Framed hand calligraphy print (mid-1970s) of the inspirational prose poem ‘Desiderata’ written by Max Ehrmann in 1927 (see item for full text), wooden frame approx. 11.25” x 9”. Masking taped at reverse. Glass cracked, smeared with fingerprints, slight cocaine residue.
Mid-July, and Lucia and I had been drinking for eleven days. Since that night at Julie’s, we had spent most of our time suspended in an unthinking drunken void. Hours passed without very much happening at all. We were either lying flat on our backs in the living room listening to sixties girl groups and Joni Mitchell on Lou’s record player or, on the rare occasions I had to work, having lock-ins at the pub. Lou had made a habit of turning up towards the end of my shift and charming all the locals into plying her with free drinks and the odd line until I knocked off, by which time she’d be thoroughly trashed and philosophical. Then the two of us would stagger back to ours and listen to more records, before tumbling into bed, if we made it that far.
It was the afternoons I enjoyed the most, when we threw all the windows open and the music up loud, and shouted along in between the puffs that burned the backs of our throats. Sometimes, if we hadn’t passed out by the time Josh came home from work, he would join us for a spliff or two, remarking on our admirable stamina while at the same time maintaining an air of paternal concern for our well-being. By day eleven, however, he had begun to look more disapproving, perhaps because he wandered in just as Lou was halfway through a rendition of ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’ by Marianne Faithfull, having made the big bay window her own personal stage. She was standing there in her slip holding a crystal wine glass belting out the words while I sat on the floor clapping. ‘Why’d ya do it, she said, when you know it makes me sore / ‘Cause she had cobwebs up her fanny and I believe in giving to the poor / Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you spit on my snatch? / Are we out of love now, is this just a bad patch?’
‘Blimey,’ said Josh, ‘that’s not one for karaoke down the Crown.’
Lou flopped down on the couch and lit up. ‘She came for dinner once, you know. With my parents. I can just about remember her.’
‘You inhabit a different world,’ I said, and went into the kitchen to top up my Chambord and lemonade. We had run out of gin, vodka and whisky a couple of days in and were scraping the back of the cabinet.
‘What are we doing tonight?’ she called through. ‘I think we should go out.’
The track ended. I came back into the living room and started flipping through the records, searching for something but not sure what. Lucia sauntered past in search of her cigarettes and clinked her glass against mine.
‘When are you both going to stop? This is getting insane.’
We turned to look at Josh, who for once was not rolling up. He sat down on the arm of a chair.
‘We’re having a good time,’ I said.
‘Really? Are you really having a good time? It feels like you’re hiding.’
‘Hiding,’ said Lou. ‘You’re so dramatic. We’re just taking a little break, aren’t we darling?’
‘We are,’ I said. ‘A little break from life. Like Coral does.’
Coincidentally, Coral had embarked on what appeared to be an almighty drinking session at around the same time as we had. We hadn’t seen her, but we’d heard. The muffled, faraway strains of ‘Gimme Shelter’ though the floor, with its high-pitched lead, the ‘oooh, oooohs’ floating up through the garden in the early hours. The sounds of breaking glass and the clanking of bottles before dawn as she staggered out to the recycling; the strained, gravelly tone of her protestations coupled by the deep, harsh yells of a man. Crashing, and then banging on the door. We had almost called the police several times, but our own dreamy excesses had made us lackadaisical. She’d be ok. She always was.
The muffled, faraway strains of ‘Gimme Shelter’ though the floor, with its high-pitched lead, the ‘oooh, oooohs’ floating up through the garden in the early hours. The sounds of breaking glass and the clanking of bottles before dawn as she staggered out to the recycling; the strained, gravelly tone of her protestations coupled by the deep, harsh yells of a man.
‘Our alcoholic, agoraphobic, benefit-scrounging downstairs neighbour is hardly a role model,’ said Josh.
‘I never took you for someone who believed what they read in the papers,’ I said, tipsy and righteous. ‘You know, we were on benefits. Do you and whatever shitty right-wing newspaper you read think that we’re scroungers too?’
‘Oh for Christ sake Harmony, have some nuance,’ said Josh. ‘Are you seriously telling me that Coral and whatever dodgy bloke she’s got on the go aren’t a serious waste of public funds? I’m not saying we should blame those on benefits for every ill in society. I’m not saying that anyone who’s poor is a lazy shirker who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and work. I’m not peering over our garden fence getting myself all riled up about how them next door aren’t declaring their drug dealing earnings to the DSS. But for a moment, can we just be honest here? I hate the Tories as much as the next Guardian-reading Islington liberal but I also grew up on an estate in Manchester . . . ’
‘Thought you owned your house?’ said Lou. There was a hint of mockery in her voice.
