Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Love is a Four-Letter Word’ by Claire Calman.
Love Is A Four Letter Word
She sees herself fall in slow motion, the toe of her shoe catching on the edge of the paving-stone, her arm reaching out in front of her, her hand a pale shape like a leaf against a dark sky. The pavement swims towards her, its cracks the streets of a city seen from a skyscraper, the texture of the concrete slabs suddenly sharply in focus.
It is not a bad fall: a swelling on her left knee destined to become an outsize bramble-stain bruise, a stinging graze on the heel of her hand, a buggered pair of decent tights. Back at home, Bella balances half a bag of frozen broad beans on the knee and sips at a glass of Shiraz. She tells herself it is not a bad fall, but when she wakes the next morning it is as if a switch has been thrown, draining off all her energy in the night. She leans against the kitchen worktop to drink her coffee, not daring to sit down because she knows she will never get up again.
Overnight, London seems to have become a grotesque parody of a metropolis, no longer bustling and stimulating but loud and abrasive. Litter flies up from the gutters. Grit pricks her eyes. She feels fragile, a rabbit caught in the target-beam of headlights. Buses loom out of nowhere, bearing down on her. Cyclists swerve to avoid her, bellowing abuse. She tenses each muscle in her body when she crosses the road, imagines she can hear the thud-thudding of her heart. When someone bumps into her in the street, she thinks she will splinter into tiny fragments. In her mind, she sees her body shatter and the pieces shower through the air like the explosion of a firework, tinkling like glass as each one strikes the pavement. She imagines them coming to sweep her up so they could painstakingly reassemble her, but shards of her are left behind, unnoticed in the gutter, hidden by a litter bin or a lamp-post.
Her doctor is unsympathetic, sighing through his nostrils as she answers his questions. Months of overworking, he says. Prolonged stress. What else did she expect? Did she want to have a serious collapse? If so, she was certainly going the right way about it. No tablets, he says, no prescription. Time off. Rest. Rethink your life. That’s it? she asks. That’s it.
Her boss is unsurprised.
‘You’re no use to me half-dead,’ he says. ‘Sod off to the Caribbean for a month. Drink Mai-Tais till dawn and shag some waiters.’
The Caribbean? She is so exhausted she’d be lucky to make it down the road to the travel agent. Perhaps they could administer her Mai-Tais via a drip.
Visiting her good friends Viv and Nick in the Kentish city where they now live, she wanders at convalescent pace through the web of narrow streets, past lopsided houses and ancient flint walls. She focuses on one task at a time, as if she were a stroke victim learning afresh each skill she had previously taken for granted. Then, meandering down a quiet side street near the river, she sees the For Sale board.
Compared with the London flat she had rented with Patrick, no. 31 is a delight. Sunny. Spacious. With a proper garden rather than a sad, overshadowed strip of concrete. Yes, says Viv, a fresh start is just what Bella needs. Plenty of companies would jump at the chance to have someone with her experience.
She seems to enter a trance then, dealing with the solicitor, the building society. Writing job applications. Forms, paperwork become a welcome distraction, tangible things to focus on – things she can solve. You take a pen, fill in the spaces in neat block capitals. The questions are straightforward: Name. Address. Bank Details. Current Salary. You do it all properly and you get the result you were aiming for. It feels like magic.
She moves smoothly through the weeks on automatic pilot, gliding through her notice period at work, her smile efficiently in place, her projects on schedule. Now that she knows she is leaving, she cuts down on her hours, and fills her evening with paperwork and planning, even relishing each hitch and setback – the vendor’s pedantry about the garden shed, the surveyor’s discovery of damp – as something she can get her teeth into.
In her neat ring-binder, sectioned with coloured card dividers, she can find any particular piece of paper in an instant. The rings click closed with a satisfying clunk, containing her, keeping her life in order. She transfers her accounts, her doctor, her dentist, sends out exquisitely designed change-of-address cards. This is easy: making phone calls, folding A4 letters into three and sliding them into envelopes, measuring for curtains. And it fills her head. She needs it to hold her, as if each stage of Buying the House is a sharp staple grasping together the sections of an ancient cracked plate.
