The Cows By Dawn O'Porter: Book Review
One misjudged action can turn your life upside down – especially when that action becomes a viral sensation.
Dawn O’Porter’s first novel for adults puts trolling, motherhood, careers and women’s sexuality at the forefront as we meet three different women with almost opposing lives – single mother and documentary maker Tara, blogger Cam and grieving PA Stella.
Through strange (and sometimes unhappy) circumstances they become friends and enemies, their lives intertwining in the most unlikely of ways.
The Cows is a zippy and hilarious book but it tackles some of the most serious issues that affect modern women today.
The Cows By Dawn O'Porter: Book Extract
COW [n] /ka /:
A fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of cattle, used as a source of milk or beef.
A cow is officially the name given to a heifer when it has had a calf.
If you want a good piece of meat, you need to go for the heifer because cows, having been destroyed by childbearing, do not a good steak make. Cows are incredibly complex animals; they form friendships and even fall in love, they experience fear, anger and can bear grudges.
Cows are destined to be in a constant hormonal state, either pregnant or producing milk. A heifer is a piece of meat, merely a potential source of produce. Beyond that, they don’t offer much . . . apparently. Some might say this is reflected in human society and the way that it regards women.
Some might not.
There are many types of women and every effort is needed for a woman not to be seen just as a heifer or a cow. Women don’t have to fall into a stereotype.
Cows don’t need to follow the herd.
A Late Friday Night in April
I see a bead of sweat pop out of his forehead and flop down his face like a melting slinky. He’s nearly there, I can tell. Just a few more gentle pushes from me and this guy will explode with everything I need. He sniffs and hits his nose with the side of a clenched fist. I think it was an attempt to wipe it, but ends up being more of a punch in his own face. The sweat runs over his chin, down his neck and settles on his white collar. It rapidly spreads, forming a little wet patch then, as if on a factory line, another pops out and follows its exact journey. He’s going to break any minute, I know it.
We’ve been alone in a small bedroom in a Holiday Inn just off the M4 for over three hours. I deliberately requested a room facing the road so that I could insist the windows had to be closed because of the noise of the traffic. It’s boiling in here; the hottest day of the year, and I had to shut down the aircon because the camera picked up the noise. He won’t be able to take it much longer. Me? I’ll endure anything to get the soundbite I need.
He agreed to do the interview purely on the basis that it was just me and my camera in the room with him. The sleazy creep seems to have forgotten that the basic function of recording equipment is to capture a moment that could potentially be broadcast to millions.
I’ve been making a documentary about sexual harassment in the workplace for months. Shane Bower is the MD of Bower Beds, and I have interviewed multiple female members of his staff who have all told me about his wandering hands. Yesterday, I door-stepped him at nine a.m. as he left the house for work. I told him about the accusations and asked him what he had to say. He denied it, of course, and got into his car. I threw a business card in and instinct told me he’d be in touch. I was right; two hours later my phone rang. He asked me what my programme was about and what I wanted. I told him I was making a short film about sexual harassment for a new digital channel, and that I wanted to know if the allegations were true. He denied it on the phone, but I told him I had mounting evidence against him, and that he would be wise to try to convince the viewers of his innocence, because the footage would be broadcast with or without his contribution. Hearing that, he agreed to an interview. With only me. In a bedroom. I made sure the camera was recording the second he walked into the room.
‘I don’t doubt that you’re telling the truth, Shane,’ I say from behind my camera. I’m lying. He’s so guilty you can smell it on him.
‘I just think the audience will be confused as to why so many of your staff seem to tell the same story. The one about you asking them to jump on the beds, then asking them to jump on your—’
‘OK, OK, please, stop saying it,’ he says, spitting and spluttering from all of his orifices, the wet patch on his collar now creeping down onto his shoulder. ‘I love my wife,’ Bower continues, and I see genuine fear in his eyes. He is stunned, like a spider in the middle of the night that freezes when you turn the lights on. But if you leave the lights on long enough, the spider will move. It has to.
I keep the camera rolling, he doesn’t ask me to stop. I am always amazed by how people resist the truth to this point but then explode with it, almost like it’s a relief to just get it out. He could shut this down and storm out, giving me no concrete proof and leaving himself open to wriggle his way out of all of this, but guilty people so rarely do. I hand them a rope, and they always hang themselves.
‘My kids, they are everything to me,’ he says, fluid pouring out of his face at such a speed I wish I had a dribble bib to offer him.
‘If you’re honest, then maybe it will all be OK,’ I say, knowing I’ll cut almost everything I have said and edit this to look like he built himself up to his own demise. And then he gives it to me, the most glorious line I could imagine.
‘Those silly sluts acted like they were gagging for it. How is a guy supposed to know they didn’t want it?’
I lower my camera, leaving it to record just in case he offers me any more nuggets of TV gold, but it really doesn’t matter what happens now. I’ve got what I need. A confession. An end to my scene. The police can take it from here; I’ll follow it up with them.
And I’m wrapped in time for lunch. Damn, I’m good at my job!
‘Nailed it,’ I say, throwing the camera cards down on my boss’ desk.
‘What, he confessed?’ says Adam in his usual grating way – thrilled about the footage, worried he might have to praise me.
‘Yup. The perfect confession. I got him, I told you I would.’
‘OK Tara, stop acting like you’re in an ITV cop drama. He was an easy target.’
‘An “easy target”? I had to lock myself alone in a small room with him for hours to get that. There was nothing easy about it.’
Adam gets up from his desk and, taking the camera cards with him, walks into the main office, where he waves them and says, ‘We got him.’ There is a round of applause, as everyone realises that the show we have been plugging away at for months has a good ending. I stand behind Adam, watching him take the praise, wishing I had the guts to scream, ‘THERE IS NO FUCKING “WE”. I GOT THIS ALL BY MYSELF.’ But of course, there is no ‘I’ in team.
‘OK, Tara, Andrew, Samuel – can we have a quick meeting in the snug, please?’ Adam says, urging the three of us to follow him into a little room with multicoloured walls, bean bags, magazines, a TV and a big circular IKEA rug. It was designed to motivate creativity and it’s where the development team come and pretend to work. They sit and watch hours of TV, read books, magazines and study the MailOnline to come up with ideas for TV shows. There are three of them, led by Samuel, and in the last two years only one of their ideas has actually made it to the screen. Not that it matters, but I’m on my fifth.
I dread these meetings, as I have to deal with three very strong male egos who all know I am amazing at my job but can’t bring themselves to admit it. There is Andrew – Head of Production, Samuel – Head of Development, and Adam – the boss. People say TV is a male-dominated industry, and the reality of that is certainly true. It’s odd though, because there are actually loads of women in television and a lot of them have high-ranking jobs. The problem is that when it comes to viewing figures, the general consensus is that women will watch male-centric programming, but men won’t watch anything too female. So if everything is more male than female, then broadcasters won’t lose the ‘football’ audience. Already, before a single programme has been made, they are saying that what women want to watch is less important than what men want to watch. This sexism filters up through the industry to the people who make the shows, and you can find it in all its glory right here in the offices of Great Big Productions.
As we sit down on the brightly coloured plastic bean bags, my faux-leather trousers make an enormous fart sound. Everyone, of course, knows what caused the noise, but I can sense an element of doubt, and possibly hope, that I did just humiliate myself with a real guff. There is a pause for aroma, and when the air is confirmed clear, Adam starts the meeting.
