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?’
‘Doing a – “sabbatical”, it’s called?’
‘She’s gone back to America?’
‘She finished her course?’
‘She wasn’t happy here,’ I said.
‘Did she break up with you?’
‘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?’
‘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.
Chapter 2. The single-parent diet
By four a.m. I was awake and communing with the dead and the sexually disabled. Today I dredged up memories of the zanier times we had shared before my libido and Neil’s obsession went critical.
Pre-panty-raid dates with Meredith: dinners, movies and concerts (Coldplay, The Darkness). Clubbing nights. Meredith’s inhibitions and her refusal to do E’s made her a rogue elephant among all the sweating ravers whose feet barely touched the dance floor. Trips on trains, coaches, buses. She had ‘done’ London,Bath and Edinburgh, now she must do Shakespeare Country and Robin Hood. We re-enacted A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the midwinter banks of the Avonand played Maid Marion games (non-PG rated) in Nottinghamshire.
She was into drama, so we joined the other aspiring Jude Laws and Samantha Mortons. Against type Meredith got herself cast as Lady Macbeth and Violet Venables, but Shaftesbury Avenue and Pinewood did not beckon. Neil’s near-elfin size limited him to bit parts; there were no plans to put on Peter Pan. Despite my alleged and only slight resemblance to Ewan McGregor I had no theatrical skills or aspirations. Painting and shifting scenery proved to be my forte, although I bravely bore a broom-handle halberd at Dunsinane. I was only there for Meredith; Neil was an un-sought bonus.
He taught us bridge. Meredith couldn’t grasp the finer points of bidding and we never found a permanent fourth. Between rubbers we fine-tuned our scenario for a Braver Greener new world in which George Dubya and Tony Blair joined Bush Sr and John Major in the wilderness. Booze fuelled our debates: wines fromChile and Romania and, when someone’s bank balance had received its monthly parental boost, supermarket rum or vodka. And, most days, Neil and I (not Meredith) smoked a little dope, bought on- or off-campus.
The drama group provided a circle of B-list friends and many highs, not all of them lime-lit or drug-crazed. Pub-crawls where we talked and shouted and finally sang until the regulars either joined in or kicked us out. A weekend just before we split up for Christmas we piled into a bor-rowed 4×4 with three fellow thespians and dashed to the Welsh coast; here we argued ourselves from agnosticism into atheism and anarchy; Meredith and I slept in each other’s arms (only this once) on a sofa in the living-room of someone’s aunt with Neil rolled up – ‘like Cleopatra,’ he said – in a rug on the floor beside us.
The first time I kissed Meredith she turned her head so that it landed on her cheek. Laughing she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Au revoir,’ she said and hurried into her dorm. After two more maiden-aunt kisses I seized her head and forced my mouth onto hers. A moment of unyielding stiffness and then her lips parted under mine, but she always erected her tongue as a barricade just behind her cosmetically perfected teeth. Very slowly I gained access to her killer breasts: through clothing, inside clothing, then bra-less and (this term) topless. Her nipples responded to my kissing and caressing but her panty-line was a Berlin Wall with no Checkpoint Charlie. As was mine, all last term. This term (she called it a ‘semester’) Major Wood crossed the Handjob frontier. Precisely twice; on Valentine’s Day (cards exchanged plus chocolates and flowers from Major Wood) and again (with much cajoling) a week later. Meredith kissed with her eyes open, but for this she closed them. Reciprocity was not required, and I had to clearly understand that crotches were not on the verge of Reunification.
Her grandmother had grown up in the Fifties when, Meredith said, there had been similar stand-offs between boys and girls on dates. Her parents had come of age during the Seventies when How Far to Go was a challenge rather than a stricture, but Meredith was a throwback. My parents’ values were even more Victorian than Mrs Thatcher’s; I couldn’t see my mother in a clinging top, still less visualize my father trying to get into it. I doubt my father ever carried, as I did (more in hope than expect-ation), condoms in his wallet.
And so to last Thursday. I truly don’t think my mind was set on anything more threatening than some fingerwork – or perhaps a dry hump. Last resort: handjob number three.
I had got her topless on my duvet. Going to the loo along the corridor gave her an excuse to put her sweater back on. Her absence gave me the chance to remove my sweatshirt and jeans. ‘Uh-oh,’ she said on her return, re-removing nothing. The two previous handjobs had begun equally unpromisingly.
