Monday, 29 November 2010

Journey XIII – But when your heart is full of love...

Of course I was still young in spirit, and I got bored of pretending to be an old lady quite quickly.
As I mentioned before, I stayed at the retreat for more than three years, although, as usual, it was impossible to keep track of the exact number of days and weeks that had passed, but we worked according to the seasons, which seemed to turn much slower than in life. Looking back it feels like a much longer time spent there – as much as five years perhaps.
That first winter dragged on and I intended to move on in the spring. I didn’t know what I was doing for the most part and found the work messy and clumsy and thoroughly infuriating. Jim’s constant cheerful encouragement got on my nerves as well, although I couldn’t very well complain. He meant well. At any rate I just felt stupid a lot of the time, and muttered to myself as I worked that I couldn’t see the point of this or that, and why didn’t we do it some other way, which made much more sense to me, and generally what was the point, given that we didn’t actually need to eat, or if we really felt like it, food would somehow turn up anyway, without our having to work for it? To his credit Jim heard me out when I had a suggestion and explained his way of doing things without putting me down. Somehow, by the end of these discussions I usually didn’t mind having been mistaken and was happy to go along with the established method. I guess I just needed to spew. My dad would have been dumb struck. We’d always ended up in a bad mood when we’d tried to do things together. It always pissed me off that he thought he knew best about everything, when I knew he quite often didn’t.
As time went on though, that first winter, I’d find myself in the middle of some repetitive chore – maybe digging a bed or shovelling shit – and realise I’d completely lost track of the time. There I was, out in the wet and cold, humming to myself or with my mind wandering about and I’d notice quite suddenly how elated I felt. I’d stand up straight, foot on my shovel or fork and look about me. There’d be no one else about, or maybe just a light from Jim’s shed as the daylight failed. I’d look at the tree tops in the fog beyond the walls and know that I’d never been so quiet in my head in my life nor since I’d died. At times like these the gardens seemed to stretch on indefinitely. The various trees and shrubs had been arranged long ago according to some long obscured plan and now grew apparently randomly in the maze of grass paths, hedges, irrigation channels and empty beds. It was easy to get lost wandering about and come across some unexpected corner with a little pond or bird table or seat, either neatly maintained by someone, or totally overgrown. I never found a complete plan of the gardens. Like most things in the afterlife, trying to account for everything simply leads to getting distracted and losing count.

The rest of the community were an odd lot. Apparently, I discovered, they spent their days in meditation, using some rooms I found on the ground floor. I saw them at meals and occasionally on their way from place to place, and they were always civil to me but never encouraged conversation. I went along to a meeting once and there was some quiet chanting and loud breathing and uncomfortable postures but I couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what the aim of it all was. At any rate it seemed to make them feel better about themselves so I left them to it. I'd just spent the whole time fidgeting and trying to chase away the memories that invaded my head the more I tried to relax and focus. Some of the people there also painted or practiced music but the results seemed vague, pointless exercises and I never felt inclined to join in. Some of the others who worked in the kitchens and gardens were friendlier but I sensed that Jim and Jo were the only people actually enjoying themselves. For the rest, it seemed like some kind of penance they were enduring.
It wasn’t until spring was well under way and I had been working more-or-less non stop, dawn to dusk (and beyond, with a hurricane lamp), sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting, harvesting the earliest crops and of course weeding, that I realised I didn’t want to leave. Jim was in a frenzy of activity too and delegated some of the organisation to me, slyly getting me involved in planning next year’s crops and in the supervision of some of the other volunteers. This freed him up to work more with the animals, so of course I had to stay then.
I did manage to get Jo to talk briefly about the other residents one night when a bunch of us were up enjoying her best wine and cheese. There were a couple of the other kitchen staff there, and someone from the gardening crew. None of them was very easy company but they wanted to stay up and chat so that was something. Jim had enough energy for us all – he loved to talk and was usually worth listening to, so that was fine. Jo sat with her glass and fag and smiled and nodded. She was a big woman with a long plait down her back and looked about fifty, I suppose. I’d asked her about her life (a subject people usually avoided – I could never see why) and after initially demurring she’d told me she was ‘just a mum’ and I asked her about her kids and so on. As usual it was a sad conversation, full of regrets (it had been her own stupid fault, her death she said, indicating the cigarette) but her two lads were quite capable of taking care of themselves she thought and she looked away, hand over her mouth and tears in her eyes. ‘Good boys...’ she said and blew her nose on a cloth handed over to her by Jim. Then she asked about me and I said I was fed up of talking about me, and what about these other people here – why were they the way they were? I was aware we had some examples here with us and we both looked at them – deciding whether to go on with the conversation, but Jim was on a roll and they didn’t seem to be paying attention to us. We spoke in a whisper anyway.
‘They’re all looking for God’ she said, grinning.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Did you not have a faith, you know, in life?’
‘I don’t know. I always believed there was something...’
‘Nothing in particular though?’
I shrugged. I’d thought about it a lot. There had been a Christian union at school and there’d been some interesting discussions. I even went to church with them for a while, but I’d never really been one for joining things. I’d liked the sound of Buddhism.
‘Probably just as well’ she said. ‘Means you’re not disappointed, you know, when it’s all over.’
I thought about this. I hadn’t met anyone overtly religious since the start. It really hadn’t occurred to me what a problem this place would be for them.
‘God’s let us down badly’ she added, finally, taking a drag from her cigarette and turning to join in the other conversation, which seemed to be about bats.

A few new groups of travellers came through while I was there, complete with their guides, and stayed for a few nights before moving on but besides Jim and myself, nobody ventured beyond the gates if they could help it.
Jim occasionally made short forays into the immediate surroundings to find mushrooms and wild herbs and took small parties out botanising from time to time when they could be prised from their introspection. I went out fairly often but never overnight. Maybe their collective agoraphobia was catching, but I was less happy to venture out after dark without my own personal pocket guide. The forests thereabouts were deep and dark once you ventured away from the walls. There were no paths that I could find and the landscape was not level anywhere, but ridged, with bleached and thorny outcrops and sodden, fern-choked gulleys. The slopes between were a tangle of briars and low branches, with jagged rocks exposed here and there. It was always a relief to reach the top of a ridge and look back and see the walls of the retreat. After a couple of trips I gave up on putting any distance between myself and there, and settled for finding a comfortable place to either lie in the sun or swim in the water. I found four places in particular I liked – a rocky throne facing the evening sun among wild rose and pine, a small grassy summit under a birch, a flat rock beside a clear pool, and another pool with a cascade falling into it. At each place I took the opportunity to look at the local inhabitants and observe their behaviour. Tiny long nosed otters dipped and dived, hunting the sparkling shoals of vivid orange and turquoise minnows. Dragonflies with wings two feet across and sounding like animated umbrellas zoomed up and down. I trod on an enormous salamander, four feet long and feeling like a slab of dead meat under foot. It made me jump, but in its stupid, leisurely way it launched itself up and over a submerged log and disappeared under the opposite bank. A long bodied dog-like animal with black blotches along its flanks and a black stripe running through the eye from ear to snout was sniffing about among the rocks. I thought I was unobserved, but then it looked nonchalantly up at me and continued on its way. A herd of what looked like miniature goats but with sizeable canine teeth came swarming over the boulders some mornings. Huge birds of prey soared overhead. I had nowhere near enough ecology to know whether these were creatures from the same world I came from, or specialities of this place. Many seemed pretty improbable to me but I was captivated and always reluctant to go inside at dusk.

