Love secrets of don juan, p.11
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.11

           Tim Lott
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  So she came out with us. And through the entire evening, since I was incapable of saying, Helen, I don’t want you to be here, I just had to punish her out of the corner of my mouth, as it were. I was sarcastic, distant, aloof. She became more and more small in the corner, as I rapped and laughed with Martin, as we drank, told jokes and talked about football. The smaller she got, the more I hated her, and the more hateful I became.

  Until Martin and I finally said goodnight, and Helen and I were alone together and then she burst into tears. At that point I stopped being horrible and angry and started feeling absolutely lousy for being so vicious. I said sorry, and she put her arms around me, and I began to cry, too, for being so horrible, and then…

  Then I started to feel angry again because we had just been through an absurd pantomime that had forced me to be untrue to myself and reduced my respect both for her and me. And it was her fault.

  Except that it wasn’t. It was my fault, because I didn’t make it plain to her that she had to get her own life. Because I wasn’t brutal enough. So here’s a thing…

  Here’s a note for The Love Secrets of Don Juan.

  To have a successful relationship you have to be ruthless.

  The alternative is cowardice. When Helen and I felt love slipping away from us, we did what cowards do when faced with calamity. We pretended it wasn’t happening. That’s how we moved in together – although our relationship was in trouble, although I knew it wasn’t going to be happy-ever-after for me and my first love, although the last thing I wanted to do was live with Helen Palmer. But I was trying to be good. And I was afraid. Those two impulses have governed all my relationships with women and, finally, ruined them.

  Helen was kicked out of the flat she shared with two former college pals. She had nowhere to live. I had a flat. She could come and live with me, or she would have to… I don’t know, go back to her parents or something. She said it would only be for a month or two.

  I believed her. She probably believed it herself, although I have learned that one of the Nightmare Things about Women is that they can be extremely calculating when desperate, weak or frightened. More calculating than men customarily find it useful to admit to imagining. Women can be sneaky and it can be dangerous to trust them. That’s an important Love Lesson.

  Perhaps she didn’t plan it that way. I can’t be sure. The powerless – and if women weren’t powerless in the 1970s, to many it still felt that way – will do anything to assert who they are, will do anything to survive.


  Only Martin Gilfeather thought I was a fool to let Helen move in with me. At least, he was the only one with the courage to tell me so. Carol Moon doubtless thought it too, but was too polite, or politic, or too much of a friend to Helen to say so. But Martin, who was then, as now, moving effortlessly from one woman to another, thought I was being weak and manipulated. Although he was a ditherer and gave the appearance of being hapless, he had a hidden toughness. Appeals to guilt never moved Martin. He had absolute confidence that what he did was OK, that it was right because he was doing it. There was no conflict in Martin between morality and self-interest. Somehow, despite this, he was popular and much admired, unlike me -and I worried and fretted all the time about doing the ‘right thing’. Martin was one of those people utterly at home in his own skin; his easy charm and all-round tolerance of everything that happened to be taking place at the time, however difficult or stressful, more than compensated for his lack of interest in any moral fixed points. People felt comfortable with Martin because Martin felt comfortable with himself.

  He never judged himself, so he never judged other people. He informed me about Helen’s ‘scheming’ without malice -in fact, with amused affection.

  I’d met Martin in my college holiday job. We were working in a DIY shop in a small provincial shopping centre. He was studying at some teaching college – nowadays he’s an English teacher at a comprehensive in south London. He looked then much as he looks now – boyish, fresh-faced, innocent. We quickly achieved the intensity that teenage friendships somehow generate, and I fell under his spell like nearly everyone who met him.

  They say that in every marriage one partner loves and the other permits themselves to be loved. Perhaps the same is true of friendships. I always needed Martin more than he needed me: his indifference attracted me much as it attracted women.

