Wednesday, August 11, 2004


The smell of smoke in my school uniform, love-bites, alcohol on my breath, bags of marijuana, drug-dotted eyes, phone calls to this or that girl - and her noises later in the conservatory, badly-written books praising like a god the psychedelic-self, alcohol in my stride: surely, days of having something naughty to hide from my Mum were long gone?

On Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the train station back home waking from a doze, vague about what happened the night before. Why was my tongue hurting even more than my stomach or head? Why had I stunk, really stunk, of booze this morning? What exactly had happened last night? There in the toilets, I inspected my mouth. And there it was, about half-a-millimetre long, something between a scab and a cut. Queenie! She had bitten my tongue! That was right! And chucked a drink on me! For no reason! Surely, days of giggling about drunken escapades were long gone, too?

Back home, Mum started filling me in on all the neighbourly news. Teenage pregnancies and divorces mostly, one kid going off the rails with drugs, two deaths from old-age, some child and the grades he needs for University. "What are you smiling about?" she asked, out of the blue. A shrug of the shoulder, a noise meaning "dunno" - all with my mouth shut. "You're strangely quiet Adam." Just a bit tired, I explained, through thinly opened lips, stifling a smile at how ludicrous I must seem to be.

Eventually, it's time for the usual, inescapable video: the hospital drama she watches religiously once a week, and has nearly all of taped, too. I tried suggesting a game of something instead, but that's never interested Mum. "You'll love it if you just give it a proper go, Adam," came the usual plead. "This episode is a classic."

"What's that?" she says, about the book with me.

"Walt Whitman? A poetic celebration of America's unique vitality?" she said, echoing the back cover. "Shows what he knew!"

Then she remembers that she saw that Johnny earlier, who I went to school with. I could do with someone to whitter on to about Queenie. How she used to work with me, there was always this tension, but I didn't bother - other people were around then and she knew it. Until last night, that was. In fact, I thought, I may as well chuck in Katy, Cath, Molly, Kat; can't have seen Johnny for over a year.

Johnny, as it turns out, was as keen as me to escape to the pub. On the walk up the hill to The Churchill, he lights a spliff. "Want a toke?" he offered after a few pulls.

"I thought those days of this stuff were long gone," I said while deciding. "But heh, why not?" Something else to hide.

"Damn," I spluttered, passing it back, "is that stuff strong or am I light-weight?"

"Both," says Johnny.

The pub is a strange place. Photos of Churchill and World War Two victory parades everywhere, bearing down on us. Quiet for a Saturday night. Too hot for most people to bother. Big leather seats. A fruit machine, silent, flashing, unplayed. A few men drifting about with tattoos and football shirts. We sit near a couple of girls who are finishing their huge meal, and catch up with gossip about school mates.

I remember one piece particularly because of the effect it had on Johnny after he'd finished telling it. I'd asked Johnny what he was doing now, how the lovelife was, and so on. "Still top secret stuff in military intelligence." Exciting? "You don't want exciting. Take old Bradley. You remember Bradley?" I lie and say I do, to keep the story shorter. For some reason, I was considering asking the prettier of the girls if her meal was nice.

"Police officer, old Bradley. On the beat. Complained for the first two weeks that the job wasn't exciting. One day, he's walking along. In front of him, a doddery old geezer with a walking stick stepped out in the road. Same time, car charging along same road, doing fifty in a thirty. Hits the old guy around the kneecap. Didn't break it, didn't bend it, didn't twist it. Sheared his lower leg right off. Sliced it. That's what that kind of speed can do. Bradley runs up, tries to save him. Within minutes - minutes - the old boy has bled pints. No chance. Gone. Dead. Bradley's loved the quiet life since, when he can get it. No more complaints about excitement, oh no."

The girl to my left with her unfinished chips, who was becoming astoundingly attractive, flinched, shifted away a touch. Winston stared on. Two guys arm-wrestled. Should have stuck with the hospital drama. The beer seemed to taste funny. And amidst all this vaguely spinning stuff, Johnny started opening up about his personal life. The affair he's been having with Jackie, his bosses wife. His boss who just got back from the middle east. How she ought, really ought, to leave that bastard James for Johnny. As the hint of a tear glinted out from the corner of Johnny's eye, it struck me as hilarious that all their names begin with J. Damn spliff. Something else to hide from someone else.

