Love secrets of don juan, p.19
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.19

           Tim Lott
 
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  In this, she was gentle. She had no anger, or pride, just a vague diffuseness that observed the world uncritically, without judgement but with instinctive accuracy.

  Interestingly, she was a terrible artist. This was in the days before most of the art world had turned towards installations and the creation of masterpieces with laundry and elephant shit. Kelly was simply a painter. Her tiny room in Wandsworth was full of canvases covered with what looked to me like the worst kind of sub-Jackson Pollock trash imaginable. The exhibitions she had had turned out not to have been her own but some ‘New British Painting’ season at a gallery near Marylebone. On neither occasion had any buyer shown any interest in her pictures but this had discouraged her not a whit. Kelly was unusual in that she possessed the spirit of the artist without the talent. She was determined to do what she did, irrespective of whether anyone thought it was good or not, irrespective of whether anyone bought a single painting. This wasn’t pretension: it was a compulsion she was powerless to resist. I loved her for this purity of purpose, this singularity of vision.

  She loved me back. I’m not quite sure why – as far as I can remember at the time my appeal was purely superficial, the suits, the car, the money. But I think she recognized that a piece of me – the tiny, truly creative piece that had been debased by money and worldly success – reached out to an identical piece of her. She was grateful that I was uncritical of her art and her artistic impulse, that it was enough for me that she had a true purpose. She saw also that, in a way, I was in awe of her, that the lack of a mediating force between her and the world was something towards which I aspired – I, who was all mediation, appearance and the placement of product.

  We went out for three years, and found a kind of unostentatious, low-level bliss that I have never known before or since. True, the sex never got much better, and true, neither did her painting, and true, I never wrote the great novel I sometimes flattered myself was lurking beneath my brittle, flash exterior. But there was a synergy about us, a happy feeding by one upon the other. I found her extraordinary sense of calm a potent antidote to the edgy world of shifting surfaces I inhabited. Also, I had a kind of vital energy, I suppose, a determined wit and ambition that she found exotic, in a sometimes bemused, even horrified, way.

  But, then, perhaps this is wrong. I sometimes think relationships are not about each other’s merits so much as each other’s faults, and one’s ability to tolerate and dovetail with them. Kelly was always going to be a failure, I could see that, and was awkward, and socially inept, and not all that beautiful, and untidy and chaotic, but somehow I didn’t care. I was a fake, a chancer, an advertisement for myself – but she didn’t care either. We meshed, we melded. We were happy.

  Three years, and we didn’t argue, didn’t fight, didn’t hate one another. I paid most of the bills, but she couldn’t have cared less if I hadn’t – another reason I loved her. Money meant nothing to her, so long as she could get on with her terrible paintings.

  I could see, actually, as the 1980s wore on, that the paintings took on a different quality of terribleness. Originally they had been jagged, separated and distinct lines and splatters, quite geometrical. If they spoke to me at all, it was in Cantonese or some other incomprehensible language in which one could only infer meaning through intonation and volume. The crude level of vocabulary that I was able to translate spoke of disintegration, chaos, loneliness. But as our relationship wore on, the pictures became more rounded, more connected-up. They started to change their language. What they were saying now was that she was finished with disconnection.

  I read the change as meaning she felt happy, fulfilled, and settled in her life. What escaped me was that the paintings were saying she wanted to move in with me and start a family.

  We were both twenty-nine, and my last experience of living with someone had been what I now characterized as self-inflicted imprisonment. I loved Kelly – loved her in a way I had never experienced with Helen, but I was also arrogant and felt more or less invulnerable. My experience of women still remained lodged in a child’s world, a 1950s world, in which I believed that all women were grateful to men for having them. No one ever deserted me. Having got them into bed, which was the hard part, I either allowed them to love me or I didn’t. I was typical of many men who thought women were out to trap them: women saw things in terms of a fantasy of absolute union, men in terms of a fantasy of absolute freedom.

  Kelly applied to her life the singularity of purpose that she devoted to her art. Despite her apparent vagueness, she said what she meant and she meant what she said. So when she turned to me one spring day and said, I think it’s time for us to take the next step, I should have listened. I should have watched. I should have looked at her paintings more carefully. She said she wanted us to live together and that, in a year or two, she wanted to have children. I nodded and listened, and said, as I’m sure a million men before me have said, We’re happy enough as it is. Why spoil it?

  Why indeed? I truly didn’t understand in those days that life is fluid, in need of perpetual change and adaptation. I thought you could sort of freeze it at a point at which you are happy. Women don’t have this illusion. Their bodies don’t allow it.

  Kelly being Kelly didn’t argue the point, or try to convince me. She had told me what she wanted. I had refused her. Had I been watching, I might have seen her blue eyes searching me for clues – to the depth of my objection, to the obtuseness of my confusion. Perhaps the quizzicality of one of her dark eyebrows intensified for a moment or two. Conclusions were being drawn, not just about my fantasies of freedom but about the timbre of love that would let such a profound request be so casually deflected. She had spoken to me in her paintings; she had even said it directly. My only response had been the equivalent of a shrug. Was that the response of someone who valued her?

