Sunday, 20 July 2014

84. The new online fast-track system

I'm sitting under the desk in the disused office on the third floor, drinking whisky. It is 11.30am and I'm supposed to be in a meeting about the roll-out of the new online fast-track system.

It's quite possible I am having a breakdown, I speculate, as I swirl the whisky around the glass and breathe in its clean disinfectant smell. Oh well. It's been coming for a while. Just one thing: if I am to be insane, I don't want to be dirty or badly dressed, please. If I end up standing in the middle of roundabouts “directing traffic” with a vibrator, or some similar activity, I fully intend to continue to look and smell as fabulous as is possible under whatever my current financial circumstances are at the time.

Being smelly and unhygenic, and wearing ripped or dirty clothes, is something I find deeply distressing. It upsets me in myself, and it disturbs and scares me in other people. It's some kind of deep fundamental association with lack of control, it's like people are actually choosing the ugly side of life.

I'm also distressed by rooms where the furniture is all over the place and doesn't flow properly, and by ugly ornaments and pictures, and by cluttered environments. It's not just dislike, it is actual, physical distress and I can't stay in places like that or around people who don't take care of themselves for very long. One of the reasons this office has become one of my safe spaces is because it has nothing in it except a desk, which is in its right place. Calming.

I think of the picture of two owls which was doing the rounds on the internet a while ago. One owl is saying to the other owl: “I have CDO. It's like OCD, but all the letters are in alphabetical order, AS THEY SHOULD BE.”

I think I probably have some kind of mild OCD, but then I also probably have post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and the treatment for all of these things is the same and involves a lot of pills and it doesn't get fucking fixed unless you do it yourself anyway because the doctor's surgeries are full of people with mental health problems and there are just too many of us to get the concentrated attention and tailor-made medication required to fix us. You do it yourself, or you stay ill. Lie down and die, or get up and start fighting. Up to you.

At that point, Chris walks around the front of the desk and squats down in front of me. He is half-smiling.

I've been wondering where you and your boyfriend disappear to,” he says.

I stare at him. I am under a desk, clutching a glass of whisky. I didn't hear him come in. How did I not hear him come in? Although, to be honest, in this situation I was fucked the moment he opened the door.

Martin's not my boyfriend,” I say.

He takes out his phone and takes a picture of me.

You know I'm with Jena now?” he says. He is still disturbingly hot. It sickens me that I am fucked up enough to feel turned on by him in this situation. It's also strange that we are communicating better – seeing each other better – than we did when we were actually dating.

I realise I haven't seen Jena for a while. I need to get in touch with her. If this is the guy she's with, she needs me.

What do you have to say for yourself?” he asks.

About what?” I say.

He waves a hand. “This,” he says. “All of this.” His lips twist into a sneer.

Amanda would have a comeback – or a roundhouse - that would send him reeling. Gin would smile, make a joke, charm him till he'd do anything for her. Sally would play the submissive, oh how he would love that.

I am Alice. I say nothing. I realise my skirt is rucked up to my thighs and my hair is greasy. I say nothing. It's my gift to myself, I will never say another unnecessary word to this man.

I'm going to get your geek boyfriend fired, you know,” he said. “The hearing's next week.”

I see how much he's enjoying this. I also see that I have done exactly what I set out to do to him. I've cracked his facade. This is the man behind the mystery. He is having an emotional response to me, just like I had one to him. He might be having sex with Jena, but his emotions are with me. 

Christ, this is actually a love affair. We are tied to each other and, because he doesn't know how to do anything but hurt and I don't know how to do anything but get hurt, there is some horrific way in which we are absolutely perfect for each other.

Oh, fuck that train of thought. I replace the cap on the whisky and put the glass down next to it and stand up.

Where are you going?” Chris asks. “Where do you think you're going?”

I walk out of the room without answering. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

83. It is huge and uncharted

Amanda, Gin and I are in a cafe bar. I have a pint. Amanda has a pint. Gin has a pot of tea and something which was advertised as a “cake”, but can be more accurately described as a pile of cream with cherries and chocolate.

Gin rakes through her pile. “There's supposed to be some sponge in here somewhere,” she says.

It is huge and uncharted. If you go deep enough, you will find a lost tribe,” says Amanda.

Are you saying that because I'm black?” demands Gin. She says this a lot, mostly to freak out white middle-class liberals who don't know her very well, and I have to admit it is fun watching the absolute horror on their faces as they start apologising.

Yes,” says Amanda. “There's some of your relatives living in the bottom of that cake.”

I'm Jamaican. I don't know anything about the indigenous people of the Cake Region of East Africa. What, you think all black people are the same?”

At this politically incorrect point, a man taps Amanda on the shoulder and they greet each other. His name is, apparently, Adam. He is very attractive. I watch him walking over to join the group on the other side of the room and then become aware that Amanda is talking.

"...What?" I say, coming back to reality with a start.

"I said Adam is in a relationship," says Amanda.

Figures. A man like that is not going to be single.

I say: “Oh well, at least that means I don't have to put myself through the frantic trauma of working out how to convey my interest within the next three hours without getting friendzoned, humiliating myself in front of everyone in the bar or terrifying him with my intensity.”

