{Afterthought}

Every so often – ever so rarely – that feeling of a cold clean blade sliding under my skin and lifting the tissue off my bones: I can’t help but stare, not stare, but gaze upon in wonder; I pretend to play Jass on my phone, I do play Jass on my phone but my concentration is shot I don’t remember what’s gone, I can see what is trump but I no longer care what it means: the boy sitting opposite on the tube, he’s not a boy, he’s a man; in his salmon coloured trousers with his caramel shoes over deep navy socks; his deep sea green jumper (or is that navy too?) his light glacier lake coloured shorts, a soft plain material; not briefs and not boxers; his finesculpted lips, his long dark chestnut hair and the ever-a-tad-absent expression. His tallness. The strength of his thighs by comparison. He alights at Victoria. I pull myself together. I have to pull myself together. I’ve written a book about him. About him and about all the others: there are only two or three or three or four, they are so so rare and so precious and so, so incomprehensibly beautiful. Let not it be said that I did not draw from that beauty the vernating breath of a melancholy yen.

Oh to be nineteen and a poet again. Was I ever nineteen? I was once a poet; albeit briefly. Perhaps I can be so again…

12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In a multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say yes.

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’ Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case, and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night. As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well. At some point we conspire to lose them or they us and we suddenly find ourselves alone again, and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else. We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself – nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me – to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half’, when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, let alone me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

What do we ever really know…

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed yet anywhere in my brain. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’ve been in my job for six months now, it’s my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story too?)

{Displacement}

As I sit watching George sip his mojito, slowly, deliberately, the memories of the past and the memories of the future congeal to form a broth into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. Only the right one, as my head is somewhat rightward inclined. I was, I was beautiful. I never once thought so then and I most certainly don’t think me so now. But looking at myself then I cannot escape this devastating realisation: I was really beautiful.

My friend Michael once asked, when looking at a picture of me from my teens, ‘how did this’ – he points at the picture – ‘turn into this?’: he gestures at me. Between George and me lie three decades of the unknown.

Must it, though, must it be so unknown. If I’d known then what I know now would I not have avoided so many mistakes? Would these regrets, three or four only, maybe, but two or three of them profound, not simply have turned into gorgeous memories of ever fulfilling wistfully relivable ecstasy? Unaided?

Soon, I want to say to myself, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy so roundly adorable, so sunny, so sweet, so entirely lovely, that you’ll feel in a trance for six days around him. He will call you, on your answerphone and say: hello, it’s Stefan here, I’m a friend of Soandso who’s a friend of Beatrice. She said I could give you a call and maybe stay with you for a few days in London? Once you live in London, George, you will have friends and friends of friends and of course family and friends of family come to visit: you will not want for guests!

On this particular occasion though you may not be so keen, you may only just have arrived in your first flat share and not know the others too well, but in particular also your best friend from school, Peggy, may be staying with you, for six weeks as it happens. How you ever got that past your still new flatmates whom you don’t really know will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me, but be that as is may, you will think, and Peggy will agree, and you both will be pretty much of a mind, that the last thing you need, or want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the friend of a friend of really in all seriousness an ex-girlfriend of yours to come and spoil your quality time together for you. You’ve never been one to say no, though, so you say yes, but you don’t want to change your plans and your plans for the night he arrives are to go out with Peggy and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody home: they’ll let you in while we’re out, but you can sleep on the sofa, just make yourself at home.

So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time – you see something or other at the theatre – and then you get back home and on the sofa there lies this unbearably cute little face, tucked into a sleeping bag, happy as peaches in lala-land, and you know you’re already a little in love. And you both look at him in unabashed wonder and you decide to let him sleep and when you all wake up in the morning you all feel like you’ve always been friends, and from then on you do practically everything together: you go out together, you drink together, you dance together and at one point, and you don’t quite know how, probably because Peggy happens to be at school, she is, after all, here to learn English, you find yourselves sitting next to each other on your slim single bed, and he’s wearing his funky skintight jeans and no top and you are wearing whatever it is you are wearing at the time, probably black, and you nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh and you bask in his presence and you cannot get over how beautiful is his torso, and how charming his smile and how big his blond hair, and you don’t know how you do it but somehow you let the moment pass and nothing happens at all and you won’t ever quite understand how you let that happen, because soon after he leaves you write to each other once or twice and he says something along the lines of he liked you too and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that way, that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never quite be able to believe, you will forever know, deep at heart, that kissing him, holding him, caressing him, touching him, being with him would not have spoilt anything, it would simply have made those six days complete.

