So happy it hurts

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Jonathan Cape

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Copyright © Anneliese Mackintosh 2017

Anneliese Mackintosh has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Arts Council

First published in the United Kingdom by Jonathan Cape in 2017

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library


About the Book
About the Author
Also by Anneliese Mackintosh
Title Page
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.
To be happy you must be your own sunshine.
Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
Hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon.
The only joy in the world is to begin.
The pleasure which we most rarely experience gives us greatest delight.
Happiness is the art of never holding in your mind the memory of any unpleasant thing that has passed.
Pleasure only starts once the worm has got into the fruit; to become delightful, happiness must be tainted with poison.
One joy scatters a hundred griefs.
Happiness is a myth we seek.
Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.
Happiness is a form of courage.
To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.
Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.
Fortune sides with him who dares.
Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.
Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid.
Vintage Story Page
Vintage Family page

Any Other Mouth


Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.


Text Message to André

Text message to Mina

Text message to Mina

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Recovery Meeting Transcript

PATIENT: My name’s Ottila. It’s O-double T-I … Yeah, that’s right. Bit of a weird one. My dad used to call me Hun because my name sounds like the barbarian leader.

THERAPIST: Can you talk to me about what’s brought you here today, Ottila?

PATIENT: I’ll try. I don’t know where to start.

THERAPIST: Anywhere you want; take your time.

PATIENT: Okay. It’s something that happened a week and a half ago. It was just after New Year. I’m in a sort of, I don’t know, a sort of relationship with my boss. I work in the Maggie’s Centre, at The Christie.

THERAPIST: Sounds rewarding.

PATIENT: It is. And Maggie’s is great. You don’t have to have cancer to go there. It’s for anyone who’s affected: friends and family. Originally I went there to get support after my … Just for a few weeks, to get my head straight. Now, two years on, I work there. Marketing and Communications Officer.

THERAPIST: And what about your boss?

PATIENT: He was one of the people who helped me when I first started going, but then I got this job last October, and a couple of months ago we … I tried so hard not to let myself do it. Something about him being married though. I don’t know. I’ve always been attracted to chaos.

Just before Christmas, without any warning, he left his wife. And all that excitement and risk has just disappeared. But every time I end it, I get drunk and stuff happens again. Seeing André is wrong on so many levels. Not just because he’s my boss. And not even because he was my grief counsellor before that. He’s also forty-four and a card-carrying Tory. He goes on zorbing holidays.

THERAPIST: It sounds as though you and André have both been quite vulnerable. But given that he’s your boss –

PATIENT: He gave me a disease.

THERAPIST: A disease?

PATIENT: Well, an infection or something. Bacterial vaginosis. Can you catch that from a man? Well, I got it, and it’s disgusting, and I’m blaming him.

THERAPIST: Did you see the doctor about it?

PATIENT: Yes, of course. I had to. The smell is … And that’s the problem. I got this medicine. Metro-thingy-zole, and she said to me, the doctor, she said I wasn’t to drink while I was taking it, under any circumstances, for at least ten days.

THERAPIST: Did she explain why?

PATIENT: She said it’s like Antabuse, the medicine alcoholics take to help them stay sober. Basically, if you have a sip of alcohol, or even put a drop of perfume on your skin, it’s game over.

THERAPIST: It wouldn’t be quite that –

PATIENT: Well, I’d been trying – and massively failing – to do that Dry January thing. I saw an advert on the noticeboard at work and figured it was a good idea. I’m thirty now. I can’t keep this up forever: making myself ill, dating terrible guys and accidentally sexting my sister. It’s ridiculous. But the problem is I didn’t tell anyone I was trying to do it, especially not Grace –


PATIENT: She’s my best friend. I just kept caving in and going out drinking with her. Or, if I’m honest, staying in and drinking without her, too. When the doctor told me that I shouldn’t drink on the medication, I was like, okay, this is it. I’m going to have ten days sober, whether I like it or not.

THERAPIST: How did it go?

PATIENT: The first evening my palms were clammy and my heart was racing, but I forced myself to stay in bed and wait it out. I hid under the covers and watched cartoons from when I was a kid: Count Duckula and Captain Planet. One of the worst nights I’ve had in ages.

