Love secrets of don juan, p.15
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.15

           Tim Lott
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  Daddy, please…

  Dad. Stop it! Don’t you ever threaten to hit my daughter!


  I don’t smack Poppy. You’re not going to smack her, either.

  What’s wrong with smacking? It never did you any harm.

  Didn’t it?

  What do you mean?

  Has it ever occurred to you that both your sons are living lives of miserable emotional failure?

  Oh, come on, now.

  Has it ever occurred to you that both Sam and I are unable to sustain a relationship with a woman? Has it ever occurred to you that that might have something to do with you and Mum?

  Now, hold on just a minute.

  It’s the voice he used with Poppy: stern, authoritative, pompous, expectant of obedience by right.

  First, you leave your mother out of it. Second, if you’re saying that the fact that you can’t keep your marriage together is to do with me giving you a smack every once in a while, then you’re talking balderdash!

  It’s not just the smacking.

  What is it, then?

  Oh, I don’t know. You never… talked to us. You talked at us. You never treated us as equals.

  You weren’t equals. You were children.

  You made us feel small all the time.

  So it’s all down to me, is it? Me and your mother? Nothing to do with you, of course.

  I glance at Poppy. She is clearly enjoying this, and is picking happily at her roast lamb. I decide it is time to show my dad how to handle children in this day and age, how it doesn’t require threats of violence. I turn to Poppy and say, very politely, Poppy. Could you please pick up the potato?

  In a minute.

  Not in a minute. Now please.

  In a MINUTE. I’m just finishing my dinner.

  My father looks on, a faintly mocking smile on his face. All at once, those feelings from my childhood rush up, the wash of helplessness, the tide of impotence, anger, disappointment, sadness.

  I’m not telling you again, poppet. Pick up the potato.

  Poppy carries on eating.


  This comes out even louder than I’d intended. It is my voice, but I recognize it as somebody else’s. My father’s. I am my father. Poppy bursts into tears.

  Not fair! I hate you, Daddy.

  Just pick up the potato.

  She throws it on to a plate so it splatters on to the tablecloth.

  Go to your room.

  I haven’t got a room.

  Go to Grandma and Granddad’s room.

  I’d rather she didn’t. There are some rather valuable pieces of porcelain, says Iris.

  She needs a damn good smack, says my father.

  At this moment I’m inclined to agree with him, but my liberal conscience forbids any such thing.

  Right, that’s it, Poppy. You’ve got a black mark.

  I have learned from the various childcare manuals I’ve read that reward is far better than punishment when dealing with children. So I’ve bought a sticker book in which I give Poppy gold stars when she’s good. If she gets twenty gold stars, she gets a Beanie Baby. But if she gets a black mark, it means she has to cover up the black mark with a gold star before she gets the toy – so it might take it up to twenty-one, twenty-two gold stars to get the toy.

  Unfortunately, since Beth and I separated, her anger and pain have been converted into rebellious misbehaviour and she’s had so many black marks that she never gets the toy. So the carrot has somehow been replaced by the stick. And, as the books advise, it doesn’t work.

  Don’t care, says Poppy. And she doesn’t. I feel helpless.

  There is a tense silence. Finally Iris speaks. Would you like to come and help me do the washing-up, Poppy?

  Poppy gets up obediently from her chair and goes into the kitchen. I sit facing my father, thinking of the cycle of shit, and how mistakes just get passed down the generations and how I have no idea any more how to get it right with my parents, my children, my partners, myself. At least I have my friends, I suppose.


  Not that I have many friends left. I think the ending of the marriage and the subsequent warping of my personality sent a good few running. But I don’t mind too much because the two best have stayed – Carol and Martin. They’re my real soulmates, nowadays – Carol especially. Martin is trustworthy, kind and well-meaning, but communicating with him can be a bit of an obstacle course, a Teddy’s Big Adventure experience. You take a conversational tunnel to somewhere and end up somewhere else, or you get stuck in the netting. Carol, like most women, has the communicative gift that is rarely granted men.

