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January 24, 2004

Infidelity Quartet: 3

[Previously: 1, 2]

Emily was always a precocious child, with a brilliant mind that many people found unsettling in one so young. Her parents' friends looked on in dismay as she rapidly outstripped first their own children and then themselves. They viewed her with suspicion, for all that she was a charming and personable girl, and she quickly ran out of friends her own age.

It was true she had a remarkable aptitude for learning, but her knowledge didn't come out of nowhere. If there was anything preternatural about her, it was not her intelligence but her discipline and attentiveness, her dedication to hard study. She had a thirst for information that was seemingly unquenchable, and constantly sought out new sources, absorbing it all with terrifying urgency. She needed to know everything -- and she wanted to know it now.

Her family looked on bemused, proud of this over-achieving creature, but baffled by her. When she was briefly famous at the age of 11 for being the youngest ever to graduate from Cambridge, there was a widely-held view that she must be the hothouse creation of domineering yuppie parents, a tortured automaton ruthlessly drilled from birth. They even received hate mail; the letters were destroyed before Emily could see them, but she knew anyway, was expecting it. It upset her, but only because it upset her mother, and Emily felt distantly responsible for that; she was unconcerned for herself, knew that she was invulnerable to the petty hatred and jealousy of others. It had nothing to do with her.

When Dr Emily Edwards left university at 14, she found herself in limbo. Academically, she had reached an impasse, the headlong momentum that had brought her to this point dissipating, leaving her floundering with no discernable goals in sight. Legally, she was too young for anything else. For the first time in her brief life she had no idea what to do. There were plenty of people ready with suggestions, but these were generally variations on: "Experience life. Be a child while you can. Socialize with your peers." Emily was not impressed: what peers?

Still, there weren't any more appealing alternatives, and her family seemed to view the prospect of her becoming a more "normal" child with a kind of breathless relief, so she gave it a go. Though it seemed a stupid ambition, she applied herself to the whole process of being with, and getting along with, and appearing to like other kids with the same energy and dedication she had previously put into learning. And she needed to: it was tough work.

She knew, abstractly, what adolescents were like; it was impossible to avoid. She had read about them, and seen them on television, and encountered their juvenile outpourings on the internet. She had even met them, often, during her time at college, but always in circumstances that cushioned her from them, always able to maintain a comfortable distance. Until she tried to become one, to fit in, to get on in teen society, she never had to face the full horror of the experience.

At close range, she hated them at once. Their stupidity appalled her, their petty cruelty and sheer, glaring obviousness. These people seemed unable to open their mouths without a torrent of excruciating banality and belligerence jetting out. Their patterns of speech were warped and senseless, their monstrous arrogance matched only by their crippling insecurity, they turned every experience into a living hell, a battle of idiot wills, a contest of malevolence. Like packs of wild dogs on the veldt, they were utterly defined by their position in the complex patchwork of pecking orders, cringingly deferential to their betters, jealous of potential rivals, brutally antagonistic to any they considered inferior, constantly plotting and backstabbing for tiny improvements in standing that never really changed anything.

And yet, they were strangely fascinating.

At first, it was just morbid curiosity that kept her going. She looked on it as a kind of field research project, observing the teenage wildlife. Her faltering attempts to fit in were just a kind of hide from which she could study them unnoticed, without scaring them off or making them change their behaviour. It was some while before she realized that the hide had taken on a life of its own, that the rest of the research project was just an excuse for it. She studied her teen companions not out of academic curiosity but simply to improve her disguise.

This disguise gradually developed its own character, and before long adopted a new name: Millie.

A great deal of painstaking work went into building Millie. She started from unpromising foundations -- too many people knew of her academic achievements for her to pretend they'd never happened -- but she artfully downplayed them, gathering an armoury of small lies and evasions and diversionary tactics, and before long she was able to easily deflect attention away from that difficult territory and onto the more fertile ground of her invented life. Millie was still smart, but not a swot; she wasn't a bore, and she was assiduously unthreatening.

She was a good girl -- good humoured, good company, a good listener -- but never got above herself. She wasn't too good for pettiness and bitching, she could be outrageous or swear like a trouper if the occasion called for it, but she somehow managed not to offend anyone. She was always well dressed, and well groomed, and eventually people began to notice that she was really quite pretty. Not beautiful, not excessively popular -- Millie was always careful not to stand out -- but well-liked.

Except by Emily.

There was never any confusion in Emily's mind as to what was going on. Millie was not a real person, she was just a character Emily played. She could be put on and taken off at will. Nevertheless, she had a certain autonomy. When Emily was Millie, she behaved as Millie would, and that often involved doing things Emily would never dream of doing herself; things that she despised.

