{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 slush into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. 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 best friend in London, 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 me and George 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 my young self, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy who is 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 flatshare 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 yet will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me. But be that as it 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 even want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the 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 to the theatre with Peggy, and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody around to let you in while we’re out; you can sleep on the sofa, make yourself at home.

So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time, and then you get back home, and on the sofa there is 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 will nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh or his hand 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 and you write to each other once or twice only and he says something along the lines of he liked you and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never be quite 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 tell my young self: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him saying you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may feel painful and cruel if he rejects you, but so is this, so is knowing you didn’t seize that day, that half day even, so is knowing you lived one afternoon less than you could have, as it turns out should have done. One afternoon? An early lifetime. Precious, precious days, while you are young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and since late slightly freckled hand upon George’s. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ At what point will you simply not care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could not they make the first move, or say the first word; be first to break the glass that divides you?

And then it hits you, out of the blue: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why you don’t 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 strikes you: you’re under a bell, George, and 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. George looks back at me, half-knowing, half expectant; a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: you’re an intelligent boy.

Being thus indavertently cast in the role of my dad’s father or my mum’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 must get in touch.’ It sounds like a disingenuous offer, saying this to my younger self, but with anyone else in a comparable case it would be perfectly genuine, and pure of intent, too.

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 yet mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead I 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 ought 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 ludicrous 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 really humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do so. Forgive them for being human.

Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up 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 at the same time if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, but then I realise what this might sound like to him, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone, and I ask George here where he is staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief George doesn’t ask me where I’m staying: I just 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 George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, past 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. Practical considerations and logic have both been rendered imponderable, by what I know not.

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 will I will just stay with me until sundown.

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’ competencies. (I’m not sure I like the word ‘competencies’, but still; that’s the kind of context we are talking about…) There was no more of a point to any of it than there ever was to any 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 handsets, 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. 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 accurate): 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 draw their attention to it and make them aware, they annihilate me with bewildered indifference, not unkind but bemused, not intentional, but lethal.

George has been looking at me as if he were studying me, and I still 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, and I think there would be something tremendously entertaining about getting drunk with myself. That would undoubtedly loosen things up, I fancy, 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 about any of this, 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 of 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 not to 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.

5 Surrender

There are plenty of reasons to suppose that we should, and should be able to, learn. In every other sphere of life this seems to work just fine: you burn your hand on the hot handle of a saucepan on the hob, you know better next time. Maybe not next time, but the time after. You wobble on your bike a few yards as a boy with your older brother or your friends or your dad holding on to it and they shout ‘go!’ and ‘faster!’ and you go faster and they let go of the bike and you stay upright and you have the hang of it and you can now ride a bike. You may still fall off occasionally, but the principle is down and you can tick that off your list. You practise and practise and practise the piano and if you have a modicum of talent and a bit of a musicality in your ear you will become passably good at playing. If you have a lot of talent and a great deal of musicality and love what you’re doing you may become exceptionally good and turn into a professional musician, a concert pianist; if you are god’s gift to improvisational jazz, you may become Keith Jarrett. Languages. Mathematics. History. Even writing, people even teach writing, which suggests people learn it. Chemistry. Not love though. Not the chemistry of love. Not the mystery of love. Not the vexation of love. Not the love of love.

Lukas (who’s not really called Lukas either, I’m changing his name too, though I doubt he will read this, and if he does, I doubt he will recognise himself) does to me what dozens of men before him have done, never deliberately, hardly ever even aware, most certainly not with any ill intentions: he infatuates me. In him. Is infatuate a transitive verb? In a passive sense? If I am now infatuated, that would suggest I have been infatuated and since I can hardly infatuate myself—unless I sport a substantial streak in narcissism—the person who infatuates should, if logic had anything to do with it, by definition be the infatuator, with the person who’s infatuated the infatuatee. Logic has very little to with it. Lukas is a little taller than me and a little younger. I’ve always wanted to be a little taller than I am (though I am not, by averages, short) and while I spent the whole of my teens wanting to be older, and never really in that sense since have wanted to be substantially younger than I actually am, I relate well to people who are a little younger, partly because part of my brain has not really caught up yet with my actual age, and partly because another part of my brain has always been far ahead. Age doesn’t really matter to me. Or so I like to believe, though the seconds ticking away so implacably, two and a half billion of them, give or take a few: that troubles me.

