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 possibilities of visiting 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 actually read Kierkegaard, though he had taken the time to familiarise himself with his more notable quotes:
Train yourself in the art of becoming enigmatic to everybody.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
There are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.
They flew from Stansted early one overcast November morning, touching down in a bitterly cold Malmo a few hours later. Frigid air from the Baltic Sea bled into the city. 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 old Canon SLR, which he didn’t know how to use; 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 manoeuvring 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, under a sky so blue it might have been made of glass. 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 dumbly at the map, from attempting to navigate the incomprehensible names of streets and the crowds of the shopping district.
Passing the city’s university buildings, its library with a huge glass façade, the tiered floors where Denmark’s brightest minds toiled behind perfectly-aligned ergonomic desks, he thought about the missed opportunities of his time at university, the entropic years spent at his parents' house post-graduation, sequestered in his room smoking dope, the six months in a bedsit in Liverpool, his aborted career as a journalist, his pallid attempts at poetry.
What is a poet? wrote Kierkegaard in Either/Or. An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart. He couldn’t say when he and his friend had stopped speaking, but they had exchanged barely a word as they crisscrossed the city, pausing only to consult the map or retrace their steps. It grew dark. Brown leaves blew about their ankles. As the sun began to set they reached the edge of a large 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 and disturbed by the concentric wakes of a handful of water birds. They stood side by side and took near-identical photographs 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. He drank so much, so fast, that he spent more time at the urinal than seated at the bar. The booze was coursing through him, his sullied flesh melting.
He woke in the hotel room late the next morning with no memory how they got back. 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, by way of conciliation, 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 scantily clad ladies 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 siren call.
There was more perfunctory sightseeing that morning, then after the lunch the first Tuborg of the day. Then the second, and a third. By now they were in agreement that Copenhagen was best seen from the inside of a pint glass.
They drank all afternoon and 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. The Asian girl initiated her first lines of enquiry.
I like you. You are very handsome. A very handsome man. Do you like me? Do you find me attractive? Do you like my outfit? How about my body, baby? Do you like my body? Hmm?
She began rubbing herself against him. My breasts are fake, she continued, but they look good, and feel even better. Just imagine them in your face. Would you like to feel them?
She asked him if he wanted to feel them. He declined, but in response she took his hand and placed it upon her bosom. She looked at his and smiled. Very nice, he said and took his hand away. Then she hooked one of her legs over his and pulled him closer to her, so he close he could feel her breath on his lips.
Do you want to fuck me? The Asian girl asked.
He glanced over at his friend, who was still talking to the blonde.
Not right this second, he replied, I have an expensive bottle of cheap champagne to finish.
You can bring the bottle with you, she said. He asked her how much and she told him it would be 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 if he could have a dance instead.
Okay, one dance, she said. I do it on the stage for you, and then we go upstairs, ok?
Ok, he said, and quaffed his champagne. There was no way he was going upstairs.
His friend was still talking to the blonde, with an intensity that he was loath to dispel. Their faces were almost touching and it was impossible to hear what they were saying over the music. He drained his glass and looked over his shoulder. Onstage the Asian girl was peeling off her lingerie and strutting around the pole, eyes fixed on him as he self-consciously sipped his champagne. That said, he was enjoying the absurd turn their blundering into a brothel had taken. 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 apologised 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. Swaying gently, he emptied his bladder and chuckled to himself.
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, and found himself in a room full of semi-dressed women. For a moment, silence descended over the gathered women as 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 his back while 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 tantalised 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 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, recognising 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. 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 kiss her between her legs. She nodded. For several moments he tried in vain to elicit some arousal. She asked him to stop and hurry up and fuck her. He realised 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. When he felt himself soften and start to slide from her, he asked her to stop. Why? I need to go to the bathroom. She dismounted, staring at him balefully as he pulled on his underpants.
Where is it? 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 near-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 any longer, 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 weakly whispered, 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 am – 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 into his own bed and passed out.
They were awoken the next morning by housekeeping. Neither of them had put out the Do Not Disturb sign. After the housekeeper 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 said even less, 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. Compared to the light of Copenhagen, Malmo’s under heavy grey clouds left it feeling cold and ugly.
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, in microcosm, were the forms he had wrestled with and failed to master. All the poems he could not write. Work that would never see the light of day.
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 was sobbing, his body jerking in sharp spasms.
I’m just worried what my mum and dad will say, his friend replied, when I tell them about this.
Why would you tell them about this?
What if I’ve got AIDS or something?
That won’t happen. If you wore a condom, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Anyway, I’m sure those girls look after themselves. They wouldn’t be allowed to work if they didn’t. You can’t let something like this spoil the rest of the trip. Don’t worry, mate. Everything will be absolutely fine.
His friend continued to sob. Moving away from the bed, he sat at the small table in the corner of the room and fiddled with his camera. Started to roll a cigarette. Noticed his hands were shaking again.