I patted the bedcover. ‘Come over here.’ Beguilingly roguish.
‘Not while you’re in that condition,’ said Meredith, unbeguiled. The waistband of my Calvins, well clear of my lower abs, shamelessly billboarded my ‘condition’.
‘You could do something about that if you came over here.’
‘Paul, if you love me, don’t do this.’
‘If you loved me, you’d be over here by now.’ My heart – and my balls – ached. My balls, in the Midlands, ached for days at a time.
‘I’m leaving, Paul.’ She took her sweater off and started to put her bra back on. I stood up and went towards her, my hands reaching for her centrefold breasts. She pushed me away, not roughly but gently – as I, after his kiss, had pushed Neil away the night before. The memory of this was almost as vivid as his grisly suicide.
‘Lie on the bed,’ he’d said. ‘I won’t try anything.’
‘I can’t, Neil. I’m just not – comfortable with – you know – gay stuff.’
‘You let me kiss you.’
‘It won’t happen again,’ I said.
If anyone in my hometown had attempted what Neil had done I would have beaten him to a pulp, so perhaps the grey grimy Midlands had opened up my soft underbelly. But 24 hours later, in reaction or perhaps retaliation, when Meredith pushed me away I threw her onto the bed, jumped on top of her and – who knows? – if she hadn’t found the pro-wrestler strength to throw me off, maybe I would have tried to give her the fucking she (make that I) needed.
So much for exploring my feminine side.
* * *
My very own Groundhog Day. It kept coming back to this. It always would. Neil’s kiss. Jumping Meredith. Neil quietly leaving. Meredith storming out. The Founder’s Tower. Meredith (imagined) in a taxi to the airport.
Tears of guilt and self-pity in a crummy hotel bedroom in Victoria. The first day of the rest of my life.
* * *
In 40-watt light the shower looked clean. I changed my socks and underpants but wore the same sweatshirt and jeans. Faux Doc Martens. A fleece-lined coat that (like me, I suspect) was almost but not quite an anorak.
I might as well take advantage of being in London (and postpone the showdown with my father), but what to do with my suitcase? Al-Qa’eda had closed all mainline left luggage facilities. For £10 the night-clerk, another Moldovan or Klingon, offered to store it in a locked office stuffed with cases and backpacks. I tipped him two pounds and hoped this would deter him from levering the combination with a screwdriver.
Resisting the temptation of Death-by-Full-English-Breakfast in a Greasy Spoon, I settled for lower-calorie Starbuck’s Danish and latte in Victoria Street. One of the Great Unwashed had thrust a free London tabloid at me as I passed the Underground. To Londoners the looming Gulf War Part Two was of less importance than council tax rises and the leadership of the Tory Party.
A five-minute walk took me into Hyde Park beside the Queen Mother’s Gates – Art Nouveau meets Beatrix Potter. A fountain with a nude gladiator – Hercules or Achilles – with what Neil might consider ‘an arse to die for’. Commuting pedestrians: the haggard night shift going home, apathetic day-workers. Grimacing joggers going for the burn. Horse-riders: just how rich did you have to be to keep a horse in Knightsbridge?
I trudged along the Bayswater Road. Meredith and I had checked out the open-air art gallery here one week-end in November. Amid the tourist tat a few works had as much impact as the best of what we’d seen in Tate Modern. After an authentically ethnic dinner in Chinatown we ran the gauntlet of tired hookers between Kings Cross Underground and our hotel. Separate rooms, of course. No nookie for Paul, unless he went back onto the street (he didn’t).
Into Queensway. The Arab Quarter. Black-shrouded women (some wearing Bat-masks) and men in robes. Even the men in jeans and black leather were swarthy, Levantine; I half expected to be pimped or mugged.
Another coffee bar, also Middle Eastern. Vile thick coffee exonerated by a sweet pastry. A bill the price of a cinema ticket.
Back to the park. Busier now, with schoolchildren and many more commuters. I found a Gents that was open. A city type in the urinal gave me the once-over, so I went into a cubicle to pee. Footsteps, then the door was gently tried. This had happened before – even Boredom-on-Sea had cottage queens; I held my cool and my breath. A sampler of the life Neil could have had, had indeed known: the kindness of strangers. Evidently it wasn’t enough.
