The best-looking man I ever slept with was a catering assistant at a company called The Altogether, where I worked a few years back.
He was a tall, lean Lithuanian called Victor which is not a good-looking person’s name, but I guess nobody told his parents that.
The Altogether co-ordinated team-building days out for other companies, which involved things like dumping forty project managers in the forest with compasses and cartons of apple juice, and I was a rep.
Not an amazing job, but it had its perks. Most notably, breakfast. Reps got to eat breakfast with the clients, brought to whichever field, army barracks, or community centre was our home for the day. We had a crack team of caterers, and they didn’t mess about. Bagels, donuts, muffins, flapjacks – it was like Atkins never happened. Jan and Bill carted along crates fat with bakery multipacks and cereal boxes. But Victor was the best. Victor brought a little camping stove with him, for toasted treats. On Fridays he would bring in a bottle of batter for making crepes.
Victor had black hair and green eyes and he used to stare at me across the Marmite and Nutella with one part inflamed longing to one part sadness at the world. I would look at him and feel hungry, any time of day. But Friday mornings were the highlight of my week. They came round with a sweet, sick slowness, teasing and then hitting the spot like your favourite TV programme.
What I waited for: the toffee popcorn smell of eggs and milk and everyone queuing up for Victor. Some days I’d go round three times just for another flash of green eyes, and all he thought was I really loved those pancakes. Except maybe he figured it out because one day he made me a pancake in the shape of a heart. So it was on.
But it didn’t happen until three weeks later. We’d spent the day doing laser clay pigeon shooting in Wokingham with the finance team from Thames Water. Laser clay pigeon shooting is a lot like regular clay pigeon shooting, except the shots aren’t real, so it’s much less likely that falling clay will get a CEO in the eye, like on the notorious Bradford & Bingley away weekend of Easter 2005. So there we were, grass-stained and sore-kneed in the gardens of a Berkshire country club. It was a Friday, and the sweet sting of sugar and lemon juice fizzed under our fingernails. End-of-the-week adrenaline hung in the air like sweat.
Lloyd, the deputy finance manager of Thames Water, suggested a pub trip. But noone knew the area so we ended up in a musicless tramp-magnet called the Hound and Horseshoe. It was the kind of place old men bring their dogs and you can make it a double for an extra 10p. Victor and I sat too close together and then failed to think of anything to say. But I knew that once we got going, it would turn into one of those insane verbal fucks where you challenge each other and say things you’ve never said and tear down the history of the world and write a better one. I’d even planned my opening line:
‘So you’re reading Spinoza?’
He coughed on a mouthful of dry-roasted peanuts. ‘Huh?’
‘Ethics. I saw it in with the bagels.’
He smiled, ‘Oh yeah. I borrowed it from Bill.’
Then he grinned at me, like – you’re gonna love this, ‘One of the legs came off my stove, and that little book is just the right size! Lucky, right?’
OK, so I knew that he wasn’t my soulmate. But looking in his eyes made me wonder. He had a way of looking at you, as if your soul was a glass of water and he was thirsty. I couldn’t look into his eyes too long – it hurt like staring directly at the sun. Talking to him was generally painful, because you spent the whole time concentrating on treating him like he was anybody. Like he wasn’t gorgeous. It took up all my attention until his words lost their meaning and became nothing more than a slight itch in my brain. At the same time everything he said assumed a vague irony – he’d bore me with his weekend plans, and the more banal and detailed his account, the more it felt like we were sharing a joke. Like – look at us exchanging these crumbs of small talk like regular people when we both know we’re above all this. When we could crank this up ten notches any moment.
The rest of the evening was just killing time. Jan told me all about her mother’s hip replacement. Lloyd bought me one tequila shot after another. It was like a square dance where you mess around with other partners, knowing all along who you’re going to end up with. Knowing was part of it. The surprise of a first kiss is what makes it sweet. But the inevitability of finding yourself in a strange bedroom in Tilehurst in the early hours of a Saturday morning – that’s the taste that satisfies.
