‘Guess who I am stalking right now?’ comes the text. It is from a friend I have an arrangement with. We like to tell each other whenever we see a famous person. There are only two rules: firstly, the famous person must be niche, or as barely famous as possible. Mark Little, for example, who played Joe Mangle in Neighbours. The former Tory MP John Redwood. Either Dick or Dom.
Secondly, the encounter must never actually have happened, and should be a matter of pure invention. Points are awarded for unsettling combinations of spottee and location. Seeing Dane Bowers off Another Level in a monkey sanctuary on the Isle of Wight, say, or Hunter from Gladiators crashing a van full of dead badgers near where I live. Oh wait, that one is true.
My partner and I now also play this game, because it is relatively easy, here. Although the number of notable London ex-pats is creeping upwards, along with the house prices and the number of cafes that look like Shoreditch four years ago, genuine celebrity sightings are rare. We call our own version ‘Celebrity Shite-ings’.
I am still thinking of a possible answer when the next text comes in: ‘Male, actor, HOT’. This doesn’t sound like Helga from ‘Allo ‘Allo, so I delete my message and think hard. Of course: ‘John Nettles’ I reply.
‘S. E. X.’ pings back.
‘Trevor McDonald?’ I was starting to suspect that this was not a regular imaginary shite-ing.
Back came a picture (googled, not papped – we are not lunatics) not of anyone niche at all, but of a bone fide movie star – a Hollywood A lister, shopping for bread in our local supermarket. Reaching for a posh loaf, from the top shelf, while my friend feverishly taps at her phone from her hiding place behind the doughnuts. ‘Such a top shelf loaf kind of guy.’ we agreed.
We have based this on the following: he plays a billionaire sex pervert in some films adapted from some slightly popular books about a billionaire sex pervert.
In them, the billionaire meets a woman who likes books and white wine and inner monologues. He pretty much just likes being a billionaire sex pervert and telling ladies what to do. And white wine. He is very mercurial. She doesn’t fancy that much, but she does fancy him because is a total fitty and wears leather jackets with the collar up sometimes (swoon!). Also, he spends a lot of time following her around, being mercurial. This definitely isn’t stalking because he is a bit conflicted about it and plays Bach on the piano and anyway he has a helicopter.
So she gives it a whirl and it goes pretty well. He gets even more interested in her because of her amazing personality so they still do sex pervert stuff but romantically, and with a lot of meaningful arguments. Mercurially, he takes her to fancy restaurants and she eats salads but not very much because, sexy arguments. She realises that he is only a billionaire sex pervert because he Has A Difficult Past, which makes him mercurial. She helps him out with that, mostly by wearing increasingly nice clothes and marrying him and getting pregnant. There’s some weird stuff about a kidnapping but it’s not important.
If you think this sounds a bit like reading some particularly florid fan-fiction based on teen vampire novels, inexplicably mixed up with the Instagram posts of a 15 year old girl #truelove then that is because it is. I’ve heard. I mean, I haven’t read the books. Well, ok I have but only a bit because they are shit and I’m not really interested and I didn’t bother with a lot of the sex scenes because I was mostly breast-feeding in parked cars at the time.
Anyway, these books have been read and talked about a great deal – in the media, online, by face-palming feminists, by sighing people who can write proper books, by an eye-poppingly outraged Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Woman’s Hour, by every woman I know.
Some people think the books are terrible because the central relationship is about being controlling, not just being sex perverts. Some people think being a consenting sex pervert is fine. Some people think it is empowering that women can read and talk about being a sex pervert. Other people (publishers, film studios) think it is great that they can make lots of money out of women being so terribly empowered. Everyone says they have not actually read the books, but if they have it was only a bit because they are shit and they are not really interested and they didn’t bother with the sex scenes anyway.
So. I am slightly aggrieved not to be present at this moment of excitement on a crap day – to have been deterred from going shopping then by a heavy cold and heavy rain. My nose is red and leaking. I am wearing sparkly leggings that I have squeezed my arse into in an effort to look like I don’t have children even though I have a sticker on my boob that says ‘Let It Go’. It is exactly how I imagined I would look while hiding behind some baked goods, perhaps with sunglasses on. My friend is unable to provide details on the rest of this actor’s shopping list, though I sense it would match my own, which consists of drain unblocker and a 3 pack of kinder eggs.
