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There must be a better way of doing this that I haven’t grasped. I look at Pavel and Alexa curled up together on their sofa, and feel the utopian affection one can only feel for friends whom one has slept with but desires nothing more from.
As I try to tell them the story of my most recent adventure, they are incredulous.
Alexa says: ‘I don’t understand how you always do this. Where do you find them?’
‘As kinks go, it’s not that bad.’
‘I certainly can’t be the one to tell you that it is, but don’t you want someone of your own one day? How did she even tell you?’
‘She just announced it and looked worried.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I thought you were going to tell me something bad. Like you have virulent herpes or are about to move to fucking Australia.’
Pavel chips in: ‘Why are you ragging on Australia? They’re supposed to have amazing coffee.’
‘Yes, but all the girls I like fucking go there. Either they have boyfriends or they move to Australia. So I pick the ones with boyfriends – you spend less time on Skype that way.’
‘Whatever makes you happy.’
What I liked was other people’s happiness. I liked to press my nose up against the window and feel the mediated warmth. I liked to see the parts of relationships outsiders aren’t meant to see, while knowing I could keep hold of my private self, the self that seemed to get given up when there were two of you.
Simultaneously accusing and banishing, Diana’s hand pointed at Callisto. With a new favourite crouched beneath her arm, she remained impassive as the other nymphs tore away Callisto’s clothes. The only one displaying an emotion beyond quiet satisfaction, Callisto’s face showed she too had learnt a secret. Having believed herself a lover of the goddess, she was now forced to acknowledge it was not Diana with whom she lay.
Motion somewhere behind me drew my eyes away from the painting. The white ogee of a palm emerging from a dark suede glove. Speckled with rainwater, one finger raised upwards to the teeth that held it taut. Although her sleeves were long, I could not help but notice how small and delicate the wrists were. I ought not to stare. I wondered if her ankles were the same. Turning back to the painting, I noted how the stream of bright water dividing them came not from the spring on which Diana was enthroned, but from a vase held by the statue of a little boy. Titian’s name was carved into the column that supported it, as if he shared the cherub’s prurient laughter. Further down, one hunting dog turned to another, but that one looked out and along the river. I heard a tearing noise and felt a slip of paper pressed into my hand, so softly that I was not aware of what was happening until I alone held onto it. I turned again to find the girl was gone.
She certainly had a sense of occasion, the first place she chose to meet me was an absinthe bar. I’m still not sure what she would have said if I’d happened to hate the taste of aniseed. With all the seating underground, the gloom could be curated and maintained. Silver fountains gleamed in the little light that filtered down and we were surrounded by the drip of ice-water into glasses. We circled our respective preferences and prejudices, making bold statements and then retreating, in case we had inadvertently condemned anything the other one held dear. I watched the cloud spreading in front of me, slowly rendering my drink palatable. As each felt for the outlines of the other, it became more obvious how similar we were in our aesthetics and how that was the category by which we tended to define ourselves. Having admired the pattern in its latticework, she wiped the sugar from her spoon and took it with her when we left.
I liked to call their place the House of Perpetual Eight PM because nobody had bothered to replace the batteries in the wall-clock. Afternoons drew out into evenings and evenings wound down into mornings that surprised us by becoming afternoons again. He liked to show me books of prints he’d salvaged from flea markets and grab me in abandoned corridors, as if it were a secret from her. There were always parties, with slightly older people who were beginning to make their own money. They carefully didn’t ask me in what capacity I was there. At times I would wonder if nearly everyone had once been there in my capacity and felt comforted that I was in a room so far removed from conventional emotional logic.
The house was also geographically distant, which I appreciated. You know you have spent too much time in one city when nearly every street has the power to launch you back five or ten years. You stop seeing new faces and instead strangers just start to look like knockoffs of people you have disappointed, or are avoiding. Here, I could be a novelty and a treasured pet.
When I talk about my life, people always want to know how it works, by which they usually mean how it doesn’t work. The truth is, it was so easy with them that at times I would catch myself worrying that the easeful quality would disappear, and then worrying that that worry meant nothing was easy at all. They were both from elsewhere and I understood enough of either language to get snippets and references, but not to really speak. They spoke English to each other, or childhood French if they were half-asleep.
She was handing round sashimi she had made before the party. The tuna was meat-pink but shone with oil when it caught the light.
‘Take some. Are you a vampire or something? I’ve never seen you eat.’
Well, she’d never seen me eating food. The double entendre occurred to both of us at once and we laughed, but she held my gaze with the plate still in front of her. Previously unaware of this illusion, I now felt unwilling to shatter it. But to refuse would make my pretence of invulnerability into something ridiculous, so I accepted a piece.
As I chewed, I remembered how she had once told me that despite his stated preference for ‘larger girls’, he always ended up dating thin ones.
We soon took to going out for brunch, at a little place further into the centre. I don’t know if it is a coincidence that brunch is the meal at which less easily explicable formations of customers pass more or less unnoticed. Everyone is a remnant from the night before, or seems as if they could be. And we had usually tired him out too much to comment on my English habit of drinking milk in coffee after noon.
She had put on the black lace dress from last night, saying she couldn’t be bothered to find another outfit. My hair was in a crushed fishtail left over from one of the guests deciding they must braid it that moment. My hand was on his, his hand was on hers. The staff knew better or were too busy to acknowledge any of this.
