Death of a Ladies’ Man
By Christiana Spens.
1. London 2011
“Well it looks like suicide, and yet, knowing Adrian, it really doesn’t look like suicide. They’re trying to trace the girls involved, if girls were involved, and almost certainly they were.”
“How embarrassing, for a tragedy.”
“Only had himself to blame, of course.”
“That’s an awful thing to say.”
Sarah didn’t feel awful about it, shrugged: “All I meant was — he’d been warned often enough. Everyone wanted him to get better. No one wanted it to end this way.”
“Least of all his family.”
“Exactly. It was irresponsible of him. He could have ended things — differently.”
“More civilised, you mean?” Sarah nodded, and Dara went on: “— A simple overdose, or a car crash, or just a quiet disappearance.”
“Well yes, although, really — well, living would have been the best option. Continuing to live. I suppose.” Sarah replied.
“Not a departing sex scandal for everyone to remember him by. The image of a hanging, of an angel’s kiss — a hotel room.”
“It might have worked if he’d been an actor, or a musician. But being a politician just makes it all seem just too sleazy. Tabloid fodder. A new low.”
“Not really a new low.” Dara replied.
“Do you think?”
“He’d been at it for years, Sarah.”
“Oh how awful for Lily.”
“She’d been ignoring it for years.”
“Oh how awful for the children.”
“They’ve been in therapy for years.”
“What a mess.”
“Well at least he was consistent.” Dara replied. “He never changed, all the years that I knew him.”
“Is that really a good thing?”
“Well sometimes it’s comforting, when people don’t change. And he never changed at all. At Cambridge he was always doing this sort of thing.”
“No, just the general mess. The tired scandals. The sleazy ends.”
“Not ends in those days, of course.”
“You’re right. They were only his sleazy beginnings.”
2. Cambridge, 1984 – Easter Term
The doctors and nurses at Addenbrooke’s were quite used to drunken students, their broken bones, and even their attempted suicides weren’t particularly surprising — rather they were unfortunate dramas that sometimes ended up there, usually in January or February or, as now, just after exams. Though the doctors were not stirred from their detachment, Adrian found the whole situation irresistibly dramatic, as he waited for his chance encounter to have her stomach pumped, and at the back of his mind, to explain herself, too. The Politics papers were not that difficult this year, he thought to himself, with an air of smugness, as he drank weak tea in the waiting room. And yet he knew as well as she did, that the rest of it could be a little hard sometimes. He didn’t usually meet people who took it so seriously, or admitted to it, though.
“Don’t tell anyone.” Lily demanded, faint and detached, when she eventually came round. Adrian realised that she wouldn’t after all admit it, even as she lay in hospital with it written on a clipboard at the end of her bed. Though a few hours ago she was quite happy to end it all, now, given the failure of that plan, she felt compelled at least to resurrect her pride, if not her will to live as such. Adrian pretended to understand:
“Of course I won’t.” He smiled, and she smiled back to be polite, then looked away, a little relieved at her own incompetence, and a little guilty. Her mother always used to criticize her for being so melodramatic. She closed her eyes, giving in to a sense of exhaustion and surrealism that was new to her, detached by a brief state of unconsciousness from all that came before it. Though her memory was clear, she could not recognize herself anymore: just meaningless flickers of past information. She remembered May Week, and trying to enjoy it, and failing worse each night, and the scattered, vague decisions that led to a hospital bed. It all seemed quite ridiculous, now. Another overreaction. Another mistake. Too much drama. A few Valium would probably have been enough. Thirty was a little excessive.
She opened her eyes and looked up at Adrian, whom she sensed was looking at her the whole time she was resting. She could tell he liked her, and sincerely wondered why anyone would like anyone in this state. She was vain enough to find this a little unbearable.
“Why are you still here?” It came out more abrasive than she intended.
“You want me to go?” He replied.
“No. Don’t go.”
Adrian later regretted doing as he was told. He wondered if he’d been misguided in wanting to be needed that much, wanting to help the helpless. Lily was not, of course, really that helpless, just dangerously excessive, occasionally, when she realised that she was ordinary. She did not think thirty Valium would really kill her, even though it might have. Adrian’s dependency was flattering, however. And he did need her, much as he seemed independent. She had been the dramatic one first, but Adrian was equally desperate. In moments of crisis, when he felt as if he might also be ordinary, he just happened to depend on the doting girls he could catch, rather than a team of doctors and nurses. Lily didn’t really understand that her own desperation was matched, however, until he asked her to marry him.