‘OK, so . . . oh no, wait, we need coffee,’ he says, calling in his PA, Bev. I knew he would do this; he takes any opportunity he can to show me he is the boss, and this is a classic move of his. ‘Can we get three coffees please, and some water?’ he says as Bev enters the snug. She’s wearing a skirt that’s a little too short for work, and a white shirt that you can see her pink bra through. ‘Chop chop,’ he adds, hurrying her along so he can get on with his plan, which is to stare at her arse and make weird grunting noises as she walks away. There is a ‘Phwoar’ and a quiet, ‘How’s a guy supposed to get any work done?’, a few other snorty sounds and of course, the glance at me, to make sure I am watching it all. I look directly at him, leaving no doubt that I have acknowledged his fake sexual intentions.
This is how Adam has tried to mask his homosexuality from me, since a moment two years ago when I walked in on him watching a men only three-way on the Internet. He panicked when he realised I could see his screen reflecting on the window behind him, and told me it was research for a show he was developing.
‘About gay orgies by swimming pools?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he answered, closing his computer but not getting up.
We never mentioned it again, and of course, I never saw a treatment for a show about gay orgies.
Since then, Adam has taken every opportunity he can to show me that he fancies women. Objectifying his assistant, Bev, is his signature move. I don’t know why he isn’t just honest about it, but he’s more interested in being the big guy than the gay guy. I actually feel quite sorry for him, that level of denial must be exhausting.
‘Shall we talk about work?’ I suggest, wanting to move things along.
To cut a long story short, we are a TV production company who has realised that the future is online. Therefore, we are working to create digital content and multiple web series to build our online presence so that when TV becomes irrelevant, we are still relevant. We will make shows predominantly about real people in real situations, and I have been pulled in to head this up because I have a history of making brilliant TV shows about all echelons of society that my boss thinks would work excellently in fifteen-minute webisodes. He’s right, because he’s very clever, despite being incredibly rude and annoying. It’s a massive deal for me as I’ve worked tirelessly for years on long-running and low-budget productions and now finally have this opportunity to make much ‘edgier’ (horrible TV word) programmes, with less Ofcom and more swearing. We’re launching with my sexual harassment doc. It’s going to be brilliant, and kind of my dream job. The downside is I have to spend a lot of time with these three.
‘Just because we’re now working on online content doesn’t mean we can be more relaxed about money. The budgets are small. You realise that, don’t you?’ says Andrew, looking at me patronisingly, as if I have no concept of being thrifty. He’s not particularly good at his job, and knows it. He uses rudeness to mask his fear of getting fired.
‘Don’t worry, Andrew. I won’t use the budget to buy tampons and shoes. I think I can control myself.’ I use rudeness to stick up for myself.
‘And the hours will be long. Low budgets mean long days,’ he continues, knowingly.
Oh, here we go! This is where I have to re-explain my situation, even though they already know it very well.
‘I have to leave at five p.m. to pick Annie up from childcare,’ I say. I am careful to say ‘childcare’, instead of ‘my mum’s’. They take it more seriously when they think I pay for it.
Queue the eye rolls from Adam, the stroppy huffing from Andrew, the switch of crossed legs from Samuel as I admit to being, as Andrew once put it, ‘uncommitted’. They know exactly what they’re doing, and they also know it will be fine.
‘I can’t get childcare beyond five thirty on weekdays,’ I continue. ‘You know this.’
‘Can’t you get your mum to have her when we get busy?’ says Adam, pushing his luck.
‘No, I can’t,’ I say, defiantly. Of course Mum could have her, but that isn’t the point. I want some time with my daughter. I leave at five, that was the deal I signed when I started at Great Big Productions four years ago, and Adam has been trying to back out of it ever since.
‘Fine,’ says Andrew, huffing and crossing his arms like a petulant child. Samuel also tuts and crosses his legs in the other direction. The irony of the time they are wasting on this is beyond them.
‘It’s just not really fair though, is it? On the others?’ Adam says. I know he doesn’t actually have a problem with me leaving at five because it never affects my work. He’s just found an opportunity to assert himself and he’s taking it.
‘I’m a single mother, Adam. Please don’t “fair” me. I work full-time and all I ask is that I get out at five p.m. to pick my daughter up from childcare. I’m here two hours before anyone else in the morning and I haven’t taken a sick day in three years. I do my job.’
He takes a few minutes to let the tension give me a headache before saying, ‘Being “on the job” is what got you into this mess.’ Cue dirty laugh, cackle, snort. Etc.
‘Good one,’ I say, sitting back on my bean bag, making another huge fart noise. ‘Sorry, big lunch.’
That moves them on. Next chapter
I’m six foot one, an un-natural blonde and if I don’t pay any attention to my eyebrows, they meet in the middle. I should also mention that I have quite freakishly large hands and feet and exceptionally long limbs. I appreciate I sound a bit like Mr Tickle and Cousin It’s love child but actually, I’m kind of nice looking.
I look like I’m from the Amazon, but the truth is, I’m straight out of North London ‒ my dad is from Woking and my mum’s from Barnet. I’m just long with big hands, what can you do?
I’ve never had an issue with the way I look, despite my imperfections. I don’t know about the fear of putting on a bikini, or taking my top off in front of a guy. I don’t worry about my weight because I never gain any, no matter what I eat. I wear size ten clothes even though I’m probably a size eight, but need to go bigger because of my sprawling appendages.
My face is nice too, I like it. I look a bit like Emma Stone but with a stronger nose and more olive skin. My eyes are big and brown, I have freakishly long eyelashes and my cheeks are naturally blushed. My teeth are not straight, but I never considered getting a brace after Kate Moss made being a bit wonky really beautiful. I’ve taken a lot of time to absorb the way I look, not in a vain way, more in a scientific way. I’ve stared at myself naked many times, because it’s my body and I should know it better than anyone else. I’ve squatted over mirrors to see what men see, and inspected my face with a magnifying mirror and counted my wrinkles. I know myself really well, because I’ve taken the time to do so. At thirty-six years old, I’m happy with who I am.
I suspect some people will read this and be angry with me for being positive about my own image, because we’re not supposed to do that, are we? We live in a world that celebrates being thin, or having big boobs or a nicely toned arse. Society encourages us all to get, and feel, beautiful. But the minute someone admits to enjoying their own appearance, we think they’ve taken it all a bit too far. But don’t be angry with me for saying I like the way I look. I’m not saying I think I’m perfect, better than anyone else or desirable to all mankind, I’m just saying that body image isn’t something that gets me down. I’ve got plenty of issues, but the way I look isn’t one of them.
I can’t be the only one who feels this way. So come on, what do you see when you look in the mirror?
What do I see when I look in the mirror? I think to myself, as I eat the last mouthful of an all-butter croissant and finish reading Camilla Stacey’s blog. I love Cam; Alice and I used to quote her best bits to each other. It’s like she’s always thinking what we haven’t thought of yet. What do I see in the mirror, Cam? Well, my description of myself wouldn’t be as positive as yours, that’s for sure. It isn’t that I don’t think I’m attractive; I have no issue with what I actually look like. It’s just that looking in the mirror makes me either sad for my past or scared of my future. If all I could see was the way that I look, I probably wouldn’t hate doing it so much. Instead I see the ghosts of my mum and sister staring back at me.
I scroll down my Facebook feed. As expected, it’s flooded with messages.
