I was twenty-five the first time everything fell apart for me. My boyfriend, Dominic, broke up with me after five years together and we cut short the lease on the little flat we were renting in West Hampstead. This meant I had to scrabble around for a room to rent in London, a city that now felt vast and radically unfamiliar, even after four years there.
This all happened in the final fortnight of a contract job I had as a researcher for a few episodes of a popular BBC science show. Lambasted by the break up, there were mornings where I struggled to rise for work. In my snatched lunch breaks, I found I could hardly get through my sandwich. Soon, instead of eating I would cry, as if on schedule, hiding in the toilet if I could make it that far on my starved, stuttering body. It took a monumental act of will to get through those weeks. Then, for the first time, I had no work lined up for when I finished. My colleagues took it upon themselves to tell me I was young to be a researcher, that I had been lucky to have constant work. I had believed in merit, but now I saw hard work was meaningless without luck. As my despair and self-blame mounted I became convinced that if all you were was a product of luck then you were nothing, just a weed relying on the sun to rise each day. Back then, I didn’t see the possibility of freedom in such thinking.
Once we had only one official month left in the flat, Dominic nudged, then outright nagged me to find a room but I couldn’t face composing the begging emails, or trawling through flatshare websites until I’d finished the science show. A bad strategy in 2005. Pre-crash London rents were creeping up and even the shoddy rooms I knew I didn’t want as soon as I saw them often had multiple viewers. Dom left our flat a week after he dumped me, landing a house-share quickly with four people I didn’t know. I didn’t even know if he knew them himself and I didn’t want to ask. He sorted through our possessions at a frightening pace, offering me anything I wanted but how could I want items I associated with him? I had long admired his distressed toffee leather armchair and cacti collection. Now I couldn’t go near them. His manoeuvres – pulled off, it seemed, with too much convenience, driving me to suspect all kinds of scenarios – seemed to match the tight phrases he’d used to break up with me, displaying too clear-eyed a resolve. ‘We are not a good psychological fit,’ was the first. The ultimate for me was: ‘I don’t see us as life partners’. They sounded as if they’d been lifted from a book or transplanted from advice given by a detached friend. Now, much later in life, I can see my naivety in wanting ‘authenticity of speech’ or something equally elusive. In our bravest moments, we can sound like fakes and amateurs. I can see I was lucky he tried at all. It’s not that Dom wasn’t bright, in fact he’s preposterously bright, but he was never much of a talker, preferring, when he wasn’t breaking up with someone, to speak in plain, unselfconscious terms that gave little away. Or not speak at all. While he was handing me my walking papers I found myself thinking, right as the words were coming from his lips and I was beginning to shiver, that we had always somehow been verbally incompatible – my love of words and stories in now glaringly direct conflict with his pursuit of mathematics, a subject in which, I had to admit, I had shown the most perfunctory of interests. My labour at keeping our conversations afloat even during our good times seemed to suggest we were not even cut out for the basic act of talking together. I don’t think he knew that I festered with anxiety in our silences, fearing him to be far away, even when he was closest to me. Or if he did know, he didn’t know what to do. He was probably right. We wouldn’t have been able to spend a lifetime together, but back then I didn’t think about ‘good psychological fits’. I loved Dom and that was that. I didn’t want anything else. After his announcement, which was on a Friday night, I spent the following Saturday and Sunday in a state of near-mania. Alone in the flat, (Dom made sure he was away that weekend) the hours would snag, then jump by as I scurried from room to room, perpetually agitated, putting on unnecessary loads of laundry for the comfort of the thrumming cycles, just the feeling that something was happening with purpose. I threw old paperwork in the bin including stuff I knew I might need such as old P45s and the like, I tried new recipes from a cookbook I was planning to throw out and cooked large, terrible meals I couldn’t bear to eat. I barely called any friends, as if to avoid breaking the awful news might make it undo itself. As the Sunday night rolled around, it looked like a small, terrible party had happened in the flat. I knew he would return but I didn’t have it in me to clear up. Then my mobile rang. It was Lara, the older sister of a friend from school. I wasn’t in touch with the friend, Ella, much anymore but already word had spread to her of my break-up and Lara was calling as she had a room available in her south London flat. I hadn’t seen Lara since school, in Cambridge where she and Ella and I grew up. She had been six years above us. I remembered her as a tall, strong-faced girl in long dresses, rushing through the arch-ceilinged school hallways carrying a violin. I had always associated her name with a cold, official success as she was repeatedly in the school magazine for her essays or musical achievements. Or I’d hear her name ring out like a politician’s when the new Head Girl team or summer prizes were announced in assembly. On the few occasions I had seen her at Ella’s house, she’d been remote, locked away in her cocoon of older-girl striving. She had not been one of the trendy goddesses, the girls on which you have crushes so of the moment you hardly know they are shards of the woman you may well become decades later. Lara explained on the phone her last tenant had to leave for Spain due to a family illness and couldn’t give a return date. Would I be able to take his room on an ad hoc basis for a few months? The rent was paid for another three weeks so if I moved in before that I wouldn’t have to pay for any of those days. Don’t even worry about a deposit, she said. She hadn’t taken one from Carlos. I didn’t want to have to think, to deal with the call, even; I was embarrassed somehow by the conversation despite Lara’s kind, open manner. Wearily, I agreed to visit. I didn’t even know where Peckham was.
The Lara I remembered from school was not the one who answered the door. Wearing a short geometric dress made of separate panels in white, dove-grey and shocking lime, a garment both stark and bewilderingly complex all at once, she seemed even taller than before. She had half her long dark hair pinned back in the kind of dishevelled glamour I have always wanted to achieve but cannot with my lank, pale locks. The years since school had chiselled and aged her face closer to its natural structural harmony even though she did not look thirty-one. Strangely, she looked even more like Lara to me, whatever that meant. I’d never seen her legs before. They were universally perfect but they were somehow her legs. I had to remind myself I barely knew her. Her eyes, far apart but feline-narrow, gave her face an inbuilt look of quiet discernment as if she were forever judging the world magnanimously but always to her precise specifications. That look of hers unnerved me at first but she smiled widely as soon as she opened the door, told me straight away I had first refusal on the room. Really, she said, I would be doing her the favour – this all spoken with the vocal equivalent of the calm in her eyes. As I entered the flat, I was hit by the scent of cinnamon from a large multi-wicked candle on a low hand-crafted wooden table and I could sense the underfloor heating through my worn sneakers. I wasn’t prepared for the size of the place. On the phone she had explained the flat was semi-open-plan as it was part of a conversion from an old schoolhouse. The floor in the kitchen-living-area with its zigzagging wooden slats brought to mind an old-fashioned gym. The flat was the size of half a school gym. She showed me round, content for me to see her whole domestic life. The room she offered me was half the size of her own but it still dwarfed the one I’d shared with Dominic. Everything was white or a different shade of wood apart from the strikingly placed artwork (‘quite a few by local artists’) and the clothes that spilled out of her wardrobe, some of which were hanging on the walls of her room like artworks in their own right. A palm in the main living space, in a pot large enough for one person to bathe in almost reached the entire height of the flat, supported by near-invisible strings.
