hanging on

There’s little like overcoming adversity or successfully holding off a hard challenge to win.  That precarious sensation of dangling by a thread, playing riskily, looking insecure and frail, liable to breach, yet still bravely battling through, hanging on.  I shivered partly through cold and partly through stress, sitting in the Tottenham ground today, my first match in attendance all season.  Most of the second half was tense as we endured significant pressure and fought hard to maintain our slender goal advantage.  One slip in the midfield due to a hopeless pass, a lack of forward options, and they were onto us, running through, asking questions.  Although, looking back, they created just a couple of clear opportunities to score.  One glaring miss which made us wince, squirm and cover our faces, hearts pounding in hysterical disbelief when the American player somehow slotted wide.  Waves of blue attacks kept coming right until the final whistle, when the crowd erupted, collectively exhaled and finally, nailbitten and fraught, allowed itself to smile.  It was a sweeter win for being such a close match, and I remembered how much games like this can fully consume you.  How they can become the most important thing there is in your life, how they can instantly be promoted up your league table of worries and neuroses, easing the others to the back of your mind.  How they can create the adrenalin surge, that righteous empowering jublilance.  It stays in the immediate aftermath, as you find your way out of the ground and walk back down the high road, replaying moments, discussing players’ individual performances.  Then you board a tube and it begins slowly to fade.  Gradually it gets shunted back down the league table of worries and neuroses.  Railway engineering works which complicate and disrupt your route back mark the beginning of real life remembrance.  People on platforms sneer in disgust and confusion at the information boards.   Ah, the crap.  Crap slinks and withers back into your nervous system, gets personal.  You flich at recent memories like you flinched at the missed open goal: the presentation of rare and brilliant opportunity; the careless idiotic spurning.

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cracked mirrors

We sit there exchanging histories, tales of places we’ve visited and things we’ve seen.  I experience a panging consciousness about how I’m presenting myself.  Where her commentary is embroidered with other people, “the boyfriend I was with at the time,” friends or family, mine are invariably people-less.  Through the course of an evening’s generally smooth-flowing chatter, I infer being alone at a certain time or in a certain place – whether I say it explicitly or not.  Each time the searing self awareness kicks in.  What’s wrong with him then?  She must be thinking.  Questions I ask myself much of the time. 

Maybe I should just lay it on the line, tell her yes, I am those things, I have done and do do many things alone, although I don’t feel especially freakish as a result.  I feel like fabricating people into my stories: friends, an ex girlfriend who died in a tragic accident, like that would acceptably explain it all. 

Perhaps I’m oversensitive about this anyway, it’s not really all that marked or profound at all, unlike her quite incessant tales of teacherdom and children.  I find myself feeling obliged to be inquisitive about the parents of children in the class that she teaches, and what they do for a living.  You like your job, clearly, and that’s fine, great.  But could you shut up about it for a bit?  She appears to want to be defined by her work, and isn’t impressed when I shrug in response to the “do you like what you do?” question.  “Find something you do like then, life’s too short” is her reasonable enough response, but jobs can be just jobs which shouldn’t necessarily define a whole person, especially today in recessionary times.  They’re not always ideal.  I confirmed with mates afterwards that female teachers do seem to talk a disproportionate amount about their work, although you could argue men think women speak too much about everything.

On the way there I received a text message, responding to my own earlier message and voicemail sent to the small attractive American girl.  We had chatted briefly on the telephone during the week, when she’d cancelled a potential meeting once again due to illness.  She said she had been feeling terrible and being sick.  “Not pregnant are you?” I quipped, after initially making appropriately sympathetic noises, my tongue very deliberately placed in cheek.  Or so I thought.  A horrendous pause, into which she finally emitted a distinctly miffed sounding, breathy, “oooohk”. 

