Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Andrea VII – It’s so very different for girls

‘It doesn’t sound like you had much of a love life’ she observes.
‘That’s putting it mildly’ I say.
‘What was the most exciting thing you ever did? – best sexual experience of your life.’
I think about it but I can’t think of anything much. Then I wonder why she’s suddenly so interested in my sex life.
‘I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours’ she says, mock flirtatiously. I wish she wouldn’t mess with me. She must have twigged what effect it has by now, surely.
‘I honestly don’t know’ I say wearily. I want to make something up but she’s right about the lying. I can’t seem to formulate a fabrication. I decide to go for comedy.
‘There was this time in the sauna at a festival.’
‘Really?’ she says. ‘They never seemed very sexual to me. Too hot for one thing.’
‘True, but on this occasion there was a woman in there I really fancied – amazing looking woman – amazon-like and we’re all in there, chatting as usual and it’s dark and there’s the burner in the middle and candles and the herbs and the steam – you know. And this woman asks me if I would like a massage.’
Andrea grins broadly at me. ‘What did you say?’
‘Well I said “Yes” of course, and I turn around and she’s kneading my back very expertly and making comments about how tense I seem and I’m like “You don’t know the half of it lady”, and I don’t know what to think.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well you’ve been there. There’s an etiquette, isn’t there. The festival sauna is not about sex. It’s about relaxation and fellowship with nature or something. I mean sure – we all check out each other’s bods don’t we.’
‘But it would be bad form to do anything about it actually in the sauna. Am I right?’
I look at her doubtfully. ‘Broadly’ she says. There was so much I didn’t understand in life.
‘Anyway, so I have to assume she’s just being a hippy. Nakedness – it’s no big deal and she just wanted to help me relax. That’s what I told myself.’
‘Did you think her behaviour was unusual?’ she asks.
‘No. Not really. I told myself she was just being friendly.’
‘She probably was.’
‘Very probably, but anyhow, I don’t feel friendly. That’s the problem. I feel horny, and if there’s one total no-no in festie sauna etiquette it’s getting a hard-on.’
‘What did you do?’ she grins, waiting for the punch line.
‘Well I passed out in the shower, didn’t I.’
She falls about, clapping her hands and rolling back in her seat.
‘Really. I think all my blood had rushed to my – I don’t know where. It wasn’t in my penis and it clearly wasn’t in my brain.’
‘So what happened then?’
‘Nothing. I think she really was just being friendly. Maybe a bit flirtatious, but I don’t think she was really interested in me.’
She’s unconvinced I can tell.
‘I’m not entirely sure either, but I tried to talk to her afterwards and nothing happened.’
‘Do you want to hear mine?’ she asks gleefully. I don’t really but I shouldn’t be rude.
‘Does it involve public nudity?’
‘Yes, and cunnilingus. Me and a mate on the top of a late bus in Aberystwyth.’
I shake my head. ‘I can’t take this any more’ I say jokingly, but I’m not really joking. Why had everyone been having so much more fun than me?
‘What’s wrong?’ she says finally realising I am not laughing.
‘It’s not funny’ I say. ‘Really it’s not. I don’t want to sound like some pathetic whinger but it’s not funny when everybody else is doing it and...’ and I shake my head. ‘Actually it wasn’t just me. I knew a few other lads like me – nice ordinary lads, not weirdos, not unsanitary – went years without once getting any. Can you imagine what that’s like?’
‘Not really.’
I look into her eyes. She really doesn't. She doesn't get it at all.
‘Well’ I shrug, ‘It’s different for girls, as the man said.’
It seemed to me at the time that any of the girls I knew, with a few rather gross exceptions, could have had it any time they liked with no more subterfuge than a smile. We on the other hand were just gagging for it. Maybe the girls didn’t really want it, maybe they did, but, short of rape, it was their choice. We, on the other hand, because we were not rapists, were forced to wait.

‘Do you know how sexualised your average adolescent boy’s life is?’ I say.
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Porn, fantasising, looking at girls, wanking, permanent hard-on, all day, every day, nights too. Not getting to sleep before three in the morning some nights because you can’t stop thinking about it. And you look around at the girls in the class and that little group of ‘cool’ lads and you hate them and want to be them at the same time. And that’s it – just girls looking at you like you’re something someone’s walked in off the road. So much power...’ I take a moment to think about that, how utterly derisible it made me feel. ‘And it goes on forever, years.’
I can see she still doesn’t get it.
‘Some days’ I say, ‘I’d be out walking in the countryside and I’d come across some fragments from a porno mag all tatty and stuck together in a hedge and it would be like treasure trove.’ I sit and shake my head slowly. ‘You want to know my best sex story? Well that’s it pretty much.’ I know I’m being melodramatic but I can’t help it. ‘The pressure is awesome – I mean that literally, in every possible sense. You can’t imagine.’
‘But you did lose your virginity eventually?’
‘Yes I did.’
‘It was alright.’
She looks quite shocked. ‘Just alright?’ she says.
‘It wasn’t great. They were just drunken one-night-stands. I barely remember the first one.’
‘Did you not fancy any of them?’
‘Some. A bit.’
She looks disappointed by that. She’s not the only one.
‘But before that, weren’t there parties and so on, when you were younger? You know, teenage girls and boys out to have a good time? Clubs? Gangs?’
‘I was a bit of a loner to be honest. We’ve talked about this. I couldn’t do the flirting and the showing off and the chatting up thing.’
‘Maybe you didn’t really want it badly enough?’
I look coldly at her. I hate that phrase. I think of all the people I’ve known who weren’t really bothered but got it handed to them on a fucking plate. A fucking plate. That’s exactly what it would have been served on – like one of those stainless steel platters with spikes for carving the joint on. I can see it now.
‘Maybe I wanted it too much’ I say. ‘I know I looked kind of desperate sometimes. It’s not attractive.’ She nods. ‘It makes you rather humourless and intense – not much of a laugh.’
‘Yes’ she says at last. ‘I get that.’
I've got an example for her.
‘There was one party I went to – this would have been after everybody else had gone off to uni and I was left working in a DIY shop. There was a girl – Gill her name was – one of those rare and magnificent Bardot types. Fabulous woman. Way out of my league, although she was always pleasant to me.’
I can still picture her...
‘Anyway, the party was ok. I was feeling a bit out of place, as usual. I didn’t really know anyone and it was getting really late and I was just about to go for a walk, clear my head... Anyway, something stopped me... I don’t know what... I just had a bad feeling about it. So anyway I headed out the front instead and there she was, Gill, and she was with this guy Dave, who was bit of a jack-the-lad and he came and grabbed me and put his arm around my shoulders and dragged me up the steps onto the pavement and he said “Gill quite fancies you. Do you know that? She says she thinks you’re quite ‘dishy’” and she looks absolutely mortified and I don’t know where to look and he says “Ok, lets have it out” and everyone’s laughing – all the lads from the shop and some others and we’re out in the street and it’s a rainy night and he’s being really loud and he goes to undo his flies, in the middle of the road and he gets it out right there and then and says “Let’s see yours then” or something like that. “Lets see who’s the best man.” That’s it. And I look at it, and he’s got his hard-on alright but it’s not actually very impressive – sort of thin and pointy - a bit like a dog’s, and I’m not bragging but I knew mine would have been a lot more impressive than that thing.’
Andrea’s grinning at me, clearly enjoying herself.
‘But here’s the thing – I’m not going to get my cock out in the street am I? And even if I did it’d probably shrink up to the size of a walnut. So I just stood there, like a lemon. And I couldn’t do anything, and he flips this... thing back in his trousers like he’s a rock star or something and strides off down the street, a girl under each arm, one of them Gill, and I remember thinking ‘This is it. This is what it’s going to be like. You don’t have to be better. You just have to act like you are.’
‘You poor bugger’ she says without humour. ‘And that’s when you stopped trying?’
‘No, of course not. Well, not just that. It didn’t help. It encapsulates the situation nicely though, don’t you think?’
‘Did you see Gill again?’
‘I left that job soon after. Couldn’t face them. Worked for an accountant for a bit – can you imagine?’
‘Down hill from there?’
‘More or less.’
‘Do you think having a girlfriend would have helped?’
‘Who knows? It would have depended what she was like. She’d have had to have been quite tolerant.’
‘Well the girlfriends of young men usually have to be very tolerant in my experience.’
I laugh a little. It’s quite true. I hadn’t thought of it like that.
‘Maybe next time’ I say.
‘Maybe’ she says and we end the session there.

A few sessions later she says ‘Actually you can’t have been that desperate.’
I say ‘Why do you say that?’
She says ‘Well it’s not like nobody wanted you.’
I run through, in my mind, the images of the one or two women I knew had wanted me – sad, neurotic, lonely women.
‘So you could have had someone, if you’d wanted to.’
‘Well yes...’
‘What were they? Really disgusting old sluts or something?’
‘No. Absolutely not. I just didn’t...’
‘Fancy them? Did anybody else fancy them?’
‘I don’t know. They weren’t hideous or anything. A bit needy perhaps...’
She looks at me like I’ve just said something very funny.
‘They just weren’t quite what you were after’ she says.
I shrug. I suppose not. ‘But why should I? Why should I settle for something...’
‘No reason. You shouldn’t. But you’d be surprised how many do just settle for someone, because they can’t bear the thought of being alone or not having children. How many of the people you knew were in relationships that were even remotely enviable? Seriously. Think about it.’
‘You didn’t settle. You held out. You didn’t give up. You thought you deserved better. I actually find that quite laudable. Good for you Gabriel.’
‘Thank you’ I say, not quite sure how to take that.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Voyage VI – Ciconiine?

I keep on thinking about Andrea. There’s something, I don’t know, strange about her, not quite right somehow. There’s something... I want to say ‘flakey’, insubstantial, lightweight, about her, considering the life she’s led. She doesn’t seem to know much about the world for such a supposed ‘high flyer’. I’m not sure what to make of her. She maintains that she just hated all the politics – just stayed away from it as much as she could. They were always going on about ‘realpolitik’ when all she could see was kids with their hands blown off and mothers who couldn’t afford to buy a fifty-pee rehydration pack for the baby. Ok I can see that.
I do like her though.
Oh for God’s sake. Here we go again. You’d think all this hormonal crap would stop when you get old and die but no. Apparently not. Bollocks bollocks bollocks.
I’m getting that feeling again, that itchy giggly feeling under the ribs I used to get when I was younger. I remember it coming on when the weather warmed up and the hedgerows were filled with buzzing and people sat outside with their drinks and the girls started to wear their little tops again, and I had that widespread wonderful feeling that at any moment, anywhere, it could happen. There might be a party, or an exhibition, or, I don’t know, just a chance encounter. It could happen any time. And I looked pretty sexy then, even if I say so myself – ‘chiselled and swarthy’ as they say. And I wasn’t skint. I had a place to stay with a bit of privacy and a shower. I couldn’t wait.
And then it got cold again. Then the money was all gone or something else happened...
Anyway she’s way out of my league.