  I’ve tried hard to learn through watching Martin with women, but I don’t think he knows what he does. That’s why whatever it is is so effective – it’s natural, effortless. He meets a woman, likes her, asks her out – whether she says yes or no is of little import to him. He is unoffended when he’s rejected – which he almost never is. He doesn’t take love personally – that’s his genius.

  I say ‘love’, but I’m not sure that Martin is capable of love in the way I understand the word. He always seems delighted with the woman he’s with, and if he’s not, then -with sadness but never regret – he lets them drift away and finds himself another. Women rarely leave Martin because they can never get him in the first place – they’re always angling for his heart, but they can never quite locate it, which keeps them hooked. They can never quite locate it, not because it’s not there but because it operates differently from most people’s. It seems capable of a generalized love –Martin’s always giving money to charity, or helping out street drunks with a fiver and a chat – and of a strong connection with and affection for a woman. But the giving up of himself that to me is love – I just can’t see Martin doing it. Being with a woman is too low a priority for him. He’s happy on his own; he has no need to build up his self-esteem; even sex is something he can take or leave.

  To be a success with women I’d have to learn to be like Martin – but it’s never going to happen. I could never fake what Martin does naturally.

  The thing with Alice, his girlfriend – uncharacteristically he made a decision about her, thanks, in part, to my brilliant advice – was that whatever he did, from a long enough perspective, was bound to be right. This banal sophistry apparently impressed Martin enough for him actually to take action, in the face of Alice’s persistent prodding: he told her, with a combination of nods, tics, twitches and other forms of emotional semaphore that he wasn’t ready for the ‘next step’. So they called it a day.

  Martin, as usual, took it with apparent equanimity. About a month after the event he mentioned it to me in passing. Now he’s going out with some twenty-one-year-old Brazilian samba dancer, and his feathers are, as ever, unruffled. After two years you’d have expected a few tears in the beer, or at least a manly shrug, but Martin is like a cat: he picks himself up from a fall that might cripple a lesser creature and carries on as before.

  Alice – well, I can’t think about Alice at the moment. Actually I’m finding it hard to think about anything. Because I’ve got mediation again today. The churning in my guts tells me this. I don’t even need to look in my diary. It’s this morning, at eleven o’clock. As if that wasn’t enough, this evening I’ve got another date.

  Psyching myself up for the mediation session I ask myself: what’s with the date? Why do I keep trying? I’ve read so many articles in the newspapers telling me that the New Singletons are on the march, that the way forward is for people to be independent, strong, self-contained, to pick up relationships and drop them again, like cars when the spark plugs wear out.

  It amounts to spending life alone, giving up. I can’t help but see it that way. To make that a positive lifestyle choice strikes me as simply sad.

  I’ve been struggling hopelessly for nearly thirty years to find love, but I still believe in it. I’m Robin Williams, the perennial, hopeful half-wit. I still believe.

  Maybe tonight will be the night. Because this isn’t a cold call. It’s with someone I already know. Although it’s not really a date. The woman is off-limits, to tell you the truth. Why?

  Because she used to go out with my best mate. Because she’s Alice.

  I’ve been trying
to work out the etiquette of this. This is my reasoning.

  He dumped her. Or that’s what it amounts to, anyway. After two years with Alice, he’s already with another woman. He doesn’t love Alice – or isn’t sure, which amounts to the same thing.

  I didn’t invite her out on a date – not that it is a date, of course – she invited me. So, am I going after my best friend’s girl? No. If anything, she’s going after me. Which is fine because…

  I don’t really fancy her that much.

  I don’t even like her that much. Not that I dislike her -I just don’t know her well enough to have an opinion.

  So I’m definitely not going to try and have sex with her.

  Nevertheless, we’re meeting up, two half-friends (I never had any kind of independent relationship with Alice). She said she would be around my way that evening, and did I fancy going out for a drink? I didn’t see any reason not to. I mentioned it to Martin, and he was cool about it. It’s not going to lead anywhere.

  So what’s the harm?

