The Pornographic Actress

 

For some time he had nurtured an obsession with a pornographic actress who resembled his wife. Not a perfect similarity, but a resemblance of her proportions and looks.

He was no longer able to recall who had come into his consciousness first: his wife, or the pornography actress. Did he love his wife because he lusted after the pornography actress, or did he lust after the pornography actress because he loved his wife? He couldn't tell. They were two different people, and yet they were not.

He systematically scoured the internet for the pornographic actress' work, returning repeatedly to those scenes where her performances appeared most naturalistic, more committed, less forced. He could discern within those performances moments when she wasn’t enjoying the performance of her male counterpart, times when she was faking her pleasure and those when she gave a true performance.

This led him primarily to the naïveté of her early work, where she appeared wide eyed and fresh faced before the lens. More authentic, less artificial. Through these dedicated, meticulous searches, he was able to trace the development of her screen persona through the trajectory of her career, from ingénue to established star, and the returning superstar after a mystery hiatus.

His internet searches eventually brought him into contact with her true identity. The discovery was entirely accidental, but there on the screen of his laptop was her name and the county in California where she now resided, following her retirement from the industry. He learned that she was married, and had taken a sabbatical from the industry to have a child with her husband.

Googling her real name uncovered a cache of photographs taken with her friends at a bar, and another photograph of her cuddling a small child. The candid photographs were old digital snaps, and lacked the high definition sharpness of her pornography work. This imbued them with a greater authenticity, which led to an inescapable revelation: her true identity was false. 

His discovery of these private moments was infinitely more invasive than watching her being vigorously penetrated by an anonymous man. It unnerved him greatly, and it was as if the boundary wall between fantasy and reality had suddenly fallen away.

He was no longer watching the coupling of his fantasy object and his faceless alter-ego, but a simulation of the sex act by a mother whose dedication of her performance was shaped by the circumstances of her reality. She was merely doing porn to provide for her husband and child, and not for the gratification of him, the voyeur. He could see now that her dedication was only ever partial, and that her mind was almost certainly elsewhere.

Returning to her early films, he saw in those scenes flickers of pain and uncertainty pass across her face. Her later films were formulaic, the performances unconvincing. He wondered how it was possible for her to give herself physically to these men having already exchanged vows with another, and thereafter having nurtured and given birth to a child.

He thought of her breasts, about which he fantasised so frequently, being greedily gnawed upon by some bearded man-child having recently been suckled by in mouth of her infant. He saw the trace of the caesarean scar just above the hairline of her pubis and pictured her lying on a hospital bed, her slippery entrails heaped on a table beside her as the surgeon eased the child from her gaping abdomen.

Slowly he began to understand that all the time he had watched the pornographic actress being fucked he was in reality watching someone fuck his wife. This was the fantasy. Unlike the husband of the pornographic actress, he believed this had been an entirely unconscious drive, but this was a delusion. He had found this pleasurable up to the point where she became a mother. Then it was unacceptable. He was no longer able to watch her films.

But the real problem came later, when he came to make love to his wife: he found himself musing on her commitment to their lovemaking, whether it was authentic or artificial, whether those tell-tale moans and sighs of pleasure were scripted, if like the pornographic actress she too was putting on a performance while planning her retirement.

Downy Grows Up

A slim book bound in blue fabric, with a large orange print of a flower on the cover. The fabric faded with age, the pages faintly yellowed. A dedication to him on the title page: This book was made and printed by Grandad Heath for Alexander. Then the title itself: Downy grows up.

His grandad had made the book at night school. He liked to think about him tending to his delicate project, with the large strong hands which had once taken his as a child. Writing the story. Planning the artwork. Shaping the wood block. Arranging the letters. Sewing the pages. Pasting the fabric. Making the final print on the cover. Penning the dedication to his grandson. Working with care and love.

He liked to move his own hands over the book as his grandad once had done. Feeling the textured fabric next to the smooth paper; letting his gaze settle on the shape of the printed shapes, the earthiness of the colours. He found it soothing, calming. Restorative.

Within the beautiful object was a story of equivalent simple beauty: a seed, blown from a dandelion clock, takes root in the ground and grows into a flower. Beginning, middle and end.

In truth, the narrative and aesthetic approach bore more than a little similarity to Eric Carle’s book The Tiny Seed. He couldn’t say for sure that his granddad had plagiarised Carle’s work, but certain elements bore Carle's hallmark. Where Downy departed from The Tiny Seed was in its simple presentation, his use of muted colours and spare, almost Imagist poetic register.

In both books the anthropomorphized seed served an allegorical purpose: using the mutability of the natural world to represent the process of coming into being, the emotional and intellectual foundations of a child’s interior world. Reflecting on his writing for children, Carle said that he wanted to ‘bridge the gap between home and school’, believing that the passage from home to school was ‘the second biggest trauma of childhood’.

To the paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, ‘it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self’. For Winnicott, the real and the imaginative life ‘are one and the same thing, because the infant at the beginning does not perceive objectively, but lives in a subjective state, being the creator of all’. This shift in perception from the subjective to an appreciation of the not-me world is marked by that transition from home to school, from seeing one’s self as a solitary beautiful flower to being but one in a vast field.

To accomplish this transition, Winnicot wrote, the child must be well cared for, within its immediate and extended environment. This, according to the psychologist, generates a ‘continuity of existence that becomes a sense of existing, a sense of self, and eventually results in autonomy’. Paradoxically, according to Winnicott, the child is alone ‘only in the presence of someone’.

To be autonomous and alone required the positive contribution of others. Throughout his own childhood and adolescence he had often never felt more alone that in the presence of others.

Rarely had he felt this in the presence of his grandparents. Yet their stimulation of his imagination, his creative and independent self, brought him much joy, and much misery, over time. As children at his grandparents’ home, he and his brother had been actively encouraged to read, often invited to select a book from the small library in their hallway. The books they were introduced to at their grandparents’ house were unlike those they encountered at school or at home.

In becoming a reader, he became aware of the empathetic strain which binds the human species together; and yet it could do little to control his narcissistic impulses, the flashes of cruelty and indignant, irrational rage that welled up from his unconscious. The more he read, it seemed, the more unhappy he became.

When his grandparents met his gran was training to be a primary school teacher; later his grandad followed her into the profession. His becoming a teacher coincided with his becoming a grandparent. It was then h grandad's love of art grew, and he tried to nurture his grandson’s nascent creativity as he developed his own.

They spent many hours together on overcast Sundays seated at the table in the dining room of their bungalow, the huge windows framing their garden. His grandad determinedly tried to impart the finer details of drawing technique to his grandson, who determinedly tried to run before he could walk, and became increasingly dispirited at his inability to draw like Leonardo da Vinci.

When he and his granddad produced art together, individually rather than collaboratively, they almost always used pencils to sketch, rather than paint or practice the block-printing of the Downy book, whose primitivistic images subtly recalled Henri Matisse’s gouaches découpés; more so, perhaps, than Carle’s overly-exuberant collages. He was unsure of his grandad’s familiarity with Matisse’s cutouts, but when he himself encountered them, many years later, he was struck by their similarity to some of the images in the book.

Famously, after being diagnosed with cancer and confined to a wheelchair, Matisse, no longer able to paint or sculpt, discovered a new way of working by cutting shapes out of painted paper and arranging them as a collage. A kind of naïve art in reverse.

By embracing this simplified approach to colour and form, Matisse revived his aesthetic vision and remade himself as an artist. ‘Une second vie’, Matisse later called the last fourteen years of his life. ‘Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated’. He was fortunate to survive the cancer; doubly fortunate to discover a liberating technique.   

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For someone without a natural proclivity to artistic genius, his grandad’s own naïve artistic aesthetic was hard won, worked at and eked out over decades. His beginnings were inauspicious, and couldn’t have been more different to that of Matisse, the son of a wealthy grain merchant and product of French academe.

Born into a working class family in the Potteries, the youngest of five brothers, two of whom fought and died in the Second World War. His father was an alcoholic; his mother held the family together. She was a small, tenacious woman who died when his grandson was an infant. He had a dim memory of visiting her home, being guided into the semi-dark of a cluttered living room, where she was seated in a chair. The memory was so faint, so unreal, that he often wondered if he had imagined it.

After leaving school at fourteen his grandad worked in a potbank for a period, before reporting to the army aged seventeen for his national service, where he served during the Suez Crisis. After being demobbed his grandad retrained as a mechanic; after several years, he retrained again to become a teacher; after retirement, he focused on art.

Winnicott believed that all creative expression is a way of hiding in plain sight. ‘It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster to be found’, Winnicott wrote, determining that ‘artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide’. His grandad’s pursuit of his own personal aesthetic, through his naïve art, was part of a lifelong process of restless reinvention; in turn, it was reflective the social mobility of the postwar period, as he transitioned from pot-bank worker to salaried teacher over a couple of decades.

He was unsure if his grandad was hiding himself or making something of himself through his art. Perhaps it was neither, perhaps it was both. When he began painting postcard sized watercolours for friends and family, he signed them FRH. Frederick Roy Heath. The initials sounded as regal as his first name, Frederick, a name no one but the taxman used. He was Roy, first and foremost. Sometimes Father, and after that Grandad, but always Roy. Frederick was a boy long lost to time, and yet here he was again, resurrected through art.

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Disappearances and resurrections. How often we treat goodbyes as a deferral, a delaying of the inevitable. How rarely the finality the word implies.

He had just left university when his grandad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. There was a bungling over his diagnosis, and it was months before he sought treatment. By then it was of course too late. He was given months to live. The strong, gentle man of his childhood was slowly eviscerated by the disease. He took to using one walking stick, then two, until he could no longer walk. The combination of the cancer attacking his central nervous system and his treatment left him wracked with spasms, unable to draw.

His grandad spent his final months confined to a bed in the dining room, looking out on an overgrown garden, his pupils dulled with morphine. As a family they shared one last meal, when his grandad was still well enough to eat solid food. While his gran and mother cleared away the plates and remains of the meal, he wordlessly refilled his grandad’s wine glass for him, which he duly downed.

Months became weeks. The next time he visited was the last time he saw him alive. When he walked into the dining room to greet him, the look his grandad gave him bore no trace of recognition. The pain of the cancer and the drugs had taken his grandad to the verge of delirium. He retreated to the kitchen, and stayed there for the rest of the visit.

Weeks became days became hours. The phone rang out in the darkness, waking him. Murmurs from the kitchen below his bedroom. Then followed the noise of his mother’s car turning over in the cold, before crawling up the gravel drive. She returned home that afternoon exhausted, shattered with grief, her eyes red raw. He was seventy-one years old. In one final cruel twist, her father's death had fallen on her silver wedding anniversary.

For the cremation his gran had asked him to read a poem he had written, which he did, tersely, nursing a fierce fury at his grandad’s death. At the wake, a friend of his grandparents inappropriately toasted his poem with a glass of wine, and he raised a glass to his own lips with a thin smile, knowing that his grandad thought the man a fool.

Like Downy Grows Up, his poem reflected upon the the intertwining of the seasons: how each leaves its imprint on the next, as a long winter leads to a belated spring, a hot summer accounts for resplendent autumns. The natural world exists in permanent flux, a continual dialogue with itself, and with us. He hadn't realised it at the time, but he couldn't have written the poem without his grandad's book. 

Embedded within his grandad’s short story was the germination of his funeral poem. The Downy book also contained Carle’s The Tiny Seed, and a later text, very similar, called The Dandelion Seed. They were all there, and by coincidence all three called to mind to the Parable of the Sower from the Gospels, which he first heard in assembly at infant school.

A sower casts seed indiscriminately. Some falls on the path, some on rocky ground, some amid thorns. The seeds which land on fertile soil take root. Some are receptive to the Word of God, and help it flourish; others turn away and look elsewhere for illumination. The parabolic narrative of the sower heralded the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, success over failure. He heard it, he understood it, but he didn't trust it.

Before he had wanted to be a writer he had wanted to be an artist, and after he recognized his limitations as an artist and a writer he had hoped to be a journalist or a poet, or failing that just a decent human being, and in every instance he had blown it. He had been undone by an excess of knowledge. His parents and his grandparents had high hopes for him, their well-educated first born, and he had failed them.

When his grandad made that book, a lifetime of reading lay ahead for his grandson. It was like a downy clock of seeds ready to be blown on the wind. Every story contains within it the possibility of another story; each text extends beyond itself into other texts. There is always a multitude of references, permutations and alternatives, just as there are libraries to be filled with as yet untold stories for those not yet born.

He saw a faint echo of this in Roland Barthes’ argument that every text is no more than a tissue of quotations, a script of language which is activated by the reader. For Winnicott, in communicating every artist seeks to vanish; for Barthes, in the act of writing, the writer cedes control to the reader, and makes himself disappear. In keeping with this, his grandad had forgotten to put his name on the cover of the book.

Another writer he admired, the American novelist Siri Hustvedt, wrote that everyone lives with the ghosts of those who have disappeared inside them. After they disappear, we move through rooms surrounded by their former possessions. Shared experiences reconsolidate themselves in our memory, while objects associated with the other take on what Winnicott termed a transitional purpose. They soften grief in some way.

He could not help but be moved by the Downy book. It reminded him continually of the passage of time. The lag of years, decades, epochs. Each year the little book grew a little older. His own children had already outgrown it. They had been given another book called Grandad’s Island by Benji Daviesa gentle allegory which sensitively depicted the transition between growing up, growing old and saying goodbye. 

He would sit with his children and read the Downy book with them, but he didn’t trust them to take sufficient care of it, so kept it stowed on a shelf, out of their reach. When alone he ran his hands over the careworn and faded pages of the book, trying to mimic his grandad’s touch, to handle it in the way he would have when it was finished. With care and love.