‘We did. Do. But Lou, Right to Buy doesn’t mean your house suddenly takes off like a rocket and lands in middle class suburbia. I lived there all my life and I’m being honest here when I say that if you really believe that there aren’t any lazy bastards out there who live out their lives on the rock and roll then you’re living in a fantasy world.’
‘But it’s overstated,’ I said. ‘It’s overstated on purpose to create an even greater divide.’
‘Yeah! It’s blaming the poor and vulnerable for social inequality when what we have is a defective and oppressive system.’ Lucia looked quite pleased with herself, as though her comment was sufficiently insightful for her to be able to withdraw from the conversation.
‘That may be. But can you really look inside yourselves and tell me that you don’t feel something like disgust for that woman downstairs and her complete inability to look after herself. She can’t even dispose of her own cat’s turds properly.’
‘You said she’d had a hard life. You said that to me when I had just moved in.’
‘I don’t doubt that she has. But let’s face it. She lives a sad, pathetic, booze-induced existence. There’s nothing there to aspire to.’
‘I thought you had more empathy than that.’
‘Come on, Harmony. You’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m not saying that the state shouldn’t step in when it comes to Coral, I’m just asking you to consider the notion that some of the Conservatives’ welfare rhetoric – hideous and brutal though it is – might have a grain of truth in it. The trouble comes when they pretend that grain’s a whole loaf.’
‘Please can we stop talking about those awful people?’ said Lou, who came back in from the kitchen clutching a brown-coloured drink. ‘I just don’t have the energy for it.’
‘Yeah, I’m too pissed for this,’ I said. ‘And I feel like I’m back at university. So what are we going to do with ourselves?’
Lou walked over and switched the record player off. ‘I know a party.’
‘A party? Where?’
‘Behind the Iron Curtain? It’s a trek. And I hate West London. Everyone’s so . . . ’
‘Wanky? It won’t be like that. It’s worth it, trust me.’
‘Is it someone you went to school with?’ Josh crinkled his nose. ‘Because if so I’ll give it a miss, ta.’
The last time Lou had taken us to a party in West London it had been some banker she knew through school friends. It always astounded me how close these public school kids’ networks were, the girls from Francis Holland and St Paul’s and the boys from Westminster and University College. Everyone knew someone’s sister Tilly through someone’s boyfriend Hugh, the back pages of Tatler printed in shades of blonde and khaki on their brains like some Debrett’s for the children of magistrates and businessmen. ‘He’s nouveau riche,’ Lou had said, as we disembarked from the black cab on a leafy street bathed in the luxury of white street lamps, offset by the watchful red bleeps of burglar alarms. ‘It’s a veritable case of “pimp my house”.’
It was. A relatively normal-looking suburban detached, of the kind you get in cities all over the country, yet strangely altered, as though they had whacked a turret on one side and tried to elevate it from family home to something altogether grander. The whole building seemed crooked, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. It had, I remember, a circular kitchen of the sort where you expected a newly jellied flan to be sitting on the central work surface in anticipation, and a billiards room, the felt of the table a vivid magenta, the posed family photographs silent spectators to the hedge funders, still so young looking in their suits, who were racking up lines on the lacquered wood like overgrown pageboys gone rogue. The real pièce de résistance, however, was the back garden, a workaday English lawn waxed smooth and vivid green, as though dyed. One day, probably in the middle eighties, the inhabitants had walked into their newly bought home, gazed through the screen doors at their conventional family garden and thought, ‘Versailles’. The centrepiece was a three-layered fountain surrounded by box hedges and guarded by topiary glades of cherubs. To the right, the pool extension, which was at that point host to a number of topless Frans and Lucindas. In my electric blue cocktail dress, which had layers of nylon and lace and gossamer and looked like something early Madonna would have rejected for being too outré, I had looked (and felt) completely out of place. Josh had left early muttering under his breath that he couldn’t stand another second of these cunts, but I had stayed, defiant in the face of questions about where I had been schooled. Other than that I remembered very little of the actual party; the sour metallic taste of cocaine in the back of my throat that made me feel as though I was going to be sick in a flower bed at any moment; a boy in a dinner jacket, tripping over a box hedge and declaring himself ‘literally shitfaced’; the sickly taste of semi-ironic punch. Everyone had talked incessantly about themselves, but then isn’t that what conversation is? One person waiting for their chance to speak, and vice versa, on and on. It was just that these people didn’t bother to pretend otherwise.
‘It won’t be like that,’ said Lou. She shuddered with the camp practised drama of a true snob. ‘It’s a girl I know from . . . I’m not sure how I know her actually, but it’ll be sensational. Promise.’ And so we agreed.
