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I have seen the future and from where I stand it is glowing. All the seismic peaks and troughs; the grey plateauing wasteful days will rise to a crescendo. Unrecognizable, at first. Unlooked for but not unwelcome. The days and weeks will pass with hands in pockets (mine and hers), fevered coffee-fuelled conversations on Right and Wrong; the morality of living for pleasure and preventing pain; stomach cramps and lick-chapped lips kissed sore. All I can taste is lip balm, a first mince pie and the faint trace of cigarettes. As far as I can see, the future is glowing.
Sat, killing time, staring at a pencil drawing of a bedroom - I’d like to say French - that opens out onto an impressionistic balcony and sky of orange and blue clouds. It is a room I’ve often imagined spending time in; a room where I could wake up with you (wherever you are) wrapped tightly in a Parisian dream of oven-heated croissants, black coffee and literature. Writing materials on a table by the window and soft city sounds drifting up into the morning. I woke up once and the dream was true but I lost it before I could catch you.
It was a story about Matt and Rosie and their love affair with London and each other. Hayes Galleria, HMS Belfast, City Hall and several cobbled back streets all had their parts to play in illustrating their tale. It was kind of beautiful in its simplicity and kind of sad in its resonance. It might have been the most amazing thing to have had you there watching alongside me. It might have been the final nail in the coffin. It ended with, ‘you stupid fucker’ and a kiss. I wonder how our story will end or if it has already.
‘What’s the most reckless thing you’ve ever done?’ Cue, skydiving stories. ‘Of course, we’re so different.’ Cue, long beautifully detailed story about the bouncing rain and washing your hair outside in the street as your friends looked on in wonder. I bet it was a magical moment; one of those, ‘please stop time and remember this moment’ moments. In my film of our life the final scene would be the two of us washing our hair in bouncing rain utterly oblivious to everyone watching and the traffic stopped, windscreen wipers frantic in defeat. Cut to: alternate ending. You walking away.
Whoosh! There goes another Whizz Bang. My jeans plastered wet to my legs and my grey-white Converse choking in the mud. I’m cold but happy enough. Each firework explodes another picture in my mind of you with pink cheeks and a borrowed beret, clapping your hands and smiling skyward. Bang, and then you’re gone again. I think I see you for a second standing behind me cheering with a drink in your hand but I know it can’t be you. And even if it was, what then? A forced smile and short conversation about how good they are this year.
Under doctor’s orders to calm down a little - I never saw that coming. It’s very easy to fall into the same habits and I was never any good at saying ‘No’ to things. Especially fun things. These fun things will always take their toll and leave their marks upon your face and deeper. I’m quite heavily marked in lots of ways and blemish-free in others. I am never sure where the line is. I hurt more these days. Bruise less, scar more. I carry them with me. I want you to count them and tell me your favourite number.
So I didn’t really listen and jumped off anyway. Tracing fingers over carpeted walls, drinking whiskey cocktails with cherries and orange peel, served from teapots by girls with unsmiling porcelain faces reading menus and mixing drinks; playing records from behind deep-rimmed, faux-ironic Roy Orbison glasses and dancing like a cure for something much bigger and far worse than anyone could have imagined. But I didn’t fall too far. I didn’t tumble into that rabbit hole where the night never ends and screams at the morning for waking the day. I shall smile at the memory but never go back there.
I’m sitting here pretending to be writing something terribly important but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Look back. Turn around. Ah, no, I missed that: they arrived together. She’s not going to turn around. Never mind. It’s been such a long time since I’ve thought anything like that. I’ve been far too wrapped up in other things - in past things - that I’d almost forgotten how much fun this was. Seeking to obtain the greatest, most intimate knowledge of another person (as Kundera might intellectualize it) is dangerous, ultimately exhausting and finitely interesting but really good fun.
Hope is light. Disappointment is heavy. Disappointment always crushes hope. How you recover from the weight of disappointment determines who you are and how you will go on. Some people never recover and spend all their waking moments - waste all their Now - on photographs of yesterdays. Their carousel of images runs backwards; time-travel to the most painful of places. Standing outside each moment, looking on, screaming into a vacuum; led like Ebeneezer by some ghostly hand, forced to revisit every mistake and beautifully bruised loving embrace that you thought would never end. Then watching it end. And end.
She’s trying to soothe her ego; convince her that there’s far more going on when in reality the character is as plainly drawn as she thought. There’s a funny sort of truth in a lot of casting. Most of the time you get exactly what you deserve. If you forever rail at the injustice of your casting; if you always think you warrant something with a bit more glamour or beauty and you stamp your feet and puff out your cheeks in a perfect tantrum then the die is cast. You become your own self-fulfilling prophecy counting lines and pages.