I walked a circuit of the Serpentine. Gulls and pigeons uttered desolate cries as they swooped over the grey water under a grey sky. Scotch mist, diesel-flavoured. Ten days ago a million people had marched from Parliament Square toHyde Park, protesting against the wannabe war-mongers Bush and Blair. TodayLondon felt post-nuclear. And yet the purposeful parents and commuters indicated that the world was continuing its business, and a part of me knew thatmy world too would go on. Even Meredith would get on with her life, finish her studies, meet and marry that promising politician. (Maybe she would tell him about the asshole Brit who’d tried to pip him to her cherry.)
Only Neil wouldn’t get on with the rest of his life.
I stopped to watch a mother and child feeding the birds. Kamikaze gulls dived to beat the ducks to the chunks of bread the boy threw onto the water. Pigeons swarmed around his feet. He giggled at all this aggressive greed. His mother laughed with him. Swathed in a dowdy winter coat she looked no older than me. Auburn hair under a jazz headscarf framed a pale face. She smiled briefly when she saw me watching them.
As the boy showered the last crumbs onto the pigeons, a gust of wind snatched the paper bag from his hands and blew it in my direction. I plucked it out of the air, inflated it and detonated it between my palms. ‘Terrorist bomb inHyde Park,’ I announced the next day’s headline.
The boy shot me with finger-guns: ‘Pthaw-pthaw.’ Clutching a hand to my chest I staggered to the nearest bench and died with a terrible groan.
‘I killed the terror man, Mummy,’ he boasted and ran over to prod me and make sure I was dead. I resurrected as a lurching zombie. Shrieks of fearful delight. His mother rescued him and made him take the discarded bag to a litter bin. A low-pitched unaccented voice and the mouth of Julia Roberts.
‘Train them young,’ I said tritely.
‘Thanks for the entertainment. There’s always an anti-climax when the bread runs out.’
‘University dramatics. I’m usually just a stagehand.’
‘I see a big future in pantomime,’ she said, and we both laughed. The boy came back from the litter bin and ordered me to ‘Make more bangs.’
‘No more bags,’ I said. ‘No bags, no bangs.’ This was a mega-hilarious joke at which he laughed loudly.
‘Do some running, Simon,’ his mother said. ‘We don’t want to get fat like Oliver and Kyle the Vile, do we? Over-weight boys at his playschool,’ she explained as she sat down beside me. Simon duly ran, clapping his hands to scare the birds he had just fed.
‘The junkfood generation. Like ours.’
‘How come you’re so lean?’ A compliment – or a euphemism for scrawny? I yearned for the physique of Enrique Iglesias, as in his own way had Neil.
‘I run and do workouts,’ I told her. ‘What’s your secret?’ Embarrassing if there was a fat girl hidden inside the heavy coat.
‘I’m on the single-parent diet. By the time I’ve fed him and paid the bills and playschool, I can’t always afford to eat.’ A shocking disclosure. In the Oxfam coat she looked poor, but not destitute.
‘And I thought student life was harsh.’
‘We get by. He doesn’t get many treats, but I try not to show him up in front of the other kids.’
‘Kyle the Vile.’
She smiled. ‘Most of the time he’s Simon’s best friend at playschool.’
‘Where are you when he’s in school? Uni?’
She shook her head. ‘I was in art school, but I had to drop out to have Simon. I’ll try and go back when he starts primary school next year. For now I’m a teaching assistant at a primary in Kilburn two days a week. And I do some freelance artwork for a couple of advertising agencies. Not many fulltime jobs around.’
‘Tell me about it. You’re not the only dropout. This time tomorrow I’ll be signing on.’ Exaggerating my situation out of solidarity for hers, but it was the first implied admission that Life Would Go On. Clearly she didn’t have affluent parents to fall back on.
‘Why did you leave? I’m guessing you weren’t pregnant.’
‘Perhaps I’d better get a test kit from Boots.’
We shared a laugh as the boy, Simon, ran back to us.
‘I’m cold, Mummy.’
