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It’s not stopping, this hugging. I saw it again tonight passing the kitchen, his noodle arms gliding from that batik robe as he stooped into her warm and willing hold. They make these little murmurs of affection, these unbearable baby gurgles. I am not a prude, I am not squeamish about demonstrations of human tenderness. But this is a shared flat, and for Christ’s sake she’s my girlfriend.
‘This hugging. It’s awful. What are you doing?’
It’s just us, showdown over our bed. The dresser top cactus candle is lit from a wick on its central trunk. New flowers in a jar by the window release a shy fragrance.
‘Oh no. No. You are seriously not going to stop me from hugging who I want to.’
She’s magnificent and frightening square on. Those long perfect plummets of her neck.
‘No but why, why are you doing it?’
‘It makes me happy. It makes him happy. So we are doing it. It’s nice.’
‘Have you noticed it’s not a normal thing to be doing?’
‘Well that’s not a reason for anything. If people remembered that everyone is going to die, if people understood the incredible odds of any two people sharing experience of the same moment, if they really thought about that, then people would hug each other more often.’
I’ve smashed a mug in rage before. But I was only trying something. I’ve never exactly known how to use my man.
‘I’m glad your reasons are so high-minded. I have a feeling his are lower.’
‘Oh really? Please explain.’
Her hair of fine waxen arcs. Her eyes.
‘Like here lower,’ I say, jabbing twice with twin karate hands at my groin.
The mime registers but she chooses to look like I’m suffering an erotic fit.
So I spell it out: ‘He finds it arousing.’
‘Right, OK. And if he does? What would be the problem with that? He might find it arousing to look at me too? Do you want to put me in a bag?’
I hold my brow. A heavy thing, my brow, always making my head drop if I don’t watch it, an iron that drags down and drowns my mood. In addition, I have hairy hands.
‘I mean I don’t want him being aroused on you, against you.’
‘It’s not a problem for me, and its my body.’
‘Stop doing it.’
‘Well I’m not going to. This is a pure, happy thing—necessary for human health in fact. Say my exercising made you uncomfortable. I wouldn’t give it up. This is my wellbeing and, sorry, you are not going to touch that.’
‘So hugging him, letting him grope you up, is as essential to your wellbeing as exercise—as water, food, and sleep? Are you going to keel over without it?’
‘In principle it is the same. I am speaking in principle. And I am going to make a point of this. So that’s it. I love you.’
I mean Jesus is he brazen. It’s another evening after work and we’ve just been watching this horribly precious documentary about the art of Japan, and there was a tranquil montage of shots from dripping Zen gardens which he hijacked to use as some kind of initiate, tipping towards her from his side of the sofa, outreaching arms trailing the sleeves of the greenish kimono like branches laboured with hanging moss.
Millie of the third bedroom just span her spaghetti and watched the TV, legs spread around a commandeered side-table. Her mouth sagged open too early for the loaded fork which she raised in a slow meander without looking away from the screen. Stupid Millie in her after-hours coma. But I can’t blame anyone for ignoring their crap, especially not when trying to stomach food.
Throughout the sorry act and its it wake I tried to resuscitate collective sense by beaming the thought ‘Are we all going mad here?’ around the room with my eyes. But no-one noticed. I mean it’s people, it’s just people, always inventing needs. Life can’t just move along, can it? Someone’s always grabbing for extras. It’s like we’re all walking in line to where we actually need to be but then two will decide that what they really, really feel they need to be doing is a lovely long waltz, and they block up the route for everyone else.
I got out of there. Millie was scraping onion gunk from her bowl and a journalist in crumpled linen was fondling chimes. I couldn’t breathe.
Sooner or later he’s gonna prod her with his slim stiffy and the jig will be up. She’ll realise this ain’t nursery school.
I mean I’ve been busting my arse all day trying to help rich couples decide how enormously they want to insure their first family nest and meanwhile my shared flaking rental is turning into some kind of love collective. I’m pushing thirty.
He makes these sly pitying faces when I come back rattled and sweaty in my suit.
I’m sorry my ‘energy’ is a bit off you twerp. I’m sorry I’m a bit out of step with the ley-lines…
Well he didn’t actually accuse me of any of this, no, the creep doesn’t even look me in the eye.
I mean what exactly is it so great that you think you’ve done to award yourself a cuddle from my girlfriend? Being an ‘editor’ in your bedroom? Dreaming up new captions for crystal sets on that healing website?
I’m in our room, where pretty trinket shrines have quietly sprouted since she moved in a year ago. There’s one to Mexico with mini pulque bottles, mini maracas, and a postcard with a photo of painted clay skulls from the The Day of the Dead. I think the cactus candle came from that trip too, the trip that was still bright in her hair the autumn we met.
You should find a job that matches your passion for history she’d once said, maybe teach, or do something geopolitical with international travel.
I probably grumbled some thug response from under my brow.
And there’s her climbing harness and little pinched climbing shoes, possibly kinky? The psychology books she reads so fast I can’t believe. I’m balling and releasing my hands, prowling around all shoulders. Tomorrow’s shirt hanging jaunty from the cupboard like easy buddy.
