© HELEN TOWNSEND 2013
I’m in love with Alison – I am, have been, will be – forever. We had our little fling – not so little – six months, but it didn’t work, even though we both wanted it to. But, a but that is only possible with a person like Alison, we’re still the best of friends. We were always friends, even after I realised I was gay, which is not part of this story.
I was working for the Royal Bank of Scotland – pre GFC, and she’d come to London, fresh out of a Swiss finishing school (true!!) and enrolled in a fashion design course. She was rubbish at the course, she couldn’t do it. She seemed to have no design sense until she actually saw a made-up garment and put it on. That’s when the magic started. But that’s not the point and it’s not even the point that she is entrancingly pretty. Peachy skin, small lips which are beautifully defined, big grey eyes, pale red hair, so pale it’s almost blonde, plus she’s tall and finely built. You can’t describe her, the whole is so much more than the parts.
However the real point is that she is a very high quality person apart from her looks – she’s kind, she’s open, she’s innocent. She’s so permanently innocent, it’s kind of heartbreaking. A lot’s happened to her – she’s 25 now, and mostly, the bad stuff has been her own doing, but she’s kept that innocence. You’d love her.
I was living in a flat with Griffin, who also worked in the Royal Bank of Scotland – we were both London School of Economics graduates. The bank had snapped us up the moment we graduated. I got to crunch numbers – I can do that, amazing calculations. I get the figures people need and want and present them in a way they can understand, but ironically, I have very little interest in numbers. At university I’d found out my brain could master a good many things, but I was too insecure to do anything except stats and maths which do have a certain solid reality. I took the bank job because they offered it and it meant I could live in a nice flat which I never had before. Griffin was much better suited to banking, smart and street smart. He knew how to sell products and how to make his way up the ladder. But we were good friends.
We had the posh flat and we spent quite a bit on our clothes and fine wines, so we were a bit short of cash and decided we needed a boarder. We thought it would be great to have a girl. Alison answered our ad and we said yes. It was love at first sight for both of us, actually, all of us. I fell for Alison, Griffin fell for Alison and Alison fell for me.
When I say love, I didn’t really understand what love was. I had had vague, disturbing feelings about men, but I always thought when the right girl came along I’d fall “in love”. I thought that’s what was happening with Alison, but it wasn’t. I love her, but love is different from “in love”.
She fell for me and so we fell into bed and even though the sex wasn’t that great, we were okay with it. Neither of us were what you would call experienced. It took ages for the penny to drop that the lack of frisson with the sex might be because I was bent in a different direction. We thought sex must be one of those over-rated things.
The trouble was, Griffin was in love with Alison then finally, I realised I was in love with Griffin, and I was sure if I had sex with Griffin, it could never ever be over-rated. Around the same time, Alison began to wonder if I was gay, and we sorted it out between us that clearly, I was. I felt in my bones that declaring my passion for Griffin to Griffin might not be a good idea. It wasn’t an eternal triangle, just one with sharp edges. My being gay isn’t the point of the story, but I pointed out to Alison that Griffin was in love with her and so that might be a nice segue for her. Which was too soon because she was in mourning over my gayness. And of course I was mourning not being heterosexual, although not very much or for very long. In that area, the biggest problem was that my family are incredibly religious, and their religion seems to be based on homophobia. But I won’t go there.
Alison and I got over our little affair and stayed friends. I still carried a torch for Griffin but he began seriously courting Alison. She was very very iffy about him, which I just could not fathom, given the object of her iffiness was the object of my dreams.
We were sitting on the lounge one night, watching some old thriller on the tele and finishing off pizza so I asked her why she wasn’t hot for Griffin.
“I know how much he wants to go out with me.” (Sleep with her really) “But I can’t.’
“It’s not because I don’t like him. He’s great. “
“So what is it?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“I’m your best friend.”
“I can’t tell you.”
Just then Griffin walked in the door and the conversation stopped and he got the last cold slice of pizza and sat up close to Alison on the couch and casually laid his arm along the back of the couch. She moved along a bit. It was obvious and therefore embarrassing, so when the thriller stopped being thrilling I put on my DVD of Singin’ in the Rain. You could still feel the tension but with Gene Kelly’s singing and dancing, things relaxed a little and Alison and Griffin start whispering.
“I do like you,” she protested.
