‘Something is troubling me’ he says, leafing through his papers. ‘You don’t appear to have had any friends, or, at least, you haven’t mentioned any of them to me. Why is that?’
‘I didn’t have any’ I say, with as straight a face as I can manage. He evidently can’t tell I’m joking.
‘I’m sure that can’t be true’ he says. ‘All that time at college, living in Brighton, going out? I’ve heard it’s a very lively place.’
I think about it. Actually it’s true – not a joke – I didn’t have much in the way of friends there. It took me a long time to start talking to the others, and then I lost touch towards the end. I don’t know why.
‘There were a few people I hung out with. It changed as time went on’ I say, non-committally.
‘Why do I always feel, Gabriel...’ he says, ‘Why do I always feel that I am actually only hearing a small fraction of the thoughts you have in response to my questions here? Hmm?’
I look at him. I don’t know what to say. Has he been reading my mind? Maybe they can do that here. He did say something about knowing what questions to ask...
‘Look Gabriel. I do not know what you are hiding – probably nothing very much, but if you will not tell me I will naturally assume something, so... For God’s sake Gabriel, tell me. I’m not here to judge you. Apparently nobody is... Trust me Gabriel, please, or I cannot do my job.’
I look at him. I do trust him, as much as anyone here. It’s just... ‘It’s just, I was such a wanker’ I say.
‘Good’ he says. ‘That sounds honest.’
‘I got accepted at Art College and I really thought I’d made it. I thought I was so cool. I stuck two fingers up at my parents and...’
‘Not literally I hope.’
‘No, not literally, but they knew how I felt. I was sick of all that crap at home and I was on my way as far as I knew. And then I got there, and... well, I don’t know. I hated it.’
‘Why? What was the problem?’
‘Well I had to start all over again. I had to take lectures in drawing and using paint and the history of art and... things that I’d taught myself years before. And then there were the other students and I just thought I was going to have a wild time, going out, clubs and pubs and parties, and having sex and everything, and... It just wasn’t like that. I just felt so – I don’t know – wrong. Like I was this sad old git and a bit of a weirdo. Everybody seemed to be so much younger than me and they were all shagging each other silly, even in fresher’s week.’
‘That was important to you to – to have a lot of sex.’
‘Well, up until then, there’d not been... and I hadn’t had much of a social life, so yes, I wanted the whole student life style, but yes, sex as well. I’m not proud of it but there you are.’
‘Good. That sounds honest too.’
I stop and catch my breath. It all seems like it happened last night. Excruciating. A whole night club full of these bright young things, flirting and laughing and running around, and this still, small, sad space around me.
He frowns and thinks for a while. ‘How was your work coming along at this time?’
‘I thought it was a total waste of time. Apart from compulsory studio sessions and lectures it was exactly what I would have been doing on my own at home. It all seemed totally pointless.’
‘It doesn’t sound as if you lacked confidence in your abilities Gabriel.’
I’m taken aback by what he’s said. People were always on about lack of self-esteem back then. I’d always assumed that’s what I had.
‘I think I always knew, if people could just leave me alone to get on with it I could do something exceptional.’
‘But they wouldn’t.’
‘No. They always had to interfere, make me do things their way.’
‘And you resented that.’
‘Well, later I realised they were just getting everyone up to a level, but at the time I just thought they were treating me like a kid. Plus I should have taken the opportunity to meet people and make friends, but I just went home and worked on my stuff there. Like I say – wanker.’
‘When did all this change?’
‘Actually one of the students came and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing.’
‘And who was that?’
‘Victoria. Victoria Sponge – I don’t think that was her real name. She was another mature student, bit older than me – completely mad Glaswegian. We’d chatted a few times in the refectory. She came over unexpectedly one day and saw my paintings and asked me why I was fucking up. I’m sorry... the f word. It’s just...’
‘It’s ok. It’s the G word I have trouble with. Carry on.’
‘Oh, ok. Where was I?’
‘So she thought your work was good?’
‘She thought it had “potential”. She told me that she’d over-heard that I’d be chucked out if I didn’t get my act together.’
‘Good of her.’
‘I don’t know. I never did find out why she did that.’
‘Perhaps she liked you.’
‘Maybe...’ He doesn’t challenge me on my equivocation this time.
‘Whenabouts was this?’
‘Christmas – that first year. I went along to a party with her and the other mature students and I felt awful. I just despised them all. I’d seen them at lectures – all down the front, being so attentive and studious, taking notes, asking lots of questions...’
‘But you became friends nevertheless.’
