The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 14 Justine

I’M AT WORK and frankly glad to be here. Quite a few have turned in today, refugees from the domestic conflicts induced by over-indulgence, beefed up by insecurities and perceived inequities within a family setting and ignited into full-scale rancour by unaccustomed stretches of free time. Basically, for ‘Christmas’ read ‘Light the blue touch paper and stand well back’. But at least I’m not miserable and completely on my own. I’m miserable in the company of other people instead.

I just about got through last night without calling the Samaritans. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low. I cracked open the bottle of Baileys handed to me by my mother as I left, she little realising that it was becoming my ruin of choice during long evenings and nights of bitter contemplation and bouts of self-loathing. At one point in the evening I rallied and decided I should start a new hobby to take my mind off things and occupy my time. Or better still, hobbies. I googled hobbies and opened

Going through the list, they included squash, horse riding and online gaming. These pursuits ring a few bells. Unfortunately negative ones, though I didn’t check to see if the online gaming meant computer games or rather gambling. One of them was to join a band. Now I might well consider that except it isn’t the sort of thing you can rely on to suddenly rescue you just like that from a post-Christmas downer. Like I could phone a helpline and say: “I have quite a good singing voice. Possibly at the deep end of the women’s spectrum but I would say quite passable. I would like to join a band tonight to stop me from contemplating suicide.”

Despite being only thirty-five, I’m not sure I could actually learn new skills right now. Being dumped and being depressed takes it out of you. I feel as though my brain’s slowly been turning to mush this last six months. It’d be great to start a refresher GCSE course in, say, maths or physics. Unfortunately, unless they’ve developed a system that allows knowledge to seep into the grey matter by osmosis, I don’t think I could hack it at the moment.

As the Baileys took hold last night, I thought vaguely of resuming dress-making. I have a few sundry homemade garments hidden away in my wardrobe. I’m sure that given time I could improve. I got as far as looking out my sewing machine from under the stairs and setting it up on the dining table, however the perceived effort of going up into the loft and lugging down the many boxes containing lengths of fabric and patterns, optimistically purchased over a number of years and almost immediately stowed away, defeated me.

About one o’ clock in the morning, I suddenly had what seemed like a brainwave. Of course! The remedy was obvious. Start up my own business. Become rich and self-sufficient. No unrealistic targets to meet imposed by partners needing to pay the kids’ school fees, no acting for clients who become obnoxious. I could tell them where to shove it. Be your own boss! No more being walked over!

In a more optimistic frame of mind, I decided to go to bed and watch TV and/or read with the rest of the Baileys.

Unfortunately One Day has taken a turn for the rather melancholy with one of the characters having gone seriously off the rails. This didn’t especially help me last night in my despondency though it’s still a wonderful novel with vivid characters you can utterly empathise with. I hope nothing really bad happens eventually. If it gets happy again I might just leave it and close the book there with the characters forever suspended in a little bubble of bliss.

CLEARLY, one am wasn’t the best time to make life-changing decisions. Now I’ve dragged myself into the office, I’m looking at a memo from the partners about the difficulties of the year ahead, more regulation expected, the need to get more work in; all the usual stuff, though of course they’re right. That’s what you have to worry about if you’re a boss. You can’t rely on a regular income each month.

This friend of mine Tamsin decided to do just what I was unrealistically dreaming about last night. She became a sole practitioner and opened her own legal practice at home imagining it would be the ideal way to combine motherhood with a career, that it’d be a doddle and that working for herself she’d earn loads of dosh. It turned out nothing could have been further from the truth. She found the work isolating and gruelling and spent a good deal of her time trying to tell the children as nicely as possible on a good day to go and play as she was on the phone to a client or trying to get something urgent done, or on a bad day she’d scream at the kids to go away instead.

She built up a huge body of bulky files that had to be kept for just about ever. When she decided to give it up as a bad job after ten years, it took a considerable amount of time to run her practice down during which she had the same outgoings but a declining income, she had to pay a substantial amount in ‘run-off’ insurance in case of a claim in the next six years and she had several outbuildings full of files in not that great order.

