(Chapter 3 was the previous post. Chapter 5 appears tomorrow)
The Woman Who Liked High Risks
The first person I met via Lovebirds, as Wilfred Lawless had effortlessly predicted, was Miranda Garnett and our 2014 rendezvous would be in beautiful Faro, the capital of the Portuguese Algarve. Miranda and I had already emailed twice a day, and Skyped numerous times, so I knew exactly what she looked like, and indeed her profile photo had been extremely accurate, which as Uncle Wilfred had forewarned, was frequently not the case. Lovebirds men and women, he’d said, with a puzzled, rhetorical face, regularly shaved three, five, ten, sometimes even twenty years off their age, and Lord knows what happened when their true ones were revealed. Miranda was beautiful, fair-haired and high spirited, and had a very innocent, wide open and childlike face. But it was also a vulnerable and complicatedly deceptive one, and another striking thing was that whether seated or standing, while you were talking to her, she was always noticeably bent in your direction. More often than not, that tends to be a sign of emotional neediness, and it did not take long to find out the force lines of such deprivation, as she had one of the strangest relationship histories I had ever heard. Also, and as she told me early on in her emails, she had been in and out of therapy for many years.
Miranda was a Glaswegian with a strong accent to match, and she was sixty-two years old. She was an IT genius and had started her own digital marketing business which she had bought herself out of two years earlier. That plus an inheritance, and the fact she rented out a four-bedroom flat she had bought in exclusive Bearsden, meant she was very well-heeled. She had always liked the Algarve and had found herself a sumptuous villa situated between Faro and Albufeira on a remote side road and stuck half way up a sizeable hill. Down below was a village full of British expats, singles like herself as well as couples, who according to her had nothing to do after their premature retirements, so they spent all day drinking and occasionally committing adultery. She actually used that Old Testament expression as she had been raised a good Glasgow Catholic and her father in particular had been a zealous churchgoer, as well as a volatile and moody and often unforgiving man. Miranda described herself as being aloof from all that ‘down below expat’ stuff, but she also admitted to being a functioning alcoholic as she put it, and she smoked dope and took cocaine occasionally. Of course, she could only do her drug taking by having the right contacts, meaning one of the younger expats, who had extensive connections with both a Faro and a Lisbon dealer. I did not bother pointing out the obvious, that even though her rustic elevation was a boastful source of personal pride, her remoteness from the expats living at sea level below was comically token and symbolic. It was consonant with and inseparable from that sunnily childlike face and that wide-open naivety under which lurked a seething volcano of a sort.
The volcano was of her own making. Although she was seeking to break out of a destructive pattern by joining Lovebirds, she already had two men in her life, one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh, both of whom knew about each other and were not remotely jealous. The reason for their equanimity was as banal as the fact that neither of them had even kissed her, much less slept with her. Well, actually Roger the maths academic for reasons of economy slept with Miranda whenever they went holidaying round the Hebrides, which was one of their favourite destinations. Prof Roger Ridley had even taught himself simple Gaelic from a second-hand primer called Can Seo, and he pronounced the sonorous tongue beautifully, but in ten years he had never once touched her body, the most he’d done was put his arm avuncularly and corpselike round her shoulders. As for kissing, a peck on the cheek was the most she ever got and usually with his eyes averted. Ditto for Arthur Hornet in Edinburgh, another academic (a Reader in American Literature) and their common interest here was travelling round the obscurer parts of the United States together. To save money they shared a room in deepest Georgia and Puerto Rico and Alaska and Des Moines, but as if he was one of those chaste mediaeval Irish priests described in George Moore stories who sleep all night with nubile maidens in order to test their piety (Gandhi and his brahmacharya girls being a subsequent example) Hornet also never laid his hands upon her, and not once even by accident had he touched her breasts or her behind.
“So how do you feel about that?”
She said with passion, “It drives me fucking mad! I have a normal and healthy physical appetite, and they show not the slightest interest. As if I’m as ugly as sin.”
I soon established that neither men was gay nor asexual and it turned out that both had had multiple passionate affairs with married women, and on one occasion Arthur Hornet had allied himself with a female student Maria, thirty years his junior. Both Roger and Arthur had been married and divorced twice, while Miranda at sixty-two had neither married nor ever had a child, though she had had a single very upsetting miscarriage at the two-month stage when she was in her late thirties.
I said impatiently, as if to a wayward infant, “So why are you with them? If they won’t give you intimacy, which is what you want, why saddle yourself with perpetual frustration?”