I did see Miranda once more before I left but if I hadn’t known that there were no dreams in the afterlife I would have sworn that was what she was. It was during the last autumn. Jim was sorry to hear I was moving on the next spring but was not surprised. He said there was still so much for me to learn about the garden, and I said I knew that, but there were also other things I had to do, and he said he understood and was surprised I’d lasted as long as I had. Both the hard physical labour and the getting used to thinking about how plants and soil and seasons worked had fulfilled parts of me I hadn’t known even existed before, but I needed other things. I needed other people. I needed jokes and songs and arguments and sex. I’d never really been any good at dealing with people but being here, with these sad, empty souls, I realised I had to try again.
It was the summer that had clinched it – my third summer there I believe, with glorious weather and a garden flowing with more milk and honey, literally, than we could ever possibly consume, and there they were, the inmates as I’d come to know them, cooped up inside, thinking about their breathing. I wanted to (and often did) strip off at the end of the day and jump in the fishpond and run dripping naked along the paths, but nobody joined in. They didn’t even disapprove. They didn’t really react. It was, as Jim often remarked, very strange. He didn’t want to strip off, but was with me in spirit he said. Jo just looked amused.

So when the weather made that subtle turn toward autumn, and I woke up one morning and the room had chilled damp during the night and I didn’t want to get out of bed, I knew it was time. I didn’t know it consciously, but I felt different. I thought of what I had to do in the garden over the next few months and part of me said ‘Not again’. Miranda appeared a few days later.
I say ‘appeared’ deliberately. No one saw her come or go as far as I know. I didn’t ask many people – there didn’t seem to be much point, but no one commented anyway, and you’d have thought they would.
I’d come in late from work, had a shower, hung my work clothes up in the drying room and gone up to my room in my indoor robe. I knew something was strange when I opened the door. The room seemed dimmer than usual, misty, out of focus. It was getting dark earlier now and I hadn’t had a chance to light a lamp so I stood in the doorway, trying to accustom my eyes to the gloom. There seemed to be a figure in the far corner, adjacent to the window, by the book shelf, but not an ordinary figure, a very tall figure, its head reached almost to the ceiling and it was slightly stooped toward me.
Time passed very slowly as I tried to focus on it, absolutely unable to move, eyes wide, waiting for something to happen. Slowly its body turned from shadows to pale, and big grey eyes came into focus, looking directly down at me. It felt as if my eyes were getting used to the dark (although it wasn’t that dark), and struggling to focus (although everything else in the room was now clear and distinct). The figure was looking intently at me, and it was as I looked into its eyes that I knew who it was. I said her name and the long pale limbs and red hair began to emerge like a body rising out of deep water. Finally I saw her blink and a sad little smile move in her lips. Her body was towering over me. The image of a human giraffe crossed my mind, with her freckles and her big intelligent eyes. Then, somehow she was on her knees and I could look into her face and I put my hand out and touched her cheek and she smiled at me, and I just fell forwards onto her and lay against her. I was so happy to see her.
She stayed with me that night. We put all the soft things in the room on the floor and settled down as best we could in the small space and we talked a little about what had happened since we last saw each other but conversation was not what we needed. Her body was strangely cool but soft and fragrant – like a salty honey. I stroked her breasts and her belly and kissed her freckly skin but I didn’t feel very sexy. We spent the night curled up there, with her body curved around me, sleeping on the floor. It was the most cared for I had ever felt. I tried to get her to tell me where she was going to go next but all she would do was hush me and stroke my hair tell me everything would be alright. There were tears in her eyes but there was a smile too. I almost allowed myself to believe her. She told me that ultimately we are all lost souls, looking for a home.

She disappeared while I was out getting some water early in the morning, and I had to think it had just been some sort of dream. The fact was though that I could smell her on everything. I still don’t know what to make of it.
I needed it though. As dawn came on we had lay there and talked – nothing very important, just silliness, for most of the night. In fact I can’t remember much of what we said at all. I know we laughed a lot, like before. She did say it was about time for me to move on, and I couldn’t afford to get stuck there. I asked about guides and she said there would be groups coming through I could join, or I’d be ok alone now – there were plenty of places to stay along the way if necessary.

My work did not go well for a while after that – my heart wasn’t in it really, but then there was a new gardening volunteer who seemed keener than most and Jim liked her, so I worked hard to help her with the arrangements for the coming season and I was ready to go just as the first spring greens were coming through. I packed my rucksack and Jo gave me some of her cheese and marmalade to take with me, and there was a somewhat choked-up farewell from her and Jim at the main door. Then I was on my way. It was bloody miserable wet overcast day, but it felt wonderful to be out again.
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Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Voyage XVIII – Life-drawing

I felt so good yesterday. Seems like a very long time ago.
I’ve done it again. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how fucking stupid I am – every time. Unbelievable.
We’d been up on deck sitting in the sun, Lucy, Damian, Matt and I, and some of the others. I looked over the side and there was a branch floating by with green leaves on it still. I couldn’t believe it, after all this time, I don’t know how long – feels like months, there’s life out there. Huge black shapes, as long as the ship, rise and wallow a little way out. Fergus was with us. He told me they were not whales – they had the fins of fishes with rays and spines, and scales too. He said he’d never seen anything like them. The birds were not familiar to him either. Although they generally resembled the seabirds he’d known back in the world, they were wrong in detail. He couldn’t even work out what family they belonged to for sure. Matt and Damian were very interested in what he had to say. Damian couldn’t resist making comments about how you’d go about catching one and what they’d taste like. Lucy told him to stop being disgusting, but Fergus went on to tell us in great detail about some of the revolting things he’d been given to eat on his travels.
I was sitting directly opposite Lucy. She had her sunglasses on, so I couldn’t tell where she was looking. I tried not to look at her too much but I couldn’t help it. Once, when I realised I’d been staring at her legs for ages I looked up and she had this really knowing sort of smile on her lips - an ‘I know what you’re thinking’ expression. I know I went really red, but then she shifted a little and I could see almost all the way up her skirt. Those soft white thighs... I could have sworn she did it on purpose. Then she crossed her legs again. Everybody was laughing. I don’t know what at. I’m sure it wasn’t anything to do with me, but I hadn’t been paying attention. She looked over the top of her shades at me and asked me if I was alright, grinning dirtily at me all the while.