HOW could this have possibly been construed as a serious enquiry?  Surely she would realise I had intended humour, even if I had failed.  We had gone on to agree to meeting up at the weekend, and I would call to arrange it towards the end of the week.  The text message I had now received was a response.  In it she said she was still ill, but had thought my comment about her being pregnant was offensive and uncalled for – or words to this effect.  I splurted a giggle at her absurd interpretation.  Despite her good looks, I had been conscious of a potential humourlessness – a total lack of smiles, or willingness to joke; but originally dismissed it, accusing myself of over hasty judgement.  The conversation in the week supported this, and she subsequently dwindled in my affections, doubtless aided by my fading memory of her looks.  Perhaps half of me even expected a stuffy message of this kind.  I considered sending a reply of some kind – that’s fine, don’t worry, better not to pursue anything, get well soon.  In the end I just pressed delete.

swaying

Barry could never empathise with women who were openly attracted to bastards, bad men, wrong-uns.  The closest he could come was this: being drawn back into affiliation with a charismatic businessman he could never fully trust, but couldn’t help investing in.  Like the temptation of that repeated “last” drink.  Go on then, just one more..

Hugh had won him over from the off, in that Starbucks four years ago.  That dynamic, infectious antipodean enthusiasm, his diminutive fuck-em all stature and ballsy wide-eyed belief.  It led to a job at the small start-up company, but over time, Barry’s attitude cooled and his patience thinned.  Unpredictable hours kept by Hugh, together with his seemingly frivolous abdication of duty and care, albeit with that puppy-like abandon: it began to seriously grate.  Back he’d skip into the office after a few weeks away, chest-pumpingly buoyant and doggedly determined.  Hopeless disorganisation and flagrant number embroidery never helped his cause. 

When the company was still failing to make any sort of profit eighteen months later, morale was low and dissent amongst the staff was rife, Barry got another job and moved to the city.

He kept in touch with a good handful of colleagues from those days, the majority of whom (actually.. perhaps all?) had fallen out with the boss, parted on fractious, uncomfortable terms.  Disagreements and disputes with staff were common, he was unafraid to argue, go to courts and tribunals.  It happened so many times you thought it must be him, he must be a duplicitous arse.  Barry certainly never trusted him after a while: the false promises, the hyped hope, expectation of big things and conspicuous prolonged absences.  Was he a confidence trickster, a fraud, a phoney?  Barry knew if he conferred with other former colleagues, decent enough folk, they would each say yes: do not touch him with a bargepole.

Meeting him again a few years later, Hugh didn’t appear to have aged at all, his confidence and belief was entirely unbowed.  Perhaps a touch more humility and openness to listen, or was Barry inventing that himself because he wanted to believe it?  He sat and listened as his old boss briefed the small audience: the web designer, Barry and the latest in a line of his successors in the role, a man Barry was also unsure about.  He was stylish, well groomed and confident; a tonal, penetrating northern accent of the kind which naturally exudes authority.

Afterwards they went for sushi, just Barry and Hugh, and spoke socially about family and off-record about Hugh’s business. 

Big plans, big names.  This year, this time… 

Hugh radiated a desperate craving for a business jackpot like never before.  Many years of hard labour, a big churn of staff in what had never been a large company, many personal disputes: all that must cause you to look inward.  He confessed to the self doubt, when pressed.  Even so, Barry had to admire the man’s resilience, his fearlessness and perseverance at a difficult business route.  He tried to stop himself, remind himself about everything he knew about the man, everything his former colleagues would say.  He knew Hugh was quite full of shit about a lot of things: King of The Blag.  Maybe this time, though? 

Barry smiled and went with his gut feeling.  From a safe distance, he would join hands again.

eeny meeny miny mo

In the days that followed, Barry couldn’t help but feel slightly duplicitous.  Not that he did anything or even saw any of them again. Just thinking about each of them in turn was enough.  It had turned out that perhaps he hadn’t entirely and cataclysmically blown his chances in one single moment, as he had convinced himself at the time.  During a slowly sobering Sunday afternoon, he asked himself: what if, somehow, she hadn’t seen me with her?  I still have her details anyway, isn’t it worth trying?

And so he tried, receiving reasonable text message replies from the pocket-sized American who had effortlessly won his highest affection.  Attempts at fixing coffee didn’t go smoothly, but she didn’t sound as if she was being polite merely for the sake of it.  So he remained unbowed and they agreed to try and arrange something soon.

