All By Myself
On being selfless...
In the greengrocers: I'm buying fruit to rot in the bowl.
I take a bunch of over-ripe grapes, three bruised peaches and two punnets of strawberries oozing juice like blood onto the brown paper bag. The shop assistant is counting as he fills my arms - eighty pee, and a pound makes one eighty, and ninety pee makes two seventy. I hand him a fiver. 'Lovely,' he tells me. 'Lovely - darlin',' to be exact.
Nowadays I pay for my compliments.
His toupee looks like a gorilla's arse, balanced on the edge of his forehead with the seam showing - a triumph of brillcream over gravity. I keep imagining it's going to slide from his head like an ice lolly melting on the stick and that his sticky pompadour will unroll and land in my arms amongst the brown paper bags: 'two seventy and give me a quid for the rug'. I edge away.
'That freezer you gave me is still working well,' he says, as always. 'It sometimes keeps me awake at night mind - but after a couple of pints I hears nuffink.'
'Lovely,' I answer, backing out of the shop before he gets too close with those big, yellow teeth of his.
He paid me two cabbages, a pound of sprouts, a turnip and three leeks for the freezer. I had hoped for raspberries but it was winter - not a lot of soft fruit around. But I would have given it to him for free. I never used it.

In the newsagent: Mr Patel cheerfully changes a fifty pound note for a copy of the Guardian.
He glances at the headline as he hands me my newspaper: 'That Will Self he only live round the corner,' he says, his words staccato, rattled out like a bus conductor with an old fashioned ticket machine.
'Loads of kids, loads and loads of kids. He come in the shop. Stoned half the time.'
I take my bundle of notes and crunch them into the bottom of my purse. 'Lovely,' I say. Although it probably isn't.
I have a look up the street in case Will Self is wandering down to buy whatever it is ex-junkies buy from the corner shop, but he doesn't oblige me with a short guest appearance, not that I would recognise him if he did. I check the paper but there's no photograph beside the story.
I think he looks a little bit like Derek Jarman. A ponderous, long, horse-faced sort of a chap, though I'm not sure. I've only ever seen him truncated into a little square picture next to his by-line or on a book-jacket or something.
A bare-chested young guy rides by on a bicycle eating a bag of chips but, apart from having the pointy breasts of an adolescent girl, he looks fairly normal - not like a smack head. But then what does a smack head look like? Thin? Tortured? Dazed and confused?
In that case if he also wears lipstick he sounds like most of my friends.

At home: I kick the pile of mail which breeds behind the door to one side as I struggle through the hallway. There's nothing for me.
Ever.
I climb the metal staircase, open the front door with a swing of my hip and walk into the kitchen. The sun is bouncing off the chrome surfaces illuminating the patchily white-washed walls. I toss the fruit on to the stainless-steel table and stuff the Guardian in the bin. Then, remembering that Nan is due to arrive at any minute, I get it back out and scatter the pages across the table top, burning my fingers in the process. As well as looking stark and functional the damn thing also conducts heat.
I look in the sink to ensure that there are a couple of dirty coffee cups and a few cigarette ends. I know I haven't made my bed but I run into the bedroom and toss the duvet on the floor, chucking some clothes down beside it. Nan hates to have nothing to do.
I leave the fruit strewn across the Guardian and light a cigarette while the strawberries bleed over the crossword. The answerphone light glows steadily - no messages - but Clara has sent a fax while I've been out. Do I want to go to a literary festival in Wales at the end of the month? Yes, Clara - but only after I've swallowed a box of razor blades and had my nipples realigned.
Last year she dragged Paddy and I down there for the weekend saying it was like Soho but with sheep. She was right about the sheep but forgot to mention that they'd swapped their woolly coats for Clarks orthopaedic sandals and Liberty print skirts. It was terribly dull. The so-called literati need more than the prefix g to make them sparkle.
Clara was promoting some old scottish git's poetry and insisted we attend his reading. Then she left us standing in the corner of a hospitality tent, chain-smoking like it was a dreary second cousin's wedding or something while she spoke to A.A. Gill.
Or should I say Adrian - ghastly name.
No wonder he uses his initials.
