Yes. The worst kept secret in the history of Ciarán West novels drops some time next week, so here is an unsolicited sniff of its filthy gusset. You’re welcome.
Last Year, London, Emma
The taste of soap in my mouth has stopped being strange or disgusting; it’s just part of the routine now. Soap, shampoo, sometimes that special shower gel ‘made from 100% natural ingredients’. The lemon one’s my favourite, I can pretend it’s meant to be in my mouth, with a bit of imagination. I scrub the rest of me, hard, same as every other day. Especially the fingers and the beard – that’s where the smell sticks the most, and she’ll notice it. She still kisses me, and my hands are always on her. Anyone might get the impression we’re in love.
I pat my face dry with one of the towels she bought for the new house. Not our house, her house. I just live here. I look at the clock, a vintage train station one, which is like everything in this place (and the last); part of her own unique style. So unique you can find it in every copy of Living Etc. she keeps neatly stacked in the downstairs toilet, along with Crap Towns, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and other things that Middle Class people think are hilarious. It’s nearly five. I need to start preparing dinner soon. Something that feels a little like happiness, for a second, then it’s gone. I like it when she likes the food I cook. I like it when she likes anything I do.
The queue at the shop across the street isn’t long, but none of us in it are sure who’s next, cos of the strange layout, and the way people on the tills randomly decide if they’re serving or not. I just need some ginger and a bag of cashews. I’ve already been in earlier. I feel okay. Sober and lucid. There’s a headache on its way, but I’ve already had the ibuprofen before I got in the shower. The girl in front of me moves forward, stopping for a second to see which server she should go to. Outside is sunny, but it isn’t too hot. She’ll be on the tube now though, where it’s always hot, and cramped. I’m going to make Chinese. That always makes her happy. She’s never really happy. Best I can ever do is stop her hating me for a while.
The knives are sharp, but I’m used to them. I love sharp knives, and the power you feel using them. I should’ve chosen a different one for the chicken breast, but I like the way the curved one moves. I could’ve chopped the veg first, but the meat needs to sit in its marinade for a while, and I don’t have time. So I just wash it in between, with a little of the Fairy that she tells me I use too much of. It says a lot about her power over me that I’m nervous about things like that when she isn’t even here. But I’m used to that too. I slide the pink flesh into a small bowl. Some corn flour, a little rice vinegar, a good splash of soy. The rest of the taste will come from the sauce I’ll make. I wash my hands to get rid of any traces of raw meat from under my nails. The garlic is fresh and wet inside, smells good. The iPod shuffles on to the next Bowie track. It’s Quicksand. Always so quiet at the start that I feel the need to turn up the speakers. It’s half past five. I think about sending a text. No service on the underground, but she’ll get it when she comes out of the station.
Everything is chopped and prepared, sauce made, wok on the stove, rice measured out. I pick up the dog bowls and put them on the counter. The sound of plastic hitting granite makes them run in from the living room. The dogs are my favourite company. They don’t judge, and they can’t criticise. They’re loyal, even if it’s mostly down to their own stupidity. I wonder if I should start the rice, but she hasn’t replied to my text. It could end up being one of those nights where she goes for drinks people from work, and we’ll have another stupid non-argument where I sulk, and she doesn’t say much, but I know she hates me for stopping her doing what she wants. We’re always on the edge of a fight. It’s never been any different, right from the start, but we carried on. Something keeps us together, and it doesn’t always feel like something good. You don’t get addicted to healthy stuff.
My head feels okay; my mind is probably not as quick as it could be. If she came back right now, asked too many questions, I’d probably give the game away. I test myself sometimes, try to remember something specific about a piece of trivia, and see how long it takes. I remember, years ago, playing quiz machines in pubs, when the drink would slowly make me less able to get the answers right. I turn the music down to more of a background volume. She’ll turn it down again when she comes in; I think she needs to feel some control whenever she comes back to her house, even something a tiny and meaningless as that.
There was never a period of settling. I’ve been in that ‘first few months’ stage with her for three years now. Never moved on the stage where I’m her long term thing. She’s got better at it; she brings me out with her friends, and down to Plymouth to see her family. But, even then, I always feel more like some freak show than their future son-in-law. I used to be open minded about going out with people from different classes, but that was back in Ireland. English middle class people are the real deal, and they’re definitely better than me. They’re like a different species, and they look it.
Still no word, which usually means she’s coming. She’s always so stressed by the commute, morning or evening that I’ve learned not to push her on stupid things like getting back to me in texts or emails. She’s obsessed with the idea of not having enough hours in the day to do the things she wants, outside of work; that’s why she hates me. I’m the one with all the spare time, and the one who does nothing with them. Nothing she knows about, anyway. It makes her angry at the worst of times, gnaws away at her for the rest. I can feel it sometimes, coming off her like a haze. She loves me, though. That’s the weird bit. I believe her when she says it. I just don’t think she knows what it means. Or she might just think it means something different than it does to me. I don’t know.
