I loved a man. But our affair was nasty, brutish and short. Copious weeping was my un-tart retort. All that’s left of him is a stained T-shirt. I must rid my mind of him now. That’s long overdue. But how? These three books seem to present three answers. I’ve been wonkily underlining whole paragraphs and brooding over what to do.
Nowadays, if you admit to being heartbroken after the fact you’re treated as a malingerer. So I very much appreciated Giulia Sissa’s Jealousy: A Forbidden Passion — a scholarly defence of indulging your violent fury. In the age of Tinder, your next paramour is but a thumb-swipe away, so the attitude is: ‘They don’t love you. Why would you care? It’s all in your head. It’s all in your past. It’s always your problem. Enough!’ I agree with Sissa. We women ‘do not like being treated like an interchangeable, meaningless, replaceable presence’, and it’s OK to feel green about it.
But I am confused by how much emphasis she places on Medea, who, according to myth, helped Jason slay the Minotaur, only to be abandoned by the ungrateful wretch when he took a fancy to another woman. In response, Medea slaughtered all their children. This might signify much for what Sissa calls our ‘erotic dignity’; but when seeking to prove that jealousy is not ‘the most obscene emotion of all’, Medea is an odd choice of heroine.
So I dispensed with the idea of becoming homicidally jealous and turned instead to Stephen Fineman’s Revenge: A Short Enquiry into Retribution, in which he argues, very persuasively, that revenge is a dish we really should serve — whether cold, hot or as a lukewarm canapé. ‘Our compulsion to avenge a wrongdoing is among the most primal of human urges,’ he explains. ‘Getting even shows there is a price to pay.’
I raced through this book, cackling — and relishing in particular the pages pointing out how, throughout history, and still in some areas of the world, mine is the sex that has been persistently maltreated and oppressed and that it’s jolly nice finally to be getting our own back. Fineman points out that wartime rapes have barely been prosecuted and refers to honour killings today. I suspect he is itching to write a fresh chapter on how Harvey Weinstein finally got his just deserts thanks to the #metoo brigade.
Fineman seems quite a fan of vigilante justice — as long as the target is indisputably guilty. He doesn’t understand why we should get screwed over again and again without doing anything about it. ‘Turning the other cheek,’ he observes, ‘is simply an invitation to be slapped again.’ He gives voice to all the waiters who avow they are not ‘robots to respond to finger clicks’ and lament of their customers: ‘I wouldn’t treat a dog, the way they treat us.’
He adds: ‘Minor acts of sabotage can bring relief from intrinsically alienating or monotonous work.’ I have known that pleasure. So I adored, above all, Fineman’s air hostesses, who break wind in the direction of obnoxious passengers, redirect all their luggage to, say, Tokyo, and when asked by a man to smile, say they’ll smile if he will too. When he does, they shoot back: ‘Now freeze and hold that for 15 hours.’ The customer is not always right. When he’s vile he should get his comeuppance.
But not all revenge is quite so righteous. Sometimes it’s just vicariously amusing. ‘Never wrong a writer,’ Fineman advises. ‘They get their revenge in print.’ (A statement that may send a shiver down my true love’s spine.) Take Norman Mailer, who so despised his third wife, Jeanne Campbell, he had her double strangled and thrown off a tenth-floor balcony in An American Dream. Campbell dubbed this light fictionalisation of their unhappiness together ‘the hate book of all time’.
‘Mailer’s venom is palpable,’ Fineman concludes. ‘But it is trounced by Ernest Hemingway.’ When Papa’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, walked out (wondering why she should ‘be a footnote to somebody else’s life’) he retaliated by writing a poem to her vagina, likening ‘said organ to the crumpled neck of an old hot-water bottle’. Then, in a short story called ‘It was Very Cold in England’, ‘a Hemingway-like character compares the sexual performance of a Gellhorn-like character to a washed-up mine that had failed to detonate’.
Tempting as it would be to assassinate my man in print, I don’t want to come off looking as petty as all that. So I turned to The Museum of Broken Relationships which claims to sum up ‘modern love in 203 everyday objects’. The museum was founded in Croatia by two ex-lovers who wanted to memorialise their former passion for one another, and I found the accompanying book very affecting. I don’t want to fall in love again if this is how it always has to end.