I message other women about this encounter that I had no part in. My friend messages her friends too. A flurry of O’s and M’s and G’s come back from a group of old friends, stuck in pre-christmas hell with their own offspring all over the country, all over the world. In kitchens, cars, supermarkets and wiping arses in toy shop toilets, we pause to ignore the Slade and the shouting, and we squint down at our phones and laugh. Though the technology is new, the way we reach out to each other is timeless: topless photos of a man we have never met, feminist memes, jokes about Waitrose and sexual violence.
Going to the supermarket in subsequent weeks, I spot nothing but hearts and flowers. It is nearly Valentine’s Day and the second film in the series is hard to avoid. I mention it in passing to a lady at my daughter’s nursery. I don’t know her very well. We are friendly, polite. Our conversations are normally restricted to discussions of the children and the weather. This time, something shifts. We lean in a little closer, talk more quickly, touch each other’s arms and laugh a great deal more – our hands move freely; we are animated. This lady hasn’t read the books – well, only a bit because they are terrible and she wasn’t really interested in all that but she did hear that the actor from the film also shopped in Tesco Express. We pause to consider this bombshell, ‘ooohing’ like Les Dawson, hamming it up. It’s funny. She looks around conspiratorially. She did actually see him in a local café recently, while out with her mother. Everyone was totally professional though. Her mother didn’t have her glasses on, so she had to hold her arm and sort of steer her in the right direction so she could have a peer, but nobody batted an eyelid. Until the moment he left, at which point the entire café, until then apparently totally absorbed in their afternoon teas, just erupted. It was like that scene in Notting Hill where Julia Roberts pops round for dinner. It was very funny.
I think about this on the way home. I have not seen the first film, even though it came out ages ago. I have only seen a TV series with the same actor in it, where, to be fair, he also plays a sex pervert. However, in the TV show he is not a billionaire with an American accent. He is a non-billionaire sex pervert who murders women – imaginatively, and in a Northern Irish accent, so it is basically completely different. The main woman in it is a police officer. She doesn’t like books or white wine but she does spend a lot of time following him around. He is still very hot, but she definitely isn’t interested in him because he is terrible and she isn’t really into all that. Plus, he doesn’t have a helicopter. This TV show was pretty gripping. Nobody was outraged about it on Woman’s Hour. Afterwards, I spent some time thinking about it, even when I didn’t want to. While out running, if I saw men with their hoods up, I ran a little faster without really realising. For one reason or another, I did not watch the film.
Later, I go to the hairdressers, which is the safe space every woman goes to when they want to unpack some feminist discourse and read Cosmo while their colour is applied. The actor in question is featured heavily in the magazines splayed out in front of the mirror. My hairdresser thinks the books and films are shit because they legitimise stalking and other weird and controlling behaviour. We talk about toxic romance models and women seeking validation from emotionally unavailable men. We talk about capitalism and consumer culture and the male gaze. We talk about the fact that her friend saw him in an entirely different café recently and he agreed to have his photo taken with her and was totally lovely. And hot.
Another woman having her hair done calls over that she LOVES the books. Looooves them. Really. Loves. Them. They are amazing and uplifting and she has read them all a few times now because they make her feel like a romantic teenager again. As a woman in her fifties, she isn’t often made to feel like this. My hairdresser and I nod and smile and then make eye contact in the mirror. She sounds like one of those slightly bonkers women who accost film stars while they are out shopping, and we feel sorry for her. Maybe she hasn’t got a lot else going on.
During my blow dry I think about this man, unwittingly at the centre of a spider’s web of communication between dozens of women wherever he goes – people apparently queueing, eating, strolling past, very interested in doughnuts, all waiting to whip out their phones and start plucking on the threads of social media. To be forever entering rooms where people have just stopped talking, to always use the self-service till. He must feel pretty weird. And, possibly, rich
I think about this, and decide to watch the film. Just for research, you understand. For a blog post. This kind of nonsense is a hard limit for my boyfriend, who is away that weekend. The terms of our agreement are that he sits through Poldark, I tolerate Death in Paradise (don’t, I know).
