I deliberately steer the conversation around to relationships next time the girls and I meet up. I want to get it out in the open – the fact that I can’t imagine ever getting involved again and I just want us to be friends. I don’t say overtly that that’s why I’m telling them – that would be presumptuous, but I just want to pre-empt any awkward notions that might crop up, either on their side or mine. In the process I manage to make it sound tragic (which, actually, it is) to get lots of sympathy, and also to make it sound romantic (which actually it isn’t. It’s bloody hard). I ask about the people they were with at the end and it turns out they were all more or less single. Lisa and Ruth are both tight-lipped on the subject, not to say bitter, but Raz tells us more than we really wanted to know about the men in her life.
‘There was Ken at the end – sweet boy, face like a mastiff but what can you do? I swear he was gay but he was trained to be a nurse and I made sure it was all worth his while. Before that it was Robin. He was just a gold-digger really but I’ve got to say the boy did his best to impress me. We lived the illusion together – always complementary about whatever new software I’d had installed.’ (By which I assume she means cosmetic surgery.) ‘We got through a terrific quantity of lubricant I can tell you, what with the HRT. My second hip op was his fault...’ and so on and so forth. Lisa doesn’t know where to put herself.
So Raz is back from her fling with Doug and back in her ‘lounging apparel’, sipping a martini. She knows a lot about martinis and I asked her if she’d get me one and she asked which kind and I said I didn’t know there was more than one kind. She’s brought me five different ones so far and I’ve enjoyed them all, so that’s a revelation. Ruth and Lisa are also here, as usual, and we’re joined by a small, stocky woman, also apparently in her mid to late twenties and with lots of curly hair around her face and over her shoulders. She introduces herself as Wen (‘Short for Arwen. Dad wanted an elf but he got a hobbit’ she explains cheerfully). They’re talking about men again. I sit casually sideways on, drinking arm resting on the table, listening in, watching the others. A lot of the early excitement has died down now. People have settled in for the long haul. Outside, the weather is filthy, the storm flinging all manner of foam and debris up on deck. Down here is stuffy and poorly lit, but not unpleasant. There are an awful lot of chessboards and packs of cards out. I wish I enjoyed games more. Still, the conversation is seldom boring here, and I can always look at my book if it is. The other day I found a small book of poetry in the library, and I nearly put it back because poetry has always seemed contrived and awkward written down (same with Shakespeare). It’s like reading some lyrics without knowing the music that goes with them. Sometimes I’d catch the poem being read on the radio by an actor and I’d hear the thing come alive. That’s what I like about this book. I opened it casually, not expecting much (but with the vague sense, left over from childhood that I ought to read poetry) and there it was, as I read, speaking alive in my head – poetry. It wasn’t like a recording. It was me, but suddenly fluent in poetry. I’ve kept the book on me and shown it to a couple of people but no one else seems that impressed. Either they weren’t interested in poetry or poetry was always like that for them. Lisa was even quite scathing. She couldn’t imagine how anyone could not “be in love with poetry” and I think her opinion of me dropped a few notches. Wen was more scathing still. She wanted to know why, if you had something to say, making it rhyme would somehow say it better. She likes instruction manuals and textbooks. Dad would have liked her.
Anyway, I hear Ruth is on about ‘commitment-phobics’ again and complaining about her last boyfriend. I brace myself.
‘I mean, you weed out all the bloody rejects and time wasters and you think you’ve found something worth having and...’
‘How do you mean?’ says Lisa ‘weed out?’
‘On-line dating darling’ says Raz. ‘You weren’t much into the technology were you sweetie?’ Lisa looks piqued but listens anyway.
‘Anyway, as I was saying...’
‘But how do you do it?’ says Lisa. ‘I’m sorry, do you have to go on dates with them all?’
‘Heavens no. You look at their profiles and see what you fancy – age, religion, hair colour...’
‘How can you tell anything from that?’ says Lisa appalled.
‘Well there’s usually a photo and a quick resumé to go with it’ says Raz ‘You should see some of them’ says Ruth and the two of them do a bit more cackling.
‘Some of them, honestly, it’s unbelievable. Some of them can’t even be bothered to write a profile, I mean what sort of impression does that give out? Or they just write “Help. I’m lonely and I can’t even tie my own shoe laces.” I mean really...’
‘Pitiful, it really is...’
‘So... what? You go out with a whole lot of strangers?’
‘No worse than meeting someone in a pub or a club darling.’
‘No, I get that, but I mean, well, how many did you go out with in the end?’
‘About twenty-five I think, maybe. Obviously you have to narrow it down. Some things are obvious snags...’
‘Like religion? Or if they didn’t want children...’
‘Well, income of course. Obviously I wouldn’t think of going out with a man who earned less than I did, which narrows the field considerably I have to say, or one who was shorter than me for that matter. That isn’t such a problem of course.’
Lisa just says ‘Ah, of course’ but I can tell she’s troubled. She must be five ten herself. Perhaps she’s thinking that was her problem. I have to say I never found it a problem. Vikki was a good two inches taller than I was.
