The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 10 Justine / Sheila

WE HAVE A NEW paralegal in the office. She works in the wills, probate and trusts department. Doesn’t sound very thrilling but they have to know a lot about trusts, tax saving measures, asset management, advising the elderly, et cetera and people are prepared to pay considerable sums for it. Just thinking about setting up a trust makes my poor raddled brain start to throb and my head feels as though it’s expanded to at least twice its normal size. I feel faint and have to sit down for a time until the subject moves on to something else.

She’s called Justine this new paralegal, a very pretty name I think and I don’t hesitate to tell her so. She is divorced and I am happy to spend time in the kitchen with her slagging off the ex-spouse in her case and estranged spouse in mine. Her ex apparently simply left the house one morning for work and never came back. She tracked him down with the help of her brother who located him at a commune which included male bonding rituals.

Men, some men at any rate, seemingly feel emasculated by the feminist movement and the rise of women in the workplace and need to re-kindle and reinforce their self-worth by entering mud huts with other similarly-minded men in the dead of night with peat fires burning in a makeshift hearth in the middle of the floor, stripping off, rubbing unguent all over themselves and each other, chanting ancient sounding but in fact probably made-up and rather silly incantations for six hours, then running outside and rolling in the snow if there is any or else plunging into a fast flowing, freezing cold hillside stream. Then they return to the communal living accommodation, get dressed and go off and do their day jobs.

I tell her about the Arsehole and his antidote to married life, not of course half so novel or extreme as male shared unguent application, but at least as hurtful and wounding.

“Oh. I wasn’t hurt or wounded,” Justine says.

“You weren’t?”

“No. Of course not. I wanted him to leave, the total wimp, the cretin, the walking dick without a brain to make it function successfully. The breast-handling machine with no finesse or refinement.”

“Well,” I laugh, “you can’t blame a bloke for hankering after the odd fondle or fifteen!”

“He could hanker on as far as I’m concerned,” says Justine, “He just never appreciated what a woman wants. You know, really wants?”

I want to ask what exactly that is. Tough love? Rough love? Dogging? I’m not in the least clear what she’s talking about. Perhaps she’ll say outright herself if I leave her to. But just then Ned walks in. Justine visibly bristles. I don’t know why. I mean Ned, though rather short, is a bit over the top aggressive, ultra-masculine hyped-up sort of bloke, though harmless enough, I’ve always thought. He has after all a wife and children who presumably love him. He manages family life, even if he does come over as a bit of a shit in office life. People are like that. Different at home than they are in the workplace.

I mean, I do try myself to seem serious, sensible, professional, a bit hard even, at work, but that’s not how I really am. In fact people have said that I’m very clear thinking, almost ruthlessly logical. This doesn’t tally very well with what I think about myself which is diametrically the exact opposite. On the other hand, a lot of people who’ve expressed this are clients so I’ll allow that maybe I only appear more mentally streamlined regarding work-related matters. Or perhaps it’s entirely relative because the clients are in unfamiliar territory and it only looks as though I’m on the ball.

I’m quite prepared to believe that at home, Ned is a total softie, dotes on his kids, gives his wife regular tremblers, remembers Valentine’s Day and her birthday and their wedding anniversary et cetera. All right, he’s not keen on dykes as he calls them and makes no secret of the fact. Actually, I don’t think it’s prejudice. More that he just can’t imagine why a woman would fancy a woman and isn’t able to stretch to the notion that in the same way that he can’t see why anyone would be attracted to the same sex, gay people naturally can’t get interested in the opposite sex. It’s just not something he can understand.

All the same, I wouldn’t know why that would create antipathy on the part of this Justine who’s only been here five minutes.

Ned nods at us and backs out saying he’ll come and get his coffee later. Justine glares after him as though she could murder him. Then:

“Oh well,” she says looking more relaxed, “it takes all sorts. Do you fancy coming round for a meal one evening. I’ve just got my new flat sorted out and I don’t know many people round here yet. I’m dying to show it off to someone.”

“Oh, that’s really kind,” I respond. I’d more than welcome an evening with another female chewing over the cud of our dissatisfaction with men and life in general, even if her attitude is a bit extreme. “I’d love to.”