It wasn’t just her though.  That same Sunday afternoon he received a reply from the lady who had told him, in no uncertain terms, to leave the venue.  She sounded forgiving, apologetic of her own drunkenness, claimed not to remember.  Barry entertained thoughts of her, ever mindful of her age.  However much he tried not to think about it, he couldn’t avoid thinking that the further up the agestream you look, the louder physical clocks tick.  Whereas further downstream, it’s quieter, less implicitly threatening.  He didn’t continue the dialogue with her, though it was she who had come closest, who had touched, and who had once invaded his dreams when none other had.

A dream appearance hadn’t even been bestowed upon the one main possible from the previous Tuesday’s event.  She was of course ignorant of his Saturday evening adventure with her neighbour from the event.  (Thankfully, they had not been acquainted).   He was still exchanging messages with her, discussing meeting up again.  She sounded very young in comparison, because she was young in comparison: a touch ditzy and forgetful of practically everything in their one conversation.  He would certainly be willing to give her another chance all the same, he thought, giggling at his magnanimity.

But he did feel conflicted and guilty, entertaining the ongoing notions of each of the three, trying to ignore that he had involuntarily ranked them in his head, despite scantly knowing any of them.  1. the ornamental American, 2. the younger possible ditz from the event, 3. the older ballsy lady – who he hadn’t altogether ruled out pursuing again at a later point, if 1 and 2 both fell bay the wayside.  But not now.  Not yet.  Not while there was still hope elsewhere..   How romantic of him.  She could even already have children, of course, he pondered.  There was something a little fragile beneath the bold, strident exterior.  It was an absurd situation, knowing practically nothing about each of them, being swung so readily by what they looked like.  They could each be quite mental.

He hadn’t told anyone he knew about all of this, and felt momentary tugs to verbally unload.  Let it all come pouring out in one long torrent.  With a friend / colleague, but around his girlfriend.  In a pub with his brother during a pause in conversation.  Never quite comfortable enough speaking to his brother about such things.  And it needed a good five to ten minutes of energetic monologue; he was never sure if he could retain anyone’s attention speaking for that long.  He’d do it given booze and the right scenario, but it didn’t seem to want to present itself.  And there was the other reason that it could all easily come to nought in the long run.  Telling people where he was up to would mean having to give updates and then answer questions when all hope was extinguished.  That sad shake of the head and puffed cheeks, together with a brave, rueful, pathetic ‘tried again, failed again’ smile which would make people sympathise and pity, and would make him want to headbutt them and run away.

Still he felt pressed to pursue, to not give up hope just yet, to try and secure another meeting or two and see if their interest would wane.  Or if his would.  It was a tricky and tediously long game; you gave line, then reeled in, gave line then reeled in, keen to appear neither too desperate, nor too casual.  He tried hard to negate his natural pessimism, tried not to envisage a month hence, when it would all have stalled and spluttered out to a disappointing nothing once again.  He would keep trying.

gaping flaws

“You should just fuck off right now,” she said, calm and ferocious.
There was a pause while Barry floundered, trying to think.  His brain was frozen though.  He had nothing.  She was totally right.   He was an unpleasant human.  Having inhaled to say something, he exhaled nothing, turned on his heel and felt in his back pocket for the cloakroom ticket.  He made for the cloakroom, collected his jacket and left, not looking back once.

It had been a strange week.  One which he’d decided to tackle aggressively in meeting new people, rather than staying in and moaning about being miserable and lonely and not having many friends.  He knew he could do it: go out and meet folk.  Valentines week is a magnet for other lonely souls too, makes it acceptable; so go on, give it a go.

On Tuesday evening Barry attended a speed dating event.  Not his first, but his first in around eighteen months.  He tried not to get nervous, then predictably got quite nervous but got through it.  A pleasant enough evening but only one girl really took his fancy; the last he saw.  She was nice, he thought.  We’ll call her A.  There were a few others he wasn’t partial to, he’d ticked several, but A was the nicest.  Having said that, Barry wasn’t blown away or taken aback by any them.  It had still been an enjoyable evening.  An online portal revealed late the next day that A also ticked him, and he sent her an email, not expecting much.

