Excerpt from My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown (Canongate - April 2014)
On the last day of what I kept telling myself was a happy month, I woke up alone.
I could hear children laughing outside on the estate. The block of flats Sarah and I lived in was built around a grass square and from our bedroom window I watched a boy with an Afro kick a football to a dog who was as big to him as a horse was to me. The dog scrambled over the ball and executed a perfect Cruyff turn, accelerating away to leap up at a young girl on a pink scooter.
Ben, you big tit, you’ve knocked Tasha over. Eric, next door, leaning out of his kitchen window. I had lived here for eighteen months with Sarah and I loved the place. Sarah was giving the keys back to the landlord tomorrow and I was flying to Buenos Aires in the afternoon. The flights we’d booked were non-refundable and still valid. Even now, eight hours before take-off, I hoped I could persuade Sarah to relent and come with me.
Sarah. I found her downstairs at the kitchen table, her head in her hands, looking from a slant at the same view I’d seen from our bedroom. It was Saturday, a spring morning, a day obscene with promise. Sarah turned from the window and looked at me.
I can see her face now, project it onto the white piece of paper I’m staring at. The wisdom is that I screw that face up in a ball and throw it in the bin. The wisdom is that I accept I made such a mess of things that she will never let me make things right. The wisdom is to draw a moustache on her and persuade myself it was all her fault, that I was mistaken about my love for her. Oh, the wisdom. The blunt realism. How do people live that way?
I took a deep breath and once again tried to make my case to her.
There is something you may have heard about me, the reason why some of my old colleagues won’t speak to me any more. That wasn’t why Sarah was leaving me – indeed, she left me on the morning before the night the other catastrophe happened, and she came back two days later because of it. That was the best bit about falling apart: it persuaded her to come back to hold me together. There wasn’t anyone else who could have, and Sarah still cared enough to want me in one piece. The only other person I wanted to speak to was my former boss and closest male friend, James Cockburn, but he was in hospital with two broken legs and a dead mobile number. Under the terms of the settlement I had signed I was not supposed to contact him or any of my former colleagues. That was mostly fine. I had surrendered my own phone to the police as evidence and I used this as another excuse not to confront my shame through other people’s eyes.
Sarah came back and, to begin with, something incredible happened: we fell completely in love again. Now our time was finite, we decided to make it last for ever. We saw in each other’s faces what we used to talk about when we talked about love, we pinned down the word to describe this purity of feeling and intent. It was not a lie invented by poets, and if it was, who cared, it was the best lie they ever told. Love: at this late hour, you could still fall in.
For the rest of the month we drank and went to galleries, we took ecstasy and danced, we went to bed after ambitious dinners and expensive wines and lay on the sofa under a duvet with hangovers and high-quality HBO drama on DVD. But it was a paradise only made possible by its expiry date. This last month with Sarah had begun with us giving a month’s notice on the flat and with Sarah deciding she was not coming to Argentina on the holiday we had booked to visit her oldest friend Lizzie. I didn’t want to go without her but she made clear that was irrelevant. My boarding the plane was the condition of her staying with me until I did. We talked about Buenos Aires as the ideal place to write the novel I had always talked about: cheap, literary, atmospheric (we presumed). And haunted too, by a man I had watched die. You know of course who I am talking about. I had known the famous novelist for only ten hours but I would not let myself forget him or pretend it was not my fault he was dead. Ten hours, whatever others might say, is long enough to come to love a man. In Buenos Aires, where he had written his first novel, I hoped I could wrap myself in his experience and write mine. It was the only plot I could come up with, an escape and a penance rolled into one, and Sarah called my bluff and decided it was the answer to her problems too. My going alone would give her time to think things through without me. She might join me later; we would ‘have to see’. We closed our eyes because we did not want to see what scared us, though it could still see us.
Four weeks we had, twenty-eight mornings when I woke with her next to me again. It was like plunging into water from a great height and swimming to the surface to gasp for air. To be alive and know how nearly we weren’t.
I wanted to remember this feeling when I was gone from her, so I would never be complacent again – but I didn’t kid myself there weren’t equal and more alluring devotions in store for me. Good intentions? I’d had those before.
‘Liam, please,’ Sarah said, forcing a smile and cutting me off. ‘It’s our last morning together for a while. Let’s just have some breakfast.’
I wasn’t hungry but at least the ritual of making breakfast was something I could do for her. I moved towards the fridge. On the top of it was a delicately curved pot painted with intricate patterns by an ex-boyfriend of Sarah’s from Brazil. Sarah worked in the art world, curating small shows and finishing a PhD, and our flat doubled as a gallery displaying the works of Sarah’s previous boyfriends and current suitors. She referred to the current suitors, with less suspicion than me, as ‘friends’.
‘Why don’t I make breakfast for once?’ Sarah said, jumping up.
