Monday, 5 December 2011




When I awoke that day I was acutely aware it was the first of December and I found myself dwelling in the date and its meaning. This willful route of thinking was destructive and against my better judgement. The more I tried to think of the present, the more I was pulled back to think of past Decembers and once I began, I caught myself recalling other significant festive seasons. Just like everybody else, when I was a little girl, I’d open the first door of the advent calendar and begin the count down to Christmas. My belly would flutter with high expectations, like wishing for snow. As I walked to school I’d have brilliant hopes for colourful, shiny and sweet things. And like most children, on the first of December I’d begin to get over-excited for a thing that did not really exist, Santa Claus and Christmas magic. I have always felt Christmas always was all empty wrapping, broken promises and a cloying, claustrophobic sentimentality.

My father hung himself one December and as I grew up I became aware of an annual depression with each anniversary and with it a dreadful pressure, I felt Christmas was like an urgent deadline and an obligation I began to resent. Decembers darkness is constant, I can feel it now as I write this, December pressing down on me and pushing me into black. I find it hard to make light in December, no matter how many twinkly flashing bulbs you have in your windows, the darkest place is under the candle and that is where you’ll find me this time of year.

Lets go back, several Decembers ago, that was when I first moved into this place alone, I was running away from a great but destructive love. And these harboured memories sabotaged me. My brain played tricks on me with flashes of sentimental images. I became nostalgic, flooded with rosy memories of the painful affair and of a man I had once loved so very much. I found a photo of us then and now it was now, today, that first morning in December and it was all nagging at me. I threw on my old winter coat and went for a walk. And as I strolled down familiar streets of North London, I remembered other Decembers...

I distinctly remembered one crisp December day some years back, when I met a Madame, an ex-stripper and a lap-dancer. She ran a house of girls and private dancers. She wanted me to ghost-write her memoirs and we’d meet for coffees. It was a vanity project, she didn’t want it to be published or read by anyone. It was just for her, she said, it was for her kid to read one day. She was in her mid-thirties, she had hard boobs, straightened hair and long vinyl nails in a French manicure. In those days I was most often hungover, always hungry, I was even poorer back then, so I always hoped she would offer to buy lunch, maybe some soup, but it was always just coffee. We had a handful of meetings at this beautiful restaurant. It seemed beautiful because I was cold and empty. I would smell the fresh bread and eye the specials plat du jour chalked up on the board. While she talked, I’d be watching the waiters laying the white linen and polishing silverware. I asked her a great many questions to see if I could honestly write her life story with her voice. And she had a voice, with an accent that sang, she was from somewhere way up north. She’d repeat how she had some stories that would really make my toes curl. Without naming names she alluded to the fact she knew the dirt, sexy romps with MP’s and sensational filth on important, famous people. She’d known some real characters, she’d say over and over everybody has a book in them and this used to make me cringe. I’d sip the froth off my coffee, my belly grumbling, as my throbbing head would fill with scummy images of a sleazy underworld, desperate prostitutes, smack head strippers and slimy men with tattooed knuckles. I pictured rat-infested alleyways or pissy cobbled yards, steamed-up car windows, hand jobs and blow jobs. I’d imagine beige hotel rooms, needles and bruises, split lips and split skirts. We both agreed that to write her book I would have to go to the strip bars and sleaze dens she knew. I’d have to meet these shady characters, the real deal, the dark and the dangerous, the pimps and the whores, the devils and the angels.

She was talking to a lawyer to get a contract drawn-up between us. It was serious and she offered to pay me one thousand pounds. This was very cheap, one thousand pounds for eighty-thousand words, for a whole book, but I was sorely tempted. With that one thousand pounds I could pay my rent for December and I could buy my mother a Christmas present. Fate stepped in and highly co-incidentally that very same week I met an eighteen year old Polish girl at a bar, her name was Candie, or at least that is what I called her. So after one of these coffees with the Madame, being in a dilemma, I called her to meet for a lunchtime pint. Candie was tiny and gritty, she had a pierced tongue, playing card tattoos and a slick bob of ice pink hair, the colour of candy-floss. I asked her if she knew of this Madame, she didn’t. Candie told me she charged five hundred pounds for one whole night in a hotel. She did the usual, rope work and bondage, role play and water sports. She spanked middle-aged men with their saggy arses. As we drank strong beer I laughed with her at these stories and some of the odd requests she got. I was titillated and ever so slightly tempted to go try that line of work – lets do the maths, for a weekend in a hotel room I would make more cash than writing the Madame’s book.

