Monday, 26 August 2013

Voyage VI – Sauna


‘Hey Gabe! Coming for a sauna?’ says Raz as I wander past on my way from cabin to deck. Wen is with her and I haven’t seen either of them for a few days. I’ve missed them.
‘Where is it?’
‘Ah, it’s a secret. Not many of the others seem to even know it’s there’ says Wen conspiratorially. ‘Go on. Get your towel. We’ll wait here.’ And so they do. It occurs to me that this is exactly what I need. I haven’t had a sauna for years – not since we used to go to the festivals where the sauna consisted of a wood burner in a tent surrounded with wooden benches. We sat around naked in the gloom and it was fantastic. I couldn’t stand the one at the leisure centre after that.
‘It’s ok’ says Raz on my return, ‘you needn’t feel embarrassed. We can all keep our towels on.’
‘I don’t mind’ I say. ‘I’m used to sweat lodges and they don’t much bother with modesty there.’ I see Raz raise an approving and surprised eyebrow to Wen. Wen just says ‘Well let’s get going then’ and leads on.

The sauna is in a part of the boat I had thought was off limits – on the lowest deck under the cabins up in the stern beyond the bathrooms. It’s dark and the steel and wood skeleton of the ship is exposed and unadorned. We enter through a small wooden door and find ourselves in a dimly lit wooden chamber but not in the neatly carpentered Nordic style. These timbers are huge and dark and damply lustrous. There are three doors; one marked ‘men’, the other ‘women’. Raz peeps through the third door and says ‘It’s ok, no strangers’ and begins to disrobe. I’m a little surprised she doesn’t bother with the changing room but I’m determined not to appear bothered – I’ve only got shorts and tee-shirt on anyway and I’m undressed before they are. I stand and wait for them to catch up. Wen is fiddling with her enormous bra and Raz waits until Wen has sorted herself out to take her gown off. I offer to help and Wen turns her back to me and says thanks. I note Raz trying not to look me up and down too obviously. It’s nice to see her being more demure than me for a change. Once Wen is ready Raz drops her gown at the last moment and we follow her into the steam room itself. As we enter, the hot thick aromatic fug that I remember so well envelops me and makes me gasp. It’s very hot and I can feel my skin begin to gush even before I’ve sat down. The aromatic oil clears my head and lungs instantly and I feel my whole body soften and blur. It’s very dark inside and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. There’s the burner glowing orange in the centre and thick, heavy wooden benches all around and another door to the right. As I watch the others take their places I notice a fourth person in the corner and it takes me a moment to realise it’s Lisa, sprawled against the wall like a discarded doll, her long hair all but obscuring her face. Hoping she can’t see me I take in her plump white breasts and long white legs. ‘Hi guys’ she says, sitting up, pulling the lank heavy tresses off her face. She notices me there but makes no obvious reaction. I look at my penis – thankfully on its best behaviour.
I have a glance at the other bodies (as one does). Raz is rather skinny – too skinny for my liking. Apparently she had implants in life but ‘you can’t get them through customs here’ she says. ‘I miss my boobs.’ Wen mentions that all her fillings are gone too and shows us her perfect teeth. Actually, even for a woman in her prime, Raz’s breasts are rather insubstantial. Wen on the other hand seems almost as wide as she is tall – head upon breasts upon belly upon thighs, like one of those stone-age Venus figures. She makes me want to take up ceramics again.
I get past my initial curiosity and sit back and breathe in the fumes – sandalwood I think, and maybe tea tree. I’ve never been very good at identifying essential oils. I can feel the heat gradually invading my core and my internal organs slump into repose. My bum is beginning to slide on the wet seat and I get up and arrange a towel underneath myself. Ah bliss!
‘So, you were saying about working in Oaxaca’ says Raz.
‘At the botanical garden’ says Wen ‘Yes. I was there for four years.’
‘Was it very beautiful there?’ says Raz, with a yearning voice.
‘Exquisite. You’d love it. The people are fabulous.’
‘I went to that place on the Caribbean coast, what’s it called?’
‘Cancun?’ says Lisa.
‘No. Silly girl’ she says jovially, as if she obviously wouldn’t be caught dead in such a common tourist destination. ‘Begins with a C though. Oh I can’t remember. Beautiful place with cenote you can swim in. Fabulous spot. You ever been to Mexico Gabe?’
‘Once’ I say. ‘I visited Oaxaca too.’
‘Gorgeous isn’t it.’
‘I do envy you, actually living there.’
‘Ah, it was mind-blowing’ she says and we go on to talk dreamily about places we’ve been – all except Lisa who remains conspicuously reticent.
After a quarter of an hour or so of that I ask if there’s a cool shower. Raz points languidly toward the other door and says ‘I’ll join you in a mo.’ Wen asks if I’ll pour some oil water on the stove as I go. ‘You’re coming back though aren’t you?’ she says. I nod emphatically. I might never go anywhere else. This is marvellous.
Once through the doors I find it’s quite cold and I have to get used to even gloomier conditions than in the steam room, but as I do I realise there’s a large semi-circular pool in front of me. I dip my toe in and find it cold but not freezing. I can feel as well as hear the whole hull throbbing and groaning to itself, sub-sonic. I stroll along the thick heavy wooden boards. I can see the water below, slopping about gently under the planks, luminous sea green, as if faintly lit from beneath. The whole chamber smells of the sea and I guess it must be salt water in here. I can’t believe no one else has found this place. At the far end I find showers and places to hang towels. The walls curve in, hull shaped. It’s all a little spooky. I look into the water and see that the pool sides curve with the hull too. The deepest part appears to be under my feet. I find some steps and lower myself in and the cold water makes me gasp. I gingerly let go and take a few slow breaststrokes across the pool and stop in the middle, treading water. I look down and watch my feet beat against the absinthe depths. I put my head under the water. Nothing but green. Then the doors open and Raz appears with her towel on. ‘What do you think?’ she says. ‘Spooky’ I reply. ‘How deep is it do you think?’
‘No idea luvvie’ she says, drops the towel, holds her nose and drops in off the side. I decide I might as well go down and meet her. I find her trying to look about and I swim below her, forgetting I don’t have to hold my breath. I let my air out and let myself sink. The water gets gloomier and the sides narrow in until my feet slide down the side and I touch the bottom. I look around. Another advantage here is that your eyes accustom themselves to focussing underwater somewhat better than in life. There seem to be odd items down here – cutlery and stones and a shoe. I look toward the deepest part, under the boards above and notice a movement in the shadows. I move a little closer and am certainly no longer relaxed. There’s definitely something there.