I now saw I had to live here. I was too awestruck to be jealous, too belittled by it all to consider how unconsidered the physical details of my own life were. I couldn’t begin to understand how every possession you came to own could be part of your endless self-expression. Dom and I had never thought to buy art for our walls. On the rare occasion either us had spare cash, we’d always book a bargain European holiday, grabbing whatever time my freelancing would allow. We’d chosen the tatty flat in north London because it was the first one we’d found with a landlord who didn’t require our parents to sign as guarantors on the rental contract. We’d never have considered an area like Peckham, which was stupefyingly cheaper than West Hampstead but obviously full of secret ex-school lofts and soon-to-be-discovered artists, despite the gang warfare stories I’d found on the internet only the day before visiting Lara. Perhaps it was full of other Lara’s too. I didn’t know how to make a kale and seaweed salad like the one she spooned onto a plate before I could object (‘You look like you need to eat, Vicky, and this is so good for you. The new farmer’s market in Camberwell is incredible.’) and it wouldn’t occur to me to wear a dress like hers, even if I knew where to buy one. I couldn’t picture an event that I’d wear it to, even though she was clearly comfortable hanging around her home in it. I never went to a party feeling well dressed and while I knew I didn’t have a bad figure, I always played it safe with colours and hemlines. Dom had rarely commented on what I or other girls wore. Looking around Lara’s home, it wasn’t a lack of confidence I felt so much as a sense that I’d missed a major trick. Lara seemed to have missed very little. Even though she was a financial journalist and blogger, and had recently completed a PhD in Economics, she seemed to know more about factual television production and its commissioning cycles than I did. In her room, there was a large desktop computer dedicated to the rise and fall of the stock market that she claimed she never shut down.
I moved in a few days later. My ragbag possessions certainly didn’t match Lara’s home, consisting mostly of hand-me-down books and CDs, charity shop jeans and big knotty wool sweaters, a metal clothes rail held together with duct tape, pinboards with photos and articles and postcards that were half-torn from the years, a laminated poster of a 1960s Audrey Hepburn film I still hadn’t seen, a heavy cheeseplant that barely survived the move. So it was pleasing to see that, on rearranging them in the fresh room, they took on a new visual potency, partly because there was so much space and light. Here, my things became exhibits of a life, artefacts of some complex but worthy practice. I felt like such an object myself – bigger and better with the rush of the move, if a little stunned under the bright new light. I learned Lara was an aspiring but serious art collector and that quite a few, if not all of the pieces, were researched thoroughly as investments. She said she was impressed at how few items I had brought. I didn’t feel like telling her that was because I was broke, had been pretty much that way since starting university, despite my part-time shop and pub jobs throughout my course and that most of the furniture in the old flat had belonged to Dom or the landlord. I also didn’t tell her that my parents, both history lecturers, hadn’t given me a penny since I was nineteen, having hiked their way through my school fees, which had been extortionate even with funding assistance from the school. They’d almost charged me rent for my last summer at home between school and starting university. I could have told Lara all of this with a concealed pride but I had no urge to do so. I knew her parents were able to afford a different view of supporting their children and I wasn’t jealous. Was I not benefitting right now from their generosity towards her?
Slowly, we got to know each other. I began to look forward to my lengthening exchanges with Lara as we took turns to cook on the kitchen hob or use the sink. Yet, the more we spoke, the more her life became a mystery to me. She brought a few different men home that month, always introducing them as friends. Often she’d announce last-minute she was going away, openly giving me free reign of the flat. She never went into much detail about the trips and, sensing she wanted to keep them private, I didn’t push for details. She complained frequently about jet lag and my sympathetic reaction must have left it open to assumption I knew what it was like. In fact, I’d always been curious to experience jet lag. As a child, my parents had always taken me on holiday to the same quiet spot each summer in the Pyrenees, just the three of us, and we’d always rented a gite or camped. Year in, year out we would hike the same trails, content and quiet together for hours. They had gone the summer just past and I knew they’d go again next summer and the summer after that. It wasn’t a holiday if you couldn’t be on autopilot – that was my father’s argument. Still, Lara took an interest in me that went beyond the niceties of co-existing in the same home and her gratitude that I’d moved in so fast. Any detailed conversations we had were usually about my break-up. I didn’t dare ask her about her own love life and she only gave her opinions on love in general terms or ‘parables’ she had drawn from people she knew. I noticed that unlike many of my friends, she didn’t call Dom a bastard or a coward. Instead she reassured me that meeting someone decent so young rarely worked out as people tended to delay reproducing due to living longer and, as she put it a little scathingly, ‘living the dream of self-realisation before settling down’. She told me I could well have escaped a ‘starter marriage’. Some of her friends hadn’t been so lucky. She even applauded Dom for his honesty and me for choosing someone like him. It boded well for my future, she said, despite my current suffering. Back then, I would never have come to these ideas on my own. Still, during those raw weeks, the pain of losing Dom was something I couldn’t let myself be fully aware of, for fear that if I faced it head on, it would engulf me. I told her I couldn’t imagine even fancying someone ever again. She didn’t refer to any personal experience but she said the best antidote was to party like a demon. Especially with Christmas coming. Don’t get the last train home, she said. Get pissed and stay to the end. When you’ve just been ditched, your stock shoots up as there’s nothing more irresistible than vulnerability. You might want to take advantage of that.
‘I’m not desperate,’ I remember saying. It was the first time I’d dared disagree with her.
Lara’s eyes remained kind but she turned her head slightly. ‘I didn’t say ‘desperate’. I said ‘vulnerable’. Vulnerability is a capital of sorts if you use it correctly. Just think as if you’ve got an extra few hundred in your bank account for this week only and blow it accordingly. You have to spend it as you can’t save it.’
