Friday, 28 March 2014

Alison XVI – Vikki

I knew Vikki as soon as I saw her. Actually I recognised the nipples first – much too big and pink for her little up-turned boobs.
I’d just got back from a trip away with Andrea, to Morocco in fact. It was the first session of the new academic year but to be honest, I wasn’t really in the mood. I like to make out that my time with Andrea was just good dirty fun – commitment free, easy-going, no regrets sex, usually in exotic or exciting locations, and she usually paid for the accommodation too. But in truth, much as I wanted her, I had real trouble with the arrangement and always came away somehow a bit more fractured each time. In retrospect, I think she knew this and that’s why eventually, mercifully, she let me go, or, at least, her communications got further and further apart and eventually ceased altogether. Anyway, that particular autumn I remember the streets of Brighton seemed especially dismal, compared to where we’d been for the last three weeks and I was feeling very sorry for myself. Plus I was into my thirties by then and frankly a bit bored with my life and the idea of just chucking it all up and buggering off somewhere hot for a few years really appealed to me. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it even now. Nothing was stopping me.

Anyway, the first session of the life-drawing classes, there was Vikki, taking her gown off and walking, naked, to the couch in the centre and looking incredibly familiar. I remember her smiling slightly apologetically, slightly challengingly at me and sitting down there, leant forward with her elbows on her thighs, hands together as if in prayer. It took me a moment to realise she was waiting for me to start. The students were standing around, trying to look as if being in a room with a bunch of strangers and a naked woman is the most natural thing in the world – we’re all adults after all and we’ve all seen it before and so forth. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t believe it. Naked human bodies are compulsive viewing. You can’t not look, and don’t tell me it’s of purely aesthetic interest. Why do we life-draw otherwise? We could just as easily have chair drawing courses, or dog drawing classes? It’d be cheaper.
So we all check her out, more-or-less surreptitiously. Actually this is unusual. Normally the model keeps her gown on until we are ready to start and just takes it off at the last moment. It is unusual for them to take it off straight away and just sit there through my introductory remarks (fire exits, toilets, complaints policy) completely exposed like that. Doesn’t she realise it might be another quarter of an hour before we actually draw her? I feel I should say something. I ask her if she’s warm enough and she smiles that slightly sorry smile again and says she’s fine. Her nipples stand proud and erect nevertheless. I wonder for a moment if I’ll need to provide extra charcoal and almost get the giggles.

I introduce myself to the students who have arrived and try to make the stragglers as welcome as possible. There’s always a few, every week. I’m not good on discipline. I run through the formalities as quickly as possible for Vikki’s sake and move on more quickly than usual to discussing what life drawing is all about so that she needn’t sit awkwardly any longer than necessary. I realise now that it was my awkwardness I was dealing with, not hers. She was perfectly happy as she was. I asked her to lean back on her elbows. I took in her long slender body and limbs. There was almost no line to any part of her – no muscle definition, no prominent bone structure, skin neither pale nor tanned. I looked about her for something to draw attention to besides the nipples. I tried to look like I was thinking hard but I wasn’t. My mind was blank. Then I realised she was looking at me through her fringe, those bright, challenging grey eyes again, waiting for me to say something. I decided to cop out and ask the class what they thought, trying to imply all the while that I had the definitive opinion ready. Actually I was hoping they’d give me something to go on.
I should say at this point that I’d been used to dealing with bodies that were a good deal more characterful – skinny or overweight, muscular or puny, ancient or nubile and although these descriptions never come near to encapsulating the person, they provide a place to hang a discussion, or at least an opinion, and of course, ultimately to discard, because life drawing is what chair drawing is not because we are not just dealing with the form, we are dealing with the person, the character, the life. I like to tell my students that that’s why it’s called life drawing. I’ve heard a lot of artists claim the opposite – that it’s just a shape like any other, a configuration of light and dark, of bulk and void, vociferously but never persuasively. I think it’s just the old puritanical work ethic again and I’m not fooled for a moment.

Vikki was a problem because I had absolutely nothing to say about her. She was attractive, certainly, in a vague, insubstantial way. My first thought was Burne-Jones actually, one of those glaucous drowned bodies of his but she was much too tangible for that. There was nothing symbolist about her. She watched me intently the whole time, waiting for something. I was sure I knew her from somewhere. I even called her Miranda at one point, for reasons that escape me. Maybe she reminded me of someone I’d known in a previous life.
We drew her for fifteen minutes, me included, which was unusual. I didn’t usually join in but I needed to see how she worked. In any case I find it’s best to let the class produce their first efforts without too much input, just to give us something very raw to start with. First attempts by beginners are usually pretty dire but would not be helped by my interference. I’ll interfere later and for the next thirty weeks if they’ll let me.
After fifteen minutes I stop everyone and say to Vikki that she can get up and relax for a while, while we discuss what we’ve come up with. Usually the model puts their gown on and retreats somewhere discrete. Not Vikki. She wandered around the room completely starkers, looking at the work on the walls and then, finding a book, perched herself on a stool with it on her lap and looked at the pictures, her breasts just touching the pages. It was very distracting. It occurred to me that she might not be entirely well, mentally that is. At break I picked up her gown and all but made her put it on. She seemed surprised but let me help her on with it anyway. I asked her if she wanted a coffee or something. The coffee from the machine tasted like mop buckets, and actually looked like it too so I always brought a flask and I offered her a cup. I didn’t usually do that either. Next I said ‘I know you, don’t I?’ and she smiled a little and blinked. ‘Do you?’ she said.
I didn’t know what to say next and I ended up prattling about the college and how well they treat their staff and what she was getting paid. I mentioned I’d done quite a bit of life modelling myself when I was a student and so I knew how difficult it was, the aching joints and the numb toes and so on. She smiled and nodded and sipped my coffee but I didn’t get anything much out of her otherwise. I decided to leave her to it. I don’t usually talk to the models anyway. It’s not snobbery, not with me anyway. It’s just a bit awkward somehow.

For the second part of the session I got her to do some quick standing poses and then a longer crouching position and then we were done. I didn’t expect to see her for a while because we rarely used the same model two weeks running and I found myself asking her if she fancied going for a drink afterwards. I’d never attempted to make a date with my model before and I expected her to be disgusted and report me to the principal or something. I was sure there must be something in the handbook about relationships between fully clothed tutors and naked models and I blathered my apologies to her in advance in an attempt to cover myself, should she attempt to sue me for sexual harassment or something. Of course I was forgetting that she was a mature and professional woman, just doing her job, which happened to involve taking her clothes off in public and that any awkwardness was entirely mine.
Much later on I discovered that she wasn’t being mature and professional at all. She was being naive and vulnerable, but that's how she was.