I do have some idea when someone fancies me. I’m not completely na├»ve. I can tell Fiona is interested in me for example, and she’s nice enough – short black scruffy bob, a rather narrow, avian sort of face. ‘Aquiline’ I think is the word (I wonder what the term for ‘heron-like’ would be? It’s closer.)
She motions for me to sit next to her, and I do because it’s the only free seat, but once there I try to be as un-arousing as possible. I think she thinks I’m playing hard to get. Or maybe she’s just desperate, which would be typical. This happened to me a few times in life, mostly at the festies. Some overweight radical feminist with spikey red hair, biker jacket and purple Doc Martins would take a shine to me, and I didn’t like to be rude, so, to cut a long story short, that’s how I lost my virginity. It’s not that nobody ever fancied me exactly. It’s just that I suspected they were kind of desperate too. But I’m being unfair. They were good people generally – funny and warm, and I enjoyed their company, but not like that. So Fiona is into me. She can smell sexual frustration, but it’s not for her. I look at her again. Would I, if it came to it? No. I saw her without her jacket on the other day and she looked like one of those Mexican Day of the Dead figures. Frankly I’d rather she was obese.
Cathy isn’t bad looking, in a mumsy way, but she’s always so sad. She’s always thinking about the family she left behind and she blames herself – it was just a stupid car accident she says – she was on her mobile, going around a roundabout, and... She’s inconsolable, although we do keep trying.
Bryony is interesting, but terribly young and she had a horrible death that might have involved sexual assault so we don’t pry. She’s oddly cheerful for all that and makes us laugh with the things she comes out with. She used to be ‘One of those Goths’ she says, ‘so actually being dead is quite fun, by comparison.’ She’s the one I’d go for given the choice, despite the strange black hair. Goths are supposed to be quite good in bed, or so I hear. All that bondage gear I guess – piercings and tattoos.
Oh listen to me. Look at where I am. The afterlife is so not the place to get laid. Get a grip man.

Journey VII – A Bad Dream

It was a horrible shock when I awoke. It was still dark out and I seemed to be alone in one of the upstairs rooms. It occurred to me that maybe I’d never been downstairs and the woman had been a dream, but of course there’s no dreaming in the afterlife. I looked down and my shorts were still very damp and had been split from front to back. I clearly remembered her ripping them to get better access to me. I felt terribly exposed and I felt sure there was something else there with me, waiting.
I think back now and I try to work out how to describe it. Hackneyed phrases come to mind – “Night Terrors”, “Nameless Dread” but they’re too obvious. I’d co-existed with this fear since that first night but had learned to ignore it because I felt safe enough at the hostel and I was rarely alone at night. I’d locked my door and pulled the curtains of my room. I’d kept music playing. Sometimes I’d kept a light on. Now I was alone, in a strange house, at night, virtually naked, and cold and wet too. Why was that? I’d read of female ejaculation somewhere but never experienced it. It didn’t smell at all bad – rather good actually – warm and fleshy and not at all pissy. The scent gave me a powerful thrill. I supposed most blokes were used to this sort of thing – women flooding the place when they had an orgasm, but it was new to me. It was all new to me. I wanted to call out for her but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and also didn’t know her name. I scurried to the door and opened it a fraction. There was a light on, a hallway but no sign of the stairs, lots of doorways. I couldn’t find my boots or vest. I did my shorts up as best I could but still felt very vulnerable. The zip did up but my nuts fell out the rip. I was walking with my legs crossed. It was ridiculous. I’d wandered around naked at festivals before – around the saunas. It’d always felt quite a powerful thing to do – strong, individual, defiant. I knew I’d feel better like that than I would crouched down trying to hold my trousers together so I took them off and carried them. It was exactly like one of those dreams where you’re in a strange place and you’ve somehow mislaid all your clothes. I thought maybe I could find a towel or something to put around myself later.
I started off down the corridor, keeping an eye out for nails and broken glass on the bare, paint-splattered floorboards. I padded silently along, peering cautiously into the doorways, if they were open, as I went along. I saw nothing but knew there was something about. Sounds took me by surprise but were impossible to locate. The air felt terribly hot and close. The wall behind me was warm to the touch. I swivelled around to try to catch them out but just saw the other end of the corridor with its broom cupboard at the far end, silent and somehow waiting – the reason I hadn’t gone that way to begin with. I stood against the wall, my hands pressed against it, trying to concentrate. Everything was dusty and stained – not like the second floor I’d seen before. Old cobwebs choked with sooty dust hung from the ceiling. The unshaded bulb showed dust on everything. Crumbled plaster revealed broken laths and worrying holes in the walls. Decomposing and singed carpet lay in a heap in the far corner. An ugly bedside cabinet stood incongruous by a window. The broom cupboard had a pile of junk in it and a mop, head up, standing in the middle. (How was it doing that?) I carried on away toward the far end of the corridor. I needn’t have worried about my penis hanging out – it’d shrunk to the size of an acorn.
At the end of the corridor was a landing and a staircase down. I leaned over the banisters. The floor below was in darkness. There was some rubbish at the bottom but I couldn’t see any further. That was when I heard it behind me – like a rush of breath in a throat. I snapped around and immediately noticed that the pile of old carpets was in a different place and the broom cupboard’s contents had spilled out onto the floor. Some of the things were right beside me. It made absolutely no sense and seemed laughable but I hadn’t actually seen anything move and I was terrified. I looked down the stairs. There was nowhere else to go and I was panicking now anyway. Only later did I survey the damage to my feet where the little nails had gone in. At the bottom of the stairs I found a corridor going back the way I’d come and more doorways. The sound behind me I can only liken to a babble of voices, coming from the stairs and the floor above. They knew I was there – maybe not exactly where I was, but it was only a matter of time. I moved forward into the dark corridor. I had a feeling that I might be safer in the darkness. There was a sound like something big coming down from above, not using the stairs, just falling, and I ran. I didn’t see it, I just ran. I was running toward where the broom cupboard was above but this corridor took a right turn and I found myself in a once plush dining room, dimly lit by the street lamps outside. I went to the window and found I was not at the front of the house as I’d expected. There seemed to be a back garden instead, one floor below. The garden was dark and overgrown as far as I could tell, with more trash lying about. I tried the window but it wouldn’t budge. There were sounds in the corridor briefly and the light was now on out there. I considered breaking the window. Maybe later, if all else failed. I looked around me – stacked chairs, tables. I considered wrapping myself in a tablecloth but modesty really didn’t seem a high priority. I still had my shorts gripped tight in my hand. I sniffed them. She smelt fantastic. Maybe this is hell, I thought. Maybe they have that woman already. Or maybe she was bait, getting me ready for them. I didn’t want to think about it. Anyway they didn’t seem to be very bright. I was utterly defenceless and lost and yet they didn’t seem to know where I was. Or maybe they knew I had nowhere to go and this was part of the game, part of the torture – letting me stew in her juices.
As I stood there, trying to breathe silently I realised I’d known this was coming all along. I knew if I let myself be lost and alone they’d find me, like all the others, being kept and tortured somewhere alone. We would never see each other again but we would be all around, in the walls, under the floors, gagged and trussed. Maybe in all these dead-eyed houses it had been going on around me all along. That’s how I knew about it.
‘Stop’ I said to myself. I needed to think. I needed to get out. I looked around for some sort of weapon but couldn’t imagine a way to defend myself. I couldn’t imagine a way to hide. All I could think of was to keep moving. A door at the far end was open and I looked through. There was a narrow flight of stairs down, a light on, and muffled voices. I heard a man’s laugh. They could well be waiting down there. I could smell blood and shit. That was where they wanted me to go. I went toward the door I’d come in by and looked down the brightly lit passage. I looked toward the stairs I’d come down. They could be waiting there too. I didn’t know what to do. I was completely stuck. Why weren’t there guides with us? They should have come off the boat with us. This shouldn’t have been able to happen. I crouched down by the window and covered myself with a tablecloth and stared at the door, and waited.

Time passes. It’s a very long night. I hear nothing. I can’t sense them any more but I still can’t risk moving. Maybe day will come and I’ll be ok. I think about the woman. I don’t regret it. It was the most amazing sexual experience I ever had and we didn’t even fuck. We hardly even spoke. That was a good thing. She just came and took me and it happened, just like that, just right – no words, no opportunity for me to say something stupid, fluff my lines. What a woman. A faint grey light seeps in through the window without me really noticing. I must have dozed off. I look about me – plaster dust and spilt paint on a worn out wine red carpet. I can still smell offal and excrement. It gets lighter out and I move to the door, and look out. It feels safe, cool and airy, not like last night. I pad quickly along to the far end and find a main staircase down on the right. I take it and stand in the morning light in a hallway with the front door ahead. Outside on the step I turn and see that the house where the party was is next door. I’m in a run-down guesthouse. I don’t remember coming here. I put the shorts on as best I can and walk down the path, along the pavement and up to the front door, which is ajar. Two or three guests are still about and music (sounds like something by the Apricot Wallflowers) is playing quietly. Someone is making coffee, thank whoever. I find my vest on the floor and put it on. It also smells strongly of her, and of wine.
‘You look like shit my man’ says the coffee maker, grinning. He’s a tall man with a ponytail and what I’ve always thought of as a very Australian face. There’s definitely something of the Great Grey about him.
‘Thanks’ I say, wearily. ‘Did you see the woman I was with last night?’
‘Hard to miss’ he says. ‘What did you do with her?’ and I explain my exploits next door and that I’m worried about her. I leave out the bit about the torture – I don’t want to seem completely insane. The man – Aaron, hands me a coffee, indicates the sugar bowl and goes to ask his ‘lady friend’ if she knows where Sophie went, for that’s her name apparently.
‘Next door’ is the answer. ‘She said she was going next door to crash. I thought she was with you.’
‘We got separated’ I say, lamely. ‘Can you come and help me look? I’m a bit...’ and I shake my head and look dazed. It’s not entirely an act.
‘Sure. Give us a mo. Drink your coffee – it’ll get cold.’
I can’t help worrying that we’ll be too late, but I wait anyway and I drink my coffee. It’s really getting light now. She’s probably in no more danger now than she was five minutes ago. At least I know she’s a real person, with a name and all, not just some demon temptress come to lure me to hell. My exploits quickly come to seem absurd in the chilly morning light. It feels like a bad dream. The details are already receding. I ask a bit more about her. Gina, the ‘lady friend’, has met her a few times at parties and says she seems really nice. Last night was unusual – she’s not seen her do that before, ‘but she does tend to approach things in a fairly unorthodox way’ apparently.
‘If she wants something badly enough she does tend to go for it full on’ adds Aaron admiringly.
Evidently she wanted me badly enough, I think to myself, and feel very chuffed. I do like a woman who knows her own mind.

