Last week, I set aside an afternoon in which to impose some order in the attic. When we moved in last December, it became a dumping ground for various miscellaneous objects that we couldn’t decide what to do with, resulting in a jumbled mess of precariously piled boxes, assorted junk, dolls houses, antediluvian horse blankets and bulging bin liners of old clothes that hadn’t yet been despatched to Oxfam.
I looked around at the chaos and sighed wearily. Friday was Lily’s nursery day, and the only time in the week I had to myself. I had been looking forward to lighting the woodburner and snuggling up on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate and Midsomer Murders, not grubbing about on my hands and knees in a freezing cold, mouse infested attic.
Only last night I had heard something scrabbling along the floorboards above my head as I sat watching Corrie. Jasper had gone out for a pint. I was alone. I froze, terrified as the scratching stopped momentarily, and then resumed with renewed vigour, followed by two dull thuds. The hairs on the back of my neck were prickling. I am notoriously nervous when alone in the house. A ludicrously over-active imagination coupled with an anxious disposition is not a good combination.
I shivered, trying not to look at the shadowy recesses beyond the jumble. The door to the upper level creaked slightly in the breeze that whistled through a crack in the window pane. The wind moaned in the chimney and the ivy creeper rattled against the brittle glass. What if whatever had made the noise last night was in here, watching me? It could be hiding in the pitch black of the windowless room beyond, waiting to pounce. I rushed forward and slammed the dividing door closed, wedging it shut with an old hockey stick.
I gave myself a mental shake, took a fortifying swig of hot coffee and set to work.
I had rolled my sleeves up, and was just about to open a box labelled Granny’s China, when the Autumn sun appeared through the pewter clouds, bathing the fields outside in a red glow. Autumn is my favourite time of the year, and I watched enchanted for a few moments as the low light turned the apples on the trees to burnished gold, and warmed the tips of the maize crop across the lane. Tearing myself reluctantly away, I was about to tackle Granny’s china, when I suddenly caught sight of my old school trunk in the corner.
A shaft of sunlight was slanting through a hole in the window frame, illuminating the cracked and faded letters painted on the lid.
I picked my way through the assault course of boxes and bent down to open it and started to began rummage. It was crammed full of the forgotten relics of my youth; A tattered Valentine card from an ex boyfriend, a sheaf of Pony Club Dressage Test Score sheets, a Tennis Trophy, a moth eaten 1st VI Hockey Jumper, a pile of School Magazines and a bundle of faded rosettes (the back of each one carefully inscribed for posterity )– “ Pony Club Show - Working Hunter Class – good performance overall but broke canter once on left rein. Judge said the gallop was excellent.”
A faded photo of me clutching a shiny trophy after winning a Tennis tournament .
A bundle of letters from my best friend, who had been taken out of school by her exasperated parents on account of our persistent mischief making. In the 6th from, she was despatched, amidst floods of tears, tantrums and threats of retribution, to Malvern Girls School, a whole three hours away. Grief stricken and enraged, we wrote to each other religiously every day, and the mischief continued unabated. Every missive contained a forfeit of varying degrees of daring. United by a withering contempt of authority and outraged by her banishment, the trajectory of our rebellion was stratospheric. We mutinously exhorted each other to buck the system at every opportunity, by guzzling Vodka before Chapel, smoking marujana at lunchtime, spending study periods in a pub in town, and brazenly lighting cigarettes in the middle of the dance floor at the school disco. The defiant relish with which we broke the rules was equalled only by the bitter disappointment that we weren’t expelled.
Smiling at the memory, I was about to close the trunk, when I caught sight of something red wedged between an English Dictionary and some old French text books. I pulled it out and rubbed the grime off the front with my sleeve.
My Diary – keep out! Warned the felt tip capitals along the spine.
Several names had been etched, and furiously erased, beneath a saccharine pink love heart, liberally stuck with Cupids Arrows.
Kurt Cobain’s drug ravaged face took pride of place in the centre of the front cover, surrounded by magazine cut outs of Alanis Morrisette, whose haunting voice and soul baring lyrics provided the perfect back drop for a generation of angst ridden teenage girls teetering on the brink of adulthood.
Whimsical declarations of love jostled for space amongst general musings of lifes profoundities, which I had deemed worthy of immortalising in biro, including an excorciating assertion about my reviled Maths Teacher, which I won’t repeat.
Intrigued, I opened the Diary on the first page. January 1st 1996. I was seventeen.
