...maybe I've just read too many novels. In novels, alcoholics are always attractive and fuuny and charming and complex, like Sebastian Flyte or ABe North in Tender in the Night, and they're drinking because of a deep, unquenchable sadness of the soul, or the terrible legacy of the First World War, whereas I just get drunk because I'm thirsty, and I like the taste of lager...
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He wanted to live life to the extreme, but without any mess or complications. He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph. Things should look right. Fun; there should be a lot of fun and no more sadness than absolutely necessary.
What are you going to do with your life?" In one way or another it seemed that people had been asking her this forever; teachers, her parents, friends at three in the morning, but the question had never seemed this pressing and still she was no nearer an answer... "Live each day as if it's your last', that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn't practical. Better by far to be good and courageous and bold and to make difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.
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You know what i can't understand? You have all these people telling you all the time how great you are, smart and funny and talented and all that, i mean endlessly, i've been telling you for years. So why don't you believe it? why do you think people say that stuff, Em? Do you think it's a conspiracy, people secretly ganging up to be nice about you?
Live each day as if it's your last', that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn't practical. Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Go out there with your passion and your electric typewriter and work hard at ... something. Change lives through art maybe. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever...
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In portraiture I look for people that I recognise - 'Look, it's Uncle Tony' - or for the faces of film stars. The Madame Tussaud's school of art appreciation. In realist works I look for detail; 'Look at the eyelashes!' I say, in idiotic admiration at the fineness of the brush. 'Look at the reflection in his eye!' In abstract art I look for colour - 'I love the blue' as if the works of Rothko and Mondrian were little more than immense paint charts. I understand the superficial thrill of seeing the object in the flesh, so to speak; the sightseeing approach that lumps together the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal and the Sistine Chapel as items to tick off. I understand rarity and uniqueness, the 'how much?' school of criticism.
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So they were pen pals now, Emma composing long, intense letters crammed with jokes and underlining, forced banter and barely concealed longing; two-thousand-word acts of love on air-mail paper. Letters, like compilation tapes, were really vehicles for unexpressed emotions and she was clearly putting far too much time and energy into them. In return, Dexter sent her postcards with insufficient postage: 'Amsterdam is MAD', 'Barcelona INSANE', 'Dublin ROCKS. Sick as DOG this morning.' As a travel writer, he was no Bruce Chatwin, but still she would slip the postcards in the pocket of a heavy coat on long soulful walks on Ilkley Moor, searching for some hidden meaning in 'VENICE COMPLETELY FLOODED!!!!
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Can I say something?' 'Go on' 'I'm a little drunk' 'Me too. That's okay.' 'Just... I missed you, you know.' 'I missed you too.' 'But so, so much, Dexter. There were so many things I wanted to talk to you about, and you weren't there-' 'same here.' 'I tell you what it is. It's...When I didn't see you, I thought about you every day, I mean EVERY DAY in some way or another-' 'same here.' '-Even if it was just "I wish Dexter could see this" or "Where's Dexter now?" or "Christ that Dexter, what an idiot", you know what I mean, and seeing you today, well, I thought I'd got you back - my BEST friend. And now all this, the wedding, the baby- I'm so happy for you, Dex, but it feels like I've lost you again.'- -'You know what happens you have a family, your responsibilities change, you lose touch with people' 'It won't be like that, I promise.' 'Do you?' 'Absolutely' 'You swear? No more disappearing?' 'I won't if you won't.' Their lips touched now, mouths pursed tight, their eyes open, both of them stock still. The moment held, a kind of glorious confusion.
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These days grief seems like walking on a frozen river; most of the time he feels safe enough, but there is always that danger that he will plunge through. Now he hears the ice creak beneath him, and so intense and panicking is the sensation that he has to stand for a moment, press his hands to his face and catch his breath.
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He hadn't been this nervous since the last disastrous night at the improv, and he firmly told himself to calm down as he blotted at the tablecloth, glancing upwards to see Emma wriggling out of her summer jacket, pushing her shoulders back and her chest forward in that way that women do without realising the ache they cause.
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She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it's going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.
For his thirtieth birthday he had filled a whole night-club off Regent Street; people had been queuing on the pavement to get in. The SIM card of his mobile phone in his pocket was overflowing with telephone numbers of all the hundreds of people he had met in the last ten years, and yet the only person he had ever wanted to talk to in all that time was standing now in the very next room.
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No, this, she felt, was real life and if she wasn't as curious or passionate as she had once been, that was only to be expected. It would be inappropriate, undignified, at thirty-eight, to conduct friendships or love affairs with the ardour and intensity of a twenty-two-year-old. Falling in love like that? Writing poetry, crying at pop songs? Dragging people into photo-booths, taking a whole day to make a compilation tape, asking people if they wanted to share your bed, just for company? If you quoted Bob Dylan or T.S. Eliot or, God forbid, Brecht at someone these days they would smile politely and step quietly backwards, and who would blame them? Ridiculous, at thirty-eight, to expect a song or book or film to change your life. No, everything had evened out and settled down and life was lived against a general background hum of comfort, satisfaction and familiarity. There would be no more of these nerve-jangling highs and lows. The friends they had now would be the friends they had in five, ten, twenty years' time. They expected to get neither dramatically richer or poorer; they expected to stay healthy for a little while yet. Caught in the middle; middle class, middle-aged; happy in that they were not overly happy. Finally, she loved someone and felt fairly confident that she was loved in return. If someone asked Emma, as they sometimes did at parties, how she and her husband had met, she told them: 'We grew up together.
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He put one hand lightly on the back of her neck and simultaneously she placed one hand lightly on his hip, and they kissed in the street as all around them people hurried home in the summer light, and it was the sweetest kiss that either of them would ever know. This is where it all begins. Everything starts here, today. And then it was over.
