The Elegant Art Of Falling Apart
How does one judge one’s life: success or failure?
I remember an old story …
Bad news: a man was trapped in a burning building. Good news: he jumped out the window. Bad news: the window was on the fourth floor. Good news: there was a haystack beneath him. Bad news: there was a pitchfork in the haystack. Good news: he missed the pitchfork. Bad news: he missed the haystack …
I never could get the point of that story when I was at school. Now I totally get it. Our perspective on life just depends on where we start and end the story. Pick a day. Pick a moment.
Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.
MY LIFE IS ALMOST PERFECT...
On a sultry Sydney evening I step hesitantly through a new doorway. My eyes scan a room filled with strangers as my heart does a quick calculation: Which vacant chair to occupy? Where will I feel involved yet not exposed? Safe but not isolated?
Sit in the middle of a block of empty seats? Too aloof. Sit next to the hard-faced blonde? Scary. The sweaty guy with darting eyes? Just no. The mousy girl nervously sipping tea? She may want to buddy up with me.
The cute guy contemplating his feet?
I sit down next to him.
The cute guy moves his chair back a few inches. I am acutely aware of his eyes scanning my profile. The air in the room is heavy; the backs of my legs begin to stick to my plastic seat. I compose myself and stare straight ahead for the next sixty minutes.
Proceedings concluded, I stand and half turn.
‘Hi, I’m Nick,’ the cute guy says, extending his hand. His eyes are hazel; his hair is dark, shiny and a bit Donny Osmond–flicky. So? He isn’t a man obsessed with his coiffure. I like that. He favours me with a smile that is pure sunshine: joyful and kind. ‘Would you like to join me and my friends for coffee?’
Outside on the footpath a group of people are chatting. Nick introduces me to Graham, Dave, Sue and Patricia.
‘Jessica is visiting from London,’ Nick says. I shake hands with each of them in turn. ‘We’re going for coffee,’ he then announces, indicating himself and me. ‘See you all later.’
In March, nine months earlier, my beloved cousin Gaby had experienced some pains in her back. They had steadily grown worse. In July she had collapsed and been taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with metastasised cancer everywhere, including in her spine. ‘Unknown Primary Tumor’ they called it. Prognosis: grim.
On October the 17th, Gaby died.
She was forty-seven years old and had been married only a year before. Gaby and her husband, Domenico, had lived in newlywed bliss in a postcard Tuscan village. Those last few months were marked by a huge amount of love but also too much pain and confusion. None of the family knew anything about cancer, we clutched at straws trying to find cures and offering one another conflicting opinions and advice. To everyone who loved her, Gaby’s death was incomprehensible. Not fair.
After she died I only knew that I wanted to be with the rest of my family. Australia was calling me home.
At sixteen I had been ‘asked to leave’ my prestigious girls school. When I was seventeen I abandoned my nascent career as a purple-haired receptionist and ran away to London. At age eighteen I had felt it was time to get married. I chose Craig, a junkie and an all-round tortured soul.
Craig and I had tried to make our seedy tenement flat into a home — we really had. We plundered skips for broken rattan chairs and Dansette record players. We covered the stained couch with a bright tartan throw. Whenever Craig managed to steal some lamb chops and a packet of instant potato flakes from the supermarket, I would cook us a cosy meal and we would dine together at our foldaway melamine table.
Craig diligently signed on for the dole every fortnight whilst I worked as a coat check girl at the Marquee club in Wardour Street. This was a dream job: I could see bands for free whilst I doubled my wages by pocketing half the pile of 10p pieces that constituted each night’s cloakroom takings. Those old 10p pieces were the size of milk-bottle tops. I had to distribute them in different pockets so I wouldn’t clank and jingle as I bid the manager goodnight.
After I was sacked from the Marquee I went down to Portobello Road market and bought myself an electric-blue 1950s sheer nylon dress with a black flock print and a pair of black stilettos with jet cabochons on the toes. That outfit was my only qualification for my new job as an usherette at the Scala Cinema. I definitely regarded this as a step up in the world. The job had three key aspects: tearing tickets; telling people off for smoking, and selling ice cream in the interval. Well, four, if you count turning up for work before the movie commenced. I can tell you that I excelled at wearing the blue dress and tearing tickets. My other usherette-ing skills were a bit shaky. If I made it to work at all I would flick on my torch and shine it at the smokers.