I perched on an old table and started to read. Just five minutes and then I’ll get back to the job in hand, I decided.
An hour and a half later and I was still sitting there. My coffee was stone cold and the lunch sausages had burnt to blackened chunks in the AGA.
I had lost track of time as I turned the pages, devouring the shamelessly lachrymose outpourings of my adolescent self. It was as though I had opened a tomb. My teenage ghost filled the space. The pages were crammed with tales of unrequited love, friendships made (and lost), triumph and disaster, heartache and happiness, a dizzying roller coaster ride charting the euphoria and wretchedness of youth.
Pages of tortured introspection were followed by elated accounts of a tennis victory, or a last dance kiss at the school disco. I wallowed shamelessly in a quagmire of hormones and egotism, seduced by passionate dreams of a romantic utopia. My idealism was bolstered by the great poets, particularly Yeats, whose prose were written in every margin:
“I have spread my dreams under your feet, tread softly for you tread on my dreams.”
“If Michael bloody Jackson can dye himself white, then WHY can’t a Doctor bleach my freckles?
I HATE them. They’re RUINING MY LIFE!”
I will never forget that Summer. It was one of the hottest on record. I fell in love for the first time with James, a foppishly handsome Maths Genius in the year above me at school. We spent an idyllic three months swimming in the sea and lying on the beach all day, talking until the sun had dropped and dusk brimmed the shadows. He would trace my freckles with his fingers and kiss the salt from my lips. At night we would play pool, drink cider and lie in the grass reciting poems to each other under the stars.
All good things come to an end. In September, he went to Cambridge, leaving me in school to complete my last year of A Levels. I was pole-axed with misery. Despite his frequent letters and phone calls, my anguish was unrelenting. The minutiae of heart-break was so deeply entrenched that it failed to subside with the passing of time.
I was tormented by visions of him succumbing to the charms of hordes of stunning, clever girls, who would seduce him with their blithe knowledge of mind bogglingly difficult Mathematical equations.
I was a consummate masochist. I would lie in bed at night, and picture the scene in glorious technicolour. My darling James, the love of my life, surrounded by a bevy of glossy haired, long legged Maths prodigies, all flicking their silky manes and discussing the theory of relativity through bee stung lips while plying him with wine and rubbing their bare feet up his thigh under the table.
How could he possibly resist a girl who was passionately knowledgable on his subject of choice?
I had failed G.C.S.E Maths twice, in fine style before “Piggy”, my teacher (thus named for his penchant for scoffing mars bars in the next door store room), had callously informed my Mother and Father that I was “astonishingly stupid”. In retrospect, I can understand his frustration. He was a highly skilled mathematician. I was a chronically disnumerate teenager who couldn’t even grasp long divison. As unions go, it wasn’t ideal. His attempts to keep his temper in check were nothing short of Herculean. One fateful day, after two years of metaphorically banging his head against the brick wall of my incompetence, he regarded me with the faintly crazed, pleading expression that I had come to know so well, and asked me to answer a simple question about what he had just spent the past two hours teaching. All eyes turned to me. Someone in the back row sniggered.
Piggy tapped the ruler on his desk and made a strange keening noise as he stared at me unblinking.
Blushing to my roots, I hung my head, and whispered “I don’t know.”
There was a brief pause. The silence seemed to echo. Then he lost the plot. Grunting with fury, he seized his copy of “Maths for Remedials” and hurled it at me with astonishing force. I ducked just in time. His face had turned from pink to purple in under two seconds.
“GET OUT!!” he screamed, drumming on the sides of his head with clenched fists.
“GET OUT NOW YOU STUPID GIRL!!”
I didn’t need telling twice. I scrambled to my feet and started shoving things into my school satchel.
“NOOOOO!” he squealed . “GO NOW RIGHT NOW!”
He thumped the black board with a pudgy fist, and visciously kicked the metal bin across the class room. It smashed into the radiator with a deafening crash.
My class mates were gaping in disbelief. The door to the maths room opposite opened and Mr Watson’s head appeared. A dozen faces peered over his shoulder, alight with curiosity.
“Is everything alright Norman?” ventured Mr Watson.
Piggy looked at him and snorted, mean little eyes blazing.
Mr Watson’s head retreated hastily and he shut the door again.
Piggy turned back to me, breathless with rage.
“GET OUT!” he spluttered, spittle flying from his rubbery lips. He was dancing up and down on the spot, an involuntary jig of fury.
