Dangerous driving with an ex. How big are your feet? Where is your head? London by the Thames. A last look at summer nights & summer dates.
Back when it was summer.
Ex No 1 takes him for a drive up the side of a steep hill that’s actually a mountain. It’s a yellow Jeep that doesn’t belong to her. The sky is blue, cerulean blue, and the grass straw from the sun. She pulls over near the summit, into an outcrop at the edge of the cliff – seeking the most spectacular view. They are less than two metres from the precipice, where the land falls hundreds of feet into a narrow, tree-lined valley below.
As they prepare to get out the vehicle, for a joke, Ex No 1 nudges them closer to the edge. But she overdoes the prank and the Jeep lurches forward to only inches from the drop. The roadside beneath the front wheels starts to give, crumbling away in chunks. There’s no means to reverse. The mountainside is disintegrating. They look at each other in a panic, knowing they will soon go headfirst into the valley…
He wakes up. Finds himself sat at the foot of the bed – no duvet. It’s 4.20am. He thinks he shouted out in his sleep, but can’t be certain. He woke last night round the same time in the same place – reaching for the storage box under the bed to spring Steve Coogan, who was trapped inside.
He smiles – the film-maker Charlie Kaufman says your dreams are well written. He thinks, never go mountain driving with an ex, as he heads for the kitchen. Through the window the outline of the facing building is indistinct in the first rain in weeks – a genesis moment setting his state of mind for his day ahead.
It’s Saturday. He takes off for an early morning session of mindfulness; vaguely hoping to get his brain on track. There’s a drop-in at the pine pavilion down the hill. It comes to nine people with no shoes. He sits on a blue mat with his eyes closed to focus on his breathing. He feels the porridge from breakfast lifting in his belly as stale oxygen drifts in through his nose and down the hatch.
The man heading the group leads the shoeless nine through a body scan exercise. They start at the toes – the little toe, then the middle ones, followed by the big toe. And up along the foot, his ankle and shin, the knees, the lower thigh, and through to the top of the thigh. When he gets to the lap, Mr Mindfulness mentions the groin and the sphincter.
He hears the word sphincter and smiles. He imagines himself underwater swimming through a dark hole and then remembers the pine pavilion is actually close to where his Annoying Son went to nursery so many years ago. He tries to sweep these thoughts away, to return to the open spaces of just the breath, but his mind is set on remembering the time Ex No 1 almost ran him over.
It was mid afternoon and they were both off work. They drove to the nursery together to be early to collect their toddler son. He got out the front passenger seat while she stayed behind the wheel. He walked across the front of the car heading for the entrance to the nursery building. Suddenly the car bolted forward.
She said her foot slipped. They were under twelve months from breaking up.
|yellow car, no returns|
The gentle voice of Mr Mindfulness impinges upon his thoughts. He tells the circle of breathers to change it up a little with their breathing, instructing them to use their right thumb to shut the left nostril on the in-breath. And then swap, deploying the opposite thumb on the right nostril during the out-breath.
He tries this, but doesn’t like how fiddly it feels. He wrestles his thoughts to the mat and manages almost five whole seconds just breathing. But once again his mind slips away… He thinks about dogs and their large nostrils and how excellent they are at smelling. Dogs have two sets of nostrils. He learned about it in a podcast. Two sets mean the canine olfactory system can process numerous scents at once – not just food, or other dogs, or cats, but also drugs, bombs, even the smell of cancer in their owner.
He thinks blandly that nature is complex and extraordinary and notices he has this thought often now that he’s midlife. Never used to notice animals and trees when he was younger – back then it was more Nietzsche than nature.
He realises yet again his mind has strayed. It makes him cross. Where’s the self-control? Then he remembers you’re not supposed to be grumpy when mindful. Everything is OK breathing on the mat, he thinks, as he makes another stab at being clear-headed, pulling his consciousness up through the dense grey clouds over-layered with brooding and introspection, shooting for the vast blue spaces beyond.