‘She was an interesting girl, our Vikki. I still don’t really know what she was about.’
‘Girl?’ says Alison dubiously ‘How old was she, remind me?’
‘I know, I know’ I say. I am aware it sounds patronising or patriarchal or something but the word fits. ‘A couple of years older than me actually, and a bit taller too. Anyway, that first evening she came to the pub with me after the session and I was looking across at her, across the table, trying to make conversation, and my mind was wandering back to Andrea, who I’d only said goodbye to forty-eight hours previously and just thinking how much more we’d have had to say to each other. There would never have been this small talk. Actually, it wasn’t that Vikki and I didn’t have anything to say. It was just so... faltering. I felt we were continuously at cross-purposes somehow. And then I looked at her face and realised I didn’t even think she was particularly attractive. But we stayed until closing time and I walked her home and said goodbye politely at her door and nothing happened. It was weird...’
‘Maybe you were just lonely.’
‘I don’t think so. To be honest it was all I could do to go to work that evening. I really needed some time to myself. I hadn’t intended to stay with Andrea as long as I had. I’d postponed my flight twice. I knew I should be home, preparing for lessons but I just kept putting it off. I really wasn’t looking for company.’
‘So what was it, the past life connection?’
‘Maybe, but I don’t think that was very strong. I knew I knew her from somewhere but I thought it was maybe from around college or around town. Brighton’s a small place. If you’d seen her in the street you’d have thought she was just another one of those slightly batty Brighton birds who can’t decide if they’re a flapper or a hippy or your auntie Maude – all silly hats and inappropriate cardigans with huge brooches on, and mad impractical shoulder bags, you know the type.’
She smiles and nods.
‘I don’t know. She was so not my type.’
‘But I phoned her up next day – made another date. I don’t know. I just said to myself – what the heck. Anyway, she turns up at the cinema in this enormous green fake fur coat and a little pink felt hat and little green shoes. It was kind of excruciating being seen out with her sometimes. I was quite vain I suppose.’
‘But you did fall in love with her.’
‘Well, she grew on me.’
‘What did she do? for a living I mean, apart from the modelling, obviously.’
‘She had various projects on the go – she had her own artwork she was doing – papier-mâché crockery believe it or not, and some “healing skills” she was trying to pick up, plus she worked in a whole food shop. Typical Brightonian. Her friends were all the same. She had a lot of friends...’ I sit and think for a while, remembering, smiling. ‘She was always coming up with these business ideas – working out ways to make money, get herself a place to live, or a trip to India or whatever she needed. She was actually very sharp and much more enterprising than me, which was interesting because I’d always been brought up to expect the worst. I felt, all my life, like I had to constantly struggle to keep things going, even just at a simple level. Andrea on the other hand, she just had this focus. She knew exactly what she was doing and she just did it. She wasn’t nasty about it but there really wasn’t any point in getting in her way. I see that now. Vikki was different again.’
‘Different how?’
‘I’ve thought about this but I’m still not sure. I think she knew it was all chaos and that it might all fall apart at any moment, but she just lived like that. She just surfed it. I’ve never known anyone so vulnerable and sensitive and yet so brave and resourceful, and good-natured about it too. She was actually really funny, really mad and scatty. I couldn’t keep up a lot of the time. She loved dressing up and having parties and dancing madly and I’m sorry to say I was a little boring about it at first.’ ‘I can imagine.’
‘Thanks. But actually it sort of worked. I felt bad about it at the time because I really wanted to be more like her – less inhibited, less self-conscious, but actually I think she liked me being a bit stern, a bit unreachable. I think she liked it that I was a bit authoritarian with her. You’ve got to remember, I wasn’t used to being the stable, organised one in any relationship. It was quite empowering actually. But there was a lot of drama.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh she could be absolutely infuriating. We used to have these big tearful bust-ups on the phone. I still can’t remember what they were about. She was insecure I suppose.’
‘Did you tell her about Andrea?’
‘Sort of. She knew we’d been seeing each other before and I told her we were just friends now, and to be honest that was true. I’d told Andrea about Vikki but Andrea never really expected anyone to be monogamous I don’t think. Anyway, it really upset Vikki for a while.’
‘Not surprisingly...’
‘No but, and I’m not making excuses, I think in a way it actually made us stronger.’
Alison looks even more sceptical than usual. To be honest I don’t really believe it myself. And yet I do. It’s easy to write myself off as just another cheating bastard, as pretty much anyone else would, but in another way I think Vikki quite liked the idea that there was this mysterious ‘Other Woman’ somewhere in my life that she’d never met. Whenever she came up in conversation or just the subject of affairs or infidelity was in the news Vikki would go into this hugely theatrical sulk and refuse to talk to me. She’d go out into town on her own to make me jealous and then come in late and refuse to tell me where she’d been. And then she’d quite suddenly be in tears and apologising and telling me what a bad girl she was...’
‘Sounds kinky...’
‘Yes. It was’ is all I can say to that. Sometimes I think I took advantage maybe, letting things get out of hand, watching her get more and more out of control, incredulous at the stupid things she came out with.
‘I really wanted to make it work out. Really I did. I didn’t see Andrea at all for years after we got together.’
‘But Andrea was still in your mind.’
‘Maybe, when things were bad. But then, I knew it wasn’t realistic with her.’
‘But at some level, didn’t Vikki know you were just making do with her? She must have known. So the drama heightened the sexual energy I’m sure but...’
‘It did. I’ve never known anything like it. I think maybe up until then I’d been a bit too much the “new man” – a bit too patient and considerate. She taught me a lot...’
Alison looks at me intently but I’m not going to elaborate. The truth of the matter is that I often found the roles we assumed a little disturbing or contrived but it was always her demanding more from me.
‘I never abused her if that’s what you’re thinking’ I say. ‘She just liked the power, or lack of it, I think.’
And not just in bed. True there were those layers of ill-assorted leggings and skirts and waist-coats and scarves to get through, but underneath it all there were always the tiniest, frilliest, silkiest bits of underwear you could imagine, more like jewellery really than clothes.
‘I’m making it sound terrible’ I say, apologetically. Alison does not indulge me with reassurance or criticism. ‘She brought something out in me’ I say. ‘I wasn’t sure I liked it to be honest. I maybe felt, if I wanted to I could do anything to her and she’d still come back.’
‘And you did see other women.’
I say nothing.
Alison nods but says nothing.