  Her mind would have raced, checking and reviewing all the allowances she had been making for me. All the benefits of all the doubts were being reassessed and the process of withdrawal was set in train. An entire star nebula of change compressed into those few moments I spent saying, We’re happy enough as it is. Why spoil it?

  Already, I imagine, her mind would have started to move on, to make plans to get what she had determined she needed.

  The ironic thing was that I was trying to do then what I am trying to do now. I was trying to learn from the past, and I had learned that living with a woman was a cage, the murderer of passion, the death of freedom, the beginning of the end. The trouble is that by the time you come to apply what you have learned, life has moved on, and warped out of recognition, left you way, way behind.

  After that we carried on in the same way for six months. As far as I could tell, nothing had changed. We still lay in bed doing the crosswords, still went for long walks on Hampstead Heath, still talked until all hours of the morning. Kelly never mentioned living together or children again, so I stopped thinking about it, believing I had won an easy victory.

  Then, one day, Kelly stopped talking.

  It was as simple as that. She went quiet. The groove we’d always had, that we’d shared so happily, had been lost – out of the blue as far as I was concerned. We’d go out for dinner and she’d hardly say anything, just pick at her food and stare out of the window. We’d do the crossword and she wouldn’t solve any clues. She was folding in on herself. Her paintings had changed again: forms had begun to appear in them, almost like organisms, twisted and turned in on themselves, anguished, almost frightening in their intensity. I thought her work was getting better: it was less derivative, more passionate. I was just inspecting her latest, a kind of orgy of yellows and greens on an enormous canvas that almost covered an entire wall of the flat when she said – it was a few weeks after the silences had begun – Spike. I don’t know how to say this, but I’m just going to say it. I’m leaving you. Her voice was gentle and not at all apologetic. I laughed at first. I didn’t – I couldn’t – take it remotely seriously.

  What?

>   I turned away from the painting. She was standing there, hand on her hip, smoking a cigarette. As ever she was composed, sad but apparently at peace. She took a step towards me and embraced me, once, then took a step back. Then she regarded me neutrally. Her slightly crossed blue eyes were dry. She looked beautiful. And suddenly, unbearably unattainable.

  I saw, then and there, that I had lost her, that she had moved beyond me and into another place in her heart, that I had dropped the catch, that I had queered my pitch, that I had made the worst mistake of my life. But all I said was What do you mean?

  I’m leaving you, Danny. I’ve met someone else. We’re going to live together.

  She gave a small, violently kind smile. I don’t suppose I’ve ever felt so incredulous as I did at that moment, because I had been happy, and if I had been happy it had to follow that Kelly was too. In those days I saw everything through the prism of my own ego – the attempt to throw myself into the mind of another, which comes so naturally to women (or if you prefer, so culturally), just wasn’t in me. I was literal-minded – if Kelly had been unhappy she would have told me so that I could have done something about it. I was too blind to see all the clues that had been laid out in front of me – the change in the paintings, the emotional retreat accompanied by an incongruous increase in her taking care of herself (she had started to wear makeup and to work out in a gym). Even the silence I interpreted as some kind of passing artistic ennui. I had seen only what I had wanted to see – and now I had to pay the price.

  Anyway, if a relationship was going to end, I was the one who was going to do the leaving. Nobody left me. I suppose, statistically, relationship break-ups must split about fifty-fifty, but I don’t think the distribution is even. There are clusters. There are people who predominantly get left, and people who predominantly leave. I was a leaver. My arrogance was such – and it was partly informed by the underlying male arrogance that has only recently, historically speaking, been replaced by insecurity and doubt – that I thought it axiomatic that no woman would leave me. From the standpoint of where I am now, I find this illusion extraordinary. But in my twenties I was a man in a male-dominated world. I was about to find those things out that someone, sooner or later, was bound to teach me.

  You’ve met someone else.

  I’ve known him for some time actually. Hugo.

  Hugo.

  Hugo Bunce. As rich as Croesus and a legendary goon. If she was leaving me, she should go to a penniless artist, a doomed genius or someone crippled whom she had taken pity on. Preferably all three. But Hugo… If she wanted Hugo more than me, after all our time together, our history, our shared memories, our private jokes and passionate letters, our bedtime tricks and secret codes, and Hugo was a pathetic public-school pinhead, then what did that make me?

  That’s how I saw it in the narcissistic virtual world in which I lived. I didn’t know then that love, in a strange way, isn’t really personal. People fall in love with other people for the strangest reasons, often unrelated to virtue, personality, intelligence or looks. Something in us seeks out what we need. After years of being a penniless artist, something in Kelly had decided she needed a home, children, security, and someone who would be grateful for her in a way that I wasn’t.

  Or maybe Kelly was just another of those otherwise brilliant women with a blind spot for bastards. Who knows?

  How did I take it? Not too badly, I think. If you view not getting out of bed for a week as not too badly – not even to wash or shave. Not even, on one occasion, to piss.