“So why won’t you go out with me? Just the two of us.” He looked over at me as if I was some sort of pariah, but I wasn’t moving. After all, I’d been in a relationship with her and I wanted to be in one with him. It was my business too. Plus I was watching the movie. I love that movie.
“I like you,” she said. “We get on. Why don’t we leave it there?”
He lay back, sort of annoyed, so I got the dope out. I’d decided we all needed to relax if anything was going to happen. I rolled a joint, lit it and passed it round. We all got a bit giggly and Griffin started in on her again.
“We’d be great together. Why don’t you just try it? I’m not asking you to marry me, just go out. Why not?”
“I can’t tell you,” she said. “It’s not very nice.”
“I hope it’s not a disease,” I said.
They both looked at me as if I was a lower form of life.
“Sorry, it’s the dope talking.”
“What’s not nice?” Griffin asked Alison, ignoring me.”I’d rather know the truth. I’ll still be your friend.”
“I can’t tell you because I’m so ashamed.” She took a deep suck on the joint and handed it to him. “You’ll hate me if I tell you.”
“Oh fuck,” he said. “I’ll hate you if you don’t. There’s chemistry between us.” Which is such a corny thing to say, but there was that love/hate thing you get which can turn into big love. That sort of big chemistry.
“Tell him,” I said. “I’m dying of curiosity too.”
She took another drag on the joint. “Okay, but you can’t throw me out of the flat tonight. I’ll go in the morning.” She took a deep breath. “I’m racially prejudiced at this point in my life and I am ashamed… Look I shouldn’t be saying this to a black person, it’s so offensive…” But Griffin was giggling.
“Like how? Tell me about your racial prejudice.” He said this like racial prejudice was a weird and wonderful thing. “Ma black black face, ma black body.” He put on a West Indian accent.
And then Alison started raving on about what her mother used to say about black people and how they’d only just come down from the trees. Alison herself didn’t think that and she’d like not to feel any of that stuff, but she did. But he was still laughing so her crazy confession got braver.
“Mummy used to talk about black people’s hands.” She took Griffen’s hand and held it tenderly. She turned it over and stroked his fingers and looked at it close up and then from a distance. We were stoned, truly stoned. “Now look, it’s black on the top side,” she said, “and then on the other side, it’s white, except the creases are sort of black. Mummy thought that was because black people didn’t wash their hands properly, but when I look at it now, I can see it’s not. In fact, it’s kind of cool.” She stroked the palm of his hand. “You’re brought up one way and it takes a while to get over. Mummy was the same about poor people.”
“What? They have dirty hands too?” asked Griffen. Then he takes her hand and looks at it intently. “Your hand isn’t actually white, it’s sort of pinkish and brown on the back. And kind of grubby.” They were both giggling.
“I don’t feel so bad now,” she said.
“Anyway, I’m racially prejudiced.” Griffin said. “I see white girls and I want them. I want them because they’re white. Theys is the symbol of de masta race.” He was doing the accent again. “I needs a white girl, because of every little thing about them that’s not like me.” He picked a piece of limp pizza up and ate it. “I’ve had white girls as status symbols. And they have me as their token black lover. Or they want to see how big a black penis is.”
I think, should I put my hand up here?
“I had a white girlfriend who acted like she was doing me a favour, but I knew I was doing her a favour.”
“Because you have a big penis?” I asked.
We smoked another joint and soon Alison was holding his hand and snuggling into him, to re-assure him that she liked him despite being so racially prejudiced. She finished her off black/white colour spiel and he started kissing her hand. At that point I was so whacked that I went to sleep at their feet and when I woke up, I was alone and they were in Griffin’s bedroom.
We were okay, the three of us. We had parties and movie nights and pizza in front of the TV. Griffin and Alison were an item. I could now be who I truly was. I still loved Alison and I was a bit in love with Griffin, although that was my little secret and not part of this story, which has strayed a bit from its point anyway. But I had boyfriends and so my love of Griffin wasn’t so exquisitely painful any more.
The thing that did begin to worry me was that Alison got smashed a lot. We never corked a bottle of wine because she’d finish it. And her eyes would go all skew-whiff and her mouth would get all red inside and her lips would lose their definition and sometimes she’d sleep with someone she wished she hadn’t, which Griffin didn’t like one bit. And finally, he left and we were only sort of friends with him, the way it mostly is with ex-lovers.
