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I shouldn't have stolen the penguin. I know that now. Instead I should have talked to my brother earnestly yet tenderly, maybe with some tears, like they do in American TV series. I should have communicated my feelings to him. I should have listened to his point of view and resolved our differences face-to-face, in a soft-focus reconciliation.
Instead I stole a flightless bird. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. It could be my last chance. I just hope the penguin understands.
People say we look alike. Scott and Jes Barron. We're the same height-six foot in our heels (mine are blue Campers from Covent Garden; his are brown Clarks from Mr. Shoe).
"You look like brothers," they say, pleased with themselves.
It's the chin. Kirk rather than Michael Douglas. Jes got the slightly better features -- a stronger jaw, a straighter, more elegant nose, thinner eyebrows, and those deep brown eyes, set in gently curved, brooding sockets.
I have gray-blue eyes and my brown hair is starting to ascend each side of my forehead, but both my grandfathers remained shaggy until the day they died, so I should be okay. Jes's hair is darker. Sometimes people think he's Italian. They always think I'm English.
My brother was Jeremy on his birth certificate but Jes from the moment he arrived home and Mum cooed into his cot, "Jessy, Jes . . ."
At the time, "Jes" seemed a strange, foreign name. Now it seems very, well . . . now. Scott, in contrast, seems, well, very . . . then.
I was named after my mother's nationality, after her nostalgia for a childhood roaming the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh. Apparently I was a Celtic retort to my father's Anglo-Saxon surname. I've never liked the name Barron, with its elitist or desolate connotations.
I liked it even less after our father left us, when I was seven and Jes was two. I asked Mum if I could start using her maiden name, Henderson, at school. She smiled thinly, patted my head, and said, "Please don't make a fuss now, Scott," in her strictest Scottish tone.
Unlike my mother, I have an accent as English as afternoon tea. On the rare occasions I've been abroad, salesmen hawking carpets, pottery, or snowstorm Virgin Marys have always shouted "Ingleeesh!!" before any other nationality.
I'm thirty-one, Jes is twenty-six. But he's fatter than me. He looks a little like Elvis, during the peanut butter and banana years.
I stand on the scales in my small North London bathroom. The needle stops quivering at eleven stone nine pounds. That's 163 pounds if you're American, or about 73 kilos if you're anyone else. I've been down to eleven two (156 pounds, 70 kilos), but that was after a nasty bout of diarrhea.
In contrast, Jes weighs sixteen stone. I know this because he old me a couple of weeks ago. He rested his hands on his paunch, and said happily:
"Sixteen stone. And I've only been married a year."
So, I'm thinner than my younger brother. It's not that I don't work at it. You have to remain vigilant; you can't let yourself go. I run most days. I've been running for years.
"From what?" asks Ellie, flicking through this month's Vogue. Ellie is my girlfriend of eight months. She's Jes's age, twenty-six, attractive to everyone as well as me, and likes to flash her smile at older men. She's five foot eight (more in her daily heels) with a black bob and a face and body like a French actress. You wouldn't guess she was from the posher parts of Surrey, until she opens her beautiful, blossom-lipped mouth.
She's a commissioning editor for a minor women's magazine and dresses in clothes that everyone else will wear in six months' time. When I walk into bars with her on my arm everyone turns to look.
"Nothing," I reply, because I don't want to think about it too deeply. "I'm not running from anything."
Thankfully she does not pursue the question because she's just arrived at an in-depth article about Gwyneth Paltrow's shoe collection. Neither of us likes to talk about our feelings, which might be one of the reasons we're together.
Today I ran four miles in twenty-eight minutes thirteen seconds, according to the fancy Nike watch Ellie got me for my birthday. You can store the time of each run, to compare them. I'm getting faster. I run to keep in shape, to get out of the house (I work from home), and to ogle the yummy mummies who push their prams between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Hampstead Heath.
Ellie says she likes me because I am a writer. She says she's hopeless with words (she is, really; she confuses "ambivalent" and "ambidextrous"). She says she likes my small but sensitive poems that don't rhyme, don't use long, complex, or challenging words, and don't mention God. She likes the fact that I make money from my books and that my name sometimes appears in national newspapers, albeit on pages that no one reads.