‘It’s all right,’ I said, picking up a box of eggs.
‘I want to do it. I’d been planning to. It will be nice. A farewell breakfast.’
‘I mean, bon voyage.’
‘I think you mean fuck off.’
Her eyes narrowed at me.
‘Sorry, I’m joking.’ I put my hands up in surrender and sat down at the table. ‘One fuck-off breakfast and a cup of tea, please.’
Behind her on the wall was a colourful mural. There was a lot going on: helicopters, skeletons, marijuana leaves, bare breasts, men with moustaches, manacles, rifles, horses, stars-and-stripes on fire. I would be in a different continent tomorrow, one where my dead friend had written his first novel and fallen in love.
‘How much space do you think you have to joke right now?’ Sarah asked me. ‘Because it’s not as much as you think.’
The famous novelist I watched die has a name, one which to this day deters me from entering bookshops. It will be obvious that I am talking about Craig Bennett, though when I tell my story for the first time he is always the famous novelist. It adds ironic distance to the story that was not there, is not there, but is essential to the way I semi-survive these days. He haunts me you see, that lovely, corrupt man. In newspaper articles; in marketing emails from Amazon; A0-sized, six feet high on train platforms. I do well making light of it. He survives in his words, say the idiot fans, the ones you hear on Radio 4 saying, of course, Buenos Aires was the biggest character in his debut. Don’t get me started on that type of idiocy. He survives in his words. For me he continues to die. I made sure of that.
The end of my night with Craig was horror, pure and simple. And it was my fault.
* * *
While Sarah made an omelette and I kept quiet I saw there was an opened envelope on the table, stamped Universidade de Sao Paulo. Sarah had been interviewed two weeks earlier on Skype for a job teaching a course there over the summer (their winter, hotter than our summer).
She put down our plates of food and saw what I was looking at. ‘I got the job,’ she said.
‘Congratulations. That’s really great. I really mean that. When do you start?’
‘I haven’t worked out yet if I’ll take it.’
‘That’s really really great – what, really? You won’t take it?’
‘My deadline for my PhD’s this year and . . .’
‘Stop saying really. You don’t know what really means. Anyway, I probably should take it. It’s only for six weeks and I could use their library for some stuff it’s hard to get over here.’
‘When does it start?’
‘Oh, er, not for a couple of months.’
‘We wouldn’t be that far away then, would we?’ I suggested.
‘Quite a distance.’
‘Same continent, though.’
‘Sort of from here to Moscow.’
‘Just round the corner. I could pop over for a weekend.’
‘Flights would be expensive. I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves.’
She was wearing pyjama bottoms and a vest top and I leaned down and put my head against her neck, smelling her hair, cheap shampoo and carpet static, feeling the warmth of her skin, the shape of the line from her cheek to her shoulder. She was unique in a way I could never truthfully express. The idea of chemistry we rationalise in conversation is chaotic in sensation. I was infatuated. It was the sound of her voice on the telephone, the absence of her body in the clothes hanging up in the wardrobe, spread out upon the floor. The way she walked down the street when she didn’t know I was looking at her. It was true. She made me want to skip. I had made her believe that my love for her was perfect and never contradicted by other impulses. Isn’t this the lie that is expected of us? Isn’t this the lie we believe in ourselves? And for me, it could never for any other woman have been closer to the truth.
‘Sarah,’ I said, ‘please, you have to believe me.’
It took two weeks from Craig Bennett’s death for the funeral to be rearranged, but in the meeting in which I had agreed to resign in exchange for six months’ salary, my CEO Belinda Wardour made it a condition of the deal that I would not come to the funeral.
The distraction of Bennett’s editor having mysteriously fallen from a window the night before delayed journalists from seizing on my involvement. James Cockburn, the flamboyant publishing director for fiction at Eliot, Quinn, was a minor media celebrity in his own right, and the rumours suggested his broken legs were a result of Bennett having pushed him. The hypotheses were irresistible.
None of the few people who knew about my role in Bennett’s death spoke out. I was to disappear. So, ‘resigning to focus on my writing’, I received my pay-off with a contract that prohibited me from speaking to the media or publishing anything about Craig Bennett. Belinda, in the Bookseller’s ‘Moves’ section, delivered the quote-de-grâce: ‘It’s disappointing to have Liam leave so soon after he arrived, but he’s decided his career is not in publishing and we wish him all the best.’
It looked then like we had got away with it.
Cockburn was still in hospital. The man who gave me my job, my mentor, a role model. (He’s a whole other chapter, a bloody novella.) He sent his own quote for the papers from his bed.
I deeply grieve the loss of our friend Craig Bennett. He was one of the most charming, generous men we will ever know, and the fact that hundreds of thousands if not millions of us feel like we did know him is a testimony to his extraordinary writing. I can’t accept that I will never read a new book by him again, although many of his millions of readers who have not yet read his frank, acerbic and incredibly moving memoir Juice will be able to when it is published in mass market paperback in June this year. A fearsomely honest, original writer, we may never see his like again.
