There were days when it seemed sordid and doomed; days which, oddly, Katherine found more romantic than the days of hope. There was something doomed about Keith generally and she liked it. He was forty-one (because, she thought, once you’d broken a rule, it was no longer really a rule, and so couldn’t really be said to have been broken a second time), thin on top and thick round the middle. At work he wore crumpled linen and skinny ties. In the evenings he favoured faded black denims and battered Converse. He had pale, slightly waxy skin and grey eyes with a white ring around the iris. Katherine had read somewhere that this had medical implications but she couldn’t remember what they were and so chose not to mention it. She liked the idea that Keith was defective, that he might be dying. She liked the fact that he was open about what he called his heroin years. She even liked the way he hurt her in bed: the sprained shoulder, the deep gouge on her left thigh. Keith was different in what Katherine saw as complementary ways. He was blunt where she was sharp. He would never love her, would probably never love anyone or anything, and Katherine admired this about him. He seemed beyond the concerns that threatened daily (yes, daily by now) to swallow her whole. By definition, of course, this also placed him beyond her, but she liked that too.
She didn’t live in London. There were mornings when she had to stare hard into the mirror and repeat this to herself like some sort of mantra. On a good morning she could just about say the word Norwich, but it was hard. After three years of dating, she and Daniel, her ex, had moved here together, ostensibly for his job, although there were unspoken implications regarding the pitter-patter of ghastly feet. But then they broke up, and London looked like it would be lonely, and now she was stuck
Always a practical woman, Katherine’s mother felt the best way to voice her concerns about Katherine’s well-being was to be direct. This seemed to involve repeatedly calling to ask Katherine if she was OK, which had the effect of making Katherine feel a long way from OK.
‘Are you eating enough?’ her mother would say bluntly. ‘Are you eating healthy foods?’
‘Yes,’ Katherine would say, midway through a doughnut. ‘This morning I had porridge for breakfast, and for lunch I had a baked potato with tuna fish. For dinner I’m going to have grilled chicken breast.’
‘Are you being facetious? Because it’s unattractive, you know. And not entirely mature.’
‘I’m being honest. Is that mature?’
‘That depends,’ said her mother, ‘on what you’re being honest about.
Katherine met with Keith only on selected evenings. They fucked and drank in heroic silence, which suited Katherine. She lived in fear of him saying something interesting, which might make her fall in love with him; or something horrific, which would shatter the illusion she’d so carefully constructed. He brought her a vibrator as a present: gift-wrapped, with a heart-shaped tag that read, ‘Think of me.’ She donated it, tag and all, to her local charity shop. She never saw it for sale, and wondered often what had become of it. She liked to think one of the elderly volunteers had taken it home one lonely evening and subjected herself to an experience so revelatory as to border on the mystical.
‘Keith,’ she said one evening, deliberately loudly, in a restaurant she’d selected precisely because she knew it would be crowded when she asked the question. ‘How many other people are you fucking right now?’
‘Three,’ he said calmly. ‘You?’
‘Four,’ she lied.
‘Is it Daniel?’ her mother asked during one of her interminable phone calls. ‘Because I understand, you know, I really do.’
‘It’s not Daniel, mother.’
‘He sent me a birthday card last week. He always sends me Christmas and birthday cards. Isn’t that nice?’
‘It’s not nice,’ said Katherine. ‘It’s anally retentive. He sends you cards because you’re on his list. It’s basically an automated response. It never occurs to him to change anything.’
‘Does he send you cards?’