Today is the launch of my third book, a collection of poems entitled Men and Other Mammals. I'm early, as I'm early for most things. Nothing if not organized, Ellie says, which in her sweet tone sounds like sweet reproach. She teases me frequently about my Virgo characteristics (characteristics I didn't realize I had until she started making fun of them), such as my need to plan carefully ahead, my need to make lists, and my inability to lounge around in bed thinking about nothing in particular.
My brother Jes is more forthright. He thinks I should be more relaxed, whatever that means. "Take it easy, won't you?" is one of his preferred refrains.
Since there are at least forty-five minutes to go until my book launch, I walk into Green Park, where I decide to rent a green-and-white-striped deck chair and sit in the afternoon sunshine.
I'll show them. I can be impromptu. I can relax.
It's actually a really nice afternoon for mid-September in London. The sun beats down, a light breeze trembles the leaves, and insects buzz merrily, oblivious to their impending autumn demise.
Alongside me in the ranks of green-and-white stripes are old people in sun hats complaining about the heat, a few office workers hiding between meetings, and a smattering of foreign tourists, most of whom seem to be kissing so passionately their deck chairs are in danger of collapsing.
I sit in the sunshine and wonder why I don't feel more excited. My third book is about to be published. I'm a relatively successful writer. I have a pretty girlfriend who says she's "really into" me (neither of us has used the "l" word yet).
Yet something doesn't feel right. I'm not looking forward to my book launch. In fact I'm dreading it. I just feel . . . I don't know . . . as if I'm a fraud?
You see, I'm supposed to be this expert on the male condition, just because I write poems about men. I'm even known in some sections of the press as the "Lad-Lit Poet" and on one unfortunate occasion as the "Male Muse." It's embarrassing. I'm no zeitgeist commentator. I just write poems to entertain, to make people laugh.
The truth is, I don't know much about men. I don't know much about myself.
Am I happy? Relatively.
Am I inspired? Not really.
Do I love my girlfriend? Maybe.
As for my work, I never even planned to be a poet. It just sort of happened. I always wanted to be a novelist. In fact, if someone held a gun to my head (which is unlikely given that I live in a quiet middle-class street of North London), I would admit to feeling uneasy about people calling me a poet.
Ditties. That's what my father called them once. "Your little ditties."
Sitting low in the green-and-white-striped deck chair, I manage to relax for just over eight minutes. Then I reach into my bag and take out my new book. It feels smooth and more substantial than my other two collections. It's the first time I've had a book out in hardback, which might not mean much to you, but to an author it's the equivalent of finally making the first team after several seasons in the reserves.
In comparison, my first collection, Uptown Guys, was a flimsy dull-colored paperback. It was published six years ago, after Barbara Smiles, my ironically named agent (her lips never curl upward), battered several small publishing houses until Oak Tree Press relented, paying me £500 and printing 1,500 copies. No one thought they would sell, which accounted for my paltry advance and the fact that Barbara was able to negotiate a hefty 35 percent royalty payment on every £6.99 copy.
"Just like George Lucas's first deal for Star Wars!" she declared in her strident Yorkshire accent. No one was more surprised than Barbara when the book sold out in a matter of weeks.
"Men, read this! Then dare to give it to your woman!" screeched one national newspaper, and the second print run topped 5,000. Before I knew it, I was "a lyricist of male inarticulacy." I couldn't find words to express my stupefaction.
To date Uptown Guys has sold 25,000 copies. I might not be George Lucas, but those royalty checks do allow me to shop at the more expensive supermarkets. And now there's even talk that one of my poems might appear on the London Underground, to entertain the capital's commuters. As a poet these days, it really doesn't get any better than that.
This time, the initial print run for Men and Other Mammals is 10,000 copies. On the new shiny, electric blue back cover there's a photo of me looking rugged yet sensitive. The kind of man who knows what years were good for Rioja, how to cook duck, and when a woman just wants to be listened to.
The only thing is, I don't know about Rioja, apart from its country of origin (Spain, of course), and I've never cooked duck. I can listen to women, though. I'm fine as long as I don't have to say anything.