I'm certainly not going.
I call Clara.
She's on the other line.
Clara spends her life on the other line. It's like the promised land - the far side of the river Jordan - the side I'm never on. Why the hell does she want me to go to Wales with her if she won't return my phone calls?
Now I think maybe I should go for the weekend - so that I can meet some of these wonderful, scintillating people who are always on talking on the other line.
I get out the programme to see what's on. No, no, no. Radio broadcasters. Men with beards. People one can see any time in Notting Hill Gate. Why go all the way to bloody Wales? Why should I want to go and listen to published writers talking about their published books.
I hate writers.
I hear Nan's clanging footsteps coming up the stairs and sprint for the computer, settling myself down in front of the screen as she pokes her head round the door. She's wearing red to match the fine network of broken veins across her cheeks.
'Hello luv! Hard at work are you?'
I try to sound distracted. 'Yes, well I was, but now that you're here I might just have a break...'
'Okay luv, Ar'll put the kettle on shall I?'
I need Nan just about as much as I needed the freezer, or so she always tells me: 'I dunno what you want with a cleaner luv - you don't never make no mess. What you want me to do then? I could dust but you aint got nothing to dust!'
She doesn't understand minimalism.
Anyway, I don't want her for her cleaning skills - it's her company I crave. I love to listen to her chewing her vowels, mangling her sentences, dropping her consonants across my slate floor.
I enjoy hearing about the old ladies she cleans for, and her sons, and her shiftless brother. I like to know what she's bought Ted for his tea and how often she wins at Bingo.
'I got him a nice bit of steak t'night'.
'Lovely.' I say, watching her footprints on the fine sprinkling of dust that lies like the beach when the tide's gone out along the edge of the kitchen floor.
"What you havin' then luv?' She opens a row of cupboards until she finds the fridge and looks inside. It's empty save for a carton of Marlborough Lites and three bottles of wine. A bloke's fridge she calls it.
I never eat but I hate to disappoint her.
'Oh I'm probably going out tonight Nan.'
'Goin' out are you - that's nice luv.' She has a habit of repeating everything I say, as if I don't know my own mind and might have said the wrong thing, by mistake. She also raises the pitch half an octave and turns the volume up to aeroplane take-off level.
'Where are you off to then?' she yells as another flight leaves the runway.
'Just down the road. I'm meeting some friends.'
I watch her stand at the sink, performing surgery on the strawberries, rinsing away the gore, plucking out the stalks and depositing the corpses in a white bowl.
'They're nice them strawberries - get em over the wig man did you?'
I nod.
'He's got some lovely fruit he has. I got some to take down me sister's.'
'How is she keeping Nan?'
'Bad luv, they took her back up Hammersmith last night.'
We are on to drips and drug rounds and worsening symptoms before Nan begins clearing up the Guardian.
'Mr Patel was telling me that he lives round here.' I say pointing to the headline on the dripping newspaper.'
'Who does - this junkie fella?'
'Yes - just round the corner.'
Nan screws up her face doubtfully. 'I aint never seen him then.'
Nan knows everybody. The man who sweeps the street went to school with her brother, the hairdresser used to live in the flat next door and the toothless woman with varicose veins who lives at no 26 was a kid at school when Nan was the dinner lady. If she hasn't met Will Self then he's obviously not worth knowing.
'Terrible things them drugs.' She says, the flesh on her underarms quivering as she wipes her cloth across the shimmering metal facade of the kitchen cupboards.
'I don't know how they can do it to themselfs - there was this programme on tele and it showed you them stickin needles in between their bloody toes. Chronic it is.'
Nan is a graduate of Transpotting Academy - convinced since she watched the film that having a Scottish accent is symptomatic of drug abuse.
I light another fag and drink the black coffee that Nan has placed in front of me in a cup and saucer with a thick paper napkin folded at the side.
'Ar'll get started on the bedroom then luv.' she says and bustles off. I watch her go sadly. I suppose I should do something. Write a letter, or check my e-mail. I can see the screen blinking at me from the open door-way. Maybe I'll just play a game of Tomb Raider first and hope Nan doesn't catch me.