Rumours in the press make it important to clarify something: when I last saw him, the night before he died, before I drunkenly defenestrated myself at a party, we were the best of friends. It is rare in what has become sometimes a sterile publishing industry that writers’ lives are as fascinating as Craig’s, or their personalities as dramatic or exaggerated, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that such a born storyteller should spawn some shaggy-dog tales about his final hours. If Craig can see us now – I won’t say he’s exactly laughing – he’d be too annoyed about not being alive, but I know –
* * *
I couldn’t read any more of it, and avoided the papers for the rest of the month. It wasn’t the only subject I was avoiding; it became much harder for Sarah and me to pretend we were happy as our last month together wore on. Our smiles stuck as we tried to think of something to say to each other that wasn’t the thing we needed and refused to speak of. But as my flight approached, the panic overwhelmed me and I began to break the terms of our truce.
Sarah had finished eating and was staring out of the window again, watching the children play. Yes, we had imagined that too. She turned and looked at me.
‘Please stop, Liam. I’ve listened. We did this at the time. We’ve done it since. There’s nothing you can say to make things better. Perhaps being apart will work, I don’t know. Just please, for now, stop talking.’
The worst thing about those words was how calm and placatory she was when she said them. Everything was not going to be all right, but she stood and came towards me and we kissed like love was simple, and then, for what I hope was not the last time, she led me upstairs back to bed.
If I never get Sarah back, if I ever stop trying to, I wonder how long it will take me before I am unable to recall the exact detail of her face, the sound of her voice, the way she moves. It would be romantic to say that she will never leave me, that I will see her looking back at me whenever I close my eyes. Oh, don’t worry: I have said this to her.
Sarah is beautiful, though she’s not so pretty you would fall in love with her from a photo. She’s not the type of girl to practise how to come across best in 2D, and this was one of the things I liked least about her, her carelessness, her lack of artifice; it was not natural. Perhaps this is what love consists of: simultaneous repulsion and attraction to a feature of the beloved. I loved and hated that she was different to me, and because I didn’t realise this I spent my time trying to correct the things I liked least about her that were in fact the things I liked the most.
There are physical similarities between us. Her eyes are brown, mine blue, though we have the same brown hair, hers falling in curls to her shoulders, her superb shoulders, two of the only things that can distract me from her legs. It is not that her legs are the type you see on the front of tights-packets or on teenage models in Sunday supplements, they’re not as long as these, less exercised or less starved, no less the better for it, the legs I wrote poetry and cooked dinner for and lay between, the legs I watched to the detriment of road safety when we rode bikes together. They were her legs. I don’t care if they make me objectify her: she was here! She was once here! So close I could touch her.
I had been best friends with Sarah for many years before we got together, though from the very first day I met her it had been an ambitious friendship. I had wanted her, and I had always wished she would split up with whichever boyfriend she had at the time. If it was not an innocent friendship I began with Sarah, when I sat next to her and listened to her voice rise and fall, when I laughed involuntarily at her stories and character assessments, when I plotted our adventures together, our happy ending, then there was nothing corrupt in it either. It was never the right time for us: I was not as forceful then as I have been since, and she either had an unsuitable boyfriend or I had an unsuitable girlfriend and we were never in the same place long enough to make the unsuitability incontestable. Sarah couldn’t hold a job then (and perhaps now) for more than a year before she was bored and off somewhere – Korea, Brazil, India – to do another job and learn another language from another exotic boyfriend. These were years in which I could forget her except as a wistfulness, the warm promise of a distant reunion; make me happy, but not yet. I began to enjoy myself.
It was in the gap between one of Sarah’s disappearances that I finally confessed how I felt to her. I had been single for a year, but she had a boyfriend back in Brazil, an artisan potter (they were always people with extraordinary occupations), and in her laidback way she assumed they’d stay together without being able to articulate how. In the meantime she had moved to Edinburgh for a job at the National Museum of Scotland, and invited me up to stay for a long weekend. It began on Thursday in a pub near her flat in Leith, one you reached by walking down a narrow street lined with prostitutes. We played a game – I can’t remember who started it – categorising all our mutual friends by whether or not we wanted to sleep with them. I was delighted at how many people she didn’t want to sleep with. Perhaps I lied a bit to suggest my tastes were less catholic than they are. And then we could no longer avoid it.
Yes, she admitted, with almost entirely disguised shyness, she would.
Yes, I admitted, rapturously, I would, I would, I would.
The next day we climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat and stood braced against each other as the wind tried to tear us off. On the way down her feet slipped and I caught her under the arms. She turned and looked at me incredulously, as if she hadn’t noticed I had been with her until that moment. I had to say something but I couldn’t.