We agree on an evening later in the week. I start to look forward to a major Arsehole slagging-off session. I rake over our last few months together and what I know of what he’s done since he left. I haul out and brush up all my grievances and make mental notes of things to raise. I feel sure she’ll be sympathetic.

MEN can be such bastards, especially collectively. When one of the PI lawyers Sheila had a baby a few years ago and came straight back to work, she made no secret of the fact that she expressed milk into the sink in the ladies’ toilets at regular intervals throughout the day to keep up the flow, she said. She didn’t care that the rest of us women saw her doing it. Actually it was quite riveting. We used to time our trips to the loo to coincide with Sheila’s expressing pattern. I would never have realised so much liquid could be produced by a lactating female. There seemed to be gallons of it bucketing out, looking like Jersey goldtop and making the Ladies temporarily smell like a buttery.

And she’s quite a little woman too. I imagined her petite frame containing several tanksful of the stuff with direct pipelines to her nipples. We were all really surprised when she announced she was having a baby. Though small, she’s terribly butch, a rampant feminist and quite fearsome. When referring to men I’ve heard her use the phrase ‘phallic-centric’, though on that occasion she was being polite. Normally it’s words like ‘scrote’, ‘jerk’, ‘retard’, ‘slimebag’, etc. The men used to speculate behind her back that she was a lesbian. To this day, no one knows who the baby’s father is.

What really shocked me though was to hear the men, when they found out about the milk production line going on in their building, referring to her as ‘Ermintrude’ and, when in really silly mode coming back from the pub some Friday lunchtimes, making mooing noises. None of them would have dared to say anything at all to Sheila’s face. They were far too afraid of her for that. Had she had the least idea what was going on behind her back, it would swiftly have been tribunal time for them and the firm as a whole.

OK, so Sheila’s not the sweetest most retiring female solicitor you’re likely to come across and she wasn’t in the least discreet about what she was doing. Nevertheless, in this day and age it seems anachronistic that a woman trying to earn a living and keep her child can’t undertake a simple exercise at work so that she can carry on breastfeeding her child out of office hours without becoming the butt of cruel schoolboy humour. Once or twice they caught me looking at them during such ribaldry and they would put their heads down guiltily for a short time, but then they’d just shrug and start up again. I wonder how those men would feel if it were their own wives who were the subject of such infantile jibes.

This episode I feel is a subject I can raise with Justine at our forthcoming dinner together.

I ARRIVE ON TIME at Justine’s apartment. I press the doorbell labelled with the number of her flat and she buzzes me into the building. When she said new flat, that’s clearly exactly what she meant. It’s a recent development down by the river, tastefully landscaped with a burgeoning business district within easy walking distance including nice restaurants and bars and the like. I see from the outside that the flats have quite large balconies that would catch a lot of sun in the summer. There’s still a big sign up saying there are a few units left and it advertises in large lettering a private gym, health spa and swimming pool.

If I weren’t so hooked on village life, I wouldn’t mind one of these pads myself. As I walk through the lobby, I consider the prospect of getting to know the other residents by means of chats in the ladies changing room, smiles exchanged while swimming healthy lengths of the pool, communal sweating in the sauna trying not to look up men’s towels and attending the gym regularly in skimpy gear. I am of course letting my imagination run away with me.

But I’m up on the third floor by now, nearing Justine’s front door. I’ll have to ask her about the social scene in apartment-land and decide if it’s worth exchanging my rural idyll and all sorts of village activities for a box positioned forty feet above ground and a set of neighbours mostly younger than me who can’t afford anything better, don’t want the bother of a garden to look after, who leave for work in London at six am and don’t arrive back until gone eight pm. That is if they don’t hang around in the smoke after work and go for drinks with colleagues as the Arsehole did (or said he was doing) and think it’s uncool to fraternize with neighbouring flat owners. Too reminiscent of the coffee ads of several decades ago they saw when they were children. Hello. I’ve just moved in next door and I find I’m out of coffee. I used to like the spoof tea one where the man waits in the lounge of the flat while being made a cup of tea, opens the window and the flat owner’s dog or cat charges across the room and leaps out of the window ten floors up. Ha ha. Some explaining to do there.