When she was actually drinking, as opposed to “undrinking”, which is what we called it when she threw up in the morning, Alison wasn’t nasty or maudlin. She did get a little teary, but that was all. It was what it was doing to her .
“You’re not half as sharp as when you’re sober. And you get sort of unconnected from people too.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but that might be a good thing sometimes.”
I knew about drinking too much because until I was ten, we were an ordinary Church of England family. Being C. of E. defined who we were rather than what we believed. But then my dipsomaniac Aunt Julie, Mum’s sister, who’d always enjoyed herself a bit too much at Christmas and sometimes had crying jags on her birthday, tipped over into being an outrageous drunk. She drank every day, starting at breakfast and staying the course until late into the night. Her marriage broke up and she got angry and mean and had car crashes. Mum went on a mission to save Aunt Julie. The major part of this mission was to join a fundamentalist sect where she met my step-father, and together they made the rest of my childhood a misery, with all their praying and praising the lord and no TV on the Sabbath, to say nothing of loony ideas on almost every other topic, especially the wickedness of gay people. And it was totally pointless, because Aunt Julie went to AA and got sober and had a really fun life with fellow A.A. member who is a complete treasure of a bloke. She never needed all that praying they did on her behalf.
“I worry about that sherry or five you have every afternoon,” I told Alison.
“It’s just because I’m stressed. I’m so bad at this course.”
“The solution would be to give up the course.” I got stern. “But the grog’s really your problem. You use that very classy glass to imbibe your sherry, but you swig it down damn fast. Then when you see me, you act like a kid that’s been caught.”
“That’s how I feel,” she said. “I used to feel the same when Mummy had a card party in the afternoon, and she got cross if I drank too much because if I did she’d be short of a drink herself. But in the end she just let it go and bought enough for me and her.”
“When did you start this tippling at the card parties?”
“I guess I was about nine.”
“That tells me something. Something called alcoholic. And I bet your mother is too. Drink fiends the both of you.”
Her parents were middle class rich and her dad was an investment adviser or something like that and he paid Alison an allowance which meant she didn’t have to work while she was doing her course.
Then there was the GFC, not to be mixed up with Roald Dahl’s BFG, which is the Big Friendly Giant. Anyway, that’s a side issue. The Royal Bank of Scotland had to let me go. And unlike those guys who had done the really wicked deals with shonky products, I didn’t get a golden handshake for not doing them, which seems wrong. Although it’s what you’d expect considering the skewed morality of the banking sector. Still, it was a relief not to work there.
Actually, not that much of a relief because I hadn’t saved any money and no one was hiring ex bank staff. In fact, no one was hiring anybody for anything. And we had this expensive flat. And Alison’s Dad went bust so he couldn’t pay her allowance any more. She was really upset, because people who had used her old man as an investment adviser were saying he was a cheat and a thief, which, she explained he wasn’t because he’d invested in the same crap he advised his clients to buy and he was bankrupt. So Alison went back home for the weekends to give her parents comfort which seemed to involve a lot of sherry drinking. One Sunday she came back with a black Labrador because their house was being re-possessed. They weren’t exactly moving into a council flat, but it was a flat and they couldn’t have their fat old black Labrador there.
“He’s called Mozart,” she told me. “From when I used to learn piano and play Fur Elise.”
“That’s by Beethoven.”
“Really? I can’t change his name now, he’s 11. And anyway you can’t call out “Beethoven” to a dog. It’d sound silly.”
“True, and he has a bit of a look of Mozart about him.” He was a lovely old dog, very good natured, with a gentle wag of his tail whenever he saw you. He had stubby legs and was on a bit on the small side, so he didn’t really look like Mozart. No labs do. I call them labs because country people call them labs and it makes me sound like a posh country person which I’m not, which is not the point of the story. Mozart had doggy dreams and yelped in his sleep as if he was chasing ducks or doing something rural. He was happy as long as he had a good spot in front of the heater and got all the left over pizza, which unfortunately made him fart. Alison adored him.
I made a deal with a friend that Alison and me and Mozart could live in his warehouse, which was cheap and cheerless. I started making these waistcoats in team colours because the football season was coming up. Mum had sort of come round to me being gay.
“At least your sister’s not a LESBICAN,” she said, “but she can’t use the sewing machine, so you can have it.” That was as close to gay pride as Mum has ever got.
