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.