Justine opens the door just as I’m about to knock and startles me. Well, she is expecting me. As usual I’m miles away. I recover and walk in. We hug and mock kiss as is the trend these days on meeting even if you hardly know someone. I start to move away from her but she hangs on.

“Hmm. Nice perfume,” she says.

“Yes,” I say, “one of the few decent bottles of whiff the Arsehole ever got me.”

“Oh,” she says, “don’t get me started on unsuitable presents.”

And we’re off. Just like that. I follow her along the hall to her living area and she pours me a glass of white wine which I sip as we regale each other with more and more extreme examples of our ex’s worst features and most annoying habits.

“I once,” she says, “had a dog that used to lick its own pecker enthusiastically. But you don’t expect your husband to do that to himself! I used to dream about having him castrated. The ex I mean. I even suggested it once but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

I’m in fits of laughter. “Our old dog when I was a kid,” I say, “used to hump the cushions.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” says Justine. “My ex used to wank off all over our cat. He thought I didn’t know but the cat smelled just awful and spent most of its time cowering under a chair.”

I laugh again but she sounds serious and I am forced to wondering about a man driven to perform in front of the cat and contort himself sufficiently so as to be able to lick his own genitals and what he must have been put through by his wife.

I study Justine as she attacks the stir fry (it’s an open plan sitting/kitchen/dining area) and I do so hope that she’s not a twisted bunny boiler that makes men sink to such low levels and, having dispensed with him, may be inclined to attack and stab the first person to be invited to her new single living accommodation. I start to think who I actually told I was coming here tonight. I’m not sure I told anyone. I look around for things like handcuffs, lengths of stout rope, bolt croppers (for cutting off people’s fingers and possibly men’s other extremities). There’s nothing suspicious and Justine puts the only knife on the kitchen work surface in the dishwasher.

I’m being too fanciful again. After all she came to the firm through a reputable recruitment agency. They must do checks, hopefully DBS checks, for those coming to work for solicitors. And the various quality schemes now almost compulsory for law firms mean that people will have undergone these checks. I had to for the CQS scheme (which includes the Law Society’s CQS protocol, a barely more grown-up version of the Noddy and Big-Ears Toytown Guide How to Transfer a Gingerbread House in Six Easy Stages). As a key member of our conveyancing team, I had to be subjected to checks by Plod to make sure I’m not a criminal who’s going to run off with clients’ cash and I imagine Justine’s department’s staff have had to have similar checks. Though mostly these are confined to crimes of dishonesty I seem to recall. If someone has previously mutilated dinner guests, served several years inside and then got out again, I’m not sure it would show up on the sorts of checks we have to undergo.

I shake off these silly and extreme thoughts while clutching the pepper spray I always keep in my jacket pocket these days after the Ebden Andrews incident.

“Let me take your jacket so you can be more comfortable,” says Justine. Did she see the outline through my pocket of me handling an aerosol? Anyway, just in case I tell her I’ll keep it on for a bit as I’m still warming up after being outside in the cold, it being December, and she seems to accept that.

“So, did you and your husband ever think about having any kids,” I say fishing for information. If they did it must’ve meant they had sex sometimes, at least in their early days together. Though not necessarily these days actually. If me and the Arsehole had gone on much longer, I think it would’ve come to wanking in a beaker as he referred to when he called to press his case for a house sale.

“Nah,” she says, “can’t stand kids, horrible snivelling little brats. My brother’s got one. They only let me visit when the brat’s been sent off to his wife’s mother’s for the weekend.”

“Gosh,” I say. I keep wondering with Justine if she’s suddenly going to start laughing at me for being so gullible as to believe the stuff she comes out with. That it’s all been a massive leg-pull. If so, she gives no indication.

“Anyway, I wouldn’t let him anywhere near my twat,” she’s saying, “not after the first time on honeymoon. No way.” But she doesn’t elaborate.

The dinner is ready and she transports a steaming dish of stir-fried veg and chicken to the dining area. As always I’m famished. The table is glass topped with chrome chairs. The décor is tasteful, the furniture just so, the wall pictures totally in keeping. One wall is covered with a skyline wall mural of London by night. She sees me looking around.