I turned away from her to busy myself with dinner preparations, my face flushing at the thought of money. She couldn’t know I was soon to be short on that as well as everything else lacking in my silly little life. My twenty-sixth birthday loomed in January. Things weren’t going to turn out just fine. I didn’t ‘deserve better’ as all my friends kept telling me. Besides, there simply wasn’t better to be had. I’d met the love of my life too early and I’d had him and now he was gone. I knew I would have said ‘yes’ if he’d proposed, even if it had turned out to be a starter marriage. Each morning I would wake up and stare slowly around the room wondering who lived there, as if I were missing from that room. Back then, waking there each day felt like a sharp edit in a film where events take an unforeseen jump of setting and the protagonist and audience are left jolted, trying to piece things together, knowing an awful reveal is round the corner. Over and over each morning I would pick up my laptop and stare down my emails, as if squinting hard enough would will one of his three-liners to slot into the top of the screen in thick unread bold. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, it would start. Having emerged from the crisis of moving home, I was now free to panic at the lack of routine stretching out before me. My money would run out in a couple of weeks, even if I was careful. I’d had a week’s reception work at a commercial property firm almost as soon as I’d moved in but they’d unexpectedly cancelled the second promised week, so I’d lost a week’s pay I’d thought I could count on. That temp job was supposed to see me through while I searched for another TV researcher job but now I had the time to hunt, I couldn’t face it, despite a reliable source giving me a couple of leads. Freedom forced upon me, I finally went mentally to sea. Not so long ago I had been convinced about my career path, certain that I would one day make my own documentaries. Now I knew that time would tick by but there was no future for in its hours, days and years for me. My time had been stripped of it.
So I took Lara’s advice, coming up with nothing better myself. I was now a loser but at a party with steady drinks, no one had to know. A new regime started to build in my days like an opportunistic infestation. I would sleep until noon, get up and tinker with online job applications or compose emails to production companies (mostly pointless in December but it meant I’d be ignored or rejected primarily for bad timing over all my other failings), waste a few hours pottering around the flat, often with a glass of wine in hand since Lara was generous with her wine collection, meet a friend for tea or a happy hour discount cocktail – usually a drag for both of us as all I could talk about was Dom – and then head to whatever party I knew of. Sometimes I even went to nightclubs on my own, always making sure I got in before a door charge was applied and danced in a thicket of cheery nobodies, counting on someone to buy me a drink. On the long night bus rides home I talked eagerly to yet more strangers. It felt out of character at first but then it felt like I had no character. I was nobody so I could talk to everybody, like the chorus in the ancient Greek plays I had loved so much at university, studying English & Drama a happy lifetime ago. If I stumbled in at four in the morning, which was often the case, Lara didn’t complain. Whenever we were both making our dinners, Lara didn’t ask me if I’d pulled anyone but she seemed a bit pleased with me, as if I were a TV show in the background of her life that was worth turning up. I knew the partying couldn’t last but while I was doing it, I couldn’t see it ever ending. I wanted it to go on forever, this new persona that was so very unlike me. I both wanted Dom to see it somehow and not hear a thing about it. I would be unhappy for the rest of my life but a new blind strength was emerging, suggesting I could learn to live with misery like anyone else.
One night, a week before Christmas, Lara and I went out together for the first time. Her sister was having a housewarming in her new flat and Lara seemed happy to show up with me as if I were her friend, not Ella’s. She even lent me a beautiful white and silver dress that just about fit despite her being six inches taller. We arrived close to eleven but the party hadn’t got going, in fact it seemed ready to skip straight to dying down. I had expected there to be people I knew from school but I couldn’t place anyone amidst the wavering figures bobbing to dubstep in the near darkness. It resembled the kind of student dive-bar gathering I used to enjoy before I got together with Dom and pretty soon found intolerable, knowing I could go home to him. Why had I looked forward to this only a few hours ago? I could feel myself sinking into a kind of internal sinkhole from heart to gut, like I might be sick. I shouldn’t be here, I thought. I need to take charge of myself. I need to finish those job applications and cut my drinking. This has to be the last night I do this. I even felt embarrassed to be there with Lara, as if I’d convinced her to come to an event on my invitation that turned out to be a dud. She too was trying to get a fix on things, her features particularly inscrutable tonight. Just then Ella spotted us and bounded over. I let Lara do the talking. It appeared they hadn’t seen each other in a while. She began to quiz Ella about the new flat and their parents’ endless hypochondria. I tried to keep up but fatigue hit me from nowhere and I couldn’t focus. I scanned the room and hallway, counting fewer than twenty guests, the majority girls. I didn’t know any of them. Then I spotted a boy I knew called Damian from Ella’s university. He was a few years older than us, having done his degree a bit later, possibly because of a drug problem, I couldn’t remember. He didn’t stop moving slowly to the languid heavy beats in the room but he did notice I was coming towards him and he allowed his gaze to flicker over me before saying ‘Alright, Vicky?’. We barely knew each other, so I was surprised at hearing my name. Where we stood it was too loud to talk properly, not helped by Damian’s hushed tone, but when I shouted in his ear I could smell something on him like a herb, a distinct scent, a little shocking somehow. I couldn’t place it even though it seemed familiar. He wasn’t my type at all. Dominic is tall and leonine with blonde curls, his body muscled and square even though he never did any sport. He looks built for a very different life than the one he has, (or rather, had, when I knew him), an outdoors life, not one spent in libraries and conferences. I still stare at big blonde men in the street – I’m afraid I’m one of those women who fantasizes about vikings and characters called Thor. Damian was dark-haired and wiry. He wasn’t particularly short but he had little physical presence, as if he had been haphazardly cobbled together and might fall apart. He didn’t walk into a room – he shuffled and wove as if just entering a room was a trespass of some kind. His features were sallow and pale with hooded, tired eyes. His face was quite fine-boned but there was something under-formed about it – a drinker’s slight bloat, like the face of a child that had lived too fast. I didn’t know much about him or if I was assuming his shifty appearance matched a certain lifestyle. I knew he had some family money and that he dabbled in journalism and called himself an anarchist. He had spent a few nights in prison, apparently for an anti-fox-hunting march that had gone awry. We had little in common. But Lara’s idea about ‘vulnerability capital’ floated back into my mind and maybe because Lara herself was there, throwing a concerned look at me every so often, I made sure I stayed talking to him, which I could tell was unsettling him completely. When I went to the kitchen to get us both another beer, Lara came over to tell me she was going home.
‘Oh, I might come with you.’ I said.
‘No,’ Lara said. ‘You stay. We only got here an hour ago. I want to stay longer but I’m knackered and I have a flight tomorrow morning. I shouldn’t have come, really.’
I didn’t notice until she said ‘shouldn’t have come’ that Damian had snuck up on us. Lara jolted slightly when she turned to find him behind her.
‘Why, hello Lara,’ Damian said, voice clear and audible this time.
‘Nice to see you. You look well.’
‘You too.’ Lara replied after the slightest pause.
‘Me? You must be joking. Gotta piss. Back in a bit.’
Damian left the kitchen in his odd, shuffling way.
‘You know him?’ I asked Lara, once he was out of earshot.
‘No, actually I know him from before they went to Brighton together.’ For some reason I expected her to say more, but she didn’t, she fiddled with her bag and muttered something about her phone charger missing from it. I said nothing. Then she gave me the answer to a different question, one I hadn’t asked: ‘He’s a tart, by the way.’