By now his own memories of his grandad had faded like the cover of his book, condensed down to a handful of abiding remembrances which in time would diminish and all but disappear. When they asked him, he found it hard to explain to his young children who his grandad was. The act of forgetting had already begun.

National Poetry Day

 

It was national poetry day, and to mark the occasion he spent the day scarifying his lawn: strimming the long strands of grass and going after the spongy moss with a spring rake. The day produced a mass of new material, haystacks of damp plant matter and winnowed thatch. After that, he pruned his hedges with secateurs, chopping back the advancing branches and bundling them into a wheelbarrow.

He had written little in the way of poetry for some time, and as he raked at the mossy grass he wondered if he was done with it, or if it was done with him. He considered how many poets would be out tending to their garden on this day of days. Poetry was above all concerned with time, yet there was no greater marker of time passing than having to deal with an overgrown garden. Having to deal with an overgrown garden, of course, ate into the time one had to write poetry. Perhaps this was why while there were plenty of poems about gardens, there were few about gardening: the physical act of digging, planting, cutting back. The only poem that immediately sprang to mind was Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw versus Pampas Grass’, and that didn’t exactly paint the poet-cum-gardener in the best light.

Naturally, there were plenty of poets who had their shoulder to the wheel, in one sense or another, but when it came to work, there was something about sifting the earth with one’s hands which could not be matched. There was another poet whose writing he admired, who had worked as a gardener for a number of years, and another he knew who had worked as a tree surgeon, but by and large when it came to physical work, poetry talked a good game; good at watching others work while musing in some Brechtian register on the nobility of the humble labourer. When he thought of the relationship between poetic craft and hard graft, he thought of Ashley Hutchings, dressed in the garb of a 18th century yeoman, awkwardly wielding a spade on the reverse cover of The Albion Band’s The Battle of the Field.

A few days prior he had stood in the poetry section of a large chain bookstore, studying the shelves where the canonical and contemporary sat in uneasy silence. The hefty volumes of the poets of antiquity dominated the section, squeezing the life from the slim volumes of emerging poets. He envied their slim chapbooks, their TLS interviews, afternoons at Latitude and Hay, their annual stipend, meager as it may be. He had always envisioned a place for himself between William Carlos Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah. He couldn’t see himself there anymore.

He never thought of himself as a poet, but someone who wrote poems. He knew it wasn’t poetry, but he thought it might have a place somewhere. Now the ranks felt closed to him indefinitely.

There were more poets, more prizes, more writing programmes, more residencies, more fellowships, more grants and funding opportunities. More people were writing poetry, more people were buying it; and yet poetry remained all but invisible, absent from the majority of people’s lives, the preserve of marriages, funerals and greetings cards doggerel. Its technical advances felt like a kind of retreat. In its hurry to reinvent itself, poetry was undergoing a debilitating identity crisis.

There was too much nuance, too little noise. Too little nuance, too much noise. Too much diversity, not enough diversity. Too democratic, not democratic enough. The schism between tradition and the avant-garde, poetry of the page and spoken word, noble amateurs and their academic critics. Rumours of sexual impropriety among would-be professors. Media voices taking potshots at the scene.

Verses and versus. Spats and rants. Deep beef and enduring love. A microcosmic world.

He wondered if poetry was less a form in dialogue with itself, or more a victim of commodification, little more than a means of rearranging the furniture, of renewing and repurposing the old themes, to ensure continuity and commercial viability. Part of that process of renewal was an obsession with youth; fresh voices and fresher faces. The older a poet became, the more they began to disappear.

He and poetry had always had a difficult relationship. Fraught and unforgiving. He moved to London specifically to become A Poet. He felt ready. He found a job in a pub to pay his rent, leaving him much free time to write. Spent hours in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, pored over the little magazines. Churned out poem after poem, hunched over a typewriter, punching its keys into the early hours; later, when he worked in an office, nursed a notebook on his daily commute.

He had always favoured poetry which leaned towards the vernacular, recorded the dialogue between the individual and the collective, enacted the tension between conscious and unconscious. Plain-talking poetry that didn’t gild the lily. Poetry that was coarse and vulgar in its confessions, hissed directly into your ear while holding you by the throat, before kissing you. Poetry that gave it to you straight. Straight as fuck.

He was too impatient to learn the craft, too impetuous to understand the technical requirements. So he turned up at countless open mics to mumble his lumpen prosody. Didn’t talk to anyone and hurried home. Submitted manila envelope after manila envelop to the well established little magazines. Excitedly tore open dozens of rejection letters. Gained publication a handful of times. Wrung himself out until there was nothing left.

He wanted to remain hopeful. That the poems would come back. That someone might be listening. But why on earth would his thoughts be of any interest to anyone? He couldn’t say.

Forty

He had spent much time of late thinking about his parent’s 40th. At the time he had just turned sixteen, the same age as his parents when they met. Their birthdays were close, just a few weeks apart in midsummer. Late blooms of the Baby-Boom generation.

At sixteen, he was the same age as his parents when they first met, at the local polytechnic, where his mother was training to be a hairdresser and his father studying to be a quantity surveyor. After courting for a few years, they married in their early twenties and set up home together. He was born a year later. By small coincidence, his birthday fell between theirs, almost equidistantly. Cancer on the cusp of Gemini. His brother arrived a couple of years after. Between them, their mother had suffered a miscarriage, something that she only spoke of once, almost at a whisper, one Sunday over dinner, after several glasses of wine. She had been expecting a girl.

To his sixteen year old self, forty was a place as alien and unreachable as the cold moons of Neptune. At sixteen he had seen himself as an artist-in-becoming; in his twenties he would move to London and make a name for himself; by forty he expected he would have amassed a substantial body of creative work. By his late thirties, he had achieved precisely fuck-all. Much of his twenties and thirties had been spent in London, in a sequence of inconsequential jobs, in a prolonged state of dissolution, drunk or drugged or both. Miraculously during this time he had met someone, married her and had two children. With their finances dwindling, due in part to his interminable fecklessness, they sold the house they had bought together and upped sticks to Scotland. Once he left London, he wondered what he had been doing there all that time, how little he had to show for it. How little he could remember.

Now, inconceivably, he found himself two years away from his fortieth birthday. Already his flesh was exhibiting signs of flaccidity, a bulbousness about his midriff which was reluctant to shift. His face, like his mother’s, was crinkled with crow’s feet, and his forehead lined and creased. His hairline, slowly receding since his late teens, now like his father’s threatened to disappear altogether. There were sudden, sharp pains in his knees when he moved too quickly; he had to remove his glasses to read at night.

Forty. Toni Morrison’s age when she published her first novel. Hemingway’s when he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. John Lennon’s when Chapman shot him dead, his best work already behind him. The old age of youth, according to Victor Hugo. The hinge-point, the turning. Where time hastens as one’s ability to comprehend it slows.

His upbringing was partly to blame. His parents were part of a large circle of lively, upwardly-mobile, mostly middle class friends, linked together through membership of the local Round Table. Moderate affluence seemed to be a precursor to membership, which came to a close at the age of forty, providing a physical and symbolic watershed moment in their social lives. Once you were too old for Table, you were past it. Over the hill. Out to pasture. Rotarian status beckoned. When his father turned forty he treated himself to a classic Porsche; other friends splashed out motorbikes and took off on touring holidays to the continent.

There was a tradition among the Tablers of passing a zimmer frame on to the next unfortunate who came of age. The zimmer frame had already been through several of his father’s closest friends. Another had been procured for his mother for the party. Both were festooned with L-plates, corn plasters, incontinence pads. There is a photograph of his parents mock-hobbling over the lawn on their zimmers; then another of them kissing, her slender chin raised, his eyes closed behind his John Major specs. Tanned and healthy and happy.

What will survive of us is love. He often thought of Larkin’s words when he contemplated that photograph, despite its apparent ambivalence. Like the Arundel Tomb there is no timeless truth to the photograph; it is a factual document that proves his parents were, at one given moment in time, simply there. As the products of a supposedly permissive society, they reminded him of the couple of kids of Larkin’s other poem, ‘High Windows’, twenty years on. And yet they were in love then, the kind of quiet, undemonstrative love of a more repressed tradition.

In the months leading up to her birthday he had observed his mother move through varying depressive moods, frequently quick to anger and tearful. She was not comfortable growing old, and saw no cause for celebration. There was a stigma, and it stymied her ability to see herself clearly, to simply let herself be. On the night of the party, she came downstairs to greet her guests, looking impeccable. She spotted a large housefly wafting idly among the party-goers, and when it came to rest on a window, rather than let it out, she suddenly swatted it with her bare hand, crushing its body and smearing its pus-like hemolymph over the glass.

The impetus for the party had been largely driven by his father, who organized the barbecue and invited his friends to camp out on the back lawn. Theirs was the latest in an accretion of fortieth birthday celebrations, each marginally grander than the last, but following a similar format: a booze-soaked barbecue with much drinking and dancing into the early hours. Moderate amounts of inter-spousal flirtation and innuendo. Good, clean, harmless fun.

His father had recently finished the renovation of a small pub in his hometown, and the landlord, in his gratitude, had dropped round with a keg of John Smiths bitter and a self-pouring tap. The first guests set about it with great gusto, and the lawn was soon littered with empty plastic pint pots. He had also convinced a local covers band to play at the party: two female singers and a trio of male musicians – drummer, guitarist, bassist – huddled beside the garage under a lean-to tarpaulin tent, an insurance policy against the threatening summer rain. As the band laboured their way through crowd-pleasing favourites by Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, The Pretenders, Deacon Blue, the guests danced limply in the damp air long into the night, unsettling the gathering dew on the grass.

His grandparents were still alive then, fit and well and showing few signs of advancing age. His mother’s father spent the evening patrolling the perimeter of guests, supping wine and taking photographs. When a neighbour came to complain about the music, his granddad, who did his national service in Suez, put down his camera and hooked the neighbour under the arm to march him back home. What’s the matter, were you never young? Some time later two bobbies wandered up the drive: a WPC and male officer. This time his granddad made himself scarce. Despite one or two heckles about strippergrams launched by another over-lubricated guest, the officers allowed the band to play on and went on their way.

He didn’t witness the incident but heard about it the next day. His memory of the evening was limited, much of it being spent in a drunken clinch with the daughter of his parent’s friends. He was a hair’s whisker from losing his virginity that night, after secreting her into his room while the adults partied downstairs; but she went cold when she saw his collection of posters on the wall: Pamela Anderson, Madonna, other nameless and faceless Athena models; the obligatory bedroom draperies of a teenage onanist. They resumed kissing on his younger brother’s bed, while his sibling played computer games and pretended not to notice. He contented himself with this, not realising he would remain a virgin for some time to come. For he had only just turned sixteen. He had all the time in the world. 

The Dirty Secret

Hard to recall when it first began. He has an early memory of lying on his bed at the house on Elworth Street. He would have been almost four years old. His mother is leaning over him, saying his name with some sharpness in her voice. He has never seen her so angry, driven to tears in exasperation. He knows he has done something wrong, that he has been doing something wrong every day since he was born, but he is unable to stop himself. He doesn’t know why he does it, there was no reason to do it, nor any excuse for it. It was just something he did, like picking his nose or drawing a picture.

She is changing his underpants, which are soiled with excrement. It is not the first time she has done this, and it won’t be the last. From infancy to late childhood he will soil his underpants almost on a daily basis.

Another early memory: using the toilet at his reception class, trying to wipe himself with the shiny, non-porous paper that resembled baking parchment. He used too much and blocked the toilet. The teacher, an elderly lady with a head tremor, found him in the class and marched him back to the toilet to show him what he had done. He could remember the pinch of her hold against his wrist, the heat of her annoyance. The sting of her rebuke. The shame.

As an infant he had taken some time to potty train, to transition from trainer pants to the real thing. At the house in Elworth Street, if he needed the toilet he would disappear to the end of the garden, behind the rose bushes, out of sight of the kitchen window where his mother might see him, and defecate in his underwear. That was when he was an infant, when he knew no better; before it became a de facto daily occurrence. He would resist defecating until he could physically resist it no further, until his constipated bowels caused him to acute pain. After resisting the urge for days by this point the relief of feeling the compacted excrement leave his rectum counterbalanced the inconvenience of the fetid bulk now nestling against his backside.

Even now he wonders why he continued to do it, when the excrement dried and caked around his anus, partially hardened in his underpants. Why suffer the discomfort, the inconvenience, the embarrassment?

That afternoon in his bedroom at Elworth Street was the first time he had seen his mother cry. He recognized the flaw in himself then. The beautiful boy with the blonde hair, who had something wrong with him, something so wrong that it made her weep. And yet still he did it, and continued to do it for the remainder of his childhood.

He wondered what his friends thought of him, this small boy who sometimes walked strangely and smelt of shit. Carrying his dirty secret. A later memory of being running around the garden of the house at Middlewich Road, where his family moved when he was five, with one of his friends laughing at him, trying to prod his pudenda with a stick. Yet he never mentioned it again. Or told anyone. The secret was safe.

Aged eight he went on a weekend trip to Burwardsley with his primary school, staying at a catholic learning centre. The boys and girls were split into austere dormitories with iron-framed bunk beds and a carbolic odour. He felt uncomfortable in the press of the other boys, shouting and shoving in the bathrooms as they pissed in the urinals or brushed their teeth.

All day tramping up the Sandstone Trail and visiting working farms in their wellies, he managed to avoid using the toilet, but in the evening he was woken by stomach cramps. He did the deed and then crept to the toilet to remove his filthy underpants, which he stashed underneath his bunk, leaving them there when they departed the following day.

He was a troubled child. Strange to himself then, stranger now. One afternoon at school, too timid to raise his hand to ask to go to the bathroom, he instead wet himself and, now too fearful to move, sat in a puddle of his own urine for the rest of the afternoon as he completed the art task they had been set. Then when it came time to leave for home, he unfolded himself with great care from his chair, gently pushed it back under the table without disturbing the pool of piss, and slipped out of the room to his mother waiting in the car.