I once heard about a call-girl that got paid a a pretty penny just to make a Jew eat a bacon sandwich. She didn’t have to do anything else, she didn’t have to touch him or anything. She just had to dominate him in sexy underwear and then punish him by making him sit at her kitchen table and eat a bacon sandwich once a week. I reckoned I could do that and still be able to look myself in the eye the next day, still keep my soul, some integrity if you like, intact.

By dusk Candie had invited me to go on a job with her, in the name of research, to test drive if I had the stomach for the work and the writing. We had finished a good few strong Chimay beers on an empty stomach that afternoon and so it seemed like a good idea. It was dark as December always is, the pub was lit with Christmas lights. I drained my glass and got excited to go on an adventure with her.

The client that answered the door was dressed in a ballet tu-tu and ripped red fish-net stockings. He had a ragged beard, long greasy hair and John Lennon spectacles. He gave us vodka and stuff. He kept saying it was pure and he wasn’t lying. It was very strong indeed and you only needed a little, before your jaw locked up and your teeth started grinding and you got that shiny and overwhelming cocksure sense that you knew where everything was and what it was all about. In the name of research I went along with the ride and before I knew it I was quite enjoying myself, it was an intimate party and the client didn’t seem that weird or crazy. He told me he got turned on by piss and high heeled shoes. He took his time meticulously rolling the perfect cone, using scissors and a grass grinder, as he talked excitedly about drugs and sex and sitting there you know, it seemed all very compelling and urgent.

Then another man, also with a beard, showed up and for a horrible moment he began checking me out. I explained I was just a writer doing research for this Madame’s book. This raised an eyebrow and so I had to quickly convince him I wasn’t anything useful like a journalist, but just a poet. Luckily he liked poetry and started chopping out more powders and we settled into an excitable discussion about the ways to approach writing the Madame’s book.

It was then when it occurred to me that I could, I should write two books, one that was the Madame’s memoir written in her voice and past tense and the other in the present tense about being my life writing her book and meeting these dark shady people and writing the Madame’s memoir, like a Russian doll, a book inside a book. I would write her story and my story about writing the story. A little bit like this very short story you, you, you are reading…I I I would write write write about me, me, me writing about her whilst writing about me me me. Genius! A story inside a story insi I I I am a vibrating I am vibraaaating tingling black hole which makes my eyeballs hot and watch as my blood is sweet and itchy realising that last hit hit hit was what was that I I I see a fuzz of fizz and stars and sky dust glittering in a rocking boat floppy neck twitchy itchy fingers bendy bendy bending fizzing heavy head and stretchy legs of rubber and plasticine and pins and needles and pins and needle and pins and needles and pins and fizzing fizzing fizzy fuzzy was a bear, fuzzy wuzzy was bear was a bear was fuzzy was fizzy fuzzy was a bear was what it was a big brown bear and that is what was that was that a fuzzy a bum bum bum tiddly bum what was that fizzy fuzz buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…what was that about Russian dolls she is not Russian she is Polish. Candie is Polish! I affirmed out loud when the hallucinatory fuzz and black fizz finally cleared. 

Candie went into the bathroom, she was calling out my name saying - Come and watch, he said you should come and watch, we both want you to come and see what I am doing! Quick now! But I didn’t go, I couldn’t stand up, besides I was far too interested in some sparkly dust in my thinking. I reckoned the noises I heard were enough. Then it went quiet in there. Then the noises started again and he was making a lot of noise, like he was getting something good. When he came back into the room, he made a song and dance about how pleased he was to have her urine in his beard and mouth and he licked and smacked his lips like a cat that got the cream whilst Candie purred.

It was a long and dark night, plenty of twitchy blood jumping, inane talk, a lively numbness, restless chatter. That negative sense of end of the world and a need to party like there’s no tomorrow, followed by a cold paranoid doom and a state of being trapped under frozen icy time. As I came back down to earth the daylight took weeks to break and it was unfriendly. Then The Fear spanked me around the back of the head like a cricket-bat and restful sleep was a long, long, long time coming.

