Love secrets of don juan, p.6
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.6

           Tim Lott
 
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  I read in some museum exhibition on the Spanish Inquisition that the soul of the torturer is male. I suspect that’s true.

  But the soul of the revenger is female.

  I suppose it’s got something to do with those millennia of slavery and abuse. Right now it’s payback time. Why? Because now, and for the first time, they can.

  Pointless, I suppose, to point out that I didn’t enslave them. I wasn’t even born.

  That’s another nightmare thing about women. That pain they pour down on you: half the time it’s what you had coming, but the other half it’s the accumulated compound interest on someone else’s crime, someone who’s quite possibly dead, who’s had their good time at women’s expense and, being dead, yet surviving as part of some residual culture, is now permanently off the hook.

  I don’t know why men, on the whole, manage to resist that instinct, that pull of the past, more than women. But they do. That’s one of the good things about them, an offshoot of their much-mocked literal-mindedness. Literal-mindedness can be a disaster, disconnectedness with the past can be a disaster, but there are circumstances in which it is priceless.

  *

  What do you think of this, Poppy? ‘Titmarsh Toilet Tissue The No-nonsense Wipe’. Catchy, don’t you think? They’re going to love it, I know they are.

  If they like it, will you be able to buy a new house?

  Aren’t we cosy here? Don’t you like it?

  No. I hate it.

  Do you, poppet? Why?

  It’s too small. It smells like wee.

  I know it smells, sweetheart. That’s because the drains are clogged up and I can’t afford to pay for a plumber at the moment.

  I want to go home.

  This is your home too now, darling. You’ve got two homes, you lucky thing! The big nice one with Mummy. And the small smelly one with Daddy.

  I want to go home to my real home.

  Is that a new dolly? What’s her name?

  I know what you’re doing, Daddy.

  Yes. That’s right. I’m trying to tickle you! Yes, I am. Yes, I am.

  You’re trying to detract me, Daddy.

  Yes, darling. I suppose I am trying to distract you.

  Are you still married to Mummy?

  Yes, poppet. But we are going to get unmarried very soon.

  Why?

  Why?

  Why?

  You’ll understand when you’re older.

  When I’m seven?

  Maybe.

  Do you still love Mummy?

  Of course I do, darling.

  Then why are you getting unmarried?

  So what is the name of that new dolly?

  If you get unmarried will I still have a daddy?

  Of – of course you will, darling.

  Are you crying, Daddy?

  Would you like to watch a video? Do you like the Tweenies?

  I can’t decide whether to call her Princess or Lucy.

  Who?

  My new dolly.

  How about Princess Lucy?

  Have you got a girlfriend, Daddy?

  No.

  Why not?

  Because nobody wants to sleep with a forty-five-year-old failure with a six-year-old kid who lives in a bedsit that smells of piss and has too many sleepless nights and no money or prospects and cries in front of his daughter.

  What I really said was, No. Has Mummy got a boyfriend?

  Of course. I think Lucy’s better, don’t you, Dad? Dad? What’s the matter? Why has your face gone all red?

  It hasn’t gone red. Better than what?

  It has. Better than Princess.

  I like Lucy.

  Mummy likes Princess best.

  Will you shut up about that bloody doll?

  I want to go home. It’s not a bloody doll! I want my mummy.

  Sorry, darling. You mustn’t say bad words. Oh, don’t cry. Oh, God. Look, why don’t you have… er… something to eat. I’ve got some… some… half a can of baked beans or something…

  You hate me.

  Of course I don’t. I love you, Poppy, more than anything in the world.

  You don’t.

  I do.

  You don’t.

  I do.

  Then why did you leave home? Because if you still love Mummy, why did you leave home?

  I think Princess is the best name, actually. Princess Poppet.

  You’re trying to detract me again.

  What’s his name?

  Who?

  Mummy’s new boyfriend.

  Oliver.

  That’s a nice name.

  Yes.

  Do you think he’s nice?

  Yes.

  Not as nice as Daddy, though.

