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.


7 thoughts on “Break Up

    • Not a silly question at all! For a very long time it was called ‘Tidings’ which I liked as it referred both to the Thames – which features heavily in the book – and the South Wales coast where Marty grew up. Then, as I was doing the last read-throughs before sending the ms out in search of an agent, I realised what a romantic story I’d written (in the grand sense of romantic – it’s no soppy love story, I promise). So I borrowed the title of one of my favourite songs – ‘Come Sail Your Ships Around Me’ by Nick Cave. It has a kind of dirty glory I really like – and sits well with the narrative.

      As for a blurb… well, I find myself resenting more and more the requirement to shrink the world and atmosphere of a book to a few lines. And I can’t think of anything worse than the (increasingly popular) events where writers have to stand up and ‘pitch’ their work in 30 seconds, and are then subjected to the professionals’ wit and criticism…

      However, since you ask so nicely (!) here’s the short synopsis I’m currently sending out with the ms – hopefully it will make more sense of the post.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read.

      Come Sail Your Ships Around Me

      Marty is the lead singer with a band called The Rain, formed in his Swansea home-town with friends and his cousin Nick from New York. The band gets a record deal with hip label Mister Kurtz, moves to London and embraces the rock ‘n’ roll life.

      Marty falls in love with henna-haired wise girl GG. They seem to have it all until he begins to crumble under the pressure of growing fame.

      When even GG can’t help him any more, Marty meets Lizzie. They make an unlikely connection across several decades and very different life experiences. Lizzie spends her days people-watching from her cubby between the book stalls under Waterloo Bridge, determined to avoid emotional contact:

      ‘To make me feel anything you have to spear me in the eye. Then he turned up. And stabbed me nearly blind.’

      Lizzie’s past – a voyage towards emotional anaesthetization that includes an affair with an MP, a forced adoption, a liaison with actor Richard Burton and the Marchioness disaster – mirrors Marty’s current disintegration as he is overwhelmed by feelings of moral responsibility towards his audience while he loses his girlfriend to his band-mate Nick.

      When life cracks open, can anyone ever really be there for you?

  1. Ooh, it’s not easy to write a break up scene, but you’ve done it with such a unique touch. I love the choice of having GG give all those details of her affair because actually the responsibility it Marty’s. ‘The world was crying’ is beautiful. And also I think the blurb really works. I love that line: ‘When life cracks open, can anyone ever really be there for you?’
    How has the response been with the MS? Or is it too early to ask?

  2. Thanks Gabriela – I’m really glad it worked for you. Another reader said this section made her cry – I hope for the right reasons.

    Two rejections thus far. One a friend of a friend who was keen on Lizzie but less so on Marty. One from a rather over-ambitious tilt at an industry legend – who evidently didn’t actually get sight of it.

    It’s now out there again with the new blurb, tapping on the door, hoping to be asked in for a cup of tea.

    I remember when my grandfather died, and was taken away to the mortuary, my aunt said ‘I don’t like to think of him going by himself…’ I sort of have a similar feeling!

  3. Alison, it’s really good. I have a few tiny quibbles but only because I’m not very fond of similes (e.g. “…moving like a dolphin..”) in general. But I’d be a hopeless judge on a literary panel. I’m sure you’ll find an agent and/or publisher and I hope it will be very soon.
    x Natalie

  4. Natalie, don’t apologise – you are spot on! I was actually on the verge of titling this post ‘Simile Central’ as, on re-reading, I found it was drenched in the darn things. But then I decided I shouldn’t tell readers what to think…

    There is a reason for it, though. The first person narrator, Marty, tends to think in similes. He’s a songwriter, and it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t turn on a simile. This section is partly about him trying to turn the experience of his break-up into a simile, a song, a piece of art. In the end the awful reality of the situation is such that he gives up and doesn’t ‘…feel like writing a song about her after all.’

    Thanks for visiting, and for your honesty x

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