I hadn’t heard her describe someone that way before. I said nothing.
‘Oh, don’t pay much heed, I’m just warning you.’ Lara said. ‘Just watch out for him.’
‘Thanks for the advice,’ I said automatically and took two cans of beer back into the living room where I knew he would return to find me.
The next morning I woke earlier than usual, even though I had outstayed everyone at Ella’s and bused my way home in the considerable cold. The first thought to cross my mind was Lara’s final comment about Damian but I knew I wasn’t to take it as a warning. This was to be the next phase of my life. I couldn’t get Dominic back, but I could do this. I could find the men who spoke in the same code as me and we could make our exchanges. Damian could just be the beginning. There was such potential, not just for me, but for everyone if only they could see it. I wanted Damian, I knew that now. Hadn’t it always been there, this dormant attraction? I just hadn’t worked out that all I had to do was cash it in. Unlike the first tense months of agonising over how to act around Dom, even when we were officially together, Damian practically came with a receipt and return period. So I wasn’t surprised when Ella told me late that morning on the landline, calling for her sister who had already left, so getting me instead, that before he left the party, Damian told her he fancied me rotten, had done since the first time he’d seen me four years ago in the students’ bar at Brighton when I was visiting Ella. With near-identical words to Lara’s, she warned me against him. I started to imagine what it would be like to fuck him, that slender body with the ruined kid’s face and nearly shoulder-length blackish hair. The girly, puny male captivates me in a whole other way; makes me wonder what plan such unfinished men were drawn from. Perhaps, millennia ago in the Neanderthal forests, these men could steal me from under the noses of the blonde Thors because I underestimate their strength, their determination to prove themselves different from their appearance. I have to admit Dom did sometimes remind me of a tall building that wasn’t fully occupied, a boy who had been handed the gift of a man’s body he hadn’t asked for. So this was what it was like to be wanted. Coveted. I was brazen – I called Damian from the scrap of paper he’d given me with his number, invited him round to the flat for dinner that night making it clear Lara was away. I wore skin-tight jeans and a black vest top with lace trim under my unbuttoned cardigan, opened the wine so it would be ready for when he arrived and lit some of Lara’s sandalwood incense. If Damian was surprised at my setting the scene, he didn’t show it. He was more surprised by my cooking and it struck me that he didn’t eat properly, that the food and my ability to make it (I was taught by a mother who loves to cook) were more seductive to him than the scented air and skimpy clothes. I had made a French-style winter stew with beef and potatoes. We talked as we ate, sitting cross-legged on Lara’s vast cream wool rug and I noticed Damian was the one who drove the conversation. I wanted to see this as trust – especially when he went into considerable detail about his parents’ long-winded divorce – but I found it left me a little cold. I had begun to observe people sensing I was ‘going through something’ and wanting to offload their own millstone. Except, unlike them, Damian couldn’t stop. At Ella’s party he had been subdued, most likely stoned, but now I couldn’t get a word in. While I listened to his description of his Polish grandmother who may or may not have cooked a similar stew for him long ago before she died, I struggled to concentrate. I couldn’t tell if this was because I was disinterested in such a laboriously rendered and dull tale or because of the urgency I felt to kiss him, an urgency as much created by the need to establish I could as the desire itself. Finally he wound his story down.
‘Do you think it’s a bit bright in here?’ I asked.
‘Dunno. How do you normally have it? Or how does Lara have it? I keep forgetting it’s her place.’
‘I think it’s a bit bright. I mean, for dinner. Even though we just finished dinner. I should have thought about it before we sat down. I’m not going to light candles or anything.’ I knew I was starting to sound jumpy.
‘Thank God for that. I mean, that would be overkill.’
‘Overkill? What are you implying?’
Damian looked bewildered, which was not part of my plan. I got up and went over to the wall and turned off the main light so I didn’t have to deal with that look.
‘I was just joking about the candles.’ he said when I returned.
I picked up his right hand and interlaced his fingers with mine like I was inside a car, preparing to start it and drive. He breathed in sharply. I put my other arm around his shoulder and brought my face to his. I had been pretty sure he would submit to this but I wasn’t prepared for his urgency, his stop-start mouth moving everywhere at once.
‘Oh my God,’ he said, pulling back. ‘You’re a tigress.’
We kissed again for some time. Then he looked at me.
‘Vicky,’ he said. ‘Vicky. I was dreaming of this all day. But I wasn’t expecting it, not so soon or even at all. There’s something you should know.’
‘I am a mess. Not just, oh, I’m going through a bad time. I mean, I’m a first rate fuck up. I won’t bore you with my problems, I just wanted to tell you now so it’s not a surprise.’
I took Damian’s hand again. ‘It’s ok.’ I said. ‘I’m not going through the easiest time myself.’
‘I wanted you the moment I first saw you. But your boyfriend, that guy you brought to Brighton, he was so like, Mr Success, I mean, I never thought I had a chance with someone like you. And then, at Ella’s party, I didn’t expect – I mean, I couldn’t believe it when you just came up to me like that. And you didn’t, like, move on to the next person -’
‘I was curious about you too.’
‘Oh, ‘curious’ were you? You little shrew!’ He grinned as if the insult, even though I hadn’t intended any, was a nugget of pleasure. ‘That’s just polite speak for ‘I never noticed you until last night then I thought I’d give you a chance cos I was bored’. Don’t be kind to me.’
When he left that night to catch the last train I didn’t clear up the dishes and pans from our carpet picnic. I went straight to bed with excitement, knowing how easily my mind would construct him next to me. Then my phone lit up. The stars are out tonight!!! Goodnight my shrew. See you soon. Or I will combust. XXX Luv, D. There followed a text after that, consisting of just five exclamation marks.
When do you know something has an end in sight? I couldn’t bear Damian’s spelling of ‘love’, plus I hated the shortening of his name. Of course he couldn’t know he was accidentally emulating the way Dom had always signed his emails and texts – with just a D. Nor could I bear how something as mundane as a text message sign-off had the power to dampen my interest. Should I not be more concerned about his admission of being a fuck up? Dominic had always written Love, D. We used to joke about never using more than two ‘xx’s’ as we thought any more was too sugary, although we broke our own rule with sardonic regularity.
I was furtive with Lara when she returned from her trip three days later and asked me what I’d been up to since Ella’s party but I needn’t have been.
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ she announced out of the blue, as if we were continuing an old conversation, while she glared irritatedly at her laptop on the kitchen counter. She was switching between half a dozen slowly whirring internet tabs, no doubt booking more flights. ‘I think you could try Damian.’
I was speechless. As if flipping open the lid of my head and inspecting the contents with no surprise, she went on.
