Monday, 16 December 2013

Alison XIII – Art

Alison makes an impatient expression and says ‘Gabriel, you might think that the rest of your story is unimportant but we have the other versions filed away somewhere and maybe someday someone will want to see what happened next and it won’t be there.’
I sit for a while and look at my hands, wondering where to start. She’s right. I can’t just leave it there like that, although I’d like to.

‘It seems sad’ I begin, ‘to think that the only way I could sort my life out was to cheat’
She raises her eyebrows at me.
‘You know - by knowing what happened here in the afterlife.’
‘On the other hand’ she says, ‘who knows how many other, supposedly gifted individuals, only achieved what they did in the same way?’
‘Well. I’ll leave you to think about that. Tell me what happened next.’
‘Ok...’ I say, ‘um... well, I went to college the following October. Brighton. I could have gone to Glasgow. I nearly did, but then, I don’t know, I love Brighton and I thought “Why not?” Really the main reason for moving away would have been to prove something to someone or other and I didn’t really feel I needed to do that sort of thing any more.’
‘How did your family respond?’
I shrug some more. ‘Pretty much as you’d expect really.’

The day I got my results I remember very well. (I passed three of the four exams and got an A for art, which gave me my place at Art College). It was a Saturday. I was at the breakfast table across from Justine and she was just beaming all over her face and crying at the same time. I just sat there stunned and looked around and I knew I’d done it. I mean, I knew there’d be new things to cope with, but at that moment I knew I’d broken the circle. After she’d left for work I sat there looking out the window, watching the birds in the apple tree and I felt the world shift. I could feel the old me move away, like he was saying “my work here is done.”
I got myself a room in a house up on Montpelier sharing with two Belgian girls and a Nigerian and settled into my Bohemian student lifestyle...

Brighton back then, back in the eighties, was a very good place to be if you didn’t fit in anywhere else, although sometimes it felt like there was this other orthodoxy to adhere to – the right-on, politically correct one. One of the other students accused me of being racist because I didn’t have much black music in my record collection. I once told a guy who fancied me that I didn’t want to sleep with him because I wasn’t ready to come out, rather than tell him the truth, which was that I wasn’t gay.
But there were plenty of places to go, people to meet, things to do. We went to see major acts like the Smiths or The Nukes at the Top Rank or the Dome. This was in the days before a headlining act could only be glimpsed as tiny aliens across a whole solar system of heads at some giant stadium event. I stopped going to gigs in the late nineties, not because there was no one I wanted to see but because it seemed that ‘being there’ had become more important than being able to see what was going on.
There was a certain amount of partying and clubbing and we did our fair share of skiving off, sitting in coffee shops and bars, perusing second-hand clothes and records and trying to get a little cash together working in said bars and second-hand shops. We went up to London to march against apartheid and we occupied the admin block for a few days (I can’t remember what for). The Great Storm of ‘87 was a big deal. We all went down to The Steine next day and looked at the great toppled elms and the multitudes of the dead starlings that had been roosting in them. Then we went to the Green Dragon and drank real ale by candle light because the wind had cut the electricity.

I think back and wonder if my past life experiences taught me anything at all – were there moments when my old self stepped forward and egged me on or warned me off? All I can think of is a perhaps greater than usual sympathy for the homeless guys that were very conspicuous on the streets at that time. I didn’t do anything especially to help (a few coins here and there) but I felt like I understood better than most how an intelligent and talented person could end up that way. Of course in those days, as students, we identified with oppression and poverty wherever we found it. None of us back then had loans, cars, or went back to live with our parents after we’d graduated. We signed on during the holidays, hitched in of a morning and a few of us actually lived in squats. We were not obsessed with being celebrities or getting rich. I suspect we actually believed in what we were doing – egotistical and pretentious though it often was.
Ah the good old days.
Suddenly I feel very aged.

‘Sorry. What?’
Alison smiles and repeats the question ‘I asked what sort of an artist you were? Abstract? Conceptual? Surrealist? I’m sorry I really don’t know anything about all this stuff. Actually’ she adds, flicking back through her notes ‘you haven’t told me anything about your work at all, besides the pornography.’

I smile and look around at the room. It seems rather dull in here all of a sudden. I say ‘Why don’t we get some drinks and go and sit up on deck?’ She nods and says ‘Alright’ and gathers her papers. I feel the mood should be lifting now but she’s quite obviously still on duty. I get a glass of bubbly at the bar and she asks for peppermint tea. Raz spots us as we head up and gives me a quizzical look. I give her a ‘Duty calls’ sort of expression. Alison and I go up and find a place in the shade. The sky is fabulous with tropic birds swooping high among the cumulus.
I don’t know what to tell her about my work. I like talking about it – don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to it, a voice whispers to me ‘They don’t want to listen to you going on about all this stuff. They’re just being polite.’

‘It’s difficult to know where to start’ I begin. ‘I suppose technically you’d call it surrealism because it was all about dreams and the subconscious.’ And I know already she’s thinking Salvador Dali, which is wrong.
‘As I recall I was interested in the way a place in your dream can suddenly become a completely different place but your mind still treats it as if it all makes sense. One person can turn into another and yet it still seems like a coherent story. I read somewhere that linear time is an illusion, stitched together by our memories. I remember trying to capture that in my drawings. Even when I was a kid I was fascinated by my dreams. I went through a phase of trying to paint them, like a visual dream diary.’

My early attempts were rather embarrassing of course – full of evil spectres and torture chambers and scantily clad nymphs but as time went on I understood that the power of dreams is that they are set in ordinary, almost familiar rooms and streets, and feature people you feel you’ve met, but there’s always that something not quite right – something disturbing. Something threatening.
I tried for ages to get that flow – that elusive narrative into a picture.
I realised early on that I needed to master making the scenes and the people more real, more literal – figures and landscapes, so that I could then just subtly alter something and make it feel wrong. And then I discovered I liked just painting real places anyway – down at the harbour – the rusty machinery and the grime and the weeds, the waste ground and the derelict buildings, the railway, the allotments, the edge of town - anywhere where things are coming apart, going back to nature. Mould, dust, discolouration. Things lost or discarded.
My paintings remained somewhat creepy though and there came a time when I didn’t have to contrive the effect. They just came out that way. You’d have this perfectly ordinary scene, a patch of trees in bright sunlight or a girl sitting on a rock but there was always a sense that something terrible had happened or was about to happen – some tiny catastrophe on a sunny day.

‘That was where I’d got to when I started college.’
Alison smiles at me. ‘You got a lot of satisfaction from your work, didn’t you.’
‘I did. I was never one of these tortured artists who frets and agonises over every piece and ends up setting fire to it. I loved it all – even the rubbish.’
‘And it sounds like you’d already achieved a great deal even before you went to college.’
‘Ha! Well don’t lose sight of the fact that you haven’t actually seen any of this stuff. You’ve only got my word for it.’
‘True. But if anything you tend to underestimate your achievements, so I’m inclined to take this at face value. I’d like to have seen some of your work.’ She smiles warmly upon me. It occurs to me that she’d have been an excellent mother.
‘Go on’ she says. ‘How was college? What was it like being taught how to paint?’
‘Ah well. Of course I was an arrogant arse – thought they had nothing to teach me. And the first year was a bit basic – getting everyone up to speed I suppose. I just played about really, if you want the truth. Have you ever been in the studios at an art college?’
She nods and shrugs.
‘There’s always shed loads of junk lying about – bits of fabric and welded steel and piles of paint splattered timber and you’re not sure if it’s an exhibit or due for the skip? You know what I mean. It was like that. I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I’m still not sure. I gave up painting for a while – tried some other stuff – sculptures and prints and stuff. Video. I think I was trying to recreate something I’d done before, but not in this life, something about self-contained spaces, artificial environments, maybe underwater? I don’t know. It was all really gloomy and claustrophobic, and anyway it didn’t work. I just wasn’t like that any more. Isn’t that interesting? All my work was just completely open and full of light now. I couldn’t do the little boxes any more.’
She smiles at me and I can feel that old, confident, maybe over-confident art student in me coming back – passionate, combative, opinionated, totally self-involved, trying to explain about what he does and why it’s so important, and yet at the same time making it clear that he knows full well that it’s all bullshit. I’d forgotten that feeling. It seemed so important at the time. I miss it. ‘Anyway, by the beginning of the second year I’d pretty much gone back to paint and canvas, or paint and boards anyway.’
‘And you were happy with that.’
‘I was. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing. I know it wasn’t hugely ground-breaking but I liked doing them and I even sold a few. I included more figures in the later ones but it was more difficult. Usually it was just a solitary figure, sometimes naked or with just a mask or in fancy dress, in the middle distance maybe, or off to one side, involved in some obscure activity. Often it just made the picture look a bit contrived, but sometimes they worked. I still think the best ones were just deserted though. There was definitely a feeling of suspense.’
‘What did your parents think?’
‘Oh God, I don’t know. They came to my final year show but I think it scared them. I gave them one of the smaller, more innocuous pieces – of the back garden actually but it ended up in the attic. In the end I went up and rescued it because I liked it even if they didn't. I don’t think they even noticed it was gone. They didn’t really try...’
And I still can hardly believe it. They’d say things like “Well if it’s what you like doing...” as if I’d told them I liked sucking worms.
‘In the end I just didn’t even try. It was like trying to get mud to sit up and take notice (irritable, stubborn mud at that). They just didn’t know how.’

Voyage X – Ruthless

The day things came to a head with Ruth was a bit of a shock to all of us I think. It turned out Wen had been saving something up for her. It came out when, inevitably, the subject of all the men who’d failed to appreciate her comes around and Ruth concludes that they simply couldn’t cope with a rich, successful, and what’s more, beautiful woman (her words, not mine). Lisa nods sympathetically. Wen nods too, but not because she agrees. She’s considering when to make her move.
‘The thing is Ruth’ she begins, ‘you think because you’re generally considered an attractive, successful woman that you are therefore all but entitled to a man but you’re not. Men won’t commit for exactly the same reason you won’t commit – because they’re waiting for the right woman to come along and you, honey, were not it. All those “losers” you go on about, the “commitment-phobes”? They feel exactly the same way about you. I’m sorry Ruth. You were not God’s gift to mankind.’
Ruth looks at her speechlessly. Lisa looks shocked too. Raz waits for the next move, trying not to look too interested.
‘You patronising cow’ says Ruth eventually, with conspicuous restraint.
‘I’m not being patronising Ruth’ says Wen calmly, ‘but I see your mistake. Sometimes the tone of voice you have to adopt when the person you’re talking to is not very bright is very similar.’
‘And what the heck do you know?’ says Ruth, standing up. ‘Like you’d be such a catch.’
From where I’m sitting I can see her eyes shine slightly. I wonder if Wen can see it.
‘Oh I had plenty of offers’ says Wen.
‘Well I suppose some men are into that sort of thing.’
Wen smiles venomously. She’s been waiting for this.
‘And what exactly do you mean by that?’ she says.
Ruth stands defiantly. I watch Wen squinting up at her. She knows exactly what Ruth means but she’s looking forward to getting her to say it anyway.
‘Well, you know...’ She gesticulates vaguely. Her arm movements suggest expanse, bulk, unwieldiness. ‘Well, you’re not exactly...’
‘You think a man wanting to sleep with a fat woman is some sort of sick perversion don’t you, like coprophilia, or felching perhaps.’
Wen looks up directly into Ruth’s face, smiling slightly, goading her.
‘No’ says Lisa, also standing up, coming to Ruth’s rescue. ‘I’m sure she doesn’t mean that...’
‘Thank you Lisa’ says Ruth acidly. ‘I can handle this.’
Raz gently takes Lisa’s arm and gets her to sit down again. Lisa looks really upset.
‘I’ve seen how you look at me Ruth’ says Wen calmly. ‘You find me disgusting don’t you.’
‘No. Of course not. But I mean, it can’t...’
‘You think, looking the way you do, why would anyone not want to give you children? Hmm?’
‘Well I worked hard to look like this, yes. You’re not going to give me all that inner beauty crap are you, because if you are...’
‘And what really pisses you off is that someone like me had a husband who adored her and three gorgeous children – someone as disgusting and gross as me.’
‘Yes Ruth. This physique you worked on, all this haute couture and the shoes. Men don’t give a toss about all that.’
‘And you’d know I suppose Wen, from your field work?’
‘No, from just living and observing and marvelling, actually, at people like yourself. It’s a kind of fascism, these endless diet regimes and fitness fanaticism. Actually it’s feminism in its purest form. You want to know how I came to that conclusion? Because it’s a whole female way of life that has absolutely nothing to do with what men want.’
‘You haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, now if you’ll excuse me...’
‘That’s it, scamper away, as usual.’
Ruth stands there, glaring, with her things in her arms. ‘Do you realise what you look like?’ she says.
‘Do you?’
‘Oh no. I know who I am, what I achieved. Nothing can take that away from me.’
‘Good. I’m happy for you.’
‘You are, are you?’
‘But make no mistake Ruth, who you are, what you achieved, how you lived, is the reason you had no children. That’s all I’m saying.’
‘That it isn’t possible to be a successful woman and have a family?’
‘No, that isn’t what I’m saying. The problem is that you see being “a success” as who you are. But the trouble is, it’s all you are.’
‘I have no idea what you’re on about. Now...’
‘You define success too narrowly. It leaves no room in your life for anything else. You don’t know how to do anything else.’
‘That’s crap...’
‘Ok, if you say so.’ Wen holds her hands up and stops, simply, bringing the debate to a close. She’s made her point.
Ruth stands, looking at her adversary. She’s exhausted. It’s obvious now. I almost feel sorry for her.
‘That’s not fair and you know it’ she says. ‘I did everything. I worked bloody hard day and night to have what I had – everything, I should have had... If I’d been a man’ she looks around, grasping for her words. ‘If I’d been a man, well, success would have got me everything. Women would have been all over me – the money, power...’
‘And more fool us’ says Wen calmly.
‘You’re a bloody idiot’ she says through her tears and realises that this would normally have been the point at which she leaves but now can’t, or not without losing face. She decides to go anyway. She refuses to wipe her eyes and nose, which are now quite shiny and bright pink.

