Birthday sex

The fact was, she was knocking on a bit and she knew it.

It was all very well Sam telling her she was beautiful without makeup but she knew she wasn’t and it didn’t help that she’d been crying, so her eyes were puffy, and her hair frizzier than normal. She’d thrown it into a hasty ponytail that morning to dash the kids to school, hungover to fuck after meeting her work colleagues for drinks on the eve of her 33rd birthday, and now it had come undone.

They were all younger, of course, her colleagues – and paid more – lots of them. But then, none of them had taken a five-year career hiatus to raise two oft-unruly kids, start a failed business or made a career about-turn as 30 came and went. She had no one to blame but herself in that respect.

Oh, and her husband Jon. She blamed him alright. It was his fault they were in this mess in the first place, what with losing his job –  no, not in the financial crisis like she told everyone, but for fudging the numbers on a deal that had run away with him, and getting found out before he’d had a chance to pull it around. A lot of people were at it before the financial crisis happened, but Jon got caught, and with it, their comfortable, perfect life together started to come unstuck.

He’d been head of his desk, and earning good money back then. Enough for Juliet not to work and have a quietly knackering five years of yummy mummy inertia while she worked out what else to do with her life. Well, she found out quick enough, that’s for sure, when there’s was no more money coming in. Writing car insurance copy for peanuts- once you took the childcare into consideration, that’s what. Because, despite all her credentials and her promising start in journalism, she hadn’t actually got much published. She’d had two kids instead. So she was back at square one, career-wise, and her younger, more successful colleagues sure made her know about it.

Oh well, she’d drank through it, the night before. Shot after shot, before ending up in some bar with some bloke she barely knew who’d thankfully left her unmolested and put her in a cab. She’d been woken up by her son, yelling for a lost sock, and had gathered herself enough to get the kids to school. Thank god she’d booked the day off. It was her birthday, after all.

Blearily, still good-humouredly tipsy, she texted her mum friend Kate to see if she had time for a catch-up and a coffee before she was met Sam for their special outing to Winter Wonderland. Special because, on any other day, she’d be cycling into Soho for a day of anonymous graft walled in by a raft of ill feeling. At least today, she’d have some company.

She gingerly sipped on orange scented water at the £3-a-cupcake bakery across the way from school, waiting for Kate to show, a fellow reprobate, and no stranger to falling into a cab at god knows o’clock having drunk her five a day in vodka cocktails. A single mum, Kate took her fun where she could, and knew how to let her hair down. She wouldn’t think twice about the state of Juliet this morning, washed out, makeup free and with the fortified breath of the recently hungover. Always good value at a party, she was coming to Juliet’s evening do on Saturday night. But before she could even think about her party, Juliet had to sober up enough to enjoy her day out with Sam.

“Y’alright, lady?”, she mouthed at me through the window, bursting out laughing at my sorry shaking head and bleary-eyed expression.

“D’ya have a good time then?”

“It was very civilised, the first bit”, she grimaced. “I had my nails did,” she said, looking down at my now chipped fingertips, “and then I met Jon at the day spa in Bethnal Green.”

“He took the day off work then?”

He’d been in and out of broking jobs ever since his ignominious departure from the glimmering towers of Canary Wharf, and like their marriage, things had been patchy since; the both of them coping with the fallout with desperate economising interspersed with reckless behaviour, all the while their kids raised merry hell in uproarious ignorance on their exhausted time off. It was hardly surprising things were now hanging by a barely amicable thread.

Juliet nodded. “He took me to some poncy members’ club in Soho, and we ate steak sandwiches and drank G&Ts. It was good – to actually spend time with each other that isn’t all about laundry and DIY and bedtime stories. And then we somehow ended up outside my work’s local…. and well, as you can see, it got a bit messy.”

There was no ending up about it. She rarely went out drinking with her colleagues, many of whom spent every waking moment outside office hours (which could go on well until midnight in any case) at the pub down the road. Showing her face there, especially with Jon, might help scorch the rumours that were flying around about her since that glamping trip where the Prince William-alike from account management managed to have his way with her under canvass when she was tired and emotional, and in no fit state to be seduced. It was a gymslip error of judgement, but she’d been cooped up with the kids for five years previously, and it was the first bit of male attention she’d had since before she was pregnant. It was her fault that she’d got so drunk in the first place.

The fact was, the company where she worked was incestuous as hell and drank like it was Fresher’s fortnight. By comparison, she must have seemed dry and uptight most of the time compared to the bright young, responsibility free things who staffed the agency – and she still clearly couldn’t hold her booze like she had in the old days. The rest of them weren’t to know her marriage was in pieces. Jon had taken it calmly, on the chin, when she’d confessed all on the Sunday night, shamefaced and broken, but no doubt fortified by his own indiscretions on drunken business trips away from home. Juliet didn’t ask too many questions anymore. They were, after all, grown-ups. She knew silly things happened when you were drunk and desperate, in those brief moments when you could, to reclaim some semblance of freedom.

In fact at one point last night, Jon had his arm around her old conquest and they were doing shots together, so what that would do to the company rumour mill, who knew? Like a moth to a flame, she’d led him there to prove a point, but he’d left early to relieve the babysitter and left her there to find her own way home, thinking he was being nice. She’d got home, but only by the skin of her teeth. These thoughts flickered across her mind as she supped tea while Kate clattered on about how tired she was, how her daughter Lola had failed to go to bed again, how they’d argued over homework, or her ex had let her down. Juliet wasn’t really listening. She poured another cup from the vintagey mismatched pot and checked her phone. Nothing.