We go next door, Aaron, Gina and I, and we find Sophie sitting on the front step looking, if anything even blearier than I do.
‘Hey babe what happened to you?’ she says looking sleepily up at me.
‘I got completely lost’ I say. ‘Long story. I’ll tell you later. Do you want breakfast?’ She nods happily and I give her a hand up. One of her breasts has come free again and the demolished state of my shorts quickly becomes apparent. She giggles, pulls her strap up and reaches down to cover my modesty. ‘Oops’ she says. ‘Better get you sorted out. Sorry about that. I got a bit carried away didn’t I.’ and we walk back with her giggling, bending down, holding her dress out in front of me like a curtain, while I pretend to try to look dignified.
The four of us ate an excellent breakfast and I dismissed the previous night’s horrors from my thoughts.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Andrea V – Life Choices

‘So what were you like, as a child?’ she says as I arrive.
‘Oh Gahd, do I have tah?’ I drawl, pretending to collapse with ennui.
‘Not if you don’t want to.’
‘I don’t remember. It was a very long time ago.’ I sit back and think. What was I like? Oh God. The horror!
‘I was useless – always sort of saying stupid things, always sort of wrong somehow, uncomfortable, out of place.’
‘Give me an example.’
‘I don’t know. Errrm.... I know – for a while there, when I was about fifteen I thought I was The Fonze...’
It’s nice to see her laugh at my pain, really it is.
‘I got this fake leather jacket and some sunglasses and a white tee shirt. I thought I looked so cool.’
‘You were finding your identity, identifying with a hero figure’ she says charitably.
‘Nobody else did anything like that though.’
‘What did your friends say?’ She’s still giggling.
‘They mostly ignored me. They were all useless tossers themselves anyway. At least I was trying to look cool. I had a Starsky cardigan too...’
‘Very stylish.’
I look at her smiling at me. It does seem funny now.
‘I take it the other kids didn’t play with you much.’
‘Well, I don’t know which came first – me avoiding them or them avoiding me. It is strange now I come to think about it. I wasn’t unhappy I don’t think, being on my own. It was just, when I did try to play with them or go and see them at home or whatever kids do, it was always somehow difficult. We never just relaxed and had a laugh or even a fight for that matter. I always felt uncomfortable somehow, like I didn’t know how it all worked, what to say, and I didn’t understand their games – I hated football, and I didn’t want to fight, and the girls wouldn’t play with me, so I suppose I was on my own a lot.’
‘So you had to use your imagination, invent things.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Sounds hard.’
‘I’m not saying this to get sympathy (but thank you anyway), I just never really thought about it before. It’s just like, I didn’t get it. Like I missed something – some vital piece of information.’ I think about it for a while, trying to think of an analogy.
‘I’ve got it’ I say. ‘It’s like, I’ve always been able to draw. I don’t know why, it just comes naturally. I never had any training, I just know how to do it – I understand how perspective works, and how colours combine, and how to put what is in front of me on a piece of paper, or make it in a piece of clay. I’m not saying it’ll be brilliant, but it’ll be recognisable, and I know, if I chose to, I could go to classes and become good. It’s something I always knew I could do. Now, you talk to my sister Amelia – she went to art classes for years and she never really got it. She can follow instructions, copy a picture, but stick her alone in a field with a pad and an easel and she’s lost.’
‘I’d be the same. I can’t draw to save my life.’
‘See that’s what it’s like. But I thought about it a lot back then, tried to work it out – how to be normal. I picked up some tricks. I learned to avoid certain kinds of people – most people actually – “real” men, uptight fussy anxious women, “right-minded” god fearing folk. Children... I learned to appreciate my own company. But it took a long time. Up until I was in my early twenties I just kept on trying, making a twat of myself, over and over again.
‘So, what subjects were you good at, at school I mean?’
‘I don’t think I really stood out at anything. Well, art and writing stories but that all stopped at secondary school really. Once they pointed out that actually my spelling and grammar were abysmal, well, you know... I enjoyed reading though.’
‘What about the art?’
‘I kept that up whether they wanted me to or not. That was the thing that kept me going really, and then actually I really got into languages later, Spanish especially, and my biology and English were ok. My maths was terrible and I always hated sports.’
‘And you took your A levels’
‘I failed my A levels.’
‘But you were entered for them. You can’t have been that useless.’
‘I suppose not...’

The next session, she starts with ‘One thing has been bothering me about your story Gabriel...’
Here we go, I think. I feel like I’m being held for questioning.
‘Given your family background and the fact that you don’t seem to have had a major drink or drugs problem or serious mental illness - well, going on the street seems pretty extreme... as a life choice I mean.’ She’s flicking through some papers on her lap. Evidently I am on file here as well. I’ll ask if I can have a look later. I bet she says no. But, anyway, I think about what she has asked. It’s a good question.
‘Well, it was choice, and at the same time it wasn’t’ I begin. ‘I couldn’t stay at home with my parents all my life. And I do mean “couldn’t”. We’d have ended up hurting each other I’m sure of it. But then, on the other hand I suppose I always knew, if things got too bad... they were there.’
I tail off unconvincingly. It’s not good enough and I know it.
‘But you didn’t have to live on the street is what I’m getting at. You could have stayed in a hostel or something.’
‘And I did. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give you the impression I was out on the pavement the whole time. I stayed in squats a lot for example. It was just, sometimes... it didn’t work out, or I ran out of money, or I pissed someone off and I had to move out. I don’t know...’
She frowns. I know what she’s thinking. She’s wondering why I put myself through all that... all that brutality, because it was – really brutal at times, when I could have just gone home to Ma and Pa. Was I just too proud? It doesn’t seem enough. What the hell was I thinking? I didn’t really fit in with the other homeless either. It seems stupid but I couldn’t even be a proper homeless person. I couldn’t even get that right.
I look about for inspiration. I notice that the curtains here are the same as at my Auntie Jen’s place. I can’t think what to say.
She looks at me intently. She’s working something out. Here it comes.
‘I just don’t really see why an obviously intelligent person like yourself would let this happen, do you know what I mean? All that dirt and degradation, and humiliation. Why did you put up with it?’
I sit back and think about it briefly. Where to begin?
‘I just never really saw it that way.... I suppose, given the alternatives. People go on about the disgrace of it, signing on, queuing up for hand-outs, being dependent on charity, on your parents, whatever, but then if you get a job you’re still sucking up to the boss, putting up with a lot of arbitrary crap from ignorant customers. You’re still dependent whichever way you look at it. Going in to sign on once a fortnight - it’s not so bad.’
I see Andrea shift irritably, trying to decide which of the many obvious objections to this she wants to begin with. I let her stew for a moment and then say blandly ‘Obviously I’d rather have been doing something worthwhile with my time and I can honestly say, in all the years I spent as a drop-out, I don’t think I ever met anyone who genuinely wanted to just do nothing with their life. They’d have all wanted to do something worthwhile, given the choice. Of course people’s ideas of what counts as worthwhile vary.’
I think back to how I was then and it occurs to me that life would have been a lot easier if I’d been able to just do as I was told once in a while, know my place in life - get a normal job, a tolerable wife, some irritating kids, live somewhere safe. Behold the happy moron...
‘I can’t believe some of the crap I was offered at the job centre’ I muse casually. ‘I mean, the employers don’t put up with just any old employees. I don’t see why we should be expected to put up with just any old job. I don’t think the employers were even trying half the time... just expected it all to be handed to them on a plate...’
I watch for her reaction. Did she see what I just did there? Apparently not. Either that or she doesn’t want to give me the satisfaction.
‘Well I suppose...’ she begins wearily, ‘I suppose it’s about doing what has to be done, fulfilling a role...’
‘So the needs of the individual must be subject to the demands of the economy. Sounds suspiciously like totalitarianism to me.’
She sits back, looks about the room. She’s had enough, and so have I. I suddenly feel terribly tired. I want to stop. I lean back too, shrug, shake my head.
‘I don’t know. I suppose a lot of it was wanting to be independent, get away somewhere, be on my own, not have to deal with all that crap – parents, bosses, landlords, social workers, people in general.’
She stares at me for a while. I can’t imagine what she thinks of me.

‘You seem to be making friends here ok’ she says eventually. ‘What’s different?’
‘I don’t know actually. I have had friends before you know – later on in life. Not usually really close friends, but still, you know, acquaintances. And of course it’s early days still...’
‘You don’t think you’ll stay friends for long?’
‘I don’t know. But it’s different here isn’t it. I can be a normal person here – relatively speaking. No worries about money and status here, or “What do you intend to do with your life sonny Jim?” I can be me here.’
‘You’re happy here.’
‘You know I think I am. What have you got there?’
‘The papers...’
‘Oh, just some notes – to jog my memory – questions I want to ask, things that occur to me between sessions.’
‘Can I have a look?’
‘Be my guest.’ And she hands them to me and I’m flattered to see how much she seems to think about me. I hand them back and she smiles at me knowingly.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Journey V – Sophie

My explorations around the town occupied an increasing part of my days but I always seemed to be going round in loops. I still couldn’t find a road out. Some areas near home became familiar and I could find my way around easily, but further out I continually came across parts I couldn’t remember seeing before. It was permanently cold and overcast by now, but not uncomfortable. I just wore more layers – fleeces and waterproofs.
I particularly liked to visit a little close on top of a nearby hill that could only be reached by a narrow lane between the houses. The lane had a steel frame covered in vines arching over it. That part of the town was all small terraced houses without gardens, in concentric rows, curving around the flanks of the hill, so it was surprising that first time to pass under the pergola and come out into a bright little oasis of evergreens overflowing onto the cobbles at the summit. On the other side of this close, opposite the entrance, there was a gap between the houses with a wrought iron rail and a view out across the trees and the roofs of the houses below but there was no sign of the sea, nor any countryside beyond. It seemed as if, whereas there’d been no horizon at sea and the view had looked as if it went on flat indefinitely, here it seemed as if the horizon was closer, more curved than usual and the view was distorted, almost like looking through a fish-eye. It was as if this town was on a tiny world of its own. Sometimes it felt as if it didn’t matter how far I walked, I could never walk away from here, only back. It was a disturbing thought.

