I find a cassette tape, unlabelled.
I’m in the process of divesting myself of accumulated clutter that has started to clog up my life, in preparation for a renovation of my flat, and most of the tapes are being at long last thrown out now. Some—those bought as albums and undamaged—go to the charity shop, practically all others, with the exception only really of some mixtapes which have memories attached to them and therefore some sentimental value, go in the bin: I hold on to less than half a dozen, which is me being ruthless. I reckon.
The unlabelled tape nearly lands in the bin liner unexamined, but it intrigues me as there are almost no tapes that don’t have anything written on them at all, even if on some of them the writing has long faded and become illegible. I take it out of its case and put it in the machine I still own to play tapes, which I haven’t used in more than a decade.
I hear a young voice with a not particularly strong but clearly discernible accent, a little measured, a little studied, a little over-enunciated, declare: “All right, here we go: Europe Tour 1988, The Spoken Diary.” I’m listening to myself, nearly thirty years ago. And I hear myself say: “This is my first experience of this kind as well, so we just have to try it out.” My language has not yet acquired any idiom, and Germanisms linger, sometimes prevail.
“Nothing of what’s going to be said is going to be edited in any way, I promise myself that, so that when I’ll be listening to it in two or three or five years, ten years, I’ll feel genuinely embarrassed.” Not embarrassed, my friend, so much as astounded. I sound to me like any young man from the past. I recognise myself, but in the way that I would recognise a friend from that time, someone I knew, a little. Not someone I knew well, let alone someone I was. I don’t remember the process of recording this, but I do recall having made The Tape. The memory is curious, brittle, alien.
The ‘Europe Tour,’ it transpires, starts in Edinburgh, with a first diary entry on Monday 14th August (which I pronounce Oggust, and that does embarrass me now a little, though it also endears me to me) at 2:15 in the afternoon, a time by which I announce, with a hint of pride lacing my voice, that I haven’t slept in about twenty-four hours. I’ve had a “very pleasant conversation” with two Americans on the train, and upon arrival availed myself of the services of the Tourist Information Office, who have booked me into this “guest house.” Saying “guest house,” I sound bemused, almost baffled at my own predicament.
Having settled into my room, which, apparently, has high ceilings and is also “pleasant,” I’ve headed out and bought myself tickets to three shows at the Fringe Festival, the first one starting at 4:15pm.
“I’ve just eaten this strange, slobbery pizza, which was incredibly cheap though,” I note, and “people here have time, and they let you know they do, which can be charming as well.”
I describe with awe the light of the city in London, pulling out of King’s Cross Station at six thirty in the morning, and call Edinburgh “wonderful” and unlike anything I’d seen before; but I also remark that the drawback of this place is the weather: I’d already spotted someone wearing a fur coat at the height of summer, though I make no reference to ‘nae nickers’ – perhaps I’m not yet familiar with the expression.
“I seem to be sounding a bit blasé, hearing myself over the headphones, but I’ll have to get used to that, I presume.” And I’m not joking. Today, I sound to me like a young arrival’s idea of a latter day Noël Coward, and it hits me: I still own the silver cigarette case I used to use at that time, quite without irony.
Hearing this now, I sense there’s a fair chance that it might get me to know me better, and I resolve to listen to myself speak to me from the past…
Of course, I think for a moment, he didn’t actually say that, I just heard that, I just imagined him saying that, I just made that up, because I think it would be interesting. Or would it?
I realise I need to press pause. But he looks at me with this frankness, still, with this openness. If only I could remember meeting me then, then it might make more sense for him to be saying he imagines himself meeting someone like me now. Or was it a joke? I don’t remember being much given to jokes. I don’t think I was humourless, though I was, undoubtedly, earnest.