Like an artless six-year old insisting that chocolate is nice and onions are nasty, and that is that, she answered pertly: “Because I really love them both!”
She could have been Lucy Atwell with her sunny expression and her alienated and queer as a ghost cheeriness, and that quite mad innocence. At which point I realised that though she was another Lovebird, I would never want, much less care, to be seriously involved with her, not even for a lone weekend, as a soulmate, or bedmate, or worse than both, as celibate housemate.
“Are you a masochist, Miranda? Everyone apart from you would say that It sounds like deliberate self-torture.”
She smirked naughtily and started drinking from her half bottle of medroinho, meaning rocket fuel medlar brandy. We were sat on a bench on warm and busy Praia de Faro beach, it was eleven in the morning, and she had drunk two thirds of her portable hooch.
“Yes, I am a masochist, paid up and unrepentant, a real one if you want to know. But not with regard to the two men I love back in Scotland.”
I looked sceptical, and was tempted to say that if either Arthur Hornet or Roger Ridley had ever evidenced a genuine desire for her, and gone the whole hog, that very likely she would have fled in terror. She was patently magnetically attracted by their sterile non-attraction, and it was likely some sort of obsessive and fruitless game that was rooted in her Govan Catholic past.
“I love being stripped and spanked and more than that if I get the chance. I always have since my teens. Neither Roger nor Arthur will oblige, needless to add, it would be too much like passion I suppose. My therapist in Glasgow and the other one I have here in Portimao (she’s another English expat) says it’s most likely rooted in what my Dad once did to me. But then he only did it the once, and I had forgotten all about it for at least twenty years.”
Her improbable Jekyll and Hyde persona was such that when not being driven mad by male celibacy, she had mixed with some disturbing, at times downright dangerous men who had taken refuge in the Algarve for very good reason. One called Tommy Pickens was a jobbing handyman aged fifty with cheerfully whimsical tattoos on his back and arms, formerly a freelance extortionist ‘enforcer’ back in London so he claimed. He went as far as saying he had put people in hospital several times, when Miranda asked had he ever had to murder anyone. Pickens had been much fun, a quick witted sardonic joker, and a good-looking muscular man, and it hadn’t taken long for them to sleep together. Unfortunately, he had a wife he loved called Jessie who was in very poor health, a semi-invalid with advanced Parkinson’s who spent most of her days on the veranda gazing listlessly at the parched Algarve fields below. When Jessie had died two years ago in Faro hospital, that coincided with Miranda going away with Arthur Hornet on a year-long sabbatical round the wildest bits of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. They had recently watched and been massively impressed by Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and both of them agreed how nice it would be for Arthur to wander aimlessly (though of course safely with his mobile phone) for a limited spell through the Texas desert like Harry Dean Stanton, and then by yet to be decided manoeuvres, to follow his absconded wife Natassia Kinski aka Miranda to her striptease peephole joint in Houston. Miranda had hoped that indicated a surging and volcanic desire on Arthur’s part, but although she did lots of teasingly inventive stripping in their tenth floor Houston hotel room, Arthur just sat gazing vacantly at the rear wall, yawning like an elderly cat before falling fast asleep.
Meanwhile back in the Algarve, grieving Tommy Pickens who had vainly begged Miranda to be his permanent partner and to cancel the year long trip with Arthur, took a flight to Madrid, and no one ever knew why, as he had no friends nor connections in any part of Spain. He checked into a cheap hotel, locked the door, emptied two litre bottles of Johnny Walker, and shot himself in the mouth, leaving no note nor any trail that led back to his connection with Miranda who was after all only one of his two dozen handyman customers. As a result, she was visited by neither Spanish or Portuguese detectives, and a year after coming back from Texas, here on Praia de Faro, she temporised as to whether he had committed suicide because of her rejection.
