Early on a Saturday morning in October I met Vivian at Liverpool Street Station. Stevie had a painting in an exhibition opening that night, and they were down for the weekend staying with her agent, Alex. I had just returned from a brief visit to Italy and instead of going straight back to Cambridge we had agreed that I would join them. After all, Stevie’s painting was a portrait of me.
I had only a leather weekender bag with me, and Vivian slung it over his shoulder, offered me his arm, and we wound our way out of the writhing crowds of the station. I let him lead me south, not thinking of where or why we were going. Stevie was, according to Vivian, so on edge with agonised suspense about the opening as to be unbearable. He had left her with Alex and fled.
The air surged coldly at us, and I walked closer to Vivian, who wore a charcoal dark woollen coat. When we came across a florist I slowed, thinking of Stevie.
So why did you go to Italy? Vivian asked as we examined bunches of fragrant lilies. Careful how you answer, through: Camille came to dinner while you were away and he seemed rather down in the mouth, and although not even Stevie’s most persuasive attempts could extract much from him, we figured out that you were the cause of his troubles. Have you two broken up?
We aren’t together.
But you obviously are, in some sense. Or have been.
No. I’m not asking you to define my interactions, Vivian. I’m capable of doing that myself, and Camille isn’t my boyfriend.
Well, it looks like he is.
Appearances can be deceiving, mate.
Well, if you’re sure.
Fuck off, Vivian.
So, how was Italy?
Nice, yeah. I met a friend in Milan and we went to Lake Como for a few nights, hung out, took in the sights etcetera.
You hung out. With a friend.
Yes. Next topic. Vivian laughed quietly at this. I threw him an impatient look and crouched down to breathe in the sweet smell of the tumbling late roses. Their petals were tinted with apricot and creamy pinks, and I gathered them into my hands.
These ones? Vivian asked, and I nodded. While the florist wrapped them in swathes of brown paper and tied a pink velvet ribbon around it all, I burrowed into my weekender and brought out Camille’s cashmere jumper, putting it on. Outside, we turned down Threadneedle Street.
I’m not going to comment on your jumper, Vivian said, and laughed.
Good, I replied. Do you have a cigarette?
They should be in my pocket, Vivian said. His hands were full of the flowers, so I dipped my hand into his coat and helped myself, lighting two.
Thanks, Vivian said, as I held one up to his lips. We picked up pace and I tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow. The flowers were gathered between us in a futile attempt to shelter them from some of the wind.
So, how have you been? I said.
Do you honestly want an update on all the thrilling things we old marrieds have been occupying ourselves with while you’ve been flitting around Italy and so on?
Something like that.
Well, it’s more of the same. Stevie panicking, yours truly callously attempting to get some work done.
You’ve been writing?
I have, in fact. Thank god. Finally! Vivian grinned at me and I laughed.
That’s brilliant, I said.
It feels good. I think I’m writing a short story at the moment – at least, that’s what I’m calling it, I don’t want to overthink it.
Cool. Hey, do you mind if we duck into the Royal Exchange? I need a replacement perfume.
By all means, Vivian said, inclining his head comically.
In the store, I asked for a bottle of my standard scent. As I waited for the assistant to hand me my purchase with suitable aplomb, Vivian smelled the tester curiously.
It does smell like you, he said, his expression ambiguous. It feels almost too intimate, he murmured, eyebrows hovering humorously.
Yes, perhaps this was indiscreet of me, I laughed. I do hope you won’t mind?
I’m just trying not to appear too delighted, Vivian laughed.
Perhaps now would be a good time to segue into a discussion of À la recherche du temps perdu?
Yes, we do seem to be preoccupied with olfactory experiences today. Perhaps we should have tea, and partake of madeleines while vigorously debating the finer point of Proust’s navel.
Would teatime be time enough for La Recherche? I asked with mock-solemnity.
No chance, Vivian said. But it’s a start.
We drank tea among the verdite columns of the Ned and then walked west along Cheapside. St Paul’s rang out the hour and we decided to visit the whispering gallery if the crowds weren’t too bad.
It’s interesting to regard the city as a spectacle, Vivian said. I was a boy here, I mean. The city is very familiar to me, but today it appears strange. It must be your company.
I’m curious about the notion of places as legible. Not just in terms of the poetics of space, but as a cultural artefact. One moves through the city and apprehends its signs and markers, the changes in architecture that indicate the evolution of time, the differences of economies, and the jumps in ethnic identity of localised zones. And then too there is so much literal text inscribed onto the city’s surface. All those place names, and advertising.
