Love secrets of don juan, p.12
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.12

           Tim Lott
 
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  To sum up, then. As you know, the mediation document isn’t legally binding. It’s a codified assertion of your consensus and agreement. Signing this piece of paper isn’t committing you to anything, but symbolically, at least, it has force. You can take it to a lawyer – in fact, I strongly advise that you do take it to a lawyer. But any good lawyer nowadays is sensitive to the mediation process, and will use this document to prevent the process becoming unnecessarily adversarial.

  Right, I say.

  Beth nods.

  Giles is chattering merrily on, outlining exactly how I am going to leave myself impoverished for the next God knows how many years. But I don’t mind. In fact, I’m glad, relieved. It is an unburdening. Although I feel sure that, had I fought it out in the courts, I could have done better, I can’t face going through the legal system. The signing of this document represents another vital stage in getting beyond my marriage, removing myself from the wreckage. In that sense, at least, I expect signing this piece of paper, which renders me a satellite to real life, confined to a bedsit, enslaved to a maintenance cheque, will, paradoxically, make me happier than I have been for the last few years. The possibility of a new start – not that there can ever be anything such as a new start for anyone who loves their child – is worth every penny.

  Shall we get on with it then? I say, hardly able to keep the eagerness out of my voice. I want to be out of this office, out of this building, walking down the street in the sunshine by myself, away from Beth, towards my drink, my non-date, with Alice this evening. The document is in front of me. Without bothering to read it – we did all that last week – I am reaching for my pen.

  I’ve already been to see a lawyer, says Beth. A new lawyer.

  Slowly, with theatrical reluctance, I propel the pen back into my pocket. I had half anticipated something like this. But that doesn’t stop the dark, terrible heat that is swelling in my stomach, then surging up my spine, colouring my face, tightening my cheeks. When I speak, my voice is strait-jacketed.

  We agreed that we wouldn’t introduce lawyers at this point, Beth.

  This is my whole future we’re talking about. My future and Poppy’s. I don’t want to sign this without taking legal advice.

  Well, of course, you are technically within your rights, says Carmen, carefully.

  My voice remains strangulated. But you said… you said we could agree this between us like grown-ups. We have a lawyer here. Carmen is a lawyer. We went to see lawyers at the beginning of the process. We went to see lawyers half-way through the process. And then we agreed that once we had thrashed out this deal, which I think you should remember has taken ten months to put together, we would take it to our lawyers completed and they would simply institute it. The reason for that was —

  I know what the reason for that was, Danny. Don’t condescend to me.

  I take a deep breath, count to ten, unclench my fists.

  I’m not trying to condescend to you. I’m sorry if you got the impression that I was. Can we just discuss this in a reasonable –

  Don’t put on your reasonable voice with me. I wasn’t the one who broke up the marriage.

  Weren’t you?

  You know I wasn’t.

  We’ll have to agree to differ there. I think we need to talk this through if we’re going to –

  Don’t patronize me, Danny.

  I’m NOT PATRONIZING YOU.

  And there’s no need for shouting.

  Oh, my God.

  Long pause. Body language as follows. Me: arms crossed, legs crossed, lips white with anger. Beth: elbows on table. Studied nonchalance. Face on hands. Releases face, picks up pen, makes a few notes on a pad in front of her. I can see Carmen waiting for her moment to intervene. I let it happen.

  OK. Now these discussions, as Giles and I know only too well, can get very heated. And that’s fine. Or, at least, it’s normal. But, having come this far, it’s important to focus on the issues. Now, what I’m hearing is that you, Danny, are upset that Beth has gone to a lawyer again, which is outside the guidelines that you established with her at the start of this particular dialogue.

  That we all established with her. She broke her word, that’s what I’m saying.

  I never gave my word.

  You never promised. That’s something Poppy would say.

  Never mind what my daughter would say.

  Our daughter. Our daughter. Our daughter.