‘That was extremely harsh’ says Lisa, clearly very upset with Wen but not, I note, prepared to go after Ruth.
‘She had it coming’ says Wen.
‘How?’ says Lisa. ‘I don’t see how.’
‘Because she seems to think the world owes her a family. She’d have been a terrible mother anyway. She’d have been obsessed with her children being “successful” all the time, hitting those milestones or whatever.’
‘I was “successful” Wen.’ says Raz ‘You don’t give me a hard time.’
There’s a definite feeling of damage done around the group and even Raz is subdued.
‘And you are happy as you are. You’re not whingeing that you were entitled to children just because you could afford them, which is basically what she was saying. You knew who you were and you got on with it, and I admire you. I was “successful” too don’t forget, maybe not by your standards but I did what I believed in, and I had to make hard choices. In the end it cost me my marriage but I never took it for granted, and I never lost my children to it...’
‘Plus there was all that stuff she said about you to her “friends” in the sauna’ I say.
‘What?’ Lisa looks incredulous again. ‘What did she say?’
‘Thank you Gabriel’ says Wen sarcastically.
‘What are you talking about?
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘No. I don’t believe you’ says Lisa.
‘I heard her Lisa’ says Raz. ‘I was there. It wasn’t very nice.’
‘She has to have everything her way Lisa’ says Wen, ‘and she doesn’t much care what she has to do to get it. She was having a go at Raz behind her back too.’
‘And you sweetie’ says Raz.
‘What did she say about me?’
‘Oh, about your illness. You don’t want to know.’
Lisa looks mortified. ‘I told her all that in strict confidence.’
‘I know darling. The thing is she’s used to playing people against each other. I don’t think she’s used to having friends.’
Raz emphasises that last word to Lisa, placing her hand on her knee, but Lisa isn’t receptive at the moment. She looks away.
‘Or her friendships don’t last very long. Always the other person’s fault of course...’ adds Wen. She leans forward and takes Lisa’s hands. ‘Lisa, she’s bad news. Forget about her.’
‘I trusted her. I told her everything.’
We all sit with her, wondering what to do. It’s getting late. There’s a small group at the other end of the boat, sitting around a candle and strumming a guitar but otherwise all we can hear is the swell, slapping against the hull below. We’ll probably just get some blankets and things and settle down here for the night. It’s what we’ve been doing lately.
‘Did she have anything to say about you?’ says Lisa to me after a while.
‘What do you think?’ I answer knowingly but actually I don’t know. I look over at Wen and she raises her eyebrows.
‘She just wondered what kind of loser you were, hanging out with a bunch of women’ says Raz happily. ‘She implied you must be gay.’
‘Ha! I get that a lot’ I say.

Journey X – Sightseeing

Over the next few days we go back into town again, to eat, drink, see that band play, look at the sights, and generally wander around. The tall terraced buildings and the narrow stone streets winding among them, the tall windows with their shutters and curlicued railings and dangling geraniums, the little squares with their awnings and pot plants, the shade trees, the people sitting out on benches, nodding to passers-by, some in western dress, some in robes, black, brown, olive and white skinned, young and old, men and women – it could be anywhere in the Mediterranean or the Middle East or Latin America. Little house front parlours sell sweet or salty snacks, parasols, radios, flowers, shorts and tee shirts. Sonia buys me a tee shirt that says ‘I’m sure to go to Heaven because I’ve done my time in Hell’ on the front, and a picture of a mean looking marine. She thinks it’s funny anyway. I let her have her little joke. (It could have been worse. There was the one that said ‘I went to Paradise and all I got was this lousy tee-shirt’). Sonia and Miguel seem to know a lot of the people and we hang around endlessly chatting to almost everyone. She introduces me to everyone. It’s exhausting.
They show me around the sanctuary, a broad, massive building with the bell tower. It opens up inside into a vast airy space under a broad white dome. The coolness of the air makes me want to drink it in like water from a spring after the heat outside and the slow reverent tread and whisper of the people stills me and makes me wonder. People sit about on the floor or on chairs, meditating or maybe praying. I look up into the vault above. Stained glass windows around the rim of the dome make shards of azure and vermilion light on the pale marble floor. I see Sonia and Miguel wander off together, leaving me to look about in awe on my own.
Exploring some of the galleries and corridors that lead off from the main hall I find exquisite tapestries hung there, lively and intricate mosaics in the floor and stone carvings set here and there presiding over all who pass by. I wander at random up and down staircases broad and narrow, along corridors and across rooms of all shapes and sizes. Everything is fresh and alive and yet could be of immense antiquity. It is impossible to judge the age of any of it. Everywhere I look there are exquisite images and objects and yet none of it is ostentatiously displayed. Everything fits. Everything is at once a part of the whole and worth studying in its own right. I find myself alone in some remote corridor with arched openings along one side, high above the town. Several enormous moths rest as if pinned to the low arched ceiling. I look out and down into a garden. A person stands there far below in a broad sombrero with a hose, watering a newly planted tree. Beyond there are the rooftops and then the mountains in the distance, blurred and distorted by waves of rising heat. The sound of the people in the streets seems a very long way away. Looking down I see a face looking up at me from a window below, and then disappear. I spin around and immediately realise I have no idea how I got here. The stone figure there by the door seems to be watching. I look down at the gardener and he’s still there, watering as if nothing’s wrong. Of course, this is how they planned it. This is what happens. I run to the end of the corridor to a staircase I don’t remember. I turn right down another passage and hear the bells in the tower above, calling people – calling them to what? I dread to think. I keep running. I don’t recognise anything. What temple is this anyway? What kind of God do they serve?
Entering a gallery, in a frieze above a door I find a baobab above a mound of intertwined bodies. Then there is a tall stone figure guarding a door that is a reptile in armour and I realise it’s all been a sham. It’s all part of the same thing. How could I have been so stupid? I turn a corner and there is a large man in a white robe with a huge beard standing there and he is asking if I am lost and I know I am – completely. I look around for weapon.
I don’t remember the rest.

I come to on a grassy bank beside a stream. I can hear it chuckling beside me. I can feel the faint tickling of the grass on my hand. I look up into the branches of a tree with sharp rays of sunlight breaking through and I squint my eyes. I sit up suddenly and back away against the trunk. A girl in a blue dress is sitting there looking at me. It takes me a while to realise it’s Sonia. She looks different. She doesn’t say anything. I glance about hurriedly. There are other people here, sitting with their feet in the water or lying down in the sun. A girl hitches her dress up and paddles, looking at something in the water in front of her. What are they doing? Behind us, on the other side of the track an ancient looking wall rises up and obscures the view. Across the stream there are fields as far as I can see. I look at Sonia’s face and see her begin to cry. My first thought is that it’s a trick of some sort but then I realise she is really upset and I reach out to her. She draws back. My hand is bound with a very bloody rag. I have a deep gash across the palm. I don’t remember doing that.
It’s all so confusing.
Then Miguel comes along and he’s being angry and protective, like I’ve done something bad but I don’t know what.
‘Where are we?’ I say eventually. They just look at me. ‘What’s happened?’ They still won’t answer. I sit back and try to think. Beyond the fields are the mountains, like before, and behind me the bell tolls again. It does that several times a day I remember. Sonia told me – midday, mid-afternoon, dusk, mid-evening, midnight, dawn, mid-morning – just so people can arrange to meet and so forth. I like this system – it’s not about cold numerical hours and minutes. It’s about break times and mealtimes and rest times.
‘Are you feeling any better?’ says Miguel coldly.
‘What happened?’ I say and then notice a big bruise on Sonia’s cheek. I’d taken it for a shadow. ‘Did I do that?’ I say but the expressions on their faces tell me all I need to know.
Eventually Kevin arrives with his cart and I get in and they see me off. I sit silently in the back, among the nets and crates, letting myself get jostled about, letting myself get some bruises of my own. I don’t care about that. Poor Sonia. What have I done?

Kevin sits with me in my lounge. Apparently I went on some sort of rampage through the sanctuary. I hurt one of the monks quite badly – he’s in the infirmary but he doesn’t want to press charges. In view of this I’m amazed Kevin is prepared to be here with me. My knuckles and fingernails are broken and bleeding. He helps me bandage them up then sits me down with a brandy.
‘Tell me what happened’ he says, simply and I go back over it as best I can, until I get to the gargoyle in the doorway, and the tree of death. He sees me hesitate. I don’t know if I should tell him. I can feel a worm crawling in my belly deep down, telling me he’s one of them but I know it’s ridiculous. Really, I know that.
‘Tell me’ he says, kneeling in front of me. ‘I promise it’ll go no further’
I want to trust him. ‘Can you give me some time?’ I say. ‘Let me work it out. I think I need some time alone.’
He backs off reluctantly and nods. ‘But I will be coming to check on you’ he says giving me a warning wag of the finger. ‘Don’t think I won’t.’
‘Ok. That’s good. Thanks.’ He turns to go and already I feel so terribly alone. ‘Kevin’ I say.
He turns and waits. ‘Say sorry to Sonia for me will you, and to that other guy too, if you can. I am really sorry.’ He nods and leaves me to the bird song and the sun and the bobbing leaves in the suddenly empty doorway. I lie down and try not to fall asleep.

