There was one day I remember. I was down in the Wendy house and it was windy and wet. I was in my sleeping bag in the deck chair, looking out, watching the long tailed tits inspecting the buddleia seed heads. Looking down at my legs, my body and arms all enclosed in the silky quilted material, I thought about my future. I didn’t want to but I forced myself to. I’d never done it before, or never allowed myself to. It was like chess. Life is like a game of chess they said, but chess always made me miserable. No matter how often dad tried to get me to play it never made any sense. I understood the rules of course, and the first move was ok. There wasn’t that much choice there after all, and the second was fairly uncontroversial too, but after that the possibilities multiplied. How to work out what to do next? How many possible moves were there he could make, even assuming he plays well? (If your opponent plays badly the whole thing becomes chaotic.) Say my opponent has five possible moves available to him. Say two of them make sense to me, two others make no sense but he might make them anyway either as a mistake, or because he knows something I don’t. The fifth is one I haven’t even considered but I know it could happen. I have to plan ahead responses to all five (or the four I’m aware of anyway) and make a move. There may be a couple of plausible responses to each. And then how many possible responses to each of my moves could he then possibly make? Say it’s five again. I have to keep in mind forty scenarios, and that’s only one move ahead. And one move ahead doesn’t get you very far. You need a strategy. Dad always said I’d need to think at least three moves ahead. How on earth do people work with that? How did dad do that? He never let on. I just gave up and played using the ‘it seemed like a good move at the time’ method. I never won and I was never a gallant loser. I wouldn’t have minded if I’d won just occasionally, or come a good second, but I didn’t. I was completely thrashed every time. I don’t know why he kept on trying. It was like punishment.
And that’s how life felt to me, except there are no simple rules in life, and no neat little board, and no dinky little bits of wood to move about. You can start out with a move, or even a plan ahead, but then, as Lennon said, life happens and that’s it, you’re all over the place again. I should have had “It seemed like a good idea at the time” scratched on my gravestone.
Actually, to be fair, the only people I ever knew who believed in planning were those who could delude themselves that whatever actually happened was exactly what they had been planning all along. Unfortunately we seem to go along with the delusion and these people get elected or otherwise given top jobs.
Nevertheless I tried to work out what to do about my life. I tried to work out what was possible and what was probable. Then I realised that this was pointless because the people who really achieve anything in life rely on the improbable and hitherto impossible happening for them. I had to work backwards. What did I want in life? I started a list – I maybe wanted to be a painter. I wanted to travel. I wanted perhaps to work with nature, or live in the country. I wanted a woman to fall in love with but not straight away. I wanted a few other sexual experiences first. It occurred to me that the only thing I felt really strongly about was the sex. Working as a painter was ok in theory but I’d probably have to work ridiculously hard to make a living at it and there was a good chance my work wouldn’t sell anyway. I’d probably have to mow lawns or wipe bums for a living. It didn’t sound very promising. As for the house in the country, well maybe later. I could rent a room somewhere. I wondered what else I could do to make a living. Every other sort of work I knew about seemed repetitive and boring – shops, hospitals, the council – just the same old thing every day for years on end and not enough time for everything else and then you die. Every evening I saw mum and dad get home and try to get everything they needed to do done in the few hours before they went to bed. Before, I’d thought they were just naturally bad tempered but now I realised they were just extremely tired all the time. I was like that after I got home from college if they didn’t let me rest for a while. They never allowed themselves to rest. Couldn’t they see what it was doing to them? And then at the weekend, if they weren’t doing overtime they were getting frustrated trying to fit in all their chores and errands and getting pissed off at each other or usually at me for not helping (but then getting impatient with me for being too slow of clumsy when I did help). It was a nightmare. Dad talked disparagingly about my uncles who just slobbed out in front of the box or went down the pub evenings and weekends. I didn’t want that either. I wanted to do my art, go away and see places, meet up with friends, maybe go into Brighton or London and see a band or a film. In short, there was nothing about their lives I envied but that still didn’t tell me what I wanted to do for a living.
I’d been to a careers guidance officer back in the fourth year. I’d been embarrassed about telling him I wanted to be a painter and he’d looked at my O level options and suggested something in the local council or maybe working at Smith’s. I discovered later that he always suggested working for the council to arts students. I asked about being a librarian but he wasn’t very enthusiastic. He said I’d need a degree and at the time university was just unimaginable. Now I considered it again. I still couldn’t imagine my parents agreeing to it but if I got my A levels, or even just two of them I could, in theory, go, at least to poly. Nobody’d mentioned the possibility yet, or not for me anyway. Tom and Roy were already planning their Oxbridge applications but the rest of us hadn’t got that far. Anyway that was all a long way off. I had to get through the next year and a half first.
