Monday, 28 April 2014

The End?

Well that's it folks.
I don't know if anyone has been following this but if you have I'd love to hear from you. I'm not sure what to do next - get it properly formatted and uploaded on Lulu and Kindle I guess, then it's all about PR and I haven't a clue about that. Don't people pay people to handle that sort of thing for them?

Steve X

Journey XV – In Paradisum

I think I’m going to leave it at that. It must be a year since that evening with Kevin after we’d been down on the beach all day, making sure everything was battened down, ready for the storm, and it’s been a good year for me – working in the fields two or three days each week, going out with Kevin on his boat, bringing home tuna and shark, lobster and abalone. A friend of his, Mari, has taught me to dive too, which, without the need for all that bulky equipment is an absolute revelation. I’ve spent hours down there, clinging to the giant kelp holdfasts, watching the wrasse and the sculpins scrapping and flirting and the urchins and abalones flinching and heaving on their rocks. The sunlight is beautiful down there, like marbled glass. I’ve begun making sketches.
I’ve got myself a set of books about the local wildlife – plants and animals, freshwater and marine, forest, desert and mountain, all beautifully illustrated but far from complete. I’ve spoken to the chap who compiles them and offered my services as an illustrator for the new edition and he seems quite keen in a stuffy academic sort of way. He said I’ll need to do some training on the scientific side of things. Meanwhile my design for the East Chapel is almost ready to go ahead. I’ve had a few meetings with the team and the scaffolding is in place and I’ve even begun marking out where the branches are to go on the ceiling. It’s very exciting and a little terrifying (not just because of the height of it). The East Chapel is an enormous place with an immense curved roof. A lot of the weddings and seasonal festivals go on there so it’s quite a responsibility. I feel very honoured. Otherwise I’m still working on the farm. I’m happy to just do as I’m told there – not to have to think too much.

As for the house, well, I’ve not done much to it. There was a problem with the drain from the shower (tree roots) but we’ve sorted that out, and I got rid of some of the old stuff that was here when I arrived and replaced it with some new items. There are so many talented people here it’s hard not to become acquisitive. Sonia bought me a beautiful little forest deer carved in wood, almost life-size and it stands by the fireplace, perpetually poised to dart off behind the sofa. And there’s a very life-like green glazed ceramic iguana on the kitchen windowsill whose beady little eyes follow you around the room. Last week I found some nice pieces of hand-blown glass at the market – blue and green, to stand in the windows and catch the light. (Sophie loves stuff like that. I remember that even from that place where I first knew her.) Also I keep acquiring these surreal collage creatures, all horns and fins and improbable plumage made out of wire and wood and paper and feathers and clay and painted amazing colours. There’s a guy up the river puts them together. I also got some ferns from a woman at the market who grows them from spores she collects up in the forest. Sophie always likes to have plants around the house. It does look lovely in here. She’ll love it.

Still, I’m far from lonely. I see a lot of Kevin and Mo and Cleome. We get out quite a bit at weekends, camping or hiking or sailing. We went and stayed with Jeannie and Duncan up the river a couple of times. They’re always good company. But to be frank, we’re fairly indolent, what with the beach so close by and bars and gigs and parties to go to. Most weekends we go out to eat at one of the restaurants in town, although our favourite at the moment is a little place that does fresh seafood a mile or so up beyond Kevin’s place. Either that or we go around to someone’s house, or for a picnic in the hills. Last weekend we managed to do all three.

What else? What about crazy Derek? What became of him?
It turns out there is in fact only one thing that becomes of us, ultimately, in the afterlife. There aren’t three options as Joe led me to believe. Ultimately we all fade away, when we’re ready, and nobody sees us go. One day we simply realise that the chap who used to occupy the flat above, or the shack on the beach or the cottage down by the river say, hasn’t been seen for a while, and then we go and look and he isn’t anywhere to be found. Perhaps he simply walked out into the waves or up among the trees or across the desert. Nobody knows.
And that’s it.
It doesn’t seem enough does it? You expect some big climax – some final explanation that makes sense of it all, a meaning, a purpose, happy endings and just desserts, tying up all the loose ends, as if it’s all been just a story. It’s like Alison said about my life and our hope of discovering some sort of monstrous event in my early life that would account for what happened next. But there isn’t one – just some thoughtlessness, some weakness, some bad luck. It’s like me massacring all those people up at the camp. What’s that if it’s not manufacturing a big crowd-pleasing finale? My final heroic triumph of good over evil? Don’t make me laugh.

So no, there’s no big ending – just a subtle fading away into the land. The only real difference between those poor desperate souls I heard so much about at one time, and us here is the mood in which we depart and I aim to depart in a good mood, and not just yet.
I asked Kevin one night if anybody actually knows where we go ultimately and if maybe we all move on into yet another after-afterlife. Or if it is simply another form of that dissolution we go through when we go back into the world and in fact we are all reincarnated, over and over again.
He looked at me wearily. It was late and we were out of booze.
‘I don’t think so’ is all he said and I had to admit, I didn’t feel like pursuing that line of thinking.

Hardly a day passes when I don’t expect Sophie to appear in my doorway and to smile and say ‘Hey gorgeous’. I know I’ll collapse at her feet and hug her legs and be blubbering incoherently probably for several days. I asked Brother Jeffrey what are the chances, did he think, that she’ll find me and he said that if she wants to find me there’s every chance that she will, but not to get my hopes up because not many couples, no matter how in love they were in life, would choose to spend eternity together.
I don’t know about that.
She told me she wanted to come with me when I was dying and I wouldn’t contradict her, as I probably should have done, strictly speaking.
All in all, if I have to spend eternity, then I’d rather spend it with her than without.
But I don’t know if Brother Jeffrey was just trying to be comforting. Only one other couple here that I know of has been reunited in death. I don’t know if that tells us anything. They do seem to love each other very much.
In the mean time, Cleome and I have become close friends and as it happens she too is still living in hope that her man will one day find her here. So we can’t let anything happen between us, just in case. We both know that.

So here I am putting the final touches to this manuscript. In the morning I’ll hand it to Simon at the printers and anybody who wants to will be able get hold of it at the sanctuary library, along with all the others. I don’t know if anyone will. I don’t really mind. I’m just glad it’s done.

I sit back and stare out of the window until the shapes of the leaves and shadows become wobbly blobs of green and black. This really is a most beautiful place but I can’t help wishing she was here with me. I make another little doodle of her face on my scratch pad, as has become a habit of late. I live in fear of not recognising her when she arrives. I’ve put her picture up in town in case anyone sees her... The other day Cleome said ‘You can’t spend all eternity waiting you know. It would be like some kind of hell’ and I said ‘Well you can talk’ and she just smiled a little and we gave each other a hug and I said ‘They’ll turn up’ and she just nodded and we went into town to cheer ourselves up with some hot chocolate and cinnamon biscuits.

Time to fire up the old cafetería and go and have a look at the river. Then I think I’ll give Cleome a call and see if she fancies celebrating with me. I believe they’re having a barbeque later on up at the farm. That usually promises a good time and I understand there’s a new lot of travellers passing through, so who knows? Maybe Sophie will be with them this time.

Voyage XV – Love life

As the afternoon progresses the weather brightens and the guitarists (it turns out there are two of them) materialise and give us some flamenco, laced with a little Senegalese spirit. At one point they ask if anyone can play percussion and Wen drags me up by the armpit and shouts ‘Here, here. He can.’
They’ve got some of those little tin Arab drums from somewhere and I rather self-consciously sit down on the mat and have a go. It’s been a long time and I’m quietly cursing myself for telling Wen about the Purple Willies and the Wood Spirit. Luckily I still seem to know how to do it and can still knock out a reasonable rhythm without tripping up too often. People start to dance and after a while Lisa comes and sits on the floor behind me with her legs around me and her arms around my waist and her chin on my shoulder.

Later on it’s raining hard out again and everybody it seems is down in the bar. The chairs and tables have been pulled back and a dance floor has been revealed underneath and now it is packed with moving bodies, dancing now to some ‘90s trip-hop, next to some seventies glam rock, then to something that sounds like it might be some sort of Cajun jazz-funk. The intense atmospheric humidity swirls with our sweat and the fragrance of booze and other, less familiar intoxicants.
I want to sit and watch for a while but Lisa comes over and leads me onto the dance floor and holds me close to her. We gently turn through the crowd and I try to become oblivious. I can’t think. I can’t think about anything. I need her so desperately. I can’t stand being alone. It’s not very manly but I never have been able to stand it. I understand that now. So I just let it happen. Her arms are around my neck and her breath is hot and damp on my shoulder. I pull my head back to look at her, move the hair away from her face and find that she has been crying too and I kiss the tears away and go back to holding her and turning around in the midst of all the bacchanalia. Her hair smells of peaches. My girl would not have wanted me to be alone here would she? Or am I just making excuses?
After a while we sit down again and pick up our drinks. We sit close together on one of the sofas. Raz and Wen are gone and we don’t know what to do next.
At dusk we decide to go up on deck but it’s crowded up there too. The rain has stopped but the steam from its evaporation has created a fog over everything. The land rises to port like a silent giant covered with a blanket. I can’t help but look at it and wonder what it wants this time. I tear my eyes away from its bulk and see Raz involved in some sort of party game with some of the men. It seems to involve taking their clothes off. Ruth is there too but has somehow managed apparently only to lose her shoes so far, whereas Raz is down to her knickers. Typical. Lisa raises an eyebrow as if to say ‘Shall we join them?’ but she’s joking and we move on. Everywhere is just thronged with people. We need some peace – that’s what I tell myself.

We find a place up near the prow. A few lonely souls lean on the rails and look at the sea, or beyond it, some in pairs but mostly alone. Lisa and I sit together on a bench, half facing each other, our four hands all intermingled, our knees touching, our bare feet overlapping. She kisses me lightly on the lips and says ‘Is this alright?’ and I nod but I can’t help the tears coming. We sit forehead to forehead for a while.
‘I’m not being much fun am I’ I say eventually.
‘It’s ok.’
‘No, it’s not. You should find someone. Someone who’ll give you a damn good seeing to’ I say, trying to be funny.
She sits back, looking into my face. Not quite believing what I’ve just said. She’s still holding onto my hands though.
‘That’s not why I’m here’ she says, as if I’m being a very silly boy.
‘I wanted to...’
‘You know... Because you never...’
‘Oh for God’s sake’ she says, laughing a little.
‘And because you’re lovely of course, just in case you were thinking... Not out of pity...’
‘Gabriel’ she says. ‘Shut up. It’s ok.’ She turns and we sit facing the sea together, still holding hands but less tightly. The sky is deepest blue. You have to look for a while to distinguish it from the silhouette of the land beneath. She turns and kisses me again, but it’s not the kind of kiss you give someone when you think sex may be about to follow. It’s the kind you give someone when you know you’re going to be just good friends.
‘I can get a shag anywhen, really’ she says. ‘I mean, look at me’ and she turns to me and I have to say she does look ravishing.
‘I would have loved to, you know? Really... You are absolutely gorgeous.’
‘Well... You’re not exactly available are you?’
We sit and look at each other for a moment longer, still holding hands. Then we cuddle up and go back to the view and I think – this is it – this is all I ever need isn’t it – to be cuddled up with a woman. It’s not even about sex. She could be my wife, the love of my life, my best friend or even my sister. I just can’t function without her. I’d thought that time alone in Lewes had cured me but no. Because here I am again.
‘Tell me about her then’ she says. ‘What was her name? How long had you known her? How did you meet?’
And I tell her our story, or as much as I can remember, past lives and after-lives, beginning with the party where we met and ending with the hospital bed.
‘Were you still painting, at the end?’ she says, after a long pause, listening to the sounds in the darkness – homing calls, distress calls, mating calls – who knows? One of the creatures is very close. There’s a tiny chirruping coming from just over the side but we can’t see anything down there.
‘When I could. Mostly I just painted her once I couldn’t get out so much... or the garden and the view across the river.’ I look down at my hands and they seem to have changed as we sit there, become cramped tight and full of gristle. I feel unaccountably small and hunched and I fear that getting up and walking is something I’m going to have to plan quite carefully in advance. Lisa’s hands still seem young and fresh however. I hold them in my lap.
‘What about her daughter?’
‘Emily’ I say.
‘Emily’ she says.
‘She was an excellent woman too – a gardener. Can you imagine that? Strange how things turn out.’
We nod our heads together and look at our fingers, woven together.
‘You were very lucky I think’ she says, without bitterness.
‘Oh, luck had nothing to do with it’ I say, laughing a little. ‘It was destiny.’
‘Yeah, right’ she says.

