Monday, 30 November 2015

Sons or Daughters (Ages of David, Part 8 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
My wife is pregnant. 

I am going to be a dad.

Any moment now.

This is not a decision we took lightly, nor one taken simply because it is what we feel we ought to be doing.  My wife’s career is important to her.  We both have reservations about adding another soul to a planet already over-stretched, about bring someone into a life which – in all probability – will offer harder choices and a more complex existence than we, to date, have experienced.  And yet, beyond just an idle curiosity of what our spliced genes would look like, we actively want to be parents.

I want to be a strong father, a good husband.  I want to provide for and support my family.  I don’t want to let them down.

But I also don’t want to let myself down.

I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can invent, no fiction I can construct which is worth anyone’s time to read.  I find writing this blog, dramatising my own life, covering up all the scars with words, much easier, and at times more satisfying.  Its readership is reasonable, if not stellar, but significantly higher than those who read the stories stored on my hard-drive.

In other words I am devoid of inspiration but there is only so far I can go in trawling my own life for material.  My wife and unborn child did not sign up to become characters for me to manipulate.

Writing takes significant amounts of time.  I fear that time being eroded by the arrival of a child.  At the same time, I welcome the time being stolen from me.  It gives me a legitimate excuse to give up, to surrender the fact that I am, quite simply, not good enough.  And never will be.  No-one will begrudge me giving up what increasingly feels like a hobby to spend more time with my son or daughter. 

All of which is making me sound like a total twat.

*

I am in my study.  The music plays loudly.  The screen blinks as words fill it.  Outside dusk has fallen.  My wife lies in the bed in the next room, her laptop open, resting with the cat curled up tight to her thigh.  The world is calm.

I consider writing an imaginary vignette to compliment the true-ish stories I’ve been telling. 

I think about taking my son to the playground in the park, feeling the gentle smack of the swing being pushed out by my gloved hands.  The rush he feels as he shoots once more into the air never quite knowing if this time he will fly free, but somehow trusting he will always come back to my hands.

Or teaching my daughter how to ride her first bike, feeling the tremble in her hands as I steady her balances and then that surge of pride as she wobbles decisively over the horizon.  That I know she will be able to do anything she wants if we are able to set her on the right path.

Or a thousand other situations which may or may not ever come to pass.

Maybe I should dramatise the joke my wife and I keep telling, that on the morning after our child’s birth I will take to the Hilly Fields stone circle and raise it aloft in the dawn, promising it the kingdom of south east London.

But these are just fictions and this is real.  This is happening and I cannot possibly, truly, understand what it will be like until it does.  I need to just stop making stuff up and focus on real life.

*

It sounds like I’m not excited, which isn’t true.  With every inch my wife has expanded there has both been a spark of nervousness but also a touch of a thrill.  There have been those moments when your gut somersaults, your heart pinches and the sheer miracle of it all bites: hearing the rapid fire heartbeat at ten weeks, like a terrified mouse, gave me a sudden realisation that it was really, truly alive.  That first time I felt it move, swirl and wriggle, in my wife’s stomach, as it took a twisting escape from the pressure of my hand.  And a hundred, thousand other times.

But I am worried I will fail either it or myself.  Maybe I put too much emphasis on my need to write, but at the moments when the words come together the scars are entirely gone and I feel whole.  When it is a battle to get anything that makes sense out, they weep pus and guilt. 

I am, I realise, utterly ridiculous.  My own parents had far realer difficulties in bringing up their children.  From my touch and go birth onwards, my own Dad had to deal with a, at times, pretentious and precocious son with strange interests whose ambition left his ability far behind and who had a tendency to wallow in frustration.  Dad responded by instinctively doing everything in his power to provide all for his children.  In contrast, I’m moaning about losing a few hours a week to pointlessly put words into a computer hardly anyone ever sees anyway.  My problems are miniscule compared to so many in the world.  If I can be a fraction of the father he has been, my child will be off to a brilliant start.

Earlier in the year I re-read some of Harvey Pekar’swonderful American Splendour stories.  Pekar was never a professional writer.  He worked by day as a file clerk in veterans’ hospital, finding splendour in the life and struggles of the every day.  His comics were his creative outlet which kept him sane, even finding a way to come to terms with his cancer treatment. 

