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A first-person-narrated story of a midlife crisis turned on its head. If American Beauty had been a novel set in Surrey, featuring a sardonic lead character of a more socially conscious nature than his American counterpart, it might have turned out like My Own Destructive Self.
If you like the vicious style and want to read more, Gytha will be uploading more chapters over the next few weeks.
First off, a confession. I am a bad husband, and a worse father. I would struggle to put my finger on exactly why this is the case, but the evidence is all there in a wife who is miserably unhappy and a fourteen-year-old son who looks at me with so much malevolence I sometimes wonder if he’s possessed.
A lot of our friends smile indulgently when we raise our concerns over Danny. They think we’re over-reacting, or finding him difficult because of our own lives. The assumption is that he is an added pressure to the jobs we find stressful enough as it is. They tell us that it’s all perfectly normal whilst reflecting smugly on their own offspring.
There may be a grain of truth in what they say. I remember times before he was this demonic being, and think that there must have been warning signs; signs we were too tired or too busy to deal with at the time. And maybe there is still something we could do now to change him into one of the Waltons, but if there is, it eludes me.
It took me a while to raise the subject fully with Sandy, who’s known us in a vague way for ten years and who, being a child psychologist, I half-hoped might be able to shed some light. I might have raised it earlier had I not seen all too clearly that the poor woman is unable to escape her work. At any dinner party, any gathering, the moment she mentions the magic word “psychologist,” out pours a self-indulgent, inward-looking moan about all that individual’s own or familial peculiarities.
Even Trish – my wife Trish, who is a great deal more self-aware than anyone else in our circle of friends – does it sometimes, and then is racked with guilt for being so self-centred. Sandy tells her it isn’t her fault, and that it’s actually Sandy’s own doing in part. The way she listens, absolutely attentively and without judgement, practically drags it out of people, she says. It’s called Active Listening.
I feel smug about the fact that I’m singularly immune, disliking analysis of any kind. In reality, the secret is probably that I don’t want to examine myself, given that this might mean having to do something about my failings. But there we go: I’m now giving myself pocket self-analysis of the kind that makes me want to hit something. It’s no better than paying someone else for therapy except that it’s probably only irritating me and you.
So I waited to talk to Sandy, until Danny was thirteen-and-a-half (and facing a second suspension for wilfully contributing to his history teacher’s nervous break-down. Score.). She was wonderful about it, murmuring reassurances and smiling sympathetically. She gave me, and then both of us, encouraging speeches about teenagers. She told us that testing authority was natural, that Danny just happened to be better at it because he was bright. And when Trish admitted, with a rush of tears that was horribly embarrassing to all of us, that he hated her, Sandy rubbed her shoulder and told her not to worry.
“Around eighty percent of teenagers will have a period of months or even years where they suddenly seem to hate their parents. They resent the control, and feel frustrated that they can’t control their lives absolutely. Family life feels stifling, and what’s more, it’s a difficult time hormonally and emotionally.” Slight shrug. “There has to be an outlet for their frustration, and parents are a safe one. They know, deep down, that you aren’t going to stop loving them no matter what they say to you. And the affection they felt as children is still there. Things will get easier when Danny adjusts to the fact that the world is an infuriating place.”
Yes, Sandy was wonderfully reassuring. Until she actually met the fucker.
I avoided it, that meeting, with a small amount of shame. For three consecutive dinners whilst Sandy and Murray came to sit in our leather dining chairs, Danny had been lured out to see his friends with the promise of money for takeaways or even beer if he wanted (and just possibly drugs and sex but I try not to think about this too hard). I am aware that in good parenting books it is not good practice to express shame about one’s off-spring (nor, for that matter, to term them “the fucker” and I get a bollocking about that one every time). But the shame was there, even so, just waiting for Sandy to ask in utter horror: “You managed to bring up THAT?”
And yet, this to be really, really honest – there was also a part of me that was looking forward to it. The modicum of pride I have in my son exists in his capacity to unsettle, disturb, and then in one single python-strike demolish everyone of our acquaintance. And oh, there was something so prick-tinglingly good about imagining that patronising smile of understanding fall off her face and land in her Gucci lap.
Not to get this all wrong to begin with. I like Sandy. She’s one of the few people I actually invite round on my own initiative. Murray too, even though he doesn’t exactly say a lot. Sandy has an endearing way of talking to me with her eyes all lit up, just oozing fellow-feeling, or joining in whilst I rant about something. So in that sense, I didn’t want to see that look of shock, followed by wordless horror. Not when it was Sandy. Not really.
