Love secrets of don juan, p.13
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.13

           Tim Lott
 
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  Forces larger than all of us operate, and not all of them are benevolent, Poppy. Most of them are not benevolent. We are caught up in storms. We are all going to die. We don’t go to heaven. We just rot. So we want to make our brief stay on this earth worthwhile, and we will hurt others in order to do so. We will even hurt our children.

  This is the truth, Poppy, although, God help me, the day I walked out of that house where I lived with your mummy the heart was ripped out of me. This is the truth, Poppy, although I love you more than I can tell you, although you are the greatest joy I have ever known. This is the truth, although the break-up of my marriage was – is – crucifixion, the most painful punishment known to humankind.

  There is no God, Poppy, and we are all trying to save ourselves.

  She’s OK. God, I miss her. It’s not natural for a father not to see his child every day. I get a glimpse once a fortnight. Sometimes it’s so bad I park outside her school just to watch her go in or come out. It’s one of those things that you think will make you feel better but actually makes you feel worse, yet you keep doing it anyway. I ache. All the time.

  But what about her?

  Children are amazingly resilient, I suppose. So they say. So I need to believe. More resilient than adults, anyway. They’re the strong ones, because they have no memory. Oh, she and I have an OK time. She gets on my nerves sometimes. Sometimes I think that if she says ‘not fair’ one more time, I’ll…

  But what about her? You keep turning it round to yourself. Do you feel guilty about what this is doing to her?

  I suppose so. What use is guilt? I’m trying my best to do the best I can, given the situation we’re all in. I’ll never desert her.

  You already did.

  I stare morosely at him. Yeh. I already did.

  Martin puts his arm round me again. He’s not afraid of showing affection. It’s one of the reasons I love him. It’s OK. You’re a good man. Good enough, anyway. This will be over one day. Perhaps sooner than you think. Just ride it out. Everything goes away if you sit still enough for long enough.

  Yeh. I know.

  Where are you going with Alice tonight?

  I don’t know. Just down the pub.

  I look up at him, scanning his face for signs of suspicion or concern. There are none. You’re cool with this, Martin, yeh? I mean, I don’t want to…

  Sure. It’s fine. It’s nice that you two can be friends.

  It’s not a date, Martin. We’re just…

  Martin laughs. It is clear that he thinks the possibility of me and Alice having a date is rather outside his scope for worry. Martin is tall, cool, dark, handsome and irresistibly indifferent, and I am a desperate forty-five-year-old near-divorcé. He doesn’t feel remotely threatened. Anyway, he trusts me, and he doesn’t love Alice.

  You two have a good time. She’s a terrific woman. You send her my… and with this he puts his fingers up to make inverted commas in the air… love. He takes a final swig of his coffee, puts his thumb up and heads out of the door.

  Be good to yourself, Spike.

  I’ll try.

  I know you will. I know you, Spike.

  No, you don’t, Martin. You have no idea.

  7

  I never expected, planned or imagined that I would end up in bed with Alice. It took me by surprise.

  No – Terence didn’t buy that one either. After all, as he pointed out, she’s a woman and I’m a man. We’re both available. So I cannot say that the question of sex did not fleetingly cross my mind. But I had answered no. I wasn’t going to bed with my best friend’s ex-girlfriend. And I certainly wasn’t going to start it even if it did come up. Not that it was going to.

  However, we went to the pub, and we got drunk, and we ended up in bed together. It was nice, and it felt comfortable, and in the morning neither of us regretted it. By then I had already decided two things. One: it wasn’t going to happen again, or if it did, I wasn’t going to institute it. Not that it was going to. Two, and this was something we were both agreed on, neither of us was going to tell Martin, or if we did, it wasn’t going to be me. What was the point? It was a one-off, we were both emotionally threadbare, the one from the impending divorce, the other from losing Martin. (Alice still loved Martin – she had made that clear from the outset.)

  So I didn’t think much more about it. Until I got an email from Alice a few days later asking if I wanted to go out for another drink. I hesitated, to make a gesture towards my better self, then said yes.

  The guilt I felt was surprisingly manageable. I knew that, as far as Martin was concerned, it was over, that he had left her, and I knew, too, that Alice and I weren’t going to get seriously involved, so it would all be over soon enough, no harm done, two lonely souls finding brief consolation in each other’s arms.

