Love secrets of don juan, p.25
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.25

           Tim Lott
 
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  Today I’ve got a presentation to make to Probe, Willis and Cooper, Britain’s leading manufacturer of plastic dish-towel holders. I’ve got a good chance of clinching it. See, it starts with this fumbling, incompetent man trying to get a dishtowel into the dishtowel holder and… You get the gist. I may not be able to write the great existential post-modern novel, I may not be able to maintain a functional relationship with a woman but I can still write a trite, meaningless, superficially attractive, misandrist catchline. No one can say my life has been in vain.

  I check my watch. Late. I grab my folder, rush out of the front door and begin the three-hundred-yard sprint to the tube station. I’m nearly there when I see her. Her hair is shorter, she looks paler, and I am not at all sure it is her at first, because it’s too downright improbable. She doesn’t even live in London any more, from what I’ve heard. Why would she happen to be walking down my street? In the direction of my bedsit, too.

  My determination to breeze past her without a glance or a word is undermined by the fact that, at that exact moment, with my eyes fixed straight ahead, I trip over a carelessly discarded 1.5-litre bottle of G-Wiz, fall flat on my face and send my folder flying into the gutter, where it opens and scatters the papers for my presentation into the road.

  Furious, bewildered, and with what smells like cat-shit on my lapel, I pick myself up, grab the folder and stuff what paper I can find back into it. She bends down and retrieves a crucial document. She holds it out to me. I snatch it from her without a word, put it away, then fumble with the zip of the folder so I can be on my way.

  Hello, Spike.

  I take a step towards the tube station. She moves across the pavement to block my path.

  Don’t go, Danny. Give me a chance to say what I’ve got to say.

  I pause, stand there on that street corner. I’m late for an important meeting.

  I’ve left Martin.

  Is that so? I think I’m going to faint with surprise.

  I left him two months ago. Ever since, I’ve been trying to pluck up courage to… do this.

  That’s very touching. Can I go to my meeting now?

  Inside, two feelings are competing. First fury: for what she did to me, to Poppy, to us. Fury at her sheer arrogance in daring to show herself to me again. The other feeling is equally strong – but I can’t identify it. Whatever it is, it’s making my heart hammer. Maybe that’s a by-product of the fury. I turn back towards the somehow much safer emotion and try to push past her, but she grabs my sleeve. I shake off her hand, and walk away from her. She follows, talking quickly but clearly. People stare at us as we walk past, her in my wake, me trying to accelerate without the indignity of running.

  Danny, I know I messed up. You were right. Martin only wanted me because you had me. I mean, he did love me only not in the right way. But I’d loved him for so long, and I’d wanted him for so long. I’d only been out of the relationship with him a couple of months, just like you’d only been out of your marriage… well, not long enough. I didn’t understand what was happening. It was so fast. I was torn. I didn’t know what to do.

  Why are you telling me this?

  I’m still walking. I can’t bring myself to look back at her.

  I just thought… maybe… what we had… it might have been good. This Martin thing – it’s out of my system now.

  Out of your system? That’s great. Terrific. Goody goody gumdrops from the gumdrop tree.

  I risk a glance at her. She’s trembling, seems smaller than I remember her.

  I just… I know I should say sorry for what I’ve done, and I am, I’m dreadfully sorry for causing you such pain. But it hurt me too. I missed you so much. And I had to do it. I had to live it out, to know that it wouldn’t work, before I could be free. Now I have. I have lived it out.

  I stop, turn, regard her coolly. I apologize for repeating myself, but why are you telling me this?

  Now she stares at the ground. Her voice is quiet. I have to strain to hear.

  I just thought there might be a chance that we could give it another go.

  What? Until Martin whistles for you again, you mean? Trying to make him jealous again, are you?

  Alice doesn’t say anything, just stares at the pavement.

  I hope you’re not going to have the gall to tell me that you love me.