Lukas (and I like the name Lukas, not least because I now associate it with the man I have off the top of my head given it to), is German, though you wouldn’t immediately think so: his accent makes him sound more like a Dutchman who’s spent a lot of time in the States, or a Europeanised American. He and his girlfriend have joined the choir together, and on the first evening of the new term he sits next to me, and I feel like a schoolboy. I feel like the schoolboy precisely who fell in love with Michael when he joined our class, he aged seven, most of us then aged eight. This is ridiculous. I know it is ridiculous, and my young brain infuriates at the idiocy of my heart, while my old brain manages a smile that sits halfway between condescending and indulgent. Of course you are now infatuated, it says, my old brain, to heart. Worry not. Like all previous infatuations this one shall pass, and you will laugh about it later. Soon, in fact, because I have so much experience now, so much insight—very nearly wisdom—to give you and to ease the imminent transition from infatuation to friendship imbued with love of the friendship kind, a love that is unentangled, appreciative, mutual, but free.

You idiot! says my younger brain, you child, you pubescent teenager: you, at the age of fifty are allowing yourself a crush on somebody who has just introduced you to his girlfriend and who is absolutely certain to fancy you about as much as his grandfather’s drinking pal Ralph. (I like the idea of Lukas having a grandfather with a drinking pal called Ralph, and I feel slightly flattered that I should remind him of him. That’s how absurd I am at this moment…)

There is nothing to be done. When he misses a couple of rehearsals, I miss him. When he returns, my heart leaps. In the break, when he’s standing, chatting to his girlfriend, I join them. I make a point of talking to her as much as to him, so she doesn’t feel left out, but I really only have eyes for him. It is ridiculous, even pathetic, but thoroughly enjoyable too.

Maybe that’s what this is about: maybe the reason the heart won’t learn is not just because it doesn’t really have to, and not so much because it can’t, but simply because it doesn’t actually want to: the pleasure of being a little in love, of being infatuated, of being just a tad drugged by endorphins is just too great to forego forever. And why should it: this kind of love doesn’t cause any harm. It’s not even causing pain, curiously. In the past it did. In the past, I would get over my infatuations through pain. That is no longer the case. Probably because while the heart steadfastly refuses to learn, the head is really quite capable now of putting it all in its place.

Also in the choir is another sweet man who is quite a bit younger and quite a bit shorter and maybe also a little bit rounder than me. And he’s roundly adorable too. I just want to hug him, every time I see him. He reminds me of Paddington Bear. How could you not cuddle Paddington Bear? And until not so long ago there was a young man who was just very beautiful. Or so I thought. I don’t think I ever spoke more than about three and half sentences with him. And of course there was Edward…

George looks at me puzzled. ‘I think you should go with the heart,’ he finally says in a calm measured tone, looking me straight in the eye. I’m momentarily stumped until—dragged out of my reverie—I remember my question: what does he make of the heart?

Really?’ I surprise myself with my surprise. I mean: I agree with him, but isn’t he the one who too often has precisely not done that, and now he’s telling me?… ‘Yes.’ He speaks with a slight accent and a tone that makes him sound a little aloof and a little bemused and a little detached and a little curious, too. I remember being all of these very well, but I don’t remember sounding them. ‘The only times I’ve ever been unhappy was when I did not follow my heart. You know: “you regret the things you haven’t done, never the things you did…”’ Yes, but: you’re telling me? If I knew this then, and he’s probably right, I knew this then, then how come I still make exactly the same mistakes?… hang on. Did I not just say they’re not, maybe, mistakes, at all, they’re maybe just: my modus operandi.

‘Assuming, George, you could find the ideal partner for yourself, who would that be?’

‘Oh I don’t think such a person exists.’ – He doesn’t even have to think about it.

‘Why don’t you think so?’ I’m beginning to feel a little inadequate, talking to myself, aged twenty-one.

‘Well, because there is no ideal person. For anyone. People just accommodate each other and get used to each other’s foibles, and when they find somebody who they can bear more than they can bear being alone, they settle with them, for as long as that’s true, and sometimes quite a bit longer, mainly because they can’t be bothered going through the hassle of separation. Or because they’re comfortable enough. Or because they’re afraid.’

‘And you?’

‘Oh I’m not afraid.’

I thought as much, but I need to be sure: ‘Can you bear being alone?’

‘I love being on my own. I love being with people, and I love being on my own. I need a lot of time and a lot of space for myself. I function exceptionally well on my own.’

