Before I was married I wanted to kiss every boy or man I thought was attractive (part of the conquering thing). Sometimes the kissing turned into sex because I didn’t know how to stop it, or I felt I’d led them on, or because we ran out of conversation. I didn’t think feeling pressurized into sex was a big deal in my teens and twenties. I wasn’t informed about consent, and the general opinion in those days was that if you’d aroused a man, even accidentally — or he told you that you’d aroused him, or you were badgered for long enough — it was your fault and you owed it to him to give in.
Recently I asked a sixty-year-old schoolfriend who was thinking of leaving her marriage of twenty-five years, “Will you mind if you don’t meet someone else and never have sex again?” She closed her eyes and winced as if she were remembering something bad. “I’ve had enough sex to last me the rest of my life,” she said. I knew what she meant. Starting at fifteen, we had both been having sex with men for forty-five years. Society can’t sell it to us in any shape or form any more.
After my marriage was over I had a fling with an odd man the same age as me, which for some reason made me think it was fine not to use any protection. He’s so weird he can’t have slept with anyone for years. I’m sure it’ll be fine, I thought. Stupid to risk it. I got myself tested for everything at a clinic afterwards. On my way out I asked a doctor if it was OK to have a cock in your mouth after it’s been up your backside — asking for a friend. He gulped and said, “Yes, it’s fine.” This friend had done it with no obvious ill effects, but still I can’t believe it’s fine to have a poo-flecked cock in your mouth. Perhaps the doctor said it was OK because he was startled by such a direct question from a middle-aged woman, or my friend wasn’t unwell because she had a very clean arse, or maybe he wasn’t a doctor at all, maybe he was a porter or some random guy in the corridor. I don’t know, I wasn’t wearing my glasses.
I had to retrain my eyes and brain to find older men attractive when I started dating again in my fifties. The last time I was single the men I was looking at were in their thirties and I still had that youthful image fixed in my head. It was depressing at first, choosing from a pool that’s not regarded as desirable or vital in your society. I was paddling around in that same pool myself. I’d walk down Oxford Street looking at bald men and men with grey hair and paunches and say to myself, He’s about my age, that’s the demographic I should be looking at. I realized I had a very small group to choose from: men over fifty who’d kept themselves vaguely together physically, were single, mentally stable, solvent and not gay were rare creatures. I managed to re-educate myself eventually. Now I’m only attracted to people my age. A young face looks like a blank page to me.
Worse than being stuck with someone ill or being alone forever is the thought that I’ll grow to love a person very much and won’t have them for very long.
Most middle-aged men want a younger woman as a partner. (In my teens I was upset that I was too young to even dream of going out with any of the boys in my favorite bands, like the Stones or the Beatles. Now they’re all with women who weren’t even born when I had that thought.) Men could train their eyes to appreciate the beauty in older faces and bodies like I did — it would help if we saw more older women in the media, your sense of beauty adjusts with constant exposure — but I don’t think men are willing to put in that kind of effort. You have to make a conscious choice, like deciding to eat healthily or give up alcohol, and stick with it.
I could have dated younger men during the last five years, but lovely as some of them were, I didn’t want to keep wincing inwardly whenever I referred to something that called attention to my age. Or not be able to share the difficulties of growing older, or have to keep explaining references. I’d like to be with someone kind who can hold a conversation and is in my age group. If that’s too much to ask, I’ll do without.
A large part of wanting someone to love and look after you is to do with the instinct for survival. I’m sure every person over fifty has thought about getting ill, becoming incapacitated and dying alone. I’ve weighed up men with that thought in the back of my mind. If a guy coughs his lungs up every time he laughs, I can’t help but think, I ain’t going to be stuck looking after this one, wheeling him about and clearing up his poo whilst he grumbles at me until one of us dies. Caring for someone you’ve been with for thirty years is understandable, but when it comes to someone you’ve only known for one, it’s not an appealing prospect. When you’re young, death and a long, serene old age together is a romantic haze on the horizon. When you’re older, it’s right up in your grill. Getting on and off buses slowly, borrowing each other’s glasses to read the small print, hospital visits, indigestion, insomnia, hearing loss, whistling noses (sounds quite sweet actually), irascibility and impatience is the reality of a twilight romance.