It was half ten already, and she’d texted Sam twice, and left a message – but so far, no response.They’d planned a little jolly. Sam would head to hers after she’d dropped the kids off, make her breakfast and they’d go to Winter Wonderland and drink hot toddies, and maybe go for a burger – Sam’s favourite cuisine. Juliet liked these stolen moments, where she could be momentarily responsibility free and youthful, after nearly a  decade where every free moment was spent doing things for her children, or nose to the grindstone at work. It was a relief, and she’d looked forward to it – hangover notwithstanding. Why had she got so drunk last night? Perhaps it was a reaction to Sam’s snarky text as she sat having her nails done the day before.

They’d been taking things out on each other a bit recently. Sam had been away a lot – a weekend in Paris; a week in Sri Lanka. It was bearable but tensions were mounting. In fact, Sam had already said he felt they should just to be friends – not because he didn’t love her – he said, he did. He just couldn’t cope with the situation, and perhaps it would be better all round? In any case, that and her pervasive feeling of being undermined in the office had helped ease that tequila down her throat. And right about now, it was beginning to repeat on her in a terrifying way.

Getting on the bus back across the park where the chichi giftshops, deli and cafes of the village gave way to tower blocks and greasy spoons that demarked Hackney from Tower Hamlets, she started to wonder whether Sam had…he couldn’t have…ditched her for the day? He could be pretty mercurial, Sam, and had a filthy temper. She remembered the day he’d come all the way to Hackney from town because she’d intimated to him on Facebook chat she fancied a quickie – she’d been working from home and had momentarily had nothing to do but fantasise. Sam had arrived horny, and when he couldn’t find Juliet at the duplex in the centre of the village where she lived before her and Jon moved up the road to cash in on the value of their flat. And when Sam called to say he was at their local, Juliet hadn’t answered, he was pissed off.

That afternoon, though she’d gone with Jon for an appointment with her son’s specialist  – he was diagnosed autistic. It had been sobering, sitting there faced with a panel of doctors, answering question after question about Raffy’s babyhood that only the two of them could answer. It felt reassuring, sitting there, squeezing each other’s hand, that whatever happened, Juliet could no longer blame herself entirely for the way Raffy was – which, to be honest, wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been – a combination of Raffy growing up and Juliet letting go of her expectations – he’d now settled down and was performing well above them, now they’d been reset somewhat.

When finally she called back, leaving Jon to pick the kids up from school so she could meet Sam at the pub, shell-shocked and drained after a two-hour grilling in which Raffy had thrown a defiant fit at his own, rolled up in a ball in the corner, flatly refusing to tell the child psychologist how he felt about anything, he’d been silent and moody. Realising he’d misinterpreted her message and come on a false promise, he turned heel without a word, ignoring her pleas for him to stay, and cycling back past him as he flounced – yes, flounced is the only word for it, up the road towards the tube, he’d ignored her shouts, only stopping to demand his dog back at the door of her house, right in front of Jon and the kids.  Later, the doorbell rang, and when Jon opened it, he’d found a battered sausage from the chippie up the road, and a message scrawled, “I thought you liked pork.”

She should have chucked him then. It hadn’t been anyone’s best moment, but then, Juliet probably would have done the same at that age – prone as she was high-flown romantic gestures and hissy fits round her period. The trouble with being 27 is you think the whole world revolves around you. The world looked very different the wrong side of 30 – especially when you were a mother of two whose career was in the doldrums and her marriage was little better.

She wondered what she might have done to annoy him this time, hangover starting to ring in her ears. Oh shit, yes, she’d written about the dog in her blog – the fact that he had a spot on his eyebrow. Sam hadn’t liked that – people might identify him, he said, vaingloriously. This was another thing that annoyed her about Sam. The fact that he felt important enough to worry about protecting his identity. I mean, even if people did find out, why on earth would they care, and if they did, why did that bother him so much? She took his insecurities personally, to mean that he didn’t want anyone to know he was seeing her, but like so many things that might have once bothered Juliet, she just let it wash over her. She was passed caring about a whole load of stuff.

He’d sent her an FB message the day before, as she was having her nails done at the cheap and cheerful place in the village. Only a fiver a pop, and the girl would help you unlock your bike after so as not to smudge the polish. It was a rare treat, to have attractive hands, given she had two kids, a dog and a cleaning habit. But, then, she was off for a steam with Jon at the day spa in Bethnal Green, followed by that posh lunch in Soho – and the reason she’d got so bloody hungover – too close to her workplace and she’s been drawn like a moth to their local afterwards, where the big boss, on learning it was her birthday bought her a bottle of coffee tequila that she’d doled out liberally in the hope some of her colleagues might learn to like her.But even by the end of the night, Jennie, who sat opposite her, who joined the company at the same time, ten years younger, but who kept insisting they were “on the same level” despite the fact Juliet had masters, a first and years spent working unpaid at a fashion mag, still wouldn’t speak to her, laughing raucously with the rest of the bunch from the social media team, from whom Juliet had long since been frozen out.

Looking down at her phone, she caught sight of a new message from Sam. Have a nice day, it said, with an x. Her blood boiled. The little shit. How dare he do this to her on her day off? They were rare enough, especially those spent without the kids in tow. She knew he was taking Huxley, their Frenchie, to the vet that morning – completely unnecessarily, she thought – all he had was a spot on his eyebrow. But Sam was a bit precious when it came to illness. She remembered grimly the suspected brain tumour he’d suffered over the summer after a bout of shingles, which had turned out, after an expensive CAT scan with a private hospital, to be post viral migraines. But he’d said he’d pay for it – the vet’s bill. Huxley – still only a pup – wasn’t insured yet, so she’d shrugged and said no more about it.

She called him. No answer. She called again, still no answer. Unease mounting, she wrote back to his message; if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, I think you’re horrible, and I will never ever speak to you again. The bus trundled on. At her stop, away from the gentrified village and off the arterial road leading to the A12, where Tower Hamlets meets Canary Wharf, and the chippie on the corner didn’t also offer a full-service menu of fruits de mer, she got off, and wandered shell shocked to her front door.