You have amazing general knowledge, she’d told me. And a poetic soul.
I go back out and see it in the kitchen. There! There! It’s happening, they’re making that thing, chins hooked heavily over the other’s shoulder, the strange paired standing sleep of some creature, of parrots or penguins perhaps, of something I’ve seen from the animal kingdom, and her hands run long and loose over his back, and he’s canted forward at the groin. Bizarrely they ignore the sink tap blasting full power, its seething white beam that howls now and then in a bobbing pan.
For God’s sake. This is like living with a worm-ridden dog you catch inching its anus across the carpet, or some shameful masturbating mutant, or the ghost of Christmas-fucking-past, whatever that is.
I should go in there and say, ‘This is like living with the ghost of Christmas-fucking-past.’ It might somehow impress them, a suave allusion. At the very least it would bamboozle. But no, I go in and say, ‘Really? Another one?’
They stay clutched a moment longer, as if clinging to a precious dream. Then, with massive charity, they part and join me in the earthly realm, the magic of the hug fading off in their eyes.
‘This is like living with ghost of Christmas-fucking-past!’ I proclaim, but the words sound old in my mouth. It doesn’t fizz fresh from the synapses, and they can tell. Not that it makes any sense anyway.
And now they look deeply bored, and nothing, chilling nothing will happen next (except, except perhaps a horror resealing of the hug—God! Imagine if they just folded back together!) until I flush the hanging stink of my dud remark with another.
So I ask, ‘What are these hugs about anyway? What do they mean?’ with the quivery-voiced wonder of a wise man’s disciple.
‘They mean we are humans and not ones with cauterized souls,’ she says.
‘A cauterized soul, is it? Thank you, doctor.’
And now I’ve drawn the snide knives I suddenly crave free and easy moments with her, all the tumbling softness, all the old play.
But I’m looking at her like how dare you spread the thrilling secret of your touch.
And then the creep begins to speak in that cramped petal-delicate monotone of his. He always ponders his words in his mouth, cradles them like cherished things to which the vigors of enunciation do a great violence.
‘Well, hey, if our bodily expression of friendship hurts your feelings, I think that’s a shame, but it doesn’t need to happen. Just give the word, friend, and we’ll stop.’
That pattern on his robe. Climbing vines with buds like playing-card clubs, it flaunts a barbed affinity with some eastern order—cycles, processes, different notions of time— and it’s as if by looking I might lapse into a lifelong rumination, already it makes me woozy, feeding luxuriously into itself as it flowers and furls around a triangle of his sour cheese chest, and by now again I’m struggling for air.
‘Yes. Stop it. It’s weird.’
And I lose her, badly.
It’s just so bad. Terrible, terrible days, worse each morning. The way she seals up, becoming strange. The way she wears this powerful prickling aura that says the slightest touch would be a violation. The way she’s glowing with that magnificence women get when they want out. It’s very shocking, very impressive, and it swells your lust like nothing else.
She’s gone within a week, and I’m bad.
It was a year. I should have savoured it. She was freak-smart and sublime, a bright beam of betterness, and everyone else around has gone comfortable of waist and desperate of eye. I didn’t even care about the hugging for Christ’s sake, what was I doing, slapping down bans like some fundamentalist sex sheriff.
When, when she comes back I am going to lick every inch of her, every inch, as long as it takes, insides too, round behind the eyeballs, really, I am so mad with longing.
I cry at the window, hand on the sill like some wistful maiden, the princess locked at the top of the tower. I do slow forward rolls through piles of laundry.
Everything has gone terrible. I was in the supermarket listening to the Braveheart soundtrack when baguettes and pastries started flying over my head. Shop staff were already hustling up the aisle, inclined and righteous, and I turned around to see the chaos to which they were heading. This young man was just wrecking everything in a rage, he took out another tray of baked goods and flung it over his shoulder, he high-kicked some some shelving, snapping a chipboard plank. Crates of vegetables were flung too, and he tried to topple a fridge. He was accosted by a tall employee of the supermarket, clearly chief of fights, who got punched in the face with the dead clap of a shank flung down on a butcher’s block. Then a small, tenacious till assistant, a balding moleish man in overlong trousers, some brave Spaniard doing his grim bit in a city far from happy, jobless home, got him around the waist from behind while copping horrible elbows in the face.
I ran over bearing my teeth and already crying, Braveheart pipes epic in my ears, and the three of us had this steel-strong snaking man restrained. But the maniac was still able to shoot a heavy wad of phloem into the tall guy’s face. So we muscled him to the floor.
Then some lanky, pseudo-distinguished sixty-year-old in bad yellow cords, a wannabe-posh, thought he was going to do a bit of public charisma, wisecracking loudly, ‘Perhaps he found a stale doughnut?’
I should have broken his nose.
And on my way back, well, how do I say it, I guess I’m sort of raped by a pigeon. It took off in front of me, a really daft bad-math attempt to clear my head, and flapped into my face. It was like a powder puff of garbage and rot. Its raw, warty foot hobbled into my mouth, the angry pink crust-claws jabbing for purchase on my mellow pink blubber tongue. It was in me, its gammy foot in my sweet orifice, my sweet, sweet mouth. It was in me, only for a second, but the thing got in me.