I'm just shooting a soldier so I can take his M25 clips when Paddy rings.
'What time tonight?' she growls, her voice like twenty Capstan. I don't know why she bothers to asks. We always say eight-thirty and then she rolls up at nine fifteen.
'Did you see that thing in the papers about Will Self?' I say, eager to show my unusual knowledge of the day's headlines.
'Who?'
'Will Self - the writer...it's on the front page of the Guardian.' I prod.
'Oh - isn't he on something.'
'Yes - heroin, I think'
'No, no - I don't mean that - I mean like on tv - the South Bank Show, or Equinox or one of those arty things?'
I thought Equinox was a religious programme, but I only ever watch ER and Melrose Place, so I could be wrong.
'What about him anyway?'
'Oh - it seems he only lives round the corner.'
'Uh huh..' Paddy grunts and sounds doubtful. Kensall Rise is not Portobello Road no matter how many trendy junkies live nearby. Even having an actor move in across the road fails to impress her.
'Have you seen him?' she asks.
'Not yet...' I hate to admit it - if I haven't actually spoken to him then he won't exist as far as Paddy's concerned.
The minute I hang up, I get the Guardian out of the dustbin where Nan has folded it into neat squares and look for the television pages. It takes me ages to find the schedule. When the hell did they start dividing the paper up into two parts?
I look through the late-night programmes but there's nothing with Will Self on it as far as I can see. Then I remember he had a story in an old copy of Granta. I slide back the wooden panel concealing a cupboard and root through the piles of magazines stored inside until I find the issue with his name on the cover. It remember thinking how dull it was when I bought the magazine. I sit down and flick through the pages until I find the story. It's unreadable - and there's no photograph.
What about his books? Don't I have a copy of one somewhere? I look at the bookshelves, one of the few things not withheld behind by my anally retentive walls. Rows and rows of colour co-ordinated Penguins and Bloomsburys and Jonathan Capes. I can't bear to touch them.
I hate books.
I give up.
Maybe I'll run in to him later.
Nan's back, pulling on her red anorak. 'Ar've hung up them things them were slung on the floor and changed the bed. Ar'll take the sheets to the laundry. Alright luv?'
I get my purse and empty out the notes, smoothing out a twenty. I hand it to her.
'Ar aint got no change for that love - anyway it's only seven fifty.'
I give her a ten pound note instead and brush the rest of the money into my handbag where it lies amongst unpaid parking tickets and tampons and match-books.
'Lovely, darlin,' she says and leaves with my dirty linen bundled under her arm.
She's only been here for about an hour and a quarter. I'll need to make more of a mess next week. I didn't get to hear if she won at Bingo.

In the restaurant:
Paddy's deep voice is hypnotising the guy sitting next to her as she rhapsodises about inner healing and holistic medicine between dense puffs of a tarry smelling roll-up. She's draped across the banquette almost in the lap of the black chap at the next table who looks like a hairdresser trying to look like a drug-dealer.
He doesn't seem to mind.
Daisy, in a new, crumpled Ghost shirt which could equally be something from a jumble sale is talking earnestly about her painting while I adopt a suitably pained expression to show that I understand, which I don't. She paints interchangeable pictures of hollow eyed rape victims sitting in laundrettes, or men with tattoos drinking from paper bags on street corners. Meanwhile she lives in a custom-built studio in Holland Park Avenue on a trust fund bigger than mine and gets her inspiration from taking Polaroids as she walks to the gym.
Still, people in glass-fronted, architect designed, converted warehouses shouldn't throw stones, especially when it's all been paid for by daddy.
Daisy's thinking of taking a break. Maybe renting a house in Tuscany for the winter and just going away to paint.
Emma says Daisy should go on a retreat. She's just spent three months somewhere in India, chanting, and keeps talking about having cleansed her life as if it was really, really dirty before. Emma's sordid, soiled existence - living in Kensington designing handbags.
'Really, it's a curse having money,' Emma says, fiddling with her scarf which cost more than the meal will. 'No one takes you seriously.'
I suppose she's right. There's not a lot of credibility in designing accessories for the woman who has everything in life except a purpose.