‘Let me buy you a coffee,’ I said. She protested but the boy was already sold. We walked back to Bayswater and found a McDonald’s: McMuffin and Diet Coke for him and what Meredith called Muck-coffee for us grown-ups. Simon was happy to watch cars and passers-by while I talked with his mother.
Her name was Rachel. Inside the shrugged-off coat she wore a jazz-themed sweater that matched her scarf. Designer items also from, I guessed, a charity shop. She wasn’t fat. Her breasts weren’t as sensational as Meredith’s (not many were) but her hair, freed from the headscarf, was stunning. It fell in gleaming copper waves to her shoulders. Her features were almost butch: narrow nose, close-set brown eyes, a broad chin beneath the wide mouth. She wore no make-up, but the sheen of the hair cast a glow on her pale skin and turned her into a Da Vinci Magdalene. A crowning glory, would be my mother’s verdict on the hair. A cliché a minute, my mother.
I told her about university without mentioning Meredith and Neil, allowing her to infer that I had quit out of indifference to my subjects. Indifference, my natural state, wasn’t hard to feign. She, in contrast, enthused about art school, her courses, campus life. I hyped up the drama society and bridge and slipped in a reference to an American girl and a gay from Bristol.
I must have made it clear I was in no hurry to head for home. She invited me to lunch with them. Outside McDonald’s Simon took my hand as well as his mother’s; we swung him the first block.
She said there was food at home but I went into an off-licence and bought two decent bottles of wine and some sweets for Simon. Rachel made a show of annoyance at my extravagance. ‘I’m one of your better-off students,’ I told her. ‘Monthly cheques from my dad.’
‘How will he take your dropping out of uni?’
‘There’ll be blood on the lounge carpet,’ I predicted. ‘But my mum will have the stains out within the hour.’
Two blocks from Queensway, her building was a terraced Victorian mansion, handsome outside, the entrance hall shabby thanks to a parked bicycle and the marks it had made on the walls. Rachel was on the third floor: two small rooms plus kitchen and bath. Bright plain walls, large abstract prints in bright plain frames, second-hand furniture enlivened with throws and bright plain cushions. An art student’s flat, and yet suburban couples paid good money to have their predecessors’ chintzy decor replaced with this TV-makeover look.
I opened the first bottle of wine and sat at a pint-sized kitchen table while Rachel washed potatoes and boiled water in a saucepan.
‘I get the feeling you’re not close to your parents,’ she said.
‘Are you close to yours?’
‘They were supportive when I decided to have Simon rather than – you know. But I’ve got two younger brothers still in school and my dad can’t do much since he did his back in with too much lifting. He helps out in a pub. My mum’s on a Tesco checkout. But we are close. They love Simon.’
‘We don’t do “close” in my family,’ I told her. ‘Not since my brother died. In the Falklands.’
She rinsed an iceberg lettuce. ‘Before you were born.’
I nodded. ‘I’m the replacement. A big disappointment.’
‘And now you’re a dropout.’ The saucepan lid rattled; she reduced the heat.
‘Yeah. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.” My mum embroidered a picture of my brother with that text underneath it for the dining-room wall. She puts fresh flowers on the mantelpiece twice a week. Trevor was a soldier, but he sailed in Mrs Thatcher’s Task Force. He’s buried in Port Stanley, but his spare uniform came back to them and that’s hanging in my wardrobe. It reminds me of everything he was that I’m not.’ Hearing the self-pity in my voice, I stopped.
‘You won’t be able to stay with them,’ she said, slicing tomatoes plainly. My mother, schooled by the W.I., cut them into shark’s teeth.
‘No. But with a bit of luck I’ll find some sort of job, get my own place. If you can do it, so can I.’
‘Your rent won’t be like London’s,’ she said. ‘But neither will your wages.’
‘How do you manage? Apart from not eating?’
She put the salad bowl, white china, on the table. ‘This flat’s owned by a housing association. Controlled rent. Richard – Simon’s dad – moved in when his mother was dying of ovarian cancer. I lived with him for a year before he got me pregnant, and the association let me stay on when he took off.’
‘He dumped you?’
‘Said he wasn’t ready to be a parent.’ She opened a pack of ham that bore a reduced-price sticker.
‘But you had to be.’