Thinking of you x x
Hope you manage to smile today, I know that wherever she is Alice will be having a few glasses of Champagne x
Can’t imagine how today must feel for you. I always remember the two of you and your wild birthday parties. Miss her so much. Lots of love x
Still doesn’t feel real. Hope today isn’t too painful. I’ll be wearing my pink ribbon with pride x x
There must be twenty-five messages, saying anything but the words ‘Happy Birthday’. I haven’t seen most of these people since Alice’s funeral five years ago but they still, every year, write these vacant messages all over my page. They probably wouldn’t even remember if Facebook didn’t remind them.
Looking through my feed, there are countless status updates about Alice, people claiming their relationships with her, outpouring their sadness. Hoping for sympathy and attention by writing pained messages about how much they miss her.
It’s all so transparent. I’ve never even mentioned her on here; I hate attention-seeking posts. The ones where people write boldly or cryptically about the bad things in their lives, all with the hope their ‘friends’ post sympathetic messages. One, written by Melissa Tucker, a girl who went to school with us and who played netball with Alice, says,
Today is the birthday of one of the best friends I ever had. She was fun, and beautiful, and kind and generous. I’ve never known anyone else like her. RIP Alice Davies, the world is a darker place without you in it.
‘Never known anyone else like her?’ She was my identical twin sister. I don’t know if Melissa is cruel or stupid, but I have to fight with myself not to write abusive words all over her page. Who says that?
I look at the little green dot to the bottom left of the screen, ‘Alice Davies – online’, and imagine her lying on her bed in our flat, posting silly things on her Facebook page like she used to.
I told everyone I shut her page down when she died, but I didn’t. Instead I unfriended everyone and set her account to private. I am her only ‘friend’. To everyone else it isn’t there, but I can look whenever I like, and read all of her old posts. Like the one where she said she couldn’t cook the sausage dish she wanted to do because the local Sainsbury’s had run out of cherry tomatoes. It’s the really mundane day-to-day ones that I love the most. Just her, plodding along, living life.
Every morning when I arrive at work, I log in to her account on my phone, so that when I am at my computer it says she is online. The little green dot makes me feel like she’s right there, sitting on her bed, able to say hi at any moment.
‘Hi,’ says Jason, coming out of his office and making me jump. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.’
I quickly shut down my Facebook page and open the company website, even though it would be weird if I was just sitting here looking at that. Jason probably won’t look anyway, he’s not that kind of boss.
‘I have to go. Dreading this!’ he says, standing in front of me with his arms crossed. This is Jason’s default position; it’s not defensive, or rude. It’s just how his hands fall when he isn’t holding his camera.
‘Don’t dread it. She just wants to hear how you’re doing, right? You don’t have to show her anything?’ I say, reassuringly.
‘Well I was supposed to hand the first draft in last week, so I’m going to have to explain why I didn’t.’
‘Just tell her it’s coming along fine, and you’re all set to meet your deadline. Can I make a suggestion? You need to go on shutdown – no TV or Internet until you’ve finished.’
‘That sounds hideous. But maybe,’ he says, uncrossing one of his arms to rub his face. He looks harassed, but it suits him. Jason is rugged, he never looks like he slept well, even if he says he did. He wears loose-fitting shirts with jeans as standard. He’s tall and slim with an energy that means he finds it hard to sit still. His brain jumps from thought to thought, not giving him time to worry about what he says, so he often speaks out of turn – but the sparkle in his eye means he gets away with it. Part of his charm is how open and easy to be around he is. It’s why he is so good at his job. Well, the photography part anyway; he’s proving to be useless at writing books.
‘I found an app that’s basically a massive child lock for your computer, you won’t be able to do anything until you’ve written a certain amount of words, wanna give it a go? I can also delete your social apps and create blocks for your phone?’ I say, thinking it might be his only hope.
Jason takes his computer out of his bag and puts it in front of me.
‘Go for it. I need to do something dramatic. Leave my laptop on my desk, I’ll come in tomorrow to work. You can do my phone on Monday?’
He stands for a moment too long looking at me. I raise my head, as if to urge him on.
‘You’re lucky you know, Stella. That your life doesn’t grind to a halt if you can’t think of anything to say, or write or take a picture of. You just come to work, then go home to your boyfriend in the house that you own, and tomorrow you know that everything will be the same, it will all be perfect. I envy you.’
Jason envies me? What? I have to stop myself standing up and screaming with such force that he’d fall backwards and hit the floor. He’s jealous of my life? Has he any idea what it’s really like? No, he doesn’t. I’ve never told Jason anything about me. Not about Mum, Alice, my health. He just knows the basics – I live in London, in a flat I own, with my boyfriend Phil. That’s all my boss has ever needed to know. But it’s odd, I think, that we come to this studio five days a week, eight hours at a time, talk almost constantly . . . well, he does. I’m not even sure how it’s possible to skim over the depths of real life in this way and still get along so well, but it is, and we do. A successful working relationship has all the qualities of a bad relationship. If only spending this much time with a boyfriend was this simple.
‘I’m not sure I’d call it perfect,’ I say, playing down the massively imperfect situation that is my existence.
‘Well it seems pretty good to me. You have a boyfriend, security. You’ll get married, have kids. A proper family. I’ll probably die alone in my studio after being knocked over the head by a falling tripod, or something equally as pathetic.’
He looks aimlessly across the studio, blue eyes still sparkling, despite his ageing, weathered face. Normally, we skirt around the personal details of our lives but there’s something about writing this book that is making him relook at everything around him, including me.
‘Actually, I’m jealous of you,’ I say, gently, finding a little voice in the back of my head that feels the need to be heard. ‘You get to create, and people are excited by that. You take photographs that change the way people think. Look at them,’ I say, gesturing to the studio walls, where huge prints of his work keep me entertained every day. Portraits so detailed, it’s as though the subjects’ thoughts are written across their faces. ‘You capture moments that we’d all miss if it wasn’t for you showing them to us. And now you’re writing a book. Something that will live even longer than you. A physical piece of evidence that proves you existed. Maybe fifty years from now, someone will be sitting in a hotel, or waiting at an airport, or going through bookshelves at a friend’s house, and they will see a copy of your book. And they’ll see your pictures and read your words and they’ll wonder who the brilliant person was, who captured such stories. And they’ll turn back to the front cover, where they’ll see your name. And they will read aloud “Jason Scott” and they’ll think about how clever you were, and how grateful they are for you inspiring them, and helping them pass that time. And then they’ll put the book down and someone else will come along and they will love it too. That’s your legacy. The great work, that you produced. You’re the lucky one.’
There is a long pause as Jason looks at me quite intensely. He’s so sexy, sometimes I have to imagine him on the toilet to get that out of my head.
‘That sounded like a speech you’ve been rehearsing for weeks,’ he says, having never heard anything so profound come out of my mouth. I’m quite militant, usually, I suppose. It’s what he employed me for. He’s a scatty artist who needs organising, and I like organising other people’s things because it distracts me from the chaos in my own mind.
‘I just think you should be proud of what you’ve achieved, even though it’s hard work sometimes,’ I continue, opening his computer as if to close the conversation.
‘You’re right. I should,’ he says, watching me for a moment as I search for the Internet-blocking software and start to download it.
‘You’re good with words. Maybe you should write my book?’ he winks, playfully. He’s only half joking. ‘Up to anything tonight?’
‘Actually, it’s my birthday. So just a small dinner with Phil and some friends,’ I say, as unexcited by the prospect as I sound.