The next day I went to work. It was tough spending the day working with André, and I was still feeling grim from the BV, so when I got home and saw there was a bottle of wine in the fridge … The wine was Laurie’s. He’s my flatmate. He was out.

I threw up so violently my ribs ached. I called an ambulance, but I couldn’t remember my address.

They found me in the end, prodding me with needles and tubes and questions. Laurie came home just as they were loading me in to the back of the van. He nodded at me and said ‘get well soon’, then went inside. I passed out after that and woke up in a hospital room, attached to a drip, hungover, hating myself.

THERAPIST: Sounds like a scary experience.

PATIENT: I phoned in sick the next day. Told André I had an STD. He immediately went to get tested, and I’m almost annoyed he didn’t have anything. [Pause.] I’m sorry, do you mind if I have a glass of water? [Muffled noise. Tape switches off and on. More noises.]

THERAPIST: Here you go.

PATIENT: Thanks. I’m sorry.

THERAPIST: Not a problem. So, was it the experience on antibiotics that’s brought you here? That’s made you want to quit drinking completely?

PATIENT: It started with that, yes, but it’s everything. It’s the cuts that I scratched into my calves to punish myself for drinking Laurie’s wine, the cuts that are only just healing. It’s the fact that I realised, while I was lying in that hospital bed, that my friends were too busy getting trashed to come and see me. It’s the fact that really, deep down, I know that Dry January’s not enough for me. I need to go so much further. Dry Forever.

THERAPIST: You want to take control of your own life, instead of letting the alcohol control you?

PATIENT: I want to remember who I am. Every morning, I’ve been trying to do something that’ll make me feel better. Eat a banana, meditate, look at photos of cirrhosis. Sometimes I scream into my pillow.

THERAPIST: Does it help?

PATIENT: I don’t know. If I could properly end things with André then … Maybe I’m just trying to sabotage my own happiness.

THERAPIST: Your hands are in fists. Can you explain how you’re feeling?

PATIENT: For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about something that happened while I was at university. It probably won’t sound like a big deal to you, and maybe it’ll make me sound like a spoilt brat …


PATIENT: At the end of their first year, students have to stop living on campus. You’re meant to branch out and learn how to live like responsible adults. Well, me and my group of friends left looking for a place to live until the last minute. We had other things to worry about, like which nightclub should we go to on Thursday nights: the indie one, or the goth one? So we ended up having to take a place in a really bad part of the city. We’d hear gunshots in the middle of the night, and, one morning, when Beth left the house, she found blood on the doorstep.

It used to take two hours to walk to campus. I don’t think I made it to one nine o’clock lecture that entire year. There was a bus, but it rarely turned up, and I didn’t want to pay the fare anyway. I lived on 7p tins of spaghetti hoops, saving all my cash for Fosters and vodka-cokes. [Barely audible exhalation.] I hated every second of the walk to campus. I didn’t like my degree either, and I felt bad about that. I knew it was a privilege to be there, at university. Mum and Dad were proud of me, my sister was getting worse, and I had to be the okay one, so I kept going.

THERAPIST: Is there a particular incident you’ve been thinking about?

PATIENT: This one morning – there was nothing special about it. Rainy, grey. But as I set off on the long walk to campus, totally hungover, past a street cordoned off with police tape, I thought: Just make a decision, Ottila. Decide not to hate this walk any more. Decide to be okay with it. And from that moment on, that’s what I did. Don’t ask me how it worked, but I never minded making that journey again. I even learnt to enjoy it.

I was thinking I could do that with my new booze-free life: decide to be okay with it. No more restlessness, looking for faults, cheating. Just decide to be okay with it. So that’s why I’m here, talking to you today. Because I’m never going to have another drink, and I’m only ever going to have monogamous sex, and no affairs, from this moment forwards, forevermore. I want to be a good person. And I want to be happy. So happy it hurts.

I need you to help me with that.

To be happy you must be your own sunshine.

Charles Edward Jerningham

Little Book of Happy

Dear Happy Little Shit,

Who on earth called you the Little Book of Happy anyway? You know as well as I do that final adjective should be a noun. As soon as I saw your smug spine on the shelf, I knew I hated you.