When she and her husband decided to move to the Cotswolds where her husband’s parents had left them a house, a pantechnicon of stored files had to be transported there and somewhere found for the files to be stowed at her new home just in case some vindictive bastard tried to take a pot shot at her through the courts or the Legal Ombudsman’s Office. Without the files her insurers might not have been prepared to accept and deal with a claim.

Tamsin is looking forward to taking all these mouldering old files outside and burning the lot in about another ten years by which time it would hopefully be safe to do so. She says she’ll have a file-burning firework party combined with her son’s twenty first and that I’m invited. We’ll dance around the fire like a couple of old hags screeching incantations against the Law Society and the SRA.

Tamsin is now selling posh handbags online and making a lot more money than she ever did out of her legal practice. And she says that twelve months after each sale she chucks out the paperwork reckoning that there’s a limit to the damage a year-old handbag can cause.

The little bubble of optimism that I built up last night bursts just like that and my mood deepens. It strikes me that you go through life struggling from one hurdle to the next, probably unconsciously most of the time, although you need some obstacles to overcome to maintain a reasonable equilibrium. I spent several years with the Arsehole trying to conceive and, though I didn’t realise it at the time, it kind of dwarfed everything else. I didn’t have time to think about being unhappy beyond the monthly disappointments. Then the hope would start up again until the next time. And the next time. And so on. The point is, it kept me going OK.

Then after the Arsehole’s departure, the anger sustained me for a decent interval coupled with the possibility that my dumb efforts to jinx him and the Backside, mostly it has to be said through thought waves alone, might have borne some results. Thereafter, as I was persuaded to start to cast about for a replacement Arsehole, I was able to believe that there was some hope of a brighter future and it kept me occupied. In fact the disastrous nature of most of the encounters acted as a diversion at least.

Now, these months later, I don’t feel that there’s any hope. I certainly don’t want to attempt to date anyone new. I’ve got nothing to aim for. I can’t see how I can move on but I certainly don’t want to go backwards either. There’s almost no one I’d remotely consider as a candidate for even a casual relationship. And, in the event that the Arsehole wanted to re-unite, there’s no way on earth that I’d agree such a retrograde step, not in a million, billion, trillion years.

I’ve got a hopeless obsession for a man who, when I last saw him, was trying to start something with another woman and I must assume he’s pursuing that now.

So I have nothing. And no one. The other nicest (excuse the grammar) man I’ve met is over twice my age and we both acknowledged that it wouldn’t work, apart from perhaps as a one-night stand. Of course, had I not refused, I might have got pregnant. That would certainly have caused a stir in Baker’s Lane not to mention consternation at one of the properties whose occupants, however much they may yearn for a grandchild, might have drawn the line at their seventy-three-year-old neighbour as the fatherer of the offspring. Even in my wretched state, I sit at my desk today and chuckle at this.

Slightly more upbeat, I consider that I might contact Jeremy some time. He was pretty cool. But can I be bothered? Would it be fair when I know I’d feel lukewarm to indifferent about it? Probably not.

At lunchtime I can’t motivate myself to go out and get anything. I’m sitting languidly at my desk unwinding a paper clip and then winding it up again, repeatedly, when Justine, all sign of facial injuries completely gone, happens by and asks me if I’d like her to get me anything when she’s out. Uh-oh, I think. Ned, arch-purveyor of gossip, has put it about this morning that Justine and Sheila have split up already, hardly surprising when they’re both so butch and aggressive. But she is extending the hand of friendship therefore I don’t want to refuse and, at risk of going back to my bad old comfort-eating days just after the Arsehole left me, I ask for a caramel flavour iced doughnut with custard filling and, in case that’s not enough, a Toffee Crisp and while she’s out, I make a cup of coffee to have with these and take it back to my room.

Justine soon returns with my treats (I don’t see why my mother should be the only one to get regular, or in my case any, treats) and her own lunch and coffee. I gratefully accept them and she walks to the door. Worryingly, instead of going out, she shuts the door. I have to consider that it’s possibly payback time and I brace myself, but she sits down in the chair opposite me. Without preamble, she apologises for her actions the night I went to her flat. I am of course much surprised. I almost automatically start to apologise too for punching her. I stop myself just in time and think, why should I. It was me who was defiled after all.

