Later that Saturday, 8pm
We decided to meet for a drink, the classic British way of doing things. The Pub. The Girl. Forget about The Programme.
I order a beer and regret it immediately. I remember the days when you could go and get drunk off a fiver but the government have insisted that binge drinking is the root of all evil and have hijacked the price of alcohol so high that most people can no longer afford it. The quality is poor, as well. It is tinny and bubbly but tastes like Boris Johnson’s big toe (I imagine). I have to laugh as I take my seat. The jukebox is on low, playing ‘Freedom’ by George Michael. As if there was such a thing, anymore.
Alice arrives, a riot of heels and wearing a slinky dress, bright red and standing out. I can tell it’s a slinky dress, but it looks loads better when she walks down the stairs. These are the jokes. I don’t think they’ve been outlawed yet. Give it time. She looks like the universe. Her freckles are the stars in the sky, stretched out in gorgeous patterns over her nose.
The evening whizzes by. We drink and laugh and chat. She tells me about leaving her family behind in New York to study in England. She ended up getting involved in some political rallies, supporting left-wing causes about climate change and the like. She is a political prisoner, forced into re-education. I’d love to say I was listening to all she was saying but I was watching how her mouth wrapped around the syllables and Americanized some words. I watched how her eyes widened excitedly and welled-up when she spoke about her family and friends.
‘Could you ever go back? Don’t you know anyone in your circles who could smuggle you back home?’
‘I dunno. Like, my mom manages to write. Whenever she can get it through the Border Order.’
‘Aye, these are troubling times. I think its’s awesome that you’re a political prisoner. Awesome in a sad kind of way, like, that you’re in re-education.’
‘Why are you here?’
That’s a good question. I look over both shoulders, dramatically leaning forward to reply to her.
‘I’d love to say it was something major, I’d love to say it was something subversive and brave. I was quite active on Twitter and called a politician a liar. They came to get me and put me on the bus. That was a year ago, now. I feel so re-educated. You know?’
She blinks back at me, a mixture of amusement and surprise.
‘Why the bus?’
‘Well, it’s a British thing isn’t it? They make us sit next to a stranger. Usually you’d find a seat on your own and not speak to anyone. They really have done their homework regarding British punishment. Fair play.’
She laughs again. I love making her laugh.
‘What would they make of this, huh? An American girl and an English boy, sitting together, laughing and joshing.’
The government are probably listening anyway. It’s likely that they bug your conversations or slip a tracker in your ear when you fall asleep. George Orwell as right with Big Brother.
‘Careful, you might upset the Border Order. The walls have ears. We’re not actually doing anything wrong.’
Alice finishes her glass of wine and smiles at me, all sparkling and smoldering.
Saturday night’s alright for delighting.
We walk along the river, huddled and shivering from the bitter winter weather. There is a slight freeze on the river, a thin layer of ice trapping the algae and fish into a secret underwater universe. A wading bird balances delicately on the fragile sheet, bravely risking plunging into the gelid current below it.
I reach for Alice’s hand and she grips it back, a mutual warmth exercise.
‘Your hands are cold.’ I say.
‘Warm them up then.’
I have to say, this past year in re-education has been tough. I’ve been exposed to unfriendly and unfeeling people for most of the time. It’s hard to believe Alice could be so amazing, so beautiful and so intelligent. I guess they’ll knock that confidence out of her with another banal trawl through a book club. I have an epiphany. I have to get her back to America.
‘I’d like to help you, Alice. Hear me out.’
She looks at me stunned. I think, it’s hard to tell people’s emotions now that we’ve all been further repressed and stifled.
‘America, I mean. You seem to be so determined to eventually find your way back. I need to help you. I don’t know how but we can get past the Border Order if we hatch up a plan. It’s too late for me anyway, I’ve been in the system for a year and I still have such a long sentence to see out. But you, Alice, you are wonderful and clever and gorgeous. You don’t deserve this. You deserve your own world, not this mad imitation of society.’
I squeeze her hand and look longingly into those avocado glazzies and seeing the tears, the fears. Love at first sight. I never believed it until now.
‘You’d do that for me?’
‘Honestly, honey, I would do anything for you…already. You don’t wanna be stuck here with me, in the control of a system of slaves. You’re precious.’
It just so happens that, from the rumour mill of all these book clubs, bus rides and chaotic, queueless waiting rooms that you can sneak past the Border Order as long as you do it solo. People escape Britain to go to Europe and Asia, most of them end up back on the bus or back in the grey, drab rooms of punishment. They live to tell the tale, though. It’s worth a try.
‘We need to get to Liverpool.’
The Following Saturday, 11pm
Boring Bernard turns out to be a huge help. Okay so I spent most of the meeting being confused by the colour scheme of his latest jumper. It featured a group of shapes in vivid and lurid colours. A bright yellow triangle with a Jackson Pollock-like flick of paint in what can only be described as vomit-coloured.
Our friend Bernie is a Liverpudlian. What luck!
He came up to us at the end of the book club meeting wanting our advice on something. He’d heard on the grapevine that we’d been out on a date (news travels fast in these times) and he wondered how it went. Thinking nothing about him having an ulterior motive, he started to talk in hushed tones about having a wife that was taken away by the Border Order and never seen again. He wanted out, too. Trusting people is a fate worse than death but, well, it was Boring Bernard. What’s the worst that could happen?
‘I have to say, I’m very sympathetic for your cause. If I can help you I will.’ Bernie agreed to drive us through the dodgy Border Order checkpoints. Once you’ve got to the North of England, you’re alright. It all split in a bitter Civil War. Imagine the Korean situation but in good old Blighty and you’ll understand. Bernie actually was quite a decent guy. He had been re-educated to be boring and unexciting.
‘You know I used to be a Border Order officer? Back in the day. I got too old, I guess.’
‘It’s never too late to rebel, Bern’ I say.
‘Ah, well, you know the score. You’ve been ‘round the block from what I can tell. You’re deffo doing the right thing, here.’
Alice sat quietly in the back seat of Bernard’s lime-green Volvo estate. This was going to be stressful and difficult. If we could get to the Birmingham area by midnight, then we had a great chance. The main border was just outside the city, to the North. I was nervous. Bernard was regaling us in the surprisingly entertaining stories of his time before re-education.
‘One time, me and a few lads went swimming in the North Sea. I tell ya, fuckin’ freezin’.’
His accent seemed to return, stronger and thicker the further we drove.
‘That’s your neck of the woods, right? The East Coast.’
What a memory, I only briefly shared aspects of my life at the book club.
‘If we’re gonna do this, you need to listen to every single one of my instructions. Okay?’
He’s not boring at all. He’s a hero. I certainly didn’t see that coming but maybe you did, predictable? Who knows?
‘I don’t wanna cause trouble’ Alice says, inconspicuous in the back seat.
I turn around to face her and beam a smile at her. She smiles back. Bernard glances briefly at me and smiles too. Oh good, it’s a competition of Who Can Smile The Longest?
‘It won’t be trouble if you pay attention and don’t worry about us. Ain’t that right, Bernie?’
‘Is fuckin’ right, la!’
It was getting rapidly towards midnight as we went through the dark and winding lanes of hilly Derbyshire. No sign of any Border Order, unless they were masquerading as sheep in the fields. Stranger things have happened. It’s the sign of how things have gone that you can’t even trust the cows that cross the cattle grids anymore. Suspicion is everywhere.
I open up the glove box in Bernard’s car and find an old packet of cigarettes, another item with the price cranked up so high people don’t bother. It’s like striking gold. The holy grail.
‘You mind? It’s been a while.’
‘Go ‘ead, Sam. Spark one up for old times’ sake.’
I feel the instant head rush and watch the smoke billow in pretty pirouettes out the window, dissolving in the slight drizzle. Luxury is banned. Fuck the system.
I splutter a little after a big drag. I pass it to Bernard who simultaneously changes gear, opens his window and takes a puff, holding the inhale in before sending a plume of smoke into the midnight-blue air. Being an outlaw is something I could get used to.
‘Can you shut the window; it’s freezing?’
‘Sorry, Alice. We were sharing a moment. It could be the last time-‘
‘-Don’t say that! We’re closer than ever before. Keep the faith, lad.’ Bernard is great in a crisis, obviously.
We stop for the night in a disused barn somewhere in the Midlands. Cliché, I know. We are about to fugitives though.
Bernard mutters to himself about hoping to one day be reunited with his wife. He agrees to stay on watch until the sun comes up, fiddling with the zip on his coat.
The inside is far from comfortable. It hasn’t been used for a long, long time.
It is wet and cold and whatever hay bales there were have collapsed into a gooey puddle of straw, impossible to use as a bed. There is literally no room at the inn.
‘Let’s just lay down anywhere, we won’t sleep anyway so it doesn’t matter.’ Alice looks at the ground for anywhere remotely appetizing.
‘Yeah, at least we’re resting. We have a very big day ahead of us tomorrow.’
It is deathly silent, I can see my breath above me in clouds. The ground is hard and bumpy. Alice snuggles in tightly, desperate to keep warm. I’ve heard that pissing yourself can keep you warm for a few minutes but then you just end up smelling of stale piss and your legs are wet, and cold. I need to think these ideas through a lot more. With nothing else to do, I think about making conversation.
‘This isn’t really a five-star hotel experience, is it?’ I say, voice quavering with cold.
‘No, but with this sort of company and entertainment, the time is just flying by.’
I was under the impression that Americans didn’t really do dry, sarcastic humour. I was wrong.
‘What you think about Bernard?’
‘I’m not sure. You know? Is he genuine or is he setting a trap?’
‘I never thought of it like that. Nah. How can anyone with that taste in knitwear possibly double-cross you!’
She teases me and I love it. It feels like having honey drizzled directly into my heart. A gloopy, blissful state of pure sugar.
‘I’m gonna get you to America. I need you to have faith.’
She looks me up and down, fixating her eyes on my lips. She moves closer towards me, kissing me gently before saying: ‘I have faith.’
A few seconds of silence follows, even before the re-education times, I had a history of ruining the moment with women. They can’t take that part of personality and airbrush it away, can they? How typical.
‘You know a silence becomes awkward after approximately seven seconds.’
‘That right? Well, you were quiet for about three seconds.’
‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’
I get so soppy, sometimes.
‘That’s John Keats, right?’
‘Yeah. I’ve been to enough book clubs and re-education malarkey that I spout out quotes like I have Tourette’s or something.’
Even in the midst of this breezy, rotting barn, she smells lovely.
It’s like candy floss and sunshine, wrapped in a waterproof coat.
‘I wanna tell you something, Alice. It might shock you but it needs to be said.’
She looks directly into my eyes.