‘Not exactly. Vicky was a bit too mad – complete drama queen and control freak. She used to wear her fetish gear around the college at the weekend, which was a bit distressing given how skinny she was. A lot of that group really were very odd – especially some of the older ones – lots of piercings and some other dangerous stuff – event and physical art, whatever that was. You’d catch them mincing about the place dressed entirely in feathers or rubber or whatever, shrieking from the mezzanine, and making “objects” out of discarded fast food. I think there were a lot of personal crises going on there.’ I smile at the memory but Vincent doesn’t react.
‘And what were you wearing at the time?’
‘Black combats. I thought I was an anarchist.’
‘Aha.’ He thinks that’s funny. I only discovered later, having done some reading that actually I really was an anarchist.
‘Honestly, it was a zoo.’
‘But you did find a group of friends eventually.’
‘Yes, I suppose it was that winter. There was this bunch mostly from the workshops – more into things like ceramics and metal work, and embroidery believe it or not. They were a bit more practical and also quite political – and more safety conscious too.’
‘And you fitted in better with those people.’
‘Well my stuff was quite traditional in a way – quite workman-like really. And they hung out with the overseas students too so we got to go to some cool parties, so yes, I liked them. They were a good bunch.’
‘Even so, you seem bored by these questions Gabriel. Friends do not seem very important to you.’
I look about the room and try to remember their names and faces. I hardly bothered to keep in contact with any of them once I was with Mar. It seemed sad at the time but I can’t say I missed any of them very much.
‘I suppose I was used to being alone, and they all moved away after graduation. I sent e-mails but it all just petered out. I never went to see them, and they never came to see me. I suppose that’s how it is.’ I shrug as if none of it really mattered.
‘Be honest Gabriel.’
‘Well, things were not so much fun by the final year. Everything was more intense and there’d been arguments – silly disputes about politics or whatever. Or rivalries about the studio space or who’d slept with who. But that affected everyone, not just me. I don’t know...’ and I shrug once more, try to show I don’t care but I do. By the end of the course I was on the outside again, looking in.
‘I think we were all a bit too close there, for a while. We all went out together, to gigs and down the pub and we had parties and went for walks in the country and it was really good. We were inseparable. I don’t know what happened. I kept wondering if it was something I’d said, but we were all pretty outspoken and Kat was downright nasty on a regular basis. And then there was the night I ended up in bed with Jo and I know she and Mark were pretty close but that sort of thing was happening all the time. Mark got away with much worse behaviour and they just loved him all the more. Jo was more of a friend anyway, and we still were, even after that night. I suppose there was the Irish girl – Colleen, from humanities. She was about as close as anyone to being a real friend but I’d even lost track of her by the end.’
Vincent sits quietly and watches me as I prattle on. Of course he doesn’t know who any of these people are and it doesn’t matter. It’s all in the past isn’t it. The fact is, if I’m honest about it, I know there’d been something about me all along – something not quite right. Either it took them a while to realise or they knew it from the start but tolerated me for as long as they could. I know it sounds paranoid, and a small insistent part of me disputes this theory but I can’t deny it. Who was I kidding? It was the same with Mar. None of it was real. I suppose I’m just not a very likeable person – too self involved, too intense, a bit too spikey someone once told me. So they tolerated me out of what? Charity? Pity? Or perhaps they just didn’t want to make a scene. This is why I shrug. Because after all, I knew it would happen sooner or later. It was just a matter of time. I look up at Vincent. He’s still watching me. I can’t bring myself to try to explain all this. I know he wants to help and I do trust him but even he won’t get it, because being lonely isn’t like the storybooks. It’s not a misty romantic place where the sad lost little boy is found and treasured by kind strangers. No, lonely is an eyesore, as the song says. To be lonely is to have failed to find friends, to fit in, to be the kind of person people like to hang out with.
Anyway, I’m wallowing and Vincent is still waiting for me to say something. I don’t know if I really believe all this stuff about it all being my fault but I know I did something wrong. And it’s not that I can’t imagine what it might have been because I can imagine all too well. The list is endless (Things I Might Have Done to Piss Everyone Off volume 54). I just don’t know, in this case, which it was.
‘I did something to piss them off. I don’t know what it was’ I say at last. The session is nearly over.
He nods seriously. ‘Did you ever ask anyone about it?’ he says after a while.
‘Sometimes.’ I say vaguely. ‘It didn’t help.’
Actually I think it made matters worse – I was not only arrogant and abrasive but needy and insecure too. Brilliant combination.
He nods but says nothing. We pack up for the day.