93. Woke

A rumour is like a tissue in a washing machine.

The description on the flyer included phrases like, “challenging preconceptions of intimacy… exploring the gaze of perpetual surveillance… sexual fluidity and modern companionship.”

How did twelve photos, taken on different nights, of my friend James and I asleep in his bed, end up in a major photography exhibition?

Simple, really. I spent a lot of time at Karen’s house and was often too wasted to go home. Someone else may have been kipping on the sofa, or I didn’t want to wake up wheezing with the cat sat on me. Karen’s bedroom was so small, her bed was pushed up against the wall. It required a limber bed mate, which I am most certainly not. When I get out of bed, I walk like I rode a horse the day before. Her housemate, James had a big bed and he never came home that first night I stayed over. I knew he would be ok with it. “Anytime. Mi casa es tu casa.”

Another night, he did come home, very late or early, depending on whose point of view you take. He was drunk enough to knock things over, but still funny enough to say “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” Slurring, he instructed me to “Move over” then flopped down onto the bed, one arm in, one arm out of his coat. A few hours of snoring later, I took off his boots and left a pint glass of water on the bedside table.

We just carried on. It was easy and  felt comfortable. Neither of us was going out with anyone, so there were no jealous lovers to worry about. We didn’t fancy each other and were mature enough to not ruin our friendship by doing something regrettable.

The contented bliss of platonic sleeping in our clothes, drunk or stoned. Cosy, trusting, familial. Synchronised breathing. I was usually the little spoon. When he snored, I’d whisper for him to “turn over”, then place my hand on his back and his breathing would quieten. He was too polite to tell me if I ever snored.

Over home-made lasagne, garlic bread pizza, untouched salad and two bottles of montepulciano d’abruzzo, Karen admitted that she’d taken photographs of us two sleeping over the last six months. They were beautiful. So pure. I cried. It never occurred to James or me that taking our pictures whilst we slept was an invasion of our privacy, so we happily signed the consent forms she provided.

We weren’t expecting so many people to be as insistent as they were in telling us their opinion about our non-sexual relationship. Our friendship was scrutinised. We were asked how long we’d been a couple. Baffled, we said we weren’t, so it was assumed we were friends with benefits or one of us was gay or asexual. He lies in bed took on different meanings. My nonchalant, blasé denial obviously meant I was clearly trying to hide something. People hinted that I had friend-zoned James and must have been leading him on all this time. They felt sorry for him as he must have been so frustrated. Others insinuated that he was a potential predator, concluding that I had been both stupid and very lucky. How could we not know we were being photographed until afterwards? That the photos were clearly staged because men and women could obviously never be friends. Did we not realise it was bad luck for our souls to take book of the dead photos? These innocent snapshot observations became everyone’s business.

I stopped sleeping over after the exhibition. That phase had passed. It no longer felt right. I didn’t like being propelled into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and people didn’t believe me when I said this was something natural. I was there. I should know. But, the truth became just one of many opinions.

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89. Sunset

I’ve had chance to think about it and it wasn’t the infidelity that upset me more. I am from an bohemian family after all. It was the secrecy and deceit. The lying. No one can ever know. There was absolutely no need for it. I think I handled it quite well really.

“That’s a nice mug.” Alison had said, as I carefully washed my cup in the sink. “I saw one of those in that craft shop in The Lanes. Don’t you work there on weekends?” The way she had said it sounded weird, like this was her best shot from 100 Instagram rehearsals. We both knew where she’d seen a mug like this one before because there was only one other of them in existence.

I instantly felt as if I’d been injected with some drug that made my body speed up but my mind slow down at the same time, like something in ‘The Matrix.’ My soupy fog brain felt completely separate and was lagging behind the electric energy racing through my body. I was upside-down. Not wanting to unravel in front of this person who had so calmly attempted to manipulate a reaction, I carefully unpicked what I knew to be true.

Monday night was Michael’s gig. A few people went from the office, including Alison. I could only stay for a quick drink, to say hello, show support. He never needed me when he was surrounded by his people.

Was this her way of letting me know that she didn’t actually “miss the last bus home so stayed on a friend’s sofa?”

Just how do adults navigate relationships in the real world? I barely knew. My experiences with men had been so unsatisfactory. I have no idea how I managed to get through the rest of the afternoon. I suppose, once you’ve decided, or rather, the decision has been made for you, the hard work is done.

When I said I needed to see him after work, he didn’t make an excuse. My patience had worn thin. I had already decided that if he was going to try to continue to ignore and avoid me, then I would just let him. I too would pretend he no longer existed. But, there would never be a good time for “the talk” so we might as well do the decent thing and get it over and done with. Although he refused to come clean and admit it, he knew that I knew what he’d done. Yeah he might very well have had “a hangover from hell” but that shouldn’t stop someone from sending a text to their girlfriend for almost a day after their gig, so was this behaviour sulky revenge? I had believed him when he said he was watching the Tour de France, the World Cup, Wimbledon, having a band practice or whatever it was, every night this week.