‘I never believed in it before but…I love you. I barely even know you and I love you. I’m saving you and you’re leaving me behind, and I still feel that way.’
Alice takes my hands, my cold hands, and holds them tight.
‘I love you, Sam.’
The moonlight peers through the huge cracks in the barn door. Imagine the romance. The silver spotlight of the lunar God basking our freezing cold admissions in monochrome. It is literally like a black and white film.
I hold her hands, wide awake, until morning.
The Following Day, 5am
The sky looked angry. Vicious shades of orange bled into the early-black of the wintry morning. The clouds gathered above, heavy with rain. We had to move and move quickly.
Bernard had been up all night and was too tired to drive, so I had to take the wheel. How hard could it be? I’d nicked my dad’s Toyota when I was 17 and pranged it into the gate at the bottom of the driveway. Oh yeah, I didn’t even make it out of our own property. He never trusted me again, after that.
Things looked very bleak as the sun battled the late moon. Shards of light deflected onto the windscreen, occasionally obscuring my view of the road. Alice was so still and silent in the back seat. Bernard’s eyelids drooped as he drifted off, waking with a start and a snort every so often. I woke him up when we arrived on the Wirral- we were so close.
‘Bernie. Wake up. We’ve come this far, what’s next?’
He looked at me, groggy and thick with lethargy.
‘You two need to get out the car and get to the docks, there will be a boat waiting for you. Avoid the stevedores and…avoid the fuckin’ Border Order. Please.’
I nodded to Alice who slipped out the side-door of the car, huddling from the cold by folding her arms across her chest. We were on our own, now. Just me and her.
I shook hands firmly with Bernard.
‘Couldn’t have done this without you, Bern. Get yourself safe. We’ll meet again. Re-education is a vicious cycle.’
He returned the brief pleasantries and shuffled over to the drivers’ seat, starting the engine before waving and holding my look for a few seconds. Then he was gone in a quick three-point turn.
‘We need to go through these fields, without being seen. We can do that, right?’
Alice looks at me with a weak smile.
‘What’s the matter? I will get you home. I will get you back to the States.’
‘But you can’t come with me?’
I laugh blackly. ‘No.’
‘Then what is the point?’
I mull this over and decide to not answer. We walk all day through a patchwork of wheat fields, stopping only to eat what little food we find. By nightfall, the Irish Sea is in sight.
The temperature is below freezing, the occasional puddle cracks underfoot like the sound of broken glass. It echoes through the sleet bombarding my windcheater jacket. I look out at the horizon, purple and distant, knowing that Alice is safely on that boat to America. I know she is heading for happiness, a place under the stars where oppression takes a hike. Listen at me, I’m talking in some of the Yankee parlance. She rubbed off on me. In the short amount of time I knew her, loved her and longed for her. I trudge slowly, my hair lank and wet after yet another torrential downpour. I know my fate. As soon as I return to the book club, I’ll be branded a runaway- Bernard as well. Oh, god, what happened to Bernard? I hope he made it. The Border Order tend to look at runaways quite harshly. We broke the rules. We broke their laws.
Alice assured me she would try and write. It’s so difficult getting messages through but I’m sure if anyone can, she can.
It took me an age to get back. I hitched a lift from an elderly woman back across the Southern border. I was back in re-education central. A flashing, neon light saying “abandon hope” might as well be blazing on the barbed wire perimeter fence. It’s the hope that kills you. We haven’t yet gone as far as to bring the death penalty back, so thankfully, or not, I won’t be murdered for desertion. No, they’ll torture me, alright. They will make me relive my last moment with Alice over and over again, feeling the pain and the sacrifice once more. They will ensure that I never recover, emotionally, by crushing my dying spirit with another bloody social experiment. For some of us, there is no way out of the abyss. The sky is untouchable. We exist, we make-do and we cohabit in a bizarre state of purgatory.
A month or so passed without a word from her. I found myself spending my days grinding out, drone-like, on the factory floor- waiting each week for Saturday to come around and that suffocating, draining book club or bus ride or lecture. It wasn’t so much Hell on Earth, but it wasn’t far off.
I never saw Bernard again. There were rumours flying around that he had discovered his wife at a Border Order checkpoint, and he went in all guns blazing. The sentence was stiff. Boring Bernard turned out to be very interesting, indeed- under the façade of his hideous jumpers. As for me, I was put to work making cardboard boxes. The boxes would be filled with- get this- pamphlets about escaping the Border Order and the offences thereof. It’s that irony that fills you with so much noxious hatred, billowing in your stomach and lungs until it chokes you. It’s an eternal blackness without her with me.
I was escorted home by two members of the Order to my poky bedroom cell. Somehow, during my day slaving away, an envelope had been hidden in my room, underneath the bed. My heart fluttered, floated and then sank. I felt like I was gargling cotton wool, my throat was so dry. Sitting down on the bed, body thumping with nervous excitement, I ripped open the letter to see the neat, methodical script written out beautifully in a vibrant red pen.
I never got to thank you for helping me.
I only wished you were with me.
I made it home, to New York and away from all that tyranny and hate.
The last night with you was perfect, in a cold and rainy sort of way. I guess that’s a true, British night, huh?
Hopefully this finds you, I know how hard it is to sneak things through, but we did it! I say ‘we’ because, without you and without Bernard, I’d be slaving away in a cell, a political prisoner.
Say hey to Bernie for me…if you can.
I never thought it would happen.
Your kiss will live forever on my lips.
The distance between us is a freckled sky.
Our love can hold up the universe.
Bye, bye- Miss American Pie.
I cried and cried. Tears of joy, of sadness, of confusion.
It all made sense to me now. You might not be able to escape your destiny, but you can help someone else with theirs.
We will always have the book club.
A Saturday in the Winter, 4pm
The first thing I noticed was the room. Stuffy. Bland. A grey backdrop to a dull activity. I’ve often thought of book clubs as being for high-brow, arty types. The kind of people who sit around in snaking chairs dissecting the philosophy of eminent Victorian novels. I used to think that until one of the terms of my sentence was to integrate myself into society in the most humiliatingly British of ways- something that makes us anxious.
In this case: a book club.
That’s what I used to think anyway, until my eyes were drawn to a vision of beauty and intelligence like nothing else. A curl of brunette hair and gemstone eyes- glinting like emeralds against the metallic walls-more on The Girl later.
Richard is our host. A jovial man with a constantly fixed smile on his face. I’m sure they’ll do something about that. He loves to push the fact that he’s a vegetarian, as well. He laughed at his own rubbish joke about seeing a website dedicated to hardcore quornography then opened up a clammy food bag, weeping with the chill of the morning. Hummus. Of course. So, while he sits there munching noisily on carrot sticks that he methodically dips and drips into his chick-pea carnival, the assembled Book Clubbers take seats. We’re all here for the same reason- we are forced to socialise to avoid defeat and imprisonment.
Accidentally on purpose, I sit opposite The Girl. She’s stunning. Her eyes are like beacons, blazing through the uncertain present, almost as if she is burning a brilliant trail through this absolute chore. Do we want to sit and spew out pretentious analysis about literature to complete strangers? Not really. Do we have a choice? Not at all.
Richard clears his throat and gives that sickly, sniveling smile. ‘It’s nice to see so many here, today. The programme is working well.’
You might be wondering what The Programme is. Well, the incumbent Conservative government put a motion through Parliament that if you were deemed a nuisance, a social media troll, anti-capitalist or criticized the government in any way then you’d need to be re-educated with social experiments; getting people together in excruciating awkwardness. A bit like this book club. A bit like the bus ride they made us do last year. I’m a repeat offender, you see.
Anything that highlights the social repression and awkward silences that British people are very good at, that’s what they do. It’s trying to perversely celebrate our national personality.
Keep us shy and timid and we won’t start a rebellion.
The Girl speaks first, flicking her hair out of her eyes, ‘Hey guys.’
She’s American. It makes me wonder how she’s ended up in this humiliating horror show. I guess it’s either this or Donald Trump. It’s live in fear of constant nuclear war with someone whose hair looks like spun sugar or, well, this.
‘So, I guess George Orwell will be out of the question’, I chip into the conversation. If you can call it a conversation. It’s a bit like a tap leaking a drip of water at sporadic intervals. I was expecting an appreciate ripple of chuckles but, I forgot, everyone has pretty much lost their sense of humour (except for Richard, of course, because he calls it a sense of ‘hummus’).
The Girl gives me a knowing look and a cute smile. This is going well. At least one person in a flat, drab room of ten people paid attention.
Richard stands up, waving his hands in the air like he’s ushering down an aeroplane.
‘So, we all know why we’re here. We may not like it but it needs to be done. We need to learn to be social again, without criticism and without hatred.’
I’m thinking that’s a bit rich coming from a known keyboard warrior who sold his soul to be the boss at events like these. He sips his mango juice theatrically before continuing.
‘Our book will be…drum roll please…Of Mice and Men.’
A collective groan covers the room, quickly followed by stony silence.
‘This is because it reminds everyone of their school syllabus. The days when individualism was not encouraged, and everybody was taught the same. It’s going to be fun!’
I can think of about a billion things that are more fun than reliving my youth and being forced to suppress my creativity.
‘I noticed we have an American friend in our group.’
Richard looks over at The Girl with menacing eyes. I know his game.
‘It’s great to see an international flavour to our education casserole.’
I bet he puts tofu in his fucking casserole.
The rest of the group appear to be willing slaves to the system. There is a middle-aged man with jam-jar glasses, as thick as can be (the glasses, not him) flicking studiously through the book. His jumper is horrible. The bright colours defy the general mood of the nation, a swirling mural of lurid shades of purple, yellow and orange. I would not want to be friends with him, let’s put it that way. He licks his lips before he speaks. Most annoying.
‘I am Bernard. People call me Bernie. I’d say people have called me a lot of things but I’m not sure how repeatable they are.’
That was another attempt at a book-club-break-the-ice joke. I’ve heard better gags on Death Row.
I find myself sitting next to a man with a ginger beard and porcelain-white hair. I can’t help but stare at his van Gogh goatee while at the same time wondering how he got that shock of cotton wool to stay on his head when most of the rest of it has receded. I’m dreading the introductions.
‘I’m Adrian and I’m a book-a-holic.’
It’s like being in the room with Peter Kay- if the comedian had a similar haircut to an iced gem.
Richard is back on top form, his chirpy laughter like a songbird in full flow.
‘It’s good to see we can still have a sense of humour in these testing times.’
I scoff, a bit too loudly as a few pairs of eyes pick me out.
‘I take it you don’t agree?’
I’ve been rumbled. Why can’t the ground swallow me up and send me away? I have to answer Richard’s robust question. He’d make an excellent member of the Spanish Inquisition.