It’s been a quiet enough day, inside my head. Sometimes the noise is so loud that I have to do something to quieten it, or give in and listen to what it says. When I do the first one, it’s touch and go as to whether the day ends well or badly. When I do the second, it always ends well for me, and badly for someone else. It’s been like that for a long, long time, and I used to let it eat away at me. I used to let it keep me up, and drive me mad with guilt, and shame, and bad feelings. And then one day I just accepted it. Accepted myself, and the things I have to do sometimes. But it’s been a quiet day today, in that respect, so I don’t want to think about that now.
Love was always something I reckoned I understood more than whomever I said it to. They didn’t get it, I did. That’s what I thought. I was a love snob. This relationship isn’t that different, but at least now I know of the root of the problem. My parents split up when I was fifteen, and I’ve been trying to find the perfect relationship ever since, as if doing that will fix the past. It’s nonsense. Looking back, I realise that it didn’t matter who I was with, just that they stayed with me. That I kept them. That I didn’t fail like Dad did. When I met her it felt different. Didn’t feel like I was settling. I’d found the one. Perfect for me in every way. That’s how it felt. But it could’ve been wishful thinking. I’d been single for five years. It could be I just met someone who wanted me, and changed myself to make her fit me better. It didn’t go both ways. She hasn’t changed a bit for me. A text from her. She isn’t coming. She hopes I haven’t started cooking yet. She’ll get something in the pub. I shouldn’t wait for her. I walk to the cupboard where my fags are hidden, behind the toolbox. It’ll be hours, I can do the soap thing again before she comes back.
It’s getting dark; I spot an empty can in the garden from earlier. I’ll have to take it out to the bin in the street, ours is a no-no. I pull long and hard on the ciggie, nice to have one after I thought I was finished for the day. After a lifetime of being unable to go two hours without a puff, I’ve now trained myself to stop in the early evening, and be fine without them until she leaves around eight the next morning. I can do it easily, unless we have a fight. Sometimes I think the nicotine demon inside me causes the fights, just so I’ll storm out of the house and light one up. Immediately after, I regret it, and have to go to the shop on the corner to get chewing gum, or a lemon drink, to hide the taste, in case she stops me before I’ve a chance to go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. Sometimes I think that I’m already halfway to quitting, if I’m able to go so many hours without a fix. But I know that it’s just a deal I make with the demon to feed him again in the morning, and that he knows I won’t go back on it.
I’m someone who has always been okay with keeping secrets. A secret is different to lie, in my mind. I hate lies. But if I have to tell one in order to keep a secret, then I don’t count it. That’s not a real lie. A lie is something you tell to make yourself look better, or to stop someone’s feelings being hurt. A lie to keep a secret isn’t selfish in a nasty, horrible way, like some other lies are. It’s just self-preservation, and we all need to do that. It’s not a real sin; it’s just a way of keeping afloat.
The bins are half way between the house and the shop. I feel the pull as I walk down with the can and few fag ends I picked up from the grass out back. Whenever I have some time to myself, especially when she isn’t going to come home for the night; she’s away for a weekend, or I’m house sitting for someone else, the feeling grabs hold of me, and it’s hard to shake. It’s never a question of just one drink. I’m not interested in drinking. It isn’t a social thing. You can’t be social with yourself, even if you have the internet and Facebook. I only ever want to get out of it. To get smashed. To have a little break from my own thoughts. Calling what’s wrong with me ‘depression’ is misleading. I don’t wake up with feelings of doom, and I don’t get sad for no reason. The way it affects me is apathy, and no motivation. I hadn’t written a word in months before I landed the gig at the Screen Passions website. And, even now, I need my editor to give me a deadline before I care enough to get anything done. Same as with the novels, I’m full of self-doubt, which goes away for a bit when I show my stuff to people, and they say good things. There’s no snowball effect, though. Every morning I wake up again and feel like I can’t do it. She doesn’t help. I can feel her lack of faith in me. Every time (and it’s rare) I talk to her about writing, her face takes on a look that says,
‘That’s all well and good, but when are you going to get a proper job?’
It isn’t the whole reason for the writer’s block, but having the person who loves you be supportive feels like it should be a given to me, and I hate her for not even pretending.