  No. No, I,m not. I don’t know, Danny. I don’t know what I feel. But I know what I felt when we were together. And it was real, and it was something. For all that’s gone before – maybe there’s a chance. Maybe it’s worth a try. If you haven’t killed your feelings for me completely.

  I’ve still got feelings for you, Alice. Of course I have.

  She looks up at me, a look of surprise, of hope in her eyes. Have you?

  Yes, I have. First, contempt. Second, disdain. Third, anger. Fourth, complete indifference. Fifth, contempt. Oh, I’ve said that before, haven’t I? Sixth, amazement that you’ve got the sheer fucking nerve even to show me your face.

  Now her eyes flash defiance. Don’t lay all the blame on me, Danny. It was you who slept with your best friend’s girlfriend.

  Ex-girlfriend.

  That doesn’t stop it being a shitty thing to do.

  Well, I guess we’re equal, then.

  Alice sighs. What do you want to do, then? she asks, sadly.

  What do I want to do? I want to tell you in the plainest, most unequivocal terms to fuck off and die.

  There are only two Love Secrets that have turned out to be true. Don’t Trust Them. And: Be Ruthless. These are all I have to cling to, the last truths I have left, my final defences in the face of an incomprehensible, hostile life. I have to stand by them. What I need to do now is walk proudly away into the sunset, my dignity intact, my pride shining, leaving me with a fantasy of Alice as a reduced, regretful wreck.

  Only I am unable to move. Meanwhile, Alice just stands there, seemingly having run out of things to say. Perhaps we could go and have a cup of coffee? she says, in a slightly more confident voice.

  I don’t see the point.

  I’ve come all the way from Brighton. Couldn’t you just spare me a few minutes to talk it through?

  There’s nothing to talk about.

  But if there’s nothing to talk about, why am I still talking? A cab approaches with its yellow light shining. All I have to do is put up my hand. There’s no way back for us now – not after what she did to me, what she did to Poppy, what I did to Martin, what Martin did to me. Too much damage. Too much history. The weak torture the weak. It’s another disaster waiting to happen.

  Do you still love me, Danny?

  Don’t you dare. Don’t you fucking dare.

  But do you? Do you still love me?

  You haven’t got the right to ask that.

  just tell me you don’t, Danny, and I’ll go away and never bother you again. Truly I will. Just say the words.

  A bus goes past, pumping out fumes. The taxi drives past, unhailed. The taste of lead in my mouth. A child pushes past on one of those new metal scooters, whooping with joy. For some reason I notice the sky. Changing, shifting, re-forming itself every second of every day.

  Of course I love you, Alice. When you truly love someone, you never stop loving them, not in your whole life. The truth is, I still love Kelly, still wake at two a.m. with a dream of her gentle face fading inside the darkened room. I still love Natasha Bliss, although I could never show her I did at the time. And I still love Beth, still see her face when I look at the pillow on the bed. And I still love Alice, and I always will, whatever happens. The four great women. That movie was wrong about there only being three. Maybe the writer wasn’t old enough to know.

  I still love her. Worse luck. Because it’s stupid, and shallow and immature, and guilty of the worst kind of wishful thinking. Because it goes against the only remaining truths in this life that I know for sure. Because my belief in the myth is dead, and yet here I am saying, slowly, regret fully, as if delivering bad news to a distant relat
ive, I don’t see any harm in a cup of coffee, I suppose.

  That afternoon, I’m ashamed to admit, we ended up in bed. Then cautiously, tentatively, incredibly, given what had gone before, we began picking up where we had left off. Over the following days and weeks we somehow kept it together. You could even say that we edged our way towards a place from which we could move forward.

  It was all kid gloves at first, all circling round each other. The anger, resentment and scepticism that I undeniably felt pressed and bothered at every weak spot when we were together. At first Alice was scrupulously apologetic, then, deciding that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life being sorry, eventually became defiant.

  Why do you never bring Poppy round when I’m here?

