Extract from THE DROPOUT

 

This was me at the age of 19 (the same age as Paul in the novel) shortly after I dropped out of university at the end of my first term.

 

Chapter 1.  Campus life – and death

Meredith dumped me at about 9.15 p.m. on a brutally cold Thursday towards the end of February. She said a lot of things, but what it boiled down to was she was fed up with me trying to get into her panties. It was true. I’d tried for four months. And on Thursday, for a couple of seconds, I got there.

Neil fell from Founder’s Tower in a hard sleety rain at noon on Friday. I was twenty metres from where he landed. It’s possible he was fed up with me not letting him into my pants. On Wednesday he’d surprised me with a kiss. Another guy might have knocked him down for that. I’m not sure why I didn’t.

 *  * *

By Monday morning I knew that whatever it was I was looking for (a shag mostly, though not a gay one) it wasn’t Higher Education. I skipped a tutorial and became the faculty’s tenth dropout of the year. As a sabbatical student Meredith wouldn’t count; neither did Neil, who’d dropped out in a more literal way than either of us. Abandoning textbooks and the posters of Silence of the Lambs and the Hale-Bopp comet which supposedly infused my spartan room in Hall with the aura of a cosmic and dangerous intelligence, I packed only my clothes, my laptop and CDs. There was no one left that I needed to say goodbye to. A taxi took me to the mainline station where I caught a late-afternoon train to London.

At no time in my life would I again possess so much pure knowledge nor, it seemed, know so little. My erudition, such as it was, was in the fields of English Literature and military history from Kaiser Bill to Osama bin Laden. Recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere suggest that my parents’ and grandparents’ generations scorn the lessons of Gallipoli and Monte Cassino. It was also clear that reading Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence had endowed mewith neither sense nor sensitivity.

But then Philosophy, Politics and Economics hadn’t been much help to Neil in his long dark night, and Meredith’s Gender Studies had failed to give her a handle on me.

 * * *

My escape from the Midlands was masterminded by Virgin. Very droll. The view, leaving the city, was of made-over terraced houses with garden decks and conservatories and Veluxed lofts; then the tortured metal roofs of streamlined warehouses; finally farmland, flat and fertile, cold and wet. Rattling over points, the wheels seemed to grind an echo of Meredith’s valediction: ‘you’re an asshole . . . you’re a jerk-off.’

My mind projected onto the rain-streaked window a screen-in-screen replay of her in my room, shuddering and crying as she pulled her sweater back on.

Another replay: Neil lying on the puddled asphalt, buckled and broken, blood and other gunk seeping from a fearful crack in his head.

My reflection was ghosted against the passing landscape. I’d honestly thought Meredith was just playing hard to get. She wasn’t religious, so I didn’t take the Silver Ring stuff too seriously. In 2003 virginity was, like the dollar and the pound sterling, a debased currency. How long would it take her to get over me, forget me?

Asshole . . .  jerk-off, sang the wheels beneath me.

‘She’s going to Paris for a few days and then home to Florida,’ Neil had told me on Friday morning. Meredith had called him earlier, from the airport. She’d taken some Prozac but was still spitting tacks in my direction. ‘You’re lucky she didn’t press charges.’

‘I only tried to get my hand down her jeans. We’ve been dating since October, for Christ’s sake.’

‘It looks like attempted rape, Paul. Date rape. You could end up in jail.’

‘I only wanted to touch her pussy,’ I said, still on the defensive. ‘I wasn’t planning to fuck her. It’s not like I spiked her drink or jumped her in some bushes.’

His quiet sigh across the airwaves did not hint at absolution or acquittal. ‘She was fucked-up before she came here,’ I said.

‘Well, you may not have fucked her but you’ve fucked her sabbatical.’

My turn to sigh. Contrition in one breath. After a moment I said, ‘Shall we meet for lunch?’

‘You haven’t lost your appetite, then?’

‘Give me a break.’

‘I need to go to the Library. I’ll see you under the Tower at twelve.’

But he wouldn’t have. The Tower’s rooftop balcony overlooks the quadrangle, not the footpath from the resi-dential buildings. Why did he go up? Was it a spur-of-the-moment thing, or had he been planning it for weeks? Was it something I said? Or didn’t say? Perhaps I had nothing to do with it.

