Sunday, 27 January 2013

45. Fiddling with the slice of strawberry

Jena has a problem.

"I just don't know what to say to him," she says, fiddling with the slice of strawberry on the side of her cocktail glass.

There is a guy called Mike, about 23, who works in the post room. He has decided he wants to go out with Jena.

"He keeps emailing me and asking me out. It's getting really annoying. I've said no as nicely as I can, but he won't stop. He says he's in love with me but I think if you're in love with someone you pay attention to what they're saying, even if it's not what you want to hear. Don't you?"

Mike doesn't like working in the post room; he thinks because he has a degree he should have a better job. He is not unattractive. He has a nice, muscular body, high cheekbones, pretty eyes. But he has no idea how to present himself. He doesn't wear clothes, he puts on the ill-fitting shirts he grabbed when he went into Primark on his lunch break. He doesn't have a haircut, he just has hair. Jena likes guys who, in her phrase, have "something about them". Guys who have haircuts.

He might be able to get past his lack of style if he had the nerve to flirt with her, to be cheeky, to clown about and make her laugh - if he brought something else to the table - but he doesn't.

"He emailed me again today and I was having a shitty day and it was just the last straw so I probably was a bit harsh. I told him that we had had this conversation five times and I wasn't interested and could he please just stop asking? And then he got really funny with me, I mean really angry. He kept saying 'What's wrong with me? I'm a good person, why won't you give me a chance?' I don't fancy him. I don't understand why he thinks I have to go on a date with him just because he's decided he likes me, but I don't know, I'm worried. Do you think I'm being unreasonable?"

I know Mike too. We always used to talk whenever I saw him around. We had some stuff in common, a similar sense of humour, and I thought he was attractive. Eventually I thought fuck it and asked him out, because while you don't know what happens if you ask you do know what happens if you don't, and he looked me up and down and said: "As if I'd fancy you." We don't talk any more.

I don't tell Jena this.

Later, I'm walking home thinking about Mike. He thinks he has the right to a lot of things: to pursue Jena, to be given a great job, to be mean to me when I ask him out. This bothers me, but I'm not sure why, because surely people do have the right to good jobs and ask out people they like. This leads on to thinking about human rights and I think about what people should be entitled to. What should people be able to expect as a right? This is a very interesting train of thought, and when I get home I open up my lap top and go on the internet.

There doesn't appear to be any real world-wide consensus on what should be a basic human right, but a few ideas keep recurring.

          The right to exist.
          The right to privacy
          The right to own property
          The right to free speech
          The right to have a family
          The right to safety from violence
          The right to equality (all people should be equally entitled to the same treatment     regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or any of the other shit people come up with to have a go about)
           The right to fair trial and to be considered innocent until proven to be guilty
           The right to work
           The right to express your sexuality
           The right to vote for who makes decisions
           The right to seek asylum in another country if the country you are living in treats you badly                    
           The right to peacefully protest
           The right to health care
           The right to education
           The right to believe in and practice your religion

Once you get into the detail, some of these are obviously deeply problematic in practical terms. Religion, for example. Sexuality, for example (I'm sure Matthew, if he was smart enough, could claim he was "expressing his sexuality" by raping me, although personally I think rape and sex have nothing in common). But - as general overall principles - I think these are pretty good.

This list brings what is bothering me about Mike's behaviour sharply into focus.

The right to work simply means you have the right to work. That's it. It is not "the right to have a well-paid, emotionally satisfying job which will impress all my friends." It means you have the same right as everyone else to apply and be considered for jobs. If you want a job you will have to work for it, and if you want a really good job you will have to work really hard.

The right to sexual expression is the right to have consensual sex in the way you want to have sex. It is not "the right to automatically have the partner I desire." Mike has the right to ask Jena out. He does not have the right to get angry when she exercises her own right to sexual choice by turning him down.