In the purple darkness I see terrified children, cowering down among the crushed plants. I have blood on my hands. Where did I get the blade? I must have brought it with me from the war zone, concealed in my clothes. They have turned me into a monster.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Alison XII – My Summer of Love

The next few months went very well, even if I say so myself. I felt intensely young and powerful, like adults say a teenager should but so rarely does. Besides all the hedonism, I even found myself for the first time in my life staying up late to finish assignments, spending hours in the library and even going to the university library for more. I didn’t do this for all the assignments, only the ones that interested me but that was enough. The tutors found the change a little disconcerting but had to admit I was on track for a good pass –  maybe even As in Spanish and art. What was more, it was an extraordinary feeling to arrive in the refectory in the morning and really feel I belonged there, even that I was a person to reckon with. I confess I became a little full of myself but in retrospect I think maybe I owed myself that, after all the years of feeling so very bad about it all. Maybe I went too far, but like Blake said, you don’t know what’s enough until you’ve gone too far, or words to that effect.
I noticed Camille and some of the other girls were looking at me differently too. Part of me, my old self, suspected they were probably just taking the piss but I knew they saw a change in me. Camille in particular chose to spend more time in my company and sometimes I could tell she knew she’d had something to do with my new confidence but we never talked about it. There was always something between Camille and I, although nothing romantic ever occurred between us. The following winter, when her parents were going through a bad patch and on the verge of splitting up it was me she came to talk to about it and to have a good cry on and I felt very honoured. We got off with each other once experimentally just before our final exams but it never took. We still kept in touch though, right up to the end.
Yve was the one though. I introduced her to the others at a gig (Julian Cope I think it was) and was pleased to see her getting on with pretty much everyone, Tom especially as it happened. She was a terrible flirt I know, and when we were out she had a tendency to veer between disappearing into the crowd without saying anything so that I felt completely abandoned, and monopolising me completely. One night at a club I watched her from the balcony. I admit I was feeling insecure. I watched her chatting and flirting but mostly just bopping about wildly down the front, her dresses and jewellery flailing about. Then I saw her stop and look around and go back to where she’d last seen me. I went down and she threw her hot sweaty self at me and fused her lips to mine. She was fiercely independent but she liked being with me and she didn’t play games. That was what I liked about her, or one of the things anyway.
Another memorable occasion was when cousin Karen got married in the June and Yve met my uncle Len. I don’t think I’d ever known him to not have some sort of ‘witty’ comment ready but he just sat there, unable to not look at her cleavage. Auntie Jen said she thought she was ‘gorgeous’, and that I was very lucky. I had to agree on both points. Later on Len took me aside and tried to engage me in what I suppose was meant to be a bit of male bonding – now I had proved myself to be one of the lads. He gives me a beer and tells me ‘I always said you were a bit, you know...’ He gives me the limp wrested salute and a knowing grin.
‘Gay?’ I say, flatly. I watch him flinch.
‘We don’t like to use that word’ he says, sounding more like my gran. ‘It’s a bit...’
‘Bent? Queer? Homo-sexual?’ I’m grinning back now. He can’t touch me any more. He feels he needs to press his point nonetheless.
‘Well you never did show no interest in the fairer sex...’
He says that last word through his teeth, like we’re discussing sneaking out to look at porn together.
I say ‘And so you naturally assumed I was into boys.’ I say this in my most affable voice and with a pleasant smile. He’s not sure what I’m up to.
‘Well we never seen you taking no interest before.’
‘Well you wouldn’t have. I’m very discrete. To be fair though, you never seen me take no interest in boys neither...’
At this moment Yve arrives, all pale skin and red silk and we kiss a bit too much. After a few too many seconds of that, when uncle Len doesn’t know where to put himself, I announce to Yve that ‘Uncle Len is very disappointed. He thought I was going to turn out queer.’
Exit Len.

In late June, Phil confirmed that he wanted me to start the first week in August if possible and I told Yve I wanted her to come out with me, at least for a couple of weeks, if she could. I wasn’t entirely sure about this. There was something about this Spanish adventure I knew was about me doing something for myself, on my own but on the other hand I didn’t want to be without her for the whole summer. She wasn’t happy about it. Although she admitted she’d known this might happen I could tell she was upset. I asked again about the possibility of her coming out and she said she’d think about it. She’d be going to uni in the October and had a lot of things to do before that, plus a job at a restaurant in Brighton that was busiest in summer, so she didn’t feel she could just leave. In the mean time we tried to carry on as normal, going out in the evenings and hanging out at her place weekends. Her parents went away quite often so we spent a lot of time in her bed.
It seemed strange at the time but it makes more sense now. Once, in previous incarnations, if I’d met a scrumptious girl like Yve I’d have clung to her, thought of nothing else, changed all my plans, neglected my studies and probably made her highly uncomfortable in the process. This time I could not deny that, gorgeous as she was, I would not be spending my life with her. I knew there would be other women, and I wanted to try quite a few of them before I committed myself, if ever. It was an odd, worldly, almost cynical knowledge and part of me mourned the loss of innocence – of that desperate, romantic, urgent young man I had been before. But it was only a small part. A much larger part of me looked forward to the future and all the opportunities it might bring.

Mum and dad made the usual disapproving noises about treating the place like a hotel and saying ‘hello stranger’ when I came in but didn’t really give the impression that they actually wanted me around more. They just liked the opportunity to express their disapproval.

As for Spain, the whole idea of hitching all that way was beginning to seem very frightening, although I believe I’d have done it if I’d had to. Justine rescued me – she was living with her bloke in Hove by then, and I tried to reassure her that I’d be ok but she didn’t look convinced. Then I mentioned how much the fare was and she immediately offered to pay. I don’t think I did it on purpose exactly – I was not a calculating person, but I think maybe, unconsciously I’d hoped she might. Anyway I arrived in Malaga on the third of August and caught the bus out to Linares. A friend of Phil’s, Carlo, picked me up from there and took me to the house, such as it was – a building site – basically just a tarp with a makeshift bed underneath and the foundations of the actual house nearby. Carlo pointed out the road to the village and the moped to get there on, which he started up for me (it started first time). He gave me some money for food and disappeared. I looked around. It was late evening and the silence and the space were overwhelming. There was light from a house, miles away across the valley but otherwise no trace of civilisation. I was in a low wide valley full of olive trees. Some pines and other natural vegetation clung to the crags to the south and I could see the river sparkling below. The only sound was insects and it was still very hot. I’d never been in heat like this. I dropped my pack and took my shirt off. The darkness was coming in swiftly and I could watch the stars appear as I stood there. I took my boots off and kicked about in the dust a bit, coating my stinking feet. I heard a dog somewhere, and a donkey. Everything seemed to come from so far away, like I was on a tiny planet orbiting the earth alone and just catching tiny cryptic signals from across millions of miles of cold empty space. The planet revolved around me. I took my shorts and pants off too and stood there naked, feeling the breeze dry the day’s accumulation of grime and sweat, and then, before it got totally dark I took out my towel and put on my flip-flops and made my way down to the reservoir and got in. As I lay there in the greenish, lukewarm water I gave a high shrieking ‘Yeeha!’ because it was the most amazing thing I’d ever known. They must have heard me for twenty miles in all directions. Then I couldn’t stop giggling.

Alison is beaming broadly at me, chuckling a little. I chuckle a little myself at the memory. There was something very important about that time, those few weeks – the landscape and the colours – bleached and over-exposed on the one hand and deeply saturated on the other – strong, uncompromising and yet full of beauty, and the people were like that too. They always welcomed me in, bought me a drink, gave me something to eat, and I managed to speak some Spanish and occasionally I even understood what they said back to me.
‘I only realised later, when Yve arrived, that really, the people who get really fluent are the kind of people who are naturally very sociable. I used to go and sit quietly in the bar and eat lots of tapas and watch the football with them, but she’d talk to anyone. She only had O level Spanish but she was better at it than I was by the time we left.’
‘But you were happy together.’
‘We were. We really were...’
I could easily end the story there but Alison wants some more.

‘How was it when you returned?’
‘Oh well that wasn’t so much fun. I had to go back and start my second year and Yve was leaving for Sheffield in October so it was all a bit subdued. It was a weird time generally, what with mum gleefully pointing out that I’d just have to ‘knuckle down to it’ whatever that meant, and I pissed Dad off because I’d bought a real cafetería in Spain. He just looked so betrayed but I wouldn’t give in. I honestly think he’d have been happier if I’d had a bottle of scotch with my breakfast. Anyway, Justine’s bloke had just recently walked out on her so she was really miserable and she said why didn’t I move into her spare room? It was only about twenty minutes in on the train. And she was happy for Yve to come and stay, which she did a few times, and later on I hitched up a couple of times to see her in Sheffield too but it didn’t really work. I think it was one of those relationships where it’s either full on all the time or it just peters out. I went with her to Matt’s funeral the following year – the friend from the pub, died in a car accident. That was the last time I saw her. Otherwise I just got through the next nine months or so, going in for lectures, getting my assignments done, going out sometimes.
‘Passing your A levels?’
‘Yes, that and getting accepted to go to Art College.’

After a respectful pause I say ‘So, that’s about it then.’
She looks at me, bemused ‘I’m sorry?’
‘It was the early part that we were interested in, wasn’t it – the part that really changed things, the early memories, actually living with the previous experience there. That was what you wanted to know wasn’t it?’
She doesn’t answer immediately. She looks about, maybe trying to remember something.
‘It must have been extraordinary’ she says at last. ‘Or did it come to seem normal?’
‘No. It always seemed... well, surprising. How can I explain it? It was like waking up from a bad dream sometimes and realising it wasn’t like that any more. Sometimes, I’d look at what was happening and I’d feel this sense of doom encroaching on me from somewhere, like night unexpectedly approaching when it should be daytime, like my own personal nuclear winter, and I’d be so weighed down with it, so desperate and hopeless. But then, suddenly I’d realise, that isn’t how it is now. I’ve made it different, and I’d feel like I was walking out into daylight again, just like that.’
‘But the dark sky was always there.’
‘Yes. I never forgot it, but it never really got close to me again, not after that summer.’
‘You will come back and finish your story though won’t you. I’d like to hear the rest.’
‘Oh’ I say, surprised. ‘Well, the rest is fairly ordinary to be honest. I don’t want to bore you.’
‘Don’t worry. You won’t.’

Voyage IX – Market forces

Wen, Lisa and I are dozing in the sun up on deck. It’s busier up here but since Ruth told the rugby team about the sauna it’s rarely quiet down there any more. We sometimes go down in the middle of the night when it’s deserted but otherwise we’ve taken to staying up here. Raz and Ruth seem to be having a good time anyway. Which is not to say we aren’t. We’re just more subtle about it.
‘I don’t see how come Ruth never got married or whatever anyway’ muses Lisa.
‘How do you mean?’ says Wen.
‘Well, she’s very good looking, don’t you think. Gabriel?’
‘She’s a bit on the skinny side.’ I say.
‘I know. There’s nothing of her’ says Lisa, sighing.
Lisa turns to Wen. ‘Do you think she’s good looking Wen?’
‘I suspect she must be, technically speaking. Come on, what about you Gabe? You think she’s hot? He’s not answering, Lisa. What do you think that means?’
‘I’m thinking’ I say testily. I make a show of pondering some more. ‘I can’t help thinking she’d be bad news.’
‘Not because of the politics.’
‘No no. I mean, I wouldn’t have the same problem with Raz, although I don’t really fancy her either...’
‘But I’d have thought a woman like Ruth could have any man she wanted’ says Lisa. I know she’s fishing and I’d love to bite but don’t. Something tells me it’s best not to encourage her.
‘All I know is that I wouldn’t. I like a woman with a bit more... I don’t know... substance?’
‘Not even for a quick shag?’ says Wen.
‘Maybe once, if I was extremely pissed.’
‘That’s what she said’ says Lisa, vindicated. ‘Men just want one thing and once they’ve got it...’
‘That’s not what I said Lisa’ I say a little sternly, and can’t resist holding her gaze until she looks away confused. I look back out to sea. A small island drifts past. We’ve been seeing these all day – little floating platforms of trees covered with birds. ‘All my life I wanted someone I could really love’ I say. ‘I remember that, even when I was a kid.’
‘And did you find her?’ says Wen
I think for a moment. ‘Yes’ I say and for the first time the memory does not make me want to cry. Instead I feel a brave pride well up in my chest and I want to laugh. I did love her, with all my heart. And I was true to her – always.
Lisa looks down at her book but doesn’t read ‘I wish I had’ she says.
‘You’re going to have to tell us what happened sooner or later love, you do know that don’t you’ says Wen and Lisa nods deeply and sniffs.
‘I’m sorry’ she says, trying to hide her face, then gets up and runs along to the doorway and disappears. I pick up her book and look at the cover. More poetry, but this time accompanied by woodcuts that seem to dance and sing in my hands.
‘Do you think I should go after her?’ I say. Wen shrugs. I turn and watch for her, trying to make up my mind. Then she reappears, holding a tissue to her nose. She blows it loudly and without looking at us comes and sits down again. I pass her the book and she says thanks and puts it face down on her legs. She smiles sheepishly at me but her nose and eyes are quite red. ‘I’m sorry’ she says again, waving her troubles away with the tissue ‘Silly things, sometimes...’
‘I know’ I say, and she reaches over and grips my hand, like we’ve suddenly reached some new understanding but I don’t think we have. Still, I like the feel of her hand, small and soft and cool on mine. Then Raz and Ruth appear, still glowing from the sauna. Lisa swiftly lets go of my hand and concentrates on her book.
‘Ruth’s got a new boyf’ says Raz exultantly and Ruth reddens even more.
‘Not really’ she says, in an oddly girlish way. It doesn’t suit her.
‘Oh he’s sweet. You never know girl. This could change everything. God, is that land?’
‘Just floating vegetation. There’s probably a river mouth up ahead’ says Wen.
‘God, do you think they’d let us get off and explore if we asked nicely?’
‘Is that a tree?’ says Ruth, amazed.
‘Mangroves’ says Wen. ‘I’ve seen it before. Whole patches of mangrove can come adrift during tropical storms and float out to sea. Mind you I’ve never seen it on this scale before. We saw lizards and monkeys earlier didn’t we chaps.’
‘Well you pointed’ says Lisa, ‘and we went “What? Where?”’
‘I wish I had my bins’ says Wen. ‘I wonder if the guides have any. Hang on a mo’ and with that she’s up and off.
‘Nimble for a big lass, isn’t she’ comments Ruth.
‘Now now’ says Raz and they both pull up loungers and settle in for the afternoon.

