Joyland

Consulate |

Alice and Alex

by Toby Litt

She remembers them, Alice and Alex, not as they were, nor as they would have liked to be, nor even as they would have liked to have been remembered; she remembers them instead as she would have liked them to have liked to have been remembered – remembered, that is, by her. She remembers them as if their love affair had been a graceful and intended gift, not a clusterfuck of narcissism (his), solipsism (hers) and codependency (theirs). She remembers them even though the rest of their friends and aquaintances (many more aquaintances than friends) are already having some difficulty coming up with all but the most basic details. Did Alex dye her pubes as well as her head-hair? Didn’t Alice walk with a slight limp when the weather was overcast? * Alice was a nickname he’d picked up at boarding school, after being discovered one games lesson hiding behind (there was no room inside) an oak tree. This had been a failed attempt to avoid having to play fives; the ball hurt his hands, he said, even through the leather gloves. He had always hated being called Alice, although it wasn’t as if he loved his given name, Hector. If it had been up to Hector-Alice he would have answered to something brutal and common that couldn’t be shortened any further – something like Ron, Ted, Mick or Nick. Hector, before he became Alice, had usually been reduced to Heck then expanded to Fucking Heck then reduced to Fuck then expanded once more to Fuckface-bastard. Alice, later, in post-school London, was reduced to Al – faster by those that liked him, grudgingly by those (admittedly in the majority) who thought him a twat, a wanker, a cunt or a fucking cunt. He was, at times, all those things – and he knew it – and, to a degree, delighted in it. Hector-Fuckface-bastard-Alice-Al understood that when an ex-public schoolboy called another ex-public schoolboy a twat, it meant that the twat behaved in a way that the insulter couldn’t comprehend – and Alice liked to be incomprehensible. When an ex-public schoolboy called another ex-public schoolboy a wanker, it meant the wanker was respected by numerous other ex-public schoolboys who the insulter didn’t respect – and Alice revelled in the hero-worship of the outcasts. As for cunt and fucking cunt, these were merely expressions of degrees of chagrin, lust, envy and astonishment – expressions that only the exact inflection could make clear. At school, Alice was never happier than when someone was calling him a fucking cunt – it meant that he had triumphed, even though he might as a result be just about to get melvined, debagged, bogwashed or deadlegged. Annoying his fellow schoolboys to the point of violence had been Alice’s main hobby in boarding school – there wasn’t much else to do; he had never taken to table tennis or being wanked off. Sarcasm was his main weapon, especially against the larger boys whose anger was the most satisfying to provoke. If he was injured seriously enough, Alice knew that he would never have to play fives, or table tennis, ever again – though he might have to put up with being wanked off by the bursar while he waited for the ambulance in the bursar’s office. But this, the bad injury not the bursar, never happened. (The bursar happened to everyone; he was a very egalitarian paedophile.) Alice was surprisingly robust, and even in their anger his aggressors were careful to break no bones. After he left school, Alice decided that he would dedicate his life to winning the friendship of those contemporaries of his he respected least. To this end, he naturally went into the city, first into headhunting, then into recruitment consultancy, and finally into consultancy consultancy – or metaconsultancy, as he liked to call it. He also, as (forgive the pun) a banker, began to deal drugs – firstly any old shit he could get his hands on, then half-decent cocaine and finally the purest Afghan heroin direct from a warlord in Helmand province. His two-pronged charm offensive worked, and there soon wasn’t a twat, wanker, cunt or fucking cunt in the Square Mile who didn’t love, respect and frequently speed-dial Alice. The next stage was for Alice to make them fear him – which he did by means of insultingly crude blackmail. He would line old schoolmates up for their dream job, then show them incriminating footage taken by the secret camera in his office toilet, then threaten to release this footage to the interview panel. And the next stage was to win them back again, with free drugs, even better jobs – often in consultancy – and trips to more corporate beanos than a summer season seemed capable of containing. Even those gone clean and teetotal couldn’t resist a box behind the goal for the F.A. Cup Final, or the Cheltenham Gold Cup with 50k betting money, or a session in the nets with Freddie Flintoff, or a rip round Brand’s Hatch in a Bentley. At this point, when the love had replaced the fear but the fear was still remembered, Alice suddenly ceased to be Al and became instead The Cunt. He was known as The Cunt by everyone who knew what LIBOR stood for and what it stood at. ‘Don’t fuck with The Cunt,’ new boys at the brokerage were told, ‘because you’re the one who’ll end up getting fucked.’ Alex, of course, knew nothing whatsoever of this – at least, not to start with. She came from another social sphere entirely, though a dependent one – when he met her she was working as receptionist in a contemporary art gallery off New Bond Street. She had been employed firstly because she was thin, secondly because she was beautiful, thirdly because she seemed very frosty and lastly because she wasn’t uninterested in art – although she was far more interested in money. Her beauty combined with her frostiness helped to ward off those space- and time-wasters who came into the gallery to look at the art rather than buy it. Originally, it had been her beauty which had taught her to be frosty. But the beauty had only been achieved and maintained by Alex’s determination always to be thin – thin because thin people, thin women, stood a greater chance of escaping Margate. Unlike Alice, as mention of Margate would suggest, Alex wasn’t from a privileged background – very far from it; about as far as possible. Her father drove a minicab, her mother pulled pints at the local pub, her big sister had children and her big brother screwed around. As far as anyone knew, none of her sister’s children had been fathered by her brother – though this made little difference, they all looked as if they had. Alex herself had won the genetic lottery – long legs, long fingers, good skin, good tits – and, because of her claustrophobia and ambition, she hadn’t minded spending most of her teenage years starving hungry. The cuisine of Margate did not tempt her. She understood instinctively that deep-fried potatoes and artificially flavoured sugar-water were a means of social control. Alex, even aged twelve, did not mean to be controlled – not by her parents, not by older men, not by underclass flab, not by anything else that Margate could bring into play. The first Alex knew of the art world was Tracey Emin’s bed. She heard about it because Tracey Emin was famous enough to be in a tabloid newspaper. She noticed it because Tracey Emin was from Margate – and was vulgar enough for Margate to be proud of her and famous enough for Margate to be ashamed of her. She recognised the bed because it was the same bed that her big sister and her big brother chose to sleep in. And Tracey Emin had made the bed and had made it make money. Tracey Emin became Alice’s heroine, because she was rich and had long legs, long fingers, good skin and good tits, because she had escaped from Margate and because she loudly told the world how shit Margate was – particularly for beautiful young women. Alice came into the art gallery where Alex worked not to look at the art but to see if he could pick up the beautiful and frosty young woman behind the desk. It didn’t matter to him that she was Alex – he hadn’t spotted her through the window, become infatuated. He knew that every gallery contained a frosty beauty. He had in the past successfully managed to pick up a total of twelve of them. And on this particular day, not having visited the New Bond Street area for a while, he had already gone into three galleries and got chatting to three frosty because beautiful young women, none of them from Margate. Alice’s opening gambit was usually to get out his credit card and buy the most expensive piece of crap in the place. Sculpture, either bulky metal or fantastically delicate glass, he was particularly fond of – because, being so difficult to transport, it involved a lot of potential arrangement-making with the young woman. He would, of course, insist that she be in charge of the sale from beginning to end. This gave him the chance to make the young woman write down his address – after this, getting her phone number was usually a matter of asking for her phone number. Then he would gradually start to withdraw from the sale. Perhaps, he would say, I need a second opinion on whether this piece really will go where I’m thinking of putting it – in the second lounge. Not wanting to lose the sale, and sometimes the commission, the young women would most of them agree to come to where he lived that evening, or even that afternoon. The sight of the exterior of his house set the young women up, the interior sealed the deal, and after this the drugs were just a demure way for them to get down on their knees without being told to get down on their knees. They would suck him, he would fuck them, they would leave and, before they got back to work, he would phone up the gallery answering machine to say that he’d changed his mind. Then he would rewatch the footage from the secret cameras in his second lounge. When he approached Alex, none of this happened. She was only interested in his money, and until his money was in her gallery’s account, his money didn’t have any reality for her. It took three separate visits, and three separate purchases of bulky but delicate sculptures, before Alex allowed him her phone number. And then he was humiliatingly forced to take her out to dinner not once, not twice, but three times before she agreed to come back to his house. In an unusual reversal, Alice was the first of them to end up on his knees – begging her not to leave until she had at least granted him a single kiss. He deleted this from the second lounge secret camera footage the moment she left, having just sucked his tongue in a way that guaranteed the sale – the following morning – of yet another important piece of contemporary sculpture. In the end, when it became clear to Alex that Alice’s liquidity was more than capable of absorbing any number of direct hits, she allowed herself to think about tolerating him. He seemed the right sort of man to marry because he was clearly the easiest sort of man to divorce. The moment