‘Bloody hell, Stella, you should have said, I’d have got you something. Where are you going?’
‘Oh, nowhere glamorous. A nice tapas place on Bermondsey Street, Pizarro. Very chilled.’
‘Is it a big one? Your sixtieth or something?’ he says, finding himself pretty funny.
‘Oi, watch it. No, I’m just plain old twenty-nine. Nothing special, no big deal.’
‘OK, well, have fun. Get really drunk and do crazy stuff. I’ll see you Monday.’
‘See you Monday,’ I repeat, watching him leave.
When the door closes, I push his computer aside and get back on mine. For a few moments I stare at the little green dot, willing it to do anything that shows me Alice is really there. Of course, it never will. I click onto her page and write, Happy Birthday, sis. I miss you x
I pack up my things, and leave. Next chapter
I rarely get to pick Annie up from school, so on Fridays, when she has dance class and comes out at four p.m., I always make sure I’m there. It means leaving work even earlier, but I grin and bear the guilt trips from my colleagues, because they’re no contest for the mothers’ guilt I suffer if I don’t do it. Being a single working mum usually means that someone somewhere isn’t happy with me. Whether it’s work or my daughter, I’m usually having to apologise to one of them for not giving them enough of my time. This feeling of never being fully enough for anyone worries me a lot. Would I earn more and be better at my job if I didn’t leave at five? Would my daughter be happier if I always left at four? Who knows what the answer is to getting all of this right; I don’t, but I can’t help but think the other mums at the school gate think I’m awful.
I’ve convinced myself they all judge me for my situation and therefore I make no effort to connect with them. This means they make little effort to connect with me either. They all stand around chatting like old friends, and I wait for Annie while answering emails on my phone, barely looking up to say hi. I’m sure they think I’m really full of myself or rude. I suppose I am rude; my lack of interest is deliberate, but if they made more effort with me I’d make more effort with them. Don’t they think, ‘Hey, she’s alone. Raising a child by herself. Let’s go over, make her feel part of the gang?’ No, they don’t. They just crack on talking among themselves, casually judging me because Annie doesn’t have a dad and my mother does most of the childcare. Mum says I’m paranoid and they chat to her just fine, so it’s obviously just that they have an issue with me. Well, who are they to judge? Is being a stay-at-home mum any better than working as much as I do? Are they happier than me? Who knows, and who cares. I was never able to just bond with other women purely on the basis that we both had kids. All of those classes for mums and babies where we were supposed to be open and share our feelings, offer advice, take help; I hated it. I felt like a beacon of controversy glowing in a room full of what everyone else considered normal. I quit the classes within weeks of starting them. Annie and my mum were all I needed. When you go at life alone you learn quickly to rely on as few people as possible. My village was small but indestructible. I was so happy in the comfort of my own decisions.
Five years later, here at the school gate, I still can’t slot into this world. It’s hard to know how to connect when you’ve spent the day squeezing information out of a sex pest and they’ve probably spent the day freezing individual portions of lasagna into zip-lock bags. I find it hard to stand around talking about parenting with people who do nothing but parent, they’re a different breed. Come on Annie, hurry up and come outside!
‘Tara!’ shouts a friendly voice that throws me off guard. As I turn around I realise it’s Vicky Thomson. Her daughter Hannah is in Annie’s class. She’s a bored housewife who is desperate to go back to work and thinks she could get a job in TV, despite having no experience. She relentlessly pitches show ideas to me like I’m Simon Cowell and have the power to change her life. Annoyingly, some of her ideas are quite good.
‘I’ve been hoping to see you,’ she says, hurrying up to me. ‘I’ve been working on the idea I told you about,’ she says, presuming I remember. ‘I thought maybe you could take it further by trying to matchmake the gay people at the end?’
‘OK, sorry, what?’ I say, a little short. She’s one of those people where if I give her too much feedback she won’t leave me alone. She does nothing for my trying to be inconspicuous. ‘My idea, “Take My Gay Away”. The TV show idea about gay people whose parents won’t allow it so they send them to a camp in America to get “un-gayed”. You said you liked it, so I’ve been working on it more. Maybe we can pitch it to your company? I’m so ready to get back into work, three kids in six years, whoa. I need to think about something else now they’re all in school, you know?’
‘It’s a great idea,’ I say, politely.
‘So what do you think, shall we pitch it to your company?’ she pushes.
‘I think it’s interesting but we have something very similar in development, so I’m not sure it will work for us right now,’ I say, giving the standard answer that I give when people pitch me ideas I kind of like. It covers my back, if I ever get around to stealing it.
‘Oh, OK. Well, what about my one about the women who want penises but don’t want society to see them as men?’ she says, hanging off me like a puppy that can smell lamb in my pocket.
‘Wait, that’s a thing?’ I say, the TV shark in me needing to know more.
‘Yup, I found it on the Internet.’
‘Jesus, what were you searching for?’
‘Chicks with dicks,’ she says, as if that’s normal.
‘I don’t know really; I just wanted to know what it would be like to be a chick with a dick, I suppose.’
‘Do you want a dick?’
The school doors bounce open and the kids flood out like spilt oil, slowing as they reach their parents. Annie is one of the last, slower than usual. I can tell she is sad.
‘Annie, what’s wrong?’ I say, kneeling down and putting my face close to hers. ‘Do you feel sick?’
She shakes her head slowly, and looks down.
‘Did something happen at school? Was someone mean?’
‘They weren’t mean. But Trudy is having a party on Saturday and said I can’t go because her mum said there wasn’t room for me.’
‘Why would she say that?’ I ask her, not surprised. Trudy’s mum seems like such a cow. She tutted at me for walking into the Nativity play late last Christmas. An actual tut. I’d had to leave a shoot early to get there; Adam gave me so much shit about it but I did it, I left so I didn’t let Annie down, only to be tutted at for opening the door just as the Virgin Mary (Trudy) was trying to find a room for the night. It was hardly like bursting into the middle of a performance of Macbeth at the National Theatre, was it? I stood at the back and waved at Annie, who was on stage being the greatest donkey I’d ever seen. She waved back at me and one of her ears fell off. Trudy’s mum tutted again. I didn’t care that time; I knew I’d made Annie’s night by being there whether I was late or not.
‘OK,’ I say, rubbing Annie’s arms. ‘Let’s see about this, shall we?’
I take her hand, and march over to Trudy and her mum, who is giving someone else the details for Saturday’s party.
‘The theme is Disney,’ she says, ‘And bring your husband, the more the merrier.’ As she finishes her sentence, she sees me storming up to her and coughs, as if that will drown out the words that she has just said.
‘Hello,’ I say, boldly.
‘Hello. Come on Trudy, time to go.’ She takes Trudy’s hand and forcedly drags her away.
‘Hang on,’ I continue, with more welly in my tone. She stops, making the kind of strained face that suggests she doesn’t want a scene. ‘Annie tells me there is no room for her at the party, but I thought there might be a misunderstanding as Annie is such a special friend?’
‘Um, well,’ says Trudy’s mum, looking around, hoping someone will rescue her, ‘The house isn’t big enough to accommodate everyone. The kids, their parents . . . ’ she says. I am racking my brains to remember her name. Verity, maybe?
‘I think maybe you thought she was busy?’ I say, convincingly. I’m not letting her do this to Annie, it’s really cruel.