‘I don’t know.’
‘You said you loved her.’
‘I know...’ And I really think I did. Maybe just not the way she wanted.
Alison looks at me - waiting for me to confess. My mind writhes. Why was I like that? I think of Lisa. I'm doing it again.
'I don't think I took her very seriously.'
'You think?' says Alison.
'I just... I suppose... It just didn't seem like it could matter that much, to her I mean.'
Now she looks genuinely quizzical and I know how she feels. I've never really thought about this before.
'She was always highly strung – starting fights, making a fuss about silly things.'
'In your opinion.'
'No in hers too. She always apologised afterwards. She always went out of her way to make it up to me.'
'But it didn't make any difference. You still fucked around.'
'Well not that much. It's not like I was out picking up women all the time. I wouldn't have known how.'
'So it just happened?'
'I know it sounds ridiculous.'
'No no, I get it. You were working with young people - impressionable, provocative, over-confident. How could you resist?'
'I don't think it was quite like that...'
'And you can bet she knew it too. It's flattering for a man - a man in his thirties - all these young girls...'
She's right. She's right about all of it. And yet I feel - what? Justified? Yes it was bad. Yes I betrayed her, but, I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself. I couldn’t. I just had to. Because... I don’t know.
'...wanting your attention - wanting to know your opinion, get your approval. That’s a lot of power.'
'No it wasn't like that.'
'How was it then?'
'I don't know. I think it was the other way round.'
'It was me wanting their approval. I know it sounds stupid.'
'Not at all.'
'I couldn't turn it down. I had to go for it because...'
'...because you might never be another chance.'
I’m silenced. There was this fear, she’s right, that if I didn’t take this opportunity...
'But what about Vikki. Didn’t she count?'
'That was different' I say lamely.
'You didn't take her seriously. She was even needier than you were so you couldn't respect her.'
There's a long pause in which I'm close to tears. I look at the carpet. The sun is bright outside. People are laughing. It's not funny.
'I didn't break up with her because I didn't want to make her cry. Isn't that ridiculous.'
'So you would have broken up with her sooner.'
'Maybe. People crying always gets me. I just can't... I don't know.'
'So you stayed with her out of, what, pity?'
'And I was afraid I'd end up alone too I guess.'
'But what about all those other girls? How many are we talking about by the way?'
'Well that's just it. None of them lasted. I think when they found out what I was really like they sort of lost interest. There was six or seven of them I think. I don't remember.'
Alison seems disappointed. 'I expect they just wanted a quick fling. Is that not what you wanted?'
'I expect I took it all too seriously. I was never any good at one night stands.'
'Modern girls...'
'But you felt you had to try, just in case.'
'I suppose so.'
We take a moment to breathe and sip water. I grab a handful of tissues and blow my nose. I'm aware of how I must look.
‘Don't get me wrong' I say, 'I don’t know if it was just because of her, or my age or what, but I was feeling pretty good about myself at that time. I’d just got a promotion and I’d sold a few big pieces recently. I mean the money still wasn’t great but I just remember feeling really, I don’t know, capable, all of a sudden, like I was really getting on now. I felt like I was becoming a proper adult. Of course I know now that I’d never had a proper job or a steady income in any of my previous lives. You can’t imagine how that felt, suddenly, to be able to do things normal people do – buy myself a new bed or a posh new pair of shoes or decide to spend a couple of weeks in Greece if I felt like it, without having to rough it. I guess it gave me more confidence. And I suddenly realised women were interested in me.’
It wasn’t until I was in my mid thirties I realised that that flustered, uneasy look that women sometimes gave me didn’t mean “get away from me you freak.” I finally realised they might be off balance for a totally different reason. It was an extraordinary revelation.
'I found I could smile and go up to a woman and say something and chat for a while and maybe even flirt a bit. I suppose a lot of people take it for granted, a lot of men, but I just couldn’t believe it. It was intoxicating.’
Alison looks dubious. She really doesn't seem to get it, and I only worked it out relatively late. I think she sees me as this over-sexed egotistical male using and discarding women hither and thither, leaving a trail of destruction, but I was never cynically or even thoughtlessly going about using people. There was something frantic to it - something desperate.
Now I realise I was not all a bad looking bloke and I genuinely liked women and was interested in what they had to say and I didn't realise at the time how attractive that made me. It was only much later that I realised that I could probably have had a lot more than those 'six or seven'. (There were seven - I do know the exact number.) At the time though, it didn't feel that way. The reason I missed a lot of those opportunities was that I couldn't really believe, deep down, that they could possibly feel that strongly about me. It had to be a mistake and I was about to make a twat of myself - again. Even with the fabulous Andrea and the alluring Yve in my history I didn't really believe it. If anyone had asked me about them I don't know what I'd have said - that they were just flukes probably. I didn’t really believe that any of them could genuinely care about me, or be upset by the thought of me not being there. I just couldn’t see myself as being so important to anyone that I could cause that amount of pain. I could be hurt, and I was, often, but me able to hurt them? It seemed presumptuous to say the least.
I sit down and think some more. Alison still says nothing - just waits for me.

‘I did really want Vikki’ I say finally, lamely. I can't bring myself to use the L word any more. ‘There was something about her. I think it took a while for me to get it. But it was good, not just the sex. She was amazing. You have to believe that.’
‘But ultimately she just wasn’t enough.’
‘No’ I say flatly, going back to my pose of penitence, sitting forward, head down. ‘I wish we'd had more to talk about... I think maybe at the time nothing would have been enough. I think maybe I was like one of those blokes you hear about who’s grown up in poverty but they get rich, become a millionaire, but they have to keep making more and more money because there’s never going to be enough. There’s always this fear that it could all be gone tomorrow.’
‘Do you really believe that?’ she says dispassionately. I don’t know what she’s getting at. I thought I did. I’d meant it when I said it.
‘I’m not saying it was the right way to behave’ I say, wretchedly. ‘I’m just saying...’
‘And she wanted children?’
‘Would she have married you do you think?’
‘I think so.’
'She loved you.'
I sit in silence. I know it sounds stupid but I really don’t quite know what she means.
‘She really loved you. That’s how people behave when they are in love.’
I’m speechless. It still doesn’t make sense.
‘That never occurred to you?’
I slowly shake my head. It really never had. That anyone could feel that way about... me? Oh God.
‘I’ll leave you to think about that.’

She touches my shoulder and leaves. Time for me to go up on deck and get some air.

Journey XIII – Brother Peter

I was out in the fields, up to my pits in manure when Sonia appeared. I was aware of her presence even without looking up. I wasn’t ignoring her. I just wanted her to say something first. I carried on with the potatoes, earthing them up with stuff so rich and sweet you could make Christmas cakes out of it.
‘Hi Gabriel’ she said at last. I stood up and looked at her. I must have given her one hell of a whack because her left cheekbone still showed signs of yellowing and it had been at least three weeks since. I had to look away.
‘Gabriel’ she said and came and sat me down, forcing me to pay attention. She asked how I was and what I’d been up to and I told her in a flat chatty sort of tone. I finished by saying it would be nice if she, or she and Miguel came over one day and I saw her back away – not physically – she didn’t move, but I saw her do it. ‘Yes, that would be nice’ she said, unconvincingly. We sat quietly for a while then. ‘You should talk to someone’ she said, standing up and I wanted to say sarcastically ‘Well yes. That would be nice too’ but instead I just looked at her quizzically.
‘Maybe you should go and see the monks.’
‘How’s he doing – the one...’
‘Better, apparently.’
‘I’d like to see him, er... if he...’
‘I’ll find out for you’ she said, then waved and went away again. The rest of the team were over the next bank so I could sit and brood for a while in private.

I got word from Kev a couple of days later that the monk I’d attacked would be happy to see me. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t want to go back in that place but then I also knew I couldn’t stay here at all with that hanging over me. If this really was an evil place (an increasingly unconvincing argument it had to be admitted) surely it was time to pick up my things and move on, not go and make peace. I looked at Kev sitting beside me on the front bench with his shoes in his hands, inspecting them, I don’t know what for. I looked at his feet – sound sea-faring feet, used for clambering about in rigging and clinging to slippery decks. I desperately wanted to stay here.
‘Who are these monks? What are they here for?’ I asked tentatively.
‘You should ask them.’
‘But last time... I don’t want anything like that to happen again.’
‘Is that at all likely?’
I thought of the sculptures and the murals I’d seen and the overwhelming need to fight my way out that had come over me. I couldn’t risk it.
‘Perhaps if one of them came to see you here...’
‘You met Peter didn’t you, back at the beginning?’
‘Well yes but... He wasn’t very helpful.’
‘I’ll ask’ he says, getting to his feet, and then looking down at me he says ‘Lobster?’ and I say ‘Are you buying?’ and he says ‘Don’t need to. Caught them myself this morning’ and we head off to his place in the sunset.