That is so true. That was true then, that is true now. Thank you, George: I function exceptionally well, on my own. Thank you. But does that necessarily mean I couldn’t function even better with someone? Ah, here we go again…

4 Maxl (Still Here)

I wake up to a horrible dream. It’s so horrible I don’t want to think about it, it could well be the second most horrible dream I’ve ever had, and I take issue with horribleness, so I go back to sleep once again and I don’t continue to dream, which I’m glad on.

Maxl knocks on the door and wakes me up; I’m already half awake but that means I’m also half asleep and I’m hugging a pillow for comfort. He asks if I’m all right; I am puzzled: he’s never been this concerned about me before. He says he’s concerned about me.

Maybe I made horrible noises in my horrible dream, it’s possible. I blink at him and say, ‘yes,’ and I’m about to go back to sleep once again; he says ‘it’s nearly half two,’ which in German means half one but means nothing to me at the moment because they’ve put the clocks forward last night and I don’t do mornings at the best of times.

Maxl rustles about in my room while I drift back off to sleep. He keeps much of his stuff in my room, so it’s a bit like having a live-in partner, without the partner, it’s a bit like a lose-lose situation: the worst of both worlds. The good thing I suppose: we don’t argue. Though he moans at me.

Maxl moans at me about England. For England: every day he comes back from college or from the bank or from the tube or from the post office or from the supermarket or from the park or from the cafe or from the pub or from the pavement, moaning at me. Every day.

He is German so he’s used to hyper-efficiency; he also lives in Berlin when he’s not here, so he’s used to an agreeable level of anarchic socialism. Objectively, I agree with most of what he complains about, but the complaining itself bugs me, every day, about everything.

That and the fact that he moans at me in German: he makes it sound as if I were responsible. Maybe I am responsible. Maybe my quiet acquiescence to all things British, to all things English, to all things London, has made me complicit in bringing about a college that charges an arm and a leg but that has embarrassingly poor facilities and a bunch of students who, instead of standing up for their ideas and their rights and their freedoms, do everything they’re told, as they’re told, and for a bank that charges an arm and a leg in fees and makes opening a bank account as much of a deal as if you were asking the Emperor of China for a slice of Tibet, and a tube that charges you an arm and a leg but shuts down for weekends at a time and that runs late because one of their drivers has a bout of the sniffles and that goes on strike at the whiff of a comma in a staff manual being changed and that stops running at midnight when half the population is still about town enjoying themselves, and for a post office that I can’t think of what they might be doing wrong off the top of my head but I can easily imagine that in Germany they run their post offices in a way that is altogether more, well, German, and for a supermarket that installs machines that talk at you instead of employing people who serve you, and for a park that is actually pretty much perfect if you ask me but that if you’re German you’ll probably nevertheless find something to moan about, and for the cafe that I can’t I’m losing my will to live…

The pubs close too early, I know, and the trains are a nightmare, get over it, it’s London, this, innit.

I can’t be doing with this much moaning, and I realise that much as I love him, if Maxl were my husband I would have to ask him for a divorce now. That would be terrible. Fortunately he’s only a very good friend, and I can love him even though he moans at me because I know I don’t have to own any of this beyond the level to which I just have to own my share of this culture that so irks him. Better still, much as I love Berlin—and I love Berlin, and I always, always still keep a metaphorical suitcase there—I don’t have to move to Berlin with him just because he doesn’t like London. I actually think he quite likes London, which also makes me think that maybe moaning is just a default state of his, and so he maybe also moans about Berlin! At his girlfriend! (Phew!)

I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate because I’m troubled by my horrible dream, which I don’t want to think about, and I also don’t want to seem ungrateful or ungracious or ungenerous. I don’t want to seem or to feel un-anything. I love Maxl (I’ve changed his name here, by the way, because I don’t want to get him into trouble, nor do I want him to think that I don’t love him just because he moaned at me), and I am grateful to him for being a good, loyal friend, and I graciously accept the gift of insight that even someone you love can get on your nerves to the point where you are quite prepared to wrestle them to the ground and slap them with a very wet fish, and I want to retain and hold on to the generosity of spirit that says live and let live, love and let love, be and let be. And I realise I am actually moaning about somebody moaning at me. Which is a little ironic. And I like little ironies. Though I still don’t like moaning. Which I suppose makes it doubly ironic… And the whole experience reminds me acutely why I so much enjoy being single.