He sees the blue sky in his mind and counts the in-breath, then the out-breath, the in-breath, the out-breath… And then his vision shifts to a third car journey with Ex No 1.
It’s twelve thirteen years ago. They’re sitting in the green car, parked outside the place he first moved into after they separated. They’re sat still, side by side, staring out through the windscreen at the bright autumn day, not saying anything, observing the building, waiting for something to happen.
His memory shifts to a first person point of view, gazing through the glass at the soft autumn sky above his new home. What a strange moment this is in his life so far, he thinks, as his eyes track down across the front of the building fifty metres away, resting at the front entrance. His new front door.
He watches his vendor come in and out the building, carrying last minute items across to her hatchback. The vendor is holding everyone up, blocking the property chain. She should’ve been gone two hours ago, and doesn’t realise she’s being observed. Ex No 1 brought him over to here from their old place on the way to her new home the other side of the hill. He could just get out and wait on the pavement. But that would mean standing in the cold, looking furtive under the tree next to the pub garden. So, they’re stranded in the green car, not much in the mood to converse, following the vendor, who is wearing tartan leggings and a black anorak, while she completes her remaining tasks.
As the vendor slams the car door shut, Ex No 1 points down the road to his removals van coming up the hill. The vendor takes out her mobile and starts speaking as she climbs into her car. As she takes off, he receives a call from the estate agent saying the purchase is complete. He turns to Ex No 1 and nods. He gets out the car and she drives away.
He enters the building and ascends by lift to his new home on the top floor. The flat is empty, and sad, and exciting. All of this just for him. (Well, also for half of the Annoying Son.) In the kitchen he tests the lights under the wall cupboards – he remembered them from the first viewing. He opens and closes doors at random. At the back of a large floor cabinet next to the sink is a Waitrose carrier bag with bottles of booze – wine, spirits and stickies. The vendor must’ve forgotten. He thinks, maybe I can drink some later.
As he roots around inside the bag, the vendor walks through the wide open front door and into the kitchen. She looks at her booze in his hand.
I forgot my wine, she says.
Yes, he says, I didn’t know what to do with it.
He hands it back. She thanks him and they trail off into an awkward silence. This is the first time they’ve met. She tells him she’s arranged for her post to be re-directed. She says if anything comes for her ex-husband Philip, just bin it, as he’s been gone over a year now. She grimaces and still has on a sour face as she declares how much she’s enjoyed living in the flat. She gestures towards the living room with her hand. Says she hopes that he will feel the same way too and switches to a polite smile. She smiles like a doctor. She is a doctor.
He wonders how much she enjoyed living in this flat with its widescreen views of London while going through her divorce from Philip. Maybe very much. But he doesn’t have any more time to give over to this dead question from over a dozen years ago. Not now the voice of Mr Mindfulness has resurfaced.
Mr Mindfulness steers the group through another version of the body scan. He scrupulously follows his in-breath, chasing it all the way down to his right big toe, where he imagines he feels the inhalation tickling the bone, causing the skin to bristle.
He thinks about his toes exposed on the mat, there for all his fellow breathers to gawp at. Three of the six men in the circle are wearing socks. Two of them have on white ribbed sports socks neatly pulled up to their calves. The older man on his left, who is thin and slightly bent over, has an immaculate set of trainer liners with black dots in the soles. The young guy opposite, the handsome dude with the thick chestnut curls reaching romantically to his shoulders, he’s going barefoot and appears to have rather lovely toes, brown from years of exotic mindful travelling perhaps. The woman to the his immediate right has red nails and the woman next to her has no paint, but her feet are small and nicely shaped.
I’m Big Foot
He contemplates his own feet. Long, white and bony. Doing the job, though.