Then she says ‘What was it you died of, may I ask?’ as lightly as she can.
I can hardly recall now. It all seemed very muddled toward the end.
‘I don’t really know, to be honest’ I say. ‘I was terribly confused. I don’t think I even knew where I was half the time’
‘Was there very much pain?’
‘Some, at the end.’
‘It’s ok’ she says, patting my hand, but it’s not ok. I do remember it. It wasn’t very dignified and I wasn’t very patient I know, but Sophie was there the whole time. I do remember knowing I’d have done the same for her, and more. Anything. I’d have done anything for her.
‘Towards the end I couldn’t speak and so I couldn’t tell her how much I loved her, and that was the cruellest thing – much worse than the pain. I think she knew though. I’d told her enough times, every day actually, just in case.’
‘I’m sure she knew.’
‘Anyway, can we talk about something cheerful?’ I say and we spend the next couple of hours just sitting there, chatting about the books we’d read and films we’d seen and what our desert island discs were – The Fisher King and the Princess Bride, Disco Cactus, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Dixie & Ted, Felt Mountain and the Twelve Step Polka, Annie Lennox and Stevie Wonder.
Then she moves on to bands and singers I have no memory of.
‘I lost track of what was going on when I reached about forty’ I say, somewhat apologetically.
‘Forty’ she says. ‘That’s pretty good going. What was the last proper record you bought, new stuff, you know.’
‘Sue Novia. That would have been, er... 2020?’
‘Cool. I had that. I bet you were a cool dad.’
I laugh and shake my head. ‘Cool and middle aged. It’s sort of an oxymoron. I was the embarrassing step-dad that turns up pissed at his step daughter’s eighteenth and makes a twat of himself dancing and trying to discuss the latest bands with her mates.’
‘Oh God, really?’
I nod. ‘Happy days’ I say.
‘I always loved all the old movie scores’ she says later on, ‘Midnight Cowboy, Born Free... all that John Barry stuff. She sings ‘We’ve got all the time in the world...’ smiling wistfully into the past.
‘You have a lovely voice’ I say.
‘Thank you’ she says.
‘A bit before your time.’
‘I don’t know why’ I say, ‘but I always feel tearful when I hear that song. Never fails, every time.’
‘It’s because they haven’t.’
‘They haven’t got all the time in the world. They haven’t got much time at all. He’s just telling her that to stop her being sad.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘It’s just in the melody. You can hear it.’
I look at her and I know she’s right. She’s right about everything.
Lisa laughs and the moment passes. We go back to discussing TV – all the old series we used to watch – Northern Exposure, Bones, Weekend State. It turns out we were both big Joss Whedon fans and we’re both still angry about Firefly, even after all these years.
‘Everything about it was just perfect’ she says. ‘You could see why they’d have to put a stop to it.’
‘Credit where credit’s due’ I say. ‘The Americans could sure make TV when they put their minds to it, I’ll give them that.’
‘Those were the days’ she says, only half joking. I give her a squeeze and she grins at me.
‘Actually’ I say ‘I was lying earlier on about Sophie and I always being out doing stuff, staying active, like you’re supposed to when you’re old. In fact we used to spend a lot of time just slobbing out in front of the box watching old DVDs.’
‘Sounds idyllic’ she sighs, only half joking.
It seems funny now, to think of us then. Lisa would have been a teenager, and I would have been old enough to know better, both getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer at about the same time, and her, getting into the music I’d grown up on in the seventies.
‘But I’d have thought you would have been out being very political, what with everything...’ she says after we’ve contemplated the irony for a while.
‘Nah. I was never really into all that. I guess you could say I did whatever could be done by firing off emails to the Today programme... and I paid my subs – Friends of the Earth, Avaaz, Amnesty and so on. I occasionally toddled along to meetings. I volunteered to teach painting to homeless people for a while.’
‘Really? That sounds very er... laudable’ she says tentatively.
‘Not really’ I say dismissively. ‘It was hopeless. There were all these stupid reasons why these people were having to come to us instead of being able to go out into the world and find a place for themselves – all because they didn’t look the part – wouldn’t just shut up and do as they were told. Of course we got some right evil bastards in too sometimes... The teenagers used to cheer me up though. They always made more sense to me somehow...’
‘But that’s good’ she says tentatively. ‘Most people would have just... I don’t know... You tried to make a difference. Didn’t you?’
I give her a brief humourless laugh and shake my head.
‘Why not?’
‘I don’t know. It just seems so feeble now. I knew I wasn’t making any real difference. And I don’t know if I would have, given the chance. I just don’t know. I was too comfortable. I had too much to lose. I suppose I was just one of the eighty percent.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. What I mean is I was just another ordinary, mediocre, middle class bloke, preoccupied with his little life. My uncle used to say I was a fully paid up member of the Awkward Squad but I was never really a radical. It was just meetings once a month and signing petitions and selling badges, teaching junkies to paint. I mean, it’s not exactly the most revolutionary... compared with what we were up against... I just never really fitted in with the whole “groupthink” thing anyway. I argued with people a lot for what it’s worth.’
‘Really? You?’ she says ‘I find that hard to believe.’ I give her a little shove in the ribs and she giggles.
‘Ha ha’ I reply dryly.
‘No but seriously Gabriel – no, look at me – you did your bit don’t you think?’
I squirm like one of my adolescent students.
‘No I mean it. Look, you keep on about us all being thankful, being happy with what we are, not constantly craving power and recognition, and now here you are complaining that you didn’t stand up and be counted. It’s the same thing really, don’t you see?’
‘But you did your bit. Gabriel we can’t all be like your friend what’s her name... with the AIDS victims in Africa.’
‘Right. We can’t all be saints like her. And anyway I think you were, a bit, in your own way.’
‘Absolutely. You never let them make you play their stupid games. You just refused. You found your own way. Most people just do what everyone else does. You stood up to them. And you never went in for all that stupid eco-puritanical hair shirts crap either. You talk about it like your life was some enormous cop out, but you know, I think you have a right to feel pretty damn pleased about it. Don’t you?’
‘I suppose...’ I say, highly flattered but somewhat sceptical nonetheless. I still can’t shake the feeling that I should indeed have done more somehow. I’m not sure what exactly. I have to admit it was bloody good though. We were very fortunate, Sophie and I.
As I look around at the boat and the people here I feel I’ve already been away for several years and life seems a very long way away. Mostly, toward the end I remember that peace we had up there on the hillside, with our little domain around us – the fruit trees and the pond and the various shacks and frames and other constructions half buried in the vegetation out the back, and us indoors in our little circle of cushions and rugs and dogs and mugs and various bits of paper, with Joni singing Hejira and dinner on the go and maybe Emily and her bloke come to stay, or Justine there by the stove with her book. The rain beats down outside. The cafetería gurgles. The veggie patch will need weeding again. It always needs weeding. It won’t get done today, that’s for sure. And slowly it gets dark outside and we settle in for the night.

‘I think the world is changing anyway’ says Lisa. ‘I think more and more people are looking around and wondering what all the fuss is about, like you said.’
‘I hope you’re right’ I say.
‘Of course I am’ she says.

Now the sky is as dark as the land and our boat is a tiny lost satellite. We look around and notice that everyone else has gone although the music is still playing down below. ‘Must be late’ I say and begin to ease myself up to stand and am surprised to find it’s as easy as it ever was. I stand up straight, look into Lisa’s face and give her a kiss. We grin stupidly at each other.
‘Come on old man’ she says. ‘I feel like dancing.’
‘Absolutely’ I say, and we head down.
On our arrival in the bar we are delighted to discover that the kitchen is serving crêpes. Wen meets us there, struggling to control her chocolate syrup.
‘How bloody stereotypical an image of gluttony is this?’ she says gleefully. We collect ours and sit with her and some others we’ve not met before, sedately enjoying the party going on around us.
‘What have you two love birds been up to?’ she shouts to us across the table ‘I hope you’ve been up to no good.’
‘Nah’ shouts Lisa, patting my knee ‘He’s spoken for.’
‘I know’ she says, with feeling and I feel very flattered and touched.

We dance a bit more – to some old seventies disco as I recall, and then Raz turns up wearing what appears to be a toga. She’s having a great time. We all do that inarticulate cheering toasting thing with our glasses that people do when they are enjoying themselves too much to speak.
Eventually we all pass out in the big leather sofas, Lisa and I curled together, Wen slumped across the way, Raz sprawled indecorously over one of the kitchen staff. It’s getting light outside.

I hear the grinding of steel. They’re getting ready to dock. It’s too early to wake the others, but that’s what’s happening, and I’m dreading it.
I wish we could just stay like this now forever.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Alison XVII – The Long and Winding Road

‘What happened to your sisters in the end?’ begins Alison the next and final time we meet.
‘Oh that was interesting’ I say, relieved to be able to change the subject. ‘Justine ended up a lesbian, or at least, I think she was bi but she found men just too unreliable.’
I can still see her that last time I was with her at the hospital, with her wife there (it still seems strange to call Stacy that, her wife) and it’s a huge emptiness in my heart, her absence. I wonder where she is now.
‘I loved her very much’ I say. ‘She stood up for me through everything. Mum told me that after dad died. I don’t know if they ever really made it up, mum and Justine. She was my best man actually. Very nice suit...’
‘Amelia moved to Australia with her family. I went over and visited her twice. Beautiful place. Actually I’m pretty sure I remember her having some terrible accident that left her in a wheelchair in my previous existences but that didn’t happen this time – and before, she would have ended up in Woking of all places. I can’t imagine what I did to change that.’
‘Some unintended effect of something you did. Who knows the ramifications of the changes you’ve made? Was your older sister gay last time?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Maybe your changes had a liberating effect on them, which I call a result, don’t you? What about your parents?’
‘Oh, I don’t think anything much changed there. I did try to talk to them this time – tried to explain what I was trying to do, why I did the things I did but I don’t honestly think they understood. Either dad just went off on one about me taking responsibility for my life and not blaming others for my shortcomings, or once, later on, he just started blubbing and saying “Oh I did everything all wrong.” Mum just said not to trouble him, because he was sick. She wasn’t interested in talking at all – wouldn’t even begin to listen.
Alison just shakes her head – exasperated. ‘That simple original lie again...’ she says ‘...that all parents, apart from a few obvious monsters, deep down, must love their children. It’s simply not true Gabriel. And it’s not your fault.’
‘I know. I do get that. And I know there probably wasn’t anything I could have done to change things, but I do wish I could try again sometimes, maybe show them that I’m not a waste of space, because, surely they’d wish that wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t want to think of their son that way surely, if they could avoid it? Surely they’d rather be happy for me?’
Alison doesn’t have an answer, except to say ‘Perhaps you’ll meet them here.’
And I say ‘Oh God I hope not’ which makes us both laugh, which is nice.

After a pause she says ‘And what about Sophie?’
‘How did you...?’
‘She’s right here in your notes.’
‘Ah. Right.’
‘Was she another of your many women?’
‘Ha! Not exactly. I knew there was something about her though. I happened to be on the prom near the Palace Pier – the afternoon of mid summer’s day in the year 2000. I don’t know why. She was there by the doughnut stand, with her little girl who was getting into a mess with her doughnut and Sophie was bending down, sorting her out. I didn’t know at the time of course, what I know now, but I had that feeling again, that I knew her. I even knew the little girl’s name – Emily. It was bit creepy to be honest. I know Sophie thought so. I didn’t know how to explain it.’
I look at Alison, sitting there impassively. I wish I’d stopped talking when I got to Andrea but I have to finish now.
‘So what did you do?’
‘Oh, I tried to act natural, you know, just be sociable but I know she thought I was a nutter, or maybe a child molester. I suppose I tried too hard. Funny, after that, I just knew that this immense part of my existence had collapsed – a whole possible future somehow erased. Just like that.’
‘And Nicky. You saw Nicky again didn’t you?’
‘I did. Vikki and I were up in London seeing some friends. Actually it was my idea to go up that weekend. I mean, I liked Rachel and Steve but that wasn’t it. It felt really important at the time. I wanted to go and see something at the Tate that weekend I remember, but that wasn’t it either. Vikki and I weren’t getting on very well really. I think she’d realised my heart wasn’t in it and I’d been up to Birmingham to see Andrea a couple of months before, ostensibly just for old time’s sake, as friends, but...’
‘You slept together.’
‘I know it sounds feeble but I really didn’t intend to, but there was only one bed in her flat and I remember saying “it’s ok, you’re not totally irresistible. I can control myself you know” and she said “Well I’m not sure I can” and that was it, foregone conclusion.’
It was strange actually because I realised at the time that she had never actually been that good in bed – a bit lazy really. She really loved having it all done to her but tended to drop off afterwards. I remember really missing Vikki’s mad energy that night and feeling like crap in the morning. Andrea knew something was wrong and that was the last time we slept together. I didn’t really miss it.