Later on it started to get chilly and we were going to go down to the bar. I wasn’t keen – not because I was scared of Harry and the others, but I just wanted to relax. Near the hatch, after the others had gone on ahead, Lucy turned to me and said ‘You could do some drawings of me now if you want to.’
I tried to act cool ‘Sure’ I said. ‘Why not?’
‘I’ll just get something to drink’ she said ‘and I’ll be with you. Ok?’
‘I’ll get set up in my cabin’ I said, my voice wobbling a little.
‘Ok. Can I get you anything?’
‘Some bubbly?’ I said. She looked a little surprised but I’d been drinking champagne a lot recently. And it seemed appropriate.

It seemed like ages before she arrived, and the champagne was a bit warm. I’d got a book out to try to look relaxed about it all but I was very tense. ‘You’ve made it nice in here’ she said as she came in the door, bottle in one hand, glasses in the other. I’d lit some candles and arranged cushions and covers on the bed.
‘How do you want me?’ she said smiling a little.
‘I don’t know’ I said. ‘I’ve not done this sort of thing much before. Errm... on the bed?’ and then I thought I should take charge more, so I showed her how I’d like her to pose.
‘Ok’ she said and began to take her boots off. I made vague noises – getting the easel adjusted, and arranging paper, glancing over – she was pulling her top over her head, smiling sideways at me, turning away from me, unclipping her bra – her breasts, I could see, falling free, moving the way only breasts can. She unzipped her skirt and stepped out of it and then slipped her red silky knickers down. Turning toward me, I tried not to stare at the mass of thick, almost glossy black curls between her legs. She slid onto my bed, leant on my pillows, and arranged herself the way I’d asked, waiting to see what I’d do next.
I’d seen naked women before of course – in magazines. I knew what to expect. But I’d never seen a real one, still less been in my room with one. Still, I tried to maintain a pretence of cool. I fiddled with the paper, took some deep breaths and looked, I hoped, appraisingly at her again. I could see everything. I looked at everything, closely. I looked, long and hard. I was vaguely aware of the wicked smile on her face but I couldn’t stop looking. I wanted to strip off and climb onto her and writhe about, and thrash and tear at her and swallow her, sink myself into her.
‘Everything alright?’ she said. ‘Would you like me to move at all?’
I looked at her again. Now I could almost feel a different part of my brain taking over, leaving the other part to have its way with her. Yes I did want her to move a little. It occurred to me that the shape would be better if her hand was close to her thigh rather than actually on it. I went over and picked it up (Oh my god, the skin under her wrist, so silky soft) and laid it on the bed beside her. (I could smell her now, a scent I’d never come across before, but which I knew was simply pure, unadulterated woman. I went to bed with that scent until we disembarked.) I stood back. I looked at her. I looked at the paper until I could see her there, and then took up my charcoals and chalks, and began the process of sculpting her out of the grey, two-dimensional surface.
A tutor once tried to tell me that real art has nothing to do with sex, that working from a nude is no different from drawing a bowl of fruit (although the still life we then attempted was a banana and two apples, so perhaps he wasn’t being completely straight with us). The truest art, we were told, was as disinterested as mathematics. It was simply a matter of exploring shapes and colours. Nudes were simply a different shape to apples, and, he pointed out, they had the advantage of being mostly just the one colour all over, allowing us to concentrate purely on form. Any erotic sentiments, he said, talking specifically to girls giggling at the back, could only compromise technique and lead to second rate work.
He was a pompous prat, and now I knew he was wrong too. I’d never drawn so well, nor so easily in my life. Her form grew out of the paper as I ran my eyes over her, feeling exactly the shape and texture of every part of her, and transferring it precisely. I managed five drawings in different poses before my artist brain finally gave out and the part of my brain that was poised to fall on her and dive in took over. I almost passed out.
I didn’t know what to do next. I said something about taking a rest and sat down beside her. She smiled a little uncomfortably and moved over to give me room. ‘How about a drink?’ I said and went to fill our glasses again. The champagne was very warm now, but still better than nothing. She asked if she could put her socks on because her feet were cold.
When she’d done that and we were sat down together again I told her I thought she was very beautiful, that she had beautiful skin, and I held her hand and caressed the skin under her wrist.
We were at an uncomfortable angle. She was slightly behind me as I sat half on the bed, so when I turned to kiss her it was awkward. I hadn’t done this kind of thing much before – just Naomi really, but she had always been fully clothed, so I wasn’t feeling very confident. Anyway, when I twisted around and moved toward her face with mine she stopped me, firmly with her hand flat on my chest. I opened my eyes.
‘What are you doing?’ she said, angry and apparently surprised. Her reaction simply made no sense so I pushed forward again. I suppose that part of my brain that was in control now had assumed that there must be some sort of hallucination going on and chose to ignore it, but she pushed again, slid out sideways and stood beside the bed.
‘What are you doing?’ she said again, this time with some derision in her voice. I looked at her again. She was still naked (apart from the socks), I could still smell her, I could still have touched her. I couldn’t think of anything whatsoever to do. I let her get dressed and go. She didn’t look at the pictures at all. I went up on deck. It was a nightmare.
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Thursday, 18 November 2010

Journey XI – The Retreat

The Retreat came upon us suddenly, although she’d been preparing me for it for a while. We came to a curve in the path and suddenly there it was, looking something like a Highland castle converted into a school or a hospital, or an asylum – a mix of ancient stone turrets and battlements and Victorian sash windows and gutters. It was raining hard again. Autumn was moving in fast and Miranda would have to leave me here before the winter. She didn’t know exactly what would happen but she was optimistic. She didn’t expect to see me again. That’s how it is in the afterlife – people and places are very rarely encountered a second time – though sometimes, in a future life, people recognise each other at a party, in the street, and can’t think where from. But not Miranda – she said she wasn’t going back, ever.

The last few weeks, I suppose it was, had been blissful for us. After that last encounter it was like we were free at last. Maybe more so for me – I didn’t know what was coming. I did notice that every time we came across signs of recent human activity again she was distant and preoccupied for a while, but then she’d perk up quickly and be even more lively and sexy than ever. The land was a green and rolling and full of life and the road was broad and easy to follow. We were relaxed and cheerful and it seemed like she might choose never to say goodbye. What was more, there were moments when she almost seemed to be a normal size. I began to think there might be a future for us somehow. I kept trying to bring up the subject of her finding somewhere, maybe somewhere she could settle, be happy maybe, but she wouldn’t have it. She didn’t belong anywhere she said, and she never would.