Later on, Ruth’s putative ‘boyf’ appears and crouches down next to her. He’s very good looking in an eager to please, Italian sort of way and seems to be about twenty-one. She all but ignores him as he squats there smiling and making small talk. Wen and Raz and I make polite noises but are aware that Ruth should be making a contribution. Instead she looks indifferently at the view. After some awkwardness I notice we need drinks and I ask him if he’d like something and he offers to come with me. At the bar we swap pleasantries and he tells me all about where he was from (Palermo) and why he was in England (sister in London) and how he died (quad biking). He’s very very chatty indeed and I zone out somewhat but he doesn’t seem to notice. We carry the drinks up on deck and he finds a chair and sits on it backwards, leaning forward next to Ruth. Still she says nothing. Raz finally engages him in conversation, fairly obviously to break the tension so we can all relax. After a while he says 'ciao' to us all and goes to kiss Ruth and we’re all surprised to see her get up and kiss him quite passionately and say ‘Ciao’ back to him in a very lingering and suggestive way. It’s a little nauseating actually.
‘So...’ says Wen, after he’s gone. ‘He seems awfully keen.’
Ruth doesn’t detect her tone at all, just smiles suggestively and raises her eyebrows. Lisa and I look at each other and shrug. After Ruth has left us ‘to get changed’ Lisa says incredulously ‘She actually seems to think that’s how people behave when they’re in a relationship.’
‘I wouldn’t say it was a relationship exactly’ says Raz.
‘No, but still. I wouldn’t put up with it, would you Gabriel?’ I shake my head in an “I told you so” sort of way. ‘No wonder she couldn’t keep a bloke. I’d dump her like a... I don’t know what’ she adds.
‘I suppose he doesn’t care too much if he thinks she’ll sleep with him’ says Wen.
‘Too late’ says Raz. ‘They’ve been at it like knives these last three days.’
‘Really?’ says Lisa. ‘I mean, I’m not judging, obviously. I’m just...’
‘Maybe she’s nicer to him in private?’ I suggest.
‘Come off it’ says Wen and we have to admit it’s hard to imagine.
Lisa looks at where Ruth disappeared down below.
‘I wonder if that’s how she was in life, or if it’s just now’ she says.
‘I think so’ says Wen. ‘I have good reason to believe she’s always been much the same.’
Raz pushes her sunglasses onto her forehead. ‘You heard her – all the men she got involved with she said turned out to be creeps one way or another.’
‘Or too short’ says Wen quietly.
‘Or too poor’ I add.
‘It sounds like she was forever out clubbing or speed-dating or whatever it was’ observes Raz. ‘I suspect she tended to go for men who were rather too young for her to be quite frank.’
‘Well you’ve got to give her credit for trying’ says Lisa, earnestly.
I say ‘It all sounds a bit desperate to me’ but Raz and Lisa seem not so sure. I realise I was very lucky but I can’t help feeling Ruth didn’t do herself any favours.

It comes out later on when she gets back. We knew she was something of a tycoon but not quite how much.
‘I know I was a workaholic. I confess. I’m not embarrassed to admit it and it’s people like me who keep this country afloat, Gabriel’ she says, slapping my knee, trying to be playful. I nod non-commitally.
I hear Wen mutter something like ‘Pity the nation that needs heroes’ but Ruth doesn’t hear her. She wouldn’t have got the reference anyway.
Apparently there were twelve stores in her chain of shoe shops by the end of her life so she’s not been entirely honest with me about her ‘little shop in Lewes’. She gives us some turnover figures and profit margins and describes some apparently rather ravenous manoeuvring against other ‘outlets’. Nothing about the actual shoes though. She’s especially proud of one particularly predatory take-over she masterminded up in Wakefield back in the nineties. The result was that she put a very old local independent out of business – a species of enterprise she seems to regard as inherently spurious and therefore fair game.
‘I said to them, I’m trying to run a business here. It’s not a charity...’
I’ve heard this ‘not a charity’ line so many times, whenever it’s suggested that business people do anything that doesn’t involve screwing the last penny out of the rest of us. It never fails to piss me off but I pretend to doze.
She goes on ‘I said to them, “If you don’t like it, you know what you can do. I hear Argos is recruiting” and she chuckles happily at the memory of putting all those people out of work and then being able to humiliate them into the bargain. Raz looks at me doubtfully but I pretend not to notice. I want to say something but actually am fed up of getting into these “debates”. I’ve getting into rows with these sort of people since the eighties. Nothing’s changed. Nobody ever listens to anyone, far less changes their mind.
‘No, you can’t afford to get sentimental about these people’ she says, picking up her book.
‘By sentimental I take it you mean give a toss’ I say. I just can’t resist it.
‘It’s not my job to “give a toss” as you put it Gabriel.’ From the tone of her voice I can tell she’s been waiting for this – the opportunity to put me right, to tell me what’s what. I’ve heard it all so many times before.
‘No, it’s your responsibility’ I say tersely, still not opening my eyes.
‘Excuse me?’
‘As an employer. As a human being.’
‘I don’t think so Gabriel. My responsibility is to make money, otherwise no one has a job.’
‘I understand you have to make a living, cover your overheads...’
‘There’s a bit more to it than that Gabriel. There’s the share holders to consider for one thing.’
‘And your salary, your bonus, your expense account... but not your work force apparently.’
‘I treated my workers very fairly I’ll have you know.’
‘But you just told us you got rid of most of them and gave the rest unskilled shop and storeroom jobs’ says Wen. ‘You boasted to us that by the end all but two of the original staff had left.’
‘And good riddance. They were a liability.’
‘Because they cared about what they did and you took that away from them’ I say.
‘Gabriel...’ she says and exasperatedly looks about, as if she’s trying to work out how to explain to a very stupid child that it shouldn’t play with broken glass and dog shit. ‘Do I really need to explain to you about market forces?’
‘No, I understand them very well’ I say. ‘But you told us they were profitable, this firm – before you came along I mean.’
‘Only just.’
‘They were a small family business with a skilled and loyal work force and a popular product and you put them out of business. Then you shipped in cheap mass produced footwear made by an unskilled underpaid work-force in Angola. You’ve said as much yourself.’
‘Low paid I said, not underpaid, but yes, I did that, and I believe the market as a result was healthier for it.’
‘The market perhaps... Fewer people with less satisfying, less well paid jobs, and the shoes themselves were less well made...’
‘And actually not terribly nice’ says Raz, almost under her breath, pretending to read.
‘But more affordable’ insists Ruth, ignoring her.
‘Except they wore out faster’ says Raz. ‘They weren’t actually cheaper in the long run were they darling?’
‘Well hardly anybody bothered to complain. I expect they all took the opportunity to go out and buy something new.’
I sit and look about for a while. It just all seems so lamentable I don’t know where to begin.
‘It’s economic reality Gabriel, look it up.’
‘But it’s not actual reality is it? That’s my point.’
‘Actually I have no idea what your point is Gabriel. You’ve made absolutely no substantive argument to support your position. I don’t know how you imagine the world functions. Are you expecting me to run my business less profitably than I could because, I don’t know, some people want to live in toytown? It’s not real Gabriel. Get a grip.’
I assume my most calm, well-mannered, patronising expression.
‘I understand that for you Ruth, economic reality is reality...’ she goes to interrupt. I shush her. ‘And also I understand that that is the way the world works, but lets not pretend that it is a good way to run the world.’
‘I don’t know what makes you think it’s up to someone like you to tell everyone how to live Gabriel.’
‘Hasn’t stopped you telling us how it ought to be done’ says Wen, under her breath. Ruth looks coldly at her but decides not to reply.
‘What I’m saying’ I continue, laboriously ‘is that it’s up to all of us. I’m talking about everyone taking a bit more responsibility...’
‘Which is where the free market comes in.’
‘No it’s not. The free market is only about what you can buy. It has nothing to say about what is right.’
‘I’m having real trouble with your banging on about right and wrong, as if you’re in some special position to tell us...’
‘Worthwhile jobs Ruth? Decent quality goods and services? A healthy environment? None of this is exactly controversial.’
‘We’d all like those things, if we could...’
‘No you wouldn’t’
‘What? Of course I would’
‘Not if you couldn’t make money out of it you wouldn’t.’
‘Well, yes, there has to be a return.’
‘So the bottom line comes before all those other things’
‘No. Well, yes. Nothing happens unless the accountant says ok.’ She shakes her head as if dislodging a troublesome insect. ‘But that isn’t the point is it? The point is it’s people like me take the risks, to set up companies to create wealth so that everybody has a job...’
‘But your firm employed fewer people than before’ says Wen.
Ruth ignores her. ‘ that the whole of humanity can aspire to the kind of lifestyles that...’
‘I understand all that...’
‘...lift them out of a life of poverty. It’s the only way. I promise you, there is absolutely no alternative ...’
‘The way, the truth and the life...’ intones Wen but Ruth is no longer listening to anyone. She’s yammering on about the horrors of planned economies and police states.
‘But surely if you put all those people out of business by making worse shoes...’ says Lisa with a confused expression on her face ‘That doesn't make sense.’ Ruth just looks at her. She didn’t expect this from poor sweet Lisa.
‘Whoa, hold on there. I think you’re getting a little muddled, all of you. It’s not in anyone’s interests to produce faulty goods. Our aim was always to make the best possible product for our customers at a competitive price.’
I see Raz snort with derision behind her back.
‘What?’ says Ruth, turning on her.
‘Companies are always making faulty goods sweetie. You know that. They make everything as cheaply as they can get away with so the margins are as large as possible. No successful company is in the business of making good quality products if they can get away with making shoddy ones.’
‘, Caveat emptor!’ says Ruth, triumphantly.
‘What does that mean?’ whispers Lisa to me.
‘Buyer beware’ I whisper back to her.
‘ “Get away with” being the operative term’ says Wen. ‘You can’t possibly have made a genuinely informed decision on most of what you buy.’
‘I’m not stupid!’
‘Nobody’s saying that...’ Lisa tries to mollify. ‘We’re all...’
‘I knew everything I needed to know’ insists Ruth, ignoring her.
‘Well, you have a great deal of self confidence my dear’ says Wen, lying back and opening her book.
Ruth seems to take this as a compliment. ‘Anyway I never knowingly sold substandard footwear’ she says.
‘Oh that’s cobblers Ruth and you know it’ says Raz. ‘Your shops were notorious.’
‘Excuse me?’ says Ruth petulantly, apparently genuinely taken aback.
‘In your defence’ adds Raz, ‘I’d add that you knew that if you didn’t do it someone else would and they’d put you out of business, as you did to those poor sods in Wakefield. And that’s the real world I’m afraid, Gabriel.’
‘So much for the free market tending to make things better’ says Wen.
There’s a brief but pregnant lull in the conversation and we all sip our drinks. Then Ruth puts her glass down decisively, and with a little self-satisfied smile she says ‘Actually, you know, I don’t give a flying fuck. If people want to eat crap let them eat crap. And who the hell are you Wen, Gabriel, to tell them that they shouldn’t?’
And with that the conversation ends – Ruth picks up her things and leaves, apparently under the impression that she’s won.