No. I knew I was being gently and politely pushed away in favour of the shiny new toy, but of course, he was far too cowardly to do it himself. I had to be the one who officially ended it, although he actually finished us on Monday night. He just never told me. Even someone else had to do that for him.

There wasn’t enough time to do the things I wanted to do, let alone waste it on stuff I didn’t. I’d barely sipped my coke and was playing with one of the few plastic bendy straws still in existence, when the conversation was over.

I had no idea how to break up with someone, because I’d never done it before, so I just said “This isn’t fun for me any more and it’s not really working out, so I think we should call it quits.” It was the second time in a week that I’d left him with a full pint but I didn’t care. He might play guitar hero in a local band but he was nothing to me. The pub was slowly filling up with the Friday night after-work crowd, so it would appear like he was just waiting for someone and they were running late. He looked genuinely shocked when I stood up, shook his hand, and said “There we are then. Good luck mate” then left.

My parents consoled and spoiled me all weekend. My father reminded me that “as an emerging artist” I should “use this experience as an opportunity to not resist what I’m feeling and to channel those emotions into my work”, and “that if we just stayed in our studios, where would we get our inspiration from?” He was right though. I had 72 bowls and mugs to glaze and fire this weekend, and I was already bursting with new ideas for the next batch.

A massive binge of ‘The XX’, ‘The Twilight Sad’ and ‘Arab Strap’ got me through the night, along with a whole family bag of Doritos, a jar of hot salsa, almost a whole sharing pack of Maltesers, and a bottle of Pinot Noir all to myself. I wallowed and grieved for what could have been until I realised I felt relief for getting out at the beginning of something before it got messy. My new sketches slowly got sloppier that night. By 2am Saturday morning , I was jumping up and down, swinging my arms, hair flailing, punching the air, cheerfully singing “I don’t want to be around you any more. I can’t stand to be around you any more.” Music therapy indeed. I still felt humiliated, but without shame.

On Monday, I went out for coffee with June, the receptionist from the office, purely, so by the end of the week, everyone would pretty much know I was single again, and why. It was a good deal. June got a juicy story straight from the horse’s mouth, and, with my blessing, everyone got to know some true office gossip. I got sympathy. Alison got, well, whatever.

I just kept my head down, and stayed busy, planning the window display and imagining how I’d feel if/when someone bought something I’d made. After my craft stall I was taking the rest of the stock to the shop on Sunday. Things I’d made! In an actual shop! Not my online etsy shop. A proper shop with a bell on the door. A till and real people browsing. If they sold well, then who knew what would happen?

I brought half a dozen pieces into work the next day and left them on the reception desk with a few flyers, business cards and a bowl of Werther’s Originals to encourage people to get closer. June, told me later that they’d caused quite a talking point, and that Alison had taken a special interest, probably to try to talk to her, the resident sage. June then told me that she’d said to Alison, that yes they were “beautifully made, so quite expensive, but that I would probably have some seconds on my stall if she was interested.” I nearly spat out my coffee with glee when she told me that she’d said, “Seconds are cheaper because they are imperfect.” The icing on the cake was that she advised Alison to get tested for an STD because I was going to.  “These things happen” when you get together drunk with a cheater who thinks he’s a rock star.

That disgusting, greasy kitchen in his shared house. Bicycles and amps in the hallway. Piles of post for previous residents. Pizza boxes and PS4. Record covers used as skinning-up boards. Torn rizla packets and magazines about guitars. Tacit agreements to never mention the (less often than they’d like) sight of a strange girl wandering round the kitchen at 4am in her knickers and a sweaty band t-shirt. Mismatched charity shop hand-me-down plates, chipped mugs with their fading logos. Those cloned vessels reminding the user of one-off, unmemorable events. Temporary items of no value with the expectation of being discarded after use. I only brought one of my own porcelain mugs round so I’d have something decent to drink out of. Well, he can keep it. I don’t want it back.

76. Red

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The tips of my fingers are stained from pitting cherries, as I meticulously push the stone out through each cherry into an empty wine bottle with a chopstick.

My lips look bruised from cherry juice and drinking the wine that used to be in the stone-filled bottle.

“This is going to be a damn fine pie.” I say.

“That’s a damn fine moustache.” She says, chuckling at my wine smile.

Her fingertips are purple from peeling the beetroot.

“We should have worn some CSI gloves for this. What are they gonna think we’ve been up to?”

“I dunno. Tell em our blood, sweat and tears went into this meal.” She replied.

“Good point. It has been pretty hot today. It’s always hotter in London. We’re the red hand gang.” I start singing the tune from what I thought was the theme music to the old 70s kids show, ‘The Red Hand Gang’ but she interrupts it by saying, “That’s the ‘Banana Splits’.”