I go in for just one can. To take the headache away. At the big fridge, the names on the cans mean nothing, just the percentages. I don’t like beer. It’s just gas and water, never strong enough. There’s one there that’s 9.5%, but I can’t stomach it. It tastes like stout with cheap whiskey in it. The black cans of cider are the strongest. Kestrel at 8.4%, or Union Black, which is the same thing, but cheaper. I take two, cos one is never enough. I’m sober, they won’t get me so drunk as to be stupid or slurring when she comes in. And I can eat. I might eat. I can cook what is there, for one; or for two, and pack some of it away for her. I don’t know. Thinking about it makes me nervous. Thinking about her makes me nervous. Three years now, and it’s never changed. I don’t wait to get home before I crack open the first one. It tastes like hot vomit. I never get used to how it makes me gag the first time it goes down. There’s no pleasure in this. It’s the opposite of a refreshing pint of suds in the beer garden on a sunny day with your friends. It’s fuel, to get me away. But I never quite get away. Not for long. When it’s over, I’m always back where I started, and usually feeling even shittier.
The laptop’s still open. Something’s paused on the media player from earlier. It’s some episode of a show we’ve been watching together. That’s one trick I have to stop the tension and the fighting. Get her interested in some American drama that we can fill those three hours in the evening with, and while we eat. Sometimes a new recipe, to make her a little happier. Sometimes an old favourite, to comfort her. I don’t have any favourites anymore. Hers are mine, now. I don’t enjoy doing anything she doesn’t like too. At least while she is around. She hasn’t seen this one yet. I sometimes watch ahead, as it’s me who has the free time to do it, and anything is better than doing what I’m supposed to be. I won’t tell her, she hates watching anything with me that I’ve already seen. I don’t understood why, or need to. With her, it’s enough to know that a thing annoys her. The only fix is to not do it again. There’s no sense or logic to it. It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. What matters is who pays the rent.
The first can is nearly finished. I remind myself to get rid of it later. The veg is still on the chopping board. Doesn’t look like it’s going to be cooked, but God knows what I’ll decide after can number two. Drink always seems like a choice to me, but after enough of them, it’s the drink that decides. And it never decides something smart. It’s like letting a blind guy walk me through traffic. Then again, I’m letting her steer us through our relationship, and she isn’t qualified to do it. Ability isn’t ever an issue for people like her. She’s in management, where the people holding the reins aren’t the ones with the aptitude or the knowledge; they’re just the biggest bastards. I smile uncomfortably as I remember a conversation we had a few years back, where she told me she would have preferred to be with someone who didn’t already have a child. When I asked her why, she looked at me with a combination of arrogance and doubt, and said:
“Well, you’ve already done it before, and I’d have preferred to experience it all for the first time with someone. That’s important to me.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been through all the scary bits too, and I’d be able to reassure you about things. Like when we think there’s something wrong with the baby’s skull, and it turned out all babies have-”
“See? That sort of thing. I don’t want to already know. I don’t want you to be the one who knows best. I want to find out by myself, and have someone else on the same page as me, do you not understand?”
“That’s just bloody ridiculous.”
“How is it ridiculous?”
“Well, cos you’re saying screw all the benefits you’d get from having someone around who is already qualified to bring up a kid, who can put your mind at ease about stuff, who can let you know that it’s not always gonna be like this, that or the other. You’re saying balls to all that, you’d rather risk the baby’s health and stuff, just so no one else gets to be better than you at something?”
“That’s not what I said. At all.”
“It is. What the hell is wrong with you? Are you that much of a control freak? Really?”
“Look, if you’re going to be like that, let’s forget it.”
“Am I not a good parent?”
“What? What has that get to do with anything?”
“Huh? It has EVERYTHING to do with everything! For Christ’s sake. Jesus, if I have to sit here and compete with some imaginary future husband of yours who comes baggage free and ready to dive head first into the exciting world of being a bloody clueless parent with you, I think it’s only fair that I-”
“This is exhausting. Can we just stop, please?”
“For God’s sake. It’s always exhausting when you’re losing the argument. Every bloody time.”
“That’s not true. I just… it’s tedious, all right. I work hard, I travel three hours a fucking day, and I do NOT need my evenings filled with arguing with you about shit I don’t care about. I’ve had enough of it!”
And then the tears start. Hugs and sorries from me. A half hour later she’ll be tired and relaxing into my chest, and I’ll be okay, and blissful, and happy again. Cos she won’t be talking, so we won’t be fighting. And she’ll need something from me, that hug, and I can give it to her. And that’s where all my happy begins and ends. I finish the second can and think about a third. I need to go out anyway, to smoke, and drop things off at the bin. It isn’t even eight yet. Plenty of time.