‘There’s people living down there’ I say once I’m at the surface again. ‘Honestly, I saw them.’
Wen and Lisa are at the poolside now, crouched in front of me. Wen modestly uses her towel to cover herself but Lisa squats naked in front of me, balancing on her toes, her knees only inches from my face. I can see everything. Either she hasn’t got a clue or she’s doing it on purpose. I look away. Raz is treading water, turning circles with her face under, looking for signs of life. ‘If you don’t believe me just look for yourself’ I say. I see Lisa step back then do a perfect dive over my head and disappear.
‘She’s full of surprises isn’t she’ says Wen appreciatively.
‘I don’t think they’re dangerous’ I say. ‘I just got the impression they want to be left alone.’
‘Well you won’t catch me in there now’ she says, shuddering, and heads for the shower. Raz doesn’t appear too bothered but keeps periodically ducking her head to check nothing’s coming up to surprise her. Lisa then appears over the other side of the pool, pulling her hair away from her face.
‘They’re all huddled together down there. Maybe six or seven of them’ she reports. ‘Maybe we should go and tell the guides. What do you think?’
‘Maybe. Maybe they just want to be left alone’ I say.
‘They seem sad’ says Lisa, ducking under again then looking up at me. Then she turns on her back and floats away from me, her breasts bobbing in front of her face, her pubic tuft surfacing periodically. I decide to get out and back into the heat. Wen is finished in the shower and comes along with me.
‘She’s quite a girl, our Lisa don’t you think’ she says as we settle down in the heat again. I pour a cup of water on and watch the wet steam rise and fill the ceiling. At that moment a guide appears in his normal day outfit with some wood and kneels down to feed the fire. Wen asks him about the people at the bottom of the pool. He nods as he feeds the logs in through the narrow hatch. ‘Yes, we know they’re there’ he says, as if it’s all under control. ‘They get in through the filters.’

When he leaves I sit back, close my eyes and enjoy the smell of the burning wood. ‘You were saying?’ I say.
‘About Lisa. She’s quite a girl.’
‘She is. I don’t get her at all. Has she spoken to you much?’
‘A little. She likes you. I know that.’
‘She’s got a funny way of showing it’ I say and immediately have an image of her, soft and wet before me. My penis stirs and I try to think about the people in the bottom of the pool.
‘She doesn’t know how to show it. That’s my theory’ continues Wen. ‘I think she was quite ill for much of her life and now she’s not and she doesn’t know quite what to do with it.’
‘Did she tell you that, about being ill I mean?’
‘Little hints – about never having the energy for this and that and really envying the things other people had done as if it wasn’t really an option for her. Children – I know she wanted children and never did.’
We sit silently for a while, then Raz and Lisa come back in, dripping from the pool. Lisa’s body shines in the firelight as she squeezes past my knees. She could just as easily have gone around the other way with Raz. I catch her glance at me through her hair and look away. I try to think about what I want for dinner today.

Alison VII – College


‘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.’
‘What about?’
‘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?’
‘It is.’
‘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?’
‘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.