‘Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself to the rest of the clan?’
The clan. He actually said clan. What a weapon this guy is.
‘Right. Okay. Well, I’m Sam and I’m a bit of a nuisance. Call me a troll if you like, I am a crusader for truth and a big believer in personal opinion.’
The silence hits like the first large rain drop into an empty bucket. The eyes that picked me out earlier are now urgent. The Girl blinks and then throws her head back in a fit of laughter. Even old Bernard joins in the sniggering.
Richard doesn’t see anything funny and continues with his strait-laced, business-like persona. He is here to lord it over us, he is the establishment and we are in the wrong. I half expect him to start banging his shoe on the table and shout order, just like Khrushchev did when he was the top dog in Russia.
‘Right, we should start. Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck. There will be no more silly outbursts like that, Sam, or we shall see you…on the buses.’
Thankfully, nobody laughs. Richard looks at us all, begging for anyone (even Boring Bernard with his boogie-woogie jumper) to smile at his painfully unfunny quip.
‘Anyway, if we could read the first few chapters, reconvene next week with our analyses and have a good old chat about it.’
The Following Saturday, 4pm
Richard strides into the room, this time with a packet of raisins and some sunflower seeds poking out the pocket of his tweed jacket. He really is a terrible human.
We had to sit and listen while Boring Bernard droned on and on about American society in the 1920s and the effect of the Great Depression on writers such as John Steinbeck. It was so hard not to drop off and have a nice, little snooze, waking up in time for him to finish with a lame joke and then move on to the next person in line. Adrian actually started singing halfway through his spiel. Seriously. It was all getting a bit kum-by-yah.
The Girl, far more qualified to talk about Americana, was articulate and to-the-point. She’s amazing. I have to get to know her more. I have to know her outside of this tedious and terrible room. Even the chairs were dull. There were no posters on the wall, just a lone water cooler with too few plastic cups and a small table to the back of the room with leaflets for ‘Re-Education Day’, a forthcoming national holiday designed to keep us in line and to ensure we don’t forget just who is in charge. She was talking in detail about the book and all I could concentrate on was a lock of her hair that she kept pushing behind her ear. I don’t think I’ve ever been so smitten on anyone or anything so soon. I don’t even know her name.
Adrian looked directly at me and asked me a question. In my dreamy haze, I didn’t register what he was saying. I just went with the Politeness Principle and said ‘yes, Adrian, absolutely’ with all the fake enthusiasm that I could muster. He looked pleased. ‘I’m glad you agree, Sam, I didn’t think that American folk tales from the 18th century would interest you but I’d be glad to pick your brain about it a lot more.’
This is what you get for being nice. I now have to meet Adrian for coffee and talk about the marching songs that American Revolutionary War soldiers sang, or something. Thanks, politeness.
It was almost home time. I’m too tired today. As this week’s necessities was adjourned, I made a beeline for The Girl. I needed to talk to her, about something other than Of Mice and Bloody Men.
To my surprise, delight and eternal elation, she came over to me first.
‘I don’t think I told you my name, did I?’ she said in her alien American tones.
‘No, you never. No. Let me guess, though. You are…Aphrodite?’
She giggles. I’m in love with her laughter.
‘Close. I’m Alice. It isn’t the name of a goddess; it was my grandma.’
‘Aww yeah. I’m named after an old woman as well.’
She laughs again.
I fall deeper and deeper into a thick, sticky love stew.
‘I know that I’m British and we don’t do this sort of thing. Look at Hugh Grant in any film. He bumbles and mumbles his way through asking a girl out. He gets the job done eventually. I’m rambling now…anyway…w-w-would you like to do something? Outside of these four flabby walls?’
Her eyes smile. They are delicious apple green. I’m lost in them.
‘I’d love to. It’d be nice to have a conversation with a cute English guy.’
‘We can invite Boring Bernard or Adrian, if you want?’
Bernard overhears and looks at me, sad and shaking his head.
‘I think he heard you.’
‘Looks like he won’t be joining us. Sorry, Bernard.’
He removes his glasses, cleans them on his garish sweater vest and then puts them in his spectacle case. It seems everything he does is very quiet, slow and, well, dull. It makes sense. He doesn’t look out of place. Well, his taste in jumpers does.
‘It’s a date!’ she says, enthusiastically.
I would love to be enthusiastic about anything. It only ever comes across as sarcasm. Like I said, I’m a repeat offender.
The dripping drizzle trickled and flickled along a leaky drainpipe, the excess run-off forming a puddle deep enough to paddle in. I tried to avoid the plague of downpour for as long as I could, hiding away in the semi-shelter. Why am I hiding? I’m hiding from a girl. A girl I have fallen madly in love with to the point that I can’t talk to her. It’s impossible. Whenever I get the slightest whiff of confidence, my throat goes dry like I’ve swallowed half of the Sahara Desert. My voice stutters and cracks and putters and ack-ack-acks. Great, it’s like having a conversation with a shrieking Chihuahua.
The first time we spoke, it was a brief but brilliant bit of banter about music. It turns out, very luckily enough, that she is a massive fan of the Roses. Ah, the Roses. The lilting melodies, tilting elegies and wilting flowers of the glorious Stone Roses. She’s what you might call my Sally Cinnamon. Anyway, before I ramble on more than a chattering parrot- every sulky glance from her deep brown eyes sends me dizzy. My head is spinning. Once I’ve started feeling like a shaken-up can that’s inches from exploding, then it takes a while to stop. Tonight’s earlier encounter was another brief affair. A breezy and cheesy bit of small talk on the way to the bar was followed by awkwardly fumbling for some change. I picked up my pint and managed to slink away, face going pink in the grey night.
It is so painful seeing people so confident, so brazen and so comfortable starting conversations with women. I just stand around, gulping my nerves down my neck and guzzling away the anxiety. My pint is bubbly and troubling as I try to avoid the drooping droplets from grogging into my glass. A group of black and leather clad girls are having a very heated discussion about the state of modern rock music, Nirvana is banging on the dancefloor upstairs and here I am, stuck in the piddle with you. These girls are really going at it, their voices raised to a slight screech as they reach the end of their cigarettes, and conversation.
Hit with a sudden attack of bravado, a wave of boldness comes over me. I am gonna leg it up these stairs, find her, tell her how I feel and suffer the inevitable rejection coming my way. At least then, I’ll know. There will be closure. It might also kill off any self-esteem that I have lurking around. I’m like a car running on fumes after the petrol has gone. The self-esteem dial is definitely on red as I take the stairs two, three at a time. A lad with his hood up stands in my way. It is a horrible shade of purple. I really want to just move him out of my way but if push were to become shove then there’d be serious problems coming. I clear my throat in that incredibly British way of telling someone you’re there without actually telling them. He slides to the left as I slide to the right. My pint makes noise as the amber nectar sloshes and moshes in the plastic glass (not a thing is it? It’s plastic, not glass).
Anyway, I keep rattling on when you probably wanna know the story. She is there. Right there. The dancefloor, rocking and rolling in synchronized sweat, she is wearing a plain white t-shirt. Hey there, Delilah. Oh, I can’t do it. What an idiotic idea. I honestly thought that I could just march up to her, give it the old jelly legs dance moves, offer to buy her a drink and then that was the end of the process. What do I say? So, here I am just standing at the edge of a dancefloor, seeing people throwing shapes to the popping and bopping sound of the Arctic Monkeys. I bet she looks good on the dancefloor. She definitely does.
Okay, here goes. Deep breath, try not to inhale the claggy stench of mosh-pit while at all times looking cool as a penguin in a fridge. Why do these kinds of nightclubs always have sticky floors and slippery surfaces? A whiter shade of stale. To my surprise, she turns to me and dances at me. The 21st century way of saying to go and talk to her. It’s so hard to just speak to someone, you have to give it a wiggle and a wriggle to get their attention and then move in like a lioness, in for the kill. It’s something I have never quite mastered.
Oh, looks like there’s a rival. It’s Purple Hoodie. I’m not having this. I’m so close. He stares me down then backs away. I’m the king of this pride. Who wears hoods inside a club? He looks like a blackcurrant on spice, anyway. I look into her cherubic chestnut eyes and gesture to come outside with me. She smiles. It’s a real, whole tube of Aquafresh smile too. Not just a polite grin. I don’t think she even knows my name.
The stop-start bibbling rain is still going. It sploshes a bit as we walk out. Never mind, this is the moment. Seize the opportunity. Forget about the butterflies gnawing their way through my intestines. Ignore the tingling sensation of dread filling my head. Go for it. Casanova time.
She does know my name. She’s just asked me a question.
If you can condemn a man to the electric chair for smiling then I’d let her shock me until I sizzle. She is so lovely. I start imagining all sorts of soppy things like her laugh stopping the rain or her eyes out-dazzling the moonlight. It’s a wonderful night for a moon dance. I’m taking the chance. She asked me if I was having a good night. Okay, no over-powering erotic or romantic overtones there. Just a simple, straight to the point sentence. This is where my mouth usually feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton wool.
You know what? I am having a good night. I’m having a great night just watching you moving in rhythm to the beat. Move your feet. I like to move it. I can’t stop admiring her wonderfully chocolate eyes. I like the way she gets little creases- not wrinkles or crow’s feet- in the corner of her eyes when she talks or smiles. Her laugh is like the sound of diamonds. She’s perfect.
I’m dying to say something funny, something devilishly clever and original. I’m failing. I’m flailing into a whirlpool of awkward conversation and sinking like a stone to the bottom of the Silent Ocean. Oh no. Say something. Say anything.
Fortunately, I don’t have to. Delilah tells me I look like I need a hug. She moves in to me, the perfume and the hair and the rain and the emotion floods into me. There is a potent mixture of flowers, vanilla and puddles. It’s a cocktail. Maybe me being all shy and reserved is somehow attractive? No, she must just feel sorry for me. I’m shivering in the increasing chill. The biting blow of winter cuts through my goosebumped skin, penetrating through my non-existent muscle definition and entering my bloodstream. Frozen veins. I feel like plugging myself into the mains.
She detaches herself, looking longingly at me. I never realized anyone could feel this way. Her eyes melt into mine, a liquid love. Where is Mr. Purple Hoody now, eh? If ever there was a time to pour my heart out to her, it is now. I start to formulate the words. They just flow out of me. A stream of heartfelt yet sometimes incoherent praise. She means this to me. She looks like that to me. I’m no good for her. I’m a shy lad shifting and shuffling on the spot, disheveled and distracted by the gang of people standing close by.