Now that she was here, this didn’t seem like quite such a brilliant idea. Around her, on all sides stretched a cubist landscape of cardboard boxes. The removal men had thoughtfully set them down in such a way as to make traversing the room an epic expedition, necessitating the use of ropes, crampons and teams of huskies. And the heating had decided not to work. Of course. No doubt the vendor had extracted some vital organ from the boiler the moment they had exchanged contracts. He had taken the art of pettiness to new heights – or was it depths? – arguing over every fitting and fixture, frequently phoning Bella, his manner swinging between smarmy and covertly aggressive. He was sure she would like to buy his wrought-iron wall lights; they were practically new. No, she said, she wouldn’t. The built-in shelves? She had assumed they were, well, built-in. What about the curtain tracks? The stair carpet? It still had plenty of wear in it, he insisted, hanging on in there like a dog unwilling to relinquish a bone. ‘Mmm,’ she agreed non-committally, deciding its durability was a disadvantage unless you wanted to design your decor around a theme of khaki ripple. He was obviously attached to it, she pointed out, clearly he must take it with him.
Now, sitting on the stairs, trying not to catch her jeans on the exposed gripper strip, she stretched out one foot to flip open the lid of the nearest box. Loo brush, bubble-wrapped mirror, squeaky rubber crocodile. Oh-oh. She checked the label on the side: BTH. Marvellous. That was supposed to be upstairs. In the bth. How much clearer could she have made it? Evidently, she should have written BOX FOR BATHROOM (THAT MEANS UPSTAIRS – THE ROOM WITH THE BATH IN IT). Something else to add to The List: lugging downstairs boxes upstairs and upstairs boxes downstairs.
Her gaze fell on the puckered and peeling paintwork above the skirting board. The only house in the street with psoriasis. The damp. That ought to be top of the list – certainly above getting the sash cords fixed or redecorating the bathroom or Polyfillaing the crack in the study or painting a mural on the end wall of the garden or… In her mind, The List stretched out before her, a rippling paper path, unrolling itself to infinity.
There was a banging on the front door.
‘Why didn’t you use the bell, you old bag?’
‘I did. It obviously doesn’t work, slag-face.’ Viv gave Bella a hug and pushed a gold cardboard box into her hands.
‘Just what I need. A cardboard box. I was running dangerously low on them. How on earth did you guess?’
‘It’s cakes. Emergency rations. My God – are all the rooms as full as this?’ Viv waggled her head in disbelief, sending her precariously pinned carroty hair lurching from side to side.
‘I seem to have more stuff than I thought.’ Bella shrugged. ‘What’s in them all?’
‘I don’t know. Books. Paints. Kitchen things. Families of refugees. You know, stuff.’
Viv opened a nearby box. ‘Old exhibition catalogues?’
‘I’ve been meaning to go through them and weed out the ones I don’t want, but I haven’t got around to it yet.’
‘Is that the Kreuzer family motto: Dulce et decorum est procrastinati…?’
‘Thank you for those few charming words. Make yourself useful, can’t you? Help me look for the kettle. It’s in a box marked KTCH, which stands for kitchen not kitsch before you make any smart-arse comments – it’s probably up in the BTH.’
* * *
That first night in her new home, Bella left a light on as she always did – she’d had to dash out to the late-night corner shop to buy light bulbs because the vendor had removed every single one of them. She lay awake, looking at the slit of light under the bedroom door. I ought to be feeling excited, she told herself. New house. New job. New city. I mustn’t be so negative. So what if I’ve only got one week to sort out the house before I start at Scotton Design? So the house needs a few things seeing to? That’s why it was so reasonable. A counter voice cut in: Are you completely clueless? As if you didn’t have enough on your plate without turning your entire life upside down. Now you’ll be living in mouldy chaos for ever and you don’t even know anyone here except for Viv and Nick and you can’t expect to see them all the time. They’ve got each other. They don’t need you.
As her eyelids drooped, she thought of Patrick. If he’d been here with her now, what would he be doing? Snoring, probably, she reminded herself sharply. He’d have liked the house, she decided, yawning and snuggling down under the duvet. That was the bugger about not having a chap around the place. He would have got the damp sorted. And the boxes. No, she thought, he wouldn’t: Patrick would have stepped over the boxes, saying, ‘We really must sort these out.’ But at least he would have rubbed her cold feet to warm them up.