Little Book of Happy. As if everything there is to say about ‘happy’ can be said in one ‘little book’. And yet I couldn’t help picking you up this morning and trawling through your pages, full of white space and moronic aphorisms. And I couldn’t help putting you in my handbag and stealing you from work. Think of all those cancer patients who’ll never know the secrets of how to reach nirvana because of me.

I guess I’m not that sorry I took you. But I am a bit sorry that I’ve started ripping your pages out. I’m doing it for a reason though – it’s something I learnt at the Maggie’s Centre, back when I was a service user. I’m making a grief scrapbook. Except that nobody’s died. Not lately, anyway. I’m grieving for alcohol, though, and maybe that’s enough.

It’s going to take more than a shitty, happy book to bliss me out, so I’m going to upgrade you. Stick in some brand new pages and make you tell the story of my life for a while. By the time I’m finished with you, you’re going to be the Big Bulging Book of SO FUCKING HAPPY IT REALLY FUCKING KILLS, and I’ll have been sober for One Whole Year. Just you watch, little guy. Just you watch.

Ottila McGregor, who is about to turn everything around.  

Twenty Things to Do Instead of Drinking


Name Badge


Maggie’s Centre

Maude is eighty years old, with rheumatoid arthritis and a grade-three brain tumour. She strides into the room like none of that matters. ‘Morning, ulubieńcu,’ she says, sticking the kettle on.

Maude is not Polish, but her husband was. He died years ago – I don’t know how it happened, but Maude left Poland and returned to the UK in the mid-nineties. I’ve only ever heard her mention her husband once, but he comes out in her pierniki toruńskie and her scattered Eastern European words. Although her memory’s got worse since the tumour, it’s the Polish words that she never struggles to find. Sometimes I think she uses them to hide the fact she’s forgotten the English equivalents.

Today, Maude hasn’t brought any gingerbread with her. In fact, this must be the first time in months I’ve seen her arrive without a Tupperware full of cake. While waiting for the kettle to boil, she stoops, unzips her trolley and retrieves a small package wrapped in white tissue paper.

‘What do you reckon that is, eh?’ She puts her hands on her hips and looks at her audience. Actually, there are only two of us here. I’m on my morning break and a new guy called Rajesh is over on one of the sofas, reading a leaflet. I saw him crying ten minutes ago though and he’s been re-reading that leaflet ever since.

One of the great things about Maggie’s Centres is how well designed they all are. Lots of windows, natural timber and, most importantly, open space. There are private areas if you need them, but for the most part, walls are taboo. It means that you never feel alone, even if the only other person here is at the opposite end of the building. In other jobs I’ve had, I’ve always been eager to get as far away from work as possible in my breaks. Here, I often feel better in work than out of it. At least, I did until André happened.

‘I’ve no idea what it is,’ I say, picking up the package and giving it a light squeeze.

Maude winces. ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t do that! Cup of tea?’

I put the package on the table. ‘I’d love one.’ I feel as though I should be offering to make the tea, but I know Maude would tell me to rest my tootsies if I tried, so I stay put.

Maude pops teabags in cups then takes off her coat and puts it on the back of a chair, smoothing out its creases with a contented sigh. She walks over to Rajesh and sits on the sofa beside him. ‘I’m Maude,’ she says. ‘Good to meet you.’

Rajesh looks up from his colon cancer leaflet.

‘Cup of tea, przyjaciel?’

He shakes his head.

Maude takes his hand between her palms and pats it. ‘Well, I’m here if you need me, chuck.’

It’s easy to forget that Maude isn’t a staff member. She’s our longest-running service user; she’s been coming here for the past seven years. She had breast cancer back in 2007, and a double mastectomy sorted that out, but she kept coming to the centre, giving support and encouragement to others. And then, two years ago, she was diagnosed with the brain tumour. It’s not fair the hand some people get dealt. Although I suppose fairness doesn’t really exist. Everyone suffers.

Maude makes her way back to the kitchen, rubbing her temples. ‘Now tell me, Ottila,’ she says, sorting the teas then sitting at the table with me. ‘Have you spoken to that chap yet? The one in the main building, in the cafeteria?’

I look around, making sure André’s not nearby. Secret conversations are difficult in open plan, so I let my blush and nod tell the story.

‘Atta girl. And do you know if he has a dziewczyna?’