‘Well – there was the other option. But I didn’t go down that road. And now I’ve got this little treasure.’ She gave the boy a look of 24-carat love. He was playing with Corgi cars on the living-room carpet. I’d never loved anyone with the intensity of that look. I envied her. I envied Simon.
‘Does he see his father?’
She shook her head. ‘Richard’s never seen him. He went to the States. Last time I heard from him he was working as a janitor in Los Angeles. Hoping to get a Green Card or be discovered by Hollywood. Whichever happens first. Richard was a drama student.’ She smiled her own movie-star smile. ‘See, you’re not my first brush with next year’s superstars.’
‘That’s not what I want to be,’ I said emphatically.
‘But you could. You know who you look like?’
‘Yes.’ I steered away from my famous look-alike with a confession: ‘I only joined the drama group because of this American girl.’
‘Was she your girlfriend?’
‘Have you dropped out of college because of a broken heart?’
‘It was hers that got broken, not mine.’ I revised my earlier version of dropping out and told her the full saga of Meredith and Neil. She sat on the other side of the small table and heard me out without interrupting. The boy played with his cars. Waiting for the potatoes to cook, we finished the first bottle of New Zealand Chardonnay. Thursday night, in the retelling, sounded like the story of your everyday randy nineteen-year-old coming on a bit too strong. Rachel was not fooled.
‘I’ve let a predator into my home,’ she said. Unable to read her expression, I half stood up.
‘I’ll leave now if you want me to.’
‘You may as well stay. I’ve done taters for three.’
‘Saved by a boiled potato,’ I quipped. Rachel smiled.
‘A girl at art school was into that Silver Ring stuff,’ she said. ‘But Bush and Blair could blow the world up while she’s waiting for her white wedding. She wore five or six of those rings.’
‘Meredith just wears one on her thumb,’ I said.
‘I couldn’t wait to lose my virginity,’ Rachel told me. ‘I was thirteen. He was a year older. Captain of the junior football team. He shagged half the girls in his year and mine. Doug Slade. I wonder where he is now. I’ve had better shags since. Including Richard.’
‘But you’ve never been – made to go further than you wanted to?’
She took the second bottle out of the fridge and handed it over. ‘There were a couple of times in college when I woke up with someone I wished I hadn’t gone to bed with. Sex is a lot like dancing: it’s hard to stop once your feet get the rhythm.’ She misinterpreted my envious look. ‘I’m not a slag,’ she said. ‘Well, no more than most girls. Just having fun. You grow out of sleeping around. Having Simon’s made a big difference.’
‘I’m still waiting to grow into sleeping around,’ I said glumly. ‘I wish you’d been at my uni.’ She grinned.
‘Maybe I do too,’ she said and got up to empty the potatoes into a colander. I asked if she’d been on the anti-war march. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And Simon.’
The march had clashed with the last night of Suddenly, Last Summer; otherwise we would have joined 300 of our fellow students on the streets ofLondon. An uncle of Meredith’s had died in Vietnam; my parents lost Trevor in the Falklands; Neil was a peacenik on principle.
A Yankee at the court of King Tony, Meredith took some flak in the British Mi dlands. In Florida she’d campaigned for Al Gore. She believed the next Democrat in the White House would right all the wrongs of a Bush Administration, as Clinton had. My parents came of age in the Sixties expecting a thermonuclear holocaust. Today we live with different terrors: jet-planes morphed into flying bombs and silent gassing on the subway. I cling to a Darwinian faith in the survival of the species but Neil, like Rachel, anticipated the arrival of apocalyptic horsemen and, lo, for him it had come to pass.
There was no third chair. Simon ate his lunch sitting on the floor at a coffee table. Rachel let him watch cartoons on TV.
‘We’ve both fallen foul of gay men,’ she said as we began eating.
‘Did yours kill himself?’
‘No, he’s gone to live in Los Angeles.’
‘Simon’s father is gay?’
‘Technically he’s bi. Richard says he’s a straight man who likes a bit of gay action now and then, but I think he’s a gay who likes women.’
‘Tough on you, though – him going off. Tough on Simon.’
She shrugged. ‘Oh well – better no father than a half-hearted one.’
‘Did you know he was gay before he got you pregnant?’
‘I should have done. He had gay friends and he could be quite camp, actors mostly are. But if a bloke’s shagging you several times a week, you don’t think he’s a queen. Then one day he just told me he liked to cruise Hampstead Heath and the gay baths. Said he needed that as well as me.’