It was just as the days were getting noticeably longer that I heard about a party at a house that actually had the owners living in it. It was another big old Victorian affair with huge windows and high ceilings, but double fronted. We arrived with bottles and met a woman who looked to be in her early forties and with the hopeful disappointed face of the depressive and the alcoholic, sitting at her breakfast bar on a stool in her open-plan kitchen-diner with a huge balloon of red wine and a cigarillo. The house appeared to be in the middle of being renovated. She greeted us in a friendly but distracted way and told us to make ourselves at home but she implied that everything was beyond her control anyway. The unmistakeable sound of Jefferson Airplane was coming from the lounge across the hall. Everything in there was stripped pine but nothing was finished.
I looked around at the other guests and many of them seemed to be a bit more my age or older and there was a very different ambiance to the usual – more conversation, less giggling and passing out, and less nudity. I settled in on a huge grey sofa next to a couple talking very animatedly. I had a large glass of red in my hand and felt fairly cool. I even found myself joining in a reasonably intelligent conversation – about how to incorporate a fish tank into a room without it looking ‘terminally naff’. I knew a bit about this because a guy I knew had a tank like a large paddling pool in his lounge, full of freshwater stingrays I think he said they were. He was forever having trouble keeping his nitrates down or something. We talked a bit about the ethics of trying to keep really big fish, and importing specimens from the wild that stood no chance of ever breeding in captivity. Then we went on to talk about houseplants and how very 1970s they were (except for palms apparently) and various interior design ‘horror stories’ generally. Given that most of the conversation had been about doing up properties as an investment, they were fascinated to learn that I’d spent much of my life homeless but seemed unable to comprehend it as anything other than a lifestyle choice. I didn’t pursue it. It was funny really. They seemed to see me almost as some sort of holy man and went on to talk about their travels in India and the Far East. At no point did they seem to acknowledge that we were all dead now and all this was somewhat academic. It was fun though. In life there had been times when we got back from the festies and I was invited around to parties at the homes of middle class hippies in Brighton and we’d had conversations just like these in houses exactly like this and I felt quite at home, in an ironic sort of way.
There was still a very odd atmosphere though, even by the standards of this town. I got up and wandered about after a while and found the house was a lot bigger than it had looked at first, with a low, unlit corridor going back beyond the staircase, and there were at least four floors. No wonder they could never finish the bloody decorating. The hostess looked quite tired in the middle of it all as random guests milled about. I said hi and we chatted a little about where I lived and what she was planning to do with this place. I had a look upstairs and found darkened and largely empty rooms on the first two floors with just some bits of timber and a ladder to indicate that anybody ever came up here. There was a cold, green tiled bathroom with a very bright bare bulb in it and a very old porcelain bathroom suite. The uncurtained window reflected me darkly and gave me the very clear sensation of not being alone looking at myself. I turned but saw only the empty doorway to the bedroom across the hall. Then I went down to the first floor landing and found a blonde woman in what appeared to be a white silk nightdress standing at the top of the stairs smiling at me and I found I couldn’t look away.

I remembered what Andrea had said and smiled back as confidently as I could and she came down to the lounge with me. I offered to get her a drink and she asked for some wine, following me through when I went to get it. When I turned with her glass in my hand she was right there, almost up against me. We raised our glasses and smiled at each other. I remember thinking how clear and confident her smile was.
We stood close together in the lounge and began to sway with the music, still looking intently into each other’s eyes and smiling. I put my glass down and laid my hands on her hips lightly. The material she was wearing was incredibly fine, just a couple of layers of thin cotton tissue and I could feel the smooth skin underneath it. I became oblivious of everything else going on around us, of the people coming and going and the other couples dancing, and the flimsy straps slipped down over her shoulders so that her dress was just barely held by the curve of her breasts. She pressed her body closer but still looked intently at me, now smiling just a little, then resting her head under my chin.
I couldn’t believe it. I was having trouble breathing I was so excited. This was so unexpected, and so sudden. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to get some breathing space before I collapsed. I looked over toward the kitchen and the owner of the house was smiling broadly at us and toasting us with her glass. That was when I knew this couldn’t be happening. Something was seriously wrong but I couldn’t stop it. I was caught between knowing I was in terrible trouble and knowing that I would have to take my chances because I wasn’t going to pass up whatever this fabulous woman had to offer. I knew it was all up to her anyway. I had no choice. I was hers.
The party had quietened down now anyway. Lou Reed was playing. A lot of the guests were seated around the room on cushions and couches and she lead me over to a large red velvet cushion half way along a wall and said ‘Lets sit down’. I sat back, leaning against the wall, extremely aware now of the other people around us – the soft light and the quiet music. She knelt down and sat astride my leg. I was in shorts as usual and could feel the heat from between her legs, and the moisture and then the soft inner lips of her vagina brushed the skin of my bare thigh. I almost stopped breathing. She leaned forward, one arm either side of my head and one breast came free and jiggled in front of my nose. I looked around. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention. I put my hand on her leg, under her dress, moved along her thigh over her hip to the small of her back and then down over her smooth bottom, I ran my fingers between and confirmed that she was indeed wearing nothing under her dress. She leaned back and smiled wickedly at me. I went to kiss her but she drew back and watched me, neatly tucking her breast back in. She stopped for a moment, then I felt a sinuous movement of her hips and her rubbing herself lightly against my leg, taking deep breathes through her nose. Looking down at me, she gripped my cock through the material, smiling nastily and moving her hips. I moved my other hand to her front and began to feel my way under her dress and she shifted slightly over and lifted the dress away so that anyone interested could have seen her neat little cunt, with all its sweet pink insides exposed to my exploring fingers. I looked around one last time and registered that we were now attracting some attention. I didn’t care. Her top had come down completely, becoming nothing more than a roll of material around her waist and she had unzipped me and held my cock, its hard swollen tip an inch from the hot wet lips of her vagina, which I fingered luxuriously. She was biting her lip, looking intently at me now, not smiling any more, concentrating, she was holding my cock tight, and shifting a little forward so that my tip met her clitoris and I felt something like electricity pass through me like a jolt to the heart, starting my life. She leaned forward and gripped my face and kissed me hard, forcing her tongue between my teeth, while her juices soaked me and the cushion.

I don’t know how long we stayed like that. There were very few people around when we came to and the lights were dimmed. The owner of the house was still there, chatting quietly to some late guests, all sitting on bar stools. I looked down at the mess between us and smiled. She was slumped against me, her breasts still exposed, cool and white, their little pink noses now inverted. It was too dark to see lower down but my movements roused her and she looked groggily around and fumbled between our legs as if to see what had happened. ‘Hmm’ she said approvingly and smiled tiredly at me. ‘Need a bit of a clean up’ she added and kissed me tenderly on the lips.
We straightened ourselves up and stood around – me wondering what to do next, she trying to decide what to have to drink. She looked divine, one of her breasts still bare. Once she’d got her glass she collapsed into an armchair and patted a cushion for me to sit down beside her. There we sat until almost everybody had gone and then we spread out on the cushions and slept.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Andrea IV – Neighbourhood Threat

Andrea and I meet up on the deck for a change. There’s a few other people around, strolling about or lounging but not many and it’s quite peaceful up here. It’s the first fine weather we’ve had almost since the beginning. First it was freezing cold, then it was blowing rain at us and we’ve been forced to tolerate being stuck down below, with all the windows steamed up. Luckily no B.O. here, but it’s still not pleasant. Now there are craggy wooded islands coming into view and purple mountains in the distance where we’re headed. It’s quite exciting.

