‘What did your parents have to say about you hitching to Cornwall at sixteen years old?’
‘I never told them.’
‘What? Didn’t they realise something was up?’
‘I told them I was doing the South Downs Way or something, I gave them phone numbers of fictitious friends in Angmering and Lewes.’
‘So nobody knew where you were.’
‘I told Justine.’
‘And she didn’t feel the need to let them know.’
‘She’d fallen out with them by then.’
‘Nothing in particular. Everything. It was the same old thing with all three of us in the end – not doing the right thing, not living up to expectations. My parents always claimed that they’d be happy for us to do anything as long as we were happy, but in reality they had a rather limited view of how a person can be truly happy. Basically it meant doing much the same as they had but, with the benefit of their greater wisdom and experience, making a better job of it than they had.
Unfortunately none of us were sticking to their plan. Justine trained to teach nursery school kids, had various relationships with men and women and then, when she did move in with someone she didn’t marry him or have his kids. Amelia settled down and had kids but she’d already upset mum and dad long before – staying out late and getting into trouble. And now I looked like I was going to be a bloody artist of all things.’
‘Did they try to stop you?’
‘They didn’t. Mostly they kept quiet about it all. They hated discussing things properly more than anything and I can’t imagine they talked to each other. They said things like “We’ve just got your best interests at heart” and “We don’t want you to be disappointed.” Mum said the subjects I took were “play subjects” and I know dad was miffed that I wasn’t thrashing myself with physics and chemistry. And he hated the French – all that crap about the war and about the French surrendering and so on and I said we’d have probably surrendered too if it hadn’t been for the English Channel being in the way and he just completely freaked out. I’d never seen him lose his temper before. It was frightening and ridiculous at the same time. He was coming out with all this jingoistic crap about people dying for my benefit and the Battle of Britain and superior munitions and all the rest of it but I knew our tanks were crap, just like the French ones because I’d been reading up on the Blitzkrieg. I think that was when I realised my father really didn’t know what the heck he was on about. I wanted to say something about how we’d probably have been keener than the French to collaborate with the Nazis but decided to leave it.’
‘Probably just as well.’
‘Yes... He even said he thought German would have been a more worthwhile language to learn than Spanish – involving more serious study and application – like half the world speaks German these days, not. It was like, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth making yourself and everyone around you thoroughly miserable for.’
‘Were they like that about their own lives?’
‘Absolutely. Mum would come in from work knackered and immediately start doing the cleaning because dad hadn’t done it properly, or so she said. There was just this frenzy about her, this mania. You could hear her when she came in, clattering about so everyone knew that she at least was “doing something useful”. Usually she’d end up breaking something or hurting herself and collapsing in tears and dad of course would make her a cup of tea and sit with her. He was always trying to get her to relax when she got in – just have a sit down and a fag but she just said “I just can’t. I look around and all I can see is mess...”
Alison grimaces. ‘It’s a women’s thing.’
‘I know. It’s just mad though, isn’t it?’
‘But actually dad was just as bad. He never stopped either. He hated me staying in bed after seven in the morning – even at weekends. He was always saying “The early bird catches the worm” and I was just thinking, well, that depends what time the worms get up.’
She smiles and looks at me. ‘It’s a different generation’ she says, after some thought. ‘They were brought up to work and bring home the bacon, make sure the kids are fed and clean.’
‘I know. Mum and I were talking about this after dad died. She was still getting on at me even then, thirty years later. She just saw my life as pointless because I wasn’t working my fingers to the bone and worrying about everything and I said I didn’t think that was what life was about and she said – and I’ll never forget the look on her face, she said “What is it about then?” and I wanted to say something about enjoying life, or making a difference or being fulfilled but it all seemed so soft and squashy against this hard, stone-like thing she had.’
‘What did you say to her?’
‘I gave her the old non-committal shrug but it was cowardice. I did know. I just couldn’t tell her. I think if I could have made her truly understand she’d have broken down right there and then because she’d have really realised that she’d wasted her life.’
‘So, what was it like, being out on your own in Cornwall?’
‘Scary. I loved it.’
‘What did you do for money?’
‘I had saved a bit but Justine gave me £50 which was quite a lot back then.’
‘How was the hitching?’
‘Very good. I got down there in twelve hours. Everybody was excellent. I think it’s a terrible shame you can’t do that sort of thing any more. I hitched a lot over the next few years. The worst part was having to listen to some very tedious truck drivers and sales reps.’
‘You never had any trouble?’
‘Just getting wet, and a bit bored. Motorway service stations are of limited interest.’
‘And what did you do about accommodation once you got there?’
‘Asked farmers if I could stay in their fields mainly.’