‘Anyway, I wanted to make it up to her, take her out, have a nice time, you know. And then we were up on Waterloo Bridge just as the sun was going down, hand in hand, singing Waterloo Sunset and I really thought “This is it. We can be happy together. I really love her” and I did. I really did. I almost proposed then and there. And then I saw this tall, voluptuous blonde leaning over the rails, looking at the sun and I just had to go and say something. I didn’t know why, I just knew it was really important, and Vikki was trying to pull me away, still laughing and singing but I insisted. I told her she was an old friend and implied there was something really important I had to do. She just looked at me and stepped back. I tried to take her along, to introduce her but she wouldn’t move. I just left her standing there, waiting, as usual, while I went and said hello to a woman that Vikki knew any man would fancy more than her. I tapped the girl on the shoulder and she started and turned. And then she smiled and said hello in a voice that was so familiar and so dear, and, I realised, so free of suicidal intent that I was completely lost for a moment. That was when I noticed the buggy beside her and the little boy in it. We greeted each other like old friends, although we had to remind each other of our names, and I called Vikki over and introduced her and tried to make a joke of it (“Nicky this is Vikki, Vikki this is Nicky”) and she shook her hand and was at least civil. We took a moment to look at each other, me all in black and with my shaved head and goatee, and her in her fresh make-up and perfect hair and what I assume were designer clothes. The last time we’d seen each other we’d been in bleached and wrecked combats, wild and free in the desert. Here, today, a bus passed too close and an inebriated businessman whistled at her. Then I looked at Vikki in that ridiculous purple beret and pink dress and blue leggings and I remember thinking why the heck couldn’t she just dress like a proper woman?
‘Anyway, I had this idea that Nicky had wanted to go to China and she said yes, she had, but now she had little Giles to take care of and she was really very happy. I asked about the father and she told me he was a builder. She was just up for the weekend, to see her father. Then we said good to see you again and take care and I took Vikki’s arm and we headed back to the flat. She never asked and I couldn’t tell her without making it sound like a lie, but I really couldn’t say where I knew her from.’
‘Well you know now.’
‘You didn’t see her again.’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Well don’t make it sound like you’d never consider such a thing, like you’re so blameless. So you didn’t have sex with Nicky. Big deal! Vikki wouldn’t have been suspicious if you hadn’t given her good reason.’
‘I know... I do know that’ I say, chastened.
‘Right. Good. So what happened?’
‘I broke us up.’
‘Actually, I tried a couple of times. It was just so horrible. She just cried so much and wanted to know what she’d done wrong and everything. Then I was crying too and I just ended up saying something about how we could maybe try again.’
‘Were you seeing anyone else?’
‘No, not for a long time before that. I just couldn’t stand it. I just wanted to be honest and straight with someone but it couldn’t be with Vikki. There was too much damage. And she wanted a baby, and I just thought, I’m not fit for this. I’m just too self-centred.
‘Anyway, I eventually did it with a letter. It sounds cowardly but I knew I just couldn’t do it face to face. I just knew when she started crying again I’d give in and it would just be horrible all over again. So I sent her a letter. It was just short, on a scrap of notepaper because it seemed stupid to worry about stationery. I just had to write it and send it. I don’t know if she understood.’
I look at Alison for some absolution, at least for the way I did it, if not for the rest but she just nods and I just have to accept it. I feel so wretched anyway. I don’t really care any more. I deserve this.
‘What happened to her?’
‘I don’t know. I was afraid she’d do something... but I doubt it. She was very strong actually. She said to me once “It takes a lot of strength to be this weak.” I think it was a quote from somewhere. I really did love her you know.’
I see Alison’s expression soften, ever so slightly. ‘I expect you did. But not enough.’

‘I’m not here to condemn you’ she says, after I’ve had a chance to compose myself. ‘I mean, I have my opinions of course, but what I think is irrelevant.’
‘What’s this all been for then?’
‘You mean you didn’t need to have this conversation?’
I nod resignedly. Fair enough.
‘It seems to me that you were under the illusion that your life could be perfected. You thought that if you could just sort out the early part of your life – what happened with your parents and your education, that somehow everything else would fall into place. You’d no longer be this frustrated renegade outsider character and you could relax and enjoy life.
‘And to a great extent you achieved that and you can be justly proud of your achievement. And you did it without going to the other extreme and becoming a tycoon or a megalomaniac. You retained an admirable humility and sense of justice. Not everybody does.
‘Unfortunately as it turned out you found that something else took its place. Your fear of unworthiness and undesirability meant that you couldn’t help yourself craving more and more female company even when you had a perfectly good woman waiting for you at home. Your fear of loneliness meant you couldn’t bear to leave an unhappy relationship even when you found you were perfectly capable of meeting other women. You became what I suppose would once upon a time have been termed a womaniser. For a while there you became a jerk. I’m sure you’d agree.
I nod.
‘But if you do want my judgement, for what it’s worth, it’s that this is all a bit self-indulgent. It’s really not very terrible, in the grand scheme of things. You behaved like a jerk, true, and you feel badly about it, as you should, but I can tell you right here and now I’ve heard much worse. You’re not a monster, so... The main injury, it seems to me, is to your good opinion of yourself.’
We sit for a time in silence. I expect her to make the sign of the cross and give me some Hail Marys to do but instead she sits silently and leaves me alone with my remorse.

Just as I’m wondering if it’s time for me to leave she sorts out a fresh page, picks up her pen and says ‘Moving on...’
After I’ve had a little time to blow my nose, drink some water and generally sort myself out she continues ‘What happened next? Did you carry on teaching?’
‘For a while. Obviously I didn’t have a pension. Nobody did. I did some gardening.’
‘Yes, I got quite good at it actually – pruning and weeding. Out in all weathers. It kept me fit, tanned.’
‘I expect that would have made your father proud.’
I know she’s trying to be funny but it pisses me off anyway.
‘I wouldn’t have given him the satisfaction’ I say. ‘If he couldn’t be happy for me because of who I was there was no way I was going to give him the pleasure of being happy that I did what he always said I’d end up doing.’
Alison takes a moment for me to calm down again. ‘I can see you’re still very angry with him.’
‘Well, I wasn’t, not before. When I died he’d been gone thirty years. It all seemed a very long time ago. But now... Now it all feels like he’s still here, or like I’m back there.’
‘Do you think you’ll ever forgive him?’
I take a moment to consider.
‘To be honest I don’t know what that means. I mean, on the one hand, what’s to forgive? He did alright, considering we probably weren’t even related - yes that had occurred to me - and I honestly can’t be sure. We looked a lot like each other – same eyes, but I really can’t say. I don’t even know if it mattered all that much in the end. They did their best as they saw it, fed me, clothed me, provided a roof etcetera. But they were from a different generation weren’t they. They didn’t think about children the way we think about children now. It was all so much more, I don’t know, business-like in those days wasn’t it – functional. That’s just how it was...’
I don’t really believe this. If they’d stopped and thought for a moment surely they’d have realised you can’t leave a child to play on his own for five years and expect him to grow up normal? I still haven’t worked out if I was entitled to want what I wanted or if I should have just put up with it. ‘Life isn’t fair’ mum always used to say, as if that made it all ok.
‘And on the other hand?’ she prompts.
‘What? Oh, on the other hand, doesn’t forgiveness require some sort of contrition? Shouldn’t they, to some extent feel sorry for what they did, do you think, or shouldn’t they at least have tried to understand?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it depends on love.’
I know she’s asking the big question now – did I love my parents? I cast about for an answer. Did they love me? All I can think is, if they did, if I do, it is a notion so weak and so lacking in actual content that it makes almost no difference. Its only power is that I know it should exist and that I would have them back right now if only to have the chance to go searching for it again. Alison bends and looks up into my bowed face. We silently agree to leave it alone for now and move on. It’s getting late.

‘Any more girlfriends?’ she asks, all innocence. I just smile enigmatically.
‘I think I was finally over all that’ I say. ‘It sounds cold but I think I’d done what I had to do. I’d proved I could do it.’
It seems strange now. Once it had all seemed so important – to get to art school, to travel, to meet sexy women. I used to be afraid I’d reach a stage in my life when those things would no longer be interesting and I’d die, spiritually. But when it came, in my early forties I guess, the age I look now, it just felt like a release and it was time to move on into the next part of my life. I think it’s something actually quite rare nowadays – to find that peace in life. So many men (and women too, it seems) go through some sort of mid life crisis, horrified that all the things they dreamt of when they were young are not going to happen, and they panic. I never had that. I hadn’t achieved everything I set out to do, certainly, but I was happy with what I had done and I didn’t really feel the need to keep struggling to do more. Why has our society come to see contentment as mere smugness, as such a failure, as giving up?
‘Actually it was a good time’ I say.
‘Still living at... er, what’s her name’s house?’
‘Oh, Mit you mean? No, she’d died actually, some while back. That was sad.’
‘What of?’
‘Oh just age I think. She was quite old, although she didn’t seem it. And Mum died around about then too...’ I take a moment to think about that. It just seems like a waste.
‘I had another place by then, still renting. I missed my chance to buy my own house back in the nineties, which was typical. And, I was still painting, and exhibiting, and selling a few from time to time.’
‘What sorts of things?’
‘Much the same – landscapes and portraits, some nudes. All fairly conventional stuff but they never quite lost that spookiness I’m glad to say. I’d stopped putting it in deliberately years before but it was always there. I think they appealed to middle-aged people who still liked to think of themselves as a bit edgy but secretly just wanted a nice picture on the wall, you know?’
She looks at me impassively.
‘Never mind. Anyway... What else did I do? Walking. I walked everywhere.’ I never envied people their cars. A good pair of boots and you can always get away. That’s what I say.
‘And I had an allotment. I did a bit of conservation volunteering. I used to go down the Snowdrop sometimes for a pint.’
‘And friends? What about friends?’
I think about that for a little while. I wasn’t lonely exactly but it still makes me a little sad. I still don’t really understand.
‘I never really got the hang of people, to be honest’ I say casually. ‘I don’t know. I was never really relaxed in company. It always felt difficult somehow eventually. I was probably quite hard work... It was ok though. I was alright on my own. It was a serene, simple, self-sufficient existence. I liked it. I travelled a bit – went and stayed with Camille and her family in Hong Kong once. Justine used to come over, or I’d go to her. We’d have dinner, go for a walk, watch a film, but otherwise... And there were a few people I used to say hello to in the street – just acquaintances really. I suppose I was a bit of a loner but Lewes is a good place to be a loner. I fitted in well. I don’t think anyone missed me particularly when I left.’
She gives me a look that tells me that she thinks I’m maybe being self-pitying again, but I’m not.
‘I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I suppose there were times when I looked around at my stuff and felt a little sad but not often. It was ok. It was a nice place. I had a good view and I was content. I’m just not particularly easy company. I know that.’
Now she’s smiling again, which is surprisingly reassuring. I feel somewhat absolved. Actually that’s how it felt at the time, taking myself away, to atone for my sins, to keep myself to myself, out of trouble.
‘And I’m supposed to believe you had no more women at all, for the remainder of your life?’ Alison smiles at me like she knows what’s coming.
‘Well, there was just the one’ I say.
‘I knew it!’ she says with glee.