‘Stop smoking,’ I would command.
‘Fuck off,’ they would reply.
I’d scuttle away and get the ice-cream tray with the little brass lamp above it and then sashay down to the front of the cinema and stand with my back to the screen dispensing Cornettos. Invariably I would fail to notice that the feature film had started until members of the audience began hurling popcorn and empty ice-cream wrappers at my head.
After that I decided to retire from work for a while.
Despite early success in my ambition to be a punk and take drugs in a squat, I continually felt like a failure. I fell in and out of relationships, friendships and careers. I travelled to America, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Belarus, Russia, Chile, Hong Kong and Japan. All I could remember about some countries was the bar at the airport.
Decades whirled past in a blizzard of crises.
At twenty-five I developed a neurological illness and became completely paralysed. I mean completely: I could not move or speak; I could not breathe. I spent two months in intensive care on a ventilator and another ten months building myself back up from the five-stone stick insect I had become. With the devoted guidance of a vast gang of National Health Service therapists I gradually learned to write, walk and then swim all over again.
Craig died of a heroin overdose.
I met Brendan, a talented photographer. Brendan was married with two small children but ‘his wife didn’t understand him’. Brendan’s marriage had broken down, Brendan assured me. They lived separate lives he said. He wanted me to be his lover, his de facto wife, his assistant, his manager, his muse, his saviour — his everything. What young ego would not be flattered? Of course I obliged. He left his wife and kids and we moved in together.
Brendan was handsome and funny, a cocaine addict and an alcoholic. For nine years we travelled the world, living in luxury hotels and racking up our air miles. Brendan’s camera captured the faces of the late twentieth century: the famous; the rich; the glamorous; prime ministers; astronomers; chefs, and gardeners. I was constantly by his side, running the circus — sometimes cracking the whip, sometimes pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw and soothing its coke-addled brow. For nine years Brendan’s mood swings kept me at Defcon One. He spent all our money; I made deals with the taxman. He was too drunk to deliver an assignment; I told lies to his editors. He didn’t show up on his son’s birthday; I fielded the angry calls from his ex-wife. And I was happy to do it all for him. Brendan needed me.
I needed to be needed. Being paralysed had been an experience of losing all self-protection. I had lain in my hospital bed as exposed as a crab without its shell. My only means of communication was by blinking at an ‘alphabet board’. I had been constantly alert to the fact that any small blunder by one of the medical staff — and there were many; any malfunction in the life-supporting machinery — and there were a few of those too — could kill me. One point of the nurses’ daily routine was to check the ‘mattress straps’; I wondered what they were for. A nurse explained to me that if the hospital caught fire they would grab hold of these straps and drag me from the intensive care unit, down the stairs to safety. I didn’t see how that would work, what with me being attached to about half a tonne of ventilators, drips, feeding tubes, heart monitors and whatnot. I still don’t know.
Mum had flown from Australia to sit by my side every day. My friends had filled my room with flowers and cards. Sister Mary had sprinkled me with Lourdes water and Swamiji had blown on my chakras. The nurses had watched over me twenty-four hours a day. Teams of physiotherapists and nutritionists had cajoled me back to vitality. And then they had all gone away. I had been left to take care of myself and I was scared. I mean, clearly I was living in a world where such a terrifying event could just happen out of the blue. How could I face such daily uncertainty?
If Brendan needed me so much then clearly he would not leave me defenceless and alone. Thus I would devote my life to him. If he felt insecure about his work, I would encourage him. If he didn’t like my friends, I would drop them. If he got drunk every day, I would get drunk too. If he wanted me to grow my hair long, I would grow it. If he wanted me to wear miniskirts all the time, I would wear them and oglers be damned. If he wanted to move to America, I would go with him.