At the time I remember admiring his resilience; the fact that, even in his darkest moments, Harvey Pekar never gave up on his writing, on his life.  He kept picking away at the scars of his soul and the society he saw around him, needling away until the crisp crust split and the truth underneath drizzled out.  But, sometimes, that’s a release I crave.  To stop picking at my flaws.  A part of me wants to have permission to not feel guilty about not writing, about not necessarily doing anything other than being a man, a husband and a dad.

And part of me is terrified that, should I stop, that will be the end of me.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

35-ish (Ages of David, Part 7 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
‘I think we should try to make a baby.’

‘What?’ I reply from underneath my cagoule’s hood and glance around at the rain sodden Welsh hillside.  ‘Right now?’

‘It’d be a bit chilly,’ my wife of five days says.  ‘But maybe in the autumn when we get back from Vietnam?’

‘Uh-huh,’ I say, remembering a similar conversation and trying to figure out exactly how I feel.  ‘That’s, er, that’s sooner than we’ve previously talked about.’

‘Is it?’

And, actually, I realise that it probably isn’t.  It’s just that we weren’t terribly specific and it’s so easy to wilfully misunderstand things when you want to.  My wife continues to talk about our future and I use the rain as an excuse to sink a little back into myself.  I am torn.  I want, so desperately, to please her and yet the idea of having a child in a little over a year’s time seems ludicrous.  I am just coming to terms with the idea that I am effectively halfway through life with little literary output to show for it, and I haven’t realised yet that my work is about to stall as inspiration rushes away from me.  I don’t for one second believe I am ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood.

But it is not solely my choice.  And it certainly isn’t my body.

The idea sinks in more as we drop down off Pen Y Fan, following the bridleway to the ruined buildings overgrown with greenery at the head of the small dam.  It isn’t as horrifying as I first thought.  It grows and images form in my mind, spreading like tendrils through my life map.

‘I guess I just thought we’d have more time to, you know, just be husband and wife, before we became mum and dad too.’

She smiles and I can’t not respond.

*

The bathroom door closes and I find myself not sure what I want the outcome to be.  Over the past couple of months, I have oscillated between excitement and hesitation.  There have been moments, sometimes crucial moments, of doubt.  Aside from questions around my own suitability as a parent, it’s a hard world out there.  Growing ecological problems, an economy latched onto the hope that capitalism is somehow endless, that it is possible for growth to be infinite, while we live in a society that, occasionally, seems to embrace hate and aspire to social exclusivity.  One that is more than willing to trample others in its race to the false summit.  Who would want the gift of life in such circumstances?

‘Come and look,’ she calls, so I go upstairs to join her staring at a soggy piece of card.  Slowly the colour changes to something definite.  She looks so pleased, I can’t help but get swept up in it too, but also it feels remote.  There’s a clear change, but an abstract one too. 

The next day we head to Normandy for a few days cycling.  Immediately, my wife notices a difference.  She has less energy, finds herself struggling more than she would do normally.  She can already feel the changes in her body.  Something is taking shape inside her.  Meanwhile, I feel detached.  It is, obviously, happening to me too but I, simultaneously, am excluded.

*

It is summer by the time of the second scan.  Seeing it, hearing its heartbeat for the first time helped it all to feel real, but during the lull in-between it has started to disappear over the horizon again.  I can see the physical changes occurring to my wife, but still I struggle to fully understand them – and consequently to completely understand how I feel about it.  I do want this, I tell myself, but I worry that it is just me saying it.  I’m worried about how much I am lying to myself:  That really I am afraid of what it will do to my life, that its own life will be as muddled as my own.

I haven’t written a word for weeks.  I sit upstairs at the computer, looking at the white glow on the screen and nothing comes out.  There is just the void, barren and uncaring.  I fear that’s what is growing inside me.

The technician scans the baby several times.  No longer just a foetus, it is taking on humanoid shape.  Its profiled head is luminous and ghostly.  A nose, a forehead, lips and eyelids.  It is beginning to look real.  I squeeze my wife’s hand and feel a knot of nervousness scrunch in my gut as the technologist returns from her computer and looks again.

‘Where has it gone?’ she mutters to herself.

‘What?’ I ask, immediately assuming something is wrong.