It was late summer, an Indian summer almost and we’d not had the tent out for quite a while – it had been too hot. We just slept under the sky and marvelled at the lack of stars and moon (and yet there was that clear silvery moonlight). There were late summer storms too, which drenched us and made us laugh and dance. Her silk wrap became completely transparent and she looked at me challengingly, biting her lip.
Our feelings for each other were getting irrepressible. We watched each other intently. She seemed to be waiting for something, but what could I do? I didn’t even like to touch her because I was afraid I’d damage her.

I needn’t have worried. One night we were both lying out on our bedding. It had been raining heavily and everything was steaming. I just had a cloth over my hips, but it was clinging to me. Her sarong was clinging too and I could see every curve of her. Neither of us could sleep. She got up and came over to me. ‘Turn on your back’ she said softly. I did and she stepped onto my arm, climbed onto my belly and lay down on her side facing me, looking at me. She seemed unsure what to do next. I pulled some of my clothes over to put under my head so I could look at her properly.
‘You’re afraid to touch me, aren’t you?’
‘You said...’
‘Shhh...’ she said ‘It’s ok. I trust you. I’m not that fragile. Give me your hand.’ and she sat cross legged against the palm of my hand, and let the silk fall down around her waist. I tried not to look too obviously at her sweet pointy breasts but it was hard, in every sense. It was very hard.
‘You can look’ she said lightly. ‘I don’t mind. You’ve been looking at me all this time. Do you think I’m not flattered?’ and she settled down lower against my hand, and I could feel the silk ride up and expose her cool bottom on my belly. ‘I’ve been looking at you’ she said, mock coyly. ‘You’re a very handsome young man you know’ and she leant forward and lay there, looking with curiosity at the curved blond hairs above my navel. ‘Your skin is so soft. Perfect skin’ she said, a little breathlessly, then paused. ‘You look worried’ she said and propped herself up to look into my eyes, still stroking my skin with her hands, still breathing deeply. ‘I do understand’ she said.
I was in agony, trying to hold myself in. Nothing could possibly happen between us. Why was she doing this to me?
‘I do understand’ she said again, sitting up. ‘I know what you want, and it’s not possible, obviously. But there are other things. I’ve thought about this a lot, as you can imagine.’
‘Me too’ I say, almost inaudibly, croaking slightly.
‘I know, and I didn’t expect this to happen – you know that. All I know is we must have each other, somehow.’ And with that she got up, turned and walked toward my hand. ‘Move your hand’ she said.
I felt reluctant and ashamed, but I couldn’t refuse. I put my hand on my thigh and she looked at my cock there, like a stranded manatee under a tarpaulin beside her diminutive figure. She walked down toward it and peeled the cloth back, knelt down and touched the swollen purple knob delicately with her hand and I groaned. She turned and grinned at me.
‘I’ve seen this before you know’ she said, and I gestured silently (for I couldn’t speak) that of course, she must have seen many men’s... ‘No, I mean I’ve seen yours, like this’ pointing at mine, ‘every day actually. I did my best not to watch...’
I’d guessed this but I’d been suppressing the knowledge. Shame and embarrassment overwhelmed me, but also pride, actually – there was no hiding it. She knew everything about my daily habits (although thank whoever we didn’t need to crap in the afterlife.) She’d been there when I’d got myself off, every day, sometimes more often than that, sometimes several times a day. She’d seen the expression on my face, heard the noises I made when I came, and yet here she was. She smiled wickedly as the news sank in.
‘So...’ she resumed, standing up, posing a little, making her breasts look extra perky. ‘It’s not very fair is it?’ she said, pausing for dramatic effect ‘Would you like to watch me?’

I won’t go into the details. She’s gone now, my gorgeous nymph, and I am here. This is the next part of the journey and I have to accept it, alone.
They’ve given me quite a big high-ceilinged room – I think it used to be someone’s study. Two of the walls are lined with dark wooden bookshelves, but most of the books are gone. The ones that are left look like the ones nobody would ever want to consult ever again. The whole room has a long-unused smell to it. Little dust has settled because no one has kicked any up recently. The walls are painted off white and I have a desk, a single bed with a shiny green quilt and a faded green candlewick bedspread on it, and there’s a small cupboard. It’s all a bit like the stuff my grandparents had. There’s also a lot of metal chairs stacked up, a huge easel and a big old brown leather arm chair by the enormous floor-to-ceiling bay window. They tell me they’ll find homes for some of the excess clutter soon. The spiders seem friendly enough.
Autumn is here. It’s cold. I wish she was here. I feel like a patient but I don’t know what I’m sick with.

Those last days together play in my head incessantly. After that first time everything was a bit awkward for me, not to mention weird but she seemed relaxed enough about it and although I never really got comfortable with the situation I accepted her lead. She told me a lot about women and sex and so on. I think, although of course nothing much physical could ever happen between us, in a way, that was a good thing. It made me think about it, and ask questions, and it made it not such a big deal. We watched each other all the time, played little games. It was fun. It had never really occurred to me before that sex might be fun. I guess I’m still technically a virgin but I don’t feel like one.
I look around the room, wondering if anyone will watch me having a wank here, some musty academic gnome perhaps. I don’t care.

It wasn't such a bad place. That first morning after I arrived I went down to breakfast and met some of the other residents seated along the trestle tables that occupied only a corner of the huge old dining hall. They seemed friendly enough, but not very talkative. That was ok, I didn’t feel like talking either. I sat for a while before I realised the food was on a counter at the other end of the room. I went and got some porridge with spiced stewed fruit. It was the first real food I'd had in what seemed like years and exactly what I needed. After I’d eaten most of two bowls I leant back on the bench and looked around. The others were mostly sitting eating quietly. People left, others arrived later, all had the same sort of hooded gowns on, although the colour of the material varied. Mine was a faded grey mauve felt, and was obviously not new but it kept the draughts out. I looked at the faces of the others along the table. Some had their hoods up. There were both men and women but I was relieved to see that everyone seemed pretty sexless. I didn’t want to think about anyone that way for a long time. No one said anything to me except when one of the staff (I guessed she was) came over to ask if I’d go up to see Theodore to sort out my duties when I’d had enough to eat. She gave me directions.
I sat for a while anyway. I had very little clear idea what I was here for, except that Miranda had told me that this was the next settlement on the route and I should take advantage of their hospitality for a while, at least until next spring when I could move on. There was no coffee so I sat with my warm fruit milk for a while, trying not to think about her, feeling cold and empty, like a cast-off skin where the living animal has gone elsewhere.