  Women are good at friendship – if you discount the bitching. Outside those two pole positions in the friendship premier league – Martin and Carol – I have probably five or six peripheral friends, and the majority of those are women. They’re just so much more engaged than men. They’re all those things that you hope women are going to be when you get into a relationship with them, but as soon as it becomes a relationship, everything degrades. Don’t ask me why. Something to do with sex, something to do with children, something to do with power. But what was once a pleasure becomes a series of insoluble and usually painful conundrums.

  Carol is the perfect woman. I don’t fancy her, she doesn’t fancy me, there’s no sexual electricity between us whatsoever. She’s just a mate – and she’s brilliant at it.

  I don’t want to disparage the brothers. Men have come a long way, even in my lifetime, in terms of what they’ll allow into a friendship. When I was in my teens, friendship was based on football, banter, the fantasy of sex, and music. Nothing intimate or personal found its way into conversation. Friendship was fun, but it was also about domination, about beating your friends, getting a peg above them. And the last thing you would ever do was talk over a problem with a mate. Too gay.

  All that’s changed. Men have taken twenty years of battering – seen their jobs go, their relationships go, their status go, their purpose go. They kill themselves a lot. They are unhappy. This unhappiness has a big upside. It has made them think about what it is to be a man, and it has made them reach out to other men.

  But, nevertheless, they’ve got a long way to go before they’re as good at friendship as women are. Point one: women friends know how to listen. Point two: women understand the symbolic, and life is almost all symbolic. Point three: women aren’t afraid of intimacy or vulnerability, and men will still go only so far on that. (I once made the mistake of ringing up a good friend and telling him I was lonely. He was off the line in about fifteen seconds flat – it was like telling him I’d got cancer.) Point four: women understand other women, and most men don’t. They either rely on their prejudices (out of date) or they believe what they read in the papers (ideology). Women will tell truths about other women that you will never read in a million years in a newspaper.

  I’m meeting up with Carol tonight. We’re going to have a real old heart-to-heart – about my pending divorce, about me and Martin and Alice. About her too – she’s had a hard time with men. The broken heart I pinned on her all those years ago turned out to be remarkably prescient. The same age as me, she’s been divorced twice, no kids, and now she’s uneasily single. Her job as a successful management consultant keeps her busy, keeps her distracted. But she’s not happy.

  What went wrong? I don’t know. I only know outside-of-relationship Carol, just as she only knows outside-of-relationship Spike. Perhaps we both buckle and distort, present different faces to those with whom we are partnered.

  Carol feels about men like I feel about women – that they’re a nightmare. But perhaps you conjure your own nightmares.

  I don’t know what men could object to in Carol, but I do know this: men are scared of her because she’s so clever. I understand that. Clever people are scary. People who can see inside you, who can tell what you’re doing before you know it yourself. It’s a bit like having a burglar in your house, only the burglar isn’t there
to steal anything, they’re there to rearrange the furniture, polish the mirrors, help you to move around more effectively and see yourself more clearly. A benevolent burglar. But it’s still an invasion of your privacy. It’s still an affront, having someone poke around inside your head.

  Carol is fascinated by my own venture into introspection, all the faltering steps I’m taking towards finding stuff out for myself that usually she needs to spell out for me. It’s almost like she’s set me a project, and I have to report to her. The only difficulty is, I don’t know that I’ve got much progress to report. It’s time to recap: this is what I’ve learned so far – this is what I’ve added to the flip-chart.


  Problem: Mother – withheld affection. Result: Fall in love too quickly. Constant disappointment. Anger. Solution: Be cooler – less needy. Abandon search for unconditional love.

  Problem: Sex = power (The Sharon Smith Principle). Result: Helpless, infantile rage. Solution: Saltpetre, self-blinding, castration. Otherwise, none.