During the evenings she wasn’t with Keith, which were numerous given that Keith had three other fucks to squeeze into his week, Katherine read and watched the news. She rarely watched anything else on television. Like much of Katherine’s life, what she read and what she watched were governed by her sense of types of people: types she wanted to be; types she couldn’t stand. She didn’t want to be the sort of person (woman) who watched soaps and
weepie movies. She wanted to be the type of person (woman) who watched the news and read the Booker list. She imagined herself at parties, despite the fact she never went to parties, being asked her opinion on world affairs and modern literature. Yet whenever talk turned to global tragedy, she found herself feeling adrift and nastily exposed. It wasn’t that she didn’t know what was happening, it was that she didn’t see why it should cause her any distress. Once this fact became clear, it seemed to spread its tentacles into the rest of her life in such a way as to make her question, not for the first time, exactly how human she could lay claim to being. She thought of it as a certain lack of connection. Others saw it as coldness. Unmoved was a word that came up a lot, both in Katherine’s head and in the opinions others had of her, of which she was more than aware. Emotionally hard-to-impress, was the way she preferred to think about it. Just as declarations of love were not enough to stir the same in her, so footage of, say, starving Haitians was not enough to cause the kind of glassy-eyed distress that seemed so automatic in others. Swollen, malnourished bellies; kids with flies in their eyes; mothers cooking biscuits made of earth. It was faintly revolting. Sometimes, when in a particularly quarrelsome mood, Katherine asked people exactly what the relevance was of such images. For some reason, people tended to find this question offensive. They cited vague humanitarian criteria. The word children came up a lot, as if simply saying it explained everything.
Kath, Keith wrote in an email from an undisclosed location where he was holidaying with an unnamed and un-gendered companion to whom he was almost certainly not related. I miss you bad. I don’t think I can live without you. Love me?
Keith, Katherine wrote back. I will never live with anyone who can’t live without me. Grow up. PS: who the fuck are you on holiday with?
‘Maybe you should join a group of some kind,’ her mother said. ‘That’s how you meet people. You’ve got to get out there.’
‘By people do you mean men?’
‘Well, who wants to meet women?
‘Fuck me like you’re a child,’ said Keith, back from holiday and fucking her in a way that reminded her of an animal in a veterinary collar – as if she were something to be shaken off, a constraint out of which he needed to reverse. ‘Fuck me like you’re scared of me.’
It proved to be too much of an imaginative leap. She fucked him like she pitied him and then told him afterwards that he was pathetic.
‘You’re right,’ said Keith. ‘You’re so right. Next time fuck me like I’m pathetic.
Lunch hours were another gloom entirely. Unable to tolerate the drab banter of the staffroom, and unable to meet Keith for fear they might be seen, Katherine roamed the city in search of stimulation, finding it, unsurprisingly, in the purchase of objects and experiences she neither needed nor could afford. Sometimes it was clothes, other times it was books. On good days it was a massage or a trip to the hairdresser’s. On bad days it was just a seat in a cafe and a grandstand view of everyone else as they shopped. Even the clothes themselves were grim. On the sale rails and in the bargain bins, in shop windows and on the ageless skin of the mannequins, death was a market presence. Lines of clothing called Zero, Blank, Deathscape, Heroin. T-shirts that said Love My Bones. Life, it seemed, had become passé. Value had collapsed. Every store in town was either selling cheap or closing down. People shopped like it was the end of days, pressing stony-faced through the deals and the prophecies of closure. Fashion existed, she felt, as a way of ignoring the future, and on strong bright days, when the word seemed both capitalized and italicized in her mind, she could slip easily into the vocabulary and mindset of couture. Clothes became pieces; outfits were pieces she’d put together; old clothes in her wardrobe were archived pieces. When she was miserable fashion became intolerable – gaudy and false and aching with pointlessness – and so she regarded a shopping spree not as a remedy, like some, but merely as a hopeful symptom
‘Where did you go on holiday?’ she asked Keith mid-fuck, having suddenly (but with careful premeditation) kicked him off her at his most vulnerable moment, sending him sprawling to the floor with only his hard-on to break his fall.
‘Jesus . . . fuck, I think you . . . what?’
‘Your holiday,’ she said, lying back on the bed and eyeing him coldly. ‘Where did you go?’
‘Tenerife,’ he said, inspecting his cock for permanent damage. ‘Do we have to talk about it now?’
‘No we don’t have to talk about it now,’ she said calmly. ‘If you like I can just get dressed and go and we don’t have to speak about it ever again.’
‘I don’t understand why this is suddenly such a pressing issue that you have to –’
‘Who did you go with?’