I really like this idea, Vivian said. The city as a text: it’s interesting.
Like, I often have this sensation when I’m walking through town, or when I’m at the supermarket, being overwhelmed with disparate information. It’s as disorientating as the endless newsfeed of social media. Vivian laughed at this.
I’ve never thought of it like that. You’re right, though. Sound too is another one. The music of the city, or some such: overheard conversations too, and the ebb and flow of traffic.
Right: noise pollution, and the hum of the city. This is also true of light.
Indeed, the city has a filthy halo of light pollution.
Weird, isn’t it? This pollution as a trace of culture, I mean. Also, I think that for most people nature is nowadays the least legible it has ever been.
Because the majority of the population is so urban, you mean?
Yeah. Like, perhaps in cities like this people are still capable of reading the weather, predicting its daily changes so as to dress accordingly. But few people know the names of the trees in the avenues, the birds hunting tobacco crumbs. Let alone anything less urban than that. It weirded me out when I moved to England for university. No one could tell me the names of the trees or birds. I had to buy a book to teach myself the Latin.
It’s actually quite unusual for someone to want to know those things. Vivian smiled. Especially some one of –
If you say something about my generation, I interrupted warningly. He laughed.
Alright, you caught me.
It makes you sound so old.
Yeah, well. Ageism works both ways, mate, I smiled. I’ve read so many fucking think pieces that either malign millennials as the laziest and most narcissistic, entitled generation, or defend their predicament as a social rather than individual challenge.
What do you think?
Perhaps that the dilemma is not one of character but of means; I’m not sure.
What kind of means? Are you speaking financially?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I’m not interested per se in the millennial dilemma, but there is an increasing disparity between income groups that I believe is problematic. One manifestation of this gap is generational, but I also think that this economic instability is fundamentally infantilising in its effect on people.
You mean that a lack of income security renders people dependent? That’s true, whether on the state or parents, I can see that. But what about the emergence of so-called job snobs? People who refuse to work in a role that they think is beneath them?
Honestly it’s more often the salary than the role itself that is objectionable. This depreciation of labour is two-sided, and has financial consequences. The employee doesn’t value the worker, so doesn’t reflect the significance of the labour in the pay. Therefore the worker doesn’t value the labour, as it offers them no material reward. Capitalism is where feelings of solidarity go to die.
You would make a great unionist. I suppose you would support a universal income, too, with your youthful socialist leanings.
You do like misrepresenting my ideas as naïve, don’t you? I suppose it is easier to be amused than provoked into actual independent thought.
I’ve offended you, Vivian said apologetically.
You’ve made me think you naïve, I said, and we laughed.
Well, I am, really. I’m still profiting from the system that limits your peers and perpetuates classism.
Yes, you belong among the ranks of landlords.
Is ownership of property really so malevolent?
Well, yeah. Having to rent, coupled with having to rely on a casual income, is essentially crippling people. It offers no possibility of future security.
So I am the oppressor? Obviously I am speaking from the swampiest of moral grounds; I’ve inherited private means and property so obviously belong to that most despicable class of shareholding landlord baby boomer despots. I know I’d the bad guy.
Well, obviously. Owning a property makes you a card-carrying member of the capitalist bourgeoisie. You are protective of your financial security, and that makes it impossible for people poorer than you to eke out any semblance of security. You harness a profit from their struggle. And economically, people only really matter to society as property-owners, which is to say as shareholders within the economic model our society upholds.
You’re basically saying that poverty has become an entrenched problem within first world countries. I appreciate that these are increasingly inequitable times.
In a sense, yes. Our time is marked by inequity on so many levels: people of colour are poorer than their white counterparts. Men earn more than women. These are issues of race and gender, yes, and have wide-ranging consequences, which at their worst include racist hate crimes, and sexual violence. But the most constant and insidious level at which this inequality registers is economic. And people won’t have the time or means to act as their own advocates unless they have financial security. The threat of losing a job, and not being able to afford a place to live is too real, otherwise.
I’m assuming you also disapprove of rags-to-riches stories as capitalist propaganda?
Rather. Poverty infantilises people, yes. But it condemns them to suffering in multiple and complex ways, while capitalism disseminates this false ideal of meritocracy, which perversely teaches us to think of those who don’t get a to-riches ending, that is to say the poor, as being without merit and therefore deserving of all the suffering heaped upon them. It upsets me so much.
You’re a good person. Of course it upsets you, there is so much that is grossly unfair in the world. And I hate to ask, but how are your socialist tendencies paid for? Aren’t you here on mummy and daddy’s money?
Yeah, I can see how much you hate asking, I said, laughing. But I know what you mean.
