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.’
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.’