Love secrets of don juan, p.17
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.17

           Tim Lott
 
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  You’re so beautiful, Alice.

  Martin never used to tell me that. He never used to compliment me.

  I’m sure he thought you were, though. How could he not?

  He never told me he loved me either.

  I love you.

  Pause.

  I love you too.

  We hold each other close, and I hear birdsong through the window and I think, Finally my life is coming together. Finally, after years and years of shit, the sunshine is coming. Alice looks at me and smiles. Shall we go out somewhere tonight? she asks.

  I can’t.

  OK.

  I’m going out with Martin.

  There’s a slight change in the atmosphere. It’s as if Alice has been knocked a degree off-balance. I can see her looking for a way to restore her equilibrium.

  Shall I sort out some breakfast?

  Have you got anything?

  I don’t think so, Spike. I’ll nip down to the shops if you like.

  I hesitate. OK.

  Alice throws on a few old clothes, and takes some change out of her purse. I’m being unchivalrous, I know, but I have an ulterior motive. Nearly all my motives, in fact, are ulterior.

  Part of her is still stuck in the past. I need to explore that past, I need to incorporate it. It’s like a cannibal eating the brains of his victim. Martin is my victim here, and all the Martins before him.

  Back in ten minutes.

  OK.

  The door bangs, and I’m out of bed.

  I spotted them the other day, and although I know I shouldn’t, I have to. Her photo albums. All piled up together inside a little cupboard off the hall. Ten minutes is enough.

  History hangs like gravity around everyone by the time they reach mid-life. Relationships when you are in your twenties are so different from relationships in your forties. So vast a hinterland of time. So many other lovers.

  I’m not ready to talk to Alice about her other lovers yet. The boy she met at school, the one she was serious with when she first left home, the one she almost married, the one who got away – whoever. I’m making this up, but all women seem to follow more or less the same pattern. It’s time to meet the exes. It helps me feel more in control, because falling in love is to tumble hopelessly, randomly.

  The photo albums, conveniently, are labelled in chronological order. Alice is in her thirties, so there’s only about fifteen years or so to cover. I go to one of the earliest, from when Alice was about eighteen. Straight away I hit pay-dirt.

  This one doesn’t look much competition. Not bad-looking but a bit effeminate, dark curly hair, a bit of the brooding poet. Probably did a bit of busking and thought smoking dope was the apotheosis of rebellion. There are photos of them on beaches, larking about at respective parents’ houses. I can imagine that Alice left him in the end when he got a job in a bank and sold his Tom Waits records to help with the down-payment on an Austin Metro. Probably had two or three years with Alice, and thinks of her still while living in a dormitory town in the home counties. As the photos move through the years, there are fewer and fewer that depict them with their arms around each other. Alice is increasingly straight-faced, and keeps her distance. No, this one’s no threat. When she remembers me, I’ll rank above this milksop. He’s a starter-pack, an L-plate boy.

  Sure enough, photos of Metro man disappear a few albums on. Now a long period of female-only friends in long-haul destinations – Vietnam, Thailand, Beijing? The lone traveller, girl-buddy years, boys flitting past like dragon-flies, active life too short to show up on the film.

  The next one appears about four albums on and looks like he’ll be around for a while. He’s tough, with rings and tattoos. He’d take me in a fight, all right. That South London look, stretched-tight skin, a bit wide, big biceps, high cheekbones, cropped hair. The macho trip, the half-tamed man. He’ll be sensitive too – he’ll make sure she thinks that. Maybe a taste for French films, I don’t know, or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Teeth bad, but she doesn’t mind. He lounges on sofas, leans against walls, smokes cigarettes. Treats her mean and cruel, but she loves him all the same. Is this the one she still dreams of? Is this my competition? Is this the one she’ll lie in bed thinking of when things are going wrong between us? 1 love Spike, but he’ll never be the same as Kirk. That’s got to be his name. Kirk. Or Mick. Or Rod. Something monosyllabic anyway. He fucks well. She’ll think of it sometimes.