It hadn’t all been totally simple, of course. Adrian had a girlfriend when he stumbled upon Lily — two, actually, if you counted the secret one — and it took a few months to get rid of them and ensure damage limitation for his reputation. Then there were the one-night stands he had to make clear meant nothing, and the girl he’d been whispering “You’re the sort of girl I want to marry” for a year who announced her feelings had been hurt. He didn’t like to be her “disappointment,” didn’t like being told he was “another narcissistic fraud”. He had enjoyed being the object of yet another girl’s unrealistic daydreams. Nothing crushed him like someone whose opinion he valued telling him something ugly about himself.
But she wasn’t the girl he wanted to marry; Lily was. He didn’t know that when he first met her. He didn’t expect that the girl on the drip would be the fateful conquest. Lily was not beautiful, challenging or glamorous. She wasn’t who all the other boys wanted. She wasn’t who the other girls wanted to be friends with. She was a few pounds too heavy and she told bad jokes when she was drunk, which was quite often. But nobody had ever needed him so much, and rather than deter him as one might expect, Adrian found that comforting. He would always have a hold on her, and that turned out to be marriage material.
Lily was pretty when she tried, but she was not as good-looking as Adrian, and he knew this. He liked her being less attractive than him, because it made him feel superior in yet another way, which made him feel in control, which sort of balanced out childhood insecurities he tried to ignore. Lily would always feel lucky to have him. She would always be terrified of him leaving her. She would always ignore the obvious signs that he always, always had someone else.
In London it was easier for Adrian to be discreet, anyway, and for Lily to be distracted. Their careers meant that they didn’t see each other as much, and didn’t know the new people the other one met. In fact it was Lily who made more new friends in the city, partly because she spent more time talking to her colleagues than doing any work. Adrian, meanwhile, was surprisingly uncomfortable in his new life.
He hardly knew anyone in London except the friends he had taken for granted at Cambridge and a couple people who were impressed with him mainly because he had gone to Cambridge — and, well, it was a good thing he went to Cambridge. So those new people he met tended to be chance encounters in bars after work, and nothing that lasted. So although he never valued fidelity exactly, he began to appreciate Lily always being around for him when he wanted her.
And Lily liked the attention, too. Though she’d made new friends, she felt anonymous, and only Adrian ever made her feel especially wanted. There were a lot of people in London, and she could see that, without him, she would be hopelessly lonely — maybe even more so than at Cambridge. Her career in advertising wasn’t taking off in quite the way she had expected. The world seemed big and uninviting and it didn’t give her much applause, and she didn’t really understand why.
Adrian and Lily kept these particular observations from each other but they did find they wanted to stay together more than they’d anticipated, and they began to discuss the practicalities of staying in love.
“It makes so much sense to share the rent, don’t you think? Because then we can go out more, with what we save in an extra room. I mean, we’re always together anyway. Unless you’d rather sleep alone?”
“Of course not.” Adrian replied, feeling his independence slipping away, but not protesting it go. And they did need the money.
After a few years, when they didn’t really need the money, they just wanted more money, and they needed the security and the regular sex, as well.
Little by little, Adrian became a martyr to his secret needs, his sex and money, thinking himself a Stoic, in the cage of his gilded love. Not a very good martyr, though. He took regular breaks from his suffering marriage.
Adrian’s love life inspired his politics, too. Though he grew up in a Labour household, it was clear to him within a few terms at Cambridge that he was really a Tory. But it would have been embarrassing to admit that to his old friends and extended family, and he was a people-pleaser after all, so he became a Liberal Democrat instead. In future years, he also regretted this major compromise, an early-on commitment like his marriage, but he stuck with it anyway, because nobody hated him this way. He didn’t actually please as many people as he might have done if he’d taken a risk, but he was liked by more this way. He kept his secret loyalties, votes and trysts discreet, and created an image he could be comfortable with in public. He was proud of his work and his various lives. And it was only this arrogance, in the end, that undid him, stopped him getting what he really wanted.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christiana Spens graduated from Cambridge in June (Philosophy), and is the author of The Wrecking Ball (Harper Perennial 2008) and The Socialite Manifesto (Beautiful Books 2009). She is currently working on two novels, and lives in Paris.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 1st, 2012.