He was waiting for her when she arrived, dog and gift in hand, a bland smirk on his face that delighted in her confusion. “Why on earth did you think I wouldn’t show up?” he said, knowing full well why she had. She crumbled a bit, in relief as well as mild disgust – at herself, for being so paranoid and at him for being so slippery. He wandered proprietarily into her living room and thrust his gift at her. A flimsy blouse with leopard print on it. And a pair of socks with dogs on. She didn’t know what to think. Her hangover was making her regretful of the whole damn mess, but at the same time, had reduced her to base needs – an omelette to quell the nausea and a quick orgasm to relieve her anxiety. She cajoled him into bed, hating herself for her insistence, but, after all, this, he owed her something, and frankly she’d settle for a quick fuck.

It was the last time they would have sex, and she knew it, even as they did it, in the spare room with its double headboard knocking, the quiet little death enveloping her guilt and eclipsing the queasy feeling in her stomach for less than a few seconds. But then, there is nothing so very profound about sex anyway. It’s just what people do when they’re not shopping, or posturing in suits or telling off toddlers. So why must people get so upset by it? But she was upset. By the pointlessness of it all. Still, he told her she looked beautiful, even through her wretched tears.

Her told her again, under the bleak, bright lights, that she looked better without makeup while they supped expensive mulled cyder and she pretended for an hour she was young again and nothing mattered – but that felt pointless too. It was all just a distraction, but from what, she wasn’t sure. Reality, she supposed. But if this wasn’t real, then surely nothing else was either. Like the ticking over of the years, it was only another day. Another day where her own father hadn’t called. And, like the hangover after a night on the lash, each passing year made it hurt that little bit more.

Juvenalia

The rebellion

Getting on the train at an unfamiliar platform I work my way out of the suburbs, heading East across London. It’s a Monday morning and I have nowhere to go but home. Enormous black sunglasses, bought on a whim after a good night, hide my smudged eyes. They are glued to my face despite the greyness of the day and the early hour, quite at odds with my scuffed, torn jeans and greasy hair. I’m aware I look ridiculous, a mess; aware that the shawled Asian commuter opposite is looking at me perhaps as I deserve to be looked.

Slight nausea rumbles my stomach, testament to the vodka I nervously knocked back the night before; a debauched warmth between my leg reminds me of the horror I woke up to. Half in love – whatever that means –  half achingly disappointed, a crushing sense of insecurity flashes like a faulty neon sign at the back of my mind. It has been waxing and waning there for months. Who am I? Who is any of us? What do we, any of us, mean to each other? What do I want for myself?

I claw at my swollen armpits, making them redder and itchier. A scaly rash weeps on my shins and inflames my hips. It started on Saturday morning, after a binge of cocaine and vodka to celebrate James’ 23rd. I’d woken up next to him and laughed we truly were allergic to one another. In a most haphazard way, high as kites, James decided that actually, maybe I wasn’t so bad, that we might as well make it official. I had ignored him all week, ignored him all night, and that’s how he liked me. Cool and aloof. For now, I had won. But I knew it was a temporary victory.

So we had done it again. His blasé attitude towards the creation of future progeny made me, in the heat of the moment, blasé too. Turned on even. “Let’s call it Scarlett if it’s a girl”, I had said, leaning out of his window for a post-coital cigarette, mildly thrilled at the prospect.

When he’s not rapping Jay Z’s “99 Problems” in a way that feels like he’s making a point, or telling me how much he fancies black girls – with a stack of softcore DVDs tucked at the end of his bed to prove it –  (in itself, not an issue, except I remain stubbornly white, even with a suntan), he’s in lust with Scarlett Johansson. It’s a point he rubs my nose in every time we walk past a poster adorning the back of a bus or shelter, in which she stares down at me from her position of exalted success, bedecked like a Vermeer portrait. Yet she made her name in a film written by the dad of one of my university friends – Sam, the one with the weed habit, and fixation with gangster films. It must be possible for me to be successful at something too. But what? And how?

Yet, with his nose and lips and my eyes and hair, we might be able to make our own. We have flashes like that – moments of intense intimacy that occasionally permeate our awkwardness. His willingness to countenance the idea of babies, even in jest, seem to break the ice between us and make me feel he wants me, after all. On the night of his birthday, he told his friends that he wanted a fat baby. A mini Jay-jay. Inexplicably, he was given a baby doll, which I carried around all night in my bag.

I can’t go on like this, but I don’t know what else to do. After months of uncertainty, the paranoid tattoo beats through my aching head as I hazily navigate the city’s subterranean alleys and slowly, painfully head towards my own front door where a police sign highlights the latest stabbing, and round the back, a homeless couple live in the abandoned car. Who am I? Who is any of us? What do we, any of us, mean to each other? What do I want from myself? Do I speak for a generation? Are we all a multitude of unfocused personae lurching towards whatever life throws at us or is it just me? My sister seems to have it in hand, her neat little traineeship, pension plan, private healthcare, her fiancé, his football, their marriage, their organised suburbia, their morals, their cream leather sofas, alarm clocks and commitments.

I sleep all day, and still the rash remains. My head pounds too much to be able to work. Who wants a scaly lap dance, I argue, but still they fine me for my absence. They are all such cunts. I am allergic to the pole, allergic to anything but silver and gold, but that doesn’t account for the redness that has taken over my entire body. Besides, I haven’t worked since Thursday, so that can’t just be it.