It was a Monday, when all right-thinking men should be at work. I was out walking over the hills to Fulking, to the Shepard and Dog for lunch, like I used to do a lot back then – up before dawn to Blackcap for sunrise, then down along Underhill Lane and across to Poynings. It was a beautiful morning – the first really bright day of the spring.
It was late morning when I passed this little group of 50s council houses among the fields and I just had to stop and look because I knew this one place so well. I looked at the sprout plants in the front garden, stripped and gaunt, and last year’s beans hanging off their poles, and as I was standing there, like a character out of Chaucer or Bunyan, I saw what I can only describe as a pretty maid carrying a basket of washing to the line. She had nothing on her feet even though it was still very chilly and there was a black and white collie mongrel with her, watching me patiently, slowly wagging her tail. She ruffed at me quietly but not challengingly and then got up to come and see me. The gate was half open and I crouched down and ruffled the thick fur on her neck and let her rub her head on my, frankly rather disgusting trousers – the old combats I used for gardening. The woman stood and looked at me and I knew she recognised me. ‘Tilley’ she called and the dog went back to her and I stood up. ‘Hey Sophie’ I said and I wanted to say I’d come home but it seemed presumptuous to say the least. She came up to me with a quizzical look on her face and I saw her sweet blue eyes and soft skin. She shook her head slowly and I was afraid she’d tell me to go away again but I knew then and there, if she’d done that I’d come back every day, and camped in the field opposite and got carted off by the police if necessary. But she didn’t. She gave me a look like she wanted to say something but thought better of it. Then she invited me in for tea.

We sat awkwardly across from each other, with our mugs on our knees and I looked around at the faded three-piece and at the pictures on the walls, some by Emily, some by Dufy or Chagall – her favourites. I looked at the dried flowers and the books and the bits of lace gathering dust and the dream-catcher and the crystals hanging in the window. Tilley lay on my feet. I could tell she remembered. I looked over at the bookshelf beside the chimneybreast and before I knew it I said I could fix it for her, where she had bricks holding it up. For a second she looked shocked, but only for a second. Then she said ‘Gabriel?’ and it was all I could do not to fall on my knees and sink my face in her lap. I did cry though and she had to run out and get me the kitchen roll. She knelt beside me as I blew my nose and tried to compose myself. ‘Where do I know you from?’ she said at last ‘Besides the Pier’ she added.
‘I was hoping you’d forgotten that.’
‘You had less hair then’ she said, almost putting her hand up to smooth it.
‘Oh, yes. Well it was a bit severe’ and we laugh together like we’ve known each other forever. Which we have, pretty much.

‘Happy ever after’ says Alison, breaking my reverie. That’s when it hits me that I’ve gone and left her again and I have to hold myself rigid to stop my insides spilling out all over the carpet. It’s intolerable.
‘But it’s not is it? It’s not “ever after” is it?’ I say miserably. ‘There’s all this.’
‘Yes’ she says sadly, ‘there is.’
‘Everybody assumes the afterlife is going to be such a great thing.’
‘I suppose it depends on your life.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But you were never unfaithful to Sophie were you?’
‘No, never.’
‘Well there you are. You came through in the end.’
‘But that’s what I’m saying. It’s not the end is it.’
She gives me that look again – the one she always has – the one that tells me she knows what I need to tell her before I’ve even thought it myself.
‘There’s this girl’ I blurt out, ‘or woman... here on the boat.’
‘Does she have a name, this woman?’
‘Lisa’ I say wretchedly. ‘But you already knew that.’
Her expression gives nothing away. ‘Do you love her?’ she says.
‘I’m married. I know... It’s different, but I can’t...’
I’m sunk in misery.
‘Apparently I’ve learned nothing’ I say. ‘Sure I got my life sorted out – after a fashion – as much as I ever will but all I seem to have done is substitute my old sins for a new one. I’m in one of those dreary modern English novels. The moral apparently is Give up! All your good intentions will come to naught. You might as well give in and enjoy your degradation because it’s not going to change. Nothing ever changes. I can’t believe that, can you? People can change, can’t they?’
I see her eyes glisten. It’s just the merest touch. She takes a deep breath and looks intently at me.
‘Fidelity’ she begins. ‘Fidelity is not about never loving or lusting after another person Gabriel. Some people seem to think that if you even so much as look at another woman you might as well pack your bags, but it isn’t like that. What fidelity is, is something much harder. It’s a decision. It’s making the decision to stay faithful to her even though you want someone else. Am I making sense?’
I nod but can’t meet her gaze. She leans forward and clasps my hands in hers.
‘You made that decision Gabriel, and you kept to it – ‘til death did you part.’
‘But it hasn’t, has it? Death hasn’t parted us. She’s still here.’ I punch hard at my heart and glare into Alison’s face. She has to look away but still holds onto my hands.
‘You’re lonely’ she says, looking back into my eyes. ‘Probably you always have been. Sophie gave you some time away from that but it’s never left you.’
‘So what do I do? I can’t betray her.’
It occurs to me that it would be easier if I knew that I was never going to see her again, but even that seems like a betrayal. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s the dark side of love. You can’t have one without the other. ‘I don’t know Gabriel. I am truly sorry, but I can’t tell you what to do. All I can say is try not to be so cruel to yourself. This is real human pain Gabriel – loneliness and grief.’
She lets go of my hands and sits back. I take a tissue and blow my nose.

‘Tell me what happened after that Gabriel. You don’t have to tell me the very end if you don’t want to.’
I wipe my eyes again and lean back in the chair. I start as impassively as I can, keeping to the facts.
‘Well we married a couple of years later. We used the money from the sale of my parent’s house to build a place out near Bramber, near where I lived when I was little, and we lived there until the end. I always loved that area.’
‘And now you know why.’
‘Yes. Yes I do. I think in a lot of ways I was living my dad’s dream. Not the gardening of course, although we did have a lovely garden. Dad wouldn’t have appreciated it – too wild, too much “junk” cluttering the place up, but he’d have appreciated me coming to make a living that way, just pottering about, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. I still don’t know what she saw in me. I think even right up to the end I still half expected her to lose patience with me, become terse and irritable, suddenly realise one day what a loser she’d gone and married, but she never did. She used to tell me I was a good man...’
I feel the tears welling up again for the love of her and I have to stop for a while. Alison passes me another tissue.
‘You thought nobody could ever really want you.’
‘Not after they spent some time with me, found out what I was really like.’
‘And yet you seem to have had nothing but good women in your life, women who genuinely seem to have cared about you.’
‘I know... Strange isn’t it.’
I know this is true. Why doesn’t it seem to make any difference?
‘I suppose there’s always that thing about being a man – being the breadwinner, all that. We never had any money but my girl didn’t care. She just wanted us to be happy and you don’t need a lot of money for that, do you? Just enough. She always said it doesn’t matter how much you earn, you’ll only ever have just enough, or not quite enough, depending on your temperament, and the only real difference between people who make money and people like me who just make ends meet, is how much time you have for the important things in life. I know it sounds trite but that’s the best thing we had, my girl and I – time. All the time in the world...’
I’m nearly in tears again. It seems such a long time ago now, my darling girl and I.
‘I wish I could see her again.’
‘Well, perhaps you will.’

And with that I realise it’s all over, and Alison is no longer my judge. I stand up, a little unsteadily, and hold out my hand as she steps over and, smiling ever so broadly, clasps me tightly in her arms and wishes me the very best of luck. It’s been terrific knowing me apparently.
‘Thank you for listening to me’ I say.
‘Thank you for telling me’ she says.

Voyage XIV – Utopian

Two more days to go, at the most. There are thickly forested hills to port and innumerable craggy islands to starboard, wider at the top than at the base and much taller than we are, like the titanic prows of fossilised aircraft carriers run aground in the shallow tropical waters, each with its own improbable topknot of jungle spilling over the sides. Huge flocks of sea birds swirl about among them and there are the otherworldly calls of countless unidentifiable creatures on the air. On the side of one island we see as we go past what appears to be a huge black and white shaggy animal with a long snout full of needle-like teeth and with monstrous sickle shaped claws, like a giant predatory anteater. It watches us inscrutably with its tiny eyes as we pass, then goes back to watching the water below, presumably looking for lunch. Further on an overhanging tree is full of pale orange Magnolia flowers that smell of liqueur chocolates, and what appear to be feathered squirrels with vivid blue and red tails cocked rigidly. They leap and tumble, gliding the longer spans from branch to branch, following us and snapping at flies as they go. I see one catch and swallow a luminous orange tree frog. Wen is giggling with excitement and shaking her head in wonder. After a while we find loungers and sprawl about in the sun. The humidity is a little less here but not much and it still rains heavily every afternoon. Anyway, we lounge out on deck most of the time. With our smoothies in the morning, cocktails in the afternoon and wine in the evening it really is very pleasant. Besides we have only a very vague notion of what is coming next and are determined to make the most of it. I alone, as far as I know, have a fair idea of what to expect but can’t bring myself to spoil the fun. All in good time I think. Anyway Raz is still preoccupied with our debate. All credit to her, she does actually seem to listen but the way we see the world is so very different. I like her a lot, in a way that I really don’t like Ruth and I think it’s because Raz so obviously has a good heart and she is genuinely interested in what other people have to say. As Raz pointed out when we were talking about Ruth the other day, you don’t necessarily have to be very bright to be rich. All you really need is an obsession with money and raw cunning.
Anyway, just as we’re getting really comfortable Raz turns to me and says ‘I have to say Gabe, going back to what we were talking about, it does all seem a bit flat, this utopia of yours. I’m sorry but I just think I’d die of boredom. It might be ok for some people who don’t expect much out of life, people without much of a brain, and incidentally you don’t strike me as being one of those people...’
‘I always thought this constant craving for novelty was a sign of a less intelligence rather than more.’
‘Well, yes, ok, that’s as maybe but what if you’re not into weaving yourself a yurt or teaching yourself the didgeridoo? Isn’t it just a matter of life style choice? You happen to like that way of life whereas I...’
‘Except that my lifestyle choice gives the world a future and yours doesn’t.’
‘You sanctimonious arse’ she says levelly. I shrug.

After about a quarter of an hour she says ‘Alright, what about a technological solution? We could carry on in the way to which we’ve become accustomed and save the world too. It could happen.’
We all look at her doubtfully.
‘Well... I don’t know’ says Raz. She puts her empty tumbler on the deck and looks like she might go for a top-up but then lays back. None of us can be bothered to move just yet.
‘Honestly Raz’ I say, ‘I’d defend your right, as a capitalist, to buy and sell and hire and fire and generally screw each other to the wall for all eternity if you really want to. As long as you don’t come near the rest of us I’m fine with that. It’s like the difference between a boxing match and a mugging. I don’t mind being a spectator but I don’t want to be forced to take part.’
‘Hmm... You don’t think most people would want to join us, when they saw the amount of dosh we were making?’
‘Well of course the vast majority of you wouldn’t be, and I don’t know how I’d feel about all the millions of losers coming crawling back to us when things didn’t go exactly the way they’d hoped.’
We sit quietly for a while, observing the sea.
‘So are you really offering the prospect of a world where people just do things for the love of it?’
‘Oh God no. Obviously people still have to make a living. I just think, given the chance, most people would rather make a living doing something worthwhile, or have more time free to do something they’re really into.’
She sits and cogitates for a while. The birds seem very busy today, swooping and diving. I glance at Lisa. She looks very relaxed.
‘Well it all sounds very harmonious and wholesome but surely the need to compete is completely natural – naked apes and selfish genes and all that. Wen? Back me up on this – “red in tooth and claw” and so forth?’
Wen huffs a bit and says, without looking up from her book ‘Sure. If it’s good enough for a bunch of baboons. Why not?’
We wait but that’s all she has to say it seems. Lisa is snoring slightly. Apparently this is between us two alone.
‘Seriously though Gabriel – competition is what keeps us keen, makes us strive to do better... No? You don’t think so.’
I frown at her. It’s a sympathetic frown but a frown nonetheless. I never understood this argument.
‘I always found this need to be proving yourself all the time a bit desperate to be honest.’
She just raises her eyebrows at me.
‘Well anyway’ I continue ‘I didn’t really feel like that. I just did what I did as well as I could. I don’t think worrying about what other people were doing would have improved my work. Probably would have harmed it actually...’
‘Well you’re maybe a little unusual in that respect sweetie.’
‘Well maybe. But I don’t believe that highly competitive people are necessarily better at their jobs.’
‘Well obviously I can’t accept that.’
‘Well obviously...’
‘But all the same, you must admit, the reality is that nowadays competition is a fact of life. You can’t avoid it. Everybody has to be prepared to compete to survive.’
‘Raz’ I say condescendingly, ‘everybody has to go to the toilet. It doesn’t make it the meaning of life.’
I see Wen laugh a little. I like that reply. I came up with it years ago.
Raz just shrugs.

We watch the afternoon’s storm clouds rolling in from the west. It’ll be time for lunch soon. The deck is oddly deserted. I guess the others have gone in already. A huge bird soars overhead and jettisons an impressive amount of guano in the water not far away.
‘Fair comment’ says Wen. Lisa grips my hand and we sit there, holding hands like that, in public. There doesn’t seem to be much point hiding it now. Oh well.