‘I wanted to ask you if you ever actually did get in trouble with the law’ she says, leaning on the rail. I'm sitting in a lounger. I take my time, considering how to answer.
‘We all did, sooner or later’ I say – evasively I know. She knows it too.
‘What was it – possession, vagrancy, shop lifting?’
‘Breach of the peace, causing an affray, criminal damage, actual bodily harm...’ I continue to look away.
‘Oh’ she says, clearly somewhat taken aback.
‘...and trespass of course’ I add.
‘Did you ever go to prison?’
‘No. It was all over a very long period, and mostly minor stuff. And I'd been diagnosed as crackers of course so that helped.’
She comes back from the railings and sits beside me, but still looking out to sea.
‘Do you think you were mad?’ she says at last, her hands clasped between her knees.
‘Only in the American sense. I just used to get very angry sometimes.’
She nods but doesn’t look at me. ‘Give me an example’ she says.
I’ve been thinking about this as it happens, so I’m ready. It’s about a woman of course. ‘I was at this party, in Hove I think it was. I’d been invited over by some people I knew from the festies. They were a bunch of space cadets but basically sound...’
‘How old were you at this time?’
‘I don’t know, about thirty I suppose. They were quite a bit younger – twenty something, but the owners of the house were first generation hippies – fifty odd, but I didn’t really know them that well.’
‘Anyway. One of the guys, Carl I think his name was, had brought along his cousin from Bristol, and it was obvious even to me that she was making the effort to talk to me and we stood together and got our drinks and so on, and the music was quite loud so it was hard to hold a conversation, so we went and sat down somewhere quiet.’
‘So did you fancy her?’
‘Mmm... yes.’
‘You don’t sound too sure.’
‘Well I wasn’t, at first. I mean, she wasn’t unattractive – rather sporty, a bit boyish I suppose. Just not really my type. I think a lot of blokes would have found her very desirable. She was definitely interesting – quite intense – lots of eye contact.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘Well, we talked. I think at the time I thought it was going ok considering I was really nervous.’
‘And why was that?’
‘Oh, I’ve never been any good when I’m put on the spot – when a performance is called for. It’s all a bit tense, and it’s hard to be funny when you’re like that, but she stayed with me for most of the evening, so I thought I must be doing something right. I fully expected her to make her excuses and wander off, but no, she didn’t, and then it was getting late and I thought I was definitely in with a chance.’
‘And I bet, by now she probably looked a bit more ‘interesting’ after a few bevvies.’
‘I didn’t used to drink a lot’ I say, defensively.
‘Because of your meds?’
‘What? No. I wasn’t on anything. No it was just that I couldn’t hold my drink, that’s all. And I stayed off the drugs too, as I’m sure you were wondering...’ She throws up her hands, as if to say ‘perish the thought’, but I can tell. Everyone just assumes I must have been a druggie. Sometimes I think I just kept myself clean out of sheer awkwardness (You think you know me? Ha! Think again.)
‘No, my life was out of control enough as it was. I had no need for more chaos. Drugs never made me happy anyway, just paranoid. I would have been on the water by then.’
‘But you had had something to drink.’
I look at her. What is she getting at? Why is she suddenly being judgemental?
‘Some, yes’ I say, guardedly. ‘A few glasses of Bulgarian red probably.’ I look at her but she’s looking away again.
‘Go on’ she says. ‘What happened then?’
‘She just got off with someone else. One of the other guys I came with actually. He was always getting off with someone or other, and she chose him. They went home together as far as I know.’ I wait for her to react. She doesn’t. I decide to press on.
‘So the party was pretty much over by then, except a lot of people were still there, stoned or sitting around having intense discussions and I didn’t know anyone and was not in the mood to make friends, so I just put some music on that I liked and danced on my own.’
‘Can I just interrupt here?’ she says, turning to me, quizzically. I nod and sit back.
‘Go ahead’ I say.
‘Did it occur to you at all in all this that this sort of thing happens to everyone, all the time – being rejected I mean?’
‘I can’t say it did...at the time...’ She goes to interrupt but I hold my hand up. ‘But I know what you mean, in retrospect. The thing is though, you have to understand...’ and I don’t know how to explain this without sounding really pathetic (And then I think, ‘What the heck? She doesn’t think much of me anyhow.’) ‘The thing is, I didn’t even get that far very often, back then. It was quite a big deal. I'd actually been talking to a not unattractive girl, at a party, and, what’s more, she actually seemed not uninterested in me. It was unheard of. I was in a complete panic. You can’t imagine.’
‘I can’t’ she says, genuinely confounded, and I am suddenly furious with her for her lack of imagination.
‘So anyway, I’m there, not dancing any more, just feeling really bad, really angry at myself for being so feeble, going over all the lame things I’d said and how I should have just gone for it somehow – been more assertive, more masculine about it or something. Then there was the self-loathing, and the hating the world and how I didn’t fit into it and how they wouldn’t let me fit in – all the stuff I told you before. Horrible, horrible, all of it. I used to get these terrible black moods, usually late at night, out in the street, crying and swearing and kicking stuff over. I was never actually dangerous. Usually I just hurt myself or maybe wrecked something that didn’t matter too much – a pile of rubbish or something. A couple of times I went playing in the traffic, swearing at everyone, giving the four-by-fours a good old boot as they went by.’
‘Didn’t that hurt?’
‘Steel toecaps. I took my lead from the ostriches – best defence against predators is a well-aimed kick. I have a theory that the primitive hominid was a kick boxer.’
Now she really thinks I’m insane. Oh well.
‘Anyway, they were never used on civilians, rest assured.’ She looks very doubtful but gestures for me to go on.
‘Anyway, on this occasion I’d been planning to crash at the house – I wasn’t going to sleep on the street if I could help it. But I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to talk to anybody and I couldn’t go somewhere private and have a rant. I was trapped so I just sat there. I remember it really clearly, sitting in the middle of the floor. I think they tried to ignore me at first. Then someone tried to pull me up to get me to move, and I sat down even more. That’s strange don’t you think – how you can make yourself heavier when you don’t want to be moved? I wonder how that works...’
She turns and smiles at me. That’s better. ‘What happened then?’ she says.
‘A struggle ensued as they say. I found a place over by the wall and I fumed over there instead.’
‘I don’t really remember the next part. Maybe I made myself really angry, going over things in my head. Maybe it was something someone said. I just felt so frustrated and embarrassed and I just hated everything. I made a lot of noise, broke some things – a lamp I think, and some glasses. Then they were throwing me out and I managed to break someone’s nose. I was just so furious but I didn’t do it on purpose. I had to have five stitches in my face too, spent the night in casualty, then in the police cells while they got hold of my family.’
‘How did they react?’
‘Oh, the usual. More of the same.’
‘How many times had you been arrested before then?’
‘Oh a couple of times, but they’d never been involved before. What I mean is it was just more disgrace, more bother, for them, like they knew I’d end up like this eventually and “didn’t we always say this would happen if you didn’t buck your ideas up” and so on. And they never asked what had happened – just assumed I was guilty.’
‘Well you were.’
‘Yes, but they didn’t know that. That’s the point. They never asked me about it – they just assumed I’d become a criminal now. Even when the previous occasion I’d been in hospital it was me that had been beaten up. But they just assumed there must have been something I’d done to deserve it.’
‘Did you ever think of maybe trying to prove them wrong - saying “I’ll show you”? It must have been fairly humiliating, having to sign on, begging on the streets.’
‘What and get myself a nice respectable job with the council or something? Suck up to some dickless wonk in a tie, day-in, day-out? Talk about humiliation. Oh absolutely, they’d have loved that. “See, I knew you could do it if you put your mind to it.” Shit heads...’

We sit in silence. We look at the sea and the sea birds. It’s actually a beautiful day. I’m in my shorts and vest and sunglasses and she is in a summer dress that makes her look fabulous. She catches me looking but does not react.
‘Did you get involved in any demos, direct actions, stuff like that? I’d have though that’d have been right up your street.’
‘A bit’ I say, dismissively, ‘I was at Gleneagles for the G8.’
‘But you weren’t all that keen.’
‘Not really. Oh, it was a great party atmosphere and everything but ultimately it’s all mob rule. I couldn’t bring myself to really join in. Unless you’re into fighting with the police... I found it all a bit... impotent I suppose is the word. Perhaps if I could have found myself some simple straightforward evil to fight, a proper villain I could take a stand against. But no, it’s hard being a leftie. You’re always having to think about direct action versus people’s right to make a living, or people’s right to make a living versus the environment, collective responsibility versus individual freedom, chances of actual success versus publicity stunt. And then you have to weigh your own brief allotted time against sacrificing yourself to some cause. If you’ve got half a brain it’s impossible. Being right wing is easy. You just say “I’ve got the bloody money. I’ll do what the hell I want.” You can see why Thatcher was so popular.’
‘Well I don’t think...’
‘You don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Yeah yeah, whatever. Moving on...’
She gives me her little half laugh, looks at her papers and asks me what else I got into trouble for.
‘That was about it really’ I say. ‘I got done for breaking and entering but that was just looking for somewhere to sleep.’
‘No other violence?’
I look at her. All at once I know what this is about.
‘That’s what you’ve been waiting for isn’t it.’ Now she looks embarrassed. ‘Hitting a woman?’ I suggest. ‘Knifing someone? Rape maybe?’
‘No, of course not. I never thought...’ she says, unconvincingly. ‘I just wanted to know.’ She turns away.
‘You don’t trust me. You assumed.’
She nods and smiles at me a little guiltily and I feel vindicated, for a moment anyway. But I know she’s right really, when I think how furious I was for so much of my life.
‘You are a bit scary sometimes though, you have to admit’ she says, bringing me back. ‘I bet that’s why she chose the other guy. Not because you were pathetic, but because you were a bit too intense.’
‘Maybe’ I say without conviction. It seems plausible. ‘But I can’t help the nagging feeling that if I’d made the right move...’
‘Maybe. But then I think, if she’d been the right girl, what you did would have been the right move naturally. It sounds to me like you didn’t feel very comfortable with her from the start.’
‘But I never did... with anyone.’
She looks at me for a long time. I think we’re done for today. I’m hoping for an epiphany from her. Maybe another time.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Voyage IV – Black Bryony

I saw Cathy and Trevor and the others from time to time. (Paul, it turned out, was not particularly a friend of theirs and was usually to be seen in less articulate company). I’d smile and nod when I saw them but it took Fiona to actually come and ask me to join them before I felt ok to go over. I’d always felt awkward in a new situation – everyone already seemed to have made friends and I didn’t want to have to intrude. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always have this feeling that you can’t just expect to join in with a conversation, at a party for instance, unless you have something very interesting to offer and everyone is going to like you (which is obviously not the case here). Otherwise it’s a bit presumptuous I think. You’ve got no friends but for some reason you expect them to take you in anyway. I just don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.
So anyway, it was nice when Fiona came and asked me to come and join them, although I still thought at the time it was partly out of charity. She sat down and asked me what I was reading, tipping the book up to look at the title, then pushing it over so I couldn’t read at all. ‘Come and join us’ she said. ‘It’s happy hour.’ The drinks were always free so I guessed she was making another point.
I went over and she introduced me to everyone. We dourly nodded our greetings and I sat down and Fiona went and got the drinks. No one said anything much. I felt like I’d butted in on the middle of something, and the panic began to rise. I could feel it swelling up under my diaphragm. I knew they wouldn’t want me here, but I didn’t feel I could just get up and go. Maybe I could go and help Fiona I thought, but I could see she was already on her way back now with the drinks on a tray. Once everyone had got their drinks she went and found another chair (I realised too late I had taken her seat) and we all sat in silence and sipped. Everyone looked very serious. I felt terribly self-conscious. I thought I’d died and left all this pressure behind. This was why I went and hid down the bottom of the garden for twenty years – to avoid just this sort of situation.
‘Do you know anything about human biology?’ said Trevor eventually to me. I wasn’t sure what he was implying. He looked almost menacing – pent up, frustrated.
‘Not really’ I said ‘Why?’
‘Aorta!’ said Cathy suddenly, hitting the table, and suddenly everybody relaxed and congratulated her.
‘That’s the one’ said Trevor. ‘And the other one’s the vena-cava.’
‘That’s it. I knew I’d get it eventually’ said Cathy, taking a long drink from her pint.
‘So tell us about yourself er... Gabriel?' said Trevor. ‘We saw you sitting on your tod over there - weren’t sure if you wanted interrupting or not? Is it a good book?’
‘It’s alright, but yes’ I said, much relieved. ‘I needed a break.’
‘You’ve come to the right place’ said Fiona raising her glass and winking at me, a fag end between her fingers.