I gave a sob of terror followed by a loud, hysterical giggle as I bolted for the door.
“You think it’s FUNNY!? You think it’s FUNNY being a RETARD?” he squealed at my departing back.
I felt the draught of the blackboard rubber hurtled past my ear and crashed into the wall, dislodging the plaster.
“DON’T COME BACK!” were his parting words as I fled down the corridor.
I ran to the pub with indecent haste, sobbing and cackling all the way.
Following my ignominious exclusion, James made a laudable attempt to teach me the basics. He maintained his belief that with gentle, patient teaching, I could pass my Maths G.C.S.E . After a week of tuition, during which he had observed me break out in a horrified sweat at the very mention of Pythagoras Theorem, and dismally fail to perform a series of excercises for ten year olds, he conceded that he may have been hasty in his opinion, and it was agreed between my parents, house master and head teacher, that further lessons were futile. There was no point flogging a dead donkey. “Besides, Mr Trotter has threatened to resign if he has to teach her anymore.” My House Master told my Mother on the phone that evening.
In view of my staggering mathematical ineptitude, perhaps it is understandable that I harboured a paranoia about James embarking on a Maths course with some of the Country’s cleverest girls.
It transpired that my fears were well founded. Maybe it was a self fulfilling prophecy. I convinced myself and him, that he was going to fall in love with a beautiful undergraduate of phenomenal mathematical intelligence, which is exactly what he did.
Gradually, his letters dried up. On the rare occasions he called, he sounded far away. I was powerless. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. I had envisaged the scenario so frequently that living it was like an interminable déjà vu; a dream from which I couldn’t wake.
I took a gap year job on reception at the Oxford & Cambridge Club in Pall Mall a couple of weeks after he went to Cambridge. We’d arranged that I would get the train to see him the following weekend, but he called on Monday to say he was coming to London the following day and asked if he could meet.
“We need to talk.” He said. He sounded weary.
Dry mouthed, I agreed.
I hardly slept that night. I caught the Tube far too early and skulked around in the cloisters of The Ritz for over an hour, before walking down St James. I waited for him outside the Palace. He was exactly 18 minutes late. I thought he wasn’t coming, then caught sight of him crossing the road further up the street.
As soon as I saw his face I knew it was over. He gave me a stilted hug and couldn’t meet my eye.
He didn’t say a word as he led me underneath the little stone archway. I could hear the blood rushing in my ears and my heart pounding in my chest as he turned and said
“I’m so sorry, but I’m not in love with you any more.”
I leant against the stone parapet, willing myself not to cry. Everything disappeared – the towering buildings, the people rushing past, the black cabs snaking up St.James beneath the low Autumn sun- it all fell away until it was just him and I.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked me in the eye for the first time. I had never seen him cry before.
“It’s just, we’re both so young. DO you understand? It’s not that I don’t love you. I do, and I always will. We’ve had an amazing Summer, and I’ll never forget it, but….” He trailed off and lit a cigarette.
I brushed a tear away with the back of my hand.
“Have you met someone else?”
“No really, I’d like to know.” I said bravely.
He paused and looked at me speculatively through the smoke, then dropped his eyes.
“There is someone, yes.”
I bit my bottom lip hard, to stop it trembling.
“What’s her name?”
“He Loves me. He Loves me not.” I mumbled sadly.
I looked at him pleadingly through a haze of tears.
“Please, just tell me one thing.”
He nodded grimly, bracing himself for a sexual interrogation.
“Is she good at Maths?” I gulped.
He stared at me, perplexed.
“Maths?” he repeated.
I nodded. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”
He shrugged “She’s reading applied Maths, specialising in Newtonian Dynamics and Special Relativity.”
I sagged against the wall. My humiliation was complete. The tears spilled over as I recalled my pitiful attempt to count out the correct change for my tube ticket that morning.
“Why are you crying about the fact that she’s good at Maths? You hate Maths.”
“Couldn’t you have chosen a philosopher or a rocket scientist?” I sobbed.
“Is this because she’s good at Maths and you’re not?”
I glowered at him and rubbed my eyes.
“You’re being ridiculous! Her talent is Maths. Yours is literature. She can’t quote Joyce, Larkin and Betjeman. She can’t write brilliant, insightful essays about Hamlet’s antic disposition.”
I blew my nose, feeling slightly mollified.
