‘You think this is funny don’t you?’ said Jeremy.
‘No,’ I said, nearly. My lips formed the word, air passed through my mouth. But together they failed to make a sound.
‘You should get off your backside!’
I could feel Jeremy pacing from side to side behind me. Never too far away, always just out of my peripheral vision, except for maybe the briefest glimpse of the tail of his suit.
‘The world is full of people like you,’ he was raving, as he did every morning, ‘who don’t take responsibility. I’ll tell you what you are, shall I, and you won’t like it: you’re lazy, and you feel sorry for yourself. Personally, I think you need a great big size eleven up the jacksie!’
‘OK, I’ll do it.’
‘I didn’t hear that. Talk to me, not to your shoes.’
‘I’m doing it. I’m sorting it out now. Look, I’m picking it up!’
I bent down to pick up the cup that had fallen from the armrest of the sofa and rolled underneath the table.
‘That’s better,’ said Jeremy. He was standing still now. I could hear the fabric of his suit rustle as he folded his arms.
I saw that the cup had rolled behind a pile of magazines and old tapes under the table. Rather than move it, I reached out behind in the hope that they would remain undisturbed. Instead, the tapes fell from the magazines and spread out over the carpet like liquid, tumbling out of broken cases and sliding under the sofa and TV stand.
I could feel Jeremy, closer. By my ear, brushing the hair on my neck with his breath. Christ, I was in for it now.
‘Why do you do it?’ said Jeremy. ‘Makes you feel big? It’s not smart is it? But you know what? I don’t even find this funny. You’re a leech.’
‘You live in squalor! You live off the state!’
‘Well, you know…’
‘What are you going to throw at me?’ said Jeremy. ‘Your background? You’re depressed? Stop blaming the world and making excuses!’
‘I’m not making excuses, I made a mistake, that’s all. It’s just a little thing –’
‘You know what I think?’ said Jeremy. He was pacing again, I could tell. ‘This is a waste of life and a waste of time.’
‘It’s a slump, yeah, but –’
‘What do you want from life, Michael? What’s your ambition?’
‘Um, web design? And writing, speculative fict –’
‘Well there’s a fat chance of that happening because you haven’t got a backbone! You need to discover a bit of oomph, mate!’
‘Well, I have been working on my CV and –‘
‘Where’s the passion? Where’s the fire? The first sign of trouble and you bolt!’
It was true, obviously. I knew only too well that Jeremy was right. Jeremy was always right. Although I’d tried on occasion to argue with him in my own pathetic way, there was really no point, because Jeremy had me sussed. If only I wasn’t so weak, and I could bring myself to do what Jeremy said, then life would be so different. But the fact remained that I was weak, and this was my life. Me in my flat, with Jeremy. Always Jeremy; there just behind me, telling me what I was doing wrong. Always being right.
When had Jeremy entered my life? Must have been about a year and a half ago now, after I quit my job. I’d had to do it. It was just too much: the responsibilities, the pressure. I should never have been there in the first place. The doctor agreed that I wasn’t in a good way, and scrawled the words ‘exhaustion/depression’ on a slip of paper that would not only legally justify my sudden departure, but also entitle me to Jobseeker’s Allowance and housing benefits. I didn’t try to claim for sickness though. I thought they wouldn’t believe that I was that ill, and call me a liar.
What I needed was rest. After all, I was exhausted. I told myself I’d only put effort into activities I found relaxing for a bit, like web design, or the writing. And even then, if I hit a stumbling block in either, I should leave them and come back to them another time, rather than fiddling with them aimlessly and working myself up into a stress. I was going to read, watch DVDs. Go for walks. Visit my friend. But mostly read and watch DVDs. Or whatever was on telly at the time. But things didn’t turn out that way, at least not for long. Because Jeremy turned up.
On the first day of my enforced rest, I’d got up at about half-nine, made himself some breakfast, and sat down to watch some telly while I ate. I was flicking the channels, skipping over the usual schools programmes and antiques shows, when there, in the middle of it all, was Jeremy. He was prowling round his stage, telling some absentee dad with a spider-web tattooed on his face that he was a disgrace while a large woman sobbed into a tissue and an audience cheered. The tattooed man shook his head and walked off the set. Jeremy followed him and the camera followed Jeremy as he demanded that the spider-web guy be a man and come back and sort things out. Spider-web did as he was told.
I’d seen this type of talk show before, although they had been imported from America, and hadn’t really appealed. They just seemed like freak shows, with everyone playing to the camera and having pretend fights. There was something different about Jeremy though, and not just his Englishness. I don’t know, I suppose I felt that he really was trying to fix things. I mean, he’d give people a hard time and everything, but he’d offer them proper help too. It was like he was trying to beat the bad guys. Save the innocents. It’s amazing what you end up believing when you’re feeling vulnerable.
