Property

i.

When Lehman Brothers went bust in the summer of 2008, he had been working in the property industry for just under a year.

It was his second office-based job in central London. His first, at a lobbying group for the hospitality industry, was thanks to the benevolent action of one of his friends, who took pity on his precarious state and put him forward for a temp role. He had graduated from bartender to temporary office assistant (receptionist), although the pay was only marginally better. It gave him a foot in the door, and most importantly, enough money to cover his rent and outgoings and survive London a little while longer.

After the role became permanent, he was given a pay rise and a promotion, and eventually parlayed that pay rise and promotion into the job at a property lobbying group, which came with better pay and what he perceived to be more prestige. For a brief period, it enabled him to keep pace with his upwardly mobile friends.

His views about property were not uncritical. Those vast anonymous plazas of glass and steel. Shoe-box-sized flats in edifices. Places where people live, work and play. His father was a builder, but his father renovated and converted, he didn’t bulldoze and construct. He had taken the job partly because he thought his parents would be impressed, that they would be satisfied that he got the job that justified the years of learning and lolling.

The gap between pseudo-socialist refusenik to reluctant capitalist was easily bridged. He would be working for corporate entities the like of which he had contemplated with disdain at the milk round a few years earlier. He swallowed his principles like a cup of warm sick, knowing sooner or later they would come back up.

Furthermore, philosophically-speaking, property was pretty much persona non grata. At least within the ideological positions of the philosophy he favoured. Was it not Aristotle who remarked that democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are rulers? Or John Locke who sermonised, where there is no property, there is no injustice? And had not Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto called for the abolition of all private property?

John Stuart Mill argued, more sagely, that landlords grow richer, as it were, in their sleep, without working, risking or economising, while in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith intoned, As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produces. The value of property in the city was the product of centuries of acquisition and inheritance, of aristocratic serendipity. The fat of the land.

In truth, his own lean, hungry years had long been superseded by days of comfort and conspicuous consumption. He still harboured writerly aspirations, and wrote poetry near-constantly, but by now the pressing urgency of his original focus had faded.

More recently, he had turned to photography as a means of representing the city which was slowly eating him alive. Like many in the city, he believed he would soon make the switch from salariat to artistic polymath, the online persona he had now assumed via his blogspot and Flickr profiles.

It was just a matter of time.

 

ii.

The woman he had been recruited to replace was retiring, or had been encouraged to retire, it wasn’t entirely clear which. She had been there a long time and had acquired a formidable reputation. A force of nature, he was informed by all and sundry. Irreplaceable. Part of the furniture. Tough act to follow.

When he arrived for his first day, she was away from the office. On the day of her return, she bustled into the office, a portly woman in her late sixties, dwarfish and slightly hunchbacked, with cropped grey hair and round glasses.

He waited an hour or so before approaching her desk and introducing himself. She considered him in the way a food critic might consider a hair in her terrine de campagne. Witheringly. Under her gaze, he withered like a dehydrated hydrangea. I’m incredibly busy, I haven’t possibly got time to talk to you now, she said, in a voice husky and squeaky. So please go away. I will speak to you when I have time.

And she returned to her work without a second glance. This was the formidableness his new colleagues had spoken off. He was taken back to his schooldays, for it was then that anyone had been so openly hostile to him. Most people waited until they knew him a little better.

When he asked for a handover meeting in her final week, this time she looked at him as though he’d asked for a handjob. Given her vintage, that might have misheard, though more likely she viewed these things as unnecessary distractions to running her office. For it was her office, she informed him, and had been for some twenty-odd years. That, she continued, was why they needed two people to replace her. Him, and the new office manager.

During the meeting, she handed him several sheets of paper of varying size, all of which had been hastily scribbled on. These were her handover notes. When he asked her what the organisation’s members got in exchange for their membership she sweetly replied, Fuck all. That brought their meeting to a close.

Vexed that he had been recruited on salary higher than hers, she passed her last day in the office complaining about it to anyone within earshot. As he was temporarily seated at a desk in the centre of the room, he couldn’t avoid overhearing. He wondered quietly what he had let himself in for.

 

iii.

When people asked him what he did for a living, or how the new job was going, he couldn’t bear to answer them. He had no faith in what the organisation did, or what he himself was doing. It bored him to talk about it.

The only that bored him more than talking about his job was talking to his manager, a middle-aged former Northumbrian whose baldness and sinewy physique caused him to resemble a straining tortoise. The living embodiment of the Peter principle, his manager was about as dynamic as a shell-bearing testudine.

They hadn’t gelled particularly well in the interview, so much so that he had been surprised to be offered the job. Sometime later he learned he had indeed been the second choice.

The office’s frosty climate did not improve when he moved from his temporary position to his predecessor’s former seat, which was outside the office of his manager. This meant that his manager could call him into the office at will as he embarked on one of his many procedural flights of fancy.

Occasionally, when his manager was in a meeting with another luckless colleague, should a call happen to come through on his direct line, his manager would ask him to pick it up, as if he was his de facto personal assistant. Initially he feigned ignorance of the switchboard system. After a while he would simply pretend to be making a call of his own.

When called by his manager into his office he submitted himself to an excruciating, near-vaudevillian routine. Once seated his manager would first remove his glasses and rub his eyes with the heels of his hands, before looking at the desk, sighing deeply and staring balefully at him. After taking several seconds to collect his thoughts, his manager would then begin a long, detailed and frequently digressive monologue in his soft north-eastern accent.

Sometimes this concerned a whimsical observation about the operations of the office, sometimes he was treating him as a confidante about the behaviour of a colleague, and on other occasions it concerned a specific request the chief executive had made. Whatever they discussed it almost always caused his manager no small amount of anguish and grief, which he was now about to pass on to him as his subordinate.

Whenever he was in his manager’s office, which in those first months was almost hourly, he found his eye being drawn to a postcard pinned on the wall which bore a famous quote by the author Douglas Adams. I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

At the close of his monologue his manager would ask him for his thoughts. He opted against saying what was on his mind. Sometimes he would ask his manager what he himself thought, only to hear what was by now becoming a familiar catchphrase.

I don’t know.

 

iv.

His manager had a puppyish infatuation with the chief executive, a steely former civil servant of the Thatcher-lite variety, which expressed itself as an illimitable eagerness to please. In the hands of a more benign Creator, one who loved a happy ending, theirs would have been a relationship swiftly consummated after a brief, intense courtship, rather than the protracted and cringe-inducing exchange of remarks about otherwise unremarkable behaviour of their feline companions, their significant others, their children.

The chief executive had the air of a seasoned politico, one fond of helmets of platinum hair and power dressing, of hurried entrances and sweeping exits, of chewing the arm of her glasses when scrutinising something, or someone. With her sharp features and slender frame, her shoulders sloped like a hawk on the glove, at times she resembled a Gerald Scarfe caricature. Of herself.

As was common for many small not-for-profit organisations, her office, for it was her office and not that of his predecessor, was run through a system of discrete patronage. This lent a determinedly feudalistic atmosphere to the organisation’s internal culture, one informed by the regal light of her apparent divinity.

There were those who were invited to kiss the royal ring, and those who were not. Those who kissed the ring guaranteed safe passage in her kingdom. Those who didn’t were out in the cold. He had no interest in kissing the ring. The only ring he wanted to kiss was his wife’s.

 

v.

His role, such as it was, was to oversee the organisation’s membership processes and organise their events. Two unwieldy jobs condensed into one role. Despite the best efforts of his predecessor, there was much that needed to be done. When he joined the organisation the database of members consisted of a poorly-maintained excel spreadsheet in the possession of the company secretary, and the scribbled sheets of his predecessor. Back of a fag packet stuff. The company secretary’s departure revealed a ledger-book of discrepancies between projected and actual income.

The organisation’s flagship events were tired, lacklustre and poorly-attended. However, this being a sector characterised by as entrenched a strain of conservatism as British politics itself, there was little appetite on the Board for making radical adjustments to their events. Instead his charge was to continue running the exact same events as his predecessor, only to do it better. Better venues, better speakers, better organisation. More delegates, more sponsors, more press coverage. And above all, more profit.

He had next to no experience of organising events. This had been the supreme blag of his application. And now it had come back to haunt him. There were conferences, dinners, seminars, monthly lunches and receptions to organise, and a score of colleagues grateful to him for replacing the woman they were terrified to approach for help in making their ideas for every kind of nebulous event become a reality. No longer.  

For seven years he ground out countless events. The gala dinners, the political conferences, the policy conferences, the breakfast seminars, the invitation-only receptions, the monthly lunches in the same venues, with the same speakers, the same sponsors, the same delegates, the same faces, the same airs and graces, the same bowing and scraping, same purpose: to protect property.

What bothered him most about events was that it reminded him how rapidly time had passed, and how little he had achieved at the organisation, and outside of it. It was something which, like Bartleby, he preferred not to do. He knew there were far worse jobs. A&E nurse. Care home assistant. Street sweeper.

He had often wondered what it must be like to work in retail, where the logic of capitalism ushered in each season ahead of schedule, making Christmas come a little earlier each year and permanently leaving staff temporally and psychically discombobulated. It was just a matter of time. Looking ahead at the schedule of events for the next six months, he would silently hope he would be long gone by then, but when the event arrived and he found that he wasn’t, fell into a funk of dejection and depression.

 

vi.

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx described the estrangement (Entfremdung) of the self from what he termed its species-essence (Gattungwesen) through subjugation to the world of work. It is work as the physical expression of capitalism which denies the rational individual the right to think freely, to consider themselves autonomous beyond one’s economic productivity.

For Marx, the worker is a slave towards its object. They live to work and work to live. A double bind which alienates the worker from its mode of production. Those individuals who were not committed to maximising their economic productivity were regarded as morally dubious.