Brendan and I were living in Los Angeles when a huge earthquake struck the city at night. In the morning the windows of our rented house in the Hollywood Hills were all broken; water was spurting out of the walls. There was no electricity or phone connection. Cellular networks were jammed. The freeway had collapsed.
We drove around the shattered streets inspecting the chaos and wondering what to do. We had made no earthquake preparations whatsoever. Shops were closed; ATMs were not working; National Guardsmen armed with automatic weapons patrolled outside the empty banks. Brendan and I pooled our resources: $25 in cash and half a tank of petrol. Eventually we found a grocery shop where the door was open. It was dark inside but the owners had swiftly cottoned on to the fact that their small stock of basic provisions like water, batteries and baked beans now had roughly the equivalent market value of gold bullion. To protect this treasure from crazed looters they were admitting two people only at a time. I joined a queue that stretched into the sunrise.
‘There’s no point us both standing here all morning, honey,’ said Brendan. ‘Why don’t I go off and see what else I can find?’
Forty-five minutes later I had nearly reached the front of the queue. But — I now realised — Brendan had the money. With relief I saw our battered 1979 Cadillac pull into the parking lot. He strolled towards me. He had something in his hand: a brown paper bag.
‘Here you go, doll,’ he said to the asphalt, proffering a half bottle of whisky. The bottle was about one-third gone already.
‘Brendan, how much did you spend on that?’
I took our $3 emergency fund into the shop and bought two hot dogs. Under a searing blue sky we stood in the car park, ate the hot dogs and sipped the whisky.
A few weeks later we had a fight. Like all our recent disagreements it was blaming, spiteful and unresolved. Miserable and exhausted, I went to bed. The next morning Brendan was gone. I discovered that I had been sleeping all night in a house in Los Angeles with the front door standing wide open.
I packed my suitcase and drove up the canyon to the house of our only LA friend, Randall. Randall’s front door was also agape. I stomped up the stairs and found Randall himself slumped sideways on the couch like a broken Action Man. He was unresponsive. Brendan stood on the verandah, staring blankly at the hazy horizon.
After a few sharp words I drove straight to the airport and left the car in the short-stay parking structure.
London had never looked so beautiful to my eyes. Pompommed boughs of white cherry blossoms swayed outside the dazzling rows of white stucco houses. I walked in Kensington Gardens under a pale spring sky, as blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat. I read books. I started a journal but there was nothing to put in it.
I had called up all of my friends: ‘Come over and hang out with me.’ They had come. They had stayed. For days. We had drunk wine and laughed, and laughed, and gone out to a club and snorted cocaine, and come home and drunk the cooking sherry and crème de menthe from the back of the kitchen cupboard, and snorted more cocaine and told each other our grand schemes and the fascinating stories of our young lives, and cooked elaborate meals and left them uneaten in the kitchen, and passed out on all the beds and sofas, then woken up and started all over again.
I’d had no plan for my life. The absence of Brendan and all his chaotic addictions to drugs, booze and drama had exposed an unpalatable truth: I was chaotically addicted to drugs, booze and drama. Clearly this was intolerable. Something had to be done.
I moved in with our coke dealer. I started my own business as a freelance producer and got an office in Soho. I joined all the smart clubs. Since I was my own boss I could go to work at eleven, start drinking at lunchtime and spend the afternoons lying on a sheet of bubble wrap under my desk with the telephone parked on the floor, next to my head, in case it rang.
Now Gaby was dead and I was alive. I couldn’t understand why that should be. For thirty years I had been afraid to go home. I felt I had so little to show for myself.
On that first warm evening Nick and I chat outside a local coffee shop. For almost thirty years my body and my mind have been residing elsewhere, on another continent, on the other side of the world. In that far-away realm of London I have built the familiar walls of my existence. The encircling horizon of my life’s possibilities begin and end there. I pay my bills in London. My car is in London. My dentist too. My loves and my heartbreaks, my triumphs and my humiliations, all have happened against the backdrop of those drizzly skies, beneath those majestic plane trees and in the back of those black taxis. More than anything, all my friends are in London.