He was afraid of his body, and would accompany his mother to the women’s changing rooms when they went to the local swimming baths. On one occasion as his mother toweled him down after a swimming lesson she recoiled at the liquid shit seeping out of his trunks and dragged him into the nearest cubicle. He hadn’t even noticed.

His mother tried everything to get him to stop. Gentle coaxing, shouting, bribery, reverse psychology, a visit to the GP, a friend of his parents. The excruciating discussion of his toilet habits.  The soothing tones of the doctor, who knew him and now knew his dirty secret.

Ritual humiliation. Rituals and humiliation.

Eventually a cure was found. One week his mother placed all his soiled underwear in a bucket of cold water and made him scrub them clean. He knelt on the driveway of their home to do it. He remembers the sun on his back and the flecks of fecal matter on his hands. He must have been ten years old. In a matter of months he would begin secondary school. He knew then he had to stop. And he did.

A few months later, he was changing for a rugby lesson in games changing rooms. The cold, hard tiles and sharp benches, the same press of young male bodies, the collective terror of the communal shower, the reptilian gaze of the games master.

After changing into his PE kit, two boys he didn’t know took his underpants from his pile of clothes and threw them to the other side of the changing room. The games master, a Territorial army sergeant with a brush mustache, found them and held them aloft, demanding to know who they belonged to. Whose are these underpants? Pale blue? Yellow stains? Slight skid mark? He meekly went to collect them, grateful that he got off lightly. It could have been worse. Much worse.

Malmo/Copenhagen

There are times when what is to be said looks out of the past at you – looks like someone at a window and you in the street as you walk along. Past hours, past acts, take on an uncanny isolation; between them and you who look back on them now there is no continuity.

Alexander Trocchi

 

His friend proposed the trip shortly after he moved to London. A celebration of sorts, to mark his arrival in the capital. The beginning of bigger, better things. 

The dizygotic nuances of Malmo and Copenhagen appealed to him. Here were two cities of similar cultural outlook, divided by a large body of water; two nations separate and distinct, linked by a slim bridge of steel and concrete. There was a strange familiarity to Scandinavia, an enhanced Britishness in their way of doing things, politically more liberal and socially more conscientious. It was a fanciful notion, for he knew next to nothing about Scandinavian culture. He hadn't even taken the time to read Kierkegaard.   

They flew from Stansted early one overcast morning in November, touching down in a bitterly cold Malmo a few hours later. Frigid air seemed to seep into the city from the Baltic coast. The icy wind wove into the fibres of their clothing, insinuating itself against their flesh. Lacking a winter coat, he had brought only a threadbare corduroy blazer he found at a flea market in Liverpool several months earlier, back when he was studying to be a journalist and trying to be a poet. He combined the blazer with a pair of brown boot-cut cords, topped and tailed with a brown beanie and brown desert boots. His only piece of luggage a brown Dunlop satchel containing his notebooks and his father’s Canon; his smoking tin, for his rolling tobacco and liquorice papers; a change of underwear and a clean shirt; and the novel he had just begun reading, Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam.   

After finding a cheap hotel they ventured out into the city, through its nondescript central plaza and the shopping district where over lunch they watched Swedish mothers awkwardly maneuvering bulky heritage prams. From there into the Kungspark with its nearly-naked trees and unromantic ornamental lake, before returning to the centre to find a bar and try their first stor stark, drinking steadily into the night.The next morning, hungover, they bought train tickets to Copenhagen and rode across the Oresund Bridge into Denmark. As they crossed the Oresund strait, the struts of the bridge flickered like a movie reel. Sunlight glinted on the scuffed water.

They found a room at the Comfort Hotel in the Vestboro district, a short walk from the central station, followed by more walking. His head ached from staring at a map, from navigating the incomprehensible names of streets and the crowds of the shopping district.

They passed the city’s university buildings, the library with a huge glass façade, the tiered floors where Denmark’s brightest mind toiled behind perfectly-aligned ergonomic desks. He thought about the missed opportunities of his university years. The years spent at his parents' house, sequestered in his room smoking dope; the six months in a bedsit in Liverpool, his aborted career as a journalist. Brown leaves blew about their ankles as they trudged the streets.

As the sun began to set they had reached the edge of a canal or a river. The water had caught the deep blues and bright white light of the evening sky, in a near-perfect mirroring, divided by the silhouetted buildings of the opposite bank, divided by the concentric wakes of a handful of water birds. They stood side by side and took a near-identical photograph of the scene.

Copenhagen.jpg

As the evening wore tempers began to fray. He wanted to go to Freetown Christiania to score weed, but his friend wouldn’t entertain the idea. He sulked and tried to strike up conversations with random strangers to make his friend uncomfortable. In an Irish bar that evening he disrupted a pub quiz to provoke an argument. That same night he urinated seven times in half an hour. The booze was coursing through him, his sullied flesh melting.

He woke in the hotel room late the next morning with no memory of returning. As they ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant he saw his hands were shaking.

As they set out again that morning his friend suggested that, for their last night in Copenhagen, they should go to the lap-dancing bar near the hotel. They had passed the bar the day before and had their heads turned by the posters of the entertainment near the entrance. He had never been to a lap-dancing bar before, viewing them as a last resort for the hopeless and incapable. Even their sense of spectacle didn't appeal. Now the bar beckoned him like a beacon.

More perfunctory sightseeing, then after the lunch the first Tuborg of the day. Seeing Copenhagen from the inside of a pint glass.

They stumbled into the lapdancing bar in the late evening. After paying the small surcharge to gain entry, they walked into a large room, almost entirely black, spot-lit and adorned with red drapes. In the left corner of the room there was a small bar; in the right corner, a circular stage with fireman’s pole in the center. Arranged around the room’s perimeter a number of sofas, where sparse groups of males sat drinking and laughing; one or two solitary men perched on stools, staring at the women writhing on the stage.

No sooner had he and his friend ordered their drinks at the bar than two women approached them: a older blonde with an elfin haircut, and an Asian girl with a black bob, in a black basque with deep cleavage. They women linked their arms through theirs – the Asian girl favoured him, the blonde his friend – and ushered them towards two vacant sofas.

They asked him if they wanted to buy a bottle of house champagne. His friend demurred but he, being inebriated to the point of idiocy, agreed, and was immediately presented with an ice bucket containing an opened, lukewarm bottle of barely-sparkling wine, accompanied by a bar bill for 2000 Danish Kroner, the equivalent to two months’ wages.

The Asian girl clapped her hands with delight, and poured the champagne into four flutes. As he sipped the tepid liquid she began running her hand up and down the buttons of his shirt, and into the small openings between the buttons, so he could feel her nails on the bare skin of his chest. The first intimations of arousal. She offered up a range of queries, wanting to know if he liked her, found her attractive, liked her breasts and her legs, which she proceeded to rub against him. Yes, my breasts are fake, she said, but they looked good, and feel so good. She asked him if he wanted to feel them. He politely declined, but in response she took his hand and placed it upon her bosom. He lingered a while, said, Very nice, and took his hand away. Then she hooked one of her legs over his and pulled him closer to her, so their faces were almost touching. He glanced over at his friend, who was still talking to the blonde. The Asian girl asked him if he wanted to fuck her and he said not right now, I have an expensive bottle of cheap champagne to finish, and laughed. She told him he could bring the bottle with him upstairs. He asked her how much and she told him 2500 Danish Kroner. Any wriggle room on that, he asked, and she shook her head. 2500, she repeated.

She stood and attempted to pull him up by his arm. Come on, let’s go, let’s go, she said. Stalling, he asked her to dance for him. Okay, she said. I do it on the stage for you, and then we go upstairs, ok? Ok, he said, and quaffed his champagne.

His friend was still talking to the blonde, with an intensity that he was loath to dispel. It was impossible to hear what they were saying over the music. He drained his glass and looked over his shoulder. Onstage she was peeling off her lingerie and strutting around the pole, eyes fixed on him as he self-consciously sipped his champagne. He was enjoying the absurdity of the encounter. He had no intention of sleeping with her, irrespective of her persistence. 

Now completely naked, the Asian girl returned to the sofa. Did you enjoy? Very nice, he repeated, swallowing hard. Come on, she said. Two thousand Kroner. I want you to fuck me. He apologized and explained that he could not afford it, as much as he wanted to. She asked him again. Once more he refused. She sighed, then stood and walked away from him, shaking her head. He watched her opalescent body sashay away from him, the goose-bumped behind disappearing through a curtain beside the bar.

He finished his drink and descended the stairs to the bathroom, where he emptied his bladder while swaying gently on the balls of his feet.

As he left the gents he noticed a doorway leading to another room with mirrored walls and red banquettes. Curious, he wandered through the doorway, entering a room full of semi-dressed women. For a moment, nobody spoke. They regarded him, and he regarded them. It was undeniably surreal. He paused for a moment, as he considered whether to walk out of the door, before making for the bar and ordering a beer.

He could feel the eyes of the women on him, and in the mirror above the bar could see them looking at him, whispering to each other.

Standing there at the bar, drinking his beer with his back to the room, feeling upon him the expectant eyes of the two-dozen women in the basement, he felt both empowered and powerless, at once enthroned and emasculated. He could choose to sleep with any of these women, or not, and for a simple financial exchange, could have access to their body. Or not. He had never been in this position before. It was both unsettling and liberating.

As he sipped his beer he came to understand that these girls were the unfortunates, the girls who weren't permitted onto the upper-floors, where the premier girls plied high-rolling punters with booze and tantalized them with compliments. It was the girls in the basement who handled the less-salubrious clientele, those too drunk, too broke, too ugly or too damaged for the high class girls. It was pity, not lust, which overcame him then, and he resolved to finish his beer and leave.

As he was mulling this over, a petite brunette quietly positioned herself between him and the door. At first he ignored her, but as she moved increasingly close, he turned to allow her to speak to him. She was plain but not unattractive, wearing a light-pink crop-top to emphasise the shape of her breasts, with black leggings and hi-heels. Unlike the girls upstairs she wore very little make up. Just lipstick and blusher.

She asked if he would buy her a drink. He said no, but said she could share his beer. As she tipped the bottle into her mouth it frothed slightly. She wiped her mouth with her fingers, and asking if he would like to come and sit with her for a while. He agreed, and they took a seat on a banquette around the corner from the bar, where there was another couple: a man of Middle Eastern appearance, and a blonde girl in a white dress.

When the brunette spoke he noticed her Eastern European accent. He asked her where she came from. Poland, she replied. Where in Poland? Near Krakow, she replied. How old are you? Nineteen. What’s your name? Lena, she replied.

She moved her head close to his and they began to kiss. As they kissed she moved her hand onto his leg and began to knead his inner thigh. He felt himself respond to her touch. She began to kiss him with more insistently, pushing her tongue in his mouth and caressing his crotch with her fingers. She broke off the kiss and asked if he would like to go somewhere with her, and he, recognizing the trap was about to be sprung, said no, he couldn’t but would like to continue to kiss her, and she complied, sliding her tongue in languid strokes over his, her breasts pushed against him. As he raised one hand to caress them a soft moan escaped with her breath. She broke off to repeat her inquiry, and he agreed.

She rose from the sofa and gently pulled his hand. He stood, and she walked with him to the entrance, where he retrieved his jacket from the cloakroom and she donned her own, a black raincoat. On the way out he saw that his friend and the blonde had gone.

She ushered him out of the exit and across the street, pausing to allow a car to pass, then hurried him down the street to a hole in the wall. How much, he asked. Two thousand, she replied, and he paused to consider it. He wasn’t even sure if he had that much money in his bank account. That was the moment at which he could have said No, I can’t, I’m sorry and walked her to the club and gone back to his hotel, slipped into bed alone and counted himself fortunate. But at that moment, he couldn’t stand the thought of her fucking anyone else. It was ludicrous, it made absolutely no sense, but there it was: he wanted her more than the money, he needed it as though his life depended upon it. So he emptied his account, more money than he’d ever had in his possession at one time, and quickly pushed the roll of notes deep into his underwear, looking around in anticipation of the fist or cosh or club that would come crashing over his head.

It didn’t come. Instead they walked arm in arm up the street to another building, a small, anonymous apartment block. She pressed bell on the intercom, and was buzzed in.

They entered a dimly-lit reception area where a middle-aged woman with short, brown hair and an Asiatic appearance was sitting behind a desk. Unlike the bar, the place was absolutely silent. There was no noise, no movement, no sense of human presence. Nothing but stillness, an early hours of the morning silence that almost rang. 

He took the roll of notes from his underwear and handed it to the woman, who counted it wordlessly, while the Polish girl stood mutely beside him, resting her head against his arm.

The woman nodded that the transaction had been completed, and he and the Polish girl walked arm in arm down a short, dark corridor. He was still drunk, not so drunk that he couldn’t focus on his surroundings or walk straight, but he was operating on autopilot now, being guided by the hand of another into the small room with a single bed, chair and table with lamp, which she clicked on and started to undress, shrugging off her coat and draping it over the back of the chair. He followed suit with his jacket, and moved towards her, began unbuttoning her blouse. She raised her face to his, kissing him as he slid the blouse off her shoulders and threw it over the chair. She returned the favour, unbuttoning his shirt and trousers, slipping her hand inside his underpants.

Then they were naked on the bed and things had changed. She lay inert on her back, eyes closed, so much so that he wondered if she was about to fall asleep. Her skin was beautifully pale and goose-pimpled in the lamplight, her thighs plump and soft, her buttocks pancaked against the mattress, her breasts soft, downy mounds. He kissed her from neck to stomach, and asked if he could go down on her. For several moments he tried in vain to elicit some wetness between her legs. She asked him to stop and hurry up  and fuck her. He realized then the true value of his choice. 