Each page consists of a photograph of an item sent to the museum together with a note explaining what it symbolises to the one who posted it. Each tale is different. And yet all are curiously the same — bleak and stark and heart-mashing. It’s like a cheerfully coloured catalogue of suicide, divorce and venereal disease.
At times, there’s nothing to do but laugh: at the ‘can of love incense’ (explanation: ‘didn’t work’); at the ‘sweatshirt with a smiley face on the front and the reverse on the back’:
‘The angry face tells me that he went to a South American transgender prostitute on Vesterbro and paid 800 Danish Kroner for a blow job on Christmas Eve. ‘Now we have gonorrhoea,’ the face says.
But best by far was the note accompanying the twin silicone jellies salvaged from a reversed boob job. (‘My ex had convinced me to get breast implants… at the time I hadn’t had enough therapy to tell him to go f*** himself.’)
I was persuaded. My love may sleep peacefully in his bed. I’ll just ship what’s left of him to Zagreb. There his T-shirt can join all the other tragic tat. A monument to our nothingness. A promise to forget.
The Spectator – Illustrated by Morten Morland
Julia should not have come to the wedding. That much was clear as soon as she arrived. Late, she was, and massive in belly. Her hat festooned with tropical fruit; her dress — hideously colourful. She made the hinges shriek on the great church door and winced, as it slammed shut, with a shudder. Puffing out her cheeks, she waddled slowly towards the nearest pew. She had a fist jammed into the small of her back, as if she were expecting to give birth at any moment.
Everyone turned round to stare. The vicar got confused, forgot his lines, began to stammer. The bride stood at the altar, in an ill-advised orgy of organza and tulle, said something no one heard. The groom started coughing and the best man also. A hissing came from the bridesmaids, taffeta skirts bristling, as they squirmed to get a better view. Someone, somewhere, committed a laugh.
(You cannot remove heavily pregnant people from weddings, as a general rule.)
Flushed, Julia did not appear to notice. She settled in at the back, stared up at the angels in the eaves. Felt her hat, caressed her bump, sang the hymns over-loudly.
The wedding passed off as weddings usually do. Julia did not interrupt. If there were any just cause or impediment, Julia declined to mention it. The bride threw up her ornate veil, the groom seized and kissed her. The organ struck up in triumph. The wedding party swept down the aisle, plump in love, flawless with smiles. Everybody cried. Just as you’d expect.
Outside, the sun shone and died, shone and died, as clouds raced across the sky. Julia disappeared. Confetti was thrown, dried petals flew off, the gravel path littered with silvery shreds. Two turtle doves were let out of a box. One dazed itself, flying out disorientated, straight into the church door. The other refused to perform at all, sat cooing where it was comfortable. The photographer set about his formations. The maid of honour, humiliated in mauve, frowned between shots. The tiniest bridesmaid misplaced her violets and started to cry.
Then the rain came down, in sprightly gusts, so the bride and her mighty dress were borne back inside church, dabbed down with handkerchiefs and rearranged for the car. And it was while the wedding party was stood in the vestibule that a thin plume of smoke was spied, rising from a distant tombstone. Julia crouched there, lighting one fag off the end of another. She must have thought no one was looking.
The scandal reached the reception before Julia did. It was agreed that she had done very well to keep her figure, her slim ankles, shapely legs and slender arms. But if that was how she managed it…
Julia did not seem to mind that she was getting wet. She pulled her ghastly hat down further on her head. Finishing her cigarette, burying the ash, she picked at the blackened moss that filled up the cracks in the gravestone. She tore up a handful of grass to scrub down the letters. The shower ceased and the sun emerged with a little more conviction.
There wasn’t a space for Julia at the wedding breakfast, but she sat down before a plate, crumpled the name tag and dared anyone to move her. Many of the guests, who knew the whole sorry saga, were hoping to draw her out. But Julia just smiled, her eyes glassy, giving answers of remarkably few syllables. After some prodding, she at last came to admit that it was a boy, and she was going to call it George. Another woman, in a dubious hat, asked if Julia had a picture.
‘Of the foetus?’ asked Julia in the lull as the room laid down its dessert forks for the speeches.
The best man’s speech was not a success. Seeing Julia before him, he had to ditch half his routine and all of his jokes. He settled for a rather pitiful story about the tightness of the groom’s running shorts.