Job. He said, Job! Now, why did he have go and say that? Job’s a bad word, a gateway word. Next up, inevitably, comes Work. Work is increasingly a dread word. But it’s too late to take them back, as from deep inside the thoughts start to pullulate. He watches in horror as several Big Words rise up in his brain, a convulsion of Major Things. They surge like towers in a Pixar animation, tearing explosively from the earth – dark, brooding, brutalist piles screeching and reaching for a lead sky that stretches in all directions from the centre of his head. In the wake of those twin towers of Job and Work, next comes Money. Mortgage. Pension. Parent. Son. Pills. Ears. Eyes. Sleep. Penis. Exes. Yes, Exes – all of the Exes in a line, side by the side, each in the shape of a tower block perched by the edge of the cliff.
Then comes a sprouting of mini towers – Courgettes. Cake. Cricket. Coffee. Pasta. Breathing. Drake. Tissues. Israel. Bike. Vodka. Cigarettes. Match. Paris. Lions. Slumber. Scritti Politti. Mindfulness wrecked. He starts again.
The end of the hour of attentive thinking arrives as his brain starts to clear. Despite the multiple eruptions of grey thoughts, he leaves the pine pavilion feeling lighter, his head no longer in a basket.
The sky’s gone blue with the last of the rain having passed on. He unlocks his orange bike and cycles in the warm sun, up to the Tate. He ties his bike to a skinny tree in the leeside of an apartment block facing the gallery. Gathered in the small oval pit at the foot of the skinny tree there’s a spread of small stones, smooth and roughly the size of little beans. He read the other day that the entomologist Ernst Jünger was out walking by the sea shore, many years ago. That Jünger came upon some small clams washed up on the beach and found in their shape ‘the universe itself, with its ovals, circles and spirals… Obelisks, Gothic and Roman arches, serrations, lances, tacks, crowns of thorns, olive trees, turkey wings, tooth marks, rakes, spiral staircases, kneecaps … And all shaped by waves.’
He looks at the stones and repudiates thoughts of the world in a pit of earth. He crosses the road.
|sky blue sky|
They meet by the main door and wander together through some galleries, and then get a coffee in the cafe at the top of the building with the views across the river.
Both of them declare the obvious, that the vista from the high balcony, the spread of London laid out before them on the north bank of the Thames, is vast and special. It’s amazing. They use same word.
And then he thinks about it, cocks his head to ruminate. But, is it really, actually amazing?
She says, Don’t start.
What’s actually ‘amazing’ about so many blocks of cement, of diminished spires, and crowds of towers of stone and steel and glass all packed together and piled on top of each other?
She continues to look out across the river, sipping on her coffee, saying nothing.
He wonders to himself if one might compose a review of a city skyline, similar to a review for an exhibition or a play or a novel, and if so, how many stars for this one? Years ago a friend said to him that London was really ugly and he’d immediately replied that he loved ugly! But inside he felt sad when people claimed his city wasn’t pretty.
The outline of the buildings before them plainly isn’t elegant or sublime, nor soothing to the eye – but more like mayhem, a prolonged outbreak of accretions, pile ups, and several pug-ugly clangers. This wasn’t Venice. No, this wasn’t Paris. Not your five star classic. Once you moved beyond the sense of awe at that big city sky, at the superabundant layers of architectural endeavour folding back and forth across the centuries, from Georgian to Baroque to Brutal, from Restoration through to Post-War, when you got down to it, mostly what you faced was an urban panorama crammed almost to bursting point with an excess of bulky buildings jostling, preening, or blatantly hogging big chunks of airspace.
Firstly, too many dull functional blocks and towers from the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies to win any beauty pageant. The low-slung cement bunker misnamed The Mermaid, with it’s dark adjoining underpass, being a blinding example. Then came the nineteen eighties and nineteen nineties, the redundant splashes and splurges of playful post-modern indulgence, decorative references to ancient Egyptian temples, or something arch cribbed from a coffee table book on the Mayans. Admittedly these days you had to seek these out with a keen eye, to spot them lurking between the more dominant scene stealers – the toy towers of the new millennium, huge cloud-piercing ego extensions, peculiar-shaped glass and aluminium expressions of a city approximately all sold out, teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And then, finally, there was St Paul’s, the keystone edifice, a building so big and so confused, an agglomeration of aspirations and influences so long in the making, that in the end they didn’t know whether to top it with a dome or a spire, so caved in and anointed it with both. (Great British pragmatism.)