I’m starting to loosen up now. This is great. The conversation has started to be more natural, more flirty. I don’t even have the urge to talk about something geeky. Nobody likes a close encounter of the nerd kind. Although, I am feeling a little bit queasy. No. No. No. Not this. Please no. Not now. I know it seems a bit Mean Girls (don’t ask) but I feel like I’m gonna spew the technicolor burp all over her plain white t-shirt. How romantic. Instead of being all charming and Mr. Darcy, I’m seeing double and the drinks have hit me like a ton of bricks. She still looks great, though. All four of her. The chunder bubble is rolling up, making rapid progress up my throat. I need to move. Move. Quickly.
Of all the times to not be able to stomach the booze, it had to be now. The chat is put on hold as she looks at my sheet-white face, distressed and depressed. Any chance I had of making the moves has been indefinitely postponed. There can be nothing romantic about chucking up a frothy fountain of acidic stomach lining. No. No. No. I repeat. No. My tongue feels thick. It’s almost as if I have the rubber sole of a shoe soaking up what little moisture there is. I need water. She leaves. I am destroyed. No, she’s back. With water. Maybe it isn’t a complete disaster. Yeah, this could be a funny story to tell. In years to come, on our houseboat in the canals of Amsterdam, we can reminiscence of the time I ruined my trainers with a torrent of sick shandy.
We’ll laugh about this. She’s laughing about this.
Get yourself cleaned up and we’ll go get some food.
For the worst possible thing to happen, this has somehow turned out fine. My embarrassment is washed away by the still-falling sleet. The good news is that Delilah didn’t recoil too much. The bad news is my shoes are freckled with the fragments of booze. I will take this as a minor victory. The start of something amazing.
We start the walk back from the club, the rain stops enough for us to make a slow, meandering walk, hand-in-hand, like a long-term couple. The twilight blue sky is chopped by vicious flashes of violet. I only wanna see you in the purple rain. Even the clouds have dispersed, framing the throbbing moon in perfect symmetry to our blossoming romance. Oh, what a night.
In the solar system of love, our constellation is being mapped out.
What even is life? What would life be like if I was never here? I wouldn't miss it, I'd never have existed. But would it be different, without my tiny impact on this huge global landscape? We live. We exist. We work, we play, we love. It must mean something. Maybe I'll ask my father.
The meaning of my existence is Anna. Without doubt the most beautiful woman on the planet. She probably doesn't even know my own name. Stevie. Stevie Johnson. That's my name and I doubt she knows it. I'm not famous. Or on the telly. I've never done anything worthy on the internet. I'm nobody. A small speck of human floating around the ether of the universe. I often daydream of being a somebody. Anna is a stunner. Everything she does make my heart leap, my emotions sing. Every frown of her concentrating face, the contours of her forehead crumpled like a leather sofa when you've sat on it for a while.
'Are you listening?' says John, the lecturer.
His dark eyes bore into me, irritated and authoritative.
'Yeah. Erm, yeah you were talking about Dickens. Most important writer of Victorian times.'
I smile back at him, smug and superior. John. An old man. I'll never let myself get as old and as dull as him.
I'm outside the lecture theatre watching the breeze whip up fallen leaves into a pirouetting parade of autumn. Sodden sculptures of yellow and brown cling to the ground, heavy and wet. I scuff the matted mosaic of the season with my foot, only half paying attention. I look up at the now skeletal sycamore, shedding its life ready for the new. I wonder what it's like to make a fresh start, like that. I think of Anna and her sparkling emerald eyes and permit myself a smile. To my surprise, she wakes me from my hazy reverie with a brightly said 'Hi'.
I smile and try to reply. Oh no. Please no. My voice, having been silent for a while, sounds like a screeching parakeet as it squeaks into life. I clear my throat.
'You left this behind' she says, still fixing that flawless, fluoride smile on me.
She delves into her oversized bag, oversized in the way that you have to wonder just what she keeps in there, murder weapons? A severed human head? Unlikely. She pulls out my notepad and waves it in my general direction. Still entranced by her shining face, brightening up the greyest of days, I drop it. She giggles. The most alluring laugh I've ever heard.
Not wanting a repeat of the shrieking hyena, I speak loudly and clearly.
'Thanks' I say coolly. 'I'm Stevie'.
'I know' she replies, teasing me with those innocent but sulky eyes.
For a minute its quiet. Almost as if any meaningful chat is stuck in a conversational traffic jam somewhere on the lightly foggy breeze.
'Fancy going for a drink?' I ask boldly, surprised to hear that coming from my own mouth.
'Sure' she replies, not a hint of sarcasm or suspicion at my sudden interest.
I'm taken aback but also delirious inside. I've secured a date. I walk her back and sprint up the stairs into my room. Quick swill, furious brush of my teeth and a swift change into my cable knit, hair gelled into a quiff and I'm ready to go. Looking good.
I love punctuality. She arrives at exactly the time she said at exactly the same place we agreed. Just go with the flow. My brother said asking questions is good, but he explicitly informed me to ask generic ones first, then start the intellectual conversation and flirty banter from that point.
'So, how you finding uni?'
She laughs at this entirely unfunny remark. Just as I'm wondering what on Earth is hilarious, I notice ripped pieces of beer mat floating in the froth of my pint. To my surprise, I find this amusing. Usually I'd have the bastard who did it up at the bar demanding they buy a fresh one. But this is cool.
'Good. Like the work and meeting new people' she eventually replies after an ear-splitting six second delay. I detect a disguised Northern accent in there. Manchester? Maybe. Somewhere in the North West, I think. I wish I could disguise mine. Nobody wants to hear too much of my nondescript, Grimsby monotone.
No matter how hard I try, conversation is stilted. I watch the drizzle trickling down the windows, making rivers of condensation that branch out and meet. The glory of the rain. She needs another drink. Terrible etiquette on my part to not even offer so I get up and go to the bar. Standing there, fidgeting, I look back at her, this vision of beauty in turquoise and white has agreed to come for a drink with me. Just me! What a result.
'Got you another one'
Out of nowhere, I get a sudden attack of the confidence monster.
'Would you like to do this again sometime?'
'I'd love that, Stevie'.
Sat wide eyed in amazement, I can't help but smile at it. This. The situation. Secured a second date for the first-time ever in my adolescent existence.
It's a whole week before we go out again. I've loved it. The constant messaging, the flirty looks in the lecture theatre. The glances and acknowledgements and blowing kisses and hugging before we go home. She always seems so happy to see me. I wish I could be as chirpy as that. The best I can manage is usually the sort of feeble smile reserved for the false thrill of getting a colouring book for Christmas off your mental and boozy aunty. I was seventeen! What self-respecting teenager needs a colouring book?
Anna sits at the furthest table away from the bar. Good choice. Out of the way of inquisitive eyes and whispering rumours. The lager is gassy but, after the first couple have gone down, I'm feeling good. The pounding bass makes talking difficult but I entertain her as best I can by wriggling in my chair and singing loudly to some general rhythm. I can't dance. Imagine a coma victim being stood up and having a high quantity of electric volts zapped through them and that's the kind of look I have. Flailing. Desperate. Unattractive.
I can't dance. I ask her anyway and she agrees. We bump into each other and step on our feet as we struggle with the metronomic beat. I hold her close to me. She smells like perfume and fruit.
'Will you be my girlfriend?' I ask during the quietest part.
'I'd love that Stevie'.
I finish the dregs of my lager. I'd give it a five out of ten. The giddy thrill hits me like mainlining adrenaline from the power-lines of reality. I pull her into me and we kiss. Its the greatest moment of my romantic life. The only moment of my romantic life. After what seems like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds, we disengage and smile. Big stupid, beautiful smiles as if telling the world that we're the happiest people on, well, the world. Her fingers are interlocked with mine. There is whooping and cheering from the pretty boys at the back of the bar, but I don't care.
To think a week ago I was pondering the existential, thinking about the meaning of our residence on this planet, at this time, doing these things. Seven days have whizzed by and I have a girlfriend. A proper girlfriend. If only Tommy Robson could see me now. That old bastard from secondary school who took an exception to me and tried to make my schooldays a living hell. He's in prison being bothered by bigger blokes while I'm here with a girlfriend. I'm winning, Tommy.
We leave the bar. Its still raining. Huge puddles reflect the luminous moon. Hanging in the air, surveying everything basked in its monochrome light. The street-lights are on. There is something romantic about the stars but tonight they're not out. The dandruff of the night sky. That's what the stars are.
I hold Anna's hand. I always thought that when you asked the girl out that that was that. How wrong I was. This is just the start. Must stop over-thinking things.
The glistening road is streaked with orange as the lights bounces into my eyes. How strange it is that this place feels like home, now. The other place you spent your whole life before in seems irrelevant. I cross the road just before the lights change. Anna hesitates slightly and shouts back to me. Before I can say anything back, a lorry races through, pulling her under its wheels. It had no headlights on. The rain pelts on the tarpaulin of the lorry, harder and more intense than before.
Its over. Life. As simple as that.
I saw you today. They allowed me to stretch my legs down the tiny corridor and they don’t normally. But then, nothing is ‘normal’ in here. I saw you in your little room. Through that small rectangular window that they think is adequate. You were staring at the walls. I know the feeling, those same four walls. Just over and over and over. The cracks in the polystyrene tiles, the tiles always have that yellowing stain on them and you wonder just what it is? I asked the nurse about you. Your name. She seemed reluctant. Gave me that pitying look that I’ve become used to. Had to become used to. She told me your name is Iris. Like the colourful part of your eyes. Iris. The nurse will get this message to you, Iris. I trust her.
Hey, Iris. I hope they’re treating you well? They’ve got me on Agomelatine. It’s an anti-depressant. Like they think that’s what’s wrong with me. Huh. Normal people call it by its popular name- Valdoxon- but then, I’m not normal am I? They keep us caged in here don’t they Iris? Like some sort of battery hen. They make me out to be a monster. I hear them talking outside, it reverberates through the walls and they’re always on about upping my dose or trying something new. I know what I need, Iris. A new head. Mine is wrecked. They talk about withdrawal symptoms and how it’s gonna drive me mad. That’s a good one. ‘Gonna drive me mad’. Like I’m not already. They’ll judge, Iris. Talking about ‘the incident’. I’d rather not, you know? I don’t want that to happen to you too. I hope I can sneak out and come see you properly. Would you like that?
