Authors: Mil Millington
a certain chemistry
TABLE OF CONTENTS
About the Author
Also by Mil Millington
U.K. Praise for Mil Millington’s A Certain Chemisty
To the most precious and adored things in my life: Jonathan and Peter. If I can leave you nothing else, at least let me leave you the dedication in this book.
Oh and, incidentally, the way things are going I probably
be leaving you nothing else, okay? Bite the bullet, lads.
As usual, a big thank-you to the band. On bass, agenting, slanderous gossip, and support and advice of absolutely, utterly, all varieties . . . Hannah Griffiths, ladies and gentlemen! On harp, commissioning editing, outrageous poshness, and a teary, romantic nature which secretly conceals an obsessive fascination with the raw details of sexual mechanics—please put your hands together for Helen Garnons-Williams! On some kind of horse fitted with microphones that, I don’t know, probably convert the electrical impulses associated with muscle activity into musical tones or something, being illuminatingly funny and clever, standing back and letting me get on with this stuff with typical good manners and great forbearance, and the assassination of a string of Italian judges in the late 1990s—iiiiiiiiiit’s Mr. Jonathan Nash!
For the U.S. leg of the tour we also have a couple of special guests on stage with us. First, give it up, Idaho, for Bruce Tracy! See him spin. See him crouch. See him edit using a shrewd and urbane American mind while dancing—in a cage suspended above the crowd—like some kind of wild beast. Finally, I want you to go craaaaaaazzzzzzy, Boise-style, for freakish U.S./U.K. literary agent hybrid Emma Parry! According to all reports, she’s marvelously beautiful and scary as hell, and no American tour would be possible, of course, without her willingness to take a bullet for me.
Naturally, a spilling mouthful of thanks to you, Margret. Also profuse apologies for all the terrible things I’ve done up to this point, and for the additional terrible things I bet I’ll have done since it. I’m so clearly lucky to be with you that it’s actually embarrassing, and I
vacuum the house tomorrow. Or, you know, at least early next week.
Finally, my gratitude to the many, many scientists and researchers whose findings I’ve used here, often—so as to keep the prose moving—unattributed. Cheers. I’ll probably come round and steal the food out of your fridge later too, then run a key down the side of your car as I walk away from your house, which I’ve idly set ablaze.
Hi there, I’m God.
Yeah, yeah, I know, you thought I’d be taller. Cheesh, I created you people and sometimes even
don’t get you, you know what I’m saying? Some joker’s standing here—bit of a problem with his brakes and now he’s the new kid in paradise—and he’s all with the “Yeah, right—
God” like there’s a height restriction on creating the universe or something. So I’m a couple of inches shorter than he is, so what? I’m
—get over it.
Anyways, don’t get me started down that road ’cause I’m here to explain some stuff. It’s real important stuff—kind of, you know,
if you get me. So, what I’m thinking here is that the best way to start doing this is to tell you about something that happened—you know, show it to you as an example of what I’m talking about. This is something that happened to Tom Cartwright. Tom’s twenty-eight, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and he’s one of those—what do you call them? Those guys who do books for other people?—ghostwriters, that’s it, he’s one of them there ghostwriters. What I want you to keep in mind here is that—no, in fact, I’ll come to that later. Right now, you just listen while I have Tom start to tell you his story.
I can do that.
“Table for McGregor?”
“Let me see . . . Ah, yes, just for two?”
Amy nodded and we were led through the restaurant to a table at the back, next to the toilets.
“I thought I’d better book,” she said as we sat down. “It can be tricky to get a seat in the smoking area at lunchtime.” I glanced around as I shuffled my chair in and saw that, apart from a squashed little ghetto of smokers at the tables around us, the restaurant was entirely empty. The waitress gave us a couple of menus, an ashtray, and a free, complimentary smile, and then turned to leave.
“Excuse me!” Amy called after her, arching back on her chair. “Could we have a bottle of red and a bottle of white, please?” She turned back towards me, questioningly. “Sorry—do you want anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Just the two bottles, then,” she confirmed.
“Certainly,” replied the waitress, and headed towards the bar.
Amy scrambled a cigarette out of its packet, chopped her lighter aflame with her thumb, and pinched her face up with the effort of a long, determined draw. With a slight pop, she pulled the cigarette from her mouth and let her hands fall down to the table, at which point she stopped completely. She sat there, eyes unfocused, without breathing or moving—as though she’d simply switched off—for a tiny eternity. Even though I was used to her doing this, it still unnerved me and I was just about to reach over and investigatively poke her forehead with my finger when she finally relaxed and expelled the smoke with a noisy, swooping
like the valve on a pressure cooker releasing steam.