Barry decided that as well as the Tuesday speed dating event, he’d also attend a singles party on the Saturday, in the centre of town.  It was a numbers game, after all.

Between times, he attended a couple of professional networking events, on Thursday evening and Friday morning.  On the Friday he saw a couple of people he didn’t know but recognised from the previous evening’s event.  One of these was an attractive woman who Barry was immediately smitten with.  Let’s call her B.  B was a writer with arty interests but who had ended up writing industrial copy, like him.  She didn’t seem to mind.  A twangy transatlantic accent, easy to make laugh, attractive in a subtle, unstriking way, a handful of years older, perhaps.  He gave her his card but did nothing more and accepted nothing in return.  She proved untraceable online, particularly as he only had a first name to go on.  Barry slunk into momentary pining.  She had been lovely.

Saturday evening came around. Barry told other singletons at the event that he’d had back-up for that event.  But he had bailed on him at the last minute when his girlfriend’s plans had changed.  His imaginary mate hadn’t told his girlfriend that he was going to attend the event, you see.  Barry told this story several times and almost convinced himself it was true.  People chuckled and sympathised, considered him brave.  It helped him ally with a couple of other guys.  During the evening he saw a couple of girls from the previous Tuesday’s event, neither of whom he had selected  One he’d thought scarily livewire, the other he’d thought nice but a few years older and not too interested.  So he hadn’t ticked her.  Let’s call her C.  C was tall, short blonde hair; words like ‘brassy’ and ‘sassy’ could be applied, very east Laandan, rapidly approaching young middle age.  He avoided their gaze as he walked past them the first time, but acknowledged them with a faint wave on the second.  It was returned.  Amongst the people Barry spoke to at the event were a couple of students: one Spanish and well into her thirties; and another, let’s call her D who barely looked to have dented her twenties but was the fortunate recipient of some incredible genes, little off 30.  Barry sank badly for D.  She was angelic, short, a cherubic face, hispanic but dynamic, an intelligence about her.  Barry was conscious of dividing his attention equally between her friend and her, believed he made good impressions after their first chat.  This feeling was reinforced when they appeared to seek him out on the dancefloor later on.  Barry had been moving awkwardly to some music with new found male allies, whom he soon dropped upon D’s reappearance.  Conversation continued smoothly, polite and respectable.  They spoke of dancing (Barry self deprecatingly); then numbers and cards were exchanged.  Barry heard himself saying that he would be interested in learning salsa dancing.  He would have said anything.  “Yes, I’d be up for a tour of duty in Afghanistan,” he would probably have said, if she had suggested it.  These were attractive females who appeared to have an interest in him, and he had imbibed a drink or several.  After exchanging numbers, they politely divorced themselves from him and said they’d be back shortly.  Ok, Barry smiled, he wasn’t going to stand on the dancefloor on his own waiting for them to get back, and soon found himself chatting again to C again, the older blonde girl from the speed dating.  They spoke for a while, appeared to get on well.  She grew more positive in her movements and eye contact, and it wasn’t too long before Barry and her were making out like high school students, hands everywhere.  He’d thought C was attractive enough at the event, but not really that interested in him; pleasant enough, but an air of general disinterest.  Now she appeared slightly drunk and giggly, and almost as if she were mocking him at times.  But he might’ve been being paranoid, and didn’t care anyway.  He didn’t get this sort of attention that much, although he was finding her biting, lunging style of kissing rather strange.  This could even be leading somewhere, Barry thought after a while.  They were talking nonsense and drinking between times.  This went on for twenty minutes or so.  Then suddenly, critically and from nowhere, the angelic D flitted back into view with her friend.  Barry hadn’t known it, but he’d convinced himself that they had gone, or had magically just ceased to exist for a bit while he was here, engaged like this.  But no, here she was, her lovely back moving towards the dancefloor with her friend.  The chances were high that she’d seen him adhesively stuck to C at some point in the last twenty minutes.  It slowly registered that they would have almost certainly witnessed his last half hour’s activity.  “Oh, shit, she’s still here,” Barry couldn’t help himself saying out loud over C’s shoulder.  His face fell at the sight of her shape, his grip on C’s waist slackened.  C saw Barry’s face and released herself from him completely.  “Are you embarrassed of me now?” she asked, acid, piercing, disgusted.  Erm, a bit? Barry thought, but knew he couldn’t say that.  It didn’t matter anyway: it was exactly what his stupid transparent face said.  Why couldn’t he have pretended, tried to conceal his disappointment?  Oh bugger, Barry thought.  He’d just screwed up in a pretty enormous way, hadn’t he?  Both fairly good opportunities; both now null and void.  Special work, that is Barry.  You fucking idiot.  He looked at C again, one last time, the face he’d been exploring freely for the last half hour.  Not a bad one.  ““You should just fuck off right now,” she said, quite correctly.  God, Barry, you’re such a tit.  There was nothing he could say, so he said nothing and walked towards the cloakroom.