Journey VI – Into town


I’m awoken by someone mowing, or at least that’s what it sounds like. Sonia is not beside me, which panics me momentarily, but then I detect the tiny sounds of careful activity in the kitchen below. I guess she’s making coffee but all I can smell is cut grass spiced ever so slightly with a hint of fuel ethanol. I know that smell from somewhen way back. I used to do that too – cut grass. I wonder what’s happening. I don’t think I own a lawn, do I?

Sonia tells me they’re working in the orchard behind my place. I’d assumed it was a woodland but no, apparently not. My place backs onto one of the town’s fruit farms. I’m still slightly shaky so she carries the coffee things up onto the patio. Ross’s hammock is empty. ‘He’s made an early start’ she says, putting the tray down on the table. I see her glance apprehensively at me, as if she wants to ask something but thinks maybe later. I pull up a chair and look around. It’s still very early and pleasantly cool. Even so, the scent of crushed grass is powerful and the noise makes conversation difficult. Whoever is mowing must be just the other side of the wall. She’s looking at me funny again.
‘What is it?’ I say, taking a sip. She doesn’t answer immediately. She’s thinking about it.
‘You were talking in your sleep’ she says at last. ‘You kept me awake half the night with it.’
‘Oh’ I say. I feel I should ask what I said but I’m not sure I want to know.
‘That place you talked about. Were there children there?’
I feel horribly awkward answering, although I tell myself I have nothing to be ashamed of.
‘I’m not sure’ I say eventually, which is the truth, sort of. ‘They said they weren’t really children. They just looked...young. Why? What did I say about them?’
The expression on her face tells me it’s not good. I know there are no dreams as such here, just memories that come in the night. She looks into my face, then suddenly away. ‘Did you ever... take part, you know, join in?’ she says.
‘I don’t think so’ I say. ‘No. I’m sure I didn’t.’
But the truth is I don’t really remember. I’ve forced myself back there from time to time, briefly, in my memory but I can hardly bear it.
I can still see that clearing – the group around the fire place, sitting about, tapping irregularly on some drums, or kneading clumsily at each other’s shoulders or doodling in henna on each other’s hands. Not one of them shows any real talent whatsoever. I watch bemused as yet another monotonous drumming session falls apart as soon as someone tries to make a more interesting rhythm.

And then toward dusk the children began to gather and to associate themselves with one or other of our little community. I wondered where they all came from. Perhaps they were the spirits of lost street children, trafficked here from Bangkok or Rio. I wondered if they were lost souls, or perhaps old souls. I never saw the same faces from one night to the next. I sat for much of the second night next to a girl in awkward silence and then crept away to sleep. She followed me but I politely put her off. I wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved. It seemed that in some way they wanted to be with us – for the warmth perhaps, or the comfort. Perhaps the things that were done to them seemed like a fair price. I have no idea.
The next day some of the guys chided me about my lack of performance and reassured me that I should ‘Get in there. They love it.’ I tried to smile politely but they knew, and their suspicions increased nightly.
One man, the one I came to refer to as the Apple Man because of the shape of his body, which he never even attempted to cover up, tried to reason with me.
‘If you don’t, somebody else will, somebody less... considerate’ he said. I sat there trying to sort out a coherent response. As time went on it became increasingly difficult to arrange ideas in any real order at all – something in the air...
‘But if nobody does it’ I began weakly, knowing already that this argument wasn’t going to work. Heartbeat sat nearby. She was rocking slightly and talking to herself as she chewed. ‘Calmer, not calmer, you’re calmer...’ she mumbled, as if trying to convince herself that it would all be alright. ‘Not calmer, am I calmer, not you’re calmer...’ I didn’t realise until later she was actually saying karma – ‘My karma, not my karma, not your karma...’ as if trying to work out how we’d come to be in this situation.
‘Don’t worry yourself about them’ continued the Apple. ‘Relax. It’s never going to change. It’s the way it is. You’re weak. We all are. It’s what everybody wants, deep down and it’s up for grabs here. Go with it. Let yourself go. They don’t know any different anyway – look at them.’ I do look and they all look vacant and aimless and yet somehow knowing. He offers me a handful of crushed red petals. I bury my face in them and breathe deep as he suggests, and fall backwards. It occurs to me as I lose consciousness that if I can just stay comatose all the time I might not have to...

Falteringly, and with much prompting I tell Sonia some of this but I can’t tell what she’s thinking.

