When I get back there’s a definite atmosphere. Olly is there, but Keith is nowhere to be seen. Lou is reading a book at the next table. On the face of it, things are progressing as usual – there’s games, drinks, food, but there’s also small talk, and that’s all wrong. We don’t do small talk, any of us. The weather is still thrashing about outside. I slump onto one of the upholstered benches against the wall with my arms along the back. I observe. They play backgammon. I half turn to look out of the window behind me but there’s nothing to look at. Rain and waves lash at us and the boat rolls relentlessly. Ned sees me and gives me a smile but without feeling.
‘Any news from the front young sir?’ he says, not expecting anything much, I can tell. I shake my head. Maybe we’re all just bored now.
‘Where’s Keith?’ I say.
‘Gone to the bar I believe’ but I can tell something’s up. He raises his eyebrow meaningfully. Olly is studying the board, pretending not to hear. I get up to go to my cabin to get something to read but Ned misunderstands and asks if I’ll get him a brandy, since I’m going. I nod and am grateful for the excuse to spend more time elsewhere.
On my way I castigate myself once again for not having anyone else to sit with. Other people get chatting, make friends. I’ve tried but it doesn’t seem to work. Surely it ought to be the most natural thing in the world – being sociable. We’re a social animal, or so Lou insists. But it’s the same old story – exactly the same as in life. I’ve tried – sat near these people or that, listened in, tried to look friendly and approachable, contributed. But they just look at me and wonder what I want. Finally I suppose they decide I’m not a threat, just a random weirdo, and go back to what they were saying, but louder, and with extra clique. I mooch off. This is what I don’t want to tell Vince. It’s all just too stupid and degrading. Surely everyone can make friends – everyone except the weirdos and misfits that is, of which I am apparently, numero uno.
Why did I imagine things would be different? When I was alive I got this idea from somewhere that I could be popular, be invited to parties, be attractive to women, have a bunch of friends. Mum and dad were always going on about it – why didn’t I go out more, invite some friends round? Sometimes I think they wished I’d go out and get pissed and maybe even get into a little trouble – just to prove I was normal. Vince probably thinks my ‘dalliance’ with Pamela was just part of a wild, swinging social life, when in fact she was my social life for quite a while there. I look around my cabin. My book is by the bed. I consider staying in to read it here. It’s quite erotic – about a man who’s wish is granted to wake up one morning as a woman, and how he/she makes a new life as lesbian, and how he’s actually much better at being a woman than a man. It makes sense to me, this story. I have no idea what men are about most of the time. Pamela’s friends were always fun, and sometimes they forgot I was male and I heard all sorts of juicy stuff, but ultimately they always knew I was the enemy so I could never be fully included. Maybe having two much older sisters explains something. I went through a phase of borrowing their underwear and... Well that’s enough about that. But I always envied women their closeness, and the fact that they could talk about people, and what they did and thought and got up to. Men, if they can’t discuss sports or cars they get into this rictus of half-suppressed subject matter and just end up getting pissed and then taking the piss out of everything until they piss off home. I wonder why there’s so much piss in what men do. Maybe it’s territorial. I must ask Lou. I look at the book. It’s written by one Rosemary Leech apparently. I’ve never heard of her. I put it under my arm and close the door behind me. I don’t want to be rude, so I’ll go back, but do what Lou is doing – sit with them and my book. Of course, this bunch are different. They do at least tackle some serious issues. Yesterday I discovered what Olly was so upset about. Apparently he was involved in a church campaign to help single mums in a deprived area of Southampton. Single parent families they call it, but of course, it’s always the mums. He’d got into some difficulties with some of the church-goers because they felt he was undermining the Christian message on family values. They managed to take most of his funding away somehow.
Anyway, Keith reckons that what today’s youth is lacking is a proper father figure. Olly was talking about some of the damage he’d seen done by these father figures, and how a lot of families were better off without them. Keith wouldn’t have it and it actually got quite nasty. I’m sure he didn’t mean to. There was a raw nerve involved but I’m not sure whose.
The point is, it was all really personal, I’m sure, what they were talking about – Olly’s working with the young mums and trying to get help for them, and Keith has got something going on about his dad, I’m sure of it, and they’re both right, but they were just talking sociology, not personal experience, and they were just attacking each other. I wish they’d talk but they won’t.
On top of all this, they were both quite religious in life, and now I watch them approach the place in the discussion where their faith would have come in handy and they don’t know what to say.
I found Olly the next day, up on deck, during a lull in the storm, looking out to sea and he just said ‘What’s it all mean?’ and I knew exactly what he meant but I didn’t know what to say.
So I go to the bar, again, and I notice Keith is indeed there, but chatting to a group of young women and apparently getting on rather well. He sees me and calls me over and introduces me. There’s five of them – the kind of girls you might see down at the Top Rank in their chain store outfits, heavily made up and dancing around their hand bags. The girl he seems most interested in is a rather gobby individual with long dark hair who seems to fancy herself as queen of everything. To my right is a pale, freckly, soft-bodied girl with very large breasts nicely displayed in a pale blue top and with a silver pendant resting between them. She watches me intently the whole time. The other three girls I don’t especially remember.
Keith seems somewhat drunk, which is odd – and rather over familiar. Anyway, I stand and smile and he cracks jokes. I watch him. It’s so effortless, the way he does it. He’s talking absolute rubbish and they’re lapping it up, grinning all over their faces. They love him.
‘You were an artist weren’t you Gabe?’ he says, turning to me. I look at him. I hadn’t been listening.
‘Sorry? Er... yes.’
‘What, paintings and stuff?’ says the dark girl, looking up at me from where she is sitting. She has the wide eyes and smile of someone who knows that all men must want her. I find her excitement a bit off-putting, but feel I should make the effort. She’s quite pretty.
‘Yes, and sculpture.’
‘What, like statues and stuff?’ she says.
‘Er, no – installations, found objects... that sort of thing.’ She looks at me vacantly, her brow creasing and her mouth falling open. I know I need to find something interesting to say, something sexy and funny but I can’t think of anything. No one can apparently, except Keith.
‘Maybe you’d like to do some modelling for him love’ says he, cheekily, elbowing me in the ribs and they all dissolve into giggles. I can feel myself turning hot and red. I feel the need to deliver the drinks now. Bloody hell.
I go back and sit with Ned and the others, still wound up inside. Partly I know I didn’t fancy her at all, so why am I still going over it in my mind? I just can’t believe I couldn’t even come up with something to say to a bimbo like her. I mean, I didn’t want her, whatever she may imagine. It would just be nice to think I could, if I had wanted to. And then there’s smug, jack-the-lad Keith, old enough to be her father, and she...
Later on he joins us, looking very pleased with himself indeed. ‘Nice girls’ he says appreciatively as he takes a seat, and I know he wants to talk about them but thinks better of it. Nobody asks. I’m nonchalantly making a drawing of Mar as I sit there at the table, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I drew her so many times in life I can do it almost without thinking. I want him to ask who she is. I want to prove that I am a true, red-blooded male, like him, and yet not like him, because I can draw my naked wife, from memory, and she’s a stunning looking woman. I think about the fact that I married a stunning looking woman. She was mad and treated me like shit too, but he doesn’t have to know that. He glances over but doesn’t say anything.
It doesn’t matter. It so doesn’t matter.