“Oh yeah, so it is. Hey Siri.” I say, raising my voice a little, “Play the theme tune to The Red Hand Gang.”

Siri can find anything, except the songs I want.

“Have you ever asked Siri what zero divided by zero is?” asks Diana.

“You have no friends.” I reply in a half-robot, half-Cookie Monster voice. “What did you get from the deli?”

“Creme fraiche for the horseradish cream. Goats cheese for the beetroot. Clotted cream for the cherry pie and some mixed mushrooms for the steaks.”

This is a girly weekend, just the four of us. We met on a train from Leeds to London, sat at the same table when the train stopped in a terrible snowstorm. It was somewhere just north of Peterborough, due to ‘a body on the line’. During the next six hours, we shared what snack food we had, donated tampons to strangers, did the crossword together to save our phone batteries and generally put the world to rights. After we got off the train, we went for coffee, to warm ourselves up and decided to keep in touch through twitter, and, eight years later, here we still are.

One New Years Eve, we talked about how difficult it was to maintain friendships as adults. That friendships drift, it gets harder to remember why you still liked each other, and all you seemed to talk about is how good life used to be or your kids. Well, we made a pact to not let those threads fray. We decided then and there to meet up at least once a year for a weekend reunion and make our own, new memories.

Jenny’s sister lives in London but she’s away this weekend, so we have her flat to ourselves. It’s nice to have the freedom outside of a hotel room for a change. She’s gone to St Pancras to pick up Claire, who is a bit scared of the tube. Diana and I are prepping the evening meal.

So, tonight is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 marathon. If we have to pull an all-nighter, then so be it. Tomorrow night is a play called ‘Red’ with Alfred Molina playing Mark Rothko. If we’re not too hungover, we’ll have a wander down to the Tate to look at some abstract expressionism,  to get ourselves ready for the play, after a couple of Bloody Marys, and avocado or eggs on toast at that Caravan brunch place at Kings Cross or get the Thames Link to Blackfriars and walk to the other one near to Borough Market.

“Did you see the new Millicent Fawcett statue outside the Houses of Parliament when you went out” asks Diana.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I went to the unveiling of the “Women of Steel” sculpture in Sheffield I love it. Proper Rosie the Riveter.”

“Outside the City Hall? Near Cole Brothers? I think I saw it on TV.”

“I wish I had stacks of green paper in my red right hand.” I say half- singing.

“Ooh, Did I tell you? I made a donation to that Suffragette statue fund. The one that’s being made where I live. This is good this. Get this. I was saving it for later, but I’ll tell them again. Do you remember that time ages ago when I was going out with Robert?” she says.

I screw up my eyes trying to remember him. We don’t generally meet anyone else’s partners or family. It’s just the hardcore of us four. “Did he used to work away a lot?”

“Yeah, that’s him. You remember that time I told you about that woman who started shouting at him in the pub and her friend said to me, “Don’t let him film you love, he’ll put it on youporn”?”

“You had a lucky escape there.” I say.

“Too right I did. I never sent him any pictures, but, we did have one of those couple’s vibrators, that he could control with his phone when he was working away”

Nothing surprises me with Diana. That time she said she’d won 500 dollars on a slot machine and then spent it on hand-feeding a lion in the zoo. When she fell and broke her ankle whilst abseiling and Prince William was the pilot in the air sea rescue helicopter. The time she got chatting to one of the ‘Real Housewives’ in the ladies room at the airport and they got on so well, that she paid for Diana’s upgrade to Business Class so they could sit together on the plane, and then offered her a job as a PA. All true.

“Well anyway” she continues. “There was this class action lawsuit over this vibrator as the manufacturers were collecting data on the users. They could tell what setting I had it one, how long it was used for and what my body temperature was. I got £5,000 compensation for it.”

“Brilliant.” I say.

“So, then after the lawsuit had been in the papers, Robert phoned me. A year after he dumped me, for not ‘being adventurous enough’ he rings me. Me! Not adventurous. Well, he wants to get together for a drink. Well, I’m with Paul now, so I say no. That’s when I got that new number. I don’t know why I didn’t block him before though. So he rings me again the following night and says that he thinks he is entitled to half of the vibrator money because he was the one using his phone to control it, his privacy was violated too!”

I nearly spit out a mouthful of Malbec, trying not to laugh at the incredulity of it all.

“What? After what he did to that woman with the revenge porn?” I’d have told him to do one.” I say.

“I did.” she says. “Even better than that, I told him I was donating it all. Then I reeled off a few women’s charities that I knew would piss him off. I said that if he didn’t leave me alone, I was going to put a metal plaque with his name on it on a bench, saying ‘with thanks for helping me’ outside that sexual health clinic.”

“If he rings you again, tell him that it wasn’t him controlling the vibrator, it was someone else. He can’t prove it was him unless he recorded it and then you can have him for recording a private act or voyeurism it something.”

“I’m definitely saying that if he finds out my number and rings again.” She says.