I admit it, I liked Jeremy straight away. Which was a surprise to me, as he was not the sort of person I’d be normally drawn to, to say the least. Jeremy was confrontational, authoritative. Authoritarian even. But looking back, it did make some sort of sense. Jeremy existed in a state of absolute moral certainty, and it was this very confidence in my own judgement that I so sorely lacked. For a while, I suppose Jeremy provided it on my behalf, laying into easy targets like wife-beaters, neglectful parents and common criminals. I mean, I knew that the issues were more complex than the way Jeremy portrayed them, and the wilful suspension of my critical faculties did make me feel slightly guilty, but these were the very people that made me afraid to go out of my front door: the people I could hear through the walls of my flat, brutally shouting from the street and from their homes only about what was in front of them. Their families, their food, their so-called friends and their cars, all of which seemed to displease them. Living lives devoid of poetry or metaphor, with no reference to anything beyond the immediate and real. Unlike my oh-so wonderful life of the mind and imagination, of course. Yes, I admit it, seeing them brought down a peg or two made me feel good. So I watched Jeremy every weekday, even making sure I was out of bed especially to see it. Jeremy was my friend now.
Until that one morning, when our relationship changed. Jeremy was taking an acne-scarred young man in a baseball cap down to size, confronting him with his infidelity to the mother of his child; his refusal to pay child support after the split; his drinking and drug-taking; his stealing. But then there was another issue. ‘Why don’t you go and get a job?’ said Jeremy. ‘Don’t want one,’ smirked the young man from under his cap. ‘You know what,’ said Jeremy, ‘it makes me sick. That in this country, when I have to go to work and pay my taxes, only for it to go in benefits on people like you who can’t be bothered to get off their backsides and get a job…’ He did not need to finish his thought as the audience exploded into applause. Some even stood up. For the first time, sitting on my couch, at home, Jobseeker’s Allowance in the bank, I felt some of Jeremy’s aggression radiate in my direction.
Jeremy told more and more benefit recipients to go out and get a job as the weeks went on. And more and more, I felt that I was meeting with Jeremy’s disapproval, and that if it were me sitting there on stage, I would be dealt the same dose of wrath that was doled out to those baseball cap-men every morning.
Day by day, show by show, I felt more uncomfortable in his presence, yet still I turned him on every morning. I was the classic victim, complicit in my own abuse. Finally one night, lying in bed, unable to sleep, I realised that I could no longer spend time with Jeremy. Like one of the battered wives he’d demand tissues from a stagehand for, I had to find the courage to stand on my own two feet. I was going to leave Jeremy. I was going to walk off his stage and get on with my life.
The next morning I woke up at my usual time, and with the habitual behaviour of an addict, made my breakfast and sat down on the sofa, remote control in hand. Then I remembered. I was not to see Jeremy that morning, or any other morning. He was not good for me. I very nearly went back on my decision, putting it down to insomniac anxiety, but I knew, I had to stop seeing him. Glumly, I put on a schools programme about theatre in Ancient Greece, which was more my sort of thing, I suppose.
I couldn’t concentrate. I was bored. All the while, my fingers hovered by the control. Jeremy was waiting for me, there, on the other side. Still, I persevered with the schools programming for the next hour. English, then science. As the last programme’s credits rolled, I breathed a sigh of relief. Jeremy would be over now. I had done it. And if I could do it that day, I could do it the next. I had won. My will had been proved to be strong enough. Strong enough to fight Jeremy.
And then he was there, with me, in the room. I just knew. I could sense him, pacing, behind the sofa. And for the first time, I heard the rustle of his suit. Felt his breath. Smelt his aftershave. I could not move, I was so scared.
Finally, he spoke to me. ‘I’m sorry mate, we can sit here from now until the end of time, today you’re going to face your responsibilities. I’m willing to help you, but you let me down once, you’re gone, I mean that.’
What did he mean? I did not know. All I could tell was that Jeremy was in the right and I was in the wrong. It was obvious. Undeniable, in fact. But what was the issue?
‘There are loads of people who want the opportunity,’ he continued, ‘so do you want it or not?’
I found myself nodding like one of his shamed absent fathers, agreeing to I knew not what.
Jeremy never did reveal the nature of his gift. He would nevertheless offer it several more times that day, as I tried to go about my relaxing activities. But relaxing was not really an option, because from that point on, day in, day out, Jeremy was always with me, behind me just out of sight. Shaming me, berating me, sometimes about my unemployed status, mostly about nothing specific. Often he would command me to look at him, to ‘face him like a man’, but I never could summon up the courage to turn round.