I hope you keep getting these letters, Iris. You know there is a band called the Goo Goo Dolls that has a song called ‘Iris’. Just thought that was worth mentioning, to be honest. I don’t want the world to see me, cause I don’t think that they’d understand. Makes sense, right. I heard the nurse going in and out of your room this morning. I hope you’re okay Iris. The old doctor put me on Carbamazepine or Tegretol as the ‘normies’ call it. It sounds like a lot though, I have to take 400mg of it. Every day. It’s so routine around here. He explained what it does and how it works but all I could think was that it had a stupid name. Sounds too much like ‘carbohydrate’ to me. The nurse brought me some books. I asked for Jack Kerouac, Kevin Sampson and some poetry. I was hoping for something like Ezra Pound or old Edgar. But I got Dr. Seuss instead. I think that was some kind of sick joke on their part. I don’t want to hop on pop, I just want to leave this box of a room. You understand, Iris? I can’t even stimulate my creative mind with a bit of intricate rhyme and wordplay, I have to be spoon-fed Theodor S. Geisel like a child. I like this. I like how we can talk like this. When I think about the mental scars, it makes me wince. I remember that they have made a crevasse through my mind and I have to stop myself from falling, deep, into it. People like us don’t find it easy, I guess. See you soon, Iris.
Last night was a bad one. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I got flashes of that evening. So many images flickered violently behind my eyelids. It was a light show of depressing images. They won’t be happy. It was a mess, Iris, a real mess. One minute I’m laid, wrapped like a present in my duvet, the next there is rapid beeping and people gliding around with hurried, worried expressions. A bright light shoved into my face like I’d just turned the sun up and pointed it into my eyes. How many times are they gonna poke around my head, trying to find…what? What are they looking for, exactly? I need to get out, Iris. You could come with me. We’ll go and live somewhere quiet. Come and live on Jack’s island with me. Somewhere with a beach, the sea. The calming sea. Sounds blissful. Sounds impossible. They think we’re crazy you know? They don’t ever say that, of course, but you can tell. It’s like “Oh look at that Jack, he can’t even close his eyes without the demons tapping away at his skull”. Well, let them laugh. They can chuckle to their heart’s content, Iris. They don’t get it like we do. Do they? All I need is a way out, a companion and somewhere to go. All I need is someone like you Iris.
It’s Friday, I’m in love. Love that song. I’ve always wondered what people did before the weekend was invented. I mean, I know that for me every day is the same. Cooped up. Locked in. Trapped still. Like that film Human Traffic where they live for the weekend and then take drugs and get royally off their bonce. Must be great to have that kind of freedom. Friday used to be my favourite day of the week, Iris. It’s in a perfect place. The end of the working or school week and the beginning of the weekend antics. The rest of the days can just piss off. I hope you’re okay Iris. The nurse told me that my case is going to be reviewed next week and that my court date has been shifted. It’s an earlier court date. Great! I get to see the judge and his floppy wig a few weeks ahead of schedule. Isn’t that just fantastic. I like sarcasm. If I get out I’ll come visit you. I never get visitors anymore. My mum and dad came a few times but then they just decided that their other son isn’t a mad head case and just abandoned me. I don’t care. They can take Matthew and go to the other end of the Earth for all I care, Iris. Do you have siblings? Matty is younger than me but he’s the boss. I can’t look after myself so he was always the boss. I miss those easy-going days. Fucking emotions, eh? I had a dream last night. I sound a bit like Martin Luther King there but you know what I mean. I was free. Liberated from these psychological shackles and lived in New York. I was a vendor of the New Yorker and other magazines in one of those downtown kiosks. It was simple. I went to Yankees baseball. I gazed out at the Statue of Liberty, the most free thing in the world. Freedom. I lived in Manhattan in one of those big apartment buildings and drank root beer, hung out with the basketball players from upstairs and everything was easy. I guess I’m just a dreamer. A sad, sweet dreamer. It was the best of times, Iris. You know what? We could dream together. Just you and me.
I’m going to tell you everything. Okay? This summer, the one just gone, not sure if that’s important or not but yeah. Yeah it is. That kind of day when you just wanna bathe in the golden sheen of the sun until you look like a roast chicken. That kind of day? I’d been drinking all day. My neighbor, Michelle, had always been nice to me. Ever since I moved there when I was about eleven. She used to invite me and Matty round and always had chores for us to do to earn some money. As soon as I turned seventeen she started talking to me more and was the first person who ever bought me alcohol. I went round for a beer. We got drunk. She kissed me. I think. Or I kissed her. I don’t suppose that bit matters. The whole ‘who went first’ details. It was the first time an older woman had ever taken an interest in me. The rest is hazy. She held my arms and pushed me down onto the settee. The rest is blocked out. I just remember this anger. A sudden rush of molten lava coursed through my veins and my rage was just pulsating. That’s why I’m here, Iris. I felt bad. I am bad. I ran away and was picked up later by my dad, who found me. He looked frightened. His face was pale and regretful. He sort of looked at me like I was a prison escapee that you’re told not to approach. I went home and there was police there. My mum was crying. I’d seen her cry before but only at a weepy film. This was real, buckets of tears. I felt bad. Michelle died later that night. I don’t know what made me do it, Iris. I just felt myself go and I plunged that knife right into her. They say it was all my ‘subconscious’. That sounds too much like submarine. Makes sense, I suppose. This place does make you feel submerged. It’s all my head, they kept saying. So I know exactly what they mean when they tell me I’ll soon be ‘out of here’. I’m awaiting the consequences, I know. I feel better for telling you, Iris. Please don’t hate me. You were there with me that night. I’m sure of it. I saw you running the opposite way when I gave it toes up the promenade. By the sea. You were really running. Feet pounding the paving like an athlete. What were you running from, Iris? I blacked out. The steady crash of waves onto rocks left me dizzy and tired. That’s were my dad found me. He must’ve know that I’d run to the sea. I have always had an obsession with it. I just know that I’m going to prison. Help me Iris, you’re my last hope.
The doctor gave me such a funny look. He looked worried. I was talking about you, Iris. He kept asking me questions about you and I told everything I know. I was just there, chattering away, while the fraud Freud made me notes on his stupid little clipboard. Full of information on us that is. But they won’t let us look at it, oh no. We might ‘flip out’. Apparently. Well, whatever Mr. Doctor. My head is wrecked. It feels like someone has scraped my brain out from my skull. Like when you pull out all the sinewy, stringy bits inside a pumpkin before you carve it up and stick a candle in it. Like that. The doctor keeps rabbiting on about dosage and court dates and ‘getting well’. How can someone as fucked up as me get well? Hmm? Explain that one to me professor. I hope they treat you better than this, Iris. I really do. I see the rain dripping down the window outside. It feels like my life. Every aspect of my seventeen and a half years on this planet just trickling away into the unknown. The heavier droplets drip, drip, drip until they suddenly fall off the ledge and onto the ground. I’m no expert but it’s the perfect metaphor, Iris. Dribbly drizzle and the doctor’s orders. That is what my Sunday consists of. He gave me such a funny look. After looking at me quizzically he just came right out with it. “You’re the only person in the ward, Mr. Wilson”. Where have you gone, Iris? When I asked him he told me I’ve always been the only one here. I’m all on my own. I’m going to court. Goodbye Iris.
What did she ever see in me? She’s a vision. I’m just a lad with a scrawny body and the complexion of a bottle of milk, semi-skimmed of course. A lot more Mosh Pit than Brad Pitt. The actual thought of seeing her again, talking to her again, makes me nervous. Sweaty nervous. For fucks sake, it’s pathetic.
But her? Well, she’s a vision, like I said. If I could stop everything in the world and make her mine again then that would be grand. Yeah right. An ideal world. That’s not likely to happen is it? She wouldn’t give me the time of day.
I like to look up at the sky, dreaming big thoughts. If it’s luxurious blue with the candy floss clouds then I’m happy. As soon as the sun goes to sleep and there’s that freckled blackness, I feel depressed, suffocated, like being trapped in a straitjacket. Dreaming fits my personality like a velvet glove fits a perfectly manicured hand. I’d love to just sit with her, together again, and watch the universe tick magically by. Sparkling with the love and adoration of a million relationships.
Wake up, soft lad. None of that romantic shit is ever gonna happen as long as I’m trudging through this rain-soaked afternoon. I catch my reflection in a wind-rippling puddle and wonder just how it came to this. This is the real world. A place where the beautiful people meet other beautiful people and the dregs get scraped off the bottom of the barrel like a plague of infectious limpets. This Earth sees me rooted, firmly, in the dank dwelling of the relationship rock pool. I’m stuck to a rock in the middle of a lonely sea. I am algae. That’s not difficult to admit. Simply no better than gross, slimy algae.
Anyway, best get on with the story. The rain drips, drips, drips as I make my way, drizzly and damp, towards what used to be my place of solitude. The part of the beach where the tourists don’t know and the holidaying kids turn their noses up at. This is where I met her properly, for the first time, all that time ago. She looked cool and somehow sophisticated, sheltering from the incessant seaside downpour under her black umbrella.
I’ve replayed that moment in my head a million times. I’m staring at her. She looks back at me, quizzically, nervously.
What a creep.
All those months ago. It was different then. I didn’t feel as unimportant and as insignificant as I do now. I guess that’s what love can do, it chews you up and spits you out. I sometimes feel like a shell of my former self, with all the superficial parts of me intact but inside of me is rotting away like when you put a tooth in a glass of fizzy drink, slowly melting away under a corrosive substance. Love.
Seagulls flew overhead. I hated them then and I still hate them now. They must be embarrassed, what with their shit being the same colour and consistency of Tippex.
Anyway, I’m rambling. My interior monologue has a habit of doing that.
Talk to them. Tell them what happened.
That’s my brain, butting in as usual. Alright, alright. I’ll tell them, I’ll tell you.
Everything happened so quickly that I could barely control it. I’ve always had an antagonistic relationship with those voices. The one’s that pipe up when you don’t want them to and start causing aggro for me. My brain. My voices. A year ago, I met her. I’ve never felt such an acute infatuation before, but with her it was intense. It was like being plugged directly into the electricity mains and having 1000 volts surging through my body.
I was sodden. That uniquely slanting rain pummelling the hood of my parka. I looked homeless. Like the bedraggled and matted fur of a dog that had just run through a puddle. I knew her name. I think she knew mine; It wasn’t a meeting of two complete strangers, because that would be fucking weird right? THE GIRL moved along the promenade, watching the estuarial tide crashing against the sea defences, devouring everything that dared step in the path of the water, with the smell of the water hanging around my nostrils. For some reason, I always remember this one particular wave. Hostile and foamy, walloping forcefully into the concrete and wood stopping it from pulling the shore into the briny depths. The salty air flickered at my lips as I put my head down, attempting to avoid the sting of the driving rain against my skin. She stared out. It was like a hypnotic trance. I made her jump when I spoke up, raising my voice to be heard over the whipping and the whistling of the weather.
‘You should get out of the rain’
Fuck. That horrible thing when you go to speak and sound like a shrieking parakeet because you haven’t said anything for a while. First embarrassment out the way. Got that one in, nice and early.
‘Sorry?’ She looked at my heaving parka, weighed down with the summer rain.
