Mail after accidentally leaving it in a bar, and I am not comfortable with the idea of myself as a parent - but she's correct in saying that being a single parent is an impractical choice for her at the moment.

"Who wants another drink?" says Amanda.

"I can't," says Gin. "I'm pregnant."

Amanda says: "You're about to have an abortion. I don't think whether you drink alcohol or not matters at this stage."

"I still feel weird about it," Gin objects. I realise that, whatever she says, she isn't happy about the idea of an abortion. It would be possible, and she knows it. Just extraordinarily difficult.

I put my hand over hers. She says in a small voice: "It might be my only chance."

We are all quiet for a moment. Gin rubs her hand across her eye.

"Will you both come with me?" she says. "When I get it done. I might need - I don't know how this is going to work."

Sunday, 27 October 2013

72. Studded with gold

I've been out for drinks with Amanda and Gin. I am walking home by myself, slightly drunk, thinking about not much.

A couple are sitting on the wall at the crossroads, holding hands. The girl squawks "I love your boots!" at me. The guy laughs boozily. Clearly we have had a good night out, and now we are feeling drunk and friendly.

"Thanks," I say. "I like your shoes, too." They are very high strappy stilettos, black, studded with gold. Designer knock-offs, cheap, but stylish; she's clearly got a good eye but a limited budget. Her blonde hair frames a face which has seen a lot of hard times and she has a missing tooth to the left of her smile.

"My tooth got took out the other day," she says. "In case you're wondering. I'm telling everyone that because I don't like having a missing tooth. Jimmy's going to pay for me to get a gold one." She pokes the guy, who appears to have nodded off, and he wakes up with a start.

"That sounds good," I say, and I mean it. Although I don't think I'd go for a gold tooth myself, it's definitely a look.

I wave bye and she waves at me cheerily.

A street further on, a man falls into step next to me.

He's taller than me, dark hair. He's staring intently at my face. I immediately know he's going to present a problem.

It's hard to put my finger on how I know this. When I walk home by myself I sometimes get people talking to me, and they are usually drunk men. Women don't often walk places by themselves at night and the majority of those that do scuttle fearfully along refusing to meet anyone's eye. The woman at the crossroads was an exception.

Some of these men are amusing, some are irritating, some try to pick me up or flirt with me. Most are friendlies. This one is going to be a problem.

"Hi," he says. "Had a good night?"

He's walking with me and that means if I ignore him he'll keep trying, so I reply.

"Yes, thank you."

"On your way home?"


"Where do you live?" he says.

"About five minutes' walk away."

"Which road?"

"Just off Spencer Street, up there."

I wave a hand vaguely in the wrong direction. We're on Spencer Street. It is a busy main road with dozens of turnings off it. If you think I'm letting you know my address you have another think coming, dickhead.

"You're looking good tonight," he says. He doesn't mean it, but compliments are part of the script.

"Thanks," I say.

"Shall we go back to your place?" he asks.


"Come to my place, then. It's just over there."


"Why not?"

"Because I have a boyfriend."

I hate having to lie like this. But this is a big guy, I'm on my own, and something about him is creepy. Judging from past experience of these situations, if I say "because I don't want to" he will just keep on hassling me, because the idea that I have the ability to reject him does not compute. But "I am the property of another man and faithful" might stick.

"I just meant in a friendly way," he says, trying to sound offended that I have misjudged him. "We could hang out, have some takeaway, watch a movie."

He's still walking with me. While Spencer Street is a busy, well-lit road, in approximately two minutes I will need to turn on to a dark street which is likely to be quiet. My flat is halfway down and I have to cross a small car park to get to it. Things that happen in this car park are not visible from the main road.

He reaches out a hand and feels the material of my dress, at the shoulder.

"This is nice," he says. "Come home with me."

I consider my options. There is a pub still open at the end of the road, but if I go in there I would have to say it was because I wanted a drink and then he might say "That's a good idea," and follow me in. This particular pub is also dark, with a lot of corners, and loud music; people are unlikely to overhear that I'm in trouble.