“So,” she said, “how are things?”
Amy was my agent.
“Oh . . . you know,” I replied.
Once Amy is your agent, there’s no going back. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not suggesting that Amy’s contract specifies 10 percent of earnings and your immortal soul, or that trying to untangle yourself from Amy would mean her pursuing you, shrieking, through the night. I mean, well . . . I don’t have a dishwasher, but everyone I know who does says that you can happily go for most of your life without a dishwasher but, once you buy one, that’s it; life without one becomes unimaginable. Amy is like a dishwasher.
“I read the piece you did for
” she said. “The ‘How to do your tax return’ thing.”
“Yeah. I just paraphrased the Inland Revenue’s booklet, really.”
“No, you’re selling yourself short again. The way you were struggling to run a small, ethnic-rug shop while raising four children with eczema? I really felt for you. And your husband . . .”
“Aye, Brian—what a dickhead. I’m telling you, when you were filling in the section on provisional figures, I was there with you.”
“And Hugh’s really pleased with the way
Only the Horizon
is selling, by the way.”
This was the last book I’d ghosted. It was for a guy, Justin Lee-Harris, who’d sailed a small yacht between Ireland and New Zealand. I forget why. Lee-Harris was always doing this kind of thing. I’d only met him once because, by the time everything was agreed and I’d been brought in, he was just about to jump aboard another one-man yacht to do something admirable and vague in the South China Sea. It wasn’t until after he’d gone that I discovered my Dictaphone battery had run out about halfway through our single meeting. Everything after Cape Town I just made up.
“I’m seeing Hugh later.”
“Really? Are you
you don’t want a drink?”
The waitress came back.
“Ready to order?” she asked, striking a pose with a pencil and pad.
“Ummmm . . . I’m sorry,” I said, theatrically pained by the admission, “I don’t really know much about Ghanaian cuisine. What’s
“It’s cassava and plantain pounded with a wooden pestle and mortar until it glutinizes into a ball,” the waitress replied, expectantly moving her pencil down to touch the pad.
“It’s a root.”
“A bit like a banana.”
“Really? . . . Um. . . . Can I have the roast chicken and chips, please?”
The waitress smiled, nodded brightly, scribbled something that looked rather like “tosser” on her pad, and turned to Amy.
“Oh, nothing for me, thanks,” Amy said with a wave. “No, could we have another bottle of red, actually?” She twisted back to me. “So, what are you seeing Hugh for?”
anything. I was coming out to see you anyway. I haven’t seen him for a while . . .” I finished the sentence by waggling my hand about. “I’ll just pop in and say hello.”
“I thought you were there last week? I’m sure when I saw him he said you’d come into the office last week.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you mention it, I remember I
bump into him last week.”
“You know, in his office.”
“That’s not really ‘bumping into’ him, is it? ‘Hey! Hugh! Fancy seeing you here. At your desk.’ That’s more ‘aiming at him,’ isn’t it?”
“I suppose so. Whatever.”
“Are you up to something?”
“Me? No, God no.” A specific pair of breasts came into my mind. Amy leaned forward slightly and peered at me. Guilt whispered that she could see the specific breasts too, dangling there, just behind my eyes. “
. . . What have you heard?”
“I haven’t heard anything,” she said.
“There you go, then. You should listen to that.”
“Okay, okay. But I’ve warned you before about getting too friendly with publishers, that’s all. You know what happens every time you make friends with a publisher.”
“A pixie dies. Yes, I remember. But Hugh
my friend, not just my publisher, Amy.”
“Friendships cool, Tom. You can always cool a friendship. When you get too friendly with a publisher you just make my job of helping you harder. You keep a dignified distance. If anyone needs to make friends with them,
do it. I can do it better than you. I’m false.”
Amy lectured me about the risks I was taking by talking to, well, pretty much anyone. She continued doing this through a pack of cigarettes and all the wine, the number of adjectives increasing with each bottle.
“The usual pack of arrogant wankers, of course.”
ly.” She crushed the life out of a cigarette stub in the ashtray. “London agents—bastards. They think I’m some kind of ‘plucky amateur’ just because I don’t live down there. You can actually see their bodies switch languages when I tell them—their shoulders unwind and they stuff their hands in their pockets. ‘Oh, so you
up here? How wonderful. Wish I could, it’d be far better for my nerves.’ Twats. They need their shins beating with a spade.”