  Hold on a moment. Beth, what you are saying is that whatever has passed between you and Danny informally, you have a right to exercise your legal privileges.

  Our daughter. We all agreed it. In this room.

  That’s right. I have that right. In the interests of myself and my child.

  Our child.

  That remains to be seen.

  Fuck you.

  Hold on. Danny. Beth. Let’s just cool down a moment, shall we?

  I blink, take another deep breath. I’m beginning to hyperventilate. Sorry. I didn’t mean to swear. But she’s the one making threats. And Poppy’s going to be the one to suffer if we end up dragging this through the courts.

  I’m not making threats. I’m just saying that the process isn’t finished yet. Not according to my new lawyer.

  How can you come to this meeting having seen a lawyer when I haven’t had a chance to consult mine?

  When Beth speaks this time her voice is dark with sarcasm. Oh, yeh. Sure you haven’t.

  What does that mean?

  Come on, Danny. Of course you’ve seen a lawyer. You’re just keeping your mouth shut about it.

  Yes, I’ve seen a lawyer. But we agreed that the last consultation five months ago was the last time for both of us.

  Of course you’ve seen a lawyer since then.

  I haven’t.

  I haven’t. I’ve tried to play it by the rules. But I’m only just learning that in this game there are no rules, beyond pure and simple survival. Women understand this instinctively. Whereas I want to be good. Mum, am I being good?

  Can I suggest something? says Giles, matily, in his rich, consoling voice. Why don’t we just listen to what the lawyer has to tell us? It might be nothing too problematic. We may be seeing problems where there are no problems. So why don’t we all just calm down and see what’s on the table. Danny? What do you think?

  I think… I think she’s cheating.

  Nevertheless, the situation is the situation. We have to deal with it. Beth?

  Beth speaks briefly, in a clipped, businesslike tone.

  My lawyer advised me that in court I could achieve twenty per cent for Poppy and fifty per cent of what’s left for me for five years.

  What? I can feel a wave of coldness moving up my back.

  Poppy is still a very dependent child. I have to look after her. My statement of my financial needs makes this quite clear. The stress of this whole break-up is causing me to suffer depression. I’ve got a doctor’s certificate.

  You’re depressed. You’re depressed.

  It’s going to make it hard for me to find a proper job. I need proper support so that Poppy’s needs can be met.

  What about my needs? You’ve already got the house and the car.

  Typical. Completely selfish.

  My needs are valid. My need for a home big enough to share with my daughter. My need to have enough money left to take her out to the cinema from time to time. My need to try to build, one day, some kind of new future.

  My lawyer says —

  Fuck your lawyer.

  I’m just thinking of Poppy. I can’t manage without help. You have to bring your anger under control. If you can’t control it with me, then you can’t control it with Poppy. And if you can’t control it with Poppy –

  Then what?

  I’m just saying.

  Did you hear the threat? Did you hear it?

  I think you’d both better —

  If you’re just thinking of Poppy, give me the house, give me care of Poppy. I’ll give you spousal maintenance. Y
ou can still have your pound of flesh. I’ll have the house, you can have the flat. I’ll he the primary carer.

  A child needs her mother.

  A child needs her father too.

  That’s not what the law says.

  Then the law can suck my dick. Which is more than you ever did.

  I’m making up for it with Oliver.

  Hold on now. Calm down. Carmen is holding her palms out in a placatory gesture. I think we need to talk this through.

  We do talk it through. And, using a tactic that in house-buying is known as gazumping, in the loan industry as sharking, and in poker as shit-or-bust, Beth secures for herself a compromise. I’ll continue to pay fifteen per cent of my net earnings to Poppy for the next twelve years minimum and fifty per cent of what’s left to Beth for at least four years. If at that time she hasn’t got a job, she can go back and ask for an extension.