James doesn’t like me stripping. Says it’s undignified. Uncool more like. Hipster girls don’t need to take their clothes off. He acts like it’s beneath him, and I’m grateful for his distaste. I want someone to tell me to stop, but nobody ever has. Not my dad, to whom it confirmed, when I finally told him I’d done it to pay my way through uni, that it had bought me a flat, and was paying for me to do an unpaid job, that I was the “tart from Tovil” he’d spat at when I’d got my ears pierced twice on a school trip to France. It’s deeply ironic that his new wife has both double earrings and breast implants, but there’s nothing I can say to him about that.

It’d be too hard for me to give up now. I tried. I got a job at the perfume counter in a fancy department store, but standing on your feet all day in two-inch heels for £50 in a cloud of heady perfume is worse than dancing round poles in eight-inch heels in a cloud of heady perfume for £350, even when you’re allergic. I hadn’t lasted long. Someone once told me many of the perfume girls moonlight as escorts for the shop’s richest clientele, so it was hardly a move in the right direction, in any case.

It had all seemed so straightforward. At 23, I am on the brink of life but sometimes I feel like I’m teetering on its precipice. I’m on the edge of a lot of things. In July, I graduated from a top university with a good degree, so why, with the world apparently at my feet do I  feel like I’m plummeting headlong into nothingness? My degree – a first for what it’s worth – has become the only categorical way I can define myself that is meaningful to anybody.

It’s now May. These are my achievements: I’ve bought a flat in London. I saved my student loan – I suppose you can guess how? – and put it on the deposit. Not the nicest of areas, though: Shank End in Crackford to be exact, but it’s all right; it’s got wooden floors, and I’ve painted it. It needs some work, the bathroom sink’s got a bloody great hole in it where, in the depths of winter, my boiler went, and I boiled a kettle so I could have a wash, forgetting that icy cold porcelain would crack with the sudden heat. Oh well.

In January, I started an internship at a magazine (an internment, I called it on my application, as the guy who got back to me laughed at me – but perhaps I wasn’t wrong after all). Not at fashion glossy like Elle or Vogue, but a pop culture magazine, Weird and Wired, staffed by low paid yet cooler-than-thou twenty-somethings. In my idealistic way, and because I fancied its famous editor, I thought I’d hang around until someone noticed my surely worthwhile talents. But then, I’d arrived in London knowing no one, practically, and here I was at the hub of an underground scene, socialising people with contacts who, if I impressed enough, might take me into the fold, and allow me a privileged pass into this vaguely defined London scene peopled with artists and musicians, actors, writers, clubbers, known, by some, as ‘where it was happening’.

As it happened, they just kind of took advantage of my enthusiasm, and in return for my name on the masthead under the dubious position of sub-editor, I worked for nothing every night until six or seven, taking out the post and creating a database I knew would never get looked at, and getting ignored by most of the permanent staff who feared being usurped in this fickle, superficial bubble they’d created – but which didn’t seem to exist in any real sense. I might as well have been filing potatoes, for all my efforts were worth. But I kept hoping. Then, my boiler broke, and cash flow became a huge problem. And so now, I was trying to do all that on three hours sleep a night and a hangover to boot.

I know I’m not alone in this. The year after you graduate is always a bit of a struggle: from a well-defined path curbed by exams and assignments, paved by extra-curricular activities and organised social occasions, you are sent out, hoping to god you know who you are, and then flounder, watching your various selves die out as you try to create your defining role in life. Told by the world I was bright – on paper –  but not bright enough to suit a life of cloistered academia, I failed my Oxford interview because I was of the   unrehearsed state school variety; the type that lacks the courage of their argumentative convictions. The only thing that made it bearable was that I failed it with Laird, the force of nature I met there, feeling sad that our paths would unlikely cross again. Like many of my peers, I travelled widely on my gap year, but came back not with a sense of wonder at the world, but bewildered and broken, grateful for university’s timetable and a ready-made set of acquaintances who made me feel more secure because they each had their own set of problems. By some miracle, Laird was there: same course, same halls, and it felt like fate was giving me a break. We clung to each other, his dynamism pulling me on, impelling me to sign up to the student newspaper and the drama club, to go drinking in places I’d never have gone to, to meet people I’d never have met, to aim higher and get my first. This I did, but now Laird was gone and I was drifting.

He’d moved abroad like his sister after nearly a year living in my spare room while he did the journalism course I’d just enrolled on for want to anything better to do – I felt my insecurities about being abandoned flare up, and fear of financial peril swallow me down. Dave, my sensible scientist ex-boyfriend of nearly four years was now renting my spare room on an ad hock basis because I needed the money, and I guess, the security of a familiar face. We were once again in terse negotiations about whether or not we should rekindle a relationship that had petered out after I left him for a fledgling rock star with perfect teeth and a tendency to leave sentences dangling, much like he left our romance.

We’d started to have the first sex worth mentioning in years now that it was dangerous and damaging. It was a way of getting my own back on James for failing to contact me for a week on the trot.  And on top of that, I was still flirting with my boss, sharing cigarettes with the father of a supermodel’s baby, but secretly not at all surprised that, in real life, despite giving me his number and telling me to call, he didn’t answer when I texted. Perhaps I’d been told too many fairy stories. Or watched too much TV.

Perhaps it was the world that was projected into my living room that caused all this mess to begin with. It stemmed from my frustration with my own lack of involvement; the queasy feeling when I watch MTV or read Glamour magazine that life was somehow passing me by, the feeling there must be more to life than doing my homework and getting good grades at school. Or maybe it was just hormones. At the girls’ grammar I’d attended, I mostly hung out with diligent Rashida, and Katie Goff from up the road who had a thick fringe and an eating disorder, and who smelled of secondhand smoke when I went to call for her, but who rarely invited me in. She got straight A pluses, and the only time I was allowed around, to a sleepover, just the two of us for her 15th birthday, her dad (the heavy smoker) let us go clubbing till after midnight, and we got groped by some lads we met down an alleyway on Day Street in Medgate town centre.

