Monday, 30 April 2012

Novel: Non-Sequiturs

Afternoons, according to Rob, were not much good for anything. Just when lunchtime had worked up a head of steam and seemed to be well on the way to evening, it suddenly stopped, leaving you with this continuation of daylight which was, frankly, unnecessary. 'I mean, why is there so much daylight? What's it for? You can see perfectly well at night. Daylight just seems exaggerated, a bit literal-minded, if you know what I mean, Daniel.'
     I decided he was drunk, though he was still speaking clearly enough, and striding down Gosling Rise so fast I could hardly keep up with him. Ahead of us, the sea was a chilly pale blue that made it look further away than it actually was. 'I don't feel that at all. I don't like the dark.'
     'That's because you're the sort of well-behaved person who has nothing very much to gain from the darkness, Daniel. Three beers and three women and you're happy. You can go back to your Arctic and your corned beef, what was it?'
     'Three and a half,' I said, running a few strides to catch up, 'beers, I mean.'
     'Oh, so you're extra happy now, are you? You don't look it, just your usual studious self. So what do you do with your afternoons, read Derrida?'
     The hiccup had come back in a more solid form, a fist-sized lump of peanut-mulch in my gullet. I only had time to breathe every two or three steps, and when I did the frosty air tasted of peanuts. 'I walk. And go to, go to bookshops.'
     'That sounds very intellectual. I fancy that. And then we can get on the train to Fulmar and go to the party.'
     'What, what party is this, Rob? I don't remember any party.'
     He had stopped and was appraising the streets and shops round about, which caused me to career right past, finding it difficult to adjust my pace on the steep hill. When I came back, Rob was staring into a window-display of trusses, incontinence pads and prosthetic limbs, all pink plastic, beige canvas, straps and buckles. 'So this is Helmston,' he said, as if he had never been here before. 'Remarkable. Why do you think they put this place on a hill? Must be a bit of a poser for the customers. Why are you in such a hurry, Daniel? We've got the afternoon ahead of us, haven't we?'
     'I don't... remember... party.'
     'There's always a party if you look hard enough. It's a university, isn't it? But why am I telling you this, Daniel? You're the student.'
     That afternoon was a series of non-sequiturs. Sometimes we were in bookshops, sometimes walking. At one time we were in a cafe because Rob had told me he was worried about my condition, and I needed to sober up. 'I can't understand it,' he said, 'unless you'd been drinking before I arrived. Have the hot chocolate with whipped cream. You need something on your stomach. Which is more - ' patting his own stomach - 'than I do. But I never eat anything, so it's hardly my fault.' Another time we were crunching along the beach, Rob still talking all the time, though I could hardly hear him for the wind and the grinding of the waves. He had bought a copy of Charles Olson's Maximus poems, an outsize yellow hardback, in one of the bookshops and was reading me bits of it as he walked. 'Projective verse, Daniel. What do you think?' He put the book on one of the drier mounds of shingle, picked up a stone and ran with it into the shallows, the water drenching his socks, before launching it into the waves and turning to me with a mock-triumphant look. 'Seven bounces, what you do think of that?'
     I felt a sort of shadow pass over me, inside my head or outside it, I wasn't sure. I put my hand up to my forehead, as if to wipe it away.
     'You know, Daniel, I like you. You're so easy to talk to. But you don't do much, do you?' He looked at me curiously, the way he had looked at the trusses. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
     'It's the starlings,' I said. Or maybe I didn't. He didn't seem to hear me, anyway.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Novel: What did I do?