Was any of what they were appraising from their vinyl recliners world class? He didn’t know enough on architecture, but had his doubts. He glanced at her sitting quietly, serenely smiling back at London, and decided not to share his capsule review of London by the Thames. A mess. A skyline made from generations of loose planning. A crowded house with limited room to breathe. Maximum three stars.
He supposed such jumble and incoherence was to be expected. Didn’t make it beautiful, or world class. But he realised, having knocked it, that he didn’t care. Gorgeous cities of symmetry and proportion and classical harmonies, heritage sites of outstanding architectural coherence are for day trips and holidays. We’ll always have Paris, or Bruges, or Ghent, just a Eurostar away. But the mongrel city of big London, this is a place for all sorts and every kind of season. Where you lived and loved and rubbed along. Where you drank your coffee and said wow, great view! You said it in spite of even more cranes puncturing the sightlines, suggesting yet further layers of unwanted offices and penthouse propositions.
A bird flies past. And he stops thinking. It’s a pigeon.
She says, what things that pigeon can see.
Better than what we’re getting?
You still knocking the view?
I’m just saying even more stunning from higher up. That’s all I’m saying.
She looks at him to see if he’s peeved. He’s not. He says, do you think I’m negative?
What kind of a question is that?
Sometimes, I watch the birds from my balcony, he tells her. I used to hate birds. I was sort of phobic. And then one day this changed – I realised you have to take your hat off to birds, they really know how to fly. We call them bird brain, but like we could do the things they do. As if we could organise an annual migration half way round the world – departing in formation, at high speed. We can’t even get out of the European Union.
He says, I think once you progress beyond forty, as you realise you’re not so amazing after all, you start noticing nature, and nature, you realise, is pretty, pretty impressive. He says, I think my admiration for birds is a good thing.
She laughs, I wouldn’t disagree with that.
She informs him that the view from her sofa at home – her strangely-shaped sofa that he finds hard to sit on comfortably without sliding forwards – her cherished sightline through the window of her front lounge, that captures a small quadrant of south London’s blue yonder, has recently been put in jeopardy. She sits there on the sofa at least once a day, gazing up and out the window. But the council have launched a new parking scheme with a huge sign strapped to the lamp-post directly outside her window, partially blocking her personal piece of sky.
Daylight robbery, he says.
Daylight robbery, she replies.
They discuss back and forth about her home view and his home view. About how the light is always changing subtly. That what they gaze out upon is never exactly the same, and they understand now why an artist might want to keep painting a familiar seashore, the same mountain, or even the single pear tree, over and over, gripped by the mutability of matter.
|El sol del membrillo|
She says it’s time to go. They head down the black painted stairs. He’s silent as he prepares a question to ask before they separate: That since they’re on the subject of scenery, and now that they’ve been in and then out the other end of an involvement, What’s her view of him? He’s embarrassed to ask. But embarrassment won’t hold him back. Sometimes we really want to know. I’m curious about the view from outside, he says to her.
I don’t understand, she replies.
He shakes his head and lets the question hang. They stand by the exit for a moment. She looks at him.
He says, I went on a date last night with a woman who reads The Lady.
It’s a magazine for posh women.
It’s in Downton Abbey.
Yes. What kind of dates do you go on?
He shrugs. This woman, she’s nice, but she not only takes The Lady, she has it on annual subscription. I don’t know what to think. But I sort of do. She reads it from cover to cover. She says she can’t be coping with books any longer. That she completely stopped reading for two years after her ex got cancer and went back to his wife. She also stopped going to galleries. She said on her profile she loved galleries.
