Break Up

A melancholy post for a misty October weekend…

This is Marty, one of my novel’s two main characters – the section comes around two thirds of the way through the book. It may or may not be helpful to know Marty’s band is called The Rain.

It was the day before we were due to fly to America and I was alone in the flat trying to pack. My mouth tasted like something was rusting inside after the pre-tour shenanigans the night before. I stuck a hand in GG’s jacket, the black leather one we’d bought when Rain Storm was released. She always had gum. I came out with an Empty Marlboro packet. Tunes wrappers. A tissue covered in purple lipstick smudges. And a flyer from one of our gigs with handwriting on the back.

You taste of rain.

The words did some dancing. I stared at fingers that seemed to be mine and seemed to be shaking. The writing, very clearly, was Nick’s.

I hadn’t kissed GG properly in months. But her lips weren’t for sharing.

I hadn’t wanted to touch her for months. But I couldn’t bear being without her presence.

GG wasn’t a partner, she was a limb. Without her. Without her. I tried to think of one basic thing I could do without her. Potentially clean my teeth but fuck all else.

I opened the cupboard where the drink lurked, waiting to ambush. I poured Jack into a pint glass, sat in the swivel chair in the window and toasted the guy in the opposite flat who wasn’t there. Then I texted HOME to GG’s phone, turned mine off and waited.

Outside it was pouring in sympathy. Drops like fat slugs slimed their greasy way down the unwashed windows. 5pm on a Thursday and the world was crying.

An image kept flashing into my mind and for a while I fought it, but I couldn’t make it go away. GG and Nick, her hand in his shirt, her fingers dancing on his tattoos, flashes of them walking on a beach, flashes of them kissing, rolling in the sand. For a moment I got control and conjured a massive wall of storming water which roared over them again and again. But every time the tide rolled back they were there, still kissing, still tenderly tracing patterns on each other’s skin. My nails were mining my palms. Something wet was falling down my face.

The rain on the windows had become a coat of rivers, covering me from the world, sheltering me from nothing.

It was getting dark when she got back. I might have been asleep. Shadows and sleep felt pretty similar. She looked even smaller, standing in the gloom, by herself, separate from me. I remembered with a shock that she’d dyed her hair black.

Her head was on one side. Her silver dress poured like milk. She looked at me like she had stumbled over a drunk in the gutter and was doing her duty while she blew her angel kisses elsewhere.

I probably looked scary, or sad, or both, like some story giant hunched down against the glass wall. She was wearing that fake fur, turned up to her ears, her eyes squeezed together like an animal coming out of a dark hole. She walked slowly, warily, a cat that wants what’s fallen from the bin but fears the fox.

‘Are you ok?’

Hunter. Hunted. I realised I’d been killing and eating her since the day she moved in. Eroding her, mouthful by mouthful.

Time to spit her out.

‘I know about Nick.’

It didn’t sound like me and for a second she scanned the room like she was checking to see if someone else was there. Outside the sky cracked as a pleasure boat pushed past like a fallen Christmas tree. Her face was a baby moon. She dropped her jacket. She was blocking my exit. We stared at each other across the divide of laminated floor, patterned with her different heels, stilettos, boots, rollerblades.

We both knew it was over but we needed to go through the dance.

‘What about Nick?’ She kicked a shoe off, so one side of her was three inches shorter than the other. Lopsided. Unbalanced. Soon to be un-hinged. Why was it I couldn’t bear the thought of her sane without me?

I stood up too quickly and she toppled like she thought I was going to hit her. Her new jet black hair was all over her face. She was listing like a broken standard lamp. The Jack made my head clear but my vision blurry.

‘You’re fucking him.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It made me sound like an idiot. Under her hair, she smiled.

‘You’re fucking fucking him!’

I was really warming up.

She kicked off her other shoe. She knew I was lost.

‘No Marty. I’m not. I’m kissing him. And holding him. And stroking him. And tracing the shape of his mouth with my little finger. And pressing my mouth into his neck, and his ears, and his bare white chest. And I touch him. Every bit of him. Naked I touch him, where his skin folds, and where his skin stretches.’

She walked away from the wall and got taller. ‘And do you know why I do that, Marty?’

The light went on in the building opposite. My friend was settling down with his post-work drink. GG saw me looking. She walked to the window and with her back to me, pulled up her dress. I don’t know what he could see. He didn’t move. I didn’t say anything.

‘Do you know why I do that, Marty?’ She dropped her dress and turned to face me. She was getting towards screaming.  ‘I do it… I do it… I do it because he wants me to. He wants me to know every little corner of him. He doesn’t want to own me, then slam the fucking door!’

Her last sentence was punctuated by two smashed glasses and a tipped vase of red flowers. As I pressed the remote I wondered if I could put those words into a song about her.

Sinatra began to sing. We both knew what had to happen. Staring at me GG slowly unzipped her dress and, moving like a dolphin, shrugged it up and over her shoulders. And then she sat, sweeping the glass away with the silver fabric as she pushed the dress towards me.

My turn. I was wearing the grand-dad shirt we bought in Camden market our first weekend together. A couple of the buttons were missing. The thread was going along the stripe. I pulled it over my head and as a courtesy I turned the sleeves back the right way out. She didn’t take her bra off till the shirt was safely settled. I couldn’t see her breasts through the fabric but I knew how they felt. Warm. Nipples crinkled, delicately reacting to the shirt without me in it.