‘Trudy, would you like Annie at your party?’ I ask, reaching for the big guns.
‘Yay!’ Trudy shouts, with pure joy on her face. Annie also lights up. I look at Trudy’s mum with persuasive eyes that leave her no choice but to cave. She leans in to me, while Trudy and Annie try to hear what she says.
‘I think you need to know that Annie has been saying inappropriate things to Trudy. I don’t know what goes on in your home but I do not like it when my daughter comes home and asks me what a pervert is because her friend has told her that her mummy knows one.’
A lump forms in my throat. Annie’s being pushed out of her social group because of me? That’s a nice big mother’s guilt pill for me to choke on.
‘Look, she’s obviously heard me on the phone talking about a programme I’m making about sexual harassment. I can assure you there is nothing untoward happening in our house. There are no perverts. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you the last time a man came round. So, there you go, now you know about my job and my sex life. Now, Verity, can Annie come to the party or not?’
My job has trained me to ask for what I want. You don’t get much from someone you are interviewing if you don’t ask them questions.
Verity makes a strained ‘for God’s sake’ face as she covers Trudy’s ears in case I say anything else appalling. She then lets out a big, over-the-top huff. Annie, Trudy and I all stare at her, waiting for an answer.
‘Come on, Verity,’ I say. ‘I’ll speak to Annie about what she heard and I’ll be more careful with my work calls. Please, don’t take this out on her.’
‘Oh, OK,’ she says, buckling. ‘Disney. One till three.’ She snatches Trudy’s hand and pulls her away. ‘And my name is Amanda, not Verity.’
Wow, I was way off. God, not even close.
‘There you go,’ I say, kneeling back down to Annie. ‘It’s all fine, she just didn’t realise how much you wanted to go. Happy now?’
‘Yes. I need a costume,’ she says, sweetly, and a little piece of me dies as I realise I now have to work out what she’s going to wear. ‘Can I be a princess?’
I stand up and take her hand as we walk back to the car.
‘What did I say about girls being princesses? Remember?’
‘You said that little girls don’t have to be princesses.’
‘That’s right. That’s what all the other little girls will do, so we should do something different, right?’
‘That’s my girl!’
‘Mummy,’ she says as I strap her into the car, ‘what’s a sex life?’
OK, I really need to watch my mouth. Next chapter
‘OK, love, that’s all the shelves up,’ says Cam’s dad, coming out of her bedroom. She’s sitting in the window seat of her gorgeous new at, wondering where to put the chaise longue she found on eBay that just got delivered. ‘Need anything else before I go?’
‘No thanks, Dad. That’s it.’ She looks at him lovingly. ‘It doesn’t matter how grown up I am, I’ll always need my dad to come and put my shelves up for me, won’t I?’
‘I hope so. Even if you don’t, you always have to pretend you still need me, OK?’ he says, going over to her for a cuddle. They both know Cam is as good at DIY as he is. Her asking him to help is always for his benefit, not hers.
‘I’m so proud of you, Camilla. I worked all my life and I’m not sure I ever achieved as much as you have.’
‘You kept four daughters alive, Dad. I’d say that was a pretty big achievement.’
‘Yup, my life certainly became about you guys, that’s for sure.’
Cam looks at him sympathetically. She’s always been so tuned-in with her dad, much more than her siblings were. Before Tanya was born, the oldest of Cam’s three sisters, he worked as a comedy promoter all over the country. It wasn’t stable work, and involved lots of late nights that didn’t work well with a baby, so he quit. Not really being qualified in anything, he got a job in a local school as a caretaker, and was there until he retired four years ago. He never enjoyed it; it was uncreative, hard and demanding. But he stuck with it, because he’s a great dad, and that’s the kind of sacrifice people make when they have kids.
‘I always told you that success is just being happy, didn’t I?’ he says. ‘People put too much emphasis on it being about money. I was never rich, but you guys were all healthy and happy and no matter what I ended up having to do during the day, coming home to that made me feel like the wealthiest man alive.’
‘Yup, you always said that,’ Cam says. She knows he doesn’t really mean it. If it had been down to him, he’d have carried on promoting comedy and they’d all have made do. But Cam’s mum wanted stability, and her dad is a good enough guy not to argue with that. ‘But I fucking love being rich,’ she says, giving him a gentle dig in the ribs.
They both laugh.
‘Don’t let your mum hear you use that language,’ he says, and of course she never would. Cam and her dad have always shared the same sense of humour and a mutual understanding. He’s the only person in her family who doesn’t question her choices, and she’s desperately in love with him because of that.
‘You were always different from the others, Camilla. You stuck to your guns, never tried to be what people expected of you. I’m proud of you, kid.’
‘Jesus, Dad! Will you stop. I’ve just moved in, no tears are allowed in this flat, even happy ones.’ They hug again. Before she pulls away she whispers in his ear, ‘Thank you.’
‘What are you thanking me for? You did this all by yourself.’
‘I did, yes. But because you always encouraged me to be myself. I’m not like the other girls, and you let me work out how to be happy my own way.’
‘I had no choice. There was no other way you could be,’ he says, as he leaves their embrace and heads for the door. ‘Call me if you need anything else doing, OK?’
‘And don’t have any boys round.’
‘Oh, Dad! OK, go. Mum will shout at you for being late for dinner. I love you. Bye.’
Cam pushes him out of the door. ‘Careful on the stairs,’ she says as she closes it, and leans back against it when it’s shut. Looking around her at, she lets a huge smile creep across her face. A 1.2 million, two-bedroom, Victorian at in Highgate, with views across London. She’s sourced furniture from the period the house was built, and she’s mixing that with huge pieces of bold, modern art. It’s bright, beautiful and all hers. It’s in an area of London people only dream of living in. She can’t believe it.
Falling back onto the pea green, Victorian-style chaise longue, she reaches for her laptop and rests it on her thighs. Opening HowItIs.com, she gloats at what it has become. It not only earns her in the region of £20,000 a month in advertising revenue, but it also earns her notoriety, an audience. It gives her a voice. Cam was never great with people, but she always had a lot to say. This unfortunate mix made school tough going; someone with a head full of thoughts but no outlet for them tends to think too much and say too little. In her case, this personified itself as social awkwardness that other kids saw no fun in, so she inevitably became bit of a loner. Until the Internet burst onto the scene in her early twenties and she finally had a way to show the world who she really was, a chance to express herself without the pressure of social interaction. It completely changed her life.
There are boxes stacked up along the walls, and the TV is still in the box on the floor. Her Internet won’t be connected for a few days, so she’s using a dongle, meaning she’ll never be anywhere she can’t blog from. This commitment to her output is what’s made her what she is.
As one of the first successful lifestyle bloggers, she has held her place as the ‘go-to destination for straight-talking women’. Or so said The Times in their list of ‘what’s hot for the year ahead’. ‘The Cam Stacey seal of approval is what every woman wants . . . ’ (Guardian, Jan 2016). With nearly two million subscribers and eight major advertisers signed up, she is raking in the pennies and clawing in the love. But that isn’t to say she doesn’t have to be careful. Blogging is a dangerous game, especially if you’re talking about women and being as outspoken as Cam so often is. Women want role models; they get behind high-profile females who pave the way for forward thinkers and they hail them as heroes, but if they drop the ball, say the wrong thing or talk a little too controversially, they get thrown to the lions.