Yet, as Nick and I stroll through the twilight of Potts Point I feel my body flush with a deep longing. These leafy streets with their steep steps, their packs of quarrelling crack-heads, their booksellers and cafés and their heart-stopping glimpses of white sails on Sydney Harbour, feel as familiar to me as the veins in my hand. And suddenly they seem as essential to my existence. For the first time in decades I experience an overwhelming sense of belonging.
Nick is easy to talk to and undoubtedly good looking. His attention is intoxicating but, more than that, I want the evening to go on and on so that I may extend the wonderful flirtation that I am secretly having with the city of my childhood.
Nick walks me back to my hotel. Charming? Handsome? I make a point of not inviting him in. My friend Iris always says: ‘It’s easy to confuse alarm bells with wedding bells.’
‘Can I meet you for breakfast?’ asks Nick.
For six years I haven’t even been on a date. Oh why not? I am in Sydney for only another three weeks. Breakfast seems a pretty safe bet. What harm can come of it?
At Heathrow the first text I received was from Nick. The back of my neck tingled at the sight of his name.
Really, Jessica, my head told my heart, get a grip. You had a lovely time in the sun but Nick lives 11 000 miles away.
That’s true now, said my heart, but you know it has been my dream to spend six months in Sydney and six months in London.
Oh, yes, the eternal summer. How are you going to manage that? You can’t afford it.
But what if things work out between Nick and me? I might go to Sydney and be with him. Maybe he could come here and spend time in London too?
Don’t be ridiculous, what man is going to go chasing all over the planet to be with you? Who do you think you are, Angelina Jolie?
And so the punishing ping-pong of my mind played on.
Nick continued to text, call and Skype me every day. Two weeks later he told me that he wanted to come to London. I caught my breath.
This is it, Jessica: your chance to prise the dead hand of mistrust from your heart. You have a choice: to allow the backwash of your previous relationships to ripple down through time and ruin any chance of getting close to this lovely man — or to have the courage to walk a different path. You’ve exorcised the others. You’ve done therapy and twelve steps and all sorts of cringey personal development work. Nick is not them. You deserve a shot at happiness.
‘Yes,’ I said.
The next morning my eyes snapped open in horror. Nick was coming here. To my home. He was going to put his toothbrush on the edge of my sink and leave his dirty underpants on my bedroom floor. He was going to listen to my music and look at photos of my family. Worse than that, he was coming to see me: not the sunkissed, carefree, postcard Jessica but the real item with all my work anxieties, bills, road rage issues, tidying up neuroses and snoring.
Nick was real. I would have to tell my friends about him. What if they didn’t like him? What if I didn’t like him?
Every day my levels of anxiety and excitement rose in equal measure. At the dentist’s I read a magazine and learned that I must ‘make room for a new lover’ in my home. Accordingly I started sleeping on one side of the bed only. I chucked out a couple of bin bags full of designer garments to create space in my wardrobe for Nick to hang his jeans. I bought an anti-allergenic pillow especially for him.
The night before Nick arrived I couldn’t sleep. In the dark I arose and wiggled into my sexiest underwear, a tight skirt and heels. At Paddington station I was an hour early. I stood at the entrance to the Heathrow Express platform and watched train after train emptying the early-morning flotsam of dishevelled travellers.
Whilst Nick manhandles our suitcases from the taxi, I open the front door to my flat. There is an envelope on the mat. Inside it is an invitation to attend the breast care clinic at St Mary’s hospital.
Two weeks ago I went to see West London’s loveliest GP, Dr Amelia Brooker. I’d been feeling a bit tired and, where most people would probably have a little lie-down, I opted for the full blood count. Whilst I was there I mentioned that my left breast had been feeling slightly hard lately. I wouldn’t have called it a lump; it was just somewhat tender — the kind of thing that many of us females experience just before our period, only it didn’t go once my period ended.
‘Well, it may be a cyst. You’d better get it checked out,’ she said, and wrote a referral letter.
I wasn’t worried. There are two things that know for sure about cancer:
1. It doesn’t hurt.
2. It only happens to other people.