Every day I wake up and thank God that Amy’s on my side.
“Well,” I sighed, glancing supportively at my watch, “I’d better get off, if I’m going to catch Hugh.”
“Aye, I’d better make a move too.”
She plunged her arm into her handbag up to the elbow and, after a brief chase, retrieved a hair tie. Both hands reached around the back of her head and pulled at her straight brown hair, binding it into the tie with a severity that tugged at the skin on her face so much her eyes narrowed. It was her battle ritual. Fearsome in any case, Amy McGregor with her hair tied back meant a Highland Charge was in the offing.
“What was it you’re going to?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a magazine launch. Is my speech slurring?”
“Good. Wouldn’t want to look out of place.”
“See if you can hunt out anything for me. I’ve got nothing lined up, and Sara’s talking about new carpets.”
“Will do. Anything specific? Got any ideas for features?”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ll just wait for them to say anything about anything and then pipe up, ‘
Tom was just saying he’d got an idea for a piece about that.’ I’ve got a face to go with it . . . look.”
Hugh’s face collapsed into a “struggling on” smile as I approached. This didn’t signify anything; it was simply his standard face. Hugh Mortimer always looked like a man who’d just returned to work after an embarrassing surgical procedure.
He was the chief commissioning editor in the Scottish offices of the publishers McAllister & Campbell. Depending on how Hugh happened to feel, an aspiring author could be set dancing with elation in his kitchen or left feeling utterly crushed and worthless, in the same kitchen. Many men (I know, I’ve met them) would be unable to control their erections at the thought of having that kind of power; it just gave Hugh ulcers. But then, pretty much everything gave Hugh ulcers.
“Hi, Hugh. Thought I’d just drop by and see how things were.”
“Oh, good. Good to see you . . . I’ve been having pains in my chest.”
“Really?” Hugh Mortimer was thirty-seven years old.
. . .” He rubbed his open hand over a liberal area, as though anxiously soaping himself. “I was worried about my heart, you know, what with my being so sedentary. All I ever do is sit. Doesn’t that worry you too? You sit.”
“No. But then I’m twenty-eight. Obviously, if I were thirty-seven, it’d scare the crap out of me.”
“Mmm—anyway, I was worried about my heart, so I bought this rowing machine thing at the weekend. They’re supposed to be very good for all-round health.”
“Getting it in and out of the car damn near killed me.”
“I spent a stressful afternoon setting it up, and I’ve been giving it a go each evening.”
“And now you’ve . . .”
“And now I’ve got these pains in my chest, that’s right. The trouble is, doing the rowing really makes demands of your chest muscles. I don’t know if it’s the muscles in my chest aching or my heart.”
“Did you have any pains before you bought the rowing machine?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean anything. It could still be my heart. It has to give out sometime, doesn’t it? Its number might have been up, and the fact that I happened to have bought a rowing machine now is just a coincidence. I missed my chance. I bought a rowing machine, but my heart’s already too far gone.”
“Did you keep the receipt?”
I’d known Hugh for six years, so I can say with some authority that today he was more upbeat than usual.
The accident of my knowing Hugh was simply part of the accident of my being a writer in the first place. I’d come to Edinburgh to study English at university. I wasn’t, I must make it clear, fired up by any passion for literature. It was simply that, well, you have to study
don’t you? Once, in Miss Burston’s class when I was ten, I’d been told that I was “quite good at spelling,” and I’d just sort of drifted along with that for the next eleven years. My academic career was indifferent to the point of beauty—I was so unremarkable, in every way, that the unvarying precision of my mediocrity achieved a kind of loveliness. The most middling student each year in Edinburgh really ought to be awarded the Tom Cartwright Cup. Or, more fittingly, the
Anyway, by the time I’d finished my degree I’d made some friends here and couldn’t see any point in moving. I certainly didn’t want to go back home (a tiny village located somewhere in Kent, somewhere in the seventeenth century), and the prospect of heading off to London to find glittering success filled me with a shrug. So, I hung around and got a job on a local advertising paper. Wherever a cycle path was poorly defined, whenever a pensioner was doing something vaguely amusing for charity, I was there. I can’t really see how I could have lacked any more flair, but I could spell and I worked fast; in journalism just one of those is often enough to build a career on. This all went along nicely for a time until an acquaintance of mine was asked if she’d ever thought about writing a book.