She thinks she has seen something called bright bowel.  A brief moment where the bowel glowed like blood.  This, she concedes, could have been a mistake since she can’t replicate it, but it could also be a soft sign for all sorts of things.  Some relatively benign.  Some significantly more serious.       

‘Don’t google it,’ I tell my wife, knowing full well that we both will do.  Cystic fibrosis.  Cytomegalovirus.  Trisomy 21.  Intrauterine Growth Restriction.

The next few days are tense.  I reappraise the questions I’m asking myself.  It becomes no longer about whether I will be fit to have a child, but whether I will be capable of caring as much as could be required.  I fail to answer myself.

Another scan, this time at the bigger hospital with a consultant operating the machine. 

‘Nothing,’ he says.  ‘There is nothing there, nothing to worry about.’

The sense of relief I feel is so great I am giddy on my feet.  But the relief is sharpened too.  I immediately realise that I do not so much feel it for myself but for my unborn child.  I care about it more than I do myself.  And that is the moment everything draws into focus.  I am not ready to be a Dad – no-one ever, truly is.  I am detached from the process of growing a baby because I am one body removed, just like everyone else.  However, I do care for it, suddenly and surprisingly strongly.

*

But no words come and wife grows and I feel as though I fail us.

The air has turned cold tonight for the first time this year.  My breath hangs in the dark two o’clock air.  Someone from our NCT group gave birth this morning.   We are well and truly in the drop zone.  Labour could commence at any moment and I am hundred miles away, drunk outside a pub.  I am a useless excuse for a man, I think, followed by something more profound I tell myself to remember and write down later.  I plan to use it here, in this paragraph, but it is gone, fleeting on the winter wind.

My scars itch with guilt and the demons under my skin writhe around looking for a route out.

30-ish (Ages of David, Part 6 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Before I even open my eyes I’m wishing I was still asleep.  There’s a burn in my brain and an acidy fire in my gut.  It feels like my memories are combusting.  My mouth is heavily dry, my tongue scuzzily fuzzed over.  I really need to pee.  Slowly I peel my eyelids open, the summer’s morning light doesn’t sting but it does all look out of focus.  There’s a half empty bottle of California rose on the bedside table, which is surprising, not least because I don’t have a bedside table.  It takes the realisation that the pillow is a paunchy yellow to fully comprehend that this, probably, isn’t my bed.

Unsurprisingly, on that basis, I am not alone, but the heavy breathing suggests that I am the only one in the waking world.  I slip out from under the covers, relieved to see I am at least wearing boxers, and go in search of a bathroom.  I’m lucky; it’s directly opposite the bedroom, across the hall, the door ajar.  The stinking wine heavy piss is long and, eventually, a relief.  There’s no toilet paper.  Afterwards I splash some water on my face, but I can’t get it to run cold.  The clammy warmness doesn’t alleviate my symptoms.

I go in search of a glass, wandering through the flat in just my underwear.  I find the kitchen and pour myself some more lukewarm water, glugging back the whole glass in one and refilling.  My mouth feels less rancid.  Just.  I take my water to the window.  We’re high.  Maybe the sixth floor.  The flat looks out on the greyed out grass of a communal area and other blocks smudged between the raised train tracks.  I’m not entirely sure where I am.  South of the river, I think.  There was definitely a bus ride.

I don’t think it is as bad as it could be, but I can’t rightly remember.  There’s another two empty rose bottles on the table.  There are also a pair of man’s trainers which aren’t mine.  Momentarily I panic that it may be a boyfriend, but then I remember mention of a flatmate.  Less dangerous, but no doubt equally less keen to discover me, without clothes, early in the morning.

How early, I wonder and glance at the clock on the cooker.  It says 16.32.  It can’t be afternoon, I think.  It’s too quiet. 

I creep back into the room.  On the bedside table is my watch, next to an empty wineglass.  Just after six.  I get back into the bed, feeling too dreadful to contemplate anything else.  The girl rolls off her back, onto her side and I look at her face and try to remember.  Her hair smells of cigarettes.  I turn my face to the ceiling.  In the corner, by the window, there is a black patch of mould.  The sheets feel greasy.  What, I think, do I do now?

Go to sleep, my body answers for me, encouraging my eyes to close.