Capitalism begets atomisation. Social dislocation. Alienation. Failure.

Under neoliberalism the same rules applied. Everything that the organisation did was nebulous. Shaping policy. Restricting regulation. Affecting decisions. Publishing papers. Generating wealth for the already very wealthy. Men of property. Men of means. A female chief executive helped soften the tone. Everything that he did day to day was directed at ensuring the organisation had sufficient funds to fulfil this activity. Retaining members. Securing sponsors. Running a profit. In exchange the organisation provided him with sufficient funds to stay financially afloat in London. Monthly payslip. Pension contribution. Season ticket loan.

In the years he was at the organisation a crop of glass and steel edifices flowered throughout the city. Priapic constructions with quotidian names to make them seem more benign. The Cheesegrater. The Walkie Talkie. The Shard. The Heron. Towers of London.

Unreal city.

 

vii.

At times he felt as if he was the property of the organisation, as if his body was no longer his own but the chattel of the Board. The time that he lent to his employer in exchange for salary + benefits had been taken permanently on loan. Each day that he buzzed into the office and sat at his desk he was marking time, dreaming of some great escape, while his inbox steadily filled and deadlines loomed. While he was adept at batting away extra work, from time to time he would lumber himself with a fruitless and frustrating project in order to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his superiors.

The organisation’s personal appraisal system reinforced this feeling of time passing, while inculcating the sense that one should be using one’s time better, by performing more effectively, working harder for the same money.

At his first appraisal, his manager drew a pyramid labelled ‘PR’ and divided it into segments labelled ‘Events’, ‘Marketing’, ‘Media’, ‘Social Media’, ‘Website’, ‘Public Affairs’ and so on. Each section represented one member of the communications team, and his challenge, his manager informed him, was to acquire skills in each of those areas. By doing this, he would secure a promotion to the position at the head of the pyramid, a position at present occupied by himself. Without acquiring these skills, the likelihood of progression within the organisation was minimal. Progression also depended upon his manager retiring, which as his manager pointed out was not going to happen any time soon.

 

vii

Already he hated it. With a passion, with brimming heart, with total commitment. Every fibre of his being was working overtime to essay his hate. And hate was not too strong a word.

He hated the awkward commute to Victoria, the early morning crush, the early evening rush, the shoving crowds, the packed carriages, the standing journeys, the failed trains. Always the fucking failed trains.

He hated the stifling open plan office, the uncomfortable chairs, the desk which was too small and the monitor which was too low, the strip lighting and air conditioning which, when it wasn’t blasting into the office fragments of mysterious black matter, failed to adequately regulate the office temperature and made his skin look greasy and jaundiced.

He hated the petty internal politics, the debilitating presenteeism, the competing strains of entitlement and disaffection, the perpetual genuflection to autocracy. The careerism. The jargonese. The seriousness.

In his first year at the organisation he started using cocaine regularly, and with a purpose. To rid himself of whatever blight the organisation had placed upon his soul.

 

viii.

The verisimilitude of the names. Ion and Ian. Jonathan and James. Gareth and Ghislaine. Tom and Theo. Ghislaine and Gail. Kurt and Karen. Susan and Jane. Alex and Alice. Andrea and Andy. Andy and Andrew. Patrick and Patrick. Patrick and Peter. Peter and Paul. Michelle and Michael. Lizzie and Elizabeth. Matthew and Michelle. Liz and Louise. Benjamin and Beatrice. David and Dave. Cleo and Kamal. Rachel and Rachael.

So many. I did not know death had undone so many.

The bearish, curmudgeonly one. The raven-haired Rubenesque. The sharp man-about-town. The wild-haired would-be rock star. The God-fearing soul sister. The fashion entrepreneur. The ironman. The slicked-back Mod. The lanky Antipodean. The crestfallen Stephen Mangan. The misanthropic Chris Evans. The interchangeable intern. The multilingual lawyer. The softly-spoken Scot. The brassy barmaid. The Brummie blonde. The latex puppet. The PR guru. The boffin. The spiv. The devil. The tortoise. The hawk.

ix.

His colleagues were friendly, well-meaning people with bills to pay and families to feed. He felt sympathy for them, empathised with them and could not bear to be around them.

Come Friday they some configuration of the office could be found cramped around some small table in a West End pub, poring over the foibles and failings of their colleagues. In Victoria this was The Stage Door, and after they relocated from Victoria to Haymarket, The Captain’s Cabin. Neither pub was there anymore, having been demolished in huge redevelopment projects. Nothing stood in the way of progress, or property. Not even alcohol. Certainly not nostalgia.

There was much fuel for their ire. Disparity between salaries was inconsistent, unsustainable and divisive. Those who had kissed the royal ring progressed rapidly and were paid handsomely. Everyone knew what everyone else earned because the finance manager had left a spreadsheet of salaries on the shared printer.

Nominal pay rises were usually delivered on the day of the staff’s Christmas party. As an act of seasonal benevolence, it still seemed almost deliberately designed to engender antipathy and resentment among the recipients, those who had worked, or perceived that that they had worked, harder than everyone else. Someone always threw their toys out of the pram and threatened to spoil the party.

One by one they were called into the manager’s office, to listen to his appraisal of how the organisation’s finances were holding up and how would impact upon salaries in the long term and why this might be reflected in a paltry sum on this occasion. His speech concluded, his manager would slide a sheet of paper, face-down, across the table. On the sheet of paper was a typed letter, a short screed penned by himself but signed by the chief executive, which detailed his pay rise. As he looked up from the letter his manager smiled thinly.

It was always possible to tell who was unhappy with their pay rise, and who was satisfied, by the length of time they spent in the office. Like a good Christian at Christmas, he was always grateful for what he received. He merely wanted recompense for the time he had served sitting at his desk, doing a job no one appeared to value, least of all himself.

 

x.

In his final year, he found it incapable to do his job anymore. He could not face one more day, let alone another yearly cycle of the same shit.

By now his son was two years old and his wife was pregnant with their second. He was about to begin his doctorate. He was also using cocaine at almost every opportunity, including at the office. When he asked about the possibility of reducing his hours and was informed by the chief executive that it was possible if he continued to work full time, he decided it was easier to leave than argue his case.

After seven years at the organisation, after countless half-hearted requests for more responsibility and opportunities for development, after countless arguments with his manager and innumerable failed interviews at other organisations, and after feeling for some time as if he could no longer go on (you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on), he quit.

When he looked back on his time there, he saw only failure, a series of mistakes and serial fuck ups, conflicted ideals and strained relationships. When tried to think of something he could reasonably describe as an achievement, a thing to share with his children, something to savour in old age, to turn over in his mind with the amber warmth of satisfaction, he could only think of only one thing.

The Photographer

He first met the photographer a few weeks before Christmas, at an open studio event near his flat.

His favoured prints had been framed and hung on the walls of his studio. Industrial landscapes which recalled Burtynsky and the Bechers. A stack of other prints had been arranged in a wooden crate like rare vinyl. Bunting and beachfronts. Bleached-out colours.

As he flicked through the prints, it was clear that the photographer’s technical ability was his strength. These were clean, sharp, well-composed pictures. But they were lacking in some way. Soulless. Without joy or humour. Perhaps it was the digitisation. Perhaps something else.   

The photographer was portly and balding, with a careful laugh and the finest trace of a beard. A few years older than he was, he comported himself with reserve, with a studied arrogance, as if he wasn’t completely confident of the quality of his work, his aesthetic. His perception.   

He introduced himself and complimented the photographer on his work, explaining that he was a relative newcomer to contemporary photography, trying to bring it into his realm of knowledge. The photographer listened distractedly, then disappeared into a dark room for a moment and returned with a handful of books. The photographer said he should take them away and study them.

The Hungry Eye by Walker Evans. Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith. Shinjuku by Daido Moriyama. He had already come across some of their work in the writer Geoff Dyer’s unfolding digressive essay on photography, The Ongoing Moment. While he admired the American flair for striking compositions, he was by now more interested in the mundane British vernacular of photographers such as Martin Parr or Paul Graham. He didn’t mention this to the photographer, and with gratitude took the books on loan.

The photographer’s partner was also a photographer. Their work was very different. Her work had a depth, a visual power that her partner was only able to gesture towards. Standing in their compact and stylish home, adorned with their respective bodies of work, he found himself envying their life, their art. It was one of her prints he bought that day, framed and ready to be hung in his living room, on the wall where it could be seen from the street.

He wasn’t taking photographs at all back then, but in the months that followed he became increasingly obsessed with the form, purchasing different formats of cameras, trying out different techniques, trying to teaching himself what worked and what didn’t. He studied the websites of the photographers to try to get a feel for what distinguished their work, their individual aesthetic. It was then that he truly appreciated the technical quality to their work, the precision of their technique and the delicate balance of their compositions, and knew he would never be able to replicate it.

A few months later there was another open studio event and he expressed an interest in possibly buying one of the photographer’s pipe pictures. The photographer said he would send him some small prints of the photographs, which he posted through his letter box a week later. The prints had been glued onto small squares of MDF and then joined together with duct tape to make an elaborate concertina portfolio. He looked at the prints, and the prices, and realised he couldn’t afford any of them.

There followed a slightly terse email from the photographer requesting the return of the concertina. He took it to their home and finding the large metal gate closed, dropped them into the letterbox.

The next time he saw the photographer, he had been taking photographs more purposefully, more concretely, for the past year. Upon hearing this the photographer offered him some wall space at the next open studios event. He couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

When he had a handful of photographs which he believed to be good, workman-like, or not bad for a beginner, he attached them to an email and wrote, Some photographs I’ve taken recently. Quite pleased with how they came out. Now wondering what I should do with them. Welcome any advice.

A week passed, then he received a response. Thank you for sending these over. I see you have been playing at being a photographer. Keep looking at the work of the great photographers, you can learn a lot from them. And always try to get a bit closer.