Vikki – oh my God. Poor Vikki.
‘Anyway’ resumes Ruth ‘that was how I met Clive – six foot four, architect, five hundred G, two kids with his ex in Bristol, seeing each other alternate weekends and whenever else we could get away. I really thought, maybe, who knows? Could be the one, and then he invites me to meet his kids and come away for the weekend with them and I think “This is it, at last.” And then, next thing I know, whoosh, dumps me the week after. I mean, am I missing something? I mean, ok, he wasn’t the easiest man in the world to talk to for example but I thought maybe that was because of his ex and so on. I wasn’t in any hurry myself to be honest. Not after Leo. I wasn’t exactly writing wedding invites. Know what I mean?’
She looks at Raz who is fiddling with her olives. ‘The thing is darling’ she begins ‘and stop me if you’ve been told this a zillion times before, but men and women are not designed to be happy together long term. I mean, present company excepted (I nod thanks without looking up) men are just not after the same thing we are. I mean, we’ve had sixty years since burn your bra and women are doing nicely in the work place and so forth now, but I really don’t believe it’s made a jot of difference to the way men think.’
‘I think that’s bollocks if you don’t mind my being so bold’ says Wen, leaning in. She’s in an awkward position relative to the rest of us, sitting with Lisa down on the soft leather sofa whilst Ruth and Raz are on chairs. I’m in an armchair off to one side, staying out of it. It doesn’t seem to affect Wen’s ability to be heard however. ‘It’s all about what kind of men you go for’ she says.
I can see Ruth’s hackles rising. I raise an eyebrow at Raz. This should be interesting.
‘I mean, no offence, but I’ve heard you talking about all these men you dated and it’s the same story over and over again. Has it not occurred to you that perhaps it was something about you?’
Nobody says anything for a minute or three. Not a word.
‘I’m just saying’ she adds, shrugging.
I can see the muscles working in Ruth’s jaw as she tries to formulate a civil response.
‘Then how do you account for the fact that all my friends had precisely the same experience, over and over again?’
‘Well, maybe it’s the kind of people you hang out with.’
Ruth flushes nastily, like a strawberry allergy. ‘And you’ve been happily married all your life I suppose?’
‘God no, but I know I’m a difficult cow. High maintenance, that’s me.’
Ruth is speechless. Raz pretends to concentrate on her glass but secretly watches Ruth’s face.
Lisa puts her book down and leans in. ‘Are you saying then, that it’s all the woman’s fault?’ She looks really miffed.
‘Not always. Usually it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. But I just think, if it happens to you a lot, well, maybe you need to do some thinking – not you necessarily. Anyone I mean. I don’t know your situation...’
‘And actually you don’t know mine either’ says Ruth tersely.
‘Well, you’ve hardly kept it a secret. You’ve talked about little else since we’ve been here. Honestly, you have. I’m sorry.’
‘Well, with all due respect I don’t think you understand.’
‘Ah, maybe not. That’s fair enough. Can I get us all a drink?’ and she gets up holding hers and Raz’s empty glasses. We tell her what we’d like and she goes to the bar.
After she’s gone Raz looks intently at me and says ‘What do you think about all this Gabe?’
‘Oh, don’t drag me into it’ I say, secretly hoping she’ll insist. She does. I knew she would.
‘Go on, you can’t chicken out. You were married for what, twenty-five years? Did you never look at another woman in all that time.’
I take my time answering – keeping them guessing but in truth I don’t know what to say.
‘I looked’ I say guardedly. ‘She knew I looked. We both did. We used to discuss who we fancied. It was like a game.’
‘For you perhaps’ says Ruth, tightly.
I avoid looking at her. She’s really beginning to piss me off actually.
‘Actually’ I say, equally tightly ‘my wife was quite secure enough in herself to enjoy the game. She knew exactly how I felt about her.’
Ruth looks at me. I know exactly what she wants to say, but she doesn’t. Instead she says ‘In that case she was a very lucky lady’.
I want to say it had nothing to do with luck. I want to say that she was the kind of woman that inspired devotion, but I can’t. It would be too much truth.
‘I still think men tend to just play at it’ says Lisa angrily from her end of the table. ‘I felt like I was a toy sometimes. They can just pick you up or put you down when they feel like it.’
‘Thank you Lisa,’ says Ruth archly. ‘We’re not all quite as needy as you.’ Lisa goes back to her book.
‘Oh look, I need to freshen up’ says Ruth, rising suddenly. ‘I’m going to go and have a sauna. Raz, coming?’
‘I’m ok here for a while dear. You go ahead.’
Wen arrives with a tray as Ruth heads out. Ruth barely acknowledges her.
‘Bloody hell, what’s happened here?’ she says as she puts the tray down ‘She’s left her drink.’
‘Oh I’ll deal with that’ says Raz tipping it into her own glass. ‘Anyway Gabe you never really answered my question. You must have broken some hearts before that I’ll bet. Come on, spill the beans.’