I went and sat with them quite a lot after that. Mostly we just sat together and read or ate and drank or looked at the sea. Sometimes we discussed what was going on here, what this was all for. None of us was very sure, and our guides were so far being a bit cagey.
What we did know was that we were going to live our lives again at the end of it, enriched, it was hoped, by what we learned here.
‘I’m not learning anything I don’t think’ says Trevor one morning, dunking his croissant in his chocolate. ‘It all seems like a bit of a waste of time if you ask me.’
‘You’re dead you berk’ says Fiona jovially. ‘Do you have something better to do?’
‘I have a theory’ says Bryony, a pale girl with very straight black hair and wearing what appear to be widow’s weeds. We turn to listen. She doesn't normally say much at all.
‘There isn’t a point’ she announces dismissively. ‘It’s like life – it’s just something you go through until...’
‘Until what?’ asks Cathy despondently.
‘Until you stop, I suppose.’
‘That’s a bit bleak’ says Harvey, the third man around the table.
‘I don’t know what any of this means’ says Cathy, rather hopelessly. ‘I just want to go home.’
And there’s nothing any of us can say to that. Trevor looks around, absentmindedly mushing his croissant. Harvey looks at his book but doesn’t focus. Fiona grips Cathy’s hand. I try to appear downcast too, but I’m actually quite enjoying myself.

‘I was a ghost for a while’ says Bryony cheerfully another morning at breakfast.
None of us can hide our amazement. We sit there looking at her, speechless, except for Fiona, who says ‘Shit. What was that like?’
‘Fairly boring actually. Less fun than you’d think anyway.’
‘How’d it happen?’ I say. ‘Did you put in a request or something?’
Bryony is dissecting a Danish with her fingertips and feeding the tiny pieces between her ruby-rouged lips. She’s amazingly erotic at times.
She shrugs, not looking at us. ‘I spoke to Ian, my guide. He said it’s like they say. Your spirit just sort of hangs around if it has unfinished business in the world.’
‘What was yours?’
‘Your unfinished business?’
‘Oh. Doesn’t matter. Anyway. Basically it’s a bust. You can’t do anything useful at all. It’s like one of those nightmares where you know you have to do something but you can’t quite get it together. You can’t even remember what it was you were supposed to be doing most of the time.’ She feeds the last morsel in without touching the sides and looks around at us rather too directly. It’s a bit unnerving actually. The black eye liner doesn’t help.
‘But what’s the point of that?’ says Fiona.
‘Of what?’
‘Of being back in the world as a ghost and not being able to do anything while you’re there. It’s stupid.’
‘Well duh, I don’t think there is a point. That’s what I’ve been saying. It’s just something that happens. You die, you’re not really paying attention for whatever reason and you fail to go toward the light or something. I don’t know.’
‘But did you end up just, well, haunting somewhere?’ asks Cathy. Bryony nods and turns to her blackcurrant smoothie, pumping the straw up and down.
‘I was just stuck in the house where... well anyway’ she flicks her fingers, as if shooing away a troublesome bat, or perhaps drying her purple nail varnish. ‘I just kept coming down this hallway, over and over again. And I knew something was supposed to happen but I couldn’t figure out what. Then I found myself back at the beginning, starting all over again.’
‘How long did that go on for?’ and ‘Did anyone see you?’ say Fiona and I at the same time.
‘Seemed like forever. I guess time is even more irrelevant when you’re a ghost, and yes, once.’
‘Anyone you knew?’
She goes quiet and looks away. I suppose this is what she doesn’t want to talk about.
‘Did you achieve what you wanted to?’ asks Cathy, clearly concerned.
Bryony doesn’t respond.
‘How did you get here?’ I say.
‘Look I just gave up ok? Sheesh I wish I’d never told you guys. I just found myself giving up on it and... ended up here. Look I’m sorry. I wish I’d never started this. Can we change the subject?’
We all agree, reluctantly, to change the subject.
We can talk about it later, after she’s gone...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Journey IV – Fuddy-Duddy

As time went on I was further disappointed to discover that the conversations I’d been so intrigued by simply revolved around what the people they knew had been getting up to. As I got to know more of them, so I was included in the conversations more. Maureen and Jo had apparently been sleeping together at first but then Jo got off with a guy called Graham at one of the parties and brought him back. Maureen seemed to be interested in Ian for a while after that (the guy with the shaved head) but he wasn’t all that keen and she disappeared soon afterwards.
To be fair, Darren’s contribution could be very entertaining but it was all incredibly trivial. Occasionally there’d be a long discussion about the music we were listening to or, among the girls, something daring or unflattering that had been worn at the last party. Very occasionally someone would start talking about something philosophical or spiritual but it was all very woolly and pretentious. There was vague talk of missed lectures and overdue assignments, and a suggestion that I enrol in something but I never came across anything even remotely resembling a college or university. Other times there’d be a brief but pointless argument over some trivial matter, usually started by Chloe – the short haired girl whose bottom I’d seen that first morning. Nobody really paid her much attention and she usually stomped back to her room and slammed the door, which was at least a refreshing display of genuine feeling.
Early on I had tried to talk a bit about the meaning of all this and why we were here, as we had on the boat, but it was impossible. They didn’t exactly avoid the subject, and sometimes some anecdotes and vague hypotheses were put forward but nobody seemed to want to pursue the subject. Sometimes I persisted but I got the impression that they thought I was being a bit too “intense” or “paranoid”. They thought I analysed things too much, as if thinking was the cause of the problem rather than vice-versa. I came across a similar argument when I was alive, as if my trying to work out what was wrong with my life was the cause of my problems.

And, as time went on I got used to the inconsequential exchanges, the shifting, superficial relationships, the unmemorable conversations. Most of the people were friendly, many were indifferent, few were hostile but there was no sense of any developing connection with anyone in particular. This made life casual and relaxed on one level but made me feel horribly vulnerable on another. If anything happened would anyone come to help me? Would I even be missed? Would any of us?
And there was a feeling of menace about the place, although I couldn’t begin to say what or who the menace was exactly. To me it was palpable in every empty doorway, in every darkened window, in the night time itself – not hostile or predatory exactly. I couldn’t imagine their motives, whoever, or whatever they were, living in the shadows. Sport perhaps? Fun?

Eventually though I found myself going with the flow. I shut up about my worries and my thoughts and found myself surprisingly content. It was a weird situation in that I looked and felt about thirty but still had all the memories of an old man. I was amazed every morning to see my flat, hard belly back again. I wandered about in just a pair of worn army surplus shorts, vest and para boots and looked, I thought, pretty good. It was exactly like life in fact, except without the worry of where the next meal was coming from and whether I was going to die of cold next winter. And thirty had been a good age for me, relatively speaking. I’d been to raves and festies and gigs and parties, I’d danced all night and hugged scores of strangers. This place was a bit like that, and it made me wonder just how old all these others (average age about twenty-two on the face of it) really were. Or maybe they’d all died young, having too much fun and this was their idea of heaven. In which case, what was I doing there?

And for a while it even came to seem quite interesting – or at least – it came to seem that it might get interesting. I enjoyed the music and no longer felt too old to get up and bop about. Also I no longer felt I was old enough to do without sex. I gave up on meeting anyone at a party and I stopped going to a lot of them (it was just too frustrating) but some of the girls at the house were pretty and seemed approachable and available, so I remained quietly optimistic on that front.
The menacing atmosphere of the town at night too, secluded as we were in our little island of music and warmth, provided an interesting backdrop. Sometimes, when the conversation drifted off and I was bored I would think about our isolation and vulnerability there in that little kitchen and when the evening became too sleepy and giggly I’d go and stand behind the sofa at the window, drawing the curtains behind me and look out at the street and the darkness, feeling the draught on my body, and I’d be sure I saw strange beings moving about out there. I accepted that I was probably just being paranoid but I couldn’t be sure. I felt fairly safe moving about during the day, and to some extent in a noisy group at night, but nothing would have made me go out there alone after dark. Nobody did. Even my route past the entrance to take the steps up to my room was something I preferred not to do alone and I always made sure the lights were on. My room I kept locked, and once I was up there I didn’t go out again until it was light.
I’m not sure how much the others felt the same way. I noticed they didn’t tell me there was nothing happening, only that they didn’t seem to think it was worth talking about.

Eventually though I had to accept the fact that I was trapped and furthermore that I probably wasn’t going to find a girl who was interested in me at any time in the near future. This was particularly frustrating since many of the girls went around the house only slightly dressed, casually falling out of their tops on a regular basis. Quite often we would be sitting around in the kitchen, in the afternoon or late into the night and the conversation would get a little more charged and there’d be maybe a game with forfeits leading to some playful exhibitionism or the girls would dance erotically together and pretend it wasn’t for our titillation. Sometimes a rather intense flirtation would develop between people who were otherwise ‘just good friends’ and we’d be sitting right next to them on the sofa as they embarked on some fairly advanced foreplay. Next day they’d be slightly flushed, but still ‘just friends’, as before. Sometimes the heavy fumes of sex were all but unbreathable. I never got used to it. In some ways I didn’t want to – I wanted more than casual sex, certainly, but I wouldn’t have turned it down. I thought about Andrea’s advice but it didn’t seem to apply. They were just girls after all, and as she had warned me, they just wanted to have fun. In retrospect I realise my age – even looking just thirty, didn’t help but I wasn’t like them. There were the guys who looked even older than I did but I wasn’t like them either. It wasn’t that I was rejected so much as that no one saw me that way. The girls seemed to like to think of me as friendly and nice but perhaps a bit too serious. Some of them took to calling me Mr Giles who I understood to be some sort of fuddy-duddy librarian character on the telly. Once or twice I tried a flirtatious comment but was made to understand that I was embarrassing them so instead I went for displacement activity – dancing until I fell over.

