In A Taxi With A Beautiful Woman
At work, my depleted brain I nursed with excessive coffee and as many easy tasks as I could find. No doubt I paraded around trying to pass off my calamitous state as a wry disposition, morose words in a light-hearted tone, the clown who doesn’t get his own jokes. And then, as the day ground on, and five o’clock came, I left to meet Emma, still believing the romance was redeemable. Maybe the gods of love would override my reticence and parachute me into a scene that even I couldn’t fuck up in. Didn’t they know who I was?
We met in a heaving hellhole on Portobello Road, known for its market, selling everything from watermelons to wind-chimes, shimmering things and shards of assorted granite, billed as healing minerals. Struggling through Friday night crowds, I could already feel my double-life fraying at the seams. A hangover from crack is like having your brain concreted over. You dig around for some happiness, any little nougat of cheerfulness will do, but there’s none to be found. But I can’t remember thoughts like, ‘I really should steer clear of crack,’ crossing my mind. Instead, I felt resentful that it wasn’t possible to have one’s coke and smoke it. Why shouldn’t I be able to smoke crack all night, then just live out a normal day as if nothing’s happened? Already, I was making allowances for crack that I’d never made for any other substance. If I’d been drinking all the previous night, I’d expect to feel rough the next day, and probably wouldn’t do it again, at least not for a while. What’s more, I could never drink much anyway, I’d hit a threshold and that was it, sick-time or bed. Crack, though, doesn’t knock you out, it keeps you up, and up, and up some more, until either the money’s gone, or you’ve keeled over from the consequences of having your blood thickened to the consistency of treacle.
I stood outside the pub, hoping as usual that this evening might mark a watershed in my forlorn and loveless existence. Emma, plus entourage, college friends, and one or two from her new job, had already arrived. I was spotted wandering around in search of them, Emma called out, and soon I was sitting next to her, cheered up, reassured, even comforted to be in good company, company that wanted me there, whether or not I’d maxed out at the cashpoint. I’d looked in the mirror before leaving work, and seen a bloated ghost, from the eyes of which seemed to gloat a gargoyle, satisfied to have dragged the rest of me through the rubble, and spat me out, ill-equipped, at beauty’s altar.
There was no sign of the boyfriend, and Emma and I began to chat, connect, and kind of shut out the others. It was all quite confidant and confidante, intimate and tactile, at least on her part. I planned to reciprocate, but never seemed to get round to it. But it was nice to know, at least, that she hadn’t changed much since my comedy debut. I could catch up on the touches and imploring clasps of the hand later, I assured myself.
I don’t know how the conversation got round to it, but I ended up mentioning that I’d tried crack. I didn’t go into the details of when and where, or with whom. I thought that might be pushing the limits of the friendship a bit far. ‘I spent last night with a prostitute,’ is not one of the strongest chat-up lines I’ve heard, and adding, ‘I wore one of her dresses, and put on lipstick,’ seems to open the can of worms even wider. But Emma’s response to my crack news surprised me, saying that she wanted to try everything at least once. I knew to warn her against it, and did so in a solemn way, reflecting the trouble I knew I was already in. She asked me what it was like, and I think I told her it was like having a line of cocaine but instant, and much more intense, but reiterating the downside I seemed determined to overlook myself. But the subject of crack wasn’t dwelt on, and we got back to quoting Reeves and Mortimer at one another, and making each other laugh, like we did.
We talked about relationships, and things got quite honest. I confided in Emma why I felt I hadn’t been in a relationship for so long. I was 28, and my relationship history was sketchy at very best – in fact, it was virtually a blank canvas. I told her that because of my eye condition I was in near-constant pain, and so it would be wrong to offer myself to someone as a potential partner, because this pain would inevitably seep out into their life, and why would I want that if I loved them? ‘I don’t feel like you bring pain into my life,’ said Emma, which pretty much put pay to my seeping pain theory. It was nice to be endorsed, and the comment felt like one more step up the spiral staircase to her heart. There was a lull in the conversation, but we filled the gap simultaneously by saying to one another, ‘It’s good to see you.’
When closing-time came, I was preparing myself for the long haul back across London when Emma asked me if I wanted to stay at hers. I did, but I was wondering where the first flirtatious gesture was going to come from on my part, having been so physically reticent all evening. She’d been quite touchy-feely, and I was behind on points, and that old familiar paralysis was beginning to kick in. But out we went onto Portobello Road, hailed a taxi and made our way to Kilburn, where Emma shared a flat with her sister.
I sat in the back of the cab, inches from her, thinking, ‘Am I meant to do something now?’ I was beginning to think I was running out of time. I hadn’t done a thing, and if I made a move at Emma’s place it would seem like a late lunge, ill-timed and clumsy. We spent quite a lot of time in the taxi talking about politics. Tony Blair had not long become Prime Minister. I was still optimistic, whereas Emma was far from so, because she was, rather surprisingly, a Conservative, due to family conditioning. Normally, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be attracted to such a creature, but beggars can’t be choosers.
We got to Emma’s, and I felt vaguely normal standing there as she unlocked the door and the taxi pulled away. Her sister was already in bed, so we crept through the hall into the living-room. I think we had a glass of wine each and she made a fried-egg sandwich, and I can remember thinking how beautiful in a willowy way she was. And she was.
There was a sofa there I could have slept on. I was very prepared for that eventuality. But Emma pulled open a double-futon thing, and my fear-gland started secreting. What, if anything, she said, I don’t recall, but it was pretty apparent that we were both going to sleep on it. No words like, ‘You can have the sofa,’ were uttered by Emma, and I too, perhaps unusually, kept my trap shut.
So Emma tucked herself up under the quilt, and I sat on the floor next to her, struggling to undo the laces on my Doctor Martens. I think I said something like, ‘Just trying to get these heavy boots off,’ to which her response was, ‘That’s a relief.’ I processed all possible meanings of this as I lumbered about on the razor’s edge between running and romance.
So there we were, in one of those maybe-moments, although I don’t think there was really much maybe about it. I lay down awkwardly next to her, said a few pointless things, that were presumably meant to be funny, but soon found myself riddled with self-pity and fury at self. Perhaps she thought I didn’t fancy her anymore, or that I was being careful, knowing that to presume on her affections a second time would be an infringement. So we chatted for a bit, then fell asleep, except I didn’t. I just lay there, slipping in and out of half-dreams, waking occasionally to find I was grinding my teeth, no doubt cos I was anxious, until we both woke up to the sound of Emma’s sister coming in with a cry of, ‘Rise’n’shine, lazybones,’ to which Emma responded, half-yawning, ‘We didn’t get to sleep until three,’ to which her sister replied, ‘Well, I didn’t know you two had copped off, did I?’ This received no reply, at least not a verbal one. Whether Emma made some kind of visual signal or not, I don’t know. But, whatever happened in the visual world, the silence felt a bit awkward from where I was sitting.
A couple of hours later, I was saying goodbye to Emma on Kilburn High Road. I was concerned that my lack of physicality might have spoiled my chances, but everything was perfectly friendly and affectionate. I managed to kiss her on the cheek, and, hands loosely entwined, we said goodbye, with more than half a plan to meet up later in the week.
So back I went to the flat. Josie and her boyfriend were away for the weekend, which just left me and the vampire who didn’t like me. I spent the weekend avoiding him, doing my best to recuperate in my bedroom, to the soundtrack of him in the living-room, pliers clicking, as another loop was added to his ongoing chain-mail vest.
TUNE INTO EPISODE 7 THIS TIME TOMORROW...
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