Last summer I went to the divorce party of someone I barely knew or liked at school. Toward the end of the evening the mother of the girl in question came up to me, a bit tipsy, and said I had a toxic personality and any girl in her right mind should avoid me like the plague. Charming. I smiled wanly at this and shrugged as if to say “What can you do?” but secretly – and I know this makes me sound arrogant – I knew she was right. Everyone – friends, family, strangers in the street – said I was a complete shit and should find someone to fall out with pronto but that’s easier said than done in this topsy-turvy world. Finding an insignificant other, a minus one, a lesser half is no mean feat. How do I know this? Because after that encounter at the divorce party I spent the next few weeks making a honking arse of myself trying to do exactly that.
London, as we all know, is one of the friendliest cities in the world, where it’s easy to feel a real sense of connection with your fellow man, and that long, hot summer I was all but overwhelmed by a crushing sense of belonging in that vast metropolis. On the Monday after the party I meandered along the South Bank to work, high-fiving everybody as I went, thinking what’s wrong with me? How come everybody else finds it so easy to find someone to loathe but not me? I flashed my pass to the welcoming security guard on Front Desk and in the lift on the way up I mentally shuffled through the rum cast of characters I’d done battle with over the years. Bland also-rans, mostly, who I now partied with as often as possible. One young lady who put me through the emotional equivalent of the construction of the twin towers and, of course, Hannah.
When Hannah and I started going out, after almost a year of near-complete avoidance, she found it difficult to put the past in front of her and even now hadn’t quite stopped disliking me. In fact I had to get a constraining order to stop her distancing herself every opportunity she got. Time would be a great healer and I was sure she’d be swooning over me again very soon but she hadn’t quite got me back into her system yet, which could be occasionally difficult. She’d get trolleyed off her socks and call me in the middle of the night, wistfully recalling all the incredible rows we had, that crazy night in Falaraki when we spent all evening pointedly ignoring each other but now, as I stepped out of the lift onto the third floor at work, I felt nothing but love for Hannah and after a long time off the market my thoughts were turning to a potential new enemy of my own.
Now, I’m not the sort of person who deliberately goes out on the push, so avoiding new people is problematic. I said as much to Holly, the chipmunk-cheeked twenty-something who sat diagonally opposite me at work and who got paid to subsidise Primark and criticise my tie. She pointed out that the work summer party was on Thursday evening and I would have a chance to alienate as many women as I liked at that very event. I was jubilant. The summer party was an event I always signed up for as early as possible because it was a great opportunity to stand around, surrounded by work colleagues I couldn’t get enough of, have a stack-load to eat and listen to music I like. Plus I never failed to get off with someone, but I’d learned to live with that. I could see from her expression Holly was 100% behind this plan and so I set off after work on that Thursday evening with a fair degree of misanthropic fervour. More fool me.
By about half nine, the party was in full swing and I was holding court with an audience of riveted admirers when I happened to turn around and accidentally knocked the drink of a green-eyed dazzler with freckles on her shoulder standing at a table behind me. The girl looked me up and down and then, with a distinct shudder, physically recoiled. “Sod off,” she said, quietly but clearly, and then turned back to her drink.
Instant endorphin rush. What fresh hell was this? I was pressed for time and could see she was already deeply unpopular but nevertheless I wanted to know a hell of a lot less about her. I began by moving as far away from her as possible and awkwardly ignoring her – I was rather out of practice, after all – but, Allah be praised, she told a security guard I was pestering her. I still had the old magic. However, my back wasn’t turned towards her for more than one second when, bloody outrageous, she started brazenly ignoring some other aloof type. Does stuff like this only happen to me? She was clearly one of those women my mother had warned me about; one night of physical rejection – shits passing in the night – but after that friends for life. God knew it had been a long time since I’d had the bed to myself but I didn’t just want one night. I was old-fashioned. I wanted monastic isolation for the rest of my days. So, in the end I lost patience and took that freckled lovely in my arms, planted a tender kiss on her crimson lips and by the end of the evening we’d arranged to meet her parents and discovered to our delight we’d both been at UCL in ‘93. Small world, worse luck.
The experience, I told Holly the next morning, made me hungry for something less significant. Something trivial, something based more on apprehension and dread. So, I grandly explained, I had reached a decision. I would quit yapping and do something about it. I couldn’t sit on my backside for the rest of my days and wait for some bête noire to drop out of the sky and go “Hi, I’m here. What were your other two wishes? Like I’m interested.” I had to make it happen. Holly, teasing gherkins out of her salad, was scornful.