  No photos of them draped together, he keeps his distance. She likes that, but it torments her. They go camping, they go on adventure holidays. He can put up a tent, strip a motorcycle engine in half an hour. But he can’t express his emotions. That’s why, three albums later, they split up. Everything reduced to anger. The inarticulate speech of the fist. Who dumped whom? In the end Alice saw through him. The late photographs show her distanced, bored, a little bit frightened. She won’t haunt him. He’s sunk beyond sight, his shadow lost in the petrified forest beneath conscious memory.

  Another interregnum, two albums with nothing but friends and family. It can’t be far off the present day now. Alice is taking on her present look – the length of her hair is similar, the style of her makeup, the lines on her face. Here’s another, a short stay. An older man, by the look of him, at least as old as I am now. Yes, here’s the seer, the great man imposing his wisdom on his muse. Looks like a fucking artist. Yeh, here we go. Standing in front of his canvases, bleached-out landscapes, white hair pulled back in a pony-tail, lithe body, nut brown, handsome, at least fifty. Looks American.

  Here they are in California. He’s a fucking surfer. Christ, he should be going to bed early with a hot milky drink. He’ll have that old-man smell. The aroma of distant death. Alice likes this one. Really likes him. But her practicality got the better of her, didn’t it? She always wanted children. Teenagers with a seventy-year-old father? It won’t wash. He took it well, with a shrug, like Marlon Brando. He’s still got his art. Waited with her at the airport when she got the plane, blew her a kiss and bought her airport flowers. He always knew the score.

  Who else? Alice will be back from the shops in a minute. More blanks – office parties, casual kisses, lazing in the garden, barbecue smoke obscuring the lens. Two more albums to go. I hesitate before opening them. I feel slightly afraid.

  The first photo in the next album is of her and Martin. They’re in bed. You can’t see anything exactly, the sheets are pulled up. Camera must be on automatic. They’re having breakfast. In this bed. They’ll have just had sex, won’t they? Martin’s got that look on his face. She’s just finished laughing. Sunlight through the window. Looks like heaven.

  A twist in my heart. A double-twist. I want to stop, but can’t. Turn the page. No automatic this time, I can see the shadow of the photographer, sun behind him, Martin and Alice squinting. Alice is looking at the camera, Martin’s looking at Alice. I took this photograph. I remember it. But I don’t remember that expression. What is that expression? I’ve never noticed it on Martin’s face before. I’ve known him for more than twenty years. What does it mean? Turn the page. There it is again.

  Fuck. Fuck.

  I don’t want to know this. I don’t want this to be true.

  I hear the key in the lock, and stuff the albums back into the cupboard where they came from. There’ll be more time later, but I won’t be taking advantage of it. Curiosity can be like jealousy or nostalgia, a sick fix, a debased emotion. Self-destruction, self-cruelty.

  What do you want, Spiky? I’ve got sausages, eggs, bacon…

  I don’t feel so good all of a sudden.

  Martin is on his third pint, and he’s turning unusually gregarious. He keeps glancing at a woman with long brown hair in a tight skirt who is three tables away and returning his looks through hooded eyes. He’s not been quite himself for the past few months – less emollient and relaxed. If I didn’t know better I’d say something was troubling him. Yet I know that ripples on Martin’s surface smooth out as swift as mercury.

  We’ve got on to
the subject of women. Martin is talking in his usual quiet, unconcerned way, but the length and rambling nature of the speech almost qualify it as a rant. Which is odd for him. He’s usually rather diffident. Must be something in the beer.

  Do you know the thing about women, Spike? The thing about women is that they want to be dominated. They think they want freedom, they think they want to be independent. It’s not the case. Freedom is not what they want. Freedom is a nightmare. Some part of them gets that, understands it. All that potential for regret, for making mistakes. Understand this about women and you understand everything, Spike. They want to live by a myth, a double-standard. They want to have the illusion of responsibility, but not the actuality of it. That’s why they like to be seduced – so they never did it. You did it.

  Right.