Bella bit her lip. Enough with the self-pity, OK? She considered the plus points: lovely house of her very own, with loads of potential especially now Mr Petty had stripped it of his beloved wall lights and nauseating carpets; near Viv so her phone bill would plummet because they wouldn’t have to have their epic long-distance calls any more; no longer having to hold her breath every time her colleague Val (known as Valitosis) came within exhalation range; interesting new job that should be less stressful. Yes, she comforted herself, less stress, that was the main thing. No more having her face stuffed into someone else’s armpit on the tube. No more spending a fortune on taxis to get home safely late at night. No more dingy flat where she had to have the lights on even in the daytime. No more thoughts of Patrick confronting her every time she opened the front door to a flatful of silence. She made herself do her Pollyanna voice – Golly gosh, wasn’t she just the luckiest girl in the whole wide world, a fresh start. Gee, it sure was exciting. She could hardly wait.
Right. Pens, briefcase. Shoes polished. Lipstick. Hair. Oh, bollocks. It wasn’t supposed to do that. It made her look like a sheepdog that had been lolloping through the undergrowth. She stuck out her tongue and panted to complete the effect. Perhaps her hair would be better pinned up? She scooped it up off her neck and made what she hoped was an elegant face in the mirror. Tremendous – now she resembled a coiffured poodle. She had a hat somewhere. Out There, in the Box Zone, there was definitely a fetching little item of headgear. The question was: which box? She kicked the nearest one as if it might make a hat-containing-type noise. A look at her watch. Now was not the time to start hunting for hats. And what would she do with it anyway? She could hardly keep it on all day. Perhaps she could claim to be Muslim. Or having chemotherapy. She stood at the kitchen sink and drank a glass of water to settle her stomach. Good grief, this was worse than going on a date or preparing for her first day at school. You’re thirty-three for God’s sake, she told herself. They’re not going to pick on you or try to nick your pencil case.
* * *
Mummy stands talking to Mr Bowndes, the headmaster. She lays a hand on his arm and tilts her head back as she laughs. Bella looks down at her own feet, at her new shoes. They are navy blue with shiny silver buckles and straps that are still too stiff to do up herself. It is September but she is wearing pristine white ankle socks with neat blue anchors around the cuffs. The other girls, she sees, have knee-length grey socks. Autumn socks.
Through her new blue felt hat she feels a pat on her head. She looks up. ‘So nice to see a pupil properly dressed with the correct school hat,’ says Mr Bowndes, leaning towards Mummy, ‘So few parents bother now.’
He laughs as if he is making a joke, but Bella supposes it must be a grown-up joke because she does not know what is funny.
‘But it’s so charming, I think, no?’ Mummy does that thing with her voice, almost as if she is going to start singing, and taps the brim of Bella’s hat with one long finger.
Standing still in her hat, Bella imagines she is a navy blue mushroom. She wishes she were in the woods, her feet sunk in velvet moss, her toenails growing, stretching, becoming roots in the earth. Rabbits would stop and talk to her and tickle her with their noses. She would listen to the leaves as they rustled in the wind.
Mr Bowndes waves bye-bye to her mother then deposits Bella with an older girl who shepherds her to the correct classroom.
She is the only one wearing a hat.
* * *
It took her longer to find Scotton Design than she had expected. This was probably because she was coming at it from the other way round, she decided. Still, there seemed to be a Brigadoon-like quality to the place. Surely it had been down that turning just past the shoe shop? Hang on a tick – last time, she’d come from the station, so that meant she should have turned left back there, not right. Or did it? She stood still for a moment, trying to ignore the flutter of panic rising in her stomach. A passer-by sighed loudly as he detoured around her, impatient at yet another gawping tourist blocking the pavement. The tower of the cathedral loomed large to her left – ah-hah, cathedral on left, so – yes, past greasy chip shop and Waterstone’s.
Renewing old London habits, she veered automatically into a café as she neared the office, to pick up a cappuccino and a Danish. Excess froth splurged out of the steam hole in the lid, sidling lava-like towards her fingers.