I smile demurely. Lisa I note has looked up from her book and is waiting intently for my answer. This is why I like female friends. Men are a constant mystery to them, whatever they may say to the contrary, and they appreciate having a tame specimen on hand to study. A friend of mine (female) explained it this way – men have traditionally seen woman as the great mystery, like looking up at the stars and wondering at infinity. Women on the other hand look at men as if they’re observing an amoeba down a microscope and wonder how something so primitive can possibly function. For my part I never found women much of a mystery. Men on the other hand...
‘I did ok’ I say cryptically and smugly.
‘How “ok”?’ says Raz, grinning smuttily at me.
‘Never you mind. Drink your drink.’
Lisa looks at me. I can tell she’s formulating a question. She pokes at her ice with her swizzle stick. ‘But don’t you think... I mean, men do look at women differently, don’t they...’
‘How do you mean?’ I can imagine, but I want her to tell me.
‘I mean, not exactly as sex objects necessarily, but... What am I trying to say? More as...I want to say conveniences, or hobbies or something. More like pass-times.’
‘As opposed to?’
‘Well I think maybe a woman looks at a man she likes more as a... a potential soul mate or something. Am I being very silly?’
‘A bit simplistic perhaps’ says Raz, charitably.
‘I know I don’t know much about it. Sorry. It’s just... I just do feel that men don’t really care about women the same way women care about men. Do you know what I mean? Or women about other women for that matter. I’m not being heterosexist about it...’
‘I think there’s a lot of overlap though’ says Wen. ‘I think maybe if you look at the extreme cases...’
‘And you’ve got to look beyond all the bluster and keeping up appearances darling. Don’t be fooled. I’ve had some very devoted followers.’
‘They were just after your money’ says Wen.
‘Everybody’s after something sweetie. I mean, how many of these ever so devoted girls are actually just after a baby, and how many of them totally lose interest in the man once they’ve got one?’
‘That’s totally different’ says Lisa, evidently quite affronted.
‘Is it?’ says Wen.
Lisa doesn’t answer.
My turn. ‘Are you saying I shouldn’t have had anything to do with a woman unless I was prepared to marry her and give her babies then Lisa?’
‘Well...’ she thinks about it. ‘Not necessarily, if it’s understood... If you both want the same thing.’
‘But I don’t think many women would...’
‘Oh come on. What century are you living in girl?’ says Wen.
‘I’m just saying... Oh I don’t know. Maybe I’m very old fashioned.’ She looks very upset. ‘Oh look, I know I’m talking rubbish. Ignore me.’
Suddenly I feel the need to rescue her. I don’t want her to feel so beaten. ‘Lisa’ I say, ‘It’s not that you’re completely wrong...’
‘Yes I am. I am wrong.’
‘Oh sweetie’ says Raz, reaching out and taking her hand.
‘No, you’re right. I should have just... It’s ok, really...’
I look at her and wonder what’s happened. I can see she’s been hurt but she hasn’t told us anything about herself. She’s a picture of vulnerability – tall and unsteady and her eyes seem too big for her face sometimes. They look like they’ve done a lot of crying.
‘Well, to be honest’ I say, ‘I tend to assume that women are well able to look after themselves, or at least, as much as men are.’
She’s not happy with that answer either.
‘I think you’re one of the exceptions sweetie, don’t you? One of a rare breed of decent blokes’ says Raz.
I can feel myself blushing. They take it for modesty but it’s not.
‘Oh come on. I don’t believe that’ says Wen, ‘I mean, Raz, you’ve got to admit you’re not the world’s best judge of the male character yourself.’
‘What do you bloody mean, cheeky cow?’ she says with mock indignation and gives Wen a bit of a shove with her elbow. ‘I think I understand men rather well’ and she gives us that raucous cackle again.
‘Yes, but...’ says Wen waiting for her to settle, ‘for instance, would you have gone out with Gabriel here?’
Raz eyes me lasciviously ‘I might have’ she says, ever keeping her options open. I appreciate the flattery and smile back.
‘No, you wouldn’t, and do you know why?’
‘You tell me darling.’
‘Because he’s too nice.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘It’s true Gabe, I’m sorry. You’re a decent bloke and a lot of women like that sort of thing – nice, polite, charming.’
‘Oh hang on. You make me sound like some sort of freak.’
‘No, but really...’
‘Anyway’ interjects Lisa ‘I don’t believe he was that nice.’ She’s looking at me very narrowly, accusingly even. I’m beginning to think she knows something. Do I know her? I couldn’t forget a girl like Lisa – could I?
‘Ok’ I say, ‘look, just for the record, yes, I didn’t always handle things as well as I might have, but I got dumped too.’ It’s a feeble rationalisation and we both know it.
‘But you broke somebody’s heart didn’t you. I know you did.’
‘What? Look, I really don’t know what your problem is Lisa.’
‘Oh nothing’ she says, suddenly deflated. ‘Nothing. Forget I ever said anything’ and she goes back to her book. We all look at one another and talk about something else. She’s upset me though. How did she know?