Theodore seemed a nice enough sort of chap, a professor at some American university he said he'd been. He made vague perfunctory noises about settling in and getting to know the ropes and tossed me a list of jobs that needed doing, asking what I fancied having a go at. I wasn’t feeling very motivated and he clearly wasn’t that interested in me. His room was thick with books and papers and various other bits and pieces. I never did find out what he did but he clearly wanted to get back to it. I didn’t want to think about work and I suppose I wanted someone else to make the decision for me so I stood there as he looked at his desk and muttered. I tried to look like I gave a toss but it was a feeble pretence. Finally, I think he got fed up with me dithering and said go and see Jim and he gave me directions, the only parts of which I remembered was ‘down the stairs’ and ‘through the kitchens’.

Asking around, it turned out you had to go through the kitchens, which were in the basement, to get out to the gardens, which was where Jim was in charge. Gardening. Great. Not at all what I had in mind, but I couldn’t be bothered to complain. Instead, I took my time finding my way around. The kitchen was down some stairs from the dining hall, and the dining hall, I knew, was off the central quadrangle – a broad square of cobbles with the entrance on one side, and some very ancient looking trees set into it. Everything was grey and wet and hushed. The trees were beginning to lose their leaves. Few people were moving about as I found my way – I had no idea how many lived here. Maybe it was me, but there was a definite air of sadness about the place, or perhaps not quite sadness, but something else that made people slow and silent and distant. Maybe they had all recently lost the loves of their lives too, or maybe it was the time of year.
The kitchen was livelier, and certainly hotter, but dark and wide with a low ceiling, and a very palpable sense of it carrying the rest of the building on its fat, stone pillars. Still no one said anything much. I asked the way to the gardens and someone who was cutting up vegetables pointed with his knife to a large doorway at the far end of the room where I could see cool daylight leaking in around a corner. I went through and found myself in a wide chamber with huge stone sinks, and various gardening tools leaning up against the walls. Dark empty doorways lead off into storerooms on either side but it was completely open to the outside ahead and I could see greenery beyond.

I walked around the garden, deliberately not asking about Jim immediately so I could take my time and look around. It felt good to look at the trees and feel the misty rain fall on my face again. The garden appeared to be laid out with long rectangular borders with grass paths in between and a high buttressed wall all around. Many of the borders were freshly turned over and just bare earth, but in places there were rows of sprouts, cabbages, leeks and the straggling remains of bean vines still hanging onto their canes, and a whole range of smaller herbs and salads in rectangular patches. The walls all had trees trained up against them – strapped onto ropes in disturbingly strict horticultural bondage. All the fruit had been collected. No windfalls lay about. Occasionally I would come across a gardener, hood down, obscured by a waterproof cape, kneeling on a mat, doing something in the dirt or lugging something about. The rain was not hard but it had made the soil sticky and it stained everything black. The gardeners ignored me or nodded expressionlessly. My dad would have loved it. He’d have been in his element.
Further on I discovered this was just the upper terrace, and wide stone steps lead down to at least two more levels of walled gardens with fields and sheds with goats and ducks and probably all sorts of other things. I decided it was time to find Jim and ask him what he wanted of me.

Jim, I have to say, I took to immediately. He was where they said he’d be, with the goats, showing someone how to arrange their bedding. ‘Jim?’ I said, and he turned, hugging a mass of hay and smiled at me. ‘Gabriel’ he said, dropping the hay and striding forward in the mud and the manure to shake my hand. ‘Good to see you’ he said cheerfully. ‘Just let me get Annie started here and I’ll be with you’ and he turned and carried on with that as I waited. I couldn’t help noticing that he was wearing shorts and sandals under his cape.

I’m not sure anyone else really liked Jim. He was always cheerful and helpful and full of energy, and he didn’t often wear the gown, because it would only get wet and muddy and need washing all the time. ‘Nobody’s forcing them to wear the bloody things’ he told me as we headed for shelter. ‘People are strange’ he said once we get to his “office” – a shed among the dung heaps and wheel barrows.
‘Stunning bloody weather hey?’ he added, grinning at me.
I nodded and shrugged, not sure if he thought stunning was good or bad.
‘Good weather for ducks’ he went on, ‘although, actually if you take a look, the ducks are hiding in their shed, under cover. Sensible creatures.’
Jim seemed to have got the idea from somewhere that I knew something about gardening. I didn’t like to disappoint him. His passion was food he said. His life was food and how to grow it. He talked about everything growing in the garden in terms of how much food it could provide, but this was no bland commodity he was talking about. When he said “food” you could almost feel it nourishing you. He looked at the huge heads of cabbages and sacks of spuds as raw sustenance – for work to be sure, but also for philosophy, music, art, love (‘although there’s precious little of that around here’ he confided in me, stagily.) and of course, for growing more food. But he wasn’t interested in mere bulk. He showed me the modest greenhouse where he had managed to get ginger and lemon grass to grow. The ripe vapour of tomato, coriander and basil was pleasantly stupefying. Lemon trees stood in pots, ready to be brought under cover for the winter, and fig trees, trained against the walls, were already screened off so the frost wouldn’t interrupt their setting fruit.
Over the weeks that followed I was introduced to compost heaps and beehives, carp ponds and wells, dovecots and vegetable clamps, wild rocket and good-king-henry.
‘So animals do breed here’ I said to him one morning, looking at a clutch of jostling, newly hatched chicks. He just smiled at me like I was a little dim.
‘Well there always seem to be more of them here when we need them’ he said cryptically.

Jim’s main ally in all this (although her attitude to the system was more amused aside than out-and-out ribaldry) was Jo, who ran the kitchen. Jim and Jo conspired together on the menus and crop rotations well into the night, aware that most of the residents would have been equally happy with boiled veg and bread but determined to spring culinary excellence on them anyway. The delight of the few that appreciated their efforts was enough, and really, they didn’t care if no one but they enjoyed it. It was what they did. Over the three and a half years I was there I managed to split my work between the kitchen and the gardens, so I got the best of both worlds, and I saw the whole process from soil to groceries to plate to belly to fertiliser and back to soil. All that winter I was out in the gardens, digging, repairing, mulching and harvesting or in the kitchen if the weather was rough. And Jim had been right. I did have a feel for this stuff. I guessed it must have been watching my dad in the garden all that time. Something must have stuck.