Should I go back?
I go back. I blame lots of people for this. I blame Milan Kundera and A.M Holmes, Proust and T.S Eliot. I blame Richard Curtis and those beautifully crafty people behind the John Lewis adverts. I blame the early work of Radiohead, all the work of Ryan Adams and the occasional impassioned Bob Dylan cover. I blame Jeff Buckley and the swaggering poise of Johnny and his Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - ‘Whadaya got? - The Embankment bridge, the BT Tower and a stretch of path in Hyde Park. I shouldn’t have gone back. Who knew?
I long to pick up a rock or stone and uncover a secret meeting of ants or alliance of beetles trying a spider in a kangaroo court, bewigged in feathers, with gavels made from discarded paper-clips, a perforated bottle-top upturned for the witness-box, a canopy of browning grass and earthworms for security. The public gallery would freeze in the sunlight and scatter to their nests and holes as I halted the proceedings with curious fingers and a twig or two. The spider would make a break for freedom, vowing to relocate his family immediately to another corner of the garden.
‘Tis the season to be wearing animal heads for hats. The streets of London teem with young women forging their way through the early onset of winter with wooly panda heads atop their own, staring blankly out at other passing bears and dogs; the occasional cat or blue-grey shark, strangely forlorn at his current employment. The king of the ocean now paraded around like a trophy. I see a sea of furry ears (some pointed, some squat) framing glassy eyes with mouths slashed from dimple to dimple. Expressionless faces stuffed with tumbling hair and the tiny features of fashionable women.
She has a tiny wintered voice, like the shadow of a bird flitting across a grave at dusk. Her voice is a sombre scene from a Christmas card: a robin red-breast perching on a post-box or dry-stone wall entombed in snow. The kind of card you send to distant relatives through obligation not love. A Thank you note for vouchers you received with crushing indifference. Having said all this, I liked her voice. It put me at ease, in a spidery sort of way. A crawling resignation to her quiet authority. This web is her home and I’m just visiting.
‘What happens after death? Can you change into a bird?’ A little boy, all bundled up in scarf and hat, stands heaped before an advert for the British Museum at Piccadilly station. He extends a gloved hand to the Egyptian figure drawn against the white background and colours in the feet and wings with his finger. Having painted his masterpiece, he takes a clumsy step back to admire the taloned God and sympathetically raises both arms like a concert conductor instructing the cellos to enter the fray, but thinking better of it, he flaps his boney wings and squawks, “Mummy!”
This still feels like a temporary arrangement: six months on and my clothes hang on a rail over my bed and the wardrobe remains a tiny jpeg image on the Argos website, still a good six day delivery away from the space I made for it six months ago. My suitcase squats proudly in this space full of the clothes I never wear; an assortment of belts and ties; my wetsuit; all manner of CDs and stray bits of paper I can’t throw away. Finally, a few pictures adorn the walls – my walls – but it still doesn’t feel like home.
This French café has become my regular writing haunt. The locals are always here ordering their paninis and coffees. The owner sits at his favourite table asking Martha - his right hand girl - how business has been. He talks across the room to his friend who always joins him for an orange juice with ice, always in a plastic cup - he insists - and his voice rumbles among the tables, firing questions at anyone who will listen. His friend is always dressed in tennis whites and non-marking soles; a picture of surly Gallic slicked-back buffoonery. The perfect parody of a Punch sketch.
We are getting so much better at meeting up and every time we do we manage to extinguish another week or month we failed to meet. We add to our growing collection of shared experiences and collective memories and don’t always find ourselves having to fall back on the same old stories. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with these stories - they’re always fun to resurrect - but it’s gratifying that we can all grow a little older together without remaining stuck at University where we met. ‘Do you remember when…’ is gradually fading from our repertoire. Now we look ahead.
She looks like she could handle snow. (I continue on my journey back through time); that she might not freeze and shatter in the cold. All wrapped up warm, she pulls her sleeves down with her thumb and forefinger, arms pressed tightly at her sides, marching like a woollen soldier through snow-topped fir trees; her lips chapped into the smallest smile, head bowed slightly in reverence to the beauty of her crunchy snowglobe Christmas surroundings. As if her next step will take her out of shot into the warmth of studio lighting and the make-up girl, powder in hand, waiting.
I can’t write what I would like to write because I’m writing far too early, way before it’s even taken place. I’m time-travelling again and shall continue to track backwards with every forward motion of my pen. I’ve met her already; been impressed sufficiently to take notice, remember her name, forget her again, have the name crop up in conversation with little or no reaction - no sudden jolts of ‘Oh, what might have been’ or, ‘Futuregirl, I am your Futureboy.’ - but I haven’t yet met her again. I will. And when I do, Futuregirl, you will surprise me with kisses.