At the beginning, I think about how amazingly this actor wears a suit. I start to wonder if my boyfriend would handle a helicopter as admirably as he handles a Toyota Avensis. He sometimes swears at the cat (he hates the cat) so he’s probably mercurial. I can tell that he’s thinking about me because he sends me a text saying that I can eat any of his soups, but there’s a pulled pork and bean in the fridge that goes off today, and this is definitely sexting.
If you haven’t seen the film, I will simply say that it is totally as good as the book, and the main people in it act the shit out of the terrible dialogue even though they look a bit chilly with their tops off so fair enough. It is compellingly awful, but with tits and moody lighting and the Radio 2 playlist and excellent scatter cushions, so there is literally nothing not to like.
Anyway, really the only thing you need to know about the film is that about 10 minutes in, the main woman in it spends some time making a sandwich. It looks like a fucking great sandwich. I mean, she’s talking, but I’m not really listening because I’m just thinking about how good that sandwich looks. And then, just as she is about to eat it, her flat mate walks over and STEALS THE SANDWICH RIGHT OFF HER PLATE. End scene. Fuck! I literally shout out loud about this. I immediately message friends about the sandwich outrage. There is a lot of solidarity. If my flatmate nicked my sandwich (she didn’t even seem sorry) I would also move in with a spanky billionaire pronto. And I can’t hear what anyone is saying because they always talk very quietly, this is how we know that they are consumed by passion and not just boring people.
I also can’t hear because of the ping, ping, ping of my messages and because I am laughing so much. It works better if you imagine everyone has terrible wind, says one friend (it does). Don’t notice how often the main guy drinks white wine out of ridiculous glasses, says another, or you can never un-see it. Somebody’s gran has said it is all a bit vanilla, and we collectively grimace. I get bored and fast forward the sex scenes like that guy in The 40 Year Old Virgin, then I receive a link to Amy Schumer going all out on wanking jokes. One person has a friend who went to see it with a group of her friends, but the bottle of prosecco they snuck into the cinema exploded and she also fell over face first into another woman’s minge. We laugh.
We are sixth formers again, cackling, gleeful, waggling our virtual pinky fingers at all the big swinging dicks (which, btw, you do not see at any point). Here, in our messages to each other, we exercise control. I sense that someone, in an office at a studio somewhere, has made this film rather silly on purpose, just for us.
Because it is women, really, who truly understand about that fine line between laughing and crying. No wonder we joke about what it is to be watched. We have swiped and matched and bared our teeth at jokes that aren’t funny, run alone along canal paths and felt our heart sink, rinsed off a bad night, crossed the street, held keys between our fingers. We bear the burden, the ridiculous seriousness of our bodies. Anyone who has given birth to a human being knows what it is to feel both pleasure and pain. We do not need the subtitles, for we know this story. We know about having roles and secret lives. We play with submission every day.
So, I know this film is about relationships – but not with the men in our lives, I think; with the women. The hopes and fears and fantasies we talk so freely about between ourselves, on grey days when our kids have been sick for a week and our careers are a long-shot now and even sparkly leggings feel like a fuck you – this is our currency. It is how we calculate our value and make sense of the forces around us. This particular piece of fiction has given a boost to our own economy, not just that of the publishing houses and cinemas. The hearts and flowers are for us. Spanking, ageing, penises, friends: this is what we talk about when we talk about love.
Btw at the end of the film the main guy really beats the shit out of the woman in it. If this is vanilla, I worry that it is because we are allowing it to be so. Our very own locker room chat has now moved onto Trump and his latest dick moves, and we soothe each other with gifs and fist salutes. I’d like to say I raise this issue with a thought-provoking message to everyone. But if I’m honest, I am really still just thinking about the sandwich.
I look again at my boyfriend’s message. I text back, saying I just spotted 80s pop singer Sade in the stationery aisle at Home Bargains. I throw caution to the wind and add a kiss emoji. It is nearly Valentine’s Day, after all.