‘So, how did you make a living in the end Gabriel? What did you do?’
‘Oh, mostly teaching... a bit of gardening. And I had my painting and drawing. My wife did freelance stuff – translating and such like, and some writing. She had a book published you know.’
‘Really? What was it called?’ asks Raz.
‘Um... You know, I don’t remember. That’s embarrassing. I do remember it was the story of a young woman doomed to a life of servitude and drudgery, who goes down into Hell (I don’t remember how she got there), meets the love of her life and learns to fight the demons. It was a sort of an epic poem in the style of Dante or Milton I think. She was very into that stuff.’
Raz and Wen want to look appreciative but I can see why they don’t get it.
‘I know it sounds a bit archaic or pretentious’ I add, apologetically, but then think, why should I apologise? It was wonderful to read as I recall – full of fabulous imagery and amusing asides, and a lot of genuine pathos. I remember being quite mute when I reached the end.
‘In the end’ I go on, ‘the girl leads the Unjustly Condemned to freedom. It’s very beautiful.’
I can’t begin to describe my pride when she showed me the publisher’s letter. It was only a small independent publishing company and I don’t think they sold more than a couple of thousand copies but she said it was the most fulfilling moment of her life (apart from meeting me, she said, but I’d have been more than happy to take second place.) God, why can’t I remember what it was called? It was something classical. I never had the memory for that sort of thing. Still I should remember that much.
‘It sounds wonderful’ says Lisa, beaming at my over-evident rapture. I’m almost in tears again.
‘So anyway’ I say, pulling myself out of my reverie and getting back to the subject, ‘that helped with the bills...’
‘What Raz?’
‘I just find it hard to accept that you were prepared to just settle for such a humble existence like that... to just give up, when you were both so obviously talented.’
‘Excuse me? Give up on what?’
‘Well, on success, on fame and fortune, as an artist I mean, didn’t you want some of that?’
‘What, immortality you mean?’
She laughs a bit. It seems a ridiculous concept now. ‘You know what I mean’ she says.
I just have to shrug. I genuinely wasn’t that bothered. Why do people think of that as ‘giving up’? Why couldn’t we be happy as we were? People liked my paintings and I enjoyed making them. They gave me money for them and that meant I could stay home and paint some more instead of having to try to motivate a bunch of day-releasers at the college full time. It paid for my materials which meant I didn’t have to plunder the household budget. It was a good system. I remember when one of my pieces turned up in one of the Sunday supplements – it was a bit of a shock, the attention I got, for a while, and I was glad when it passed.
‘Honestly Raz, I’m not being funny. It makes no sense to me at all. I simply don’t get it.’ I glance at Lisa. She looks proud to be with me. ‘Really’ I add. ‘I was really happy as I was... We were really happy... I don’t want to appear smug...’
‘Ok, but you did have a nice little place in the country. It’s not exactly typical.’
‘True. And we bought it out of the proceeds from our respective parent’s properties too, so we were practically aristocracy. No I just think that, if the world was set up properly everybody’d be able to afford a little place of their own somewhere. And of course not everyone wants to live in the country. I don’t feel very guilty about having a two bedroom bungalow with a veggie patch to be honest.’
But the fact is I do feel a little guilty about it. I know we were very lucky to have what we did.
‘You think if the world was set up properly everybody would be able to live the way you did. Is that what you’re saying?’ says Raz eventually. Actually I think I do. I think about our little self-build up there on the Coombes Road looking out across the valley at the old cement works. It was a place I’d loved to go when I was a teenager, when I needed to get away and empty my head. As it was I always came back with a head full of pictures to paint instead.
‘But didn’t you sometimes think – wouldn’t it be nice if I could have a state of the art... I don’t know... What do artists use that’s hugely extravagant? I don’t know, a camera or something, or what about a new hi-fi? You liked your music didn’t you, or a new Aga for the kitchen? Your wife would have appreciated that surely?’
I shrug and nod equivocally. It would have been nice. My studio was a pokey little shed at the bottom of the garden with a wood burner. It was literally frozen in winter sometimes. We’d looked into having a nice new timber-framed building, but then...
‘It’s just... when it came to it, all I could think about was all that time I’d have had to spend at work paying for it, when there were so many other things I wanted to do...’
‘You didn’t feel the need for anything else at all?’ She clearly doesn’t get it. Not want new things all the time? What kind of freak was I?
‘To be honest we just liked our little place. And there was always the ducks and the rabbits and the dog to feed and the veggies to look after. Nothing else seemed that important in the end I suppose...’
But it does feel a bit weak somehow – me of all people, the Little Englander. A memory came to me last night of my girl at dusk in early spring among the daffodils on the grass, talking to the ducks, dressed in just her nightdress and wellies. I take a photograph – her still fine body silhouetted against the dying sun, grinning at me. She always liked to feel the cold air on her skin. She must have been in her late forties by then but she was always a good-looking woman. The glow of the billowing cotton around her legs contrasts with the heads of the purple sprouting broccoli and the flat maroon of her two Indian runners striding about like a pair of vicars deprived of their arms.
‘People always think life is elsewhere’ I say, ‘like teenagers going “It’s so boring around here. There’s nothing to do.” But I was never bored.’
Raz sits and looks for a while, somewhat sadly it seems to me.
‘What is it?’ I say.
‘I think you were very lucky’ she says. I nod pensively. ‘No, not the way you think’ she adds. ‘I think you were lucky because you had the passion and motivation you did. Most people are boring – they don’t want to think about anything, or create anything, or God forbid, have a proper relationship. They just want everything laid on for them, quick, cheap and convenient. Give them four days off a week and they’d go bonkers. The only thing they’d want to do is go shopping.’
I observe her for a moment. She looks so comfortable, so glib in her misanthropy.
‘It makes you feel good doesn’t it Raz – how completely crap the human race is, and being certain there’s sod all to be done about it. It gives you that warm cuddly feeling inside doesn’t it.’
It’s the only time ever I saw her look really pissed off by something I said. It didn’t last though.
‘I don’t want to worry you but it’s starting to rain’ interrupts Lisa. I reluctantly start to gather my things.
‘I don’t know’ says Raz eventually as she rummages around for her sunglasses case. ‘I just can’t help thinking that none of what you’re talking about would be possible without all those thousands of oiks toiling away behind the scenes. Seriously... I don’t like to disappoint you Gabriel, but...’
‘No, you’re right’ I say, standing there with my book, waiting for them to gather all their feminine things together. ‘I actually don’t know if it’s possible to live even as well as we did without the oik factor.’
The first heavy drops begin to fall and we scurry for the door. Once inside we look around to see where there might be a seat. Outside the door there’s a deluge and everything is under an inch of water almost instantaneously.
‘Made it just in time’ says Raz. ‘Where shall we sit?’

Once seated and perusing today’s menu Raz leans over and places her hand on my arm and says ‘I’m just being realistic Gabriel’ as if I need consoling. I don’t. I haven’t lost.
‘That’s what people always say when they’re being negative’ I say smugly. (Another ready reply from way back.) ‘You entrepreneurial types are always on about “pushing the envelope” or “thinking outside the box” when it’s about making more money but when it’s about making the world a better place you’re all “Well you have to be realistic” and “Mustn’t do anything too risky.” But no, you’re right. I don’t know for sure whether it’s possible. But then, neither do you.’
Raz nods cogitatively and says nothing. Time to shut up I feel. We sit for a while, looking at the wine list or looking around at the other people. I’m going to miss this.
‘The thing is Raz...’ I say after a while. ‘This is the last thing I want to say. Promise.’
She looks up at me ‘Yes’ she says and I have to admire the fact that she does at least hear me out. It’s most unusual.
‘The thing is, I’m not a religious person...’
‘Oh come off it sweetie, you’re one of the most religious people I’ve ever met’ and she grins at me and pats my hand. I can’t be bothered to argue the point. Maybe I am. Who knows?
In my humblest voice I say ‘The thing is, I am aware my views seem stupid and idealistic, but...’
‘I never said they were stupid.’
‘Naïve then, but really, I just can’t bear the idea that we’re just going to go on as we have, the human race I mean, contaminating the place, torturing each other, for ever. I can’t. I just have to believe we can do better than that. I suppose it is like an article of faith with me. I have to believe in it.’
I suddenly realise I have something of an audience. The whole table is looking at me, including a group of strangers at the far end. Lisa is gripping my hand.
‘I mean it’ I say. ‘I couldn’t bear to go through life not believing that. I can’t imagine how I’d do it’ and I go back to looking at the menu.
Raz takes a moment, perhaps agreeing it would be best to leave it at that but she can’t resist trying to have the last word. ‘I hate to say it Gabe, but I really don’t think it’s likely to happen, human nature being what it is.’
I look up and say ‘I didn’t say I thought it was likely. I just have to think it’s possible.’
‘And you really do think it’s possible.’
‘Absolutely. If we want it badly enough. One day we’ll look back on all that frantic rushing around and think “What the heck was all that about?”
Raz nods and says nothing.
‘I think this is the “agree to differ” part of the show’ says Wen. ‘Shall we order? There seems to be a rather tempting Thai fish curry on offer.’
I grin at Raz and she pulls me toward her and kisses me on the cheek. I think we’re done. I don’t have anything more to say anyway. Lisa smiles at me and we order our meal with champagne. I have no idea what we’re celebrating but there’s definitely something in the air.

After dinner is over, Wen, Lisa and I sit in the forward lounge with our books and our coffees and some rather wonderful chocolate truffles. Outside the weather looks fairly clear but we’ve learned not to trust it. Tropical storms seem to blow up at pretty much any time after midday. Raz got her glad rags on after dinner so we assume she’s on the razzle (‘Very droll’ she said ‘Don’t think I’ve not heard that one before’). We wave her away and get back to our books. As time goes on and it gets darker, the chocolates deplete and the coffee changes for liquers and Lisa and I sink closer and closer into our sofa and Wen says it’s time to call it a night. We say good night to her too and cuddle up together there, not even pretending to read. Outside, someone is laughing so hard they sound like they might rupture something.
‘Tell me about you wife’ she says.
‘Because you loved her so much, I can tell.’
‘Maybe tomorrow.’
‘That’s when we land’
‘Maybe tonight then.’
‘Ok. Tonight.’

Journey XIV – Women

I remember the disembarkation quite well. It had rained solidly for two days and the guides told us they couldn’t wait any longer so we collected our few belongings and the kit that had been supplied for us and dropped into the little boats ready to take us ashore. The guy manning the tiny buzzing out-board smiled but said nothing and after a quick ride up past a headland we came into a wide estuary and there was a jetty and a small group of bamboo houses set among the trees. At that stage we were still in high spirits though apprehensive of what we might find in this new continent. Even Raz was having a good time, even though she told us she wouldn’t have been seen dead carrying her own belongings in life. ‘I just don’t do baggage’ she said and, by smiling suggestively at him, tried to enlist the help of one of the locals who was going to be travelling with us. He laughed but did not take her bag.
‘Oh well. Worth a try’ she said and hefted the rucksack deftly onto her back.

The first part of the trip took us up a narrow winding path through the trees and was extremely hot and wet. Even when it wasn’t raining the foliage dripped non-stop and the way forward was obscured by a combination of the water vapour that rose off of everything and the intense rays of sunlight. No one complained however – it was good to be off the ship at last and using our legs again.
Lisa and I had, by mutual consent, chosen to cool our relationship down. It had reached an intensity during those last few days on board that I for one, could not sustain. She said that was fine but something in her voice was not content. It was single file walking all the way up into the mountains and I had to make myself not walk behind her so as not to become completely deranged. The actual physical heat was bad enough without watching her shapely arse flex and jiggle as she walked along in front of me all the way to wherever it was we were going.
Still, we managed to remain close and my main memory of those early days is of the two of us invariably drawn together when the path was wide enough to walk side by side, chatting incessantly about everything. Wen and Raz and a couple of the others joined in too but mainly it was just us two together. Nothing else seemed anything like as interesting. The others did not attempt to hide their amusement.
I know, looking back on it, it was unfair. I was unfair to her. I don’t know if she was aware of it but if I’m going to be totally honest I knew even then. I was keeping her hanging on when I knew she would ultimately be let down. I allowed myself to behave like a man in love, no, to be a man in love, because I had to keep her there, because I needed her to be there, to be mine. I couldn’t bring myself to let her go because... because of what?
‘Because you were afraid to be alone’ says Sonia.
I nod sadly, acknowledging her wisdom. That’s probably all there was to it.

