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November 2008
THE UNDERSIDE OF YOUR LIFE

Joseph Monk
Anthony meets Alicia for a coffee outside the NFT; she’s sorry but she can’t stay long. ‘Audition at the Donmar, some Ibsen thingy, yawn yawn, but you know how it is,’ she tells him crisply.
Underside-Monk-

She looks good and tanned and flushed and harassed; he feels depressed. She’s just been to Epidaurus, National Theatre tour, the Bacchai, life affirming experience, etc. Anthony’s concentration dims; he hates Greek plays, he hates theatre.

He wonders if he’s said this aloud; Alicia seems to have stopped talking, staring past him in a vaguely disgusted/amused way. He turns his head; a black homeless man with few teeth and holey shoes is juggling plastic fruit. A Japanese girl bends to put some coins in his begging box.

Anthony turns back to Alicia. For no apparent reason she winces; he thinks she checks her watch but really he’s miles away, listening to a different Alicia, who tells him she’s sorry she hasn’t called for weeks; she’s sorry she stood him up on their last coffee meet; she’s sorry their relationship didn’t really constitute a relationship; she’s sorry she left him dangling; she’s sorry…she hopes everything’s good with him and they can remain firm friends. He says ‘don’t worry about it’ but she’s banging on about the contemporary relevance of A Doll’s House. He’s sorry he bumped into her last week and didn’t have the spine to ignore her. He asks her what she’s been up to but he’s not listening, just watching the words twist and form in her mouth.

‘You’re right of course Anthony,’ she says; he wonders if that’s meant to mean anything to him.

He picks at a hangnail and reaches for his coffee but doesn’t taste it, just lets the cup hang off his hand. The sun moves from behind a cloud; everything suddenly seems too bright. He feels darkly illuminated.

• • •

Alicia tells him she’s seeing Ray but it’s casual, which means she’s just fucking him and the sex is good. Ray’s an actor who thinks he’s very talented but Anthony’s not sure how that’s perceived by other people. When Anthony met Ray he thought he was handsome and smug and fairly arrogant; Alicia got them both drunk at a barbecue and forced them to get on and have a conversation. They ended up fucking; Anthony guesses Alicia doesn’t know this.

‘He’s in LA for a casting, new Paul Schrader film,’ she explains for no reason. ‘It’s a big time for him, very exciting.’

Anthony thinks he says ‘good’; he knows he says ‘well done,’ which somehow seems even more inappropriate.

Alicia smiles at him; there’s a lot of tolerance in the silence between her words. He asks her about her birthday, aware of how painfully polite he’s being. She had a fab time, she says, a long weekend away with Ray in Venice. Alicia is 23, ten years younger than Anthony. He thinks Ray is also in his mid-30s but for some reason this seems wrong to him. He imagines Ray fucking her slowly, her legs wrapped around his waist, back arched and throat exposed, her high breasts shiny with sweat. Ray would have his eyes closed, thrusting her with long strokes. With a grimace Anthony imagines Ray fingering Alicia in a gondola; makes a mental note never to visit Venice.

• • •

Alicia tells him she’s having an affair with Trevor but it doesn’t mean much and they can finish it whenever they choose.

‘It’s a way to cope with the loneliness,’ she says, and Anthony worries she might get philosophical; he’d forgotten that Alicia can be quite so pathetic.

‘We had dinner at the Ivy last week,’ she says; he thinks she’s disappointed that this means nothing to him.

Trevor’s a director; Alicia’s known him for years; he gets her most of her castings. Anthony knows she fucked Trevor when she was seeing him, something that curiously failed to arouse his jealousy. He yawns without bothering to hide it.

‘We’ve decided it’s sex only, just the fucking,’ she says; her voice seems very far away.

Trevor’s in his early 60s and married with three children, each sickeningly precocious; for obvious reasons all this seems abhorrent to Anthony.

‘Thing is,’ Alicia says, ‘I think Trevor’s having an affair.’

‘An affair of an affair?’ Anthony says.

‘I think he’s fucking Julie, and she’s nearly twice my age,’ she says, flicking ash angrily off her cigarette.

‘Who’s Julie?’ Anthony says.

‘She played Masha in Three Sisters,’ Alicia says. ‘I mean she’s a fucking great actress and not a bitch or anything but I never thought he’d fuck her.’