The acquaintance, Janine, owned a shop that sold bollocks: reflexology charts, tarot cards, little statuettes of fairies (“faeries,” probably) holding crystals, feng shui manuals, those pairs of shiny metal balls that always come in black, velvety cases—she stocked pretty much the complete range of pointlessness. Janine’s speciality, however, was aromatherapy. Not only did she sell the oils, books, and burners, but she was also available, for a modest fee, in a consulting capacity. Panic attack? Personal crisis? One phone call and Janine would race over so you could score some safflower oil. Tricky situation at work and you need to subliminally influence your colleagues in your favor? A few notes and Janine would see to it that you, quite literally, came up smelling of roses. Inevitably—I mean,
right?—some of Janine’s users worked in publishing. One day, while Janine was giving her a hit of kanuka, one of these clients remarked that there was always a market for books about this kind of crap (I paraphrase) and had she, Janine, ever thought of writing one?
Janine was very taken with this idea but didn’t feel up to the task of putting all those words down on paper. As she knew I was a formidably mercenary wordsmith, she asked if I’d ghost the thing for her—she’d give me the basic details, and I’d work them up into a book. I said if we called it
I’d do it for a flat fee. If we called it
I’d do it for a proportion of sales. She went for the latter, which was a tremendous boon for me (ghostwriters never get a proportion of sales—you get a one-off payment and that’s it, no matter what). The book came out at a really good moment, just as aromatherapy was that month’s top media fad (I want to say “It was right on the nose,” but I’m not sure I’d ever forgive myself), and it sold very well.
We cranked out a follow-up,
Extra Sensual Aromatherapy,
which didn’t do anywhere nearly as well as the first book but still shifted enough copies to confirm that there is no justice in the world. More important was that during the process of doing the two books I met both Hugh (then lowly enough to have to deal with aromatherapy publishing) and Amy. With the odd lead from the former and the savage tenacity of the latter it was just about financially viable, within a year or so, for me to walk away from my job at the paper and ghost books more or less full-time. I supplemented my income with magazine articles on how I’d coped with the menopause or what to do when your dentist is also your lover; even doing this, the money wasn’t very good—and was very sporadic too—but it was enough to get me by. And I did have about twenty weeks off a year, which is an
holiday package by any standards.
Hugh sighed a long sigh. “Confronting your own mortality, it really makes you take stock of your life, you know?”
“Of course it does. I mean, when you’re a bairn you have all those dreams. How you’ll be a big star. How Michael Parkinson will have you on his chat show all the time—and as the final guest too, not as the
’But first . . .’
You’ll have really made your mark for something or other. Then, one day, it settles upon you. You’re trying to get a garbage bag out of the kitchen before the plastic stretches and comes apart at the top and you’re thirty-seven years old and it settles upon you—the realization that it’s over. This is it. Not only are you never going to be as famous as Elvis Presley, but you’re never even going to be as famous as the wee bald guy in
Benny Hill. . . .
His head sagged down over his desk.
“Done any more work on your book?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s crap. Utter crap.”
“Oh, well, maybe you can sell it to another publisher. I can think of two names right now.”
I saw Fiona. She’d come into the office and paused to pour herself a drink at the water cooler.
“Awww, don’t, Tom. It’s easy for you—if you decided to write a novel—”
“Oh, don’t start that again.”
“Well . . .”
“Can I just”—I hung a finger in the air, indicating Fiona. “I just want to have a quick word with—”
Hugh let out another sigh as his only response. I took this as clearance to get up and quickly move over to where she was standing.
“Fiona!” I exclaimed with a grin. I meant it to come out convivial and engagingly larger-than-life. It just came out loud. She turned to look at me as you would at a person who’d come up to you in a quiet office and shouted your name at the side of your head.
She took another sip from her paper cup before answering, “Tom.”
“I was just sitting over there”—I pointed—“and I saw you.”
She glanced lazily over at Hugh’s office. “Did you? Must be all of four yards away. Be sure to leave your retinas to science.”
“Haha, nice one.”
