I’ve lost my story. Do you have one spare or know where I can find one? I’d pay good money for a story, the right story. I don’t think it’s possible to live without a story, not really. Oh, I suppose you need breath, water, food, light and warmth first, but after that you have to have a story or you are only existing. I was going to be a footballer until I bust my knee. That would be a story: the man whose life was destroyed because fate robbed him of the chance to be a footballer. Fate is also a story, though: I’m sure I wasn’t good enough. For some the story’s all mapped out: prep school, public school, Oxbridge, then the bar or politics, a life lived in panelled rooms; only the view from the window changes, the Thames, the Isis. Maybe they go through their whole lives without ever realising it’s just a story. For some – and all of human culture encourages us to believe this – the only story is a love story. I spent my twenties with one woman, my thirties with another, they have both got married since and had children, one still speaks to me, one doesn’t but I’ll get on to that. None of my stories fitted, none were written for me. And you need a story, like warmth, like water; it’s the skeleton, the bracing in the walls, the whalebone under the cloth. Underneath you can be an occultist or a member of Opus Dei or wear ladies’s underwear, no one need know. Even to be a joke or a stereotype is to have a story. You can always find lots of other people who want to have sex with balloons or like dressing up as a Viking. I didn’t get into my first choice of university (that was the wrong story) but at the redbrick one I went to I met a girl, we ended up spending most of our twenties together. She got pregnant when she was just coming up to her finals, she had an abortion, we stuck together, we were each other’s story for a while. We moved to London, she worked in fashion, I worked in the City. I felt a fraud putting on the suit in the mornings, getting on the train, reading the paper like everybody else. Queuing up for milky buckets of coffee. Sometimes I looked around me and thought how implausible it all was, how thin the script, how tedious the premise. I had strange impulses, wanted to throw my briefcase in the river or slot my mobile down a drain. I wondered what would happen if I punched the evil secretary in the face or stabbed the boss with a ballpoint pen. I’m not a psycho – this isn’t that story. Mostly I did what everyone else did, and I was in love with, I convinced myself I was in love with Charlotte, although when I thought about it I was irritated by the way she liked to be called Charlie. Then there was her twin brother, Philip, or Pip. Charlie and Pip. I didn’t like Pip, but maybe it was just his stupid name. Charlie doesn’t talk to me any more because of Sophie, the one I spent my thirties with. I started having an affair with Sophie while I was still living with Charlie, Charlie who was very thin and intense. Sophie was plump, so plump her eyes disappeared behind the thin glass discs of her glasses when she laughed, which was disconcerting. She said she could get any man she wanted, this excited me, I’d never known such sexual confidence. She worked in market research, I never worked out what that meant, it involved going to Germany and Japan a lot. When we met I was going out with Charlotte and Sophie was going out with Tom. He had a story; he was going to write a bestselling fantasy novel but if that didn’t work out his dad was going to die and leave him enough to live on. Eventually Tom and Charlotte found out about me and Sophie. The chaste ones sacked the promiscuous ones. Me and Sophie together was disastrous. One of us was always on top and one debased; if I won, she lost, if I distanced myself, she pursued me; if she cooled off, I begged. Intense happiness turned to mere absence of pain. Locked together like Israel and the Lebanon, we were forever organising blockades and missile strikes and punitive raids, issuing angry communiques. I figured we belonged together, we were so awful no one else would have us, we were better than nothing. But then Sophie met Sam, she told me casually. She ran us both together for a while, she thrived on lying. I didn’t find out for ages that Sam was a woman. The sex tailed off, we would spend whole evenings staring sullenly at the sticky surface of the pub table. She told me she was going to marry Joseph, they’d only been together six months, except apparently it was eighteen months – she’d lied about that. She said she didn’t love me, the sex wasn’t that good, she only went along with it all because she felt sorry for me. I asked her how long she had felt like that, she said six and a half years. She was always very precise, I wonder if that was the market research? She had decided I wasn’t a viable product, I was too retro, I had some kitsch appeal perhaps, but overall better just to withdraw that obsolete line of merchandise. She’s still with Joseph. I know she’s unfaithful, but not with me. She texts me, emails me, in a casually intimate way that somehow lets me know that he reads them too and he doesn’t care because I’m not a threat. Then I lost my mojo. Except that’s a story, isn’t it? It was more that I realised I’d never had it. Every