Friday, December 14, 2007

The Shit Hits the Fan

I was sitting at my desk, staring unenthusiastically at my lunch of a strawberry yogurt and a banana, when my mother rang.

“Hello mein Liebling, did you receive my new package?”

“Yes,” I heard myself saying. “It arrived yesterday. Thank you so much.” No point upsetting her by telling her I’d started a new strategy of dropping her parcels off at the local homeless shelter.

“And how is Alistair?”

I wanted to say, “Why don’t you ask Constanza, she probably knows a lot more about how he is than I do.” Instead I said, “He’s fine.”

“And Ivy?”

I’d been trying to forget the Ivy incident. I’d had to bribe her with a new princess outfit complete with crown, so that she wouldn’t mention it to Alistair or Constanza. I wasn’t exactly proud of myself for what had happened, but as far as I was concerned, my irrational behaviour had been a blip, a temporary aberration.

“She’s great. She’s wonderful. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to chit chat right now. Can I call you later?” I put down the phone, picked up my banana and stared at it with distaste. What I really fancied was a Big Mac, but I was about as likely to indulge that craving as I was to ask Alistair what exactly was going on between him and Constanza.

“Everything okay?” said a voice. I looked up. It was Connor, who was standing by my desk, looking down at me with concern.

“How did you get in?” I said, stupidly.

“Well, the door was open. I’ll go if you like.”

“No.” I stood up, banana in hand. “No!” I shouted, waving it at him.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m great. Really.”

“Look, I was going to ask if you fancied a spot of lunch? But I see you have your banana. Maybe some other time.”

“No, now would be perfect.” I’d more or less given up on the idea that Connor and I were ever going to have an affair. But maybe we could still make it? In any case, a sandwich was hardly a date. There was no need to get my knickers in a bunch with a heap of unrealistic expectations.

I just didn’t expect to feel so, well, happy, as I sat beside him in the watery sunshine, eating a turkey sandwich with no butter and a scrape of mustard. We were on a bench in Soho Square, a place I don’t usually frequent because its paving slabs are splotched with pigeon droppings, which totally gross me out.

“I don’t go out for lunch much,” he said. “Because I resent paying five quid for a sandwich.” He pulled a brown lump out of his bread. “You know what, there are bloody great nuts in this.”

“Oh, I thought you knew that unless you say otherwise they give you the walnut focaccia.”

He peeled open his sandwich, shaking his head. “This cheese definitely isn’t cheddar.” He peered down at the orange wedge ponging up the sandwich he’d bought at The Rustique Market, Soho’s premier sandwich shop. “This is bollocks,” he said, tossing it in the bin.

We smiled at each other and my heart did a little leap. Suddenly I wanted to tell him everything. That I respected his hard-working nature, as well as his ability to commit to a thirty year mortgage on a pricey apartment in Belsize Park. How I could never hope to relate to someone like Gavin, who wasn’t on the property ladder, and didn’t give a toss if he ever got on the lowest rung. Not that Gavin wasn’t ridiculously, temptingly sexy.

No, not that, I wasn’t going to tell him that.

Where was I?

Oh yes. I wanted to tell him that being with him made me forget to feel apprehensive about the amount of germs one can catch from pigeon droppings. Did he have any idea of the significance of that?

But I didn’t say any of it. I just sat there thinking about how the pigeon droppings reminded me of an incident in my youth. Did I dare tell him about it?

“What are you thinking?” I asked, because he was staring at me and it was making me feel uncomfortable.

“Just that I’m glad we met.” He blushed.

I coughed on a piece of dry sandwich that had gotten lodged in my throat. “Well, we almost didn’t. If my mother had had her way I’d be a Hollywood star by now.”

“Well, you certainly have the looks for it.”

“Thanks, I certainly don’t have the talent for it. But try telling that to my mother. She’s always been obsessed with the movie Gone with the Wind, and named me Scarlett because she reckons I’m Scarlett O’Hara’s, or rather, Vivien Leigh’s doppelgänger.”

“Can’t see it myself.”

“No one can, apart from Mum. She also named my two older brothers Frank and Marlon. Guess what, they look nothing like Sinatra and Brando. She wanted them to become actors too, but they point blank refused to take acting lessons, and as soon as they could, they hotfooted it off to Australia. But I never managed to stand up to her. And after Dad died when I was just ten, I guess I didn’t want to add to her misery, so I just went along with the ballet and tap and singing lessons, even though I hated every moment of it. Every Christmas I’d ask for something I really wanted, like a personal organizer and pen set, and get something awful instead, like a tutu and ballet slippers. I was the only kid I knew who absolutely loathed Christmas.”