There’ll be that, I want to say to myself: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him thinking you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may be painful and cruel but so is this, so it knowing you didn’t grasp the moment, knowing you lived one afternoon less than you should have done. Precious, precious days, while you’re young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and since late slightly freckled hand upon his. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ What is the point at which you simply don’t care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could they not make the first move, say the first word, be the first to break the glass that divides you?

And then it hits you: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why don’t you respond, and you wonder how can they not know that you’re surrounded by a bell made of glass: the sounds are muffled, the scent is dead, the gestures distorted, the temperature inside is always too high. The effort it takes you to break through to them is gargantuan. They just smile and think it strange that you barely smile back; the way that you read them would to them be entirely unintelligible. Suddenly it hits you. You’re under a bell, George, you don’t even know it.

I reach out to myself but not to my hand, I put my hand on my shoulder instead. That seems to be more in tune with the overall situation. Oddly, this doesn’t surprise young me. I look across to myself, half-knowing, half expectant, a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: your dad is a good man. Being suddenly cast in the role of my mother’s mother startles me and I withdraw my hand, almost too quickly. I need to think of a reason for having put it on my shoulder in the first place and so I say: ‘If you ever come to London, you have to get in touch.’ He nods gravely. It hasn’t quite done the trick, I’m convinced, but George here seems to be un-further-perturbed. ‘This is nice,’ he says, in the involuntary generic understatement of the youth who hasn’t quite mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead ask him if he wants another. Knowing now who I’m with it doesn’t surprise me that he says ‘sure?’ with an upward inflexion that suggests question where there aught to be assertion. The young. If only I could make it lighter for you, thinner, the bell, more penetrable, the fortress of isolation around you. You will find a way. You will find a way. I have found a way, so will you.

Advice time. I’m about to say something along the lines of: just do what you want to do your way, or, it’s not going to be so easy, you know, but you’ll somehow muddle through, or, deep in your heart you know that no matter what the ups and the downs, you’re on a fairly stable track, like a roller coaster. And then it strikes me how ridiculous that is. You’re not on a track at all, you’re in free flow. You have no way of knowing what’s right or wrong for you, you have to find out step by perilous step. Sometimes it will feel ridiculously easy and other times it will feel impossible. They will not understand you. Seriously. They will smile, but they will think: what the fuck? You have the right to be whoever, whatever you want to be, everybody else has the right to think what the fuck. At times you will feel: nobody gets me. At all. You will be so alone in the world that you will want to sit in a corner and cry, and you will sit in the corner and cry. You will need to be stronger than you ever thought you could be, because sometimes they will not just think what the fuck, they will hate you and say so. And you will wonder what have I ever done to you that you hate me, I have written some words. I have thought some thoughts. I have put them out there. Ah, I have trodden on your reality by putting them out there. And then you have to say to yourself: I have the right to write words and think thoughts and to put them out there, they have the right to hate me for it. It is not wise nor generous, nor humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do. Forgive them for being human. Forgive yourself.

Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up and wave gently to Ahmed who takes my order for two more mojitos. ‘These are nice,’ I say to Ahmed, unnecessarily, ‘could we have two more, please.’ I wonder should I ask him if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, and then I realise what this might look to him like, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone and I ask George here where I am staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief I don’t ask me where I’m staying in return. I realise what a potential trap I’ve set myself, when it occurs to me that I have a discontinuity here. At the time when I’m my age as George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, future me is in my world, not I in the world of past me. But my world at this point ought to be Kingston-upon-fucking-Thames, not the Limonlu Bahçe, Istanbul. Practical questions and logic have both been rendered imponderable.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask myself and I notice I’m not saying this out loud and so I can’t tell whether this is Now Me asking Young Me or Young Me asking Now Me or Now Me asking Now Me or Young Me asking Young Me or all of Me at the same time.

Sundown. I shall wait until sundown. I shall hold out as long as George here holds out. I shall, I shall stay with Me until sundown.

11 The Wood Pixie

We called her The Wood Pixie. None of us knew her. Still, it pleased us to make mild fun of her, not in an evil, vicious, or ill-tempered way, more in an abstract helplessness: there was this woman who had the man we all loved, and he was beholden to her. We imagined her as sharp and fierce and incredibly demanding. There is no telling whether we were right to do so; it was just an impression we got. Not only did we not know her, we also didn’t ever really hear anything about her, other than that she existed. And so The Wood Pixie acquired mythical status, and whenever we found that he couldn’t make it to a party or said no to a dinner or did not invite us to his wedding, we relished imagining her stamping angry little feet on the ground, conjuring demons and casting terrible spells.