He stopped. She told him to lie on his back, and she got up from the bed and moved to the table. Taking a packet from a bowl of condoms she opened the wrapper and placed the nipple of the condom in her mouth. Crouching over his lap took his manhood in her mouth, unrolling the latex around his flaccid penis, and slowly moved her mouth back and forth until his cock began to grow, slowly engorging the rubber sheath. Once she was satisfied he was hard enough she squirted some lubricant into her hands and rubbed it over his member and over her sex, and straddled him. Her breasts, pendulous and pearlescent, brushed his face as she rocked back and forth over him, her nipples at touching distance. He could feel himself soften and start to slide from her, and asked to be excused while he went to the bathroom. She dismounted, staring at him balefully as he pulled on his underpants.

Where is the bathroom, he asked. Down to the right, she replied.

The corridor was still empty when he stepped from the room. He felt his skin tighten in the cold air, and shuffled to the bathroom in the darkness. Closing the door behind him he pulled off the condom and urinated hopefully in the direction of the toilet.

Returning to the room, the Polish girl was still naked on the bed. He slipped off his underpants and joined her.

As they kissed he tried to touch her between the legs, but she stopped his hand and moved it to her breast instead. We have to be quick now she said and pulled him on top of her, taking his limp dick and slipping it inside her, squeezing him with the walls of her vagina. Fuck me now, she said, you must come, we cannot stay in the room, and she pressed her lips against his once more, flickering her tongue in and out of his mouth, and he began to grow hard, but not hard enough, and now he knew it was useless, he would never be able to ejaculate, the moment had come and gone – it had left him back in the club, it evaporated when he withdrew the cash, it fled when he disrobed in the dim light of the box room; it was always doomed to failure – and when she drew her knees up against his chest the pointlessness, the absence of intimacy, the sheer futility of what he was doing began to pulse in his head like a thrombosis and he stopped, breathless, and hanging his head said, weakly, Fuck.

He withdrew and sat on the edge of the bed to pull his clothes back on. When he left the room she was still dressing. He opened the door and stepped through it without a word.

He walked down the icy street to the hotel. He asked the night porter what the time was – 3.43 a.m. – and took the lift back to his room. His friend was alone, and asleep, lying on his side facing away from the door. He undressed, slipped his own bed and passed out.

They were awoken the next morning by housekeeping blundering into the room. After she retreated, bleating apologetically, they showered and dressed and went down to the lobby to catch the buffet breakfast. He was still drunk, and walked unsteadily through the reception area. His friend looked sheepish and shell-shocked. His bottom lip and chin were quivering, an involuntary tic that revealed itself in moments of fatigue or stress. They ate very little, and barely spoke, merely exchanging cursory accounts of their exploits the night prior. Much of the bravado and bonhomie of the first day of the trip had disappeared. His friend seemed disgusted with himself, and depressed.

They left Copenhagen that morning to return to Malmo, crossing the strait just after lunch. They walked through the city once more, laden with their overnight bags, taking desultory photographs, in uncomfortable silence. Malmo felt cold and ugly under its heavy grey clouds.

They found a café for coffee and cigarettes. His friend had brought with him a poetry anthology. He took the heavy book in his hand, flicked ash from his cigarette and flicked through the poems. A succession of succinct, pithy, apposite psalms. A vague sense of unease settled upon him. Here were all the poems he could not write. The work that would never see the light of day. The forms he had wrestled with and failed to master, which he doubted he ever would.

The last poem in the book was Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment:

 

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

 

That afternoon, at their hotel, he emerged from the bathroom to find his friend lying in the foetal position on his bed. He began sobbing in short spasms. He asked his friend what was the matter. I’m just worried what my mum and dad will say I tell them I’ve got Aids.

He offered him some words of consolation. That won’t happen. If you wore a condom you’ll be fine. You can’t let something like this spoil the trip. Don’t worry.  

Then he sat at the small table in the corner of the room, rolled a cigarette and changed the film in his camera, as his friend calmed his tears. 

Auburn

He met her in the autumn. Mid-October. A bright, clear Saturday in south London.

They first met online, on a dating site affiliated to a left-leaning daily broadsheet. He’d long given up on the hope of meeting someone on a random night out in the city. In those noisy, crowded subterranean spaces where the Darwinian rules of attraction prevailed, and the possibility of exchanging meaningful glances, much less meaningful words, were impossible. He was tired of being single. Tired of being alone. 

They had been chatting online for a short time when she suggested meeting up. She called herself B-Movie. It signaled a level of self-deprecation and self-awareness, a tacit acknowledgement of her limitations, which he fancied matched his own. He liked her tone, the cut of her jib. He hoped they would get along.

He spent an hour in the bathroom in preparation, clipping his hair, trimming his stubble and eyebrows, exfoliating his skin and clearing his pores. He chose a short sleeved pink shirt with subtle stripes and a brown jumper, navy jeans and cream Converse.

He suggested meeting in Greenwich. When he arrived at the station he had a text from B-Movie to say that she had arrived, yet he couldn’t see her on the concourse, or on either platform. Eventually he found her in the underpass between the DLR and the main platform.

She was wearing a pea-green pea-coat, cotton scarf and an uncertain smile.

As they climbed the stairs out of the station and began walking down the sun-streaked high street towards the park, he noticed that the auburn hair tumbling down over her shoulders glinted gold.

They walked through the park and up the hill towards the observatory, talking at length about those things they had noticed or heard, or read about and reflected upon. The night prior she had been to a party at a house-share in Hackney. She went as a farmer’s wife, wearing wellies and heavily-rouged cheeks to impart a certain ruddiness, and he thought that very apt, being able to picture her trudging across a soggy field, lamb clamped to her breast, auburn tresses tangled with straw.

She had a pleasant air that he immediately liked, an easy way about her, a nice niceness that he wanted to keep from harm. He felt that because of her openness, she would be always come to be hurt by those closest to her.

As they began to cross the heath he saw in the near-distance two figures. He could scarcely believe his eyes. It was his flatmate and another friend who lived a short distance in Westcombe Park. They had spent the evening there, and were now making their way to Greenwich for some unspecified purpose, most likely involving alcohol. After the briefest of introductions and some awkward small talk, his friends continued their journey towards Greenwich, and he and the girl with the auburn hair walked towards Blackheath village.

It was one of those freakish events that only ever seemed to happen in a city. You could go years walking the same streets and never see the same face twice, and yet here was an encounter so completely fortuitous, serendipitous even, that it had could only have been manufactured, as if he had organized this chance meeting so that his friends might give their assessment of her.

It was no small irony that his choice of Blackheath village was hardly neutral ground for a first date. They were to spend the coming afternoon drinking in the very pubs and bars where only a few years before he had spent all his time, and his wages, in the Bukowski-obsessed, booze-soaked early days of his life as a Londoner, with his friends from home or university, or from the pub where he first found work, or later with a girl who broke his heart badly.

Consciously or not, he has chosen to take her to those old haunts, to relive those scenes from a former life. Wherever they went, he felt uncomfortable and they only stayed for one drink. It had all changed, imperceptibly, irrevocably. He missed those happy times, being new to the city, carefree and careless nights stumbling from bar to bar and back to the flat on Lee High Road, smoking and typing in his bedroom, a half-drunk bottle of wine on his desk. Living a writers life, he imagined at the time, rolling his liquorice cigarellos and sipping a Guinness by the open fire in the Prince of Wales, poring over his copy of The Ginger Man for a couple of hours, before returning to The Railway to work, pouring pints and collecting ashtrays.

They stayed in Blackheath until night fell. He was talking to her in the bar where he had worked for almost a year, listening to the faint Scottish burr of her accent and contemplating whether he should kiss her or not, before resolving that he would, finally asking her if he could as they stood on the platform of Blackheath rail station. They shared a long, deeply satisfying kiss in the chill October night, before she boarded the train and sat alone under the harsh, unflattering sodium light of its interior, and he thought how tired she looked, as the train drew away into the darkness.

They met again a few days later, and went to see The Departed at the Odeon in Leicester Square, as vast as it is vastly-overpriced, holding hands in the most uncomfortable position for the duration of the film. Waiting for a bus, they bought a drink in the Yates’ bar on Charing Cross Road and kissed again in the semi-dark of the street.

He next saw her on Bonfire night. They met at the Barbican for an exhibition of European photography, then crossed the city to Battersea Park, to watch a precarious pyre of wooden pallets burn, while the sky exploded in a billion shooting stars. He asked her if she would come home with him, and she said yes.

He was overwhelmed by the smoothness of her skin, the firmness of her flesh. Her corporeality. The contours of her body. The eager kisses which met his own.

She stayed with him the next day. He cooked a roast and they read the Sunday papers in the still hush of his flat.

The following weeks fell into cycle of proximity and distance, intimacy and absence. Solitude and domesticity.

He didn’t feel ready for a serious relationship and almost broke up with her, resolved to do it one evening and bade his flatmate make himself scarce. But when she came over that night after work, standing beside him as he stirred a pan on the hob, resting her auburn hair on his shoulder, he knew he couldn’t do it, that it would break his heart to break hers, and he knew then that he loved her.

Lying in his bed one morning she told him that she loved him, and he told her not to be so stupid.

They had been together a few months when he developed a rash, though not the type of rash new lovers normally encounter. It first began in the corner of his eyes and was profoundly itchy, like eczema. At first he put it down to the stress of his job. Within a couple of weeks the rash had spread down to his cheekbones. For almost a year he put up with it, knowing others endure far worse, applying ointments and moisturizers and hydrocortisone creams which only seemed to anger it.

In the spring she asked him to accompany him to a friend’s wedding in Inverness, and he said no. She went on her own, and in the company of a kidney infection which left her in tears of discomfort on the hard sleeper. He spent the weekend in the pub with his friends, and didn’t call. He knew she’d be angry and upset, and didn’t care. Now it was her turn to contemplate breaking up with him.

They reconciled and that November, on their anniversary, went to Paris. Feeling unwell before they left, upon arriving he became feverish and, after walking from Gare du Nord to Place de la Republique, collapsed into the bed of their hotel room, spending the rest of the day there while she walked the Parisian streets on her own. La fille aux cheveux auburn.

They went out for dinner and he could barely eat, barely raise his gaze from the table. Ever the self-saboteur, now he was spoiling her weekend. The next day, feeling better, he refused to hold her hand because he abhorred cliché. Because of Robert Doisneau’s artificiality. Because he was a selfish arsehole.

The interminable return to London on the Eurostar. His unsmiling face at her persistence in taking their picture in the carriage. He refused to pose because of the rash on his face, which he didn’t want recorded for posterity. What he wanted, at that precise moment, was to be single again.

Christmas came and they returned to their families. Almost overnight the rash on his face disappeared. When he saw her next in London, they pondered what had caused it. Then they realized it was her hair dye. Her hair upon his pillows had left a trace of the toxic dye, which when it came into contact with his skin, burned it. Her beautiful hair of burnished gold which blazed in the sun on their first meeting. He was allergic to it. 

The Road to Serfdom

He applied for a job as a handyman and gardener at a private household on the Moray coast.

He arrived at the house in abysmal weather. Wind was blowing in great gusts, driving salt water off the firth and over the gardens of the houses overlooking the water. The horizon was obliterated by a canopy of furious clouds. In his small car he idled up the long driveway leading to the grand-looking house, passing under a canopy of mature pine trees and over a carpet of their discarded needles. Blown leaves gathered in drifts round the edges of the lawns.

The house was a Victorian relic, built by a local laird over a century ago. Once it was the officer’s quarters for a regiment of Scots guards; later halls for sixth formers at an austere boarding school for the aristocracy; after that, self-catering accommodation. Both house and gardens were ornate but in need of some remedial work to restore their faded grandeur.

Rain fizzed against his waterproof jacket as he jogged to the front door and pressed the buzzer on the intercom. A groggy, disembodied voice eventually answered. He gave his name. The line went dead. Then, the source of the voice, a man in his mid-thirties wearing a rumpled t-shirt and stained sweat-pants, with thinning brown hair and a noticeable paunch, heaved the door open. He had the puffy, bewildered countenance of someone managing the competing demands of sleep deprivation and serotonin depletion. Either he was a committed pothead, a serial onanist or a father to a newborn. Possibly all three. As the man stared at him, it was also apparent he had no idea who he, the stranger on his doorstep, was.

When he reminded him, the man chortled at his forgetfulness and extended a pudgy paw. Once inside, they descended the wooden staircase to the kitchen. There he was offered a seat at the kitchen table, and invited to take tea or coffee.

He could hear the small voices of young children in close by, and presently a small boy, who was introduced as the man’s eldest son, came into the kitchen and showed him a card he had made at school. The card showed a dinosaur floating above a volcano.

As they were talking, an attractive woman in her twenties came into the kitchen with an infant in her arms. He thought the child was roughly three months old. It was holding its head up almost without support, and seemed alert to the presence of others. Speaking to the man, she confirmed that the child was now clean, before placing him in a rocker and leaving the room.

As he made the tea, the man informed him they were also recruiting a nanny and that the woman who had just left the room was helping them out for a few days. A few moments later the man’s wife entered the room, a pleasant woman with blonde hair, a lisping, sing-song voice and a nose ill-suited to profile portraits.

Over their mugs of weak tea they discussed the job and the main requirements for the role. These included but were not limited to: mowing the lawn and ridding it of fungi. Trimming and pruning hedges. Strimming verges.  Chopping wood. Establishing a vegetable patch. And some internal tasks as and when required. Changing light bulbs. Fixing curtain tracks. Organising the loft. He would be called upon to pick up the husband or the wife’s mother from the airport from time to time. He didn't mention the points on his license from an earlier indiscretion.