Fiona Laurie. Early twenties. Around five foot five (without her heels). Star publicist of McAllister & Campbell. Her eyes were pale blue, and her blond hair was short, in that style that normally indicates that a middle-aged woman is having some kind of crisis, but she’d managed to conjure “sophisticated” from it somehow. Like me, Fiona was English, originally from Hampshire, I think, and she had been with McAllister & Campbell for just a few years. Most of that time had been spent in their London offices. The word was that she’d been sent up here because she was still too new for it to be seemly for her to be elevated in a choir-accompanied ceremony of corporate apotheosis, yet she was clearly too big for her junior position down there. She’d come to Edinburgh in the same way that in former times a favored son of the Empire might be given Canada to rule for a bit before returning to become Home Secretary.
I couldn’t care less about any of that, though. The most impressive thing about Fiona, in my opinion, was her immaculate superiority. How
she get her whites that white? Why did she never crease? I’d never seen her look less than witheringly perfect: shiny or matte in all the right places. She moved slowly too. That’s always arresting, isn’t it? Everywhere she went, she looked like
decided to go there because it suited
purpose. She was cool. Aloof.
It had a potent effect, the flawless presentation and the easy condescension: an overpoweringly attractive combination. Oh, and she had great tits too. Really
tits. Tits Classic. Each one (tellingly) just the size of my cupped hand, firm as fresh fruit and possessing the kind of nipples whose very existence powered the invention of thin, white, cotton blouses. I was utterly—
—ashamed of the things I’d lately started thinking that I wanted to become involved in doing with those tits—it wasn’t like me at all.
“I . . . er . . . just popped in . . . to see Hugh.” I smiled.
Fiona took another sip from her paper cup and raised her eyebrows at me in reply. It was an efficient and winning way of wordlessly conveying “Yeah? How very, very interesting.” She was belittling me using nothing but the power of her eyebrows. I shivered and was unable to step in to block myself from having an involuntary glance down below her neckline.
“Well,” I said, hammering it home by following up first with a long exhalation from between pursed lips and then, cleverly, a meaningless click of my tongue. “Well . . . I . . . I’d better be getting back to Hugh. Things to discuss . . . you know . . .” I clapped my hands together and opened my eyes indicatively wide. “Stuff.” Suddenly, I reached forward, my hand having gone insane and made a break for it with the intention of patting her affectionately on the shoulder. I regained control just in time, however, and managed to turn things around by changing the movement into a thumbs-up sign. Situation salvaged, I judged that there wasn’t much more I could achieve today, so I backed away from her, returning to Hugh’s office. “Bye.”
“Good-bye,” replied Fiona, watching me evenly as I retreated. “I’m glad we had this chance to talk.”
“Which arm is it that’s supposed to hurt if you’re having a heart attack?” asked Hugh as I flopped into the chair by him.
“The left, isn’t it?”
“Hmm . . .” Hugh rubbed his right arm thoughtfully. “What about the other arm? What does that mean? Have they discovered what that means?”
“I believe there is a school of thought that believes it’s linked to reckless use of rowing machines, but supporting evidence is still sketchy.”
“Yes.” Hugh nodded, unconvinced.
“Well, as we’ve got a couple of minutes before the Reaper arrives for you, have you got anything for me? Any work on the horizon? Talk quickly and stick to the basic facts.”
“No . . . well, aye. Maybe. I’d rather not say at the moment, Tom.”
“You’d rather not say? What does that mean?”
in the pipeline. But it’s big,
big, and I don’t want to raise your hopes.”
“Oh, come on, you tease. I’m damn near broke—throw me a crumb.”
“You know it’s not my say, Tom. I can make a suggestion, put in a good word for you, but that’s all. This is an A-list book, and I don’t want to get you all excited, then have it come to nothing—have you mentally spending money you won’t get.”
“It’s a lot of money?”
“Oh, aye. A lot.”
“Tch. Tell me. I promise to speak glowingly of you at the funeral.”
“No. I’ll know in a day or so. I’ll put them in touch with Amy.”
Hugh had become distracted again.
“You know, I think my legs are aching too now. What about legs? What does
“Tom? Is that you?”
Sara was calling from the living room. We’d been together for five years, and no one else lived in the house or had a key, yet every time I came in she always asked whether it was me.
“No,” I shouted back, “it’s your lover.”
“Okay. But Tom will be back soon, so we haven’t much time. We’d better do it on the floor down here. Leave your socks on.”
I ambled into the living room. Sara was curled up on the sofa, watching TV.
“Some men take their socks off?” I asked, alarmed, as I pecked the top of her head and sat down beside her.
Sara kept her eyes on the television but nodded enthusiastically. “Aye—I saw it in a film once . . . Good day?”
“Do you love me so much that my absence is like a weight on your chest?”