  You must be joking. So she can be hurt all over again?

  We’ve been with each other two months now.

  I don’t trust you. How can you expect me to trust you?

  You have to trust me. There isn’t any choice. Even though I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Even though I can’t make you any promises. You have to trust me.

  I don’t think that Poppy would understand the sophistication of that particular thought.

  I think Poppy has a right to know what’s going on in your life.

  I don’t want you anywhere near her. That’s a giant step. To show you to her means you’re going to be around. That you’re a fixture. I can’t break her heart a third time. Or is it a fourth? I’ve lost count.

  She’s going to have to take her chances like everyone else on the planet. You can’t carry on like this.

  No. You messed up my life. No.

  Long pause. I feel the knot of anger in my throat tighten. In order to calm down, I go to the bathroom, wash my face. When I come out, Alice is holding a wad of A4 paper. I recognize the coffee stain on the first page. Please put that back where you found it.

  The Sandstone Ghost.

  I wouldn’t waste your time on it.

  I already have.

  So there’s a few hours of your life you’ll never get back. Has this got something to do with the subject currently under discussion? Give it to me, please.

  She hands it over.

  It’s no good, says Alice.

  I know it’s no good. But, at the risk of repeating myself, what’s that got to do with anything?

  I’m still angry, still hurting, still bewildered. I want an argument, not a discussion about my lack of literary talent.

  But do you know why it’s no good?

  It’s no good because I can’t write.

  No. You can write very well. It’s only no good because it’s not true. It’s all about what you want people to be, it’s all about what you want you to be, and what you think you might be. You can definitely write. You just don’t know how to be honest.

  Thanks for the input. Really. It gives me fresh hope.

  You know what I thought when I read this book? You know what I think it should be called?

  Is there anything I could say that would prevent you telling me?

  It should he called The Victim. Because that’s what it’s all about. About poor little Danny Savage. About all that you haven’t got and all you should have. It’s dressed up as some version of a Greek tragedy, but really it’s a novel about self-pity. It’s about not accepting what life serves you up.

  You haven’t got the faintest idea what you’re —

  I stop. I am suddenly aware that what Alice has said has set off a long-neglected series of connections in my synapses. Electrical impulses pulse. Gears mesh. Keys turn locks. The only sign of this from Alice’s point of view apparently is a series of rapid blinks. She says, Have you got something in your eye?

  I may be self-deluding, I may be vain. However, I’ve learned the truth about truth – that it’s intuitive. That sometimes you just know it when you hear it. I shake my head as if the clarity is like a blow. I’m not sure what you mean.

  It’s all about there being no God, isn’t it? No one to sort things out for you.

  I look at her. Synapses connect with other synapses. The whole network lights up. I’m the martyr. That’s how I’m a nightmare.

  What?

  Never mind. Carry on, carry on.

  Where were we?

  No God.

  That’s it. You need to come to terms with something you must have always known.

  I know.

  Things aren’t fair, Danny. You haven’t accepted it.

  I know.

  You haven’t accepted randomness. Yes, there’s no God. And there’s no Mum and no Dad there to make it all right. There’s no partner who will stand in for your mum and dad who are in turn standing in for God and making it all right. We’re all on our own. Once you’ve accepted that, we can start being together.

  You’re right.

  So. Do you forgive me?

  Long, long pause.

  Do I forgive you? Is that what this is about?

  That’s exactly what this is about. Because whatever I did, and however rotten it looked to you, it was just the way things were. I was doing the best I could, I was trying to survive. I didn’t mean to love you, I didn’t mean for you to love me. I just thought we could comfort each other, and that perhaps if it got Martin back a bit for what he did to me that would be OK, and if it brought him running back again, that would be even better. Only of course it wasn’t because you were right, because it was never going to work between him and me then. Because the improbable happened, as it does. You and I fell in love. So I screwed up. Totally. But to tell the truth, in the same circumstances, I’d do it again. You have to make mistakes, your own special mistakes. Mistakes are life’s roughage. They’re good for you. Loss and folly, they’re the only way you learn, the only way you grow. And no one can save you. Because…

  Because there’s no God.