February sustenance

Reading

Paul Auster – Invisible

I began fairly hopeful given strong reviews, but still feared about Auster’s latest due to a recent dip in form, an erring towards sameyness in subject.  (Dark rooms, illusions, psychological trauma, or is he?-ness).  Even though Auster sameyness is still sameyness of an impressively high standard.  I needn’t have worried, and thoroughly enjoyed this from start to finish.  Utterly compelling and quite possible to read in a single sitting if you had a day spare, its plot and characters are intricately woven in typically mysterious style so all is never quite as it seems – which you kind’ve expect anyway.  The turns of the plot and style almost deceive the length of the novel: not very long.  But rewards in its sparsity, deft touch and sheer readability are plentiful.

I often remember how good art makes me feel, the sensations it evokes, rather than the subject and what it directly contains.  Particularly so with good fiction.  I’ll remember ravenously devouring Invisible over the course of a few days, feeling excited by the pace and effortlessly graceful measure of the writing, occasionally breathtaken by the craft and confidence to masterfully execute understated yet profound scenes.

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sport and stories

What is it that drives millions of people to spend substantial wads of free time on any number of sports which might also be considered “silly little games”?

That it can be reduced in such terms is part of the reason we love it.  For all its ability to devastate and demolish us, reduce us to tears, we do know somewhere in the dark recesses of our matter that it is merely a game.  Our lives, by and large, will not depend on the outcome of a match.

Sport attracts the attention of so many with the promise of new stories and the chance to witness their creation.  However small or big.  Individual games provide definite immoveable frameworks which contain an uncomplicated linear momentum of action.  It’s familiar, but leaves much open.  Even if the story is terrible, heartbreaking, empty and desolate; or if the experience leaves you feeling sick, angry, ashamed or embarrassed: that’s still a vivid passionate story.  And one that can be used, retold, reminisced about, maybe even learnt from.

By enfranchising with a sport, you sign up to be part of a story.  There are no guarantees about what kind of story.

We enter into this gamble with games and competition, expecting to feel as much negative as we do positive.  Our craving for involvement in stories drives sport’s success.  From following the twists of a four day cricket test match and half heartedly flicking channels between football matches, to those which extend outside the immediate field of play: seeing a wronged player return to a former team, score a vital and characteristically gutsy goal, but still end up on the losing team.

Committed levels of ritual and routine propel people to attend live sporting events every weekend, or to play a sport itself.  Their commitment to a Saturday afternoon narrative is even better defined.

You leave the house at a certain time, to go to a certain place to meet certain people and go for a drink afterwards.  The opening and closing frames are familiar, comfortable and known.  But that that small segment in the middle, the part you get nervous and excited about, the game itself – there, anything can happen.  Unpredictability is rife.  How exactly will the story pan out?  You might be fairly sure that Manchester United will comfortably beat Portsmouth, your much more coordinated colleague will beat you in a round of golf, or that by the end of the season your team will finish in nowhere midtable again.  It doesn’t stop you from watching and seeing how.  The subplots within each section of the game, personal tussles between players, rare moments of startling elegant beauty.