When the groom had thrown Julia over, almost eight-and-a-half months previously, everyone had expected her to go to pieces. For Julia was the sort that would. And Julia duly fell apart, over the weeks and months. When first she found out, she would not believe it. Carried on as if everything were normal, refused to give the groom up. So the bride had to step in, to clarify matters. Then there were a series of confrontations. Firecrackers through the groom’s letterbox. Vandalism of the bride’s car. Julia had stapled a letter, full of bitter accusations, to every lamppost on the street.
The bride had wanted to call the police. The groom said it would blow over. And so it did. All hushed up, so that now no one was sure what Julia did or did not do. The only thing anyone knew for sure is that Julia had disappeared to her mother’s house. Nothing more was heard. The groom forgot to feel bad, made a proposal. The bride tried on wedding dresses, set her heart on the church with two spires. Neither of them had wanted a long engagement. The groom had been through one of those.
As the big day approached, the bride felt it only right to issue an invitation to Julia and her mother, Julia’s mother being her godmother and Julia her oldest friend. But neither Julia nor Julia’s mother had made any sort of reply and the bride credited all concerned with doing the decent thing.
The bride was not to know of Julia’s subsequent history.
Of Julia. Sobbing Julia. Hysterical Julia. With one leg hoisted over the Highgate death drop. Julia. Persuaded down. Much to her own embarrassment. Julia three days later. Caught in a scarlet bathtub. Minus a pint of blood. Julia. Patched up in the hospital. Julia. Sobbing Julia. Unable to sleep. Taking all the tablets at once. Found just in time. Another admission. Stomach pumped. (No heart to be mended.)
And there lay Julia. Julia’s sobbing mother. Julia’s sobbing sister. Hysterical, the lot of them.
But tonight Julia seemed pretty much serene.
As the guests became increasingly drunk, everyone began to discuss, quite openly, the father of Julia’s baby. The whole marquee was doing the maths. If Julia was due any day now, and the groom had left Julia less than nine months ago then it was perfectly probable, creditable even… For Julia was a loyal sort, everyone knew that. She was not the sort to cheat and lie, not as attractive as the bride, not as engaging as the bride. But all the same.
The bride and groom took to the parquet. Their first dance marred by the death looks of the bride. The groom, poor man, near death without the looks.
Julia was faring quite well. She had chosen a seat with a magnificent view, on the edge of the dance floor. A great space cleared around her but she did not seem to mind. Julia’s hand flitted to pacify the kickings from within, as she swayed, ever so gently, from side to side. Smiling vaguely to herself, thinking her thoughts.
She had been spied, from under the door of a toilet cubicle, nipping from a hip flask she had hidden in her handbag. She had then shared the contents with the flower girls who had discovered her. They were all of 12, and were now turning various strange shades to clash with their unflattering dresses.
Some time later, when the music stopped for the cake to be cut, everyone held their breath and tried not stare in Julia’s direction. It would not have been polite. At a certain point, Julia must have forgotten she was not supposed to be seen drinking, and had finished off the table wine. Now Julia had her face down in a flower arrangement, groaning at volume, her last cigarette burning a hole in the opulent tablecloth.
The bride’s expression could not be read. Certainly there was contempt and incredulity in her eyes, but her smile confused it. Bravely, she plunged a knife into the swan-shaped cake, with her new husband’s hands about her waist. But as the camera began to flash, her features broke out in fury.
She strode over to Julia, cake knife in one hand, a fistful of her dream dress in the other, ready for the showdown.
Julia roused herself. Shaking her head, she brought herself up to her full height and clamped both hands on her great belly, fingers spread. Julia stood proudly in the middle of the room: so much taller than the bride — always had been, always would be — and possessed of riches that the bride, in her tight white corset, had not.
Julia opened her mouth. And Julia said, pointing at the groom:
‘IT IS HIS BABY.’
Only four words. And she said them very loudly, just like that.
The marquee erupted. The bride began to shriek. The groom collapsed. The father of the bride had the best man by the lapels. The flower girls were sick on their shoes, everyone screamed, the place turned into deafening riot. So no one had their eyes on Julia as she slipped out.
Heavy and waddling, she made her way, crab-like, towards the exit.
Outside, the night was cool and fresh and, as she neared the car that waited for her, Julia’s tread became surer, her stature more erect. Julia wrenched open the back door, tossed her hat on to the back seat and clambered in.
