It isn’t going to be easy but I’m going to leave Marie. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to sit her down and tell her that the week or so I’ve spent on my own has given me a taste for solitude and that we ought to think seriously about packing it all in while we’re both young enough to find other partners and she is still able to have babies, etc. Or I’m going to get rid of Carol – that’s the best thing to do: I’m going to tell her that even though she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met in my life there’s simply no future in it for us… the age difference is just too much… when she’s my age I’ll be almost as old as her father: I’ll have liver spots and a prostate condition and a flabby old man’s arse: I’m going to be sensible and point out to her that I might seem mature and experienced and glamorous right now but sooner or later she’s going to find herself seeking out a newer model. Or I’m going to be totally honest: I’m going to tell Marie that I’m dumping her for a younger woman with a nose ring… that it might seem ridiculous and that I’m probably making a complete and utter fool of myself… but I’m in love and when you fall in love you owe it to yourself to try and give things a chance to work with the person you are in love with; it goes without saying that Marie’s not going to take it particularly well – I can tell you that for nothing – but I owe her this much at least; we’ve been together for six years and she deserves to hear the truth, however painful it might be. Or I’m not going to tell Marie anything: I’m going to use a bit of Gravity’s 30k cheque to find Carol a cheap place to live so that I can go and visit her whenever I want to; this way neither person gets hurt. Yes, that’s that it. Surely this is the most sensible thing to do.
So many choices, so little time.
It’s 5.11 p.m. and we’ve just passed Exeter. Now that we’ve cleared the city the traffic seems to have thinned out; I’m hoping to be in London by around nine. Carol is sitting beside me, Ralph is asleep in the rear. Whenever my thoughts have permitted it I’ve been having a bit of a Q and A session with Carol, trying to lay to rest a few things that have been bothering me. First of all, I realise now that there was never any need to stop off in Dartmouth town centre and set fire to Jez’ bedsit or hack him to pieces with a machete. It turns out that Jez is merely another ex (Jez, Brian and me – for the rest of our lives the three of us are going to be bound together by what we’ve all done with Carol) and it was never that serious anyway; Carol just slept with him every now and again when she was feeling lonely (well you won’t be lonely any more, my dear). Secondly, her father pays for all that posh gear by selling sculptures: he’s an artist – the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Reg Bailey, no less; along with Linda Lusardi, Peter Cook, Joe Strummer, the small one from the Krankies and Henry Cooper, one of the most famous people I have ever met face to face. Perhaps that’s what I found familiar about him earlier, I realise this with a little ping of relief as the motorway flashes by me, he doesn’t look like me after all – Carol didn’t pick me out of the crowd because I reminded her of daddy – he looks like Reg Bailey, the bloke who pops up in G2 or the Sunday Times colour supplement every now and again. Carol, of course, remains oblivious to my excitement at meeting her famous dad, she just carries on chatting, talking about this and that, filling in the spaces.
London looms on the horizon like someone has taken a giant cigarette and stubbed it out with a giant hob-nail boot. After the fresh air of South Devon it’s quite a shock to return to the city and realise what you have been breathing in all this time. It’s not yet nine so we’re well on schedule; as soon as I get home I’m going to wipe that message from Louise on the answer phone clean and take a long hot bath. Maybe Carol won’t be too adverse to lowering her beautiful body into it beside me. I’ll even let her use Marie’s green shampoo if she wants to. Then I’ll open a bottle of wine and order up a take-away, Thai, perhaps, and she can lie in her position on the carpet in one of Marie’s dressing gowns and for a while at least, we can lock ourselves away from the outside world. This will be her last night and even though I know that I’ve got to make sure that she leaves very early tomorrow morning so that I can tidy things up again ready for Marie’s return, I’m going to try my best to make sure that we both have a good time.
I’ve not yet mentioned the clearing out in the morning bit to Carol but I can sense that she understands. Nothing’s been said but I think that she’s shrewd enough to realise that there are a lot of other things to get sorted out before we can even think of taking what’s been happening to the two of us any further. I don’t like to send her back to the streets, I feel like I’m abandoning her, letting her down, but for the moment at least it’s the only option I have open to me. I’ll give her money, of course, I’ll make sure that she’s alright and I’ll try to think of a way that we can see each other again as soon as possible. For the time being, however, we have this one last night: and this time there will be no games, we both now know where we stand with each other and we can simply relax and enjoy the experience of being alone together.