Maybe she should produce a handbag for the homeless.
'How's your work then?' Daisy has agonised enough about brush-strokes it seems and is fixing her vacant blue eyes on me. It's emotional ping pong and it's my serve.
'Well I've finally sold my manuscript.' I say awkwardly, because I'm embarrassed to feel so proud.'
'Really - how stunning.' says Daisy and her eyes widen.
She's right.
I was stunned.
When my agent called with the news it was orgasmic - like non-penetrative sex, and I don't even fancy the woman. The chap from the publisher's was quite nice though.
After I signed the contract I fantasised about him for days, imagining how I could seduce him over dinner with my sparkling prose and a glimpse of my tits, but it never happened. Unfortunately the prose only sparkles if it's accompanied by a series of pound signs and since he's happily married to a woman who is currently breast feeding their first child, the tits weren't much of a novelty either.
'Have you finished the book then?' asks Daisy and I think, oh give me a bloody chance, while trying to look serious and committed and confident to avoid having to say no.
Three chapters, a synopsis, and a contract seems to have wiped me out. I'm actually having difficulty composing so much as a shopping list, which given my appetite is not exactly an onerous task. I'll probably never write another thing.
'You know I never get time to read,' squeaks Emma, 'Since I came back from India, I've been sooo busy. You're sooo lucky being able to find the time to sit down and write.'
'Yes.' I say, wanting to punch her till her glasses fall into the bread basket.
But only because it's true.
I change the subject.
'Do either of you know Will Self?'
Daisy takes a long drink of red wine, leaving a little stain at each corner of her mouth which is as close as she ever comes to smiling.
'Isn't he that smack-head who just got sacked from one newspaper and hired by another?' she says.
Daisy probably has a Polaroid of him somewhere.
'Nah - I don't think I've met him, but I think Clara knows him. Didn't she promote his book, or something?'
Clara still hasn't rung me back, the cow. Presumably she's already filled her house in Wales with the Booker Prize shortlist and doesn't need me anymore. Not that I wanted to go anyway.
But still.
'So why do you ask?' Emma is intrigued. She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and sits up. 'Have you fucked him?'.
'Don't be ridiculous.'
'You're not fucking an intravenous drug user are you?' she gasps.
'He doesn't inject,' says Daisy, "He smokes it.'
"How do you know?' I ask.
'Read it in the paper.'
And I'm thinking, shit - I never actually read the bloody article.
'So what about him?' asks Daisy.
'It's just that I heard that he lives round the corner from my flat and I wondered if anyone knew what he was like. He's supposed to look a bit like Derek Jarmon.'
'Is he gay then?'
'Not everybody who looks like Derek Jarman is gay - Emma - anyway - he has kids.'
Emma's eyes glaze over. Her ex-boyfriend has recently had a baby with his new partner and it's a sore subject, something that India, the Ariel for troubled souls, failed to wash away.
Daisy asks me why I'm interested and I shrug.
I don't really know.
The waitress is asking us if we want to order.
Paddy is giving the black guy at the next table her card with Channel 4 stamped all over it although she hasn't worked for them since last year. She drags her attention away from him long enough to decide to share the vegetable tempura with Emma. They're both clean-living vegetarians who don't like filling their bodies with chemicals unless they come from a chap in the All Saint's Road.
Paddy's friend whose name I really must ask has chosen liver - strange man. Daisy asks for squid ink pasta - black to match her shirt.
I'm having salad.
No dressing.
I look through the blinds into the street.
Ed stretches his knee underneath the table and rubs the inside of my thigh with his leg. I feel the roughness of his jeans through my tights and little dart of lust shoots up into my groin. I look into his eyes and he reaches across and brushes the edge of my hand with his little finger.
He leans over and whispers, his breath hot against my cheek - but his voice is still loud enough for the couple at the next table to hear. I turn my head to see if they're listening and see only the hairdresser writing his name in Paddy's Cartier address book.
'Do you want anything else?' asks the waitress.
My ribs squeeze my heart like a lemon until I can taste the bitterness in my mouth. Sometimes I wish my past was on the menu and I could ask for it back, with a green vegetable.