I need to press pause, metaphorically, on these ‘proceedings’ (they’re not really going anywhere fast) and allow myself to remember what mattered. And what didn’t. Before I say anything more. But can I leave him just hanging there, right in front of me? I can’t. Can I just ignore what he’s said as if he hadn’t said it and I had just imagined him saying it? I could, but that might be rude, and rudeness is unacceptable, therefore I can’t. Can I ask him if he really meant that, if he actually knows who I am? Well, I can, but say he doesn’t know who I am, say it was just a throwaway remark, say it was just me being a little bit clever, a tiny tad ‘interesting’ all off my own bat, at the age of twenty, twenty-one, then how do I explain to him what I mean, without disturbing his own reality? Is his reality not already disturbed? Mine certainly is. But then I also realise I’m suddenly rather enjoying this.
Up until almost this precise moment I had been greatly disconcerted—not in a profoundly distressed or let alone panicked manner, just really, really unsure of what on earth was going on—but now, maybe jolted by his answer, I feel I’ve just come up for air. I can float in this sea of uncertainty now. Accept it for what it is, even not knowing what it is. That, it strikes me as suddenly obvious, will have to somehow become my new state of being, for quite some time.
I give him a smile that says, ‘I do understand,’ although clearly I don’t, and enquire just a nudge further: ‘I mean in life, what do you see yourself doing?’
His skin is incredibly smooth. I don’t recall touching my skin when it was that smooth, that soft. I don’t feel like touching it now, though I do wish I could hold him, just to make him feel safe. Then again, I rarely if ever did not feel safe at that age, and seeing that this is me not some stranger—although for all I know about or of him, he might as well be an alien—I just look at him, look at me. ‘You’re a writer,’ I say, not questioning, stating.
‘I am,’ he says, happy, it seems, that this is so evident; though: ‘how did you guess?’
Ah. That turns everything around once more. He doesn’t know who I am. How could he, in his life I don’t yet exist, other than perhaps in his imagination, but then I remember that at his age I was certain—not vaguely inclined to believe, but convinced—that I would never make it to forty, and here I am, pushing fifty.
I had said so, to my best friend, Peggy: she was appalled. ‘How can you say a thing like that!’ she’d exclaimed upon my assertion, aged nineteen or twenty, that I would not make it to forty. But I saw no reason to be scandalised: for me, when I was aged nineteen or twenty, the idea alone of ever being as ancient as forty was simply absurd. Surely everything—but everything!—worthwhile experiencing, doing, saying or, for that matter, writing, would have been experienced, done, said and most certainly written by then.
I have already outlived my target then by some ten years, and I know now of course that he can’t know who I am because not only doesn’t he know yet that I exist, he doesn’t even believe that I will ever exist. Not because he’s being obstreperous or deliberately controversial or simply obtuse, but because he genuinely can’t imagine it.
This is my chance, this is my opportunity for a pause: if I can make him think then I’ll get the time to think too. There must be, there must be a link between him and me.
‘I saw your notepad and pen,’ I say, playing the ‘I’m an observer kind of a person’ card.
He now for the second time does something that moves me: he shows me the pad. I take that, before I can think it through, as a signal of trust. And I read. As I read, I remember well having written those words. I have my pause button. I have a clasp on my heart. I have left the dimensions I was travelling through to get here. I can, at last, reconcile.
Or at least I can try…
i should point out
that i’m not real
that courses through my body
by ordinary means
i want to know how things happen.
i want to know how it happens that you see somebody
not even meet them
from a distance
enter a room, for example
think, you go, though
just to yourself:)
(even though you know
it will turn out
that it isn’t)
how does this happen
you don’t even know him:
undress him in my mind, imagine him
i don’t do this immediately
it’s not something i
like a conclusion
it’s something i resist for a moment
then for another
and for another
until enough moments have passed
an hour or so later, maybe two (sometimes
a whole day or more may pass before i feel it is
before i feel ready) to imagine him
his body in my mind, his
extended fingers spread, gently run
over the mound of his biceps:
other hand now cups around his waist, just above his
and draws him a little closer, close enough that i can
when i lower my head
just a little
the scent of his
musk with a warm sweet sweat of
zonk out of it
just in time: i don’t want him
not yet, we have not even yet said