There are more drink options. The cupboard always has gin. She doesn’t check it. She isn’t anal like that. Sometimes I take too much, and go down Sainsbury’s and buy their brand, to top up the Gordon’s. She never notices. And the new bottle always has too much in it, so I treat myself to a few doubles, and it carries on. I don’t think I’ve become better at drinking. Spirits are tricky. In my head they’re stronger, but a single shot is the same as a half of lager. Less water though, so it’s quicker to down, and the percentages are bigger. The ‘half a lager’ thing doesn’t make much sense at the end of a long day in the pub, when the rounds of shots start. Those things mess you up a lot more than any glass of Bud does, cos you’re already messed up. I pour a few fingers into a glass. The tonic is flat. I’ll get her a fresh one from the shop later. I take a sip. That first taste always reminds me of something, but I can’t place it. It’s more a feeling than a memory. I think of one just then though. A morning on a day off from when I had a proper job. I’d bought some Cork Dry Gin, and drank it at 10.00am, while watching The Commitments and wishing I was back home. It isn’t a sad memory, but I feel sad, anyway. Gin is some emotional shit. I try counting the units I’ve had already today, but it’s pointless, cos I don’t know what units they were, and I’m not sure if I can include that morning’s session. That seems like a whole other day now. I’m drunk again, I can feel it. A fuzzy sense of everything being all right, which is what I’m on board for in the first place. I started to wonder when exactly my expectations of life dropped so much, but it starts to get me down, so I move on.
I go outside for a cigarette. There’s always some paranoia, even here, where we know none of the neighbours yet. It’s ridiculous. I’m 36. No one’s going to tell tales on me. Still, I don’t stay on the step. I walk down, maybe to the shop, maybe not. I take a route I’m sure she won’t be coming back via, off her train. Even though I know she won’t be home for hours. It’s a work day tomorrow; she won’t be any later than midnight. But you never know. It’s best to be cautious. The sky is twilight, but the air is still warmish. I’m in a t-shirt. Coming up past the chip shop where they serve massive portions for a handful of change, I stop to pick up a used scratch card. I have no shame. While we were broken up for five months last year, I was poor, and got into a habit of checking them. One morning, I saw one inside the bin in front of a shop, and reached in to pick it out. It was a £20 winner. After that, any feelings of embarrassment at acting like a tramp disappeared for good. I’m already regularly wandering the streets off my face on cheap cider, sometimes I pick up half-smoked fags, when I have none of my own.
I’m in the queue again. By now, any choice in whether or not to continue drinking has gone out the window. The only say I have is in whether I go for the slightly weaker type of cider, and even then it’s a struggle just to let my body walk away with the 6% stuff. One will be enough. One is sometimes enough. The rest of the drink hasn’t hit me yet, and won’t for at least a half hour. While I’m still in the position to be careful, I’m going to try. I need cigarettes too. There’s only one left, and I’ll want some in the morning. I think about washing my mouth out again, when I get back to the house. It needs to be done before she comes home, but another scrub in the middle of everything can’t hurt. The bloke at the till looks past me with the usual London disconnect. If there’s anything I miss about Ireland it’s the way people in shops and cafés seem to genuinely mean it when they ask you how you are. Going back there, after a seven year break, it took some time to shake the feeling that they were up to something. London shopkeepers are Asian or Middle Eastern, and the amount of ignorant racist shit and constant robberies they have to put up with makes them put up a wall that people like me can’t break with small talk or smiles.
I light up again outside, ducking into a doorway when her bus passes. She isn’t on it. Well, I don’t think she is. It’s just an in-built reaction to the numbers on the front. I’ve no idea why, but fear is one of my main feelings about her. That, and love, whatever the hell that means anymore. It’s more like adoration. People in the old days used to fear the gods they adored. I adore her, she loves me. My mum loved my dad when she left him. She probably loved all those pet dogs of mine she had put down too. Love’s no guarantee. People still hurt you. They crush you. They walk away from you. I don’t ever walk away, even when I should. I let things go to shit, rather than ending them, cos I’m a coward when it comes to confrontation. She is too. That’s why we’ve lasted so long; she can’t finish it, and I don’t want it to end. I don’t even know if that’s true. When you’re the only one holding things together, it’s impossible to know if you’d be happier somewhere else.
I take a different way back. A little walk will be good, and I’ve been going in and out the door too much, it’s pissing off the dogs. All the roads here look the same; I’ve been lost a few times since we moved, drunk and sober. It’s all Victorian houses and council flats. A little panic sets in. The street names are familiar, but we looked at plenty of places around there before she made the offer on the house, so me remembering them doesn’t help. It’s got darker without me noticing. I light up another cigarette and pick a direction. It isn’t like wherever I’m going is home. Home is a long way away, and a long time ago. I must be pissed. I’m being all poignant.
Back at the house, nothing’s getting done; on an artistic level, anyway. I either start strong, and pile through all day, or I just hit the wall from the beginning, and it’s already over until tomorrow. It’s disappointing for me, and for her. But it’s the way I am. It’s not all I am, of course. I’m lots of things, and some of them she knows nothing about, thankfully. Some of them she doesn’t want to know about, and she never will. She doesn’t have to; it wouldn’t make her life any better. There’s a me that I keep just for me, and it’s not a lie if you’re just doing it to keep a secret safe. It’s just self-preservation, and we all need to do that. It’s not really a sin; it’s just a way of keeping afloat.