One of the women, whom I called Mango, took me further up the creek to what they called the tree of life. It was just up around a bend – a huge baobab like thing – big swollen trunk and leaves of many colours. When we got there the woman dropped her gown and pressed herself against the trunk and hummed at it. I looked up and saw that the branches were in fact leafless but festooned with all sorts of bits of cloth and strings with beads and other bits of plastic tied on. ‘Listen’ she said, ‘It’s breathing.’ I went up to it and touched the trunk. The bark was dry and loose and the wood underneath was also lifeless – spongy and dry and riddled with worm. Parts of it look like they might be held together with fibreglass, or a resin of some sort.
‘The bark has extraordinary properties’ she said dreamily and peeled a piece off to chew on. I didn’t know if I should tell her I thought the tree might be dead. I wasn’t sure in fact if it had ever been alive. I settled for asking her why it had no leaves, only rags and she told me it was not spring yet. I looked around at all the flowers and butterflies and chose not to say anything about it. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t take my clothes off and rub myself against it or chew the bark and she grumbled about it all the way back to the camp.

‘Did you find out what all the screaming was about?’ says Ross.
I have my back to the house so I don’t see him arrive and his voice makes me jump. I feel terribly on edge.
‘Screaming?’ I say.
Sonia looks at me slightly guiltily. Evidently she hadn’t got to that part.
‘Ever since you arrived. Every night. You didn’t know?’
I didn’t.
‘Something about the lizard men – am I right?’
I feel faint and can’t say anything at all. I shake my head. It’s coming back to me, just all rolling in. I feel myself getting swamped by it and have the sensation of dropping into a cess pit and drowning even as I sit there in the sun looking at them looking at me. At least they look worried. I couldn’t stand it if they looked disgusted or scared. I have images of some very dark places – before I found the Nirvana place – some sort of devastated city or industrial complex. It was always night but always lit by fires and always there was the sound of gunfire and yelling, and everywhere was littered with bodies – bodies in terrible states of injury and yet still alive. I can still smell them. It was just horrible, all of it. How did I end up there?

At length Ross gets himself up off the ground and says to Sonia ‘Well, we’d better get going’ and she immediately starts busying herself with the tray and it suddenly hits me that these people could well decide they don’t want me around any more and decide to throw me out, back into the dark and the thought of that is so terrible I almost break down begging and pleading with them right then and there. Instead I get awkwardly up to my feet and touch Sonia’s sleeve as she is about to go down the steps. Ross is already at the door. She turns and looks into my face, still inscrutable and I say ‘Sonia, please. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. But I was just so scared...’
She puts the tray down on the ground and calls to Ross that she’ll be along in a while. She leads me back to the table, all patience and understanding. We sit down. I’m waiting for the worst to happen – for her to break the news to me. But instead she just says ‘I know’ and takes my hand.
After a little while, waiting for me to calm myself and go back to breathing normally she says ‘Come into town with us’ and I really don’t want to but I don’t really see how I can refuse.

Back at the house now, alone in the bed I feel this odd bubbling sensation just under my diaphragm that makes me want to giggle. It takes me a moment to realise this is not some kind of gastric problem but happiness. It’s been a really good day. Sonia’s friends seem to be very nice but the main thing was the town itself. At one point, after I’d finished the little crab meat things I had for my starter, while I was toying with my wine glass, I looked about me, the conversation carrying on among the others, oblivious and I watched a small mauve pigeon take off from the flagstones with a strand of straw in its beak. It turned and rose up over the gold and purple awning at the front of the cafĂ©, past the big glossy leaves of the fig tree that hung out over the crumbling honey coloured stucco wall, up into the sharp hot air, to flutter up to join the others among the hazy columns and sills of the bell tower beyond. In the cobalt sky a wisp of cloud hung motionless and as I sat there my hearing passed from the animated conversation at our table to the murmur of the people strolling about, accompanied by a van or scooter, to the calls of the market vendors and their animals, to dislocated snatches of guitar and trumpet and then back to the gurgle of the pigeons. The place smells of jasmine, wine, garlic and something else, something I remember from somewhere in the past – something rich and sexy...
I suddenly realise they’ve been trying to get my attention.
‘Sorry?’ I say. They’re all looking at me, smiling politely, Miguel, Ross, Cleome – the girl from the other day, Leo, Mo, Phoebe, and some others who’s names escape me (although I was only introduced to them all about a quarter of an hour ago). Two guys at the adjoining table go back to what they were talking about.
‘Leo wanted to know what you do, for a living’ says Ross. ‘I told him we thought you were a gardener. Leo works with the fruit trees.’
‘Ah’ I say, ‘it wasn’t you with the mower at stupid o’clock this morning was it?’ He looks confused and I’m afraid I might have offended him. ‘I’m not really a morning person’ I say, lamely. I feel like I should apologise.
‘Leo’s trees are over the other side of the valley.’
‘But if you like mowing...’ says Leo, grinning broadly. I smile and make vague demurring, modest noises, not wanting to cause any further upset. Actually I’d like something physical to do but it took us nearly twice the time we expected just to get here with Sonia having to support me a lot of the way and take a lot of breaks. Eventually Ross came back to find out where we’d got to and he helped me along the rest of the way. I guess it was only about a mile in all, so that’s embarrassing.
‘I’m a painter actually’ I say, surprising myself. I don’t know where the information came from, but suddenly there it is.
‘You never told me’ says Sonia. She looks upset, like I’ve been deceiving her.
‘It just came to me’ I say, shrugging. She’s sort of possessive.
‘What sort of painting?’ says Phoebe, ‘because we really need our hall ceiling done, don’t we.’ She looks at the chap beside her and grips his hand. Simon I think his name is.
‘Um... ok’ I say vaguely, not wanting to put her off as well as Leo.
‘Do you mean portraits and things?’ says Sonia
‘Portraits, landscapes, life studies...’
‘Murals?’ says Mo.
‘Er... possibly. I think so...’ I say, wondering what I’m letting myself in for. They all look knowingly at each other, like they’ve suddenly realised something important. It transpires that there’s need for something for the entrance to the main hall of the sanctuary.
‘Something lush, big, colourful.’
‘Not too colourful.’
‘Something with flowers.’
‘Maybe some trees.’
‘You and your trees...’
‘You should talk to the warden. We’ll introduce you.’
I feel a little overwhelmed. Sonia notices and puts her hand on mine reassuringly. I look at Miguel and see him look at it, then at me, then away. I think I’m going to upset everyone today.
‘What do you normally paint?’ says Cleome. ‘I mean, on canvas or paper, water colours?’
‘Normally oils, or acrylics. I don’t mind really. It depends on the subject’
‘Could you paint me perhaps?’ says Sonia and I feel Miguel’s uneasy gaze on me again. I say maybe. I hope she doesn’t mean nude.
The conversation moves on, about another painter they know and a painting of hers that hangs in the sanctuary. I drift in and out again until the conversation comes to an abrupt halt for the arrival of the fish course.