I look across the street at the brown paper windows of the place that's closed for renovation. We're eating greasy tapas in the basement and he looks into his grilled mushrooms and tells me that how he hadn't thought it through. That he still loves me, but that he's met someone else. That he needs his own space for a while - somewhere to breathe - as if I was some kind of suffocating gas, and the new bitch was oxygen. Just when I'd sold my flat to move in with him, the bastard.
All that bloody negative equity.
And on the corner I see myself climbing out of his pointless car that did 0 - 60 in 2.6 seconds with a top speed of 135 miles an hour, but couldn't make it round the corner into the mews in case he ruined his suspension on the cobbles.
The Bermuda triangle of my miserable life.
I've lost my appetite.
Forget the salad.
I call the waitress back and ask for another bottle of wine.
Paddy's friend is eating his calf's liver - little slivers of pink flesh oozing body fluids across the plate. I watch him mesmerised as he cuts a slice, spears the hunk of liver and a few chips on the end of his fork then gives it a good swab of blood before cramming it into his mouth.
He mistakes my fascination for interest.
'I've heard a lot about you.' he says between bites.
'Paddy and I went to school together. 'She's been telling me about you for ages.'
I look at Paddy warily. This is not good.
I take a cigarette out of my packet and he drops his fork, making a little splash in the fat-spotted blood swimming across his plate, leans across and strikes a match, cupping my hand in his as he lights it.
I look at him again.
He's tallish.
Good thighs.
Terrible shoes which look like Patrick Cox's, but his hands are nice - lovely long fingers.
But he's not really my type.
Red hair.
'She said you're a writer.'
I nod, looking back at Paddy who is suddenly engrossed in the inside of her glass.
'What kind of things do you write then?' he asks.
'Cheques.' I say.

I'm in Wales:
Clara has rented this enormous house for the festival. It looks like an old vicarage - gabled windows, wainscoting, draughts. We're in a conference room. It's a bit like a cinema with tiers of chairs reaching up to the ceiling, but they're orange plastic - the kind that hold hands like girls going to the bathroom. I'm sitting up near the top next to Will Self and some other journalist - John somebody. I spotted them when I came into the room and came over to say hello.
John is less wholesome than he looks. The dark hair and the slightly dissipated face make him look like an Italian gigolo. He's incredibly handsome but not fussy when it comes to who he'll fuck. You don't leave the door of the washing machine open when he comes round unless you want your laundry done.
Will Self looks different - not what I had expected. His face is thin, but gentle. His hair is long, shoulder length and slightly curly. He has soft, brown eyes.
I have been quite forceful, unusually so. I strode right up and, barely speaking to John, shook Will's hand and introduced myself. 'You must be Will Self.' I said. 'Did you know that we're neighbours?'
'Really?' he said, talking slowly, rather quietly - as if he's saving his voice for someone else.
I sat down beside him and now I can see Clara glaring at me from her row of reserved seats near the front. What the hell are you doing sitting with that junkie, she seems to be saying with only a twitch of her eyebrow. She adjusts the lapels of her Armani suit and waves. I ignore her. I grin and settle back in my chair. The plastic creaks.
John fades away. It's just myself and Will. I've forgotten he's a heroin addict. I'm just thinking how friendly he is, how gorgeous he looks and we're talking about books. 'I'm afraid I haven't read any of your stuff..' I say apologetically. He just pulls the corner of his mouth into a smile, his cheek creasing like an elephant's knee and says it doesn't matter. It's obvious that he couldn't care less whether I've read them or not. He's above such things. His ego doesn't need feeding, only his habit.
'I saw that you had something in Granta....' I murmur, shyly. He nods, amused.
'I didn't read that either.'. He shrugs and stares into my eyes, that amazing smile wavering across his face. He looks like Jesus in the New Testament for Beginners and Idiots.
'I just sold my own novel' Now it's my turn to smile. 'My first....' I can't stop myself grinning like I'm some kind of crazy from a cult.
He lifts his chin, never taking his eyes off me. 'Would I like it?' he asks.
'Probably not.' But I can tell it doesn't matter. he doesn't care. He likes me. He's fascinated by me. I could have written the ingredients on the side of a cereal packet and he would still be drip-feeding his eyes into mine.