Josh had left early muttering under his breath that he couldn’t stand another second of these cunts, but I had stayed, defiant in the face of questions about where I had been schooled.
This party venue was unlike any house I had seen in London, but then I never came out that way, nor ventured into Surrey. It reminded me of a photograph I had once seen of Alfred Hitchcock’s country house, jarring in its lack of resemblance to the gabled, gothic palaces of his films. This too was mock Tudor and brown brick, humble-looking, yet enormous on the inside, once we made our way through the people who were spilling or hanging out of every orifice, laughing without, thankfully, their heads thrown back. Lou was right, it was a different crowd, art students mainly, state school pupils now at ex-polys. Because of the house it had a feeling of an illicit teenage party thrown because the parents were away.
‘They’re property guardians,’ said Lou, of the people who lived there. ‘There are at least eleven of them. They live here for free to stop it being squatted. It’s due to be demolished, that’s why they paint directly onto the walls.’
Everyone seemed to be property guardians in those days. That year the rents had been rising on a month-by-month basis and, for those who resented shelling out for identikit buy-to-lets painted white with laminate flooring and aspiring balconies made of glass, it provided a realistic alternative. All over the city, homes stood empty.
The unoccupied mansions on Bishop’s Avenue – the road that ran from the top of the Heath to Finchley that was also known as Billionaire’s Row – were crumbling and overgrown behind their wrought iron gates, their moss-covered fountains dried up, their swimming pools empty and melancholy. Poor young people would willingly become cut-rate guard dogs to live in such a place. The guardians paid very little rent in exchange for their physical presence, so it suited many of those of our generation whose squatting ambitions had been thwarted by legislation.
‘I feel ambivalent about it,’ a girl I knew who ‘guarded’ an abandoned school in Peckham told me. ‘On the one hand . . . practically no rent. But on the other, I know that the owners are sitting on a goldmine here. And what are we to them? Meat. Meat that stops slightly smellier meat coming in and depleting the value of their asset.’
‘And then they’ll divide it into flats and sell it on, and then where will we be? In the same situation – onto the next place, helping rich landlords protect their property interests with no hope of that stability ourselves.’
The Hitchcock house’s interior was an odd combination of faded grandeur – chandeliers and ceiling roses, peachy damask wallpaper – and the sad echoes of family life. The kitchen was panelled in dark wood cut in narrow strips and had not been updated since the seventies. You could almost see a bowl-cut child in a crew neck striped T-shirt sitting there at the breakfast island, eating a newly fashionable yoghurt, as a housekeeper in a pussy-bow blouse tidied in the background. Everything about the place spoke of a certain style of childhood, so clearly was it divided into those spaces which were for the adults and those which were not, and I wondered where that boy was now, whether he ever drove past on late summer evenings, slowing at the curb to remember the kickabouts on the lawn as his mother sat watching with her gin and tonic, her large floppy sun hat, her paperback novel, her barbiturates. They had all moved out long ago. ‘Shall we take this?’ I imagined the grown-up son saying, perhaps to his brother or sister as they cleared the house. But neither had wanted the framed ‘Desiderata’ that remained defiantly suspended from a hook above the kettle.
We had intended to eat the mushrooms on a pizza as a way of mollifying their floury, dirty taste, but the neighbourhood was such a wasteland that we had not passed a single shop on the way from the tube. Like many rich parts of West London, there seemed to be so little a sense of community that you wondered whether people didn’t just ossify in their houses as they waited for the Ocado van. As Josh cracked open a lager, we boiled some water, and, after nursing our pilfered mugs for ten minutes or so in the crowded kitchen, had them in tea.
Shortly afterwards the edges of my thoughts began to blur and wiggle, making it, I decided, a good time to explore the house. I left Lou in the kitchen staring at her fingers while Josh chatted to a girl with a buzz cut, and pushed my way through the new arrivals armed with clinking plastic bags. On the ground floor there was a half-empty ballroom with the lights dimmed, a DJ ready at the decks for when the guests descended, gurning, from various bedrooms, demanding electro. I stumbled in and wandered to the back of the high-ceilinged room, where patio doors opened onto a large back garden that was in surprisingly good shape. Perhaps it was a condition of their guardianship that they mow the lawn. At this point I was starting to get some mild visuals – nothing disturbing, just an increased sense of clarity, as though everything within my line of sight was being passed through a pin-sharp filter. I stood swaying slightly on the periphery of a conversation. Someone was talking about the cuts to education maintenance allowance and the project they were working on based on it, and they asked me something but I smiled vaguely in response. I had come to the realisation that I could see every leaf on every tree and it was magical. Their edges shimmered silver in the moonlight and just the fact of them seemed at that moment indescribably beautiful and hilarious. I began to laugh.