“I bought one of the show flats,” she says, “including all the furniture. My own taste is appalling. There’s even a balcony looking out over the river at the back but it’s obviously too cold at the moment. They’re a load of wankers here. I tried to hang my washing out on the balcony one time and you should’ve heard the volley of complaints. Miserable bastards.”

My dreams of a neighbourly co-existence with the possibility of closer friendships in a set-up like this dissolve instantly. Though, I reflect, it is possible that someone like Justine could easily rub people up the wrong way.

But she’s back on the subject of the much maligned male of the species. “Well I must say it’s nice to meet another man-hater,” she says. I never said I hated men in general, just the Arsehole in particular. I take a helping of the stir-fry hoping that she hasn’t laced it with some deadly substance or just a paralysing agent so that she can do as she will with me later. I don’t want to end up having my body heaved late at night to the conveniently situated river below to be found by dog walkers days later washed up on a beach several miles down the coast.

The stir-fry however is delicious and I open my mouth to ask for the recipe and to commend her on coming up with a one-pot meal. So convenient for singles. But she’s off again.

“The bastard raped me just before I said I wanted to separate from him,” she says.

“But I thought you said earlier that you never let him have full intercourse with you,” I say. “Doesn’t rape involve some penetration?” Or is that adultery? I think. Perhaps it’s both. Briefly I dwell darkly on the Arsehole’s penetration of the Backside.

“Well I thought of it as rape. He tried to get me to wank him off. No bloody way. I wasn’t touching that undersized, over-sensitive excuse for a dick.”

I decide I really don’t like this Justine at all. Luckily there’s no pudding on offer so I should be able to decently take my leave fairly soon.

“I’ll perc the coffee up and we can sit down and relax.” She indicates the sofas in the sitting area. Having had lurid visions of death and mutilation at the hands of Justine, I now fail entirely to apprehend the more obvious possibilities. I accept the coffee. I need some caffeine to counteract the wine before driving back. I know that’s not really how it works, but the alcohol-free half an hour or so it’ll take to get through the coffee should make some difference to my blood-alcohol level. I go and sit on one of the designer leather sofas.

The coffee table has on it a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I wonder idly who actually believes such manufactured stuff. I’ve always operated on the premise that men and women are essentially the same when it comes to basic emotions, that we all have the same tormented hopes and fears, the unresolved childhood issues, the shaky and easily punctured self-esteem. After all, we all mostly had a mother, good or not so good, who gave us our first impressions of love, soft and gentle, or maybe tough. Perhaps Justine’s was tough. Anyway, I think it’s rubbish to postulate even metaphorically that we come from different planets.

And I’ve missed Justine coming over and putting the coffee on the table in front of me and instead of sitting down opposite, taking the seat cushion next to me, up tight against me in fact. Well, from this side there is a nice view over the river to the area on the other side. The curtains haven’t been drawn and through the french windows it’s possible to see the twinkling lights of the town a mile or so away, the lit up steeples of several churches.

Now it’s nearly Christmas, additional strings of coloured illuminations decorate the clock tower of the Town Hall. I sit determinedly gazing ahead knowing that down below on the High Street, similar gaudy sparkling necklaces are strung between lamp-posts stretching the whole length like a festive river, branching off here and there to form glittering be-jewelled tributaries.

I believe that tonight there was going to be a street market and free entry to the Roman castle, possibly various street entertainments, things like jugglers and, if one was really lucky, Morris Men. I love Morris dancers, I think, as Justine places her hand on my thigh. I try to ignore it while wishing that I was down there on the streets taking part in the pagan celebrations of a pagan tradition hi-jacked and made its own by the Christian religion. It’s finally, belatedly and now very obviously dawning on me what this evening is all about. Justine’s hand is warm through my jeans as is her left thigh. Her breath is hot next to my ear. Her tongue is‒

“Would you mind not doing that,” I say reasonably politely.

“Oh, go on,” she says breathily, “you know you’re dying for it.”

“Well actually, no I’m not.”

“Well you’re bloody well going to get it!” she says, mounting and straddling me. She starts a rhythmic grinding away with her pelvis against the crotch of my jeans. It’s actually grossly uncomfortable.