The police sergeant who came to interview me on Saturday said they had found no note in Neil’s room, so an accidental fall could not be ruled out. Two other students had seen him jump from the quadrangle side, so I was unlikely to be called to the inquest.

‘You were his friend?’

‘He was friends with me and my girlfriend,’ I said.

‘That’s the young woman from –’ he consulted his notepad – ‘Florida?’

‘Yes.’

‘Doing a – “sabbatical”, it’s called?’

‘That’s right.’

‘She’s gone back to America?’

‘Yes.’

‘She finished her course?’

‘She wasn’t happy here,’ I said.

‘Did she break up with you?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you and she were friends with –’

‘We met Neil through the drama group. We drank together, went clubbing and – you know – the usual student stuff.’

‘You knew he was – gay?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did he have a – boyfriend?’

‘If he did, we never met him.’

‘We’ve spoken to the students he shared his house with. One of them thought he might be having problems with his studies.’

‘No,’ I said emphatically. ‘He loved his courses. He had an assignment – a project – for this year, which he was really into.’

‘Someone suggested he might be doing drugs.’

I hesitated and then said, ‘Nothing heavy. No more than – most of us.’

‘And you can’t think of any reason why…?’

‘No,’ I said. It was the truth.

Surely he didn’t do it just because he couldn’t have me? Was he afraid that somebody was going to fuck his education, his life? Was it so hard to be gay? Same-sex marriages were legal now on the Continent. In London, Manchesterand Brighton there were gay churches, gay lawyers, even gay greengrocers. Could I have saved him? Could anyone? I would never know.

A moan had passed through the small crowd of bystanders as the final spasm of a dying nerve twitched Neil’s crumpled right arm. The uncrushed third of his face retained the fatalistic look of a cornered animal that had so often characterized it. ‘He’s kind-of like a fawn,’ Meredith had said of him last term. ‘Fucking sex-maniac!’ she’d called me on Thursday, her mouth twisted with anger or contempt. ‘Meredith’s very much an earth-goddess,’ Neil had said last year.

Self-justification crept into the frame. I was nineteen, not ignorant but lacking in experience. Meredith was twenty. Alison, my one semi-serious girlfriend at high school, a home-grown blonde duller in every sense than Meredith, was likewise saving herself for Prince Charming and his-and-hers High Street wedding rings. 21st-century Britain and the US  were well-populated with girls who were hot-to-trot; so how did I manage to find two consecutive prick-teasers who clung to their virginity like it was still something precious in an age that valued nothing?

Between high school and uni there had been a little real action. Tracey from the deli counter at Sainsbury’s, with scarified red hair, who wanked me and let me finger her slit. Two nameless German bimbos in a hotel in Torremolinos who took turns at blowing me. And one other sun-sand-and-sex turista, probably also German, not only nameless but faceless, whom I think I fucked although I cannot be sure: we were both totally smashed from Bacardi-Cokes. My deflowering. My ‘awakening’. Last summer. Aged eighteen.

That’s it. My entire Don Juan history.

Where Neil and his world were concerned, I had even less to draw on. A half-dozen thirteen-year-olds in the changing room comparing stiffies (mixed feelings at finding myself in silver medal position!). A year later: seeing a classmate force-feeding one of the more shameless junior benders in the showers after a soccer game that we’d won. Some gay porno videos that two friends and I watched one evening, feeling more furtive than when it was straight sex and making louder-than-usual comments: ‘Yuck’, ‘Gross’ and ‘Owww’.

And that’s the sum total of my homosexual experience before accidentally befriending one in my first term at uni. Whom I genuinely liked. Now that he was dead, I thought that I might have loved him to some degree – the first time I had felt this towards a male friend. Or perhaps I was only responding to the intensity of his feelings and now to his death.

 * * *

In my head I replayed the history of these two ill-omened friendships in a series of brief flashes like the catch-up opening to a TV drama series: “Previously on Campus Life . . .”

* * *

The pneumatic sabbatical blonde from Daytona downs her Guinness like one of the boys. ‘I like to think I’ll make some high-flying tycoon or politico an interesting and ornamental wife.’