‘That was a narrow escape,’ she says.  I don’t reply, unsure what to say.  Was it?  I’m not sure I know the answer.  ‘I mean, this could be really awkward right now.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Well, goodbye then.’

‘Oh.’  I open my eyes and sit back up.  ‘Goodbye, I guess.’

I get dressed quickly, deciding as I do that this suit has definitely seen better days.  I pause at the door, wanting to find some witty respite or at least some way for this not to be quite so humiliating.  I can’t think of anything so I leave.

‘See you,’ comes the voice along the corridor.

Downstairs, passing through the door that doesn’t securely shut, I suddenly remember arriving via a hole in the fence by the road rather than through the estate.  I find the gap and squeeze through it, jumping down the last few feet to the pavement making a passing dog walker jump.

‘Sorry,’ I mutter but he just scowls.

I’m still not sure where I am, but start walking anyway.  The morning is already warm and I feel empty, deflated of food and energy, but with an empty walk is what I must do.  After a while I find a road I recognise, round the back of the refuse centre you pass on the train between New Cross and London Bridge.  The faint waft of composting rubbish floats on the air.

This is not exactly my finest hour, but by the time I have arrived home I am at least starting to feel human again, and there is something from all the tumbled up emotions that I can feed off.  I shower, make myself two sausage sandwiches with brown sauce and a pot of coffee and go to work, funnelling all the weirdness into words on the page.  Several hours of writing flow effortlessly, the click-clack of the keyboard creating a stomach settling rhythm.

Early in the afternoon she texts me.  Do I want to meet for a drink later?   I politely decline.  Her response is furious and so I keep on typing.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

25-ish (Ages of David, Part 5 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
‘I want to have a baby,’ she declares one Tuesday night, sat at the kitchen table with an Ikea catalogue open in front of her at the kid’s bedroom page.  I’m doing the washing up.

‘Er,’ I reply, continuing to towel a plate in as nonchalant fashion as possible wondering where to start.

‘It’d be so cute.’

‘I think working with so many babies everyday is clouding your judgement.’

‘I’m not broody,’ she says, mock offended.  She looks away and smiles slightly.  ‘Maybe a little.  It’d be amazing.’

‘I guess.’

‘You don’t sound super convinced?’

And she’s right, I don’t.  Because I’m not.  Twenty-four hours previously we were embroiled in an almost violent argument, verbally not physically, about who knows what.  Something so fleeting that it should barely have been worth commenting upon.  It is nine o’clock on a Tuesday and tomorrow morning I have to get up at half four and drive to Bolton for a meeting.  I should be going to bed, not having this conversation.   I should be doing anything other than having this conversation.

‘So when are we going to have a baby?’

‘Are we having a baby?’  We have been together, sort of, for eight years, or there-abouts, depending on exactly when this conversation is taking place, and we haven’t discussed this before.  I know my girlfriend wants kids.  She works part-time with children, she loves children, it’s obvious.  The thing is, I’ve never asked myself whether I do, or not.

‘It’s what people are programmed to do.  We breed.  It’s genetics.’

‘Sure, but things have changed from other generations.  It’s not like we’ll be social outcasts if we don’t.’

And why should I have thought about whether I want children or not?  I can barely cope with thinking about what’s going to happen from one day to the next.

I mean, we’re still young, right?  There’s plenty of time to be taking these sorts of decisions.

‘Some of your friends have kids already.’

‘Yeah, but they live in a village.  In Wales.’

‘That’s not really an argument.’

‘No, I guess it isn’t.’

The thing is, I haven’t been very good at taking decisions of any sort.  I loved living in Sheffield, but moved to South East London to be with her, because that’s where she was and she couldn’t countenance living anywhere else.  Only in London, she’d said, could she be an artist.  I didn’t really know what that meant for me and so, unoriginally and like millions of others, I took the first decently paying job I could find.  In a moment, I went from having dreams of creativity to being a media sales rep. 

Against all expectations I was rather good at it.  A booming economy works in my favour for certain, but at the same time barely two years earlier I would regularly find my fingers shake when dialling a phone number knowing I’d have to speak to whoever answered.  I was painfully shy, preferring the silence of comfortable friendships to actually having to venture an opinion.  These are characteristics rather at odds with someone adept at sales. 