‘It doesn’t matter if you can already see the limits with him. So much is about timing and the timing is ideal here. You can handle it. You could use the distraction and he’s clearly up for it. Before you know it, you’ll be tied to someone again. You need to know what sex is like with someone other than Dominic.’ She was still glued to her screen.
This infuriated me. I hated how she assumed I’d only gone all the way with Dominic. And that she was right. With considerable effort I resisted telling her that I’d gone nearly all the way with a couple of other boys during my first two years at university. ‘So did you ‘try’ Damian?’ I asked instead.
Lara turned away from her laptop and faced me. I could see she had to think for a second before she answered.
‘As I said, I knew him before he went to Brighton with Ella. In fact I was instrumental in encouraging him to go – he was a major dopehead when I met him. So yes, I suppose I did ‘try’ him. But it wasn’t even a thing, more like a couple of nights and some hanging out after that. I don’t remember much of it, to be honest. I was in my mid-twenties, he wasn’t even twenty-two at that point, if I remember…’ she trailed off.
I grew bolder. ‘Do you wish it hadn’t happened?’
She eyed me quizzically, then shook her head. ‘Why would I wish that? I don’t think that way. It was just a thing, years ago. I don’t think either of us overthought it.’
It was two weeks until I saw Damian again. Christmas came and went, then he had flu, then he was suddenly busy with an article for some anarchist website, then on a protest against the new Heathrow runway. My unease about him fell away with the passing days and the anticipation that replaced it was more or less as pleasant as I wanted it to be. He texted me daily, sometimes several times an hour. The messages were long, often letter-like, beginning ‘Dearest Vicky’, as if he were far away, longing to see me, even though, Lara revealed, he lived only a few miles away on the west side of Camberwell and didn’t even have to leave London for Christmas as his mother and sister lived in Chiswick. His use of language was self-consciously chaotic as if he were playing the part of a frustrated Victorian writer addressing his muse (at one point he even called me his muse, although it was never clear what works, exactly, I inspired) but I found it charming enough. Although he was three years older than me, which in your twenties seems like a potentially meaningful gap, I felt almost protective of him, even a slight envy that he could so easily wear his heart on his sleeve.
After that gap, when he came round for a second time, Lara was again away. I greeted him eagerly enough on the intercom, but I panicked as soon as I saw his tense, hopeful face in the intercom camera, unaware he was being watched. The excitement I’d nurtured in those few weeks dissolved in my stomach. I had led myself a merry dance. You can’t do this, I thought. Not even for fun. I could see the whole top half of him in the screen, see that he was clutching a bottle of wine wrapped in brown paper. When I let him in, we kissed briefly, nervously on the lips and I took him up to my room on the pretext of showing him the rest of the flat. Then I went silent, avoided his gaze. I could tell this electrified him, probably made him think I couldn’t wait to get him into bed. I took the wine up with me as, in my anxiety, it hadn’t occurred to me to put it in the fridge. The tour stopped at my room, the first room on the upstairs landing. There was nowhere to sit except on the double bed. I hadn’t had anyone apart from Lara in my room since moving in and I didn’t have any other furniture, not even a chair. Damian said he was tired from the cold weather and he flopped on the bed. I sat next to him tentatively, as if I had entered someone else’s room and didn’t want to muss anything up. He stared up at me like I was the sky on a summer’s day with exactly the sort of gathering excitement I wanted to feel right then. It’s so good to see you, he said shyly, stretching out slowly like a cat. Knowing what he wanted, his passivity annoyed me. I wanted him to drive it all, be the thing Lara had called him. I reached for my keys on the side table, opened the wine with the corkscrew on my keyring penknife and took a large glug. I knew he’d applaud my resourcefulness with the penknife and that it would irritate me and both those things happened, one after the other. It was three o’clock but somehow I hadn’t had lunch so I was quickly light-headed. I offered him the bottle, he took a gulp and then passed it back to me. I knocked back some more. It seemed a shame to treat good wine that way but I needed the alcohol to make him more what I wanted. Damian was solemn and quiet in his incredulity as I removed my clothes. Once he was naked, his skin was vampire-pale in the fading January daylight. He was even slenderer than I’d imagined. His arms were like the ones I’d had at fifteen – long, skinny, hairless columns with no definition at all. His penis was narrower than Dom’s but it still hurt when he entered me as I couldn’t relax. My body was utterly in doubt about what I had chosen for it. Propped above me by those teenage girl arms, in the midst of his surprisingly vigorous rhythm Damian bit his lower lip hard and smiled. This riled me beyond belief. Was he doing it in an attempt to appear consumed with desire? Or was the pain giving him some kind of hit? Did he even know he was doing it? I wanted to ask him to release his lip but I didn’t. So this, I was thinking all the while, this is what it’s like not to have sex with Dom. During the thrumming of our bodies, sometimes jarring with the actual colliding of bone (I am slender myself), I turned my head round to one side and imagined myself standing there, watching it all. I knew what I thought.
Afterwards, he asked me if I had come. I lied and said yes. We finished the rest of the wine in bed and lay there for a while, not doing or saying much. This is nice, he said, after a long time. I gave a small meaningless grunt. Eventually we decided we were hungry and got dressed and went out for dinner, which he insisted on paying for. This made me feel both like I’d been bought and that he was somehow asserting he didn’t deserve to sleep with me. His pointless chattering resumed and I took every opportunity to slow and dampen it, like a sort of game. It was grim but one thing was clear, just had to be clear – it was over. Waiters forgot us. Other couples looked away. After the meal we hugged goodbye like a pair of out-of-touch friends who weren’t sure why they’d met up at all and said we’d see each other soon.
Despite the end coming even sooner than I’d imagined, the day after sleeping with Damian felt strangely upbeat. I had had sex with a second man, who was not Dominic, and while it turned out he meant little to me, it was an achievement – it had to be. I was ready for a third and fourth encounter, however many more. The ‘phase’ was real. I was newly twenty-six. What had I been thinking? That I would have sex with Dom for the rest of my life? When I thought of Damian, it was with something close to guilt at the purpose he had served but I told myself I owed him nothing. After a few days his texts started up again, with the same flowery hyperbole as if the ominous dinner had never occurred. This time they referred to my boyish hips, the translucence of my blonde-brown hair, the grey in my irises, the recurring dreams he’d had of me. He told me he knew he needed to take better care of himself so he’d booked in with the dentist. Realising now I couldn’t get away with hoping he’d vanish on me, I rang him to end things properly. He didn’t pick up and had no voicemail option on his mobile so I rang a few days later. Again, no answer. Instead the texts continued, ever more explicit. After ignoring my second call, he texted to say he didn’t like talking on the phone. It would be better to meet, he said. When we did meet, in a cafe near Lara’s flat, he seemed particularly wan. His back pain had flared up, he said. Really he should be lying flat at home, but he wanted to see me, whatever the consequences.