They were about to embark on an extensive refurbishment of the house, and had purchased a smaller property nearby, with a large garden which would also need to be maintained. As they walked the grounds in the rain later, the husband showed him the property, a large bungalow which bordered the grounds of the lodge and had been vacant since its previous owner passed away. The grass of the lawn was already above ankle-height; he made a mental note to cut it before autumn was out.

Sitting in their kitchen, talking casually about children and relocating to the Highlands, he felt a kinship with the couple. They were in their mid-thirties. Slightly younger than him. There was money here, true, but money without ostentation. He liked them and he liked the feel of the place, felt that he would have a degree of autonomy and would be able to work at his own pace, and hoped there would be some reciprocal understanding about his financial situation. With this in mind, when the husband phoned him a few days later to offer him the job he accepted it with gratitude. They agreed that he would be paid weekly, and would be regarded as self-employed. The contracted hours were fifteen per week, split between Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at £10 per hour. To save the husband the paperwork, he agreed there would be no need for a contract of employment.

He returned to the house the next week in the same wet weather. Unable to do anything in the garden he was asked to do some odd jobs around the house: fixing the handle on a kitchen cupboard, changing some light bulbs, building a cot for the baby. He spent a couple of hours clearing the loft of cobwebs with a hoover, as the lady of the house was afraid of spiders. The nanny he’d seen on that wet Sunday had disappeared, and in her place a porcine woman in glasses whose duties ranged from tending to the three children, washing and ironing, and walking the family's dogs, who spent most of the day shut inside. There was also another child, a difficult girl of nursery age, who always seemed to be on the brink of some thermonuclear meltdown or other.

At the end of his first day, just as he was about to head home, the woman asked him check that the chickens had enough water and food, and to bring in any eggs that had been laid. As he stalked back across the garden in the waning light he realized then that, contrary to his delusion of being self-employed, he had sleep-walked into becoming a member of the household staff, one with certain duties and obligations.

He didn’t resent their wealth, their property portfolio or the fleet of four-by-fours parked at the front of the house, but it served to remind him of his failings, his inability to provide for his own children. He had worked hard much of his life, but his endeavours had been misplaced or ultimately futile, so he now found himself with very little to show for it. Every move he had made in the past few years had been a step backwards. A reversal of fortune. The road to serfdom.

Googling that phrase, he came across a quote by Friedrich Hayek, the political theorist and scion of free market economics.

Few people ever have an abundance of choice of occupation, Hayek wrote. But what matters is that we have some choice, that we are not absolutely tied to a job which has been chosen for us, and if that one position becomes intolerable, or if we set our heart on another, there is always a way for the able, at some sacrifice, to achieve his goal. Nothing makes conditions more unbearable than the knowledge that no effort of ours can change them; and even if we should never have the strength of mind to make the necessary sacrifice, the knowledge that we could escape if we only strove hard enough makes many otherwise intolerable positions bearable.

Hayek was wrong. Unlike Hayek, he felt that the harder he strove for something, the further from his reach it seemed to move; when he wished for something which might give more value to his life, greater the grief when it failed to come to pass. All positions were intolerable, and therefore unbearable. 

Strife and striving, striving and strife. The stories of his life. 

After his first week the family went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving him to his own devices. It took the wife almost a week to pack. As he went about his indoor tasks that week, he had to pick his way among the clothes and suitcases strewn across the landing.

For two weeks, in the damp, cold and wind, he mowed and edged the lawns, battling against the tempremental sit-on mower which had a tendency to gouge the grass as it passed over it; he cut the long grass around the bungalow, grass too long to be cut and collected with the mower, so he raked and collected it by hand; he raked and collected leaves and swept pine needles from the paths; he moved cross-sectional slabs of tree trunk and stacked them in the dilapidated outhouses; he cleaned out the chickens, collected their eggs and kept their food and water topped up.

He worked consecutive Saturday’s when he should have been with his family to fit his hours in around the erratic hours of his wife's retail job. For those two weeks he worked, he was not paid.

During that week a storm blew in from the Arctic, and when he came into work two days later, one of the wire guards had fallen off the side of the chicken coop. All the chickens appeared to be there: a rooster and five hens, feathers bedraggled, undersides caked in dirt and their own shit. He mucked out their cages again and put down fresh straw. When he returned to collect their eggs the next day, the chickens had rucked up the straw he had carefully spread out, to get at the kernels in the straw. He had come to resent the chickens, with their beady eyes and gnarled talons and absurd, self-indulgent clucking, their scratting and strutting.

When he arrived at the house the following week he was met by the woman’s mother, a well-to-do Yorkshirewoman in her mid-sixties, who immediately took him to task for being unqualified for the job, and for not doing it properly, before lionizing his predecessor, who had maintained the garden under the previous owners.

He was very, very good. Knew a lot about propagating. Do you know anything about propagating? It’s very important to you know about propagating. How to propagate properly. Gardening is one of the most technical jobs, you see. You need a very scientific mind. It’s not just about mowing lawns and raking leaves. It’s about horticulture. What is your background in gardening? Have you done any before? Do you know what is involved? The borders need looking at. They look very neglected. They get a lot of sorrel up here. All of it needs to come out before it takes over. I noticed a lot of the shrubs have started to go brown. They need to be cut right back before the winter. And a lot of the plants in the greenhouse have died. Haven’t you been watering them? They need to be fed and watered at least twice a week. Some of them are too far gone now, I’m afraid. And my grandson thinks one of the chickens has gone missing since we were away. Did you notice

She had the entitled air of the gentry, someone for whom a good standard of living was an undeniable human right, someone who had never deigned to wipe herself with singly-ply paper. He had little doubt she would have discussed at length his suitability for the job with her daughter and son-in-law, possibly over several gin and tonics, her voice raising an octave when she touched upon her favourite subject of propagating, ice cubes rattling threateningly as she brandished her crystal tumbler.

He asked her how long she was staying.

Oh a week or two. Possibly three. Just to help my daughter out. You know its very difficult looking after three children and running a house on your own. With your husband away all week. I do what I can but it’s very difficult. Do you have children? You do? Ah, but you wouldn’t know what its like, being a man, not a mother. Anyway, nice to meet you, and good luck with the garden.

As the week wore on he began to enjoy their early morning engagements, consulting with her as he began a new, unfamiliar task. Her frostiness melted away, and she seemed to be the only person at the house who took any interest in the garden, or his work. With the eldest child at school and the younger children in the care of the nanny, she and her daughter would disappear for a several hours for lunch and return just before 3pm, to greet the eldest child on his return. The boy seemed to have taken a shine to him, and would run from the car to speak to him while he knelt on the wet verge of the borders, fingers encrusted with dark earth, as he pulled the strands of sorrel from the flowerbeds. Sometimes he felt that the boy wanted to talk to him, as he might his father, on other occasions he asked to help, before being called sternly to the house by a female voice. 

On that particular Friday, a robin had kept him company while he tended to the borders. He would throw the bird small worms to see how close it would come to him. When the boy came over that afternoon, he bade him remain still, that he might see the bird hopping on its splayed legs, considering them with that flitting side-eyed look of puzzlement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a robin before, said the boy. They waited, briefly, vainly, for the bird to appear, before the boy was called in.

When he left that evening, passing through the kitchen to hang up the keys to the shed, the lady of the house and her mother were nowhere to be seen. He bade farewell to the nanny, who was ironing another basket of washing with the three month old in his rocker at her feet, and drove home.

He wasn’t paid that week, and spent the weekend constantly checking his bank balance in a state of deep irritation. He texted the husband, and received no response. When he returned on Monday, he was so furious that he found himself quaking behind the wheel on the journey over. He glared at the wife as she descended the steps of the house, hurrying past him to take her son to school. When she returned, he was cleaning out the chickens. As she collected the eggs, she said: You don’t seem very happy. I’m not, I’ve not been paid again this week, he replied. She said that she and her husband had decided that they would prefer to pay him fortnightly. He explained that he had been left short of cash over the weekend. Her apology was breezy and dismissive. She mentioned the missing chicken again, which possibly escaped that weekend of the storm. Clearly this was a bone of contention, which may later become a stick to beat him with, although one seemed to know for certain if the chicken had gone or not. Was it ever there at all, he wondered.

He spent the morning repairing the wind-shredded tarpaulin roof over the chickens’ coop, and resolved that if he hadn’t been paid by the end of the day he wouldn’t return.

That night he texted the husband to see if he could expect to be paid for the previous week’s work. There was no response.

On Wednesday he was due to return to the house. Instead, he went to his other gardening job, and spent the day pruning shrubs and packing compost around their roots. When he checked his phone at lunchtime he had a missed call from the husband. He ignored it.

The next day he returned to his other job, and on the Friday, when he was due back at the house. Later that day he received a text message from the husband expressing confusion about his absence on Wednesday, and offering to terminating his employment. He gratefully accepted

One week later, he returned to the recruitment website to find that the job at the house had been re-posted. At least one year’s horticultural experience essential. Some handyman duties inside the house from time to time. £10 per hour. Ten hours a week in the winter. Fifteen hours a week in the summer. No mention of chickens. 

The Bird Feeder

He was a few weeks into his new job as a handyman at a care home when he saw the lady.

Finishing up his daily rounds, he was replenishing the bird feeders when he spied one pinned to the frame of a ground floor window. He had missed it on previous weeks, and it was almost empty. Jam jar filled with bird seed in hand, he approached the window and was about to tip the contents into the mesh feeder when he saw a figure within, and hesitated.

Inside the room lay an elderly lady, partially raised in bed, pink covers drawn up to her throat. He eyes were closed. Her mouth was wide open, and her skin was as grey as the thinning curls of her short hair.

Never had he seen anyone as close to death. He had experienced the slow demise of two grandparents from cancer, but he had never gazed upon someone on the threshold of extinction before, where the breath that they were drawing at that given moment might be their last.

He considered the feeder, and he considered the lady. Adorning the walls around her bed were the photographs of her family: husband, children, grandchildren, smiling next to her, in better health, happier times. It was a profoundly piteous tableau, universal in its familiarity.

He tipped the contents of the jar into the feeder, and continued on his rounds.

Some weeks later, he was back at the home when he was asked to repaint the lady’s room.

She died last night, said the other handyman. It wasn’t a surprise, sadly. She’d been like that for months. They want to move someone else into her room, so we’ll need to repaint it in preparation. As I’m away, that’ll be your job. It won't take more than a couple of days.

When he came to paint the lady’s room a few days later, there was no trace left of her, save for a small houseplant on the window sill, and a framed pencil drawing of a house hanging on one wall. The window of the room was open, bringing in fresh air from the garden.

He took the drawing down, and pulled the picture hook out of the wall with a pair of pliers. He took the curtains from the wooden rail and laid them and the rail on the bare frame of the bed. He pushed the wardrobe and chest of drawers into the centre of the room, and spread dustsheets around the perimeter.

He re-painted the walls in magnolia emulsion, and touched up the woodwork with quick-drying white satin. As he was painting, he looked at the bird feeder in the window. It was exactly as he had left it.

Once the paint had gone off, he put the furniture back as he found it, and re-hung the curtains, ready for the next occupant. As he considered his work, soft light streamed in from the low winter sun. A fine room to die in, he thought, and closed the door.

Inside Out

With his wife he took their children to see Inside Out, the Disney Pixar animation.

It was a bright and clear spring morning, the streets cool and damp from showers overnight. They took the London Overground service from Sydenham to Surrey Quays, riding the hybrid line in near-silence. Possibly he would have been nursing a hangover. This was not uncommon on Sundays. He reserved his weekend drinking for Fridays and Saturdays, allowing himself to dry out on the last day of the weekend. His wife and eldest son sat together, his son absentmindedly sucking his thumb or running a car up and down the seats, while his youngest remained strapped in his pushchair. He sat by his youngest son, or if the carriage was crowded stand close to him, shield him from the metropolitan crowd. It wasn't busy that morning. He liked the London Overground on quiet weekend mornings, with its continuous carriage and the orange and brown seats that looked like an abstracted autumn landscape. Every journey felt like a cultural expedition. 

At Surrey Quays they disembarked and he carried his youngest son, still in his pushchair, up the short flight of stairs to street level. From there, a short walk to the Odeon. They would have bought their tickets and sat, as was customary and most convenient, in the front row. It meant an uncomfortable viewing experience, as the hyperreal animated images scorched his retina while his eardrums were pummeled by the Dolby THX audio system, but it did mean he could stretch his legs, nurse his aching head and wouldn’t run the risk of another family obscuring their view.

Inside Out was the latest formulaic entertaining-yet-sentimental production from the Disney Pixar stable, albeit taking in the complex and multifaceted interdisciplinary debates about nascent selfhood and the mechanics of memory. Much of the action took place within the psychic realm of an eleven year old girl named Riley, with consciousness styled as a control-booth named Headquarters and staffed by the personification of five competing and complementary basic emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger – whose interactions and responses to external stimuli affecting Riley shaped her self-identity and interpersonal relationships.

The film was nearing the close of the crisis-laden second act. Riley’s response to her parents’ relocation from the idyllic Minnesotan backwoods to a less-than-salubrious part of San Francisco proves deleterious to her emotional stability. After she cries in class on the first day at her new school, thus creating an unhappy core memory, a glitch in her otherwise happy persona, Joy, Sadness and Riley’s core memories – the foundation of her personality – are accidentally ejected from Headquarters. Her personality begins to disintegrate and reform itself under the erratic management of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Things fall apart.

By the close of the act, the ever-optimistic sprite Joy, the central character and Riley’s principal emotion, and an elephantine biped named Bing-Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from infanthood, had fallen into the girl's memory dump: a deep chasm within her psychic realm where her long term memories disappear. Surrounded by orbs of memory which, having already turned to grey as Riley’s recollection of them faded, slowly began to disintegrate, Joy and Bing-Bong realized they were unable to escape and that, in time, they too would be forgotten. The hitherto-ebullient Joy begins to weep, cradling a batch of Riley’s memories which, in her grief, fall from her hands.