So as autumn became winter I spent more and more time in my room or wandering the streets, looking for a way to move on. I found a storeroom with a lot of old magazines and books in it and that kept me occupied for a while. I can’t say my room was a particularly attractive place to spend time in, what with the mushy pea paint job, but I kept it warm, and I cleaned the window and washed the bedding so it wasn’t too bad. A girl called Kim came and joined me sometimes saying she just wanted to relax away from the others and liked me because I didn’t see her as a sex object. I didn’t have the heart to correct her on that. She was a pretty girl who liked to wear low cut tops and short skirts and I found her company rather unrelaxing, but it was good to have company. Alone, I fantasised about her mercilessly.
I did also notice that there were other quiet, sexless souls about the place that rarely or never came down to the kitchen, keeping themselves to themselves. Something about them though discouraged conversation.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Andrea III – Black Sheep and Scapegoats

‘Andy wants us to carry on – says it’ll be good for us’ says Andrea, scowling slightly.
Can’t run off that easily then, I think. Good. Serves you right. Supercilious cow!
‘Shall we move on then?’ she says stiffly. I nod, smiling smugly.
‘Ok. So why do you think you were such a total failure?’ she says, coolly.
And I’m stunned, I want to hit her. Then I want to run away so she doesn’t see me cry... But I don’t do anything because the goblin in my brain is telling me she’s right and I deserve this. I sit silently. I look at the chair, the window, my drink, my legs, try to look calm. I fidget but silence descends anyway. Dust motes drift in a beam of light. The sky is blue.
‘I wasn’t a “total failure” as you put it’ I say quietly, eventually – not looking at her, trying to look like I mean it. ‘I think I did pretty well – making a life in your cut-throat pitiless game of a world.’ I look straight at her. My jaw feels locked. ‘I think I did ok considering. Ok, it doesn’t look like much but I didn’t fill the world with crap. I didn’t feel the need to own all the junk most people seem to think they need to make them happy. I didn’t have to have everything matching. I didn’t need to be fashionable. I didn’t need to get everywhere yesterday. That’s not nothing, and I know you think I was like that because I didn’t have a choice and I envied them or something, and I guess I did a bit, at first, but then I realized it was ok to be the way I was, and the envy was just about seeing myself the way everyone else saw me – as a failure. But I wasn’t. In the end – that was how I wanted to live, more-or-less.’ I think about the loneliness for a moment. ‘And actually I think some people would have done well to look at that, and look at all the stuff they own and the damage it does to the world, and how jolly it makes them feel, and think... not that I’m the great, you know, example of environmentalism or whatever, but I did my bit.’ I pause again. ‘And people liked my pictures.’ (I knew I’d made a couple of friends really happy by giving them pictures I’d done.) ‘I know I wasn’t exactly Mr. Sociability... I found people... difficult, you know? But I was ok. I wasn’t evil. I tried. It just didn’t work out, but that doesn’t make me a monster. Just small doses, you know? Better off in my own space, but it was ok. I tried, and I did ok. I wasn’t a total failure...’ and I feel the tears come, again. Why do I always have to cry?
‘Actually I didn’t say you were’ she says quietly. ‘I asked why you thought you were a total failure...’
And I breath deep again and slump backwards. ‘Cow’ I think. Got me again.

‘Better now?’ she says, at length, and I am. I feel much better. I take a few sips from my glass of water and sit quietly. I can hear music coming from somewhere.
‘I’m not here to judge you’ she says after a time. ‘There is no final judgement here, contrary to popular belief, except the one you impose on yourself, and you, darling, are harder on yourself than anyone else is ever likely to be. You do know that don’t you?’
‘It’s been mentioned, once or twice...’
‘I imagine you found it very difficult being alone so much of the time.’
I don’t know what to say. I’m not used to people being understanding, and I don’t trust it.
‘It wasn’t so bad’ I say. ‘You get used to it.’
‘Yeah, righty’ she says smirking. ‘You are a crap liar. You know that?’
I shrug. Got me again.
‘I just wanted to disappear. Slip off the radar. Submerge without trace.’
‘But it must have been weird, I mean, at the end, the neighbours must have known you were there, living in the garden. Didn’t they say anything?’
‘Not really. They didn’t know that I didn’t use the house...’
She looks at me doubtfully. ‘But still, looney old geezer mooching around?’
‘I got used to it. It was much worse when I lived on the street.’
She’s not convinced, and rightly. I’m not sure I want to go into this. She can see I’m hiding something. I can’t tell her. I didn’t do anything wrong but as soon as the word “paedophile” comes into the conversation you’re a suspect.
‘They tried to get me arrested once’ I say, and that’s it – I suppose I am going to tell her after all. ‘They tried to get me put away for child molesting.’
She looks at me. I look down. I know what she’s thinking. We sit in silence. It’s Holst’s Planets, I recognise it now. Saturn. My dad used to have this record.
‘Did you do it?’
‘What? No’ I say, too loudly, too quickly, and I bite my lip, looking at her face. ‘I don’t even like children’ I say, knowing it doesn’t help. She looks disturbed, but I don’t know who for – me, the children, or herself.
‘I didn’t do anything’ I say, more calmly.
‘So how did it happen?’
‘What? Nothing happened.’
‘I mean, how come you were even accused?’
I shrug again and shake my head, look away, hiding the tears. This really was the worst thing that ever happened to me, beatings and hypothermia and gastro-enteritis included.
‘They just didn’t like me. I never went near any kids. They just wanted rid of me.’
She sits and looks at me, appraising. ‘That must have been very hard for you’ she says at last, too blandly.
‘You don’t believe me do you?’ I say quietly. She doesn’t respond. ‘Look, I never went after their kids – they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them. That’s not how paedophiles are – read up on it. Paedophiles try to be charming, approachable – get to know the kids, buy them sweeties, invite them round to look at puppies, chat the mums up. I just wanted to keep myself to myself.’
She’s still watching me closely. ‘Please don’t take this wrongly...’ she begins, trying to be tactful or something, ‘but you do seem to have thought an awful lot about it.’
I know this one – the more I deny it the more suspect I look. I’ve been through all this “No smoke without fire” crap. What a stupid metaphor. I force myself to keep calm.
‘I had to think about it. What would you expect? For six months I couldn’t think about anything else. They were going to lock me up with criminals. I read everything there was about it. They had me down the nick three times.’
‘And they never found anything?’
‘There was never anything to find. They raided my place twice. I showed them my porn collection – actually got it out for them. I said “How do you account for the fact that every image is of a large-breasted woman? Hm?” I mean, did they think I’d put it together deliberately as some sort of elaborate decoy?’
She continues to observe my increasing agitation. I can’t tell what she’s thinking.
‘I wasn’t into children’ I say and I can hear that old note of pain and panic in my throat, at the top of my chest. What can I possibly say to convince her?
‘Did your sisters believe you?’
‘I never told them’ I say and she nods.
‘So... were you ever molested yourself, as a child?’
I have wondered about this. It would be a nice easy explanation for everything – maybe too easy. Uncle Len would have been the obvious suspect – there was always something about him, and granddad too – my mum’s dad. He was a dodgy old geezer if ever there was one. I barely remember him. He died when I was only about five. It’s an appealing thought – to be able to just pin the blame on him, on somebody nobody liked anyway – the family bogeyman. But I don’t really believe in it.
‘I don’t think so’ I say eventually. ‘I don’t remember anything.’ More nodding. ‘So, do you believe me?’
‘Yes’ she says simply. ‘I believe you. It’s very difficult to lie here anyway. This place seems to bring out the truth in people.’
I take a deep breath and look about the room. So she believes me. And why shouldn’t she? I did nothing wrong. It still feels wrong though. It might be impossible to lie here but it is possible, apparently, to be economical with the truth.

The girl just turned up one day and said could she see the chickens. How could I say no?
She must have been about twelve. Siobhan her name was – one of those clumsy embarrassed children the other kids will only play with if they’re forced to, and I could see why. She always seemed slightly ‘off’ – not quite ‘normal’ and children can be very judgemental can’t they. But she was very sweet natured and I could tell she was going to be a real beauty one day but those little squirts couldn’t see it, or if they did they’d never admit to it.
And it was good to have her around even though she prattled and got in the way. But I knew even then, before all the fuss, how it would look and I made her promise not to tell anyone where she’d been and it was our secret but I knew that you can’t do that and she knew it too. That’s my guilty secret. You can’t ask children not to tell their parents where they’ve been, even when it’s all perfectly innocent, and I knew, if she told them, what it would look like, but I didn’t have the heart to stop her. I suppose she was lonely.
Who am I kidding? I was lonely.
So I let her come and play with the dog and pick my runner beans and when it rained we sat inside and I listened to her read one of her stories. She was quite a good writer. I wonder what became of her.
Anyway she must have kept our secret because the police never asked about her – every other brat in the street but not her.
I never really wanted children of my own but if I could have been guaranteed of getting one like her I’d have been very tempted.

I know we’ve gone on longer than usual and it’s getting dark but Andrea and I sit for a while anyway.
‘It must have been terrible to live with that, all those years, all those people – your neighbours, talking about you.’
‘Well, it passed. There were never any actual abuses reported for them to pin on me. If there had been... well... But it was just the suspicion, the whispers, the curtain twitchers. There’s always a few aren’t there – don’t like anyone to be different.’
‘So you got used to it, being the outcaste, the loner, the scapegoat?’
‘They always say that don’t they – in the news reports – “He was a loner” they say, as if that proves it. But no, you never get used to it. But life goes on, hey-ho.’
We get up to leave and she says ‘I can’t believe you used a collection of dirty pictures as evidence of your innocence.’ She seems to think it’s very funny, and I suppose it is ironic but it didn’t seem funny at the time.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Journey III – Teenage Kicks

It must have been about midday when I awoke again. I went back down to the kitchen and slumped on the sofa in my shorts. I had toast and peanut butter with a cup of instant coffee for breakfast, then thought I might do some washing up but on closer inspection thought better of it. As the morning progressed I saw most of the people from the night before come in and get something to eat. Some took their food back where they’d come from, others sat blearily in the kitchen to eat and flick through a magazine. As the afternoon wore on, the booze and the dope came out (it never seemed to quite run out) and I was content to sit about in a warm aromatic haze.
That was my first day, and pretty much indistinguishable from every other day for the next few weeks. I stopped keeping track. There always seemed to be something to eat in the fridge – not necessarily something appetising, but something nevertheless. As for the washing up – like everyone else, I just rinsed off the utensils I needed and left the rest. There was conversation but generally I couldn’t hear what they were talking about because they tended to mumble among themselves and the music was always on quite loud in the background. They didn’t so much ignore me as not notice me. It was intriguing but there didn’t seem to be any malice to it so I had to accept it.

Eventually the monotony was broken with news of a party that weekend. (I had no idea what day of the week it was.) I asked the buxom girl, whose name was Maureen and who had been the most approachable of them, where it was and how we were going to get there. She shrugged and laughed and said something I couldn’t make out. ‘I’ll follow you then’ I said loudly in her ear and she gave me a look that suggested I’d finally realised something important but I couldn’t imagine what that might be. She wasn’t terribly pretty and looked a bit too young for me but I certainly wouldn’t have said ‘no’ at that stage. Maureen’s hardly a young girl’s name after all. She might have been even older than I was when she died for all I knew.
Anyway, Saturday night came and they put on some loud music and smoked and drank quite a bit before leaving and we were quite raucous by the time we set out. I hung back a little to watch and see what would happen - fully expecting to see the group whittled down as we wandered the streets aimlessly all night. I was apprehensive to say the least.

