As I ascend the steps, the door opens in front of me.
No one has a key, not even me. There must always be a security guard waiting at the door to let me in.
I walk past him without acknowledgment, as if the door has opened automatically, but know that he watches the departure of my broad back, the lumber of my fat waddle, the breadth of my polyester-clad bottom and my frizz of greying hair, with an amused disdain.
My satisfaction is in knowing that I don't have to be young, skinny or attractive. I am indispensable. The rest of them are not, they can be fired at any time. They don’t know the things that I know and are not trusted to hold those things forever, take them to their graves. Our employer knows that no bribe or torture would ever be sufficient to induce me to impart them.
The rest of the staff may consider this menial, this errand running, but I know that only I am allowed this information; the choice of sanitary wear preferred by our employer.
After delivering the requirements, one to each of Venus's bathrooms, areas only I am permitted, I go to my office, a room off the first-floor landing, formerly a toilet. I have a full tray of post to work through, sorting the requests sent on from the agent that I think might interest Venus.
Venus released her twelfth album last month and is under pressure to honor contractual obligations. She is committed to a certain number of talk-show appearances and interviews, although at this stage of a gargantuan career, the publicity makes itself. The release of the album had featured on the television news, and images of the latest incarnation of the phenomenon that is Venus are in every paper, every magazine; on the sides of buses. Venus is omnipotent.
In an expensively thick and creamy envelope, I discover a piece of fan mail addressed to my employer. I reach for the phone. But I hesitate before pressing one of the internal buttons to call my PA and tear him off a strip for this breach of security. My eye has fallen on the content of the letter and I can’t help reading further.
Please listen. I can help you. I know you are trapped inside my body, as I am trapped in yours.
I am Venus, yet I find myself occupying a body that is not mine.
This happened two weeks ago when I became ill, I was busy recording my album when a debilitating flu-like illness struck me down and for a time I was unconscious. Perhaps you experienced the same thing? When I regained my consciousness, I found myself - my self - in the body of another person. The person my consciousness now inhabits belongs to a person called Janette Cooley. Is that person you? Are you not living now inside the person known to all as 'Venus'? Perhaps not, although it would seem to be the logical arrangement; that some kind of an exchange has occurred.
We must meet, we must see if there is any way that we can be reunited with our own bodies.
Please contact me at the number above. Please do not think to remain in my life. It may seem preferable to yours, but believe me, you will not be able to endure it. It is only the length of time I have been living it, the training I have undergone, and my intense yoga regime that allow me to do so.
Yours, in all sincerity,
I fold the letter back into the envelope.
Venus has survived many a deluded stalker and my actions now are clear: put security on high alert. Inform the police. Send this woman's (if indeed it was a woman) contact details on to them. Block any further correspondence.
I must deal with the incident in my usual calm and efficient manner.
But my usual calm and efficient manner is eluding me. I’m rattled by that letter landing in my exclusive in-tray. I’m especially rattled by this loony knowing about Venus's illness. This is information that we thought had been kept from everyone outside the inner circle. There had been no whiff of it in the press.
Venus must not know of this. She has not been herself of late.
I feed the letter into the shredder and try not to dwell on my own conclusion regarding Venus's recent state of mind, since her illness. Not been herself.
And the wording of the letter, the tone of it, it was so....so Venus. Do I know anyone else who ends their correspondence: Yours, in all sincerity?
And the yoga. Since the illness Venus has stopped doing yoga. It is strange, yet everyone has put it down to the album. She has finished the album. And it had been hard, that album. She had squeezed it out like big overdue baby, and it seems like she has given away a part of herself with it. So no-one blames her if she has stopped doing yoga, and drinking green tea, and juices made with kale and spinach; if she has started drinking £7.99 bottles of Sauvignan Blanc and eating Doritos, sending anyone - security guards, the trainer - down to Tesco express for them.
I stand. I hold onto my desk, waiting for a bout of cold sweatiness to pass, then I pull myself together. I am allowing myself to get drawn into some random nutter's delusion. Venus is a complex woman. I have seen her through all her incarnations. And some of them - certainly the religious ones - have been stranger than a bout of junk-food eating.
I gather the relevant paperwork and go to Venus, to plan the week's itinerary.
Then there is another letter. Sent to my own home, my cozy railway embankment terrace, addressed to me, Anita Schmidt. What fan is this, who even knows of my existence, let alone my home address? This is no ordinary stalker. I know I must forget the recent strangeness of my employer's behavior and inform the police. I should not even read this latest letter, just hand it straight to the police.
I leave it on the kitchen table, the thick, creamy envelope that contains it, while I mix myself a whiskey sour, but I can’t help keeping glancing at it, as if suspicious about what it might do if I take my attention away.