It did take me quite a time to accept the situation however. For a while after I arrived I spent all my time in my room, looking out of the window, or wandering around wondering where everybody was. It was not a big place, with just two stories of bed and bathrooms on two sides of the courtyard, plus the kitchens below and attics above, but the corridors were badly lit, took odd turns, went up and down small staircases, and were just generally very hard to work out. In short I kept getting lost and ending up in all sorts of dusty corners, looking out at unexpected views. I very rarely saw anyone up there, and then only fleetingly. Sometimes it seemed the place was haunted. It was certainly very creepy. At night I avoided leaving my room if possible even though the tall dark shelves and piles of random furniture (which were never taken away) cast odd shadows and made the room feel strangely occupied. I never felt quite alone at night, but I got used to that. Outside my door was much worse. The sounds of things moving or being moved about in the corridor in the small hours kept me awake for several nights at the beginning. I asked, but no one seemed to know what had been going on, and they changed the subject.
Daytimes in my room though were a different matter. I took my food up there and spent a lot of time, as I say, looking out of the window which had a phenomenal view out over the gardens to the land beyond which was nothing but trees as far as the eye could see – an endless rolling forest landscape.
Back in life, when I was in the sixth form and had some free afternoons, mum took me into work a few times to see some of the old folks homes she had dealings with, to meet the matrons, and see if maybe care work might interest me. Actually, it had nothing to do with what I was interested in. It was about finding some way I could earn my keep. The other people at school were surprised that I didn’t run a mile when I told them what went on there – the shit and the dementia and the dribbling, but it interested me, the way people end up, what happens to them. In particular it was the tranquility of the place, the dim routine, the gentle squalor, life breaking down and letting go. I particularly remember one afternoon in the sun room about tea time, with the geraniums half dead on the windowsill there, and the budgie chirruping to itself, and the old ladies (there weren’t any old gents) dozing in their chairs, and it was warm and there was vaguely unpleasant but somehow comforting smell of beef stew, toiletries and just a hint of excrement, and I sat in one of the chairs, with its floral print and wooden legs and began to drift off, and I remember thinking that it was actually quite nice here, and you could drift off and fade into the upholstery and it would be an ok way to go.
That’s what it felt like in my room those first few weeks – peaceful and dull, warm in the sunshine (but chilly at night), and just looking out the window, paying occasional attention to a bird in the trees below, or having something to eat. Actually it was better because I had no need to get up to go to the toilet, or to eat, for that matter. I could just sit there, and not be missed, fade away, with just the ghosts of my predecessors for company at night. I sat in the stiff old leather armchair and drifted. Sometimes I went for a little stroll in the garden and Jim tried to tempt me with chores and I fiddled about obligingly in the dirt in a half-hearted sort of way until I got cold or wet or bored and I went inside again.

I did think about Miranda over this time though, up in my room especially, of an evening, because nothing much else happened after dark, after dinner, and I made up fantasies and stories about her, and us, together somehow, which always ended up with me finishing myself off in the way I knew she would have approved. She wasn’t just a sexual fantasy though. During those last few weeks we’d talked about so many things – we got on so well I thought, and I began to think about how we’d be together, permanently. I knew that wasn’t possible, but I dreamed of us living together, travelling together, doing the normal things couples do. I had to ask her what she thought of that and her only concern was that she’d have been fifteen years older than me. I said I didn’t care about that and she said she didn’t see why not then, and smiled happily at me. That was when I knew I loved her and I suspected she might feel something similar about me, but I never told her. I wish I had. Maybe things could have been different somehow.
Now, to be honest, I’m not even sure she wasn’t just a hallucination all along. Now, in the cold light of day (a phrase that seems especially – what was the word she used? – apposite, in this place) I find I can’t quite believe she even existed. I realised this forcibly the other day when I discovered I wasn’t going to tell anyone about her (even if anyone here had been prepared to listen) because I knew how bizarre the story would sound. And also how predictable – a young man’s sexual fantasy, a young man who had been alone in the wilderness for who knew how long, and was close to losing it, to getting completely lost. (For hadn’t she conveniently appeared at just the moment when I was most in danger?) I could see their expressions, part sympathy, part knowing smirk, part bafflement at the fact that she was the size she was. (What the hell did that mean? Was this a fixation on my sister’s Sindy dolls?) And then I look at the rucksack, bent and stale in the cupboard, and it does have little transparent ‘windows’ in it. It occurs to me that they might be there so the traveller can see what’s inside. It doesn’t seem a very plausible explanation until you consider the alternative. Maybe they’re just for decoration.
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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Voyage XVII – Confrontation

Lately I’ve managed to spend quite a lot of time with Lucy and the others but I don’t seem to be able to shake Ray off even so. Evenings, if I go to the bar at all, I get hauled over to their table. I politely (almost inaudibly) decline but they won’t have it. They cajole and jolly me along, get my drinks ready for me, play only the games I can tolerate, share their disgruntled opinions on everything – the food, the other travellers (some of whom appear to be foreign), the guides, the weather. But if this sounds cosy, it’s really not. The whole performance carries such an undercurrent of resentment, exasperation and what I can only call contempt – on their part, not mine, that I just sit, tense and bewildered through the whole performance, wondering what they can possibly want from me, and how long it will be before I can politely scarper.

Today Harry is snarling sarcastically about how long it takes him to get to work, what with the traffic these days (as if it’s something he’s going to have to do again soon.) He goes on to complain about people driving too slowly, so he has to keep using his brakes and that’s more wear and tear. I know he speeds everywhere because he’s told us, so that sounds like a recipe for disaster.
‘What I really hate is these berks stopping suddenly right under your fucking nose. I feel like getting out and taking my wheel wrench to their windscreen – see how they feel about picking the glass out of their stupid faces. If they don’t know how to drive they should just stay off the fucking highway. And another thing...’ I sit there, watching him. I look at Sol, who appears to be entertained by all this. I glance at Liz, who’s trying to look busy. Harry seems to like talking about how stupid other drivers are. It’s his favourite topic. I can see Liz doesn’t like it but he doesn’t care. Once before, he told us about how he ran someone off the road, literally, in his Range Rover and then went over to the driver, who was injured, sitting there at the wheel, and told him what a fucking wanker he was and how he deserved everything he got. Then he drove off and left him. Ray and Solly were laughing but I’m never sure if they laugh because they think it’s funny or because they’re scared of him. Sometimes I think they’re laughing at him, like the time Harry was complaining about how rude all the other drivers were – always blaring their horns and yelling and I’m thinking I’ve never noticed that but I don’t say anything and Ray and Solly seem to be trying not to laugh and Harry asks what’s wrong and everything goes quiet and Solly and Ray just look at each other, like they don’t know what to say and then Solly goes ‘Fucking wankers’ and Harry takes a moment and goes ‘Yeah, fucking wankers’ and they all carry on with the conversation like nothing’s happened.

