clinic, family, lovelife, meaning of life, screen, words

Infinity Pool

It was Valentine’s Day, and the first time in a decade I was single on the most romantic day of the year. In the morning I bought a gun

We’d travelled north of the river to a dark shop on a side street in the shadow of a railway bridge. The dark shop was filled with replica BB guns, young men, and the smell of sweat. I watched J and his friend ogle the weaponry. They discussed mags and sights with a sales assistant who may have been an active source of the sweat pong. The language they used was technical and slightly alarming – gas sets, caution paint, self-combusting chargers. I thought of the scene from Taxi Driver where Travis buys a gun

Deranged man with shaved head pointing two guns

When the time came to pay, for J to sink all of his Chistmas and birthday money, I was called to the cash register in my role as responsible adult – teens can’t purchase super realistic fake guns without one. 

We left the shop and J said him and his mate were going to the market to hang out. He thanked me for coming up and told me I could go home. He said it nicely and we both smiled warmly. (‘Meanwhile in my head, I’m undergoing open-heart surgery’)*

I got on the train and listened to music on my wireless headphones – probably one of the best gadgets invented by humankind. The song Bonjour Tristesse came on the playlist. ‘I live with melancholy,’ sings Juliette Greco, ‘My friend is vague distress.’ I hear you, sister. But I changed playlist all the same.

The train sliced through the east of the city. Graffiti and cheap new builds flicked by; a glimpse of a canal; the backside of a disused warehouse with flaked paint work; the stripped floor of a converted loft apartment. A woman sitting opposite had big startled eyes like a silent movie actress. There was a pink strawberry tattoo on her bare ankle, though it was freezing outside. She was reading a book by the psychotherapist Rollo May.

One Valentine’s night seven, eight years ago, I went with Vela (Ex No2to a local tapas bar we used to love. Vela had just started a new weight-loss diet. It was vegetarian and she told me to support her by not ordering the meatballs. 

Another year she was overseas with work. She texted me first thing on the morning to look in the cupboard above her desk. I found a card and a red heart-shaped box, with gold, heart-shaped chocolates inside. There was also a music CD. She’d hacked my Amazon account and bought the album at the top of my basket. I think she must have really liked me that year. 

I’d sent her boring old flowers as usual. She told me she liked getting flowers at work – she wanted her colleagues to see she was loved. But the overseas delivery service sent my bouquet to the wrong address. She told her work team her flowers had gone astray, but later she said she worried they thought she’d made it up. 

One year we went to Brighton for the weekend and stayed at a boutique hotel, and drank cocktails in the bar downstairs until we were zonked. Another time we went to Bruges, to the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and Vela got so drunk she fell asleep in the bath.
The second to last Valentine’s, Vela was down in the dumps, and said she didn’t want to go out, or wash her hair. 

The last Valentine’s we were no longer living together but supposedly still an item. We went out for a burger. Vela had stopped drinking for the new year and when we got back to mine she took out her iPad in bed. I asked what she was was looking at. She said single beds for her new place. A couple of days later I told her I didn’t think we should keep seeing each other. She didn’t disagree. 

And now it’s a year later. Already. So soon. But also, so bloody long. This has been going on for ever. I sighed and looked out the train window at the sky, which was dirty white, and wondered what to have for dinner. 

Talking Heads band member's faces covered in red
And you may ask yourself 
Well…How did I get here? 

Valentine’s Day alone. How did I get here? Was it through inattention, letting the days go by?  Or has my whole adult life been leading up to this moment? In an obvious sense this is true of every moment for every person. But there’s more to it than that.

Ten years ago, my mum started dragging her left foot and getting bad headaches. Her left hand fluffed basic manual tasks. A nurse at her GP’s surgery first spotted the difficulty – either my mum hadn’t noticed it yet, or didn’t like to complain. 

Things deteriorated rapidly and within days mum had become withdrawn and was barely speaking – the light had gone out inside. The following week she had brain surgery.  The surgeon found a lump in her head and drained it. Within days, mum was back to normal, talking, smiling, her usual self. It was like the surgeon went into her brain and flicked the switch back on. 

The doctor said the lump had been there her whole life, growing slowly and silently, until the lump finally impinged, causing the headaches and her limbs to malfunction. All those years, reaching all the way back to her girlhood in pre-war Germany, had been leading up to this point of crisis.

In the film 127 Hours, actor James Franco plays a solitary hiker who gets stuck in the wilderness, his arm trapped by a boulder in a crevice he’s fallen down. After 127 hours of being held captive by a large, unyielding rock, the hiker’s almost finished, and realises the only way to save himself is to chop his arm off, with a blunt penknife. 

Dehydrated and delusional, as he girds himself for the grisly task ahead, key moments from his life surge through his head in hyper fast-forward. The man reviews his life so far and decides that getting trapped in the desert wasn’t a cruel piece of bad luck, but an inevitable endpoint given the way he’s chosen to live. That overtime he’d made decisions, repeatedly choosing independence, self absorption and solitude; choices down the years, that one after another, had gathered together to bring him to this extreme moment.