On the way home we get a lift on a small mule cart. It’s been a long day and none of us can be bothered to walk. After a fabulous dessert and some more sitting around over coffee we had a look around the market stalls to see what was on offer. Sonia pointed out a set of elegantly designed hand-blown glasses, a neat little leather wallet, some almond and honey cakes and a tray of tree seedlings, grown from seed collected locally in the forest. Anything like this back in life would have been unaffordable but ‘no’ she said ‘we can buy them, if you like.’ No ‘executives’ here to drive prices up apparently. I shrugged. I couldn’t really imagine wanting anything much but even in my addled state I could tell it was all beautifully done. I smiled and nodded at the stallholders and they smiled back, happy apparently just to have their wares admired. After that we went to another place, a bar-cum-coffee shop in a basement up one of the side streets – a low, cool, shady cellar with broad leather seats. We spent the late afternoon drinking coffee and brandy, watching a couple of guys practising on mandolin and tablas, and playing with a tame lemur-like animal with a taste for salted cashews.
I have so many questions but it can wait. The cart bumps heavily along the way we came, a broad rutted track (virtually a river in the rainy season I’m told) past fields of fruit trees and beehives, sheep and sunflowers. The sun is now low in the sky and the hills glow like coals. I look up into the palms that line the road and see hornbills battling over the fruit. A ghostly moon emerges from behind what I’m told is a tamarind tree – a huge thing, towering over everything. It occurs to me I’ve not seen the moon for a long time, nor a sunset for that matter. Crickets tune up for the evening concert.
‘Do you want to go and see those guys at the weekend?’ says Ross vaguely from his position with his back to the driver.
‘Huh?’ I say.
‘The musicians we saw rehearsing. They’re part of a band. There’s a marimba and a clarinet. It’s very cool.’
I feel I want to ask about money. I know someone else paid for the food and drinks today. I say ‘That’d be good’ in a vague way and hope I get the chance to ask Sonia about all this at some point. I don’t even know what day it is, let alone when the weekend is.

Back at the house Ross heads off, leaving Sonia to help me get settled for the night. My legs are aching and shaking badly after the day’s exertions and I suggest it might be better to stay on the sofa. I don’t want to share the bed with her again. She won’t hear of it however and helps me up the ladder and onto the bed. She’s changed the sheets. Then she kneels down and takes my sandals off, inspecting my previously ruined toes as she does so and then lifts my legs around. I look up at her, now silhouetted against the ceiling. I can’t see her expression.
‘We should visit the beach tomorrow’ she says before turning the lamp out and going downstairs. I hear the door open and close and although I miss her I’m happy to be alone. I lie there grinning, looking at the ceiling, thinking about everything, not believing my luck, ignoring my fears.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Alison VI – 13 up