‘Oh, I see. You’re jealous.’
‘I’m not jealous. I just want to know. Who did you go with? Was it someone from work?’
‘I’m going to have to go to work with my dick in a sling, you fucking –’
‘Was she blonde or brunette?’
‘Blonde,’ he said miserably. ‘Her name’s Janice. Are you going to make me stop seeing her?’
Katherine was repulsed.
‘What do you mean make you?’ she snapped. ‘How could I make you?’
‘I don’t know, I just –’
‘How come she gets to go on holiday, that’s what I want to know. How come she gets to go on holiday while I have to make do with intermittent screwing in your shabby little flat?’
‘We can go on holiday,’ said Keith. ‘If that’s what you want.’
‘I’m not sure now. I’m not sure I could bear it.’
This was in fact true. The more Katherine thought about it the more going on holiday with Keith sounded like an awful idea. All those inane conversations in sunnily bland surroundings. His sweat-shined love handles; his shrivelled ball-bag in Speedos.
‘Why not?’ said Keith. ‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘You want a list?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ said Keith. ‘Give me a list.’
‘Hit me,’ she said.
‘You’ve done it before.’
‘You weren’t telling me to before.’
‘Question answered,’ she said, pulling on her clothes.
He called her two days later and begged, offering a last-minute booking. No one at work would think anything of it, he said. They’d stagger their days a little. Katherine agreed, victorious and relieved.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
‘Malta,’ he said. ‘God, I’m fucking haemorrhaging money.’
In Malta, everything was clearer and more muddled at the same time. They fell into an easy routine of lazing, drinking and eating during the day, then fucking and sleeping, which after the drinking became somewhat indistinguishable. Everything seemed to pass not so much in a blur as in odd drifting snippets, as if segments of the film had been removed and only highlights remained. Here she was waking up, Keith snoring beside her, and sitting alone on the balcony staring out across the bay at the huddled, stone-cut splendour of Valletta, feeling calm and deliciously lonely. Here she was by the pool, either drifting with her thoughts or squinting through one eye at the array of flesh around her. Brown flesh, reddened flesh; German and English and Italian flesh, all pressed together and sizzling under the sun. It was erotic and vile at the same time – vilely erotic – the only kind of eroticism Katherine seemed to experience these days. Here she was at dinner with Keith, exchanging heavy clods of conversation so deadening she was tempted, at times, to cause physical injury, either to him or to herself, just to have something distinctive to discuss. He said things like, It’s hot, and then followed that statement seconds later with a clarification (It’s really hot) and then, after a bit of thought, some further exposition (It’s so hot I feel like I’m melting in my seat) until finally his thought processes reached their natural conclusion and he ended with a sort of ruminative coda (So hot . . .).
He’d turned an odd colour – a deep leathery tan with a thin cherry varnish. This was partly to do with the dedication Keith applied to his sunbathing. He lay in the heat with the gritty focus of a man making a long-distance drive. He took scheduled breaks. He was careful to maintain full attention. On the beach, by the pool, he was a faintly ridiculous sight. There was, Katherine speculated, no possible way of concealing his Englishness, or any English person’s Englishness for that matter. You could spot them immediately – pasty white; muffin-bellied; Rorschached with quasi-Celtic tattoos.
Not that Katherine was immune. She had, though she was loath to admit it, a worryingly English physique. What was it about going abroad, she wondered, that threw all your shortcomings into howling relief? Why did every other race seem so at home while the English seemed determined to be uncomfortable? In the afternoons, by the pool, it was a parade of bikinis, of flat stomachs and deep cleavages. Keith had a way of angling his sunglasses away but then sliding his eyes in their direction, thinking Katherine couldn’t see the whites through his Wayfarers. He lay in the sun for hours, simmering and staring at other women’s tits, and then, back at the hotel, sticky with sweat and Ambre Solaire, he fucked her while she was still in her bikini, the images of those other women so clearly running across his eyes that she could almost see them, like figures in a zoetrope. Not that she saw his eyes much when they fucked. Keith had two favoured sexual positions: from behind or getting a blow job. If he could have found a way to fuck the back of her head he’d have been in hog’s heaven. It saddened her that the fantasy was so depressingly clear: the sun, the hotel room, the way he pawed at her bikini just enough to get past it without ever actually removing it. Keith was imagining the whole thing as a holiday romance – a sordid affair with a mysterious stranger; the indulgence of all his sex-in-the-sun imaginings.