'It's undeniably crap,' Rob said, looking down at his plate, which supported a canvassy pancake rolled round a filling that was mostly chunks of carrot. 'That is a given. And all right, I admit it, I'd rather be eating a steak. But you don't eat steak in Helmston, do you?'
     'What do you mean? Of course you do. They have every kind of restaurant you can think of.' I took a sip of my beer, only a half this time, much to Rob's disgust.
     'You can get it, Daniel, I grant you that, but you don't eat it. It's just for the tourists, along with the fake Indian and the fake Chinese and the fake Italian, and the fake, God knows, Mongolian or Romanian or what have you. Even you don't eat steak, and you're hardly a typical Helmstonian - I believe that's the word - hardly a typical Helmstonian, are you?'
     'I don't know what you mean.' Somewhere in the exhausting climb up Gosling Rise between the Shakespeare's Head and Wholesomeness, my hiccup had disappeared and been replaced by an all-over burning sensation that was either a symptom of a dangerous illness or a sort of exhilarating rage. I no longer cared about having to explain my sex-life to Rob; I would lie or tell him to mind his own business - it didn't matter which. Who was he, anyway? An overweight, married, part-time market researcher, from Kent of all places. 'I'm not a tourist, I live here.'
     Rob leaned forward across the table. 'You don't come from here, though, do you? Nobody really comes from here, I've noticed that.'
     I shook my head. 'You talk some utter, I mean some unmitigated...'
     'What's that you're eating?' He gestured at my plate.
     'It seems to be mostly peanuts.'
     'See, you could have had peanuts at the pub, and I wouldn't have had to suffer the carrot pancake. Anyway - ' he took a long gulp of his beer as a sign that he was changing the subject - 'you were going to tell about your lovers. I just have so much to learn.' Rob's habitually ironic mode of speaking cancelled itself out, I decided. Coming from anyone else, the way he had said that last phrase would have been insulting, but there was something innocent about Rob's irony.
     'I don't really have any,' I said. Or rather it was said for me - I seemed to have reached that stage.'
     'Yes, well, I can see that. But you have had, the three women you mentioned.'
     'They weren't really - it was nothing much. I mean I don't think I'm very good at... relationships.'
     Rob nodded, weightily. 'Understood, Daniel. Who is? Not me, anyway.'
     I wondered for a moment if I found that reassuring. There were degrees of not being good, just as there were degrees of frustration, the nine-hundred and ninety-ninth degree and the rest. But, to be honest, I wasn't even on the chart yet. 'You? But you're married.'
     He gave a sigh, or was it a laugh? 'I know. Embarrassing, isn't it? You want to see a picture? I might as well do the whole bourgeois thing.'
     She was tall with a Mediterranean tan, high cheekbones, and long dark hair, holding the baby awkwardly at shoulder-height as though she wasn't sure what to do with it, with her. Beautiful? Yes, probably. The main thing I thought, though was that she seemed grown-up. I wasn't sure why that should surprise me - Rob was hardly a child, after all. Come to think of it, the baby looked exactly like him, minus the beard and earring, a small plump-faced Rob in a pink tracksuit of the kind they favoured for babies these days. 'What did I do? Rob said, shaking his head. 'What did I do?' I waited for the end of the question, but there didn't seem to be one.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Novel: Hiccup

'Three?' Rob said, adjusting his body on the chair to work his fingers into the pocket of his jeans and draw out the squashed packets of Rizlas and Golden Virginia in preparation for the finciky process of making one of his roll-ups. '(I have to be Imogen for the moment, seeing as she's not here. Want one of these? No? You really have to smoke, Daniel, if you want to be a proper student.) Three. That's very restrained of you.'
     'Yes, well,' I said, 'I'm... choosy.' Never in all the times I had fielded that question had I come up with a remark like that; it could only have been the three pints. I looked defiantly at Rob, but he had his head down over the table and was rearranging individual strands of tobacco. It wasn't clear for a while whether or not he had heard me.
     'Hm,' he said finally, holding the finished cigarette up to the light as if to see whether it was transparent. 'And were they worth it?'
     'These three women you put so much deliberation into. I hope they were worth it? Were the relationships satisfying?'
     'Um.' There was something stuck in the back of my throat that felt like an unfinished hiccup. I couldn't swallow it again, and was concentrating most of my forces on trying to make it emerge in a controlled and discreet way. 'I think I need to eat, Rob. It's almost two o'clock, and I'm not used to drinking so much at lunchtime.'
     'Why this obsession with eating all the time? All right, how about some peanuts?'
     'I was thinking more of lunch.'
     'I can get lunch back home,' Rob said. 'All right, let me finish my cigarette, and we'll go somewhere. I want to hear abut the three women.'
     In between struggling with the hiccup, I was trying to make my mind move in a straight line, but it kept doubling back on itself. It's just language, I kept thinking; if I had slept with a thousand women, like, I don't know, Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias, Frank Sinatra - they're all musicians, aren't they? Is there something about music and sex? Like Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias... Who is Julio Iglesias, anyway? I'm pretty sure he isn't cool, and not a name I ought to be dropping even if he has slept with a thousand women. Is it always exactly a thousand, I wonder, or do they not count after the first thousand? It must be so frustrating to get to, say, nine hundred and ninety-nine, and then you can't manage the thousandth for some reason, they all start saying no for some reason. A different level of frustrating, of course. Eric Clapton... Pull yourself together, Daniel. Even if I had slept with a thousand women, I would have no way of conveying that experience to Rob because it's only language, whatever I say is only language, signifiers without signifieds, because the women aren't here, he can't see them or talk to them, they would just be names, words, language, there's no way of what's the word? No way of reality testing. He doesn't know, I can make up anything I like, because it's only words. As far as words are concerned I am Julio Iglesias. Or three one-thousandths of Julio Iglesias which is a nice conservative, normal thing to be. Only don't mention the name because he isn't cool. Three one-thousandths of, erm, Eric...
     'Are you all right, Daniel?' Rob said. 'You look a bit pale. Perhaps you do need to eat, come to think of it. We can go to that veggie place, Wholesomeness.'
     'I'm OK. I've just got a bit of, of the hiccups.'
     He looked at me, puzzled. 'Are you sure? I haven't actually noticed you hiccuping.'
     'It's just one hiccup,' I told him, 'and it won't move. It's stuck in my throat.'
     He nodded wisely. 'Oh, one of those. Come on, Daniel. We'll go to Wholesomeness and you can tell me about your lovers.'

