Extract from 'Men'
In my life I’d had about five boyfriends and one abortion. I was twenty-six years old and my family said I hadn’t met the right person. I didn’t think there was a right or wrong person for me, they were all just different. A person was right one day, and the next he was wrong. I’d had a near collision with marriage once, about five years ago. I’d had this ridiculous naïve pride that no man would ever want to finish a relationship with me, but my fiancé did on the grounds of my infidelity, which he found out through reading my diary. Afterwards, half of me hoped he’d get over me and find the woman he deserved, and the other half hoped he’d be embittered for ever. I never heard of him again. For a long time after, every time I saw a reminder of him —an old letter, a photograph, a book he’d bought me, it affected me… Joe had tight curly, black hair, the whitest teeth and nice green eyes. They were sad-looking eyes because he had top-heavy eyelids, but it wasn’t his nature. He liked all the lads’ things, like drinking beer and playing pool, but his most favourite was watching Newcastle play football on the box and yelling abuse at the screen. For all his braying over football, I liked his laidback character and he knew how to treat women well, which was why I agreed to move with him from Newcastle to Gillingham. Perhaps it was the drink that united us. We both signed on the dole in Gillingham, and his Mum, who was living locally, found him a job working cash-in-hand as a barman. When it was a sunny afternoon and all the customers were outside, he’d ring me to come over and pour me free beers. He was thoughtful like that. We got on fine. In three months’ time he was due to start work as a trainee pub manager with a big brewery. I think his mother, Nikaya, had some half-cocked idea that Joe and I were going to get married in the near future. I didn’t like Nikaya much. She was always touching the breasts of a big rugby player who came into the pub. Joe’s stepfather, Ivan, was usually drunk and obnoxious and his backside teetered on the edge of the barstool. The previous year he’d successfully won compensation from another pub when he’d fallen off his barstool and broken his leg. The times Joe worked in the bar, I was writing in our run-down, rented bungalow. My words were gradually materializing into a love story about scum/salt of the earth—in my experience there was no intrinsic difference between the two and it depended on perspective, like most things. I would start with a beer every morning, then quickly drink down a coffee. The way I looked at it, the beer loosened my hangover from the night before, relaxed me, and the coffee would keep me awake. It seemed to work. I was fairly romping through the pages. Fifteen, twenty pages a day. Joe had bought me a second-hand computer. He was a great guy really. I had a provisional title—‘Life is Everywhere’ by Tara Shaw. It felt reassuring to write it down. It gave a touch of tangibility to the airiness of it all. Writing to me felt unreal. It terrified me. I half-expected the letters to crawl off the page one night and join the woodlice which kept creeping in under the back door. One afternoon we were sitting on the sofa in the front room while Joe read my work. ‘Who is this guy you’re writing about?’ ‘No one. Just a composite.’ ‘Is it an ex?’ ‘No. It’s a literary combination of—of Mr Darcy and Alfie.’ Oh, right. So, you’re telling me this Mr Arsey doesn’t exist?’ ‘Yes, so don’t feel inferior to him.’ ‘Me, I wouldn’t feel inferior to a paper cut-out, Tara. But you didn’t make these sex scenes up, did you?’ ‘Don’t you believe I have an imagination? Don’t you credit me with anything?’ If he was going to go on in this vein, there was going to be a scene. ‘Imagination,’ he scoffed. ‘What’s eating you, anyway? You can’t expect to have been the first.’ ‘I won’t play second fiddle to anyone.’ He looked sulky. ‘Come on, Joe. Who could compete with literature?’ He looked away and I was pissed off too. ‘Yeah, well, great. I’m hungry. Will you make me a bacon sandwich?’ He got up and walked out of the room but not in the direction of the kitchen. After a few minutes I followed him into the bedroom. He was lying on the bed and I flopped down beside him, putting my arm around him. ‘Want to fuck?’ I asked. He groaned but there was a promising glimmer of a grin. I shook him roughly. ‘Well. Anything wrong still?’ He gave me that wide-toothed sexy smile. ‘I just thought I was what you liked.’ ‘Baby, you are. I love you.’ We kissed. I made a mental note to make all future sex scenes sound more like those Joe and I enjoyed. The reading of the sex scenes seemed to prey on Joe’s mind. They made him dig deep into his subconscious, perhaps even inspired him. The next night he told me his deepest sexual fantasy. I was surprised but I said we could try sometime. It made a change from the simple fetish of wanting his back scratched during sex. Like a lot of people, Joe had a thing to get off on. People have something done to them once in sex and they make a habit of it. In my opinion it was a bit dull but at least it made you easily satisfied. This hidden desire, however, I understood. I always thought there was a touch of the woman in Joe. He was quite fleshy, curvaceous even which maybe sounds unfitting in a man but was quite a turn on, something different. His mother had been voluptuous (now pendulous), his sister was gorgeously voluptuous, adored by all men, and he was a masculinized version of the same. I liked the fact that he was even shapelier than me, and he had really fine legs. I wasn’t so narrow-minded to have a ‘type’ of man I liked. And I didn’t think it was odd to want your girlfriend to fuck you.