They move on to talking about receptionists and shop assistants (not for the first time) and how sluggishly and sullenly they got served in various shops and restaurants back in the world. Brenda is with him all the way. They fume at all the stupid, fat and usually foreign checkout girls and waitresses they have had to deal with over the years. Brenda hates having to wait for anything at all it seems. What could possibly be worse? Why should she have to wait? They do it on purpose, the shop girls apparently, because they know she’s better than they are. They should get off their fat arses. Then there’s public transport and how much she hates having to wait for the bus. ‘I can’t think of nothing worse’ she says. Then there’s having to sit so close to other people, and their belongings. She makes it sound like they’re all carting their dead and  decomposing pets around with them in bin liners. She goes on to tell us in miniscule detail about the time her car was at the garage, having to sit in a crowded bus, her face near to the bottom of a black man in overalls after he’d stood up to let her sit down. She tells us word for word about the stand up row she had with him and the driver as if it was a great and moral victory, and how everyone on the bus looked at her afterwards with satisfaction and respect. I somehow doubt it. Sol gives us his analysis of the problem (not enough road building) and Harry adds his usual fascist two-penny-worth about human sewage and where they should all be sent. Ray sits and smiles, as usual.

Normally I listen but try not to get involved. I rearrange my hand, sip my drink or whatever. Anyway, I keep quiet. This evening though, I don’t know why, I say, quietly but clearly, ‘Brenda? Why does all this upset you so much?’
‘Having to wait for things. You seem incredibly angry.’
I don’t know what got into me. It just came out. I tried to say it conversationally, casually, but it must have been obvious to everyone how I really felt. I just felt really irritated with her. I was just sick of listening to her bitching about how things aren’t quite the way she likes them when there’s so much real misery in the world and she’s whinging about having to stand in a queue. She’s just so spoilt. And so’s Harry – complaining about people driving too slowly for him. I just had to say something. I’d tried to be tactful but there it was.
‘So I suppose you enjoy having to hang around, queuing for hours for every little thing Gabriel’ says Brenda angrily.
I consider my response carefully. It’s like how time is supposed to slow down when you’re in a car accident. You can watch everything happening. You can’t stop it, but you can study it.
‘I didn’t say I like it’ I say. ‘I just think sometimes, there’s no point getting upset about it. It’s just the way it is.’
You could cut the atmosphere with an ice pick. I sit and wait, studying my cards.
Finally Harry feels he has to say something. ‘Well Gabriel’ he says looking at me very intently, and smiling as you might to a very silly child. ‘Perhaps some of us haven’t got anything much to occupy ourselves with. Some of us, on the other hand, are extremely busy.’
‘Well I have a lot to do too...’ I say, quite reasonably I think. I feel oddly calm – in free fall. ‘I just think sometimes you can’t avoid having to wait. That’s all I’m saying. Brenda seemed upset about it. I’m just saying if I have to wait for something I take the opportunity to do some reading. Or do a bit of thinking.’ I look at Brenda, then at Harry, then back at my cards.
‘“Thinking”?’ he says eventually, laughing a little nervously I thought, like I’ve suggested he try defecating in Woolworth’s. ‘Thinking...’ he repeats vaguely, shaking his head, as if he’s heard of it somewhere but can’t remember exactly what it involved.
‘We don’t have time to think Gabriel’ says Brenda.
‘No’ I say, nodding, trying to look sympathetic. ‘No, I can see that.’
It occurs to me as I say it that I could be taken to be implying she’s not very bright. She’s not sure.
‘Boredom I’d call it. Nothing better to do. I...’
‘But I don’t get bored’ I insist, looking directly at her now. ‘I’ve got plenty to do.’
‘What, art you mean?’ smirks Sol, contemptuously.
‘Yes, amongst other things’ I say, again reasonably but even as I do it I know –  it isn’t that I’m trying to be reasonable. No, I’m trying to wind them up but in such a way that any attack from their side will seem extreme and unprovoked. 
‘And you still reckon you’ll make money that way?’ says Ray.
‘I don’t think that’s the point’ I say, shrugging.
‘You don’t think that’s the point.’ He looks around at the others, as if I’ve just said something very comical.
‘What about when you get yourself a mortgage then, and a family?’ says Harry, leaning into my face and with some menace in his tone. ‘I worked bloody long hours to keep them...’
I watch him talk at me for a while. I’ve heard it all before – ‘Blablabla... sweat of my brow... blablabla.... fingers to the bone... all the hours God sends... blablabla...’
What does he want, a medal?
‘...with bloody little gratitude I can tell you.’
Liz is dragging feebly at his sleeve. He swipes at her and she ducks back. ‘You do your best for them and what do they do? Chuck it back in your face.’
I observe his boiled pork face engorge and splutter. I keep my mouth covered so his spit doesn’t land inside.
‘But you weren’t forced to have children were you?’ I say, all innocence. I don’t know where this came from. It just came out.
‘What? No. Course not. What are you on about?’
‘It’s just... You’re always going on about how having kids affected your life so badly. It just sounds like you didn’t really want them around, like they were forced on you. I mean surely you knew what it might involve?’
Liz and Brenda both look keen to intervene, to explain things to me, but Harry won’t let them. Ray and Solly, I note, stay well out of it.
‘What it involves...’ he begins, but doesn’t seem to have anything to add. Instead he rudely shushes the women again and goes back to telling us how hard he worked, as if I should admire him for that or be hugely grateful somehow.
‘But you chose to have children’ I insist. ‘Nobody forced you to work all those hours. You didn’t have to make all those sacrifices. It was your choice. You must have known what it would be like. I don’t see why you’re complaining.’
‘What I’m complaining about...’ He sits back heavily, very angry. ‘Will someone explain to him?’
‘I don’t think you understand what it takes to bring up a family young man’ said Brenda firmly.
‘Yes I do’ I say. ‘It’s bloody hard – I know that. I’m not even sure I'd want to do it myself.’
‘You selfish little shit’ shouts Liz suddenly, as if a devil as sprung up and is sitting smirking before her.
‘But you did want children’ I insist, leaning forward. ‘You chose that path. What did you expect? You can’t blame them for their own existence.’
‘What the fuck are you on about boy?’ shouts Harry. Everybody’s huffing and shifting about in their seats, ready to have a go. People at some of the other tables are looking uneasy.
I lean back and cross my arms, observing the consternation. His face is really dripping. He must have been heading for a heart attack when he died.
‘Answer me this’ I say, glaring back at him. ‘Why did you choose to have them? What did you want them for? What did you think they’d do for you exactly? Huh? Or did you even think about it at all? What exactly were you expecting from them?’
I come to a halt. I feel my heart going so fast, so hard and I’m hyperventilating a little. I hope they can’t tell. I collect myself. I press on. I know I’m talking too loud but I really don’t care.
‘So you have all these children and you act like you’re doing them a big favour and they should all be grateful to you and be nice quiet little miniature versions of yourselves and do as they’re told and make you proud. But we’re not your little toys. We’re not here to make you feel better about your life. We’re here to be us and you can’t fucking stop us. Don’t talk to me about selfishness’ and I push my chair back hard and stand over them. I hear the chair fall over. I ignore it and turn to go.
‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re on about’ shouts Liz at my back. ‘You think you’re better than us. You spit on our lives, on our families...’ and she turns and cries on Harry’s chest and he makes a big show of holding her tenderly.
Ray stands up and turns to me and says ‘I think you should leave son. Go see your... friends.’
And suddenly I get it, why they’ve wanted me around all this time. I look around at them, one by one, at their outraged incomprehension and I see – what? Parental disapproval, that’s what, after they’ve tried so hard. I’m just so ungrateful.
I calmly pick up my drink and head for my cabin. It’s late. And I feel bloody brilliant.
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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Joe XI – A levels