I’ve never hiked in the wilderness or chopped an arm off. But I have done a fair bit of dating. A decade ago, after breaking up from Ex No1, I discovered online romance and took my life to a different place. I met all these women: the art teacher; the magazine journalist; the entrepreneur who wanted to cook me dinner. There was the highly-strung academic who couldn’t sleep, who emailed me her favourite poems; the angry woman who drank red wine; the woman who lied about her age; and the one who told me she had rubble in her tights! 

I don’t think rubble in the tights is ever going to work for me. But could one of these other involvements have amounted to something more? Should another woman have been my next relationship, and not Vela? 

A woman on underground rail platform has just missed a train
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If this were a film, like Sliding Doors, we could simply switch stories, and go check out my alternative life, and see what happened.

In this version, the sliding tube doors don’t shut on poor Gwyneth Paltrow’s face; Vela is scrubbed from the narrative and will not fall asleep in a bath in Belgium; and I still get to have a partner on Valentine’s Day. 

The counterfactual is a fascinating strand of historical analysis. And pure fodder for novelists. What if Kennedy hadn’t been shot? If Germany hadn’t declared war on the US in late 1941, would Nazism have triumphed in Europe? Had Hitler successfully invaded Britain in 1940/41, would there be no need for Nigel Farage?

A long, long time ago, when I was about seven, each afternoon at primary school before home time, our class teacher would read to us a chapter from the rip-roaring adventures of a boy called Tom. I’ve always remembered Tom because this was no ordinary kids book – this was a proto interactive story generator. Every time Tom reached a fork in the narrative, presenting him with two options as to how to proceed in his life, the class voted to decide what happened next. The teacher would then read from the appropriate section. So, for instance, early on in his life story, Tom has the choice of either becoming a farmer, or running away to sea. Well, of course, we voted for him to run away to sea (obviously). 

Later his ship is attacked by pirates, and Tom can either walk the plank, taking his chances with the sharks circling in the waters below, or join the merry crew of rovers. He joined the pirates. 

After she finished the book, the teacher went back and read the alternative storyline of Tom’s life – where he becomes a farmer, milks cows, etc – to see how it played out. If only you could do the same in real life. 

Is that all there is?

It was around the same period in my childhood that I first properly grasped that, no matter how many forks in the road, eventually one day I was going to die. And so would my brother, my sisters, my mum and my dad. 

The terrible realisation came one night after watching the film Genevieve. There will always be a dark, sombre cloud hanging over this sweetest of romantic comedies set around a vintage car race from London to Brighton. At the end of the film my mum reminded my dad that one of the lead actresses had died young from cancer. I turned in amazement. The woman who’d been so alive on our TV screen just now actually no longer existed? How so? I felt the ground beneath my feet falling away. I went up to bed and lay there rigid and in a state. 

I couldn’t get to sleep. Trying to think my way out of the crisis, by conjuring up an alternative scenario to death, only made it worse. I tried to think of not dying, of what eternity or infinity meant, and what it might look like. (I probably didn’t call it infinity at the time. Maybe endlessness, or space.) I had a stab at picturing the universe. It was a large black oblong filled with bright stars. But what existed beyond and around it? I conjured up infinity in my brain, as an endless grey nothingness with occasional ethereal tendrils of smoke. I scaled back, widened the focus, to see the end of it, but the grey just went on and on and on. This terrified me.

I suspect my personal infinity is quite common. And could probably use a bit more cosmic drama. But it’s stayed with me my whole life. I sometimes see a small piece of it when I contemplate Vela’s absence. 

I think the lover turned ghost is one of the mysteries of life. That you can be with someone, share so much time and space with them, day after day, year after year, side by side in bed, kiss goodnight, turn over, go to sleep, good morning, coffee in bed. The two of you propped up with large square pillows, talking about the day ahead, or looking out the window at the park in silence – hopefully an agreeable silence, but don’t bank on it. And then you’re no longer with that person. And then you have no further communication with them at all: not any longer, because keeping in touch is too difficult, testy and sad.

So, they vanish. Where once there was presence, now there is a specific, identifiable absence. After Vela, a pocket of mysterious grey emptiness.

On the Monday after Valentine’s night, I’m sitting in the waiting room of my penis doctor’s surgery with a glossy fashion magazine in my lap.

The page is turned to an advert for sun cream featuring an infinity pool in a luxury paradise resort. I look at the endless blue and close my eyes and see a familiar grey endlessness instead. Open my eyes, and I resume with the beautiful blue water. Close them again, and the grey smoke returns. Infinity pool. Grey space. Back and forth. 

And then the receptionist gets a phone call and tells me the doctor will see me now….

And I. I too. 
Quite collected at cocktail parties, 
meanwhile in my head 
I’m undergoing open-heart surgery.’ 

Anne Sexton, Red Riding Hood