‘I’ve bought four sandwiches this week, trying to find out as much as I can.’ I’ve managed to learn a surprising amount about my new crush in our few brief exchanges. Thales writes films in his spare time. I told him I used to write stories and plays, and he said his favourite writer is Pessoa. I don’t even know who that is, which I find exciting. Yesterday I managed to get my morning break to coincide with his, and we sat in our duffel coats in the sunshine, talking like old friends. I mentioned my problems with alcohol, and he was really sweet about me opening up. Made everything feel normal and un-awkward.

Also, in a totally non-creepy way, I know where he lives and it’s very, very, close to me. Not that something like that matters, of course, because if we were dating – and I know I’m getting ahead of myself – but if we were dating, I’d trek across the whole of Greater Manchester to see him. But it just so happens that he lives in Chorlton, three streets away from me. When I look out of my living room window, I can almost see the roof of his building. And, even better than that, there’s an alleyway that runs from my street, past Chandos Road, past Ellesmere Road and straight onto Egerton Road North, directly opposite his place. I tested the walk last night and it took exactly four minutes.

‘He’s recently broken up with someone,’ I explain to Maude. ‘I spent days figuring out the right way to say are you single without being blatant. In the end he told me without being prompted. His girlfriend moved out of his flat recently and took half his stuff with her.’

‘Oh well, it doesn’t sound like the competition’s too stiff. Now you can ask him on a date.’

‘I don’t know, maybe he needs some time.’ Actually, I’m thinking about André. Maybe I need some time. I still haven’t officially ended things with him, even though I’ve been very maturely ignoring his texts for the best part of a week. And I know it’s not exactly the feminist way, finding a nice new man to save me from all my problems. But this feels different somehow. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been speaking to him since I’ve been sober, but our conversations are actually fun.

And really, getting to know Thales has been so much more than a distraction from drink. I can tell I’m smitten because I’ve been muttering his name under my breath for the past few days. His parents are Greek. I’ve always had a thing for Greek people. Thales was named after a philosopher, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The philosopher’s name is pronounced Tal-ees, but Thales is sick of people getting his name wrong so he pronounces it Thal-ess.

‘Psh, poppycock. Go to that cafeteria and get to it. Life’s way too short, more’s the pity.’ Maude looks over at Rajesh. He’s put the leaflet to one side and his head is in his hands. One of the support workers, Mairi, will be coming down soon to have a chat with him. She’s got a very soothing way about her; hopefully he’ll be all right.

‘I might ask him out face-to-face. Or I might write something down instead. I don’t know. An invitation to go on a date but, like, in the form of a story or something.’

‘Sounds like the coward’s way out.’ Maude blows onto her tea then takes a sip. I wonder what she would think if she knew about my problems with drink. If she knew that every night, when I go home, I bite my knuckles red raw, trying to fill the gap that hungers for whisky and wine.

My eyes rest on Maude’s hand as she grips her mug and I notice how tight her wedding ring looks. Her finger has swelled around it, and the ring is getting lost between folds of flesh. Then I look down at the table and remember the package. ‘So what’s in there, Maude?’

‘What? Oh yes! Of course.’ She picks it up and cradles it lovingly in her arms. ‘Did anyone see Naked and Marooned on the Discovery Channel last night?’

I’m not sure whether Rajesh is listening, but I shake my head.

‘It’s a survival programme, set on a Pustynna wyspa … what’s the name for it? Desert island. This young chap gets dropped off on an island, starkers, and has to live there for sixty days.’ She removes the tissue paper encasing the package and holds up a small cardboard box. ‘Do you know what he ate while he was on the island?’

‘Coconuts?’ I hazard.

Maude plucks a lizard out of the box and throws it into my lap. ‘A gecko!’

I jerk my chair back, its legs screeching on the timber floor. The creature drops to my feet.

Immediately Maude bursts into peals of wicked laughter. ‘Gotcha!’

The lizard is, of course, a toy.

‘I played that trick on my granddaughter this morning and she was just the same as you!’

I look over at Rajesh, hoping that he has been just as gullible as me, but I notice something far more wonderful: he is laughing too.