‘Tell me about school, and try and do it without saying “It was alright” or “I don’t know.” Go.’
‘I hated it. It was shit. How’s that?’
He looks impressed ‘Brief, to the point, certainly. What happened? Did you get into trouble a lot, or get bullied or what? I seem to remember, before you said not.’
I look about. I don’t want to talk about this shit. Can’t he tell?
He flicks through some papers, finds something, reads rapidly, moving his lips and gesticulating a little as if re-enacting our conversation. ‘Blah blah blah... invisibility. You relied on being inconspicuous apparently.’ He raises his eyebrows. I nod.
‘What were you avoiding?’
‘Obviously. Why?’
I want to say I don’t know but I stop myself just in time. Then I decide I really don’t know and just say so.
‘Did you think you might get into trouble?’
‘Not really. Mostly it just seemed less complicated that way.’
‘Dealing with people was complicated?’
‘But you had friends.’
‘Sort of. There were a few I hung around with at breaks sometimes, but we weren’t close. Actually they were really irritating. I spent a lot of time on my own.’
‘So, why didn’t you go and make other friends?’
‘I don’t know... Shit, sorry.’
‘I’m going to install an “I don’t know” box if you’re not careful, except there’s no money here of course. Anyway, go on. Other friends?’
‘I just didn’t want to hang around them, make a nuisance of myself. That sounds pathetic doesn’t it.’
‘It didn’t occur to you that they might want to be friends with you?’
‘No. And I’m fairly sure they didn’t. Everybody was just in their groups already – they didn’t want me coming over and saying (I do a whining voice)“Can I be in your gang?” It would have sounded feeble anyway, like I thought they were so cool.’
‘But other kids do that all the time, though not usually in that voice. They go up and say “Can I join in?” or, you know, “Can I come along?” well, Kirsty did anyway.’
‘But she was a kid wasn’t she, and girls are different anyway.’
‘I don’t know. Little girls can be complete b... I don’t know whats.’
‘Well, maybe I was too proud.’
‘So you stayed with the losers because that way you didn’t have to risk rejection. Is that it?’
I think about this. Was I just too proud?
‘No, I really think the other groups didn’t want me around’ I decide finally. ‘I was a bit of a weirdo. It would have just been pointless humiliation, and actually, if I’d been in with the cool kids it would just have been complicated in a different way.’
‘I think they were quite, like show-offs, you know, joking around, being cheeky, taking the piss out of the girls and so on.’
‘You weren’t really like that I suppose.’
‘It would have been really hard work.’
‘Whereas with your loser friends you didn’t have to try at all. Wasn’t there anybody else you could hang around with?’
‘I can’t think of anyone in particular. We didn’t mix much with other classes, so that was it – weirdos or dudes – take your pick.’
‘Or girls presumably.’
‘There weren’t really any boy-girl friendships then.’
‘What age was this?’
‘Secondary school, up to about sixteen. It was better later, in the sixth form.’
‘How was that?’
‘Well I hung out with the people who’d been in the class above and they were kind of weird, but cool too – university types I suppose. Some of them went travelling – inter-railing and or went to a lot of concerts. Some of them were really clever. Some of them actually discussed chemistry in free periods...’
‘God how dreadful.’
‘I know...’

‘How was your school work?’
‘I don’t remember much about it actually. It all seemed a bit of a mess – I was always handing stuff in late, getting into trouble.’
‘And yet you were always near the top as I understand it – one of the brighter students.’
‘That’s not how it seemed at the time. It just all seemed like a huge mess.’
‘Did that worry you?’
‘I just didn’t think about it really. ‘
‘But it must have become a problem, with dead-lines and so on.’
‘I suppose it was always in the back of my mind. It just all looked like a horrible muddle, and then it got worse because I missed stuff or didn’t really understand and then we moved on to the next topic and I was just completely lost. I have no idea how I passed my O levels.’
‘But would you describe yourself as fairly relaxed about it?’
‘No, I just stayed away from it as much as I could. I think if I’d actually thought about all the stuff I was supposed to be doing I’d have had a breakdown or something. I had quite a lot of time off, feeling sick, headaches and stuff. Or in the sixth form I just went away.’
‘Where to?’
‘Over the Downs. I’d set out for college in the morning and just walk straight past the school and up onto the hills.’
‘And the teachers? What did they do?’
‘I don’t think they knew really. I mean, obviously they knew I wasn’t doing very well. They didn’t know what I was doing.’
‘Did they ask?’
‘Ask what?’
‘Did they talk to you about why you were having trouble?’
‘Well, they did the whole “Pull your socks up or else” speech. Everybody was just fed up with me.’
He gets up and begins to pace about ‘You see this is what really pisses me off’ he says. ‘They can see you’re struggling, or something’s not right anyway and they know you’re bright, so if you’re not stupid they assume you can’t be bothered and the only strategy they have available is to give you a bollocking, like that’ll do the trick. It really gets my goat – I mean, it’s not the fifties any more – haven’t these people heard of educational psychology?’
‘But it’s not all that easy to talk to teenagers...’
‘What? Who the hell told you that?’
‘Er... well my mum, for a start...’
‘I bet she did. I bet she did.’ He’s really pacing now, double time. ‘Shit I can’t believe it’ he says. ‘Really makes me mad. So I suppose when you came to do your A levels that’s when it all fell apart because you couldn’t just muddle through any more, and I bet they still didn’t ask you what was going on, just told you to buck your ideas up.’
‘I don’t think I knew what was wrong either, to tell them I mean.’
He shakes his head frustratedly. ‘How long is it since this all happened?’ he says.
‘A year, eighteen months? It was before the end of the first year things started to go really wrong.’
‘You think you’ve changed much in that time? Apart from having died and so on of course.’
I shrug.
‘But we’re having this conversation now, and are you “hard” to talk to? Are we not having a conversation?’
‘Yes but...’
He leans over me, a hand on each arm of the chair. He looks intently into my face. ‘I could have helped you’ he says fiercely ‘and I’m not even a trained fucking shrink. Even I could have got you your passes. Shit!’ he says and bangs his fist down. He goes and resumes his seat. ‘I wish we had more time’ he says.
To continue reading, either go to Lulu to buy or download the book, or let me know when you want to read the next bit and I'll post it on the blog.

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.