Clasping my new book like a shield, I step from the deck chair onto the tarmac path. A few faces look up -- a silver-haired granny and a group of olive-faced French exchange students. As they watch I drop the book from chest-height. It hits the path:
A solid, happy slap. The book lies there, blue on gray. The silver-haired granny gives me a worried glance, as if I might be a recent escapee from a maximum-security mental institution. I smile, to reassure her. It's just a ritual I have, dropping the book. It helps make it all seem more, I don't know . . . real.
My book launch takes place in the private members club of a minimalist London hotel. Despite having loitered in the park for almost three quarters of an hour, I still manage to be early. A twenty-something public relations woman from the publishing company is busying about without anything to be busy about. Miranda is thin, blonde, and attractive, in a junior newscaster sort of way, and she flashes me a smile, which is one of the reasons she's a successful young PR, because it makes me feel instantly important. I ask if I can buy her a drink and she points out politely that all the drinks are free.
"Maybe another time," she grins, and I know flirting is part of her job, but I can't help feeling warm.
The book launch begins well. I'm relieved. The room fills quickly with journalists, editorial staff, and a few writers from the same publishing house who are here because I went to their book launches. My editor is standing alongside the marketing manager, even the company director is here in his corduroy jacket, which must mean they hope to make more money out of me. And of course there's my agent, Barbara Smiles, the woman who made it all possible. She stands sipping vodka martinis as if they are about to be made illegal. She's a small, thin lady who looks not unlike a 2,000-year-old corpse dug from an Irish bog, only slightly prettier, immaculately dressed in her trademark black suit, tailored so sharply that she appears almost cut from cardboard.
"You look smashing, Scott-lad!" she exclaims shrilly, kissing each cheek with dry lips.
"Doesn't he look smashing, Gordon?" she remarks to the man next to her -- another writer she represents, who seems somewhat embarrassed to be monopolizing my agent at my book launch. I smile an ambivalent but gracious smile, and walk on.
Near the bar, among the junior publishing staff vying to maximize their consumption of free booze, I spot my three closest friends, standing together in a protective huddle as if under attack. It's rare to see them together like this. They only ever meet through me, and don't really like one another. I wonder, sometimes, if they represent different sides to my own personality.
There's Brian, the small big-city lawyer in his gray suit. I'm friends with him because he's a little self-conscious like me, and together we manage to convince each other that we're cooler than we are.
There's Dr. Simon, in his out-of-hospital bohemian look-black jeans, black turtleneck, and Doc Marten shoes, nervously trying to drink his wine slowly. We met at sixth-form college in Cambridge and have been drifting slowly apart ever since. I'm only friends with him now, I suspect in my darker moments, because I'm nostalgic (the past is a favorite place of mine).
And there's Big Barry in a £1,000 suit, £200 loafers, and slicked-back stockbroker hair, eyeballing every woman in the room. Big Barry is perhaps my best friend, by which I mean he makes me feel the best. In his company, I sometimes think I'm almost as brilliant as Barry believes himself to be.
Brian, Simon, and Barry are all in their mid-thirties, and each of them is as single as the day he was born.
It's been a long time since we've all been together like this. To be honest, I wasn't even sure if they'd all turn up. In a city like London, it's hard staying in touch with people, even if you call them your best friends. People are too busy, too tired, too put off by public transport and high taxi fares. At least that's our excuse.
I walk up to my friends, and they smile at me, one after the other. I know what these smiles mean. In the perpetual competition that is our relationship, tonight's event sends me to the top of the leader board. They're each happy for me, in their own way, but they cannot hide their jealousy.
"Top totty!" intones Big Barry, turning his back on Brian and Dr. Simon and glancing past me at Miranda while clasping my shoulder with his oversize fingers.
"Cool venue, Scott-man!" chirps Brian, who was born in Los Angeles and never fails to be impressed by places that have appeared in glossy magazines, much to my embarrassment.
"Where's Ellie?" asks Dr. Simon, downing the last of his wine and looking around nervously. He doesn't like Ellie, a view shared by my other two friends.
"She should be here somewhere . . . ," I say, surveying the room.
And in that instant I wonder if Ellie and I will get married, and if so, whether our wedding will be like this -- my uneasy friends, the warm champagne, the gentle, slightly detached enthusiasm of strangers, and my own less than enthusiastic detachment. As I think about it, I realize two things. First, our wedding will be nothing like this -- it will look like a magazine article, in her parents' large garden with a fantastic marquee and the latest fashions. And second, this is the first time I've ever imagined getting married to anyone.