The other option is the kebab shop, which is actually not a bad plan. Firstly, it's brightly lit and well staffed with people who are presumably sober and on the ball; secondly, it is not likely to shut any time soon; and thirdly, kebab. Also, if he continues to hang around outside, I can probably call a cab to come to the shop.

"I'm a bit hungry. I think I'm just going to pop in there and get a kebab," I say. He looks disconcerted. That's not in the script.

"If you come home with me I'll buy you some takeaway," he says.

"I've got a real craving for shish kebab," I say and as I say it I realise it is true. Crunchy pitta bread, crisp lettuce, chunks of smoky marinated lamb. I also know that the shish kebab from this shop is delicious.

"You look pretty," he says, mechanically. "I like your hair." He reaches to touch it and I jerk my head back.

"I don't like people touching my hair," I say. I keep walking, he follows. We are nearly at the kebab shop.

"Well, it was nice to meet you," I say brightly. "I'm just going in here now."

He peels off to my left without saying a word. As I go in the shop I see him pause, scanning the road. Looking for the next woman on her own.

Is there anything I can do? No.

I could ring the police, I suppose, but say what? "A man tried to talk to me and made me scared. No, he didn't threaten me. No, he didn't attempt to assault me."

I could go out again?

And do...what?

Nope, the next woman is on her own. Even if there isn't one tonight, there'll be another one another night. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

71. They are nearly invisible

I am in an art gallery. I am looking at a sculpture. It's a sequence of delicate blown glass bubbles and tubes, suspended from wires so thin they are nearly invisible.

It is hollow, and a trickle of water runs through it. The glass has been allowed to flow organically, and sometimes the tubes are wide and sometimes narrow and the water backs up at the pinch points and collects in the bottom of the bubbles. The tubes twist around and melt into each other. The sculpture as a whole flows towards the floor. At the end is a wide shallow glass bowl and the water is pumped back to the top again.

I find this sculpture relaxing, in part because it is abstract. It's got the meditative quality of a prayer wheel or wind chimes. The water ripples through and although the water changes the levels remain the same - there's always the same amount in the big bubble, and it is always backed up two inches here and flowing fast here. The same way the actual water in a river changes constantly but the river itself - the ripple by the large grey stone, or the eddy by the reeds - never changes.

One can imagine philosophers watching something like this in ancient China and coming up with some elegant and fatalistic epigram on the mysteries of life and death.

It always seems to me that one of the greatest mysteries of humanity is why we feel the need to be creative. The object in front of me is fascinating and beautiful but serves no purpose, in an evolutionary sense. Beethoven, Stephen King, Vivienne Westwood, Einstein and Rembrandt don't help us survive on a day to day level. Neither are seared scallops wrapped in bacon any different from tinned mac and cheese, when your body starts breaking them down for energy.

However, what's the point of being alive if you are just going to be squatting in darkness eating cold mac and cheese out of a tin? Creating and decorating is satisfying. It's more than satisfying, it makes you feel complete somehow. Cosmically in touch with something.

When you look at really old things, sometimes there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between art and utility. Inuit bone combs with carved patterns flowing along them, for instance, or wine jars from Greece or Rome painted with pictures. As a society, modern Britain has lost the knack of that. We have cheap ugly things for utility, or expensive beautiful things which are status symbols. We all have far too many possessions to love any of them. And the shops are loaded with more and more possessions clamouring to be bought, things you didn't know you needed but now you know about them you have to have them. In order to be complete. And then you buy them, and you stuff them in a drawer, and they never get looked at again.

I would imagine that whoever it was who made the bone comb I'm thinking of, I believe it is currently on display in the British Museum, had to go through a process we as modern people would find nearly impossible to comprehend.