Resentment grows in my belly at the intrusion. I resent any invasion of this, my own time, in my own space, of anything to do with Venus. During my working hours nothing, no-one else, exists, so this is precious, sacrosanct. I have ascertained that the other staff make jokes about me and my cat. But there is no cat, only my computer and the ghosts that live in it.
I have a new ghost, adonisboy360, with whom my avatar – naughtykitten209 has unfinished business, business that has nudged at the parameters of my mind all day as I performed my duties. I hadn’t allowed them to ruffle my serene compliance, my working persona of a loyal servant with no requirements of my own, and now, when I might begin to allow myself to emerge, here in my sanctuary, away from the overwhelming presence of the Goddess, there is this letter.
I take my drink and attempt to walk away, to the computer, my lover, but make it no further than the kitchen doorway, knowing I will have to deal with this first. I must see what this nut-job has written now.
Of course, you did not pass my previous letter on to Venus. How could I expect you to? Please understand, my dear, loyal Anita, that it is I, your Venus. Or if you like, Sandra Goodison, famously, the little orphan from Texas. Or, not so famously, the real estate agent's daughter, as only you and I would know her.
I stand frozen, reading and re-reading this passage.
Well now I am truly exiled and no-one would know me, as always it is to you that I turn; the only one I can trust, the only one who knows me. Have you noticed differences, changes, in the person you know as Venus? I am sure you must have.
I believe that that person, that body, that which was mine, is inhabited by the person whose body I now inhabit. Somehow, some kind of switch has occurred, and my only hope now is to make contact with that person and persuade her to make the switch back. I am assuming she is aware of it, as I am.
Dear Anita, you are my only hope. Please call. Please talk to me. I am shut out now. I made such a secure tower for myself and now it keeps me out and her in.
Yours, in all sincerity,
Your Venus. (Everyone else's Janette Cooley)
Unable now to attend to my unfinished business, I abandon my whisky and go to Luton, to the address of Janette Cooley.
Janette Cooley is a superfan. One of the bedrooms of her council house is devoted to Venus. She is a member of her official fan-club and has a signed photograph, pride of place, in the middle of a kind of alter with candles and incense. ‘Creepy,’ I say. Janette agrees. Janette is in her thirties, younger than Venus. ‘I've loved her since I was ten,’ says Janette. ‘It says it in her diary.’
‘You?’ I ask.
‘Her,’ says Janette. ‘She loves me; Venus.’
‘Right,’ I say, looking at Janette, trying to see any sign of my employer in the round gray eyes. Janette sees me looking and turns to a mirror above a white MDF vanity unit. ‘She's quite pretty really,’ she says. ‘I could make her quite stunning. You know. If I had all my people and stuff.’
‘Hm,’ I say.
Janette is combing her wavy brown hair up from her forehead with her fingers, deciding what to do with it. Then she drops it. ‘But I'm not going to,’ she says. ‘That would be, like, acceptance, like resigning myself to being her. Wouldn't that be strange?’
‘Hah!’ I say. ‘Strange, yeah!’ I laugh and Janette laughs with me. ‘I know,’ she says, flapping a hand at all the fucked-up convoluted strangeness. ‘Don't get me started.’
‘You don't sound like her,’ I say, not laughing. Enough.
‘No,’ says Janette sadly. ‘Where's my Texan drawl?’ she adds, in a fair impersonation that gives me goose pimples.
‘So, what about your friends and family?’ I ask. ‘I mean was it hard to, kind of, catch up with it all? Did they think you were strange?’ I hate that I’m going along with it, as if I believe it, and it makes my voice flat and harsh.
But I’m thinking about Venus, how she has been of late. Since, in fact, she passed out in the recording studio. How vague and confused she had been upon regaining consciousness. It was me who helped her through, covered up for her, without thinking. If I hadn't done that, had let her make mistakes, hadn't automatically explained everything to her, would she have tripped up, given herself away?
Mentally I shake myself again. Somehow this woman is drawing me into this delusional crap. I came here to unmask this fantasist and warn her off, find out how she had come by so much information. It had to be a member of staff. I want to find out who, how this woman is connected with them. When I find out who they are, they will be gone, with the threat of complete personal and professional annihilation hanging over them.
‘She lives alone,’ says Janette. ‘At first I was waiting for some husband to walk through the door -'Honey I'm home!'- but it was soon pretty obvious that there was no-one, although this boy rang, called her Mum. That was tricky. Her boss rang too, asked why she hadn't been into work. I said she was ill and he sacked her. I mean what a bastard. Said he was sick of all her lies. Would you believe it?’
‘Lies,’ I say. ‘Really?’
‘Oh Anita,’ says Janette. ‘You don't believe me. Of course, you don't. I shouldn't expect you to.’ Her head goes down, her curtain of long wavy Janis Joplin hair falls over her face. She lowers into a chair, her body crumpling. I’m floored for a moment by a wave of regret. I want to go to her, my girl, put my fat arms around her. I'm here, I'm always here for you.
