Daniel, Peter, George and I sat in various stages of drunkenness. Dee was sober and on the water. It was our annual dinner, the great catch-up, and most of us were drinking champagne. A great bouquet of peach roses sat in the middle of the table dropping petals by the hour.
“She’s got ginger hair.” Peter laughed.
“It’s more auburn.” George defended, pouring himself another drink.
“No.” Said Peter. “She’s ******* ginger.”
Daniel leant back in his chair with his arms behind his head, wearing his face of perpetual amusement.
“Dan. Come on, now. What colour is Melanie’s hair?”
“Oh…I don’t know.” Dan smiled. “A sort of strawberry blonde.”
Peter punched George on the shoulder."See! She’s ******* ginger!”
Boys will always jostle to be top dog. Daniel was the alpha and Peter resented it, but Daniel was everything that Peter would never be: good-natured, strong, calm, in control. Peter was loud and insulting, a bit of a bully but sort of sad with it, prone to fits of melancholy and drunkenness. We all had our role to play. George was fey and funny and got offended easily. I was the madman who did the things they didn’t dare. The dynamic worked, most of the time.
Dee was quiet and an ‘outsider’, so he didn’t count. He sat with his glass of tonic water which was packed with slowly cracking ice, and he stuck to his usual routine : no food, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no smiling, no chit chat. Any time I laughed or told a joke, his silence would shame me. He reminded me of how desperate I was to fit in, to be one of the boys. He always shamed me just by sitting there, by not joining in, by being so ******* above it all, by being so himself.
“So, what exactly are you doing these days, Art?” Peter asked.
“Teaching. You know that.”
“Yeah but…why? Do they even allow mental patients around kids?”
Daniel leaned forwards in his chair and glanced at me, checking for discomfort.
“God.” I sighed. “******* Peter.”
“And what do you do?” Peter asked, looking at Dee. Dee took a long while to answer, focusing his eyes and adjusting his posture.
“He’s mathematically gifted.” I said proudly.
Peter smiled with one side of his mouth.
“If someone gave me the gift of maths I’d return it and buy a calculator.”
Everyone laughed, including me. Dee started to fold his napkin, and then he unfolded it. Then he folded it again.
“Do you love maths, then?” George asked.
Dee pushed the napkin into his lap and shrugged.
“There’s something wrong with you if you love maths.” George said. “Maths is *******.”
“Do you want another tonic?” I asked Dee, putting my hand on his knee. He pushed it off with force.
“No. In fact - I think I want to go home.”
“Don’t go home!” Daniel said. “Please Dee, stay a while.”
“No, I really think I ought to go home now.”
“Hey.” I grabbed his knee again. “Come on.”
“No.” he stood up, the candlelight winking wildly in the silk wrinkles of his shirt. “I really want to leave.”
“The evening’s just getting started.” Peter said.
“The evening is not the problem.” Dee said quietly. “The problem is you.” He closed his eyes. “The problem is you.”
I felt my skin shrink. Dee stood up to his full height and exhaled.
“In fact, the problem is all of you. You’re all awful human beings. All of you. Awful, awful, awful.” His eyes sparkled as he warmed to his theme. “And you’re all so ******* boring!”
Peter and George were speechless. Daniel leant back and laughed beneath praying hands.
“Yes, you’re bores! You’re such ******* bores! Even the waiter is bored! Even the flowers are bored!”
“Dee, love.” I stood up and grabbed his shoulder. I was quite drunk.
“No Arthur, I’m going home, I’m tired. I’ll get a cab, you stay here with your awful, awful, awful, awful bores.”
He stomped off and Daniel blinked at me, his eyes wrinkled and drunk.
“Go on Art, go home. It’s ok.”
“God, Arthur.” Peter said. “What a lunatic. There’s something seriously wrong with him.”
“Oh *******, Pete.” I snapped, for the second time that night.
“Take this.” Dan said, thrusting his bottle of champagne at me. “I don’t want it. Go on, run and catch him. Go and get drunk with him.”
“No use. He doesn’t drink, remember?” I said, putting on my coat.
“Drink some water with him then. Tell him…” Dan grabbed my head and whispered into my ear, “…tell him that he’s right, that we are ******* bores.” He burst out laughing and sank down into his seat, watching me do up my buttons. “Oh my God!” he laughed, grabbing my hand like he was about to kiss it. “We’re so boring! We’re so ******* boring! Look at us! Even I’m bored!”
Daniel winked at me, still laughing. Daniel was one of Dee’s greatest defenders, and he admired Dee because Dee was honest, because he could not fail to be honest, and because Daniel loved the people that I loved, and I loved Dee most of all.
I grabbed the roses from their vase, just in case I needed them. They were wet, and dying, and they had no smell.
I caught up with Dee outside Angel In The Fields. He complained that he had a headache and told me he wanted to go home. He told me that he couldn’t have stayed one second longer.
He took the flowers from me, and buried his face in them until I hailed a cab.
Flowers were a running theme with us. Flowers in buttonholes, wisteria in gardens. Roses in his face. Buttercups in the grass. So terrible, when I think about it now. Perhaps someone was trying to tell me:
Arthur - this story will start and end with flowers.
Dee had a habit of ruining social occasions. Perhaps the stress got to him, the terror of communicating, the fear of conversation. He became easily overtired and quickly over stimulated, if a conversation was getting too personal or staying at chit-chat level, he would begin to stress and flounder. If someone annoyed him he could not pretend to like them – he had to let them know that they were ****** or boring or dumb. He didn’t fully comprehend how offensive he could be. He didn’t understand that in order to maintain peace, you must suppress yourself a little bit, tailor yourself to fit the rest. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in suppressing himself, it’s that he simply couldn’t do it.