‘I’m not a weirdo or nothing. It’s just chucking buckets.’
Great, I’m a weatherman now.
Eying me carefully, a glint of recognition came across her face.
She almost smiled. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly. But, just like the rain did to the general atmosphere, it seemed to dampen as she reflexively stopped her semi-smirk. I’m just a vaguely familiar guy lurking about in this biblical rain. What exactly am I hoping to achieve here?
My brain told me something. I didn’t like what the voices were saying. Why does this always happen? Why can’t they just leave me alone?
‘So why are you here on your own, in the rain, Mrs Sarcasm?’
A glance towards my soaking feet. A flick of the hair as she shook her umbrella.
‘Men are fucking idiots, that’s why’
A very terse reply. I shouldn’t probe too much.
‘Well, I’m Matt’
Another sideways glance. Another half-smile.
‘I know. We went to college together. Come get under here, you’re bloody soaking’
The rain, as if by a magical force, slowed down slightly as the pale sun threatened to leak through the clouds.
‘See, I’m not a stranger, then’
She looked me full in the face for the first time.
You’re losing your audience. They don’t wanna hear about all this. Get to the gory details.
See what I mean? My brain is always at me, picking, probing, and wanting me to feel small, insignificant.
Let’s fast forward a little bit.
We fell madly in love. I had been afraid that it was an obsession, a lusty infatuation that was gonna end in tears. But this vision, my vision, let her guard down and actually fell in love with me. It was a volatile relationship. We had our arguments, of course we did, but our grand and doomed love affair was played out over so much drink and drugs. We’d both admit we made mistakes. Me more than anyone. It wasn’t my fault. It was the voices. They got louder, stronger, darker as time went on. It affected me. It affected us. She was always on at me about me not paying attention to her. I looked into her dreamy blue eyes and told her she was the one for me, the dimples whenever she smiled were always enough to transport me back to reality, away from those fucking voices. She loved me. I loved her. It was a mutual love sandwich.
We’d been going out for six months when the first thing happened. For now, I’m only referring to it as ‘the first thing’ because it wasn’t my fault. Like I said. It was the voices.
It’s never your fault, is it? We had fun. You did what you wanted. Don’t blame me.
It was an argument. Not one that was even about anything important. It was a flippant disagreement. We were both in such an intense state of raw emotion that the slightest thing always threatened to derail our blissful love. I’d smoked a lot of drugs and was feeling low. THE GIRL came to see me and I was so fucking out of it that I could barely even argue my side of any story. She had this way of telling me off. Chastising me like a naughty toddler. She’d shout at me until her face matched her cherry-red hair. I can’t even recall exactly what she’d moan at me for. Maybe the voices have just erased the memory from my head.
She was furious. Long gone were the cute dimples that I adored; looking back at me with vociferous rage was her, but not as I knew, this was a drug-fuelled anger. Her usually immaculate make-up had run down her face, giving her twin streaks of charcoal rivers that met at her chin.
‘You just don’t care’ was a line that punctuated through several times.
When I’m up against it, or angry, the voices are uncontrollable. There was my girlfriend, the love of my life, screaming expletives at me for fuck knows what and all I could think about was doing it. I’d done it before. I could already hear the chilling, ear-piercing scream of last time I’d done it.
Oh, I suppose you want to know what ‘it’ is?
I stormed away from her into the foggy night. The thick air choked at my lungs as I breathed heavily. There was only one place to go and I knew it. Wandering the mazy, dark streets of the derelict fishing docks, there was only one thing that could take my mind off it. It’s sad to think that a place that was once chocka with industry and work was now a teeming dive of scum and hookers. The labyrinthine streets frequented by toothless addicts and desperate deviants looked all the more enticing that night. The voices led the way, of course.
You’re angry, Matt. You know what to do. Have fun.
The dark night sky matched my foul mood. My breath clouded around me, eyes fixed on the prize, knowing exactly where to go. I saw a man being given head by a hooker. Slurping and spluttering in order to feed her next fix, the voices in my head were louder and louder and LOUDER.
The man paid for his sexual favour and quickly shuffled away, no doubt desperate to keep away from prying eyes and the inevitable pimp waiting in the wings to rob him blind. The hooker made eye contact with me. Horrible, smacked out eyes just gazing straight into me, through me. She was ready to drop herself for anything I could give her. Her face told a tale of a million late nights and the prick of a needle. I don’t think we said anything. I was wary. Her gummy fellatio tricks could see her riddled with anything. I’m not in that game. I’m just here to do it.
Plastic bags, whipped up by the wind, blew across the road, silent but for the whistle of the eerie, wintry weather. The stench of haddock wrapped around me, the stench of lost industry, unemployment. How the fuck had it come to this?
The voices sent a garbled message, quick as a flash. It frazzled and fizzed in my head until the lightbulb switched on. This was it. I’m gonna do it.
A light film of drizzle trickled down, shimmering on the lamppost-lit pavement. We searched for a place of more privacy. An old fish train warehouse, standing derelict and dilapidated at the bottom of the road was the perfect place. It was secluded enough to not be seen yet it was easy enough to get away in a hurry. The busy road on the other side of the warehouses hummed with late-night traffic, the glow of headlights periodically framing the glistening cobbles in shadow-light. The voices were frantic. Do it. Do it. DO IT.
The newspaper report said the hooker’s lifeless body, petrified with cold, was found the next morning.
‘Where did you go last night? You looked so upset’
How do I answer that without sounding suspicious?
‘Just out. Needed to clear me head, like’
‘I worried. Didn’t you have missed calls?’
‘Yeah.’ I tried to brush it off ‘But I thought you were gonna moan at me again’
I looked into THE GIRL’S eyes, melting pathetically, falling in love with her all over again. She seemed regretful. Sorry.
‘I love you, Matt’
I knew that she did, just sometimes when you’re wounded, the natural reflex is to pout and let them know you were hurt.
‘I love you too. I know you do. My beautiful girl.’
She fluttered her lashes, begging for forgiveness.
‘How can I stay mad at you? My man. I sometimes get locked on and the drugs didn’t help. I’m so sorry, Matt’
She seemed so sincere. That was something I really loved about her, every sulky glance and the flick of her vermilion hair. There was a look she would give me that made me feel like the most special person in her entire world. Our volatile arguments cut into me but I was always willing to forgive, every time she aimed that gorgeous gaze my way.
‘I’m sorry too’ I replied.
‘We both need to realise something, don’t we?’
‘Oh aye, what’s that?’
She smiled at me for the first time in days.
‘We need each other. I can’t do this without you and I have to remember that. I guess sometimes I just lose it.’
She was right. Of course she was. There was never a time when she was wrong, not about matters of the heart, our relationship. I looked at her. THE GIRL of my dreams. It was such an intense feeling that we both had, one that I never wanted to let go. She must never, ever know what goes on in my mind, it would destroy her. The thought of seeing her lovely face, creased with disappointment in me would be too much to take. I vowed to ignore the voices forever, after that day.
Good luck with that.
It was weeks until the voices came back. I say ‘came back’, they were always there, I just repressed them down, deep down, into my subconscious. They’d appear whenever I was alone, whenever I felt vulnerable. People often say that love conquers all but I needed to rip my brain out to get rid of the chattering psychosis that lurked within me. I put all my effort into being the perfect boyfriend; cooking, day trips, compliments, the lot. It made her happy. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
But then it started eating me up inside. The memory of that crazy night with the hooker never left. I kept revisiting that same image over and over and over- her huge pupils staring into me as my hands wrapped around her throat, empty inside but for the drugs coursing through her veins. I tried to justify it to myself. It wasn’t me. It was the voices that did it. Matt Morley, capable of something like that? Never. Sure, I used to get into a state of rage but I always managed to calm myself down, polaroid images of THE GIRL clicking by in my head like one of them high-powered business PowerPoint presentations usually did the trick. This time there was no repressing it. I desperately wanted to talk to her about what was going on in my head but I swore she’d never find out just how fucked up I was.
When she went off to work, I sat in the house alone. A small bag of drugs laid unsmoked on the bedside table. Loading up the bong, I took a long inhale, carefully avoiding burning myself on the dripping lighter flame. I dunno if you’ve clocked it before but flames make the shape of a falling tear when they drop from the lighter or match, I thought of THE GIRL- MY GIRL crying and felt a pang of guilt. I exhaled and sat back, head pounding, high as a kite, in the grip of the gear.
There was a vague knock and a turn of the key, punctuating my foggy haze. It was her. I recognised the hair before anything else. She seemed to stop dead at the door and look me up and down, carefully. With all the maternal sympathy in the world, she tucked me in bed, kissed my forehead and left the room again.
This isn’t what always happened though, is it Matt? Tell them. Tell yourself.
Drugs were becoming a big part of our relationship, it reached a point when we could barely control it. There were rages, fights, love-ins and everything. All of it driven by getting off our fucking faces. I loved her. She loved me. It all should’ve been so simple, so easy, so normal. We let the wide-eyed monster take over. That’s how we ended up here. I had a huge bust up with MY GIRL, she’d stormed out the house, upset that her boyfriend could be such a fucking idiot. I remember her telling me, all those months ago that ‘men are fucking idiots’ and now I was just doing the same. Things came to a head when we had a volatile argument about the rent.
‘You can’t just stay here for nothing, Matt’
‘I know. When I get a job, I’ll pay’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t stay here all the time, maybe you should go back to your parent’s house?’
‘Oh are you kicking me out now? Charming that.’
‘No. I’m just saying…’
‘Nah, its fine. I know what you’re saying, honey, yeah? Don’t spend so much money on drugs and alcohol and give it to me instead’
‘Look, save it yeah? I’m this close to being past caring. This fucking close.’
After she had stormed out, I went back to the docks. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so low. It was like being on the bottom rung of our relationship ladder. I’d started right at the top, laughing and joking and loving and fucking, now I’d slipped steadily down, losing my footing as well as my grip. MY GIRLFRIEND was the most beautiful girl in the world and there I was, mug of the century, letting her go with every passing day. The docks looked sad. The shadow of the old Ice House telling silent stories of industry. My grandad had worked here, as a docker in the sixties and seventies. A young girl walked quickly along the path, her thin cardigan wrapped around her, vainly keeping out the chilly wind. I heard the voices. They hadn’t been as loud or as frantic since the last time I’d done this. The girl huddled slightly as a breath of strong wind schhhhhhffffff past, catching me off guard as well by its ferocity.