Still, Jeremy had the effect he was presumably after. He should have been pleased. I began to look for work, but whatever I did, it was not good enough for Jeremy. However many applications I filled in, Jeremy would demand more. No matter how many hours I would spend polishing my CV, Jeremy would insist it was not good enough, and I would carry on until I fell asleep. If I got an appointment for interview, Jeremy would ask why I hadn’t got two, or five. He would have done. He would have got a hundred. When I returned home knowing it had not gone well, Jeremy would always be waiting over my shoulder to chastise me for my failure.
Although Jeremy was always telling me I had to accept his help and that I was lucky to be offered it, help of any specific kind never seemed to materialise. In fact, as far as I could see, there wasn’t anything ‘helpful’ about Jeremy’s presence at all. Rather, I’d say it only made me feel more and more worthless; a belief that seemed to magically transmit itself into the fibre of every application form, and ooze out of me like grease at every job interview. Soon, despite Jeremy’s constant haranguing, the number of forms filled in dropped, and the interviews dried up.
After a while, I learned to live with Jeremy, pacing behind me, calling me lazy - a leech, telling me to get off my backside - while I sat on the sofa, reading my books, watching my DVDs, hating myself. Miserable though it was, I felt it preferable to the constant rejection of the pointless job hunt. It was a life, of sorts.
That day, the day of the dropped cup and the spilt pile of tapes, was not an ordinary day. Although it began much the same, with a lie-in, followed by some time on the computer, and an awful lot of sitting about to the accompaniment of Jeremy’s chastisement, the evening was to be very different. For then, for the first time in so very long, I had a date.
I had met her online, on a discussion board for some science-fiction programme that I didn’t even like that much any more. I still went on the board, though, because at least there I could find people to talk to. People who were not Jeremy.
Jeremy didn’t like computers: he said he didn’t understand all that new technology, so when I went online, it would keep Jeremy at bay. I could still hear him pacing, but he was quieter, muttering to himself, occasionally shouting out ‘LEECH!’ all of a sudden, then resuming his low monologue to himself.
Her name was Paula, although online she called herself ‘Star Princess’. She said she was twenty-nine; four years older than me, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded if she was ten years older or twenty. As long as she was friendly, was all that mattered.
We’d arranged to meet at a pizza restaurant in the city centre. Unfortunately I’d eaten too much pizza already that year and had done no exercise, so none of my nice clothes fitted me anymore. Jeremy really laid into me about that. I’d gone out to buy some specially the day before, but Jeremy followed me out of the flat, as he always did now, reminding me I was a waste of space as I tried the clothes on in the changing room. So I made the wrong choices and everything I bought looked terrible.
As the evening drew closer, I became more and more convinced I was going to say or do the wrong thing and ruin it, a point that Jeremy was also keen to labour. I shouldn’t be so worried, I knew. Things had been going so well online. Paula found me funny and was interested in the very same things I was, or used to be, when I still had interests and not just Jeremy. She’d begun to email me every couple of hours, and I’d often sit, hunched over the computer, pressing the ‘refresh’ key repeatedly until a new message came up, for ages. I half-hoped she was doing the same, but I doubted it.
It was time to get ready. I knew when I went into the bathroom that Jeremy would follow me in. He usually did. Wherever there was a mirror, Jeremy would be there too. Although I couldn’t see him in the reflection, I knew he was there, hovering behind my shoulder, studying my half-naked, overweight, under-groomed form, and finding me wanting.
Anyway, I got dressed and worked up the courage to glance in the mirror. I looked terrible. I needed a haircut and to lose a chin or two. Jeremy agreed.
By the time the bus had swung into the city centre, I could feel myself sweating. I’d picked a jacket too thick for the weather. Idiot. Total stupid fucking idiot. ‘You don’t need me to tell you, mate,’ said Jeremy, from the seat behind.
After having trouble with the door, pulling instead of pushing it, I stumbled into the restaurant. If she saw me do that, then the evening’s ruined. Stupid! Stupid fucking -
I was panicking. I had to get out. But although I had just walked through it, I could not find the door.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ said Jeremy. I had been hoping against hope he would not come inside. Of course, he was right there behind me. ‘When you’re an adult you can’t run away at the first sign of trouble, you’ve got to face it like a man! Go on, sit down.’
I turned round and collided with a waiter, who showed me to a table. I was early. Far too early. Another thing I’d got wrong.
I looked at the menu while I waited for her. What should I order? If I ordered the wrong thing I knew it might make me appear gluttonous. Everything I thought I might enjoy seemed wrong though, and I could hear Jeremy tutting behind me; never mind that I was right up against the wall.
‘Hi there, are you Michael?’ a woman’s voice said from behind the menu. ‘I’m Paula.’ I glanced at her for less than a second, and saw her hand was offered to me to shake. I just knew that my handshake was too limp.
