Love secrets of don juan, p.18
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.18

           Tim Lott
 
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  There is a long, agonizing pause. Martin’s face is suddenly the colour of a paving-stone. I hear myself beginning to burble: It’s like … I wouldn’t have done it… you being my best friend and everything… but you did leave her. And you’ve told me enough times that you didn’t love her. Or, at least, you never said you were in love with her. Which is the same thing in my book. So I didn’t think in the end you would mind. Because, you know… anyway, it’s not what I planned. I didn’t do it… she kind of came after me, and I just went along with it, and then, you know, we fell in love. It was all out of the blue. I thought you’d be happy for me. You’re happy for me, aren’t you, Martin?

  Still Martin doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t moved since I said, ‘We’ve been seeing each other.’ He really does look ill. Eventually, he speaks in a very low, very soft voice: That’s great.

  Pause.

  I’m glad you –

  No, that’s great. That’s really outstanding.

  Aglass shatters behind the bar. Martin pulls on his beer. Shakes his head as if answering some long-pondered question. When he speaks again, his voice is brisk, bright, tarnished. So anyway, Spike, how’s work coming along?

  This wrench away from the subject is unnatural and awkward, but maybe we’ll be able to get past it this way.

  It’s OK. I’ve got a chance of doing some new chocolatething. The krusha BarTM. Lot of money in it. I’ve got to make a pitch soon.

  Right. Chocolate. Chocolate’s good. OK. You sure you don’t want another drink? Did you see the last Big Brother? Christ, I… How’s your mum and dad, anyway?

  Martin finishes three-quarters of his pint in one go. His eyes dart around the room furiously.

  You’re not upset, are you, Martin?

  Martin looks up at me, smiles that little-boy smile. Pats me on the back. Of course I’m not upset. Why would I be upset?

  Well, I suppose… after all, even if you didn’t love her, she was your girlfriend, and…

  Even if I was upset it wouldn’t matter, would it?

  I’m getting confused now. Martin seems to be in his own mind space, hardly hearing me now, speaking partly to me, partly to himself and partly to his beer mat.

  After all, it’s not going to last.

  Well, this time, actually, I’ve got a feeling…

  Anyway, what about your mum and dad? Haven’t seen them for ages. Old Iris still sending you to Siberia? Bit of a Tartar, isn’t she? Poor old Derek.

  I saw them a few weeks ago, they seem quite –

  Then Martin cuts me off, looks up abruptly from his beer mat.

  It’s not going to last, Spiky, because you haven’t got a fucking clue about women. Because you’ll fuck it up like every other relationship you’ve ever had.

  It’s as if someone has punched me. Martin is not saying this kindly or solicitously. He’s looking at me through half-closed, suddenly violent eyes. His words come in spits.

  I mean. What chance have you got? You’re – you’re like one of them. Always needy, always whining. ‘Poor little me.’

  There’s no need to -

  Now he points a finger at me, jabs at the space between us as if to perforate it somehow.

  You know when I met you for coffee after your last… whiny little mediation session, you said something about… Poppy. That she was always saying, ‘Not fair, not fair.’

  I don’t think it’s fair to bring Poppy into –

  There you go again. ‘Not fair, not fair.’ Poor little Spiky. Poor lickle Danny. That’s why you’ll fuck it up, because you’ll just spend all your time feeling sorry for yourself when things go wrong. You don’t understand, you don’t get it. Women don’t give a fuck if it’s fair or not. No one gives a fuck if it’s fair or not. It’s a fight to the death. It’s the procreation of the species. You should know that. You’ve just proved that. And you still expect it to be fair, like some whingeing, spiky little schoolboy.

  You’ve had too much to drink.

  Something else. You’ll never have a proper relationship with women because you don’t like them. You think you do, but you don’t. I like them. I really like women. I take ’em as they are. With all their nightmares. With all their fucking shit. Because they’re life. Because they’re what makes things happen, they’re the dynamo, they’re the – whatever - source. But you think things can be made right, and they can’t. Whatever that means, whatever ‘right’ means. No. It’s not that. It’s not so much that you’re some kind of… naive perfectionist. A disappointed idealist. That’s too flattering. It’s too untrue. It’s simpler than that. It’s that you’re afraid of them. Of their difference. You want them to be like men, and that would be the worst nightmare of all. It’s the scorpion and the frog. It’s the… it’s the… I don’t know what it is, you cunt.