Burns Night

Thales, you sexy thing. I know we’ve only chatted six times, or six and a half if you count the ‘hello’ I said to you outside the Melanoma Department, but you accepted my invitation to go for an ice-cream tonight and I think it’s only fair that you know: I’ve got big plans for you, cafeteria boy.

This Saturday we’re celebrating Burns Night. I’ve been researching the heck out of it, so here’s the plan. First, we’ll draw a Scottish flag in blue pencil crayon and Sellotape it to the wall, covering up the hole your ex – who I’m presuming meant absolutely nothing to you – punched into the plaster, under that poster (of a dog? Octopus? I can’t remember!) you told me you won in a competition, inscribed with the words: ‘A Good Day is Coming’.

Next, I’ll find the raunchiest bagpipe music on Spotify and we’ll listen to it while we cook. Now and then we’ll stop slicing turnips and kiss, and the kisses will feel so good our lips will tingle. Once the food is in the oven, we’ll raid your wardrobe and put on the closest thing you’ve got to tartan, which I imagine will be checked pyjama bottoms, and we’ll parade around the living room like a pair of clowns.

Unfortunately, there’s no table to sit at, because your completely inadequate ex-girlfriend took it with her, along with the chairs, the bed and the TV, all of which I am reliably informed officially belonged to you, but we’ll sit on your sofa, with our cutlery on a crate, and clear our throats.

Everything will happen in the right order.

We’ll begin with the host’s speech. Since we’re in your flat (to avoid sharing our special evening with my irritating flatmate) this makes you the opening speaker. I’m expecting something epic, something about our forefathers, the men they killed and the lassies they ploughed in order to make it possible for us to be here today. Something about the longing you feel for me in your painch and thairm, the tightening in your hurdies, the gushing in your weel-swall’d kyte. Something about the infinite, animal lust you feel for me, deep down in the trembling earth, all the way up to the twinkling stars. A simple ‘thanks for coming’ will also suffice.

We won’t say the Selkirk Grace because we’re not religious (or are you? It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker), but we will say how much we like the word ‘Selkirk’. I’ll tell you it makes me think of soft, cobwebby threads, which sounds a bit pretentious but that’s the way it is. Then we’ll have a bowl of Cock-a-Leekie soup. It is our second date, this Burns Night supper, our second delicious date, and the Cock-a-Leekie will go down a treat. We will only make innuendos about cocks around half a dozen times; we’ll be sensible. We’ll put the cock in our mouths and we’ll be sensible.

When you take away the empty dishes, I’ll hear you whetting the ceremonial dirk (the least blunt knife you can find in the cutlery drawer), and then you’ll bring it in, face puckered with concentration, along with a roasting tray laden with brown bits and white bits and yellow bits, which you’ll set down on its groaning trencher, i.e. the crate.

As ‘The Best Ever Rabbie Burns Bagpipe Medley’ plays, I’ll stand and clap and whoop a little too loudly. When I give you a hug, I’ll briefly notice how warm your skin is underneath your jumper and wonder whether it’s because of all the manly hair that I am ninety per cent sure adorns your chest.

We’ll sit and look at the food. The brown bits will be haggis and the yellow bits will be neeps and the white bits will be tatties. It will not look tasty. It will look like insides. Insides is more or less what it will be.

Earlier that day, I’ll have printed off the ‘Address to a Haggis’ on the work printer while my boss (who happens to be my kind-of boyfriend – um, my other boyfriend, which of course you’re totally fine with because this is my fantasy and everything is perfect), wasn’t looking. We’ll read it out in terrible, possibly offensive, Scottish accents – I can never work out whether doing accents is racist or not – while the sheep guts go cold on the plate. On the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht, you’ll draw the knife, and when I shriek An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, you’ll slice the haggis from end to end. The steam will rise tantalisingly up from the offal and into our nostrils. We’ll clink our glasses, which will contain alcohol-free ginger beer, since I’ll have been sober for sixteen whole days, and then we’ll eat.

It will be the best meal we’ve ever eaten.

As we dine, our conversation will roam. We’ll start off talking about work, and very quickly we’ll stop, because talking about working in a cancer hospital tends to get depressing. Besides, work is just something absurd that humans have to do in order to get money, which is absurd too, but we need it in order to pay for things like haggis suppers, which are not absurd – they’re the whole point.

