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.
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.
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?
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.