The slim dark-haired second-year student from Bristol sips his sherry with elaborate delicacy. ‘I see myself on a TV talk show knocking them dead with my brilliant one-liners.’

Meredith crosses her legs neatly on the high stool. She says, ‘It isn’t only Mormons and Muslim women who practise the new chastity.’

Neil lies back full-length on my unmade bed. He says, ‘Cerebral affinity wouldn’t be enough. Socrates wasn’t a puritan.’

Her laugh is hollow. ‘Men are such animals. Why can’t you love my mind and respect my innocent body?’

He gives a wry smile. ‘I’m not cruising you. I’m in love with you.’

Meredith tugs my hand out from inside her sweater. She says, ‘You don’t love me. You’re just trying to get your rocks off.’

Neil touches my face with the tips of his fingers. He says, ‘It doesn’t have to be sexual. Couldn’t we just lie down and hold each other?’

She reaches into my pants and gingerly takes hold of the good friend I like to call Major Wood. (Meredith has only limited acquaintance with his alter ego Corporal Slack.) Her hand trembles and a shiver runs the entire length of her body.

He leans over my chair and kisses me softly, briefly, on the mouth. Amazingly, I let him, before pushing him away with some muddled words of repudiation. His eyes bore into mine. Then he silently picks up his coat and lets himself out of the room

On the very edge of creaming my jockeys I force one hand under her belted jeans and get two fingers – just – on the hem of her panties. I feel skin, trembling to my touch; I feel a curl of hair. With a surge like a tsunami Meredith throws me off her and catapults herself from the bed.

The phallic Victorian-Gothic symbolism of the clock tower brings a smile to my lips. Then, against the arc of sky that’s visible through its base, a body flails to a gruesome impact on the opposite side and somehow I know – instantly – that Neil, with his flair for ironical overstatement, is keeping our assignation in the courtyard.

Meredith drowns my stammered apology with a litany of curses as uninflected as a shopping list.

My stomach heaves as I run through the arch towards the sprawled shape on the other side of the tower.

 * * *

The train slumped through dejected suburbs into Euston. I took the Underground to Victoria to find I had just missed a train to the South Coast town that Neil had renamed Boredom-on-Sea. The next train was in thirty minutes. I sat in a noisy bar whose flotsamed floor suggested a parcel bomb. Two pints of lager later I still wasn’t ready to face my father. The death of a close friend (I wouldn’t mention my new life as a cherry-chaser) would not excuse ditching my university career halfway through the second term of my first year. The script for this confrontation, which I now decided to postpone till tomorrow, was predictable:

‘The money I’ve spent on you . . .’ Which had entailed no sacrifice.

‘. . . squandering your education . . ’ True, but only when compared to such alternatives as inputting an office PC or stacking shelves.

‘. . . the opportunities you’ve wasted . . .’ Yeah, like teaching History and English to the next generation of slags and headbangers.

‘. . . breaking your mother’s heart . . .’ God – and Margaret Thatcher – had broken my mother’s heart in 1982. To my father’s horror, my mother voted Labour in the 1983 General Election (a wasted vote in Boredom-on-Sea); it was as close as she could come to voting against God. My birth, six months after the election, helped patch up her relations with God – and, eventually, the Tory Party – but I provided at best a flimsy Band-Aid for her broken heart.

 * * *

London too was cold and wet. Behind the station were streets of Third-World hotels that might have been brothels. Some of them plainly were. The one I chose was run by an East European whose English sounded like Klingon. It was cheap and looked cheerful until I smelled the stairs and inspected the sheets.

It was 7.45, the time I might be taking Meredith into the city centre for a meal or a movie or, if she was studying, meet Neil for a drink in the Union Bar (‘the Puke and Firkin,’ he called it). University – and all it had promised – was more than 100 miles away and belonged to another me, the me I might have been.

Without undressing I lay down on a bedcover grey with the disappointments of a thousand other travellers. Ghosts and demons and the sibyls of all my unpromising tomorrows watched over me as I slipped into undeserved oblivion.

* * * * * * * * * 

The Dropout is currently (2021) unavailable in print or e-book, unless you can find it on e-bay. A new edition is planned.

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