Connor laughed and looked like he was really interested in what I was saying. He didn’t have that distracted look in his eyes that Alistair often does.

“So naturally,” I continued, “I got out of there as soon as I could to go to college. You feel all free when you head off, don’t you?” He nodded. “You think you’re going to get away from real life, to some great big nirvana. My nirvana was Cambridge. “And it was nirvana, at first. I met this really cute guy called Duncan, and we spent the next few months holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes and shagging like crazy.

“And then it all went wrong. She started sending food parcels, like I was out in the wilds, away from civilization. Even though my brothers had already moved out, she couldn’t stop buying and cooking enough food to feed an army. She was forever giving away food to the neighbours, as well as parcelling it up and sending it to me. I was regularly receiving packets stuffed with homemade jam and apple strudel, heaps of German sausages and jars of sauerkraut. To this day she’s still sending me this stuff, despite the fact that I can’t stand sauerkraut, although admittedly, I’ve never actually told her.”

“Wow. You are a people pleaser. You could just tell her to stop sending the stuff.”

“I could. I should. I will,” I said, knowing I’d never get up the courage. “These days I’ve started donating her packages to a homeless shelter, but back then I’d put the whole lot out on my first floor balcony for the birds to eat.

“So one Saturday morning, there we were, me and my boyfriend, naked in bed, when my mother knocked on my apartment door and started calling my name. Her voice caused me to go into panic overdrive. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it, being scared of your mother finding out you’re doing it, but I just knew there’d be a really embarrassing scene so … well, actually, I can’t really justify what I did what next.”

“And what was that?”

“I bundled Duncan out onto the balcony. As it was mid-January, I tossed him out a blanket as well.”

“Lucky old Duncan.”

“I know it was awful of me, but I really wasn’t thinking straight. I managed to slip on my dressing gown just as she was letting herself in, dragging a shopping trolley full of food behind her.

“’A horror of a time I have had, getting all of this on the train,’ Mum said. ‘But I knew you’d be wanting to see your old Mutti and I didn’t want to be arriving with the empty hands.’

She walked past me and into the kitchen, took one look at the miniscule fridge, and frowned. ‘Why you are not telling me the size of your fridge? Where are you storing the food I am sending to you?’

“’Oh, I keep it on the balcony. It’s cool out there and keeps everything nice and fresh.’”

She cheered up at this, and while I was wondering how on earth I was going to get rid of her before Duncan caught pneumonia, she had walked to the screen door that led out onto the balcony, yanked it open and stepped outside.

“I waited tensely, barely breathing, until she reappeared, a look of disgust on her face.

“‘I am not believing this. After everything I have been doing for you, this is how you are repaying me.’

“’This is what I’m doing now Mum,” I said, in a rare moment of bravery. “You’ll just have to accept that I’m not going to be pure for marriage.”

Connor chuckled.

“’Come here,’ she said, pulling me outside.

“That was strange. There was no sign of Duncan.

“I peered over the side of the balcony, but he wasn’t down there, either. And why should he be? I shouldn’t imagine he’d been desperate enough to make the two floor drop. Which just left the teensy weensy question of where exactly Duncan was.

“It was hard to think clearly, because at that point she really started losing it. And while she shouted about the sins of letting food spoil, she pointed at the lumps of strudel, half pecked sausages and strands of sauerkraut on the balcony, which were all liberally caked in bird crap.”

Connor shook his head. “I can’t imagine you living in filth like that. I mean, well, you’re very neat aren’t you? I’ve seen you down on your hands and knees with your mini vac when you thought no one was looking.”

I bit my lip, feeling embarrassed. I didn’t like the fact that Connor had been spying on me. Or maybe I did, a little. “Well, I was a bit more relaxed back then. My um, cleaning obsession only started a few years after I got married. Where was I?”

“Your Mum was having a go.”

“Yeah, so while she was yelling and cleaning up the balcony, my mind was in a whirl, thinking about what could have happened to Duncan. Up until then I hadn’t believed in alien abductions, but now I was having second thoughts.

“When the doorbell rang, I flung open the door. I was so crazed by then that I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find some friendly aliens on my doormat, ready to return Duncan to his desperately worried girlfriend.

“But instead of little green men, it was my neighbour, Laura. Usually we were quite pally, but this time she didn’t even say hi, just stood there, giving me the evil eye. Eventually she said, ‘I’ve come for Duncan’s clothes.’

“’Where is he?’ I asked. But she didn’t reply, just marched right past me.