We are sitting on the terrace of one of the tiny side street bars in the northern end of the town away from the hubbub of the main ‘business district’ (as the main market square is laughably known), at a table in the shade of three lemon trees. Across the little square (or triangle actually) a man with a bicycle strolls, the handlebars laden with bags of vegetables. He smiles and waves, as people tend to do here as they pass by. A little melee of orange and yellow butterflies flutters in under the trees, battling furiously, or trying to mate, and is then swept up into the sky and across the roofs. I look at Sonia’s face, partly hidden in the shadow of her broad straw hat. The bruise has all but gone but I see it still, like I put it there yesterday. I can’t apologise enough.
‘I still don’t understand why you couldn’t simply be with her. It seems it was what you both wanted.’
‘I know’ I say, but I don’t. There’s something missing, something important, some sort of betrayal. I wonder about going to see the monks again, to see if they can free my memories a bit more.
‘How was Brother Jeffrey?’ she says. ‘You went to see him, in hospital, no?’
Our conversation still lacks the warmth and spontaneity it had before. I hope it’s just a matter of time. Her questions are somewhat abrupt and formal. On the other hand, she did arrange this outing.
‘He’s out now actually, back at work’ I say.
‘That’s good’ she says and looks around, as if to see if there’s someone else to talk to, but the place is deserted and silent but for the radio playing quietly inside the bar behind the bead curtains. It’ll be another half hour or so before Miguel is scheduled to arrive and already we don’t know what to talk about. Actually that’s a lie. I know exactly what to talk about. I still want to go over what brought me here, to fill in the gaps and I want to tell her what happened in that place at the end because I think she has the wrong idea about me. She doesn’t seem to want to hear about it however and I still feel like I need to tread very carefully. I asked Kevin and he just said ‘give her time’.
‘He said they help a lot of people who come here, Jeffrey I mean.’ And I’m immediately aware that I’m steering the conversation.
‘Perhaps you should consider joining them. You could do some good.’
I can’t tell if I’m being over-sensitive but she seems to be implying that I’m doing harm where I am.
‘Maybe. I don’t know’ I say and we lapse into silence again.

Actually Brother Jeffrey had suggested the same thing but less ambiguously. I asked how they cope with people like me wandering in out of the wilderness, damaged and deranged. He said it is the price they pay. He said this community is always torn between self-preservation and the urge to help the stranger. It is always a balance. ‘God grant it never tips too far in either direction’ he said.
So I am the price they pay – the price for living like this, in this utopia. I knew there’d be a catch. I’m the catch – me and others like me, because it turns out there have been quite a few of us, come the way I did.
All in all Brother Jeffrey had a rather patronising priestly way of expressing himself and I didn’t feel inclined to join up but he said he bore me no ill will and I had to believe him. He seemed very accepting and genuinely pleased to see me. Then sister Luisa took me out of the ward and showed me, rather bravely I thought, the corridors and rooms where I’d had my ‘attack’ as they called it, and the friezes and statues that had troubled me. They still troubled me but they didn’t bring on the same reaction. It was obvious even now that they were indeed representations of the places I’d seen. I asked about the people who’d created these images and got the same answer as with Peter – the artists were mostly living peacefully here or had moved on. She implied that none of them were carving out a new and vicious career in our midst. That gave me hope.
I mentioned perhaps making something myself for the sanctuary and she seemed inordinately pleased and said she’d heard I was an artist. I left it at that for the time being.

Finally Miguel turns up, accompanied by Ross and Mo and Cleome and another woman. Strength in numbers I guess. Mo looks, as always, delighted to see me and slaps my back violently.
‘Good to have you back’ he says grinning heartily. ‘You look well my friend.’ The mood lifts immediately and the bar’s owner comes out and asks what we’d like to drink. I immediately feel better because I know I’m going to pay for everything today – my treat. We’ll see how Sonia likes that.
Anyway, I’m happy to have my mind taken off things. The beers arrive and we toast my recovery and my new life and my garden and my job and pretty much everything else about me. I notice Sonia really trying to smile along with everyone else.
The conversation moves on to work and the weather and the coming fiesta and a concert scheduled for next week by an orchestra I really must see apparently, and then there’s some bitching about the person who runs the fish ponds and a ballot that’s due to take place in a couple of weeks time. There seems to be a dispute about a building project and a whiff of corruption in the planning system. I don’t know why it heartens me to hear this and I feel like laughing out loud.
A thought... Me, here, at this table, under this parasol, drinking this beer, having these sorts of conversations with these people, perhaps once or twice a month, for all eternity. Here comes the waiter. I imagine myself here in this exquisite sunshine – with the sound of the birds... distant voices.... the scent of lemon blossom, olive oil and cumin, for all time, and it feels... it feels like bliss. I take a deep breath and I can’t remember what all that fuss was about back in the world – to be original, to make a difference, to lead a full life. More novelty, more excitement, more, more more... I try to remember how we were so bored and dissatisfied so much of the time. It doesn’t make any sense any more. There’s so much to look at, to think about, to do, to understand, to love. A grain of sand. A wild flower... I don’t think I’ll ever be bored again. I can’t even think what that would mean...
Sonia is grinning at me. I don’t know why, but I grin back at her anyway.

I walk home by a short cut across the fields to a place where I can hop over the wall into my garden. It’s just getting dark when I get there. I’ve tidied up my banana grove and there’s a new crop coming along rapidly. That should be good as long as the fruit bats don’t get there first. I follow the path down along my little stream and wind up on my terrace. I’m going to spend the night out in my hammock. I can’t quite get used to the moon being back again. She’s not quite the way I remember her. Here she’s just like a bright, friendly face in the night sky, just out of reach above the trees. I’m told that her nightly visits are a feature of these parts. Either way the night sky is still beguiling and I still love to look up into it, wondering as the ancients must have done, what it’s like up there.
Cleome is a sweet girl, tall and slightly ungainly and her hair falls over her eyes all the time. She apologises a lot. She reminds me of Lisa.

I could see Lisa was falling for John almost from the start. Well, why wouldn’t she? He was tall and fair and toned and he was funny and yet sensitive and caring and he wasn’t attached to Anne after all. He and Lisa hit it off straight away, chatting about school and music and TV shows I hadn’t even heard of. Even the way she talked transformed completely, from educated middle-class Surrey to London pubs and clubs. Even the way she walked changed.
Oh she was still friendly enough to me. On the face of it nothing changed. Raz didn’t know what I was on about but I knew things were different. They tried to be loyal, Raz and Wen, but they were charmed too, and they were right to be. He was a lovely guy, really.
And it was right, because I was just a friend. I know that. It was exactly what I had been intending all along, to be her friend and to see her happy, and now it was as it should be. I was after all more than twenty years her senior – easily old enough to be her father. John was of her own generation, and had been a journalist and a photographer and he’d been everywhere. He was just perfect for her.
I don’t know what came over me.
It started with me just hanging back, walking on my own, letting them talk amongst themselves. John had been to Shiraz and Oaxaca and Coff’s Harbour and Kigali and he’d covered the liberation of Baghdad and the unification of the Muslim nation (‘George W.Bush’s greatest achievement’ he said. We all laughed). Lisa tried to include me and went on to him about my painting and some of the things I’d come out with about how the world should be and, the bastard, he said he thought I was right about everything.
Wen walked with me sometimes. She said she wasn’t that impressed with him. She said he was a typical journalist – just in it for the big story – no real conviction, but although we smiled conspiratorially her cynical take on him did not make me feel better. It just made me feel even more wretched because actually I really liked him. Anyway, I’m not sure she meant it. I think she was just trying to cheer me up.
I really wasn’t trying to make things difficult. I wasn’t giving them the silent treatment at all. I simply couldn’t think of anything to say any more. Wen and Raz both tried to chivvy me along and include me but they were both having too good a time to try very hard. Anyway, I didn’t want them to. I felt terrible every time they came back to find me or made the effort to include me in the conversation around the campfire. I just felt so irrelevant, so superfluous, and the worse I felt, I thought, the less they wanted me around them. I was in the way. It all felt horribly familiar. So on top of everything I was hugely disappointed in myself. I knew I wasn’t being fair but I’d come to depend on them so much, and on her especially. As time went on I just felt terribly alone.
Lisa at first just didn’t notice anything had changed. She was just hugely lively all the time and I actually caught her skipping along with Anna at one point, which was ironic because Anna was not happy either, since she’d had her eye on John too. She wouldn’t speak to me because she was pissed off that I didn’t come and have a word with ‘my girlfriend’. We really didn’t get on, Anna and I.
Later, Lisa took me aside and tried to find out what was wrong but of course I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t want to spoil things. I put my bravest face on and told her I was fine. Even then, Raz told me later, if I’d taken Lisa in my arms and told her I loved her everything would have been fine, but I didn’t. I couldn’t and I still don’t know why.

How pathetic, that we’d come this far and this was the afterlife, and we’d all died, tragically, painfully, hopelessly, needlessly, and here we were, in this extraordinary, unprecedented landscape, negotiating precarious crumbling tracks on the thickly forested lower slopes of the most prodigious mountain anyone is ever likely to witness, a mountain so high that no snow ever reaches the top and the upper third is simply a cold stone.
And there I was, stumbling along, sulking, eaten out with jealousy.
I was dwarfed in every way imaginable.

I only half remember the argument when it came, but when it came it felt good, it felt right, it felt just. Lisa had lost patience with me, quite rightly, and had quite rightly surmised the cause of the trouble.
I for my part had got to the point where I wanted to hurt everyone, I don’t know why. Maybe I wanted them to finally give up on me, to tell me I was after all a waste of space and to leave me alone. Then it would be over at last. I wanted to push it and push it and push it until finally it pushed me back.
I said some things, about John and Anna and Lisa, things I shouldn’t have said – about how easy it was for them, so easy, and Lisa said I had no idea what I was talking about, and I implied that now she wasn’t sick any more she could just go and have anyone she liked
And she just looked at me like she didn’t have the faintest idea who I was. She just turned away and started walking.

That was the last I saw of her. She turned and marched off up a side path. John went to follow her but she yelled at him to just sod off and leave her alone.
We all stood around and waited. Then it started to get dark and to rain harder and we made camp and waited some more. No one knew what to say. No one spoke to me and that was right. They shouldn’t have. Almost as soon as I’d done it I knew it had been the wrong thing to do – a stupid thing to do, a silly, childish, bad tempered self-indulgent, self-pitying thing to do. I knew it. I knew it all too well, and I knew it from before too. It wasn’t a new thing. It’s how I was and how I had always been. And now, finally, I’d made her suffer for it, sweet beautiful Lisa, who never hurt anyone. A harsh tearing scream rose in my chest and into my throat but I wouldn’t let it out. I clamped my jaws tight and my eyes too, trying to force the tears to stay in, for how dare I cry, after all that had happened? I didn’t deserve to cry. I didn’t deserve anything. I looked at the others but they didn’t know how to react to me. I tried to work out what to say to her, to make it alright somehow, because surely that must be possible. Surely it couldn’t just be like this? All the while I was glancing up at the slope, waiting to see her familiar, lovely form coming back down. I tried to think what to say that would bring her back. The dialogue skidded about my brain and I could probably be heard talking to myself, crying and pleading to her that I didn’t mean it and I was so terribly sorry and I was stupid and jealous and I had no right to be and could she ever forgive me?
The others just looked away. I was way beyond understanding. There was nothing anyone could say. When they all bedded down in hike tents I sat out under my poncho a little way up the path she’d taken. Our guide took a torch and had a quick scout around but said there was nothing to do until morning. Then she looked at me in that way I knew so well – the look that says that there may have been some sympathy but now it was gone.
By morning I was gone too.