None of us says anything for a time but we sip our drinks meditatively. Lisa looks upset.
‘I just find it extraordinary that anybody still believes in all that “the free market will save the world” crap any more’ says Wen after a while. ‘It’s unbelievable. Surely after everything that’s happened it must be obvious to everyone that it was just about personal wealth all along?’
‘She’s not very bright.’ I say.
‘She’s a utopian’ says Raz charitably.

I read somewhere that highly successful businesspeople are often clinically indistinguishable from psychopaths. I don’t think I actually ever met one before. I ponder later what might have made her that way. Was she terribly deprived in some way, early on in life or was her family financially ruined later on? Did her mother ignore her or her father buy her affection with gifts? I don’t know, and I can’t imagine her being interested in those sorts of explanations. She likes being the way she is. I don’t suppose it’s ever occurred to her that there might be anything wrong with it. And that’s why I think she’s stupid. It should, every so often, occur to all of us that we might well be wrong.
But of course there’s no money in that.

Journey IX – Kevin

Kevin reappears the next day. I’d begun to think he might have been a figment of my imagination but this time he brings fish, which seem real enough – big, glistening blue fish with long streamers on the pectoral fins.
‘Thought we could have a barbeque later’ he says. ‘How’ve you been?’
‘Good’ I say. ‘We went to look at the sea yesterday. I didn’t realise it was so close...’
‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ he says grinning.
‘Cold’ I say. He shrugs, suggesting that’s not the point, and he’s right, it’s not. ‘It is really beautiful’ I add. ‘Reminds me of the Pacific.’
‘Where were you?’ he says. ‘I mean where did you see the Pacific? You were from England weren’t you?’
Part of me wants to ask how he knew that but I think I’ll ask later.
‘New South Wales – Coff’s Harbour. My sister lived there. And the whole coast of Mexico... California... Oh my God...’
I stand there shocked while he grins at me.
‘All coming back isn’t it’ he says gleefully. I don’t know what to say. I’m stunned and have to take a seat. I remember it all.
He heads over to the pantry and comes out with a bottle. ‘Got a bottle opener?’ he says, miming cork-screwing.
‘In the drawer’ I say, indicating vaguely.
He props himself on the bench and starts on the cork. It’s local wine. Sonia told me Leo makes it. Kevin watches me narrowly.
‘Your name’s Gabriel by the way’ he says, popping the cork and casting about for clean glasses. I go over and begin to wash some up. I don’t seem to have very many of them left.
‘I found your notes’ he says after a while. ‘I kept copies... just for old time’s sake, you know...’
I still say nothing. I dry the glasses in a daze and set them up on the counter. Kevin fills them both. I feel so excited.
‘Shall we?’ he says, indicating the door.
‘Hang on’ I say and go through to find us a couple of canvas chairs. We take our seats out on the path and look at the river. A young couple pass, evidently on their way to the beach. They smile and say good morning.
‘Duncan and Jeanie’ I say suddenly.
‘They live not far from here’ he says. I just smile and wonder.
‘So Duncan survived ok?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, he seemed... I don’t know...’
‘A bit lost. I know. It took a while. We always wondered what became of you.’
‘You gave me that amazing tent. I remember. I had another one like it this time...’
‘Standard issue...’
I think back to where I left it, in the battle zone. The passage was too narrow. I couldn’t get it through. I missed that tent later on.
‘You were a desperate sort of a person as I recall. You can’t have been more than a teenager. I felt terrible about letting you go but I didn’t know what else to do. Plus you left me with those shit-heads...’
I vaguely remember but not much. ‘What else do your notes say?’
‘Not much. The guides on the boat would have had more...’
‘The boat... Oh God I remember...’ and I sit back and all these images come flooding back. It’s like a dream. I can’t remember anything specific – no names or anything, but I remember feeling very well looked after, warm and safe. I have this memory of a storm outside and being among friends... and a woman I was very fond of with very long hair... Sophie perhaps, or Emily? I can’t remember. It’s really beginning to piss me off.
‘It’ll come. I see you’ve been doing some work out here’ he says, obviously changing the subject. That’s ok. I want to change the subject, for now. I’ve planted some things in the big pot by the door – some Zinnias and a Begonia that Ross gave me. I tell him I’ve done a lot more out the back and take him through to see my newly planted broccoli and beans, coriander and chilli.

Later on Sonia and Miguel arrive and Miguel unexpectedly makes a big fuss of me being back to normal as he puts it and congratulates me on having done as much as I have in the garden.
‘You took my advice’ he says, slapping my arm and grinning.
Kevin has to gallop off to get another fish.
After lunch I raise the subject of work and paying my way. Sonia says not to worry about it yet but I insist. I feel like I want to do something, give something back.
‘You don’t have to.’
‘I want to.’
‘Paint Sonia for me’ says Miguel and they both grin hopefully at me and grasp each other’s hands. Evidently they’ve been discussing me. I say I’ll try but I may be a bit rusty. I tell them I want to do some manual work too – maybe in the orchard and they all nod and look like it’s plausible. ‘Talk to Leo maybe.’
‘Or Belen’ says Sonia. ‘She manages part of the plantation at the back here. Less distance to travel.’ Miguel looks at me encouragingly.
‘But not yet’ says Sonia. ‘Not for a week or two. You should have a holiday.’ And we go on to discuss them taking me on a tour in a pony cart, to have a proper look at the countryside. Apparently there’s the little community near the beach where Kevin lives, and another in a clearing further up river where Ross and Duncan and Jeanie have built houses (‘Beautiful, solid cedar’ says Kevin). Sonia and Miguel live in town. I sit back and watch them competing for who can come up with the best place to visit – the falls in the forest (nobody bothers with a costume), the villages in the mountains (lovely cool air) or the beaches and headlands further up the coast (excellent diving). No agreement is reached. I’m overwhelmed. It all sounds too good to be true.
Finally Kevin proposes a toast ‘To Gabriel’ and they all look mystified until he explains.
‘But you can still call me Spatch if you like’ I add, and they laugh and toast me again ‘To Spatch.’
I look around at them here and for the first time it seems like it might really be alright. This might really be a place I can stay – maybe forever.

Just as Sonia and Miguel are getting ready to leave I see Kevin looking at my notes. When he sees me looking he hastily puts them down and apologises.
‘It’s ok. They’re not private or anything.’
‘No’ he says, ‘I was just wondering if you wanted to publish this. You should phone Simon about it...’
This takes me completely by surprise. I stand with my mouth open.
‘I’m sorry’ says Sonia ‘I didn’t think. There’s a phone in the cupboard by the fireplace.’
‘Sorry I didn’t realise...’ I’d assumed they didn’t do that sort of thing here. It seems rude to say so now.

Later on, Kevin and I are lounging about out front again, hoping to catch sight of more girls going by in their sarongs. I make a joke about having assumed we were living in some pre-technological utopia. He leans back in his chair and shuts his eyes. ‘Oh, we have the technology’ he says ‘when we choose to use it. It’s a bit clunky at times but you can fix it when it goes wrong. You’re right about the utopia though.’ And with that he tips his hat over his eyes and I let him take his afternoon nap.
Why does that word make me feel uncomfortable – utopia?
Because that’s the thing with utopias – there has to be a catch. There’s always a catch.
Indoors I take a look in the cupboard and find a radio and what appears to be someone’s music collection – a whole stack of vinyl and an old deck. How could I have been so incurious before? I suppose up until then I was acting like I was using someone else’s home and I didn’t want to pry. Now I find everyone else is treating this place as if it’s my place. I must ask what happened to whoever had it before me. It suddenly occurs to me that that guy Peter who came to visit knows something. I’ve not seen him since. I need to track him down.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Alison XI – The Big V

‘I’ve been thinking about your question about the jumbo jets’ says Alison as I make myself comfortable for our next session.
‘747s. Why don’t we just fly you all in?’
‘Oh. Ok. What did you come up with?’
‘I asked around...’ she takes a sip of her mint tea. ‘Nobody knows for certain but actually I think the answer’s obvious, given the way things work here.’
‘Or don’t work.’
‘Quite. I spoke to Matthew about it. He said, can you imagine trying to keep an airliner flying in this place? Can you imagine getting hold of the fuel, finding the spare parts?’
‘Radar, flight plans, computers...’
‘There’s no way we could maintain that kind of complexity here. Lorna – one of the engineers, she told me that she thinks the technology here is unlikely to progress beyond the point where a regular mechanic with an ordinary set of tools and a fairly general knowledge of engineering is able to work out what’s wrong and fix it.’
‘So, no microprocessors in the afterlife.’
‘I have no idea what that means.’
I smile and shake my head. Maybe I’m going to like it here after all.

‘How did your parents react, to you going off to Spain?’
I take a moment to refocus.
‘It was strange. I don’t know if I felt better or worse that they didn’t really say anything.’
‘What, not at all?’
‘They just shrugged, like it was just another of my ridiculous ideas, and I have to say it felt a bit like that to me too. I guess none of us took it very seriously.’
‘But you called Lorraine.’
‘Absolutely, I got her at work and she had a phone number in Linares for me to call at the weekend. I asked what she knew and she said not to expect too much in the way of wages or mod cons but he was a good mate, this bloke, apparently. Phil his name was.’
‘And you called him.’
‘On the Saturday morning.’
‘Well it sounded amazing. Apparently he had this place up in the mountains he was doing up – no mains water or electricity and three miles from the nearest shop but there was a moped to get into town and a reservoir near by I could swim in and basically he just needed someone to keep an eye on the place while he was away.’
‘And gardening?’
‘Apparently there was a lot of watering but not much else. He was planting fruit trees.’
‘And what about the money?’
‘He said he’d pay me enough to get food and a few beers.’
Alison shrugs and nods a little – a ‘fair enough’ sort of gesture. I shrug too. I couldn’t believe it at the time either.
‘What did Yve say to all this?’