“You can’t engineer antipathy,” she observed. “It’s either there or it isn’t. Besides, look at you. Who the hell is going to dislike to you? You are fundamentally loveable. Get real.”
Fighting words, and I had to remind myself that Holly had been in a stable, loving relationship since sixteen and wouldn’t know a boiling, sulphuric hatred if it took her to court for everything she had. Even so, she insisted any chemistry resulting from a contrived encounter would be about as organic as a Chicken McNugget and I would never find true disinterest by going out of my way to seek it. She was so emphatic and dismissive of my plans I got tetchy and told her maybe if she was a bit more proactive she wouldn’t be stuck in a sodding relationship for the rest of her life. That sent her off in a huff, which was rather easy on the eye actually, but I left work that evening determined to show her she was talking rubbish and life didn’t have to be all Romeo and Juliet.
I don’t suppose any man could have tried harder to be impossible those next few weeks. I went out of my way to be the nightmare date, the sort of man no woman in her right mind would bring home to mother. Yet time and time again my date and I would take an instant liking to each other and I’d find myself spending the evening deep in conversation with, frankly, someone I reckoned I might be able to spend the rest of my life with. Disaster! Who wants that?
“Look, Deirdre,” I said down the phone to my contact at the agency. “What’s with all the nice people? Send more tosspots. I just want a little bit of conflict. Is that too much to ask?”
I gave it one last shot. It was Valentine’s Day and I’d booked a table that caught a draught from the door at the restaurant that had had the health scare on the estate which was at the centre of a gang war and staffed by trafficked women, where I’d taken all my exes. I turned up late and found myself the subject of a violent stare from a dark-eyed naiad who found me so objectionable she tried to stab me with the skewer of her Chicken Satay. She suggested ending the evening then and there and said she’d never met a more scandalous waste of DNA. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven but in the taxi she cooled off considerably and pulled me by my tie towards her puckering lips. Eight hours and an army assault course later I staggered home through bright morning sunshine, past couples loudly arguing, as dispirited as I’d ever been, finally resigned to a life of friendship and loving relationships. When I got back to my flat I found it full of friends who had just dropped by on the off-chance, a couple of ex-work colleagues who had a spare ticket to Kick Me Kate and my next door neighbour, who handed me a small red envelope which had been pushed through his door by accident. I thought he was taking the piss, actually, until I thumbed it open, drew out a cheap Valentine’s Day card with a dead cat on the front and read what was written inside:
“Dear arsehole. Drop dead. H.”
I was thoughtful. I had occasionally considered blanking Holly but definitely nothing approaching open hostility. Besides it would be a damn stupid thing to do to start getting less involved with someone in the workplace. People would talk.
So when I returned to work Holly and I went into one of the meeting rooms and sat at the wide expanse of table, all business-like and formal.
“Listen, Hol. I’m going to be completely straight with you,” I said. “I love you and I always have done. I have never felt anything other than the deepest tenderness towards you and I truly believe we were meant for each other. I’m sorry.”
She went pale, but nodded and then, as if reaching a decision, gave my hand a squeeze.
“OK,” she said, reasonably. “Thank you for being so honest. For what it’s worth, if you’re ever stuck for some verbal abuse, give me a call.”
“I will bear that in mind.”
“I’m going to hate myself forever if I don’t tell you I think you’re a really nasty piece of work.”
“Thanks. You can be … difficult. On occasion.”
Her eyes welled up. Then she pulled herself together and nodded curtly. “OK. My place tonight for a meal?”
“Count me in.”
I watched her go. Holly had proved her own theory with devastating clarity. You cannot engineer these things. If the magic isn’t there on both sides of the fence no amount of voodoo will summon it up. Fingers crossed, one day, by some romantic fluke, Holly would find someone to dump on her from a great height and make her life a living hell. Me too, God willing. We all dream the same dream. See, when it comes down to it, I’m as hopelessly realistic as the next man. I want the thunderbolt. I want to be swept on my feet. I want the fireworks rained off. I want someone I can’t confide in; a foe, an opponent, a rival, a stranger. I want a short disengagement then years of bitter acrimony and as few children as the fates decree. I shut the door behind me and beamed at passing colleagues.
The impossible search continues.
Anthony Malone's fiction has been published in, among others, Murky Depths, The Delinquent and Lowestoft Chronicle and included in the forthcoming anthologies Villainy, Best Of Murky Depths and Cup Of Joe. He has read at Short Fuse as part of the 2009 Coastal Currents Arts Festival, the London events writLOUD, Tales of the Decongested, Liars’ League, Storytails and One Eye Grey's "Spectres At The Feast" and recorded for London Link Radio. He lives in London.