It happened to a friend of hers last year. A lovely woman, Kate Squires. She wrote about being a working mum, with a high-powered job in a PR firm, and became a real inspiration, with nearly 50,000 Twitter followers. Working mums every- where looked to Kate for positive inspiration on how to ‘juggle’ the work–life balance, but then one day she fucked it all up with one little tweet. One silly little tweet that changed the course of her life.
Women without kids, u just don’t understand how hard it is to get home & have to look after something other than yourself. #NeedMeTime
The infertile population of the planet came out in their droves. Kate had personally offended every woman with reproductive issues on Twitter and beyond. What she had said was so hurtful that The Times covered a story of one woman who, after three miscarriages, tried to commit suicide after reading Kate’s tweet. ‘It just struck me when I was so, so down,’ she’d said. ‘I felt like society was telling me I have no value as a woman because I can’t have kids.’
People were right to be offended – it was an insensitive thing to say, but did she deserve an online hate campaign and the succession of terrible things that happened next? Cam followed the case with sympathy but a sharper eye on what she could learn. That tightrope between leading the social commentary and following it is hard to walk. It takes focus, planning and careful attention to detail not to fall off when you live in a world where 140 characters could ruin your life.
Kate wrote the customary, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I just had a really hard day,’ tweet, but it didn’t do any good. She went on Loose Women and made some heartfelt but slightly pathetic apology wearing a oral dress and batting her best Princess Diana eyes. On leaving the studio, she was confronted by campaigners with placards saying ‘NON-MOTHERS HAVE FEELINGS TOO’. This was televised on almost every news channel and Kate’s image was branded as the face of society’s issues with childless women. She appealed to be forgiven, but social media just couldn’t do it. Within weeks, she was offline and out of sight. Her PR firm sacked her, saying it was impossible to have someone with a public image like Kate’s representing them. She’s now out of work and struggling to get a job, her husband left her because she went so nuts, and she lives in a small flat in south London as opposed to her big house in Penge. Kate barely answers the phone; Cam hasn’t spoken to her for months. Her whole life turned upside down because of one sleepy little tweet.
Cam watched and learned.
She’s managed to find that careful balance of pushing boundaries, being brave, but not offending. Of course she gets the occasional knob who hates her, but she’s generally strong enough to ignore those. She’s often the target of more conservative feminists who seem to think her attitude to sex is why so many men sexually abuse women, but Cam’s aim is to promote the many facets of modern feminism, and pissing off ‘The Traditionalists’ is just a part of that. Even the rape threats she got after writing quite a punchy piece about Bill Cosby didn’t knock her down. It would take a lot more for someone to turn up at her door and physically assault her than it does for them to tweet, ‘I’d bend you over a car and make you sorry for saying that.’
Most people online are full of shit. Part of survival in the digital age is to fully appreciate that, and Cam’s down with it. But women’s rights are a delicate subject. There is one fight – feminism – but there are many different types of woman, and pleasing them all is impossible.
Just as her eyes are falling closed, she gets a text.
This must be yours, it’s got your name on it. Want it back?
Attached is a picture of her twenty-eight-year-old lover’s erect penis; he has written CAM around the base in felt-tip pen. She thinks of her 600-count cotton sheets and hopes that it is washable . . .
bring pizza and penis x
Suddenly, she’s not so tired.
‘I’ll get the cod fritters and the lamb,’ I tell the waiter taking our order. He’s been standing there for ages, waiting for me to decide what to have. It’s my birthday, I’m allowed to be annoying. I’m also trying to kill some time; Phil is being weird and Jessica is being excitable, and I’m not really in the mood for either of them.
‘Sooooo, Mike and I have some news,’ says Jessica, my oldest friend, the only one who made any particular effort with me after Alice died, and didn’t make it all about her. She’s one of those rare and extraordinary people who genuinely likes herself, and doesn’t rely on affirmation from pretend friends. She’s sweet, but her energy levels are challenging. Phil doesn’t understand why I haven’t told her what I’m going through, why he alone is shouldering the knowledge of my family legacy. But it’s not straightforward with Jessica; she’s never experienced trauma. She’s a good friend because she’s loyal, but trying to talk to her about my life makes me feel like the most fucked-up person of all time. What is the point in sharing your pain with someone who can’t empathise anyway? One of the reasons I got together with Phil was because his dad died when he was fourteen. Something in his tragedy allowed me to open up about mine. And anyway, he’s my boyfriend, it’s his job to take the burden of my problems. The only thing Jessica and I really have in common is history, but as Phil so often says, I should have at least one female friend, so here I am, about to hear her announcement.
Phil stiffens and goes to leave the table, but I put my hand on his knee and make him stay. I need him to stay. Whether we are falling apart or not, he is my partner, and I need a partner. One person by my side. I’m not enough on my own.
‘I’m pregnant,’ Jessica bursts, as if we didn’t know what it means when a newlywed says she ‘has some news’. She’s so happy, it’s oozing out of her. I know I can be a real bitch in situations where people around me express joy, so I try not to do that to Jessica; she doesn’t deserve it.
‘Congratulations,’ I say, leaning across the table and taking her hand in some weird, regal way. ‘When are you due?’ I ask, doing my best not to look jealous.
‘January 1st. I bet it comes New Year’s Eve, the party animal,’ she says, snuggling up to Mike, who is also incredibly nice if quite boring. He is smiling, looking happy as anything with his new wife and embryo. In contrast, Phil is playing with his fork like a six-year-old staring at an iPad. I feel the need to overcompensate for both of us, so I get up, walk around the table and give Jessica a proper hug. ‘So happy for you,’ I say, reaching over to Mike and hugging him too. ‘You’ll be the best parents.’
‘Thanks, we are so happy. Now hurry up you two, this little one is going to need a playmate,’ she says, beaming.
‘Yup, we’re on it,’ I say, a little too enthusiastically. Phil drops the fork and starts reading the menu, even though we have already ordered. He used to be so sociable, so upbeat. It’s what attracted me to him. I need that person by me, someone more flamboyant, more attractive to others, more sociable. It’s how Alice was. Her social skills made us the most popular girls in school. Everyone wanted to hang out with the Davies Twins. But in truth, they liked the novelty of twins but only one of the set. I wasn’t a good friend to people like Alice was. My spiky nature didn’t draw them in like her warmth did. Without her, I would never have been popular. When she died, it didn’t take long for it to be screamingly obvious that without a more likable counterpart, no one was bothered about keeping me as a friend. Apart from Jessica, whom I keep sweet to stop Phil trying to set me up with other potential girl mates, because he thinks that is what I need.
‘OK, who is the birthday girl?’ says the waiter, coming back to the table. He’s carrying a bottle of champagne and four glasses.
‘That’ll be that one,’ says Mike, pointing at me. Jessica grins at him.
‘Wow, champagne? Thanks,’ I say, rubbing Phil’s leg. He hasn’t done anything like this in a while. Romantic gestures used to be quite normal.
‘No, what?’ he says, looking concerned. ‘We didn’t order this?’
‘No you did not! A “Jason Scott” called the bar and asked us to bring this over,’ the waiter says, clarifying. I feel myself blush a little, I’m not sure why.
‘Ooooooh, that’s so sweet,’ says Jessica. ‘Maybe I’m allowed a tiny glass?’ she says, looking to Mike for approval. He nods, and the waiter starts to pour. ‘So, is Jason still as dreamy as ever?’ Jessica asks.