The local secondary school was one of those bland post-war comprehensives where the once bold and innovative Bauhaus inspired concrete and glass had been allowed to peel and fade and grow moss. The flat roofs let in water and the windows let in a bracing breeze. Changing demographics had made a colony of prefab classrooms necessary and they rotted and stank even more.
Looking around at my spotty, specky, bushy or greasy haired colleagues on that first morning I despaired. I looked over at the girls’ line and they didn’t look much better. That first day there after the summer holidays, the stink of ripe plimsolls, the acrid fumes of Jeyes fluid and the lardy fog of cheap meat brought back all the horrors of the last time I’d been here and I vowed to myself I wouldn’t let the same thing happen all over again. Besides, I’d spent much of the summer with Jessica and she’d let me touch her nipples so there was no way I was putting up with this sort of crap.
I looked at the options and decided which subjects were least daunting. I felt fairly confident about this. I wanted languages and history and biology and, of course, art. Maybe music. I was very aware that I mustn’t be too good at anything in case it meant my life changed too much and left me with less of an advantage. The ideal was to do slightly better than before, but with less effort. As it was, just doing that bored me to tears and got me into trouble for handing work in late and for being too messy, exactly as before. If anything it was harder to get the work done because I’d done it all before. On top of this I had to endure physics and chemistry, metal work and technical drawing for two years and PE for all four, not to mention some nauseating school lunches, interminable school assemblies and the dreary company of my idiot peers.

I remember very little about those first two years and what I do remember is repetitive, uninteresting, and humiliating. My teachers were bored and uninspiring and often pettily vengeful. Meanwhile my parents were impatient or indifferent with me. My so-called friends talked rubbish and looked like morons and none of the girls would even speak to me. Only the knowledge that if I didn’t concentrate I could be here doing it all over again in another life kept me alert. Basically, I spent a lot of time at the library and listening to the radio and keeping up with my drawing. I also spent a lot of time down in the Wendy house once mum and dad had gone to bed, looking at my porn collection.

In the third year, when I was fifteen, I had the feeling things might change. I went and got my hair done for a start. Up until then it had been all over the place but I wanted something a bit like Paul Weller. Then I insisted Amelia came with me when we went to get my new uniform. I didn’t trust dad to do the right thing. Also, I remembered that teenage boys don’t always smell too fresh so from day one I made sure I showered in the morning and kept myself clean and fragrant. I don’t know if anybody else noticed especially. Nobody ever said anything but I felt a few notches cooler anyway. I’m sure even my parents would have been impressed had they been paying attention. There were a few occasions when someone – a teacher or one of the other pupils, would do a double take, as if they somehow hadn’t expected me to look or speak the way I did and needed to radically reconsider their attitude toward me. That was very gratifying.

Next I realised I’d need some money. I got myself a paper round – evening, not morning (there are limits) and then, a year later, up-graded to a shelf-stacking job at the Co-op. I used the money mostly to buy records and I got a stereo for Christmas from Justine.
This was crucial. I suspected that being into the right music would make all the difference to my chances of getting in with a cooler group of friends that year. I kept an eye on what was going on in the NME, the Old Grey Whistle Test and the Annie Nightingale show on Radio 1. I liked John Peel but I preferred listening to his voice than to the actual music he played, most of which was pretty dire. Actually my tastes were not very radical but I knew that The Specials and The Cure for instance were going to be infinitely cooler than Madness or Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I didn’t really like The Clash (except White Man of course), which was a shame because everybody else thought they were very cool, but I did like The Sex Objects and Ian Dury, which easily made up for it. My secret weapon though was the fact that I knew who Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were. Anyway I couldn’t stand being associated with the nerds any longer and had no interest in hanging with The Lads who seemed to do nothing that didn’t involve shouting and running. Also I didn’t want to have to talk to the girls like that. Teenagers can be so very adolescent.
I did want to talk to girls though, and to do that, the fact was I needed mates. Although I was still generally most comfortable on my own, I couldn’t be seen as a sad loner any more. Soon I would be able to legally get into gigs and pubs and parties and everything would be so much more exciting. It was essential I found a group of mates to do those things with.