‘I understand Peter took a couple guys up there where you were after you last saw him.’
It’s two days later. Kevin lounges opposite me on the other sofa, holding his brandy in both his hands, keeping it warm.
‘From what he told me it sounds like you did the right thing. You should be proud of yourself.’
It’s been a long day, trying to get everything done before the monsoon really blows in. Outside, the rain is falling steadily and probably will continue to do so until tomorrow morning. Then it’ll start again tomorrow afternoon and so on for the forseeable. Looks like we’re settled in here again. I feel strangely unaffected by the news.
‘What did they find, exactly?’ I say.
‘Bunch of kids, well, you know, what look like kids, running around up there.’
‘No adults.’
‘Apparently not.’
I take a while to think about this. I stand up and wander over to the hob and stir the dahl. It doesn’t need stirring but I do it anyway.
‘You did the right thing Gabe. You stood up to them. Most wouldn’t have. Many here... didn’t.’
He looks at me meaningfully.
‘What? You mean...’
‘Oh I’m not saying... no. But most people, most of us, would have just gone along with what was going on, in your position, if they didn’t think they had any choice. Or you could have just walked away.’
‘I couldn’t. I couldn’t just...’
‘Exactly.’ he says. Then he toasts me and says ‘You have every right to feel very pleased with yourself.’
‘Yeah right’ I say dismissively. He looks at me quizzically. ‘Seriously Kev, I’ve been thinking about all this.’ He observes his feet impassively. I go on anyway. ‘I think at the time I’d decided it would mean something – something I thought the narrative needed at the time – some big bloody climax, a final showdown or something, like in Hollywood. I wasn’t thinking about what happened afterwards. But in the end I was just sick of it all. I’d just had enough and I was happy to stop, to just be thrown into the wilderness. Do you know what I mean?’
If he nodded it was barely perceptible and might have been my imagination. ‘Seriously Kev, I’m honestly not one of the good guys. I’m just an awkward, bad-tempered bastard. I just never do as I’m told.’
He grins at me and says ‘Yeah right’ and raises his glass to me again. I look at him and take a sip from my glass. I feel a smile come. I give up. I walk over and clink glasses with him.
Even so, there is still the fact that I know what it feels like to hack into a person – the feel of the blade on muscle and bone and the sight of the wounds, and the smell, how satisfying. And the screaming and running about – the looks on some of their faces, like they really didn’t understand why this was happening to them. Whilst all the time I was standing there knowing finally that this was exactly what should be happening and why couldn’t these stupid people see that?
I had no sympathy. How can that be a good thing?
And yet I know their bodies are off repairing themselves somewhere as we speak and no doubt it’s not over. Nothing is ever over.
‘I meant to ask you’ I say, sitting down again, ‘whose house this was.’
‘Oh you mean Derek. Hah!’ and he takes a long drink at the memory and pours himself some more, and me too. My glass is empty too.
‘Derek was quite a character. Lived in this old place a good... Oh I don’t know... You know how hard it is to keep track here.’
‘You knew him well?’
‘Not well... He kept himself to himself, but when you did see him he’d be out doing something crazy – not insane crazy, just ill conceived crazy. He ended up here when his house in the forest fell down for reasons we need not go into. Jeannie and Duncan knew him. Have you been out there to see them yet? They’d love to see you. Always asking after you...’
‘Maybe next week’
‘I’ll tell you what. There’s a party up there, couple of weekends time. You should come. Be a blast. Bring a friend. What about Sonia? You two seem to get along well enough.’
‘She’s not exactly single Kev.’ He goes to object but I head him off ‘And any way, she’s still hardly speaking to me.’
‘Oh Gabriel. How long’s it been? Nearly two months. You only smacked her accidentally. You didn’t mean to do it.’
‘Really. Apparently the monks were trying to restrain you and she was in there trying to talk to you and you just...’ he mimes me thrashing about. It’s quite comical.
‘I remember one time last year’ he continues, ‘me and Ross were being unkind about her dancing. She didn’t speak to me for a month. A whole month, almost to the day.’
‘She’s an excellent dancer.’
‘Of course she is, but she’s a Mexican too. Anyway, don’t sweat it. She’ll come around. What about Cleome? She’s kinda cute don’t you think?’
I like Kevin when he’s had a bit to drink. He’s funnier and he talks a lot more so I don’t have to.
‘I don’t know’ I say.
‘Sure you do. Come on. Live a little. What’s the matter?’
‘I really don’t want to get involved with anyone.’
‘Who’s talking about getting involved?’
‘No. Really.’
‘What’s wrong?’
I reluctantly fill him in on the whole sorry story of me and Lisa that ends up with us lost on the mountainside. By the end I’m almost in tears, picturing her lost and alone, or worse, stuck in the kind of places I ended up in.
‘Cleome reminds me of Lisa quite a bit’ I say, pathetically.
‘Aw Gabe. Come here you big goof’ he says and gives me a huge hug.
Once we’ve regained a little composure and refilled our glasses he says ‘Sounds like under any other circumstances that that would have been the beginning of a beautiful reconciliation, the two of you finally understanding what was going on. You, contrite and humble, she, your best friend. She sounds like a fine woman. Seems to me you were just unfortunate.’
This seems like a gross understatement but I know what he means. She wasn’t the kind of woman who wouldn’t talk things through once she’d calmed down (unlike Sonia apparently). Probably we’d have made up and been all the better for it, everything out in the open, friends again. Which is why it seems so tragic that I couldn’t find her.
‘But why wouldn’t she come back? Unless she was so upset that... Maybe I just destroyed all her... because she’d learned to trust me, after what happened with all the men in her life.’
‘You don’t know she didn’t go back.’
It’s true. I never found the others again either. Maybe she went back in the morning and I was gone. She wouldn’t have said 'good riddance' I know. She’d have hated herself. What a mess. I can’t believe it. After everything I’ve been through, after everything that’s happened. There’s always some new way to screw things up – just variations on a theme.
‘She will get over it Gabriel’ he says softly, soberly. ‘I think you’re crediting yourself with a mite too much importance in this story. Anyway, what I don’t get is why you didn’t snap her up and just keep her for yourself from the beginning, the way you talk about her. Seems like she was something special.’
‘She was... but... I don’t know. There’s something else.’
‘What’s that?’
‘I’m married.’
‘Oh’ he says.
We tacitly decide to leave it for the time being.
‘Anyway’ he says, swiftly inebriated once more it seems. ‘Here’s to you taking out a nest of pederasts.’
‘Here’s to me’ I say, and have to admit I do feel ok about that. I’m still not happy about Lisa though.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Alison XVI – Vikki

I knew Vikki as soon as I saw her. Actually I recognised the nipples first – much too big and pink for her little up-turned boobs.
I’d just got back from a trip away with Andrea, to Morocco in fact. It was the first session of the new academic year but to be honest, I wasn’t really in the mood. I like to make out that my time with Andrea was just good dirty fun – commitment free, easy-going, no regrets sex, usually in exotic or exciting locations, and she usually paid for the accommodation too. But in truth, much as I wanted her, I had real trouble with the arrangement and always came away somehow a bit more fractured each time. In retrospect, I think she knew this and that’s why eventually, mercifully, she let me go, or, at least, her communications got further and further apart and eventually ceased altogether. Anyway, that particular autumn I remember the streets of Brighton seemed especially dismal, compared to where we’d been for the last three weeks and I was feeling very sorry for myself. Plus I was into my thirties by then and frankly a bit bored with my life and the idea of just chucking it all up and buggering off somewhere hot for a few years really appealed to me. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it even now. Nothing was stopping me.

Anyway, the first session of the life-drawing classes, there was Vikki, taking her gown off and walking, naked, to the couch in the centre and looking incredibly familiar. I remember her smiling slightly apologetically, slightly challengingly at me and sitting down there, leant forward with her elbows on her thighs, hands together as if in prayer. It took me a moment to realise she was waiting for me to start. The students were standing around, trying to look as if being in a room with a bunch of strangers and a naked woman is the most natural thing in the world – we’re all adults after all and we’ve all seen it before and so forth. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t believe it. Naked human bodies are compulsive viewing. You can’t not look, and don’t tell me it’s of purely aesthetic interest. Why do we life-draw otherwise? We could just as easily have chair drawing courses, or dog drawing classes? It’d be cheaper.
So we all check her out, more-or-less surreptitiously. Actually this is unusual. Normally the model keeps her gown on until we are ready to start and just takes it off at the last moment. It is unusual for them to take it off straight away and just sit there through my introductory remarks (fire exits, toilets, complaints policy) completely exposed like that. Doesn’t she realise it might be another quarter of an hour before we actually draw her? I feel I should say something. I ask her if she’s warm enough and she smiles that slightly sorry smile again and says she’s fine. Her nipples stand proud and erect nevertheless. I wonder for a moment if I’ll need to provide extra charcoal and almost get the giggles.

I introduce myself to the students who have arrived and try to make the stragglers as welcome as possible. There’s always a few, every week. I’m not good on discipline. I run through the formalities as quickly as possible for Vikki’s sake and move on more quickly than usual to discussing what life drawing is all about so that she needn’t sit awkwardly any longer than necessary. I realise now that it was my awkwardness I was dealing with, not hers. She was perfectly happy as she was. I asked her to lean back on her elbows. I took in her long slender body and limbs. There was almost no line to any part of her – no muscle definition, no prominent bone structure, skin neither pale nor tanned. I looked about her for something to draw attention to besides the nipples. I tried to look like I was thinking hard but I wasn’t. My mind was blank. Then I realised she was looking at me through her fringe, those bright, challenging grey eyes again, waiting for me to say something. I decided to cop out and ask the class what they thought, trying to imply all the while that I had the definitive opinion ready. Actually I was hoping they’d give me something to go on.
I should say at this point that I’d been used to dealing with bodies that were a good deal more characterful – skinny or overweight, muscular or puny, ancient or nubile and although these descriptions never come near to encapsulating the person, they provide a place to hang a discussion, or at least an opinion, and of course, ultimately to discard, because life drawing is what chair drawing is not because we are not just dealing with the form, we are dealing with the person, the character, the life. I like to tell my students that that’s why it’s called life drawing. I’ve heard a lot of artists claim the opposite – that it’s just a shape like any other, a configuration of light and dark, of bulk and void, vociferously but never persuasively. I think it’s just the old puritanical work ethic again and I’m not fooled for a moment.

Vikki was a problem because I had absolutely nothing to say about her. She was attractive, certainly, in a vague, insubstantial way. My first thought was Burne-Jones actually, one of those glaucous drowned bodies of his but she was much too tangible for that. There was nothing symbolist about her. She watched me intently the whole time, waiting for something. I was sure I knew her from somewhere. I even called her Miranda at one point, for reasons that escape me. Maybe she reminded me of someone I’d known in a previous life.
We drew her for fifteen minutes, me included, which was unusual. I didn’t usually join in but I needed to see how she worked. In any case I find it’s best to let the class produce their first efforts without too much input, just to give us something very raw to start with. First attempts by beginners are usually pretty dire but would not be helped by my interference. I’ll interfere later and for the next thirty weeks if they’ll let me.
After fifteen minutes I stop everyone and say to Vikki that she can get up and relax for a while, while we discuss what we’ve come up with. Usually the model puts their gown on and retreats somewhere discrete. Not Vikki. She wandered around the room completely starkers, looking at the work on the walls and then, finding a book, perched herself on a stool with it on her lap and looked at the pictures, her breasts just touching the pages. It was very distracting. It occurred to me that she might not be entirely well, mentally that is. At break I picked up her gown and all but made her put it on. She seemed surprised but let me help her on with it anyway. I asked her if she wanted a coffee or something. The coffee from the machine tasted like mop buckets, and actually looked like it too so I always brought a flask and I offered her a cup. I didn’t usually do that either. Next I said ‘I know you, don’t I?’ and she smiled a little and blinked. ‘Do you?’ she said.
I didn’t know what to say next and I ended up prattling about the college and how well they treat their staff and what she was getting paid. I mentioned I’d done quite a bit of life modelling myself when I was a student and so I knew how difficult it was, the aching joints and the numb toes and so on. She smiled and nodded and sipped my coffee but I didn’t get anything much out of her otherwise. I decided to leave her to it. I don’t usually talk to the models anyway. It’s not snobbery, not with me anyway. It’s just a bit awkward somehow.

For the second part of the session I got her to do some quick standing poses and then a longer crouching position and then we were done. I didn’t expect to see her for a while because we rarely used the same model two weeks running and I found myself asking her if she fancied going for a drink afterwards. I’d never attempted to make a date with my model before and I expected her to be disgusted and report me to the principal or something. I was sure there must be something in the handbook about relationships between fully clothed tutors and naked models and I blathered my apologies to her in advance in an attempt to cover myself, should she attempt to sue me for sexual harassment or something. Of course I was forgetting that she was a mature and professional woman, just doing her job, which happened to involve taking her clothes off in public and that any awkwardness was entirely mine.
Much later on I discovered that she wasn’t being mature and professional at all. She was being naive and vulnerable, but that's how she was.