(I am naturally an intensely emotional person, and a lot of people seem to equate that with "crazy". I am not arguing that I'm "normal", because I'm not. By anyone's definition. But neither am I insane, although I appreciate sometimes it comes off that way)

I intended that to be funny but Amanda and Gin both stare at me, and I realise my low self esteem has made them feel sad. It makes me feel sad too, I'm just not sure how not to do it. But now I feel even worse, because they were having a good time and I poured a chill on it. There's a reason why that's the kind of shit you are meant to think twice before expressing, and it's because it brings everyone else down.

Amanda says: “We need cocktails.” She gets up and goes to the bar.

I'm sorry,” I say to Gin. “I just sometimes feel like there's something that stops me from communicating with other people, especially men - “

No, stop, Alice. You aren't making this better.

I feel that no guy I like would ever go out with me. I mean, I thought he was stunning but I'd never have the nerve, and even if I got the nerve he'd probably laugh in my face because who would want to go out with me anyway?”

I trail off, knowing that I've said the wrong thing, not sure what the right thing is. Gin is looking at me solemnly and I notice she is wearing turquoise glitter eyeliner. It's a great colour on her.

She primly takes a sip of tea, then shifts her shoulders back so her cardigan becomes loose around her shoulders. She pulls it up over her head like a shawl in one swift movement and squawks: "I - AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO!"

"Fine," I say. "Why don't you do that, then."




Gin, people are looking.”

Adam and all his friends have stopped talking and are staring at Gin as if they can't believe what they're seeing. I can't believe what they're seeing either.

I say: “I mean, it's not even current. We're the only people in this room old enough to know who Cornholio i-”


At this point Amanda comes back, carrying a jug of margaritas and three glasses. She stands by the table, and silently considers Gin.

After a moment, she says: “I'm going to go up to the bar again. And I don't want any of this to be happening when I come back.”

As she leaves, Gin pulls the cardigan down and picks up her fork. She pokes around in the pile of cherries and cream on her plate for a couple of moments, and then looks at me.

She says: “It made about as much sense as everything you said.” 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

82. This debate misses the point

I am in my flat, alone, doing magic. I know magic doesn't exist. I also know that it works.

The phone and the internet are unplugged. My mobile is switched off. The room is lit by flickering tealights. On the table in front of me I have a black candle and a bowl of salt water.

This is a cleansing ritual. I want to disentangle myself from Chris, Derek and Martin. The last few months have left me feeling dirty and confused. They are all wrapped round me like used bandages.

There is a big debate about whether magic is real or not, and whether practitioners are crazy or deluded for thinking they can influence reality. This debate misses the point.

Human beings work in strange ways. In primitive societies, the shaman would point the bone and pronounce the curse and his victim would wither and die. The opposite can be seen with the placebo effect – if someone tells you a sugar pill is medicine, you get better. Not always, of course. There isn't much a placebo can do for a broken leg, or for a ravening cancer. But more times than can be accounted for by chance.

I use pagan rituals, because they appeal to me aesthetically. I like the pretty coloured candles, and the herbs and incense, and the sense of being in touch with nature. Other people might pray, or meditate. But it's all the same thing. You're getting in touch with your deep, expanded self, which is also the whole universe. One is a metaphor for the other, although I'm never entirely sure which way round it is. Maybe they are both metaphors.

I think of it in terms of focusing my intentions. I think that's why magic - all magic - spells, voodoo, praying, meditation, anything which involves getting in touch with something bigger than ourselves which is not necessarily ruled by logic – works.

It doesn't actually matter whether what I'm doing is “real” or not. I am lighting a black candle, putting some salt water in a bowl, and saying a few words, that's all. Any of you could do it.

What matters is whether you believe it's a spell, because if you believe that then a black candle will protect you and disperse negative energy, and salt water is for cleansing a space and a person, and I'm constructing something – might be mental, might be a physical force, I have no idea which and it doesn't actually matter – which will help me to get over a confusing and unhappy time.

We don't see reality, not the whole of it. Everything we experience, and everything we think about what we experience, is filtered through our own assumptions, perceptions and personalities. This is obvious at its most casual level in the way we are more likely to notice things which reinforce our own interests and values.

You're single and unhappy about it? You see attractive people and happy couples all around you. You're single and happy about it? You see bad relationships, people arguing and making each other miserable. You're into nature? You could walk through the middle of one of the world's biggest cities and you'll see trees and birds and animals, because that's what you're tuning into. You see a garden, where other people, who might be into architecture, see the towering buildings. It's as simple as reading the online news. We select the stories that interest us, and not the ones that don't.

All those things were already there. The close, loving couple and the arguing couple are sitting next to each other in the same bar. The tree is there. The buildings are there. And you do, if you think about it, see both.

But you only really notice the one you have programmed yourself to see. And because reality exists inside your head, then in effect what you see is “reality”, for you anyway, because you have nothing else to go on.

We miss so much.

The barriers and filters keep going up inside our heads. We put them up ourselves. Knock them down, they go up again in a different place. Don't get me wrong, to a certain extent they have to be there. If you experienced reality as a whole, everything equally important, you'd be unable to function because there would be too much sensory input. We have to filter. But it's good to be aware that what we see is not all there is to see. All we experience is our idea of what's real. If you bear that in mind, sometimes you can take a step back and see a situation or a person differently.

So I'm tuning into something, and I'm telling the whole of reality inside my head that a line is being drawn under my obsession with Chris and my fear of Derek and my conflicted feelings about Martin. I don't know yet what I think of Martin, but I do know I need to relax about it, whatever it turns out to be.

I light the candle. I pick up the bowl of salt water and look into it, I can see candle flames reflected on its surface. I close my eyes and focus.