What I see in this list is this: all people have the right to have the same opportunities as each other. Not more, not less. The same. You have the right to apply and be considered for jobs. You have the right to enter education. You have the right to medical treatment. You have the right to ask the person you find attractive if they are interested in having a sexual relationship with you.

But no-one has a right to demand a particular outcome from those opportunities.

That bit - the fulfilling, well-paid job, the first-class degree, the desirable partner, the tight circle of friends, the fat pension plan - that bit is up to you. And you aren't entitled to any of it.

I'm pleased I've straightened this out in my head. I put my coat and shoes on and open the door to go to Amanda's for dinner. Something falls with a rustle and I look down. More roses. This time they are white.

I pick them up. There is another blank card. Whoever left them here left them while I was sitting inside, looking at the internet. I didn't hear anything. I look up and down the empty silent corridor and then eventually I take the roses inside and put them in a vase because there is nothing else I can do. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

44. We stare at our sandwiches

Martin is fidgeting in his chair. "I feel wrong in here," he complains.

He doesn't mean the chair, he means the staff canteen. Martin's natural comfort zone is deserted rooms, quiet corners and round the backs of things. He almost never comes out into areas where other members of staff can see and talk to him. It's enough of a struggle to survive working in his open-plan office (he has a desk in the corner, facing out into the room, and he spends most of his time hiding behind his computer screen).

I'm not sure which of us came up with the idea of Having Lunch. It feels like a momentous step in our friendship. Next we will be Having Drinks After Work. At the moment, I think both of us are feeling a little uncomfortable with the change in our dynamic. Next time we Have Lunch, we should eat packed lunch. Round the back of something.

I slide his copy of Pan's Labyrinth across the table towards him, adding my own DVD of The Doom Generation. He picks it up and looks at the cover.

"This looks...colourful," he says.

"It's like someone accidentally threw up a film," I say. "It's great."

He puts the DVDs in his bag. We stare at our sandwiches. I have chosen a Brie, grape and cranberry baguette. Martin is eating a turkey and salad roll.

"Who came up with the idea of putting cheese and grapes together?" Martin asks. "And then cranberry sauce? Why would you do that?"

"It works," I say.

"I'm sure it does. I just don't understand how it happened as a concept."

Today Martin is wearing a blue and white top - one of the ones made to look like a t-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt; I think of these as "skater tops" although I don't know if that's what they're called - baggy jeans, and big trainers. His long black hair is falling in his eyes. He looks remarkably like James Duval playing Jordan White in the movie I have just handed to him. I wonder if he will recognise this.

I look up and my heart skips as I recognise Chris paying for a coffee at the till. I see him glance over. I smile.

Chris walks over. "Hey, Alice," he says. "Are we still on for tonight?"

"Sure," I say. Martin is looking at me, frowning slightly. Chris lightly runs his fingers through my hair and I feel myself lean towards him. He's not usually so affectionate in public.

"Are you dating that guy?" Martin says, after Chris leaves.

"Sort of.It's not official. It's kind of...a thing." I have no idea how to define it.

"Thought so. He might as well have pissed on you."

I don't understand. "What?"

"Marking his territory," Martin says.

As we leave, I happen to look round at the sofas at the far end of the room and I realise that Chris was not the only one to see me having lunch with Martin. Derek is sitting in one of the corner chairs, a coffee and a newspaper in front of him. As I look at him he looks away but for a moment I think I see rage in his eyes.

In all the excitement about Chris, I had nearly forgotten about Derek. My fear of him had receded back into the depths of my mind, into the dark recesses where Matthew lives like a computer virus. Like a maggot in my brain.

Now it comes back, so suddenly I almost stop dead. I feel lightheaded, as if I'm outside my body, as if my mind has untethered and is drifting up towards the ceiling.