Next day is Myday and I’m having a lie in when I hear Peter call ‘Knock knock. Anybody home?’
‘Come in’ I shout and sort myself out something to wear – shorts as usual.
‘My, you look a lot better’ he says as I descend.
‘I am a lot better. Fancy a cuppa?’
‘Just water, thanks. Been keeping busy?’ he says and I recap for him the rather uneventful last few weeks since the incident. I have the impression he’s not really listening but it’s hard to be sure. He goes over to the window and peers out as I sort out the drinks. It’s a bright clear morning after a good deal of rain in the night. Everything smells of fresh water but it’s beginning to steam outside as the sun comes along and swimming seems like the most sensible option for the day.
Finally I stand there with a tray in my hands and say ‘Inside or out?’ and he says ominously ‘I think inside is more appropriate don’t you?’ I find myself checking out where the nearest weapon is. I’ve taken to secreting them around the place – knives and heavy wooden sticks and such like.
We settle opposite one another on the sofas and sip our drinks.
‘I understand you have some questions’ he says.
My mind races – not because I have a lot of questions, but because I’m trying to imagine the response if I ask the wrong thing. I’ve thought about this a lot, although in my imagination I’ve been taken in for interrogation, not enjoying a cup of coffee on the sofa. Still, I need to be careful.
On the other hand I have no idea what the wrong question is.
‘Who are you? What are the monks here for? What is the sanctuary for?’ I blurt. I was never any good at strategy.
‘Whoa, whoa’ he says. ‘One question at a time. Please. Who am I? My name is Peter, you know that. As for the other monks, well, there are about twenty of us all told. Brother Jeffrey you encountered the other week.’
‘How is he?’
‘He’s well and looking forward to meeting you I believe.’ I look across at him sitting there, being sarcastic or not? I can’t tell.
‘But what um...’ I can’t seem to formulate the question. Brother Peter sits there impassively as I try to arrange my thoughts. ‘What are you all here for?’ I say finally ‘the monks I mean.’
‘Let me help you out’ he says, evidently having enjoyed my discomfort long enough. ‘We are not a religious order as such, or rather, we accept brethren of all faiths and none, brothers and sisters I should say. Our purpose here is simply to provide a... how shall we say? a spiritual home for the community. We provide safe haven for the lost and the damaged among us and a venue for worship and thanksgiving and celebration.’
‘Of whom?’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘Worship of whom? Thanks to whom?’
‘Hard to say’ he says leaning back. ‘One of the great eternal questions that. We don’t feel the need to specify, but simply respond to the specific need – to relate to the eternal, the ineffable, the absolute, however you may conceive of that.’
He looks at me rather piercingly. Surely he knows what I want to ask. Maybe he’s just waiting for me to incriminate myself. What the heck, I think. They’ll get me one way or another.
‘What about the tree, and the virgins? What about the demons?’
‘Excuse me?’
‘I saw them, in the upper halls. There were statues, and murals. You know about them, don’t pretend you don’t. What are they here for?’
‘I’m afraid you have me at a loss.’
‘You know exactly what I’m talking about’ I say, standing up and readying myself to grab the knife from behind the cushions
‘I don’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about at all’ and the genuinely worried look on his face makes me pause. He’s actually frightened. I realise it’s been a big risk for him to come here like this and sit with me. I go to the door and look about outside, all the while contemplating the hatchet hanging there if I need it. I turn and look at him. He’s actually trembling.
I sit down again but leaning forward, peering into his face. ‘Look’ I say and go over to the desk. I bring back the sketches I made. ‘Look, the demons, and here, underneath, who are all these people? They look like the children...’
He looks at the pictures – the copulating couples among the tree roots and the reptilian warrior with its machete and the severed limbs. Peter covers his mouth in horror and says nothing but he recognises them, I’m sure of it.
‘This is all...’ he begins. I wait. He looks at me. ‘You know these things?’ he says at last. I give him a tentative nod. ‘Of course’ he says and some sort of understanding crosses his face. He even smiles. He reaches in his pocket and I ready myself for attack. He pulls out a cloth and shows me it’s just a cloth and dabs his face with it.
‘Do you imagine you were the first to come to us via this route?’ he says, holding up the drawing of the tree. ‘By no means’ he says, getting himself settled again. ‘By no means... We are always being offered items to store or to display, surely you noticed.’ I nod. ‘A fantastic collection’ he continues. ‘Some exquisite pieces brought to us – a celebration and alas, a lament. That gallery you saw included some pieces by a woman by the name of Charlotte who came to us some years ago – these pieces.’
‘What happened to her?’ I say, fearing the worst.
‘Last I heard she was living in a village in the mountains with her husband. Roy I think his name is.’
‘Oh’ I say, somewhat deflated. This is not at all what I expected.
‘You were expecting something else? Something more sinister perhaps?’
I shrug and stand up. I need to walk about. Then it occurs to me that I need breakfast. I ask if Peter wants anything – tortilla, ham, tomatoes? He happily says yes to everything but doesn’t offer to help. While the onions and potatoes are frying I pour some fruit juice and take a glass over for him. He goes over to the back door and says ‘May I?’ I let him out and I watch him wandering around, looking at my already burgeoning salad patch. ‘I’m a terrible gardener’ he says when he sees me there. ‘Haven’t a clue.’ He picks a lettuce leaf and chews it meditatively.

After breakfast, taken up on the terrace, he leans back in a hammock and some silent fellowship follows. Eventually, without turning to me he says ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t much help before. I thought... I hoped perhaps you would not need me but there you are. Would you like to tell me what happened?’
I sit there on my chair, feeling more like the analyst than the analysed. I feel like I need to see some credentials.
‘Do you help a lot of people?’
‘Are you saying have I done this before? The answer is yes. Many times.’
‘And you find it helps’
‘Sometimes. I’ve never known it do harm. Tell me what happened. Tell me about the tree and the demons.’
I sit back and try to remember everything. I look at him there, looking away from me, waiting. I feel like I should begin ‘Forgive me father for I have sinned’ but that’s just it. I don’t know if I have. I don’t know what I’ve done.
‘Just tell me what you remember’ he says ‘It will come...’
Still not entirely without suspicion I begin by telling him what I told the others – in particular about the valley of death and the stream and the community there amongst the flowers. I can’t be sure if he’s listening or if he’s even awake but I continue anyway, moving into the other hammock as I go, staring up into the sky, telling him about what went on there.
Eventually I get to the last part of the story, the part I am dreading.