By then, I was no longer allowed to see my best friend, Liza, who was into sports, and had a pony. I stayed over a few times, but her dad banned her from seeing me after we got the boys we’d met when she’d come to  stay at my mum’s house in Bridgeford down when her parents went away on holiday. It was Liza who’d re-pierced my ears with a hot needle and ice cube after the second hole healed up. It was her idea to get the boys to stay, and for me to climb out of my window at midnight and meet her at the roundabout where Medgate met Woodley, and lose our virginities in her little bed, before going back to school, high on the drama of it all. I don’t think she actually thought I’d do it.

Her dad said I was troubled; that because my parents were divorced I was on a highway to self-destruction. He came round to talk to my dad about the whole affair, and I got grounded. But of course, by then I knew how to escape. Out the window and down the conservatory, but most of the time I had nowhere to go. I missed my mum – called her reverse change on the way home from school almost every night, and anything that reminded me of Bridgeford was better than being stuck here, feeling like I couldn’t get out of my dad’s big empty house, and my own wallowing self-pity and gathering anger.

That’s why my dad kicked me out. He was angry too, angry with Mum for leaving him, years before, when I was just a toddler, angry that I wanted to be with her now because there, one weekend in three, I felt free. Go and live with your bloody mother, he would say, and in the end – the day after I run away and ended up at a friends house who wasn’t always all that friendly, he threw all my stuff into a black bag and took me there himself. He didn’t speak to me again until the night I took an overdose, but he didn’t come to see me, like he did for my sister, puking her gut lining up over a boy who’d smashed her car windscreen. My overdose wasn’t as effective. The doctor who’d given me painkillers, the day my mum rushed me into hospital with a cut head and a dislocated jaw,  said he knew I was a risk, and he’d given me something which wouldn’t give me much more than diarrhea. I spent the night on the children’s ward and felt (was made to feel?) too old, too healthy to be taking up a bed from kids who were really sick.

My step-dad Dennis always had found my existence a little hard to deal with (he was once my father’s boss – I always wondered whether my dad ever suspected I might have been his) and quickly cracked under the pressure of living with a headstrong teenager. After a series of rows in which he locked me in my room, (by then, I’d perfected my escape technique and lucky for me, that room backed onto a conservatory too, so I’d meet my ex-boyfriend – the one who came to Liza’s – under the railways bridge and we’d smoke spliff while we attempted to find common ground.) When Dennis found out, he sent me off to live on the other side of the house – it was a Victorian schoolhouse, so as a home it was large but kind of lumpy and badly arranged. These quarters were shared with a squat, socially-inept lodger who collected Nazi memorabilia, and, I suspected, pairs of my knickers. Later, he was arrested for hiding stolen goods in our shed. That’s when he was asked to leave.

Dennis made me knock on the door that divided the old part of the house from the newer if I wanted to speak to mum, who in any case had her hands full running a business. She gave me twenty pounds a week to shop with – she had her hands full with my step-dad and running her own business – so I mainly lived off economy cornflakes, which, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of waking up to each morning, are enough to put a dampener on anyone’s day. One night, he burst into my room when I was sleeping, drunk and threw me against the wall, which later I punched through, leaving a hole I covered up with a moon-and-stars rug. I’d forgotten to put the keys down by the front door or something. It was around the time my step-dad had a stroke. I threw a glass of orange juice at him, several days after I got back from hospital myself, and there he remained for six months after, and never learned to talk or walk again. It began a fucked up ménage-a-trois with my mother and her new boyfriend, a university lecturer turned plumber whose opinions are half-baked yet widely expressed.

In this situation, I did my A-levels, and once they were out of the way, and once I knew I’d failed my Oxford interview, I didn’t know what to do, so I escaped to the other side of the world with earnings spent cleaning the pub toilet and working behind the bar where my boss would grab my arse, and the punters would leer. At least, in a strip club, the bosses leave you alone as long as you pay your house fee – but they don’t hesitate to fine you if you fail to show for a shift – even with the best excuse in the world.

It kept me awake all night, the rash, that and smallness of the bed, and James’ inability to touch me when he sleeps. I tried to stay ridged, scared that this might be my only opportunity to convince him that it was a good idea for me to be at his house, to sleep in his bed. The silence that echoed between us this morning suggests that I didn’t convince him after all. I had wriggled and fidgeted all night and hadn’t slept a wink; the growing paranoia of the messes I keep creating for myself making me squeamish with fear.

I’d started off being good, sensible Julia, using condoms and getting a cap fitted by a jolly nurse who told me I had a wonky cervix, like an Elle magazine feature on empowered women. Sometimes it felt like I was living that life, like the amazing night two weeks ago at James’ birthday party, when he was all over me and our fragile little circle from uni were still hanging out as if we were friends, yet to move on to the next stage of our lives. Still reeling from the excesses of Berlin, where Laird, his sister Ginny, Alec, Luc and weird John Moon, James and I had all gone on a jolly after uni had ended. The state of Jay and I hung in the balance. We’d been skirting each other for weeks, and I was getting nervous. Turned on by his inattentions, by his insistence on our blatant unsuitability, by his refusal to sleep with me coupled with the persistence of his once-a-week text messages, I had pretty much given up on him. But that night in Berlin, after we left the club where bodies waved like reeds to the brutalist beat, high as kites,  and ran amok through the wide empty paradoxical streets, he was all over me. In the cell like beds of the hostel we had fucked and in that moment, briefly, I felt as though I was in control of something, eclipsed by something akin to panic as the day dawned and his attention faded.

Of course, that time, we’d got away with it. Perhaps it was the booze or the drugs. Either way, it had been hit and miss, and yet we’d done it again since, so riskily, in fact, I’d gone to the chemist for a pill, the hot shame of filling in the judgemental tick box, and handing over £17 I did not have, washed down the drain.