“’In my apartment, of course,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘He climbed over onto my balcony and was banging on my screen door, so I let him in.’ I tried to take in the information. There was just a few feet between the two balconies, but still, he’d risked his life by jumping across.

“I raced after her into my bedroom and made up a bundle of his clothes.

“’I’ll come with you,’ I said. ‘I really need to talk to him, to apologize.’

“’Well, he doesn’t want to talk to you,’ she said, grabbing the clothes and flouncing off. After that, for some reason, Duncan wanted nothing to do with me.”
Connor chuckled. “I’m not surprised. Are you always this cruel to men?”

“Not really.” I collapsed into a fit of giggles. “I swear, it was my mother. She made me do it.”

“Actually, although I hate to admit it, I think I might have done the same if my Mum had paid me a surprise visit. I love her to bits, but she’s a right old busy body. I once caught her listening in while I was on the phone to a girlfriend.”

“How did you find out?”

“We were in the middle of talking about all the things we wanted to do to each other if we ever got a moment alone, when she chipped in with, ‘The dirty words coming out of your mouths! And the pair of you not yet sixteen. You’ll go to confession tomorrow and clean your minds of all this filth, I’ll make sure of it.’”

“My Mum was the same, trying to instil the good old Catholic guilt, making out sex was a sin.”

“You’re a Catholic too?”

“I thought I was lapsed, but the guilt thing is hard to shake off, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, it’s practically impossible, especially with Mum ringing every Sunday to ask if I’ve been to mass, and me saying yes I have, when of course, I haven’t so much as driven past a church.”

“And you tell me to stand up to my mother. You are such a hypocrite.”

“I know, aren’t I just?” he said, standing up and brushing crumbs from his trousers. “Look, this is great, but well, we’ve been gone an age. Do you think we should be getting back?”

“I suppose so,” I said reluctantly, following him out of the square.

As we chatted easily on our way back to the office, I realized that sex between us was never going to happen unless I took the bull by the horns. I didn’t want to be too forward. This was a well brought up boy, with morals, after all.

“Maybe we could meet up some time, outside work?” I said, as casually as I could.

“Yeah, I guess we could.” He looked flustered.

“I don’t want to twist your arm. After all, you are a good Catholic boy and I am married.”

As we walked on in silence, he chewed this over. Maybe he was wondering if it was all going to be worth the risk.

Eventually he smiled and said, “Your husband, is he a big fella? I just need to know what I’d be dealing with if he chose to come after me.”

“Well, he is fairly tall, but, look, he works long hours. It’s pretty unlikely you’d ever cross paths.”

“All right then. I’m game if you are.” Not such a good Catholic boy then, after all.

We stood outside our office block, and Connor stared at me with a hungry expression I hadn’t seen before.

“What about Saturday night?” he said, as we pushed open the swing doors and walked towards the lift. Several of my colleagues were waiting for the lift too, and suddenly I was self-conscious. I didn’t want them to know that we were considering hopping into bed together. But he was staring at me so lustfully, that everyone had to know what we were up to. It was most disconcerting.

“Tomorrow?,” I stuttered, as the door pinged open. I loved the fact that things were finally moving, but goodness me, couldn’t he be a bit more discrete? “That would be great. E-mail me the details.”

Back in my office, I finally allowed myself to revel in the gorgeousness of what had just happened. I sat down at my desk, picked up a pen, doodled Connor’s name on my pad and didn’t do a scratch of work for the rest of the day. I called Ben, my hairstylist, and begged him to fit me in tomorrow morning, and was just going to knock off work early when my phone began to ring.

“Hi gorgeous, Gavin here.” My mouth went dry. What did he want? I’d gone to his house, made out with him like a coy little teenager, and left him high and dry. What was he, some kind of masochist looking for a repeat performance?”

“I’ve been meaning to ring for days, only things are so darn busy around here. How are you sweets?”

Connor walked past my office and gave me a wave. Connor was serious relationship material, I told myself. And Gavin was well, a bit silly. It wasn’t exactly mature to pretend to be gay just to get a job, now was it? I took a deep breath.

“Look Gavin,” I said. “I think you’re very nice. But I’m not really the type of girl you think I am. I admit, things have really hit rock bottom with my husband, but I’m not ready for an affair.”

“I hear you sweetheart, I hear you. But this ain’t no booty call.” Thoroughly humiliated, I listened as he wittered on camply. “I need to talk to you about Helenka. She won’t stop going on about you, or your dark aura, for that matter.”

“I see,” I said, feeling like an absolute ass.

“Yes well, to tell you the truth, it’s beginning to do my head in. Can’t you just ring her and go have a cup of tea or something?”

“Well, um, yes, I suppose I could.”