We’ll discuss the things we want to do next weekend (go for a walk to the park with the chainsaw sculptures and get a £1.50 coffee from the petrol station shop for the journey), and the things we want to do for the rest of our lives (you, and I’m guessing here: stop working in a hospital, win the Palme d’Or; me: write a bestselling short story collection, become the new Marina Abramović), and briefly – very briefly – we’ll talk about those we have hurt and screwed over, about your hideously deformed ex and the other guy I’m seeing, my boss (I’m working up to telling you about him in real life, Thales, I promise, and I’m working up to leaving him too), and how important it is we keep this night a secret.

‘It’s time to give my speech now,’ I’ll say, mouth full of oatmeal and spice. ‘This speech is meant to be about Burns’s life, his poetry, or legacy.’ I’ll look into your eyes and think about the first time we spoke, when I asked you for a BLT and a packet of Cool Original Doritos. ‘It’s known as the Immortal Memory.’

I’ll start to tell you about the girl that Burns fell for when he was sixteen. He was out in the schoolyard measuring the altitude of the sun when he spotted her. For the next six months, he found a new sun to focus on … I won’t know the details to be honest, because I always scroll down Wikipedia faster than I can read what’s on the screen, but I’ll make something up for you. Something about how this girl was engaged to another man, but her fiancé didn’t set her heart alight. It was the bard, and the bard only, who could make her sun burn, burn, burn.

You’ll thank me for my speech, steadying yourself as you get up, trying not to trip over the crate, being careful not to curse your flatulent, hunchbacked ex-girlfriend, and we will move on to the toasts.

You will tell me you have never met a woman like me. You will tell me that you have a strong, strong feeling about this.

I will reply that it is only date number two, but you are changing my life. You are so much more than a Thing to Do Instead of Drinking. You are exactly the type of person I want to be with when I’m sober.

I will stand beside you and take your hands in mine, then we’ll dance around the living room to ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It is only date number two and, although the bagpipes will be distorting my thinking, I will tell you, quite sincerely, that this is exactly what I want, now and always.

But today, Thales, it is just day one.

It is January 23rd and I am on the way to the hospital coffee shop to ask if you want to do something after work. We have not touched fingers yet. We have not let our breath mingle.

Today (I hope) we will walk to your house eating strawberry ice-cream, and then we will watch TV and chat. You’ll show me your bookshelves and your signed copy of I don’t know, something offbeat and intellectual like The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. I will tell you I have only read one Nicholson Baker book and did not enjoy it. You will recommend I try another before giving up on him. I will ask which one you think I should try next. You will reply. I will respond. You will smile, with teeth. I will smile, with teeth.

Today, we wait for everything to begin.



Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.

Bertrand Russell

Note Inside Tuna Mayo Sandwich Container


If you are the lucky recipient of this message, I managed to convince Naomi to take this to the Maggie’s Centre and deliver it to you personally. Apologies if you aren’t in the mood for tuna mayo. It was either that or cheese and RAW ONION, and no one likes that.

I just thought I’d tell you that I think you are cool, and I hope you’re doing okay. I really enjoyed Saturday evening. Sorry I didn’t have any checked pyjama bottoms, but I think we managed to make the evening authentic regardless. I’ve certainly never seen anyone fit eight crisps into their mouth in one go before: must be a Burns Night record. And don’t worry about not finding any haggis; I’ll survive without eating sheep stomach until next year. On a more serious note, I loved hearing about that story you wrote when you were at university. I know you say you’ve lost your creative spark, but I think it’s still there.

We don’t know each other very well yet, but I want to share something with you. I was going to mention it at the weekend but we were laughing too much and it never felt like the right time, so here goes … I am a recovering addict too. Until very recently, I was hooked on codeine. I used to go to seven different chemists across South Manchester, buying as much Paramol as I could lay my hands on. Great habit, no? Definitely not as rock and roll as alcohol. The truth is, I was numbing myself from depression with painkillers and food. I’m all right now, but coming off the codeine wasn’t easy. Lots of ‘stomach issues’.

Hope you enjoy your sandwich?

