Essay / 9 January 2019

Against Culture

‘The counter culture has its sacraments in sex, drugs and rock’. (Life Magazine, 1969)

When she thought back on that night, she didn’t remember the awful things. She didn’t remember the things that, if they had happened to any other woman, she would have rightly said that they were abusive and dangerous and cruel. Sometimes she thought about it. How, as she sat on his lap at 4am, his phone rang, and his wife’s name appeared on the screen. How he leant over and picked up her high-heeled shoe from the floor, looked at her, and asked her if it would be alright if he hit her with it.

What she remembered instead were the words. She had always been vulnerable to them. The hard physicality of words. Her friends laughed at her about it. Amused. How she wouldn’t try a curry that would blow your head off, or watch a show that would make you die of laughter. If you told her you didn’t love her, she could tell you years later where she stood, or how the room smelled in that moment; she could remember how you turned your head away from her as the message started to sink, and however many times afterwards you said you did love her, it would never quite be enough. Always there was the watermark.

This time they were the worst words. She remembered that he was at the door as he said them. Her face turned away from him towards the wall. Running her fingernails over the tips of her fingers. The metallic taste of her tongue pressed to the top of her mouth.

‘You think you’re different’, he said. ‘You think you’re unusual. But you’re not. You’re just like everyone else. Everyone is special. Everyone feels just the same as you do. But – trust me – there’s nothing about you that is different’.

She didn’t cry. But afterwards she stopped sleeping. She told no one, afraid that their responses might only confirm his words. For who could really say that he was wrong? It was all very well to be convinced of one’s difference, of one’s uniqueness of point of view. To see oneself as outside. But how, really, could you see the reality of such things? And what did it mean, anyway, this being different? Could one live differently but not be different? Could one think differently but live just like everyone else? Who was the everyone else? And how did one know if one was part of it or not?

Somewhere there was a revolution. In all the noise you couldn’t hear it.

But you had to believe it was still there. Clamouring.

She looked for it. On the TV, a panel show on polyamory featured a wife whose husband couldn’t support her through postnatal depression and a Mormon couple who believed that having many wives brought you closer to God. Cyclists took over the streets, the roads were closed to fumes, and the elderly and the disabled stayed at home until they could take their cars out. A gay couple celebrated marriage, while two sisters proclaimed the right to civil partnership. A non-binary couple decided to raise their child without gender. Transgender activists declared the right to gender freed from sex. Environmentalists decried pre-prepared vegetables while those whose hands and wrists lacked the strength to chop and peel nourished themselves with perfectly formed miniature carrots. A newspaper report declared that less young people were having sex: Too preoccupied with trying to shoot birds from virtual skies on their mobile phones, they stayed at home, alone, while the rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the over 60s soared. A Jamaican migrant and a Liverpudlian labourer made the final of the UK’s biggest music talent show, and every house watched, while in quiet theatres above pubs those with too much education declared themselves the enemies of capital by performing lost plays by Beckett. Chronic illness groups campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis, while the homeless and the disenfranchised and the hopeless anesthetised themselves on drugs that sounded like condiments.

Not dreaming. Grateful for not dreaming.

Somewhere there was a revolution.

She replied to an online dating ad by a man, a divorcee, who said he played bass in a band and for their first date offered to take her to watch him work. He took her before the gig to visit his friends in a bare flat above a takeaway in East London, fried chicken smells drifting into the kitchen. They drank wine out of mugs, and smuggled their own beer into the venue, and while the band played she tried to melt herself into the crowd. On the way home he told her that he was, in fact, a science teacher. His ex-wife had made him realise that being a musician was never going to pay the bills.

She sat on the sofa of a suburban 1930s house in a leafy part of Croydon while a friend’s husband – a businessman, with a series of small and semi-legal entrepreneurships across southern England –offered her a line of coke, and she watched as everyone around her took up the offer. He cut the powder with his silver-coloured credit card, snow glitter sprinkling on the breeze of currency across a solid wood table, polished by the cleaner that morning just for the occasion.

She allowed a man much younger than her, a boy with beautiful hands and no opinions, to take her home with him late at night after a first meeting, to a house share in Walthamstow, to a tea-stained coloured room with a mattress on the floor. The next day she woke up and from her eye line traced across the beige carpet to underneath a table, to a bowl of dried out pasta and a copy of Wired magazine.

She didn’t call back.

There was something about it all that made her politely decline.

She decided not to stay for breakfast.

One morning she watched a news item about a depressive, pastel Lolita sharing her house with a happy Goth. She went upstairs and put on yellow socks before going out into the local park, the one she walked in almost every morning. And when she got to the place with the view of the lake she stopped. Not an ordinary stopping (or so she told herself). But a stilling. A turning off all the noise, even the whistle in your ears and the humming of the words you don’t say and the echo of your heart beating stilling. And in the middle of the familiar path she laid her body out flat on the concrete, her arms and legs stretched away from her torso, a starfish on a rock, drying out in the sun. A runner moved by swiftly; a woman with a baby in a pushchair just managed to squeeze past without the wheels sliding off the walkway and into the mud. No one said any words. And when they looked down at her she smiled gently, to reassure them that there was nothing amiss. Maybe, if she was lucky, someone would photograph her here and she could put it on social media.