I force myself back into reality. Like Sally said, it's understandable after everything that has happened to me that I would have these irrational fears but really there is nothing to be afraid of. He's done nothing. He's just a man. Just a colleague. It's fine. He's just triggered something in me which I need to manage. I breathe. Martin is saying something about Patty, telling me a story. I try and tune into it. We are in front of the lift. It's fine. I'm here. I'm ok. Nothing has gone wrong.

He is not a threat to me.

I don't believe that.

Breathe. Think. Take a step back.

He is not a threat to me. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

43. If you could afford candles

I am in Sally's flat, in the bath. The room is lit by tea-lights and the flickering shadows make it look much bigger and more mysterious. Years ago, before electric lights, this must have been how everything looked at night. If you could afford candles.

Sally has an old-fashioned Victorian-style bath, one of the white ones with brass feet. I watch the steam rising off the hazy water around me. Sally has given me champagne in a tall, long-stemmed glass etched with twining flowers.

The room is like a greenhouse, or a jungle. Spider plants dangle their babies from the windowsill, nearly reaching the water. Sally has trained a passion flower plant on a frame up the back wall and around the window. There are purple and white flowers among the clustered green leaves.

I've spent the last hour tied up in the back room and now I feel relaxed, half asleep, my thoughts drifting lazily in the steam and warm water. Floating on the currents like jellyfish in the Pacific.

I think of jellyfish, how beautiful they are when they are swimming, clear and blue and pulsing with light. Like trembling globes of concentrated water. Take them out into the air, they collapse into lumps of slimy nothing. Put them back in the water, and they expand again. If a human being dived too deep in the water they would get crushed. Navigate your submarine deep enough and the metal will crack and it will explode.

There's a lake on an island in Palau where the jellyfish have no predators and have lost their sting. There are thousands of them. One can swim through the clouds of jellyfish in the lake. I'd like to do that one day.

I think of Sally, and how everything has to be precise. She rarely goes out. She stays here, in her tiny, exotic queendom where everything down to the lotus-shaped tea-light holders has been chosen to fit perfectly. Sometimes her other friends visit. I have never met her other friends. She has never even told me when her birthday is.

I wonder what she is afraid of, why she has so carefully constructed her reality. I wonder what would happen if someone broke in here, smashed things up, but then I wipe that thought. It would be too cruel. I wonder what she does with her BDSM friends. To me, sex is so intensely difficult to navigate that it is hard to imagine it as just one part of a friendship, but I like the idea of feeling that way. I wish I had a good friend like that. Desirable as he is, I know Chris is not my friend.

I wash myself with Sally's shower gel, tipping it out of its fluted glass bottle. It smells like warm cinnamon. Tonight, as she sometimes does, she offered to come in and wash me but the thought makes me uncomfortable. I'm not entirely sure how Sally sees me. She likes to dress me, style my hair, paint my nails. She likes to tie me up. She listens to whatever I have to say and offers considered and thoughtful opinions. I listen to what she says and say what I think. I feel I can be myself around her. This is something I rarely feel.

I think that probably if I wanted we could have sex, but I'm not sure whether we need to. Sex isn't always necessary. I think sometimes sex spoils things, because a relationship exists in the spaces between people and sometimes verbalising (or physicalising) and trying to pin down what it is and isn't and define its boundaries - trying to crowbar it into one of the socially acceptable categories - a friendship, a romance - kills it. Some things only really exist when you aren't looking at them.

If I do get together with Chris, if he becomes my boyfriend, what would he think of Sally? The thought is unwelcome. He might not like my relationship with her, or his thoughts might be shaped by porn - shaving, vibrators, cartoon orgasms - and like it too much. He would not understand her, and she would dislike him.

Do I have to tell him much about Sally? Well, maybe not. Sally is my friend, not his, and I don't know whether I need to explain everything in my life. But then, I've never been in a serious relationship before. What does one do in relationships? What is it necessary to tell the other party? If we do become serious, do I have to tell him about Matthew? God, I hope not. I can't imagine that conversation. But what is the point if I can't talk to him? What is the point of being with him, if I in turn have to be someone else?