“So you should.”
She waited for an advert for margarine to finish, then turned to look at me. Her eyes scanned quickly all over my face; I think she’d always looked at me like that after we’d been apart for a while, but I’d noticed it more lately. “What have you been up to, then?”
“I had lunch with Amy, then went to see Hugh.”
“No. Hugh told me that something’s coming up, but he can’t be sure I’ll get it so he’s not saying much.”
“We could do with some new carpets.”
“Yes, I told Amy.”
. . . Did you?”
“Yes you did.”
“Yes, I did.”
She gave me a poke in the stomach.
“Ugh. She’s going to hand out some flyers with my photo on them—’Will work for underlay.’ So, how was your day?”
“A freezer fuse blew in Fish. No one spotted it, and we lost a pile of haddock.”
“I see. What’s for dinner?”
Sara’s concentration started to drift away from me because her favorite soap,
had restarted. It was set in a fictional coastal town and featured the harshly lit lives of the varied inhabitants. There was a marriage every year and a dramatic death every two—regular as clockwork. The gaps between these were filled with feuds, rivalries, affairs, and some kind of storyline that could pick up extra publicity by being promoted in the media as the show “dealing with issues” or “helping understanding” or some such—a character having dyslexia, say, or the effect that a parent being convicted of cannibalism has on the wider family. The show had been running for about a million years.
“Haddock.” I nodded.
“Aye,” she replied, mistily, as if speaking under hypnosis. “A haddock omelette in chicken gravy. There’s some Spaghetti Hoops too.”
Sara had a very
attitude towards food: what might be called an unusually inclusive meal gestalt. She didn’t like everything (“Olives—bleugh!,” for example), but if she
like it, then that was that. If she enjoyed ice cream and she enjoyed fried eggs, and they were both in the house, then it was as likely as not to be ice cream and fried eggs for lunch. Being a writer (even if only a ghostwriting hack of one) and therefore fatiguingly condemned by my nature to look for causes, influences, and even—in moments of particular weakness—
for things, I would have been inclined to put this down to her job. She worked as a supervisor in a food shop. PolarCity; one of those big, chuck-it-out/sell-it-cheap places that carries mostly frozen food. For Sara, I would have mused—had I been writing her rather than living with her—food is simply a continuum that goes from the baskets near the entrance to the checkouts by the exit; put into sections only for the convenience of storage, it all goes into the same carrier bags in the end. That’s what I would have said. That would have been neat. The trouble with this wry analysis as applied to real-world Sara—Sara out of the laboratory conditions of a narrative—is that it would be utter bollocks. Sara had been like this with food before she’d ever gone to work in PolarCity. She’d been like it ever since I’d known her.
When I’d met Sara she worked in an off-license. She worked behind the counter at my off-license and I’d see her when I went in to buy a packet of fags or a few cans of lager. I thought she was attractive, right from the very first time I saw her there. Okay, so the person she replaced was a sullen, bird-eyed Glaswegian who’d had one hand moving disturbingly in his pocket on every single occasion I encountered him, but she’d have caught my notice favorably even without the comparison. She wasn’t beautiful as defined by the stag-night consciousness of magazines like
but had a kind of, well (don’t laugh), a kind of
. Charging down from her head like the Golden Horde was a boiling mass of ginger hair—yep,
I’m not going to resort to euphemisms here. I’m not going to drop my eyes and mumble something about Sara being “a redhead” or “flame-haired.” She’s ginger. Deal with it. In any case, the fact that she had ginger hair didn’t jump out at me all that much. For a start, I was still only twenty-two, and when you meet a woman at that age you don’t think much about her being ginger—you’re not remotely considering having
with her, after all. Also, I’d been living in Scotland for quite a while, and there are so many ginger-haired people here that you become almost numb to it. Her skin was pale (some slight freckling, nothing disastrous)—almost bone white, in fact—and her frame heroin thin. Actually, I suppose she looked quite ill, but then I think, subconsciously, I find that kind of look appealing—it’s probably the capital-
Romantic in me. The thing that struck me more than anything else, however, was her eyes. Pale blue, as clear and sparkling as the wineglass in a washing-up liquid advert and, even then, starting to line at the edges from smiling. Sara smiled all the time. She used to smile at me as I came into the shop, smile at me when I put the cans on the counter, and smile at me when I said good-bye.
smiles too, that was the thing. Her face smiled, but her eyes looked at me and knew,
they knew. She’d smile as I gave her my money, but her eyes would snag mine and say, “I know you looked at my arse when I turned round to get that packet of Marlboros off the shelf just then. You stared at the contours of my thin, soft dress and wondered if that was a thong I was wearing, or if my knickers had just
ridden up there; and you thought that, either way, it was a pretty good state of affairs as far as you were concerned. I know you thought that, and guess what? That’s fine. I’m okay with it. In fact, I even find it amusing and cute in some kind of schoolboyish way. What do you think about that, eh?” It’s powerful stuff when a pair of eyes puts you on the spot that way.