I see you’ve been playing at being a photographer. It felt like a slap down, a rebuke for infringing upon his territory. After that, they didn’t really speak again.

From time to time he would encounter the photographer in their local branch of Sainsbury’s and exchange the briefest of hellos. He always found it rather odd, seeing self-proclaimed artists engaged in everyday activities like visiting the local supermarket or walking the dog. He always felt they should be creating. As though their lives depended on it.  

Years later, after he had left London, he received an invitation by email to another open studios event. Just in time for Christmas, as always. He scanned the list of artists. The photographers were there. He wondered if they still had their little dog.

He clicked through to the photographer’s website and reacquainted himself with his work. It was much the same, a combination of the banal and commonplace, the everyday and overlooked. In his portfolio, he could identify the work of the great photographers, his influences. Few past or planned exhibitions. Waiting for that major retrospective.

He pictured him wandering in the hinterlands of some unfamiliar place, skin pinking in the sun, toes freezing inside his boots, camera lens dangling like a limp phallus. Finding something interesting and pointing his camera at it, framing the image with painstaking precision, failing at being a photographer.

Capital

By the time he moved to London, some three years after graduating, almost all his university friends had progressed their careers. Keeping true to the commitments of the milk round, most had entered the financial services sector, either as traders, financial analysts, underwriters or accountants.

He moved into a flat in south London with a close friend, a stifled creative spirit who was working on the trading desk in the London office of a US bank. It was a job ill-suited to his temperament. The rent at the flat was £400 per month. The flat was on the top floor of a converted house overlooking Lee High Road, just outside Lewisham, and was owned by one of his friend’s work colleagues, who was a few years older than them. This was the first flat he had bought with his annual bonus. He was about to move into the second.

The flat was a short walk uphill to Blackheath, an enclave of conspicuous affluence in south east London. Looking across from the heath, the city stretched out like an elaborate and bedevilling three dimensional jigsaw, one awaiting the piece with him in it to be complete. It was a thrilling feeling, like being an understudy about to step out onto the stage, on the cusp of some magnificent performance.

Every weekday morning at 6am he was woken by the funky clavinet riff to Stevie Wonder’s hit single Superstition when his flatmate’s alarm went off. Then again at 6.05, 6.10, 6.15 and so on, until his flatmate eventually rose from bed at 6.30am and proceeded to shit, shower and shave in the bathroom.

They threw a flat-warming party where the raucous friends from his hometown rubbed awkwardly against the serious-minded university diaspora. For his own part, he was unsure which side of the fence he sat on. Inspecting his room, one of the university girls looked at the copy of Gregory Corso’s ‘Bomb’ pinned to his wall, and said simply, That’s a bit weird.

The poetry was there to remind him of his greater purpose. Unlike those he knew from university, he had moved to London not to find work, but to become a Poet. This remained uppermost in his mind. He hoped seeing these poems each morning would bring focus to his days of idling, for much idling was done during those early days in London.

Inevitably, things soon became muddied. Prior to moving to south, he had applied for several editorial roles listed in The Guardian Jobs supplement, receiving in the post a handful of rejections entirely disproportionate to the applications mailed. He applied for jobs at bookshops in Blackheath and Greenwich, without joy. With almost all his savings frittered away, he began trawling the Evening Standard’s classifieds.

Few of the roles advertised in the Standard gave any real detail about what they entailed. Kitchen porter. Night staff. Stock supervisor. Warehouse assistant. All required at least one year’s experience. There was no clue as to how he might go about acquiring the requisite experience without first securing the job.

Then there were the roles that he was spectacularly unqualified for. Hairdresser. Receptionist. Nail technician. Undertaker. Alongside these, several requests for volunteers and general assistance, all unpaid.

He briefly contemplated becoming a librarian, before realising that librarians were now known as information assistants, and that you now needed a qualification to stack shelves.

There was, however, a surplus of media sales positions, but he wondered who in their right mind would want to work in media sales? Or be an estate agent, for that matter? There too an abundance of roles in recruitment consultancy, or people-shuffling as he’d heard it called, which had always struck him as an entirely manufactured profession, the last refuge of the useless.

All these he ignored, along with anything that involved working in a call centre. He discovered that in London, even the most nondescript job involved selling of some kind. This narrowed the field considerably.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to work. There were simply certain types of work he didn’t want to do. He had been raised to believed that it was better to do a low-status job well than a high-status one poorly. People could be roughly divided into those tenacious few who worked hard, and those who were adept at convincing others to work hard on their behalf.

A degree of romanticism had coloured his relocation to the capital. Some months before his move he had read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit, Orwell intoned.

Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?

What could he possibly know about poverty? He knew about hard work, having worked on building sites in the employ of his father, but this was something altogether different. While he was quite prepared to scrape by with next to nothing, to eke out a living in a series of dead-end jobs, he was quite unprepared for what this might entail, what would happen if he failed to find work.

If push came to shove he could always go back and work for his father. He could always go back.

He couldn’t go back.

By now he was desperately short of money. That autumn he responded to a small ad offering commission-based work in the city. Must be fit and enjoy listening to music. Little additional information was provided. When he was offered a day’s trial, unpaid, he gladly accepted.

I’ve found a gap in the market, the managing director explained during the brief interview.

Consumer shopping habits change by the day, by the hour. By the minute. They don’t listen to the radio anymore. They don’t buy singles anymore. We bring music direct to the consumer. We give them the music that they want, when they want it.

For the rest of that unseasonably warm day in November he tramped the streets of south London in his suit and jacket, attempting to sell CDs from a holdall to shop owners, passing strangers and pub drinkers.

His companion for the day was an out-of-work bassist in his early thirties. Shortish, pudgy, thinning brown curls. After starting at Peckham Rye station, by lunchtime they had slowly but surely crept into East Dulwich and stopped for lunch at a greasy spoon on Dulwich High Street. As the bassist lit a fag, he asked him how long he’d been doing it for.

Since the tour with St Etienne finished, he replied. And the session work dried up. So a year or so. No money in music anymore.

There was no gap in the market. This did not bring music direct to the consumer. They could barely get a foot in the door before being turned away. It was demeaning, demoralising and utterly fruitless.

And painful. By the end of the day his heels had been rubbed raw by his cheap shoes. They finished up in Nunhead in the early evening, before calling it a day and heading back to the office near Old Street with their unsold CDs.

As they arrived, he could hear the clanging of a bell. Walking into the office, he saw a blonde, rakish man in a sharp suit ringing the bell over his head, like a Mod town crier.

Looks like he’s had another good day, said the bassist. Sold all his CDs. Always does.

That evening, he saw an advert in the window of The Railway pub in Blackheath asking for part time bar staff. He walked in and picked up an application form. The pub was an upmarket brand, but part of a larger chain. Dim lighting, wood interiors, shabby chic furniture. Run by a couple with two boxer dogs and staffed by undergraduates on minimum wage.

Within a few days he was pulling pints and cleaning ashtrays. Meeting new people. Lee and Karen. Nikki and Guy. Iso and Alice. Kate and Nina. Naomi and Lydia. Nipon and Phil. Unfamiliar faces who briefly became firm friends. Sometimes more.

Money, Orwell wrote, frees people from work. Unlike Orwell he had no money, and a small amount of personal debt, in the form of two credit cards, which he watched slowly increase each month. There was little hope of clearing it. He barely survived on his meagre earnings from the pub, and the small white envelopes containing tips meant for the barmaids.

He registered at a local employment agency and was offered a job at a warehouse in Charlton, picking magazines bound for newsagents in Greenwich and Blackheath. For a period he got the train to work at 7am, headed home for a shower and supper at 5pm, then started at the pub around 6pm, finally finishing around midnight.

It was the hardest he’d ever worked. It was the most money he’d ever earned.

Still every decision he made remained subject to financial pressure. The ability to stand a round in a pub. To split the bill in a restaurant. Invited to join friends for drinks after work, he took the northern line up to Bank, against the flow of commuters fleeing the City. His friends favoured upmarket bars with upmarket prices, and he arrived knowing he could barely afford a single drink, much less several.

Instead he drank away his earnings elsewhere, heading to the Live Bar in Deptford after last orders in the company of his new friends, or sitting in his room, smoking and writing and drinking his flatmate’s mid-priced bottles of wine, late into the night.

That December, on a break between shifts, he sat by the open fire in the Prince of Wales up on the heath, nursing a pint of Guinness and smoking a roll up while reading J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, believing himself the reincarnation of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, or Donleavy himself, or any of the other writers who had called a great city like Dublin or London their home.

God’s mercy / on the wild / Ginger Man.

He and Dangerfield shared a certain fecklessness, both being fiscally reckless. When he moved to London, he bought his first mobile phone, a contract device. At the time he could only afford the contract itself, not the insurance to cover its unexpected loss. A few months later, he got pissed with friends in Covent Garden and left his mobile on a bar table.

The next morning, unable to find his phone, he went to the police station to report it stolen. After calling his network to block the device, the operator informed him that several calls had been made that night. These calls totalled over £300. It would have been more, but the operator viewed the calls as suspicious and eventually blocked them. As he hadn't taken out any insurance, he was liable for the charges.

Every time his bank account went overdrawn, which was often, his bank debited a £30 fine against his account. If he went further into his overdraft, they took another payment. When the standing order for his rent cashed in on the same day as direct debit payments for utilities or card payments for food and travel, he could be left with hundreds of pounds of debt, without any way of repaying it. An ill-fated trip to Scandinavia with his flatmate pushed him further into the red.

He was simply incapable of managing money, of holding onto it. It ran through his fingers like water. In a city awash with liquidity, like the muddy river coursing through it, he had none.

But he had made it. That was irrefutable. He had finally arrived. And now, like the protagonists of the many Bildungsroman his adolescent self had read, he awaited the next electrifying chapter in the novel of his life.

He waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The Milk Round

Until he went to university, he had never heard the term the milk round, other than to describe the antiquated, and by now redundant, process by which milk used to be delivered. But in his final term, people suddenly started talking about this thing, the milk round, with a great deal of sagacity, as if he should know what it was, when he hadn’t the foggiest. One of his friends, whose elder brother was finishing his law studies, explained that the milk round was a week-long recruitment fair or a week-long piss up, depending on your philosophical inclination.

Officially the milk round marked the arrival on campus of many of the UK’s largest corporate organisations. Their express purpose was to entice the university’s most promising students onto their graduate training programmes. They included, in no particular order, HSBC, Barclays Bank, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Arthur Andersen, Lehman Brothers. The heavyweights of global finance. The swinging dicks of big business.

Some of these he’d heard of. Others he hadn’t. Merrill Lynch for instance. Even if he had no intention of working there he quite liked the name, Merrill Lynch, thinking it apt, reflecting the method by which the company co-opted students onto its graduate programme (lynching) and the type of leisure shoes favoured by those who worked there (Merrells).

Almost all undergraduates treated it as a opportunity to get drunk for free, enduring the lengthy presentations before polishing off the complimentary refreshments. Some went determined to secure the professional career which was the culmination of several years of hard work. It was a mutually agreeable process, funnelling new graduates into the corridors of corporate power while tantalising them with the benefits of employment and the balm of money.

Entry-level employment. Fast-track development. Competitive starting salary. Annual bonus. Gym membership. Possibilities for promotion. Share options. Interest-free mortgage. Final salary pension.

Other than not studying politics, he had no clear idea of what he would do after university. Writing, travelling, earning some money when circumstance called for it. He didn’t see himself as part of anything, much less a cog in a corporate mechanism.

Even the offer of free booze couldn’t persuade him to go. Over that fortnight he remained in the living room of the shared house, watching television and smoking weed, while several people he knew came back from the milk round with a clearly mapped career path.

Where others saw a career path, he saw only a conveyor belt feeding a mincing machine in need of fresh meat. After three or more years of being encouraged to think critically, he couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would throw out that learning to assimilate the practices and operations of some corporate monolith. The very organisations whose political influence and unscrupulous he had spent the better part of his time at university questioning, if not directly challenging.

Few eyebrows were raised when one of their number, a trustafarian from a fee-paying school who renamed himself in the first week and became their dope dealer for the next three years, ended up running counter-terrorist programmes during the War on Terror.

Many years later he encountered the critical pedagogy of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, who came up with the term the banking model of education to describe the process by which children are force fed with the necessary knowledge to make them economically productive citizens. Freire wrote: The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.

He couldn’t help but link Freire’s ideas to Michel Foucault power-knowledge paradigm, the means by which knowledge and power intertwine inextricably, thereby subtly reinforcing the ‘disciplinary society’ which exercises its power through institutions, including schools and universities. Critical thought, the continual questioning of systems and selfhood by interrogating what constituted knowledge, was essential for challenging the mechanisms of power. The only way he knew how to challenge the mechanism of power was to opt out of it, to resist. Je me rebelle donc j’existe.

No one seemed to know the precise origin of the term the milk round. Perhaps it had something to do with skimming cream. Perhaps it was a play on that Shakespearean phrase, the milk of human kindness, reflecting the benign, nourishing generosity of the corporate paymasters.

The very narrative of milk as a substance, from the nurturing, precarious bond between lactating mother and suckling infant, was much like the relationship between state and citizen, underscored by the tropes of separation and detachment. He thought, almost inevitably, about the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the architect of deregulation, who had begun her illustrious political career by scrapping free milk for the country’s schoolchildren.

All which is given charitably can be snatched away. He’d rather be broke than suckle at the corporate teat. Though in the years that followed, as one by one his friends moved to London to forge careers and stake their claim to the city, he wondered if, when he had the chance, he should have milked that sucker for every last drop.

Cocaine #2

All the places he consumed cocaine. All the rooms and flats and houses. All the pubs and nightclubs and restaurants. The theatres and cinemas. Galleries and museums. Libraries and universities. Train stations and airports. Casinos and strip clubs.

All the kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms and bedrooms. Desks and bedside tables. Park benches and alleyways. Train carriages and the back seats of buses.

All the homes of friends and friends of friends and people he didn’t know. The coffee tables and kitchen worktops and toilet seats. Discrete shelves in concealed places. Strange people in unfamiliar settings. Familiar people in strange configurations.

All the portaloos and aeroplane cubicles and supermarket toilets. The cisterns and hand sanitisers and toilet roll dispensers. Boxed-in pipework. Greasy surfaces. Smeared excretions. The stale smell of urine. The sour odour of benzoylecgonine.

The bolt snicking the lock. The tentantive tipping. Preparation of line and note. The application with precise care.

All the times he had stood waiting for the man. The inquisitive texts. Hurried phone calls. Short detours on his commute home. The minutes and seconds running into hours. Waiting for the car at the designated destination. All the corners of the city he came to know from pacing the streets in concentric circles.

All the back seats and front seats and the accumulated miles of ten second rides. The small talk and bonhomie. The quick exchange. The folded cash. The baggies of coke.

Leaving the car to slip back into the jostling crowds. The empty suburban streets. Another faceless commuter. Another interminable journey.

All the times when cocaine was consumed. The specific instances. Special occasions and every day occurrences. Birthdays and anniversaries. Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Whitsun weekends. Stag dos and weddings. Club nights and poetry gigs.

All the house parties and street parties and work parties and after-work drinks. The last train home a symphony of sniffing.

If he was out drinking he was almost always taking cocaine and if he was out drinking he was almost always taking cocaine and if he wasn’t in or out drinking he was still taking cocaine just to pass the time.

Big nights out. Quiet nights in.

Dissolute Fridays. Hungover Sundays. Midweek casuals. Early morning pick-me-ups.

And every time he used cocaine, every time he bought it, snorted it, insufflated or ingested it, he moved a little further from the person he used to be and a little closer to the person he hoped to become.

All the cumulative moments. The minutes and hours and days. Weeks and months and years.

All the moments he could remember. And all those he could not.

The quotation marks

SCENE ONE

EXT - AN OFFICE - DAY

A white building with large windows overlooking a busy street in London’s West End.

INT – THE OFFICE - DAY

A large conference room with a long table and a number of chairs running around its perimeter.

Three white men in suits are sitting at the table. They are positioned an arm’s length apart, facing door to the conference room, with their backs to the window. Several sheets of paper are on the table in front of them. Each idly scrolls the screen of their smartphone.

On the left: The VICE PRESIDENT.

In the middle: The PRESIDENT.

On the right: The JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

The door opens and three people come in: a middle aged woman and man, and a younger man. They take their seats on the opposite side of the table to the three men.

On the left: The COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR.

In the middle: The MEMBERSHIP MANAGER. The MEMBERSHIP MANAGER is THE FAILURE.

On the right: The CHIEF EXECUTIVE.

THE FAILURE

Good afternoon everyone.

The three men slowly put their phones down.

PRESIDENT

Good afternoon.

PRESIDENT

Hello.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Hi.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Very briefly, before the Board meeting, I’ve asked [THE FAILURE] to bring in the new member marketing materials for you to have a look at.

PRESIDENT

I’ve already seen them.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

I know you have but [VICE PRESIDENT] and [JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT] haven’t yet, so we thought now might be a good time. Now these are very much up for grabs so if anyone has any comments or thoughts please feed these back to [THE FAILURE] today so we can incorporate them and make the changes before they go to print.

THE FAILURE hands a small sheaf of papers to the VICE PRESIDENT and JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

VICE PRESIDENT

These are for…?

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

These are for recruiting new members primarily, but I believe they can be used as a general membership pack, [to THE FAILURE] is that right?

THE FAILURE

Yep. These are the standard membership booklet template which can be tailored -

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Remind me why we need these? What do we normally send to prospective members?

THE FAILURE

We normally send a letter inviting them to join, in addition to the annual review and an application form. These go out to any non-members who attend a recruitment event.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

If we already send them an annual review with the joining pack, why do we need this?

VICE PRESIDENT

Indeed. Seems like a bit of a waste of money to me.

THE FAILURE

It’s a marketing tool. Most membership organisations send something detailing the benefits of membership, either when an organization or individual has agreed to join or is being approached to join. We have had a membership pack for some time, but it hasn’t been refreshed for a few years. We produce it in house and it isn’t quite as slick as it could be. How we produce it, what it looks like. It isn’t fit for purpose, shall we say.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

I’m confused. What are we looking at here, a booklet and a folder?

THE FAILURE

Yes. There is a booklet which can be tailored for the different membership categories, which fits inside the folder along with the application form and other materials. The booklet details the benefits of membership and our networking events, key policy issues we are working on and a full list of members.

VICE PRESIDENT

How do you print these booklets?

THE FAILURE

In-house, on our own printers. With InDesign, a desktop publishing package, we can produce these as and when required. If the Chief Executive has a meeting with a prospective member. We can distribute them at internal or external events. We can even give our Board members a stack to display in their reception.

VICE PRESIDENT

Hmm. I wouldn’t go that far. What about the folder, how does this get produced?

THE FAILURE

The folder will be printed professionally.

VICE PRESIDENT

What sort of cost are we looking at for that?

THE FAILURE

It’s pretty reasonable. I think £300 + vat for 500 was the quote. Less if you order more.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

How big are these? The booklet and folder?

THE FAILURE

They’ll be A5, so cheaper to print and post.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Ah. Good.

The PRESIDENT, VICE PRESIDENT and JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT look over the printed sheets.

VICE PRESIDENT

I like how you’ve got a list of members at the front of the booklet here. Good to see them all listed in one place. Are we on there?