First you decide you need to make a comb. Perhaps the previous comb has broken, perhaps a special event is coming up and you want one to put in your hair, maybe you trade them, maybe it's a gift, maybe you just fancy making one. Then you would have to find a suitable flat bone of the right size. Not too hard to find, perhaps a seal or polar bear, but it might take a little while. Then, you would have to dry it out and strip it down, I guess. Perhaps you would boil it to get all the marrow out before you used it, because food is precious and can't just be thrown away. Then you would spend hours whittling away at the bone, patiently carving it into the right shape. You would be very careful, because if you fuck it up you can't just take a quick walk to the bone shop and buy another one. You'll have to start the whole process again.

When you're done whittling, there would be something else you would do to make it smooth and polish it. I don't know what; I don't think Inuits had sandpaper, but maybe you have some sand or a special piece of leather, and it takes another few days to get the bone smooth and shiny, and then it's done.

Do you love your comb? Fucking right you do, after all that time and investment. You're proud of it. It's a treasure.

And that's how we lived for millions of years. The way we live now, with our plastic bags and crisp packets and instant gratification, our wardrobes stuffed full of clothes which get worn once or twice a year, the piles of unloved and useless crap we continually accumulate around ourselves, it's enough to make me sick. We don't even notice our combs any more.

It's hard to live meaningfully. To have nothing in your life that doesn't serve a purpose, whether it's useful or beautiful or both. To notice your comb. But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate, so I walk out of the room and into the art gallery shop. I see pretty things. I don't buy them. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

70. Pale lilac feathers nod against her glossy black hair

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Sally and I are in a busy, noisy, untidy cafe in the centre of town. We met to do some shopping and our favourite cafe - full of plants, parrot wallpaper and vintage china - was shut. We were forced into a large and brightly lit cafe with crumbs on the floor and plastic chairs. Neither of us are happy about this. I have a hangover and Sally prefers somewhere with a little more style.

Sally is wearing a sharply tailored black skirt suit. Her tapered high-heeled shoes are black as well, and so is the seam up the back of her stockings. Her gloves are cream, like her handbag and the tiny hat she is wearing on the right side of her head. Cream veiling comes down over one eye, and pale lilac feathers nod against her glossy black hair as she moves her head. Her lips and nails are brilliant red. She appears to be oblivious to the stares of the other people in the cafe.

One of the things that suddenly strikes me is how uncomfortable some of them look. We arrived at the cafe, walked in, and ordered a pot of tea, a chocolate cupcake (for me) and a slice of Victoria sponge (for Sally). We have done nothing except politely order food and talk quietly, but I can feel the hostility oozing out of the walls and it is chilling me to the bone.

"We should have gone back to my place," I say, nervously twisting the hem of my silver shorts. Across the way two enormously fat women, both wearing jeans and t-shirts, are staring at us with identical expressions of amused disgust.

"Nonsense," Sally says tranquilly. She sips her tea.

A four-year-old boy passes our table. He is flying a car through the air and talking to himself softly, until he sees Sally. He stops dead and stares at her. He is wearing red dungarees and a blue jumper.

Sally has finished her cake. She dabs her mouth with her napkin. She looks at me, says "Excuse me," and flips open an antique powder-compact to redo her lipstick.

The little boy's father arrives to take him back to his table. He is lumpily middle-aged, with an air of having generally given up on himself and the rest of the world.

"Daddy," says the little boy, revealing himself to be piercingly middle-class, "why does that lady look like that?"

The father and Sally look at each other. There is a hilarious simultaneous moment of "What the fuck?" as the father quite clearly wonders the same thing and Sally tries to process why anyone would even buy a pair of chinos, let alone wear them in public with a navy fleece. Sally returns to her mirror.

"Come on. Back to the table," says the father. He stares at the lipstick licking colour slowly over Sally's lips, and then pretends he wasn't.

The little boy looks at Sally.

"Why are you dressed like that?" he says.

"Noah, stop bothering the lady," says his father. I suspect he actually means "stop attracting the attention of the deviants."

Sally folds the napkin up, puts it on her plate, and looks at Noah.

"Because this is how I like to dress," she says.

Noah nods. His blue eyes are huge and serious.