It takes me a long time to answer. I don’t want to answer, or rather I do want to answer but none of the answers help.
‘You didn’t tell her did you?’
I sink a little into my seat. This is where it started, I think. This is where it all started.
‘I thought it was too soon to be worrying about all that.’
Alison doesn’t react.
‘We’d only just met. I didn’t even know if we’d last ’til the summer.’
‘So it was just a fling.’
‘No...’ I sigh deeply. No it wasn’t. It seems silly to say she was my First Love but she was. I could hardly concentrate on anything else that entire spring. I wanted to see her all the time. I bought her flowers and records and chocolate.
‘I suppose I just didn’t want to be thinking about breaking up with her before we’d even got started. And also I didn’t really believe Spain was going to happen myself, not seriously. I just wanted to be with her and enjoy the moment. Do you see what I mean?’
She’s been looking doubtfully at me but accepts my explanation. ‘So what happened, with this next date?’
I smile broadly at her, with relief as much as anything. The memory is still very fresh. It was excellent. The contrast now, with all the years of uncouth fumblings and disappointments in my pasts to compare it with makes it doubly excellent. ‘We had a very good time’ I say.
Alison struggles to suppress her curiosity. ‘Go on’ she says ‘Let’s not be shy about it. Did it happen?’
I give her a dirty grin. ‘Her parents were away that weekend, and...’
‘And yes, it happened, in her parent’s lounge, which was very bad I know.’
‘Was she a virgin?’
‘No. Certainly not, but she wasn’t as old as I’d thought either, only nineteen’
‘Only nineteen?’ she repeats, enjoying my squirming. ‘And she knew what she was doing?’
‘Absolutely. But that’s the good thing, so did I. It all came back. I mean, I was a seventeen year old, but...’
‘And God knows what ten years of nothing but pornography does to a man’s sexuality.’
And I go off into a reverie, remembering the havoc we wrought on her mother’s soft furnishings. I remember finally getting down and looking at a real live vagina for the first time and thinking how extraordinary it was. And yet it was like a long lost memory too, when you peel the knickers away and there it is, still closed, those tender fleshy segments like a freshly peeled pink satsuma, and just subtly moving my finger up between them, along the seam and feeling them come apart and all that silky soft wet yummy pink stuff inside. I think of that first time I touched it with the tip of my finger and found that tiny, hot and aromatic pool, on the brink of overflowing. I looked up over her neatly trimmed pubic hair on its soft little hill, and her cute white belly, and then over the remains of what she’d been wearing that evening, pulled up around her ribs. She told me later it had been like watching a kid faced with his first ever crème brulee and she was sorry she laughed but I understood. I must have looked hilarious down there, marvelling, but I didn’t care. In any case, I thought, I’ll show you, and I leaned forward and kissed it and she gave a little gasp. I suppose she was expecting me just to climb on and hump away like the other boys, but I had other ideas. I looked at her face again and she looked very seriously back at me. I kissed it again and then began to work my tongue up between the folds to her clitoris and there I worked on her and her head fell back. We had been out all evening and then writhing together on the sofa for some time so she had that powerful visceral taste of a real woman and I wanted to bathe in it. I wanted to burrow into her and be in her and fill her up, but my older self said wait - wait and savour this. I knew from more distant parts of my past that I would previously have felt self-conscious and would have tried too hard or attempted to be cool even at a moment like this but I didn’t need all that pretence now. That way lay mere performance. I was beyond that. I had the abandon of a man much older who knows that his best trick is merely to love what he does and I loved this. I gripped her arse with both hands dug my fingers in and pulled her towards me. Then I used my fingers to find her G spot. I used my lips to suck on her clitoris when I knew she was close to coming.
When she did come she came quickly and wetly and I knew she was not acting, or if she was it was a very innovative choice of noises to make. After a moment I looked up at her with my face still slick with her juices. I couldn’t wait any more. I stood over her and peeled my jeans down and she pulled her dress over her head. I looked down at her body, soft and pale, and wondered some more. She was really very beautiful. She shifted up further onto the sofa and watched me undress, looking down at my body, which was hard and lean back then. Then she sat forward and took my poor inflamed cock in her hand and kissed the end of it, looking lewdly up at me. I nearly came then and there. Then she smiled and lay back again. I looked down on her and could tell that trying to do it on the sofa would be awkward so I grabbed her hips and pulled her down onto the rug, spread her there and moved up into her, all the while with our tongues writhing together and my hands working at her breasts and belly and hips. I came almost immediately and loudly, pushing her across the polished floor on her back until she slapped my arse for me to stop. After a moment to get our breath we both began to laugh and I collapsed on her and we lay like that, on the floor with our heads under the piano, giggling merrily, making a wet patch on the rug. I was ready to go again almost immediately. I loved being seventeen again.
I look over at Alison. I can’t bring myself to tell her everything. I suppose my expression says it all.
‘I suppose’ she says eventually ‘having the experience of a much older man but with the body and energy of a teenager is quite a thing.’
‘It is’ I say, nodding emphatically, ‘quite a thing. Also this was just before the whole AIDS thing really hit the fan and she had an IUD in so we could really enjoy ourselves’
‘And I take it you did’
‘Ooh yes.’
‘I am truly overjoyed to hear it.’

Voyage VIII – Politics

Later on we venture up onto deck and find loungers to watch the sunset from. It’s the first really good weather we’ve had although still threatening to rain. The sky is a beautiful turquoise colour in the west and sooty black behind us in the east. We sip our wine and sprawl about. Lisa has her book with her but it lies spread face down on her thighs. Those thighs...
Raz says ‘So Gabriel. I take it you’d be on Wen’s side in this debate.’
‘Maybe’ I say, guardedly.
‘You weren’t one of those blessed eco warriors or anti-globalisation thingummies were you?’
I consider my reply carefully. I don’t want to get into an argument here with Raz, not now. And as it happens I never was much of an activist but I was broadly on their side. Actually my main feeling is guilt because I did so little.
‘Actually I agreed with a lot of what they said. I believe capitalism is a crap way to run a world. I suppose it’s fun for entrepreneurs and gamblers, but you can’t trust it with the important stuff.’
‘Did you go on a lot of marches and things?’
‘Sometimes’ I say vaguely, ‘but I wasn’t much of a campaigner. I was never much good at joining in with things. It all seemed a bit futile.’
‘I always thought it was fascinating’ she says, ‘all those women at Greenham, and the road protesters... Of course I was in the Far East at the time.’
It occurred to me later that there might have been a note of longing in her voice but at the time I was waiting for the catch, the judgement, the condemnation, the ridicule, but it never came. Instead she leant back, her eyes invisible behind her sunglasses. She sighed a little and asked me if I thought I made much of a difference during my life.
‘No not really’ I reply. ‘I think I lived rather conventionally actually.’
‘Where did you live?’ says Lisa, leaning forward and looking at me very earnestly.
‘Bramber, West Sussex, in the end. You?’
‘Ah. I know Brighton’ and we talk a little about places we knew, and other towns and cities we lived in or knew well.
‘I only went back to England when it was time to die’ says Raz a little sadly.
‘Oh really?’ says Lisa.
‘Yup. Couldn’t stand the place in the end.’
‘Where were you before?’
‘Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. Burma.’
‘Really?’ says Lisa, her eyes lighting up ‘Sounds fabulous’
‘What was it about England you didn’t like?’ asks Wen from under her hat.
‘Not just England darling, Europe in general. At the risk of causing offence I’d have to say there’s just no real money to be made in Europe any more – not even in London. It’s all gone a tad too Nordic for my taste, or too Latin perhaps, one or the other...’
‘Not Anglo-American enough for you Raz?’ muses Wen. ‘Capitalism not unfettered enough for you?’
Raz smiles indulgently at her. ‘Well I mean, it was all bloody sustainable this and renewable that. Even the immigrants wouldn’t come any more. I mean, whatever Ruth may say, it was a workable system, after a fashion, if you like that sort of thing, but Europe’s not exactly a global force any more is it?’
‘Should it be?’ I say. ‘Personally I’m ok with that. I have no delusions of grandeur. Maybe we’ve had our day.’
‘But Ruth’s right, it’s not going to give us the big stuff any more is it? You’re not going to get the grand monuments to civilisation from a society that has no higher ambitions than affordable housing and five portions a day. Now come on darling, you’re not are you? It’s not very aspirational is it? I mean have you seen Rangoon lately? And the bloody Indians are building a space shuttle!’
‘Raz’ I say, ‘why can you only conceive of greatness in terms of extravagance? Why does it always have to be the biggest, or the fastest or the noisiest?’
‘It’s the American disease’ says Wen. ‘Shock and Awe. The whole bloody globe’s gone Hollywood.’
‘But why couldn’t we aspire to be the healthiest’ suggests Lisa ‘or the best fed, or the most relaxed? That’d be quite an achievement if you ask me.’
‘Yes but... it’s a bit small don’t you think, a bit parochial?’ says Raz.
‘Maybe. Or maybe we’ve just grown up a bit. Anyway, there’s always the internet and cheap flights. People can still travel if they want to.’
‘Yes, but without trade...’
‘There you go again’ says Wen. ‘Why do you people always assume that if there’s not shed loads of money changing hands there’s nothing happening?’
‘Anyway there is still trade’ I say. ‘It’s just not rip-off third world imports any more.’
‘Oh, call me old fashioned but I miss the old cut-throat development economics. Rrrrzz...’
I let it go. Raz was probably a much more ruthless operator than Ruth ever was (After all Ruth only ran a shoe shop for God’s sake) but she’s better company. She makes me laugh.
‘What do you think about all this Lisa sweetie?’ she says.
I turn to look at Lisa and she flushes a little.
‘I don’t know a lot about it to be honest’ she says. ‘I wasn’t really paying attention. I mean, I cared of course. I just didn’t have the energy for it in the end...’
‘Seriously though’ Raz continues, turning back to me, ‘I understand that I’m an old style capitalist and I understand that gambling with people’s livelihoods is not necessarily an ideal way to run a world but Ruth is right, you wouldn’t have had half the stuff you had without us, and I don’t just mean the frivolous stuff. I mean important stuff like medicines and telecommunications and all the basic infrastructure – transport and utilities and so on. You lot take this stuff for granted, but...’
‘And we’re all very grateful Raz’ I say, patting her arm condescendingly, ‘honest we are. We couldn’t have done it without you.’
‘But maybe it’s about knowing when enough’s enough...’
‘Amen to that’ says Wen.
‘Hmm’ says Raz. ‘Well I don’t think that’s quite how it works but let’s agree to differ, for now. It’s getting late and I could do with a drink. No, don’t get up. I’ll get them. What are we having?’
As she gets up to leave with our order I reach over and hold her arm. ‘You’re not pissed off at us are you, ganging up on you?’
‘God no. I love a good old set-to – keeps me young.’
And with that we get one of her fruitier cackles and she heads down to get us our drinks. Wen is looking at the darkened sea and Lisa has her book open. I catch her give me the tiniest glance through her hair and then go back to her book.

Journey VIII – Memories

I write it all down, what I know. Sonia arrives early in the morning to find me in the garden in the hammock, with a book and a jug of juice – juice I’ve squeezed fresh from the various fruits growing in my own back yard (and one or two that were hanging over from the orchard next door). I observe her nonchalantly as she looks for me. I’ve not been able to get into the hammock without help up until now so she’s not expecting me to be here. When I cough she gasps and then slaps me playfully. I sit up and offer her a glass. She grins at me and takes the other hammock.
She chatters on a little about how well I look and what a lovely day it is, as if it’s not normally like this. I ask her what day it is and she says Nearday. I say I’ve never heard of that one. She recites ‘Oneday, Chooseday, Hisday, Herday and Freeday. Then Meday and Youday. That’s the weekend.’ Then she smiles at me a like a schoolgirl who’s done her homework very neatly.
‘You’re making it up’ I say.
‘No I’m not’ she says, grinning. ‘Ask anyone.’
I gaze about for a while. I need to ask some questions. I’ve been putting them off. I see her move to go and do something and I stop her by saying ‘Sonia, what do you remember from before you were here?’
She sits back down and does her own share of gazing about.
‘I saw what you wrote’ she says at last and I realise I’ve left my papers down on the kitchen bench. It’s ok. I maybe wanted her to see.
‘And?’ I say.
She lays herself down in the hammock, looking away from me, up at the sky. Two huge black and blue macaws glide in high up to raid the big mango tree for breakfast.
‘You have to understand er... We’re going to have to give you a name. Do you mind?’ she says, turning to me.
‘I don’t know what’ I say, feeling suddenly tetchy.
‘Ross calls you Spatch.’
She seems somewhat ashamed of this, ashamed that she finds it funny. ‘It’s short for spatchcock – you know, because of how you looked when we found you... Anyway...’
‘Ok. I get it’ I say, repulsed and amused equally. I suspect I’m going to have to accept it. Actually it’s quite cool, as nicknames go. ‘Anyway’ I say, to try to get her back to the point.
‘Anyway’ she says, ‘people, once they arrive here, they... we, we just want to be peaceful, get on with things. What happened gone. Do you not understand? It’s passed.’
‘But you do know who you were don’t you?’
‘I suppose.’
‘You’ve just...’ I see her begin to get up. I’m afraid she’ll leave. ‘Sonia’ I say, maybe too abruptly. She stands there, stiff and irritated. I soften my voice.
‘Sonia’ I say, ‘there’s a difference.’ She looks at me impatiently.
‘Why do you need to go back there?’ she says.
‘What? I’m not going anywhere.’
‘I don’t mean to physically go. I mean why do you need to remember? It all sounds horrible.’
‘I don’t, it’s just...’ She gives me that look that tells me she thinks I’m being selfish and probably a bit self important, obsessing about my past. She’s wrong.
‘Sophie’ I say, ‘I don’t know who I am. You chose to...’
‘Excuse me?’
‘You called me Sophie.’
‘What? Did I? I didn’t mean to.’
‘Who’s Sophie?’
‘Well that’s just it. I have no idea, maybe no one. Sonia, you chose to let go of all that because you were happy to just be here.’
‘And you’re not’
‘I don’t know... Yes of course I am, but...’ Now I can see I’ve really upset her. I wish she’d sit down and stop looking like she might run away any second. I feel rushed. I need to explain properly. I stand up and take her arm firmly and get her to sit down next to me. She’s momentarily impressed by my new-found assertiveness, I can tell.
‘Sonia. Listen to me. It’s lovely here’ I say, and I know I’m lying already. It only seems lovely. I decide to leave the lie anyway. ‘You’re lovely.’ She melts a bit. ‘You all are’ I add, for safety’s sake. ‘You’ve all been fantastic. Really. And it’s a beautiful place you’ve found me, and a lovely garden and everything, with the river and the orchards...’
‘God, you haven’t even seen the sea yet, and the forest...’
‘Sonia. Sonia, I know. But can’t you see? How would you feel if, if all your past had just been lost, forcibly taken away...’
‘But all the pain, and sexual abuse...’
‘But before that. I need to know what happened before that. I want to know who my parents were for example, and about my life before this, where I lived. Don’t you get it? I must have had friends and maybe a wife. Maybe children. I want to remember them, wouldn’t you? I know I was a painter... I suppose maybe it’ll all come back to me. I want to know what my name was.’
After a while she looks up at me and says she remembers her friends – people she met before, on her way here, and before that, in her life, her parents and her brother and her baby and then she leans forward and begins to cry, and I say I’m sorry for reminding her but she says no, it’s good, she’s glad she remembers, even if it hurts.
‘You’re right’ she says, sniffing and drying her eyes. ‘It’s not fair, not being able to remember. How can I help?’ And I tell her she can listen maybe, and make notes, and I’ll go down and make us something to eat.
In a single bound I take the stairs down into the kitchen, feeling rather pleased with my agility. Unfortunately I misjudge the low lintel and the next thing I know Sonia is there helping me up again and I’m clutching my forehead. She’s very worried, like I might have a relapse but despite the pain I laugh and say I’m ok and go over to the pantry. This is going to be one hell of a breakfast.