I walked towards her, eyes never leaving the lightly frosted road. Something stopped me. The voices were silent, almost as if a switch had been turned off in my head. A tsunami of guilt crashed through me and all I could think about was MY GIRLFRIEND, angrily pacing the bedroom or walking around, looking for me, scared and alone. I moved out of the girl’s way as she made her way past me and out into the grey-blue distance. Where were the voices? I couldn’t do this without them to guide me, show me, tell me, convince me. With a heart as heavy as my tread, I trudged off to my parent’s house, ringing MY GIRLFRIEND when I arrived.
It was a blissful few weeks. She and I made up and agreed that we were smoking too much. It was affecting our relationship. It never affected the way I felt about her, my golden girl, but she was right. We needed to sort our act out, and fast. I went to meet her parents at the pub and we had a jolly old time. There was the usual banter and politely offering to pay for the drinks but inside of me was fizzing with nerves. Her dad had this way of talking to me as if to say ‘what the fuck are you doing with my only daughter?’ He was a stern man, sociable yet scornful. My girl always told me that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Guess what? I did.
He clocked me in the gent’s toilets, suspiciously looking me up and down. He had never liked me. In the two or three times we’d meet, he would share his stare between my blonde quiff and, for whatever reason, always looked to see what I had on my feet. If I didn’t know any better, I think he expected a working-class, council house lad like me to be wearing nothing but Aldi carrier bags on my feet. You see, I should probably use her name rather than just MY GIRL, THE GIRL, MY GIRLFRIEND- Angel had a much more privileged background to me. Whereas I’d go on family holidays to the seaside resorts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire for a few days, caravanning in the sand and the drizzle, their family would jet off to far more exotic climes for a fortnight. She was a lot more Goa then Grimsby.
When we eventually fell out, big style, it was a financial matter. I’d just started a week-long trial at the fish finger factory and Angel was on at me from the start about how big an opportunity this was for me to make some bread for myself, for us. I only ever wanted to please her but truth be told my heart wasn’t in it. I mean, imagine spending eight hours of your days watching breadcrumbed sticks of frozen fish go whizzing past you into boxes and onto pallettes and then driven away by fork-lift to be distributed about the country. If you think that sounds boring, then you’d be right. The voices only ever appeared when I was in a state of mental anguish. I quit the trial after three days and went to see Angel to face the music. She was angry. Like seriously angry. I couldn’t take having to stand there like a naughty schoolboy and be told off. I snapped. I gave the bedside table a swift kick, watching the alarm clock bleat pathetically as it hit the carpet. I saw fear in Angel’s eyes for the first time. She was scared of me. We’d been skating on thin ice for a few weeks and the look on her face told me it was over. No words had to be said.
So, there you have it. That was the story. That’s how we reached this point. Like it always does in this part of the country, it was raining. I saw Angel, cowering under her black umbrella with her stern-looking father in tow. He eyed me scarily. Right, you wanna fight for your daughter then I’ll fucking fight you. Angel looked equally shocked and nervous as she gave me a chaste hug. The booming voice of her dad sounded like a haunted house creaking into life.
‘You never were good enough for my girl’
‘Don’t you think that’s up to her to decide?’
He flashed anger out of his eyes, probably mentally pushing me over the railings and letting the estuary’s current take me out to sea. The voices in my head were thunderous. Do it. Do it. DO IT NOW.
Everything happened so fast. I saw the smug look on his rich, stupid face and just lost it. Like a rag to a bull, I ran at Angel’s dad, butting him in the chin. He fell backwards as my trainers used his head as a football. Angel was screaming at me. I was in the grip of them, though. A stream of blood followed the rain into the gutter.
He was dead.
The voices had done it again.
This is an anti-love story. I’m sure you might be sitting there, reading this, and thinking that I, as the narrator, I’m trying to be clever and pretentious by subverting the usual attitudes to literature. I’m not. I’m here to tell you about the reality of love. You know, the wreckage and distress that comes from relationships. This isn’t going to be one of those sickly, sentimental and romantic stories where boy meets girl, falls in love, falls out of love and eventually they both realise they can’t be without each other. Life is not a Hollywood film. It is intense, confusing, volatile and frustrating. That is what this story is going to be about.
Charlie: How could I ever forget the first time me and Megan met properly? She was me girlfriend, by the way. We’d been goin’ strong for just over a year and everything was great, just as it is. I remember always thinking that there was nowt that I wanted to change. But, and it’s a real but, the whole ‘going off to university in a few months’ thing was weighing on me mind. But anyway, the first time we ever met properly…
Me and her had grown up together, always at the same school, livin’ a stones cob away from each other. But we never really knew each other, if you know what I’m sayin’? I never really noticed her, not until college. It’s funny, I was just sat in this boring sociology class, daydreaming about scorin’ the winner in the Manchester derby and I saw these eyes just shining at me from the other side of the room. I’m a blue, by the way. Manchester City. My city. I’m blue and not red, but only in that respect. I’m also labour and not Tory. Don’t get on the wrong side of me when it comes to politics, telling you.
Megan’s eyes. Blue. Of course. They were dead nice, like. If you’re expecting me to describe things properly then you’re asking the wrong one. Megan’s a fuckin’ English whizz so she could giz it a better go than me. Although, you hear that? I just rhymed ‘whizz’ with ‘giz’. Just call me John Cooper Clarke.
I only know his name cause that’s where we went on our first date. When we met properly.
3 Reasons Why Charlie Went To See John Cooper Clarke With Megan:
1. He thought he might get laid
2. Same as number one
3. Okay, there is only one reason
Or so he said.
Megan: My Charlie, eh? I used to just sit and stare at him and he was completely oblivious to it. There was something about him that was, I don’t know, mysterious. Yet, we’d barely said a word to each other for ten years of school or however long it is. Some people think it feels like forever, but I loved school. I can’t blame him for only taking an interest when I started wearing low-cut tops and make-up can I? Unfair stereotype, maybe, but he is male. He isn’t a very complicated person. Everyone loves a bad boy; I just still can’t be sure whether he actually was one or not. You know that James Dean, leather jacket, smouldering into the film camera look? Well, he had that. It was that vibe that made me want him. I was so surprised when he came up to me after that sociology class and was chatty and cheerful. This from the lad who had said a handful of words to me, mumbled incoherently in the corridor. I was pleasantly surprised, though. We made arrangements to hang out. I’m not going to insult anybody’s intelligence here, by ‘hang out’ we meant that we’d eventually find ourselves sleeping with each other. That’s how the twenty-first century dating scene works. I remembered that I was off to see John Cooper Clarke, my favourite performance poet, in Salford. He agreed to come along purely for, as he put it “the craic” although I’m pretty sure he didn’t know who JCC was.
That was how it started for us.
The Hilarious Spectacle of Charlie in The Land of Literature
Charlie, the simple young lad that he is. He looked out of place. Hugely. You might not think that this part of the story is entirely relevant. However, to gauge fully the ups and downs of this relationship unfolding, its important to realise how different Charlie and Megan really are. He was dressed, head to toe, in ‘scally’ clothing, The sort of clothing sported by the infamous Perry Boys gang that swaggered around Manchester in the 1980s. Megan was far more suited to a place such as that. Her dark hair and fishnet tights were by no means out of place. I’ve seen the photo of them in the dingy, underground venue. Rum and coke was the poison of choice, not the regular pint of cider and black that Charlie would normally drink heartily. Megan showed me the photo the day I met up with her to hear her side of the story. Oh. I probably shouldn’t have revealed that yet, should I?
Charlie: I remember sitting there thinking what the fuckin’ ‘ell am I doing watching this ponce reading out poetry to this gang of plebs. I did it for Meg. I just never thought I’d enjoy it so much. He read out this poem called Twat and it was so good. Like that bit where he says ‘like a sucked and spat out Smartie, you’re no good to anyone’. Made me laugh that, like. It was kinda like listening to me grandad rattling on about the good old days of Manchester and the industrial revolution and how there were these twats that used to knock women about and that. Megan seemed to be enjoying herself. There was this speccy little lad staring at her and practically drooling at her so I put me arm over her shoulder. Fuckin’ third-rate Buddy Holly lookalike without the guitar and backing band. I’m such a gent, eh? As far as dates go, it has to be me all-time favourite. I mean, I felt nothing like I did when Aguero scored that last-minute goal to sink the rednoses and snatch the title away from the rag arses but it was still a great night. I went home that night and listened to Noel and to the Roses. The music swept over me. Megan would probably call it a symphony of happiness. I called her my Sally Cinnamon.
Charlie’s All-Time Best and Worst Dates (Excluding Megan)
Joely- Having taken her to the pub, Charlie was irked to realise that he was not going to get a goodnight kiss, let alone anything more than that. Joely rang him the following day wondering about a second date, with Charlie trying to fake being gay to get out of it.
Nikki- Charlie was forced along on an excruciating double date with Nikki and her friend. After a trip to play pool and have a few drinks, they went back to Nikki’s friend’s house where they drank some more and played music. She invited him to stay the night but the awkward atmosphere made Charlie uncomfortable and he sneaked away home later that night.
Amy- The girl that he was willing to do anything for, Charlie had a crush on her at school and they briefly had a fling at the beginning of the college year. Despite a strong performance on his date to see a band, Amy believed that they could never sustain such a relationship, leaving Charlie floating in the ether of rejection. Still, he slept with the girl he had always dreamed about.
To him, Megan was different. They were better for each other. She made him better. How do I know that? Well, I get paid to find these things out.
Megan: Charlie was buzzing all that night. It was like he’d been plugged into the mains or something; either that or he’d gone to the toilets and sniffed half of Colombia up his nose. I did think I was dragging him to something that he would absolutely hate. After all, there would be no football, no cars and no half-naked women. I guess I never expected him to be shining so bright and telling me how much he enjoyed Clarke’s performance as he walked me to the Metro station at Piccadilly Gardens. I’m not sure why we walked all that way from Salford Crescent in the unique Manchester drizzle but it just seemed the right thing to do. I watched him break into a jog, his blonde quiff flattened by the rain, as I looked out the window of the tram. That was the first date. I wanted another one almost straightaway. You can’t seem too keen though, can you?
How They Got Together (Officially)
Charlie: (mumbling) So, err, had a good time the last week or so with ya.
Megan: Yeah? Me too.
Charlie: Wanna be my girlfriend then. (Pause) Please.
Megan: Of course I will.
Kiss and roll credits.
Charlie: I floated the idea of us going away together as soon as I found the readies. I thought that it was the next logical step to furthering our relationship. Listen at me, eh? What am I, a fuckin’ relationship counsellor? I was sittin’ at a train station and I heard ‘Sketch For Summer’ by The Durutti Column and I was like yeah, let’s sketch our own summer, let’s go to fuckin’ Amsterdam. Really did happen like that. Amsterdam was like this mythical place that me and me mates had spoke about like it was Narnia or summat. This place where women, drugs and booze were cheap and plenty of it. What better way to celebrate the sunshine than by jetting off to go and get high as a kite in the city of cannabis brownies? I remember thinking that Megan was off to uni soon so that meant we had to squeeze every moment of fun into this summer holiday before she swanned off to meet the Jeremys and Brendans and Hugos of the world, sat around tables discussing literature and fuckin’ French poetry from the nineteenth-century. No thanks. Not for me. Amsterdam was the second greatest city in the world- after Manny- and Megan was just as buzzed as I was to go.