When we were in bed, he stuck his finger in my arsehole and then licked it, the way you might imagine a French chef licking his finger after tasting a particularly good soup. And even though I was disgusted by this I found it comforting that someone so good-looking wanted to taste my arsehole and I didn’t want to taste his. And I told myself that instead of my arsehole, he was touching my inner true self, and not just the dramatic, yearning, philosophical side that you feel when you put on classical music and stare at yourself in the mirror, but all the mundane or shameful bits that you don’t tell people about in case they decide that you’re not a valuable human being after all and they lock you up in a room with aggressive air-conditioning.
He was probing these bits of me with his index finger and wordlessly telling me that these bits were ok by him, and that they were beautiful.
And then we had sex and it hurt but I didn’t mind and as he pounded away my eyes suddenly filled up with tears and in that moment I felt sure that ours was a true and unbreakable bond, and even if it didn’t conform to conventional principles of love like having things to talk about or enjoying each other’s company, it was a bond nonetheless, and the pain and tragedy of its slippery intangibility just added to the romance.
But then the sex really started to hurt and it was going on for ages because he was too drunk to come and after a while we gave up and he went to sleep without offering me a t-shirt to sleep in. Well to me sleep seemed like reaching for the stars, so I got up and stood naked by the bed and my skin glowed flame blue in the blind-fractured moonlight. And the only thing I could find to put on was his thick grey hoody that said ‘NY state champs’ on it and bore a line-drawn image of an angry-looking chicken. Wearing it made me feel like a fraud – as if I was trying to be his girlfriend by borrowing his jumper the way real girlfriends do in normal, nice relationships where you don’t fuck on the first night and nobody gets a finger up the butt. So I slipped out of it and crept back into bed and watched dawn make its lazy way towards us.
In the white nothingness of not-quite-morning I shivered in his bed and he slept so far off at the edge of the mattress that I thought he might fall off. And I knew that somehow I’d ended up in that room with the air-conditioning on after all, and it was too late, and there was no way of turning it down, and my arse didn’t contain all the secret, lovable parts of me, but was just full of shit, like everyone else’s.
When I saw Victor the following Monday he was smaller, fainter. As if I was seeing his image at the end of a telescope, or through the barrel of a gun like in a James Bond title sequence. There were no more heart-shaped pancakes and anyway, I wasn’t hungry.
We worked together for another five months after that, but barely spoke again. In the mornings I got used to swerving towards the cereals and steering clear of any batter-based ambiguity, a result of which was quite inadvertently striking up a keen friendship with Jan.
At his leaving party, Victor spontaneously gave me a big hug and a terrible sadness washed over me. An end-of-summer kind of sadness. Like the tragic beauty of watching the sea or a sunset – when you feel that crashing together of the eternal and the transient and your place in it all just a speck. It was all there in his eyes, and worse: the glimpse of an unreality that maybe somehow could have been, but wasn’t. We’d lost something or maybe we’d lost nothing; it didn’t matter. Either way it was gone.
Victor’s replacement was a scrawny, spotty bespectacled young man from Milton Keynes, which, on the up side, meant that pancakes were back on the table with no fear of further indiscretion.
When I met the love of my life two years later, I told him about the bread man in a way that wasn’t really telling. In the way that you tell all your stories – stripped and groomed into an anecdote within a string of anecdotes that bind you into your personality. Victor was just the bread man, and the night a snapshot, barely poking out between my first good job and the time I got stuck in a lift with Trisha Goddard.
When Shrove Tuesday bumbles by, it doesn’t occur to me to think of Victor. I spend my weekends eating Sunday roast and choosing the ‘Jaipur’ curtain pattern, sewing name tags into school uniforms and falling asleep in the arms of my best friend. I watch his programmes and cheer when his team scores and in restaurants he knows just what to order for me if the waiter comes when I’m in the toilet. And together we are as pleased and sturdy as two slightly drunk hills. And neither of us will ever know the savage seas and sleepless nights the other crossed to bring us to this point.