‘Ha!’ I say, genuinely touched by the gesture; a little gobsmacked, if I’m honest. ‘Yeah, he’s still pretty dreamy. But no, weird, he’s my boss. And I’ve only got eyes for Phil. Cheers.’
I hold up my glass, but only two join it in the air. A huge screech fills the restaurant as Phil scrapes his chair back and stands up.
‘Sorry,’ he says, realising he caused a scene. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’ He walks off quickly towards the toilets, and I sit alone with Jessica and Mike, trying to pretend like everything is normal. Next chapter
‘I’ll come pick you up by noon tomorrow,’ I say to Annie, kissing her goodbye.
‘Come any time, we’ll take the dog out in the morning and have bacon and eggs,’ says Mum. She’s so brilliant, despite finding my choices and lifestyle almost impossible to think about. She’s so desperate for me to find a father figure for Annie that she has agreed to have her every Friday night so that I can go on dates. ‘Just don’t tell your father about this,’ she tells me every week as I leave the house. ‘You know he can’t bear to think of you with boys. The fact you got pregnant as you did, well, it nearly killed him. You proved all fathers right!’
She’s funny, my mother. Somewhere between liberal and conservative and I never really know which way she’ll go.
‘I know, Mum. If you could remind him that I’m forty-two, that would be great. Anyway, look at what we got out of it?’ We both peek through the hall door and into the living room. Annie is taking selfies on Mum’s iPhone.
‘She needs a father figure,’ Mum says.
‘She doesn’t need one, Mum, we’re fine. But it would be nice for her to have one. And it would also be nice for me not to die alone.’
‘Do you have a date set up for tonight?’ she asks.
‘I do. He looks OK, works in media, cute. Hopefully not a murderer.’
‘Tara, please. Don’t joke. I read about a girl getting murdered on a date. It’s not funny.’
‘Mum, people have been dating a long time. But OK, I’ll try not to get murdered.’ I open the front door. ‘Give my love to Dad.’ I shut the door, then quickly open it again. ‘By the way, what does he think I do on Friday nights?’
I’m curious to know what Mum came up with, because she’s right, the idea of me being with men makes my dad convulse.
‘I told him you’ve started a knitting group.’
‘What? Mum, that’s pathetic.’
‘You might have to buy something on eBay and pretend you made it for his birthday. Sorry, I panicked. It was the first thing that came to my head.’
I hug her, and leave. She opens the door a few seconds later and shouts, ‘You don’t have to sleep with them all, Tara!’ down the street.
Was that liberal or conservative? I can’t quite be sure.
Back at home I have a quick shower, slip on a cute silk shirt with my faux-leather trousers, a bit of make-up, bouff my hair and I’m ready. I gave up making too much effort on dates ages ago. I always wonder what it must look like to guys, who just wear whatever they wore to work that day, when a woman arrives dressed to the nines in something fancy, with loads of make-up. It sets a precedent at the start that I really can’t be bothered to maintain, so I wear a mildly more uptempo version of my usual clothes. I think that’s right. Although I’m still single, so I guess that says something.
Being single when you have a kid is weird. Not just because everyone you meet either judges or sympathises with you, but because you have to think about so much more than just fancying someone. It’s called being responsible, I suppose. I can’t allow fuck buddies into my home to meet my daughter, it would be too confusing for her, so I generally don’t have them at all. That’s good for Annie but it sucks for me.
Annie has never known me to be in a relationship, so I need to handle the situation carefully. I introduced one guy to her last year because he was so completely awesome. I seemed to abandon all elements of fear when it came to Annie and invited him into our lives. Turns out he was so awesome that he was married. Because obviously, excellent men in their forties are never single. Why would they be? Fuckers.
He spent a Saturday afternoon in my house making Annie laugh so hard she went to bed giddy with joy. When she was asleep he and I started having sex and halfway through, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Eventually, because it was really killing the mood, he answered it, then burst out crying. It was his wife letting him know that his dad had just had a heart attack and died. He was literally inside me as he took the call. I mean, it was possibly the worst thing to happen during sex since those two people in China were doing it up against a floor-to-ceiling window in their apartment and the window fell out. He was so devastated, I couldn’t even have a go at him about not telling me he was married. I had to comfort him, when what I really wanted to do was cut his penis off with some nail scissors and throw it in the road. I was also just really, really gutted.
He left minutes later and I never heard from him again. Annie still asks for him; she refers to him as ‘Mr Giggles’. One day I’ll tell her that Mr Giggles ended up being about as funny as a dose of the clap. Which, along with the terrible memory of a horrible evening, he also left me with.
Taking treatment for an STD when you have a little girl feels grim. I felt ridden and contagious and begged the bottle of antibiotics to be finished. When they were gone, I vowed never to introduce her to anyone ever again unless a) I was certain they didn’t have a wife and b) I hadn’t needed an STD test after sleeping with them.
I now hold a lot of hope for my Friday night dates. I want someone good. Someone honest, safe and fun. You never know; tonight’s guy, Al, looks OK in his picture. But first, a quick drink with my best friend Sophie.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ says Sophie, walking slowly up to me at the bar. ‘I was getting my hair done, she was taking ages then I decided I didn’t like the colour so got her to go back to . . . anyway, heyyyy.’
Sophie is always late, which is why I brought my Kindle. Sophie and I are both only children. This means that we have a relationship a lot like sisters and claimed each other around the age of ten, as the people who would play that role in each other’s lives. I questioned it loads, because she drove me so crazy half the time. Then another friend at school said that if her sister wasn’t family, they would never be friends, but she loved her anyway, because that is what sisters do. That really resonated with me because I realised that if Sophie was to be the sister I never had, it was OK and normal for us to not always see eye to eye. I just had to love her, which I did and still do, because we have history – and you can’t erase that, no matter how many times someone prioritises a blow dry over spending time with you.
‘Hair looks nice,’ I say, because it does. It always does, she’s gorgeous. Skinny, blonde, perfect skin. It’s annoying, but mostly natural. Other than the hair colour.
‘Thanks. OK, can we drink champagne? I feel like I need something fizzy.’
I order two glasses but she shouts for a bottle. So there we are, sitting at a bar at 6.40 p.m. on a Friday, drinking champagne for no real reason.
‘I only have twenty minutes. I have a date with a guy called Al at seven.’ I smile a little, I have that pre-date hopeful buzz . . . maybe it will be a good one. But probably not.
‘God, I can’t believe you’re still dating, I can’t even imagine,’ she says. ‘Mind you, I never really dated like you do. Carl was my only ever formal date and I ended up marrying him, so it clearly works. Cheers to that!’
I still can’t accept that Sophie is married; she was so wild, almost feral. I don’t think I have ever met anyone with such a hungry attitude towards sex and partying. Her stamina for both was always fascinating to me.
‘So how is Carl?’
‘He’s good, yeah. You know, same old. Marriage is fine most of the time, as long as I don’t mention my past.’
‘Yup, it’s the big sexy elephant in the room. I mean he doesn’t know anything of course, I’d never tell him. But he’s made all these assumptions about me, and the kinds of things I used to get up to. Annoyingly, they’re all pretty accurate.’
‘But where’s he getting it all from?’ I ask.
‘He says he can’t understand how someone who looks like me didn’t get loads of sex when I was single.’
‘OK, you know that is actually quite insulting, right?’ I say, as I realise it is insulting, but that Carl is absolutely right. Sophie got a lot of sex.