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Novel: Three Women

The answer to the eternal question was three. It was not really an eternal question, but one that had appeared when I entered the sixth form at Blackfriars School, and had recurred all through the two years of sixth form, the after-school gap year, the three years at Cambridge, and the after-university gap year. The wording changed a bit over this period, from girls to women, from done it with, to screwed, fucked, had sex with, but the gist was the same. The questioner was always male, and the conversation usually took place late at night, after a party or a night at the pub, though in the sixth form we must have been sitting on top of the desks in Room 23A after teaching hours. The tone was usually hushed and earnest in the early days, but later it became slightly mocking, even challenging: 'OK, Daniel, so how many...?' And the answer was -
     - not alway three, of course. In the early days it was an embarrassed smile, a shake of the head and a sort of gasp that was trying, not very successfully, to disguise itself as a laugh. And, and, and, the mind working frantically to try and deduce what answer was expected. Should I have slept with any girls / women by now, and if so how many? I didn't even know any, or at least none that I wasn't related to. Come to think of it, I knew my sister's friends, too, but not to sleep with - they were her friends, not mine, and I hardly even talked to them. Now it appeared I should have been using my passing encounters with them, in the hall while one of us was going in and the other going out, or on the landing when one was waiting for the loo and the other leaving it, to some kind of advantage. How many had I even looked at?
     But I got better at answering. There were girls, even at Cambridge (most of them nurses from Addenbrooke's). I went out with some of them, took one to a May Ball. I had my first kiss upside-down, leaning over the back of a chair to attach myself to the lips of a girl who had kissed every other male in the room that evening, in my eagerness to make sure I didn't miss my chance. And the answer to the question went, overnight, from a shrugging none to a shrugging three, because I had reached the age when three was a modest, sensible, unshocking answer.
     That was the answer I gave to Rob in the Shakespeare's Head one Wednesday lunchtime. He had called at the Squirrels just after I had got up; I had nibbled at a bit of cold corned beef hash, drunk some coffee and was about to wander out and tour the bookshops. The door was open and I heard him galumphing up the stairs; I could tell instantly it was him, not only from the heaviness of the tread but from the faint wheezing that went with it, and my first thought was: how does he know where I live? Then I remembered I had told him about the Squirrels, in one of the quieter moments of one of our Tuesday drinking sessions, made a joke out of the name and the decor: my glitter palace. I still didn't want him to see it. Nobody had visited me here since I had been at Southdown, only Marjorie asking if she could make the bed.
     'Morning, Daniel,' Rob said, stooping slighly as he reached the landing, 'how about a cup of coffee? Or any drugs, if you happen to have any?' A couple of hours later, we were sitting in the Shakespeare's Head (large, grubby and sour-smelling in the daytime), and Rob was asking me, not mockingly but in a spirit of theoretical inquiry that seemed appropriate to my new, scholarly existence, how many women I had slept with. I felt almost confident in the answer by now, perhaps because it was the same as the number of pints I had just drunk. The answer was three.