Damn bird. I was coughing and retching dramatically in the street, part in genuine disgust, part in case any onlookers thought the tryst was consensual, that I had wooed the beast onto a lolling tongue like some mad degenerate falconer.
I don’t know why anyone would think that, but these days I’m a self-conscious disaster, a spurned figure of loud worry, shameful and apologetic in public.
I am so alone. And I’m clearly unwell, moving and speaking as if heavily drugged. Millie doesn’t care. I had always thought she was the stout loyal type who, while a little blank day-to-day, would pull through for you in a crisis. But now I realise that no, she really is just blank, and her stoutness strictly physical.
Friends are important at a time like this. Which is why I have always kept one. Dylan Wallhallams is his name. We went to school together. I text him to propose that we meet and he gets back to me right away! He says how about Thursday. I say Thursday sounds perfect, ideal. It’s a train and two buses to the pub he suggests. Dylan knows I’m in property insurance and he says he’s glad I suggested we connect because he’s in the construction game and he’d love to pick my brains. We talk astonishingly vague business over one pint, essentially shouting ‘Definitely mate! Definitely mate!’ back and forth, then he gives me his business card and we part.
Later, in my room, I can’t sleep. I get so glum in here. I’m in a midnight panic, deep in some forum about winning back your ex. ‘Women are more reluctant to give up on a relationship, but once they have decided that their man is no longer mate-worthy,’—I almost vomit with terror at the term—‘they are highly fixed in that position.’ I scroll wildly away from the hurting words. ‘Remember, you were in love. That means there is always a chance it can be re-kindled.’ Yes. Yes. More of that. I click on the username. Jay Diavolo. He has a website, and on it a sample of a meticulous strategic program for winning her back, a 100% effective method based on insights drawn from deepest academe, with text message templates and rules of absurd exactitude for the optimum intervals between delivery, there are charts and graphs, theories and statistics bolstering this timetabled three-month campaign, and its £250 to unlock the complete program, £650 for bespoke coaching.
Everything about this page has me willing to make whatever shadowy transaction might be required. For her I would move ruining sums.
I open my door. It groans, lifted from frigid sleep. I walk the tomb-like landing to the living room. He’s at the table with his laptop and low, sparkling music. He’s connected to something pleasant, staving off night’s despair. There’s this stimulating hum. He’s wearing the batik robe, the green fronds lit on his chest from the glow of the screen.
He says a lullaby ‘hey’ as I come in.
I go over to the sofa, remembering to seem cocksure and okay, but I’m definitely betrayed by a gingerly pinch that has recently haunted my gait.
The room is struck from the side by a flat hand of moonlight. The rug, the television, Millie’s mother’s gluggle-fish jug—used as a vase but empty now and gaping—all are equalised in the sallow ambience, relieved of their vying daytime identities. I watch him for a moment, and here, now, suddenly, he makes sense to me, aesthetic sense. He is glow, twinkle, attunement—the thrum of bits, the murmur of plants—a premonition of some high-tech yet earthy utopia, silvery sap in his veins. He types something, happy, and sips his funky tea.
He must be messaging with someone. It’s the witty smile, worn of misfit friends in wry subversion. Is it her? Soft bleeping message alerts fidget over the wobbly psychedelic music. Her? He finishes his tea and with some idea alive in his mind stalks out to the kitchen with the thermal glass, his robe tied tight around his tiny waist. His buttocks are slanted, sharp.
A flurry of messages come, six or seven. Are they from her fingers? Those beautiful messages she sends, artless and benevolent. Artless and benevolent! Messages! Give it a rest. OK. Sorry. I’m just so religious, currently, about anything her-related. The profession of digital marketing. Long leftover hair in the drains. The name Rose. The sentence in my book that says the warrior goblins rose at dawn. I hear the kettle. I could go over to the laptop. But I shouldn’t. The kind of guy I’m meant to be is the opposite of sneaky, and what I could see could put a lifetime of hurt on my brain. Well, I’m going over.
But before I get up he returns with more freak tea, pale and smoking. He’s still wired with that internet buzz, but he checks me. I’ve just been sitting here, and it’s been a long time to just sit, late on a weeknight. He quickly tends the stacked messages with three scurries on the keys. He doesn’t sit.
I stand because sitting slack and long-lapped doing nothing suddenly seems maudlin and ridiculous. I drift doorwards, looking at side tables and chairs hoping there might be something I can pick up. He’s watching me.
‘How’s it going?’ he gently asks.
I look at him, slim and mysterious before me in that green robe. The curling leaves seem to throb and spiral hypnotically in the low light, and his eyes are big and black. Just hug me, hug me, it is what I am for.
My face and throat become sharp and starved, and I lean at him, my arms opening, seizing him, and though he takes me, briefly, his life shrinks away, horrified and cringing. The hug is abrupt, masculine, nervous, and I leave without a word.