“I know,” she says, “that I defiled you, or tried to. It’s very difficult when you’re a lesbian like me to know who’s straight and who isn’t. And when someone tells you that it’s quite certain that a colleague is one of us and moreover that she’s currently unattached and that she likes to be taken by force, I thought I’d give it a go at least, you being as attractive as you are.”

“Oh … I … Well.” I frown. “Er, someone told you that about me?”

“Well, yes.”

“Was it Sheila?” She’s the only person I can think of but I’m still frowning to myself because I don’t see why she should say that.

“No. It was someone I used to work with. We have reunions sometimes and when I said where I was working now, she told me about you.”

“So this person is?”

“Her name’s Perdita. At least that’s a pet name she uses. I’m sorry. I had no idea she was your ex’s new squeeze at the time she told me. I know now because I went to a bash at my old firm over the Christmas break and she was there with this man. And when I asked around who he was, it turned out he had your surname and I put two and two together. I’m really sorry.”

I’m flabbergasted.

“Just to be clear we’re talking about the same person, could you describe her,” I say.

“Corporate lawyer. Late twenties. Has an apartment in Docklands. Enormous knockers and the biggest arse you’ve ever set eyes on.”

I sigh. It’s her all right.

“But why did you believe her just like that?”

“Well actually, she and I had a bit of a fling at one time.”

“You mean…?”

“Yes. We sing from the same hymn sheet. Or did. I don’t know if she still does. She might be a hasbian. Or perhaps she likes a bit of both now. Before, you know, our ‘date’, Perdita told me she’d had a relationship with you and that you, you know, liked a bit of rough.”

I gasp. I can hardly believe it. “The lying, manipulative bitch,” I say. Though it’s still so hard to swallow. “OK,” I say, “even so, didn’t you think it was too much of a coincidence, you ending up working at a firm where someone worked who’d supposedly also had a relationship with your old girlfriend?”

“No, not really. No stranger than what did actually happen i.e. me working with my ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend’s wife.”

I suppose this is true.

“Anyway,” continues Justine, “I hoped we could be mates in spite of what happened. I’ve got lots of straight friends. I may hate men, but I usually get on OK with women, whatever their inclination.”

I consider this proposition for a moment; not for long though.

“All right. I think that’s a good plan,” I say and we toast it with our coffee cups.

I feel a bit happier after this. It’s not much to blow away my winter blues. Still, an apology always has a mollifying effect and it’s a brave thing to do. And although I don’t care for her attitude regarding men, she’s now my mate and I won’t hear a word against her. If Ned runs her down, he’ll have me to answer to.

“And by the way,” says Justine before going off to her room, “Perdita apparently gave an old photo of you to some man who was trying to sue you for personal injuries. That’s what she told us at the Christmas do anyway. She said you told her boyfriend about some incident last summer, that she saw some emails about it between you and him and went through all the photos on her boyfriend’s laptop to find the worst one of you and did it for a laugh.”

“That’s awful.” I’m stunned. It must mean she’s been actively keeping tabs on me to know enough about me to have supplied a photo to Ebden Andrews, even though she mustn’t have given him my name. I must suppose she thought it would be less likely to backfire on her if she withheld my identity and probably hers too. It’s pretty creepy actually. It puts my dumb aspirations at spell-weaving well in the shade. In spite of that, I won’t let this get on top of me. She’s obviously a head case.

MY SPIRITS thus buoyed up, I actually manage to get down to some work this afternoon. I take a few calls and speak to some prospective new clients. I’ve noticed a trend recently of men calling who say more or less the same thing, and one of them phones me this afternoon. I give him some figures for what the transaction would be likely to cost and say if he’s interested to just call again or email and he says:

“Oh. I’m just the man.” Then he goes on to say that he’ll have to discuss it with his partner and she’ll decide. As usual, I offer to email the figures and do so. This has happened several times. I’ve been trying to work out whether these men are being serious or not. Several have instructed me to act and I’m still not sure. They say, in effect, that the woman is the bread-winner and that she makes the decisions. Sometimes it turns out that the man does actually have a job himself and, as things progress, he comes over as a confident man, the sort of man who could say “I’m just the man,” but not really mean “I’m the subservient one in this relationship.” I suppose it’s a power thing. He says he’s just the man, but what he really means is: I may not earn as much money as her, but she’s dependent on me in hundreds of different, not necessarily material, ways.