I look for Ellie, but she's nowhere to be seen. I suffer a sudden snatch of jealousy as I wonder if she's having drinks with some fashion photographer (they are all gay, aren't they?) or some actor (they are all gay, aren't they?). I'm annoyed; she said she would come, and despite her profession she sometimes does what she says. I know she's not too keen on my friends (she has little in common with them), but this isn't about them.
Jes is also absent, but he called to say he had an article to finish and might not make it. We both know he won't come. This is how we are -- we see each other more than some brothers, but not as much as we could.
Jes lives in Morden -- south South London, which is a place that looks like it sounds. It's at the end of the Northern Line, and then you take a bus, which isn't such a bad journey, but Jes doesn't seem to feel the need to go out like I do. He lives with his wife, Sam, who's pretty in a Sinéad O'Connor way, which is a good way in my books. They met when Jes put an ad in the Brighton Echo offering piano lessons. By the time Sam could play a C minor scale, they were in a major relationship. Sam learned "Für Elise," and they got married at the age of twenty-five. It was as easy as that.
It's Tuesday night. Sam will be sitting on the sofa dozing in front of ER (one of her many telly addictions), tired from another day as assistant picture editor on the Daily Telegraph travel desk, gazing at beautiful images of faraway places while rain spatters the windows. Jes will be in the spare room hunched over this week's "Shoppers Report" for the South London Gazette, determined not to use the same word twice in a 300-word article comparing the prices of margarine.
Secretly I'm glad he isn't here. He would have noticed my general shiftiness, my detachment, my unease, and he would have asked me why I was feeling like that. Jes doesn't hold back. Unlike me.
I think Jes will also be glad he's not here. He wouldn't want to see his older brother praised for his latest book while he himself struggles with dreams of being a world-famous travel writer stalking the planet with a fully charged laptop: "Morden's Chatwin or Paul Theroux."
He can get jealous, my little brother. I understand his sibling rivalry, but I wish sometimes he could see my side of the story, how it can be hard always being the leader, the first to break new ground. I mean, he never had to suffer that bowel-expanding fear of the first day at school, the first spelling test, the first exam, the first date, the first driving lesson, the first sexual encounter. It was me, I was always the guide, the trailblazer, the pilot through choppy water, especially after our father left. There were times when I used to wonder if I'd been put on the earth simply to prepare the path for Jes.
But I suppose Jes did do one thing first. He married the woman he loved.
We see each other less these days. This might be, I suspect, because of Ellie. Jes, I feel, doesn't like Ellie. Sam, I feel, hates Ellie. We went to their house just once, and Ellie smiled and made conversation like it was a work party, chatting about fashion shoots in the Seychelles and parties in Milan, maybe because she was nervous, but maybe because that's what she likes to talk about, and Sam kept fingering the hem of her own skirt, bought two years previously. We left early and Jes seemed relieved.
"Why have you never bought me flowers?" asked Ellie as we drove back north, and it struck me that I always buy Sam flowers because it makes Jes smile.
At least my mother has come to my book launch. She stands listening to the company director, looking slimly elegant in her best black dress and pearls, her white hair neatly and expensively set for the occasion. She's still attractive at the age of fifty-nine. She nods as the company director continues his lecture, happy not to be talking. My mother uses few words. She prefers to listen.
I wander over, exchanging a few pleasantries here and there. I find it hard-like Mum, I'm not good at talking to people: smiling at faces I don't know, saying similar yet personally tailored things, but it's something you can learn, or so Ellie tells me.
I kiss my mother, which I know she hates, but it's my party and I'll be affectionate if I want to. She suffers this ignominy with good grace, even saying, "Thank you, my darling . . ." in her soft Scottish brogue. I give her a pained look that I've been giving her since I was little, that says, "I don't want to be here." In return, she smiles her smile that says, "I know, but you have to."
She holds out a copy of my book with the electric blue cover.
"Will you sign it for me?"
So I sign my book and the company director tells me what a lucky boy I am to have such a charming mother, and I agree while thinking that this man is only five years older than me, married with a small baby, and yet he sounds like he's hitting on my mum.