What keeps players turning up to play football for a quite woeful team week in, week out?  The hope of improvement, the desire to play, compete, keep fit, the desire to maybe sometimes win?  Equal incentives can be found in wanting to be part of it: a community and a group.  But also in a story and how it plays out.  The going on awaydays, the postmortems of incidents last week and several years ago, the reliving of stories – terrible referee, awful journey there, getting lost on the way back, disgusting food after the game, a penalty save; the opportunity to influence the outcome of the story.  Or being able to say that you were there and part of it.

=======

Much of this Sunday morning was spent completing Paul Auster’s remarkable new novel, ‘Invisible.’  It was the most gripping read I’ve had the pleasure of for some time.  Reading something so exquisitely paced and plotted, with such lightness of touch whilst being so nuanced AND assertive, it makes you wonder why you try writing at all.  What the point is.  You couldn’t dare hope to emulate an atom of this sort of quality.  Sebastian Faulks’s muscularity also does this, although it errs more obviously towards the showy at times.

And yet it serves to inspire too.  To encourage you to try.  There are novels I’ve read which have invoked this feeling more than Auster’s latest, those which are more attuned to my own style and voice perhaps.  Examples escape me.  Nevertheless, there’s something there which inspires.

I could never do that.

But… go on, just let me have a go.

David Beckham smashes in a goal of beauty from some considerable distance, the recognisable angle of his foot striking the ball up and over a wall, with pace, dip and bend.  The goalkeeper has no chance as it nestles into the net over his head.  Amazing.  You could never do that.

During the second half of yesterday’s embarrassing, horrible slaughter of a football match, I saw a gap and broke towards the far right side of the penalty area with the ball at my feet.  A third consecutive touch took the ball within a few yards of the chalked line.  More by luck than any skill of appreciation, I caught up with the ball before my opposite number, edged it away with the outside of my right, and was clattered by a mistimed challenge from my left.

A whistle.  No pain.  Realisation I’d won a free kick in a threatening position.

Go on, just let me have a go.

I don’t usually take offensive free kicks of this kind.  In fact I can’t ever recall taking one in over ten years of playing.  But I’d decided that because I won this free kick, I was having it.  None of my team-mates tried to take it off me, my intention was clear.  I was having a go.

I fantasised briefly, attempting to visualise success in the way dreamers, or anyone with any sort of ambition does.  It could be another uncharacteristically sublime, but essentially pointless consolation goal against the same team I scored against earlier in the season.  A wall of four or five men lined up ten yards from me, partially obscuring my view of the goal.  I tried to rid the fantasy and not think too much about it: thinking too much is the folly of anyone who plays football.  Thinking ruins you.

The whistle blew and I took my first of three steps towards the ball, then measured a right-footed swipe.  Despite arcing pleasingly over the wall – its conjoined heads turning in unison – and being on target, the pace and direction was manageable.  The goalkeeper carefully fielded it into his midriff.

Reading a book like Auster’s is a bit like getting fouled just outside the area.  Look!  Go on.  Try.  Still though, my words too often seem like an ordinary looking strike into the goalkeeper’s midriff, quickly forgettable to anyone except the taker or scribe.

vroom gloom 2

A biting cold early Sunday morning saw Ben pacing through a deserted new-build West London suburb, tightening and untightening his fists in his pockets.

This was nowheresville, red brick, not rundown, beaten up or dangerous feeling.  Just dowdy and sagging, bereft of character.  Row upon row of gardens and buildings which seemed to shrug at the passer by: “yeah, and?  You know where you are, don’t you?  What did you expect?”

Part following a printed map, part following the one on his phone, he weaved up and down the empty residential roads with laughably grandiose names, bobbing in the direction of the primary school.

One sporty motorbike just outside the playground gates stood alongside a leather-clad rolley smoking man.  He looked approachable and smiley, so Ben asked him if he was who he thought he was.  And he was.  They stood there in the car park chatting while some other men in the playground assembled motorcycles and a handful of cars sat chugging around them, keeping their occupants warm.

