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. 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

68. The small window opposite me

****Sorry about the technical problems with the highlighted text, I'm having some trouble figuring out why that's happening. It's not intentional, please ignore****

I look through an iron grille in a wooden door. The small window opposite me is so obscured with ivy that everything in the bare stone room is dimly lit green, as if I am underwater.
In the middle of the room, a girl of about eight or nine lies on a rough block of stone like an altar. She is wearing a shift of thin white silk and there’s a delicate gold crown on her head, over her tumbled dark hair. Her hands are crossed across her chest, over a bouquet of calla lilies. Her eyes are closed and she is faintly smiling. She is dead.

I remember that the nuns brought her here, that she is the sacrifice. She won’t decay in this room, she will be like this forever. I feel terribly sad. Delicate silk on rough stone, her soft dark curls twining on rock.

I wake to find I must have left the door open last night.

Rammstein has got in my room, got on the bed, got in the exact geometric centre of the bed and then stretched out diagonally to the longest cat he can be. He has forced me to sleep perched on the edge of the mattress.

Before I can process this, he realises I am awake and begins jumping on and off the bed loudly demanding his breakfast.

There are some people who think keeping pets is akin to slavery,” I say.


I sit up and swing my legs over the edge of the bed. Rammstein rubs his soft, furry head against my bare foot. The sensation is lovely and I hold out my foot to encourage him to do it again. He nips my big toe, hard.

If there is a slave in this relationship, it isn’t you,” I say.


We walk to the kitchen, Rammstein running ahead, anxiously returning every so often to check I'm still on my way and haven't somehow forgotten that it's time for him to be fed. I give him some chicken chunks and scratch his head.

I wander through to the living room and flop on the sofa. It is Saturday morning. It is 6am. I try and remember my dream. A dead girl. Before that, fire, gunshots, a hand circling my throat. The usual crap.

I run a hand through my hair. It's greasy. Last night I went out with Jena, Suzy and Michelle. We went to a bar and then another bar and then another bar and then a club. My memories of the evening are fragmentary.

I open my handbag to look at my phone. As well as my phone and my purse, the bag contains a large purple plum.

I stare at it. No, it is definitely a plum. And it's definitely there.

Why do I have a plum in my handbag?

Where did I get it? Whose plum is it? Where on earth did I find a plum between 11pm when my memories start breaking up and...what time did I get home, anyway? It's not even the right time of year for plums. What the fuck is going on here?

I pick up my phone and start texting Jena.

I've found a plum in my handbag, do you know where... No. Look, this is all wrong. I can't text Jena about this, it just sounds weird.

I'm too hungover to cope. There's only really one way to deal with this, which is to shut the bag again, pretend the plum isn't there, have an Alka-Seltzer and then go back to bed.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

67. Two kinds of balsamic vinegar

The Left4Dead tattoo on my arm is starting to piss me off.

It's been happening for a while. The tattoo still looks good, although it's faded. It's not the problem. The problem is I've changed.

It's been so gradual I've hardly noticed, but it's there. It's in my wardrobe, where the low-cut dresses and slogan t-shirts have been replaced with high necklines and tailoring, and the three-inch heels with biker boots and trainers. My flat used to be draped with feather boas and fairy lights and piled with cushions. Now it's a plain space, almost severe. The wall I once entirely papered in pictures I liked - art prints, fashion shoots from magazines - is painted light grey and the only thing hanging on it is a reproduction of one of the original posters for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. I have kept a lot of my old books, but now they sit on a reclaimed wood bookcase. My kitchen cupboard holds smoked paprika, barley and two kinds of balsamic vinegar instead of Pot Noodle and tomato sauce. A tub of expensive moisturiser sits by my mirror, next to the tube of Touche Eclat I use to hide my hangovers.

When did I grow up? I didn't even notice it had happened. This is the home of a grown-up. A slightly eccentric grown-up, yes, with a penchant for sequins, good food and gory horror films, a grownup with more money than sense and an insatiable love of beauty, but a grownup nonetheless. This is who I became, the adult who was hatched out of the limitless potential of child-me. And, all in all, she's not bad; pays her own bills from money she earns herself, votes - and thinks about who to vote for, has close and closely maintained personal relationships. Could have turned out a lot worse.

The tattoo. Back in my screamy, punk, angry days I had it done as a permanent reminder. A permanent "fuck you". You left me for dead, and I'm still alive. You thought I was done with, I was over, but look I grew up, I graduated, I got upgraded, I'm smarter, tougher and faster than you and I'm going to pay you back for it. All of it.

I used to have fantasies about tracking Matthew down. Becoming his nightmare. I'd need to monitor his house, see who he lived with, whether he lived alone. But sooner or later there would be a night when he'd be on his own, and then I'd break in, say at 3am, with some duct tape and a selection of power tools.

I'd make sure my DNA was contained as far as possible, of course, but even if it wasn't I'm not on file anywhere. I've never committed a crime. And to be honest once the police got a look at Matthew's internet history - one imagines his specialised interests were not an isolated incident - they might not be so bothered about finding his killer. I worked it out; I could do it. And I could get away with it.

These days, I know I can't. It's not in me to do it. Matthew does deserve to be punished, to be sure, but do I?

If I did such a terrible, bloody thing I would damage part of myself fundamentally. I'm not sure what to call that part - the psyche? the spirit? the soul? but I do know that it is a fragile thing. I would never have peace again. My hands would never be clean again. It wouldn't matter how many times I washed them. I would never be able to tell anyone what I had done, how I had got hurt so deeply. And I would punish myself for the rest of my life.

I'm leaning out of my window. The air smells fresh and cold and I can sense a change. Spring is on its way. I'm a grown-up now, in charge of my own life. I can decide for myself where the rest of my life will take me. Maybe I can move on, change my life. Maybe it's time I left Matthew behind, forgotten in the dark where he belongs.

Sometimes, at my times of worst depression, I would lie in bed and watch the clock. Watch the hands go round, ticking my lifetime away. One minute less. Two minutes less. Three minutes less. And however long you are given, when you are lying in your hospital bed with a drip in your arm and less than an hour left on the countdown, it'll seem like it all flashed by in a hot minute.

There are people out there who sleepwalk through their whole lives, lost in the poisonous stories they are telling themselves to mask their inadequacies or their drinking problem or their abusive relationship, whatever maggot is eating away at their brain, because the way time drips away slowly through your fingers is somehow more bearable than confronting yourself and dealing with your shit. Personally, I have dealt with my shit, to a large extent, but letting go of it is a different matter. Holding on to an outmoded way of thinking is safer than finding a new way, right? Comforting.

I look in the mirror. I frown. I need to get the tattoo covered up.