Then he taps his glass with a gold pen and makes a speech, predicting greatness (large sales), and toasts me. I blush and take out my small piece of paper, crammed with tiny writing, and I thank everyone. I thank my mother for her continuing support and she blushes behind her rouge. I thank my editor, who grins possessively. Then I read one poem that I've carefully selected because I hope it might get a small laugh.
It gets a small laugh.
Men are people who clean the loo just once a month and only
when asked by a woman,
Who know distances, heights, and weights of all things
except peaches or babies,
Men are mammals too, with hair on chests, and toes,
Who sometimes eat pies
To feel happy.
I conclude my speech by saying, "I hope you like the book, or at least buy it," and most of the crowd smile.
By 8:30 p.m., I'm a little drunk. Breaking away from a group of people I hardly know, I spot my mother at the cloakroom taking her black wool coat from the young ponytailed attendant. I hurry over to her.
"You're leaving?" I ask, a little hurt. I've been looking forward to a drink with her, to bask for a moment in some maternal praise.
"I'm feeling a wee bit tired," she says softly, pulling on the coat. I move to help her, but she nudges me gently away.
"You go and have fun with the lovely Eleanor," she says with a small smile. My mother likes Ellie. They've got on well the two times they met, gossiping about supermodels and the latest handbags. In some ways I think they're similar -- both beautiful, both somewhat reserved about their emotions. I'm a little worried that that's what I look for in a woman -- the reserve, the coolness. Is it true that men seek to marry their mothers?
I think about telling Mum that Ellie hasn't shown up, but I don't want to disappoint her.
So instead I ask if she's got enough cash for the taxi back to her hotel, which of course she has, being an organized Scot, and I kiss her one last time.
"Run along, you silly boy," she says quickly. I think about offering to wait for a taxi with her, but I know she'll tell me to stop fussing.
I spend the next quarter of an hour searching for my three friends. I haven't had a chance to chat with them, and I feel bad. I know they will resent it, but I hope they realize I've had to do the rounds, do the chat, do the business.
I look in the obvious places -- bar, toilet, buffet table, but I can't find any of them. I wonder if they've left already. Then I catch a glimpse of Big Barry in the hotel foyer chatting to a young blonde woman who, as far as I know, has nothing to do with my book launch. He seems ensconced. Beyond, Dr. Simon is standing nervously at the exit. He sees me and waves. "Sorry, mate, I'm on early shifts at St. Mary's . . . ," he says by way of apology.
"He wasn't feeling well. He said he'd call you." Dr. Simon shakes my hand quickly, we nod at each other (a farewell first formed fifteen years ago), and he leaves. I begin to feel irritated. Looking around I see no one I want to talk to (my agent, Barbara, is browbeating the company director, who for once can't get a word in edgeways). Some of the junior publishing staff are dancing drunkenly to the bar music, but I don't dance. It's time to go. By the cloakroom I overhear Miranda talking to one of the junior editors.
"It's so disappointing when writers aren't as witty in real life . . . ," she says in a low voice, while the twenty-something editor nods slowly, his eyes firmly fixed on Miranda's breasts. I turn away hurriedly, zip up my coat, and head out into the rain.
In the taxi, sliding though London's wet September streets, I call Ellie three times, but there's no reply from her mobile or her house. In her absence I conjure a conversation with her, admonishing her for not having made it to my book launch. I know she'll have an excuse, maybe even several, but I feel a little let down. After eight months we should be edging toward loyalty, shouldn't we? Isn't that what couples do?
In my head I suggest that perhaps we should think about modifying our priorities, to concentrate more on "us, not work," which is maybe easier for me to say, since I have nothing to do in the next couple of months except sit back and wait for the book figures to scamper in.
"Us? Do you really think so?" my invented Ellie asks, green eyes wide.
"Yes, darling. Some things are more important."
As the taxi chugs through Camden, I imagine that somehow she's let herself into my flat, run a bath, put on a Van Morrison CD and is lying there in a tub full of suds like a luxurious tart in a chocolate advert.
"Scotty. Oh Scotty," she'd coo and I'd slip into the hot water, and then slip into her.
But Ellie doesn't like Van Morrison. And she'd never be a luxurious tart.