I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s probably simpler when the man is the main or equal income earner then you don’t have to have these little power struggles. Each party is dependent on the other for all sorts of things as is normal. No need to start to try to apportion it.

Just before leaving time, Justine drops by my room and asks me what I’m doing for New Year’s Eve, which is the next day. I’ve had a couple of invites but I haven’t decided where or whether to go. In view of my recent doldrums, I might possibly just mope at home. I don’t know yet. Justine says she wants to go extreme underground night-time orienteering. This means nothing to me. She says the person she was going to do this with has blown her out. She’d like to do it but it means finding another partner. It’s a rule that you can’t do it on your own.

I turn the phrase over in my mind. Extreme sounds a bit violent. If you go mountain biking say, then extreme mountain biking is like ten times rougher and more difficult. Underground? I assume this means potholing or similar. I can’t think of any deep caves around here. This is more or less East Anglia for God’s sake. It’s flat and boring. We’d probably have to go to Wales or Scotland or at least Yorkshire to find caves.

Orienteering I’ve heard of. What I can’t make out is how they can be stopped from using GPS on the sly. No doubt it’s against the rules but you couldn’t drug test for it and I assume that the participants couldn’t legitimately be subjected to a strip search before and after and at regular intervals during such an event. Perhaps they get tagged with devices that tell if they’re using TomToms or the like. Or maybe the battery life of such devices is against it. I don’t know. Or perhaps orienteerers are simply the most honest individuals in the whole world. Not so likely.

“Why don’t we go for a drink down the Queen Mary and I’ll tell you all about it,” says Justine.

The Queen Mary is the pub frequented by all the gays in the town, male and female. Why not. I’m not bigoted.

“OK. I’ll stand you a pint,” I say.

“Actually, I’m more of a Martini and lemonade freak myself, ” she says unexpectedly, “but yes that’d be great.”

So we get our thick winter coats and repair to the Queen Mary.

As we settle into an alcove, I ask her about the potholing. I can’t think of any around here.

“What’s potholing got to do with it?” she says.

“You said underground. I assumed potholes. Or caves or something.”

“No,” she laughs. “Underground doesn’t mean subterranean. It means illegal. As in underground rave.”

I’ve never been to an illegal or underground rave. Still, Justine is at least six years younger than me. In fact, about the same age as the Backside, which figures.

“Hmm. Illegal how?”

“You know. Places you’re not supposed to go. Like private property and firing ranges. Atomic power facilities, old mine fields, wolf enclosures. That sort of thing. Tomorrow’s all about crumbling cliff faces. Plus possibly some unstable ground. And a few swims across prohibited reservoirs and weirs.”

I sit there looking at her, not knowing what to say. She’s cool as anything. Not a spike of hair out of place. Her leather jacket unzipped with the collar up round her neck. One leg is crossed over the other so that one Doc Marten is on the floor and the other is up level with her thigh. Her thighs, in her skinny jeans, look taut and muscular.

“I mean,” I say, “it sounds dangerous.”

“Oh yes. That’s the point.”

“How far away?” I say.

“I’m not entirely sure. It usually starts near the coast somewhere or possibly on an estuary. We’ll be given a compass, we’ll have any mobile phone or similar devices removed. We’re given a compass bearing that we have to stick to and we have to go in that direction, whatever obstacles we come across. We have a tracker strapped to us so that they know we stuck to the route we were given. And we end up on a beach where we’ll have a bonfire and a barbeque and some dancing. Every pair starts somewhere different and we all end at the same point.”

“But,” I say, “without a mobile phone or anything, we couldn’t ring to get help if we’re hurt or something goes wrong or…” I stop there not knowing what other example to raise.

“That’s right,” says Justine, knocking back her Martini.

“But if it’s dangerous, what happens if anyone’s injured? Or … well … dies.”

“We all disclaim any knowledge. We weren’t there.”

“What about forensics these days? They can detect almost anything.”

“Well, sea and weir water washes most of it away. And on land, a lot of stuff is very difficult to detect.”

“Actually I didn’t really mean how would we get out of it. Any liability. I meant … well … what if I, say, actually died?”

“Same thing. We’d deny any knowledge.”