she gave up sucking his cock, he would be off to multiple other women. Physically, she felt she could dominate him – and this reduced almost to zero the likelihood that he would break her nose or damage her eyesight. And so, when she finally consented to sleep with him – after they’d spent the afternoon picking her out a shimmery diamond necklace – he cried with relief and she joined him. It was to be their only moment of genuinely shared emotion. The whole of the following summer, Alex accompanied Alice to each of his corporate beanos – a word she thought encapsulated all she hated about the ex-public school twats, wankers, cunts and fucking cunts she was now forced to hang out with. She found the drug-taking a chore, although she knew she had to show willing; abstention would suggest a lack of infatuation – and that was the impression Alice most wanted her to give. Alex continued to prefer cigarettes to cocaine as an appetite-suppressant, but appreciated that the one on top of the other meant she hardly had to eat anything at all. Horse-racing bored her profoundly, until she realised Alice would bankroll her bets, pay her tax, absorb her losses, and allow her to keep any winnings. She soon came to see the turf as her major source of cash, and – via a mailbox near the gallery – subscribed to The Racing Post. Over the first half of the Flat season, Alex managed to accumulate over twenty-times her gallery-salary. She did, however, keep her job. It helped remind Alice that he better stay generous because she had means of support beyond him, and it also supplied a steady stream of suitors to keep him jealous. Whenever Alice looked like he might be losing focus on her, Alex would fake some drama in order to fuck up his day and separate him from his cuntish mates. On once occasion she thrashed the engine of his car until it died with a plume of smoke, an explosion and a gentle sequence of tinkling noises. When she was quite sure it would never run again, she called him from her mobile just as the nags were under starter’s orders. (She had made him promise to place her bets the moment he arrived on the course.) On another occasion she pretended to have received news of the death of a cousin, and ran off into some nearby woods in mock-distress. Her greatest performance, however, came a short while later when she staged a Sunday lunch meltdown over Alice’s alleged affair with one of his secretaries. This involved carefully pre-selecting a dinner service she’d never liked, a set of crystal glasses she didn’t mind replacing, and then smashing the whole lot up whilst calling Alice a fucking cunt. His friends smiled and so, for the first few minutes, did he. This was another triumph; this was serious infatuation. But when Alex ragingly told everyone that he’d been impotent since they met, Alice began to take the situation seriously. After all the twats and wankers had gone (the cunts and total cunts had been the previous weekend), Alex put on a good show of remorse and Alice promised her that the deal with the secretary had never gone anywhere beyond the occasional blowjob. These Alex herself had started to ration – during the summer a strict one-to-one ratio had been established: one blowjob given for one item of jewellery received. In the week that followed the Sunday, Alex felt genuinely depressed. She couldn’t go in to work. There was no challenge in Alice any more – he was defeated. Even a successful scene the following weekend in the cricket nets, which she made as absurd as possible, didn’t restore her commitment to the cause. The money was coming to her so easily and in such vast quantities that it had ceased to have any real allure. Whatever happened now, she would never have to live in Margate again. Her bank balance was the one she had once dreamed of; it had the correct number of zeroes. To demonstrate their incompatability, she finally persuaded him to accompany her to an important contemporary art opening. Here, it became almost a competition between them to see who could be the most listless, the most disengaged. At some point in the evening, without knowing who had left whom, they managed to separate. In order to achieve the only objective she had left, Alex decided to do a proper mad scene. After getting her make-up just right – all down her cheeks – and her hair just so – as if she’d been trying to rip it out – she ran out of the toilets, departed the art show, and went and found a nice quiet place to lie down. Alice found her the next morning – she had pointedly mentioned to him the previous week how she sometimes had a lunchtime nap in a park near her work. The cab ride home was silent, but Alice asked Alex to marry him as soon as she’d had a bath and cleaned herself up. Alice knew he was being taken for everything he had. He knew that Alex didn’t love him. But, unlike the rest of the world right that moment, she didn’t bore him. Plus, he wanted his money back – all of it. As long as he could force her to keep escalating her performances, she would one day or another have to attempt suicide. All he would have to do then was anticipate it and ensure that she was successful. ‘Yes,’ said Alice. ‘Really?’ said Alex. ‘Really,’ said Alice. 'Yes,’ said Alice. * And she, she remembers how happy she was the day they announced their engagement. She remembers how beautiful their wedding was going to be. She remembers all the special things they never told her. She fondly remembers that pair of fucking cunts.