Half-past one, some three hours after curfew. Danny’s head comes through the door first, crown forwards, like a bull on a charge. Sandy and Murray are half on their feet, perched on the edges of their chairs with anticipation, and I actually hear the slightly out-of-synch indrawn breaths as he looks slant-ways into the sitting-room and then straightens up to look back at us all when he sees us staring.
You see, Danny is a strikingly attractive boy, for some reason unknown to either of us. He has hair darker than mine, and skin paler than Tricia’s. Seemingly he also has bones lighter and more delicate, and huge eyes of the palest, most washed-out blue. Which would all be just too appealing if it weren’t for the deep, cold hatred that stared out of all these beautiful features.
Murray and Sandy are shocked by him, blown over by him: and this before he has opened his steaming sewer of a mouth.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asks, the charmer.
Sandy just smiles indulgently, and says, “Sandy and Murray. We’re just on our way out.” That smile is one we’re always encouraged to use by the behavioural specialist Danny sees. I must say I find it horrifically unfair that my son is given absolute tolerance for dredging up words a serial rapist wouldn’t know, whilst I am not, under any circumstances, allowed to refer to him as “the fucker/bastard/little shit,” all of which are at least accurate terms for our child.
“Good.” Danny, 14, Angel.
Sandy, bless her, tries valiantly to engage in some modicum of conversation, inwardly praying, I suspect, for the floodgates to open and for Danny to cry on her shoulder and tell her how unhappy he is. Because although she detests work forcing itself on her at social events, I can see the hungry look that says I can fix him whenever we talk about Danny. It is for hopeless adolescents like Danny that she goes to work every day -and loves it.
“I hope you’ve had a good evening too, Danny?” she tries.
He continues to stare coldly at her. “As much of a good evening as anyone who can’t get fucking served.”
“I remember that,” she says, glancing at Murray. “And I looked about ten years younger than I was, which was rubbish.”
“But great now, though, hey?” Murray slides his arm around her, proudly, and Sandy gives just a little, pleased smile. One that is echoed in slow motion on my darling son’s face.
Oh no, I think.
Neither Murray nor Sandy have realised what they have given him on a plate. Sandy stands with a consciousness of her svelte figure that wasn’t there a moment ago.
“We really should go. I’ve got a seven am pre-hearing.”
Danny straightens up slightly as she approaches the doorway, passive-aggressively not moving. “Yeah, probably bed-time,” he says, softly. “Wouldn’t want you getting tired eyes.”
She is trying to squeeze past, and is right up close to him, so that the soft tone of voice is quite appallingly inappropriate. Murray, behind her, looks torn between jumping to his wife’s defence, and not being sure if he’s heard right.
Sandy is flustered but also, crucially, slightly flattered. This is all clear from her, “No, of course not. So if you’ll give me just a little more room – anyone would think you’re trying to keep me here.”
And that’s it. That’s the moment when Danny’s eyes go like distant road-kill.
“You think I’d want you?” His voice is an oozing, base, primordial soup of contempt. “What are you? Sixty? I’d rather go dig up my gran and fuck her.”
Murray has to physically remove Sandy from the building. She can’t seem to stir from the position, trapped right up near our son, or to stop staring at him as if he’s just shot her.
For just a moment in that scene, for just the fraction of a second, I felt a swell of pride for my obscene son. Who could not be proud of someone with the ability to grossly misuse his intelligence to that extent, and bring a woman with years of such interactions to catatonic shock? Fuck me, but he sounded sincere when he said it, and listening to him, it was suddenly all turned round, as if Sandy were subjecting him to some disgusting crime, throwing herself bodily on his youth and expecting him to respond.
Trish reacted somewhat differently, of course. She was shaking with anger and humiliation, and immediately ordered him to his room, which of course I was compelled to chime in with. Good Parenting does not recommend praising your son for obscenity. Even if it is really clever obscenity.
So I don’t see how it’s possible to salvage much of a reputation as a father. No good parent could have brought up such a specimen, and I suppose that drags Trish down with me however sweet and smart and endlessly forgiving she is. It doesn’t seem to be something either of us can fix. Both of us reading up and striving away, and in my case repressing the sarcasm, the inappropriate pride, the more frequent disgust, the desire to change the locks every time he goes out and occasional wild dreams of just moving away without telling him.