I had come to the realisation that I could see every leaf on every tree and it was magical. Their edges shimmered silver in the moonlight and just the fact of them seemed at that moment indescribably beautiful and hilarious.
I don’t know how long I stood out there staring at the trees but eventually I returned inside. The house was filling up past capacity, the party’s activities no longer mainly restricted to the outdoor areas. People were shouting in order to make themselves heard over the music. The staircases were packed, meaning that to reach the other floors you had to squeeze past people pressed against the banisters as their drinks sloshed. I kissed a blond boy on the second landing as we waited in the queue for the toilet, until his tongue became a worm that was trying to suffocate me and I pushed him away in horror.
The main bathroom had been papered, for some unknowable reason, in tin foil and was bathed in a blue fluorescent light. Next to the sink, which was full to the brim and contained a ladle, was a handwritten note saying ‘gin and tonic’. I helped myself to a cup as the reflections of the light in the walls began to move. Three people sat in the pink corner bath talking as a guy with an afro skinned up. ‘It’s ok,’ he was saying. ‘Pretty derivative and anguished. Sub-par Bacon.’
‘Bacon,’ I said, stupid, and began to giggle.
Into the next room, and I found Josh, cross-legged on the floor and talking about Poirot. ‘I never got why my parents loved it so much,’ he was saying, ‘it goes on for fucking hours. Oh my God, Harmony, you’re tripping out.’
‘Did you see the leaves?’ I said. ‘The leaves were amazing. It’s like I’m inside and outside myself at the same time.’
‘Let’s get you some water.’
My memory of events is hazy after that, but Josh told me later that we went for some fresh air and that I lay on my back for an hour telling him we had the same body. Lou was nowhere to be seen, as was often the case, but I knew she hadn’t left because every now and again I’d see someone trying on her hat. I’d lost all sense of time by that point. The sky was still dark but the birds, confused by a house all lit up, were singing. The music pounding through the screen doors had changed from electronic to old school hip-hop; the packed ballroom heaved and swelled. I floated through the crowds moving to the beat, the strobe accentuating the feeling that I was wading through treacle as the floral carpet, muddied from a hundred and fifty pairs of trainers, swirled and churned like lava beneath my shoes. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I was beginning to feel a profound dislocation from my body. I was somehow standing upright and yet also horizontal, lying down kicking like an infant in a cot, all in time with the music. I finally spotted Lou vogueing in the corner and went over to her and danced with them for a bit. Who knows how long? Time had ceased to be linear, it was an amorphous accumulation of every moment ever lived. I was fucked.
‘Did you see the moonbow?’ said Lou. ‘I’m a moonbow, too.’ As she laughed her grimace turned into a horror-show mask and I took a step backwards, grounding myself.
It was just as I was imagining the technicalities of a moonbow that it happened. I caught a glimpse of red hair somewhere near the centre of the room, a scrap of white lace, and there she was. I stood staring before pushing my way over to her as she danced, her skinny arms flailing wildly from what appeared to be a diaphanous vintage wedding dress that had been hacked at with scissors. A druggy, pre-Raphaelite beauty. Her eyes, rimmed with dark eyeliner, hovered disconnectedly above the other dancers, dreamlike. In contrast to her arms her legs were moving almost languidly. I looked down at the swirling mass of carpet and saw that she wasn’t wearing shoes. Her small, delicate feet almost shone set against the dark of the floor.
‘So milky white.’ I wanted to touch them, then felt complete repulsion. They were like doll’s feet. Waxy. Bloodless. I looked away.
She focused on me, finally. It was as though the music had been cut.
‘It’s you.’ I realised then that I was crying, that my cheeks were red and wet. ‘It’s you.’
I touched my face, then hers, grasping through the air. The ends of her hair, which went down to her waist, were damp. I ran my fingers through them, fascinated. In hindsight, I’m surprised she didn’t push me off her. Instead she looked bemused.
‘But where have you been?’ I said. I was gripping her hard against me, crying into her shoulder. ‘It’s been such a long time. Where did you go?’
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a columnist, feature writer and editor for the Guardian newspaper. In 2012 she co-founded The Vagenda, a feminist blog which was published in book form by Vintage. In 2014 Rhiannon was short-listed for a press award for young journalist of the year. As a freelancer she has written for publications as wide ranging as Elle, Stylist, the New Statesman, The Independent and Time. She has extensive radio experience, having appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and the Today programme. She was born in Islington, grew up in Wales, spent time living in France and Italy, and has now returned to her birthplace. This is her first novel.