Her dress wouldn’t go past my shoulders so I left it there like a silver scarf of GG sea spume, too light to swallow, too solid to inhale.

And that was all. It was all we did. We sat there like that till it was completely dark. The guy in the opposite building sat too. And on the stereo uncountable numbers of times Frank sang How Little It Matters, How Little We Know. 

And then, somewhere in space, a camera pulled out on us Hollywood-style, its scornful eye moving over GG first, collapsed amid hunks of broken glass and water and crushed petals and then to me, loaded with blame even before it focussed on my face.

But I only killed her inside, so no-one would prosecute.

I was waiting for her to go till I realised I had to do the leaving. And it was then I realised I didn’t want to, didn’t want to leave the tedium of our familiarity, my chair, my window, the guy in the opposite flat.

The coffee machine bump-starting the morning.

The sound of the stereo when it rained.

The whine of GG’s toothbrush.

The thump as she jumped on the bed when she wanted sex, the glisten of her feet as they skimmed down the duvet when she didn’t.

The buzz of the doorbell when we were ignoring it.

The trapped bottlefly noise of her getting ready for a party.

The smell of the iron when she forgot it again.

The silence of her reading, and the noisiness of her preparation for it: the scrape of the crate she used as a side table, the smack of the tea mug, the rock-fall of biscuits, the sighing as her feet got comfortable between the folds of the chair cushions.

And the grubby whiteness of the place, hazy with cigarette smoke and burned toast. The air we shared, the resentment. The way we made each other less than we were. The way she should have checked before loving me that loving me wouldn’t take the love away.

I didn’t feel like writing a song about her after all.

Butter

The wonderful Fire & Knives (www.fireandknives.com) has just published another piece by me. It’s reproduced here but you should really get subscribing. F&K uses food as a jumping off point for memory, wit and great writing dressed in exquisite ‘I want to pick that up and read every page’ design. Oh, and there are absolutely no recipes. Bon appetit.

Spread The Love

It’s a breezy summer’s day. Bright. Bubbly waves. Cool when the wind blows. Searing when it stops.

I’m wearing a bathing costume in red and blue with an anchor motif and a little white pleated skirt.

The huge pebbles beneath my bare feet and stretching hands are massive eggs, warming.

My skin is tingling, lightly burned flesh under a layer of too-little-too-late sun cream mixed with sand.

There is a hat somewhere, which I will leave on the beach. The backs of my scorched legs will be smacked. I’ll cry hot tears over hot cheeks, and feel that the day is ruined.

But none of that matters just now. Because we are about to have lunch.

Tin foil packages are emerging from their souvenir tea towel wraps. They take two different shapes. Long and fat, and flat and square. My sister and I grin at each other. We know what is coming. Our trips to Penarth beach with our grandparents are summer Christmasses in their predictability.

I hold out my hand to take my paper plate, on which rests the most perfect, the most delicious meal I will ever taste.

Still slightly warm, dark toffee brown and just as sticky – two pork sausages that first thing this morning were sitting in a butcher’s tray in Cardiff. And next to them, nestling close, protected by genuine, molar-engaging crust, four thickly perfect bread and butter sandwiches.

The sausages are wonderful. But given that I will become vegetarian – with special music festival amnesties of the I’ve-drunk-too-much-cider-to-care variety – it is the bread and butter I remember most. White, wide and giving, reassuring, filling, seemingly never-ending… bread and butter was and is complete and utter safety.

Everyone can have some. It’s never very far away. Access to bread and butter is what proves you are not at war, or in mortal danger, or grown-up. And between the slices, churned into the butter as invisibly as the salt, live the memories of all your life’s most comforting moments.

In the 1970s, schools in South Wales still had religious assemblies where we asked to be given Our Daily Bread and expected it to be delivered quite literally, back home at 6pm, on the weekday china with a tablecloth.

And jam. At our house it was presented in self-important Tiptree jars with fancy labels from oh-so-exotic-sounding… Essex. At my grandparents’ it was homemade, in odd-shaped containers with handwritten id. My favourite was the damson, its fruit melting away from stones like smooth teardrops.

I was lucky, I realise now. I don’t ever remember being forced to choose between bread and butter or bread and jam like poor Phyllis in The Railway Children. There was always another slice till you were full. And after tea we watched Our House (pronounced Ower Owse) and laughed as Ryan Davies, all dragged up as Mam in a flowery pinafore, buttered the loaf perpetually wedged under one arm then carved off slice after slice – an inviolable symbol of working class mother as starch warrior.

Now when I go out to eat, the smart people don’t butter. They take the bread as it is, either because their gourmet taste buds want to relish every morsel of unadulterated sourdough, or because they are paranoid about body fat and/or cholesterol and haven’t consciously consumed dairy products since 1986.

May I suggest that, next time, you do reach for the butter. Enjoy making those tiny running lanes as the teeth of your knife run along its golden softness, spreading and patting and smoothing till you have imprinted all your childhood picnics and school trip sandwiches and the crunch of invisible sand and the smell of paddling waves.

When Sylvia Plath carefully and precisely planned the evening she would die, she shut her sleeping children safely in their room and left a meal in case they woke up hungry. To drink there was milk. To eat there was bread. One of her last actions was to butter it.

Just bread would have done the job. But maybe she knew, beyond her illness and abandonment of hope for herself, that – more than words – butter catches love.

Now go spread.