I think it bothers Trish more than it does me, though. The thought that she has failed as a parent; the growing fear that our son is psychotic and not just vicious; the conviction that everyone knows, and everyone thinks we must secretly be monsters with bloated, scaly tails hidden away under the beech-wood dining table; all these things are the bricks of her unhappiness.
And there really is no denying her unhappiness. I did try, for a long while, but after years of a pair of scooped-out-looking, despairing eyes following you around, and of stumbling into too many rooms only just hurriedly vacated by tears, even my quite astonishing capacity for self-deception was beaten into submission.
I keep inadvertently conjuring up Trish as I first met her, and trying to place the image over the top of the gradually-vanishing creature who haunts our too-large house. The youngTrish, who seemed more real and more tangible even in a tracing-paper-thin dress at my cousin Rory’s wedding, beaming as she spun around the room with one man after another.
At some point at that wedding, Trish had taken her shoes off and continued to dance with them clutched in her hand, until an enthusiastic spin had launched one of them in its own pirouette across the room to land with a thump against the leg of the buffet-table. That was all it took to get me over to her, carrying her shoe like a trophy.
She turned that beaming smile on me when I arrived, and let go of her dancing-partner – who I probably knew and yet can’t remember as anything more but an extra in this story – to half-collapse onto me in exhaustion and gratitude.
“Oh, you brought Cinderella’s slipper back.”
I’d been holding it out to her, but she wasn’t hurrying to take it, and the obvious thing to do was to put the shoes on for her. It was an immediately romantic gesture, now I think about it, and probably the most erotic moment of my life. It didn’t matter that I had to fuck about with the craze of straps, or the fact that I could see around her ankle a few hairs missed from shaving. Crouching in front of her, holding her skin and watching her dress slide gradually further up her thigh was solid, hard, pulsating porn to me right then.
She was looking at me with anticipation when I straightened up, and I knew that she was thinking about my skin on her skin as much as I was.
“Thank you. I can’t believe it didn’t hit anyone, and I can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved.”
“I see the dilemma. But you wouldn’t have wanted any mess on them. They are beautiful shoes.”
And that’s when she struck me as more than extravagant and full of energy and fun. She suddenly became something peculiar. Because instead of looking down at them to admire or judge or show them, she kept my gaze and gave a slower smile.
“Yes, they are. I hope you’re going to help me look after them.”
The first words I exchanged with Trish. Well, the second words. The first had been the things you say in passing to a stranger when they’re sitting at a table before anyone else has got there, fascinated by the indestructible nature of the paper napkins and says to you, “You see this? This is the sign of real quality in a wedding. Bollocks to the wine they serve, or the size of the marquee. It’s all about the napkins.”
Of course you respond. You say, “Oh, I’m not sure. I tend to go by the ceremony.” She looks up at you, starting to be disappointed before you go on. “Quality of the wedding being the inverse of the total number of people crying, minus the number of grammatical errors and the length of the readings.”
She laughs, disappointment eradicated, and you go to find your own table with a strange warm feeling and one of those irritating smiles you can’t quite put away.
It’s worth saying here that I was never going to get married. My innate distrust of other people, and my nose-wrinkling hatred of emotional demonstrations had convinced me from somewhere in teenage years that I was going to do nothing more than splash around in the love-pool. Interact with women, fine; take them home, why not? I enjoyed sex as much as the next person. But take things beyond that, where you knew you were somehow obliged to lay your hand over hers and with a totally straight face say “I love you”? The very thought made me want to either snigger or vomit, or a combination of the two which would only have been messy.
And yet, with Trish, I knew within roughly half an hour that I wanted to keep her. I couldn’t stop looking at her, and wanting to, chasing around the reflections striking off her glittering self. I was certain, right then, and I’ve never stopped being certain.
Which is why it’s so ironic that one of the other building materials in Trish’s misery is the belief that I don’t love her, and the suspicion that I’m fucking around. I know this about Trish because of the day everything changed for me. But to keep a modicum of suspense, I won’t reveal any more about that day to you just yet. There’s more to say about the way that things were before. It wasn’t a good state of affairs, or one that I am in any way proud of bringing about. I’m still not quite sure what steps we went through to get there, but I do know that one of them was my job changing.
When I first knew Trish, work was something I did as a combination of fun and bill-paying. I always believed that work should be fun, and had landed up as a corporate insurance claim assessor because it meant a lot of seeing around corners and checking up on factual discrepancies. Plus I was as often out of the office talking to customers, visiting sites and interviewing as I was in it. It was as close to detective work as I was likely to come without the independent spirit to become a PI and without the high sense of morality and/or superiority to turn copper. I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and it didn’t require me to work long hours or myself into the ground. I could have been promoted with a little application, but promotion was something I didn’t want when the pay was generous and I liked the job I had.