She never had the right clothes for the country she was living in. That day she was wearing a summer dress with shiny black tights and flimsy canvas shoes – a thick blanket of a woollen overcoat on the top donated by one of her new colleagues after she had arrived to work two days in a row in a soggy denim jacket. The cold rain began to hammer down as we reached the bottom and she was soon sodden. We took refuge in a pub. She had stolen a lipstick that morning from Superdrug and came back with cherry-pink lips and soaking hair. Her lips were so bright they seemed to belong to another dimension. She was wonderfully disorganised in the way she assembled herself and I expect she will always be like this. I hope so.
I couldn’t take my eyes from her. Something was going to happen, something was so obviously going to happen that I felt on the verge of being sick in case it didn’t. In the end it was the word itself, unspoken for so long, that brought us together. That evening she had taken us to an ecstasy dealer’s tenement flat and later, in a basement dive bar, dancing to house music, I had put my hands on her shoulders and said it: ‘I love you.’ It was the kind of thing you said on an E, but not in that tone. We knew what it meant. Its inevitability stunned her. She took a step backwards and smiled a smile that was without guilt, despite the boyfriend she would have to get rid of in the next month, and we kissed our first kiss.
We lay on her bed when we got home and she swam into a sharp new focus. She tied her hair back and I realised I had never seen her ears. They seemed enormous. She was suddenly a completely different person; her voice sounded more clipped than I remembered and I could imagine her playing hockey; she was a middle-class girl from the home counties, with a mother, a father, a brother and a sister; she owned and wore pyjamas; she thought her knees looked funny, her gorgeous knees pressed up against my jeans. It was fascinating to see her awkward, wondering if I should stay; she wanted me to, but she was a nice girl, a nice girl who shoplifted, and we decided we should take it slow.
I already had everything I thought I could ever need from her. She liked me, and I was lost.
Before I got up to go back to the sofa, I said something clichéd and untrue. ‘From the start, it was always meant to be you and me.’
We lay there looking at each other, our bodies at right angles, our faces side-on, curious.
‘I didn’t know you felt like that,’ she said.
‘No, I knew!’ She laughed and we looked at each other some more.
‘You’re not making any move to kiss me,’ she said.
‘I’m keeping still. I’m scared I might startle you.’
‘Just approach slowly. No sudden movements.’
I stayed where I was and carried on looking.
Her prominent ears. Her funny knees. Her hungry smile.
My life together with Sarah finally ended with a long Tube ride to Heathrow that afternoon. We hugged each other through a pole in the packed carriage. We couldn’t get the right angle to kiss. She still wouldn’t meet my eyes. The day before I had borrowed a shopping trolley from a supermarket to haul boxes of my books to the nearest charity shop. I didn’t even approve of giving books to charity – the publishing industry seemed in need of enough charity itself. But what was I supposed to do, bin them? I didn’t have such a strong stomach. The ones I couldn’t bear to give away I had placed, three boxes full, with my aunt. My friends had enough trouble finding space for their own books in their tiny London flats. Sarah’s parents were coming round the next day to collect her stuff and she was going to live with them for a couple of weeks while she decided what to do.
We arrived at Heathrow and as we queued on the concourse to check in Sarah told me once again how much fun I was going to have. I put my hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. For once, she looked back at me. ‘Please, Sarah, I don’t want to go without you.’
‘I’m moving home tomorrow,’ she said, looking away. ‘I’m twenty-nine and I’m moving home. I’ve got you to thank for that. If you don’t get on this plane, what are you going to do? Where will you go? My parents certainly don’t want to see you.’
We didn’t talk about her confession to her mother that I had lied to her, or about her father’s reluctant proposition then to beat me up. Her father and I had always enjoyed talking to each other. I wanted to ring him up and offer to help him kick the crap out of me.
‘Sarah, I love you. We’re supposed to be together.’
‘It’s just words, Liam. You’re just words. And not even very original ones. I can’t believe in them any more.’
‘I’m not a liar, I told you the –’
‘If you begin that again I promise that I will scream.’
‘Oh, please. We’re not simple people. We don’t have to obey a soap-opera’s sense of justice.’
‘I will scream and I will walk away and any slender chance we have of staying together will be gone.’
I was crying by now. Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, assume I’m always crying.
‘And stop pronouncing those tears.’
‘Is it that slender?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said.
I turned back after I had my ticket and passport checked on my way to the departure gate. She was still there watching me. We reflected each other across five years. There aren’t many looks in a lifetime like the one she gave me. You couldn’t survive more than a few. She waved. I waved. She mouthed three words to me. ‘I love you.’ Or, ‘Bye bye, Liam.’ I could not be sure and mouthed three words back and she turned and walked away. She turned back once, she turned back twice and I waited for her to turn back again but that was all. Bye bye, Sarah.