We hit the city and head northwards, and suddenly I’m finding myself wishing that I had spent a little more time down in Devon. I watch the people scurrying through the glistening streets: young women in smart two-pieces with over-determined expressions on their faces; newspaper vendors with flabby beer guts barking out instructions to passers-by; fat businessmen in suits carrying briefcases and umbrellas; lines of intimidating teenage youths blocking the pavements; black taxis throwing their weight around on the roads; police cars and road-works and queues and fluorescent lights and dirty air and tramps and bouncers standing outside clubs and stretch limousines and car horns and movie posters and hamburger stands and statues of long dead famous people. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so at home among all of this; and I’m not even sure that I’ll be able to feel at home even when I get home.
Carol, apparently, is harbouring similar misgivings: we reach the Islington border and she turns to me and asks: “Can you drop me off at the Angel, then?”
“What did you say?”
“I’m sorry… I’ve got a few things to sort out…”
“Can’t they wait until the morning?”
“No… not really… I’ve really got to get them sorted.”
We’re stuck in traffic in Liverpool Road, only ten minutes from home. Only ten minutes away from unbolting the front door and switching on all the lights and wrapping Carol up in my arms and breathing in her wondrous aroma. It’s now 9.45. p.m. and all the shops are closed around here except for a pub and an Australian restaurant. The blood has suddenly drained from my face, my fingers rest on the steering wheel, numb. I am smoking a cigarette, the fumes making my eyes water. “What sort of things?” I ask.
“Nothing really…” replies Carol. “Just things.”
What was I saying about expecting the unexpected? What was I saying?
“Look… don’t be ridiculous Carol,” I urge. “Come and stay for one more night… you must be exhausted.”
“I’d like to but I can’t… I’ve been staying at your place for… what is it… almost a week? I was only supposed to be there for one night… I’ve really got to get back to the squat and see if everything’s alright.”
“Well that’s all right… I’ll come back with you and help you check it out – then we can go back to mine and get a shower and something to eat.”
“No it’s okay… I’ve got food at home.”
“But Carol… I’m not just going to abandon you like this.”
“Well… I would have had to leave tomorrow anyway.”
Ahhhhh. That’s it.
A heavy sigh of relief.
So this is what it’s all about: Carol is annoyed that Marie is coming back tomorrow and is trying to let me know that she’s annoyed; you can hardly blame her, I suppose – why didn’t I think about this before? In effect, what I’m about to do is reject Carol in favour of another woman and she’s angry and disappointed that I’m doing it: of course she’s going to be pissed off about my doing this.
“Oh Carol,” I croon. “Just because you have to leave in the morning doesn’t mean that I’m going to forget all about you… don’t worry… I’ll look after you.”
Carol frowns back at me. “I don’t want to be looked after,” she says. “And I wasn’t worried that you were going to forget me – I’m not going to forget you either.”
“What?” I exclaim.
“Listen, I’ve had a brilliant time… really brilliant… but I’ve really got things to do now. I’ll see you again another time if you like…”
What does she mean, she’ll see me again another time? What does she mean, ‘if you like’? It’s my mother who’s supposed to say things like ‘if you like’– not Carol. I thought that it was kind of taken as written that we would be seeing each other another time – lots of other times, in fact.
“Oh…” I splutter.
And now I’m stone cold: I’m sitting in the car with all my joints gummed up with cement, I’ve suddenly come down with Reg Bailey’s arthritis, I’m Oats stepping out of Cook’s tent: I’m just going out – I may be some time. And I’m suddenly aware of who I am, of what I am, and of what I’m doing with myself at the moment. I’m a thirty-eight-year-old man sitting in a car with a twenty-one-year-old girl, making a complete and utter prat of himself.