I wasn’t well practiced at getting on with people. The thought of having to hang around and try to get noticed seemed demeaning and I couldn’t bring myself to do it openly. I had to find a discrete way in. Of all the people I knew, Adam was the obvious target. He’d always been kind of cool, even in junior school and we’d played together a bit back then. Plus I knew he was into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and what was more, he had a bunch of moderately cool friends he hung out with – Tall Colin; a mild mannered, prematurely be-stubbled giant, Small Colin; squeaky voiced, delicate, and later gay and Alex; far too pretty, far too charming, far too knowing and almost impossible to compete with when it came to chatting to girls. I started hanging around with them at breaks and trying to act like I belonged. None of it came naturally. I stood by and listened in and waited for my chance to make my contribution but they talked about people I didn’t know and made obscure jokes about events I hadn’t witnessed. I couldn’t pretend to be amused because I couldn’t take the risk they’d know I was faking. I’d hoped Adam would help me out but he never said very much either, just an occasional aside. He was just too cool. I’ve been accused of being slightly in love with Adam before, and maybe I was, a little. If I’d been a woman I suppose he’s the kind of man I’d have wanted to be with. He just had this presence, or charisma about him, even as a teenager, with that easy, knowing smile, effortlessly holding himself, while all about him... It was Alex did most of the talking – he was witty and good with voices and with chatting to other groups. He seemed to know everybody and if there was something going on, he’d be the one to ask. Tall Colin also was very funny in a goofy, self-deprecating way and also seemed somehow essential to the balance of the group. Small Colin on the other hand made his occasional contributions in waspish tirades and grotesque character assassinations that were always worth waiting for. In contrast I was quiet and self-conscious and felt it was obvious to everyone else how I felt. Previously I’d have just retreated to my solitary place out of the way but this time I persisted. I don’t know what made this possible. Perhaps suspecting for the first time that everybody with half a brain is awkward and self-conscious at that age helped. A couple of times I spotted Tall Colin, apparently so easy going, upset by Alex’s thoughtlessness, and Small Colin I realised was always a bundle of nerves. Actually I got in by being friends with them, the Colins, more than through the more obvious route. Anyway, as time went on I too knew who the stories were about and could laugh along (even if it wasn’t that funny). I finally felt comfortable enough to leave the nerds and move across and sit with them in class when Clive, an old friend of Alex’s from the previous year was moved up to join us and a seat next to Small Colin became available. With six of us the pressure was much reduced and I could feel I belonged without always worrying about being too far from the centre.
As a group we could be reasonably cool. We were understated, humorous, and friendly. We didn’t need to throw our weight around. We didn’t need to act up in class but it was plain we knew the whole school thing was a farce and didn’t need to be taken too seriously. We got the work done and had a laugh with the cooler teachers and kept ourselves to ourselves. Furthermore, we had style. While everyone else had huge knots in their ties and flares and their shirttails hanging out, we were immaculately turned out in skinny ties and drainpipes. I got a pair of Chelsea boots from Amelia for my birthday, which was very exciting. As with The Specials, we may not have been as flashy as some of the other bands nor as obviously dangerous, but we were not to be messed with. What’s more, The Specials knew how to play their instruments.

With hindsight I suppose fifteen is a difficult age for any boy, even without the help of an old soul prompting from the wings (I have good reason to think that both Andy and Alex were old souls too. We tend to flock together). We all wanted to go into Brighton and see bands and meet girls other than the ones at school. We wanted to stay out late and get pissed and wake up in strange beds. I wanted to travel and be a painter. Alex wanted to live in London. Tall Colin wanted a Porsche. Small Colin wanted to come out. Adam, disappointingly, just wanted to make a lot of money. As it was none of us had any money to speak of. We all had to be in by eleven and all but one of us – Tall Colin, had unpredictable voices and soft patchy fuzz on our faces. Tall Colin by way of contrast was an acne casualty. I was always lucky that way but I had horrible stinky feet and tried to wash them as often as possible, even at lunch times some days in case anyone noticed.
Worse, none of us as far as I could ascertain were getting so much as a finger on a woman (Alex excepted but even he, I suspect was mostly fibbing). I’m not sure if the longer perspective made it worse or better. In previous incarnations I think I simply looked on hopelessly, yearning and fantasising without the slightest idea of what I could actually practically do about the situation. Now I had a better idea what to do but still didn’t seem to be able to put it into action. My past experience had taught me that I would be able to chat to a woman, buy her a drink, arrange a date, go out for dinner or a film. But we were only fifteen. At school, chatting to girls consisted mainly of teasing and posturing, a little playful violence, and finally, at least if you were at the rougher end of the school (form 3.4 and below), probably a fair bit of semi-public groping, snogging and possibly shagging behind the bins. It just all seemed so... crass.
To make matters worse, I’m not sure when exactly, but inexplicably, a lot of the girls in the class above (form 3.1) had blossomed into stylish young women and were rumoured to be sleeping with men significantly older than themselves – possibly as much as ten years older. We didn’t stand a chance. I had a major thing about Camille, partly because I felt there was some sort of connection there and was sure something was going to happen between us, but also because I thought she was a magnificently elegant, classy girl. She’d glanced my way a couple of times but I’d not had the faintest idea what to do about it. The idea that she might like me I instantly dismissed as preposterous of course. They were all, she and her friends, Carly, Cathy, Sally and Tina, in contrast to us, a study in nubile sophistication. If I’d got my hands on any of them it would have been like a warthog accosting a gazelle (a gazelle with big scary horns at that). I was in the same class as them for Biology, French and Spanish and a few times they caught me looking and their distain was totally emasculating. I felt like I was thirteen again. I might as well have been a squashed toad, crawled in off the road.
We were caught in the middle, Adam, Colin, Alex and I. Our own women (in form 3.2) were mostly of the bright but plain variety, gauche, frumpy and prone to excessive giggling. And even they didn’t fancy us. I reassured myself that I was doing the groundwork but this stage did seem to go on for ever.