I remember it got to a time when the mood in the camp began to change. The first thing I noticed was that the girls I had ‘rejected’ tended to be treated particularly harshly the following night. I was well aware that the violence was done for my edification rather than anything particularly to do with the girls themselves. That was bad enough but I knew things were really serious when Ponytail took me aside one evening and offered me a toke of the ‘superior brew’ he kept for himself and his ‘special friends’. I pretended to inhale but he wasn’t fooled. After a while he leaned in on me and whispered to me in his lowest, most syrupy voice about the pleasures on offer. I knew this was my last chance he was giving me. I felt his whole weight on my shoulder and his hot wet breath in my ear and the stale fishy stench of him in my nostrils. Two girls clung to him on the other side.
‘Everybody likes a little virgin ass once in a while’ he drawled on me, ‘and they’re lying if they say otherwise. Everybody likes a little fresh fish. You know what I mean. This is our reward in heaven and we didn’t even have to join Al-Quaeda. That’s why you’re here. You know what I’m talking about? Everybody’s here for a reason. Everything has a purpose. You know what I’m saying. Come on, let me show you...’ and he began to tug me along in a stoned sort of way across to the bender where he normally spent his time. I stood there and wouldn’t be moved. He pulled harder, his narcosis rapidly dissipating. ‘Aw come on man’ he said, still acting jocular, clowning for the crowd who by now were watching but I knew that psychotic twinkle in his eye and I knew to prepare myself. And in any case, I was just so utterly sick of him, or men like him, always trying to shame you into playing their sick game, to get you to play on their terms, to come down to their level. Why does nobody ever stop them? How do they get away with it?
And yet I know I was not thinking that clearly. I was still terrified of the hot darkness out there and I still wanted to find another way. I still clung to the hope that if I just kept quiet and out of the way they wouldn’t press anything on me and wouldn’t take offence but they seemed unable to leave me alone. The more I tried to stay out of it the more they’d come to find me, to try to ply me, first with massages and beads, then more insistently with narcotic weeds and finally, violently with the prospect of rapes and beatings. I think I knew at the time it was because I made them look bad. Some vestige of ethics still hung about the place and usually its only role was to add a certain transgressive frisson to the revelry, but now here I was just saying ‘No’.
Of course I had to be disposed of. What other option was there?

Finally I realise it was Ponytail’s insistence that I was there for a reason that clinched it, but it wasn’t the reason he had in mind. I felt for the nasty black blade I’d kept hidden in my clothes since leaving the war zone. I’d thought it might come in handy. When I looked down at it in my hands I understood that this was my reason for being here. This was what it had all been for. It explained everything.

‘How did you find me, my body I mean?’ I ask Peter at last, exhausted with the story. He sits in his hammock facing me, gripping my hands in both of his.
‘I was out walking, a long way from here’ he says. ‘Sometimes it’s a necessity. Do you remember the day we uncovered you?’
‘Not really.’
‘There was no point in moving you immediately. I had to get some help to move the rocks away and remove the plants that had grown and then wait for your legs to knit together sufficiently so that you could be moved in one piece. It was a long process.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘You were not far from gone. We nearly lost you.’
‘And you brought me back here.’
‘Sonia looked after you from the start. You should thank her.’
‘She knew where I’d been didn’t she?’
‘You can ask her about that’ he says and makes a movement that tells me he’s ready to go. ‘And now’ he says ‘I must bid you good day. I feel the need for a very long walk.’
I see him off at the door as he heads along the path up river into the forest. Then I turn and go back inside. I sit and look at nothing for some time, nothing especially in my head, just a strange silence. I can hear everything for miles around. I can breathe at last.
I do feel strangely liberated. I feel like I’ve maybe proved I’m one of the good guys after all, because I wouldn’t, when it came to it, just go along with what everyone else was doing, even though I knew what the consequences might be, I did it anyway. I spent that last night cutting as many of them as I could catch into small pieces and scattering them in the undergrowth. And as the survivors, bleeding and weeping, eventually managed to overpower me and drag me to the ravine, I finally believed I had done something hugely important – that I had finally stood up for myself, and for what was right, not against some petty functionary or faceless corporate wonk but against real evil. It was enough. I had done it at last.

It’s still only early afternoon. I think first perhaps I’ll go for a swim, then maybe a stroll in the forest then I’ll need another swim. Then an early dinner and finally a good night’s sleep and then perhaps tomorrow I’ll go and see if I can find Brother Jeffrey – maybe take him some flowers and some fruit.

Voyage XIII – The Good Life

‘Sometimes’ says Lisa, gripping her mug of coffee ‘I just can’t believe how much I didn’t know about the world, about what was going on, how much I missed.’ I take her hand and smile. Tell myself I'm just being a good friend but we both know there's more to it than that. We’re up in the bar for breakfast again, Lisa and I, as is becoming a habit. Anybody’d think we were sleeping together. She’s taken the opportunity to go and shower and change her clothes between my room and the restaurant. She has a very lovely deep blue cotton dress on now. It’s quite sheer and I can see her breasts move underneath. It’s not doing anything for my resolve. Maybe if I went and spent a little time alone... I wonder if fantasising about her counts. It’s already too late if it does.
She seems back to normal anyway. ‘I used to read the papers, listen to the radio’ she says, ‘keeping up with what was going on in the world but then even that felt like too much effort a lot of the time and frankly it was so depressing. Then I used to listen to Chopin. Do you know Chopin?’
‘I do. I love the Nocturnes’
She seems very pleased to hear that and rubs the back of my hand as if to warm it up. ‘I had Gershwin, and Débussey and loads of other stuff. I used to be able to play Au Clare de la Lune.’
‘You played piano?’
‘Just bits and pieces.’
Just then Raz and Wen appear and Raz asks Lisa very formally if the seat is free and says she doesn’t want to intrude. Lisa gets up and gives Raz a huge suffocating hug.
Wen comes and sinks down into one of the big padded easy chairs near by. ‘Now now girls’ she says. We order breakfast.