“You’re an angel. I’ll catch you later.”

What the heck was all that about? I thought, thoroughly confused. Maybe he was playing a game, the cool I’m not interested act. Well, I could play that game too. No problem at all.


Before I left work, I got an e-mail from Connor, and was somewhat relieved to find that our big date would be taking place at The Attic, a hyper-trendy restaurant which, bizarrely, was located in a basement. I wanted this affair to start with a sizzle, and had been dreading an announcement that dinner would be a plate of sausage and mash at The Dog and Duck, where the only sizzle would have been the sound of sausages spluttering in hot oil from the kitchen.

It looked like I had Curly Mackaw to thank for this more imaginative choice of venue. He’d wangled two seats at The Attic to apologize to Connor for running the haemorrhoid competition. It’s practically impossible to get a reservation at The Attic. I know, because I once tried, and was told by a very snooty woman that she could offer me something in ten months time. Was that okay? Well of course it bloody well wasn’t. I’d told her, in the politest way possible, where she could stick her reservation.

Anyway, there was no point feeling jealous of the fact that Curly had managed to get a table so quickly. There was no great mystery about how it had happened. Being famous opened doors, it was as simple as that. Why sweat it, when Curly had very generously put four hundred pounds on Connor’s tab, which would make for a very nice evening, thank you very much.

I drove round to Tanya’s apartment in a haze of excitement, desperate to tell her my good news. Since the lock on the lobby door of her apartment block was broken, I pushed it open, ran up the stairs and started ringing her doorbell. I waited an age, hopping from foot to foot with impatience, but when no one answered, I let myself in. As I raced into the living room, I found her lying on the sofa, a glass of Baileys in her hand.

“Why didn’t you answer the door?” I said, panting with excitement.

“Sorry, I don’t feel very sociable.”

“I just had to come round and tell you that I am officially having an affair with Connor. I’m meeting him at The Attic on Saturday night.”

“A dinner date does not constitute an affair.”

I walked over to her barbed wire sideboard, which Tanya referred to as ‘totally modern, totally now,’ and which I usually ended up snagging my tights on, and poured myself a Baileys over ice. “What’s with you, anyway?”

“I’m beginning to wonder if I’m ever going to get Sachiko to be the face of Fondantdew.”

What was going on? This kind of soul searching was most unlike Tanya.

“Of course you will,” I said, sitting down and putting an arm around her shoulders.

She crunched a piece of ice in her mouth. “By the way, are you going to see Gavin again?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s all wrong for me. He’s too young, for a start, and honestly, you should see the state of his apartment, it’s practically a squat.”

“Well if that’s the way you feel, do you mind if I take a shot at him?”

“A shot? He’s not a rhino,” I barked. Tanya looked at me quizzically, so I backtracked. “It’s just that it’s messy. Going out with other people’s cast offs. You wouldn’t want me going after your rejects, like that Travolta-clone you picked up the other night, now would you?”

“Don’t remind me.” She shuddered. “I’d much rather talk about something more juicy. Like this affair you’re quite obviously having with Gavin.”

“Please. He made it quite clear when he called today, that he’s not the slightest bit interested.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why call at all, if he’s not interested?”

“He only wanted to tell me to call Helenka. She can’t stop talking about me, apparently.” I pulled a face.

Tanya groaned. “Another admirer. You are a lucky girl.”

“I’m hardly going to bed Helenka.”

“Never say never,” said Tanya, giggling. Her mobile rang and she grabbed at it like a piranha snapping at a hunk of meat.

Pressing the phone to her ear, she listened intently. Finally she said, “The pudding aisle at the Muswell Hill M&S. Gotcha.”

Hopping off the sofa, she said, “Sorry. Gotta dash. My mate Jake’s spotted Sachiko.”

“Hold on a minute. What would Sachiko be doing in a suburban branch of M&S? Are you sure Jake’s not having you on?”

“Of course not. Jake may be a paparazzo, but he’s scrupulously honest.”

“But there’s no such thing as an honest paparazzo,” I said, as she picked up her bag and flew towards the door. “Wait! Even if you do catch up with her in the pudding aisle, isn’t she going to recognize you and mace you again?”

“What do you think I am, stupid?” she said, pulling a short brown wig from her bag and pulling it down over her scalp. She slammed out of the apartment, leaving me shaking my head. Despite the loopiness of the plan, I couldn’t help but admire her drive.

I hung around drinking Baileys and losing myself in trash TV, until I realized I couldn’t hide out here all night, and headed home.