  Get us another drink, would you?

  Don’t you think you’ve had enough?

  I’ll tell you something else. They lay traps for you. When they feel bad about themselves. They don’t… they want… they punish you. Because they feel bad. What’s that about? I don’t know. But it’s not like they want to hurt you, not really. They want you to see it as a cry for help.

  I’ve had that with Beth. You told me about that.

  They want you to guess their pain. They can’t tell you. To tell you isn’t it. You have to sniff it out, see? You have to put your arm around them as they’re sticking the knife into your heart and tell them it’s OK. It’s OK. And then they’ll twist the knife, but you have to keep holding on, keep your arm round them, tell them it’s all right. You have to pull the knife to you. Because they’re testing you, they’re testing your love. It doesn’t feel fair. It’s not fair. But that’s the way it is. You’ve got to know how it is, then you’ve got to find the strength to pass the test, again and again and again. Because it never stops, Spike, it never stops. You never pass the test, not completely, not for ever.

  I’ve not often seen Martin like this – maudlin, rambling. Instead of keeping it all packed inside, instead of being mysterious, knowledgeable and wise, he’s letting it out. As if he’s unpacking pain with words. I don’t get it. Maybe he’s going through a hard time with the Brazilian dancer.

  I’ll tell you something else. You can never… they’ll never let you take the moral high ground. You can never seize it. However right you are. I mean, maybe for half an hour. That’s the max. Make the most of it. Because they’ll take it back. You’ll be in the wrong again in no time at all. History rewritten. Women are all Stalinists. They control the past. You know that film. Did you see that film, Spike? He drinks deeply from his glass.

  Which film?

  With jack Nicholson. As Good As It Gets. There’s a great moment in that, a perfect moment.

  Can’t remember much about it.

  I’ve had three pints as well, and I’m feeling warm towards Martin, indulgent. The truth is, I am grateful to him for donating Alice to me, although obviously he doesn’t know he’s done it yet. Good old Martin.

  Well, there’s this moment when he’s… I mean, Jack Nicholson is a writer, can’t remember the name, they make him mentally ill so that he can say things about women and get away with it. Anyhow… do you want another pint?

  I’m fine.

  What was I saying?

  He’s mentally ill so he can say bad things about women.

  But that’s just a device for smuggling through certain truths, like, he can only say this stuff because he’s mad, right?

  Right.

  So the thing is, Jack Nicholson is an author and he writes books about women. And, apparently, he’s brilliant at it, and has loads of women fans, and he goes to his publisher’s office one day, and there’s this secretary there, you know, this – this bim, and she goes up to him and she asks him, I can’t remember exactly, something like ‘How do you create such convincing women?’ You know, as characters. How does he do it?

  What does he say?

  He says… he says… you know…

  Here, Martin attempts a Jack Nicholson impersonation, and it’s not bad at all. I’m already laughing before he gets to the end of the first sentence.

  ‘You want to know how I create such convincing women? You really want to know?’ And the woman smiles, and looks all ditsy and adoring, plainly like expecting something really flattering, and he turns and does that Jack Nicholson what-the-fuck look, and says, ‘I take a man, and I subtract reason and accountability.’

  I remember that.

  Of course you remember that! The whole audience creases up. There’s uproar. And I’ll tell you, Spike… I looked around the audience, and it was, like, half of them were women. And they were the ones doing all the laughing, they were the ones holding their sides. Because it was as if someone had found them out and had the guts to tell it like it was, and the truth was too much and when the truth is that big it just makes you laugh.

  You think that women lack reason? I take a long pull on my pint, squint through the pub smoke. But there are some fucking clever ones out there, Martin. Millions of the fuckers. Running rings round us.

  Martin’s got a new pint, is sinking it fast. He puts his armround me, pulls me close. I smell his body odour, beery, salty.

  Of course women don’t lack reason. That’s not why it’s funny. It’s not even worth suggesting – no one but a moron could suggest that women are dumb. What Jack’s really saying is that women use reason or not as they see fit. They aren’t hypnotized by it like men. That’s why women laughed, because Jack was holding up a mirror to their own secret weaponry. They respect the dark forces. The dark forces, Danny, the dark forces.