‘Why don’t we fuck in the morning?’ she asked. ‘Why don’t we fuck at night? Why do we always have to fuck straight after we’ve been at the pool?’
‘The sun revs my engine,’ was how Keith put it, but Katherine knew better, knew he needed at least four hours of unadulterated poolside porn before he could crank up the necessary desire for a screw. He also needed a few beers – more and more, it seemed. Katherine had a theory for this trend, developed while watching Keith’s lizardly eyes dart from one bikini to the next. Keith’s libido, she decided, was based on strangeness. This was true of most men, of course, but for Keith it was particularly true. He had an inbuilt urge to have sex with people he didn’t know – anonymous, foreign, mysterious people with whom he would need to exchange only a few clumsy pleasantries. At first, he’d been rapacious to the point of aggression. Now he was distracted, frequently drunk and usually all-too-clearly thinking of someone else. For a while, Katherine had been concerned that Keith was thinking of a specific someone else – that there might be one bronzed beauty by the pool who’d caught his eye for longer than the others. It took her time to realize he was simply imagining that Katherine wasn’t Katherine. That’s what mattered, that’s what got his engine going. Keith’s withdrawal from anything that could have been termed a shared reality between them was precisely because that reality, or any reality for that matter, was profoundly unerotic to him. He didn’t want to fuck Katherine; he wanted to fuck a stranger who looked like Katherine
A man – old and English – disturbed her in the toilet as she was pulling up her bikini bottoms. He blushed claret and bolted. When Katherine told Keith she saw a light go on in his eyes. He told her to go back to the toilet and leave the door open. He followed her in and fucked her against the sink without removing her bikini, each of them looking themselves in the eye in the steaming mirror, Katherine all too aware of what had stirred Keith’s libido: the fantasy of her as a nameless stranger, disturbed in the toilet, fucked without introduction. It was chance that excited Keith. Chance and anonymity and the infantile idea of stolen peeks at women’s bodies. She could be anyone, she thought, watching Keith’s reddening face in the mirror. Anyone at all and he wouldn’t care.
Fuck you, she mouthed into the mirror. He didn’t see. He’d closed his eyes as he came, imagining, no doubt, some other time and place entirely, some other fuck, some other Katherine
Back at home, after a wordless flight and a relieved parting at the airport, Katherine discovered she was pregnant. Her period was a week overdue. She’d put it down to the strains of the holiday but to put her mind at rest, she pissed on a plastic stick. The stick promised total confidence. Nothing in her life had ever given her less. At the sight of the little blue bar in the stick’s predictive window, she threw up. Then she went out and bought five more sticks of differing brands, all of which promised relief, reassurance, an end to doubt. She was not reassured. She was not relieved. She was riddled with doubt. She bought a half-bottle of vodka from the offie on the corner and drank it neat. She considered buying Mr Muscle or household bleach. She thought of herself as a drain that needed to be cleansed. Everything on the telly seemed to be about babies. She called Keith and said, without explanation, that she needed some space. He gave it, of course, and save for a cursory text thanking her for a great time, he made no effort at contact. She was glad and disappointed. She still had three days of her leave and spent them pacing her flat and smoking. She called her mother and told her she was fine. She thought about the pills again and decided it was simply too pathetic, too predictable, and would allow her mother to wring far too much sympathy out of family events.