So, I made up someone else to do it for me.  I created a facade of myself to do the patter, the sales pitch, the charming smile.  It’s all possible if I pretend that it’s someone else doing it.  I can be more decisive, more endearing, more articulate if it’s not me.  Because if it’s all made up, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s right or wrong. 

Fakery got me promoted several times until I am national sales director, selling floor space at exhibitions for the construction industry.  The national bit means I spend my weeks traipsing around the country, locked in place behind the car’s steering wheel, and my weekends trying to recoup sleep.  While my peers are out enjoying the delights of London, I go to bed early.  And those dreams of writing because less and less tangible, as another month goes by and the short story I have been trying to will into existence, which in some ways sits perfectly formed inside my head, doesn’t grow beyond the first paragraph.

As the woman who will become my wife will tell me several years hence, I have the job of someone in their mid-forties twenty years too early. 

But I don’t know that yet.

It is only just occurring to me quite how much of my life I am faking.

‘No we don’t have to,’ she says, ‘but what if I want to?’

And somehow I don’t say that if I had the opportunity to do the one thing I wanted to, then it would involve a bottle of whisky and be as far from a baby as possible.  I don’t remind her that I already pay the vast majority of rent and bills and that if I listen hard to the tiny voice inside me, it tells me how crushed by life’s tedious reality it is.  I manage to not say any of those things.  Or maybe I do, because before I can stop the slide we’re arguing again and I’m wondering whether the glass on the table is going to be directed at me again.  We’re bitter spiteful arguerers, throwing out often untrue words that can never be taken back.

A few years later I will tell myself that it’d be okay, that we could have a baby.  I have refound myself, given up the sales job to write, but the arguments have increased.  I don’t admit it to myself, but my change of heart is to try and prevent the inevitable.  I never voice my idea, because instead she tells me it’s over.

And with hindsight, maybe, there’s more than a smudge of relief.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

20-ish (Ages of David, Part 4 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The sun is coming up as I walk home.   One of the things I love about Sheffield is the hills.  I love how they shape the view of the city.  The natural contours scarred with civilisation.  The sun rises, sprinkling morning light over the tower blocks on the far side of the city as the steep incline takes me away from the party, off, at last to bed.

I wish I could stay here forever.

The Crookes’ terraces fade into Broomhill’s tall Victoriana, the houses using the hillside to leer across the streets towards the distant slopes, evidence of life scratching away at the dawn.  I’m unsteady on my feet, but the calm gentleness of the new morning gives me a sense of belonging.  I feel the city speak to me, as though it holds me amongst its bricks and mortar, its parks and lights, its epic and small lives, the morning milk collected and the broken dreams of the night before, the hope of youth and the drudgery of all other ages.  Its faded tiredness of the previous fifteen year’s economic onslaught is finally ebbing and the first roots of a new life, a different tomorrow, are showing and it wants me to share in them.  But I know I am going to abandon it.

I realise, as I turn the corner, that I am not alone.

‘Hello Dave.’

‘Hello Mad Andy,’ I reply.

‘You’re up very early.’

‘Or late.  Going home now, Andy.’

‘Did I miss something last night?  I came round, but no-one answered the door.’  He looks genuinely crest-fallen and I feel, momentarily, guilty.  Most of us have taken to avoiding Mad Andy as we reach the end of our third year at university.  It’s not that we dislike him, it’s just that he’s somewhat inconvenient.  He’s hard to get rid of when he settles in.

‘We were just down the pub.  Bit of a lock-in.  Then back to Kris and Simon’s house for a bit.  Nothing special.’

‘It’s not even five thirty,’ he says and I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean.  That anything which had lasted to five thirty must have been special, perhaps.  Or is it a prelude to some sort of announcement as to what he’s doing out and about at this time?

‘Just a Thursday night, Andy,’ I say, which is true.  Staying out all night and drinking too much beer, that’s sort of the point.  Not planning anything.  There will be time for plans later.  Now is just spontaneity.

Andy is wearing his regulation uniform of over-sized trainers, light blue scuffed jeans, a grubby off-white t-shirt and green wax jacket.  His long greasy hair straggles his equally long face and remind me of the extended locks I have recently shorn.  It is warm, even so early, as summer kicks into high gear.  He doesn’t need his jacket.  Mad Andy isn’t really mad.  Not truly.  But he is eccentric and somewhat socially awkward.  He’s intense with a concentrated stare and a disconcerting habit of fiddling with his genitals while talking to you.  He’s currently telling me about the Who’s 1970 Live at Leeds album and I’ve largely tuned out.