‘He could have given you HIV.’ Gay plus promiscuous equals double the risk: the equation Neil evidently could not live with.
‘And the baby,’ she said. ‘But I had a test and I’m OK.’ She was silent for a moment. Then: ‘I’m sorry about your friend. You don’t expect anyone to have a problem with being gay nowadays. He must have been depressed over more than that.’
‘I just think he’d still be alive if I’d let him do whatever he wanted to do. Have me.’ It felt weird to be articulating this notion to somebody else.
‘If your heart wasn’t in it, it probably wouldn’t have helped him anyway. You can’t do what isn’t in your nature. It ticked me off that I wasn’t enough for Richard but I don’t have any problem with gay men and – what they do. But the thought of doing stuff with another woman makes my skin crawl.’
In Spain last summer the two German girls had licked and munched each other as well as licking and chomping me. A total turn-on. Remembering it, my skin crawled in a different way to Rachel’s. Something to keep to myself.
In the living room Simon was asleep in one of the mismatched armchairs. He’d barely touched his food. Rachel crept in and turned off the TV.
She tried to lighten our mood with stories of gays she’d known at art school and in Bayswater (‘they’re always looking to score the randy Arabs around here,’ she said). My mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about the 14-year-old footballer (Meredith would call him a ‘jock’) who’d taken her cherry. I wanted to have been him. I wanted to be all the blokes who’d ever had her. I wanted to be Richard, Simon’s father, only without the gay peripherals. Why couldn’t Meredith have been like Rachel?
I laughed with her at her stories, but the predator she had identified was stirring. The predator wanted to lock the child in the bedroom and rip the mother’s clothes off. He wanted to see what size her breasts were, lick them, bury his face in her pussy-hair – would it be ginger? I imagined gliding into her. She would be a hot shag, I was certain, taking as well as giving.
She didn’t need to look under the table to see Major Wood. She could see him in my eyes. She shook her head.
‘It isn’t going to happen,’ she said.
My mouth was dry. I swallowed. ‘Please.’ It wasn’t the predator speaking.
‘Not now. Not today.’ Was there a minuscule crumb of comfort?
‘Another time?’ I said.
‘I’d need to know you better. I told you, I’m not a sleep-around slag any more. And there’s Simon.’
‘If I stayed here a few days you’d get to know me.’
‘You need to go home and sort yourself out, Paul. It’s too soon after what you’ve just been through. It’s possible you need therapy.’
‘You’re all the therapy I need.’
She grinned. ‘What you’re thinking is sex therapy, and I’m not ready to take that up yet.’
‘I just need to shag somebody,’ I blurted. Well, it was true.
‘There must be hookers in – Boredom-on-Sea.’ Experimenting with the name, she laughed.
‘I don’t want a hooker. I want you.’ There was desperation in my voice. Corporal Slack was back in command. Really the predator was no more than a horny teenage insect, easily squashed.
‘I’ll make us a coffee. Then you’ll have to go. Catch your train.’ She ruffled my hair as she passed me. I turned and wrapped my arms around her and buried my face in her midriff, halfway between the two places I yearned to bury all of myself. Either she sensed that I was not a threat or she had a few self-defence tricks up her charity-shop sleeve: she patted my head some more before gently pulling free and taking the kettle to the sink.
Conversation was stilted over coffee: London, Sussex, the Midlands. Was it my confession or the grovelling which had blown my chances?
Rachel was twenty-one, older than I’d thought in the park. The boy was three and three months, a Scorpio like me. She had been fending for herself since she was seven-teen. I was nineteen – and rudderless.
Simon awoke grouchy. My departure did not faze him. Rachel and I exchanged addresses and mobile numbers. Opening the door she hugged me and gave me a quick coffee-flavoured kiss on the mouth. Major Wood surged an instant response. Rachel looked down at my out-thrust Levis as she released me. She laughed.
‘You won’t make it to the Underground,’ she said. ‘Some cruising queen will eat you up.’
Corporal Slack and I headed glumly for the Circle Line.
* * * * * * * * *
The Dropout is currently (2021) unavailable in print or e-book, unless you can find it on e-bay. A new edition is planned.