My flat is cold. The heating hasn't come on, the timer stuck firm and resolved. I bash it a couple of times, but it remains stuck.
There are two messages on my answering machine.
"All right, Scott? Hope the book launch went well. If you want to call tonight, please refrain between ten and eleven, it's ER. Speak soon, Jes."
The voice on the second message is more tense.
"Scott. We need to talk. Give me a call when you get this."
At least I don't have to walk home. She comes to my flat. I'm surprised how much I plead.
"No, Ellie . . ."
"I'm sorry. I don't feel it's right anymore. We just don't connect."
"I admit when I first met you I was impressed by your words, your poems, how emotional and deep they seemed. I couldn't wait to get to the depths of you. But now I wonder. Maybe you just save your feelings for your writing."
"My feelings? What are you talking about? You never worried about my feelings before. Where is this coming from?"
Ellie remains quiet, which infuriates me further. She hates talking about feelings, almost as much as I do. I wonder if she has latched on to this "feelings" theme as an excuse, exaggerating the issue to help her reject me. "What about you?" I bark back at her. "You're not exactly the most openly emotional person I've ever met!"
"See?!" she says, almost triumphantly. "That's just it. We don't connect."
"How can we? We never talk about anything!"
"That's not my fault! It's you! You're so . . ." She seeks out a word that lies just beyond her reach.
"What? What am I, Ellie?"
"I don't know!"
"Cold? Uncommunicative? Repressed?"
"Yes. All of those things."
She pauses for a moment, putting a finger to her mouth as if to bite her nail, before remembering she has painted them deep red, this season's most fashionable hue.
"You're just like your friends . . . ," she barks, with a practiced glare.
"No I'm not! I'm nothing like them!" I shout angrily, half aware that in saying this I am rejecting my best mates. She's knows what she's doing, pretty Ellie. My friends have been a constant bone of contention between us-she dislikes Barry, Brian, and Simon, calling them the "Freak Bunch." She thinks they're socially awkward, the greatest sin in her book. She knows talking about them like this will make me mad.
"Anyway, this isn't about them, is it? It's about us!"
"I'm sorry, Scott. There is no us. It's over!" she declares, categorically.
"Ellie . . ."
"Please don't make this difficult . . ."
"But I love you."
She looks away for a moment and I have a glimmer of hope, a tab of possibility, which reminds me of the first time we met when she glanced at me at the magazine party and I hardly dared dream that maybe, just maybe I had a chance of achieving the impossible.
She looks back again.
"Unfortunately, Scott, that's the first time you've ever said that to me."
She's right. I've had the feelings -- missing her, needing her, wanting to protect her from skinheads and traffic wardens -- but now I know. Now I am certain. I think.
"I love you."
There. I've said it again.
She looks at me coldly.
"Two months ago, those three words might have been enough."
Three words, two months. I was never much good at math.
Ellie snatches up her new Gucci satchel and car keys with a dramatic flourish. I step to the door and block her path.
"Didn't you hear me? I love you!"
She stands there, lovely jaw clenched.
"No you don't, Scott. You're just saying the words."
"I mean it!"
"Go on, then. Say it again."
She looks at me, like a gunslinger must look into the eyes of his victim. I know that this is a huge moment. I know that I have to perform, that I have to express my innermost, deepest, most visceral emotions. But I can't. In that split second of thinking about it, I've lost the moment, the instinctive passion. As she knew I would.
"I . . . love . . . you," I say weakly. As soon as the words vanish into the air, I know I've blown it.
"It's okay, Scott. I don't love you, either."
"But we have great sex!" I stammer, immediately regretting it. Ellie looks at me witheringly. I stumble on, "It's been eight months! We can't throw all this away now!"
She moves toward the door.
She glares at me once more. I step aside. She opens the door, then pauses for a moment. "Bye, Scott," she says softly. The door closes. For a brief moment, I watch the rain pattering the window.
When I run outside, her car is gone. I call her mobile.
"Hi, this is Ellie, can't speak now. Bye-eee."
I call and call and call, but she doesn't answer.
I sit on a closed toilet seat staring at the blue luxury toilet paper Ellie bought just three days ago. She'd stacked ten rolls neatly beside the cistern, an act I'd believed then to be a symbol of commitment but now realize was merely a parting gift.