Once we’ve eaten we sit down in the shade and the first thing I do is tell her next time she sees him to make sure Miguel is ok with us spending so much time together. She looks a little bashful about it and I suspect she’s playing a little game with him, which is fine for her but I don’t want to make any enemies just yet. She says she’ll talk to him.
‘I just wanted to help’ she says but I suspect she’s not being entirely honest.

I begin by telling her what happened the previous night. When Kevin came in I’d been reliving The Warzone as I’ve come to know it.
‘There seemed to be some rules involved, like you had to move through this labyrinth and collect these power pack things, and there were these creatures there trying to stop you, big scaly...’
‘The lizard men.’
‘Sort of. More like dinosaurs in armour, with machine guns. They called themselves the Mutillati or something. Anyway...’
‘Actually’ she says, putting the pad down on her knees, ‘it all sounds a little, I don’t know...’
‘A bit silly?’ I suggest. She nods. ‘I know. It was like that. It was all a bit crap, like something out of some frustrated teenager’s imagination, like a comic book or something. Anyway, I discovered that after a certain period of time, after you’d been shot, you got another chance. You could get up and carry on, like you had several lives. Like when we were kids playing war – bang bang, you’re dead you know? And then you could be released by one of your gang or something. Except this was really gruesome and disturbing. I saw some horrific injuries.’
‘It sounds more like one of those computer games to me.’
I take a moment to realise she is absolutely right. It was exactly like that.
‘I don’t know why I remembered that’ she says with irritation. ‘Look what you’re doing to me. All this crap I wanted to forget is coming back. God, do you remember tamagochis? I had one of those.’
We take a moment to contemplate the horror.
‘So you were in a computer game?’ she says.
‘Someone’s idea of heaven I suppose.’
‘That’s frightening’
‘It was. Actually it really was – what it did to me. I’m not sure how long I was there, a few weeks maybe, but I remember looking down at this enormous black metal weapon in my hands and... stop sniggering.’ She does that mouth zipping mime thing and I say ‘Anyway. I had this horrible big metal gun and I remember thinking “Wow. I’m actually quite good at this.” It was like it was ok to go around shooting at people and no one was actually going to die... I’m ashamed to say I got into it a bit. I think I got quite a good score, just on the raw “shoot-em-up” side of things.’
‘Did you win?’
‘No. Hardly. It was fun at first, running across the rooftops, randomly shooting at monsters, blowing things up, ducking and weaving, but then I realised there was more to it than that and I had to start trying to work out how to get more ammunition and some of the others seemed to have got themselves some extra skills or powers or something. Then I got shot and it was the worst thing ever, well, apart from what happened... Well, you know. But it was horrible. After I got shot I hid myself in a dark little place under the street and found a lot of other guys down there with their guts hanging out or their brains showing and just laughing and joking about it – talking to each other about how they were going to do it different next time and how they’d picked up tips from somewhere. I just wanted to get out.’
She looks at me as if she doesn’t know me, appraisingly.
‘I’m not proud of myself’ I say and she smiles.
‘How did you find a way out?’
‘There was a door’
‘Really. A big metal one with one of those illuminated green exit signs over it. I mean, they didn’t exactly advertise the fact. I had to go through all these passageways underground, really damp and sticky. Some people’s imagination... Then there were some instructions, not very helpful, and... I don’t know. When I found it it was just sudden, I was out.’
‘Out where?’
‘Well that’s the thing. I seriously considered going back in it was so bleak and dark and cold out there. Just empty.’
‘But you didn’t’
‘I couldn’t. The door wasn’t there any more. I was still injured. I had to stop for a while, recover, try to think what to do.’
‘Was that when you found the Paradise place?’
‘That was much later. I was wandering about for ages. I don’t know how long. Sometimes it was just light enough to see a few yards around me. Everything beyond that was pitch black. I don’t know if you can imagine that. You can’t tell what’s out there, just outside this tiny pool of light, maybe going to jump out any moment. Other times – day times I suppose you could call it, there was enough light to make out the edges of the canyon or ravine up above against the sky, and maybe some of the rock formations around. Nothing else. I thought I saw things moving about out of the corners of my eyes sometimes but never properly. Probably my mind was playing tricks – sensory deprivation or something. I really don’t know. Then later there were a few dead looking plants about, all swollen and with the skin flaking off and there was a bit more light – grey and misty, like just before dawn but all the time.’
I look over at Sonia. She’s looking at me very intently, like she’s finally taking me seriously. ‘And do you think you still knew who you were at that time, where you’d come from?’
It’s a very good question. I’m not at all sure.
‘I think I still knew when I was in the shoot-em-up. I think something happened there – some sort of break down. I remember at the end, when I was looking for the exit, and I was down in these passageways – really tight some of them, like I could only just squeeze through and I knew they could come up behind me at any time and I knew what they did then, if they caught you. Have you ever seen a scorpion eat a locust?’ She shakes her head. ‘They just start gnawing at which ever part is nearest to their mouth, and the rest of the locust is still alive and moving about, and you’d have to pray if that ever happened to you, that they’d start with the head. I was thinking of that, trying to crawl through this tunnel – it was about ten inches top to bottom...’ I can see her squirming ‘And I was just panicking and crying and scrabbling at the walls with my finger nails and the walls were just slick with some sort of sticky fluid... I don’t know...’
I look at her in the chair opposite, hunched down, arms tightly folded, legs crossed. I decide not to go on. ‘Anyway’ I say ‘I think that’s when I lost it. I was just on automatic after that, just keeping moving. I think that’s when I forgot who I was.’
‘But they didn’t catch you.’
‘Does it look like it?’ I try to smile but it doesn't come off.
‘I don’t know. That might have been just your first attempt at escaping.’
‘They didn’t catch me.’
‘Can we stop now?’
‘Gladly. What do you want to do?’
She scans the room for inspiration. She looks cold and desperate for something to take her mind of things. I suggest we go out into the sun.
She says ‘I know! We should go to the beach’ and with that she begins to run about getting things ready, getting rid of the images I’ve given her. I feel sorry for that but have to admit I do feel better. I feel like I’m getting somewhere. As she faffs about I think back to that time when I was in the game and try to reconstruct what was in my mind at that time – all my memories. It doesn’t come but I know it’s there.
‘Help me’ she says.
‘What? How?’
‘Picnic’ she says. ‘Get some food and things, look there’s a chiller...’
And off she goes. It’s lovely having her around I have to admit. I only hope Miguel is going to be ok.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Alison X – Making plans for Gabriel

It was a direct result of my idea about hitching to Spain. It came out that Easter while a bunch of us were sitting in a circle on the filthy floor at James’ friends’ place, passing a joint round. I didn’t want it especially but I liked being in the circle so I took my turn. Gareth was there and Cathy and one or two of the others I knew from school, and they were talking about where they’d like to travel in the future. India and Thailand came up inevitably, and Australia and New Zealand and I don’t know how it happened but I mentioned I was going to hitch down to Spain in the summer and it was one of those moments when the music has unexpectedly stopped and you just blurt something out and you can’t pretend you haven’t. Eventually the sound of Saint Huck filled the room, covering my confusion but it was too late.
The guy sitting to my right I didn’t know. He’d been very caught up in a discussion about politics, and I’d been listening in. Soon he turned to me and asked me what was all this about going to Spain. I’d given it a little thought but if I’d been asked, flat, whether it was actually going to happen I’d have had to say no, not really. Even so, I’d applied for a passport, because, well, why not? This night though I was a little stoned and I said yes – because it was the best way to learn Spanish and I had A levels coming up. He seemed to think that was quite funny but I noticed he didn’t say it was ridiculous. He went back to his conversation and I went back to pretending to be cool with the lack of things going on. I looked across at the other people in the circle. I counted twelve of us. Some of the women were quite nice looking in a punky way. At the time I wore a touch of kohl and a bush of black dyed hair that got in my eyes, I wore black tee shirts, black jeans, black Chelsea boots and swirly psychedelic purple or turquoise shirts. I thought I looked very cool. I didn’t look like anyone else, but then, I was an art student wasn’t I. Chris, the guy next to me leaned in again. ‘Do you want a job down there?’ he said. I straightened up and nodded, not quite ready for this. I knew I’d have to work if I went at all. I had no money to speak of. On the other hand his saying this made it sound as if this trip might actually happen, and I hadn’t bargained on that. It turned out the girl on his right knew someone with a house down there who needed someone to look after the garden while he was away. My first impulse was to grill her for details and get her number and a signed confirmation that all this would definitely happen but then I thought I should try to be cool about it. I couldn’t move much to talk to her because it would have meant sitting with my back to the rest of the circle or shoving in beside her. Instead I got her name (Lorraine) and bided my time. I went to the toilet and then got myself a drink. My brain was just revving. When I got back a certain amount of shifting around had happened and Gareth pulled me down next to him and asked if it was really true what I was doing? He was planning to go inter-railing but he had some savings and his parent’s money to help him out. I said I knew there would be no point asking my folks. I wasn’t even sure I was going to tell them. I pointed to Lorraine and told him she knew someone who might be able to give me a job for the summer and Gareth asked how long I was going for and I said the whole six weeks if possible. He said he’d try to get down to visit. The girl he was with (not Rose I noted) leaned forward and smiled at me. All this time I kept an eye on Lorraine to make sure she didn’t escape. Once, I saw her get up and go out into the hall and, panic-stricken, I got up and followed her only to bump into her on her way back with bottles. I apologised profusely and she grinned knowingly at me. We went and sat back down – she handed me a bottle and asked where I was planning to hitch from and I said I wasn’t sure, maybe Dieppe and she said the best thing to do was go up to Covent Garden and find a veg lorry heading south. She said I’d need to go in the middle of the night to catch one but it was fairly reliable. Then she took my phone number and said she’d be in touch, and I sat there, completely freaked out. Nobody I knew had done anything like this, and I was only just sixteen for f*ck's sake! What was I thinking? I had to make a choice between utter terror or making an utter prat of myself. Could I put it down to being stoned? Not really. The fact was, I really wanted to do it.