He watched as an orb of Riley singing and drawing as an infant fragmented and crumbled into nothing. A lump rose in his throat, and he began to weep. He stayed incredibly still, so his wife wouldn’t notice. He had never wept openly in a cinema before. He’d been close on occasion but this was the first time he had yielded to sadness, surrendered himself to the emotional manipulations of a story. Here knew he was being manipulated, and by a movie fetishising childhood, yet still he accepted it. And when, in the most pernicious instance of mawkish heart-string tugging he’d witnessed, Bing-Bong sacrificed himself, throwing himself from the rocket he had built with Riley so that Joy could escape the memory dump, tears streamed down his face.

His children were still very small, too small to understand who or what they were, or the words and images represented to them through the cinematic medium, and yet as he wept he recognized he was weeping for them, for the memories that they would be unable to hold onto, their memories of being young and uninhibited; and his was weeping for himself, self-indulgent tears for the memories he had of them that would fade and diminish and disappear, the memories he had of them now and his experiences with them that had already left his consciousness. He was reminded of the passage in Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Memory’ where A. described caring for his three year old son Daniel.

All the thousands of hours that A. has spent with him during the first three years of his life, all the millions of words he has spoken to him, the books he has read to him, the meals he has made for him, the tears he has wiped for him – all these things will vanish from the boy’s memory forever.

Some time after his first son was born, they were reading Goodnight Moon together at bedtime, his son as he sat in his lap, bathed and dried and dressed in a babygro. Reading the book, he was given pause by the fact that his son would never again be as young as he was then, and that every day he would be a little older, and a little changed, until he was no longer a baby but a boy, and no longer a boy but a young man, and if he didn’t pay close attention it would happen without him noticing. His son was then a small, helpless being needing constant care, utterly dependent upon him and his wife for security and protection, but there would soon come a time when they would no longer read Goodnight Moon, sat in that precise position on the bed, reading and listening in symbiosis. He made a conscious decision to remember this moment. He would never allow himself to forget it. He wept then at this strange confluence of joy and sadness, at his good fortune at becoming a father and his unpreparedness at the responsibility.

After he finished reading he took his son in his arms and laid him in his bed, wide-eyed and excited, arms and legs flailing under the blanket, tiny bubbles extruding from his mouth. He could not picture the boy the infant would become, the fraught bedtimes to follow, the tears and the tantrums, the refusals and the readings of the riot act, the difficulties and the discipline.

After his second son was born they moved to a new address, a small semi-detached house with three bedrooms. They put their youngest son’s cot in the small box room next to his and his wife’s bedroom. Their eldest son had a room of his own. In time the younger sibling would join him but unlike his older brother, he slept poorly, frequently waking to be fed. At six months old he also took a long time to settle and had to be patted to sleep, a laborious process that was akin to massaging a prop-forward after a hard-fought rugby match.

After a few nights in his new room hid youngest son developed a cough and cold, and would presage his waking with a series of protracted cries, bringing his mother or father to his bedside to comfort him. One particular night, after almost a week of broken sleep, he was woken at four in the morning by his son coughing and crying. He went through to calm his son and in his fatigue and frustration roughly lifted him from his cot, and found himself a hair’s breadth from shaking him. As his son wailed out in the dark, he pulled him close and held him tight, patted his back, and felt the boy’s small hand patting him on his shoulder.

There was a strange, fetid odour in the room, which he put down to his son’s cold, but after he laid his son back in his cot he traced the smell to a part of the wall which was concealed by their packing boxes from the house move. As he pulled them boxes away from the wall he discovered a web of black mould had formed behind them, mould which his son had been breathing in for weeks now, drawing in through his tiny nose and mouth and down into his developing lungs. His son's sheets were streaked with snot and catarrh. He put his son in bed with his wife and dragged the cot across the small landing into the room where his other son was sleeping. The next day, he removed the mould and bleached the wall.    

After watching Inside Out, he was overtaken by a profound and overwhelming feeling of sorrow. Much of his life seemed to have been unhappy, or at the very least, at times unhappiness was all he seemed to be capable of feeling. He knew that this wasn’t true, that he had been loved and had loved in return, but so many incidental moments of happiness, of unadulterated joy, had been lost and forgotten or subsumed by a narrative of unhappiness that he couldn’t control or master, a chronicle of failings that emerged from the vaults of his long-term memory to torment him. This was the narrative of his self as he understood it, and he also understood that he was passing on his unhappiness to his children. Man hands on misery to man.

He was a bad father. At times like Joy in Inside Out: clinging on to his children to preserve his own inclination for happiness; and at others, too many to mention, like Anger: hot-headed, severe, quick to rage. Inconsistent, as his wife said. It was a failing within him, something in his nature or a product of his upbringing. Every day he felt the struggle against it. He had treated his children terribly to teach them lessons in hardship that they were too young to understand. He hoped they would forget more than they would remember.

Zero-hour

Just as the money was about to run out, he found work as a contract cleaner. 

We saw your cv online and thought you’d be perfect for this, said B--- at the agency. It’s a large construction site, outside of Aberlour. Do you know where Aberlour is? Good. The site needs a deep clean ready for a client inspection. Do you know what a ‘deep clean’ is? Good. There are seven days work to start. If they are happy with you, happy with your work, there will be five days on, two days off going forward. Do you have your own car? Good. Do you have a CSCS? Don't worry. Do you have safety boots? You will need to bring them with you. They will not let you on site without them. First I need you to register with us. Can you fill in these forms and get them back to me by the end of the day? You will need to meet Jim, the team leader, at nine thirty tomorrow morning. His number will be in the body of the email I will send you. You will need to call him when you arrive on site. Then you will need to be inducted and get your PPE. Jim will tell you what to do after that. 

He arrived on site just before nine. The car park was the size of a rugby pitch, crowded with vans and utility vehicles. A small portakabin village housed the site reception, canteen and toilets. The ground around the village was a quagmire, the earth churned into cloying mud by caterpillar-tracked vehicles, endless trudging boots and near-persistent rain. Today, however, the sun was out.

He met Jim, the team leader, a flamed-haired, softly-spoken Scot from Edinburgh, who had spent the previous day on site. Jim was less than positive about the day ahead. Its absolutely soul destroying, he said. With Jim was Miranda, a spiky blonde woman in her late thirties from Inverness, who seemed particularly aggrieved. Did you speak to B----? She asked. He’s full of shit.

The site was a vast distillery in the heart of Moray. Hundred of millions of pounds had been sunk, or invested, into a colossal hole in a picturesque glen. Much of this money had been spent on poured concrete and reinforced glass, and thousands of manpower hours. A leading firm of architects had designed the distillery, a subterranean cathedral with geodesic roof in celebration of this centuries-old, high-end brand of Scotch. The construction company was pushing to get the site ready for a visit from the architecture firm’s project leaders. This meant that every area, every surface, every nook and cranny had to be cleared of grime and dust. While construction work carried on around them. The materials favoured by the architects served a dual function: to act as a magnet for grime and dust, and to resist cleaning. It was, in other words, an impossible task.

You clean a floor and someone else just walks all over it, lamented Jim. We spent all morning yesterday cleaning one room, came back after lunch and it was worse than when we started, said Miranda. We had to walk for miles to get water. Then there was a fire drill, and I wasn’t allowed off site. They told me to keep working.

The three of them were joined by two men in their early twenties, who had driven two hours over the Cairngorms from Stonehaven. They were Lucas, a bullish, bald mechanic, and Lee, a laid-back indie-boy-cum-welder. Both had been unemployed for over a year after the bottom fell out of the oil industry in Aberdeen. They carried an air of fecklessness typical of young manhood. He admired it, wistfully recognising something of his younger self in them. They were also perma-stoned. Lee rolled the joints while Lucas drove, in a barely-roadworthy two-door BMW. Lee had just been to Benicassim festival, and still had the entry pass around his wrist.

They sat in the canteen, waiting to be inducted. There was a handful of workers around them, slowly chewing their breakfast and staring into space. A portly man called Simon did their induction, before showing them a health and safety video of limited relevance. After being successfully inducted, and presented with the hard hats and yellow high-vis vests that constituted their PPE, Jim took the four of them into the site.

The six of them tramped slowly down the long entry ramp to the construction zone. Everywhere he looked were men in the same hi-vis regalia attending to a range of tasks. Men snipping wires, wiping walls, welding pipes, raising ladders. Men collapsing scaffolds, screeding floors, sawing timber. Men scoring plasterboard, hammering nails, fixing screws. Men drilling holes, tightening nuts, drawing out a tape measure, making a pencil mark. Men shouting and swearing and throwing tools. Men laughing and joshing and patting each other on the back. Men clomping past them in black boots, hands stuffed in their pockets, off for a fag break or to the canteen. Men weaving between and around and underneath plant machinery, mobile street cleaners, cherry pickers. Men clocking the blonde as she moved among their number, staring open-mouthed, unabashed. Men surveying the posse of contract cleaners arriving on with a glance of disdain and a low murmur of annoyance.

There was a group of men in orange vests conferring and gesticulating. Jim approached them. One, a Welshman with the sharp features and physique of a middle-aged cycling fanatic, broke off his conversation.

Right. How many have you got here, Jim? Five? Okay, good. Right, go to the storeroom, get as much cleaning gear as you can, then go up to the public toilets, back where you were yesterday, I’ll see you up there, we’re gonna redo those rooms properly, then I’ll have two more rooms for you when that’s done. You'll need scrapers. There's mastic all over the floor.

They trooped down to the storeroom to collect the cleaning gear, passing a series of huge copper whisky stills. Miranda and Jim leading the group, Lucas and Lee following, him at the rear. The storeroom was a small electricity cupboard, with a ‘Danger of Death’ sign on the door. Everything in the storeroom was covered in a thick layer of grey dust, including the cleaning materials, the mops, cloths and scourers, they were to use to clean the rooms upstairs. There were several industrial hoovers and floor washers, none of which were in working, according to Jim. They each took a mop and bucket. Jim grabbed a bag of cloths and an industrial sized bottle of lemon-scented cleaning fluid. He showed them two metal scrapers and said, These are for the mirrors and floor. Whatever you do, don't let them out of your sight.

Attempting to ascend a circular staircase to the upper levels, they were turned back by a gang of irritable sparks. They doubled back and ascended a metal staircase which led to a raised walkway parallel to the sills. They passed through a fire-door which said ‘Do Not Enter’. As they reached their destination, they entered one room to find it still being painted. They backed out and tried the other room, where two electricians were about to start commissioning the overhead air conditioning units. The Welshman came in, and told the electricians to leave. He turned to Jim and said they were to clean the room from top to bottom. All paint and mastic had to be scraped off the cauterized floor, and the residue of tape picked from the mirrors. All dust had to be wiped from the paneled cladding. The floor had to be scrubbed and mopped and scrubbed and mopped again. Then gone over with the motorized floor washer. No cleaning fluids were to be used. Hot water could be collected from the tea urns downstairs. There was no running water. Some of the toilets had been pissed in, the liquid in the bowl was a lurid yellow. 

Jim said to the Welshman, Before we start, have you seen this?, and opened the door to one of the cubicles to show him the sledgehammer-shaped hole that had been smashed into the cubicle wall. Don’t worry about that, we’ll get over that with some filler, the Welshman said. He didn't say anything about the piss.

The five of them took the buckets to the tea urns. There were two tea urns to service the hot water needs for the entire site. According to Jim and Miranda, this was an improvement on the day before, when there was no hot water. One of the urns was empty, the other two thirds full. As they were filling their buckets, a man in glasses walked past Jim and said, Oi. Cleaner. Don’t you fucking use all my fucking water.

They took the buckets back upstairs and cleaned the room, five of them cramped together. Jim dusting the undersides of the sink. Miranda wiping the mirrors. Lee scraping the floor. Lucas mopping the cubicles. The only job left for him was to run a mop over the walls. Conversation ebbed and flowed. Miranda wanted to be a yoga instructor. Jim had once owned a high-end menswear store that went bust. Lee was a musician and producer. Lucas kept his counsel.

Partly because he was reading a book about Hemingway's boat and partly because he'd always believed it to be true, he told them he was a writer and Jim asked him, looking up from scrubbing the floor, what the hell are you doing here then? He couldn’t answer. Something had happened, and there he was.  

All that day they swept and scrubbed and swiped and scraped. They brushed and mopped and dusted and pushed a motorized floor washer around in ever-decreasing concentric circles. Then they crossed the small corridor to the other bathroom and began again. After finishing that room, they checked back on the room they had finished earlier. The floor by now was crisscrossed with muddy boot prints and a painter’s emulsion-flecked ladder stood squarely in the centre of the room, a can of paint at its feet.

On the second day he developed a kind of delirium. Cleaner’s Fever. He was light-headed, unsteady when standing. He couldn’t get a handle on the work, couldn’t perform a meaningful task without falling over Miranda or Lee or Lucas trying to do the same. There were too many bodies in too confined a space. He felt claustrophobic, nauseated. Jim had gone back to Edinburgh that morning, leaving the four of them on their own. Without Jim, a new rhythm imposed itself upon the day. It was Miranda who had told him that contract work required a certain languor. Look busy, but don’t over-exert yourself. Walk with intent, but not with speed. Don’t rush. Take your time. If a job’s worth doing, its worth doing slowly. Only work your contracted hours, not a second more. They took an hour for lunch, sandwiched between two half our breaks.

They returned to the public toilets they cleaned the day before. Since they left, the plumbers had completed their commissioning. There was sawdust in the sinks and over the floor. I asked them not to do that, the bastards, said the Welshman. Alright boys you need to get those bits of tape there, the little bitties. They really wind me up. They had already lost both the metal scrapers and had to cadge one off a painter, which they promptly lost.

