The slug of saliva sliding down his chin promises more love than I can possibly give. I’m standing before him, a pound coin in my hand. ‘Take it, please. Buy yourself a cup of tea, go on.’ He’s staring up at me, his eyes so wide and wanting, so full of soul, this could be Mark Rylance playing the tramp in Soho Square, dribbling and adoring. He takes the coin, his eyes fixed on mine. His face moves closer. The sound of the tourists’ voices goes fuzzy, a huddle of retired English couples visiting central London, competing with one another for familiarity, irritating a Saturday morning sunbather wearing excruciating shorts. His face comes closer still, his quivering lip glossy and pink, the fleshiest part of his entire body, the rest of which seems to have contracted in these few seconds standing together. Some kind of passion. I’ve taken hold of his hand. I’m squeezing it. His breath warms my neck. ‘Kiss me, will you? Just a kiss?’ The lip relaxes and I can see his teeth. I can hear the hosepipe shooting water into the air. I know I should kiss him. He wants a kiss more than a cup of tea. I hesitate. I think of all the people I have kissed. Why not one more? Go on. Kiss him. I look down at him. I focus on the saliva. The sheen. I hesitate. I think of the angle at which I could move in order to kiss his cheek and avoid his mouth. I move very slightly in that direction. His lip levitates, then moves with me. I shake my head. I tell him, ‘Not today.’ I drop his hand. I tell him to have tea. He looks for my hand, then at the coin in his. I turn and march away. Three men on a bench are watching, one holding a yellow bag full of books. They look to me, then back to the Mark Rylance man. They seem surprised. For the rest of the day, all I can think about is that kiss. I should have kissed him. I should have kissed him. I know I should have kissed him.
It wasn’t how either of us expected to end the year, but there we were, two strangers, in a bathroom, one demonstrating to the other the most intimate of necessities. ‘Don’t lose the string, that’s really important.’ Later, we walked up the high street and met M who told us about his Christmas in a hospital bed. ‘Give it a few months and I won’t be able to see any more.’ Still, he laughed and wished me Merry Christmas and ‘a whole lot of luck to hubbie’. His face is as pink as the stain on the bed. That’s what I was thinking as I slipped through the tills at Sainsbury’s. Later still, out running on grass thick with frost and plates of ice, I remembered the photograph of the American soldier who’d had his eyes blown out in Iraq. His prosthetic eye is studded with the six diamonds of his ex-fiancée’s engagement ring. This filled me with certain joy. So did the demonstration in the bathroom. I even felt a sort of glow during the conversation with M. What is it with me? To gain so much pleasure from the awkward, the tragic, the miserable. Another year begins and I look forward to more twitchiness, to more moments of social unease, and to breaking more taboos.
They fly at me, a spread of green birds with long tails trailing behind, squawking, screaming, laughing. I keep running. I wonder if they will turn around and attack, but they disappear over the tops of the new line of stables and a large navy horsebox. I overtake a walker with a wet lurcher trotting slightly ahead. I turn right, into the field that was dug up for the Olympics and became home to protesters who were homeless and decided to protest to earn a place on the camp. I run around the edge, heavy legs stamping on short cut grass. It’s not raining, but the air is wet, like cold steam, and as I turn the corner towards the Lea, another much bigger flock of birds appears in the air, flying straight at me, swooping towards me, at least 20 of them, squawking, cackling, squabbling.
‘Let’s face it,’ he said, dropping into a whisper which he complemented with a broad smile, as if to flatter me, ‘someone needs to drag this place up a bit, and she does an awfully good job at it.’ Seconds earlier, in a voice loud enough to include the woman on the check-out and the three other women in the queue, he’d insisted we’d already met. ‘I think I know you,’ he said, and that smile swept over his white teeth, ‘in fact I’m sure I do.’ He mentioned someone whose name I didn’t get, who he thought we had in common. I shook my head: ‘Definitely not.’ He kept smiling, despite his irritation at my refusal to play the game. ‘Which street are you on?’ I asked, relenting a wee bit. He replied, but I missed that too — by now I was packing my bags while he stood watching me, his own already done, his bagpack packed with ciabatta and wine and Alpen and kitchen roll — so I asked another question: ‘I don’t think I know it. Which end are you?’ ‘Village borders,’ came his reply, twinned with the ghastly smile. He added, ‘But perhaps we met on the art trail?’ No, I thought to myself: ‘You are almost certainly thinking of someone else.’ But again, I felt I was being a bit too abrupt, so I gave in and talked about the art trail for a bit. Gradually, I began to understand his view — that without people like us (PLUS), this little neighbourhood would be done for. ‘There was nothing here before Penny Fielding,’ he said, a look of alarm in his eyes at the horror of it all. When I began to laugh, he looked a little hurt. It occurred to me that before and after Penny Fielding arrived might be added to the local lexicon as a way of understanding the changing demographic. BPF and APF. ‘That’s not my impression,’ I said, stretching the boundaries of politeness. I added: ‘I can’t stand this idea that there was nothing here until the professional middle classes turned up and began buying properties for half a million.’ It’s like colonialism, I thought but didn’t say. All those tedious narratives about the emptiness of the land until PLUS turned up and put things in it that we recognised and understood to be something. My temper discomforted him. His smile melted away and he said he had to go now. As I ran my nectar card along the side of the card machine and paid up, the woman working the till started laughing. A deep and dirty laugh it was. ‘Good for you,’ she said, ‘good for you.’