I said, “Maybe. It’s not impossible. But not only had he lost his wife, he might well have started to think of all the folk he’d maimed and wrecked as an enforcer. Maybe he was a cold-blooded killer for all you know. If he had been, would he have told you so? All it needed was a bottle or two of whisky in his lonely hotel room and an ocean of infinitely torturing remorse and a feeling of going completely off his head…”
Another recent lover, also an Englishman, was even more of a lethal risk and indeed a full-blown psychotic, even babbling Miranda was forced to agree in dizzy hindsight. He had turned up out of nowhere in the expat village, quiet and secretive, with nothing to recommend him other than his virtuoso swimming and his miraculous good looks. In his late thirties, his name was Desmond Keates and he was Brad Pitt crossed with Leonardo di Caprio, Miranda breezed, as if her little tale were all a bit of an episodic lark. She very soon discovered he was a heroin addict who was bankrolled by his father, a retired colonel who believed that Keates was using the money to go into a Spanish rehab clinic. They slept together the first day they met and he stayed in her house for a full tempestuous month. Keates proved to be pathologically jealous, and if anyone looked at her down in the village or even worse if she looked at them, he flew into an incandescent and not remotely comical rage. Half way through his stay he seriously attempted to kill her on an island beach near Olhao. Keates had observed her joking with a harmlessly flirtatious kiosk owner called Zezinho and when she went into the sea, he followed her stealthily and attempted to shove her head below the water, apparently intending to keep it down there for ever. Miranda immediately panicked and choked and swallowed much stinging sea water, but despite her terror managed to find Keates’ balls and crunched them with her fist as hard as she could. Then she tore back to the sand with the lunatic in agonised pursuit, and they had to be separated by the watching tourists as she began beating his handsome chest and shoulders as hard as she could. Amazingly the onlookers all thought it was an overblown domestic quarrel, the attempted drowning a kind of reckless horseplay, as apart from anything else nobody ever got murdered in a place like Olhao.
“I took a look at his eyes as I left Zezinho’s kiosk. It chilled my blood as they were absolutely vacant, there was precisely nothing there. They were completely hollow and blank. Apart from one remarkable thing.”
“What was that?”
“For a second he moved away from me with enormous disgust. Then he turned around very slowly, looking at me sideways, and in the strangest way. I could see then as plain as day that his eyes were full of a concentrated evil. The purest most distilled evil you could ever imagine. As if he had been possessed by a devil. Really. As if an evil spirit was living inside him and it was like a toxic parasite he couldn’t get rid of.”
I said to her, “Why not? Maybe there really was a demon inside him. If he is always insane with jealousy and borderline murderous half the time, and a heroin addict to boot. God knows what state his tortured soul is in.”
“You think so? When his eyes filled up with pure evil, I was terrified out of my wits. I raced into the sea to get away from him and he chased after me making the horriblest panting grunts…”
I looked at her with some undisguised repugnance myself, as I threw her own words back to her.“You said he stayed with you a month, but that the attempted murder happened after a fortnight. That means you chose to spend a whole two weeks with a clearly psychopathic and very dangerous man, a man who did his best to kill you. I guess I am completely baffled and also appalled on your behalf. After all it’s one thing enjoying your backside being spanked, and another being strangled under water by a drug-crazed lunatic.”
Miranda shook her shoulders, then raised them and dilated her lovely eyes, as if to both admit yet artlessly deny her lethal folly. Then she confided what both her therapists had agreed on, and which I concluded would have been my wife Joanie’s diagnosis. Miranda Garnett had told both therapists about her Dad’s sporadic rages and his secret and surprising closet literature, and the forgotten and intensely humiliating punishment he had administered in 1961, enough for them to suggest he might have done more than give her a single serious thrashing, and that perhaps they went back a very long way. She was per casebook paradigm introjecting some figure from her past in a diametrically split way, so that on the one hand she was sleeping with chaste academics who wouldn’t even kiss much less touch her: on the other, she was experiencing intense sexual passion with men who were either retired criminals or murderous psychopaths. The most feasible therapeutic translation, was that the shadowy totemic male figure from her past, had with great difficulty been controlling his unholy passion for the young Miranda. Whenever this self-imposed restraint failed, his passion came out with volcanic and seemingly lethal force, as he allowed himself to do what he knew was taboo, and indeed evil, and In fact criminal, even back in the ignorant Fifties and Sixties.
When her Dad died five years ago which was two years after her mother, Miranda as eldest child was his sole executrix. She emptied the Glasgow terrace as quickly as she could, and got in a house clearance man once she had located all important documents. There was an old-fashioned teak bureau where her father had kept his paper work. In the bottom drawer there were dozens of back issues of National Geographic and a brief-lived beautifully illustrated magazine series on archaeology, as her Dad was a lifelong working-class autodidact who had encouraged his favourite child Miranda to be the same. Underneath those, was a large and worn foolscap envelope and out of these Miranda gasped as she pulled out a pristine if faded collection of Victorian erotica, all of it devoted to flagellation. She stared bemused and embarrassed and then even considerably stirred as she looked at all these ancient photographs of naked women bent the length of a chaise longue awaiting birching by other naked women on their plump and straining bottoms. The women did not pout as in the modern versions that Miranda knew, but looked rather dreamy and even defiantly resigned at the whimsical if necessary business of ritualised discipline.