As he took a look at Ben’s paperwork, a puny looking self-rolled cigarette still between his fingers, Ben twitched.  He momentarily envisaged the bloke setting light his crinkled old green document.  But he didn’t, just handed it back, smiling again.  All was in order.  There’s something of the amiable doofus about this man, Ben thought.  They chatted about business until it turned nine o clock, car engines were turned off and spilled their occupants forth.  Ben chatted to another young lad as they stood waiting.  There was a lot of standing and waiting for the next hour or so: briefings to be given by fast-talking no-nonsense geezers, kit to be doled out: helmets, gloves, flourescent bibs.

They eventually sat on their machines for the first time.  Why washe doing this?  It sounded like a cool idea, he might enjoy it, the mobility of it would be good.  But he had never driven a motorcycle before, it was a bit more dangerous, and uncomfortable, you needed to buy a lot of supplementary shit too.

It didn’t take long for him to realise he wasn’t a naturally gifted motorcyclist, and he and another young guy were detained by the smiley doofus, separated from the rest of the group.  There was something oddly camp about him too, and unintentionally patronising in his patient sympathy with Ben’s failure to master the clutch control.

Growing angry at his inability to perform the simplest starting and stopping manoeuvre, Ben’s simmering ire rose.  He swore viciously at himself when it happened the seventh time in half an hour, bitter and hateful at this idiotic machine and that doofus’s banal grin and his stupid little weeny fucking cigarettes.  His defeatist self was emerging.  He hated being crap at something, at everything actually, everything in his poxy little shitting life; but especially at learning slowly, being shit, and being subjected to this level of maddeningly kind patience and sympathy that had entirely the reverse effect to the one intended. 

You could say that Ben was aggravated by the experience.

As he steered his motorcycle between cones in wide, sloppy figures of eight at the walking pace commanded, he wondered again why he was doing this.  Bikes are more dangerous, especially if you drive like a jerky Parkinson’s patient prick; you need to dress up in all that kit all the time.  Longish journeys of a couple of hours would be a right bind, as well as uncomfortable.  Especially if it pisses down.  He was no longer convinced about the “thrill” of it, which everyone raves about.  He was comfortable enough pootling round in a primary school car park, but doing 80 or 90 on a motorway?  “Thrilling”?  Or just “fucking terrifying”?  Sneeze and you’re dead.   You can’t listen to music or anything either, he thought, arcing many yards wide of one cone.  I don’t want to spend even more cash on more tests, equipment and a bike just to feel the same as this; plus I can actually drive cars reasonably ok.  This is just annoying.   And I’m clearly crap.  What am I doing this for?

Ben and his fellow remedial group friend were packed off after two and a half hours of immense frustration.  The tutors didn’t think they were up to being taken out on the road just yet, but next week it would all be different, because then you won’t be starting from scratch. 
“So, Saturday or Sunday?  What dyou think?” the doofus grinned at him.
“I think I’ll just get a car,” Ben said.  “Thanks anyway.”
With that he trudged back up the playground, between the bikes of little teenage scrotums hairing round like they were Evil fucking Knievel, and up into the nowhere suburbia once again, smouldering at his brand new failure.

a reluctant dinner guest

Denzil groaned when he heard knocking on the front door of his flat.  He’d hoped his mad but essentially well intentioned landlady wouldn’t try and remind him that he was invited out to dinner with her family and a small assortment of other people.  Almost exactly a week ago she’d invited him and he’d nodded and agreed without really knowing what he was nodding and agreeing to, just wanting to be gone.  “It’s Uncle Frank’s birthday and we always go out as a family for Uncle Frank’s birthday,” she’d said.  Who the hell’s Uncle Frank and why should I care? Denzil wondered, bemused.  He suspected he was considered sympathetic by his landlord and landlady, both of whom lived in the same building.  Her profound deafness gave the impression that it didn’t matter what you said to her in conversation; she had her own views and perceptions, and was happily sticking to them thank you very much – not just because she couldn’t hear anything else, also because she didn’t care.  One of these perceptions was that Denzil was a sad lonely man who didn’t get out that much.  While that perception wasn’t entirely untrue, he did get out a bit, every now and then.  She was just entirely deaf to his comings and goings, so mostly suspected he was always in his flat being sad and lonely, even if her husband had seen and heard Denzil leave, and told his wife so.