We round another corner and the view sprawls out towards the city centre.  We pause, taking in the collective waking.  Things are coming to life.  A man is jogging further down the hill.  There is the sound of car engines firing.  Most curtains remain staunchly drawn, but a fragment of the city is up early, breathing in the new day.

‘I’ve loved my time here,’ Mad Andy suddenly says.  ‘I don’t think I’ll ever leave.’

‘Yeah, me too,’ I reply.  ‘But it’s hard to hold onto these days, right?  It won’t be the same being here after we graduate.  Everything will be too different.  We’ll start to resent it for letting us down.’

‘I don’t think I could leave.  I can’t imagine living anywhere else.  I’ve discovered who I really am here.’

‘And who’s that then?’

‘Why, it’s me.  Of course.’  He smiles and barks a sort of laugh and I think, of course you’re right.  None of us can be anyone else, after all, can we?  If Mad Andy can be comfortable in his own skin and accept that everyone thinks he’s a little odd for having different thoughts, then I should be able too.  Convention is just a mask.  ‘Where are you going, Dave?’

‘Eh?  Oh, London, eventually.’

‘Why London?’

Good question and I don’t really know the answer.  I don’t particularly like the capital.  It’s too flat, too busy, too big to wrap my head around and yet I know I’ll be moving there.  ‘It’s where my girlfriend lives.’

‘You should insist she comes here.’

‘It doesn’t really work like that Andy.  You can’t just insist.’

‘But she’s making you move there.’

‘Sort of,’ I pause.  ‘I want to as well.’  I’m defensive because I’m not certain I do.

‘What are you going to do there that you can’t do here?’

Andy’s constant questioning is spoiling my drunken elegiac mood.  He’s right, of course.  Like him, I owe the previous three years more than can be explained.  They’ve helped me decide that who I am is not defined by anyone or anything.  I don’t have to listen to what people expect of me.

So why am I running away?

‘I don’t know,’ I concede.

‘Well then,’ he says looking triumphant.

I have been thinking about what I will do in London, but I am still none the wiser.  I’m not sure what a medieval history degree will have prepared me for.  My inability to grapple foreign languages means that an academic career does not beckon and other related jobs are few and far between.  In my head, when I imagine the future I can see where I am and who I am with but not what I am doing.

I hope to write, I guess.  I have been lazy over the past few years.  I’ve concentrated on my studies, my drinking, my terrible dancing and my daytime television watching and have neglected constructing fiction.  A dozen or more short stories, scraps of ideas for things, remain incomplete or barely worked up in notebooks discarded at the back of my desk draw.  But life will be different in the capital.  I will be creative, amongst other creatives.  There won’t be easy distractions.

But, then again, neither will there be hills or my friends or beautiful mornings after a heavy night’s drinking that help you edge your soul closer to heaven, that bring a sense of lightness whereby anything could be possible.

We reach my house and I put the key in the lock. 

‘What are you doing, Andy?’ I ask, realising he is standing too close, right behind me.

‘Coming in,’ he replies decisively.

‘I’m going to bed.’

‘So?’

‘Good morning, Andy.’  I close the door on his crestfallen face and realise I never did ask where he’d been all night.  Maybe he’d just been wandering the streets hoping to bump into someone he knew.  Or, rather, knowing that if he kept at it, he’d bump into someone.  Eventually.  ‘And good luck never being mundane,’ I add quietly.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

15-ish (Ages of David, Part 3 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Someone’s parents have made the mistake of going out for a Saturday evening so we’ve all descended on their house, clutching our four packs of cheap lager, our plastic bottles of cider and maybe a half bottle of supermarket brand spirits.  Dad’s expensive stereo has been co-opted, all the levels cranked up the maximum to force the music to rattle the windows in their frames.  We’d go to the pub, but it’s both a touch too expensive for serious drinking and there are those who find it harder than others to get served.

The August night is hot in a way that life will never seem to be again.  The return to school is still far enough away to be abstract, but inertia has begun to settle in.  All those plans of doing something useful, something creative over the holidays have dissipated into a cycle of unconstructive hanging out, drinking too late and sleeping in until almost afternoon.