‘I know why we’re here,’ he said. ‘You’ve agreed to see me to tell me you don’t want to see me. Isn’t life paradoxical like that?’
‘Well, you got me there.’ I said, throwing my hands up in too dramatic a surrender. ‘You’re right. We probably shouldn’t see each other anymore.’
I launched into my explanations, how I hadn’t hidden anything from him, how I was fresh from a breakup, struggling with work, not in the best space for a relationship or even a dalliance. I was hopeful Damian would balk at the word ‘relationship’ or insist that he wasn’t up for anything serious either but he didn’t say anything. Instead he began to undo his shirt. I began to look around, wondering if anyone could see. There was a large multi-coloured bruise, almost a ring, on the heart area of his chest.
‘You did this,’ he told me.
‘You forced me to hurt myself. By my own hand. So you did it. I couldn’t stop hitting myself. Even when I was asleep.’
He didn’t bother to button up his shirt. Disgusted, I looked away.
‘You don’t understand, do you, Vicky? I was trying to change. For you. Trying to be the sort of person who goes to the dentist, writes articles that actually have a shot at making the world better, takes his lover out for dinner. The kind of guy you want, that you’re used to.’
‘I never asked you to do anything for me.’
‘Oh, so you just wanted sex? So you could forget about Mr Perfect? I knew you were one of the predators. You lured me into your web and you had your way.’
‘Damian. It wasn’t like that. I enjoyed our time together. I didn’t have an agenda -’
‘Why, Vicky?’ He was almost shouting now. ‘Why do you have to be so nice, sitting here, meeting up with me like you said you would because I asked, because I wanted to see you again, even if it’s for the last fucking time. Go on, do it. Tell me we’re not compatible or whatever. You’ve already done the main damage, so just kill me off.’
Of course, I had been planning to say we weren’t compatible. It was odd to find myself in the very position Dominic had been in with me not so long ago, except Damian and I barely had any relationship to conclude. I considered walking out. Instead I stayed another half hour listening to him talk about how he was never going to tell a girl about his family ever again, how he rarely felt real attraction despite his reputation at university. I hate the words you use, I thought. By my own hand. Lured me. When we said goodbye, I said that in time we could be friends. Friends, he said. I’ll take that, I guess. He said this in a pat way that surprised me but I took it to mean I was released.
The next day I got called in for an interview to be a production assistant on some historical reenactment scenes in a TV documentary about the Middle Ages. The original assistant had bailed last minute so they hired me to start two days later. It was the wrong job for someone with a factual TV background as the historical scenes were to be shot like a drama, complete with costumes, make-up and actors and a budget spiralling out of control, but I was grateful for the work, all three weeks of it. I hadn’t heard from Damian in three days, an observation to myself that I barely noticed just because I was so busy. Then, around lunchtime on my first day, my phone chimed.
Haven’t slept since I saw you last. What says your silence? I have searched my soul wondering how I could have been different, done different, changed my very cells to be ones that would serve you better, I don’t regret showing you my feelings, my wounds, my fuck-up-ery. We had what we had. Epic sigh…
I wrote back something about being honoured he had had such strong feelings, clicked the ringer silent and put my phone in my rucksack but minutes later I felt compelled to check again, even though I hadn’t felt it buzz.
You are too kind. It only makes it worse. If you were evil, I could banish you. To forget will take light years. Perhaps in vain I await our friendship but know that I remain here, at your disposal. Use me as you will. Use my wretched body. My mind is finished.
I didn’t show Lara the texts and I was relieved she didn’t ask about him. Anyway, of what real interest were my pathetic experiments? I suppose I was ashamed that I’d followed her suggestion so dumbly. I was certain its backfiring had to reflect badly on me rather than her. The nausea I now felt with every text from Damian was laced with a suspicion that I simply lacked the skill to handle a brief romance. I had wanted to be worldlier in my dealings with him, had wanted to shrug him off cleanly but instead I’d been too soft in answering his texts and, worst of all, offering friendship I could now see would be wrong to deliver. Surely Lara, my age when she had had her encounter, would have handled it differently. Had handled it differently. There were dozens more messages from him in the following weeks. The production manager on my job, at first seeking idle gossip in attempt at colleague bonding, soon feared for my safety and said I had to tell Lara about the messages in case Damian showed up at the flat. The more intermittently I answered him, the more he wrote. The texts were, of course, about his heartbreak, his back pain, Destiny with a capital D, my cruelty in not giving our ‘love’ a real chance but some were about conspiracy theories I should be aware of and his plans to go to Iraq to protest directly against the war. Did I not care that he might die doing this? Once or twice he cursed my silence, announcing this would be the last I’d hear from him and I’d live to regret it. A couple were more mundane, detailing the few productive things he’d done that day such as feeding the local stray cat, finally doing some laundry. He began to sign his texts, The Freak. When he tried to message me multiple times on MSN and I blocked him, a spate of furious texts appeared, calling me a communications Nazi, asking did I think he had rabies?
Finally, on my manager’s advice, I sat Lara down and confessed I’d had him round twice but it was over. She raised her eyebrows but didn’t look at me. Instead she looked at the wooden slats of her floor as if scrutinising a vast embedded map that only she could see. She then admitted she wasn’t thrilled about him being in her home but nothing had been broken or stolen and at least I was safe. It was when I showed her the texts that her face turned grave and she told me I was never to contact him or answer him again, no matter how much he wrote or what he said and I thought, this is how adults speak. I was sure I would never learn how to speak like that.
‘But I feel so shit,’ I told her. ‘I know I shouldn’t, but I do. I’m not used to this.’
‘Not used to what?’
‘Hurting someone like this.’
‘He deserves whatever hell he gets,’ Laura said. I’d never seen her this inflamed. ‘He is making you, making me even, feel unsafe in this flat. Like he might show up here. Or harm himself. I doubt he will do either but I don’t like having to wonder.’
‘I’m sorry!’ I blurted out.
Lara shrugged as if to suggest it was nobody’s fault but that didn’t relieve me. She ran her fingers through her long dark hair distractedly, almost sensually, as if doing so might transport her somewhere else. Then she pressed both hands over her eyes for a moment with a sharp intake of breath before returning to answer me in her familiar resolute tone.
‘Look, Vicky, these things happen. Ideally, I shouldn’t have encouraged you. It was a bit of fun for a weekend or whatever and it went a bit wrong. It happens. Plus I realise I never set any rules about bringing people home. I suppose I assumed that if anything were to happen it would happen at his place as he lives alone. Not that I was putting much thought into it, of course. I’ve been travelling so much.’