‘Really. Quite often they’d give you milk and eggs and a field with a tap in it.’
‘Wow. Didn’t you have any trouble at all?’
‘Not really. Honestly. People are basically sound if you give them a chance.’
We talk a little more about Cornwall and how lovely it is down there. I ended up down near Mevagissey and Gorranhaven. That was where I learned to snorkel and after that I spent as much time in the sea as I possibly could. Mum and dad had never been big on holidays – mostly just visiting relatives for a weekend or spending the day on Shoreham Beach, which has its moments, but does not have quite the same appeal. I loved the way the countryside rolls right down to the beach in the West Country, which it doesn’t do really anywhere near where I grew up in Sussex. At home there’s maybe fifty miles of suburbs, harbours or ‘amusements’ non-stop from Littlehampton to Seaford, and the water is grey because of the rivers and the chalk (not to mention the pollution). In Cornwall there were just cliffs and rocky coves and the gorse and the oak go right down to the water’s edge and the water’s so clear and there’s rock-pools with pink coralline and yellow lichen and sea anemones with fluorescent green tentacles with violet tips, and there were weedy spider crabs and purple sea urchins and orange trimmed cushion stars. And then in the evening I could stroll down into the village, go into a pub (they never asked my age – I looked that mature, ha ha), sit out on the terrace and drink a pint as the sun went down. I know it sounds corny but if you’d picked me up and put me on the beach at St Tropez or Bondi I don’t suppose I’d have been any more contented.
The only slight problem as time went on was that it got a bit lonely. I always had a book with me so I didn’t look too lost but everywhere I looked there were attractive young women, with or without men. None of them, I don’t think, even noticed me. My one attempt to chat resulted in mystified expressions and embarrassed glances. I guess we English just don’t do that sort of thing do we – introduce ourselves to strangers I mean. I really should have known better.
Back home for the rest of the summer, getting back to ‘Real life’ as mum insisted on calling it, I spent as much time as possible out in the countryside or near the sea. It wasn’t the same but it was better than nothing. Anyway I worked at the shop, I hung out with Adam or one or other of the Colins quite a bit and I visited Justine and her new boyfriend in Worthing. My results came and went without celebration at home (they weren’t in anything very useful after all – just toy As and Bs) but Amelia took me to Camden and got me a leather jacket as a reward.
The sixth form college was attached to the school so I knew almost everybody there. Perhaps it would have made sense to break out and go to Brighton or Worthing but I knew what to expect in Shoreham and in any case, it was just up the road. Adam and I were the only ones from our class (and the only ones from our junior school) to go on to take A levels. Otherwise it was us and the intelligentsia. They split roughly into the real boffins – prematurely middle-aged dweebs with ill fitting uniforms and overloaded briefcases who liked to discuss calculus during breaks, and on the other hand, a rather sexier breed with a worldlier perspective. The former group were more fun than they sound though – quoting Life of Brian and The Young Ones verbatim, comparing their record collections (Hawkwind, Led Zep and The Floyd), or discussing religion and science. The latter group went to more parties, talked about travelling and frankly, were much more likely to get laid. Temperamentally I felt more at home with the former but yearned to spend more time among the latter. In reality I found myself sinking into a space between the two groups. That was what had happened before. I’d felt safe with the geeks. They were not threatening and although I didn’t know what they were on about much of the time I could sit in and enjoy the show.
Actually the groups were much less well defined than that. In a bigger college they’d have had nothing to do with one another but there were only about thirty of us and we all hung out together a lot of the time. What was more, almost all of them had been together in the same class for the last four years and knew each other very well. I’m not saying there was no bitching going on at all but even the most socially inept geek had come to be treated as a loveable (and harmless) freak by even the most sophisticated of the girls. Besides, some of the geeks were frighteningly witty and most of the more worldly were easily bright enough to keep up. Our position, Adam and I, was different, not because we were less intelligent (although we probably were), but because we didn’t have the shared history. I hadn’t realised this before.
There were a few notable characters I remember. Adam was very much on the business studies track by now and we rather drifted apart. Camille I’ve mentioned. She was doing mostly languages and history so we met quite a lot. Conspicuous on the sexier side of the room were Carly, Sally and Tina. Carly was the archetypal ‘Most Popular Girl’ in the tradition of all the best American teen flicks. My feeling is that they would have all been complete cows under any normal circumstances but things were different here and we were glad they were on our side. I know Carly was spelling her name Kali for a while, which gives some idea of her attitude to men. Also on that side of the room were Gareth and James – the kind of easy going, good humoured and yet astute guys everyone likes to be associated with. Gareth was going to be a doctor and James planned to read classics. Previously I’d have considered myself unfit to even approach such paragons, but now I discovered they were actually ok as human beings. They were the ones who knew where the parties were, and the ones to chat to about which gigs to attend. Gareth was our charismatic leader, James was his affable lieutenant. It was possible to get an idea off the ground without their input, but it was a heck of a lot easier with. They just made things happen.