But still there are questions that I need to ask: Is it me? Is it something I’ve said? Is it because of Brian? …or Jez? Is it because I’ve already got a girlfriend? Is it something I did wrong at your father’s house? Is it the way I dress? Is it because I’m older than you? Would it help if I got a nose stud? Am I crap in bed? Is my knob too small? Is it my taste in music? Is it because I don’t have a job? Is it because I don’t speak to my father? Why can’t I have sex with you now when only this morning you seemed perfectly happy with the idea? Why have you suddenly un-chosen me?
But I don’t say any of these things. I don’t say them because I’m thirty-eight-years-of-age and I know that there are no answers to any of these questions. I’m old enough and ugly enough to recognise when it’s time to call it a day. And I’m not going to further humiliate myself in front of this woman by telling her what I really feel about her. But even as I’m weakly celebrating my good sense I’m inwardly turning on Carol: I’m thinking about the past few days, about the money I’ve spent on her… the food… the drink… the cigarettes… the hash… the free lifts… the meals… the clothes… the caravan… Was all of this simply the price I had to pay for what happened last night? And what about all that business of her using blackmail to try to get me to visit my father? Would Carol really toy with my emotions like that just because she wanted to spend an hour in her own father’s company?
Now the traffic’s moving again and I’m suddenly calming down slightly: It’s Carol’s face that does it for me. I’m looking over at her beautiful, flawless features and I’m realising that she isn’t capable of such deviousness. More than Carol’s lack of knowledge of Greek plate-throwing traditions; more than her inability to realise that if she attacks a party of rugby players in a restaurant it’s the man accompanying her who’s going to catch it; more than the nose ring, and the pierced belly button that I discovered lay beneath her T-shirt yesterday; more than her youth and more than my lack of it, this is the real difference between Carol and I. She could never have planned for any of this to happen; it isn’t in her nature. She’s just living her life; if she thought that sleeping with me would have affected me like it has, she simply wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It feels like I’m being dumped but this isn’t her dumping me: because there was never anything to dump in the first place. Except in my head, that is. It’s all a question of priorities – priorities and perceptions.
The truth of the matter, if I try to think about it rationally, is that Carol probably views what we did last night and this morning in much the same way as I view what I did with Louise last Thursday night. In actual fact, in Carol’s eyes I probably am Louise: I’m somebody she slept with by accident or co-incidence or whatever it was, somebody she slept with whom she doesn’t want to sleep with again. To me, what we did together was one of the most exciting things that has happened to me in years and years and years; to her it had no more significance than walking up to a stranger in the street and asking him for a light – she wouldn’t expect that person to get all hurt and offended if she then asked another person for a light or bought herself a box of matches, and she isn’t expecting me to act like an explorer who has just planted the flag that gives him exclusive rights to all her territories.
I drive her down to the Angel and stop the car by the tube station. She reaches over and cuddles me for a moment and pecks me on the cheek and thanks me for everything and tells me what a great time she has had. It’s Tuesday night and it’s raining again and if I were to walk along Upper Street I’d probably bump into Brian on his way to the King’s Head or whatever (will Carol be spending the night with Brian tonight!?). It’s been almost exactly seven days since I slipped him that twenty and whether I like it or not I’ve got to concede that I’ve had my money’s worth.
Carol climbs out of the car and pulls out her black plastic sack of possessions; Ralph hauls himself out of the rear and arches his back on the wet pavement, evidently recognising where he is, at least one of us glad to be home. While he is doing this, Carol dips her head back inside the car and gives me another kiss on the cheek: “I hope everything sorts itself out for you,” she says.
I turn to her, for a moment losing my self-control: “Carol…” I say, with a casual desperation. “This is so stupid… why don’t you come and stay one more night…?”
Carol, says nothing; she shakes her head patiently. Then she gives me a final kiss, this time on the lips. “Bye, John… thanks,” she says gently.
Carol exits the car but just before she shuts the door she reaches back inside one last time and for a moment I think that she’s changed her mind about coming back home with me. “John…” she says.
“Yes…” I reply expectantly.
“Go and see your dad… don’t let him die without giving yourselves a chance to sort out whatever it is that’s happened between you… nothing can be that bad…”