When I slipped into bed, I was surprised to find that, even though it was only ten o’clock, it was already occupied by a slumbering Alistair. As I lay beside him, I began to think about my date with Connor and how incredibly romantic it was going to be, and before long I was lulled into gentle, rose-tinted dreams.

I was woken by Alistair’s elbow poking me in the ribs as he got out of bed. Squinting at the alarm clock, I noted that the red glowing numerals said 2:11.

I lay there drowsily, vaguely curious as to where he could be heading, when I heard the click of a door being shut, further down the hall. Since the only bedrooms down there belong to Constanza and Ivy, it didn’t take Einstein to figure out where Alistair was headed.

So he was sleeping with Constanza. I felt a mixture of anger and outrage rise up inside me, and at the bottom of it all, a kind of relief that my suspicions had finally been proved correct.

And yet, could I blame him? After all, she was everything I’d once been. Since she’d started cleaning the place, it was spotless, beyond even my wildly unrealistic standards of hygiene. My underwear was soft and well cared for and smelt of lily of the valley. Perfect Constanza. She probably fucked better than I did too.

Even though I knew the idea was crazy, I decided to go and investigate.

I padded down the hall, past Ivy’s room, and past the bathroom they shared, until I was standing outside Constanza’s room. Pressing my ear against her door, I strained and strained, but I couldn’t hear anything. Not a murmur, not even a sigh.

I jumped as I heard the toilet being flushed behind me. Which of the lovebirds was in the bathroom, I wondered? Maybe Constanza, popping in her diaphragm? Or Alistair, relieving his bladder before ravishing his mistress? I knew it wasn’t Ivy, as she always left the bathroom door open if she needed to use the toilet.

“What are you doing?” said Alistair, coming out of the bathroom in a pair of rumpled pyjama bottoms.

God, he was cool. Had he no shame?

“I might ask you the same question.”

“That’s none of your business,” he said, walking down the hall to the bedroom.

I followed him, fury building inside me, as I tried to keep calm. He wasn’t getting away with it that easily.

I climbed into bed and clicked on my bedside light. He got in beside me and looked at me warily.

“No, really. I want to know why you were peeing down the hall, when we have a perfectly good bathroom right here?”

“Well, you’re always telling me that my flushing the toilet in the en suite at night disturbs you, so I thought I’d use the hall toilet instead. Is that okay, or is that flush too noisy for you as well?”

“You must think I was born yesterday. Since when do you care about waking me with your flush?”

He gave a martyred sigh and cradled his head in his hands.

“Look, can I be honest?” he said.

“I wish you would.”

“I can’t go on like this.”

“Can’t go on with what?”

“Well, with your paranoia. With you flying off the handle all the time. Frankly, I’ve had just about all I can take.”

You’ve had all you can take? Don’t make me laugh.”

“If you must know, I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, and what I’m suggesting is a trial separation, while we both figure out just what it is we really want from this marriage. Because it’s obvious we can’t go on like this.”

“I know exactly what I want. I want for you to stop pretending that this trial separation is for my benefit, when it’s quite obvious that it’s just a convenient way for you to have your cake and eat it.”

“Okay, I don’t have a clue what you’re on about, but look, let’s keep this simple. I’m going to move out for a while, until we can sort out where we go from here.”

So he wasn’t going to admit it. Fine. I was damned if I was going to force a confession. Still, it sounded ominous. My heart started banging in my chest. “But where will you go?”

“A hotel, I expect. I haven’t figured out the details. So, do I take it you’re in agreement?”

A part of me was screaming with delight at the prospect of being without Alistair, while another part remained perplexed. “I don’t know. Well, yes, I suppose it might make sense.”

“Fine. Then I’ll move out this weekend.”

And while we were very politely discussing the arrangements of our separation, a rather exciting thought occurred to me. “There’s really no need. You have all your files and stuff in the basement. Why don’t I move out? I could stay at Tanya’s.”

“Well, okay, if you prefer. And now, if you don’t mind, I really would like to get some sleep.”

I switched off the light and lay down. I knew I should be feeling devastated about the prospect of losing him. But what I really wanted to ask was, “Can we see other people?” So I did.

“I hadn’t really thought about it.” Of course you hadn’t, you two-timing slimeball. “Sure, why not?”

“Look,” I said, knowing I should just shut up. Now. “I know you’re sleeping with Constanza. It’s really pretty obvious, so you needn’t bother denying it.”

“What are you on about now?” he said, his voice slightly muffled against his pillow. “I mean, Constanza’s attractive, sure. But she’s also my daughter’s nanny, so I don’t think about it. I don’t even go there.”

“Really.” I huddled under the duvet, feeling like a total fool. I had the awful, sinking feeling he was telling the truth.

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