At work, there was a briefly pleasing sense of furtiveness and secrecy that, not altogether coincidentally, mirrored the feelings she’d had when she’d been secretly fucking Keith (yes, past tense for that now). There was something about having a secret, she thought, that brought with it a sense of elevated moral standing or general day-to-day importance. Not telling people removed the burden of explanation, of the need to emote; it allowed her to look at the problems of others as nothing more than the problems of others. How pleasing it was to watch the women in her office – Jules and Carol and all the others – go about their daily distractions in blissful ignorance of Katherine’s secret martyrdom. Secrecy was a point of pride. She wanted it, then of course didn’t want it, felt hampered by it, and wanted its opposite: attention. People surprised her in their ability not to notice. Not telling them her problems meant she had to listen to theirs. The pains of the supermarket; their Very Repetitive Strain Injuries; the fact that their husbands were too ‘closed’ emotionally (‘I try to ask him why he’s angry all the time, but he’s so closed, you know?’); and the way their neighbours were encroaching on their back garden by shifting their fence six inches over. Problems were competitive in the confines of the office. Sympathy was a contact sport. Even as she felt aloof, the injustice keened away inside her, swelling and fading and Dopplering off into her soul. She started to self-sabotage her own secrecy, not wanting to tell but desperate to impart. She favoured implication over explanation. When Jules caught her coming out of the stalls dabbing bile from her lips and tears from her eyes and asked her what was wrong, Katherine said Nothing while making all the possible facial shapes of someone who should really have had said Something. But Jules failed to notice Katherine’s shuttling eyes and roving stare and quivering lip as she declared herself to be Fine, really Fine, just as Carol failed to notice when Katherine stared at the floor and sucked in her top lip after coming over faint in the staffroom and saying Nothing was wrong, that she was Fine
Galvanized by her isolation, Katherine attempted to make inroads into her iciness. She made sure to say good morning. She asked after Jules’s friend who had recently died. She stood in the staffroom and listened to Debbie go on about her son, who ate foil wrappers and had been excommunicated from the Rainbow Day Centre for whopping his willy against other children’s thighs. When someone in the office either stole or inadvertently appropriated Janice Johnson’s bag for life, which she had very sensibly brought in so as to allow her to transport her macrobiotic stew without it leaking all over her handbag, Katherine sent a global email that resulted, after just thirty minutes, in the bag miraculously reappearing in the staffroom.
When Dawn Rickstadt, who Smelled So Good, wafted past Katherine’s desk smelling particularly good, Katherine made sure not only to note the name of her perfume (Consensual, by Chanel) but also to check how Dawn might feel if Katherine purchased the same perfume and so also ended up Smelling So Good, to which Dawn had generously replied that she had no problem at all with Katherine buying a bottle of Consensual because it was gorgeous and indeed, since she herself was nearly out, perhaps they could go shopping for it together at lunch.
‘This has lovely dirty notes,’ said Dawn in Debenhams, misting Katherine’s wrist with Reproach by Comme des Garçons. ‘It’s sea breeze meets knee-trembler in a Ford Capri.’
‘Is that supposed to be nice?’
‘It’s supposed to be sexy.’
‘I don’t want to be sexy,’ said Katherine. ‘I want to be clean.’
‘Gotcha,’ said Dawn. ‘Something more zesty?’
‘How about Mace?’ said Katherine.
‘Oh, I know,’ said Dawn. ‘You’d think with all this research they’d have come up with a reliable twat repellent by now.’
Afterwards they did lunch. After lunch they did coffee. Dawn talked about her relationships, all of which had ended badly, but about which she was still, she said, hypothetically optimistic.
‘That must be nice,’ said Katherine.
‘It has its moments,’ said Dawn. ‘But anyway. Tell me about you.’
‘Ick,’ said Katherine
It was, however, short-lived, just as Katherine’s occasional episodes of bad-faith niceness were always rather short-lived, and always left her feeling disappointed and faintly dirty after the event. She could understand it, obviously, the whole being-nice-to-people thing. She could see its advantages over her usual tactic of abrasion which, admittedly, required a high level of effort and dedication. Yes, people were much nicer to you if you were nice to them, but then how were you supposed to tell if it was really you they liked, or simply the nice things you did for them? Of course people liked to be around people who were nice to them – who wouldn’t – but that didn’t mean they liked you or knew you or had any sort of handle on you as a person; and it certainly didn’t mean you could rely on them to be there when things were less rosy.