When I came down I realised that I wasn’t going to take the job and write that book for the Madame. I knew that going there, really going there, the content of that writing and that journey would remain with me to this day. Like a blood stain and a cold shadow, something I would still feel later. There is enough darkness in the real world. Surely we must have all done some living by now and we have all had our own fair share of the secrets and shadows, of death and destruction. What people don’t know don’t harm them, when you write something down you live it and then you have to re-live it and walk through it again and again until it sticks in your guts. If you write anything like you really mean it - then it stays with you - writing tattoos your senses like a memory of a vivid dream, sharp as a truth and real as a scar.

And here’s the other truth, I would have got tired of writing the Madame’s story. I would have grown impatient with the work and got sick of writing for the money long gone and already spent. And the Madame, I imagine she would be setting dogs on me right now, she would be hunting me down to this day with a pack of those real characters, all with books inside them chasing me for an unfinished first draft.

Now, I come back to the present, here and now, the first of December and I find I am in the pub where I worked seven years ago. I’m drinking a gin and tonic and staring out at the pale lavender of the afternoon. I have spent the last few hours, drinking and thinking all of this, staring across the street and wondering if he still lives opposite. There, where we once lived together. I recall how happy I was there, living with him. I am getting up the courage to go and see him again. I have been hoping he’ll pop out to the corner shop for a pint of milk so I can watch him. It has been seven years and I  know I am setting myself up. Nevertheless, I am compelled to face him, to just look into his eyes once more. This need is incessant, I am being selfish, I know I am, but the cogs started turning the other day when I found that photo of us. We were laughing and kissing eight, nine or ten years ago? I am chasing ghosts, intentionally poking skeletons. Most people get on with the present, most people go where the love is, most people let sleeping dogs lie. But, I am here watching my old home.

Suddenly and in one swift swig I drain my gin, take the risk and I cross the street and go into the building. I am afraid he will say bad things, remind me of how we hurt each other. Seven years ago I left him here, there, in distress with so much unresolved.

He is sick, skinny and smaller than I remember. We throw our arms around each other. He  is hugging me and it is the closest I have been to another human for quite a long time. A laugh comes out of my throat from somewhere underneath. I kiss his cheek several times and cling onto him some more - and then just a little bit longer.

Then we sit outside and make roll ups, we smoke and talk, taking cautious but long looks at each others faces. We grin, snigger nervously. I can feel my eyes are as shiny, misted as his are. I surprise even myself to be sitting here. He says I haven’t changed a bit. I tell him about the photo I found of us back then. He tells me he is going into rehab. I cannot work out if my timing is way off or bang on. I wish him luck and I hope he gets clean at last. I begin to wonder if it was a sign finding that photo, a universal sense of the turning of a page that led me to this action, this consequence, this moment.

This is happening and this is in the present. Above us the stars are bright, the air is cold, it is the first night of this December, this year. But no it isn’t all better. I have frightened myself doing this, seeing this shadow again, visiting my past. I know I have had to come a long way to be able to come back here again. And there are things that are more familiar than I’d like to admit. He reminds me of someone I once was, of someone I am sure I am not anymore.

Some days pass, the fourth door is open on my advent calender when he calls me, we talk on the phone, he is in a car park, ten miles away from the rehab clinic in the countryside. He says he is having his last ever hit, a goodbye smoke. It’s a big moment for him, that he is choosing to speak to me also seems significant. We talk about being friends, maybe having dinner sometime when he gets out. He tells me he’d like to be my friend again but he’d feel sorry for anyone that went out with me. I laugh hollowly as though I agree, as though I see his point, as though I am a terrible person. Momentarily I agree, I forget I am in this present and I want to tell him I have changed, but I bite my tongue.

See you next year, he says, as he hangs up and we say goodbye. I really have no answers, I don't know why I had such a compulsion to go and find him or what I was ever doing there digging up the past. Maybe my timing was bang on but no, love, there is no Santa Claus or Christmas magic, it’s December, it’s dark, maybe this year, maybe next year, January? January is even darker but January at least is a fresh start.

© 2011. Salena Godden