‘She was an interesting girl, our Vikki. I still don’t really know what she was about.’
‘Girl?’ says Alison dubiously ‘How old was she, remind me?’
‘I know, I know’ I say. I am aware it sounds patronising or patriarchal or something but the word fits. ‘A couple of years older than me actually, and a bit taller too. Anyway, that first evening she came to the pub with me after the session and I was looking across at her, across the table, trying to make conversation, and my mind was wandering back to Andrea, who I’d only said goodbye to forty-eight hours previously and just thinking how much more we’d have had to say to each other. There would never have been this small talk. Actually, it wasn’t that Vikki and I didn’t have anything to say. It was just so... faltering. I felt we were continuously at cross-purposes somehow. And then I looked at her face and realised I didn’t even think she was particularly attractive. But we stayed until closing time and I walked her home and said goodbye politely at her door and nothing happened. It was weird...’
‘Maybe you were just lonely.’
‘I don’t think so. To be honest it was all I could do to go to work that evening. I really needed some time to myself. I hadn’t intended to stay with Andrea as long as I had. I’d postponed my flight twice. I knew I should be home, preparing for lessons but I just kept putting it off. I really wasn’t looking for company.’
‘So what was it, the past life connection?’
‘Maybe, but I don’t think that was very strong. I knew I knew her from somewhere but I thought it was maybe from around college or around town. Brighton’s a small place. If you’d seen her in the street you’d have thought she was just another one of those slightly batty Brighton birds who can’t decide if they’re a flapper or a hippy or your auntie Maude – all silly hats and inappropriate cardigans with huge brooches on, and mad impractical shoulder bags, you know the type.’
She smiles and nods.
‘I don’t know. She was so not my type.’
‘But I phoned her up next day – made another date. I don’t know. I just said to myself – what the heck. Anyway, she turns up at the cinema in this enormous green fake fur coat and a little pink felt hat and little green shoes. It was kind of excruciating being seen out with her sometimes. I was quite vain I suppose.’
‘But you did fall in love with her.’
‘Well, she grew on me.’
‘What did she do? for a living I mean, apart from the modelling, obviously.’
‘She had various projects on the go – she had her own artwork she was doing – papier-mâché crockery believe it or not, and some “healing skills” she was trying to pick up, plus she worked in a whole food shop. Typical Brightonian. Her friends were all the same. She had a lot of friends...’ I sit and think for a while, remembering, smiling. ‘She was always coming up with these business ideas – working out ways to make money, get herself a place to live, or a trip to India or whatever she needed. She was actually very sharp and much more enterprising than me, which was interesting because I’d always been brought up to expect the worst. I felt, all my life, like I had to constantly struggle to keep things going, even just at a simple level. Andrea on the other hand, she just had this focus. She knew exactly what she was doing and she just did it. She wasn’t nasty about it but there really wasn’t any point in getting in her way. I see that now. Vikki was different again.’
‘Different how?’
‘I’ve thought about this but I’m still not sure. I think she knew it was all chaos and that it might all fall apart at any moment, but she just lived like that. She just surfed it. I’ve never known anyone so vulnerable and sensitive and yet so brave and resourceful, and good-natured about it too. She was actually really funny, really mad and scatty. I couldn’t keep up a lot of the time. She loved dressing up and having parties and dancing madly and I’m sorry to say I was a little boring about it at first.’ ‘I can imagine.’
‘Thanks. But actually it sort of worked. I felt bad about it at the time because I really wanted to be more like her – less inhibited, less self-conscious, but actually I think she liked me being a bit stern, a bit unreachable. I think she liked it that I was a bit authoritarian with her. You’ve got to remember, I wasn’t used to being the stable, organised one in any relationship. It was quite empowering actually. But there was a lot of drama.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh she could be absolutely infuriating. We used to have these big tearful bust-ups on the phone. I still can’t remember what they were about. She was insecure I suppose.’
‘Did you tell her about Andrea?’
‘Sort of. She knew we’d been seeing each other before and I told her we were just friends now, and to be honest that was true. I’d told Andrea about Vikki but Andrea never really expected anyone to be monogamous I don’t think. Anyway, it really upset Vikki for a while.’
‘Not surprisingly...’
‘No but, and I’m not making excuses, I think in a way it actually made us stronger.’
Alison looks even more sceptical than usual. To be honest I don’t really believe it myself. And yet I do. It’s easy to write myself off as just another cheating bastard, as pretty much anyone else would, but in another way I think Vikki quite liked the idea that there was this mysterious ‘Other Woman’ somewhere in my life that she’d never met. Whenever she came up in conversation or just the subject of affairs or infidelity was in the news Vikki would go into this hugely theatrical sulk and refuse to talk to me. She’d go out into town on her own to make me jealous and then come in late and refuse to tell me where she’d been. And then she’d quite suddenly be in tears and apologising and telling me what a bad girl she was...’
‘Sounds kinky...’
‘Yes. It was’ is all I can say to that. Sometimes I think I took advantage maybe, letting things get out of hand, watching her get more and more out of control, incredulous at the stupid things she came out with.
‘I really wanted to make it work out. Really I did. I didn’t see Andrea at all for years after we got together.’
‘But Andrea was still in your mind.’
‘Maybe, when things were bad. But then, I knew it wasn’t realistic with her.’
‘But at some level, didn’t Vikki know you were just making do with her? She must have known. So the drama heightened the sexual energy I’m sure but...’
‘It did. I’ve never known anything like it. I think maybe up until then I’d been a bit too much the “new man” – a bit too patient and considerate. She taught me a lot...’
Alison looks at me intently but I’m not going to elaborate. The truth of the matter is that I often found the roles we assumed a little disturbing or contrived but it was always her demanding more from me.
‘I never abused her if that’s what you’re thinking’ I say. ‘She just liked the power, or lack of it, I think.’
And not just in bed. True there were those layers of ill-assorted leggings and skirts and waist-coats and scarves to get through, but underneath it all there were always the tiniest, frilliest, silkiest bits of underwear you could imagine, more like jewellery really than clothes.
‘I’m making it sound terrible’ I say, apologetically. Alison does not indulge me with reassurance or criticism. ‘She brought something out in me’ I say. ‘I wasn’t sure I liked it to be honest. I maybe felt, if I wanted to I could do anything to her and she’d still come back.’
‘And you did see other women.’
I say nothing.
Alison nods but says nothing.

‘I don’t know.’
‘You said you loved her.’
‘I know...’ And I really think I did. Maybe just not the way she wanted.
Alison looks at me - waiting for me to confess. My mind writhes. Why was I like that? I think of Lisa. I'm doing it again.
'I don't think I took her very seriously.'
'You think?' says Alison.
'I just... I suppose... It just didn't seem like it could matter that much, to her I mean.'
Now she looks genuinely quizzical and I know how she feels. I've never really thought about this before.
'She was always highly strung – starting fights, making a fuss about silly things.'
'In your opinion.'
'No in hers too. She always apologised afterwards. She always went out of her way to make it up to me.'
'But it didn't make any difference. You still fucked around.'
'Well not that much. It's not like I was out picking up women all the time. I wouldn't have known how.'
'So it just happened?'
'I know it sounds ridiculous.'
'No no, I get it. You were working with young people - impressionable, provocative, over-confident. How could you resist?'
'I don't think it was quite like that...'
'And you can bet she knew it too. It's flattering for a man - a man in his thirties - all these young girls...'
She's right. She's right about all of it. And yet I feel - what? Justified? Yes it was bad. Yes I betrayed her, but, I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself. I couldn’t. I just had to. Because... I don’t know.
'...wanting your attention - wanting to know your opinion, get your approval. That’s a lot of power.'
'No it wasn't like that.'
'How was it then?'
'I don't know. I think it was the other way round.'
'It was me wanting their approval. I know it sounds stupid.'
'Not at all.'
'I couldn't turn it down. I had to go for it because...'
'...because you might never be another chance.'
I’m silenced. There was this fear, she’s right, that if I didn’t take this opportunity...
'But what about Vikki. Didn’t she count?'
'That was different' I say lamely.
'You didn't take her seriously. She was even needier than you were so you couldn't respect her.'
There's a long pause in which I'm close to tears. I look at the carpet. The sun is bright outside. People are laughing. It's not funny.
'I didn't break up with her because I didn't want to make her cry. Isn't that ridiculous.'
'So you would have broken up with her sooner.'
'Maybe. People crying always gets me. I just can't... I don't know.'
'So you stayed with her out of, what, pity?'
'And I was afraid I'd end up alone too I guess.'
'But what about all those other girls? How many are we talking about by the way?'
'Well that's just it. None of them lasted. I think when they found out what I was really like they sort of lost interest. There was six or seven of them I think. I don't remember.'
Alison seems disappointed. 'I expect they just wanted a quick fling. Is that not what you wanted?'
'I expect I took it all too seriously. I was never any good at one night stands.'
'Modern girls...'
'But you felt you had to try, just in case.'
'I suppose so.'
We take a moment to breathe and sip water. I grab a handful of tissues and blow my nose. I'm aware of how I must look.
‘Don't get me wrong' I say, 'I don’t know if it was just because of her, or my age or what, but I was feeling pretty good about myself at that time. I’d just got a promotion and I’d sold a few big pieces recently. I mean the money still wasn’t great but I just remember feeling really, I don’t know, capable, all of a sudden, like I was really getting on now. I felt like I was becoming a proper adult. Of course I know now that I’d never had a proper job or a steady income in any of my previous lives. You can’t imagine how that felt, suddenly, to be able to do things normal people do – buy myself a new bed or a posh new pair of shoes or decide to spend a couple of weeks in Greece if I felt like it, without having to rough it. I guess it gave me more confidence. And I suddenly realised women were interested in me.’
It wasn’t until I was in my mid thirties I realised that that flustered, uneasy look that women sometimes gave me didn’t mean “get away from me you freak.” I finally realised they might be off balance for a totally different reason. It was an extraordinary revelation.
'I found I could smile and go up to a woman and say something and chat for a while and maybe even flirt a bit. I suppose a lot of people take it for granted, a lot of men, but I just couldn’t believe it. It was intoxicating.’
Alison looks dubious. She really doesn't seem to get it, and I only worked it out relatively late. I think she sees me as this over-sexed egotistical male using and discarding women hither and thither, leaving a trail of destruction, but I was never cynically or even thoughtlessly going about using people. There was something frantic to it - something desperate.
Now I realise I was not all a bad looking bloke and I genuinely liked women and was interested in what they had to say and I didn't realise at the time how attractive that made me. It was only much later that I realised that I could probably have had a lot more than those 'six or seven'. (There were seven - I do know the exact number.) At the time though, it didn't feel that way. The reason I missed a lot of those opportunities was that I couldn't really believe, deep down, that they could possibly feel that strongly about me. It had to be a mistake and I was about to make a twat of myself - again. Even with the fabulous Andrea and the alluring Yve in my history I didn't really believe it. If anyone had asked me about them I don't know what I'd have said - that they were just flukes probably. I didn’t really believe that any of them could genuinely care about me, or be upset by the thought of me not being there. I just couldn’t see myself as being so important to anyone that I could cause that amount of pain. I could be hurt, and I was, often, but me able to hurt them? It seemed presumptuous to say the least.
I sit down and think some more. Alison still says nothing - just waits for me.

‘I did really want Vikki’ I say finally, lamely. I can't bring myself to use the L word any more. ‘There was something about her. I think it took a while for me to get it. But it was good, not just the sex. She was amazing. You have to believe that.’
‘But ultimately she just wasn’t enough.’
‘No’ I say flatly, going back to my pose of penitence, sitting forward, head down. ‘I wish we'd had more to talk about... I think maybe at the time nothing would have been enough. I think maybe I was like one of those blokes you hear about who’s grown up in poverty but they get rich, become a millionaire, but they have to keep making more and more money because there’s never going to be enough. There’s always this fear that it could all be gone tomorrow.’
‘Do you really believe that?’ she says dispassionately. I don’t know what she’s getting at. I thought I did. I’d meant it when I said it.
‘I’m not saying it was the right way to behave’ I say, wretchedly. ‘I’m just saying...’
‘And she wanted children?’
‘Would she have married you do you think?’
‘I think so.’
'She loved you.'
I sit in silence. I know it sounds stupid but I really don’t quite know what she means.
‘She really loved you. That’s how people behave when they are in love.’
I’m speechless. It still doesn’t make sense.
‘That never occurred to you?’
I slowly shake my head. It really never had. That anyone could feel that way about... me? Oh God.
‘I’ll leave you to think about that.’

She touches my shoulder and leaves. Time for me to go up on deck and get some air.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.