Worse than being stuck with someone ill or being alone forever is the thought that I’ll grow to love a person very much and won’t have them for very long. Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose.
I was sitting on a chair in the phone shop waiting to be served when I heard a man talking to a sales assistant, and something about his voice made me look up. Motorbike boots, jeans, leather jacket, holding a crash helmet, slightly greying hair tucked behind his ears. Not bad, I thought, and looked back down at my pamphlet. “Viv!” he shouted across the shop floor. “I was just thinking, that’s a beautiful woman! And it’s you.” (Because I’d driven I was dressed in an old jumper and jeans, no make-up, hair all over the place.) Richard-from-the-past, he turned out to be. Dangerous, these creatures. The fact that you have a shared history makes them seem trustworthy, but shared history doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘good person.’ I often forget this when I haven’t seen someone for years. Richard pursued me when I worked with him about twenty years ago — I can’t believe there’s such a thing as twenty years ago — but I rebuffed him because he was married and had two young children. He was extremely handsome back then, with longish light-brown hair and bright blue eyes. After we talked in the phone shop, Richard asked if he could take me out and gave me his number. I couldn’t believe it, asked on a date by a guy I met in the phone shop — who needs dating apps? I took a while to contact him and he came straight back with where and when. Very good, no games.
Richard suggested we go to a gig at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington on Thursday evening. He had ideas for a date, had done his homework and chosen an interesting venue — he might be an adult. On the day we were to meet I had my roots retouched and my hair blow-dried — this makes my hair look normal as opposed to a ball of dried-out seaweed. Nora Ephron, so good on hair, noted this stage in women’s lives: “After a certain age, the only time you have a good hair day is when you’ve paid for it.” Rain poured down all day. At five o’clock Richard called. Here we go, he’s cancelling, can’t be bothered because of the rain. I answered the phone with a light, not-expecting-bad-news kind of voice. “Can you come and pick me up?” he asked. “I don’t fancy getting soaked.” He didn’t know I had a car. He did know I lived in East London and he lived on the other side of town in North London, near Tufnell Park.
I was so relieved Richard wasn’t cancelling that I said yes, I’d pick him up. He told me the name of the street but not the house number, and I set off towards Kentish Town. The rain was so heavy it was as if someone kept throwing a thick grey horse blanket across the windscreen.
I know it sounds perverse, but I wanted to see the date through to the bitter end. I wanted Richard to think it had been a success.
I parked and texted Richard. Be down in a sec, where are you parked? he texted back (still not telling me the house number). He jumped into the car with a woolly hat pulled down over his head, a cravat at his throat, kissed me on the cheek and off we went.
“Last time I saw you I turned down having sex with you. I’ve regretted that for years,” was the first thing he said.
“Really? I don’t remember that at all, so you can stop torturing yourself about it. I do remember you pestering me for sex every time I saw you, even though you were married with young children.”
“I want to apologize for that.”
“Go on then.”
“I’m very sorry.”
Not a great start. We aquaplaned through the potholed streets as he reminisced about the old days. “Oh yes, I slept with her, and her,” he chirped as we discussed mutual friends. “Slept with my ex-wife when I was babysitting our kids one night and she got pregnant again! Ho ho.” I decided to enjoy the date, knowing I wouldn’t see him again. I tried to convince myself that it was good to get to know different people, hear about different lives. We pulled up outside the V & A. There was a queue around the block, hundreds of people standing in the pouring rain. Richard peered out of the window. “I didn’t think it would be this busy so I didn’t book.” We talked to the ushers at the door but there was no way we were going to get in.
“Shall we just go and get a coffee down there then?” asked Richard, pointing at a brightly lit touristy cafe a couple of streets away.
“Let’s go to this drinking club I can get into instead, something with a bit more atmosphere,” I suggested. I felt embarrassed signing in a guy in a cravat. As we crossed the room Richard deliberately lagged behind me so I’d get to the bar first. He was avoiding paying. I called to him and asked what he wanted. “A pint of lager.” He ducked past me and sat down.
“My new place is just around the corner. I’ve just done it up. Do you want to see it?” I asked.