  I try to take in what Martin is saying. Of course I’m afraid of women. I’m afraid of everyone. I’m afraid of the man who sells me my newspaper in the morning. Because, like everyone else, I’m tender, all raw, all wound. Anyone can hurt you.

  Martin–s

  He’s on his feet now, wobbling about crazily. He looks like he’s about to fall over. Terrifyingly, I see a tear overflow his eye, tumble down his cheek. His voice has changed now. It’s softer, I can barely hear it.

  I don’t feel good. I don’t feel good about this, Spike. I love you, Spike. You’re my best friend. My best -

  He stops mid-sentence, looks around as if for help.

  I have to go.

  What? This is about me and Alice? I thought… You said…

  I rise, put my hand on his shoulder, but he shrugs me off angrily. You think I care? I don’t fucking care. What is she? She’s only gash. There’s another one, there’s always another one, and another one, and another one. Down all the days. Tomorrow and tomorrow. Petty fucking pace of time. Fuck it. Fuck it.

  He steps away from me, a cornered, feral look in his eyes, steps towards the door. I have to go. I have to go, Danny. I… He’s pulling on his coat, and before I can say another thing he’s out of the pub.

  I sit there for a few minutes, fighting with the effects of the drink, not knowing quite what to do. What is he doing? What’s the matter?

  But of course I know. I knew it the moment I saw those photographs of him and Alice together. The unfamiliar look on his face, the look that made me snap the book shut in shock and despair.

  The look of yearning.

  The look of love.

  9

  I met the first of the three great women I have known when I was twenty-five. It was the 1980s. I was doing well. The advertising business was flying, and I was joyriding in the slipstream. I had moved to one of the bigger agencies, was working on some major accounts. I was wearing Armani suits, driving a 1967 VW Karmann Ghia, and shoving an outlandish percentage of my six-figure salary up my nose. I bed-hopped with a wide variety of shallow, skinny, money-obsessed shoulder-padded Sharons. Aids had not yet clouded the sexual horizon, although it wasn’t far away, and everything was a hedonistic disco-hustle of expense-account lunches, ludicrously inflated Christmas bonuses, nightclubs and champagne for breakfast. I was having the time of my life.

  Only I wasn’t. I believed I was, I was convinced I was. How could I not be having a great time when I was young, had loads of money, was having sex as often as advertising told me was mandatory, had a bulging Filofax, was constantly going to meetings where I was being told I was talented, the future, a prodigy. I had put the sales of G-Wiz Energizing Cola up by twenty per cent with my clever ‘Get Some Fizz With Mr Wiz’ campaign, Mr Wiz appearing on TV as a kind of surrealist Jeremy Beadle, stopping people in the streets and asking them if they’d had any Wiz today. When they admitted they hadn’t, he’d have a crane lower a twenty-foot can of G-Wiz in front of them, climb up the side, tug off the giant ring-pull and…

  I won’t go on. You had to be there to understand. Then there was my Puff the Magic Dragon campaign for Rozza cigarette papers, a Busby Berkeley pastiche with rhin
os and hallucinogenic mythical beasts and my ‘What You Mean You Like My Jeans?’ campaign for Billy Bull Denims, which converted a generation to the delights of stretch denim. I was hot.

  Yet somewhere inside I was unhappy. I was unhappy because I knew that what I did was nothing more than a trick, a childish knack, like juggling or cracking your knuckles. I got lucky once, then an insider mythology built around what I was doing, and I could do no wrong. But what I did was crap, and it was meaningless. And sleeping with loads of… strangers, although it had its compensations, wore thin. It just felt lonely. It had been a few years since I’d extricated myself from Helen; the lesson I appeared to have learned from it was, don’t let yourself get hemmed in. So I’d started running, and kept on running. The moment anything threatened to become serious I was out of there before you could say ‘What You Mean You Like My Jeans?’