Jules was too Compassionate. Dawn Smelled too much. Debbie’s Patience was annoying. They were all annoying. They nibbled their food in naughty little bites because they were watching their weight. They sent global emails listing fifteen things that make you glad to be alive. They thought capital punishment had its uses but only for really bad crimes and only if you could be really sure the person did it. The ones with husbands moaned about their husbands. The ones without husbands wanted husbands. They all wanted more stuff but their houses and flats were very cluttered and they felt they should really get rid of some things because the minimalist look was in but then on the other hand it wasn’t homely, was it, the minimalist look. Many of them wanted to do something worthwhile because they admired people who did things that were worthwhile. Often one of them was coming down with something, and the others would worry that they would be about to come down with something, although often they would not and then they would all agree that they were probably just run down. Yogurts had a lot more calories than any of them ever really imagined. Somehow, they had all been given computers that were particularly recalcitrant. They liked one another only to the extent that they themselves wanted to be liked. When one stood up to go to the toilet or make a cup of tea the others talked about her, about how she smelled too much or how her patience was wearing them all thin.
She went back to the charity shop where she’d donated Keith’s vibrator. She told them she’d left something in the bag by accident and wanted it back. The woman looked blank yet suspiciously relaxed.
‘I haven’t seen anything,’ she said. ‘What was it you left?’
‘A vibrator,’ said Katherine.
‘Oh. Um . . .’
‘You can’t miss it,’ said Katherine. ‘It’s shaped like an enormous penis and on the side it says “The Widowmaker” in Day-Glo letters.’
‘I don’t think I –’
‘I know you’ve got it,’ said Katherine.
‘I assure you I haven’t.’
‘Give it back.’
‘I would if I could.’
‘Whatever,’ said Katherine.
Keen to once again reaffirm her faith in the basic degradation of humankind, Katherine took herself off to her local strip club.
Despite using the word ‘executive’ at every opportunity on its membership cards, its posters, even its drinks coasters, L’Après-Vie represented the cheaper end of male entertainment. The girls were foreign and got all the way naked. Private dances took place in clammy rooms that had, as Dawn would have said, dirty notes. Katherine wondered as to the etymology of all this: the precise moment in man’s history when the definition of eroticism had been agreed to include a skinny, sad-eyed tween in cheap heels launching herself off a piece of repurposed scaffolding. She paid twenty quid for a private dance with a girl named Clover, who had pigtails and purple nails and a tattoo of a unicorn just above her groin.
‘It’s my power animal,’ she said.
‘I’m pregnant,’ said Katherine. ?
Katherine didn’t like to think of herself as sad. It had a defeatist ring about it. It lacked the pizzazz of, say, rage or mania. But she had to admit that these days she was waking up sad a lot more often than she was waking up happy. Weekends were worst; workdays varied. The weather was largely inconsequential.
Time in front of the mirror didn’t help. She got ready in a rush, then adjusted incrementally later. She hadn’t been eating well. Things were happening to her skin that she didn’t like. Her gums bled onto the toothbrush. It struck her that she was becoming ugly at a grossly inopportune time. Breakfast was frequently skipped in favour of something unhealthy halfway through her working morning. She couldn’t leave the house without a minimum of three cups of coffee inside her. Recently, she had started smoking again. It helped cut the gloom.
For the past two years, Katherine, having moved from London to Norwich by mistake, had been the facilities manager at a local telecommunications company. Her job centred on the finer points of workplace management. She was paid, she liked to say, to be an obsessive–compulsive. She monitored chairs for ongoing ergonomic acceptability and suitable height in relation to desks and workstations, which she checked in turn to ensure compliance with both company guidelines and national standards for safe and healthy working environments. She performed weekly fire-alarm checks and logged the results. Each morning she inspected the building for general standards of hygiene, presentation and safety. She fired at least one cleaner per month.