She was still licking her fingers as she entered the reception area to be greeted by her new boss.
‘Bella! You’re here! Great!’ Seline checked her watch. ‘New client meeting at 2! But I’m out most of the morning so I’ll have to brief you in two mins! OK!’
‘Fine!’ Bella lifted her voice, attempting to interject exclamation marks to match Seline’s tone. Had she really been like this at her two interviews? ‘Of course!’ She looked around for somewhere to set down her cascading coffee. Tomorrow, she’d be sure to get herself a quadruple espresso so she could boost her energy levels and not sound like the dormouse from Alice in Wonderland by comparison.
‘Gail! Do the honours, will you!’
‘Here – let me take those.’ Gail disentangled Bella from her cup, her coat, her briefcase. ‘Pay no attention to Seline. She’s just trying to impress ‘cause you’re t’ swanky art director from t’ big city. There’s the loo, by the way – kitchen – coffee-maker – tea bags in there. Now come and meet the other inmates…’
* * *
‘Shall we go to the tapas place again?’ said Viv on the phone the next day. ‘But I always go there – is it too pathetic?’
‘Why spend ages traipsing around town hunting for somewhere new just to prove you’re an exciting, adventurous person who doesn’t always go to the same two restaurants when you already know that you aren’t adventurous and they are clearly the two best places to go? Count yourself lucky you’ve not got much choice.’
‘Neither have you. You live here too now, remember?’
‘Yes, but I’ve retained some semblance of urban sophistication, whereas you probably think focaccia is a Romanian folk-dance.’
For now at least, Bella genuinely preferred this provincial paucity of choice. In London, she had felt like a hero from Greek legend faced with an impossible dilemma: Patrick used to narrow it down in stages – first, by continent, then country. ‘Right, Europe. Italian, French, Greek?’ Then to the quest for the elusive Holy Trinity of decent food, friendly service and good atmosphere, juggling combinations until it was almost too late to be worth going. ‘The Conca d’Oro has that nice waitress but the veg was soggy last time.’
‘Le Beaujolais? Good chips but can you handle the look of condescending superiority when you ask for vinegar?’
* * *
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’ Viv swept into the tapas bar twenty minutes late. ‘There was a complete crisis at work. The entire network crashed because some total arsehole plugged in a hair-dryer and overloaded the electrics.’ Viv loved a good crisis. They ordered a couple of beers, and debated over whether the pinchos morunos or the pollo al ajillo was a better bet.
‘What do you think?’ Viv indicated the waiter with her eyebrows. ‘Bit tasty?’
Bella wrinkled her nose.
‘You’re so fussy. I thought you liked Latin men?’
‘He’s probably from Bromley,’ Bella said. ‘I know, I know. I’ll never get anyone at this rate. You sound just like my mother.’
‘Did I say that? Of course you’ll find someone else. No need to panic – not for ages and ages.’
‘What’s that?’ Bella cocked her head as if listening for something. ‘What?’
‘Tick. Tick. My biological clock. Surely you can hear it? My mother can hear it over fifty miles away apparently. I don’t care. I’ve decided not to worry about having sprogs. I’m just going to get some on time-share for two weeks a year.’
‘How are the parents anyway?’ Viv said, speaking through the lime wedge that she had decorked from her beer bottle and clamped between her lips like a comic mouth. ‘Have they been to view the new Kreuzer estate yet?’
‘Fending them off as long as possible. Alessandra asked after you, as always, last time we spoke.’ Bella coloured her voice with theatrical timbre as she said her mother’s name. ‘I can just see her peering at the damp – “Oh is that a deliberate paint effect, Bella darling?”’
‘What you need,’ said Viv, ‘is an action plan. To meet men.’
‘I never turn down invitations, no matter how dull they sound.’ Thanks,’ said Viv. ‘That’s the last time I ask you out.’
‘Not you, stupid.’ Bella took a swig of her beer straight from the bottle. ‘I told you, I’m not bothered. I like being on my own.’
‘Pig. I do. Why shouldn’t I? Just because you’ve found Mr Perfect, you think anyone single must be some pathetic half-person.’
Viv shook her head.