THE FAILURE

You should be.

VICE PRESIDENT

Ah yes, there we are.

PRESIDENT

I’ve already found a typo.

VICE PRESIDENT

Me too.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

And me.

THE FAILURE

Just the one?

PRESIDENT

No.

The three men scrutinise the sheets.

PRESIDENT

PLC is either upper case or lower case, not capitalised.

THE FAILURE

I’m sorry?

PRESIDENT

The list of members. You’ve got a number of companies, including mine, down as being a plc with a capital P. It’s either upper case or lower case, but not capitalised.

THE FAILURE

That’s a matter of opinion…

PRESIDENT

It isn’t a matter of opinion. Its upper case or lower case. There’s no matter of opinion about it.

THE FAILURE

Apologies. I’ll get that corrected before these go to print. I’ll probably drop the PLCs and Ltds and LLPs anyway. They’re a little extraneous.

PRESIDENT.

Hmmm.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Some of these testimonials, these quotations, from members…I like this one on the cover from [REDACTED], and another from [REDACTED] but then you’ve got one from this tiny insurance company that I’ve never heard of.

THE FAILURE

I’m still collating testimonials at the moment. I agree we do need more. What I wanted to illustrate was that membership is a broad church, and that there are a number of members of varying types and sizes. Which is why these booklets can be tailored for different membership types. If we sent this booklet to that particular type of member, I’d include that testimonial -

VICE PRESIDENT

I think you’re going need more prominent members than that.

THE FAILURE

It really depends who we are sending these to. For smaller prospective members a testimonial from an existing smaller member would be useful. Anyway I’d be delighted if the Board members could let me have a few words for these as I’ve only had -

VICE PRESIDENT

Have you asked the committee members?

THE FAILURE

Absolutely. Some just haven’t come back to me yet.

The PRESIDENT waves his papers at THE FAILURE.

PRESIDENT

Why haven’t you used quotation marks?

THE FAILURE

For the testimonials?

PRESIDENT

No, for the list of members. Of course for the testimonials. All printed quotations should have quotation marks.

THE FAILURE

Should they?

PRESIDENT

Yes.

THE FAILURE

No necessarily.

PRESIDENT

Not necessarily?

VICE PRESIDENT

Come again?

THE FAILURE

In terms of the overall design we – the design company and myself – thought that they looked better without. More impactful. Cleaner.

PRESIDENT

I disagree.

THE FAILURE

Okay.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

It won’t be a problem to put them back I imagine?

THE FAILURE

No but…

PRESIDENT

But what?

THE FAILURE

It’s not completely out of the ordinary to have a quotation without quotation marks. I agree they probably should, but in terms of the design spec and the look and feel of the booklet I feel it looks better without them. And it’s kind of clear who has made that particular comment.

PRESIDENT

How is it remotely clear without quotation marks?

THE FAILURE

Well, the sentence is clearly attributed to someone. You have a name and organisation underneath the sentence. Underneath the testimonial. That makes it pretty clear I think.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

But the testimonials should have speech marks, don’t you agree?

THE FAILURE

I do, but from a design point of view I think it looks better without them.

VICE PRESIDENT

I think it would look better with the quotation marks. So it’s clear what people are looking at.

THE FAILURE

I disagree.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Gentlemen, I’m aware that we have our next meeting in a few minutes, so we’ll have to bring things to a close. [THE FAILURE] will incorporate your suggestions for revision. Thank you [THE FAILURE], you can go now.

PRESIDENT

Before you do anything with these I want the quotation marks put back on.

THE FAILURE

I’ll put them on but if I still don’t think they look right, I’ll take them off again.

SCENE TWO

INT – THE OFFICE – DAY

The next day. A smaller conference room in the office containing a circular table and six chairs. THE FAILURE and the COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR are sitting opposite each other.

COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

[CHIEF EXECUTIVE] asked me to have a word with you about the meeting with the Board yesterday. You know, the President was very upset last night. You really upset him. Not so much the things you said, but the way you said them. In fact, [VICE PRESIDENT] and [JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT] were upset too. [VICE PRESIDENT] said ‘who does this guy think he is?’ You’re not supposed to argue with the President. You do as he says. Even if you think you’re right. You do as he says. If he says jump, you say how high? He said that if you’d have been working for him, you wouldn’t have been working for him anymore. You’d have been asked to leave. In no uncertain terms. But we don’t do that here. We don’t do that here, so I said I would speak to you instead. So consider this a warning. Not a formal warning, or even a verbal warning, but a warning nevertheless. Heed my advice. The President is not to be messed with. You picked the wrong person to rub up the wrong way yesterday. Remember, the Board has to approve pay rises and promotions. You were asking if you could go down to part time last week? You can forget it now. You’ve burned your bridges with them big time. Forget that idea for the time being. Now with that in mind, and I’m only telling you this to help you, we feel that the best thing to do, for all concerned but particularly for you, is to do what the President said and put the quotation marks back on. Whether you think that they look right or not. Put them back on. Put. Them. Back. On.

THE FAILURE

They weren’t on in the first place.

COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

I don’t care. Put them on.

THE FAILURE

“…”

Brothers in Arms

When he was eight years old his younger brother brought chicken pox home from school.

Both were kept off for a fortnight. Coming in the weeks following Christmas, being ill was much like being on an extended holiday. As they were highly contagious, they never left the house.

Only the insistent itchiness of the little red spots was agony, preventing sleep and any kind of comfort while awake. He loathed the sickly odour of the chamomile lotion his mother dabbed on the raw pimples. His younger brother, not known for his tolerance of discomfort, suffered more than he did, becoming particularly tearful and clingy.

Some time during that fortnight he and his brother were left in the care of their father. Their mother had some unspecified appointment, possibly a hairdressing job where the presence of two pox-ridden children would have been inconvenient.

No doubt this would have presented not inconsiderable inconvenience to their father, a builder, who had a number of unspecified appointments of his own to keep that day, each of which precluded nursemaiding his unwell offspring. Instead, he and his brother were dabbed with chamomile wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, and bundled into the back of his Saab, as he drove from office to building site to suppliers’ premises.

He remembered the January weather was particularly miserable that day. A few days earlier he had sat in the living room doing his homework in front of the fire, with the crisp light of winter warming the room. Now heavy rain lashed the windshield of his father’s car, swatted away by the furious windscreen wipers.

They pulled up at a red-brick building, a half-finished house without windows and doors. Their father explained that he had to go into the building for a little while, but would be back as soon as possible. He left the key in the ignition and the heaters and cassette player on.

They were listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. One of their father’s favourite records and, by proxy, his too. He was fascinated with the cassette with its sky blue insert and tiny lyrics in pink type. The image of a steel guitar levitating in the clouds. He loved the music too: the noodling intro of Money for Nothing, with its falsetto refrain surrendering to the track’s staccato drum solo and power chords, the chirpy keyboard line and ‘woo hoos’ of Walk of Life, the curling, seductive saxophone of Your Latest Trick, the rolling thunder of the title track.

Now, the music had become an instrument of torture. His brother was sobbing again, as if he too felt it, had been driven to tears by it. He was curled into a ball on the backseat, crying for their absent mother.

Side One finished and Side Two began, then Side One returned, and after that Side Two again. Still their father remained in the building.

That is what he remembers. The cold rain, the fogged windscreen, his brother on the backseat and the spools of the cassette turning with deliberate indifference, as he stared at the half-finished house and willed his father to emerge.

That is what he remembers.

The writers’ workshop

In mid-August he spent the day at a course on creative memory at a remote writers’ centre in the Highlands.

The tutor was a poet whose work he admired and whose success he aspired to emulate. He felt an affinity toward the tutor’s work, an affinity not reciprocated by the critical community. The Poet was only a few years older than him, but had been lauded from early in his career, garlanded with awards and grants. Most recently, he had won a prestigious prize for his last collection.

The Poet’s poetry was exceptional in a way his was not. He was able to delve into language and sift through it with an effortless precision. Each word was perfectly weighted, each line finely tuned, singing while his mumbled, breathing while his suffocated.

Driving to the centre he got lost twice on the back roads outside Inverness, a combination of his car’s antiquated navigational system and his own stupidity. He drew up at a white walled crofter’s cottage with a small patio garden. Through the windows he could see an unbroken vista of pine forests, grazing pastures and, further away, the Cairngorm mountains.

The car park was almost full, and he squeezed his car into a small space near the gate. He was the last to join the group, slipping in through the entrance just as the Poet concluded his introductory remarks. They were sat at a wooden table in a long, narrow room with stone walls. At the other end of the room was a wood burning stove and a selection of broken-in sofas and armchairs. As he took his place next to a young woman with round glasses and long hair the colour of candyfloss, his feet became entangled in a set of crutches.

The Poet asked the group to introduce themselves and say a little about what they were working on, what they were reading and what they hoped to take away at the end of the day. He took a moment to glance around the table. The rest of the group was mostly made up of ladies of a certain vintage, clad in varying shades of purple and grey. There were a couple of younger women finishing creative writing projects, and an older guy from Brighton.

Francine described of the simplicity of poetry. Davina explained she was an undisciplined but committed writer. Leontia was working on a collection and a memoir, and was on the steering committee of a local literary festival. Ellen had written her first poem that year. Daniel was a retired mental health nurse also feeling his way into poetry. Lynda was a published writer, working on a new book about the people and culture of the Scottish islands. Gillian wrote for pleasure. Eloise was a postgrad at UHI, focusing on mental health and confessional poetry. Eleanor had studied at Stirling, and her writing centered upon embodiment in landscape. Joan liked Philip Larkin and wrote regularly. Marjorie kept bees. Pat admired Sylvia Plath.    