“Are we going to have sex?”
He took a swig of his pint. “Oh. No, then.”
After a while I said I was tired and was going to head home. Richard asked me to drive him home first. I agreed. I know it sounds perverse, but I wanted to see the date through to the bitter end. I wanted Richard to think it had been a success.
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“Can we go via Brick Lane on the way back? There’s a place there that does great kebabs,” he called out to me as we ran through the rain to the car. The date was becoming so ridiculous that I was laughing inside. At the kebab shop Richard jumped out, bobbed his head down to the window and enquired — sounding very much as if it was an afterthought and hoping I didn’t — if I wanted a kebab too. I declined. “You won’t drive off, will you?” he called over his shoulder. I should have driven off but I didn’t want him to know how disappointed I was, so I stayed. Ten minutes later he emerged from the shop and ran up to the car swinging a blue plastic bag sagging under the weight of sawn-off meat. The windows steamed up, the meat smelt like human sweat. Off we went again. This was my fourth hour of driving. It would take another hour to get across London to Richard’s road and another hour to drive back home. A date consisting of six hours’ driving. We parked at the same junction I’d picked him up from a lifetime ago and he scampered off, clutching his bulging plastic bag.
Richard texted the next morning to say what a wonderful night it had been and asking could we meet again? I thanked him and wished him well but said I’d rather not. He threatened to stalk me if I didn’t answer his texts or see him again. I ignored all further communications and eventually he stopped. I think I won that one.
“Do you think I’ll ever meet another guy, Mum?”
“There’ll be plenty of guys, Vivvy. What worries me is the one you’re going to pick.”
Why is every man I go out with so bonkers? Do I choose these men because I have low self-esteem and am scared of rejection? Because I think they’re so broken they’ll never leave me? Or is bonkers familiar because my family were all a bit bonkers? Or are we all bonkers by the time we’re in our fifties? I know I’m attracted to Asperger’s types, but is this as good as it gets?
When I first described Eryk, the man I met after Richard-from-the-past, to Mum she raised her eyes to the ceiling and said, “He sounds like a dead loss.” I was determined to prove her wrong this time, especially as she was leaving me. I’m not going to have you dictate who’s good and who’s bad for me any more. I’ll make up my own mind, thank you very much. I worked extra hard at the relationship with Eryk just to go against Mum, like I did with friends she disapproved of when I was at school.
No matter how badly he behaved, I kept clinging to the unseaworthy vessel that was Eryk with the desperation of a drowning woman.
But it wasn’t just Mum. Everyone I knew was dubious about Eryk. ‘You can do so much better,’ they said when they heard about his unreliability and indifference towards me. I didn’t think I could do better. I thought he was the best I could do, what with my own foibles, my age, physical problems, work that sometimes engulfs me, a child and tiredness. I was lonely and my mother was dying. I needed to feel connected to someone, however odd he was, just like I needed a home, however close to a rat.
Perhaps ‘defective’ is a middle-aged person’s default setting. Like the life cycle of a pear we go unripe, unripe, ripe, off. Except the men I meet seem to go adolescent, adolescent, adolescent, old, with no ripe bit, no wise bit, no emotional maturity before they wither.
The listless Eryk filled my thoughts all through my mother’s decline. I thought about him more often than her dying. Once he left a message on my voicemail after not calling for ages and I played it to Mum as she lay croaking in her hospital bed. Trying her best to appear interested in my pathetic love life, she asked to hear his message again, but as she passed the phone back to me she accidentally pressed a button on the screen with her arthritic finger and called him back. I punched the cancel button in a panic and rounded on her, “Don’t ever touch my phone again!” Her face collapsed.
I shouted at my dying mother because I was attempting to play it cool with a weak, apathetic man I’d only known for a few months. Shameful.
I put up with more and more careless behavior from Eryk as Mum neared death. I “recruited him to serve my loss,” as Helen Macdonald wrote in H Is for Hawk, about a man she met not long after her father’s death. Macdonald’s words struck a chord, but no matter how badly he behaved, I kept clinging to the unseaworthy vessel that was Eryk with the desperation of a drowning woman.