As the car moved off, Julia watched as the marquee receded from view.
And the car rushed ahead, down the empty track. Julia took one last glance behind her. When the last of the lights were eclipsed by trees, she hitched up her dress, withdrew a little knife from the recesses of her purse, and started to sever the uncomfortable prosthetic bulge strapped tightly to her middle.
This week, the Tory party conference ought to be gripped by the question, who the hell is Nick Timothy, the vizier with all the power? To suggest that Theresa May’s joint chief of staff is the man behind our new PM’s manoeuvres is apparently misogynistic, but I’m a woman and I’ll say what I like. May’s regime change has been riveting, yet a core mystery remains: who precisely is in charge? We endured endless TV debates before last year’s election, but the person currently running the country was not on the podium. Now he’s in a Downing Street back office, luxuriating behind his lavish beard.
And it’s the beard that really mesmerises me. Nobody seems to know anything about Timothy, and he is shy of public statements. But is he not making a massive one with his bushy facial growth? It practically screams: ‘I am the most powerful unelected adviser in living memory.’ None of the last 16 Conservative leaders has been bearded; the most recent was Lord Salisbury in 1902. When Stephen Crabb crashed out of the Tory leadership race after sexting a young lady regarding his ‘downstairs situation’, it only proved my nan’s foolproof axiom: ‘Never trust a man with a beard.’ Close your eyes and picture a bearded leader. (You’re thinking of a dictator.) Our last Iron Lady would never ‘tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard’.
The Labour party’s current woes are neatly encapsulated by Jeremy Corbyn’s grizzled mien. It states clearly: I’m completely un-electable. New Labour’s success was predicated on the demise of Peter Mandelson’s moustache. As Lucinda Hawksley explains in her indispensable monograph, Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, Mandy and Blair waged war on facial hair in the 1990s after market researchers found that voters were enamoured of a clean-shaven visage.
But with Blair long gone, Britain has experienced a beard boom. Men can now buy beard books, beard dyes and have a beard wash at Harvey Nichols. Perhaps Timothy was following fashion. Last year, even the Church of England sought to capitalise on the trend when the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recommended vicars grow beards to reach out to Muslims. In January, he singled out for special praise two priests in the East End who had cultivated beards ‘of an opulence that would not have disgraced a Victorian sage’. The Revd Cris Rogers of All Hallows Bow explained: ‘One guy approached me and said, “I can respect you because you have got a beard.’’’
Historically, beards were interpreted as a badge of age and wisdom. Timothy is only 36, but he probably commands more respect than the entire cabinet put together. Mrs May barely trusts anyone — yet regards him as indispensable. If you read a quote attributed to ‘a close ally of the Prime Minister’, you’re privy to the thoughts of one of three people: Mr May, Mr Timothy or — if expressing bloody outrage — May’s other joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill. Timothy, however, is the one who writes policy. He likes grammar schools, so the decades-old consensus against them has been overturned — and no one particularly cares what Justine Greening, nominally Education Secretary, thinks about the matter.
It’s quite possible Timothy grew a beard for primal reasons he doesn’t quite grasp. Research by the University of Western Australia suggests that beards are intended — like the cheek flange of the orangutan and the upper-lip wart of the golden snub-nosed monkey — to attract a mate and petrify sexual competitors. But modern women, contrarily, do not fancy them. Analysis of the dating app Tinder showed that three-quarters of women prefer a beardless man: hardly surprising in the age of the Brazilian wax, when women are expected to have their pubic hair painfully ripped off because young men greet it with abject terror. Facial hair is said to grow faster when a man is not having sex, so it’s not astonishing that men en masse suffered the beard style of goldrush miners and militant jihadis. (Poor loves.)
Beards, I am reassured by a millennial, have now peaked. So the fact that Timothy retains his might be interpreted as evidence that he is stubborn, like his boss. But it is worth recalling that great minds loathe beards. Nasa has never allowed a bearded man on the moon. Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers to shave before battle. Elizabeth I laid the foundations of empire by instituting a tax on any beard of more than two weeks’ growth. Today, beards make you 51 per cent less cheerful, 38 per cent less generous and 63 per cent more likely to win a staring contest — against another man.
Yes, I think we can divine a lot about Nick Timothy, thanks to that beard. And one key test of Mrs May’s government will be whether or not he shaves it off.