This is most reassuring.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I say. “Can I phone you later? Can you email me some information in the meantime so I can be looking at it?”

“You’re joking of course. There’s no way I can create an electronic trail about this. As I said, it’s the orienteering equivalent of an illegal rave.”

Just a hundred times more dangerous, I think to myself.

“But where is it then?”

“If you decide to come, we’ll find out when we get there. Call me.”

“OK,” I say with a frown. We get up and leave the pub. As we walk back to the office car park, she turns to me:

“Oh. And it costs a hundred and fifty quid to take part. Cash only. Used notes.”

One-fifty, I think, to risk death or serious injury.

Daring isn’t very obviously my middle name, but I can feel the adrenaline start pumping, my body coming properly alive. In the mists of my imagination, fuzzy visions float before me of a quagmire, narrowly missing quick sands, diving into a freezing pool and being pulled under by eddies and hidden currents, standing on the edge of a hanging cliff with previously fallen sections littering the beach below. Of a hearty companionable fried breakfast on a beach at the end of it, loud heavy metal pumping out of a Volkswagon campervan, toasting our collective good fortune to have survived the night’s ordeal.

Justine goes to her car, waves and gets in. Suddenly I break into a trot and she winds her window down.

“You’re on!” I say. “What sort of clothes should I wear.”

“Warm, waterproof. Sturdy footwear. That sort of thing. Thermals would be good. Bring them to work. We’ll go straight from work. And bring some more to change into for the barbeque. If we have to sleep on the beach, the organisers’ll sort out tents and sleeping bags etc. You’ll love it.”

I walk away from her car. “Oh, by the way,” she yells at me, “there’s a prize for the first one to reach the destination.” She laughs. “They’re usually a competitive lot. Don’t be surprised if anyone tries to impede us during this event. I mean, seriously impede.” She drives off.

Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. Still, a bit of rivalry, counteraction, is no bad thing. And we can give as good as we get presumably. I think of my unmanning of Ebden Andrews and my defence of my female honour resulting in Justine’s damaged jaw. I’m convinced I can overcome any normal reasonable opposition.

But I don’t suppose that it’ll be outright warfare.

I GO home with my brain reeling. I’m sure this will be the best New Year’s Eve ever. Like last night I don’t sleep well, though not because of despondency. I’m so excited. I get up at midnight and pack a rucksack with all the necessary stuff and only after that can I fall into a slumber. I sleep like a baby until seven-forty when I wake up and then have to rush around getting ready for work. The rucksack sits on the floor of my kitchen. One or two doubts try to force their way into my brain. They are swept aside by the sheer excitement of the prospect of running through the night like a wild animal, overcoming danger and opposition. Being exhilarated rather than afraid.

I leave my rucksack in the car. I smile at Justine who arrives in the front office about the same time as me. She winks back at me and scowls at Ned who is chatting up the office junior, Posy. He raises an eyebrow and looks at Posy in an ‘I always knew it’ way. I don’t care what he thinks. I’m on a mish tonight. I’m going to overcome the elements, brave the dark and the cold, mamba-like I’m going to slither unnoticed through the grass and take out opponents as necessary. If my partner gets into trouble, I’ll defend her to the death. Well, as far as humanly possible anyway. I shall in any event enjoy myself tonight. I just know it.

EVERYONE knocks off early. Although only half the staff are in, there’s an air of anticipation about the place. A new year is approaching, it’s a Bank Holiday on Monday making it a long weekend which always cheers people up and everyone’s going out tonight. Unless you count Sheila who skulks furtively in the ladies.

“You going anywhere nice tonight Sheila?” I say to her.

“No fear,” she says.

“Everything all right?” I ask.

“Well I hope so. Don’t tell anyone, but I want a little sister or brother for Samson. And I’m having to take my temperature every thirty minutes to choose the best time to shoot up.” She pats a rather large bum-bag round her waist.

“Oh,” I say.

“Yes. Wherever I am, when the time’s right I have to be able to inject life’s essence into my reproductive organs to start things moving.”

It’s a little off-putting to think that she obviously has some man’s semen stashed in her bag. I wonder where she got it from. Hopefully it’s securely sealed in and won’t burst open and squirt all over the lavatory floor at an inopportune moment.