  It’s true, I am naïve. But, then, I’m a man. We can be. We’re trained to dominate and manipulate the physical universe, and to take risks. Our instinct is usually towards the straightforward. It’s a strength. It’s a terrible weakness.

  I’m in the waiting room at the mediator’s office. Beth will be arriving in a moment. I wonder if I have time to retch before she gets here. It would be best to get it out of the way. It might suggest vulnerability, and that’s something I can’t afford. You can’t in a war.

  Mediation seemed such a good idea. Symbolically speaking, mediators are the ruminants to the lawyers’ carnivores. The job of the mediator is not about securing given weights of flesh, but about helping you separate in a grown-up, mature, herbivorous fashion. This involves regular meetings in which, consensually, you work out all the financial and childcare differences between you. Then you give the paperwork to the carnivores, the flesh-tearing lawyers, and they, in a uniquely non-carnivore fashion, meekly implement what you have already agreed.

  Nice idea. Only it’s wrong and it’s futile. Because separation requires the warring parties to face up to their irreconcilable differences, and the erecting of disinterested structures between them that will allow the law to do its job. What separation does not require, and must be resisted at all costs, is the maintenance of the illusion of reason between them.

  But consensus does not happen in war. That’s why it’s called war. And divorce, when kids are involved, is war.

  The retching will have to wait. Beth has just arrived.



  Beth shoots a glance at me, but I’m not prepared to catch her eye. I glance at her when she’s looking out of the window. She looks tired – perhaps the glowing self she presented last time at the house was just the theatre of cruelty I imagined it to be. Her long blonde hair has been cut a good bit shorter – it suits her. She’s wearing a new outfit, something in taupe linen. Perhaps this is meant to suggest neutrality. Or maybe she just likes taupe. All this introspection is fucking me up. Everything seems like it means something else.

  I can see that, like me, she’s tense and angry – we always are at these sessions. Her wide, thin mouth is set tight, her oval face hardened by a clenched jaw.

  It’s an absurdly surrealistic exercise in some ways, this formal sorting through of all that was once emotional, spontaneous, hopeful, loving. It’s a rite of maiming. It’s so strange seeing your wife on such neutral territory, after you’ve been separated for nearly eighteen months, and now that your relationship has transformed out of all recognition.

  For years I woke up each day in bed with this woman and, whether I liked her that day or not, she was there. It was the most intimate relationship in my whole tapestry of relationships; I was naked beside her, both physically and metaphorically. She was the mother of my child – our child, an indissoluble lifelong link between us. I had watched that child being born, the most profound experience of my life. Every day I had woken up with this woman, loved her and fought her, and I’d eaten my eggs and she’d had her muesli, and she’d drunk her tea, and I’d had my coffee, and that had been my life for ten… whole… years.

  Now we face each other, strangers – no, more than that, enemies – in an empty waiting room with magnolia walls, and watercolours of muddy fields and shire horses plodding through them. I can see the weight of the haycart that the horses pull, the effort on their faces. Is this a metaphor the mediators have chosen deliberately? Since I started going to Terence I see patterns everywhere, some, I suspect, based on little reality but on the fact that I want to see patterns. It puts me at the centre of the universe, gives me a sense of control. It’s the same impulse that makes so many women read astrology columns, believe in angels and the efficacy of alternative medicine. Patterns that show us the way.

  How are you?

  Just terrific.

  Enemies, but enemies who share a daughter, who still love each other in a way that cannot easily be dissolved. How can you not love the mother of your daughter? I don’t know.

  We are nearly at the end of the mediation sessions. Last time, I agreed to sign over the house to Beth so that Poppy would have a proper home. Beth, of course, will be the primary carer. Why? Because she’s a better parent? Because she’s got a stronger bond with Poppy? No. Because she’s a woman.