The next thing I wrote down came from nowhere – Hitch to Spain and find a job for the summer. It was a completely random notion. Somewhere in my mind I had the question – why am I learning Spanish? Then I thought – what do I want to do with my Spanish? And how could I get really fluent in Spanish? Or French for that matter? I had this image of arriving in the town square of one of those whitewash and terracotta hill towns and finding some work and maybe a girl and having a fabulous time – maybe get some amazing drawings done. And then, when I got back in September I’d be tanned and rugged and I’d have stories to tell and maybe an English girl would fancy me too because I was now so worldly and mature. Six weeks in Spain. Who could help me with that? I hadn’t a clue but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone.
Back at college the next week something in me had changed. I looked at what we were doing and saw it for the first time as part of a larger scheme. I picked out the bits of the courses that already made sense to me and made a list of the things that interested me. Then I looked at what I needed to know if I wanted to pass the A level and sorted out the gaps – the bits I didn’t understand and the bits I wasn’t interested in. I’d been wondering if I could get by by ignoring these bad bits and concentrating on the good bits. That was when I realised that the bad bits were not that big a deal – just a few gaps here and there. How had I come to let them dominate my thinking so much before? There was some stuff about using reflexive verbs, some acts of parliament, some technicalities about glazes and print making processes. That was about it. How come it had seemed so insuperable? Later I realised it was dad’s philosophy again. With any task it was his way always to ignore what was good and easy and to worry first at the intractable. Typically he would begin with the difficult parts and let it get him down and only at the end, if he had time, do the parts he was comfortable with, as a reward I guess. I resolved to start with the parts I felt happiest with and only do the difficult parts if I had time. I also realised I was going to have to prioritise. Four A levels was just too much for me I decided, and surplus to requirements anyway. I only needed three, with a good pass at art to get me where I wanted to be. I decided to let the French slip. I didn’t want to give it up but I couldn’t give it the attention it really needed if I was going to do well enough at the other three. I felt much better once I’d made that decision.
All this probably seems obvious to most people but to me it was a total revelation. As it was, in practice, with the easy parts out of the way, the few difficulties generally fell into place. Plus I began to have the wonderful sensation of getting through a lot of work quickly. The fact that the tough part was still waiting for me totally failed to dampen my enthusiasm. I worked quietly and efficiently until Easter and by then had almost totally caught up and was beginning to get good marks.
At the same time I’d become a lot more relaxed during breaks and with my new-found ease I felt a lot more confidant. Carly said ‘You’re actually quite a funny guy aren’t you’ which I reckon was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me. I began to feel like more a part of the group instead of hanging on the edge. I started meeting some of the others outside college and discovered there was a whole extra-curricular life they’d been having while I trudged home and worried myself catatonic. Some of us got together for study sessions, or had modest parties if parents were away for the evening but then, as the summer term progressed there were actual gigs and proper parties to go to.
Of course ones personality doesn’t change, whoosh, just like that. I was still very much in the background but at least I was in the picture. Over the next six months we went to see Echo and the Bunnymen and The Psychadelic Furs, The Sex Objects, Southern Death Cult and The Nukes, plus a whole lot of local bands (The Virtuous Heathens I remember being especially good fun – decaying glam gothic in spandex and big hair). We saw Performance and The Hunger and Midnight Express at The Duke of York’s. We wandered around the North Laines looking at second hand clothes and sat in Zerb’s watching the freaks go by. Occasionally there was a real party to go to (as opposed to just sitting around in somebody’s room listening to their latest LPs and discussing college assignments). The real parties mostly tended to involve friends of James who were a wee bit older and had their own flat in Portslade. I tried smoking dope but found it rendered me even more unable to speak than usual. More importantly, parties meant I actually managed to meet some new women. This was of monumental importance.
Up until that point (and now I realise not just in this life) I’d tended to assume that everybody except a few obvious weirdos (including myself) had probably been shagging more or less continuously since they hit puberty. It was only after it happened to me that I realised I had entered a strange and secretive club. The girls I pretty much knew had been doing it for some time with their dodgy, possibly criminal boyfriends, but very few of the guys I hung around with seemed to be getting any at all. Graham had been seeing Rachel since they were in junior school and they were already talking about marriage so they didn’t count. James had had a semi-serious girlfriend and Gareth had slept with Rose. That was it as far as I could tell. So when I ended up spending the night with Yvonne everybody was as surprised as I was.