The words just keep on falling like turds from her mouth. Anthony watches a group of boys skateboarding, the way they terrorise an elderly couple taking a stroll along the South Bank. The sun turns their shadows into giants; he tries to remember the last time he had fun. He rolls and lights a cigarette, ignoring the beginnings of a headache pulsing at his temples. He has goosebumps and realises he’s cold, grinding his teeth to prevent them chattering. The breeze plays with the ends of his hair.

• • •

Alicia tells him she thinks Ray is having an affair; Anthony stops himself from asking who other than Alicia would be dumb enough to find Ray attractive.

‘I can’t be sure though so I have to pry carefully,’ she says.

‘Why not just ask him?’ Anthony says and sighs because he can’t believe he’s still embroiled in this conversation and really wants nothing more than to get on with reading a new book he’s just bought; Whatever by Michel Houllebecq.

‘I can’t do that,’ she laughs, twisting her hair flirtatiously. ‘I have far too much to hide.’

Anthony nods, bored. He hears himself laugh and cringes at how false he sounds.

‘Thing is,’ Alicia says, ‘thing is I think he’s fucking a man.’

Anthony raises an eyebrow thinking this is the desired response.

‘I mean it. A man.’

Anthony sighs again.

‘Listen Alicia,’ he begins but stops short, either too cowardly or too tired to rip into her as she deserves.

‘What?’ Alicia says, almost defiant, lighting another cigarette and flashing him a dark look which he reads as irritation.

‘Ah it’s nothing, just…nothing,’ he shrugs, momentarily closing his eyes, watching the sun’s warm fluorescent colours swim comfortingly behind his lids.

‘No, what is it?’ she says with a whine. ‘But just remember I’m fucking drowning here ok?’

Anthony suppresses the urge to bite her. He shrugs again and smokes quickly.

‘It’s just, well come on Alicia, it’s not like…all I’m saying is at least…well…at least he’s not fucking a monkey or a dog or trying to get himself inside your little sister. You know some men are found with their dick inside their car exhausts? I read about one man who used to masturbate with mousetraps, and there was another…there was another who couldn’t get through a day without fingering the family cat…so you know…well…you know, fair enough…’

Anthony’s aware that perhaps this hasn’t come out quite as he might have liked, but he really wants to hurt Alicia. Problem is he just doesn’t have the heart; he looks at her and still finds her sexy and knows he would fuck her if she suggested they find a room or go back to hers. She looks at him, her nose wrinkled with what he hopes is repulsion but knows is just dim confusion.

‘Did you — did you really read that, about those men?’ she says.

He feels even more depressed; how is it he can find her mindless stupidity so enticing?

‘Yes,’ he lies. ‘All true, every word.’

Alicia takes a drag on her cigarette, blowing out a thin column of smoke. Fleetingly she looks as if she could be quite intelligent; for the first time that afternoon Anthony is absolutely focused on her response, almost trembling with expectation.

‘Jesus. Fuck. Makes you think doesn’t it?’

Anthony follows the wrinkle of her forehead with his eyes, close to tears at the simplicity of this beautiful face digesting what she thinks is pertinent information.

‘I s’pose so,’ he whispers and sits back, exhausted, watching the trail of two airplanes overhead move inexorably apart toward their different time zones.

• • •

Last year, last summer in fact, Anthony met Alicia at Café Boheme in Soho. She’d been doing a workshop with some Chilean director at Jermyn Street Theatre, he’d just sold his first painting in a decade to an American widow called Irene Sternberg whose husband had left her a larger inheritance than she knew what to do with. They had perched at the bar drinking jugs of sangria, trying to enjoy the loud flamenco guitar played by a Spanish student in the corner. It was a warm evening, one of those that middle class women like to call balmy, and they were both drunk and tired and sweaty and horny. The sex that night was brief and wholly unsatisfactory for her, but she was polite enough to pretend an orgasm; he remembers thinking that her efforts were so feeble she had no hope of making it as an actress.

As is the way with non-starter relationships, they drifted into seeing each other; him constantly aroused at her large nipples and shaved pussy, her attracted to the kudos of his artistic pretensions. She would hum dire U2 songs to him while he was trying to have a lie in, he would agree to meet the various directors and producers she innocently fucked while greasing herself up the acting pole.