That, however, was before the company was bought out by a larger insurance syndicate and merged. I remember meeting our new line manager with a warm smile and a handshake, and keeping it right up to the first minute of our departmental meeting.
The first change was finding that I was suddenly fighting for my job. I don’t think I’ve ever known anything so quickly shake every ounce of my self-confidence. It was no good protesting to the new personnel board that I was smarter than any of my colleagues and frankly somewhat underused, or that I had sniffed out more false claims than any other at the firm whilst still arriving late two days a week from early rowing outings and leaving early once to collect Danny from school.
No, for the new regime, it was all about money, meaning that claim assessment had changed. If checking on a dodgy claim was going to cost more than the claim, we accepted it without question. But if the claim was a large one, then we would wriggle and squirm and do everything technically legal to get out of paying, including using the finest of toothcombs to go over all of the company’s records. And that meant not paying when it was really legitimate if the company in question fortuitously missed some apparently needless piece of bureaucracy.
When it came to money, it turned out that my record wasn’t as good as half of the department’s. The time I had spent ferreting out the details could, it seemed, have more profitably been spent sitting at my desk and weighing up the pros and cons of each case. So when it came to redundancies of fifty percent, I was teetering on the verge of losing my diverting job. And of course, speaking absolutely, I’d already lost it, right there in that first meeting when every goalpost changed.
After my initial shock, I went through a period in which I badly wanted to protest. And in fact, looking back, I should have walked out and found something else to do with my time. But having never failed at anything in my life, I was suddenly terrified of failing here. I could imagine the worry on Trish’s face when I told her, and how she’d sit down and try to work out what we could save without sacrificing the house which was far too large for us, but which I’d convinced her that we needed. Worse still, Danny had just been accepted on a fifty percent scholarship to Surrey’s top prep school, and the thought of telling him he wouldn’t be going after all because his father couldn’t afford that all-important other half of the fees made me cringe.
So I swallowed every protest and got my head down and worked to keep my altered job. I accepted a ten percent pay cut to stay on, and I worked longer hours than ever before. Rowing became a once-a-week thing in the evenings, and after a month of being late even for that I resigned myself to quitting the eight we had spent much of the year winning races in and arranged instead to row a double with a colleague. He wasn’t the best, wasn’t – in fact – nearly as good as I was, but he had the great advantage of understanding if I had to move or cancel our outings, even when they were at weekends.
Worse still, I started to play the political game. I invited Derek, our fifty-something line manager, out for lunch and used every power of manipulation I had both to ensure that he liked me, and to get the inside view on how he thought and what he valued.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Aaron, but you need to learn to present yourself better,” I remember him telling me through a smile after our third lunch, in which I had made myself amiable and entertaining and made him feel like the greatest wit the world had ever known. “When I walked into this company, I saw a sea of hopeless people. Nobody struck me as having any drive, any entrepreneurial spirit, or any judgement. Not a leadership quality among you all, I thought, and only a few of you who seemed able to cope with the pressure of the insurance world, which was why I had to be pretty hardline in the way I dealt with you all.”
I nodded earnestly, trying not to think of Ned who in his spare time ran a sports centre for underprivileged kids and despite being one of the world’s true inspirations had lost his job. Or Martin, who had left on principle, as I should have done, after two weeks and ended by telling Derek where to stick it.
“Getting to know you now, though, I can see that there’s a lot more to you. You’re one of the smart ones, and you’ve got the capacity to make a real success of yourself.”
I smiled self-deprecatingly. “I think you’re right about self-presentation. Being honest, it’s only with your arrival and the change of focus that I’ve really been inspired. It’s totally changed my perspective on everything we do and I can really see a place for myself in the team now.”
Half an hour later, driving to the office, I tried to laugh about the monstrous lie I’d told but it wasn’t funny. Nothing was funny about it. It was then, I think, that the little ball of nausea lodged itself in my stomach and never really left me.
I knew Derek inside out within six months. I knew how to make him laugh (always a tale about some idiot I’d got one over on or a put-down to a rival) and how to delight him (calling meetings to point out new loopholes I could work into every insurance contract). Oh, I would lay money that after those first months I could have told you the noise he made when he came, which he very nearly did every time I raked in another large contract he knew he would never pay out on.