He reaches across and touches my face and I'm lost in the surprise of it all. How did this happen? Where did this wonderful man come from?
I'm lying in bed, in a sea of white sheets with his head next to mine and I'm longing for him to touch me but I'm afraid, I look at his arms for needle tracks but they are smooth and unblemished. I think briefly about all the little her, him and it selfs who play at happy, dysfunctional families round the corner from the newsagents? What about the mother? Or mothers? I think about his hand. What the hell am I doing here?
But when he finally stretches out across the sheets and strokes me I feel a kick in my guts that's stronger than fear.
Then John is calling him. He's peeling back the covers and pulling him away. 'We have to go he says.' and I'm thinking, not now. Don't go now. Not yet.
Clara is standing in the kitchen frying eggs and the house is full of German Christians who keep telling me to put my bicycle away. And I wander round looking for Will. But he's gone.
The flat is cold. I've thrown the covers back and there's a space in the bed beside me.
Even my dreams feature coitus interruptus.
I feel like a jigsaw with the last piece missing.

In the cafe: I drink my cappuccino and watch half-heartedly for him on the street.
I told Clara I wasn't going to any stupid literary festival and I started trying to do some work again. Occasionally, however, I have to escape from the reproachful stare of my blank computer screen. In Tomb Raider, Lara and I have made it to Antartica. I keep drowning her just to see that orgasmic shudder.
The woman sitting next to me is worried about her hips. She is so close to me that I can feel them pressing against my legs so I sympathise when I hear her say that she really wants to lose weight.
'Just a couple of pounds,' she says to her friend, a Moroccan girl in with elaborately made up eyes and facial hair.
I'm thinking how nice it would be if you could just lose weight - put it down somewhere and forget where you've left it. Oh those two kilos - they must be in my other handbag. That stone I had last week, I know put it in a safe place but I can't for the life of me remember where it is.
Her friend is eating a custard tart, cream oozing down her chin, pastry settling in the hairs of her moustache.
. I can't look.
Another woman with pink, manicured talons at the end of her fingers is talking through her nose to a man with a couple of wonky false teeth.
'I've put myself down for a standby to Zaire,' she whines in her Estuary drawl, 'then I'm going on to Croatia.'
She should be wearing white stilettos and an ankle bracelet but her feet are shod in unremarkable black court shoes.
The man speaks to her in bad French and she replies effortlessly, her voice dancing over the vowels like a kid skipping along the street.
How can she speak such good French and yet never have mastered English? I watch her closely.
'I just sew em all up...'she's saying as she puts her cigarettes away inside her vulgar designer handbag.
I started smoking when I went out with Ed but now I hear he's given up.
Outside on the street there's a young girl pushing a pram, reading a magazine as she walks.
The baby is peeping out from beneath the sun canopy trying to see her mother's face, but the girl walks on, engrossed in ten things she never knew about sex.
And then I see him.
I recognise him instantly. He's painfully thin with short, cropped hair. His cheekbones are gaunt with traces of old acne scars and his eyes are dirty, the skin underneath smudged like a badly erased mistake.
He's wearing a two-tone grey suit with wide sharp lapels and he weaves through the crowd of market shoppers, hands in pockets, snakelike. The shiny material gleams in the sun.
My heart gives a little thud.
I leave my own cigarettes lying on the table, grab my purse and make for the door.
'Hey luv - you've forgotten your fags!' yells the woman with the nails.
I dash through the gap between the two stalls, stumble over the road, past the fish-mongers but I've lost him.
Disappointment seeps from my pores and mingles with the smell of rotting fish.
I push into the newsagents, the door pings as it closes behind me.
'Was Will Self just here?" I ask Mr Patel.
'No luv, he not been in today. Never see him this early... Probably still in bed. What you want with him anyway? I tell you - he's a crazy man.'
I look helplessly out through the grimy window scanning the people squashed amongst the stalls.
Damn, blast, shit.
I finally saw him.
And he did look exactly like Derek Jarman.
Except not dead.

 

this story originally appeared in Tank magazine