Just before midnight and I’m drinking gin and woodpecker cider, talking in a slightly incoherent fashion.  With a girl.  Drunkenness and nerves make my conversation veer around wildly in a way which I hope seems eccentrically interesting but probably is just as weird as my drink choice.  Not a choice really, but a necessity having drunk all the Guinness I arrived with.

‘I need to go,’ the girl says as it trips from Saturday to Sunday.  ‘Dad will go spare if I’m not back by twelve thirty.’ 

Half an hour is more than sufficient for her to get home.  I’m pretty certain she lives about two streets across.  My brain makes some leaps and despite it being perfectly safe to be out of the suburban roads alone I say, proper gentlemanly like: ‘I’ll walk you back.  If you like.’

She nods and stands up from the dusty grass.

I follow.

The night is so warm that I’m not wearing my long grey trenchcoat.  Normally I persist with it all year round, like armour.  Without it I feel exposed.  It’s both thrilling and disconcerting.  We talk about inconsequential things.  About Bowie.  About books.  I try to show off by making stuff up that sounds unusual but not completely darkish, although I’m stealing it off other writers.  I’m desperate to appear different.  I want to be the same.

Standing just along from her front door, up close to the high bushes and clear of the streetlight so we’ll be unobserved should anyone glance out of the window, the conversation lapses.  I’ve rehearsed this a moment in my mind a million times.  Not necessarily with this girl.  The face has always been interchangeable.  But this is the first time I’ve actually got.  It’s unmarked territory.  I know where I want to go, but not how to get there.

Eventually I feel obliged to do something.  I lean down.  She’s much shorter so the definite tilt of her head back is a sure sign and my confidence is fuelled through to the point where our lips meet. 

And they part, willingly but with just enough resistance to make it feel a conquest.  The sweet apple and juniper fizz licks back.  A tongue flicks and I realise I am actually doing it.  I am actually kissing a girl. 

We separate and look at each, and I find myself, for the first time, truly paying attention to her.  I have never considered this particular girl in this way before.  

‘That was nice,’ she says and, still feeling confused as to how we ended up here and whether both of us genuinely think it was nice or just something we were socially conditioned to do, I lean in again, without saying a word.  This time I slip a hand behind her head, just to keep her in place a moment longer, to keep kissing her, to avoid having to talk to her.  As we move and slide across each other’s lips, readjusting our heads, I hear a little gasp of pleasure out the side of her mouth and feel unduly pleased that it’s me causing it.

This time when we part, she says: ‘I better go inside.  Will you call me?’

‘Sure,’ I shrug trying to be nonchalant, already wondering what will happen next, what will be the next first.  ‘What’s your Dad’s name?  I’ll get it out the book.’

‘We’re not in the phone book.’  She tells me the phone number.  I repeat it back to her.  She smiles and goes inside, ushering me away from the light and back to the party.

The following morning I awake in my friend’s garden, sitting in a plastic chair, my jeans covered in vomit, a lightning strike through my head.  The rest of the house is still asleep so I hose my trousers down some and let myself out the side gate, wondering how I am going to sneak past my parents in such a state.  It is only a hundred metres down the road that I remember my midnight kiss and a small bulb of pride bursts in my gut.  I feel unreasonably smug with myself until I realise I have, of course, completely forgotten her number.

It takes a couple of days to build up the courage to knock on her door, but from then she goes from being my first kiss to my first girlfriend.  Three months later she thinks that I’ve broken her heart as I leave her crying in the drizzle under a weeping willow’s arms in the park.  I feel like an utter shit and it is, perhaps, the first time I realise that there are worse hurts than those fists can produce.  Although it wouldn’t be the last and nor would it be last time I felt ashamed for it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

10-ish (Ages of David, Part 2 of 8)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Two boys hold me in place, one on each arm bracing to keep me rigid.  The other boy squares up in front of me, shouting taunts in my face.  They’re laughing.  They find it funny, these boys my own age.  It’s entertainment to tease and mock the fat kid. The one who can’t run, who doesn’t know how to play football, who isn’t interested in same things they are - whatever they are.  I never could properly connect with the enthusiasms of everyone else.  At school I appeared stupid, easily distracted by the worlds inside my head, uninterested in the chalk marks on the board or the equasions and formula in the text book, illustrated to make learning engaging, I find myself being dismissive of the poor quality cartoons.  Hardly the point.