  This was the first time my heart was truly broken. It had been sad when I’d finished with Helen, and there had been one or two others whom I’d missed when they’d gone. But this was the real thing. The meaning of the phrase ‘broken heart’ came home to me then in a way that it never had before. The little packet of energy in the chest, which for the last few years had been sweet, cohered, knitted together, pulsing nicely, turned to jagged glass. Everything hurt. Every day hurt, every minute.

  I lay in bed thinking of Kelly with Hugo, thinking of me slowly being written out of Kelly’s history – or, at least, relocated in her emotional maps to the Antarctic, when only a short time previously I had been the equator, Greenwich Mean Time, the centre of it all. This redrawing of maps, this negating of our past together, was what hurt most. I thought of her lying in bed with Hugo, talking about me in the past tense. Danny was… Danny used to… Danny never…

  I was being dismantled. I knew this. I was being taken apart within the soul and mind of someone I had come to believe was part of me. So strongly had I believed in that person that, as Kelly slowly let me seep away, I felt myself becoming invisible, lightweight, flyaway. And, at the same time, dried out, desiccated, frozen. There was a perpetual tension within me that sought to hold inside me everything I was losing. I needed to ‘let go’, as they say nowadays. I needed ‘closure’, as my therapist now puts it. But all I could think of was Kelly.

  What lesson can I learn from this? The most fundamental for any man. Be watchful. Never, never, never take a woman for granted. The price of love is perpetual vigilance.

  After a week I got out of bed and was back at work, though barely functional, a week later. I had a lot of healing to do before I was ready even to look at another woman. Which is why it was a crying shame that I had to get involved with Natasha Bliss.

  Beth and I are sitting in the front room of the house in Hammersmith, each holding a piece of paper and a pen. I am twenty feet away from her – as far as possible. We each stare at the list in front of us. The time has come for the division of our worldly goods. This is one of the final acts in the long-running farce of divorce. I half expect a vicar to walk in stage-door left with his trousers round his knees.

  The room even feels like a stage, the situation like the dying moments of a final act. There is a feeling of suspended reality, of a script being played out that was written by someone else. I feel my choices are prescribed by the scriptwriter, only I’m not sure who that is or what has been written. As so often before, I don’t know my lines.

  Yet there is a well-tested procedure for this, which is what we are about to follow. A list has been compiled by a professional agency that specializes in these matters of everything in the house. Now we choose item by item what we get to keep. Toss a coin to see who goes first. Like a party game, really. Except that what is being divided up is our history, our life together, our marriage.

  Terence has tried to prepare me. He has given me a number of simple rules to follow: Don’t shout. Don’t cry. Stay focused. Get through it.

  I gulp soundlessly, make pointless little marks in the margin of the meticulous inventory.

  1 Bang & Olufsen stereo console

  1 pair Bang & Olufsen speakers

  2 ‘ethnic’ style cushions

  1 wood-framed mirror

  1 large child’s painting, framed, marked ‘To mumy and

  daddy lov Poppy’

  I colander

  I feel sick. I risk a glance at Beth. She is wearing reading glasses, with Dolce & Gabbana frames. The spectacles add to her brisk, businesslike persona. Her distance, her formal body language, her pursed and purposeful lips – it all depresses me. Yet it is necessary. She takes a swig of the coffee she has made.

  5 coffee mugs, Habitat

  6 wine glasses, make unknown

  I fake Persian rug

  I carriage clock with inscription, ‘To Danny and Beth on their wedding day, from the bride’s proud parents, Dorothy and Mike’

  I pair of worn child’s ballet slippers

  3 milk teeth in plastic envelope Nest of coffee tables

  Even at the eleventh hour, I’m not quite sure how to approach this exercise. There is an element of tactics in it, and the potential for malice. It’s not as straightforward as choosing what you want in the order that you want it. I can achieve the best result if I guess in advance what Beth doesn’t want. This will enable me to leave these items further down the list to ma
ke way for the things I do want that she’ll want too. But, then, Beth knows this so she’ll be making her guesses about what she thinks I don’t want, and moving those items down her list.

  It’s further complicated because we’re not just dealing in financial values: there’s sentimental value and spite value. Spite value is Beth or me deliberately choosing something because we know it will piss the other off. I don’t want to go there, but if Beth starts it I’ll respond in kind. It’s the only way to deter her. It’s the iciest of Cold Wars.

  Pair of ivory bookends in the shape of elephant heads

  217 compact discs, various artists

  Custom-made ivory lace and silk wedding dress from Harrods, London

  Ofrex office stapler with staples

  It doesn’t matter who owned what before we were married. Once we signed the certificate they all became joint possessions. It only matters in a moral, not a legal, sense. And morals have run their course in this house, are run ragged, after a year of betrayed promises and bad faith.

  Are you ready, then?

  I look up. Beth’s chewing the end of her pencil nonchalantly. It’s part of the softening-up process. Like she doesn’t care, like she’s bigger than this. But we’re not bigger than this, either of us. Life towers over us both, mocking.

  I suppose.

  Shall I toss?

  Can I trust her to toss? Will she have a double-header, or some special flick of the wrist that will turn it the way she wants? Should we cut cards instead, or get an arbitrator in?

 
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