In his high-collar lambs’ wool jersey (navy, of course), he is bellowing into the slender i-Phone in his palm. “We’re at the Chapmans’ show, Ems. Fabulous building. That Muslim woman did it.” He’s standing, legs apart in a capital A (is-for-arse), as if preparing to piss down the side of one of the large glass cases that form the show, left hand wedged into lightly gelled greying hair. “Hold on, Ems, just a mo’ darling.” A child is calling him from behind. “Daddy, Daddy, when can we go? I want to go. Daddy.” The child’s mother is trying to distract it, trying to educate it possibly, trying to stop it upsetting Daddy. “Look, darling, the horsey, darling. Look at the horsey.” She presses the child’s face up against another of the large glass cases, close to a horse, part of the scene of carnage inside, a massacre, a genocide — call it Hell if you like, but I’d rather keep it in the real world, not tucked away in the corner of a faith that bows down to the supernatural — that could be a snapshot from a part of the world in which we all live right now. (Syria, anyone?) Yes, there are Nazis in there. Hitler’s in one peaceful corner, a pet dog, a little garden, the picture of petty-bourgeois desire. Ronald MacDonald is there too — indeed, another mother of another small child offers helpful reminders in Putney tongue: “Corrie, sweetie, have you seen Ronald MacDonald?” She neglects to mention that the clown of obesity is also nailed to a crucifix in some cases, and apparently killing or maiming or torturing in others. Unfortunately for me, she also doesn’t name the blow-up purple figure that reminds me of a 1970s Weeble, but is probably a cartoon creation after my time. Meanwhile, Daddy’s still shouting into his phone to Ems. “Chapmans. Fabulously fucking weird sweets, hah!” They arrange to meet in a cafe in Kensington. They leave.
Show your kids these scenes if you like. I honestly don’t care. I don’t want censorship, or signs up banning the under-12s. So bring them to this show, and laugh at it with little Hugo and nine-year-old Muffy. It’s only art. It’s just a joke. It must be: apparently, Jake and Dinos have been doubled-up in giggles too. If it has no purpose other than to make us laugh — or to allow others to laugh at me (and people like me) when I don’t laugh — then classes of primary school kids should be bussed in and made to stare into the detail so that we can laugh at them when they have nightmares. What bothers me (much more than the kids’ expressions of consternation) are the adults.
Walking through Come and See yesterday was like looking into a huge mirror. I saw not only my reflection, but the reflection of the world, stretching out of Hyde Park, down Oxford Street, all the way to Goma and Homs, San Francisco and Aberystwyth, Grozny and Hong Kong. The presence of the Ku Klux Klansman (which one critic seems to scoff at because they aren’t real) reminded me of the ever-expanding crater between poor and rich, and of the many migrants who have tried to get in to the UK but who end up being held inside private prisons controlled by men in uniform who work for companies run by men in suits who might as well be wearing white cones on their heads. The KKK figures wore striped wool ‘hippie’ socks and Birkenstock sandals, dragging me to thoughts of the intense gentrification of my own neighbourhood of Walthamstow, where property prices are escalating at such speeds it’s starting to seem as if the local estate agents (who invent new rules of play for price bids and who establish glossy magazines that are more popular than the borough’s own dedicated paper) have levels of power our local MP might soon start to envy. Strolling through the show, I felt implicated. Because I am implicated. I am part of this vast hypocritical class that seems to have been chosen to enjoy a good life, for the time being anyway.
But don’t be fooled, not even by Dinos and Jake. There is no ‘if’ in this show (as the Telegraph’s critic also suggests): of course, we are fucked. As I listened in on conversations between couples in their Campers — ‘This is spooky! Ha ha ha!’ — I began to wonder if they, too, were part of the exhibition. The Chapmans are watching me, I thought. They are ramping up their parody to new heights and the joke is on me. The paranoia got worse. Allusions to Auschwitz made me miserable. Thoughts of my own book came to mind, of conversations with Angolans who were held in concentrations camps in the late 1970s, camps that one of them compared with the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland. Funny? Hardly. Kids entertainment? Probably not. But perhaps the ones I saw yesterday won’t have sleepless nights because they’ll end up like their parents — who seem to have had every last drip of empathy hoovered out of them, and every last line of political nouse snorted up the nostril of some unassuming celebrity chef who’s art-dealer-of-a-husband turns out to be a thug — so it won’t matter anyway.