Wham.  The first punch connects with my stomach, the air floods out of my lungs and I feel tears prick against the edges of my eyes.  I don’t want to cry, I don’t want to give them the satisfaction, but it is anger and frustration as much as pain.  I don’t want to be fat.  I don’t want to know who is playing up front for Aston Villa.  I don’t want to be hit again.  I don’t want to come to school.  I’m not even sure I want to be normal.

I’m not stupid but school is boring.  I am completely disengaged from what is happening around me and I tend to be lumped with other boys who look blank when asked a question, but aren’t cool enough to overtly play it up.  I prefer looking out the window, letting the grassy slope up to the playing field transform before my imagination’s eye into something else, somewhere else.  A gangplank to a pirate’s ship, so clear I can smell the seaweed hanging from the chain holding it in moor, like salty dreams.  The base of shuttle launch site, bellows of steam rising, the heat so intense there’s a prickle of sweat in the small of my back even in the dead of winter.  Somewhere, anywhere so long as it is away.

Back at the ends of the playing field there’s another taunt about who knows what.  The hate feels real enough as though everyone that age must loath something even if there’s no real reason.  At what age do we start to understand and tolerate difference?  Why do we expect conformity? I don’t know, but these boys think they do.  I’m superficially the same as them, but there are things which don’t quite match and that makes me ripe for punishment.

So I flex.  I plant my feet firmly on the ground and tense my muscles.  With a sudden surge of strength I throw off those holding me.  A solid roundhouse fells the ringleader and his sidekicks are finished off with some swift punches.  I am triumphant.

Of course, that doesn’t happen.  That only happens in comics and TV shows, where the bullied are miraculously able to vanquish the bullies.  Everyone always says that a bully is a coward.  If you stand up to them or hit them back they run.  In my experience that doesn’t happen.  The bully hits you harder.  And then his friends join in and you find yourself in this sort of situation.

Another punch to side of my head leaves my hearing rattling.  My cheeks are wet and flushed now.  The indignity makes me wince even twenty-five years in the future.  The one boy holding me breathes heavily, as though prepubescently aroused.  It’s odd what people find normal. 

The ringleader lifts my chin up to swear in my face some more.  I haven’t completely given up though and close as he is I manage to hoik a fat green globule of spit square into his eyes.  I try to follow up with a kick to the testicles.  I miss and only catch his thigh, not hard enough to do any real harm.  I’m too held in place to get any weight behind it.

‘You are fucking dead,’ he snarls wiping the snotty spit from his eyes.  I know he means it but the disgust on his face as he looks at the mess left in his hand gives me a faint dose of joy and I smile.  Just a little bit.

His henchmen let go and the three of them lay into me.  I get a few blows out, but it’s largely ineffectual.  Only larger than life, comic-book heroes can beat more than one man at a time.  For rolly-polly weaklings, there’s no hope.  It doesn’t take long for me to be on the floor and the punches continue, but I curl up and cover my head, resigned to the end.  Their target no longer fighting back, they lose interest.  There is only fun to be had in the failing to escape, the pathetic nature of the counter-struggle.  They stop.  I glance up just in time to see the heal of the shoe coming straight in to my face.

I lie on the sunburnt grass as their cackling laughter disappears into the distance.   Most of me hurts, but that’s nothing new.  I rewind the scene in my head and I play it out again, only this time, again, I get a lucky blow in.  In my imagination, I find myself pinning the ringleader down my knees into his shoulders and I punch him again and again in the face until the skin on my knuckles cracks and my own blood mixes with the pulped mess under my hands.  Violence begates violence, but I am young and I hurt.  I deserve revenge, don’t I?

The sun is warm and slides across me as I lie there, it offers a warm respite, and suggests that maybe the world isn’t so bad after all.  Maybe there’s hope. 

Slowly I get to my feet.  Nothing seems too badly damaged. I touch my face.  It is sore, but I don’t appear to be bleeding.  I start to walk home, home where I can lose myself in a book, drift into another world, another life, before coming back to this one again, tomorrow, when it will all be the same once more.