  Sometimes he is.

  Is he?

  He brings me sweets and plays with me and never tells me off and he gives me hugs and he’s nice to Mummy and he bought me this bloody doll.

  He bought you that doll? Don’t use rude words.

  Yes.

  Poppy.

  Yes?

  What do you think of the name Jezebel? Shall we call the doll Jezebel?

  That’s pretty.

  It is, isn’t it? Tell Mummy that Daddy thought of it, will you?

  OK, Daddy. I need to go poo. Daddy?

  Yes, poppet?

  Can I use the fluffy toilet paper? I don’t like ‘Tickmarsh Toilet Tissue’.

  Titmarsh. Darling, I get it free. I haven’t got any fluffy paper.

  Mummy has fluffy paper.

  Mummy can afford fluffy paper. Mummy can afford to wipe your arse with a pashmina.

  What’s a pashmina?

  It’s a very silly, very expensive scarf.

  Mummy doesn’t wipe my arse with a scarf.

  Let’s go home, Poppy. It’s time for you to go home.

  It’s time to take Poppy to Beth’s house. To take Poppy home. That riff about Poppy having two homes – it’s advertising. In other words, it’s untrue. She lives with Beth. She leaves home to visit me. I return her home after forty-eight hours, once every two weeks. After the handover to Beth the ache of loss is like acid accumulating in my throat, pooling around my chest until twelve days later I get another chance to drain the reservoir temporarily.

  I dread this journey. I really want to leave Poppy at the end of the path, let her ring the doorbell, then walk away before the door opens. I can’t, because Poppy wouldn’t understand. Yet I’m frightened of being there when the door opens because Beth always finds a new way to hurt me. In the space of the few seconds between the door opening, and me giving Poppy a farewell kiss, and turning to leave, she always finds a way of getting to me. A sentence is enough, and often it’s so subtle that I don’t even get it until ten minutes later, and then I’m seething, but it’s too late to do anything about it. Not that I could have done anything about it anyway.

  The weekend before last, just as I was handing over Poppy, she said, That was good for Tom, wasn’t it?

  And I said, What? I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

  She said, Never mind, and was gone.

  A few minutes later it started playing on my mind. That was good for Tom, wasn’t it? Out of all the things she could have said to me, all the unfinished, unsaid business that we have, she chooses that phrase.

  The revenger’s soul. It took me a full hour to decrypt. The cleverness was in calling him Tom when everyone knows him as Thomas. He hates the name Tom, so Beth always called him that. I always called him Thomas, even when he was my art director at Cazenove Allen & Silver. My talented, handsome, ambitious art director, the art director who stabbed me in the back and took all the credit for the Jimson’s Jelly Beans ad, who is now earning £300,000 plus per annum and living with an It girl in a penthouse on Shad Thames.

  What had she meant, That was good for Tom, wasn’t it?

  The genius of the thing was that she made sure the wound was self-inflicted. She knew that, when I had figured out that Tom was Thomas, I wo
uld rack my brains to work out what could possibly be ‘good’ for that worm-like, treacherous, maggot-like wormy maggot. She would also have known that I would quickly work out that this was the month of the D&AD awards. I don’t get Campaign, the advertising trade journal, any more because I’m trying to put all that behind me. My past, as well as my hopes. Beth knew, all the same, that I was going to have to buy it. She made me pay several quid for my misery, with the offhand delivery of what might easily have been a generous remark.

  The investment produced the result that Beth had expected. The page-two photograph of Thomas made him look like the happiest man alive: beaming, tanned from a no doubt recent expensive foreign holiday, It girl draped round his podgy little shoulders. Category winner for Sam’s Satsuma Surprise, the soft-drink sensation of last summer. I know the product well – because I started developing the pitch. I know it because I came up with the slogan, the high concept and, indeed, the art direction, since Thomas is at best a technician who wouldn’t know a good layout if it shot itself on a sidewinder missile up his sphincter. Then my marriage broke up and the drinking started, and the rest of the story is a hackneyed, discarded first draft, too crass and predictable to make it even as a half-arsed pitch for a clue-less client, but perfect as a representation of real life, authentic in all its tawdry predictability.