‘Even Nick’s mum would hardly describe him as perfect. What about the new job? What’s the official rating?’ A vestige from when they used to hunt in a pack. The other two, Kath and Sinead, had long since defected by committing the cardinal sin: getting married. And since Viv had been living with Nick, Bella was the sole remaining singleton.
‘0.5. Two married, one gay, and one too wet to risk leaving in the same room as a packet of crackers.’
‘Not even a whiff of a man lately?’
‘I can’t even remember what one looks like. They’re the ones with the stubble and the big egos, right? I went out a couple of times with that account exec. from the ad agency, Tim, remember? But he was deathly. Wittered on about his shares portfolio and what I should be buying and selling. Bleugh. I’m better off without. I hate all that couply stuff anyway.’
‘You know. All that having joint opinions about everything: “We think this and we do that. We consider Citizen Kane to be overrated and we prefer Szechuan cuisine to Cantonese…” Their personalities go all amoebaed into one like a matching pen and pencil set.’
‘That’s such crap. We’re not like that.’
‘See? We’re not…? Whatever happened to I?’
‘Anyway.’ Viv sighed and signalled to the waiter for another two beers. ‘There’s lots of good bits: love, companionship, sex for a start.’
‘Sex? What’s that? Is that the thing that happens somewhere between the first snog and the slamming of the front door? Ah, yes, I had some of that once…’
‘So, have you not—’ Viv nodded euphemistically, ‘since—?’
‘No. No-one since Patrick. I have been designated a shag-free zone. It’s official.’
No-one since Patrick. She could remember the last time. It was Christmas. Boxing Day. They’d just got back to the flat after a slow and drizzly drive home from visiting his parents in Norfolk.
* * *
The flat is cold and unwelcoming, the fridge pathetically unChristmassy, bare except for a half-used tube of tomato purée, a sad lemon and two bottles of wine.
‘I think I’ll slope off to bed,’ she says, half-suppressing a yawn. ‘So tired!’
‘Good idea. I’ll come too.’
She undresses slowly, pulling off her things distractedly, tugging her still-buttoned cuffs over her hands because she can’t be bothered to undo them. Reaches for her big black T-shirt under her pillow, her fluffy bedsocks. Pads through to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
‘You reading tonight?’ asks Patrick.
Her Christmas books are still in a carrier bag in the hall. She shakes her head. A click as he switches off the light.
She feels his hand snake over her side, under her T-shirt, cupping her tummy from behind.
‘You’re nice and warm.’
She turns over to kiss him goodnight. ‘‘Night,’ she says.
She feels his tongue push tentatively between her lips; starts to murmur that she’s really too sleepy, it’s been a long day. He strokes her hair, speaks softly, telling her he loves her, how soft her skin feels, how sexy she is.
Her body starts to respond automatically to his touch, his hand moving between her thighs; she feels herself growing wet, hears his low sigh as his fingers find her.
* * *
Boxing Day, the year before the one just gone, she remembered. That’s when it was.
‘Now he’s rather nice. Over there – don’t look.’ Viv’s voice shifted to a stage whisper.
‘Fine. I’m not looking.’
‘No. Look now, quick.’
Bella craned her head round to see the unwitting quarry, pretending to be looking at the Spanish poster advertising a bullfight on the wall above. Her voice dropped to a whisper.
‘Viv, he’s with someone. See that other person at the same table with the earrings and the polka-dot blouse. She didn’t come as a side order with the meal, you know. Here’s some bread and a woman for the evening.’
Viv waved her away dismissively.
‘She could be his cousin, come for a visit.’
‘She could be the Dalai Lama in disguise, but let’s look at the most likely option first, shall we? Two people: one male, one female, in a restaurant, in the evening. Sounds suspiciously like a couple having a relationship to me. You ought to know. That’s what normal people do. I read it in one of the Sunday supplements.’
* * *
They walked as far as the cathedral together before their routes took them separate ways. How stunning it was lit up at night – and not a tourist in sight to appreciate it. By day, it was a magnet for Japanese groups following their tour guide bearing a rolled umbrella aloft like a drum majorette, and troupes of French schoolchildren sporting identical blue caps and matching plastic pouches round their necks advertising: ‘My passport and all my money. Steal me.’