Now, on the night of his birthday, I was feeling hormonal and nauseous. Big stripper tits coupled with crippling anxiety. Of course, we were drinking. It was the only way we could talk to one another. I, waiting out the period where he would ignore me in front of his friends to get to the bit where he would pat me awkwardly on the arm, and ask me a series of silly questions to make me laugh, and then fuck me in his single bed. Perhaps we’d go for latkes in the morning at the Jewish cafe he frequented with his grandma, or go walking into one of the pretty North London towns that reminded me of my Home Counties childhood, where we’d skulk around shops, I in my denim skirt and jacket, and he with a chain swinging from his pocket, complicated hair poking beneath his NY cap, while shopkeepers eyed us up like shoplifters. That never happened when I was on my own. I looked too sensible for that.

Except it didn’t. When I woke up it looked as though I’d been butchered and him too, blood coursing all over the single sheets of his childhood bed. He went pale, leaping out of bed as if it were he that were bleeding and not me, although to be fair he was covered in it, bright red flowing between my legs as I ran for the shower, where it drained out of me like a scene from a horror movie, while he bundled up the sheets, retching, before his mum could find them, and ask what had been going on. Of course, there was no one I could ask for tampons and in that moment, I realised how much of a child he was, for there was no sense in asking him to get some. Like always, I was going to have to be the grown up while the person causing me harm carried on as normal, grabbing my stuff with thick wads of tissue between my legs as I negotiated train platforms and ticket buying, knowing all the while it was the last time I’d make this journey, that it was the end of something that had never really happened at all.

***

The horror of that morning receded, like the terraced suburbs with their familiar, fading charm; replaced with more pressing issues, and more urgent demands on my time. And yet, however  I distracted myself, I never solved the problems that nagged me that day.

Of course, later, much later, after two babies were out of me, with rather less blood and rather less fear, not from that silly boy but from a husband who loved me, and bought me tampons, and breast pads and thick nappy pads for afterwards, the only other man who has witnessed me bleeding and puking and even shitting quite so profusely, who loves me even though he found me in a strip club, perhaps because of, or in spite of it, and who I love back despite the fact he paid my bills, the therapist asked me how it all made me feel.

Then, it was much easier to see that the person causing me the most harm was me. That was the point of this exercise – to show that the only one who has any control of our lives is ourselves. I took this new wound to bed for months and stewed on it, words eventually replacing the bile and gore that fell out of me, in an attempt to make sense of it all. How can it be both understandable, I felt, but also within my control? I realised in the end,  it is irreconcilable. Noone’s to blame for anything. We all just are. We must do what we can. And that is all there is to life. So the questions that still trouble me: what am I? Who am I? Why am I here? Well, I still haven’t worked them out. But at least, I can tell you it will probably be okay.  If you find the courage to conform to what you expect from yourself.

 

 

Bedroom politics: why losing my job has done wonders for my sex life

Most of the time, I have a lovely equal marriage. My husband and I both do chores, earn money, and raise our children together. Sometimes these chores can be split along gender lines – he does the bins, I mop – that sort of thing. But basically, we do things 50/50.

In fact, he probably does more than his fair share with the kids, as I tried to scramble up the career mountain after the significant hump of having two children in my mid-twenties. Until recently, I managed it pretty well. We were both earning okay. I mean, he earned double what I did, but he’s eight years older, in a better-paid industry and, yeah he’s a guy. But to all intents and purposes, our finances were split even stevens. So why was our sex life so abysmal?

I mean, it wasn’t bad as such, just kinda boring. Ground down by over-familiarity, young kids, work, emotional exhaustion, normal stuff. Oh, we’d occasionally get drunk and go at it like we used to before constant sleep deprivation wasn’t a feature of our everyday lives. But these occasions were rare, and normally followed up with recriminations the next day, where inevitably I’d feel a bit disrespected in some vague, inarticulable way.

But when I lost my job recently, something changed. It coincided with my husband being paid a bonus that negated the salary I’d previously made. I no longer had to work – not in the way I had before, at least not for a while. After all the effort I’d put into my career, there was a weird relief in suddenly having choices about what I did with my time. I could spend more time writing, or doing a bit of freelance from home, or go back to uni. I could get involved in local affairs, spend more time with friends and hang out with the kids when I wasn’t knackered or tetchy.

But something changed in the bedroom too. Now the undisputed breadwinner, my husband would come home actually looking forward to seeing me (read: wanting to have sex with me).To be fair, I also had more time to make myself look nice – paint my nails, pluck my eyebrows, wax my ‘tache, that sort of thing – perhaps there was an element of also feeling a bit better about myself. Though to be honest, I barely got out of trackie bs since I’d been at home- it was a joy not to have to put on my work “armor” of smart clothes and full makeup every day, and have time to go for a run, or to the exercise park for a workout.

With the kids safely ensconced in whatever after school activity, they were doing, or watching telly stuffing their faces with popcorn, he’d get home,  lock the bedroom, and still wearing his business suit, more or less pounce (not actually pounce, but you know what I mean) on me. That hadn’t happened in, like, ever. And I kind of liked it. Being subservient in the bedroom was actually turn on. What was weird about it was it coincided with me being subjugated in actual real life too.

Suddenly, with zero spending power of my own, I had suddenly become every modern feminist’s worst nightmare. I was (am) completely reliant on my husband for everything. And yet for the first time in my life, I feel so free. Free from the tyranny of the office, where I now have the chance to do things I want with my life, rather than doing them from abject necessity. After years trying but struggling to be an equal partner in our relationship, it’s actually  doing me good to suddenly be a “kept” woman.