The entire site was utterly chaotic. Every trade that they spoke to said that it was the worst site they had worked on. Which was why one of their number had smashed a hole in the cubical wall. They’ve fucked so many people off, said one of the painters. The painters had been there for months, painting the same walls over and over.

That evening another agency worker, a labourer with a thousand yard stare who it later transpired had been on site for six months, accused him of stealing a box of scrubbing brushes. Earlier in the day, he had seen the same labourer screaming at his orange-vested leader, railing against some work-related injustice. He looked perpetually furious and they kept well out of his way. Miranda dubbed him The Angry Man.

By the third day the team had taken to calling him Nigel, on account of his refusal to reveal his real name to the Welshman. Nigel was soon commuted to Nige. You're a fair boy, Nige, said Lee. The Stoney boys reveled in attributing the false names to people. Joining himself and Welshie were Tired Mike, Little Ian and Paedo Steve. These were the more favourable names. Burning ire was reserved for ‘that fucking B---’ at the agency.

There was still some uncertainty about the hours they were expected to work. On the fourth day, while Miranda was on a yoga course, the Welshman asked the three of them to stay late. He, Lucas and Lee spent the evening cleaning the perimeter of a huge floor area, using cold water and mops, while the senior facilities management team took it in turns to drive round on motorized cleaning machines. The company gave them fish and chips for dinner. He left the other two, still working, at ten pm. Lee texted him later to say they had been given three extra hours pay and tomorrow off for staying late. They left an hour after him.

The next day, the fifth, he returned to site with Miranda only to be told by the Welshman that they were not needed. The site was now ready for the client inspection. However, as they were already there they should make themselves useful and dust the metal balustrades in the sills hall. They took a blue roll of hand towel paper and two spray bottles of window cleaner, and worked their way along a hundred foot long stretch of galvanized steel handrail, wiping away the thin layer of dust that had gathered on its horizontal elevations.

Miranda removed her helmet and sat cross-legged on the floor. Her working methods were like her conversation: forensic, but noncommittal. She’d worked as a cleaner for Global for a few years, until the oil industry went belly-up and they paid her off, in her words. Now she was focusing on her yoga. She had a son, who was in his twenties. He was making two thousand pounds a week as a welder in Stornoway. He would be home for his birthday in a week. She was deliberating what to get him. She asked him, what do you get someone who earns two grand a week? Something ironic, he suggested. He’s lost lots of weight clean eating recently, she said, so I’ll probably bake him a chocolate cake.

The clients walked by while they were wiping. Three architects in stretch chinos and pointy shoes. Square-framed designer glasses. One hundred pound haircuts. How he dressed in his last London job. He observed their comfortable ease navigating in the vast space they had designed, their knowledge and familiarity with the minute aspects of the design. The two male architects spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the interior of a lift. The female architect walked a couple of steps behind, taking notes.

He thought of the small variations in fortune that had brought him here, wiping dust of metal with a blue cloth for ten quid an hour to feed his children, while three architects ten or more years his junior were putting the finishing touches to a multimillion pound project, a huge milestone in their careers, who would be flying back to London later that week, back to well-apportioned neomodernist flats in some new build high-rise, in Hackney perhaps, or Southwark, overlooking the Herzog de Meuron extension at Tate Modern, midweek Michelin-starred microcuisine and Phedre at the National, VIP passes to Glastonbury and Coachella, citybreaks in Copenhagen and New York and villas on Santorini and Ibiza.

He looked at Lucas and Lee slouching and shambling below him, chatting as they refilled their buckets. The right parents, the right school, the right university. Small variations.

They worked three further days, and were given the weekend off. Expecting more work, Lucas and Lee booked local accommodation for the rest of the month. Lee was going to teach Lucas to play guitar. And they were going to get stoned to fuck.

When they returned after the break, things had soured. Arriving on site they were told again they weren’t needed. Lucas was particularly vexed, phoning B---- at the agency before hanging up and calling him ‘a fucking paki’. Before the day was out Lee was doing the same. He considered asking them if they had heard of Rene Girard's theory of the scapegoat. He didn’t. Not because he was a coward, but because he didn’t want to sound like a cunt.

The next day, more confusion: Miranda showed him the print out of an email sent to B---- from the site manager the week before. In the subject line: ‘competency of the cleaners’. The body of the email was a list of tasks to be carried out as part of the next phase. It suggested that there was enough work for another month at least, mainly in the vast sills hall. Mainly dusting and wiping.

After a morning of cleaning steel struts with extendable mops, Lucas stormed off to sleep in his car. He didn’t return the next day. Instead Lee turned up with another friend, Andy, an unemployed chef with a croaky voice. Tired Mike told them again that they weren’t needed. Instead, he gave them the job of picking duct tape off the floor of the distillery. Removing the tape meant scraping at the surface of the floor until it was gone, leaving a white scar in its place. It was as futile a task anything they had done on the first day.

That lunchtime Lee and Andy shared a spliff. He almost joined them. Instead he spoke to B----. There won’t be any more work after today, he said. They’re hiring their own cleaners to complete the work. They think they can get people to do the same work for less. I don’t think they can. But that’s up to them. Between you and me, they’re not that happy with the work that is being done. I’m hearing there are health and safety issues. Miranda won’t wear her hard hat.

And that was that. He was disappointed, but not surprised. Lucas and Lee had asked every orange-vis for more work, and they had been rebuffed. He wondered if the agency had got wind of this. But he couldn’t really complain. For the bare minimum of effort he had made good money at the cleaning job, enough to see his family out for the next few weeks. And had there been more work he would have kept up the hour-long drive to Aberlour. He was fortunate to have found the work at all.

He bade farewell to Miranda, Lee and Andy, and drove away from the site. As he left, he passed a gang of men planting saplings on the slopes overlooking the site.

On the outskirts of Elgin, he spotted the flashing blue light of an unmarked police car in his rearview mirror. Pulling over to let them pass, he was surprised when it drew alongside, and the window lowered. Facing him in the passenger seat was a female officer, but it was the male officer who spoke, leaning across her to address him. Good afternoon, sir. Our records show that you are driving without insurance. Would you mind following us?

As he sat in the back of the police car, he castigated himself for his stupidity, his arrogance. They had him bang to rights. He had delayed renewing the insurance. Because he was broke. Because paying it would have left him short for something else. Something more important. Because he thought he was a good driver. Safe, attentive, assertive. He’d taken a calculated risk, and it had cost him. He had broken the law many, many times before, too many to mention, but this was the first time he had committed a criminal offence for the want of money. Not that the police officer gave a shit about his situation. He was too busy reveling in being right, on the right side of the law. Magnanimous. He resented the traffic policeman’s officious persona. Morally circumspect. Unempathetic. He had forms to fill out and boxes to tick. Other drivers to nick. He wondered if the officer had read Girard. Or Thomas Hobbes. It seemed unlikely.

He was handed six penalty points and a £300 fine. He now had nine points on his license. Three more and he would lose it altogether. He could forget finding work after that. It would cost £150 to recover the impounded car. He had had his old address on his license and might receive a fine of £1,000 from the DVLA. He could also expect his insurance premium to double.

He handed over the keys to his car, and walked away without a word.

Autumn #1

The trees were in fall again. Of all the seasons he loved autumn most. An alternative awakening of sorts. Hunkering down to see out dark days. Springtime in reverse. Without the hope. He preferred that.

Autumn always reminded him of the new school year. Sharp shoes, crisp new uniforms and unburnished notebooks. The unfamiliarity of the weekly timetable. Structured formalities. Then beyond those adolescent framings, the time shortly after his graduation from university, the period of post-educational freedom when he felt like everything was truly beginning. A confluence of stasis and possibility.

Some friends embarked upon fledgling careers in London; others, like him, retreated to their parents’ homes. After three years of university they were cosseted and indulged. Adultescent. He was smoking a lot of weed, a hangover from his student days. Rare was the day when he went without. Much of his time was dedicated to smoking weed, sourcing weed or earning the money to procure weed. Although he tempered his smoking by only partaking in the evening, sequestering himself in bedroom with a scented candle while praying the smoke wouldn’t infiltrate into the kitchen or lounge. His parents turned a blind eye, but the stink of skunk permeated the house, like the cowshit fragrance of the fields outside.

He took a job in a chain bookstore. Ottakar’s. Now long defunct. His was a temporary role in preparation for the Christmas onslaught. Learning the ropes. As a purveyor of quality lit, to misquote Terry Southern, he thought he’d love it. He hated it. He despised the customers. Their safe, dull selections. The passive aggressive complaints. Their shrieking babies. Their provincialism. That, and the rolling monotonous cadences of the piped music. The playlist selected by head office. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. 'Wichita Lineman'. Being asked to relive the store manager at the service desk. He preferred restocking the shelves or being in the store room unpacking deliveries. Where he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, and could listen to the radio and eke out a momentary solitude.

On days off work he would walk the short distance from his parent’s house to a lake nearby. Let the autumn air wrap itself around him like an old jacket. Blown leaves crushed to near-translucence underfoot. The lake was in a disused quarry. Swimming there was expressly forbidden: many summers ago a classmate’s older brother had broken his neck on a sandbank. He’d been a bullying lout at school. Now he had to drink his beer through a straw.

Sometimes he’d smoke a joint, try to write. Often fail. He frequently regretted it. Being stoned in public during the day made him paranoid. And he simply couldn’t write. There was nothing there, no imaginative spark. He was reading the early poems of R.S. Thomas, imagining himself an Iago Prytherch type, 'enduring like a tree under the curious stars'. Living in undistinguished isolation.

He spent months working on a poem about a dead tree, abandoning it several times. Revised it and sent it to a small magazine, where it was published to zero acclaim. He hated reading it. He was dissatisfied with everything he wrote.

 

Dead Tree

 

Had the Gods

Wrenched it up and out of the earth

And screwed it back in

Upside down

 

It would not appear more pained

Its trunk twisted in the ground

It was not appear so crushed

As it is now

 

Every leaf has fallen

Every branch has broken

Every bough is bare

Even the birds

 

Have abandoned it

To the air

Abandoned it

To the cruelest elements

 

Its trunk chapped and weathered

Its boughs chopped and withered

Withered, weathered and wasted

Photosynthesising for what

 

Splayed in two from the effort

Forked apart

By a quick flick

Of flashing electric light

 

The trunk burned black

Gnarled roots grappling

With the stony earth

That could not sustain it

 

Pity the dead tree

In its mortal asymmetry

Lonely graying ghost of life

Harbinger of winter’s breath

 

Alone in his room he read constantly, finishing a book every couple of days. Mainly about the counter-cultural moment in 60s America. Biographies of Dylan and Neil Young. Jefferson Airplane. The Byrds. The Beatles. The Manson Family. The country-fication of the counterculture. Research into a kindred era. He wanted to be there in ‘66, ’67, ‘68. In a Mod suit with drainpipes and winkle-pickers; in drab garb with Dylan and the Band at Big Pink. He studied Elliot Landy’s photographs of Dylan and The Band at Woodstock at length, as if within them lay clues to their genius. A photograph of Dylan framed by crimson leaves, leaning back on the trunk of a large black car, a Ford or Chevrolet perhaps, one flip-flopped foot resting on the chrome fender, arms folded above his guitar, truculent look on his face.

He especially loved Landy’s spare, downbeat monochrome images. They were so austere, so awkwardly posed, they were almost painful to look at. The cover photo of The Band for their second album, bearded and miserable in the drizzle of Woodstock in ’69. Framed by a sludgy brown border, like the picture had been dropped in the mud. The Band came to be known as the brown album, which was apt, not for its autumnal references (‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’, ‘Whispering Pines’, ‘Look Out Cleveland’), but because they looked like bunch of addicts. The otherwise affable Levon Helm like a terrier in a great coat, the picture of irascibility. Garth Hudson an incognito wizard. Richard Manuel a junk-sick Spanish troubadour. Danko and Robertson, in his leather jacket, street hustlers.    

An earlier group portrait in Appalachian garb, The Band stony-faced and stiff like traumatized Yankee veterans. Only Garth Hudson offering a sly smile. These were autumnal photographs freighted with the ghost of Americana. He yearned to know it, to feel the cold of it in his bones. 

His smoking aided the research, or so he told himself, allowed him to share the headspace of the stoned troubadours, though it did make the process of assimilating the information much more problematic. He would read the same page over and over through a haze of hash. Smoke smarting his eyes. He painstakingly read his way through two doorstop editions of Hunter S. Thompson’s rambling letters, taking him from the 1950s to the mid-70s. Hells Angels to Watergate via Vietnam and the Summer of Love.

He was reading Hunter when he journeyed north to Edinburgh to take a ski technician’s course. Part of some fanciful escape plan. Less buy the ticket, take the ride; more do the training, get a job in an Apline ski resort. Driving to Edinburgh the furthest distance he had travelled alone, and he embarked on the trip with no small degree of trepidation. Racing north at high speed along the M6. Dreaded artery of the north. Averaging a speed of 90 mph in his crimson VW polo, a gift for his 21st birthday, in his haste to get there, in his hurry to avoid a flesh-shredding catastrophe. A red blur thunder-roading under heavy grey skies, through barren fields drained of colour. Spindle-like saplings on the embankment recoiling from the traffic’s centripetal velocity. Dylan and The Band endlessly looping on the cassette until the deck overheated and bent Bob’s harmonica and The Band’s harmonies into an indistinguishable high-pitched whine. Not that it made much of a difference.

He arrived in the Scottish capital like a protagonist from a binned Iain Banks’ novel. Dazed and confused, and lost. After miraculously finding his B&B near the city centre he drove out of town to the ski centre to do his ski tech training (ripping open his fingers on a chisel in the process), before returning to his room to read and drink to the point of insensibility. He stayed sober long enough to tramp his way to HMV on Princes Street. Bought Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Bent’s Programmed to Love. Stumbled into an internet café and checked his emails. Browsed in Waterstones. Bought beer. It rained constantly, the perpetual drizzle common to Midlothian. He walked with his beige Levis hoodie pulled tight around his ears. Shoulders soaked with drizzle. He wished he’d brought his weed. He wished he had a travelling companion. The unfamiliar city swallowed him up, was wasted on him.