Now if I wanted to end this thing in a tactful way, I could suggest to her that we’d be far more comfortable if we repaired to her bedroom, and then en route grab my bag and coat and get the fuck out of here as she’s rushing to lead me to the hot bed of rug munching. Instead I decide, in fact instinctively, on the more direct approach. As she continues, to my absolute and abiding horror, moaning and crushing herself against me, I draw back my right elbow and let leash a right hook to die for.

“Chew on this!” I say.

As my fist makes firm and satisfying contact with her cheekbone, I see her head ricochet backwards then forwards. I hope at the least I’ve given her whiplash and she can forget about any compensation, the pervert. I hear a satisfying crack. For a second I worry that I might have broken her neck but her eyes are still open as I shove her off me onto the coffee table from which she falls to the floor. And she’s moaning for a different reason now and cradling the side of her face. Hot coffee is all over the table and the developer’s heavy duty beech effect laminate flooring beneath. The earthenware mugs are broken into hundreds of pieces and scattered to the four corners of the room. I take up my bag and jacket and blessedly I escape.

FOR SOME reason, I feel ashamed at what has happened to me. So I got rather drunk when I went out with Dennis. And previously Ebden Andrews had tried to attack me while out running. Then Simmsey had done heaven knows what to my image while I was under the influence of whatever substance he’d applied to get the result he was looking for. But I don’t think he or anyone else that evening had actually directly physically defiled me.

However, this woman who works in my office had actually tried to have sex with me against my will. I can hardly believe it. I feel I must be to blame somehow. For going there at all. I realise this is how rape victims must feel. I mean real rape victims, not those suffering at the hands of misandrists, women who reduce their poor husbands to begging for a hand-job and then call it rape.

I wonder what Justine may say to me the following day. Blessedly, it transpires that she’s not at work. Of course, I start to worry that she died after I left last night as a direct result of my physical intervention into her trying to pleasure herself at my expense. Perhaps I should have gone straight to the police last night after leaving her flat though it hardly seemed necessary at the time. Still, I am a solicitor. I should have thought of the possibility of my having seriously, nay mortally, injured her. It simply didn’t occur to me last night.

I sit and worry all day that her body might not be discovered for days or even weeks. That her disinterested unfriendly neighbours, despite seeing no washing drying on her balcony, won’t make any effort to find out what’s happened to her until the smell becomes overwhelming and/or stale coffee and the products of decomposition start to leak through the floor of her flat and the ceiling of the flat below.

I dwell at some length on how I’d perform as the defendant in a murder trial; whether my having unmanned Ebden Andrews several months before would be trotted out as similar fact evidence. I think of going and asking the criminal partner about the likelihood of my being found guilty and having to spend a decade or so in prison, learning new skills and coming out at the end on early release for good behaviour having written a novel and sewn thousands of mail sacks but too late to ever have any hope of conceiving and giving birth to the child I so long for.

Out of the blue I have a brainwave and decide to ask the HR department if Justine has phoned in sick today. Yes, solicitors do have Human Resources facilities, notwithstanding that ours doubles as the accounts department and includes the various SRA compliance officers, poor harassed individuals who try vainly to make sense of the constant stream of initiatives and mandatory requirements that pour unabated from our regulators whose only purpose in life is to confuse solicitors and keep their jobs.

Turns out Justine did call in. She said she had a suspected fractured jaw and expected to be back next week. This information is imparted in a straightforward manner by HR who don’t appear to think it in the least odd that a female member of staff has managed to have her jaw broken. Perhaps they, too, have noticed how aggressive she is in even normal conversation. I now hope they don’t connect her injury with me as a result of my having gone and enquired about Justine. I’d just as well word didn’t get around that I’ve been in a fist fight, albeit a one-sided one.

I suppress the emerging look of surprise about to flood my face as I was convinced it was her cheekbone I made contact with not her jawbone. Maybe during the course of the fall onto the coffee table and then the floor she knocked her chin. All things considered, that’s a small matter. I try also not to let the relief flood my features and quickly escape back to my small office to add the finishing touches to a Deed of Grant I’ve been putting off all day.

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