  Except that by the end of the second night we had fallen in love.

  Who knew where it had come from? A truck, no headlights on, straight out of the night. This woman, whom I barely know, who had been Martin’s girlfriend, a nice enough woman, to whom I hadn’t given much thought. Now I can’t get her out of my mind.

  It’s suspicious, I grant you. I know that the emotions of a man going through a divorce and a woman just after the break-up with her boyfriend are quintessentially unreliable, yet what’s real is real. One thing women are right about, which I once, in my very male way, doubted, is that there is such a thing as intuitive knowledge. That, in fact, intuitive knowledge is the only kind that is really true, the kind of knowing that isn’t worked out in the chilly air-conditioned spaces of your head, but in the furnace of your heart.

  I am in love with Alice. And she, I know, is in love with me. I didn’t have to ask. The fact is, we could look into each other’s eyes for minutes on end. I don’t think I did that with Beth for the last five years of our marriage. Too honest. You can see too much. You glimpse too many lies.

  But there, in Alice’s eyes, I could see there was nothing to fear. We had entire conversations with our eyes.

  Oh, God, it was like balm.

  Now I have a real chance to use everything I’ve learned from talking to Terence, introspecting, raking over the ashes of my old relationships. I’ve learned a lot – and this time I’m going to get it right. Alice is going to be the first woman who isn’t going to be disappointed with me. Alice is going to be the first woman who is not going to disappoint me. The Love Secrets that I’ve mined from the frozen fields of my past are my protection. I’m going to stick with them. I’ve grown up. I’ve learned my lessons. This time, everything is going to be fine.

  Love is such an extraordinary force. To take a heart like mine, so torn and dried out and battle-scarred and, almost overnight, flood it, rebirth it, remake it, unfold its fiercely closed petals! How tough the human heart is. How endlessly renewable. And how poignantly trusting.

  What are you looking so cheerful about? says Beth, suspiciously.

  I’m at the house to pick up Poppy. It’s my weekend. Poppy doesn’t want to come, she’s clinging to her mother, which is usually enough to make me miserable. She hides behind her white-blonde hair, screws up her big hazel eyes. She’s crying.

  But I’m cool about it. I try to josh her out of it in an uncharacteristically nonchalant and unconcerned fashion. This is enough to put an arch, knowing look in Beth’s eye.

  Come on, Poppy. We’ll have fun.

  I hate fun.

  No, you don’t. Tell you what, I’ll take you to Teddy’s Big Adventure.

  I don’t care.

  Come along, poppet.

  So, what are you looking so cheerful about?

  Why shouldn’t I look cheerful? Come on, Poppy. Look, I’ve brought you a lollipop.

  I’ve told you they’ll ruin her teeth. Get her an apple.

  Not fair! Apples stink.

  With that she throws her slight frame into my arms, and takes the lollipop. Good old-fashioned bribery. You can’t beat it.

  Make sure you bring her back on time.

/>   Of course I will, darling.

  What?

  I blink, confused. Sometimes I forget I hate Beth. Here we are, in the porch of the house we spent so many years in with our daughter. Inside, the furniture is the same, the decorations are the same (we’ve been putting off the ritual of dividing up our worldly goods but now the mediators have pushed us into scheduling it for next Wednesday). Sometimes it seems like we’re the same, as if nothing has happened.

  Sorry. I didn’t mean to…

  Beth’s expression is unreadable. Then it resolves into a wry smile. It’s OK, ‘darling’. Have a nice time.

  I’ll try.

  She kisses Poppy, who is concentrating on her lollipop, then closes the door.

  I’m glad I still provide her with such a rich source of amusement.

  Poppy gets into the front seat of my car, a crumbling Nissan Sunny that I bought for five hundred pounds through Exchange & Mart. It is rusty and smells bad, but it’s all I can afford. I just hope it will keep going long enough to get us through the weekend. I start up and we begin heading towards Teddy’s Big Adventure, an indoor playground in a converted warehouse along Western Avenue. Poppy stares out of the window sucking her lollipop.

  Why does your car smell bad, Daddy?

  Because I can’t afford a nicer one, poppet.