I was touched by her thoroughness, her wanting to frame the whole mishap in practical terms as if it were a mere hiccup that could easily be avoided in future. Again, I marvelled at how Lara just dealt with things.
After the drama job ended, I got a permanent office manager job at a documentary production company, which wasn’t really how I wanted to spend my days but the money was decent. Unexpectedly, I found the stability of a regular income worked wonders for my creative impulses. I’d feared that routine would deaden me. Slowly I began planning a short documentary of my own, following and interviewing three couples as they found or lost their way through Britain’s labyrinthian adoption system (this was before the campaigns early in the next decade to reform it). I began saving for a decent camera. For the first time I was alone with no one to distract me. I still missed Dominic terribly but it helped that we hadn’t had any contact apart from a few messages about final utility bills coming through to our old flat. It was so like him to want a clean break of things, to suggest, on splitting, that that was the best way to proceed and stick to it. Yet separate to the ongoing sorrow of missing him, those months of steady work and living with Lara stand alone as oddly pleasant in the uncertainty of my twenties. The only real problem was that Damian wouldn’t leave me alone. He wouldn’t leave Lara alone either. He seemed to think he could group us together as a pair of witches that had retracted our promises of friendship and would eventually be ground down by his demands, although Lara had never mentioned anything about being friends with him. I trusted you both, he would text, over and over. Vicious little foxes in your lair of destruction. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Tempt men in, consume them and then leave them out to die. He would call Lara’s mobile, which was odd considering his dislike of phone calls and then, when she refused to pick up, he would call her again from an unknown number. When she answered the unknown calls there would appear to be no one on the line, not even so much as a breath. I know it’s him, Lara would say. She changed the home landline and then, with great reluctance, her mobile. Like me, she had to block him on MSN. He friend-requested both of us on Facebook, complete with individual notes expressing ‘big love’ and ‘how I look forward to being friends again’. It became a topic we took too much pleasure in dissecting and then gradually it faded into just another of life’s erosive mysteries, an issue we couldn’t believe we still had to deal with, like the ends of the bills I had to pay with Dominic or the rise in Peckham’s council tax. ‘There will always be problems,’ Lara said one day. For a moment I thought she was referring to a lifetime speckled by Damian’s attempts to reach us and then I blinked, realising she was just making a general statement. What I couldn’t understand was why he was pestering her as much as me.
One warm April evening, I sat myself down on Lara’s bedroom balcony, which she let me use when she was away as it was the only outside space we had, to watch an old BBC documentary on foster parenting and my ancient laptop refused to play the disc. I soon gave up trying and decided Lara wouldn’t mind if I used her laptop. Unusually, she had left it in her room. Then I remembered she was on a yoga retreat. There was no point in even texting her for permission as the retreat had a ‘no phones’ policy. I had to return the DVD to a friend the next day so I picked up her muted-silver Mac. As soon as I opened it, her inbox jerked to life and I minimised it automatically. But I’d seen something. I resurrected her emails and there it was. An exchange with Damian’s name in the header, which I immediately opened. As I’d foolishly chosen to bring her inbox back up in the first place, it seemed allowable to take the mistake further as if such dubious actions existed only in their own logic. The exchange, which was lengthy, was between Lara and a friend. Expecting the usual gripes about trying to erase Damian from our lives, I figured I’d soon be bored enough by it to leave her emails alone. But when I scrolled down to the beginning of the chain, phrases leapt out, things that didn’t sound like Lara. The first message was about the night we went to Ella’s party: ‘Just seeing him again fucks me up like an instant hit. I have always felt completely exposed around him, like his features are a physical embodiment of my longing and everyone can see it in his eyes, his cheeks, his eyebrows. So embarrassed.’ Another email revealed she fiercely regretted encouraging me, her ‘new little housemate’, to have my fun.
So. New little housemate.
I scrolled up, past the friend’s predictable enough responses (‘forget him’, ‘leave them to it’ and so on) and read on. ‘They shagged in my home while I was in Umbria! Vicky’s assured me it’s over but he keeps texting her. She’s shown me the texts and they are fucking mental! All this stuff about how he’ll never get over her. She’s a nice enough girl so she’s not answering them but I feel like a fucking loser. Every time the phone goes, I dread and hope it will be him. SOS Meera…’
I was stung by her descriptions of me. How could I marry them with all the long conversations we’d had, the encouragement from her in all areas of my life that I’d felt to be genuine? We’d even talked about going on a weekend walking trip to the Peak District together. Now I could see it was just talk. How did I, ‘a nice enough girl’, measure up against such an unknowable goddess? Except she had fallen for a sub-mortal, fallen hard and hurt herself. I couldn’t stop reading. Lara went on to tell Meera that Damian sent her a long email after my ending with him saying he missed her and couldn’t imagine his life without her in it, imploring her to be friends with him. ‘It was the message I longed for,’ Lara wrote. ‘But I know he’s a dick and everyone wants to be my friend.’
There were several more emails along the lines of Lara trying to get Damian off her mind and Meera swinging between compassion and frustration. Lara kept describing him like an addiction and drug dealer rolled into one. She regretted answering the friendship-begging email from him, she said, but she couldn’t not answer. All the while, she continued to be bitterly mystified as to why he was obsessed with me.
When she returned from her trip everything continued as normal – I had to remind myself that nothing had actually happened from Lara’s perspective – but I found myself practising a chillier approach to her, despite my guilt at snooping on her innermost feelings. Whether she noticed, I couldn’t tell. She continued to be an exemplary flatmate.
A week later, she knocked on my door.
‘We need to talk, Vic.’ She sounded hurried.
I was terrified. She must have worked out somehow I’d read her emails. She knew far more about computers and internet privacy than I did. Come in, I said, trying to sound normal. Lara looked the most worried I’d ever seen her.
‘So, um, how to put this. Damian’s…unwell.’
‘I mean, when I called it off with him all those years ago, he went a bit stroppy and weird but nothing too out of the ordinary. I just thought it was wounded pride. This is different.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Have you heard from him in the past few days?’
‘No, nothing this week, for once.’
‘He texted me today to say he’s going to kill himself.’
She showed me the text. It was surprisingly short and to the point, as if he’d already spent his last efforts on writing it and then jumped off a bridge.
‘Oh my God! What do we do?’ For a few seconds I couldn’t breathe. He could be dead right now, I thought. I’d seen a documentary about the male suicide rate in the UK but I didn’t know anyone who’d done it, not even at university.
‘I’ve dealt with it.’ Lara went into her sent texts list on her mobile and handed it to me to read.
Damian go to GP now and explain you want to die. If you can’t get to GP or they are closed, go to A&E at your nearest hospital or call 999. If you can’t face either option, call the Samaritans on this number…’
Once again, I couldn’t mentally sew one part of Lara to another. All I remember thinking is, now I know what to say to someone who threatens suicide.