“Are you going to be okay?” he said, glancing at his watch.
“I’ll be fine.” I replied with all the dignity I could muster.
He stepped forward and held me tight, before dropping a kiss on the top of my head and walking off towards Haymarket. He didn’t look back. I watched him until he crossed the road and disappeared from view.
Then the floodgates opened.
I had been weeping for about five minutes, when Griselda, the matriarchal Head Of Housekeeping hove into view on the opposite side of the street.
A devout lesbian, with a booming voice, an enormous heart and a rampantly demonstrative abhorrence of men, she could always be relied upon in times of crisis. Many a time had I walked into the locker room and encountered a home sick gap year chamber maid, sobbing copiously into the comforting softness of Grisel’s enormous bosom as she stroked their hair and crooned endearments to them.
“It vill be okay leetle von. You vill see. There there, Auntie Grisel is here now. Shhhh.”
Now she was stomping down St James like a matronly Sherman Tank , bursting out of her starched white house keeping dress, clutching a besom birch and an enormous sack of lentils.
She took one look at my blubbering, tear-stained face and dropped the bag of lentils before thundering across the road and sweeping me into her arms.
“Darleenk! Vot on earth iz ze matter!” she boomed, clutching my face in her spade like hands and gazing at my puffy reddened eyes.
Between great gulping sobs, I eventually managed to tell her that I had been dumped.
“He’s found someone else!” I blurted, assailed by a vivid image of James and Daisy sprawled rapturously on his narrow bed in Blue Boar Court, in a haze of post orgasmic bliss, caressing each other and murmuring seductively about Square roots and Pie Charts….
Her expression of motherly concern prompted a fresh bout of sobbing. I collapsed into her meaty arms and howled lustily, eliciting fascinated looks from a group of American men.
“Vot are you looking at you VANKERS?!” she bellowed, shaking her fists.
She took a step towards them, growling fiercely.
“Verloren Gehen! Schwachsinnige!”
The men took fright and hurried off up St James clutching their bum bags.
“Vankers wiz zer stupid fanny packs!” she snorted derisively, before picking up my bag, grabbing me by the elbow and propelling me up the street towards Green Park.
“Where are we going?” I sniffled
“’Enry’s Bar. You need a drink and a chat viz Auntie Grisel!” she barked, launching us straight into the path of an oncoming bus.
The driver slammed on his brakes and blared his horn. Griselda stuck two fingers up at him and whacked his windscreen with her besom birch.
“Humph! Zat vos close shave huh!” she panted , dragging me into the warmth of the bar.
“Sit!” she ordered, pushing me into a chair and striding off to the bar.
A couple of minutes later she was back. She shoved a large Brandy into my trembling hands and poked a smouldering Woodbine into my mouth.
“Drink and smoke!”
I did as I was told, downing the amber liquid in one. It scorched the back of my throat and made my eyes water. I took a deep drag on the cigarette. A violent coughing fit ensued, but Griselda was unperturbed.
“Good girl.” She said approvingly as I writhed and gasped.
“Now darleenk, I vill tell you something.” She told me cosily, wedging her ample buttocks into her chair. She smoothed her moustache and puffed regally on a cigarette.
“Vud you like me to tell you ze secret of men?”
I nodded eagerly. The brandy had put fire in my belly.
Idly, she exhaled plumes of smoke through hairy nostrils before she leant forward and hissed
“Zey are all Vankers! Every single von of zem!”
I stared at her in dismay.
“ALL of them? Surely there must be some nice ones?”
She slammed her glass on the table, making me jump.
“NO! No nice vons darleenk! Zey are all vankers of von sort or anuzzer! Zat ist vy I am wiz my Helga.” She said smugly, smoothing her splendid moustache with a nicotine stained forefinger.
She retrieved an enormous locket from around her trunk like neck, opened the clasp and gazed lovingly at it.
“Look.” She said, leaning forward so I could see.
I almost recoiled. An stolid face scowled back at me, porcine eyes narrowed beneath a bushy monobrow. Hair sprouted rampantly from a mole on her chin, like the bristle on crackling. Her wet lips glistened like oily inner tubes, her complexion resembled boiled bacon.
“Vell, vot do you zink of my Helga?” she asked slyly, dropping the locket back into her furry cleavage.
“You liar!” she boomed grinning broadly.
“She’s probably better in the flesh.”
“Not really.” She said, shrugging her enormous shoulders.