  Mummy’s car smells nice.

  I resist the impulse to say, That’s because Daddy gave it to Mummy and it’s only a year old, and it’s got real leather seats, so why would it smell bad? This one looks like it has spent its long, unhappy life being impregnated with cigarette smoke and fast food, and smells like a week-old bucket of Colonel Sanders’ Economy Chicken Wings mixed with the contents of an airport ashtray. I spent all morning trying to get it to smell nice with deodorants, polish and shampoo because I was picking up my little poppet.

  Why don’t you just get some more money?

  I’m trying, poppet. But…

  What?

  Never mind.

  Daddy.

  Yes, darling.

  I feel sick.

  It’ll pass, darling, as soon as we… CHRIST!

  The vomit shoots out of Poppy in a thick rainbow cascade and on to the carpet. I am astonished by the quantity, and the foulness of its smell. One half expects children to stay like their baby selves, when even their shit smelt OK, but they get older. They get human.

  Sorry, Daddy. Don’t be angry, Daddy.

  Why didn’t you tell me sooner that you felt sick?

  Sorry, Daddy.

  Poppy begins to cry, there’s a pile of sick on the carpet, the engine in the Nissan Sunny is making strange noises, and suddenly I don’t feel quite so good any more.

  It takes a good fifteen minutes to sort out the mess, but now the car smells of chicken wings, cigarettes and vomit. Poppy, however, has made a full recovery, and is working at the dissolution of her lollipop. It’s pouring with rain. We pull into the car park of Teddy’s Big Adventure. I almost fall backwards as the cacophony inside assaults my ears. The downpour has brought in every family from within a ten-mile radius. There’s nowhere to sit, food and sweet wrappers all over the floor, and the play apparatus is so crowded that it looks as if it’s about to collapse. But Poppy wants to come here, although as she stares at the heaving mass of screeching bodies she’s looking a tad nervous. Why wouldn’t she? A Paras lieutenant would look a tad nervous.

  Nevertheless, she takes off her shoes and socks, I pay the entrance fee and she’s into the arterial arrangement of pipes, the soft boulders to crash into, the nets and pulleys and ropes and chaotic collisions that to me conjure up the shape of a child’s mind if you could represent it in three dimensions in lurid plastic.

  Fearless – Poppy has always been a spirited, outward-going child – she heads into a pipe that is already stuffed with a knot of infant bodies. If Beth was here she’d be looking out for Poppy and kvetching and making a fuss, but I think you’ve got to let kids learn for themselves.

  I look for a place to sit, but there’s nowhere. The people around me bring out the snob in me; the women seem slatternly, the men loutish. Almost all of the little boys have cropped heads and wear football shirts, while the little girls have pale, unhealthy skin – junkatarians. But a wet day for single parents knows no class barriers. All there is at the bedsit is a television, a video and a load of books, which I bought to fulfil a fantasy that Poppy might prefer them to the finely crafted characters and plots of Digimon. But she’s bored by books. She’s bored by the theatre. She’s bored by vegetables. She’s bored by violin lessons. She’s bored by the whole middle-class fantasy package. She likes to watch TV and eat crap. So, today I will take her to McDonald’s, which is where she wants to go, and at least at Teddy’s she’ll run around and work off the processed fat that she’s about to add to the chocolate, fish fingers and oven chips that she will only eat when she’s with me. I find it hard to deny her, because if I did she’d make an even bigger fuss about leaving Beth and maybe I’d lose her altogether.

  I have made the fatal mistake of not bringing a book to read. I lounge against the wall, trying to ignore the screaming. I am bored. More precisely, I am in hell. I try to identify Poppy in the array of brightly coloured equipment, but cannot see her among the demonic bodies. Hieronymus Bosch would have dropped his paintbrush and run. Horrible pop music is being piped at a terrific volume through inadequate speakers. A portly young gentleman with a buzz-cut is sitting at a table next to me and having a sparkling Sunday-morning conversation with his blushing paramour.

  Don’t you fucking start.

  Piss off, you fat cunt.

  Don’t you tell me to piss off.

  Oh, I’m scared.

  You should be.

  I’m fucking shaking in my shoes.

  You fucking should be.