‘So Gabriel’ says Raz ‘What do you think?’
‘About my question, last night’
‘I don’t really know what you mean Raz’ I’m not being obtuse. I really am not sure.
‘I want to know how to do better next time around, because I am going back, and the way I see it I can either do what Ruth would do and use my knowledge to make even more money (assuming I remember anything useful of this at all) or I can use it to bloody well make a difference. I could go either way. What do you think?’
‘Oh honestly I don’t think I’m the person to ask. I’m just a grumpy old man who’s read some books. Ask Wen – she’s the political animal around here’
‘What? No, don’t look at me. I hated politics.’
‘But you were in that organisation – Nature and Nurture or whatever they were called’ says Lisa.
‘People and Planet’ corrects Wen and shifts in her armchair, rearranging her cushions and picking up her mug – getting comfortable. The breakfast arrives – Huevo Ranchero for Wen and I, apple porridge for Lisa and some fresh fruit for Raz. We get busy eating. It’s been a long night.
Lisa reminds Wen of what we were talking about.
‘Honestly love’ says Wen, ‘I’m not your guy. I just liked being out in the woods looking at bugs and weeds. I fell in love with Latin America and the university paid me to go there, end of. It was pure self-indulgence on my part. I’m just one of those lucky sods that gets paid to do their hobby. Really...’ and she begins to fill up on refried beans, conversation over.
‘But you were involved in that big campaign about the global reserve in the Amazon’ says Lisa ‘I saw you on the news.’
‘I thought you didn’t watch the news’ I say, also stuffing my face.
‘Well, you know, trees and monkeys. I could cope with that.’
Wen wipes her mouth with a tissue and reaches for her smoothie. ‘I wasn’t even supposed to be involved’ she says. ‘Marco was supposed to do it but he got sick that day. I didn’t know what I was doing up there, what I was supposed to say. All those journalists and delegates. I was just supposed to be surveying. I hated the suits.’
‘We could tell’ says Raz chuckling.
‘You saw me?’
‘On the news. You were very persuasive. I was impressed. Could have done with you on our side. Kidding’ she says, raising her hands in surrender. ‘Just kidding.’
‘Yes, well’ says Wen, waving away our admiration. ‘Sometimes you have to, don’t you. The thing is, after that...’ she gesticulates around with her fork and talks with her mouth full ‘with all the jetting around to conferences and the interviews and all that, everyone thinks you’re one of them – the politicians and the media people, like you really love all the razzmatazz and screwing around with public perception and to be honest a lot of the people who represent the NGOs are like that – they could be in advertising or politics for real, but I couldn’t do it. I hated the whole media circus thing. If I could have just gone back to grovelling around looking for bugs with a clear conscience at any moment I would have. I wouldn’t have missed it at all.’
‘But you were good at it, the media thing’ I say.
‘Because you could tell she wasn’t playing the game. I get it now’ says Lisa, full of admiration.
‘Sincerity’ says Raz ‘That’s the thing. If you can fake that you’ve got it made. Kidding again people. Just kidding.’
We sit and finish our breakfasts and Lisa goes to get smoothies for us all.

‘So what have you two crazy kids been up to all night anyway?’ asks Wen. ‘Is it as we suspect?’
‘Oral sex’ says Lisa boldly.
‘Really? Well that is a refreshing level of honesty I must say.’
‘Actually’ I say, ‘we just talked about oral sex. Lisa wanted to know all about my past liaisons for some reason. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.’
‘Did you come to any conclusions, so to speak?’
‘Most men don’t like doing it apparently’ says Lisa with pink milk on her face.
‘Excuse me?’
She carefully puts her glass down on the table. There’s sticky juice everywhere and Lisa sucks her fingers. She knows I’m watching her.
‘Apparently men don’t think it’s manly to go down on a woman, and BJs are actually a bit of a disappointment unless you’re into the whole BDSM scene, so I’m told.’ She sits down and organises her straws, looking at me to see what I’ll say.
‘Gabriel?’ Raz looks horrified and Wen looks somewhat taken aback too.
‘Not me I didn’t mean’ I say, realising suddenly why she’s so outraged. ‘A lot of men though’ continues Lisa, ‘apparently, don’t think it’s... erm... dignified, manly, whatever, to erm... you know... What is the word?’
‘Cunnilingus’ says Wen with her face dripping with melon.
‘Yes, I know that, but you can’t cunniling someone. I need a verb.’
‘To go down on?’ says Raz.
‘To lick out’ says Wen with precision. Lisa giggles and squirms gorgeously.
‘I’m sure the French would have a good word for it’ says Raz.
‘Anyway’ I say, ‘apparently I’m in the minority.’
‘Unfortunately I think you may be right darling. I have to say I haven’t met many men who are really prepared to take it seriously. I did it with another girl once. That was a whole different kettle of erm... Help me out someone. Something not involving fish.’
‘Ballgame?’ says Wen.
‘Precisely’ says Raz, cackling away dirtily. ‘I have to say a lot of the blokes I knew didn’t know their way around at all, down below.’
‘That’s what Gabriel said, didn’t you, about women.’ I know she’s trying to embarrass me but I won’t let her. She’s sucking the juice out of a peach, all innocence on the face of it.
‘Some women’ I say. ‘I was saying it can be a bit of a disappointment and I’d rather do... I don’t know, other things.’
‘Well I never got any complaints darling.’
‘But presumably you actually enjoyed doing it.’
‘God yes. Absolutely. As long as he’s clean. What do you think Lisa?’
‘Errm...’ she says, doing a little dance with her shoulders, implying she can take it or leave it, but then she nods and says ‘Yes. I really enjoyed it. Really...’ Then she looks down and peers at her hair. ‘I don’t know’ she continues, flicking it out of her eyes. ‘My ex didn’t like it much, well, not from me anyhow. To tell the truth I really don’t know anything much about any of it – just what I’ve read really. I just feel so cheated. I’m sorry but I do. Mick – my ex was never really that keen on any of this “experimentation”... He was just a three minute wonder and he never went down... or anywhere near my you know what, or tried... And I didn’t really know any different. So... Carry on with your conversation. I’ll be alright.’
I feel Raz and Wen looking at me. I know what they’re thinking.
As we get up to go Wen takes my arm and whispers ‘I think you two are just made for each other.’
That’s what I’m afraid of.

Now there’s land in sight just visible in the haze, dark grey through pale grey, translucent layers of landscape one on top of the other, like a backdrop, scratched with warm drizzle. When it’s not raining the heat and humidity is suffocating and has been for a few days. Raz, Wen, Lisa and I are used to it from the sauna and are the only ones lounging on deck. With our thin clothes stuck to us we look as if we are dressed in nothing but body paint. I look at Lisa’s breasts and belly and thighs, indigo blue. Why is this somehow so much more erotic than her nakedness in the sauna? People are so perverse.
Alison tells me we’ll be disembarking in a few days. I hope we can all travel together overland, the four of us.
‘So, what you’re telling me basically is you just gave up with your career’ says Raz.
‘I realised I just didn’t have the drive’ I say.
‘After all that hard work?’
‘Didn’t you feel a bit of a... I don’t know...’
‘A failure?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t put it quite so harshly.’
‘I would. It’s ok. Yes, I did, for a bit. Well, I was disappointed for a while – depressed even.’ The rainfall suddenly steps up a few notches and we have to shout to be heard.
‘I’ll bet’ shouts Lisa, taking my hand. I look at her in the deluge, at the rain pouring off her head.
‘It took me a while to get used to it’ I shout, ‘that this dream I’d had all that time – my career as a painter, all the headlining exhibitions and lucrative commissions and all the rest of it just weren’t going to happen.’
‘So what did you do?’ shouts Lisa.
‘Travelled a bit. My girlfriend, Andrea, and I went to Turkey for a while.’
‘Sounds fab.’
‘It was. Look shall we go in? This is getting ridiculous.’ So we all get up and head down to the lounge. We ignore the looks we get, head straight for the bar and order up some cocktails. There’s a bit of a party atmosphere down here, everybody wondering where we’re going next.