‘Vicky, I’ll forward you this text in case he contacts you. I know I said before you should keep ignoring him but you make an exception when someone threatens suicide. You need to know you did the right thing whatever the outcome. If you get a similar threat from him, send him something like this and nothing more complicated or he’ll twist it, as you well know.’
I was too shocked to speak. Lara put her hand on mine.
‘I’m sorry it’s gone this way with him. I’ve sent him another message giving him some reasons why I don’t want him to kill himself.’
I didn’t ask to see it.
I moved out a few months after Damian’s suicide threat to Lara. He never wrote to me about suicide. He went quiet for a few weeks and then he started up again with less frequent but still determined messages demanding the friendship he was owed, except for a while he only sent them to Lara. She didn’t reveal anything about them, except to inform me now and then that he was alive. The flat, more beautifully decorated than ever, had a sour taste for me now. Too much had passed between me and Lara and I knew if I were to preserve our friendship, I needed to leave. Or perhaps I knew we’d never be real friends anyway as I had trespassed on those emails, even though I never told her. In the next few years I largely forgot about Damian. He sent me the occasional text around Christmas, usually something like Echoes of hellos. Wintertime, think of you. Wishing you a good Xmas. D. I did think of him if I was reminded by something, such as Lara or Ella mentioning him, or someone else having his name. For a while there was a woman behind the cash register in the newsagent next to the tube where I moved next who looked alarmingly like him even though she was very large and a generation older. My real preoccupation was still Dominic. I had always pitied those girls who say they can’t get over someone, who treat life post break-up like the convalescent period of an injury lasting years. Now I was one of them, the person who always said she wasn’t ready, the skeptic who dismissed trying to find someone new. I had hoped I’d see Dominic again regularly as friends of a sort and we did meet up a couple of times in our late twenties but each time I would start prying for a reunion, all the while knowing it would never come. He was kind enough and curious to know how I was, even a little nervous facing me in a nice restaurant, especially when revealing he had a new girlfriend, which happened twice. Now so much time has passed and he’s married with two small children and I don’t specially envy his wife but in the first couple of years after he left me, those two girlfriends, well, I could have scratched their eyes out.
In the end, after a long period of being more or less single, I found someone to marry. John was twelve years older, a secondary school art teacher, divorced with a ten year old son and nearly forty-five when we met. We were set up on the kind of blind date that ordinarily I would have refused were it not for the enthusiasm of the mutual friend who arranged things, even persuading John to pick me up in his car so I couldn’t back out. If someone were to ask me whether John was my type, I wouldn’t be able to answer. It’s as if the question is for someone else. John is the man I have chosen and I love him. The question of type is irrelevant here and John doesn’t look anything like Dom or Damian. I was reticent at first with him, probably because of the pressure of the blind date setting, but we went for a second dinner and a third. After a few months of seeing him I remember thinking how easy it was – and would be in future – to spend a lot of time together.
I’m in my forties now. Often there are days I feel to be full of what I call ‘static’, an overload of fragmented pieces I am forever trying to put together in the hope they broke from the same vessel or simply days where I feel overstretched. Life is good, don’t get me wrong. I am a factual TV producer at the BBC and I have a seven year old daughter with John. Sometimes a day that can jolt me is one where I will catch a slight figure in the street with dark hair and a bent, shifting form. I don’t know whether I’m looking for Damian. Or whether I should be anxious if I encounter him again. I tell myself that it wasn’t real love he felt towards me, it was a delusional obsession and I am well shot of it but I feel that does a disservice to Damian somehow. I don’t know where he is now and I truly wouldn’t want to run into him, even if I think I might. I still feel a jolt of repulsion when I’m in Brixton and go to the old newsagent and find the same woman still there after all these years with her pale, oversized face. So instead I fantasize, on the weekends when I have time to think, while I’m picking up my daughter’s games and clothes and stray puzzle pieces off the floors. The best result is when my mind sorts out exactly what it wants and gives it to me but this only happens at night when I have a dream about ‘him’. In this dream a sort of amalgam of Damian and all the other men in dreams you recognise but do not know comes together in a haze I know I won’t fully remember on waking but I can feel ‘him’, his body near mine in bed. I still remember the few nights where I did truly want Damian before the feeling abandoned me. The most wonderful moment, I’m ashamed to say, is when John touches me in bed and I’m completely asleep, dreaming it’s this other man. I don’t plan for those moments or encourage them, I just wake up and find John’s wiry shorter hair under my hand and his longer, thicker body. Sometimes a trace of the unconscious ecstasy carries itself over to John and for a few seconds I have the kind of giddy excitement I no longer expect with my husband. I can’t count on this intermittent pleasure. I always feel guilty in the end. Friends tell me I needn’t but I do. I’m grateful Dominic never enters these dreams.
I saw Lara one more time. She missed my wedding so eventually invited me round to hear about it. She was still in Peckham, my old room now full of tables and cots as she was heavily pregnant with twins. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to see her again now but I can’t find it in me to break the silence. So the last image I have is of her lying on her side on a vast olive green sofa in a wine-coloured dress, necklace with wooden beads of a similar burgundy shade falling in a near-strangle over her cleavage, her long limbs appearing so physically unrelated to the huge gourd of her belly they might have been detachable parts. Her partner was out running errands and I only had time to make a passing visit. I realised, with disappointment, that I wouldn’t meet him. I wanted the final puzzle piece of the happy ending, the redeemer who couldn’t fuck her up like an instant hit.
‘Yes, it’s a shame Tristan is out,’ Lara said, her voice suggesting it wasn’t at all, that she was glad to have me to herself.
I asked her about him, how they’d met. Eventually the conversation turned towards my wedding but she didn’t ask much about it. She joked about what would have happened if Damian had turned up. What special overblown phrase of his might he have yelled in the church? Might he have denounced me as a witch? I went quiet. So this was why I’d been invited here, after so many years. To give her a final chance to pick and prod or perhaps to grieve. Now that she had dropped him into the conversation she must have felt able to ask me if I’d run into him or heard anything – which she did in a tone that suggested there could be no good in any such resurgence. She added she just wanted to know he was alright. Alright meaning ‘alive’. And, of course, that I wasn’t being bothered any further. If, of course, I knew anything. If –
‘No news is good news,’ I said brightly. The truth was I hadn’t heard from him. The conversation turned to her twins, to birth plans and the possibility of moving to a larger home. But Lara’s features for once couldn’t quite hide her disappointment in my having no news of Damian or her uncertainty of whether, in my few words, I was telling the truth. Nor could it entirely conceal her effort to hide the most private of longings she did not know I had spied on years ago, the one I knew to look for in moments such as this.