I feel tempted to tell George about this, but obviously I don’t because I don’t want to prejudice him against Maxl or against me. And I certainly don’t want to tell him about the horrible dream, which he’d be bound to want to know more about, the way I know George…

3 Chaos

This makes me wonder what, in a multiverse of all possible universes, my life is like right now in the world where Benjamin and I are together.

So often have I tried to find him in others—repeatedly have I attempted to find him himself—that I’ve lost all concept of what the reality would be of us actually having done what other people do. Do other people do this? It’s certainly the impression I get: other people I know meet someone, fall in love, have some ups and downs, decide to give it a go, give it a go, stick together, or sometimes not, and if they don’t then most likely they have a break and then either give it another go, or do so with somebody else. I have good examples at close range of things working out well between people, all around me. My family, especially, are exemplary. So it shouldn’t be difficult.

Still, it mystifies me.

Benjamin has fallen out with his father, this much I know. I know this much because the last number I find in my old address book for him is his old home number, and at one point, while I’m in the country, I phone that number and I get his dad on the phone who tells me that he doesn’t know where his son is. Nor how to contact him. He says this quite categorically, and I’m surprised, of course, and a bit stunned, and about to end the conversation, but before I do I ask whether anybody else might know how to contact him, and he says, yes, his mother might know. Ah, I say, and would he happen to still have a number for his mother. I sense I need to tread carefully as I don’t want to upset or offend him, and I feel sorry that they’re no longer together, but at least that offers a plausible explanation as to why his father does not know where he is or how to contact him: his parents must have separated many years ago, maybe on bad terms. But: ‘this number here,’ he says; ‘she’ll be back later, she’s at work now.’

This now saddens more than it puzzles me, and it puzzles me a lot: clearly Benjamin’s mother and father are still together, still living in the same house where I once or twice came to see him, where I met both of them, once or twice; where in fact I interviewed his dad for my final school project, which I wrote on racism; but while his mother ‘may know’ how to get in touch with him, the father not only doesn’t know, he obviously doesn’t want to know either. His son is dead to him. A wave of abject sadness washes over me. He is, has always been, so alive to me.

Should it surprise that your first love is your strongest, your most intensely felt, most devastating and also most exulted? To this day I remember getting drunk on coffee with him on the sofa. That seems surreal now, but we drank so much coffee over so many hours all through the night until it was getting light outside, I started feeling high. Caffeine and adrenaline and serotonin. And that other thing. Is there that other thing, that indescribable thing, that thing we sing songs about and write poems over and feel we could die for?

I phoned up again a day or two later (or maybe it was later that day) and spoke to the mother who remembered me and may have remembered me fondly, she certainly sounded warm and kind, and she said, yes, if I were to write him a letter she would forward it onto him, that might work.

I wrote him a letter, and she forwarded it onto him and nothing happened for a very long time; and I remembered—as I spoke to his mother and before I wrote the letter—the birthday for which I had sent him a flower. He lived outside Zürich then, I outside Basel; his birthday was and still is six days before mine, and because I couldn’t see him on his birthday, I went out and bought him a flower—I can’t be sure now what kind of flower it was, but I like to think and am fairly certain it was a yellow rose—and I asked the florist for one of these small vials that would keep the flower fresh for a while, and I sealed this around the stem of the flower and wrapped it in tissues in case it should leak and sealed that in foil, I believe, and then put the flower into a long box, and I must have used some padding, and then I posted it to him, with my birthday wishes. I didn’t wonder then but I wondered now what his mother made of this at the time.

I wrote him a letter and sent it to his mother, and she forwarded it to him and nothing happened for a very long time until one Sunday the phone rang and it was Benjamin. Out of the blue, except for the letter of course. He’d received it and now he was living in Guggisberg. He’d moved to Guggisberg because of the song, did I know it? I didn’t, but I know it now.

We talked for maybe four or five hours. I don’t remember what we talked about, but then that was that kind of connection: where you can talk for four or five hours and not remember what you talked about, nor really care. For those four or five hours it was as if he were there. 

And all of a sudden I can feel it ease, the pain of not knowing what had become of Benjamin. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through addiction and rehab and back, and other things. He lives with his partner, who isn’t the mother of his son.