Bella walked across the bridge. The river glinted darkly below. A few boats bobbed gently, clunking woodenly against each other. It looked mysterious and exciting, the kind of night when your partner might turn to you and say, ‘Let’s go to Rome for the weekend – now!’ Did anyone really have a relationship like that? Viv frequently complained that she and Nick never managed to get away. And even when Bella had been with someone, they had never done spontaneous things like jetting off to the Continent on the spur of the moment or having sex on the kitchen floor or in the bath. Once, in a fit of horniness, she and Sean, her boyfriend before Patrick, had tugged down each other’s jeans and attempted to do it on the stairs. But the jeans were in the way and there seemed to be far too many knees involved in the proceedings, and after two minutes the step digging into her lower back was all she could think about. They’d had to stop and trip upstairs to his bedroom, their legs pinioned by their half-mast jeans, by which time much of their fiery passion had fizzled into a damp squib.
It was just one of those pointless ideas they use to fill up the pages of women’s magazines: ‘Love-life lost its magic? Spice it up: initiate sex at unexpected moments and in surprising places.’ But they were always special magazine-world clichés about romance and sex, stuff like ‘Tuck little love notes into your partner’s pockets for him to discover during the day’ and ‘Surprise your man by whispering to him that you’re not wearing any panties when you’re out together.’ He’d just think you were going prematurely senile. What if you told him while you were tootling around Tesco’s hunting for decent olives? That would certainly be a surprise. Would he really be so overcome with excitement that he’d lean you back over the long-life milk? Or take you over a freezer filled with coffee Viennettas and Arctic Rolls? Wouldn’t that be awfully cold on your bottom? Would other shoppers ignore you – how English – and perhaps try to reach past your thigh, saying, ‘Excuse me, dear, could I just get to the mandarin cheesecake? See, I’ve my sister-in-law coming at the weekend.’
A young couple wove towards her, stopping every few feet to kiss, veering erratically in their path like drunken crabs; an older pair, in their fifties she guessed, passed by holding hands. When she was first with Patrick, she had usually felt glad at the sight of other couples laughing and kissing and canoodling. There seemed to be a secret bond between them all. Sometimes, four pairs of eyes would meet and smile: ‘We know how good life is, don’t we?’
Now, it just made Bella depressed. God, how smug couples were. If she were ever stupid enough to be in a couple again – that sounded dreadful: in a couple, like in prison, in detention, in a mess – she would shun smugness. How can you be so ungenerous about other people’s happiness? she reproached herself. She lengthened her stride and resolved to be more positive. Things were fine. Time for herself so she could concentrate on her house. She could slump about all weekend in slobby clothes. Go out with lots of different men. No need to keep tidying the towels because he couldn’t grasp the concept of folding. No need to buy that ridiculous, expensive, three-fruit marmalade just because he liked it.
But I grew to like that marmalade too, she reminded herself. And I don’t seem to be going out with lots of men, do I? That was true, she admitted. But she could if she wanted to; it was the principle that mattered.
* * *
Lying in bed that night, Bella thought about Viv and Nick. Strange how seamlessly Viv had gone from being Viv to being Viv and Nick, as if he had always been there. He was unmistakably a fixture, built in to Viv’s life, and Viv to his. Wouldn’t be Bella’s choice, of course. Hair had evidently been on strict rations when Nick reached the head of the queue. He had soft, malleable features that looked as if you could squish them out of position and they might stay that way, like plasticine. And his devotion to his car, a pale blue Karmann Ghia, was a bit sad, especially since it was overfond of the hard shoulder, tending to break down on any journey over twenty miles. Still, he and Viv obviously loved each other to pieces. She could certainly think of worse matches. Her own parents for a start, her father so mild, so eager to please, her mother… well, at least she wasn’t like her.
Perhaps Viv was at that same moment thinking about Bella. Was she lying there in bed, snuggled up to Nick, saying to him: ‘Poor Bella seems to have thrown in the towel. No sex for more than a year. Probably never find anyone half as nice as Patrick again. Still, should be over him by now.’
Bella could hear it cycling round and round in her head. Should be over him by now, should be over him by now…
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