Millie was so fucking insipid! So insubstantial! However hard Emily tried to add extra detail and nuance and subtlety to the character of Millie, however proud she could sometimes be of her performance in the role, she always sooner or later ran up against the unavoidable fact that Millie could never be anything other than an ingratiating cypher. That was her function, the sole reason she existed at all. A brilliantly successful ingratiating cypher, but only that.

After 18 months of tweaking and shading and reworking her character, Emily was heartily sick of the whole endeavour. She longed to be rid of Millie, but by now her whole life was so tightly bound to this alter ego that she couldn't see any way out. To throw it all away would leave her back where she'd started. Her parents loved the existence she'd so deliberately woven herself into; even her elder brother, Daniel, who had been a figure of distant resentment throughout her child prodigy years, seemed grudgingly to approve. And why wouldn't he? Approval was Millie's only purpose. It was the structure of her world.

And, she had to admit, she valued it. The approval of her family, her neighbours, her (or at any rate Millie's) friends. As much as she loathed the whole sorry fiction, she cherished the ordinary contentment it brought to the people in her life. As much as she yearned to tear it all down and bask in their opprobrium, Emily couldn't stand the thought of all that upset any more than Millie.

But perhaps someone else could.

Having done it once, it seemed only natural to try again. If Millie was too tiresome and flimsy a creature to inhabit full time, why not invent someone more exciting to take up the slack? As soon as the idea came to her, it was irresistible. Emily was shocked at herself for not seeing it before. Every Apollo needs a Dionysus; every Dr Jekyll his Mr Hyde. How could she have been so stupid as to not provide one?

She set to work immediately.

She called her new creation Sofia, and the basic persona came easily enough. It was a straightforward opposition: Millie was a good girl, so Sofia must be bad. In contrast to Millie's pallid niceness, Sofia would be wicked and wild.

But Emily knew little about being wicked. She'd simply never tried. It seemed like a straightforward enough prospect -- the world was full of wicked people, and they didn't seem to have to struggle to achieve it -- but where to begin?

An early, tentative research expedition took her into Daniel's bedroom. Of course, he was hardly wicked, but he was an 18 year old male: she knew he drank and smoked and took drugs and went out clubbing, and she assumed he would have pornography hidden away somewhere, which seemed like a good starting point for wickedness. She was a little surprised by what kind of pornography she found, but as she leafed through those pages of naked men she found that her brother started to make a little more sense to her than he ever had before, and began to feel unexpectedly fond of him. She wondered idly whether this sentiment belonged to Emily or Sofia, but decided her new persona was still too nebulous to be having feelings of its own.

The magazines, which were not all exclusively male, offered up a host of previously unimagined possibilities for the unformed bad girl. Emily saw at once that Sofia would be much more attracted to this world of libidinous excess than to, say, a life of crime. She would be driven by pleasure and passion, not by avarice and hate. Since Millie existed for the satisfaction of others, it was only fair that Sofia should be an unabashed hedonist, unstinting in her pursuit of gratification.

This imaginary libertine rapidly took shape in Emily's mind. She surprised herself with her sexual inventiveness and unshockability. She expected to be repulsed by each perverted detail she came up with, but never was. There were some things she found unattractive -- some she even decided, after careful consideration, that Sofia wouldn't like -- but little that disgusted her. The things people did for sexual excitement -- the things she intended Sofia to do -- seemed cheerfully rational, just a matter of exploring sensation.

Emily knew she had been, up to now, a kind of prude by omission; but that was purely circumstantial. When she actually came to confront the subject, she was at ease; much more so, usually, than with the self-abnegations of her Millie character. Sofia was wanton, but open-eyed. Conscious. In control.

But only in Emily's head.

Bringing this character to life was a problem. All the imagination in the world couldn't put her into physical contact with others of like mind. At 16, Emily -- and thus Sofia -- was permitted legally to have sex, but not to hang around in sleazy bars and clubs. This was a world she could read about forever and yet get nowhere. She needed an in; and eventually she found one.

By the time the 17 year old Sofia started calling the rent boys who advertised in the back of one of Daniel's magazines, she'd had a fair amount of experience, much of it embarassing and miserable. Dismal fumblings in discotheques, inept fucks in the backs of cars, half-baked slap and tickle like something from a Carry On film. It wasn't all failure -- the second man to go down on her was a thirty-something obsessive who brought her to an impressive multiple orgasm that left her faint; the first time she snogged another woman, drunk, both of them equally new to it, the thrill of naughtiness, of beginning to fulfill her creation's destiny, turned the clumsy act into something transcendent -- but it did all feel provisional, like cycling with training wheels. She knew she there had to be something more.