Later the same day, early evening in north London, he goes for a never-to-be-repeated drink with a woman who was on TV many years ago, but he doesn’t remember her. She leads him down a steep hill to a loud pub with a dark wooden interior. There’s a tray of condiment sachets between them on their table. She tells him that her eldest child graduated from Oxford this summer; and that he’s gone straight into politics.
Not even a vacation?
Surely just a week off?
She shakes her head.
The week before that, when the sun was actually melting the tarmac, he went on a date with a woman whose son is set to study Maths at Oxford. (Or perhaps it’s Cambridge.) The woman beamed as she told him the news. They were in a basement bar of a cinema with high end aircon. He said, Well done, Congratulations – and she nodded and stopped beaming, as if she’d caught herself being too delighted – again. She sipped her wine and looked over his shoulder at the screen running previews for forthcoming movie releases. She reached across and touched the back of his ear and said what’s this? He said, I have rubbish ears. Feel free to say whatever you like, as I’ll probably not notice.
Don’t the aids help though?
She brushed the front of her skirt for stray hairs. She said her fear was that it was all going too well for her son and surely it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. She finished her wine and looked at him. Something terrible. She told him the human mind has a infinite capacity for anxiety. He said, I hear you.
Around this time, there was the date with the mother with the daughter who does everything well. She informs him that her sixteen-year-old is up first on weekday mornings, making the breakfast. She explains all about it at a cafe below ground with exposed concrete walls and harsh lighting. She says her daughter always prepares her pack lunch for school and does all her own laundry. They sit there drinking coffee from glasses without handles, at a table next to a window putting them just below a row of bikes chained up on the pavement outside. She shows him a picture on her phone of her daughter’s latest art project. She tells him her daughter’s name and that Eloise has signed up for a summer debating tour of Austria.
He imagines teens in Tyrolean apparel verbally sparring, dirndl frocks, lederhosen, the hills alive with the sound of rhetoric.
It’s going to be great for her German, declares mum.
But it wasn’t simply great news always. There was the date with the mother who’d spent the last five years in and out of CAMHs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health services) with her bi-polar daughter. The daughter became wedded to weed from thirteen. She says, I think it actually changed the shape of my daughter’s brain. The teen also got a taste for Ketamine and sold most of her mum’s jewellery to pay her dealer.
Five years of afternoons with social workers and psychiatrists in miserable offices painted yellow. This particular mother had a dramatically different view on parenthood, of family, of adolescent success. She says she used to dread walking down her local high street, bumping into other mums who’s kids were off to study this bloody degree and that bloody degree. She moved area in the end because of all the times they had the police round. And then a week after they relocated, she argued with her daughter about a mini flood from the shower, and she says although they weren’t shouting that loud, her new next door neighbour called the police. So, it started all over.
She says her daughter disliked her last serious partner, who admittedly was not only a lot younger, but quite weird. He fed me all the time, cooked me lots of meals. He wanted that I’d put on so much weight no one else would desire me and that way I’d be his forever.
She says she left him, but not before she grew three stones. The overeating ended, and she lost the weight, eventually, but the habit of dating younger men continued. It only ceased when a bloke much, much younger than her took her out on a date where they ended up dancing in the rear parlour of a kebab shop in Hayes. But she didn’t want to dance. Not that much, so the man started cavorting with a younger woman who was in there on her own. Later he left with this other woman while his date was in the toilet.
She says that looking back, she thinks the thing with younger men started after her best friend’s husband went to Dignitas in Switzerland in the early stages of dementia. She remembers that he still seemed quite coherent and she’d wondered why her friend, his wife, hadn’t talked him out of it, to urge him to stick around for longer. She says life is precious and that she began to look at older men more as health risks and less as lovers.