Of course the best way to get on in the way of teenage kicks was to be in a band. Adam had a guitar he was practicing and Tall Colin had borrowed a bass from somewhere. There were some drums at Adam’s parent’s place which I’d always fancied having a go on. His dad had been a roadie back in the sixties apparently and he’d acquired and restored a whole load of miscellaneous instruments. He was hardly ever about and his mum didn’t mind so Adam let me loose on his dad’s tabla, djembe and bodhran. I should admit at this point that we never actually got round to playing a gig, or even for that matter, playing a song all the way through but that didn’t matter – we were in a band. We called ourselves the Dark Machine mostly but the name varied depending on our mood. I was for calling us Purple Willy’s Band but was overruled – not because it was a bad name, but because Adam’s mum might object. I still think it was the right name. It fit with the whole Beefheart / Iggy Pop sound we were aiming for. Most of the time though, we sounded like a very badly assembled New Order.
The other possibility was The Disco. One evening a week we all headed for the bright lights of Shoreham-by-Sea, to the Harbour Club – a sleazy venue above the place where they kept the canoes and dinghies for the Sea Scouts. I don’t think I ever saw it in daylight, but at night it was a sticky nicotine brown space, dimly lit orange by the streetlights shining through the curtains. There was a DJ’s old twin deck there and speakers and some sofas and a drinks machine and we hung out with the scary kids from Lancing and played pool, sipped coke, listened to our records on the PA and discussed the possibility of having our first gig there. I don’t think we ever spoke to any of the other kids, and anyway their women looked very rough indeed so what would have been the point?

In the end I did manage to get through the whole academic part of the experience reasonably well. Although I was very slack about it I knew I could do it when I needed to and during the last six months I surprised everybody with my studiousness. The mocks were a bit of a joke but by the time the exams proper came around I was ready. I had a bulging portfolio of paintings, collage, prints and drawings plus a variety of 3D work to present. The theme had been Wasteland and I’d done a lot of studies of weeds and rubble and decaying household objects and my tutor had been keen for me to tie it into the T.S.Eliot poem. I didn’t understand a lot of what that was about but it was ambiguous enough to allow me to put some life studies in, which was what I was mostly into at the time, for obvious reasons. My Spanish was, I thought, very strong and my French wasn’t bad. The biology was a bit hit-and-miss though. I found the exact details of nomenclature and numbers a good deal less exciting than the big ideas. I wanted to write about conservation and palaeontology and evolution but instead I had to focus on bread mould, kidneys and wheat seeds. I had a similar problem with history. None of the detail means anything without the big picture. Anyway I did ok, even at maths.

Hanging out with Adam and the others also proved less fruitful than I’d hoped. I suppose I’d always thought, observing from afar, that the kids who had a social life were having a great time but apparently not. As with The Lads we all despised, we tried to look as if we were having a laugh when actually a lot of what we said was fairly pointless and actually quite tedious (and eventually a bit desperate). I can’t remember a single important conversation. My carefully crafted music collection was especially useless. I’ve discovered since that it is simply not done for the higher status males to take seriously the tastes of their lowlier peers. Indeed it is common for these alpha males to give out cassette compilations of their own personal favourites and latest discoveries to other lesser males as a form of patronage. Male cliques based on sports rather than music probably have similar rituals. I of course was never anywhere near being an alpha male and I wouldn’t ingratiate myself so I just went back to listening to what I liked – by then mostly Nick Drake and Scott Walker, Joni Mitchell and Brian Eno. How miss-fitting can you get?

I knew most of the time I was just playing a part anyway, and sometimes my real self would come out and say something and they’d all look at me and wonder what the hell I was on about. Sometimes I’d look over at Adam and he’d look at me and the expression on our faces said the same thing – ‘What are we doing here?’ but we didn’t have much to say to each other either beyond that. To be fair though, I think we were all faking. We were all trying desperately hard to be cool all the time when actually, we weren’t. The difference was Adam and I knew it and the others didn’t. Needless to say we all spent the entire time totally celibate (all except Alex, allegedly). In desperation, on a couple of Saturday evenings I made clandestine forays into Brighton hoping to get a glimpse of all the things I was missing, trying to get into a gig or a club. They wouldn’t let me in but it was a good place to be, wandering about down on East Street and on the seafront. It was 1981. Everybody was there. Everybody looked amazing and with the Stooges and the Stranglers playing on my Walkman I knew anything could happen.
Nobody knew where I was. Nobody knew who I was. I was there to observe.

As the last year of my compulsory education came to an end I spent more and more time in my room painting or out in the country walking. For my sixteenth birthday and Christmas that year I’d got a lightweight tent from Justine, a waterproof coat from mum and dad and a pair of walking boots from Amelia. As soon as the exams were done I hitched to Cornwall and spent two weeks wandering around on my own down there.

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.

Steve