He has a nervous little chuckle that he hands out in between words like flyers for an after-party when all you want is home. His mouth drops open, chin protrudes and he carefully unfolds this gentle ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ machine gun laughter, like a sodden cloud bursting overhead or the splutter of a dying firework in the mud. There’s no need for his titter; he’s well-educated, affable , smartly-dressed and tall but he’s aware of some inner failing; a deficiency of iron in his diet or weak gums. Something unseen but deeply shocking to him. Something that necessitates this cheerful little apology.
That stillness. That never running, never drunk; that ever still, that ever serious Flirtation. With, whatever. That carefully reclined, slightly superior, withdrawn slow consumption of the room. A quiet poise in leather shoes and pencil-tie, suggestion of a hat perhaps, with fingers well-versed in toying playfully with cigarettes. Externally, all 50s cool with a simple shrug to any mundane problem; morals, strictly paper-thin and flexible according to the situation. This is the man I glimpse from time to time sitting across from me, mirroring my drinking hand with his. He looks rigid with fear; absolutely terrified at his own reflection.
I’ve been standing all day in smart black shoes behind a desk dressed with journals and pens, carefully lit and miked for sound. I’m powdered at regular intervals, marked and asked to shift left, right then ‘split the difference’. The day passes around me standing still, repeating the same four lines to varying degrees of success. Now I’m standing again at the back of a converted church listening to Laura Marling and my back aches but I smile as I look around me. Something about this song at this moment. Something about a warm white light in a dark room.
I wonder who decided to stop talking to whom. Did we arrive at the decision together one day? An unspoken alliance to remain apart, divorced from one another’s business. Or did I get there first? No doubt you’re not talking because I’m not talking and I’m ignoring you because you’re ignoring me. And it doesn’t matter which came first or in which order things fell apart. My history is different to yours and if we try and trace a line back through, the line becomes fuzzy, then bendy and broken. What matters is the future and that I can change.
I bought you a peace offering, I said, and was buoyant with the knowledge of a job well done. I sensed the shiver of a page being turned and a line being drawn under all that had passed before. I’ve sensed this shiver before, of course, and it’s never developed beyond the initial tremor. I bought you a peace offering and briefly felt pleased with my own daring. But only briefly. I didn’t know how to tell you I’d done this wonderful thing so I wrote it down and tucked it away somewhere safe. I wonder if you’ll find it.
Theoretically, a film set seems to be the perfect location to write, snatching ten minutes here and there to jot down a sentence or two. Sometimes a whole hour presents itself, inviting an entire page to be filled. But as I sit here now, perching on the edge of a broken sofa in a disused corridor of a former hospital wing. I find it’s not that easy at all. The stolen ten minutes are filled with chatter and jokes; the lone hour passes slowly walking from room to room, in and out of easy fruitless conversation, occasionally watching the filming.
The Dawn Treader is a hulking shadow, crawling across your headboard, weighed down with awkward questions that manifest in spastic jerks and echoless simpering laughter. Treading the dawn with imperious grace, swallowing pride in a pillow. He pours himself from step to step, steadying his frame on the banister, searching for water, a friend and a mate but perhaps the door is his answer. Who is he today with her hand on his chest as the ice starts to melt on the window? What promises will leave his mouth and how much does any of this really matter Dawn Treader?
Fingers bleached from a Sunday of quiet domesticity. Skin stripped clean with chlorine and water. I’m searching for remnants of another scent on my fingers; of muffins baking in the oven and bunting clumsily wrapped in wicker baskets. A smell that brings a smile to my lips and repels in equal measure. Amidst the silence of a Sunday I catch the chorus of a song I know - ‘The good times are killing me’ - a song that gives that smell a name. Sometimes the loneliest place is a crowd, sometimes it’s someone else’s bedroom. Strange. I think we can both agree.
Entrapment. But absolutely the best kind of trick. Casually planning this meeting for the best part of a week with very little thought as to what the outcome might actually be. Certainly, I entertained the possibility that there was something else behind your messages but this is not what I expected to be rattling around my head as I cycled home to dream in bed. You’re almost a mythical figure to those who worship in that particular temple and here you are on tip-toes, reaching up to find me. You found me but I wonder what you’re really looking for.
This seemed like a great idea last night - how bold and brave of us - but as I sit here now waiting for you to walk through the door, I’m nervous. I’m still stunned that this is happening. The snow falling outside the window heralds another person who looks like you at a glance but stares through me and walks on past. A swing of the door and you peer your head around the corner, rubbing your hands to warm your fingers. We kiss and your nose is cold. I wonder what will happen now. Perhaps we’ll be snowed in forever.
The Tip Jar