And that something turned out to be Billy.

The moment Sofia met Billy, she recognized him as a kindred spirit. He was an invention, just like her. More precise, more fully realised, with many more years of practice, but nevertheless the same. All artifice, all intention. He was exactly the slut she aspired to be, a carefree manifestation of his own and other people's appetites. Their first time, she paid; and in return for those few banknotes, she took possession of him utterly. It was years before Billy understood how completely she owned him.

Through Billy, Emily's creation bloomed. All the detail and excitement she had envisaged achieved its full expression in their relationship. He took her to all the places she wanted to go, let her do all the things she could think of doing. She sparked off him, was catalyzed, set free by the permission he represented. Where previously there had been only a fevered fiction, now a full-blown person swam into view, a person with a will of her own, with desires and needs, with a teasing sense of humour and brittle, spiteful urges.

Sofia took flight. A whole life shimmered into existence for her. For Emily, another whole life.

Juggling these lives soon became an elaborate thrill in its own right. Merely being Sofia and Millie was only half the fun -- Millie considerably less than half -- the real excitement was in being both, in negotiating their tricky coexistence. To keep them apart, and yet flirt with the danger of their intersecting.

For sure, there was plenty of pleasure to be had from slutting around as Sofia, engaging in deviant sex in public places, wallowing in sensuality; but how much greater was the excitement of also being Millie, the family-friendly embodiment of everything that Sofia so wilfully transgressed? Conversely, the humdrum subservience of Millie gained a whole new currency for the illicit activities it concealed. These two creations whirled about one another in a giddy dance, frantically weaving an ever-expanding support structure of tiny lies and treacheries, while somewhere in the middle sat Emily, a delirious spider in love with her own web.

There was never any confusion in Emily's mind as to what was going on. She knew where she ended and her fictions began. But as time went on the border seemed to move closer and closer in, until she felt that she existed solely to referee the convoluted interplay of her characters. But she didn't mind. Though she didn't much like either Millie or Sofia individually, she loved them as a system. The two of them they seemed to be living her life so much better than she ever had that she was happy to cede it to them.

And so she hung out with those inane teenagers, and pandered to her family, and played the perfect daughter; and she wandered around Torture Garden with Billy on a leash, and sucked off strangers in parks, and masturbated on webcams for distant old men posing as schoolboys. And, somehow, kept both her lives functioning, and distinct.

She always imagined that the biggest threat to this separation would be Billy. He was so similar, and so intimately tied to Sofia, that it was a constant surprise he didn't see through her charade. Sometimes she wished he would, that the love they shared would allow him to perceive that barrier and drag her across it. Perhaps at some level she came to resent his failure to notice that she wasn't, entirely, who she pretended to be. But at the same time it flattered her ego: her performance was so flawless that it could even escape detection by such a master forger as Billy.

And it did escape detection. Always and forever. Billy never caught a glimpse of what was really going on, never once understood the true nature of her betrayal.

Not even when he murdered her.

[Infidelity Quartet: 4]
Posted by matt at January 24, 2004 01:38 AM


That made for excellent breakfast-reading, babe; glad to see part three out of the works, though it concerns me that I may well be grey come the next release. I think I rather like Emily, so it follows that you would have to be killing her off. Grrr.

Time to wake up. Catch you later.

Posted by: Stairs at January 24, 2004 11:26 AM

Oh, you are good.

Posted by: Faustus, M.D. at January 25, 2004 04:31 PM

Tremendous stuff, but how long til the next one?

Posted by: christophe at January 26, 2004 10:46 AM

Thanks all, you are (as I'm sure someone will point out sooner or later) too kind.

I have no idea when the next one will be. Hopefully the interval won't be quite as long as the 13 years between parts 1 and 2 :)

Posted by: matt at January 26, 2004 11:19 AM

It won't matter quite so much since we plan to know you forever.

Posted by: Stairs at January 28, 2004 09:20 AM

We do? Gosh, we make long-term plans. I'm not even sure what I'm doing tomorrow...

Posted by: matt at January 28, 2004 08:25 PM

That's all right. We're sure what you're doing tomorrow.

Posted by: Faustus, M.D. at January 28, 2004 10:06 PM

But you're going to let it be a surprise?

Posted by: matt at January 28, 2004 10:56 PM

We have to act in your best interests, child.

Posted by: Stairs at January 28, 2004 11:12 PM

Are you trying to make me paranoid?

Posted by: matt at January 29, 2004 01:14 AM

Comments for this post are now closed, but feel free to email me if you have something interesting to say.