  I choose to give in because I know that Beth will do it. One of the things that separates men and women in most domestic negotiations is that women are ready to push the button marked ‘nuclear’. Men, historically trained through the culture of commerce to deal with compromises and negotiation, have no defence against this other than bewilderment, inchoate anger and, finally, submission. They are not good enough poker players because they won’t go nuclear. It’s too irrational, too destructive. They are always outbid by the fanatic. There is no defence against the suicide bomber.

  *

  Did I fail my wife? Of course I failed my wife. I failed her because I fell out of love with her. Does she therefore have a right to be so relentless? It’s a non-question. Rights have nothing to do with it. A marriage break-up is about cutting a deal. Forget good faith: good faith is a burden here. Good faith was what Neville Chamberlain showed Adolf Hitler.

  Not that I’m comparing my wife with Hitler, God forbid. Although she has got a bit of a moustache.

  I’m sitting in a coffee bar with Martin a few hundred yards from the mediation offices. He works nearby. Martin always offers to come round and meet me after a battle has been fought. This time he finds me sitting in my chair, shaking, blinking, my hand trembling as it fights to control the vanilla latte I ordered, thinking all that sweetness and fat might comfort me. He watches me through a curtain of floppy brown hair falling in front of one chestnut eye. His pale skin is still young, despite the onset of middle age, and his lips are softly curled in a way that suggests wry kindness or sympathetic inquisition. Tall, of course. The faint imprint of laugh lines now etching themselves attractively at the corner of his eyes. A man-boy, a boy-girl, a delicate strength.

  I love Martin. He has always been a friend to me, always looked out for me. I wish I could marry someone like him. He and I actually like each other enough to get married, and I know that we wouldn’t argue or bitch or secretly destroy one another.

  God, sometimes I so wish I was gay.

  Look at you, Spike. What happened?

  Almost without pausing for breath, I spill it all out, a great hawking of pain and anger, distress and confusion.

  It’s not the money. I’ll do whatever it takes. It’s just that it’s all so ruthless, so unending. Even now I know it’s not over. There’ll be some new thing in a week or two, contract or no contract. She always cheats. She won’t let go. She’d rather make all of us suffer, than let go. At least making me hate her is getting a reaction. She can’t face the prospect of indifference. She’d rather blow up the world than face reality. It’s so stupid, so unfair.

  All this time, Martin just looks at me with his large brown eyes. I take a sip of the latte. It’s cold. Now, at last, he speaks.

  The trouble with you is that you’re turning into a woman.

  What do you mean? I look up from my coffee, shocked.

  He smiles gently. Martin has this amazing ability to criticize people quite harshly without causing offence. He’s a human version of my vanilla latte.

  You’re getting into all that victim shit. ‘Poor little me, nasty, cheating, oh, boo-hoo, why is the world so wicked?’

  So?

  So you’re missing the first principle of grown-up life.

  Which is?

  He laughs, and puts his arm round my shoulders. There is no God.

  I nod, recognizing this commonly ignored yet incontrovertible truth and allowing myself a wry smile. Of course I know there’s no God, but, then, I both know and don’t know. There’s still that God-shaped hole. The infant craving for justice.

  I forgot.

  People do what they need to do to get what they need to get. When it comes down to it, when people’s very survival as people, as identities, is at stake, they will do anything. Beth sees this as being about her survival, about winning out over you, since you left her.

  I didn’t leave her. It was mutual.

  He takes his arm from my shoulders and sips his coffee. He checks his watch – he’s in his lunch break.

  Come on, Spike. There’s no such thing as a mutual separation.

  Honest, it’s…

  How did it end?

  I don’t know.

  Make an effort. Try to remember.

  I think I asked her if… I asked her what was more important to her in the marriage. Me. Or Poppy.

  And she said Poppy.

  But that wasn’t it. It was how she said Poppy, how she actually spoke the word. Because the way she spoke the word meant that it had never been any contest, that of course Poppy was far more important to her than me, that I was, in fact, of staggering insignificance compared with Poppy. This was not news to me – I had seen what little we had of a relationship shrivel and dry up after Poppy was born, after, in a sense, I became unnecessary. But it was the way she said it. With a kind of… soft contempt, I suppose. Actually, not that soft.