  Problem: Women full of impossible paradoxes. Result: Bewilderment. Misunderstanding. Anger. Solution: Not known. Complicated by fact that you are also full of contradictions. Solution: Also not known.

  Problem: More than two people in relationship. Shadow/ doppelgänger theory. Women symbolic, men literal.Result: B, M, A. Solution: Learn to speak chick. Watch behaviour as well as listening to words. Get to know shadows. Plus: words don’t mean what they mean anyway. But listen for clues.

  Problem: Women flock to indifference (Martin’s Law). Result: Women don’t flock to me very much. Solution: Fake it.

  Problem: Men try to crush what they see as weak. Result: Lots of crushing. Solution: Stop doing it. Avoid weak women.

  Problem: Relationships continuing when already dead. Result: Weak torture weak. Solution: Be ruthless.

  PROBLEM X: Can’t remember what this problem is. Something to do with Helen Palmer. V. important, though.

  Problem: Women test men’s love by means of torture (The Gilfeather Paradox). Result: Male suffering. Solution: Put up with it – but only if w. is worth it.

  Now, what was Problem X? There was another. I just can’t call it up. It feels important. I need to find it. Perhaps if I go back, I can dig it out again. Back to Helen, back to the 1970s in search of the missing Love Secret.

  Helen and I started living together just as we were falling out of love. Or, rather, just as I was falling out of love with Helen, and she, becoming aware of this, replaced her love for me with a desperation not to be abandoned, with need, love’s poor crippled cousin. Meanwhile, my love was replaced with a poor crippled cousin from the other side of the family: pity. The awful instinct to torment, but not quite destroy, the helpless.

  Helen and I were in the suburb of hell that is a failing, dependent relationship. We still had sex, we still had the memory-trace of love. But we were gulled by the perpetual human capability for self-delusion. Our delusion was that this etiolated, frightened place was what all carnal relationships sooner or later degraded to. Thus, moving on was futile. Rationalization of our situation kept us nailed in place. That, and my inability to speak those heavy, heavy words, which would, like a warlock’s charm, change everything.

  I don’t love you any more.

  Years of averted eyes, of conversations constructed of lies. Being in a relationship you don’t want to be in is as bad as sleeping with the next-door neighbour every night. It is bad faith, treachery. This leads you to inhabit a partial world in which truths become shaky, perpetually out of focus, because to confront the real truth means confronting your own failure and your own aloneness.

  Not quite perpetually out of focus, though. Every now and then the world goes crisp on you, focused and sharp, and you see as plain as day what you need to do to unfreeze your life. You see the illusions illuminated, and the mendacity and the self-serving myths. You see straight. It doesn’t last long, but it is as if a gate has opened through which beckons – you don’t know what, only that it is the way out of your prison. Then you have to run like mad, or the gate will close again and you will fall back helplessly into your dream world.

  I had seen this gate open many times during those years with Helen, and time after time I had turned my back and let it close again, stayed rooted to my place of dire safety. But then, one day, I ran through it. I remember the scene exactly.

  We had both got out of bed in the flat. I was working as a trainee copywriter now, having started as a proof-reader, at a small advertising agency in Holborn. Helen was still training to be a social worker, a profession that in those days was thought worthwhile and rewarding. We both had trains to catch. It was eight a.m. Helen had had her bath and was sitting at the table with a cup of tea. She looked up at me and smiled. The gate in my imagination gaped. I turned the words round in my head, got them to the back of my throat.

  Would you like a cup of tea, Danny?

  No, thanks.

  She knew something was up. Something about her blink rate told me she was nervous. She was wearing an old shirt, her blonde hair was messy. Her puzzled expression seemed to have deepened since college, her high forehead more deeply grooved than it should have been for someone of her age. She lit a Marlboro – her consumption had increased of late, so the smell of smoke wiped out almost entirely the wet-hay body fragrance I had always loved. She smelt stale, nowadays. This was fitting.