Anyway, Yvonne took my mind off it. At about the time everyone else was thinking about going home we were left side-by-side in the remains of the ring, shivering in the night air let in by the open door. We made a fairly unmemorable excuse for a conversation, she fairly stoned, I totally preoccupied. I looked at her in her little black dress and messy black hair and realised she was actually not at all bad looking. She had too much make-up on of course and it had slipped somewhat and there was a pair of rather unflattering, thick, black and white stripy tights and a pair of DMs obscuring her lower half but I was definitely interested. Again, I think if I’d really realised what was happening I’d have been a lot more uptight about it and probably screwed it up. Up until then I’d been looking at her (staring actually, she told me later) and wondering about her but dismissing the idea, making excuses – because she obviously wasn’t my type, because she was dressed like that, because she obviously wouldn’t fancy me anyway, because she obviously thought I was a bit strange (that was why she kept looking at me like that). And yet I was just as convinced that I really ought to try, simply because I ought to be able to do this sort of thing, and because why not? I think that was the last time my old self stepped in and said something like ‘Oh for God’s sake, just say something. Just go and say “Hi” you plonker’ and so I did. The next thing I knew, we were lying against each other on the cushions and kissing and I was wondering if this was it and should I maybe suggest we go somewhere more private.
In lieu of making a decision we lay there, pressed together, propped up in the corner on a bean bag into the small hours while the more experienced stoners mumbled pointlessly about previous experiences on Thai sticks and bongs. I was very sober indeed but also very tired.
Sometimes, considering what a misfit, not to say rebel I’ve always considered myself, I am amazed at how stupidly polite I can be. As she lay with her leg over my thigh, running her hands under my shirt and over my belly and chest and I was handling her thickly clad arse and padded bra I was wondering if she really wanted to spend the night with me or if maybe she was just messing about. Somewhere, back in my memories I knew girls played these sorts of games all the time and I was reluctant to get caught again. As it was we passed out together on the floor there and woke up covered with a nasty smelly rug in the morning. It was Sunday and I didn’t have to be anywhere. Mum and dad weren’t expecting me. I sat up and looked at her through the murky morning light that passed through the make-shift rag of a curtain. I could only see the top of her head and I observed the pale roots through the inky black strands. She smelled of smoke and booze and something mustier that I couldn’t place. I rolled back and looked at her properly and she opened her eyes and I was relieved to see her smile sheepishly. She had a nice smile, open, mature, fruity. She held her hand out and touched my solar plexus appreciatively and I looked at her milky white cleavage. It has to be said that if a woman still looks ok the morning after, with her mascara all over her face and smelling of ashtrays she must be ok. Or perhaps it was the unreleased spermatozoa talking. Anyway I knew I didn’t look or smell any better. I asked if she wanted a drink at all but she said she needed to get home really. We sat up and took stock. She’d taken her boots off at some point and I noticed a red toenail there, poking through her tights. Then, without really thinking about it but knowing for sure that it was the right thing to do I leaned in and kissed her again, hard and strong and she gripped my waist and hips and pulled me against her. Then suddenly, almost breaking my teeth on hers she sat up and said she had to go. She reached around for her bag, panicking a little when it wasn’t immediately present, then fished around in it for a pen and paper. She wrote her name and number down, folded it, stuck it in my shirt pocket and rushed out with a shy grin. It was totally the best night of my life thus far.

On the way home I could hardly stop myself skipping along. I knew that this was something very new. I wondered how soon I could reasonably call her without looking desperate. I had a feeling that women changed their minds suddenly and arbitrarily and I had to move quickly. Something told me it would be good to have something in mind for us to do, rather than just suggest ‘getting together’ or ‘going out somewhere’. I thought about how her body felt, firm and chunky but not fat. I mentally ran my hands over her hips and remembered her waist curved in satisfyingly, and her thighs, gripping me powerfully, and her bum, broad and rounded. I tried to remember her face too but wasn’t so clear on that. The smell I remembered was what I smelled like when I’d been thinking about sex all night. It occurred to me that it might be the smell of other men. I hoped not.
Then I thought of the other conversation and wondered how I felt about that. Well anyway even the idea of hitching to Spain made me seem a lot more interesting than before, even if it never happened, so that was fine. I went back to thinking about Yvonne’s body. Mum and dad got no sense at all out of me that afternoon and I did no work to speak of.

On the Monday morning, in history, Camille came up and asked me if I was really going to Spain in the summer and I said I wasn’t sure but I was looking into it. I’m not sure I’d seen her looking impressed before. She tried hard to hide it of course. Tom and some of the others pretended not to be too impressed too and I modestly confirmed their doubts – that it didn’t sound very realistic and anyway I’d have to find a job out there since I had no money. Graham mentioned there were fruit farms that always needed workers and I should just turn up and ask around. I never paid much attention to what he said actually. He was one of those people who is always certain but often mistaken. He’ll go far no doubt. I just said maybe and let it go. I admit I was half preparing myself to go back to school in September saying ‘Oh well, at least I tried’ without losing too much face. After all no one else was even considering such a thing, except maybe Gareth and we already knew he was extremely cool. Camille also made an oblique comment about where I’d spent Saturday night and I wondered if everyone knew (of course they did). I was tempted to ask her how long I should leave it before I called Yvonne but something told me not to. It was either tonight or tomorrow night. I’d narrowed it down that far anyway. I busied myself checking out what was on that weekend in Brighton.

Anyway, I couldn’t wait. I thought well, if she’s going to be put off by something as silly as me phoning a day or two earlier than she expected, well maybe she's not the sort of person I want to spend time with anyway. It was a remarkably mature thought but I’d learned to pay extra attention to these sudden insights. The fact that I might be jeopardising my chances of losing my virginity this year made me jittery but I’d never been any good with suspense. I’d rather mess it up and know I’ve messed it up than hang around wondering if I’m going to mess it up, even if rushing it means I stand a better chance of messing up, if you see what I mean. I called her that night. A well-spoken man answered and called to her. I was a little disappointed that I had to remind her who I was (like this sort of thing happened to her all the time) and when she remembered she seemed a little off hand – friendly, certainly, but not overjoyed to hear from me. After I put the phone down I felt extraordinarily depressed.
I’d arranged to meet her at The Wick, a pub near to where she lived in Hove apparently. I’d suggested seeing a band at the Old Vic but she didn’t want to go into town. I reassured myself that she’d wanted to meet sooner, on the Wednesday rather than at the weekend, but then I thought maybe she just wanted to get it over with. Anyway I didn’t feel very optimistic when I got on the bus. It dropped me in Palmeira Square and I walked to the pub. When I got there I found her with a whole bunch of friends already well settled in for the evening and she seemed to be a bit inebriated. It wasn’t really what I’d had in mind. She did look good though – she still had the heavy mascara on, and the back-combed black hair but she had on a full silky purple dress with black lace that showed off her bosom and waist wonderfully, and on her feet were these neat little high-heeled lace-up boots.
Anyway she introduced me to everyone and I discovered they all went to the local college. A very tall guy in a biker jacket called Matt (who I was sure I knew from somewhere) said Yve had told them I was planning to do some travelling over the summer and asked where I was heading for. I said I wasn’t sure yet, Spain anyway.
‘Oh you don’t want to go to Spain’ he said ‘Greece. That’s the place.’
I felt silly telling him it was partly to help with my A level and listened to him talking about Corfu and Lesbos for the next half hour or so. Yve, as I now knew her, was talking to a girl with short red hair and I tried to look relaxed while I waited my turn. Carl, the guy sitting next to Matt said he’d been to Alicante and had a brilliant time and I should check out some friends of his just along the coast. ‘Fucking ace guitar. Fucking flamenco. You should check it out if you like guitar music.’ I said I would but it seemed a bit too literal an interpretation of the discourse to actually ask him for an address. Then I felt Yve’s hand on my thigh, searching around and finally taking my hand. She continued to chat to the couple opposite her but my mood switched instantly and I chatted happily with Matt and Carl about music for another hour. I was absolutely certain I’d met Matt before but I couldn’t think where.
It was ten o’clock before she turned to me and asked how I was. Some of her friends had left by then and others were playing pool so we had a bit more space. Her dress fell over my knees and I could feel her legs against mine. I said her friends seemed nice and she smiled and kissed me softly on the cheek. ‘Thank you’ she said. ‘I hate first dates. I like to meet people with some friends around – see how it goes. Sorry. Perhaps I should have warned you.’
I didn’t know what to say. I was struck by how confident and mature she seemed and how much I liked her rather upper class drama school accent. It was very obvious anyway that she was a little older than I was and very much in charge. Well that’s fine I thought. Lead the way. I asked her about who had answered the phone and she said it was her step-dad. ‘But he’s cool. You’ll really like him’ she added. She lit a cigarette very elegantly and I offered to get her a drink. I took the time at the bar to steady myself and clear my head. I turned and looked over at her and found her studying me. I saw the right leg crossed over the left, the stripy tights again and the little black boot bobbing in time to the music on the jukebox. She held the cigarette by her ear between her fingers. I leaned on the bar and studied her in return. She gave me a broad grin. I wondered about maybe buying some condoms in the loo, but where would we go? Maybe she thought I had a place. She had to be at least twenty. What would she think of me still living at home? Then I realised that of course she still lived at home too so that was a relief. I forced myself to relax. I paid the man and took the glasses back. As I sat down she leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. ‘Do you have to go home?’ she said. I said no and she said good. After that we collapsed in on each other, leaning in, kissing and kissing and kissing, coming up for air only when Carl and a couple of the others came back and broke us up with threats of buckets of water. It was getting on for eleven – time to leave. The lights came on, the cool spring air and the sound of taxis blew in and we stood up. For five minutes I stood aside as she talked to her friends. I felt oddly severed, as if fused to her body had been my natural state. I waited as patiently as I could then said I was going to the loo. I got three packs of two from the machine and had another piss. When I re-emerged she was alone, her hands in the pockets of a little black silk jacket, waiting for me in the doorway. I asked where we were going and she said not far and we walked arm in arm toward the sea.

Her parent’s place was huge, in one of those crescents along Brighton sea front. She let us in and I trod silently up the stairs. I still couldn’t shake the idea that I’d completely misunderstood something. It was our first date after all and we were entering her parent’s house, presumably to have sex (Or not? Maybe I’d totally misread the situation). She led me into a very posh kitchen, opened the fridge and took out a half full bottle of wine. She pointed out where the glasses were and then lead me through to the lounge. It was empty but had the warm fragrance of being only recently vacated. She poured the wine and settled at one end of the sofa. I settled at the other and then she put her feet up on my lap and asked me to take her boots off for her, which I did. I looked at her stripy feet on my lap and began to massage them. She lay back and sighed softly, then suddenly got up, went out of the room, and came back seconds later and resumed her position, now without the tights on. I held her feet, studied them, a little clammy and slightly ripe but totally female (I wouldn’t have let her touch my feet, that’s for sure). I massaged the tendon behind her heel and under her instep and between her toes. Then I ran my hands gently over her calves and felt the light stubble there. I’d never been in this situation before and yet somehow I knew exactly what to do. I gently caressed behind her knee and moved as if I might go further but always turned back. That made her moan a little. After a while she wearily lifted herself up and sat beside me. She put her arm over my shoulder and kissed me luxuriously. ‘That’s enough for now’ she said and kissed me some more and I pulled her onto my lap so her legs were spread either side and she could feel my bulge pressing against her. She bit her lip but then laid her head sideways on my chest. ‘Not tonight’ she said ‘Ok?’
Reluctantly I said ‘Ok’ and I knew there was an intervention from my past going on again. Previously I’d have been angry and frustrated and failed to hide it, or else tried to be too cool and appear unconcerned. That night I let her know I was disappointed but also that it was ok and I could wait and she gave me that look that showed she understood and appreciated it.
‘Now’ she said briskly, visibly calming herself. ‘You can have the spare room if you like or I can get you a taxi. Which would you prefer?’
I really wanted to just pass out but I said I’d get a taxi. She said it really wasn’t a problem if I wanted to stay and did I know how late it was. I looked at the clock – three-thirty. Bloody hell. I let her lead me through to the spare room and there she kissed me and left me alone. My balls were aching and I had to use the bathroom to relieve the pressure. Then I sat on the loo and thought about where I was. I suppose a lot of blokes my age would have been put off by a woman being so perhaps prematurely hospitable but I didn’t mind. I could worry about that later if necessary. I really felt like I was on my way.

I arrived home at ten in the morning and the contrast couldn’t have been much more stark. Two hours earlier Yve’s mum had been relaxed and urbane and greeted me with a handshake and a glass of real orange juice and told me to help myself to cereal or whatever. Yve flitted about already made up and in her finery for the day – black jewellery and tailored leather coat. She was good naturedly impatient with her mother and discretely flirtatious with me. She had a nine o’clock lecture so I was left to chat with her mother for half an hour. We got on fine and I caught the bus home at nine thirty. The house was empty and there was no evidence that I’d been missed. I made coffee and looked at the neat, mean little kitchen and functional décor. There was just no sense that a house should be a place of comfort. It wasn’t the poverty I minded. We weren’t poor anyway, but there was a terrible frugality to it, a kind of Puritanism. I went upstairs to get changed and there I found a note to say that a Lorraine had called about a job in Spain and there was a number to ring. This’ll be interesting, I thought.

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.