I was good at sewing and the friend had a stall at Camden markets. It was Alison’s job to sell my stuff and the friend’s imports from Mexico on the stall. She stayed sober enough for work, but then she’d get very drunk and worry about her parents having to live in a flat and having no money and her father reviled by his former friends.
“Daddy’s the best man in the world. He’s so honest, and kind…” She’d burst into floods of tears. I was sympathetic, but I must say, there were a few stories which revealed Daddy as somewhat duplicitous or, at best, fearfully stupid. So there were limits to my sympathy and Alison and I weren’t quite so close. She did tend to fade to black with so much sherry going down.
We didn’t socialise together the way we used to. I was off with my friends and she’d met some crowd at the markets. She liked them. “But they’re terribly poor,” she said.
“Like us, honey,” I said, but she didn’t get it.
She went to parties and she’d come home drunk and stoned on god knows what. I was worried enough to warn her about wandering round London late at night, so she started taking Mozart with her. He was well intentioned, but totally useless as protection. He loved everyone he met and he had terrible arthritis. He couldn’t have jumped up to tear holes in an attacker’s throat – he’d barely get to the knee, but Alison steadfastly maintained he’d come good in a crisis.
One night, we went to a party together, her and me and Mozart. It was my friend’s party so I knew it’d be more stylish and more fun than the usual parties and pub nights. There was going to be a DJ, but I think Alison came because she knew there’d be high class drink and high class drugs and high class people of which she used to be one. We got there and it was all that, and great fun too. Everyone loved Mozart, they just adored him. And someone who was very stoned gave him a hash cookie and he went puppy crazy and everyone laughed at this gorgeous old tubby bit of lard high as a kite. Except Alison. She was shit faced, but she started talking about animal rights and how she knew about dogs and she came from the country where people didn’t take drugs and they certainly didn’t give them to Labradors. All the time she was trying to calm Mozart down. That was the right thing to do and everything she was saying was right, but she sounded like a right upper class twit. People were sending her up.
Eventually most people went home and everyone else crashed on the floor, including me and Alison and Mozart.
Alison woke up round 6 a.m. and started screaming. That woke me up, but not Mozart.
“Mozart’s dead, he’s dead, you killed him, you bastards.”
He was dead. She wanted to call the police and have an inquest and an autopsy. Someone said we definitely didn’t want to involve the police and they wouldn’t be interested in the death of an old Labrador, which could have been due to natural causes anyway. She was lying on Mozart crying her eyes out. People were sympathetic because they didn’t want her calling the police, so once she’d been talked out of it, they left her with me and the DJ who had a crush on her.
There was the question of the body.
“Honey, what do you want to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to take him back home to the country. There’s a nice little wood near where Mummy and Daddy used to live when they had money and I’m going to bury him there.” And she started sobbing again, but she was set on burying Mozart in this wood, returning him to his birthplace, a stone cross for all I know. I said I’d help.
The DJ had this great big purpose-made bag for his equipment, and since he had a thing for her, he offered her the loan of the bag to take Mozart back to his birthplace.
“You’ll have to bring the bag back though,” he said. “They cost a bit. But then we could go out to dinner.”
So we packed poor old Mozart into the bag, which was actually very difficult, because it was big, but not quite long enough for a Labrador and Alison kept saying, “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him.” The DJ had gone back to sleep and Alison and I decided to catch the train to her village to bury Mozart. We set off to walk to the Tube. Mozart was bloody heavy, so we tried carrying the bag together, which was awkward. Then we took it in turns, but she was too distraught to really do her turns, so by the time we got to the station my back hurt like hell. We were just about to get a great long escalator up to the top platform, when my back went into an incredible spasm and I dropped the Mozart bag. I was in agony. Alison was sweet about it. She gave me a hug, said I was her only friend and she’d never been so sad in her life. She had a little cry – this bit felt like it went on forever because she was so hung over and emotional, but then she took the bag and got on the escalator and said I should just follow her up there when my back felt better. I watched as she went up the escalator, way, way up, and then a guy, out of nowhere, sprinted up the escalator, past her, and in a very fluid movement, relieved her of Mozart’s body bag. A train was about to pull off at the station and he neatly jumped on.
That, the DJ told us later, was perfectly logical, because what else would anyone think was in it apart from pricey DJ equipment? He was very nice about it.