‘To be honest Raz’ I say when we’ve found a towel and somewhere to sit, ‘it was ok. I think all this craving for recognition is a bit desperate.’
‘You’re not just saying that because you didn’t make it’
‘I’ve thought about that and yes, of course I’d love to have made a bigger name for myself but then the people I knew who succeeded like that, to me, they all seemed a bit mad. They just didn’t do anything else and really I just had too many other things I wanted to do. I just never really had that single-mindedness.’
‘But you said you loved painting’ says Lisa.
‘I did, but not to the exclusion of everything else. When I was younger maybe – when I was a teenager I didn’t really have anything else.’
‘So it was all about sexual frustration.’
‘Absolutely. Look, famous artists talk about all this worldly stuff as if it’s anathema to real creativity and I’ve met people at college – mostly women actually, who just wouldn’t have anything to do with anything that might “tie them down” in any way, because it distracted them from their work...’
‘They were probably just enjoying their independence’ observes Wen.
‘Certainly, but I just wasn’t prepared to be like that and actually I don’t think it’s healthy. What I want to say to you Raz, in answer to your question, is that our culture – the English based ones especially, tend to hold up this frankly pathological, obsessive attitude to business as if it’s something we should all aspire to and that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t – like Ruth and her obsession with her career, or any of these high flying movers and shakers we hear about.’
‘Hang on Gabriel’ says Raz ‘What are you saying – we should section them all or something?’
‘No, not at all. Of course not. I think they’re valuable members of society quite often – overpaid undoubtedly, but essential nevertheless.’
‘So what are you saying?’
‘That we ordinary mortals shouldn’t be judging ourselves by their standard. We shouldn’t feel we should have to work all those hours. We shouldn’t feel we have to own all that stuff. We shouldn’t have to feel we have to constantly impress everybody else with what we do or what we have, because it will never be enough and we’ll live our lives disappointed and frustrated and ultimately it will all seem futile. Plus destroying the environment and leaving millions of people with nothing at all in the process...’
‘So... What? You think we should all get paid the same, or what? I don’t get it.’
‘No, it’s just about getting paid properly for just doing a decent days work, doing something useful, keeping things going – ordinary stuff, what most people do every day. But instead we... I don’t know... we give these high flyers so astronomically much more, as if they are so, so much better than the rest of us, as if what we do is insignificant. It just distorts everything, screws everything up. It’s all wrong. We’re living life wrong – don’t you see what I mean?’
Raz looks thoughtful, trying to drown her olive with a cocktail stick. ‘I just don’t see how it’s possible’ she says finally. ‘How would you get people to behave differently? Firing squad?’
I lean back and act nonchalant. ‘Parental guidance, public opprobrium, ultimately the law – same as for any other undesirable activity.’
‘Doesn’t sound very feasible darling.’
‘Well obviously. They’d kick up one hell of a fuss I expect and they’re powerful people. They’d probably just take their business elsewhere.’
‘Well, like I said... being pragmatic...’
‘So Raz, are you arguing that I’m wrong or that I’m being impractical?’
‘What? Oh thanks sweetie.’
The waiter brings us more drinks. I look out at the torrent coming down off the roof of the cabins outside the door. A small red crab has somehow got up on deck and is scuttling about indecisively. Maybe a bird dropped it. I consider rescuing it but am too settled, steaming in my chair.
‘Ok,’ resumes Raz ‘so if we’re no longer all rushing around trying to be best, what I don’t get is what we’re all supposed to do instead. I mean won’t the world grind to a halt?’
‘We’ll do much the same as before I expect, but less so. Probably none of us really needs to work more than three days a week. We’ve actually reached a point in history where we probably don’t need anything much new at all, apart from some medical advances maybe but...’
‘God’ says Raz, ‘I can think of a few gadgets I couldn’t have done without. I keep wanting to get my Hippo out to tell Leslie what’s going on...’
‘Well I’d have literally been totally lost without my Savant’ says Wen, ‘and I loved my Manda*’ she adds with some passion. ‘My typing was absolute rubbish. People were always telling me it’d improve with time but it never did.’
‘What Voca did you have?’ asks Lisa. ‘I had Patrick Stewart.’
‘Guess’ says Wen.
‘Attenborough’ says Raz, clapping her hands gleefully and Wen smiles. It was obvious really.
‘How about you Gabriel? I bet you had someone sexy like erm... that woman on Radio 4. Catherine somebody.’
I shake my head, a little abashed.
‘Joanna Lumley. She’s more your generation’ says Wen.
‘What? Hardly.’
‘Not your missus’ says Raz with disgust and the truth is out. I look away and they all cackle with delight and I wonder for a moment if her Mac still speaks with my voice. I want to change the subject.
‘I totally miss my Slippery Fish’ says Lisa with some intensity. Raz observes my reaction. I decide to move the discussion on.
‘The point is’ I begin. ‘I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any... I mean, we’re just too obsessed with all this crap. You’ve got to admit most of it is just crap. We’re a spoilt brat culture, Raz, really. You know this. All this 'relative poverty' crap. We have everything we need but we just keep on whining for more. We’ve all got so much more money than we ever had at any other time in history and we just keep whinging on about how we never have enough. People aren’t happier these days. All the studies say so.’
‘It’s like that thing back in the nineties about GMOs feeding the world’ adds Wen. ‘I could have told them it wouldn’t happen. We already had enough to feed everybody. The reasons we didn’t were political and economic. GMOs didn’t change any of that.’
‘So your point is?’
I look at Wen. Apparently she has nothing to add.
‘My point is’ I say, trying to remember what my point was, ‘My point is, that if we already have everything we need, why are we all still squabbling? Why don’t we just relax and appreciate what we’ve got?’
‘But where’s the fun in that? Why would anybody even bother to get up in the morning? What would you do with all this free time?’
‘I don’t know. Do something creative. People used to have hobbies and handicrafts, projects around the house... People don’t do that any more do they.’
‘Not if they want a sex life darling. I have visions of these sad individuals in their sheds making model aeroplanes, or darning socks, with their NHS specks held together with sticky tape.’
‘That’s so exactly not what I meant’ I say tersely. I look around for inspiration. I hate the way “sad” has come to mean any enthusiasm that doesn’t involve getting pissed or running around with a ball, or making money of course. I take a long swig from my glass and take a moment to think. I think about my dad’s collection of alpines, and his railway magazines, and his old LPs. I thought he was “sad”, poor old bugger, but he was just doing the things he loved. That was when he wasn’t taking the car apart, or digging the garden, or fishing. All his friends were the same. He hated buying anything he couldn’t take apart with a spanner and a screwdriver. No silicon chips for him.
‘I’m sorry’ says Raz, smiling patronisingly at me and patting my hand. ‘Tell me what you meant.’
I huff a bit and try to explain. ‘It’s like my dad. He did everything – the rewiring, building a lean-to, growing our veg, fixing the car... Nobody does that sort of thing these days do they?’
‘They were so, I don’t know, capable, his generation, don’t you think? Independent, self-sufficient... I find it quite hard to take my generation very seriously. We don’t seem to be able to actually do anything much do we? Just go to the office, come home, watch telly, drink beer, go to the office...’
‘I know what you mean’ she concedes wistfully.
‘And cooking. People don’t know how to cook any more.’
‘Women I take it you mean’ says Lisa, elbowing me in the side.