  It was then that I met Kelly Cornelius. I was at some fashionable restaurant that charged you an enormous amount of money for a tiny quantity of food with seven people I hardly knew, and with half a gram of cocaine burning a hole in my pocket and the other half scouring an extra partition in my septum. The chatter was tumultuous, vacuous, torturous. Despite the coke, I felt glummer and glummer. Everyone was prattling away as if their dreary clichés and trite observations would eclipse Dorothy Parker. Suddenly I had one of those moments of clarity; I saw the whole dinner table, the whole restaurant, as a freak show, a Tower of Babel, a whole Radio One of pathetic banter. And there I was at the heart of it. I wanted to run out of the restaurant, buy myself a battered Smith-Corona, move to Mexico and bash out the great novel. Only my certain knowledge that my writing ability extended to about eight buzzy syllables and a couple of paragraphs of infotainment stopped me.

  I looked wearily around the table, grinding my teeth and toying with my miniature impressionist treacle tart and custard (£9.50, the size and flavour of a digestive biscuit), and it was then that I saw Kelly.

  She’d been sitting there all evening, in fact, but for some reason she hadn’t registered with me. She was resolutely unglamorous, and that was probably why I had ignored her. No makeup – this at a time when every woman in the business world wore makeup – no power suit, and her hair was a big bird’s nest of curls, careless and untamed. Now, I saw a stillness about her, an innocent, bemused withdrawal from the circus, which lent her a strange dignity.

  The man sitting next to her, an account executive from my agency with candy-coloured braces and slicked-back hair called Hugo Bunce, was telling her a joke in a loud, plummy voice. This gave me the opportunity to watch her face carefully without being noticed. Her skin was good, pale, almost ivory. A roundish face, a little tuck of a chin almost like a fold of fat, yet somehow appealing. She nodded slightly as Hugo reached the punchline. I could see she was uncertain as to when she was meant to laugh but that she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Not knowing, apparently, that Hugo’s feelings had been cauterized by his years of training at a minor English public school. When her laugh came it was a moment too early and clearly forced, but it was an attempt to be polite rather than insincere. Then her eyes switched direction and caught mine.

  I was shocked by how blue they were, and also that they were slightly crossed. I didn’t mind – it was sexy. She held my eyes for one, maybe two seconds, enough, I imagined, for a crisp, and probably accurate, character assessment. I suspected that I hadn’t fared that well – my red nose, the tooth-grinding, the uneaten food told their own story. Then she turned back to Hugo, who had started another anecdote. She raised a small hand – a tiny hand, delicate -to her mouth to conceal a yawn. I noticed her blouse now, that there was a small tear in it around the shoulder, and sensed that it was second-hand. She was wearing Oxfam clothes at a table where the other women had spent £150 on a scarf.

  It intrigued me. When the bill came and had been settled, we all got up to leave. I did my sidling thing again. As luck would have it, she separated from the bulk of the crowd leaving the restaurant and I followed her. It was odd – I had never seen her before, and she seemed to have come with no one. We turned a corner, me ten paces behind. We found ourselves, just the two of us, in a small lane leading between two main thoroughfares. I felt seedy, but obscurely excited. I wanted to call out to her, but how would I explain myself? So I just kept following, through this alleyway, then another. Her pace was quickening, and I began to feel out of breath, but she showed no sign of having noticed me. Then a voice rang out, musical somehow, home counties, I would guess.

  Why are you following me?

  She turned and waited for me to catch her up. Her eyebrows, dark, were high and quizzical. The cold air in the street had cleared my head, but my nose hurt. She met my eyes, seemed unconcerned.

  Are you a stalker? Is that it?

  I sniffed a couple of times before I answered.

  I’m not following you. I was just heading in the same direction.

  Which is?

  Holborn.

  Holborn’s in the opposite direction.

  Chancery Lane, then.

  That’s in the opposite direction too.

  All right, I was following you. But not in the way you think.

  How many ways of following someone are there?

  Several.

  You sound like an expert.

  Not really. I’m obviously not very good at it.

  It depends what you’re hoping to get out of it.

  She pulled her coat round her. It was cheap, but it looked good, even though it was a little ragged around the sleeves. I was starting to feel slightly ridiculous, but I could tell that she was not offended. A little smile was working the corners of her mouth, either amused or contemptuous, I couldn’t quite work out which.