"I'm so sorry," says his father, ineffectually.

"My sister likes to dress like a fairy," Noah says. "She wears the costume all the time. Mum tried to get her to take it off this morning but she wouldn't."

He points at his table and indeed there is a slightly older girl there in a pink tutu, wearing a pair of large sparkly wings. She is tucking into a large chocolate eclair. A pink wand lies on the table beside her.

"She looks very nice," says Sally. "Developing your own style is an important part of Jungian self-actualisation." She looks meaningfully at Noah's father. He gives us a terrified smile, as if he is about to beg us not to kill him.

"Your hat is pretty," says Noah.

"Thank you," says Sally. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

69. I didn't realise he even knew you

Things with Martin are awkward at the moment.

This is probably because Gin and Amanda think he fancies me, which has led me to worry about every conversation Martin and I have ever had.

It's also, partly, because Chris appears to have taken against him.

"I think he thinks you dumped him for me," Martin remarks one Friday afternoon.

"I didn't realise he even knew you," I say. Martin's daily routine is designed to avoid as many people as possible.

"He didn't," says Martin. "But he's obviously seen us together, and I think that piqued his interest."

"Piqued is a nice word," I say.

"It is," Martin agrees. "And seldom used in general conversation."

"Seldom's also nice," I say.

We are drinking some of the 20-year-old single malt whiskey the Director of Boring Things stored in a cupboard in his office and forgot about when he left (suddenly, and under a inexplicable cloud which I have never got to the bottom of despite pumping everyone I could think of for gossip).

He once offered me a glass to celebrate some PR triumph or other and I remembered where he stored it. I checked his office two weeks after his inexplicable departure without much hope, expecting such a luxury to have been taken with him - or at the very least stolen by another enterprising member of staff - but it was stashed away safely behind the reams of paper for his printer and shortly found its way into the large handbag I had brought specially into work on the offchance.

Martin and I keep it in the unused office where we have our Friday "meetings". It's really very good.

Martin drinks his out of a pink mug which says Queen of Fucking Everything. I drink mine out of a KitKat mug with a chipped handle. Despite what many people would have you believe, the lack of a crystal glass does not impair the flavour.

"He keeps staring at me whenever he sees me," Martin says. "I find it intimidating."

He turns the glass in his hands, staring at it.

"There's been a complaint about me," he says. "To Patty. She won't tell me who made it, but Naomi told me in confidence it was him. I have to have a review."

A huge wave of something, a huge feeling, washes over me. Guilt? Shame? Fear? I'm not sure.

"I'm sorry," I say.

Martin looks cross.

"Why are you apologising, when he's chosen to behave like this?" he says.

The whiskey is a beautiful colour. It's nearly exactly the same deep amber as Rammstein's eyes.

"It feels like my fault. I went out with him. I dumped him. By text. I should have done it better. I should have been - "

"So you're responsible for the fact he is a cock?" Martin says, and I realise he is genuinely angry.

"I was a cock first," I say.

"Two cocks do not cancel each other out," says Martin. "Your behaviour is independent of his." He loosens his tie. His black hair is flopping over his collar.

"What are you going to do?" I say.

Martin shrugs. "I'll have to wait and see what he says first, what actual complaint he's come up with."
He looks up at me, flashes a smile, and just for a second I see him differently. Gin called him "beautiful" and I see it, I can see it. Just for a second. I see him as if I was meeting him for the first time. Why have I never seen it before?

And then he says: "The first hearing's next Tuesday," and just like that he is Martin again. Good old Martin. My friend Martin. Except he isn't.

A second can change all your perceptions. Once you see something like that, it takes a lot of effort to unsee it. I have seen it, and I know it's still there.

The implications of this - of the thought I just had - the implications for me and for Martin, and for our friendship, are so huge that I push it away. I pretend it hasn't happened. I'll deal with it later. I make the effort to unsee it, it's just Martin, I've known Martin for years, and right now he needs a friend.

I pour some more whiskey.