  So you can spend the next Christ only knows how long hating me for what I did if you want, and I can spend the next God knows how long apologizing to you for what I did, and hating you for having to apologize, but that’s not a relationship, that’s a… that’s a… mutual crucifixion. That’s S and M. You have to forgive me, and you have to forgive me even if you think I don’t think I did anything wrong. And I don’t. It was just life, but even without blame life demands forgiveness. The world seizes up without it.

  You’re not responsible for anything. That lets you off the hook nicely – doesn’t it?

  I’m not being moral -just practical. We have to put it behind us. We have to. I have to have the licence occasionally to be an unreasonable bitch without you saying, ‘But you did that terrible thing.’ And you have to be able to be an insensitive arsehole towards me from time to time without me automatically thinking, He’s punishing me again.

  That’s a very romantic way of looking at it. So we can be bitches and arseholes.

  It’s the way it is. Forgive me. Do you forgive me?

  Let me get this straight. You want me to forgive you for something you think you haven’t even done wrong?

  Yes. And then I want you to forgive me for thinking that I haven’t done wrong as well. Then maybe we can move forward.

  I’ll think about it.

  You should. Because we can’t go on like this.

  Some weeks later, I enter my flat to see something standing in the middle of the floor that I haven’t seen for a long time. My flip-chart. Alice has taken it out of the cupboard I had stored it in. She’s left it in the middle of the room and taken Poppy to the swings. Poppy was overjoyed to see her again. She trusts Alice. And, against all the wisdom of my life to date, so do I.

  There’s a Post-it note on the front of the flip-chart, which says: ‘Read me.’

  I lift the top flap. All my pages of reflections and analyses and comments and annotations have been erased. In their place, in Alice’s small, precise handwriting, are four words: Nothing can be done.

  The eraser isn’t very good. The grey shadows of my ten precious Love Secrets are still just
about legible. I followed all the rules, learned every lesson. None of it stopped Alice leaving me for Martin. Then Alice returned – and I, weak, foolish and ridiculous, took her back. As a result of this insane act of folly, I am completely happy.

  Nothing can be done. We are helpless. All the words add up to zero. Life is what happened to happen. Some lessons we learn and some we don’t, and thinking or not thinking doesn’t seem to have much to do with it.

  Nothing can be done. In place of beliefs, which are impossible, there is only faith. Although I’ve had the dream and lost it time and time again, I know I can make it work this time. Because I love Alice. I love her more than any woman I’ve ever been with. The person I was before she came back to me, washed-out, resigned, cynical, has disintegrated. What is this if not evidence of faith – or blind foolishness? Perhaps they are the same thing.

  Nothing can be done. Everything that’s real is an illusion. Everything that’s true is untrue. Paradox reigns supreme. In this there is hope.

  Nothing can be done. I have no insights, only happiness. It came out of nowhere, with no explanations. I did no work for it. I applied no philosophies. It adhered to no rules of justice or karma.

  Women didn’t put me here. Men didn’t put me here. I didn’t put me here. I’m just here.

  I close the flip-chart, and sit down. The Sandstone Ghost is still sitting on the shelf under the table where Alice left it. I take it out and flick through it, then stare at the flip-chart. I know I’m going to write another book. This time it’s going to be a book all about men and women and how they mess up and how they hurt each other as they try to understand each other, and how they blow up their lives to escape them when their lives are all they’ve got.

  It’s not going to be like The Sandstone Ghost or anything literary or post-modern or existential. None of those things allow for happy endings. But happy endings do happen. Call me Robin Williams, if you like, but they do. It’s just as real as giving everybody cancer, or having your main character commit suicide in the face of eternal nothingness, which is what happened to the gloomy protagonist in my first book.

 
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