All his words and actions would now be fit for his daughter's ears and eyes. Life would be lived as if under [her] constant scrutiny. He would never do anything that might cause her pain or anxiety or embarrassment and there would be nothing, absolutely nothing in his life to be ashamed of anymore.
It would be inappropiate, undignified, at 38, to conduct friendships or love affairs with the ardour or intensity of a 22 year old. Falling in love like that? Writing poetry? Crying at pop songs? Dragging people into photobooths? Taking a whole day to make a compilation tape? Asking people if they wanted to share your bed, just for company? If you quoted Bob Dylan or TS Eliot or, god forbid, Brecht at someone these days they would smile politely and step quietly backwards, and who would blame them? Ridiculous, at 38, to expect a song or book or film to change your life.
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Over-familiar, the music has become a kind of audio-Valium, background music rather than something I listen to actively and attentively. A gin and tonic after a long day. A shame, I think, because while each note remains the same, I used to hear them differently. It used to sound better.
Lonely' is a troubling word and not one to be tossed around lightly. It makes people uncomfortable, summoning up as it does all kinds of harsher adjectives, like 'sad' or 'strange'. I have always been well liked, I think, always well regarded and respected, but having few enemies is not the same as having many friends, and there was no denying that I was, if not 'lonely', more solitary than I'd hoped to be at that time.
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Sometimes, when it's going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery. The true writer, the born writer, will scribble words on scraps of litter, the back of a bus tickets, on the wall of a cell. Emma is lost on anything less than 120gsm.
I'm just not going to do it so that we can say that we've done it. And I'm not going to do it if the first thing you say afterwards is 'please don't tell anyone' or 'let's forget it ever happened'. If you have to keep something secret it's because you shouldn't be doing it in the first place!
Occasionally, very occasionally, say at four o'clock in the afternoon on a wet Sunday, she feels panic-stricken and almost breathless with loneliness. Once or twice she has been known to pick up the phone to check that it isn't broken. Sometimes she thinks how nice it would be to be woken by a call in the night: 'get in a taxi now' or 'I need to see you, we need to talk'. But at the best of times she feels like a character in a Muriel Spark novel - independent, bookish, sharp-minded, secretly romantic.
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I was wary of my sister's cooking, which invariably consisted of a tubular pasta and economy cheese, charred black on the surface, with either tinned tuna or lardy mince lurking beneath the molten crust... So that evening, in a tiny flat in Tooting, I was pushed into the tiny kitchen where sixteen people sat crammed around a tiny trestle table designed for pasting wallpaper, one of my sister's notorious pasta bakes smouldering in its centre like a meteorite, smelling of toasted cat food.
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By the time Albie is my age I will be long gone, or, best-case scenario, barricaded into my living module with enough rations to see out my days. But outside, I imagine vast, unregulated factories where workers count themselves lucky to toil through eighteen-hour days for less than a living wage before pulling on their gas masks to fight their way through the unemployed masses who are bartering with the mutated chickens and old tin-cans that they use for currency, those lucky workers returning to tiny, crowded shacks in a vast megalopolis where a tree is never seen, the air is thick with police drones, where car-bomb explosions, typhoons and freak hailstorms are so commonplace as to be barely remarked upon. Meanwhile, in the literally gilded towers above the carcinogenic smog, the privileged 1 per cent of businessmen, celebrities and entrepeneurs look down through bullet-proof windows, accept coktails in strange glasses from the robot waiters hovering nearby and laugh their tinkling laughs and somewhere, down there in that hellish, stewing mess of violence, poverty and desperation, is my son, Albie Petersen, a wandering minstrel with his guitar and his keen interest in photography, still refusing to wear a decent coat.
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Every week seems to bring another luxuriantly creamy envelope, the thickness of a letter-bomb, containing a complex invitation - a triumph of paper engineering - and a comprehensive dossier of phone numbers, email addresses, websites, how to get there, what to wear, where to buy the gifts. Country house hotels are being block-booked, great schools of salmon are being poached, vast marquees are appearing overnight like Bedouin tent cities. Silky grey morning suits and top hats are being hired and worn with an absolutely straight face, and the times are heady and golden for florists and caterers, string quartets and Ceilidh callers, ice sculptors and the makers of disposable cameras. Decent Motown cover-bands are limp with exhaustion. Churches are back in fashion, and these days the happy couple are travelling the short distance from the place of worship to the reception on open-topped London buses, in hot-air balloons, on the backs of matching white stallions, in micro-lite planes. A wedding requires immense reserves of love and commitment and time off work, not least from the guests. Confetti costs eight pounds a box. A bag of rice from the corner shop just won't cut it anymore.
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He's wearing his official university sweatshirt again, which puzzles me a little. I mean I'd sort of understand it more if it said Yale or Harvard or something, because then it would be a fashion choice. But why advertise the fact that you're at a university to all the other people who are at the university with you?
For the best part of my childhood I visited the local library three or four times a week, hunching in the stacks on a foam rubber stool and devouring children's fiction, classics, salacious thrillers, horror and sci-fi, books about cinema and origami and natural history, to the point where my parents encouraged me to read a little less.
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He's laughing me into a stupor, she thought. I could heckle, I suppose, I could throw a bread roll at him, but he's eaten them all. She glanced at the other diners, all of them going into their act, and thought is this what it all boils down to? Romantic love, is this all it is, a talent show? Eat a meal, go to bed, fall in love with me and I promise you years and years of top notch material like this?
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The early days of any relationship are punctuated with a series of firsts - first sight, first words, first laugh, first kiss, first nudity, etc., with these shared landmarks becoming more widely spaced and innocuous as days turn to years, until eventually you're left with first visit to a National Trust property or some such.
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