  Of course, we don’t say anything about the ‘accountability’ bit. Because that’s a given. Because we both know exactly what Jack Nicholson means. And so did the whole audience.

  For instance, what is it with PMT? You’re not allowed to mention it any more. Testosterone, yes. Men are all killers because of testosterone. But pre-menstruals? Everyone knows it happens. Everyone knows half of all women go psycho for seven days out of thirty. But when they empty your breakfast cereal over your head because you put a heaped instead of a level teaspoon of sugar in their tea, you have to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is happening, that this is a justifiable act, generated by your self-evident thoughtlessness. Like there’s no such thing as getting moody before you get the painters in. It’s a crime to bring up the obvious. It’s a crime to speak the fucking truth.

  Dangerous stuff.

  What?

  Truth.

  Yeh. You said it. You said it, Spiky boy.

  We drink on. I want to see Alice tonight, but I don’t feel I can just turn up at her flat. It seems more of a betrayal of Martin somehow now I’ve spent the evening with him. Not that it is a betrayal, of course.

  Martin’s good at listening, and I tell him about Poppy and my hopeless dates, and Beth, and the divorce, and I listen to myself and think how bitter and self-obsessed I remain, despite my good luck with Alice. So bitter that I’ve learned all the words to Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’ and sing it to myself in the bath every night. Carol really hit the mark with that one. Fury made into sound.

  Poor Martin. He’s heard all this so many times before. I need to move on. Alice is going to help me do it.

  How did that drink with Alice go, by the way?

  I’m not sure whether I blush or not, but I say, rather too quickly, Oh, it was fine. I like her.

  You know, sometimes I think we could really have made it together.

  Why didn’t you then?

  Why didn’t we?

  Yes.

  Martin screws up his face. His muscles work and stretch under the skin, as if questing for the solution to this conundrum. Finally, they relax back into something approaching equanimity.

  Oh, you know. I’m not very good at that kind of thing, really. It’s the way it’s always been. Women come and go somehow.

  For you they do.

  Well. You know. I don’t know. They come for
you sometimes too, don’t they?

  Sometimes. Not often.

  You should stop looking. Then they’ll appear.

  I have stopped looking.

  And has anyone appeared?

  There aren’t that many great women out there.

  Don’t be so negative. You’re always – there’s some fantastic women out there. I’ve known a few. Alice, for instance. Alice was a great woman. Is a great woman. Is.

  Is.

  Martin stares into his beer. He’s definitely not himself. I feel the silence ballooning, search for ways to pop it.

  I saw another film once when the guy says you only get to meet three great women in your life…

  I know the one. By Chazz Palminteri. What was it called … A… A Bronx Tale?

  That’s it. It’s weird, but he’s sort of right.

  You reckon? Have you reached your allocation yet?

  I pull at the last of my pint. The room seems very fuzzy and Martin keeps going out of focus.

  I suppose so. Yeh, I suppose so.

  Who were they, then? Who were the Holy Trinity?

  Well. There was Kelly Cornelius. There was Natasha Bliss, of course. I used to think Beth was number three, but I don’t any more. Obviously.

  So who holds that position now, then?

  I look at Martin – and suddenly I can’t keep it in any more, I want to share my happiness with him, and I want him to be happy for me, and we can all be pals together, and we’ll embrace and we’ll go out on foursomes with the Brazilian dancer, and we’ll laugh at all the old times and how funny it was that we all ended up like this, and I look up from my glass and say, slurring a bit, because I’m somewhat the worse for drink, Well, actually, Martin, it’s Alice.

  What?

  It is clear that Martin has heard what I said, but that it hasn’t yet reached the part of his brain that will produce the happy consequence of him clapping me on the back, congratulating me and buying me another drink.

  It’s Alice. We’ve been seeing each other. To tell you the truth, we’ve fallen in love.

 
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