Eryk and I went on quite a few dates, but as he avoided intimate encounters I still hadn’t undone all the buttons on his shirt or seen his penis after knowing him for six months. At last the day came when I was allowed to undo the third button. We were lying in my bed. He had his shirt (two buttons undone), underwear, trousers and socks on, and I was in my bra and pants. I slid my hand over his chest and fiddled about trying to undo the third button. He was as still and timorous as a virgin. Surely he’s not a virgin? Not at fifty-three. Maybe he’s gay. That would be awful, if I’m forcing myself on him. More likely he’s a psychopath. I’ve read that psychopaths pretend to be sexually innocent with the woman they’re seeing and do the bad stuff in secret.
Eryk let me undo the third button and ran his fingers down my arm, applying just the right amount of pressure. I liked that he didn’t do very much. None of his actions were irritating or intimidating. He was also a good kisser. Something happened to his lips, he made them go soft and pillowy until they fitted mine perfectly, and the kisses lasted for ages, we got lost in them. I touched his shaved head and looked into his pale, Putinesque, puttanesca eyes. Then he rolled over, grabbed The Woman in White from my bedside table, opened it up and started reading out loud. I was disappointed that he couldn’t wait to get on with the story (good as it was). At the end of the chapter he snapped the book shut, sat up, rebuttoned his shirt, laced up his pointy brown brogues and said sternly, “That’s enough for today.” There was no point asking him to stay. I’d tried a couple of times in the past but he just shook his head. He wasn’t a communicator. I’m very much a communicator, but there I was, trying to have a relationship with a cold, pale-eyed man with a van.
One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you’re dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior.
— Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 2005
A year went by and no bond formed between Eryk and me. I tried hard to build our attraction into a relationship — and when I try at something, I really try — but it was hopeless. He was so pathologically secretive that I began to suspect he was a compulsive liar. Often I’d find out after a date (from a mutual friend or a bit of Facebook stalking) that he was going on holiday or to a grand wedding the next day, but he hadn’t mentioned it. He did this many times, not just about small things, about everything. I never saw his flat. He wouldn’t discuss his home life or share his thoughts and feelings about the past, present or future. He only wanted to talk about places and things. Either he was hiding some terrible secret or he was incapable of intimacy. He was cold and hard, a shiny frozen shell with a hint of darkness inside (sounds like a chocolate Magnum).
We broke up one evening in 2014, after meeting for a drink at the Pub on the Park on the edge of London Fields. I glanced through the window on my way in and saw him leaning against the bar, wearing a brown vintage shirt and dark jeans. He looked so good — long slim body, no bum and the top button of his shirt undone showing his flat clavicles. Eryk asked what I wanted to drink. I ordered a vodka and cranberry juice and a glass of water.
He pulled a bunch of fifties from his jeans pocket (I love it when a man carries cash in his pockets, no wallet). “Builder’s money,” he laughed. We sat on a chocolate-brown pleather sofa in the corner. He’d disappeared off the radar for the weekend so I asked him where he’d been. “Can’t tell you, you’ll get upset,” he said with a half-smile. I got it out of him eventually. He’d been to Berlin with his ex-girlfriend. He smirked a bit when he said it. I detected a splinter of pleasure in his eyes, as if he enjoyed the pain he was inflicting.
After a few weeks the buddleia becomes a weed again, with grime-splattered leaves and crispy brown flowers that never fall off. You can only fight so hard, and for so long, before your environment engulfs you.
I’d seen that look once before, at the beginning of our relationship, when we were on my bed kissing and I took my top and bra off for the first time. He broke off from the kissing to tell me he’d recently met a man I used to go out with who’d dumped me. Said it while I was sitting there with no bra on. I’ve relived that scene in my imagination so many times. In it I get off the bed, put my T-shirt back on, tell him to leave and never see him again. Why didn’t I do it that afternoon? Because I was desperate for affection and distraction.Why did he say it? I mulled over this question during the following months (waste of brain energy) and came to the conclusion that it was a diversion tactic. He was protecting himself by belittling me — the best form of defense is attack — and what was he protecting himself from? Performing in bed.