  Those simple words, That was good for Tom, wasn’t it?, did exactly what they were intended to do. They reduced me to an apoplectic, pillow-biting, wall-punching psycho.

  No recourse. No appeal. No restitution. For so much of my life I have imagined, wordlessly, almost thoughtlessly, that somewhere, somehow, there is a semi-celestial court of justice that makes sure things turn out OK in the long run, if you do the right thing. That someone, or some impersonal force somewhere, is in control, making sure that judicious outcomes ensue from the appropriate behaviour. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished. That there is nevertheless, in this transparently godless universe, a kind of God-bias built into the way things work.

  It’s not true – obviously. There’s no one and nothing to appeal to. No one to judge. There’s only what you can get away with. Thomas Spencer De’Ath of Cazenove Allen & Silver has got away with it. With my rewards and my salary and my kudos. He’s got it all. Just like Beth’s got my daughter and my house, and Oliver, whoever the fuck he is, has got Beth and is no doubt working on my daughter. Meanwhile what have I got?

  I’ve got a drain that smells as if Dennis Nilsen was the last plumber to attend, and a ready-to-fill-out form for the Lonely Hearts column in Time Out on the kitchen table.

  But I can’t afford the luxury of bitterness because I’m too nervous. I’m heading home to the house in Hammersmith where we used to live, holding tight to Poppy’s hand as she quietly mangles a Britney Spears song. She looks up at me: big hazel eyes, white-blonde hair like her grandmother, tall and slender like her mother, feet rather too big like mine. There it is. A lovely little cottage with a garden and a swing, three bedrooms, loads of natural light and a big kitchen. How happy we were there!

  Really, it does seem that way, as I walk down the street towards the red front door.

  In contrast to how I feel now, we really were happy.

  Memory plays tricks, though. Memory’s a leading practitioner in the Magic Circle, you could say. If we were happy, why did we split up? Didn’t we know we were happy? Can you be happy, and not know it?

  My mother always used to say this to me when something bad happened: You can’t change the past, Danny. It’s no use crying over spilt milk. What’s done is done. She was wrong. My sessions with Terence have achieved that much at least. Terence insists you can change the past. The past is changing all the time. The memories you select, the values you attach to them, are in constant flux. Inner life is like writing a product slogan, a constant series of revisions that are never finished, only refined or abandoned. What was true six months ago, that my marriage was a disaster, is no longer true today. Divorce is a disaster. Then again, maybe it won’t be six months down the line. Nothing ever stays the same.

  Daddy?

  Yes, poppet?

  Will you come inside the house today?

  A terrible thought strikes me: Beth put her up to this. She’s got something set up inside the house that’s going to set my stomach churning. She’s using Poppy as a weapon, as a lure.

  Poppy looks up at me, clutches at my hand. Will you, Daddy?

  I’m being ridiculous. Paranoid. I’ve been visiting a child psychologist, as well as an adult therapist. I’m gradually becoming a world-class expert on the various stages of development in the human mind. The child psychologist is there to advise on how I can minimize the effect of the separation on Poppy. One way is to try to be with her and her mother in the old house at the same time. It’s good for her to see that we’re OK together, that we don’t actively hate each other.

  The therapeutic orthodoxy is that it’s good for her to witness lies.

  All right, poppet. All right. If you want me to.

  We walk down the path. The red door is the same as ever. Everything is the same as ever – the scrubby plant pots beneath the bay windows, the wheelie-bin with the wheel missing, the hedge that always needs trimming. It’s easy to imagine that I’m just going to walk back into my old life, that Beth will greet me with a friendly nod, even a kiss, and a hot cup of something dull but reassuring.

  But it’s a man who opens the door. A good ten years younger than me, good-looking in a dissolute way, with a flat stomach and a full head of medium-length, sun-flecked brown hair. It’s six in the evening but he’s wearing a dressing-gown – my dressing-gown – and smoking a cigarette, which he discards when he sees Poppy.