It's a moment before I trust my voice, and when it comes out, it’s harder than I intend: ‘What did you call your baby?’
I thought about this long and hard before I came. Had decided I would not do it, would not ask this question. It’s the thing no one else could know. But to ask it is to give it away, give it to an obsessive stalker.
Her voice is a ghost. ‘Oh Anita.’
We haven’t discussed the baby in sixteen years; the stillborn, premature baby.
‘Franklin. He was called Franklin,’ she says. And the Texan twang is real now.
I ring ahead and the door is opened as we climb the front door steps. But the security stops us as we enter.
It’s 10pm. An unheard-of time for visitors.
‘You didn't say there was anyone.’
‘It's ok,’ I say. ‘We're expected.’
‘No, you're not. No-one told me.’ He’s enjoying it, getting to put the ordinary looking fat woman in her place.
‘Ring her,’ I say, eyeballing him, although I know it won't work. I’m too short, I have to look up at him. ‘You ring her,’ he says. But he knows that she never answers an external call, only the internal house phone.
‘It's her sister, you baboon,’ I hiss.
I see the doubt on his face and know that I have won. He knows the rumors about Venus's half-sister, the one shut away in a psychiatric hospital since she was thirteen, the one it was rumored she was visiting whenever she went away without explanation. A newspaper had got hold of the idea from somewhere five years ago, and it is common knowledge, still the subject of frequent speculation. Only I know that there is no sister, that Venus takes herself away to a secret location, a Caribbean island for the mentally distressed super-rich. The sister was my own invention, a cover that has worked beautifully.
The guard rings upstairs. ‘It's Anita,’ he tells her. ‘And your sister.’
We are let in.
I am winded. She accepted the explanation of it being her sister: she didn’t know that there is no sister.
Venus meets us open armed. ‘Darling,’ she says, before she has properly seen Jeanette, then I see the moment of horror on her face. She recognizes her, recognizes herself.
‘Isn't it wonderful,’ I say, ‘your sister coming to see you?’
I narrow my eyes, closing Venus out. My mind wrestles with it. Venus is not the tall, rangy platinum blonde in the vintage 30s negligee. Venus is Janette, with her boot-cut jeans and her Joplin hair. ‘It is,’ says Venus, who is Janette. ‘What a wonderful surprise.’ She has recovered herself with remarkable aplomb. Aplomb that tells me that she knows the game she’s playing.
I step forward to take both of her hands. Venus, who is Janette blinks. ‘Darling,’ I say. ‘Do you remember when you were ill?’
Venus pulls back, her hands resistant. ‘Ill?...Yes.....At the recording studio? Yes, a bit. I was ok though. It was nothing.’
Janette steps forward now and addresses her. Venus tries to look affronted to cover her fear. ‘But how did you feel?’ she asks. ‘Afterwards? Did you feel.....different?’
‘I...No......I was ok.’ She’s defiant.
‘Was there a moment,’ persists Janette, ‘when you felt like, like you didn't know who you were? Were you confused?’
‘No,’ says Venus. Then ‘No!’ insistent, indignant. ‘What are you...?’
‘You were,’ I say. ‘You were confused. I had to cover for you.’
‘What?’ says Venus. ‘What the fuck?’
For a moment she sounds more Bermondsey than Texas.
‘You weren't yourself,’ I say. I’m gentle. I’m sorry for her.
Venus looks at us both, from me to her. ‘No,’ she says. ‘No, I suppose I wasn't........for a while.’
‘You weren't yourself, because your self was this person. Your self was Janette Cooley. Do you remember being Janette Cooley?’
‘What?’ says Venus. ‘What the fuck? What the fuck is this? And who the fuck are you?’ she says to Janette.
‘And you?’ she adds, as an afterthought, to me. ‘Get the fuck out! Get out of my room! Out of my house!’
She is on the internal phone. Two bodyguards are in the room in seconds. Janette and I are almost carried down the stairs and out, back into the night air. There are threats of police, of court action.
I find myself on my knees, on the pavement.
Looking back at the house it presents to me a beautifully restored, implacable Georgian front.
I'm outside, I realize. Outside.
Janette takes me by the arm, her eyes soft, sympathetic. ‘It's ok,’ she says. ‘Only to be expected. Come on. Come back to mine. We'll write her a letter. I think she'll understand, eventually. She must know, really.’
I stare at her, see that she isn't Venus. See that it is of no consequence who she is inside. See that if she has exchanged souls with Janette Cooley, she is now Janette Cooley, crazed fan.
And I, Anita Sutton, am not Venus's most trusted, most loved and treasured servant, guardian of her secrets. I am nothing. I am homeless. The cozy terrace belongs to Venus.
All I am now is Janette Cooley's friend. Janette Cooley, who thinks she’s Venus.