Even the kids appreciate me more, now I’m no longer running from pillar to post trying to please everyone (and more often pleasing no one), I have more time to do things to please myself, and feel much happier in the process. I guess what makes it okay is that I’m in the privileged position of having a husband who in no way sees my role as being “in the home”. If I wanted to fly to Mars, I’ve no doubt he would support me. But in terms of how I feel about him, we’ve actually got a working sex life now, whereas before, it was just another chore that more often than not, got put on the back burner.

What this says about the economics of sex, subconsciously or otherwise, is perhaps a little more heated to analyse. Perhaps there’s an element of a fluffed male ego that goes hand in hand with breadwinning,  perhaps there’s something in female sexual psychology that (whisper it) means (some) women quite like being looked after, or even dominated a bit in the bedroom (at least some of the time). Perhaps from my perspective, it’s a little bit of fear. Either way, it doesn’t bear much scrutiny without unraveling a century of feminist thinking. In the meantime, without worrying about the politics of it all too much right now, I’m going to enjoy this hiatus from modern life while it lasts. But probably because I know it won’t last long and I’ll be back in the driving seat in some capacity – and not simply taxi-ing the kids to after school clubs –  soon enough. For now, at least, my marriage has hit a smooth patch, even if the rest of my life has been going through some ups and down.

 

Free will

It wasn’t that she wasn’t trying to see the positives. As she cycled home that day through the wet London streets, a rainbow had broken out of grey-yellow clouds as blue sky filtered through the December haze. She felt it to be a sign, while at the same time knowing perfectly well it wasn’t. She held it together through school pick up, stopping at a cafe where her friend worked, but who was too run off her feet to ask many questions, though she’d texted ahead to say what had happened. She bought the kids overpriced croissants and headed home, listening distractedly to their gibber. She didn’t feel she knew them very well any more, and knew herself and the rest of the world to be at fault. After she’d packed them off to their various after school activities, she allowed herself to cry, and then, self-destructively peeling open a tobacco pouch, huffed a fag out of the bedroom window, a sure sign she was spiraling.

Not knowing what else to do, she neatly folded the laundry that had beeped at her insistently from the dryer, thinking all the while it wouldn’t do for anyone else to have to do it; then she thought about the kids folding their own laundry and wept some more. She was trapped. Either she would be doing it or they would. She’d have to get rid of the cleaner now. Even that felt an extraordinary, middle-class privilege, and she sighed at her own self-indulgence, her ridiculous self-pity.

Staring down the barrel of the tatters of her professional life, though, all these trappings of success meant nothing anymore. The nice home, the tidy, organised things. She had failed. It wasn’t the first time. They’d known proper hardship – of course, the middle-class sort. They had a roof and things to eat. It had meant cutting back on luxuries, and watching her social status crumble among friends she could no longer keep up with, her mood cracking open to reveal the empty bitterness within. Whatever anyone said, it was a dark and gloomy time. Things wouldn’t be that tough again, not while Tom kept them going in the City. He was doing fine. Perhaps that was the problem.

She’d only been playing at having a career; a distraction while the kids were small and irksome; to get her out of the house and thinking about things that weren’t herself and them. It didn’t matter to anyone that she had failed. Concentrate on the kids, they said. Concentrate on Christmas. You’ll be alright. But over the years her confidence had been chipped away at, her enjoyment of things had gone, she couldn’t focus on the every day, only the ephemeral and profound, which must have been totally annoying for everyone else. Certainly she’d managed to upset a lot of people. But while she was busy, she could pretend she didn’t mind.

This last blow, well, it had come at a bad time. She’d been considering her options, wondering what to do with the rest of her life. She was only young, after all. At 35, many of her friends were having babies, settling down; but she’d done all that, too young, and felt she had the shot the rest of her life in the foot. It had been a struggle, getting back on them, which made this latest news all the more hard to bear. The thought of starting all over again felt defeating. Especially when so many people thought it necessary to tell her what they thought. That she was not quite up to it. A lot of it had stung, criticism ringing in her ears. It was easier to turn inwards, be selfish, not deal with it anymore.

She tapped out a note, thinking about it in the abstract, like a poem, or an art project.

“To my darlings,” she wrote.

I never should have had you, but never use that as an excuse.

You were, are, everything that I had, and I loved you to death. Still do.

It was my own fault. Too young, too impractical, it might have been fine, but for reality and that’ll bite you every time. There was no support you see. Not today, not ever. I tried to give you that and failed. I never should have had you. Then this decision would be easier. I know I’m failing you. I’ve already failed at everything else.

I’m so sorry my darlings. You are my whole life, but it’s not enough. I can’t go on. But please, do better than me, though I know the odds are not on if I go. You will find a way. Perhaps you will have more help.

I did have help. Never let it be said otherwise. But with only one shoulder to lean on, I was becoming too heavy to bear.

I can’t do it anymore but please, don’t blame me, or the only one who ever really cared. Your father is and was. Blame the way things are, and for that, I’m sorry I brought you here in the first place.

Life is hard. I hope to god you find it easier though I know if I go, I’m making it harder still. Still I see no way to carry on. You saved me from myself enough times. But now, I can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Except that I can.

Look after yourselves and each other. That’s my only last request.
Your mum.

What if, what if? She looked it up on Google. Children whose parents killed themselves are three times more likely to commit suicide. She felt even more trapped. She opened the cupboards, but they’d been here before. Even the thought of all the drama defeated her. The medics, the questions, the psychiatrist’s couch. She’d been there and done it. It was all pointless. She found a stray codeine and took it, and washed it down with wine. When her son returned from climbing, she broke down on his ten-year-old shoulders. I don’t want to be here anymore. I love you, he said. I want you here. She couldn’t bear the guilt. Her daughter’s seven-year-old tantrums were easier to bear. She felt she deserved them, to be punished for being absent, for working too hard, and for being distracted, for not knowing what to say to her, or what she was doing at school.