Thales x

P. S. Sorry I’m fat.

Text Message from André

Email to Grace

From:        Ottila McGregor

To:             Grace Shotts

Date:         Fri, 31 January, 2014 at 19:12

Subject:    Re: dude where are you?


How are things? Hope you’re doing well and that all’s good in Hallé land. I saw a thing in the Manchester Evening News about a series of Strauss concerts. I think there was one at the Bridgewater. Are you involved?

I’m so, so sorry for going off the radar for a few weeks. The last time I saw you I was trying to convince some guy at Funkademia to swap jeans with me and you were lying under a pile of coats screaming out the lyrics to ‘Pick Up the Pieces’. Hang on, was that before or after the four-way Frenchie in Walrus? You are outrageous, missus! Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t get a taxi home with you that night. I threw up out of my nostrils and the bouncer made me leave. I went home, put six burgers under the grill and stuck a drawing pin in my knee. Laurie found the burgers in the morning, slowly melting into the grill pan under a low heat. I woke up, fully-clothed, in the living room with a drawing pin and a load of bloody gunk in my leg. I guess we’d normally have a laugh about stuff like that. The truth though, the real truth, is that I can’t keep doing it any more.

You seem to manage it somehow, I don’t know how – you can go on a massive bender and then play the most searingly beautiful violin solo the next day, and no one would know you’d been doing a hedgehog impression coked up to the eyeballs at 3 a.m. that same morning. But me … I can’t carry on like this. I need to be good. Have you ever noticed that all our old drinking buddies have stopped hanging around with us now? It’s just me and you and Saz and sometimes Kameko, although even she seems to be settling down and getting all responsible now she’s got that new haircut.

I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’m trying to tell you. I’m thinking that I might try drinking less for a while, like maybe nothing at all for a bit. What do you think? Do you hate me and think I’m a loser? Can we still hang out and maybe go for a hot chocolate? Or roller-skating? Or to the cinema? I can hear you groaning from here.

It’d be good to see you. I’ve had so much going on lately. I tried breaking up with André (I know, I know, again) on Monday, because … well, because it’s destructive and bad for me, but there’s this other guy too … more on him in a sec. The breakup with André went totally wrong. I asked him if we could chat in one of the confidential counselling rooms, but as soon as he shut the door I knew that being in a confined space together was a mistake. This is going to sound bad, so brace yourself, but you know those headscarves people wrap around their head when they’ve had chemo and their hair’s falling out? Okay, don’t laugh, because it was actually awful, but there was a box of those scarves under the table – Delyth sometimes runs a fashion workshop teaching people ways to tie them that look cool – and … I guess I always thought I’d like being tied up. André really thought he’d win me back by trying to go all dom on me. It’s hard to be a good dom when you’re crying though. Seriously: there were tears in his eyes. He’s having such a hard time at the moment. I feel so sorry for him, but I need to start having some self-respect. I don’t know why I let it keep happening. Not that anything actually did happen. Not really. I mean, just some touching. It’s so hard to find the strength to properly end things. I feel responsible for him somehow. He left Jennifer for me. For a while, it made me feel good trying to make him happy. Especially after Ben dumped me because I’m supposedly ‘high maintenance’. It’s been nice being the maintainer for a change. André is probably the only person in the world more pathetic than me, which is obviously a great turn-on. Plus, he’s fit. But he’s also a dick. Ugh. I’m meeting him tomorrow night somewhere public, on neutral territory. I’m going to end things once and for all.

I don’t know. What do you think? Am I an idiot? Was life better when I just didn’t care about all this stuff? And then there’s this other guy I’ve met that I really, really like. He’s Greek and clever and sweet. He works at the hospital too, in the coffee shop. I think maybe I could start something with him, as long as I don’t do the thing where I focus on all his flaws until I talk myself out of it. Maybe I just need to stay away from relationships for a bit.

I’m so low, Grace. Honestly. It’s like a deep, deep ache inside of me.

Bet you didn’t expect such a downer from me after all this time! Promise when we meet up I’ll be all puppy dogs and fireworks.

O-Dog x

Meeting André in a Public Place

‘Ottila! Over here!’

André is already at the table, waving. He has a new shirt on, which is a bad sign. It’s light blue with a geometric flower pattern. I’m hoping that staring at the shirt might help distract me from the eager expression in his eyes, but I’m wrong. It makes everything worse.