We were scrolling through our phones, when I started spluttering at a headline about thirty girls being sent home from school because their uniforms were ‘distracting’ the male staff. I tried to balance my disagreements with the two of them, so as not to appear to take anyone’s side. However, as he began explaining to me that men are just more visual and think of sex every fifteen seconds, I could see her eyes rolling into their familiar position. I went for it.
‘Even if it were the case that women’s libidos are lower than men’s, which it is not, surely she and I should be almost as incapable as you, since you only fancy one gender?’
‘It’s just biology. I have more testosterone than you do. I’m sorry biology isn’t politically correct enough.’
‘It’s self-control. Both you and I are capable of it, or we would not be able to sit and have this delicious meal while she is with us.’
I motioned with an open hand. She had returned to her phone, knowing we would be some time.
A polite cough came from behind my left shoulder.
‘Sorry to interrupt, but is that you?’
‘Lexy! It’s been bloody ages, and yes, of course!’
We had little to say, but were not yet at a stage where blanking one another would be acceptable. I half stood up and she half bent down for the necessary cheek kisses. She asked me:
‘What are you doing these days? Do you have a job?’
‘Precious little, you know how it is.’
‘That must be nice… Did you go to the Old Tots dinner? Apparently they held it up Chamber.’
‘No, I didn’t feel like stumping up. Did you?’
‘No, I didn’t either.’ She looked furtive and I wondered if that was really the reason. I refused to go back to Tothill until I had something to show for myself, not because I couldn’t afford to.
‘How’s your father? I’ve been waiting for his new novel.’ Lexy and I had been apart long enough that this question was no longer a solecism.
‘We all have. I should go find some water, I’m exhausted. See you soon.’
As she walked away, I noticed that under her coat she was wearing chequered kitchen trousers and realised we had been having two different conversations.
This ought to have reminded me how separate people’s internal universes are. They overlap without touching or lie in parallel to one another and no amount of love or curiosity will allow us to enter them.
They had swapped plates and were eating the other halves of each meal.
He said: ‘I thought you hated your school?’
‘The institution, perhaps. You know the saying about how in London you’re never more than five metres away from a rat or a journalist?’ They looked blank.
‘The same applies to Old Tots. We will all marry people we’ve known or known of since childhood and I will never get away from any of them.’
He wrinkled his lip. ‘You could if you wanted. I moved country three times and I’m fine. There’s no need to be so paranoid.’
I was not about to dispute with him whether any of us was fine.
‘A friend of mine was travelling through outer Mongolia after a bad breakup. He stopped at a little bar on the steppe, in the middle of nowhere. At the other end of the bar were the men’s fives team from the year below. And even if I didn’t like some of them, the sad thing is we need each other, because we’re the only ones who understand what we’re like and why.’
‘What the hell does that mean?’
‘Whatever you want it to.’ I was more or less ready to get the bill.
She spoke: ‘All this Little Englander stuff. You seem to think love is something shameful you do, before you grow up and get married. I thought you were better than that.’
‘Little England is the suburbs. And none of us is better than anything.’
Out of fastidiousness, I looked away as she leant in to kiss him.
He was undoubtedly pretentious, but this meant I could blame him for my own pretensions while claiming that I was just indulging his. I could even appreciate his off-white lace curtains, on the basis that I didn’t have to live with them. His room smelt of balsa wood, which according to him was the scent of upmarket manhood. It made me wake up half believing I was inside a giant steamer-trunk. He made sure to paint me while it lasted. His draughtsmanship wasn’t bad, though nor was it so good that I couldn’t tell he was flattering me – and flattering himself, given the context.
‘What are you doing this summer? We should go away somewhere, read poetry and drink cheap wine on a beach. What happened to that translation you were working on? I want to read that.’
‘She’ll get bored of you, you know.’
‘Where did that come from? Are you annoyed with me for something?’
‘No, she just always gets bored. It would be more unkind not to warn you.’
I spent the next half hour wondering if I could knock his cup of white spirit onto something precious and make it look like an accident. He was so particular about everything he chose, there were any number of ruin-able items within reach. She was the crowning glory of his good taste.
I allowed them to believe I was considerably naiver than I am, because it was so clearly what they wanted. You are allowed in on the basis of your admiration, but as well as seeing everything enviable about the relationship, you are also privy to some of the concessions, the partial truths, and the unsayable things without the ability for denial that is often granted to those in love. The knowledge you are being used is not however a prophylactic against the effects of use. But I thought I could see how the use of me, or people like me, was necessary to them. I believed I was a mirror so that they did not have to look at each other directly all the time, but instead watch their flirtations reflected on my surface. I believed if I felt like it, I could show them to themselves in such a light they would never want to look at each other again. I did not feel like it.
There are people who discuss these things. They set out laws and bylaws and tally up their relative importance to one another. I have never much enjoyed games with clearly defined stakes, though this may be because I fear having to enumerate my losses.
Some months later, they had another party to which I was invited. Music was playing at the back of the house, with loud conversation blended into it. It must have masked the sound of my knocking, because nobody came. I walked round to his window, where I could see shapes moving behind the lace. I heard the tone of voice he used when he was explaining something and then two other voices laughing.