  Is something the matter?

  No. I’m fine.

  Then I began to cry because I knew suddenly that the words in my throat were no longer impossibly heavy, that I was going to speak them, and I had already spooled forward to the moment after they had been spoken, to the moment when all we had, which was nothing except the past, was lost. I was thinking of me running to the cinema that warm night, I was thinking of the fire in my chest when I had first shared a bed with this woman, I was thinking of how shrivelled and shrunken we had both become in each other’s dishonest company over the past few years. I was grieving already for something that was long gone. I was learning, for the first time, about loss.

  It made me feel so old.

  Danny? What on earth is the matter?

  I looked up and, for the first time in God knows how long, I met her eyes, those lie-detectors, those mirrors. I saw that she knew. She didn’t want to know, but she knew. Her puzzled expression had disappeared for the first time that I could remember.

  You want me to move out.

  I nodded. I was unable to speak through the tears.

  She seemed calm and collected. She didn’t cry. She even smiled. At that moment I loved her again, saw the flash of courage spark into life again.

  Of course. I’ll move my stuff out tonight.

  I nodded again.

  It was all over. And I hadn’t even said anything. That night, Helen was gone.

  There are few emotional states more strange or contradictory than those generated by the end of a relationship. The immense relief, the sense of extraordinary possibility and freedom that dawns. The falling away of scales from your eyes, the ability to look at the world with a fresh sense of honesty reclaimed, a raft of illusions out of the way, with all the blocks and blinds they put on your life. The euphoria, the strange weightlessness.

  Both Carol and Martin had been amazed when they’d seen me a few days later. The spring in my tread, the new sparkle in my eyes. Martin was robustly delighted; Carol was sad for us both and tried to console Helen. Both warned me that I was a long way from being out of the woods yet, that the bubble of my euphoria would pop.

  As Martin and Carol had known it would happen, sadness, fear, regret, panic, the dangerous weaving of new myths followed. The desperate wanting to believe that the situation was not irretrievable, that all we needed was a ‘break’ from each other to make things right. That we could split up yet not split up. The siren song, the lullaby of the past.

  These illusions persisted, and there was no final ending to the relationship as long as they
endured. Although I had stopped loving Helen, I missed her because we had woven ourselves into each other just by being proximate for such a long time. We did that thing you do when you’re young, when you’re stupid, when you’re weak. We got back together briefly a couple of times, pretending that living together had been too early for us both and that all we had needed was ‘space’. Lies, lies. There was only the reluctance to destroy, to be unshackled from the past. It led to collisions more pathetic than tragic. It never properly ended for either of us – until Helen met someone else.

  That was not how I had imagined things playing themselves out. Since I was the one doing the leaving, it was axiomatic in my imagination that I was the one who would meet someone else soon. She was the discarded, abandoned one. I could have her back at the click of my fingers. When she phoned me one day and announced perkily that she and Conrad Carbon, an American I knew vaguely from college days, were together, it was all I could do not to retch.

  I had left her… and now she didn’t want me. It was unconscionable. The plan was that she should spend the short- and medium-term future pining for me, hoping I would come back to her, a temptation I would nobly resist, understanding that it was in the interest of us both to be mature, to accept that we were now separate people with separate futures. Now the rules had been disgracefully transgressed. Certainly, I had left her and I didn’t want her back. But if I did, I knew she would be there, waiting with her cup of tea and her martyr’s wounds. Now she was gone, beyond my reach.

  I tried to get her back. I went round to her place (she lived in a tiny flat in Kilburn), banged on the door and yelled. This was a full six months after we’d split up. Eventually she came to the window. And I saw the look on her face. It was only there for a second – it disappeared as soon as she registered me registering it – but it was there.

  Triumph. The same triumph I had seen on Beth’s face when she introduced me to Oliver. The sweetest feeling: the victory of the formerly vanquished.

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