Sunday, 24 November 2013

76. "I was just texting you."

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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."