It was then when she was alone and emptying the family house, that Miranda remembered with frightening vividness something that had happened when she was nine years old, back in 1961, almost half a century ago. She had obviously buried the memory ever since, for not even in her dreams. including her waking erotic dreams and her theatrical enactments of discipline including garish and sometimes seriously imaginative S and M, had any trace or wordless vestige surfaced. A few years earlier, when she was well into her fifties, she had got Tommy Pickens the enforcer to step out of role to a certain extent, and do theatrical violence to someone for pleasure not pain, albeit the someone was his demanding and quixotic Scottish lover. In her Algarve bedroom she had him handcuff her to the bed, pull down her jeans and knickers and with the stout bamboo stick provided he was to cane her twitching behind as hard as he could, she instructed him. The next day when she showed him her stripes, welts and bruises, the man who had put folk in hospital and possibly murdered others had blushed and apologised and even looked a bit nauseous. But even that ferocious handcuffed whipping hadn’t stirred up what was churned up now, as she sat down on the chair next to the bureau and recalled a bright and sunny Sunday near Christmas where her father’s terrifying temper had manifested itself because of a misdemeanour that had been trifling, indeed almost comical.
She gradually recalled, as if under hypnosis, or by some strange renewed synaptic connection, that her Dad had also ruined the previous Christmas, that of 1960. That year he had bought her mother a very expensive Christmas card, exactly the size of the deceitful foolscap envelope he had buried at the bottom of the bureau. Just like her mother’s to him, it was to be opened on the Christmas morning, but as she was busy with the massive turkey and the pudding and the white sauce with dark rum, not to speak of the two demanding little ones, she did not get round to doing so, hence failed to appreciate his grandiose gift, which had cost him, he eventually ranted, no less than 17/6d. When his wife looked at the pieced together shards later, the verse inside to his beloved and precious spouse was so treacly sentimental, she had to restrain herself from grimacing her disdain. After his fourth barking request to open it and her fourth promise to do and so and forgetting, he soared into a fit of rubescent temper that easily outdid the log fire dancing away in the parlour grate. He swore at her in front of the three weeping kids, tore the card into four graceless fragments, then tossed them on the floor. Still swearing, he stormed out and was away for half the day, and God knows where, as he did not smell of drink when he returned, looking righteously impassive and wholly unrepentant.
In 1961 his violence was not on Christmas Day, but a week or so before, and it happened to be a Sunday, her father’s special day, for he never missed church and communion, not even if he was down with flu or toothache. There was a festive party that day at her Aunty Jane’s house just up the way, and her mother and the two little ones had gone to the early service so that they could help with the preparations. Only Miranda went along to church with her father, and at nine years old was happy enough to do so, but unfortunately for her she was sat next to a schoolfriend ominously called Peggy Dick, who had the virtuoso art of making her best friends giggle both inside and outside of school. The two of them spent the entire service in muffled laughing fits, despite her Dad’s squinting frowns and hissed threats and a look of faintly comical cartoon rage that made Miranda titter and heave her shoulders even more. After the service in a bloody silence he steered her home the few hundred yards, marched her into the parlour where only special and august things happened, sat himself down, upended her and put her over his knee, raised her skirt and dragged her knickers down. This was her first and indeed last remembered spanking as a child, and she was intensely humiliated, even at the age of nine, by the business of having her bottom bared, even if the only person to see it was her shouting Dad. He hit her till she was good and red, and then before she could retrieve her pants, he dragged her hobbling and sobbing into the bathroom across the way, and raised her skirt to let her see what happened to stupid girls who desecrated Holy Communion with her wicked little antics. She was permitted at that point to pull her knickers up, but then without delay he steered her roughly ahead of him to the family party where her helpless sobbing and the shoulders that shook not from Peggy Dick’s comedy, but Miranda Garnett’s shame, had to be explained to everyone there. Her Dad did some virtuous lecture-style explaining and was vauntingly graphic about the punishment and precisely how it had been administered. His wife and sister in law and Jane’s bus driver husband Walter all looked saddened and angry but none dared to challenge him in front of all the children who were waiting for the party to start. Her cousins Willy and Kevin both in their early teens came and mocked her mercilessly for being punished on the bare backside, something which occasionally happened to stupid four-year-olds, and to those who had no strength in them to resist the comical if monstrous humiliation.