‘You’ve done a good thing here,’ he said, meaning my writing to him, and after the afternoon had passed with us talking, he said, ‘and now I’m going to get drunk.’ We were a bit drunk already, again, both of us, this time on the beers we each started to open, he in Guggisberg, I in Earl’s Court. ‘And I’m going to hear Jane Birkin in concert,’ I said, and it was true. He wasn’t online but he would write back to me now, he said; but I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t.

After a few months or so, maybe a year, I thought I’d just write to him one more time, although I was myself no longer sure of the wisdom of doing so, and I sent another letter, this time directly to him, at the address he’d given me, on the Guggisberg. It came back as not delivered: the addressee has moved away. But now I don’t mind. My heart is light and free. I hope before either of us dies I’ll see him again, maybe when we’re quite old. Maybe when we’re quite old we can sit together on a bench or in a lakeside cafe and spend a whole day talking, maybe getting drunk a little. On whatever.

I look at George looking at me, and I remember I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, I’ve always had George, but George has been very much on his own at times; he has chosen a lone path, and I can’t blame him for that. ‘Tell me about Benjamin,’ I want to say, but I now know everything I need to know about him, and I know that George knows much less now than I.

I walk into a room full of people. It’s the Christmas Bazar at the Steiner School in Zürich. I’ve gone there with a friend from Basel, to visit a couple of people we’d met at a Whitsun Camp earlier in the year and stayed in touch with. I don’t remember anything else about the day, not how we arranged to meet, or who else was there. Most likely we’d just arrived, and most likely we’d said: in the cafe, around then. The cafe is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a small hall. I remember the feel of a converted class room. The room is full, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. To the others, we introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: ‘Ich bi dr Benjamin.’ My world has never been the same again.

‘Tell me, George,’ I finally say, the mojito giving me licence to talk: ‘what do you make of the heart?’

{Petals}

I think I can count on one hand (plus maybe one finger, perhaps even two, three at a stretch) the number of people I have actually fallen in love with. This surprises me, because I think not all the hairs I now have on my head and in my beard combined would suffice to account for the number of people I think I have fallen in love with. There is, as always, a margin of error, but it is nowhere near as wide as one might imagine:

Benjamin (First and Most Deeply). Stefan (Under Special Circumstances). Janey (Somewhat Unexpectedly). The Man Whose Name I Can’t Remember Who Stage Managed One of the Tours I Was on (Though I’m Not Sure How That Even Happened Because The Moment I Fell Out of Love With Him I Wondered What Did I Ever See in Him and Wrote a Song to That Effect). The Willow (Of Course, and Still Am a Little, and He Knows it). Probably JayJay (In a Singular Way). Certainly Dominic. A Little Bit Edward. And Indeed Moritz. Actually that brings me up to nine. But already I’d need to qualify. Was I really in love with Stefan? Or was I just blown away by how beautiful, charming and unimaginably cute he was?

There are many, many more I have at some point been a little in love with and still am, somewhere on the scale where it nearly registers, sometimes a bit more, then back to a bit less. And there are many, many whom I simply love. Roundly, completely, for who they are. And there are borderline cases. Michael, at school. Was I actually ‘in love’ with him, or did I ‘just’ love him, as I most certainly did. And before him the English boy who came to our school in Switzerland on some exchange programme.

He was almost certainly the first person I ever had a genuine crush on. I was maybe eleven or twelve and he’d arrived into one year below or above, I believe, and I was so smitten that I bought him an ice cream. That was all: on our way to school there was a kiosk where everybody bought their sweets, and although he wasn’t in my year and we hadn’t been introduced and I didn’t know his name, I just felt compelled to let him know that I liked him and so I bought him an ice cream. I gave it to him and he smiled and said thank you, and I don’t remember ever saying another word to him, but to this day it makes me happy to think of the moment he smiled at me, a little surprised, but friendly, and gracious in a way I had never seen anybody smile before and have rarely seen anyone smile since: that brief and simple but in retrospect devastating moment when innocence meets recognition.

I realise this is something I should ask myself. Something that maybe could help me today. I could learn maybe something from George. That makes sense. Much more, in fact, than the idea that he could learn anything from me. I could perhaps learn from him how he did that. How he set up a pattern that to this day I haven’t escaped; he’s much closer to it, he’s in the process of doing it now: what is going on in his head; what, more to the point, in his heart? Obviously I can’t phrase my question like that, I obviously have to go about it smidgeonwise more dextrously.

But if I played this one right, I might actually gain some insight…