‘Hi there, Paula, great to meet you!’ I said. I’d said it too loudly, obviously. I think I might have even have spat when I said it. Definitely did. She sat down opposite. Why had I not stood up and pulled her seat out for her? Ruined it. I’d ruined it all already. It was all fucked.
What to do? Think! My mind was blank. Jeremy was uncharacteristically quiet. I saw a glass in front of me. Wine?
‘Would, ah, would you like something to drink?’ I said.
‘Yes, that would be lovely, thank you. Let’s see what they have.’
As she examined the list, her eyes down, I plucked up the courage to actually look at her for the first time. Long brown hair, though maybe too long. In need of a cut actually. Split-ends. Deep dark freckles on her plump face, with a chin that disappeared into multiples of itself echoing down her neck. Her sweet plump face that rested on sweet plump fingers. I liked her. I liked her despite the fact it was like looking in a mirror and I felt some compulsion to hate her. Not without effort, I liked her despite the fact that she was me.
I can do this, I thought. I know how to do this, it’s easy!
As the wine and food came, and the conversation flowed, I was going to tell her that I was enjoying myself, and that she made me happy. I was definitely going to tell her. I was going to come right out and say it. I was really about to do it. Until Jeremy stepped in.
‘This makes me mad,’ said the familiar voice.
I tried to ignore him. I was still going to tell her. I wanted to.
‘Can I focus your mind, young man, as obviously you don’t understand,’ said Jeremy. ‘Come on, look at me, man to man.’
Again, the familiar command to look at him. I’d heard it so many hundreds, thousands times before. I’d nearly learnt to ignore it. But this time, it was different. I could not ignore it now, for the voice was no longer coming from behind my head.
There he was, behind her. Jeremy. In his suit. His hands resting on the back of her chair. He bent down to talk in her ear. She couldn’t hear him, could she?
‘Darling, walk off into the sunset with a clear conscience. He’s not worth it.’
‘Go away!’ I yelled. Oh no. I didn’t mean to, it just came out. I’d said it out loud. Very loud.
Paula looked startled. ‘You want me to go away?’ she said, her disbelieving, shattered eyes already welling.
‘No, don’t, sorry! Please stay!’
Jeremy shook his head behind her, his lip curled. ‘This is not a relationship, it’s a nightmare. What are you going to do?’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Paula. ‘Please, it’s OK, you can tell me.’
‘It’s hard to explain,’ I said.
‘Try me,’ said Paula.
‘Don’t look at her, can’t you answer me, man to man?’ said Jeremy, gesticulating wildly.
‘Look, you’ll probably think I’m crazy if I told you,’ I said.
‘Maybe,’ said Paula, ‘but that’s OK, I’m a bit crazy too.’
‘She’s vulnerable,’ screeched Jeremy, his voice leaping to falsetto in the middle of every phrase. ‘You’re taking advantage. That’s the truth, swallow it.’
‘Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’ I shouted. The waiter drifted over.
‘Sir, if there’s a problem maybe it would be best if you left, in consideration of the other customers.’
‘No, there’s no problem, really,’ said Paula. ‘Please let us stay. It won’t happen again.’
‘Ok, but please be considerate of the other customers.’
‘We will, I promise.’
I began to sob.
‘Please Michael,’ said Paula, ‘what’s wrong?’
I told her about Jeremy. All of it. How he had first turned up in my life a year and a half ago, but how he had always been there really, just out of sight. I knew then that the television programme had merely brought him into focus.
‘I understand,’ she said. ‘In fact I have a bit of a confession to make too. You know that woman on the telly who makes people lose weight by making them shit on a plate?’
‘Well, sometimes I see her, especially when I’m around food. And then she turns up in my dreams, poking me and prodding me, saying the most awful things, and she climbs on top of me and I can’t move and I want to scream but I can’t.’
‘Is she here now?’ I said.
Paula paused. ‘Yes. Yes, she is,’ she said, finally.
‘Behind - she’s… behind you.’
‘There’s a wall there.’
‘I know. It doesn’t matter. She can go anywhere, she’s so thin. She clings to surfaces like an insect.’
‘What are we going to do?’ I croaked, my throat hoarse from crying.
‘I don’t know. Maybe… we could just ignore them and get on with enjoying ourselves.’
‘Is that possible?’
‘I don’t know. Let’s try.’
‘Oi! Mate!’ Jeremy was shouting behind Paula’s head. ‘Don’t look at her like you’ve just woken up, look at me!’
But I wasn’t listening. And Paula seemed to ignore the skeletal figure she believed was clinging to the wall behind me. We looked at each other. We listened. And laughed. We held hands.