Occasionally she made him laugh; he doesn’t remember ever eliciting a like response from her. Mostly they just got pissed or shared meals, glancing at each other with blank faces, neither of them quite sure why it was that they could find nothing to talk about. Eventually, when they got to a stage of going to the cinema simply to avoid the silence, Alicia moved away from her flat in Clapham, discreetly disappearing from Anthony’s life. He didn’t miss her; he felt rather grateful to her for taking the decision to end it. His enduring memories of being with Alicia are few and mostly early ones when they both still had novelty. He remembers her skinny-dipping on Brighton beach; crying at the emptiness of her eyes when looking at the paintings around his Hackney bedsit; the petulance in her voice as she regaled him on the intensity of being an actor.

Something he doesn’t recall: her ever touching his face.

• • •

Anthony asks her why she thinks Ray is having a gay affair.

‘Ray is not gay, that’s not it,’ she says.

‘Semantics,’ he replies.

Anxiety flickers briefly across Alicia’s face; she gathers herself, smiling at Anthony like an adult to a child.

‘He’s fixated with trying to fuck me in the bum,’ she says brightly, moistening her lips with a pink lip balm.

‘Perhaps you just have a lot to learn about men,’ Anthony shrugs.

Something about the corners of her mouth, the way she pretends to look past his shoulder at the man packing up his second hand bookstall, tells Anthony that Ray has already been there; it hurt and she liked it and will let him again.

‘Have you ever been fucked in the bum?’ Alicia asks him as if ticking off boxes on a questionnaire.

Anthony stares at a picture of George Clooney on a discarded copy of Empire, wondering how one man can know he’s so suave and yet still be alluring. He imagines Ray buggering Alicia; himself buggering Ray; Alicia buggering Ray; Alicia buggering George Clooney…he shakes his head and lights a cigarette; notices Alicia checking her watch and then her makeup in her compact.

‘We should make a move,’ he says. ‘I mean, you should…your audition.’

Alicia looks at Anthony with what he thinks is gratification; for once they’re both thinking the same thing, glad to say goodbyes. Anthony gets up, his leg numb with pins and needles.

‘It’s alright,’ Alicia says, ‘you stay here. You know, audition and that…like to be on my own.’

Anthony nods and smiles, noticing freckles on her nose that he never knew were there. He runs a hand through his hair; it feels greasy and unkempt; he suddenly feels very small.

‘Come on,’ he says, trying to keep his voice steady and even. ‘Let me buy you an icecream.’

• • •

Before he hands Alicia her 99 Anthony asks her to touch herself, to run her fingers over her nipples then slide her hand inside her knickers and wank herself in front of him. She doesn’t hear him of course; she’s moaning about the modern actress as a sex symbol.

‘I always enjoyed fucking you,’ he says.

‘The Donmar’s a really cool place,’ she says.

‘I’d fuck you up the arse if you asked me,’ he says.

‘I’d just love to have that Gwyneth Paltrow thing going on,’ she says.

‘I’m HIV positive, so perhaps, you know, you and the other guys should have a test,’ he says.

‘It’ll be cool to be famous,’ she says. ‘I’ve always said 2004 is going to be my year.’

Alicia kisses Anthony on either cheek.

‘You should take things less seriously Anthony. You never know how it might all just change’; the relief in her voice is palpable, a strange skittishness in her eyes.

Anthony watches her walk to the end of the South Bank, craning his neck to see her auburn hair disappear over the bridge, the roll of her head as she takes a call on her mobile. They didn’t exchange numbers; somehow it was never going to happen. He’d like to think it’s immaterial. He stares out across the Thames. He tries to talk to himself but there’s not much in his head and he just sucks in air through his mouth. Chill out, he thinks. He pictures Alicia lying to Ray, Trevor lying to Alicia, Ray lying to Alicia; he thinks about the endless recriminations. An Italian looking tourist stands right in front of him and takes a photograph; ‘Ciao’ the Italian says. Anthony wonders if he’ll look very ugly in the photo. He tries to remember what day it is; date. He shakes his head; settles on sometime in July.

The sky grows overcast; people seem to quicken their pace, anticipating the end of the day. Anthony notices the icecream dripping in his hand, untouched. He thinks about throwing it in the bin; the flake slips from the cone splintering on the pavement, flecks of chocolate dancing at his feet.



© Joseph Monk 2004
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