Every single one of those lunches, which became rounds of golf and then dinner parties and then weekends away, made me more nauseously certain that I hated the man, and that everything he stood for was the opposite of everything that mattered to me.
From then on, everything began to slide. Every evening, returning either late from work or later from dinner, I would greet Trish with a false smile, because somehow admitting that I had sold myself would have turned it from a seeming bad dream into a reality. And the more she looked at me questioningly with sympathy or worry in her eyes as I worked longer and longer hours and put everything second to that fucking job, the more I felt the shame of it, until I could barely speak to her about anything.
I began populating my dinner-time conversation with invented anecdotes and making spiteful comments on her real ones. She tried to draw me into her sympathetic opinions on friends and colleagues, but somehow all I could see was craven, selfish motivations and stupidity and I found myself voicing every sarcastic comment that I stifled during the working day.
I remember quite vividly finding out that Derek had ascended to the heady rank of Deputy MD, and that I had been gifted with his job. I smiled graciously at the CEO when he told me (Derek sitting beaming beside him) that I had shown myself to represent every value the firm held. I was an asset to them, and they knew I would carry on Derek’s excellent work in the years to come.
Derek and I shared a delighted backslap outside, and I laughed easily when he quietly told me with a wink that I’d better not be too good at the job and make him look bad.
“I’ll do my best to shame you to the ground, but you’ll be a pretty bloody hard act to follow,” I told him, and watched him walk away laughing to himself. And that was the point when the bitterness embedded itself. I realised that the promotion I had cravenly worked for wasn’t going to change anything. Every private fantasy I’d had about showing them a moral path was going to come to precisely fuck all because I was too much of a coward to do the right thing.
I think that’s now brought things pretty much up to date on the “before” picture. Obviously, I ended up running the department exactly as Derek had run it and in fact fired my former friend and ally Tim who stood up to me and tried to insist that we salvage some business ethics. He called me a heartless, back-stabbing bastard he was glad he’d never have to lay eyes on again before he left.
I smiled at him, thanked him for his opinion and pressed the buzzer for security to escort him out. I’m not sure if he noticed that my hand was shaking on the button. Maybe he thought it was fear.
After that particular incident, I turned my phone off and went out on the lash until four am, at which point I noisily let myself into the house and found Trish slumped in a chair by the hall phone with her head on her arms, sound asleep despite the racket and with dried-on runs of mascara down her cheeks.
Too drunk to deal with the situation, I left my keys and wallet next to her as proof of my safe return and wound my unsteady way to bed.
The row we had in the morning resulted in Trish moving my things into the spare room and installing a lock on the master bedroom door, which I found a little insulting given that I was hardly going to break my way in there and ravage her. Frankly, our sex life had been in a state of serious disrepair for five years and that wasn’t going to change because we’d argued.
Over the following weeks, my beloved wife and I barely spoke to each other, and it gradually became a habit. During those same weeks we were summoned three times into school because Danny had been arguing with his teachers and in so doing used various terms that were unacceptable at Whittaker’s Prep, where he was now supposed to be one of the older boys and therefore setting a good example. Which I thought pretty short-sighted given that he had just become a teenager.
It wasn’t comfortable that first time, sitting there and hearing a number of choice terms that Trish and I had been hurling at each other reported back to us. Particularly when I had always maintained I’d prefer it if Danny didn’t go to the sort of school where he learned filth on the playground before he was old enough to understand it. But there was a certain sort of pride in realising that it was Danny who had been teaching the others, and so was inevitably one of the cool kids.
By the third time we went, I was almost hardened to the whole event. I already knew what Trish would want me to say to Danny, that using your brain for unworthy ends may seem like fun but didn’t help in the long run, and that he should to a certain extent accept that the teachers had their failings and that school wasn’t going to be fair all the time.
In fact, discussing Danny became pretty much our only topic of conversation, and the only time we really spent in some form of physical proximity. I regretted this, and wanted to change it, but my weariness and my bitterness, together with the way Trish tensed whenever I came near her, stopped me from acting when I should have, and after a year of this, I felt the whole issue of our estrangement to be insurmountable. I honestly had no idea where to even start.
So there you are: a scene of absolute domestic bliss amongst Habitat furniture in a large four-bedroom house in Surrey. I can honestly tell you that if everything hadn’t changed, including me, we would have sunk. All of us. I don’t know who would have been the first to raid the bathroom cabinet in a cliché suburban suicide attempt, but I don’t think it would have been me. There’s little justice in this life.