  And so on. I scan round for something to distract me from the demands of this Socratic inquiry. There are a few abandoned newspapers and magazines in the rubbish bin. It seems that the Economist and the New Yorker are not much in demand, but the Sunday Sport, most of the red-top tabloids and variations on Hello!, OK! and Chat enjoy an enthusiastic following. I pick up a copy of OK! and flick through it dejectedly. Lots of pointless toffs and so-called celebs parading around their country homes and chatting at endless pointless parties with herds of Hugos, Annabels and grazing flocks of Cholmondeley-Warners and Featherstonehaughs. Why do the lower classes get off on looking at this stuff? It’s sick. Why are so few people just normal?

  Because there’s no such thing. There’s no normal any more. Everyone’s moronic in their own special way. Me included.

  I put down the magazine, and start checking my Filofax-wallet to see what work I’ve got scheduled next week. Given the quality of my leisure time, I sometimes ache to get back to work. Then I hear a squeal that stands out from the squeal-saturated environment in which I am stranded. The ability of a parent to pick out their own child’s special squeal of distress in a packed, airport-hangar-sized room is almost supernatural. Poppy is in trouble.

  I scan the Heath Robinson In Hell array of contraptions and devices to locate the source of the cry. I cannot make out Poppy, but I can hear her clearly now.

  Daddy! Daddy!

  There are few more traumatic experiences than knowing your child is in distress and being unable to do anything about it. I try to find an attendant to help me – they are just about distinguishable from the rest of the crowd by the fact that they wear tiny plastic badges on their otherwise non-uniform attire. I can’t see a soul.

  But I can make out Poppy. An arrangement of pipes and nets snakes up one wall. This area is meant for the over-eights, but Poppy has found her way into it, and is stuck in a narrow passageway through which a load of apparently deranged children, most of them boys, are pushing both ways. Her precociously big feet, naked of shoes and socks, push at the netting that traps her. Her hair is dishevelled and she looks terrified. She reaches a hand through the netting towards me, but I am on the gro
und, twenty feet below, and can do nothing.

  Poppy! Hold on! I’ll be right there, poppet.

  Daddy! Help me!

  I’m coming.

  I look at the arrangement of pipes again. It’s built in a number of complex helixes, and I realize there is no way I can find my way up to the spot in the maze where Poppy is stuck. I need an attendant, and there is no attendant. The only staff member, apparently, is the dimwitted girl mutely taking the money at the entrance. My sense of helplessness grows, coagulates into anger.

  It suddenly occurs to me what parenthood has most in common with: childhood. The defining experience of both parenthood and childhood is the same: helplessness. And human beings can bear any other emotion more easily than that. For a child, it’s the source of almost every tantrum. Growing up is all about coming to terms with one’s own limitations.

  As an adult, moments of extreme helplessness call up a memory of all those times when as a kid you were in trouble and ignored, sidelined, or unprotected by your parents. In such moments, the adult becomes the child once more, roaring at an indifferent universe. This is such a moment.

  CAN I GET A FUCKING ATTENDANT HERE? WHO THE FUCK IS IN CHARGE OF THIS FUCKING HELL-HOLE?

  I shout this at what seems to me an incredible volume. In a film or a play, it might have resulted in the entire room being silenced. This being real life, everyone ignores me. The man and woman are still carrying on their debate about the nature of fear and abjection.

  You’re fucking dead, you are.

  Oh, boo-hoo. Call yourself a man? You’re nothing.

  You’re nothing, you cunt.

  Still no attendant in sight. I have no choice. I am reminded, should I have let it slip my mind, that there is no God.

  I pull off my shoes and socks, throw off my jacket and, at random, plunge into the mêlée of shrieking, dwarfish bodies.

  I’m not as fit as I used to be – I never was very fit anyway. In fact, in my middle years I’ve begun to develop a paunch, accentuated by the last year of comfort-eating, TV dinners, Jack Daniel’s and Mr Tom peanut bars. It’s not easy to fight your way through hundreds of yards of plastic pipes built for children, especially when you don’t know where you’re going, especially when some of the spaces you have to get through would be a challenge for Calista Flockhart, especially when you can hear the pitiful crying of your six-year-old daughter growing louder and more desperate by the moment.

 
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