‘Yesterday, Beth Taylor, remember her from school? She tagged me in an old photo on Facebook. It’s a picture of a load of us, we were about seventeen, and in the background I’m snogging some guy. She tagged me and wrote, “This is how I remember you, Sophie. Hope you’re well.” What a fucking idiot, why would she do that?’
‘Yeah, I saw that. I thought it was funny. And I suppose most people in their forties aren’t married to people who would give them a hard time for snogging someone when they were seventeen?’
‘True. Maybe, but still. I have to be so careful. He’s just so old fashioned and I need this to work. It’s just easier if I edit my past a little. The fucking Internet means I have to be on guard all the time. Anyone could tweet me, or post a picture of me from back then. Do you remember that time we went to Ibiza, the foam party? Thank God it was just before camera phones, but what if someone had one of those disposable cameras we all used to have and stumbles across me on Facebook? There’s probably pictures of me up to all bloody sorts. Jesus, I told Carl I’d never done drugs. He’d lose his shit if he knew the kind of stuff we used to do. As it is, every time a Facebook memory comes up I break into a cold sweat!’
I drink some champagne. ‘Hey, we had fun though, didn’t we?’ I say, giving her a wink.
‘I’ll drink to that!’
I don’t know how Sophie does it, being married to someone who won’t accept her for who she is. Playing a new role, with a new past. Watching Sophie coordinate her life around hiding who she was – is? – from her husband has been such a lesson to me, in terms of what I want. There is no way I want to find someone who won’t take me for what I am. I don’t want to have to lie, or hide, or deny anything. Sophie would never admit it, but she married Carl because she partied her entire life and isn’t qualified for anything she would enjoy, so a rich city guy was the only way she’d end up in a nice house and money to buy bottles of champagne when you only have twenty minutes to drink it in, and absolutely nothing to celebrate. I’d rather be poor and lonely.
‘OK, I better go, don’t want to be late for my hot date,’ I say, stepping down off the barstool. ‘Here’s some money for the champagne.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, that’s what this is for,’ she says, flashing Carl’s credit card. ‘Oh, and if he asks can you tell him we were with a bunch of people? It would make things easier.’
‘Sophie, we’ve been best friends since we were at primary school, does he still not like us going out together?’
‘Nope. When it’s only us he presumes we get up to bad stuff, that you’re a bad influence. Don’t look at me like that! Please, just say it was a few old faces from school. The more eyes he thinks are on me, the better he’ll think I behaved, OK?’
I sit back down.
‘It’s quite controlling, Sophie. It worries me,’ I say, forcing her to look me in the eye. She offers a little smile, then breaks away.
‘Maybe I need a bit of controlling?’ she says, sipping the champagne. ‘I can’t be left to my own devices, who knows what would happen.’ She shoots me a critical look, and I know what she means. We partied hard for most of our lives, but after I had Annie I had to stop. It became immediately clear that despite being wild myself, I was nothing compared to Sophie. Somehow, over the years I had stopped her from spiralling too far out of control. I hadn’t even realised I did it, but I took her home when she’d had too much, I dragged her out of bedrooms she shouldn’t have been in, I stopped her snorting more lines of coke than she should, prised shot glasses out of her hand. When I got pregnant, there was no one around to do that for her and we saw the danger of that instantly. I was six months gone when I found myself in A&E one Friday night. The hospital called me at two a.m., saying she’d been found in an alley with her skirt around her waist, so out of it she could barely say her name. I’d gone in immediately and found her crying in the hospital bed. She’d been roofied by a barman in a club. There were no signs that he’d done anything sexual to her, but judging by the bump on her forehead and the state of her clothes, he had obviously tried.
‘I can’t look after myself,’ she’d said, pathetically, looking up at me from the bed. ‘And you can’t look after me any more, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.’
I took her home and I did look after her, for a whole week. But then she went back to her place, to ‘start afresh’. She was determined to change, to grow up. There were a few more ‘incidents’, but then she met Carl. They were married within a year, and now she is being looked after as she wished, and as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I know she is probably better off for it. And she does love him, because he’s rich.
‘He’s good to me in other ways,’ she says, flashing the card again. ‘I’m happy, I promise. I love you.’
‘I love you too,’ I say, loyally. ‘I have to go.’
She pours herself another drink, and I remind myself it’s not my problem any more.
I walk into the Sanderson Hotel on Berners Street and look around the bar. This place is way more fancy than anywhere I would choose; I’m more a pub girl than a bar girl but hey, I’m not going to say no to posh drinks in a nice place if that is what the gentleman so wishes. I’m here to meet Al; his picture was nice, he works in the media, and he was free tonight. Those are three great reasons to go on a date, as far as I’m concerned. Mostly the bit about his picture being nice, of course.
I scan the bar and see him. He’s cute, but the photo was obviously an old one. His hair is much longer now, and his face much older. But that’s OK. I don’t judge people for using the most flattering photo of themselves for online dating, of course they do. Therefore, I always expect to be a little bit disappointed in real life, and hope their personality makes up for it. Al certainly looks older than his photo, but as I get closer to him, I realise he’s really, really gorgeous.
‘Hi,’ I say, sitting on the stool next to him. ‘This is so fancy, do you come here often?’
I’m joking. Obviously. No one ever actually says, ‘Do you come here often?’ He looks a little surprised that I take a seat. Was I supposed to ask his permission?
‘No, I haven’t been here before actually. I’m not the kind of guy who comes to places like this, if I’m honest.’
‘OK,’ I say, thinking it odd that he suggested it then. I’d never come to a posh hotel bar like this either, they reek of affairs.
‘What are you drinking?’ I ask, presuming he’s just a little nervous.
‘A Pisco Sour.’
‘Great, I’ll have the same.’ I gesture to the barman to bring me one over.
‘Just a drink though, OK? I’m not up for anything else,’ he says, sternly.
I am so stunned, the best response I can give him is my jaw falling open.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘I don’t mean to be rude. But I don’t like leading people on.’
‘I literally just walked in the door. Maybe I don’t fancy you either, thought of that?’ I say, stepping down off the stool.
‘Well, I suppose if you’re doing well and in a position to be picky, then that would make sense.’
‘Doing well? What? Just because I swiped right on your weird photo doesn’t mean I was gagging for you, it’s just dinner.’ I should walk away, but after dealing with Shane Bower and my boss, I’m done with not arguing back to misogynistic arrogant men who think it’s their God-given right to belittle women. Screw him.
‘I bet you’re married with kids and looking for some young piece of ass to fuck before you go home to them, aren’t you?’ I continue, a little surprised by my own vitriol.
‘Woah. Firstly, no, I’m not married and I don’t have kids. Secondly, what the hell does swiping right mean?’
‘What do you mean, “what the hell does swiping right mean”? Tinder. You know what I mean.’
‘Tinder? I’ve never been on Tinder in my life,’ he says, looking genuinely baffled.
I look properly at his face.
‘You’re not Al, are you?’
‘No, I’m not Al. And I take it you’re not a hooker?’
‘No! No, I am certainly not a hooker.’
He follows my eyes to the other end of the bar, where a guy with shorter brown hair in a grey shirt is angrily tapping away on his phone and simultaneously looking towards the door. I get my phone out of my bag. I have five messages from Al, each describing himself in more detail and asking ‘Which one are you?’
‘I’m Jason,’ he says, reaching a hand towards me.
‘Tara,’ I say, realising I am wildly attracted to him.
The barman brings over my drink.