He was lonely, but he felt safe in the knowledge that within these periods of extended solitude lay the dormant triggers of some latent self-actualisation. Everything was being recorded for future use. The way traffic lights looked in the rain. The press of people on Princes Street. The plastic carpet covers in the B&B. The smell of molten wax in the workshop. The course would unlock the possibility of becoming a seasonaire, which in turn would introduce him to a whole community of travelers and seasonal workers, thereby permitting him to reinvent himself as one of them, someone more than the sum of his provincial parts. 

Yet he felt apart from everything and everyone. He barely spoke at the ski centre, except for a balding Glaswegian who asked him out for a drink afterwards. They ended up in the dim light of the Hard Rock Café watching Australian expats flair cocktails. He got drunk on two beers and was given a lift home by the Glaswegian, who complained constantly about the inconvenience.

The next day he drove home. It was already dark when he left the centre, plunging back down the M6 in one long overtaking maneuver. After a cursory conversation with his parents he went to his room and rolled a spliff. Put The Basement Tapes on. 'Odds and ends, odds and ends. / Lost time is not found again'. Lit his candle. Stretched his legs. Glad to be home.

A friend returned from university one weekend with an ounce of skunk and a bag of liberty caps foraged in the Peak district. They boiled them with some tea and ate the remains on toast, then sat down to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Built a spliff, and a fire. Partway through their evening the phone began to ring off the hook. He answered it to the voice of his friend’s mother, who wanted to know why his friend had come home and not gone to see her. As his friend attempted to calm her while dealing with the incomprehensible mind-fuck of how she’d tracked him down, he felt himself being absorbed into the depths of the sofa. On the TV, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's chainsaw-wielding hero, Leatherface, was chasing a blonde girl through a forest. Her white jeans strobed and flashed against the grasping trees. He fell into a trance until his friend returned and slumped into the sofa. Palm cradling his forehead.

After the film they sat smoking in his room, listening to Big Pink. Looking through the porthole window, high on the wall behind them, through the reflection in his mirror. They spoke in the hushed, stoned tones about nothing in particular. Beginnings and endings. Stasis and possibility. Sight beyond sight.

Baldness

Sometime in his late teens he became terrified of going bald. His hair was fine, and seemed to fall from his head at the slightest touch. Waking in the morning, he would immediately check the fabric of his bedclothes for fibres dislodged in the night.

There was a genealogical precedent. Both his grandfathers were completely bald. His paternal grandfather sported a Bobby Charlton-esque comb-over for much of the 70s. His father was balding, though he began to fear he would go bald before him. His uncle had lost all his hair by his early twenties, and his suffering drove his terror. If he got to twenty-five with some hair left he felt he could live with himself.

He knew of a number of boys at school who were already losing their hair. One, Chip Harker, had parted his thinning sandy locks into desultory curtains. Chip’s eldest brother already sported a gleaming dome. Another boy in his class, Richard Pritchard, had a high forehead which implied creeping baldness, but in fact was simply the by-product of the freakishly long distance between eyebrows and hairline.

His closest friends fell into two camps: those who had fathers with impregnable helmets of hair, and who would clearly never go bald; and those whose dads were bald as the proverbial coot, who had spawned sons destined to suffer the same ignominy. He fell into the latter camp.

He thought of the soubriquets and insults that would dog him for the rest of his life: slap-head, desert-head, baldielocks, hair unapparent, No-Hair Man, Mr Tefal, egg-shaped Fred, bald-headed cunt. He thought of how he would look in photographs: the bald twat on the edge of the frame, prematurely aged. He thought of the women who would physically retreat from him in bars, blinded and repelled by the glare from his shiny cranium.

He thought of the boy babies born with a full head of hair and wished them ill. (As a child he had been bald almost until his second birthday.)

He regarded with envy the politicians and news readers and TV presenters and postmen and investment bankers and artists and rock stars – especially the rock stars – whose impossibly embedded follicles would survive the ravages of time but the effects of decomposition on the human body, settling like a some grief-stricken pet upon their bony brow six feet under.

He thought of these things, and ground his teeth in resentment.

A couple of his friends were already showing the tell-tale signs of male pattern baldness: hair recession at the temples and a thinning at the crown. He compared the progression of his MPB with theirs, and they with his. Conversations were conducted at hairline level. Photographs were taken and results compared; bets were wagered over whose would go first. He was convinced it would be him.

He consulted an array of men’s magazines, with their full-page ads for Propecia and Regaine, then cutting edge of hair replacement therapy. He contemplated his hairline every evening using his two-mirror system (one to the front and one overhead), and massaged his head every night to stimulate follicular growth.

This before Advanced Hair Studios emerged with their miracle cure, vetted by former Test cricketers and retired rugby stars and other C-list celebrities who could afford the treatment; or the Premier League footballers who appeared at the start of the new season with suspiciously-rejuvenated barnets, and the grim satisfaction he felt when they failed to take hold or were blown asunder in the stadium cross-winds.

He had always disliked his hair: it was too blonde, too straight, too resistant to being styled with any hair product (and he had tried them all: hairspray, mousse, gel, wax, fudge, pomade, body lotion). Baldness should have been a blessing. Instead he grieved over those fair strands lodged on the shoulders of his jumpers and jackets, or rinsed away each day in the shower, like the spermatozoa that oozed from his fist. Never again would he visit a barbershop. No longer would he shampoo his hair into a Mohican. Never twine his lank, foul-smelling tresses into dreadlocks at university.

The very stress of beginning to go bald appeared to accelerate his baldness. The only solution that presented itself was to shave his head every week, to keep it closely cropped to deflect all scrutiny of his scalp. To beat baldness he had to become that which he feared the most: bald. Baldness self-inflicted he could live with; baldness imposed by fate he could not. Shaving his head would preserve the illusion of hirsuteness, of having hectares of golden locks lying dormant upon the barren field of his head, ready to sprout forth in great yield at the moment of his choosing. He would fight baldness with baldness itself.

The Fall

He held no memory of the incident, being an infant when it happened. His mother, still tending to her guilt, waited over a decade to tell him.

His parents had taken him, their firstborn, for a holiday in his paternal grandparents’ chalet in north Wales. The chalet was a timber-framed, asbestos-lined prefab on a small conurbation of similar dwellings known as The Warren. The Warren was a home from home for the businessmen, Rotarians and retirees of north-west England, where they and their well-coiffured wives annually decamped for gin-soaked long summers.

This particular week was coloured by the presence of a toddler, a new and difficult experience for his young parents. In keeping with the times, his father worked long hours while his mother carried the burden of responsibility for the child, and their large, puppyish male Labrador, who also made the trip to north-wales.

The inclement Welsh weather didn’t help. At some point during the week, possibly driven from the chalet by the spectacular rain pelting the granite patio and drumming a tattoo upon the chalet’s tin roof, his parents decided to take a day trip in the car.   

Somewhere between the chalet and the waiting car, in heavy rain, he slipped from her arms as she hurried through the downpour, striking his head on the ground and fracturing his skull.

The day trip became forty-eight hours in hospital.

For a long time after his mother’s confession, he thought of it often as a threshold moment, a break that catalysed everything that came after. He was troubled by both the ramifications and the possible permutations. Had he been a little older the bones in his head would have been more fused, and the damage to his cranium more severe. The bone may have splintered and caused bleeding on the brain.

Had he not been treated immediately. Had he fallen from a greater height. Had she not been rushing, or dressed in a waterproof jacket. Had his father not been waiting in the car, but carrying his son instead. Had they stayed in the chalet and not gone out. Had they not gone to north Wales at all.

There is a photograph from that week: he is sitting in bed with his grandparents, the remains of toast on his chin, their laughing at the expression on his face. He looks faintly cross-eyed. He can’t work out if this picture was taken before or after the fall.

Throughout his childhood other injuries followed, as if the chemistry of his body had been thrown out of sync.

The cheek trapped in a door lock at his maternal grandparent’s house aged two.

The arm accidentally dislocated by his father one winter's day later that year.

His forehead split open at nursery aged three. Running in circles, he tripped and landed face-down on a metal digger. Thereafter the abiding memory of screaming hysterically and being physically restrained by his mother's while the doctor doggedly sewed up the wound, while nurses and doctors came into the room with concerned faces.

Falling into the ashes of a day-old fire and blistering his wrists aged five.

The right-hand wrist fractured at a friend's birthday party aged seven. Playing in goal, one of the other boys dad's decided kick the ball as hard as he could at his goal. Saving the shot, his wrist splintered like a sapling. The last thing he saw, as pain convulsed through his body, was the dad walking away as if nothing had happened.

The large mole removed without anaesthetic from the underside of his left forearm aged eight. The doctor botched the operation in job hurry to get it done before the child started to panic, and left him with a ragged hole in his arm. His mother trying to comfort him as he screamed.

The left eyebrow torn open in a playground collision with a female pupil aged nine. As the blood poured down his face and streaked his sweater, a dinner lady ignored him to check on the unbloodied other child.

The trip to A&E on Boxing Day aged ten after falling backwards onto a radiator aged ten. The yellow acrylic jumper he was wearing now bore a bright orange stain down the back.

The moped kickstand that gouged a hole in his shin on a petrol forecourt on the Greek island of Paros aged twenty-one. A large American woman sat on an idling moped released the brake and smashed into him. He made no fuss, and rushed towards the large American woman, now pinned to the ground by the moped, with one of her flip-flops in his hand.

Before and after. In later years he would recognise the philosophical resonance of what happened. He was lucky, and yet he was not. He didn’t blame his mother for what had happened. Every event has a specific set of circumstances which determines the inevitability of its outcome. What remained with him now was that singular, arresting image: an infant slipping from its mother’s arm, falling and smashing its soft head against stone.

The Failure

All his life he had been dogged by failure. A litany of catastrophes, myriad fuck ups, silly mistakes and grievous errors. The nipping of yapping hounds at his heels. 

Though there was once a time in his life when all was possibility, when anything and everything might be achieved, every now and then something would happen to him that would crystallize a feeling of failure within his self so that, little by little, he became a hostage to fortune.

When he was sixteen years old, he decided to ask a girl if she would accompany him to the sixth form ball. He believed that she liked him and would almost certainly say yes. One evening after school he leafed through the Yellow Pages, with its mustard-coloured crinoline leaves, to find her number. Having established which was hers, and after hesitating and dithering before the telephone in his parent's hallway, he picked up the receiver and cautiously pressed the buttons, before stopping halfway through and hanging up. This went on for some time before he finally plucked up enough courage to keep the receiver at his ear, heart thundering against his rib-cage, tongue heavy and thick in his dry mouth. He finished entering the code and waited as the ring tone came through the ear-piece, ringing out in another hallway across town.

The phone rang out for several seconds before someone eventually picked up. It was her snippy-sounding mother who answered, and, after he asked to speak to her eldest daughter, in the brief pause while her mother put down the handset and loudly, sharply, called her daughter to the phone, he silently plotted the course of their conversation, then murmurings as they conferred about who was calling, although it wasn’t late, just after tea-time. 

The girl picked up the phone and said ‘hello’, her voice sounding strange and unfamiliar over the line. He could hear her breathing gently, and thought of her chest rising and falling as she held the phone to her ear, and he allowing himself to imagine talking intimately with her, placing his hands upon her breasts as he kissed her in a darkened corner just off the dance-floor at the ball, and as he began his preamble by inquiring as to her general well-being and state of mind, he could sense a awkwardness over the line in her measured and reserved responses to his enquiries. 

He worked his way to the inevitable question, in spite of her noncommittal answers, the ill omens, the foreboding, he had come this far, he had to force the moment to its conclusion, and finally he got to the point, stopped beating about the bush, asked Will you come to the ball with me, and was answered with silence. 

When she didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, in that silence he could feel his molecular structure begin to disintegrate, every cell in his body felt like it was denaturing, a sensation of self-evisceration, like he had walked unwittingly into a trap, a terrible self-inflicted personal disaster, as she said, oh, I don’t know, and Oh, I’m not sure, and, with finality, I’ve been invited by someone else. And hung up.

He want to the ball on his own, and she went with that someone else, a taller, darker, more mature boy with a bewildering range of facial tics, and he watched them dancing together, him resting his hands on her wiggling hips, just above her plum-shaped behind, knowing then that they had already slept together, and he felt an envy so pure coursing through his being that he vowed he would never again ask that question of anyone. 

Failure, and the fear of failure. They even had a name for it. Atichyphobia. It stayed with him and never went away.

***

He took a screengrab of the first two paragraphs above and posted it to his Facebook profile. Someone he knew, a poet acquaintance, posted a comment. Two paragraphs from John Williams' rediscovered 1965 novel Stoner:

A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure--as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

He had read Stoner, several years ago, and found it unmemorable. Much had happened since then and he had forgotten most of what he had read, but he was surprised at the congruence. He did not see himself as a Stoner, or indeed a Williams, whose work he had almost no familiarity with. He felt closer to Bob Slocum, the narrator of Joseph Heller's 1974 novel, Something Happened, whose paranoid observations chimed with his own atichyphobia

Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur.

Having lived much of his life through literature, he frequently wondered whose voice guided the interior monologue of his consciousness. Perhaps there were a plethora of heteroglossic voices. At was as if even his attempts to apprehend his very personal sense of failure were a sort of failure. This was the last thing he had wanted to do: to write a novel about being a failed writer failing to write a novel. There was no metafictional weight to his writing, but the brute facts of a partial existence. 

He deleted the Facebook post without comment.