So far on our dates he has been flippant and guarded, his eyes flicking away the moment the conversation turns to anything deeper than surface level. Three nights ago he kissed me, his tongue flicking softly between my lips, and it was like a promise. I don't know if he keeps his promises.  

Sunday, 6 January 2013

42. Even the pale sun can't cheer this garden up

I am standing on a balcony at a conference centre on the edge of town. The balcony overlooks a garden which looks as if it was mathematically designed by a taste computer. Gravelled paths wind among meek shrubs and inoffensive flowers to a pond in the middle. The pond is a perfect rectangle and doubtlessly contains a carefully calculated number of middle-of-the-road fish. You couldn't take off all your clothes and run giggling around that pond, or have sex on that perfect grass, or play hide-and-seek in those bushes. Why would you want to? It wouldn't be any fun. Even the pale sun can't cheer this garden up.

Inside, the centre is much the same; a lot of magnolia walls, red drapes, and large pale wood tables around which people daily debate many things of no importance or interest to anyone.

This is the company's launch event Boring. It has been organised by me, and it is due to start in about an hour. There has been a surprising amount of media interest. Even after a decade doing this job I find it hard to predict what stories reporters will want to cover, but I have to say I think it's a bit odd. However, it makes me look good, so I'm not going to argue with them.

I run through my checklist. Mental checklists are all very well, and I have those as well, but I prefer a physical list. I have it on a clip board.

Press packs in blue folders, designed to contain every piece of information I can crowbar in so reporters will be stunned into silence while digesting them and be less likely to ask hard questions; 20. It's very unlikely there will be more than 10 reporters who turn up to cover this event - if that - but I believe in covering my ass.

Primary interviewee; here, and on the soft drinks (no champagne until after the interviews are done on pain of pain)

Backup interviewee in case the first one gets drunk, gets ill or spontaneously combusts five minutes before a live TV interview; here and also on the soft drinks.

Catering; arrived and in order.

Wine; arrived and in order.

Flowers and decorations; arrived and in order.

Plates and glasses; arrived and in place.

Napkins, did I sort out the fucking napkins? I panic for a moment. Yes, I did.

I run through the event order again in my head. Speeches, toast, cows, interviews, then I can let them all loose on the buffet, fireworks, close. My part of the job will effectively be over after the interviews so I will allow myself a glass of champagne. Perhaps more than one. Obviously it does not do to be drunk at these kind of events - at least not until everyone else is drunker - but I'm not going to turn down free alcohol.

I wonder if I have a text from Chris. I've left my phone in my bag because I don't want the distraction. It's been four days since he contacted me; is that too long? What does it mean? Is he not interested, or playing me? Should I text him? I know I will text him, and then I'll feel bad about it because it will feel like he's got power over me, which he has.

In the middle of these ruminations my earpiece pings and informs me that the contractors we hired to fence in the cows have unilaterally decided to hang a giant and garishly coloured advert for themselves on the fencing. This was not what we agreed.

I ring the head of the contractors and ask politely if it can be taken down. He says it is a good advertising opportunity for his firm. I say I appreciate that and thanks for all your great work, but it wasn't discussed and is not in keeping with the overall aesthetic. He says that it is common practice for his firm to advertise on projects they work on and they generally do so. I say that's fine but he should have told me they planned this when we were negotiating the fencing. He says it is staying up. I say of course we are happy to oblige, especially after all the help they have given us, but it is not fair to other advertisers who have to pay to use space on the fencing if we let him advertise for free so if he wants to keep the advert up we will expect him to knock £2000 off the overall price of the fencing. He says there aren't any other advertisers hanging adverts on the fence. I say that if there were, they would be paying £2000 for the privilege. He agrees to take it down.

Lynn from the Overworked Department opens the door to the balcony. "Alice!" she says. "I've been looking everywhere. We have a problem."