All these stories of single women not living the dream – often raising kids with semi-detached dads, or absent dads who had drifted away. Or dads with new partners and new families, where their older kids from previous relationships didn’t really fit. The woman with the stellar maths student, her boy couldn’t visit his father at weekends, as his new wife wouldn’t allow it. The new wife made the rules, saying she found his teenage son’s presence to be disruptive. He had a cat allergy when they’d just got kittens for the twins.
Some dads had removed to far flung outposts of the same city, or decamped to another part of the UK, or even set up in another country. One woman’s ex had started a news bureau in Turkey and didn’t get back to Britain more than twice a year. Another woman, she said her ex took up creative writing immediately after their son was born. He claimed as result that he didn’t have the time to change nappies. She said, I knew he had to go.
These dating stories of bewildering variety held one thing in common – they didn’t fit the dominant story of marriage, children, education, education, graduation.
The woman with the subscription to The Lady explained at length her parental frustrations concerning the fantasy success story she and her daughter had failed to emulate. She laid out the details of how and where she felt she’d fallen short as a mother. She raved on. And then after several minutes she stopped abruptly and changed the subject.
She told him how she met a lot of ranters off the dating site – men with things on their mind they had to speak about. They couldn’t help themselves. He thinks, Yes, agita – when your mind’s abducted by alien thoughts.
And it’s certainly not only men raving. After three nights of dates, he took the evening off, he stayed in and read Deborah Levy’s memoir The Cost of Living. The author describes exiting her marriage and how post break-up she falls prey to ‘Tormenting internal monologues.’
Often he finds thoughts in his head – on his bike, at mindfulness, making dinner – that make no sense to him. He can’t quite believe they are his thoughts, or that he keeps having them. In The Comforters, Muriel Spark’s debut novel from 1957, the lead character is convinced she can hear a typewriter tapping away inside her head with the interior voice of the author-narrator describing the story of her life.
He wondered how his repetitive thinking, his internal preoccupations manifested externally, or did they not? Because seen from the outside the view was very different. And we never know how different, and that’s something we could and really shouldn’t think about.
His numerous dates through the hot summer sat opposite him. They looked across the table. They saw him and also looked past him. They had a different view. They heard his words and at the same time they heard other words. And he did the same in return. He received their words and took them apart and put them back together in another pattern and the dates did something similar with the things he told them. There was what he said and there was what they made of his words. The truth was not clear anymore.
He found reading provided context and consolation during this time of hot evenings and going out. Through articles, long reads as well as books and the dating itself, he came to identify layers of ambivalence concerning not only the prize but the final destination of online romance.
And then he put aside his book and went for one more meet-up. And although he realised that by now, after so many dates, and all these words, the reader might be wondering will this ever end, yet still he was fascinated, so much so that he had to ask, to articulate the question, that could it be that the male was looking for a partner, while the female actually wasn’t? (Not one particular female, but female in the collective.) That the reason for her dating was both obvious and not yet fully revealed. Perhaps she found it distracting, a bit of light fun; or something vestigial and part of a larger project still to be worked through – with some of the working through necessarily involving different men pinched off the internet. And then, at the end, the woman might realise actually, you know what, I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want a bloke. He could see this was a possible scenario, a story quite different to the one he experienced a decade earlier.
And yet the latest date, the new meet-up the very next evening – after he’d put his reading down and got on the train to north London – the woman he met in a quiet outdoor space for drinks, she told him his profile was actually a confusing piece of work. That it wasn’t apparent from the words he’d written what exactly he was seeking.
Are you sure, he said? I think I’m pretty clear.
I’m certain, she replied, entwining both hands around the bowl of a large wine glass. It’s confusing, your writing. Your profile includes a list of possibilities.
Yes, I’m ruling nothing out.
And what’s a weekend lover, huh? What’s going on during the week? And with whom?
Ah, he said. And smiled. It was dark by this stage, but he could see that she had a point. So maybe he too didn’t know for certain what he was seeking. All he could see for sure was the view had changed. And would continue to change.
|we’ll be together again|