Most of all, he hated people taking up my attention, whether they were talking to me, amusing me, or even hurting me – he made it very obvious that he did not like to share.
Once, he emptied an entire bottle of red wine into a young woman’s handbag because she had been talking to me all night. He placed broken bottles in front of his mother’s car tires. He sent anonymous emails to my father, threatening disembowelment. He beheaded ivory chess pieces, snipped the heads off anniversary roses, kicked people's shins under tables.
And he had the worst temper I had ever known.
When people didn’t understand where he was coming from, when he felt isolated and flustered by his own emotional poverty, he would begin to fragment. He would rock back and forth and moan. His voice would change, his face would change, and his anger would be frightening in its desperation, he would tear at his own clothes and hurl himself into walls. A few times I had to physically restrain him, pulling his sweater or shirt over his head to trap his arms, sitting on him, trying to calm him down.
But I could always deal with it, the crazy stuff – it didn’t bother me at all. The rage, the disconnect, the alienation. I knew what it was like to lose control. I knew what it was like to feel different. I used to say to him, “I was with Dee today and I seen hell in his face, Guv’nor. It was all red and blotchy looking.” And then, sometimes, he’d smile.
It was the eating thing that devastated me. It was the eating thing that made me feel useless. That was the one thing that I didn’t understand.
We took a cab from Angel In The Fields and went back to no.23. He went straight upstairs to get undressed, and took a pair of new cashmere socks out of their little beribboned box.
“It’s too warm for cashmere.” I said. He didn’t listen, and put them on anyway.
Dee had never had much of a *** drive, so I knew I was pushing my luck by kissing him – we had made love the night before. He kept his mouth closed and pushed me away.
“No, I don’t want to."
He picked the fluff from his black velvet computer chair.
“I’m not cross.” I said.
“About…tonight. With the boys.”
I went to kiss him again. God, I loved it when he bent his head back and his tongue met mine, his arms relaxing at the elbows, his limpet legs clamping around my own. But his mouth pursed up at me. No entry tonight, sorry.
“Goodnight, then.” I said. “I’m going to bed.”
Something cruel took over me as I opened the door to leave.
“Y’know, Dee – sometimes I think you really hate me.”
He looked at the wall behind me, scrunching his face up, wound up and stuck.
“Forget it.” I said. “Just ******* forget it.”
As I closed the door I heard an animal noise, a miserable animal noise.
Dee was the only thing that had ever made any sense to me. I had no real connection to my parents, I loved my mother but she was silent and neurotic, full of nervous energy that set me on edge. I never felt like I could fully confide in her. I hated my father because he had never loved me, and he had told me so. The only people I loved, my grandparents and my sister, were far away and mostly busy, unavailable, and I caught up with them through letters and telephone calls and occasional rushed visits - holidays, weekends away from school, time away from parents and *******.
I once walked to my grandparent’s house after running away from school, and I fought through a cage of conifers just to ring their bell, turning up at their door wild-eyed and full of pine needles.
I always fought to be with the people that I loved. I fought and fought and fought.
I loved Dee because he was mine and he was never too busy for me. He was as quiet as my mother, as vengeful as my father, but he was mine and I loved him, and he loved me back.
Perhaps that sounds very naïve. But it wasn’t naïve. My love was grown up, full of sacrifice and sleepless nights and heavy talks that left me exhausted. I searched for him when he wasn’t there, I talked to his mother about his health, I took his blood pressure, I poured his fortisip, I calmed him down, I made him laugh and I loved him, ******* hell I loved him, and I watched him like a God and reached out for him in the morning because he reminded me that I was alive, because he made my realness real, because he was my cold fire and he burned by the side of me, coldly, to balance out the crazed orange bonfire of me.
He followed me to bed soon afterwards, brushing his teeth and taking off his clothes, sitting down next to me.
“I hung up my blue.” He said. “Could you fetch it for me?”
His ‘blue’ was an oversized shirt that he slept in sometimes. He put it over his head and it fell around him.
“You know.” He said, “Sometimes I think that you hate me.”
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He got in next to me.
“I don’t hate you, not now, not ever.”
“I’m not one of your friends, though. If you had to choose a friend, you wouldn’t choose me.”
I didn’t reply, because I didn’t understand what he meant.
“Daniel is your best friend, isn’t he? But you’re my best friend. What happens when I have to talk about something, something that I can’t talk to you about? I don’t have any friends because I don't like anyone else. So who am I supposed to talk to?”
“Me! You can talk to me! I tell you everything.”
“Well, what if I wanted to do something, but I knew that you would try to stop me from doing it?”
“I wouldn’t stop you from doing anything you wanted to do. Not ever.”
“Forget it. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Please Dee, you can’t just start a conversation and then abandon it.”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I’m tired and I want to go to sleep.”
“What is it? Come on, please. What is it?”
He turned away and curled up. I stayed with my head against the headboard, looking down at him.
‘I love you.” He said, without moving. “I thought I should tell you. I thought you should know.”
“I love you, too.”
And then he went to sleep, leaving me to the house sounds, the clanging inside the walls, the discordant duet of two sets of breathing and the occasional cough.
When I woke up, he was in the shower. His socks were bunched up at the edge of the bed, shrugged off in the night.
Like I said. It was too ******* hot for cashmere.