Once in a while though, he managed to escape. He knew it would not be forever – we knew he wouldn’t want it to be forever, because we knew, we imagined, he was already too lost to her – but just for an evening, or even, as on one occasion, for a weekend, to the country, somewhere nobody would find us: another of our good friends had borrowed a house. It was a very large house, a converted barn, with dark wooden beams, an incredibly high ceiling, deep leather sofas and the kind of beds where you dream you have gone to heaven, even before you’ve fallen asleep.

We were there for only one night, I believe, and really absolutely nothing much happened: we arrived. We must at some point have eaten some food, we drank wine or more likely champagne, because that’s what we tended to do in those days, and we did a few lines. Maybe we played some games. Where the food or the wine or champagne or the lines had come from I don’t remember, they simply materialised. Much like the house. Even precisely who was there now is a blur. Four of us, maybe six? Certainly no large group and certainly nobody we didn’t know. I only remember him though, really, and obviously our host. I wished, I so longed, I hoped, I so willed the evening to get to the point where he would simply not care enough about who or what he normally was and forget about The Wood Pixie and allow me to snuggle up to him in his bed, and very possibly he would have done had I had the courage to sneak into it in the first place. But I didn’t. Non, je ne regrette rien, sauf… Sauf les temps quand je suis été lâche. Sauf les temps quand un amour ou une trame du hazard semblait possible, mais je n’avais pas eu le courage de prendre une chance.

There have been two, maybe three, possibly, at a stretch, four. Two, three or four times when I didn’t have the courage to take the chance that was obviously there. (Or was it only ever there in my – wishful – imagination?) The weakness of being vulnerable. The weakness of not being able to show yourself vulnerable. The need, at all cost, not to be needy.

Morning came and I woke up in a bedscape of white softness, on my own. It so happened that he gave me a lift home in his red MX5. And then the killer line, as we sat next to each other, in worn leather seats, shades on, burning down the M4:

I: ‘That was a really excellent weekend.’

He: ‘Yes, and the best thing about it is getting away with it.’

I saw The Wood Pixie looming suddenly large, puffed up to overbearing proportions, but even she, with her frightening powers, would never know about this weekend, because he’d make it home just in time, all obedient innocence. And he was pleased as punch about this, beaming like a boy, his eyes on the fast lane, the one that would get him back, under the radar.

Later on I then once or twice saw a picture of her: she looked lovely. There is no reason at all to assume, to presume, that he ended up with the wrong woman, the wrong person. In fact I imagine the opposite. For him, all things considered, if not quite all told, The Wood Pixie is probably pretty much perfect…

{Seasons}

twinklings to

meanderings

fountains into streams

we shimmer 

then we die

though these be energies that linger:

my early autumn, your late spring 

our seasons out of synch, we could

if we were so inclined

nudge each a little, cheat 

ourselves into a 

summer 

of untold delights

say we were otherwise 

compatible, we’d make

each other 

perfect

10 Secrets, No Lies

Everything can be true, to a greater or lesser extent.

Is what I imagine any less real than what I say before I do it, and when I do it is it then real or could I forget it and make it undone, or could I apologise for my faults, of which there are many, to myself, even, and having done so be forgiven, even by myself, or could I be better or worse than I am and still be the same, or is what’s in my mind any different to what’s on the screen black on white, and should I edit. And prune. And emend. The bit of me that thinks I have no chance of survival outwith the trappings of civilisation knows that even this is as much true and as much false as I want it to be. Must everything be known, and to whom? Even my deepest inadequacies?

I stood in his bathroom, for no reason other than that I was round his house because he was helping me out by doing a piece of work for me that I couldn’t then do myself. The first time I saw him I was sitting at a desk in a large open room where maybe a dozen or so other people sat at or by desks, and we were all working on a project that was very exciting. It was exciting not because it had any meaning but because the task was formidable, the challenge demanding, the technology thrilling and the people assembled were good: they had crest-of-the-wave, or, as one of them liked to put it, ‘bleeding edge’ competence. There was no more point to any of this than there ever was to any other of these corporate projects, beyond making a big brand look like what its executives could be coaxed into thinking was ‘cool’, and apart from one product that this particular project now helped this particular brand launch that was pretty crap on the inside but won hands down on design, the world would not have been any worse a place without any of what we were doing being done, but as I was sitting at my desk, making up inane scenarios of attractive young people using phones, in walked the most attractive young person I thought I had ever seen. (If you imagine this as a film, here is where the music swells and – depending on genre and era – we may just go into slow motion.)