On the geekier side of the room, Tom was the closest thing I had to a close friend. Although he was invariably sardonic and off hand, it wasn’t personal and he was never actually malicious. You’d feel something was wrong if he didn’t tell you to fuck right off at some point in the day. He ate nothing but Weetabix as far as anyone could tell. Roy was our resident God-botherer. To his credit he never seemed offended by our derision but nor did he see the joke. Graham and Trevor were fellow geeks and all as far as I can remember were on double maths, physics and chemistry.
Being one of only two art students meant I wasn’t expected to be like the others. I realised in fact, and for the first time in my existence probably, that being a bit weird (but not in a super intelligent way) was even expected of me. While the others were either anticipating a place at Oxbridge on the one hand, or a career in banking on the other, I could drift about among them, keeping odd hours and wearing colourful shirts without causing much embarrassment. I was their link to the subjective, the woolly, even the spiritual side of life – the pagan, the irrational, the heart-felt. It was kind of sexy.
The other artist was Rose. She wasn’t one of us at all because she was one of a small group who’d joined the college from elsewhere and I had the honour of inducting her into the group. She was actually rather timid and conventional but she got off with Gareth almost immediately. Unfortunately she brought no girl friends along for me.
And so I got on with it. Spanish, French, art and history. (I’d wanted to do biology instead of French but the timetable wouldn’t allow it.) For the first few weeks all went according to plan. I went to the lessons and I took my notes. I went to the library and read up. I went home and I completed my assignments. I tried to write legibly and get everything in on time. My assignments came back and I passed. Good enough. My parents didn’t hassle me and let me get on with what I had to do and I still had time to paint and go out. Life was on track. I was managing. It was ok I told myself. This time it would be different.
Unfortunately, as that first term progressed and the work began to pile on I was aware of a familiar sense of panic rising. I told myself it had nothing to do with what was happening in the here and now – my work was progressing well enough and I seemed to be getting on with everyone ok but the anxiety persisted nonetheless. I suspected it had a link to what had happened before. Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson I’d feel a kind of drunken nausea rise in my chest. I’d manage to ignore it for a while but then be taken by surprise as the sickening swirl of worry became a roaring gyre and I’d look at whatever it was I was working on and it would mean absolutely nothing and I’d done no preparation and I didn’t understand any of what was in front of me and I was in reality falling behind once again. As the term went by, each week added another layer to my burden. As Christmas approached this feeling came up closer to the surface, like a submerged precipice just a little way out, just beyond where I was paddling. The edge could crumble away and there I’d be, falling into the abyss. Times like that I had to sit down or excuse myself. I told them I felt dizzy. It wasn’t just that the past was so near and so vivid but that it was so tempting. To just step off and not have to deal with all this – to just drift down, let myself go, be swallowed up and crushed would have been such a relief. It was coming for me and calling out. It was all I could do just to stand still and cover my ears.
By Christmas I really was falling behind. At first I at least attended the lessons, but often, instead of getting on with my homework I wandered the streets or went down to the harbour. Some days I didn’t even make it into college but went straight past and walked on over the hills. I was in a strange trance-like state. I was always aware of what trouble I was heading for and it gave me headaches and backaches and heartburn and yet somehow I managed to simply go off and be free for the day. I don’t even remember what I thought about during that time, apart from fantasising about women. By now I was even more preoccupied with that and it left little room for any other sort of rational thought. Needless to say my anxiety did nothing for my attractiveness and I found myself becoming more and more isolated again. I took time off sick and mum sent me to the doctor but they couldn’t find anything wrong. Immediately after Christmas the head of the college called me into her office and threatened me with expulsion if I didn’t “pull my socks up” but it made no difference because I didn’t know how. It simply made me feel sicker and less able to think straight. I came home from college and went straight to bed quite often. Even my drawing had ceased, apart from the homemade porn of course. I wanked incessantly.
The fact that I was dimly aware that this had happened before did not make matters better. It provided no helpful insights or motivations. It just meant I was screwing up all over again. In February I disappeared completely for a week. I still am not sure where I went – I had some money and I stayed at a Youth Hostel some of the time but otherwise I just found barns and other farm buildings to rest in. I had a very good sleeping bag by then and a lot of new outdoor gear so I don’t know how much actual danger I was in, but the fact that a lot of it is a blank is worrying in itself. Interestingly, my parents did not alert the police and mum just gave me a ticking off when I got back. The college gave me one more chance.