The streets were empty as before as we noisily made our way. Somewhere a dog barked. Somewhere I could hear the unmistakeable sound of partying, but all the houses we passed were silent and dark as before. We lost a couple of our group at some point but had gained three others by the time we arrived. Nobody seemed much concerned about it.
When we got there I was surprised to find there really was a party going on. It was in a tall Victorian house with high ceilings and huge windows and a basement lit with red bulbs. That seemed to be where most of the action was. The whole place had much the same neglected charm as our place, but much more spacious and with no furniture to speak of. We came in the front door and looked in on the lounge. It was dark and nobody was in there, despite the fact that the windows were wide open and dance music was spilling out into the front garden and across the street. We went down a narrow staircase to the basement to find something more melodic playing and everyone sitting around on cushions on the floor or leaning against the walls. We settled in amongst them, squeezing into the gaps and taking our turns on the ever-circulating joints and wine bottles. I felt warm and oddly at peace despite the fact that I still couldn’t hear a word of what was being said, even when the bloke with dreads next to me talked directly into my ear. I just smiled and nodded, which seemed to be the right thing to do. Later on I went for a wander and found a bunch of lads had congregated in the back room to look at torture porn on the TV. A naked girl was strapped to a chair and apparently having her face cut away. I quickly went through to the lounge and had a look at the record collection, then stood in the bay window looking out at the night and took some deep breaths. It was all so familiar – this noise, this light, this smell. What was that smell? There was a couple just along the wall near the stereo. They were mostly in shadow but I could see enough to know she was down to her underwear and he was working hard on her breasts with his mouth and on her crotch with his fingers. I decided to go downstairs again and give them some privacy but found that now a few more people were up dancing and that at least one of them – a small dark girl, had taken all her clothes off and was moving about among the others, apparently oblivious of the fact that she couldn’t dance. I couldn’t help but watch her nonetheless. I found myself an unopened can and settled down on a beanbag by the stereo to observe the fun.
It occurred to me that I’d never really understood what this ‘having fun’ business was all about. I understood pleasure and excitement, beauty and awe, humour and fascination, but not ‘fun’. Everyone here was laughing but nobody was doing anything particularly funny. People moved on the dance floor but none of them danced well. A few people seemed to be getting off with each other but there was nothing very erotic about it or even particularly illicit. Every record sounded the same. I longed for punk and techno and psychedelia. Even a bit of rock ’n’ roll or jazz wouldn’t have gone amiss. I felt somewhat superior and hugely inadequate at the same time. They knew no better and they were happy. Envy and contempt – how typical!
I leaned back and watched the girl stumble about.

I’m not sure when we got back to our place. It was getting light but I was still half expecting never to find it again. We sat in the kitchen having toast and coffee (I found some real coffee and a coffee pot, which I was fairly sure hadn’t been there before) and then we retreated to our rooms to sleep for a few hours. Later it stopped raining and I went out for a walk through the willows, down to the stream, and along the path to where the road crossed it at the far end. I still didn’t entirely trust that I could find my way back or that I wouldn’t be snatched by something as I passed but I got back ok, and just in time for the start of the evening session.

And that was more-or-less how things were. The weather got somewhat colder and damper and the days shorter, and an increasingly stale humid brown fug hung over the kitchen. People came and went and nobody seemed to wonder where or why. There was music on most of the time and either a spliff or a pipe doing the rounds to accompany it. There was a TV lounge further up the hall but it was not really comfortable and I didn’t go in there often. Mostly it was the boy’s room where they played computer games or watched horror movies on video. I found the violence in both seriously disturbing. The only relief was the parties. I liked to pretend I was above it all but I always went along hoping things would get interesting, and sometimes they did. Sometimes one or two of the girls would begin dancing close together, ‘inadvertently’ showing their knickers to us ‘boys’ sitting on the floor. Or there would be a game of dares – an obvious excuse for people to take their clothes off – usually the girls. (Why was it usually the girls? Not that I was complaining.) Later on there might be someone streaking through the house and out onto the street. That was more of a mixed event.

I wish I could say I knew how to handle the situation, with all my maturity and wisdom. I was at once disappointed in myself for not being able to just let go and join in, and disgusted with myself for not being able to tear myself away. It was not even especially sexy for much of the time. The girls were silly and giggly and ungainly on the dance floor. Very few of them would have turned my head under any other circumstances and the real exhibitionists were often the least attractive. I’m sure that wasn’t a coincidence.
The boy’s reactions (our reactions) were invariably crass and laddish or mumblingly self-conscious and we very seldom joined in with what the girls began. The most we’d do was take off our shirts and jig about ineffectually in the girl’s general vicinity, trying not to look too keen and in fact looking totally inept. As a result, much of the sexual activity, faked or otherwise, was among the girls. The only regular exceptions to this were when a few mean looking dudes with crew-cuts, tattoos and scars turned up. They’d be all but stripped and on the dance floor the moment any of the girls looked like they might try some of their routines. The men’s grimy or tanned arms seized the girl’s soft white bodies like a gang of snakes setting about a pet shop. We could do nothing but watch as they moved in on them, puppies and kittens, bunnies and chicks – powerless to save themselves.

Those occasions were unusual though. Generally the action was altogether less hard-core and I told myself that I was a voyeur – Lautrec at the Folies Bergere or some such. I even took to carrying a small sketch pad with me. (Quelle poseur!) But in truth, no matter how arrhythmic their routines, no matter how artless and staged the amateur lesbo porn – breasts nonetheless wobbled in low-cut tops and bottoms jiggled under short skirts. Tongues still writhed together and fingers explored and I throbbed fit to burst. You couldn’t fake that. I was at once sardonic and detached and hugely turned on. Disgusted as I would have been with myself, the fact is that I would have stripped off too and made any of those girls submit to me, if I could have, using nothing but raw self-confidence. And I’d have done it right there, shameless, in front of everyone (but perhaps with a little more dexterity.) Superficially I looked a lot like the mean dudes – mature and somewhat swarthy and grizzled from the streets. I was not an awkward youth any more, not like these numpties I hung around with most of the time. Was I a snake or was I a puppy? The truth is I was neither. I was a tortoise or an axolotl perhaps – peering out at them from my tank at the back of the menagerie.

One night two girls, one topless and hugely over-endowed, the other more slender in her bra and knickers, fell on top of me on the sofa. They’d been slow dancing and snogging in front of me for a while and now they were lying all over me, kissing and writhing, using my face as a pillow and my legs to rub themselves against. I suppose they were aware that someone was underneath them and perhaps found using a human being as a couch more interesting than just lying on an inanimate piece of furniture. It should have been a fantasy come true but I couldn’t see anything or hear what they whispered to each other. My hands could only reach their backs and they didn’t seem to want my lips to join theirs so there I was, squashed. Not wanting to poop on their party, I waited for them to finish. When they finally got off me one of them gave me a very lascivious smile. I suppose she thought they’d given me a very big treat but in fact by then I was as limp as a used condom. I found a book and went and sat on the stairs and waited for morning.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Voyage III – Booze and fags

I actually managed to get into an argument today. Hoorah! It was about drugs.
A small group of people were seated in a booth under one of the windows. I, as usual, was ear-wigging from the next bench along. A woman called Cathy was saying how so many people she knew had died one way or another – overdoses, aids, shootings, just stupid accidents. I couldn’t tell if she’d been a druggie herself – she didn’t look the part – rather conventional actually, but she’d evidently known a lot of people who were. A man who’s face I couldn’t see because he had his back to me opined that it should all be legalised – let the junkies do themselves in and save the rest of us from having to put up with all the thieving and so on. I was surprised Cathy didn’t challenge him on this. Somebody else said ‘What about the children?’ and the guy just said it would just be like fags and booze. ‘Authorities could just concentrate on the under-age.’
The conversation ambled about a bit, no one but the one with his back to me wanting to make much of a noise. He started talking about how people had to take responsibility for themselves, and how these bloody crusties and drop-outs deserved everything they got. He didn’t actually say that they (or we, rather) should be rounded up and gassed but that’s where he was heading. I couldn’t resist it. I had to say something...
‘So, you don’t think people should be helped if they get into trouble with drugs.’
‘Not out of my pay packet mate’ he said. I was standing up. I looked down at him. He was a young looking bloke, lean faced, sharp eyed, name of Paul apparently. I pulled up a chair and sat down, leaning forwards on the back of it.
‘What if someone is injured snow boarding?’
‘Recreational injury.’
‘That’s totally different’ says Paul, outraged.
‘It’s exactly the same – people injure themselves doing stupid things for fun all the time.’

‘It’s true’ says a very well-dressed chap, Harvey, sitting next to Cathy. ‘The endorphin rush from almost killing yourself is physiologically indistinguishable from taking opiates, and just as addictive.’
‘Maybe they should just take out insurance’ says another man, Trevor, at the other end of the table, ‘the sportsmen and the druggies I mean.’ He grins conspiratorially at me.
‘What? I do snow boarding...’ says Paul, a little agitated now.
‘I know’ I say. ‘That’s why I brought it up.’
‘How do you know?’
I mime big ears with my cupped hands on either side of my face.
‘Anyway’ says Paul, ‘I am entitled to my health care, free at the point of delivery...’
‘You’ll be lucky...’ comments Cathy. She was a nurse she tells us, so she should know.
‘I have paid my stamp’ says Paul. ‘I am owed – not like these greasy lay-abouts I was on about.’
‘What about professional people with a coke habit?’ asks one of the other women – her name’s Fiona.
‘What about punks on skateboards?’ I add, laughing. We’re all enjoying ourselves now, all except Paul.

‘Alright, alright’ he says, making pacifying gestures with his hands. ‘But I still say drugs are different.’
‘Have you never taken drugs?’ asks Fiona.
‘Might have.’
‘Well then.’
‘But I never let myself get hooked.’
‘But if you had been into it... then what?’
‘But I wouldn’t.’
‘What did you die of then?’ I ask.
‘None of your bloody business’ he says, trying to smile.
‘Booze or fags?’ asks Fiona. ‘It was the booze wasn’t it.’
‘Fuck off’ he says.
‘I wonder how much you cost the NHS?’ I say, getting up to go, my work here done.
‘Fuck right off’ he says in my face. We stare each other out for a second and then I leave.
See? I shouldn’t even try. I never know when to stop.

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.