Still she knocked at his door.  He was in two minds, but his music playing suggested his presence, was audible to her husband perhaps, if not to her.  He to really, he supposed.
“You’d forgotten, hadn’t you!?” she chirruped.
“Erm, yes,” he lied, immediately feeling bad.
“Well, we’re going to the pub first and we’d love for you to come along too.  Our Phillip’s coming as well.”
Their Phillip was their son, Denzil’s age, who Denzil had only said hello to in passing.  He seemed pleasant, if vacant, which could have been a prejudgement based on a droney voice.

Denzil sat back down on the sofa in front of the television, knowing he had to go, really not wanting to.

Tentatively peering into the pub corner, he saw their table.  Six people: his landlord and landlady, their son, one fragile looking old man (potentially Uncle Frank), and another couple around the age of his landlord and lady, perhaps a smidge younger.  He said hello to everyone, was introduced and politely shook their hands.

“Ooh, I’m so glad you’ve come, it is good of you!” his landlady blared over everyone from the opposite end of the table.
Denzil nodded and shrugged, sitting between his landlord and the other man whose name he’d instantly forgotten, a cheerful overweight man who wore his fat in a smug way Denzil had noticed men of that age sometimes do, as if shirking the sheer folly of not being so wisely rotund.  They often think themselves in possession of seriously acute wit too.  He kept trying to make jokes which Denzil wasn’t sure were jokes until he laughed, cueing Denzil to laugh with him.  Denzil was rubbish at fake laughing.  The man was annoying and boring.  Denzil hoped he wouldn’t have to sit near him at dinner.

He didn’t.  A short walk further down the street led them to the restaurant, where his landlady belligerently barked down the elegant looking Maitre D’s claim that she’d only booked for six people.
“No, Seven!”
“You said six.”
“Seven!”
Denzil wondered quietly if it was his place that she hadn’t countered for, if she hadn’t expected him to attend.  Although she acted like she had.
He sat next to the son, Phillip, who was a reasonable bloke.  They spoke of work and football and his family, the eccentric mother and emigrated sister who had been in Australia almost two years.
“Oh my Katrin!” Denzil’s landlady cooed, upon hearing her daughter’s name.  She always raved about her daughter, unashamedly saying she was her favourite and her son was a tyke, giving the impression that their bond was as tight as can be.
“Nah mate,” Phillip told him, “my sister’s WAY less tolerant of Mum than me.  Right Daddy’s Girl, she is.”
Only then Denzil realised he had only his landlady’s narrow take on the mother-daughter relationship, one which he’d accepted and believed to be the tightest mother-daughter pact imaginable, because that was how she’d forcefully portrayed it.
Peculiar how one person’s incessant, rambling, but all the same convincing description can draw you in so deep you forget there’s alternative takes, Denzil thought.
Old Uncle Frank sat opposite Denzil throughout, carefully and slowly eating, mostly mute, despite occasionally being barked at by Denzil’s landlady.  He looked like he was full of stories, but they would remain locked.  The restaurant was noisy, cutlery chinked, Phillip’s mother yapped away, effortlessly misinterpreting questions and striding confidently off down conversational avenues which left everyone else perplexed.
But thanks to Phillip, the evening wasn’t as arduous as Denzil had feared.  And the meal was good, paid for by his landlord.  He hadn’t drunk, given his motorcycle training early following morning.  An awkward moment when the bill arrived and he reached for a pocket, unsure, checked with Phillip, who waved him away.  “Dad wouldn’t accept anything.”  They eventually raised to leave, Denzil newly feeling a tightened hamstring and flowering bruise on his left foot after that afternoon’s football.  He hugged his mad landlady outside the restaurant, thanked his landlord for dinner, shook Phillip’s hand and waved vaguely at the rest. Some were returning to the pub, others were driving home.  Denzil was safely back in his flat in time for Match Of The Day.