The pretty girl to my left, seemingly the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, while toying with a chip, was talking with her plump friend. Telling her not to worry about men. Especially if she would lose some weight, she was sure men would flock to her. Telling her they were only seventeen anyway. That she didn't have to worry about getting married and having babies, not just yet. Really, she didn't. She was sure she wouldn't end up alone. Telling her that she didn't mind having this conversation again, but why don't they talk about diets instead? Or applying to university? She really should, didn't she think? Well, mighten she warm to the idea as the year goes on -

- and "What do you think of the plan?" asks Johnny.

"The plan?"

"Yeah. To get Jackie. I can see that little half-battered brain of yours whirring away. What do you think?"

"Hmm." Nothing I can say, of course.

"Maybe that girl next to you," stated Johnny. "What do you think?"

"Maybe," I muttered, trying to hide my total lack of listening. "What do you think?"

"I think when Jackie sees me in the club, with her there with James, and me there with some bird on my arm, that bird I mean," hushing his voice. "And when Jackie can't do anything about it, and when I'm with that fit bird and she looks really up for it - Jackie'll go home and know she has to leave James. She'll feel exactly what I feel. She'll see me exactly as I see her. With someone else who's wrong. And I think the girl next to you is perfect. What do you think?"

That it's madness. And what I said was, "You know how in those computer games we used to play, you'd get more and more powerful weapons to use as the game went on, but gradually?"


"You're going from pistol straight to bazooka." Johnny gives me a doubtful look. "Maybe try talking to her, and giving her time. She is married, you know."

"Yeah," said Johnny. "But I haven't had sex for two weeks." He looks sheepish.

I change the subject, kind of, and show Johnny my tongue.

"What happened to that?"

"I got bit last night, kissing this woman I used to work with. Very drunk. But I think she did it on purpose. I'm seeing her next week for her birthday anyway, I'll ask her then. I don't really remember."

"London," summarized Johnny. "Full of freaks. Never fancied it myself."

Later we get chatting to the two girls. Or rather Johnny does, mostly about being in the army. Looking at the perfect one, I conjure up the vague idea that I want to tell the plump one - the one worried about ever finding a man to make a family with, the one not sure whether she should go to university or not - that she is but a child on a hillside, staring over the valley of her future, staring over from her childhood home at the hillside on the otherside, staring over trying to see her future family home, dreaming that a man will come to fly her over the valley and straight to the hillside on the otherside - and that she should instead be readying herself for the valley, readying herself for lectures and parties and clubs and travels and jobs, readying herself by not staring over at otherside of the valley, and not by raiding the cupboards of her current, childhood home, but by preparing for the path through it, the path through the valley with all its sexual freedom and new friends and different places and whatever she wants - from which she will find what to take with her and make a new home with on the otherside, there on that future hillside home, and what she will leave be in the valley. And of course, in the valley she'll find men, lots more men, interesting men, different men. My head spins more. Have I been staring at the pretty girl too much? She sharply announced her boyfriend was driving up to meet them, soon. Night fell. A stumble home. Another spliff. A fall. A graze. Something else to hide.

Strange to be stoned again, ending up back in the bedroom of my boyhood. Ancient music magazines, faded photos, a few certificates, old tapes, the odd scrapbook, and a couple of games, dotted about. Life in London sits in a valley miles away, with its chaotic swirls of people and lights, and as flecked with human pollution and confusion as anywhere is. I look at my green, adult face in the mirror. The face that has been skiving work to play on the internet as if it mattered no more than a dull day at school. The face that has been playing around with women as if they made up a hand in a children's game of cards, and the prize no more meaningful than a payment of matches. And surely I am not just another card in the pack, being shuffled around randomly, getting dealt into arbitrary hands? With currencies and fires flickering around me without a care in the world? Surely this is just the drugs talking their tedious nonsense? Through the wall came snores, seemingly in agreement.