Megan: Amsterdam is a beautiful city. Charlie had said that we should go on a holiday and I agreed. It was a good idea. I couldn’t help but feel that there was something missing in our blossoming relationship. Going on holiday would be a way of finding out what it was and fixing it. We hadn’t been together for that long but there was definitely a spark. There always was. Charlie made you feel wanted and welcomed no matter where you were. You could have been in the most disgusting, dank place in the world and he’s make you believe it was made of gold. That’s what was great about him. I guess going to Amsterdam and having an abundance of drugs and free time made me see his other side, too. Sometimes it felt like, through the first three months, that a priceless vase had been dropped after that first night we had together and the pieces were all there. No matter how hard you tried, the pieces would not fit back together in their correct place. It was hard to explain, really. And feeling like that after three months wasn’t exactly making the future look bright was it?
Charlie: The Dam was everything I wanted it to be, man. Soz, I’ve been watching Apocalypse Now and I’m into all that surfer talk shit. All that ‘no sweat man, let’s go beat the Vietcong with peace and love, far out man’ bollocks. It’s probably pissing Meg off, to be fair. Meg seemed to enjoy lazing in the sunshine, just soaking up the atmos while I cranked up and got blazed watching the tourists, with their red eyes, buzzin’ about the place on bikes and shit. Eatin’ cheese and bread and smokin’ a big, fat blunt in our little houseboat near the Anne Frank House was sound. I even went to a museum. Van Gogh. That painter who chopped his lughole off ‘cause he went a bit mad. I was like mate, you’d’ve been no good in Moss Side would yer? You see some sights ‘round there, pal, make you wanna chop more than just your ear off. Megan wanted to go drink wine and watch the sunset at Zandvoort beach. It was a trek. A semi-long train journey when I just wanted to jump the tram and get back to the city. Go see the famous red light and see some munter doing tricks with a mars bar for the amusement of stoned scallies. Sounded much more fun than readin’ some noise about Anne Frank and the war and all that olden-days kinda stuff that Meg loves. I guess we just had different views on Amsterdam. We argued quite a bit actually. Like, bickering. Weed was s’posed to chill yer out not make you all uptight and wound up like a fuckin’ coil spring.
Charlie and Megan seemed to both realise that they were growing apart as their stay in Amsterdam went on. How would they survive Megan going to university if they couldn’t decide on whether to go and see the Red Light District or the football stadium?
Megan: I was actually really angry with him. I told him he could go and see the football thing whenever he wanted but he just wanted to sit and smoke all day. How do you even pronounce Ajax Amsterdam anyway? It is like A-JAX or I-YAX? He tried to explain it to me but I didn’t really care. But he was moaning that I wasn’t overly enamoured by the trip to Amsterdam Arena. I know he doesn’t like the same things as me but he could at least pretend for my benefit. I mean, does anyone really think that I wanted to go and see a sex toy museum or have half of a weed brownie? I did it because it made him happy. It doesn’t seem to work the other way around, unfortunately. He says he was interested in Van Gogh and I knew that he wasn’t really. That’s the Charlie I wanted more of. Humouring his geeky girlfriend. I used to love it that we had such different likes and dislikes. It was nice to be able to sit and read Slaughterhouse V while he laughed at The Simpsons. But it was starting to get in the way of us actually getting to know each other properly. We definitely argued too much. He spent most of his time stoned out of his skull and it was hard to even get through to him. I guess being in Amsterdam together made me realise that what we had between us wasn’t what I thought it was. What I wanted it to be. That was scary.
The World According to Megan
Megan informed me that she had doubts about their relationship even before Amsterdam. How could she tell Charlie? He seemed so happy and content to be with her that anything that cast a shadow of doubt over them would be hard for him to take. As a relationship counsellor, its my job to suggest solutions to make their partnership better. The problem was that the pair of them were far too stubborn. Oh yeah. I’m a relationship counsellor. Megan had only ever had one previous boyfriend, Jamie Charlton, in year nine and he used to draw pictures of flowers for her and throw them in scrunched up bits of his maths textbook over the classroom. It was silly. What Megan wanted from Charlie was something real, something concrete that she could hold onto. What she felt she was getting was a relationship built on a foundation of bath sponges, porous and seeping.
Charlie: I was high when it happened. The argument. We found one of them little coffee shops and I had nowt else on me mind other than burnin’ the herb again. Puffin’ the chronic, you get me? It was four joints for like ten euro. I was well onto that. Faster than a Moss Side guttersnipe at zapping your wallet out your sky rocket. She looked sort of distant. Like she was upset wi’me. For fucks sake, I’d spent that mornin’ queuing up to go in the Anne Frank house and she still wasn’t happy about my joke. I said to her that Anne Frank was the hide an’ seek champion of the nineteen forties and alls I got was a hard stare. Like one that burnt into me. I knew she was pissed off at me ‘cause she didn’t even rant at me or call me a bastard or nowt. She kinda just looked resigned. We went to Vondelpark and just laid there, higher than a helium balloon on Pluto, lovin’ life. She was quiet for ages then suddenly popped up with “Why are you being such a dick? And all that weed isn’t helping” I tried spreading peace and love by tellin’ her that we were s’posed to be havin’ it large but I was just greeted with the same angry face. I must’ve fell asleep cause I jerked up suddenly, instinctively checkin’ me Levi’s for my wallet. I remembered that this was Amsterdam and not Ancoats and there’d be no wannabe hard Manc dipper tryin’ to square away my money while I was in the land of nod. She was still angry. Telling me that I was ruining her ‘cultural experience’ by just being me. That hurt a little bit. What about my ‘cultural experience’?
Charlie’s Culture v Megan’s Culture
Charlie: Football, alcohol and staring through the peep show windows at a large woman with a stained t-shirt smiling her toothless grin in his general direction. Not much else.
Megan: Reading, learning, digesting knowledge and imbibing herself in the culture of the city. A fan of art, literature, architecture and politics. The poetic and sensitive yin to Charlie’s full-blooded, masculine yang.
Megan: I didn’t really want to talk about it with him. He made me out to be the bad guy when all I wanted was to spend time with him and see some sights. All he wanted to do was get so out of his face that he couldn’t tell what century it was, let alone the time of day.
The relationship seemed doomed. If the pair of them could work together properly then they would have something very special. There was obviously some form of love between them or else they wouldn’t have such strong emotional swings towards each other. Having heard all the stories, all the gripes and all the problems, I was stunned to see that they were still together. Remember what I said about anti-love? Well, maybe I was wrong.
Megan: I was excited to see him. My first term at uni had gone by quickly and Charlie had tried to make arrangements to come and visit. Money was always the stumbling block. I was pleased that he had at least tried. There was that ridiculous story where he had tried hitching a ride with a lorry driver down the motorway only to end up going the wrong way, finishing off in Lincoln or somewhere. I’m sure he’ll tell you about it. We drifted in Amsterdam but, weirdly enough, being away from each other made us stronger. We had Skype and phone calls and the anger that we felt to each other on holiday was forgotten.
Charlie: Man, I was dying to go and see her. Then I started thinking that she was gonna be rubbin’ shoulders with the Casanovas of university; drinking Prosecco and talking about the benefits of humanitarian aid to struggling and starving countries across the world. She’s such a lovely, caring person. But, you know what? I’d have been so out of place. It wouldn’t have been comfortable me sitting around and listenin’ to Bruno dissecting The Great Gatsby to within an inch of its life or whatever. Fuckin’ Bruno! Telling yer. Who looks at a newborn kid and says “Yeah, we’ll call him Bruno”. I tried to get some money together to get there. I tried bunking the train. I tried cadgin’ a lift off someone but none of it worked. It was then I realised I missed her.
Megan: I wish he wouldn’t call my flatmates ‘world changing, poncey losers’. Bruno is a bit of a weirdo but the others are all okay. He actually seemed to miss me when we finally met up again the week before Christmas.
What Charlie Thinks of Megan’s University Friends
Bruno- “A weirdo, them glasses make him look like Harry fuckin’ Potter”
Dean- “Seems like a twat”
Kirsty- “Reminds me of a Sabrina the Teenage Witch lookalike. One of them girls that’ll be nice as pie one minute then when you’re back is turned, she’s chuckin’ darts at a photo of yer”
Carly- “She isn’t iCarly. Which would’ve been hilarious”
Tomm- “Right, so he spells his name with two ‘m’s and he really shouldn’t. World changing ponce”
Charlie: I took her out, properly, for Christmas. I’m not usually the sorta person who takes birds…girls, out. We went an’ had tea in a decent-ish restaurant with the money I had left over from that little earner I did with Paddy and Simmo. Meg seemed to enjoy herself. Then again, ‘ave said that before. Many times. She seemed to enjoy it and then ya find out that she’s got some deep resentment towards me for some comment I said about seven hours before. Christ. I sat opposite her eating me carbonara- I know, how posh am I getting’- and looked right at her. My radiant girlfriend. For the first time I felt like I loved ‘er. Mental. Nice feeling, like, but scary as fuck all the same.
Megan: Maybe me going away did us some good. But then, that can’t be a good thing? We went three months without actually seeing each other in the flesh and we were happier than ever. So maybe we’re both kidding ourselves that this relationship works. But when I saw him in the restaurant, I just remembered what it was that I liked about him. His face when he broke into a smile telling his unbelievable stories; his eyes lighting up when a plate of food was put down in front of him. It was cute. He was right back to being my Charlie again. I’ve never been in love before but the butterflies in my stomach were more like mutant vultures flapping around, I was so happy in his company. As he’d say, it was “pure mental, mega Meg”.
Charlie: It went wrong again soon after. Fuckin’ relationship counselling? Really? After like less than a year. Mate, if you need that after such a short space of time then you’re fuckin’ crazy.
Megan: I guess that night at the restaurant was the pinnacle. We less we saw of each other, the happier we both were. I don’t know how else to describe it. I guess it was our unique kind of love.
That’s where I came in. They still wanted to make it work, despite their arguments to the contrary. It was over when they walked in the door and barely acknowledged each other. Shame. They should’ve been a good couple. My only analysis is that they were too intensely focused on different things and couldn’t sustain such a combustible relationship. Like I said, it was a shame. They’d have to get used to growing up without each other for the first time. The sunset on their youth.