As we hug, his lips graze my cheek. I swerve my face away from him, pretending to look around at the almost-empty restaurant, and sit down.

‘Thanks for coming,’ he says, sitting opposite me, and I can smell the scent of him, the expectant cologne, probably called something like Eros, flying up my nostrils and attempting to bond with some attraction part of my brain.

‘André, I … What happened the other day, in the one-to-one room, I …’ I pick up my menu, and glance down at the list of grilled meats. ‘It shouldn’t have –’

‘Look, Ottila, I know what you’re going to say.’

His eyelashes are so dark, so moist. Has he been crying again? He looks good with moist eyelashes.

‘We need to stop doing stuff like that,’ he says. ‘That’s why I suggested the Marriott, a four-star hotel, but then we ended up in the counselling room. Not appropriate. I’m your boss. We need boundaries.’

‘That’s what I’ve been thinking too. You’re my boss, and we shouldn’t –’

‘So work is work, and leisure time is pleasure time.’

‘Pleasure time? That’s gross, André.’

My awful, attractive boss grins and I remember the time his perfectly white teeth bit down on my clitoris and I screamed. It was his first time on what he calls Thizz, but the world calls Ecstasy. He wanted us to try it out before using it with Jennifer to rekindle any lost love they might be able to find before it disappeared entirely. He and Jennifer took white pills with lightning bolts etched into them every weekend for a while after that. We just run our hands up and down the sides of each other’s bodies, he later told me as we fucked in the car park after work. It’s so spiritual. If you don’t want me, then maybe Jennifer and I have a chance of making it work.

André raises his eyebrows, and all I can think in that moment is: your real name is Brian. It doesn’t matter how cute you look when you raise your eyebrows at me like that, because your real name is Brian and you’re not French.

‘Look, all I’m saying is, we’re away from work now, on a date. Chillaxing, or whatever.’

I’m repressing an involuntary shudder when a waitress wearing a badge bearing the name ‘Peggy’ approaches us and asks if we’re ready to order.

‘I’ll take the Hunters Chicken,’ André says quickly. I bet he always has the Hunters Chicken. I’m pretty sure he’s been eating here every night ever since he left Jennifer and moved into the Premier Inn. Honestly, our sex life has been all hotels and hospitals since getting together. Thankfully, this is our first date in the Little Chef.

‘Interesting how there’s no apostrophe in Hunters,’ I remark. Nobody reacts. ‘I’ll have the vegetarian cottage pie.’ I don’t trust the meat here. Guess I’m a snob. Although I do seem to trust the meat at Chunky Chicken every Saturday after a night of mayhem at the Mint Lounge, so …

‘No problem.’ Peggy is so good at her job that she isn’t even writing our orders down. She has a polite smear of blue eyeshadow over each lid, which becomes apparent as she memorises our requests. ‘What would you like to drink?’

‘Pilsner for me,’ André replies. ‘Ottila? Red wine?’

I turn over the menu. ‘They do drink drinks here?’

The waitress laughs. Now I hate her. ‘Yes. We do drinks.’

‘I … I don’t want …’ Even reading the names on the menu makes me salivate. Carling. Pilsner Urquell. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc. Why does alcohol have such alluring names? ‘I’ll have a Robinsons Fruit Shoot.’

André’s jaw drops.

‘What flavour?’ asks Peggy.


‘You not feeling well, birdie?’ André asks as Peggy walks away.

I shake my head. ‘Think I’ve got a migraine brewing. Wine would just make it worse.’ Even saying the word ‘wine’ makes me want wine. There’s something really satisfying about the way you have to draw you lips together, and then drag the sound across your teeth. Oh god, I miss wine. Wine would make everything much easier. I have no idea how I’m going to survive watching André put his lips to a cold bottle of Pilsner, imagining the bubbles fizzing on his tongue, the refreshing amber liquid flowing down the back of his throat …

‘You’re shaking, Ottila. Maybe we should just get some in a doggy bag and go back to my room? Snuggle up and put the telly on? I’ll run a bath for you. I’ll even let you have something from the minibar. They’ve got M&Ms for a hundred quid.’ I’ve stayed in André’s room a couple of times. He doesn’t have a minibar.