relationship had been a dismal failure, every girlfriend better off without me. Masochistically I went back over them all, I thought, who did I really love? Was it Cathy, at school? Red-haired hockey-player, blue eyes, creamy skin? Was she the lost love of my life? I couldn’t remember much about her to be honest except her youthful, sadistic laugh. Suddenly the young assistants at work were sliding their eyes across me unseeing, I was one of the old sleazers now, I wasn’t in their league, couldn’t even talk to them about what films they’d watched recently or what they’d done at the weekend. They would just look somewhere over my shoulder, vaguely perturbed. I visited home more often – my mum and dad’s story was thirty-seven happy years – and counting! My dad took me golfing, I enjoyed it. Hang on – I don’t want that to be my story. I was always a good driver but on my next visit home I tore off the motorway sliproad as per usual, lost control of the car and ended up on the grass verge, nose broken on the airbag, spirit broken in some less fixable way. I wasn’t a good driver any more. Without a girlfriend, without Sophie to be precise (she was high maintenance), I had a bit of money sloshing around, but nothing to spend it on. Then there were redundancies at work, I was let go, I got a pay-off, banked it and signed on at the agency for consultancy work. But I hadn’t kept my skillset up to date. I got a few miserable jobs, I still have my flat which I live in with a faint sense of terror. Who was this person with the rack of shirts and shoes I seem to fit into? Those are his paperbacks – I can’t remember reading them. Now I see that other people’s lives are just stories they are locked into, their eyes are terrifying. How can they love, we are all just bags of filth, what is there to believe in? I talk to myself and often do not wash. I don’t have sexual fantasies any more, in my favourite one I was the cameraman on a porn film about lesbian cheerleaders and they drag me into the action, I like blond pubic hair so faint it’s almost see-through, I find that more enticing than bareness but what’s the point? They have all swum off into a deeper ocean. We all need a story, I suppose mine could be that I am middle-aged and have no talent, am dislikeable and undesirable and fated to lose what little – looks, money, humanity – I once had. I live in the big city, I shunned my parents after I went to university and they do not want me back, I have no siblings. I was so sick of smug Sophie I wanted her to die, though I would not have killed her. One day I opened my paper, Murdered Prostitute, and there she was, it was Sophie. When I looked again it was just a girl in a town up north who looked like Sophie and only from
one angle, the other pictures in the newspaper taken at different times and different angles didn’t resemble her at all. They quickly found a suspect, had a trial, I followed it every day. I used Google street view to roam up and down the road where she lived, I could tell which was her flat from the photo in the news showing her body being carried out under a cloth. I even knew what car she drove, I scoped up and down the street looking for it, I stared at her blank, third-floor windows thinking she must have been in there, alive, when the camera vans were taking the photos. It was a bright day, last summer maybe, with few people around; early morning, perhaps she was lying in bed, asleep. I never found her car. This girl, Corinne, had died instead of Sophie, Sophie who deserved to die so much more. I felt as if I should have known her, saved her, that I hadn’t had my right life, the one I was entitled to. I even found out where she was buried; it was in the town where I went to university, by coincidence. I went up to see my last friend still living there, I invented an errand one afternoon and bought a bunch of flowers to lay on her grave. I walked straight to it by some strange instinct, if I had a story I would say I was psychic. There were already flowers there, faded and brown, with blurred cards from her family, I suddenly felt ridiculous and ashamed, I wasn’t part of her story, I was pretending (though it didn’t feel like pretence). We all need a story, one that suits us and isn’t imposed, we need it as much as air, light, food, warmth and water. Most people keep to the script, they have kids and never ask why – you have kids to have kids, pass on the baton of life. People don’t turn into their parents, they just have the same story. Some people – they are very rare – come up with a totally new story, Jesus and the Buddha, a story others want to take over and retell and live with. I can understand how saints are made. I walked round the city, going into the medieval churches and lighting candles for Corinne, I wondered where she was, was she safe, was she reborn or in Heaven, looking down on me with love? I liked to tell myself these afterlife stories but I was not attached to them. According to science, we are nothing but our atoms and zaps, nothing else, isn’t that the best story of all? I would like to believe in poetry, I sometimes think. I could manage that. Do you have a story you can spare? I would pay good money for the right story for without one I cannot live at all.