After hearing the Berlin story and clocking the sly expression in Eryk’s eyes, my body took over from my conscious mind. I snatched up the vodka and cranberry juice, tipped it over his head, then wrestled his pint off him and sloshed it over his crotch. (“Too much throwing liquid!” said Sally, my first reader, about this and the York gig chapter. I know, but both incidents happened and it was better than hitting them, which was what I wanted to do. I think the reason I throw liquid when I’m angry, and possibly why other women throw liquid, is that it humiliates a man while minimizing the risk of reciprocal violence.) Eryk leaned away from me, beer pooling around his arse on the seat, vintage shirt straining across his chest. A mental picture of buttons flying off in all directions with satisfying pops and pings flashed through my head. I grabbed the two halves of the shirt and pulled them away from each other, but the material was so old, instead of opening up it shredded in my hands. The feeling of the delicate fabric rending was intoxicating. “No, Viv! This is my favorite shirt!” Too late. It was in ribbons.
I ran out of the pub, across the road and under the railway arch towards home. As I emerged from the gloom of the tunnel into a pool of yellow streetlight I felt all my anger evaporate. The lamp post seemed to suck it out of me, like a genie returning to its bottle. The night was so still I could hear rainwater trickling down the mossy wall behind me and landing, toc, toc, toc, on an empty plastic bag.
The railway arch at the end of my street doesn’t have a name, it has a number, NE22485, and is constructed from soot-stained, reddish-brown bricks stacked in a curve, like a Roman arch, and iron girders. It’s a real Jack the Ripper, foggy old London, prostitutes, pickpockets and murderers kind of bridge. The walls are dank with green slime, and grey pockmarked mortar bulges from between the wet bricks. Every spring a buddleia takes root behind the drainpipe. The branches drift out over the pavement and scrape your cheek if you don’t judge the distance right as you pass. There’s a moment in the buddleia’s lifecycle, purple flowers blooming, cabbage white butterflies flitting, when it’s beautiful and triumphant, sprouting out of the broken wall without an ounce of earth to flourish in. That’s what we humans have to do, I think whenever I see it, keep blooming despite the barren circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in. After a few weeks the buddleia becomes a weed again, with grime-splattered leaves and crispy brown flowers that never fall off. You can only fight so hard, and for so long, before your environment engulfs you.
I never use the next arch along, even though it’s higher and brighter than NE22485. It is metal, with little ledges for the pigeons to perch on, which increases the odds of being shat on by at least 70 percent. You only need to look at the road splattered with white blobs to work that one out. I know ‘my’ arch so well that I stride through the shadows with confidence, even at night. The plastic light fitting, set high up near the top, as high as a double-decker bus, is encrusted with layers of pale-grey pigeon droppings and cobwebs. It looks like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. There’s usually a pile of black plastic rubbish bags torn open by foxes on the corner, with a trail of ketchup leading to an abandoned fried-chicken carcass. Lame pigeons hobble around pecking at the tiny latticed bones. A yard with walls constructed from blue metal shipping containers occupies one corner and men I can’t describe (because I never look at them, don’t want to appear interested in any way) load giant transparent plastic water bottles into scruffy vans. Something doesn’t look right about that place. Nothing’s clean – the bottles, the van, the yard. I don’t drink from those water coolers now when I go into somebody’s office. On the other corner is a Victorian semi-detached house which used to be a squat. The side wall is painted with a mural of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. The body of a man was found buried in the basement in 1997. He’d been battered to death with a hammer — which was also buried — by his flatmate, the mural painter. Apparently the painter had had enough of his companion playing music and banging around all through the night. The body wasn’t discovered for ten years. The painter would have got away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling religious sect he joined in Australia. They told him he had to go back to England and confess, which he did, and seven years after the crime he went to prison for it.
* * *
Songwriter and musician Viv Albertine was the guitarist in the hugely influential female punk band The Slits. A confidante of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, Viv was a key player in British punk culture. Alongside The Slits, she collaborated with numerous musicians, including Adrian Sherwood, before marking out a career in television and film production. After a hiatus of twenty-five years, Viv’s first solo album, The Vermillion Border, was released in 2012 to great critical acclaim. Her memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. was published in 2014.
Editor: Dana Snitzky