“Zat is a flattering photo. No surprises. She is my Helga and I loff her!” she said simply, holding up her empty glass to the waitress.
I smiled weakly.
“Cheer up! I alvays tell you. You are very pretty girl, You vil haf no problem finding anuzzer wanker. London is full ov zem.” She said blithely.
I gazed out gloomily at the rain lashing the pavements. A group of girls were hurrying past, heads bent beneath umbrellas, rushing home to their boy friends. I swallowed a lump in my throat.
A ravishing waitress appeared with a bottle of Martell and put it on the table.
Grisel eyed her lasciviously as she leaned over to pick up the glasses. As she turned to leave, she reached out and patted her on the bottom. The waitress smiled politely. Grisel giggled naughtily.
“Vot! Vy you look so shocked?!” she asked , refilling our glasses.
“Vy don’t you try a leetle bit of lady lof?” she said earnestly, reaching over and putting a meaty hand on my knee.
I froze, utterly aghast.
Suddenly, she started roaring with laughter.
“HA HA HA HA HA HA! Zat ist very good joke! Look at your face! HA HA! I vish I had camera!”
I started giggling and found I couldn’t stop.
A group of smartly dressed young men were standing at the bar. In my peripheral vision, I noticed that one of them, a sublime looking, clean shaven blonde boy wearing a beautifully tailored pin stripe, kept looking over at us, presumably fascinated by Grisel’s bushy armpits, which were displayed in all their hairy glory as she reclined in her chair with her hands clasped behind her head.
A waiter appeared and put two exotic looking cocktails down on the table in front of us.
“There must be a mistake. We didn’t order these.” I said.
“Compliments of the gentleman at the bar.” He replied.
I looked up. Mr PinStripe raised his glass and smiled. I felt myself turning scarlet as I gurned back at him.
Grisel refused to acknowledge him. Nostrils flared, she picked the prettily presented pineapple and cherries out of the glass and tossed them into the billowing ashtray with a sneer, before throwing her head back and draining the glass in one.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and emitted a long, low, rumbling belch. The young men turned around to stare. I slumped down in my seat, buttocks clenched in mortification.
Mr Pinstripe’s were talking to him in lowered voices. They appeared to be exhorting him to do something. He glanced over to our table, before downing a shot in one and squaring his shoulders. A second later, he was making his way towards us. His friends watched with rapt, expectant expressions. His chiselled jaw was rigid with nerves as he approached. His navy blue eyes were clouded with trepidation as he wound his way through the tables. He was at last 6”4. Broad shoulders tapered to a trim torso and hard, muscular thighs. I had always scoffed at pinstripes, but watching him approach I was mesmerized by his effortless elegance. The suit seemed to dance on him.
He stopped and smiled apprehensively. I grinned back like the Cheshire cat and my tummy flipped over.
He was about to speak, when Grisel rammed a pudgy hand underneath my skirt.
“Keep Valking Vanker. She is vit me.”
Pinstripe gaped in dismay, revealing beautiful white teeth, before he turned on his heel and fled back to the bar.
“Griselda! That was bloody rude. Poor man!”
Helga shrugged. Mr Pinstripe’s friends were doubled up with helpless laughter . Mr Pinstripe was leaning on the bar with his head in his hands.
“He looked nice. Why did you have to make him think I’m a dyke? “ I said crossly.
“He vas a vanker. I was doing you a favour.” she replied in a soothing tone.
“How do you know he was a wanker? You didn’t even give him the chance to speak.”
“He is a City Boy. City Boys are all Vankers. They have no soul.”
“That’s a ridiculous generalisation.” I said sulkily.
“It is ze truth. Ze Finance industry is the vorst of all for Vankers. I know someone who dated a bush fund manager vonce, and he was an unbelievable Vanker.”
“Votever, You know vot I mean. Come on now my child. Zer is no point in throwing ze dollys out of ze pram. You have so much passion inside you. You need to find a real man, a man who can light your fire and turn your insides to jelly. Auntie Grisel can find you such a man.” She smirked.
I looked at her dubiously.
“Trust me, zat boy in ze suit, he vould not excite you enoff! You vill not find ze man of your dreams in a place like zis.” She said scornfully.
“Where exactly do you find him them?” I asked, huffily.
Grisel kicked off her shoe and began to massage a crusty bunion on her big toe.
“Ze Intrepid Fox, on Dean Street. Run along home and get changed. I meet you zere at 7pm.”