Almost all were deep into a personal writing project of some form or other. Some had seen their work published, some had not. For those who had been published, their commitment was palpable, an urgent need to communicate. He felt it too, but when his turn came to speak, he began to feel increasingly circumspect about his work, viewing it as invalid next to some of the others, particularly the Poet. How could one reasonably say they had written all their lives and yet have nothing to show for it? He disliked having to account for himself, his failure to become a writer.

Introductions at an end they began with a memory exercise. The Poet introduced them to a poem called ‘I Remember’ by John Brainiard, reading a short extract to the hushed group, followed by another poem, ‘I Ran All The Way Home’ by Paul Farley, which Anglicised Brainiard’s American vernacular. When Leontia asked the Poet if that wasn’t plagiarism, he contemplated interjecting with a pithy comment about Harold Bloomian anxiety and strong precursors but decided not to bother. He didn’t want to look like he was mansplaining.

The Poet asked them to use Brainiard’s model to explore a narrow kaleidoscope of experience. This, the Poet said, and the memory of atmosphere informed his own writing. He asked them to reconvene in ten minutes.

In silence the group leant over their notebooks, nibbling their pencils or diligently scribbling. As he surveyed the table he noticed that Lynda was writing using a fountain pen. She had left one of the refill cartridges on the table, stood on its end. He had not seen one since he was at school, over twenty years ago. He decamped to a sofa and began to write.

 

I remember the year book with its timetable.

I remember my first Parker pen. The smaller ink cartridges, and the longer expensive ones.

I remember my geometry set. The set square and the protractor. The sharp spike of the compass. The stubby pencil and the sliver of rubber.

I remember using the compass to carve graffiti into a desk. ‘I am eating my own head’. A line borrowed from The Breakfast Club.

I remember Mr Stoker, the chemistry teacher, asking me about the graffiti. I remember flatly denying it was me.

I remember Mr Stoker playing the guitar for us in Year Assembly.

I remember Mr Stoker was such a Ralph McTell superfan that he convinced him to play a concert at our school, and years later hearing a busker in Covent Garden playing ‘The Streets of London’ thanking Mr Stoker for trying.

I remember the observatory, the second to be built at a British school.

I remember it being a matter of weeks before it was vandalized, less than a year before it was dismantled.

I remember its eviscerated brickwork remains, like a half-eaten pie crust.

I remember the school crest. The wheatsheaf. The motto. Ut Severes Seges. What you sow, so shall you reap.

I remember the Headteacher asking us first years what we thought it might mean and a small boy called Joel Tomlinson piping up, ‘Summat about a crop, sir’.

I remember kneeing Joel in the balls before PE.

I remember Joel headbutting Simon Costello in Maths.

I remember Simon wanking in Personal and Social Education.

I remember debagging Peter Jones after we tied him to a tree.

I remember the face Mr Ayers was pulling in the photograph on his wall as he dressed us down like a sergeant major.

I remember naming names and naming the wrong names.

I remember being afraid.

I remember the board rubber Mrs Griffiths used to silence our form.

I remember going on report.

I remember we had the most academically gifted boy in the year in our form.

I remember he was bullied for being born to Indian parents.

I remember being bullied.

I remember being a bully.

I remember the green blazer two sizes too big.

I remember Big School had a double meaning.

I remember wanting to act but being afraid.

I remember the Gibbons brothers.

I remember rehearsals for Oh! What a Lovely War! I remember the revolving stage, the barbed wire, the Pathe newsreels.

I remember Mr Lonsdale’s rages, and his kindness.

I remember reading They Called in Passchendaele in the library on his suggestion.

I remember Mr Green’s presentation pointer.

I remember Mr Wood’s pauses. His delicate phrasing and rumoured homosexuality.

I remember thinking it didn’t matter.

I remember the ammonia odour of the toilets.

I remember the cold tiles in the games changing room. The clacking of metal studs on the floor. Rings of matted grass and mud.

I remember checking for pubic hair.

I remember Mr Ayers ensuring we showered.

I remember taking my shoes off in the winter and warming my feet on the pipes running under the desk.

I remember BO in the history rooms.

I remember goading fourth years to chase us in the first year and some years later first years goading us.

I remember the backs of chairs being bent like a finger after successive forms of reclining boys.

I remember dead arms and dead legs and knuckle raps.

I remember the RM Nimbus.

I remember Mr Stanley hating his job.

I remember pretending to be Frank Skinner in assembly during the European Championships in 1996.

I remember cringing.

I remember being reprimanded by the Headmaster four times: once for singing, once for wearing the wrong jumper, once for punching a boy and once for debagging Peter Jones.

I remember keeping my nose clean.

I remember the Armistice Day assembly when eight boys fainted in the sports hall.

I remember the gelatinous wads of old chewing gum under the desks.

I remember watching Grange Hill after school, as if one school wasn’t enough.

 

Each remembrance seemed to trigger a fresh one. Some had always been highly visible, but others had been buried or simply crowded out by new experiences. As words flowed from his pen, it was difficult to resist the pull of these old memories. The more he wrote, the further he was drawn into his schoolboy self. Perhaps that was the purpose of the exercise.

Their time up, the group reassembled at the table. The Poet asked how them had found the exercise. One by one they described the process of writing within this kaleidoscope of experience. Some were less enthusiastic than others. Some had found themselves unconsciously venturing into darker territory.

The Poet volunteered that he had written about several memories. A bowling ball, a tapestry and an Orthodox liturgy. Each was distinct from the others, covering a broad range of experiential possibility, and each had a particularly tactile quality. The memories were so separate and distinct, so incoherent, to appear obtuse, and yet he was envious of the disparity and their precision. He wondered about the purity of the mind that had arrived at these specific instances of imaginative recollection.

For their next exercise the Poet asked them to use the same method to recall something significant which could not be addressed directly. A cataclysm or epistemic break. A fall. Or something monumentally uplifting that would under the normal order of things be boiled down to received observations or glib clichés.

He returned to his place on the sofa. Before he began writing he knew that he was going to write about the birth of his first son.

 

I remember darkness. Darkness and the creeping dawn.

I remember your painful, painstaking walk.

I remember massaging your back as you swayed your hips.

I remember your breathing. Your heartbeat like a foot pump. The echo in the chamber of your belly.

I remember waiting.

I remember the birthing suite looked like a room in a Dutch brothel.

I remember the harness and the birthing pool.

I remember the lure of the bed.

I remember the midwife but not what she looked like.

I remember the funeral dirge of Radio Three.

I remember the ambient temperature.

I remember my skin tingling.

I remember the view from the window. The beige courtyard, the flagstones and gravel beds, the single bench. The cigarette butts and pigeon shit.

I remember the flat greyness of the new day.

I remember the stagnant water.

I remember being afraid.

I remember being helpless.

I remember thinking ‘this is it’.

I remember something yielding, giving way.

I remember the splayed arms and shocked expression of a new being.

I remember blood dripping like liquid spilt on a table.

I remember the sharp shrieks.

I remember being handed my son.

I remember my awkwardness.

I remember your gasps as they stitched you back together.

I remember weeping in the toilet.

I remember waiting for the taxi.

I remember sleeping like an old man.

 

They ate lunch outside at a long picnic table. As he’d neglected to bring sunglasses, he sat with his back to the sun. Usually he hated the awkwardness of these situations, the need to be erudite and intelligent and credible and funny. For a while he listened to Leontia address the politics of charging for reading poetry submissions, before departing on a tour of the writers’ centre.

Wild metaphors followed lunch. The Poet read from the poem ‘The King of the Cats is Dead’. He asked the group to re-write the last I-remember exercise in a more extreme form, harnessing the emotional cadences and exaggerating them, stretching the common language of memory to breaking point.

Perhaps he had eaten too much at lunch, but he had no appetite for it. He looked over the I-remember sequence for the birth of his son. There was nothing that he could harness and embellish without over-emphasising his ambivalence towards the event. He had pursued inspiration down a philosophical rabbit hole. This was not what he had wanted to do. He searched in vain for some profundity and came up with nothing but bile.

There was no truth in it. It was fake, bogus. He loved his boys, but their birth had been a rupture of sorts. He had stopped writing almost overnight. The poems had ceased. At times he felt he had nothing to say anymore, other than how much he loved them and their mother.

He thought of his own mother, of how she had devoted her life so thoroughly to her husband and children that she became incapable of doing anything else, other than being a housewife and mother. How when he had told her that she was to become a grandmother that her initial response had been one of quiet dismay, not joy. How this dismay lent itself easily to the depression she had felt through middle age, her discomfort at growing old. Unresolved. Not spoken of. How the symptoms of depression worsened in the year after his first son was born, to the point of emotional and physical collapse, whereupon she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. His timid, beautiful mother who always dressed well and carefully watched what she ate and drank, as if in preparation for some grand occasion in old age, who had to endure three years of treatment and remission only for the cancer to come back. His disheveled, confused mother now, clear of cancer but confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or care for herself or remember what she did or who she saw the day before. Another woman entirely. Unrecognisable to him. Barely recognisable to herself.

There was one last exercise. The Poet asked the group to take one of the wild metaphors they had worked on, and to write within it, to slip the thing you were describing inside the skin of that other object. Sat on the sofa, as he looked out of the window he saw a gardener yanking the starting lead of his lawnmower. He decided to write something about him instead.

 

The bald-headed, bearded man

With ruddy cheeks

Pushing the lawnmower uphill,

His gait angled

To the gradient,

Might be pushing a pram

Home from the shops

Or off to meet his mum

For coffee and cake.

 

Look how he carries

The grass collector,

Like a car seat

Bearing a newborn,

Listen how he talks

To his flowers

With the tender hush

Of a bedtime story.

 

And watch

How he clicks the latch

Of the garden gate

With the caressing hand

Of a new father

Closing the door to the room

Where his children used to rest.