Among people who heard the story there was a lot of speculation on the thief guy’s reaction when he opened the bag and found Mozart. And there was a general feeling that it was a good thing for me that I didn’t have to perform a funeral ceremony in some country wood for poor old Mozart. Plus my back would not have been up to grave digging. And I don’t know what sort of eulogy you give a Labrador. There was a funny side to it, but I didn’t really appreciate it because Alison drank even more after that and, in addition, she seemed to be having a nervous breakdown. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t work and she drank an awful lot of sherry. After two weeks of this, I called her mother. Her mother sounded very worried, but unfortunately she was worried about herself, because she couldn’t eat or sleep and sounded like she was drinking a lot of sherry too.
So I rang Aunt Julie and said that while I didn’t know if Alison was an actual alcoholic, the sherry wasn’t helping and could she, Aunt Julie, and her lovely bloke come and give me advice on how to manage the situation.
“I think it might be unmanageable,” she said. “Tell her I’m in AA and ask her if she’d like me to come and see her.” Surprisingly, after some pressure from me, Alison agreed it would be nice to have a visitor. She thought I didn’t understand she had to drink, whereas someone who was an alcoholic would understand.
“I certainly do understand,” Aunt Julie told her. Alison cried and cried and cried and I thought the whole thing was hopeless, but Aunt Julie helped her get dressed and they went to an AA meeting. After that, Aunt Julie took her to loads of meetings and they talked on the phone and Alison slowly got back to who she was. Actually, she was even better than she had been, sort of deeper. It was as if she’d trying too hard to be someone else and had come back to who she actually was. It took months and months and months to get her sober and over the effects of all the drinking, but it worked.
“Why do you keep going to the meetings now?” I asked her one night. It was about a year later and she still went to a meeting almost every night. “We’ve got the business going fine, you look great, you’re doing brilliantly in your course.”
“I like to listen to other people’s stories,” she said. “And sometimes, I tell mine. I stand up and I say, “Hullo, my name is Alison and I’m an alcoholic”. Sometimes I say I’m there because of a very lovely black Labrador called Mozart. And then I tell how I’d been drinking afternoon sherries since I was a kid and how I’d done a whole lot of drinking and drugging in London – stuff that even you never knew about. I say how my poor mother has a problem with sherry too. And I tell the bit about Mozart being body snatched and what a mess I was and how you called Julie and just how good my life is now and how the program helps me with the good bits and the bad bits. When I sit down, I always think, What if I forget this? What would happen to me if I drank again? So I keep going to the meetings.”
There’s just one more bit to this story. Alison and I still share a place, but it’s not somebody’s warehouse, it’s a nice little terrace. We do fashion for the markets and we’re developing a line of handbags for a couple of boutiques. Our lives are good. I have a boyfriend, but she says she doesn’t want one, not yet, she’s happy for now and a relationship feels scary. A.A. people go on a bit like that, but I think really, she’s a girl who’s serious about most things she does, and that’s why poor old Mozart dying and then being bodysnatched nearly killed her. But of course it helped her in the end.
Anyway, the other night, she came home from an AA meeting. She walked in, sat down looking really serious. She sat there, just shaking her head, breathing in and out loudly, almost like she was panting, and saying “Oh boy!” over and over.
“What?” I said.
“I’ll tell you – this is so freaky. This meeting tonight, it’s mainly people who are in rehab, they bring them to the meeting on a bus and some of them are so bad they barely know their own name. They’re mostly too sick to say anything, but we ask them if they want to stand up, give their name, maybe identify as an alcoholic, even tell us something about themselves.
“Most of them just mumble something or maybe say just a sentence or two. But this guy tonight, he stands up and he gives his name and he tells us about this dream he has all the time and it freaks him totally. It freaks him so much that he drinks himself blind so he’ll be too out of it to dream. And he’s never told this dream to anyone before. So everyone at the meeting is really paying attention. It’s dead quiet. All eyes on this guy.
“And his dream is that he’s going up the escalator at Kings Cross station and he sees this chick with this big bag of DJ gear and he powers up and grabs it and jumps on a train. And on the train, he’s got it on his knee and he’s thinking he’s a DJ and he’s laughing and having fantasies of money and fame – general alkie crap. But then, he takes the bag home and he opens it up and inside….”
She smiled. “So now there are two people at AA because of Mozart.”
I’d like to drink a toast to Mozart, but that wouldn’t be right. So we order in pizza, sit on the couch and talk about life and the black Labrador called Mozart.