  And then?

  And then I said, ‘Well, maybe you don’t want to be with me, if I’m not all that important.’

  And then?

  And then she said, ‘Oh, don’t be such a baby.’ She was always calling me a baby. Whenever I dared to disagree with any of her points of view, or challenge her essential world picture, she would just reduce me – call me a child.

  And then?

  And then… I didn’t lose my temper.

  You didn’t lose your temper?

  That’s when I knew it was over. Because a hundred times out of a hundred, when she tries to neutralize me in that way, tries to make me into a non-person, I lose my temper. That’s why she does it. To prove her point. That I’m a baby. But that time I just felt icy cold. Then I said, ‘Do you still love me?’ She didn’t say anything. So I pushed it. I said, ‘Do you? Do you still love me?’

  What did she say?

  She didn’t say anything. She just shrugged. Then she went back to playing with Poppy. That’s when I went upstairs and started getting packed. Something deep inside me just gave way. So I packed.

  So you did leave her.

  Only technically.

  Why didn’t you tell her you loved her?

  Why? How could I love her? How can a baby love a wife?

  That’s what she wanted you to say. She was scared to tell you that she loved you. Women test men by putting them on the rack. It’s the way they think they can find out if you really love them. She wanted you to say it first. After she’d given you every reason to hate her.

  Why?

  Don’t ask me. It’s just what women do. They think strange thoughts.

  That’s what I wanted her to say. Then I could have said…

  What would you have said?

  I don’t know.

  Well, it’s too late now, I suppose.

  I suppose so.

  I stir my coffee, think about ordering another. Martin stares out of the window – he has a tendency to drift off. He’s never quite all there. But he’s sharp, too.

  Martin. If a separation is never mutual, how about you and Alice?

  He blinks, shifts in his seat, refocuses.

  I suppose you’ve got
a point.

  You left her, then.

  Uh. Well. It’s never that simple. Is it?

  Isn’t it? Did you leave her or not?

  Now Martin looks at me, with a certain affable curiosity.

  I don’t, uh, know why this is so important to you, Spike.

  I’m not sure either. Terence would be disappointed in me. Given how obvious it is.

  Did you? Did you leave her?

  Um. Well.

  If you’d offered to move in and have a kid with her, would she have stayed?

  I, er… She’d have stayed with me if I’d given her the chance. Yeh. I suppose.

  You left her, then.

  I left her. Yes.

  Now it’s Martin’s turn to stare ruminatively at his coffee. What he seems to be experiencing is mild nostalgia rather than loss. All his negative emotions seem to be innocent parodies of real sentiment: anger is vague irritation, pain is being slightly under the weather, outrage is feeling that it’s really not on. He’s toned down, modulated.

  What Martin needs, what he’s always wanted, is a woman who’ll accept his indifference as a long-term prospect, and who’ll be smart enough not to try to convert him to the world of emotion. Also, a woman who doesn’t want kids – one’s enough in any relationship. I’m reluctant to add to the stereotype that all men are overgrown infants because they’re not, but Martin is, and he’ll never change. He wants the lightness of life to last for ever – so no kids, no clingers. No ballast.

  When he looks up again, he gives me a warm, rueful smile. What about Poppy? How’s she doing?

  What about Poppy? Where does she stand in this long, terrible war between two selfish adults vying to have their own needs met?

  She stands in the middle, a victim, also selfish but innocent. She stands on earth that is falling away from her, the foundations of her universe rocked, because I can’t stand to be with her mother and her mother can’t stand to be with me. She is suspended between us, learning the toughest lesson of them all, the one lesson we spend a lifetime failing to learn: there is no God. There is no Santa Claus, there is no Tooth Fairy.

 
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