  Oliver! Poppy throws her arms around his neck and gives him a kiss.

  Oliver smiles, hugs her back. Hello, poppet.

  He calls her poppet.

  Still holding Poppy in one arm, he looks at me. Brazenly inspects me. I can read his eyes: there’s judgement, complaint, a certain critical guardedness. I have a feeling he’s been hearing a highly edited version of our marriage. The director’s cut.

  You must be Spike.

  Daniel.

  Oliver, can we play that game again?

  What game, poppet?

  The throwing-in-the-air game! Please please please please!

  He calls her poppet. He has stolen my dressing-gown and my child’s nickname.

  A light footstep sounds from inside the door. A cautious but bright unmade-up face appears. It’s the primary swag, the first of the looted spoils of my marriage – Beth. Once a little on the heavy side, she has lost weight. Her blonde hair is piled up on her head and secured with clips decorated with silver butterflies. Her face is oval, still relatively unlined for her age. The mouth is wide and thin, but not without sensuality. There is a guardedness in her expression that she has only recently acquired, yet she looks healthy and pretty. She is wearing a thin silk dress that I last remember on a silver beach in Australia. There was an indigo twilight. We watched a pelican fly until it disappeared. Her head rested on my shoulder.

  She looks happy today. She is not angry for once, but there is something in her face that suggests disdain, triumph. She puts her hand on Oliver’s shoulder. The three of them make an attractive tableau.

  Would you like to come in? she says, innocently.

  Please, Daddy, please, Daddy, please, Daddy, please, Daddy…

  OK, pop – cupcake. Just for a moment.

  For the first time since I left the house, more than a year ago, I walk inside, following Oliver and Beth. Oliver is still carrying… poppet. I wish he would put her down. I wish he would put her down and never touch her or speak to her again.

  I wish he would not steal her. I wish he would return my life to me.

  It’s a warm spring day, and there is a large circular wrought-iron table set out in, the back garden. There are other children in the garden. Their mothers, benignly ignoring them, are sitting around the table, ch
atting happily, eating cake, home-made cake not cake bought in supermarkets like I have. It’s the set-up, the sting I feared. It’s a tableau arranged to show the sharp contrast between Beth’s life and mine. Those present, all women, smile indulgently as I appear. Miranda Green is there, and Charlotte Hughes-Milton, and Lizzy Grist. There is milk in a jug, and bone china. It looks lovely. It looks like a home. It looks like a scene designed to make me feel lonely and sad. It works.

  Hello, Danny.

  Hello, Miranda.

  Hello, stranger.

  Hello, Charlotte.

  Look who’s here.

  Oh, it’s you, is it, Liz?

  I’ve never got on too well with Lizzy Grist. She’s dull and shrewish, and thinks all men are bastards anyway, evidenced by the prompt failure of every relationship she’s ever had. The collapse of Beth’s and my marriage is further satisfying evidence for her working theory of gender politics. Charlotte and Miranda are all right, but I haven’t seen hide or hair of them since Beth and I split.

  I’ve not seen them because I’m outside the network. It is a network. When a marriage splits up, it’s hell for everybody – that’s a given. But for women there’s a whole structure, an entire culture of single parenthood. They get custody of the kids because that’s what mothers get. They get the house, or the key to the council house, because they’ve got custody of the kids. They get maintenance for the same reason. Men are required merely to go out and work to pay the bills. In the eyes of the law, men are little more than an ATM, a hole in the wall.

  In contrast, the women, the single mothers who are now in the majority at the school where Poppy goes, meet before school, after school, at weekends. Women have a talent for connection anyway, and are even more connected when in distress, because they can solidify as a group around it.

  There is nothing more satisfying in times of stress than a common enemy, and the common enemy in this instance tends to be men. Also, if men are a priori bad, it saves a lot of painful self-scrutiny. Culprit identified, no confusion to add to the general misery.

 
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