  I suppose so.

  What were you hoping to get out of it?

  I’m not sure.

  Why me, then?

  Because you laugh at the wrong moment in jokes.

  Is that something you find attractive in people?

  It sometimes betrays a kind of innocence, I suppose. A kind of sincerity.

  I’m really not that innocent.

  I’m really not that sincere. I’m following you because you’ve got a tear in your blouse and because you haven’t been to a hairdresser for about five years. It made you stand out in that context.

  What context?

  The context of sitting next to someone like Hugo Bunce.

  Now she smiled. Hugo seemed quite nice. He wanted a date.

  Did you say yes?

  I’m considering it.

  Why?

  Lack of better alternatives. Anyway, why would my dating habits interest a big-shot like you?

  I’m no big-shot.

  You’re Mr Wiz.

  So that’s me accounted for. And you’re…?

  She smiled, now, a full smile, showing rather crooked teeth with a little pink tongue poking through the gap in the yellowy white rows. My name’s Kelly.

  Kelly. Well, Kelly, can I buy you a drink?

  The pubs are shut.

  I’m a member of a little club around the corner.

  Of course you are.

  She hesitated for a few seconds, then thrust her hands into her pockets, took out a packet of cheap cigarettes, and lit one. OK, Mr Wiz. Show me the way.

  Kelly followed me up the stairs in the little club off St Martin’s Lane. She got some odd looks – all the other women there seemed to be dressed at Joseph Bis, Ally Capellino and Margaret Howell. She looked a little unkempt in the bright light – shabby, even. But I didn’t care. There was something intriguing about her, although I wasn’t sure yet what it was.

  She was an artist, as it turned out – a painter. I might have guessed. The relative poverty, the curiosity in the eyes, the strange animation and distance. Although I worked at the centre of a supposedly creative business, I had met few real artists – not, of course, that I was sure at that point that Kelly really was an artist, only that she had a studio, and that she had had
a couple of exhibitions.

  But whatever her abilities, she had a quality that set her apart from all the women I met in the advertising industry. It was the absence of the need to sell herself. There was also a kind of pause that she imposed when you said something to her, as if she was letting it percolate through to her very centre before she replied. She examined everything, scrupulously tested and weighed all input. Half of the time I felt pitiful when I was talking to her – the half of the time when I was trying to impress her. But when I stopped play-acting, when I relaxed into who I actually was, when I found the wherewithal to express my own feelings and opinions rather than the ones that were fashionable that week or the ones I thought would make me look good, she responded. Her eyes widened, her head came forward, she became engaged. She didn’t say much, or feel the need to speak if she didn’t have anything to say.

  The other thing I liked about her was that, despite her self-possession and intelligence, she was also nervous and a bit clumsy. She knocked over the first drink I bought her, and almost did the same with the second. She shifted around on her chair, and blinked a lot. It was as if – I don’t know if I thought this then – there was a thin layer between her and the rest of the world, that her protective coverings were only of the most gauzy fabric. This made her vulnerable, and for me vulnerability, even more than strength, makes love possible. People without weakness are easy to respect but difficult to feel much affection for.

  After a few hours, she said she was tired and I called a cab to take her home. We exchanged phone numbers, and I promised to give her a call. She pecked my cheek before she disappeared out into the night.

  Helping the hopeless and lonely, eh? It was Tom the barman, an old queen with a vicious tongue who had been watching us, frowning at her frumpy old clothes in the midst of all this opulence.

  Yes, I said, quietly. Yes, she was.

  A week later we went out on a date, and on the date after that we slept together. She wasn’t terribly adept in bed, clumsy and unsure of herself, but I didn’t mind. I felt I was with someone – I don’t know… not better put together than me, exactly, but her raw materials seemed to be of higher quality. Although I was the one with the money, the power, the contacts, the success, I felt oddly crude next to Kelly. She would look at me sometimes, and I would realize that I had just said something pathetic, misogynistic, ugly or uncharitable, and I would feel ashamed. But she never accused me: she just knew how to hold up a mirror to me.

 
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