At first I tried to put a cordon around her. It was transference, surely? I associated her with lager and fags,
s why my heart picked up speed and my mouth slipped into an involuntary smile whenever I thought of her. Falling for the woman in the off-license? How sad was that? Textbook pathetic—like becoming smitten with your nurse or your mother. No, hold on—not your mother. Whatever, you know what I mean. But it wouldn’t go away. I found myself “forgetting” things. I’d “forget” to buy a box of matches, so I had to go back to the shop a second time. I’d suddenly decide at ten-thirty at night that I needed to sprint over and get a single packet of crisps. Not because of her—no, simply owing to my sensing that my body wouldn’t settle because it lacked salt. This madness continued for a while, but things really became fatally unhinged when I found myself standing at the counter holding a bottle of dry white wine.
When she’d first started working in the shop I’d come in for a four-pack of lager produced by no one you’ve ever heard of—“Weinermeister: brewed under license in a big shed in Doncaster,” that kind of thing. I’d scan the stock, ignoring everything but the price labels and the alcohol content of each item, do a quick cost-divided-by-strength calculation to work out the underlying Getting Pissed score of everything, and then go with whatever seemed most efficiently engineered. But then, one evening, as my fingers reached for the week’s special offer, I happened to glance towards Sara and she, of course, smiled. My hand hovered uncertainly over the cans, then it reared up and began to rub my chin mendaciously; I was pretending to consider my choice based on more impressive criteria. “Mmmm . . . what
be an appropriate lager to accompany the
lapin à la moutarde
I’m having for dinner?” And I picked up a four-pack of Carlsberg instead.
I’d crossed a line.
The next time I went in I bought McEwan’s Export. Then Kronenbourg 1664, then just two cans of lager and a bottle (a
mind—sophisticated) of Guinness, then . . . well, basically at the end of the road I wound up standing at the counter holding a bottle of fucking dry white wine. I was trying to convince the woman who worked in the off-license that I was urbane and multilayered using some sort of alcohol semaphore.
Then the final phase hit me: I lost the ability to speak. Good job, you might think, when the only place left for me to go by this stage would have been to ask whether she perhaps had this wine in a “carafe.” But sadly, I don’t mean that I went mute, just that I abandoned words in favor of making more or less random noises with my mouth.
I have a problem, you see. I’m a reasonably articulate person—no great raconteur or anything, but I’m passable enough at stringing phonemes together to convey simple ideas. I can talk to women without any problem, talk to them without either awkwardness or embarrassingly misjudged, bombastic shouting—I didn’t go to a public school, after all. Even women I find attractive don’t interfere with my communication skills (I am perfectly able to speak with my tongue hanging out). However, when and if I move from finding a woman attractive to having “a thing” for her—even if I don’t realize, consciously, that I
got “a thing” for her at this point—then my ability to speak to her at anything approaching adult level simply leaves town.
I believe I was halfway through buying a cheekily crisp Chablis, twenty Marlboros, and a bag of pork scratchings one evening when my evil, rat-bastard id decided—flick of a switch—that I’d now got “a thing” for Sara and should therefore shed the English language. I could actually feel the words molt from me and fall uselessly to the ground; tumbling over my shoes, scattering across the counter like tiny ball bearings and bouncing randomly over the floor of the shop. I only had to say, “No, that’s fine” (because I
want anything else) and “Thanks. Bye, then,” for Christ’s sake. But every time I made a grab for the sentences, the effort blew the words out of my grasp—like when you try to catch a thistledown but the very movement of your hand through the air causes it to pull off an impressively rapid, evasive loop-the-loop and you open your hand to find nothing. I just stood staring at her for what seemed like most of the 1990s with a kind of vacant, hillbilly grin on my face
(“Don’ you be payin’ no nevermind to young Cousin Tom—ain’t a scrap o’ malice in the boy, but he done had a diff’cult birth”)
before I finally marshaled the array of forces needed to produce a noise like Goofy laughing, and then left the shop. I went home, drank the Chablis in ten minutes, and awoke the next morning halfway up the stairs with my trousers round my knees. (I like to imagine—still—that I was trying to make it to bed.)