 

At the close some members of the group asked the Poet if he would read from his own work. He agreed, and chose a poem about waiting to be born, lying latent in his mother’s belly. As he began speaking the eyes around the table began to close, until the entire group was listening in rapt silence. It had been a while since he had been to a poetry reading where the audience closed their eyes. Now he remembered why he’d stopped going to poetry readings.

As the poem came to its perfectly distended close, the group exhaled a collective sigh.

The workshop over, he took a long-overdue, deeply-satisfying shit in the WC, washed his hands, thanked the Poet and bade him farewell, and maneuvered his car out of its tight parking space to begin the journey home.

Driving back, he was overcome with a feeling of melancholy. Like he had been emptied from the inside out. Eviscerated. Disemboweled. During the I-remember exercises he had almost bled himself white. That hadn’t been his intention. A sequence of memories had come rushing at him at high speed. He had intended to find more material for his novel. The novel which wasn’t a novel. He wasn’t sure that he had been able to do that. He wasn’t sure if he had achieved anything at all.

Poetry was a serious business. Some took the business of poetry seriously. Writing it, reading it, listening to it. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever taken it seriously enough. Maybe that had always been his problem. He glanced over the low waters towards Ben Wyvis, lying prone and dormant like a prehistoric beast. There was beauty and cruelty in this landscape. The rugged vistas of the Highlands. A different type of poetry, one which if you closed your eyes you’d miss.

On the road ahead a 4x4 towing a trailer overtook a cyclist and almost crashed head-on into a white Citroen pulling out of a T-junction.

He braked hard and sounded his horn. A serious business indeed.

Cocaine #1

I wrote of silences, of nights, I scribbled the indescribable. I tied down the vertigo.

Arthur Rimbaud

 

The first time he tried cocaine was at a friend's barbecue. It was the summer of 2004.

A warm, sunny Saturday in July. Twenty or so friends gathered in a garden of a house on a estate in an upwardly-mobile south Cheshire commuter town. They had been drinking since the early afternoon: the blokes standing supping bottles of beer in the garden, the girls huddled behind glasses of wine of the sofa. Always the same-sex segregation.

Before the food was even on the grill, one of their number started passing his stash of coke among his male friends. The men were the sole participants, sneaking up to the bathroom in twos and threes, under the noses of their girlfriends. Clandestine, conspiratorial. They came back down with moist nostrils and jutting jaws, talking in tongues. Much of the food went uneaten, left to the looming wasps.

Up to that point he had resisted the lure of cocaine. He knew how that first taste ended: addiction, psychosis or death. He had seen plenty of nights where others used it. A few cheeky lines before pub and club. He watched them snuffling up white powder off chopping boards and kitchen counters, saw them preen and gurn and check their reflections in the mirror and wanted none of it.  

When people offered it to him at the time he demurred. He was more interested in smoking weed. Coke was the preserve of the uncreative mind, he thought. It made you uptight, shifty. Too narcissistic. Too aggressive. Back then, he liked to go for a lengthy shit in nightclub toilets to upset the coke-heads. He was less-than-sympathetic to their urgency.

That particular afternoon the mood had taken him to try some. He couldn't explain why, but as one by one his friends returned from the bathroom, sniffing and jabbering, he became acutely aware of missing out on something. Something that was happening within his group of friends. Some loosening of his own principles, some experience that may never come again. He thought of the symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud's le dérèglement de tous les sens. Seeking the essence of reality in the disordering of sensation. Or perhaps it was just the beer.

Invited upstairs by two friends, he accepted. They sequestered themselves in the small bathroom. One took a small bag of coke from his pocket and tipped a carefully measured heap onto a shelf. The powder was an off-white colour, lumpy and grainy in texture. It reminded him a little of cream of tartare, and smelt faintly of horseradish.

His friend chopped up the small pile with a credit card, working the powder into three lines. He took a rolled bank note from his wallet and deftly hoovered one up. Exhaling with a sigh, he passed the bank note to his other friend, who followed suit, taking a couple of attempts before handing the rolled note to him like a miniature baton.

As he lowered his head to the shelf, note at his nose like a paper proboscis, he hesitated for a moment, uncertain if this was something that he absolutely wanted to do. Behind him he could hear his friends sniffing alternately. They were very close in the small space of the bathroom. He could feel the warmth of their bodies, their breath on his back. 

Closing his eyes, he moved the note over his line of cocaine and sniffed. Half of the coke fell out, and he hoovered up the scattered crumbs. Then he wet his finger and dabbed up the residue, smearing it against his gums.

A tingling sensation inhabited his right nostril, and as he angled his head back he could feel some chemical substance sliding down the back of his throat. His teeth began to go numb, then his lips, then his tongue, until his face felt partially anaesthetised.

He made to speak, but there was now a delay between his wanting to speak and his mouth carrying out the brain's instruction. The words caught in his constricting throat.

My lips have gone numb, he said to his friends, finally. Mine too, said the other. It's fucking good coke, said the third, tucking his wallet back in his pocket.

They left the bathroom and went back downstairs. As the cocaine entered his bloodstream, he felt his perception begin to telescope. The warm summer light had taken on a hyperreal quality. He had a sensation of floating inside his body, as if he was levitating inside the bathroom and down the stairs, his tread liquid-light and stone-heavy.

They passed through the living room and into the kitchen, to retrieve a beer from the fridge, which tasted different somehow, more synthetic, more organic. As he raised the bottle to his lips he noticed a slight tremor in his arm. His heart was beating so hard that it shook his whole body. 

He had wanted to know what it felt like. He hadn't prepared himself for the sensation visited upon him by cocaine. And now he wanted more. 

He approached his friend and asked him another line. Why not, his friend said. As they passed through the lounge again, one of the women called out from the sofa, Why is everyone going to the bathroom in twos and threes? 

They offered no response, simply hurried up the stairs, and when they got to the bathroom they locked the door. This time his friend seemed to take an inordinately long time to prepare the gear. He begin to panic, expecting a knock on the door at any moment. His chest was vibrating under the heavy beat of his heart

When his friend had finished they quickly snorted the fluffy trails of coke. The second line tasted different to the first, its impact dulled, negligible. He found himself wanting another almost immediately.

When they returned downstairs the women had already departed for the pub. This was an encouraging development. It meant they could now indulge without the attendant discomfort of being watched, judged. They stayed for a few more beers, a few more lines. Eventually a plan was formulated to leave the house. BY the time they left the sun was fading. 

As they walked out of the house and into the housing estate, he realised had forgotten how to walk normally. He could only move languidly, like Mr Soft from the 1980s Trebor Mints advert. He remembered the lyrics with a chuckle and smile. Mr Soft, / How come the world in which you're living is so strange? / Mr Soft, / How come everything around you is so soft and rearranged? He thought about the softness of this new experience, how it was like being wrapped in a big white eiderdown.

He remembered how the band Oasis had referred to the advert in their single 'Shakermaker'. I've been driving in my car with my friend Mr Soft. Liam Gallagher affected a simian gait which rivalled Mr Soft's in its absurdity. As he loped through the estate, he realised that, being a callow youth back in 1995, he'd failed to recognise how copious amounts of cocaine  coloured the lyrics and music of those first two Oasis albums. It couldn't have been any less subtle had they titled the albums Cocaine #1 and Cocaine #2.

I'm feeling Supersonic / Give me gin and tonic. I can't tell you the way I feel / Cause the way I feel is oh so new to me. All your dreams are made / When you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade. Slowly walking down the hall / Faster than a cannonball.

They felt their way into the pub. Someone ordered a round of beers. They sat round a table, sniffing and twitching, drinking their pints. Making endless trips to the toilets. Sweaty and horny, restless.

Speech was beyond him now, so he sat back and listened to the others attest to how fucked they were. He and another friend were wearing sunglasses inside without any trace of irony. Toniiiiiiiight / I'm a rock n' roll star. Behind his sunglasses he could see, but his dilated pupils could not be seen. He needed to take the edge off things. 

One of the girls came in suddenly and asked if they were going to come and meet them. Everyone at the table fell silent. He liked the girl, but by now he was incapable of responding. While he prevaricated, the barbecue host his house took his key out of his pocket, placed it on the table and said, 'Here's my house key. Let yourself in, take your clothes off and I'll be there when I've finished my beer', he watched her storm from the table.

His friends laughed. They ordered another round. And another. Last orders was called. It felt like they'd only been in the pub for five minutes. They bumbled out and stood on the pavement, deciding what to do next. His feet were rooted to the ground. They joined the lengthy queue for the local nightclub. He considered getting a cab home.

Once inside he could barely sit still, found himself pacing around the fringes of the dance floor, lurking and skulking, looking for women. By now the coke appeared to have run out, or at least he wasn't being invited to share anymore. His mind returned to the moment in the pub, what he should have said or done. Interjected or gone after her. Made something of the night. 

By the end of the evening he was sat on a sofa, surrounded by strangers, his money spent, his voice gone, watching a friend dancing with a girl he didn't know, mesmerised by their gyrations. Then the lights came on, and he realised everyone he knew had already gone home.

The Hedgehog

A few days after the funeral, he saw the hedgehog again.

It was the second time he had seen it. The first time a few months earlier, while preparing the ground for a garden shed.

That afternoon he had been levelling off the soil he heard a loud rustling close behind him. Expecting to see a pigeon, or some other bird, he was surprised to see this bundle of spikes moving ponderously, if determinedly, towards the beech hedge.

He been moving some tyres in the garden earlier and wondered if he had disturbed its hibernation. Speaking to his neighbour the next day, it emerged that the hedgehog had been resident in the garden for years.

This was only the second time he had seen a hedgehog in the wild. The first had been in the garden of his old home, on Middlewich Road in Sandbach, when he was fifteen years old.

The old house had been rented out for over a year, being vacant for several weeks. It was going back on the market, and his father asked him to help tidy the overgrown garden to earn some extra pocket money.