As for Miranda’s sexual abuse, there was nothing that could have been proved in a court of law, and her Dad was dead anyway, but the give-away for the therapists was that all memory of the Christmas thrashing of 1961, the scourging of her innocent flesh, had been erased for over thirty years. Quite simply, that humiliating hiding, merciless and offensive as it was, was hardly categorisable as major trauma, and given that she was all of nine when it happened, she should not have repressed and forgotten it. The implication was that it had been buried with the equivalent of pre-stressed concrete, as it was very likely a pathway to other earlier and serious matter, namely a scenario of knickers down spankings as furtive pretext for molestations and possibly penetration, criminal incest in a word. Nothing else could explain why Miranda danced so arduously between the crazy poles of decade long chastity involving celibate professors, and frantic orgasms with hired thugs and steaming psychopaths. Meanwhile Miranda Garnett refused to be convinced, and said that she would always love her lovely old Dad, whatever had happened. And thus it was she went on along the eccentric path she had carefully forged… so that now the world might behold a freakishly dissipated if beautiful sixty-two-year-old, behaving like a rebellious and instinctive anarchist aged twenty-one.
Two more eccentricities are worth recounting. Miranda told me that for kicks and nothing more, she regularly shoplifted from big chain supermarkets, though admittedly only Scottish ones. She had no argument with Portugal or its mega-stores, but believed that British supermarkets exploited everyone and everything, and were fair game. More to the point, she got an enormous buzz, a real hit from it, akin to the build up to sex, and so she had been robbing Wm Low and all the rest for the best part of twenty years. I went so far as to gasp at her grotesque achievement. Two decades and never once caught? And of course, Miranda admitted, hers wasn’t the usual reason for shoplifting, poverty, for she was a woman with copious assets and money galore. It was solely for the exquisite kicks, the orgasmic thrill, nothing else.
I asked her, “What if you get caught? Can you imagine the humiliation at your age, in 2014? Even worse than your Dad taking your pants down aged nine in 1961. Your name and maybe your glaring mugshot in the papers. Maybe the detectives will twig you are a chronic shoplifter and grill you for hours, so you admit to five hundred other charges. Your trial date will be six months after they nab you, and it’ll be in Glasgow or Edinburgh, and you’ll have to drag yourself from the Algarve and you’ll have spent six months fretting yourself sick about it. Have you no sense of personal danger, no notion of basic self-protection?”
She smiled her sunny, wispy little Milly Molly Mandy smile.
“It won’t happen. If I’ve got away with it for twenty years, I’ve got away with it for ever. I’m impregnable as far as I’m concerned.”
I shook my head disdainfully: “And what about these charming psychos you still cohabit with after they’ve tried to murder you? What about the next one who maybe keeps a knife in his belt, and one night is mad enough to use it? I suppose if you’re really lucky he might just maim you rather than kill you, but wouldn’t that really be the end of the road?”
She shrugged and slowly lifted her shoulders, then grinned like an impish urchin to divert the inconceivable thought. As with her fairytale shoplifting, she was on every count impregnable.
Her other eccentricity was harmless if perplexing. Miranda loved picking stones off the seashore, as do many women I have known, but in her case on an industrial scale. Every time she went to Praia de Faro or Tavira, she found at least thirty and she put them in her car in a carrier bag and decorated her vast garden back in the hills. Incredibly she did this almost every day of her life in Portugal and she also did so when she visited Roger Ridley or Arthur Hornet in Glasgow and Edinburgh. If for example she and Hornet went to Musselburgh for the day out, she all but emptied the beach and she did not dump them in Artie’s flat but hauled them back to Portugal in her leaden suitcase. On two occasions her weight surcharge on the plane from Prestwick was more than the cost of the ticket.
All that would be bizarre enough, but stranger still was the nature of the stones she tenderly gathered. I watched her there on Praia de Faro, and some right enough were beautiful, and some were passing handsome, and some were even quite nice, and worth the time of day. But others were big and shapeless and colourless and limp and lame and utterly pointless, and one or two of her precious stones were ridiculous in both geological, meaning cosmic, design, and in their mundane littoral aesthetics. Some, to put it plainly, were as astonishingly plug ugly and almost as repulsive as the behaviour of some of the ugly men she had met in her life. And Miranda inevitably included those objectively repulsive stones, for really she was unable to leave them alone.