We had reached St Paul’s, and came around by the back way, through the gardens, where leaves were already swirling to the ground. The cold wind sent the leaves frisking over the grass and paths, picking up pieces of litter as they moved like a creeping mould over everything.
I thought about how hard I’d tried when I first came to England to assert myself in crowds far worldlier than those I was accustomed to, and how I had grown to despise this. How my stance and voice had betrayed their origins by changing, rapidly and almost beyond recognition. But even at home, even in school, I had been asked this question, had it demanded of me that I state my position in society. I had long accepted the idea that whatever my answer was it would be unbelievable to someone. And now that I felt so far from my former selves I was taken up by a perverse inclination to insist upon my background, to insist that I was an outsider.
Of course, I said, as an individual my ability to pay my own way is reliant on the capitalist model. But no, my parents don’t pay for me. My privilege has a different face. I’m dependent on a scholarship; it pays my university and college fees, and I get a liveable allowance. My so-called academic merit has been deemed worthy of financial support. But I am essentially on the make.
What do you mean by that: on the make? Vivian asked, looking amused.
Oh, just that I am socially mobile in a way that misrepresents my economic status. Education has ruined me in terms of being able to fit properly within the binaries of rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged. It means that I’m a hypocrite, and that the socialist principles I espouse are not reflected materially in my lifestyle. I smiled at Vivian, who looked both bemused by this dissection of things that to his way of thinking shouldn’t be spelt out, and endeared to me.
I rather suppose I am guilty of misjudging you, Vivian said. He looked at me with a wry smile, and I laughed. I just assume that because you’re at a good university, he went on: that because you go to a very prestigious college, because you have read similar books to me and you can talk about Beethoven and Proust and because in the winter you wear a fur coat, I assume that your economic background is one of similar privilege to mine.
Vivian and I were almost the exact same height, and his shoulder felt dependable as we walked beside one another, in a way that I knew was misleading. He was waiting for me to reply, watching distractedly where we went, which was through the leaves towards the front of the cathedral, to the pale steps where a society wedding party was lingering in its finery.
That fur coat cost me six euro at an op shop, I told him.
Okay. But you have to admit, your taste appears expensive, educated: privileged. And then there is your voice.
Fuck you. What’s wrong with the way I speak?
You know, I’ve spoken to Stevie about this – about you, I mean; but in terms of your accent rather than finances.
What a horrifying prospect.
Well, quite. You’re precise, and eloquent: obviously educated and cultured, and speak in a way that demonstrates a rarefied level of understanding. But it is your accent itself that is disorientating. Stevie recognises some Australian idiom in it, but of a bygone era: her grandparents, with their money and post-colonial cultural cringe. But it’s also European in some turns of phrase, modern and Americanised in others, and an utter throwback in its turns of plumminess, which taken alongside your eccentricities has led a lot of people into thinking that you are rather posh. Your accent sounds moneyed.
When really I’m a fraud?
Yes, you really are the most dreadful phony. But no, perhaps an anachronism, but also a bastard child, or changeling: you are something quite new, as well as something out of a bygone time. Not an arriviste, perhaps, but as you say, someone on the make, culturally speaking. A self-made renaissance woman, I suppose.
I think that last bit was the nicest yet most morally ambiguous thing you’ve ever said to me, I laughed.
Well, I suppose that means I shouldn’t go on and say that your physical appearance also suggests a kind of privilege.
I made a face of distaste and Vivian laughed.
It’s true, he said. You are so beautiful that people are bound to assume your life is easy, that things are given to you on silver platters and you will never have to work to prove yourself.
That’s such a revolting misrepresentation, I replied.
Is it? Is it really? I mean, I admit it’s sexist.
Wow, that’s so self-aware, how admirable of you. Should I thank you for objectifying me, now?
We went into St Paul’s together, laughing, and Vivian joked: I’m trying my hand at this new-age man thing. I think I’m really pulling it off.
Please stop, I said.
Vivian laughed and we made our way up through the cathedral until we were standing beside the curve of its dome. St Paul’s was surprisingly quiet, and bore the traces of the wedding that had just taken place. There were very few people about, but lots of flowers.
Up in the whispering gallery we walked away from one another, directing our talk into the stone, sitting down when we heard each other from around the curve. We looked at each other from our positions of distance, and around ourselves at the cathedral itself.
Iris? Vivian’s voice came to me.
You know the story I’m writing, he said, and paused.
What about it?
It’s about you.
My skin went cold, and I knew I could endure anything. When I took a breath it was steady, and I said: aren’t they all?