“Well,” I say, “you’re lucky if you’ve got anything to get moving. I’m not sure I have!”

Sheila looks at me. I don’t think I’ve ever figured with her previously but now she’s taking an interest in me.

“Well, don’t give up on yourself,” she says, “it might have been him not you. And some yins and yangs just don’t go together anyway.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a yang to connect to my yin at the moment but thanks all the same.”

She watches me as I walk out of the washroom. I ignore her. Tonight I’ve decided I’m going to have fun and nothing can divert me from that.

OUT IN the carpark, Justine tells me to follow her. This is it, I think. Instead, she stops off at her apartment building and we have to cart our rucksacks into the ladies changing room on the ground floor and climb into our warm outer wear ready for the adventure. I can hardly get the toggles of my skiing jacket done up, I’m so excited. Justine looks with interest at the sleeve of my jacket. It has a Recco Rescue System device sown into a pocket on the outside. It’s so you can get located in the snow in the event of an avalanche or accident or some other disaster.

“That might prove useful,” she says. I agree, while recalling vaguely that it’s actually only ski resorts and mountain rescue teams who use detectors that send out a search signal. Still, it can’t do any harm and I don’t want to put a dampener on things. Anyway, I hope we won’t need it. She carries on: “But they wouldn’t start looking for us until the event’s finished and we’re late arriving at the target.”

“How late exactly?”

“A couple of hours probably. When the barbeque finishes and they want to start taking everyone back to the rendezvous point.”

Oh, is that all? Just long enough to be overcome by exposure and die of one’s injuries.

We leave before the heat from the nearby sauna becomes too oppressive in our padded anoraks and I follow Justine in my car.

It’s a nice moonlit night I notice for the first time. I hope this will help.

HAVING driven about twenty miles from Justine’s building to the rendezvous point which, worryingly, was totally deserted and dark apart from the moonlight, we are now in a minibus which is bumping along quite quickly. Whatever route it’s taking, the road is obviously in need of maintenance. I assume it must be back roads; that the council haven’t got the money to fill in the potholes.

Said minibus roared up within half a minute of our arrival. Some black-clad men wearing balaclavas jumped out and between them they hauled us unceremoniously out of our cars. They wasted no time palming our cash. I had plundered the Arsehole’s stash again and checked that the notes were indeed used. No chance that sequential numbers will lead to and identify the organisers. They grabbed our rucksacks and checked through them, took our car keys to the vehicle, blindfolded us and then frisked us very thoroughly and our mobiles were removed. They didn’t even speak to ask for the mobiles, they just found them and confiscated them. However, I have several kitchen knives secreted about my person, for purely defensive purposes of course, which they must’ve noticed but which they ignored. Should I be relieved or worried by this?

We were led to our seats in the transport. They didn’t help us much and still remained silent therefore I have bruised shins already from bumping into the steps of the minibus. To top it all, they tied my feet together, and my hands, though oddly they applied the safety belt after pushing me down onto the seat. It seemed an odd thing to do as we’re going to take part in an illegal and probably dangerous exercise but maybe they simply don’t want people falling all over the minibus causing them extra effort. I have been trying to work out which way we’ve gone and which way we’re going but it’s proved impossible and I have no idea where we are.

I could vaguely make out others already in the minibus when it arrived and now hear low mumbling. I can’t tell what they’re saying or whether they’re male or female, young or old. I think Justine is next to me so I lean towards her and whisper:

“Do you know those men who came and put us in here?”

“What made you think they were men?”

“Well I … just assumed. They looked … big.”

“You shouldn’t stereotype.” She sounds a bit aggressive. A bit pumped up. I wonder if she’s taken something. I know better than to let her bully me, so I ask again if she knew the people ‒ I assume they were human beings at least ‒ who dragged us onto this vehicle.

“No,” she says.

“Right,” I say. “Thanks anyway.”

“You’re welcome.”

Then a voice rings out, a male voice. “I need to take a slash.” The pace of the minibus doesn’t slow and there’s no apparent response from the driver or any of his/her associates.

“Piss off and wait,” says a male voice, another passenger. I tend to agree with him. I want to get this journey into the unknown over with, get out into the night air and find out what hazards await us. If there are any other girls on board, they have the sense to keep schtum.

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