She was widely resented and almost constantly berated. People phoned or messaged at least every hour. Their chairs, their desks, the air conditioning, the coffee maker, the water cooler, the fluorescent strip lighting – nothing was ever to their liking. The numerous changes Katherine was obliged to implement in order to keep step with current health and safety legislation made her the public advocate of widely bemoaned alterations. Smokers had to walk further from the building. Rooms had to be rearranged. Breaks had to be renegotiated. Her job allowed no flexibility, meaning that she frequently came off as humourless and rigid. She took comfort, however, in the ease with which she could write off enmity as a response to her job role, as opposed to her personality.
Aside from the basic majority of colleagues who couldn’t stand her, there also existed a splinter group comprising the men who wanted to fuck her. Some of them wanted to fuck her because they liked her, and some of them wanted to fuck her because they hated her. This suited Katherine reasonably well. Sometimes she fucked men because she felt good about herself, and sometimes she fucked them because she hated herself. The trick was to find the right man for the right moment, because fucking a man who hated you when you were actually having a rare moment of liking yourself was deeply counterproductive, and fucking a man who was sort of in love with you at the peak of your self-hatred was nauseating.
To date, Katherine had fucked three men in her office, one of whom, Keith, she was still fucking on a semi-regular basis. The other two, Brian and Mike, had faded ingloriously into the middle distance, lost amid the M&S suits and male-pattern baldness. Brian had been first. She’d broken her no-office rule for Brian and, with hindsight, it hadn’t been anywhere near worth it. She’d broken her married-man rule too, and the rule about men with kids. She resented this because it afforded Brian a sense of history he in no way deserved. The reality was, at a time in her life when Katherine had made a conscious and not entirely irrational decision to jettison so many of the rules by which she had up to that point lived her life, Brian had been in the immediate vicinity, and, moreover, had been a living exemplar of several of those rules. Hence the sex, which had happened quite suddenly one Tuesday afternoon after he’d given her a lift home from work, continued through to the following month, and then ended when Katherine began wondering if some of her rules had in actual fact been quite sensible. Brian was fifty-something (another broken rule, now that she thought about it), fat, and in the midst of an epic crisis. He drove a yellow Jaguar and had a son called Chicane. They never finished with each other. Katherine simply ceased to acknowledge his existence and the message was quietly, perhaps even gratefully, received.
Mike was, on the outside at least, different. He was Katherine’s age (thirty, although there was room for adjustment depending on her mood), single, and surprisingly good in bed. Even more surprisingly, Katherine found him to be capable of several almost-full-length conversations when the mood took him. Their affair (it wasn’t really an affair, but Katherine liked to define it as such because it added value to the experience and because she’d not long previously fucked Brian and was hoping that she might be in a phase of having affairs, which would of course completely legitimize her sleeping with Mike) lasted almost two months. It ended when Mike found out that Katherine had slept with Brian. Much to Katherine’s irritation, Mike turned out to be in possession of what he proudly called a moral compass. Katherine was not impressed. As far as she was concerned, morals were what dense people clung to in lieu of a personality. She told Mike as much after he tried to annex the high ground over the whole adultery issue. He ignored her. He couldn’t respect her, he said. Katherine would always remember him walking away from the drinks cooler, shaking his head and muttering softly.
All this had been a while ago, and there had been other, non-office-based men floating around during the same time period. Nothing had gone well. She’d been waking up sad a lot more often. The thing with her skin had started. She’d gained weight, then lost it, then lost a little more. Sleep was becoming increasingly difficult. Once, during a stretch of annual leave she’d taken purely to use up her quota, she’d swallowed a fistful of pills and curled up in bed waiting to die, only to wake up five hours later in a puddle of vomit, many of the pills still whole in the mess. She had words with herself. She got dressed the next day and did her make-up and went into the city and collided with Keith, who suggested coffee, then food, then violent, bruising sex in his garage, her stomach pressed against the hot, ticking metal of his car bonnet.
‘I remember once . . .’ said Keith, lying back against the car afterwards, Katherine beside him, both of them smoking and waiting for the pain to subside. ‘What was I . . . Fuck it, it’s gone.’