The previous tenants had shown no interest in maintaining the garden, and the grass on the small front lawn had grown almost to knee height. The back lawn was worse, almost to waist height. Both would need to be strimmed and mown.

That was the first time he met Len, the old farm labourer his father used for occasional odd jobs. Len had brought an array of hand tools with him, including a scythe. He had a weather-beaten face and skin the colour of pine, having spent his entire life working in the open air. He was jovial and gruff, and frequently unintelligible. There was a kind of art to his working methods. Deliberately slow, languorous, unhurried. As if he took pleasure in labour.

While Len scythed the back lawn and his father cut back the hedges, he tackled the front lawn.

As he was going over the grass with an electric strimmer, he encountered a small hedgehog. He had always been fascinated by hedgehogs, knowing that they only came out at night. Retreating to a short distance, he watched it make its way laboriously through the grass towards the hedge. Then he continued strimming the rest of the lawn.

A few weeks later he returned to mow the lawn again. This time he found a desiccated, dead hedgehog close to the hedge. Fortunately he spotted it before he ran his mower over it. He didn’t relish the thought of having to scrap it off the inside of the mower with a stick.

As he looked at this other hedgehog now, in his own garden, he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with it. It had strayed far from the hedge in broad daylight, and looked to be suffering some disorientation. As it moved it swayed unsteadily on its small legs, hesitating before making the next step. It looked incredibly fatigued, frequently stopping to lie down and close its eyes.

Taking uncertain steps over unknown ground. Looking for somewhere to die.

He asked his wife brought it some water, which she did and then drove to the supermarket to buy dogfood. Roused, the hedgehog drank a little of the water, before methodically working its way through the dogfood. Their children joined them in the garden and watched it eat. His eldest found a cardboard box and prepared a nest of straw and wildflowers for it.

They were by now incredibly close to it, close enough to hear its tiny jaws pulping the food. The food and water seemed to revive the hedgehog, and, placing a small trug over it as a shelter, they left it smacking its gums against the gelatinous mass of processed turkey and chicken.  

In the garden the next morning he found the hedgehog a short distance from the trug, motionless and curled up under some weeds. The rest of the dogfood remained untouched. Convinced it was dead, he brushed the hedgehog’s back with a broken cane, and the spines pulsed and it appeared to resume breathing. Relieved, he lay the cane to one side and went back into the house.

That morning he took his children to a wildlife park in the Cairngorms. It rained almost incessantly. They saw two male polar bears gnawing frozen blocks of blood and fat, while a seagull swept in and stole the bloody remains of the polar bear’s lunch. A tiger reared up at a man wearing a white golfing glove through the protective glass. A snowy owl peeped comically over a rock, before rejecting the dead mice laid out for it. They saw wolverines and monkeys, bison and camels and two snow leopards.

Just as they were about to leave, his wife texted him to say the hedgehog had died.

Once home he checked for himself. The hedgehog hadn’t moved. It was curled up in the same place, only now its spines looked strange, as if its had body had deflated.

He gently prodded it with the same broken cane and this time it didn’t stir.

He called the SSPCA to ask how best to dispose of it. They suggested placing it in a bin bag and putting it in the green bin. He hung up and went inside the house to get a carrier bag. When he said he was going to put the hedgehog in the bin, his wife objected. It had only just been emptied. Couldn't he bury it?

So instead he dug a deep hole in the back garden, not far from where it lay. So as not to harm the hedgehog, carefully lifted it onto his spade, before letting it slide in the hole. As he covered it with earth, he half expected it to move. To come back to life. But it didn’t.

He smoothed over the soil and put the spade back in the shed. Then he went into the house and threw away the rest of the dog food.

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.   

henri-matisse-cutout.jpg

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.

Notional Poetry Day

It was notional poetry day, the annual celebration of all things notionally poetry. He thought he ought try to write something, but instead spent the day scarifying his lawn, scraping out the matted, spongy moss with a rake. After that, he pruned his overgrown hedges with secateurs, chopping back the advancing branches and bundling them into a wheelbarrow, ready for burning. He made a mental note of the trees that would need to be pruned before winter. There was always more work to be done.

He had written little in the way of poetry for some time. 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 today. Some would be writing, no doubt, others teaching or giving readings, editing or selecting poems for their magazines. Social media would be abuzz, with verses and comments from leading lights and lesser knows. Then it would be done for another year.

He had always felt the best poetry concerned itself with time and mutability. For him, at that particular moment, there was no greater marker of time passing, nor the mutability of things, than having to deal with a garden run rampant with weeds.

Having to deal with an overgrown garden, of course, consumed the time available to write poetry. Perhaps this was why while there were plenty of poems about enjoying gardens and landscapes, there were few about actual gardening: the requirements of digging, planting, cutting back. The only poem that immediately sprang to mind was Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw versus Pampas Grass’, which didn’t exactly paint the poet-cum-gardener in the best light.

As he worked the leaves of grass, he thought about the dichotomy between physical and mental toil. He had never seen a distinction between the two, but there were plenty who did. His parents, for a start.

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 poetry talked a good game; good at watching others work while musing in some Brechtian register on the nobility of the humble labourer.

Within the poetic world, he sensed a reversal of this position. 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 working the earth with one’s hands that no poetic endeavour could touch.

Wheeling the barrow with its bundle of leaves, he recalled that this was how things had begun for his family. His paternal grandfather, the son of a publican, had left school with no qualifications and, with only a wheelbarrow and a shovel, set himself up as a builder. He had married the daughter of a farmer, who in turn had come from generations of farm labourers. The earth was in their blood.

Both his paternal grandparents were able to read and write, but neither had much time for literature. When he died, you could count the number of books in his grandfather's house on one hand. Nor were their sons particularly academically gifted. Which is not to say that they weren't intelligent or astute.

His father, who took over the family business, had no truck with poetic pursuits. Existence manifested itself as a life labour for financial gain, where achievement reflected reward. Life was hard, as it should be, and leisure hard-won, deserved. Earned. His father divined more about human behaviour from observing his employees than from any philosophical method. To not work was to be bone idle. Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks. On the road to ruin, idleness and the imagination walked hand in hand.

The family business was the inheritance he passed over pursue a career as a writer, albeit in a noncommittal way. He never thought of himself as a poet, but simply someone who wrote poems. He wrote poetry in his spare time, for almost twenty years, and he was aware that every time he wrote, he did so from a position of privilege, as a white, middle class man. When he sent his poems out into the world, he did it from a position of privilege. He never felt as though he wrote from a position of privilege. In fact, he felt like a fraud, neither one thing or the other. He knew that what he wrote wasn’t exceptional material, but once he had thought it might have a place somewhere. Now the ranks felt indefinitely closed to him.

A few days prior to working in the garden, 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 narrow, newer volumes. He had always envisioned a place for himself between William Carlos Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah. He couldn’t see himself there anymore.

This was how poetry sustained itself. With festivals and notional poetry days, prize-givings and platitudes, baubles and plaudits. He contemporary envied poets their gestative first collections, their fawning TLS profiles, lazy afternoons at Latitude and Hay, their annual stipend, meagre as it was. There were more poets, more prizes, more writing programmes, more residencies, more fellowships. More people were writing poetry, more people were reading it. At times he felt excluded by its inclusivity. 

Yet poetry remained all but invisible, absent from the majority of people’s lives, the preserve of marriages, funerals and greetings cards. Its formal advances felt like a kind of disappearing act. Remake it new. In its urgent need to reinvent itself, to reappraise problematic past incarnations, poetry had become so completely untethered from its past that he was unsure if the term 'poetry' was meaningful anymore. 

He wondered if poetry was indeed a form in dialogue with itself, or if this dialogue was a product of its formal prescriptions, with the contemporary scene being little more than a means of rearranging the furniture, of renewing and repurposing the old themes. Part of that process of renewal was the publishing industry’s obsession with youth, fresh voices and fresher faces. The older a poet became, the more they began to disappear. Supporting acts, no longer the star.

Poetry confused him. 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.

Then there was the enduring 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. Gaslighting, aggressive editors. Deranged poetesses. Arriviste Instapoets.

Verses and versus. Spats and rants. Leaves on a wet black bough.

Poetry always seemed to be at war with itself, and its critics, as if practice and praxis were a matter of life and death.

He and poetry had always had a difficult relationship. He moved to London specifically to become A Poet. Back then, he was naive enough to believe that he had something to say. He found a job in a pub to pay his rent, leaving him time to write.

He spent hours in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, selecting magazines to submit. Churned out poem after poem, hunched over a typewriter, punching its keys into the early hours; smoking and drinking, reading Bukowski. Always Bukowski. He could blame a great deal on reading too much Bukowski.

When he was offered a job as an office temp he took it without a second's hesitation, knowing it would give him financial security for a few more weeks while he focused on his writing. He started wearing a suit to work, and found a new job. More responsibility and better pay. Those few weeks became months. Months became years. Each year he earned a little more. Each year he wrote a little less. He knew his parents would be happy. 

Commuting into work he nursed a notebook in his lap, pored over first collections or anthologies, trying to find out what worked and what didn't. He turned up at countless open mics, sometimes in his suit, to mumble his lumpen prosody. Kept his counsel and hurried home. Submitted to the well established little magazines. Tore open dozens of rejection letters. Gained publication a handful of times. Stopped submitting when the poems stopped coming.  

He wanted to remain hopeful. That he might find something more to say, and that someone might want to hear it. That the poems would come back. That someone might find something in them. Would his poetry be of any interest to anyone? He had no idea.

He tipped the last of the branches onto the scarified moss and stood back, pleased with his work. The day had produced a mass of new material, haystacks of damp clumps and winnowed thatch. A satisfying feeling for a few hours graft. Not unlike writing a poem.

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.