Since then, and several years of sporadically working together later, we had settled into a comfortable arrangement whereby I adored him and he let me do so. I once drunkenly at a party told him that I would never do anything to jeopardise our friendship and he, similarly drunkenly had shrugged his shoulders and said something along the lines of ‘that’s good to know’, I can’t quite remember. Whenever we went out as a group, which we did now and then before he got married, I completely failed to disguise being smitten, which, after a while, became something of a running gag in said group: I adored him, he let me. There was nothing more to it. Now I’d asked him for a favour and he’d graciously said yes. And I went round his house to help him do the work he was helping me out with and I went to the bathroom and there hung two of his shirts.

Maybe not everything needs to be told. Maybe some things are best left unsaid. Imaginations run wild. I stood close to his shirts that hung from a hook or a line on two hangers and guided one to my face and inhaled. Or did I think I would like to but couldn’t. It was as if he were in the room: for a moment I felt, this is you. Two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, five. That’s enough. You don’t cling on to that which undoes you. Or maybe you do, in your mind.

This is and remains my unending flaw (I want to say ‘tragic’ but ‘farcical’ would be more true): the realities of my heart are unhinged. I meet somebody, I fall for them, I imagine the world adjusted and changed and project onto them my idea of perfection and see a settled ideal that requires no more explanation. The other person, more likely than not, is oblivious to any of this and if I make the mistake to make them aware, they annihilate me with bewildered indifference, not unkind but bemused.

George has been looking at me as if he were studying me and I wonder does he know who I am. Not ‘know’ as in possess factual evidence, of which none can exist, but know as in sense, as in experience that profound certainty – inaccurate though it may be – that you have when you are in a reality that compels. Ahmed arrives with our second mojito, or is it our third, and I think there would be something tremendously entertaining about getting drunk with myself. That would undoubtedly loosen things up, if we both simply got plastered. Then again, it’s still only about two, two thirty in the afternoon, I still don’t know why I’m here at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul and I can’t begin to think where I’ll be spending the night, but then there is really no hurry and it occurs to me we could go for a walk, but that would entail leaving this delectable oasis, it would mean dodging traffic and weaving through throngs of people and it would mean being reminded that there is a world out there that is simply there and cannot, in essence, be argued with, whereas here, in the speckled shade of the trees, and with Ahmed and his angular colleague our waiters, and with the mojitos softening the edges of perception, and with George in clearly no more of a hurry than I am, I feel safe and, more than comfortable, content. Content just to be and to be for a little while longer. I look at him and think: you’re going to be just fine. Just don’t make all the mistakes I’ve made and keep making, right to this day. I can be so very inept, sometimes. He looks back at me and I think he knows what I mean. And I say: ‘I do not understand my heart at all.’ And I don’t.

9 Dust

Maxl has left and I go over the flat with the dyson and some degree of resentment, directed not at Maxl, though clearly over the six months or so that he’s been here he never once did the same, and neither did I over the six months or so that he’s been here, because let’s face it: he’s the houseguest, does he expect me to go around and clean up after him? Then again, he’s the houseguest, so do I expect him to go round and clean up after me? Clearly not. And since neither of us found it necessary to go round the flat with the dyson for the six months or so that we’ve been here together, to clean up after each other or let alone after ourselves, there is now a considerable amount of dust about the place.

I end up cleaning up after him because he leaves with a hug and a, ‘so this I suppose is goodbye,’ which it is only in as much as he’s not staying here any longer, he’s moving across town to North London and we’ll be seeing each other by the end of the week.

And so, no, my resentment is not of Maxl, whom I love and continue to love even though I’m seriously glad he’s moved out now, my resentment is with the dust. Dust in itself to me is objectionable to the point of being offensive. Why make people dusty? Isn’t that just adding insult to injury? I pause and reflect: what injury? The dust twirls around in the dyson and I look at it this way instead: the good thing about leaving a little dust to accumulate in the flat is that when then you go round it with a dyson you really notice the difference. Both in the flat, which suddenly seems altogether less, erm, dusty, but also in the little dyson which visibly fills up and you think most of this is just dead skin cells: I litter my space with this; how many dysons have I filled since, well, ever?…

I look at George and I notice we haven’t said anything for a while now and that has not felt strange, it has felt comfortable. As comfortable as it should when you are sitting opposite yourself – even your much younger self – and you are actually quite happy to be there: with you, but not you. That was now and this is then. I opt to not ask him any more questions for at least another such moment, and he looks at me and seems content. The moment is so comfortable that I try to remember it from his perspective and it feels like I can though it’s much more likely that I can’t and that I’m just constructing that memory in my mind even as I reflect on it, like a seven-dimensional puzzle. We’re coming to the end of our mojitos and I catch Ahmed’s eye.