  If you’re not married you might save money when you and your partner separate, but you’ve got no more right in law to see your child than the man sitting next to you on the bus. Why? Because you’re a man. Your wife might be a crack whore and you might be a secular saint, and the woman would still get the kids and could stop you seeing them at whim. It happens all the time.

  Beth’s lips are still tight. Those lips I once kissed, whose softness made my heart race, are pursed and ready for war. We are in the final stages of the battle. Today, with any luck, we will put our signature on the mediation document that will represent the finalization of our financial and custody agreements. Whatever it costs me, I will sign it joyfully: nothing is worse for mental equilibrium than an unresolved situation, and I decided at the beginning of this that I would give up anything to maintain a functional relationship with Beth after the divorce.

  So I’ve let her have the house and the car. I’ve agreed to pay fifteen per cent of my net earnings to Poppy until she is eighteen, and forty per cent of what’s left to Beth for the next three years. I keep the bedsit that I used to have as an office. Although I paid for it in the first place, and had it long before I even met Beth the bedsit had to go into the pot too. Beth has agreed not to try to go after it so long as she gets to keep the house. Fair enough. Sharing is what marriage is about. Money isn’t everything, blah-blah-blah.

  Now she’s living there with Poppy, and when Poppy grows up and leaves home, it will still be Beth’s: I will have no claim on it. Meanwhile, I will have my little bedsit, with an extra put-up bed for Poppy, who doesn’t like staying there. And I don’t know how I’m going to save up for a larger place when a huge chunk of my net earnings goes to Beth and Poppy in the first place, and I can barely hold down a job.

  God, I’ve got to stop whining. Terence would put it differently, but that’s the track he’s trying to get me on: put it behind me; accept; forgive; forget. There’s got to be another side to this that I’m not taking into account. The woman’s side. I dare say Beth’s about to point it out to me. She usually does.

  Shall we go in, then?



  Inside the mediation room there are two people, a woman, Carmen, and a man, Giles. It costs £120 per hour, but it still seems preferable to us both than slugging it out with lawyers. They are nice. We like them. They are reasonable and focused, calm and rational – everything that Beth and I are not at the moment. They do not give us legal advice, only advise us of what the legal situation might be. Carmen is a lawyer trained in mediation, Giles a mediator and counsellor. They invite us to consult lawy
ers separately, but we have both agreed informally not to since it is likely to inflame the situation, lawyers being lawyers and trained in the ways of battle rather than conciliation. With any luck, today we will sign our agreement, hand it to lawyers and they will neutrally put it into effect, thus saving us even more bitterness.

  Hello, Danny. Hello, Beth.

  We smile conventional smiles, and adopt the masks of normal social relations. We are each anxious to please these people, and hope that somehow, in liking us, they will be able to make our circumstances less painful. They have power, because we are in their domain, and we come into it as supplicants. They are also powerful, because they don’t care. Their interest is professional. And indifference, as Martin knows so well, moves mountains.

  Giles speaks first. An avuncular figure, in his mid-fifties, with a white open-neck Ralph Lauren shirt and rumpled grey chinos, slightly too tight round the waist, he beams down at us as if we have come to him for pleasure rather than the endgame in a long, grisly battle between and against ourselves.

  Now, if I may recap from last week.

  He points up to the flip-chart we have been using to delineate capital, income, pensions, profits, interest, upsides, downsides, parenting time, nominal values of this and that, future incomes from here and there. It all looks scientific, neutral and painless.

  We’re nearly at the end of the road, 1 think. I hope. Unless I’m mistaken, we’ve taken this thing as far as we can. It hasn’t always been easy, but today I think we should be able to put our signatures to the mediation document for you to present to your lawyers. I want to thank you both for your commitment to the process, and your very obvious concern and love for your child.



  There was a pause before Beth said OK, a pause I didn’t care for. When one is in the midst of a situation so sensitive to implication, back-pedalling, second thoughts, hints and malice aforethought, one becomes as sensitized to the spaces as to the words that surround them.

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