‘Men, women, anybody. It’s not a sexist point. We’re all of us so.... so bloody infantile, so impotent. I don’t know... I know it’ll sound funny coming from me, but it just seems, I don’t know, really lazy somehow. Do you know what I mean? I mean, I know they do all those long hours and there’s all the stress and so on, but... I don’t know... at some level, it’s a deeply decadent way of life.’
‘Yes but’s about freedom isn’t it?’ Raz looks around for agreement but nobody reacts. ‘It’s about not having to worry about all that crap – just pay somebody else to do it.’
‘But then you have to spend all that time at the office to afford it’ says Wen. ‘Funny sort of freedom if you ask me.’
‘I’m talking about some measure of actual independence Raz – a bit of self-reliance.’
‘Yes I know but...’ she has a pained, constipated look on her face. ‘...but it’s just... It’s so ruddy time-consuming, and so bloody messy – to have to learn to do all that stuff. I have to say I’d rather spend my spare time chilling out with a bottle of rosé in front of the box and let someone else do the chores.’
‘But that’s not what he’s saying, is it Gabriel?’ interjects Lisa, looking from her to me. I just smile blandly and she looks momentarily flustered. ‘What he’s saying is’ she resumes, ‘is that it’s not that you have to come home from work and decide whether to do your own stuff or chill out, is it?’ She glances at me again. I try to look amused and wait for her to carry on. ‘The real choice is between doing your own stuff and having to go out to work. You get to relax either way. Do you see?’ She sits back, looking very pleased with herself, like a good student. Ten out of ten I think. Clever girl.
Raz takes a sip and thinks about it. ‘Well I don’t know’ she says finally.
‘You’d rather pay someone to do it for you’ I say.
‘Well, yes. I suppose I would.’
‘You’d rather spend all those hours doing something you hate, slaving away, making money for someone else, simply to avoid doing things for yourself.’
‘Well absolutely, since you put it like that. But look here, how many employers are going to agree to employ you part time so you can enjoy some quality time with the plumbing?’
‘I managed it.’
‘Hmm’ she says, unconvinced. We sit quietly for a while, pondering. I know she’s right. The employers wouldn’t stand for it. They need their wage-slaves, and they need them to try to cheer up their dreary lives by going shopping. Our economy runs on dissatisfaction and dependence and it makes me sick. When was it that life became not about making a home, spending time with the kids, meeting up with friends, enjoying the countryside or making a nice meal and instead became about making money? Has it always been that way? And if so, why do we still fall for it?
‘I suppose that was why I chose to make as much money as I could, while I could’ continues Raz, ‘so I could give up work altogether eventually. Didn’t turn out that way of course. I still worked flat-out until I dropped...’
‘And yet you still believe that if everyone embraces the spirit of free enterprise we can all lead rich and happy lives.’
‘God no. That’s the trouble – everybody’s brought up these days to assume they’ll get a great job if they only try hard enough and get themselves noticed, but it stands to reason most of them won’t. There just aren’t that many great jobs to go round, or even half decent ones. The vast majority are just going to end up in some menial retail or office job, bored and frustrated. And then who’s going to pick up the pieces? No wonder kids go off the rails these days. At least in the old days you knew where you stood. I’m not saying we should go back to the old eleven-plus but you have to admit it reflected society’s needs. You didn’t get your hopes up. You maybe didn’t like where you were put but at least it didn’t come as a huge shock later on. You made the best of it.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself. She takes a moment to observe the end of her cigarette burning down. She blows on it a bit and watches it glow. I’d like to say she looks smug about it but she doesn’t. She doesn’t look happy about it at all.
‘The fact is’ she says, after a quick final drag and stubbing it out. ‘The fact is that it doesn’t matter how brilliant they are, but most of them, I’m truly sorry to say, will never be more than mindless drones. And that’s the way it is.’
We all sit quietly for a bit. Lisa finishes her drink, using her straw to fend off the remaining ice. I look about at the other passengers.
‘That’s actually a faulty metaphor, entomologically speaking’ observes Wen. We all turn to look at her down in her armchair, sipping her cocktail.
‘In a beehive’ she continues ‘the drones are the males. They’re only there to mate with the queen. It’s the workers, the females, do all the... well... work. Anyway...’ she shrugs, ‘Carry on...’
‘Is that so?’ says Lisa.
‘Really?’ says Raz.
We take a moment to consider the faulty metaphor.
‘I have to say I didn’t get the impression you were terribly bothered about all this at the time’ I say.
‘No, well I admit I was only really concerned about my getting rich’ resumes Raz, lighting up a new cigarette, ‘but in any case, if I remember correctly it was you who told us that people should stop being so neurotic trying to make more and more money, because they already have more than enough to be going on with. And don’t give me all that relative poverty crap because I don’t buy it. I’ve seen enough to know that if you’ve got clean running water and electricity, a telly and a fridge you are not poor. You’ve actually got to be a junkie or chronically ill to be in genuine need these days. I’m sorry, it may not be very PC to say so but there it is.’
‘No actually I tend to agree with you’ says Wen. ‘We’re spoiled rotten. But it is, of course, an illusion.’
‘What is?’ says Raz.
‘That there are no poor. They just happen to live elsewhere. You’ve seen them. We still depend on them to do our dirty work, as you so astutely put it.’
The four of us sit back and catch our breaths. It seems to be clearing outside but getting dark. The staff are setting up for the evening meal and other passengers are getting restless and heading down to get showered and changed. All very civilised. It’s funny how we’ve not got bored with this over the last few months and I’m going to miss it.
‘Would I be allowed something nice once in a while?’ says Raz after a while. ‘Some small luxury, in this utopia of yours?’ I have to tug myself back into the conversation. I’d been thinking about food.
‘What? Oh, of course you would. Oh look, I don’t even mind if you buy yourself a Porsche if you really love your car. I just don’t think everyone should think they should have a flash car just to prove something to their neighbours – it’s just so immature.’
‘Doesn’t prove anything these days anyway’ says Wen. ‘Half the time you check out who’s at the wheel and it’s some old fool trying to recapture his youth.’
‘So how much should people be allowed to own?’ asks Raz.
‘Actually, to be honest Raz, I don’t care. If people want to work themselves into the ground and be millionaires that’s fine. I think it’s kind of neurotic but ultimately it’s up to them. What I’m saying is, half the world shouldn’t have to die young as a result, and the environment shouldn’t be wrecked because of it and they certainly shouldn’t be able to run the place as if everybody thinks the way they do, because we don’t.’
We sit quietly for a while after that.
‘Are you done?’ says Raz.
‘I think so, for now. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. Can I get back to you? Actually, do you think it’s time to get changed? I’m actually fizzing here.’

We all head back to our respective cabins. At my door Lisa stops and waits for them to go. Once they’re gone she holds my face gently between her hands and kisses me softly on the lips. ‘I love you’ she says. ‘You’re brilliant’ and I’m surprised to find myself grinning at her. I can’t bring myself to say the same but she doesn’t seem to expect it. I watch her bottom jiggle in her damp dress as she heads along the corridor and then I open my door. The bedclothes are still flattened where she sat and I can still smell her there.

* Manda ™ was the first commercially successful brand of voice recognition software. Soon almost any new electrical device from cars to cookers to sex toys could be given verbal instructions, in a normal voice, as if addressing a friend or colleague. A popular feature of Manda was that a voice of ones choice (a ‘Voca’) could be downloaded for the device’s responses, replacing the standard Hawkinspeak diction used by earlier systems. 

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.