Things could have continued quite happily along these lines until either Sara got a job somewhere else or my liver exploded. I tried, a couple of times, to slip in (you know, pulling myself back just as I was leaving, as a sudden afterthought) a “Do you live around here, at all?” or a “So, what do you like to do when you’re not working in this off-license?” or even a “What’s your name, by the way?” On the first attempt someone else came into the shop just as I was about to begin speaking. Naturally, I fled. The second time I tried I ended up buying a box of fifty cocktail umbrellas. Having failed twice, wretchedly, I did what any sensible man would do: I retreated into a bunker and hoped for a miracle.
Later that week there was a miracle.
Okay, not quite a miracle, but a favorable coincidence, at least. I was still working for the newspaper at this time. A bunch of us had gone out to the pub after work to celebrate some occasion or other (I can’t remember what it was now, but clearly to cajole a group of journalists into an evening’s drinking it must have been something pretty special). We were sitting there, discussing the issues of the day, when Sara strolled into the bar enclosed within a semipermeable casing of friends. A woman called Beverly had just had her decree absolute come through, and they’d all dropped in for a few drinks before moving on to a club. Even better, one of Sara’s friends turned out to be the cousin of our young production assistant. She quickly took the opportunity to come over and embarrass him, and thus our two gangs intermingled. It was perfect. I was by Sara, in a social setting, but not under any pressure to form sentences for her. I could slowly ease myself in—the occasional “Yeah . . .” or “Haha . . .” from the sidelines being enough to keep me in the match. I even gleaned that her name
Sara. (Make a note of that, I thought; that could come in useful later. There’s no stopping me when I get going, there really isn’t.)
When the women went on to the club, a few of us went with them. This was a bit of a backwards step, really. By the end of the pub session I was doing rather well. I’d edged around to where Sara was standing so that, not at all infrequently, our forearms brushed. I’d uttered—okay, to the group at large, but my eyes paused on her—an entire phrase (“I’m just popping to the toilet”). I’d even offered her a crisp, and—get this—
she’d taken one
. The club, however, pulled the rug from under me, and I was cast into a smelly, sweating, shuddering hell. Another hour or so in the pub and I could probably have pulled off a “That’s a lovely necklace” (at which point you’re practically fumbling impatiently with each other’s zips, of course). But that was irrelevant now because, even if I could summon up that kind of captivating patter, it was almost impossible to hear anything above the deafening roar of the music. Basically, anything that couldn’t be shouted in fewer than five syllables was both too prone to sonic attrition and also too painful to be worth it. We can add to this the fact that I dance like a fool, and also that I seemed to be a catastrophic half a decade astray; I bumped against a group while I was getting a drink at the bar, and one of them shouted, “Watch it, Granddad!” Granddad. I was, I reiterate, twenty-two years old at this point.
It went on and on. For
. I watched Sara dance and got so drunk that I came out sober on the other side. Every so often one of our party would leave off creating a humiliating spectacle amid the other dancers, come over to me at the bar, shout, “Waaaah!” (I’d shout, “Waaaah!” back), grab a quick drink, and then rush back to abase himself some more. When it was well into the early hours, some kind of collective consciousness in our party eventually called a halt, and we splattered out into the street—giggling, stumbling, hoarse, sucking greedily at the wonderful, cool oxygen. Taxis were summoned, and while some called it a night, quite a few of us went back—for “a nightcap”—to what turned out to be the flat Sara shared with two friends.
And I slept with her.
Lord, she was pissed. More or less insensible and giving the acute impression that she might pass out at any moment. It causes a bit of an internal struggle when you’re faced with a woman who’s inviting you to bed while she’s so clearly mentally incapacitated by alcohol—a real dilemma. How you resolve the situation in a way that allows you to feel comfortable is a purely personal decision, I believe; I’d certainly never judge anyone for taking a particular route. I mean, obviously, you want to have sex with her, but at the same time you’re a little uncomfortable with the idea that she might puke over you. I decided that the best thing for both of us was if I just had sex with her very quickly—then it’d all be seen to and if she
feel a bit nauseous later on, well, she wouldn’t have me to worry about and that’d at least be one thing off her mind.