Later, after her husband came home, and the kids and they’d eaten, and watched TV, and the children had been put to bed – but not by her – they argued, not about money, but about how low she felt, about the fact she couldn’t see the woods for the trees, that it didn’t really matter, that they would be fine. She began to blame him. You’ve enabled me to screw my life up, she howled. You, you do too much for me and allow me to hate myself. You make me useless, and I can no longer cope without you. And like a bird in a gilded cage, with clipped wings, she wasn’t wrong. She had allowed herself to become dependent, to grow flabby and useless on his adoration, and thus easily enough discarded. It was only her anger that kept him hanging on. If he knew he’d appeased her, he’d surely grow bored; if she adored him, he’d leave. At least, that was her twisted logic. It gave her more reason to be angry at herself.

In the end, he began to agree with her. You’re right, he said, perhaps I have fucked things up for you. Perhaps it is all my fault. Perhaps if you’d never met me, we wouldn’t in the mess. But she, who didn’t believe in free will at all, scoffed at his sudden drama. She knew he was only playing a role. That neither of them believed what they were saying, and that they were only arguing because, at a time like this, drama was the only way of escaping the dull certainty of life’s struggle. What if I leave, he shouted, is that what you want?- playing his part to perfection, giving her the harsh words she felt she needed to justify her black, bleak mood. She ran upstairs, confident he would follow her.  She looked frantically in drawers, and then grabbing a handful of tablets she’d already looked up the side effects for of taking too many. Kidney damage, seizures. God it all felt like a lot of hassle to make a point. And a point to whom? The only one’s she’d be hurting were the ones who already cared.

Nonetheless, by then, she was wretched. High on the drama she felt this situation deserved. I’ve taken a massive overdose, she shrieked, and he came running, hitting her, jabbing his fingers into her throat. What have you taken? what have you taken? She welcomed his blows, like a kitchen sink drama from the 60s. Like a Pinteresque play she’d written about in school, and sat through on an outing, feeling, even then,  how hollow it all seemed. Even more so when it was happening in real life. His voice became strained, but somehow unreal, like he knew she was bluffing: god tell me, shall I call an ambulance, what shall I do? I don’t want to be without you.  The words and the pleading gave her an excuse to cover her ears and cringe. To hunker down until it all went black.

In the morning, the clouds had cleared, sunlight streamed in through winter specked panes. Her face was puffy when her daughter found her. She shrugged at her immobility. She’d seen this all before. Mum, passed out, unable to brush her hair. It was only later, ready for school, teeth cleaned and beds half-made, they realised something wasn’t right.

I lost my job, she told them later, making porridge, trying to be sensible, wholesome and back to her old self. I’m sorry if I’m a bit sad for a while. The eldest, her son, gave her a hug. The youngest huffed like it would inconvenience her day. She sighed, defeated once more.

There were a lot of days to get through. Later, a friend called. I just wanted to tell you, she said, I know how challenging it’s been for you. Raising the kids. I wanted to let you know. We’re selling up, she said. Moving to the Cook Islands. Taking our two while they are small and we have a chance to enjoy them. I’m sorry you’re having a tough time. But you can do anything, you know. You’re free.

 

 

 

Nothing makes you feel quite so accutely alive than embarrassing yourself at the office summer party

There’s no moment more revealing about your inner character than the hot wave of shame that engulfs you on first stirring with an epic hangover. The gradual revelation of dawning consciousness can feel like a slow car crash, the fallout of which may not be fully known for many hours or weeks. But it’s there, in the back of your mind, done; and you know it’s bad. What felt like harmless fun at the time – the sexy dancing, that quick snog with the girl downstairs that you hadn’t spoken to before today and most likely won’t again, and the relentless gabbling about how much you like your own vagina to the office manager, whose daughter filled in the sketchy events in lurid, teenage, sober detail with full use of hand gestures. It was, apparently, a night to remember. The problem is you can’t.

Lol, how we laughed, until Monday morning when you notice eyes are averting, and Chinese whispers are circulating. The collective hangover of  a group of disparate individuals magnifying the full horror of what took place only hours before, when everyone felt like best friends. The fact is, normally, in our work clothes, we’re on best behaviour, but suddenly in the boss’s hot tub, we’ve known each other for years, and we’d better tell them exactly what we think of them, because, hey, we might never again get the opportunity to talk to them in swimwear.

The shame will wash away with time, but one’s reputation will remain sadly besmirched, a bit like my white jeans, which will never recover from doing the splits on my boss’s lawn, and falling, a leg hooked outside it, into his hot tub, creating a gash that looks like a wonky stocking seam (so it could be worse) that will hopefully fade in time. It was, at that moment, a cheer-worthy spectacle, but from the other side of Monday morning, it feels like a potential career breaker.

Why, oh why do we do it to ourselves? It’s as if we all need the excuse of too much booze to be more fully ourselves, so we can paste back on the rictus grin of employment, once more in the breach of the rush hour traffic. But by Friday, the horror will have faded as once more we take to the tiles with our desk fellows, and bask in the glory of a few hours, and white wine spritzers, where once more we can be an unfettered,  more human, versions of ourselves.

What happens at the office party stays at the office party – well that’s the official line anyway. But, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the people who have been at the company rather more years than me chose, wisely, to stay well-away. Nothing defines you in the eyes of other people in a competitive environment quite so much as the actions you take when you are 49 sheets to the wind, no matter how on-the-nail you are the rest of the time. But the fact is, when you’re in a pressure cooker, Monday to Friday, we all need to let off steam, and by encouraging us with flowing booze to let our hair and defences down, we are showing that we trust we will not have it held against us by HR. Which is perhaps why we all should all remember the purpose of the office party is to remind ourselves that we are all human, when we are taken out of an environment where some are more equal than others; and that we need something with which to tease one another for (hopefully) many years to come.