other people

Crushed with an almost literal depression and floundering itchy boredom, Will decided to go for a walk.  He hadn’t had a physical conversation with another real life human person for a week, perhaps more.  He didn’t count, “can I have a regular coffee please?” or any orders or statements of thanks, as conversations.  He’d been out, not infrequently to coffee shops and a pub to watch the football, to the cinema – where he imagined he’d caught the headlice he found that morning.  He didn’t count the brief embarrassed chat with the pharmacist either.  “Hi, I um.. think I’ve got nits.  What do I need to do?”  That had been a great way to start the weekend: that strangely persistent aggravation while dozing in; then after a shower, finding those white blobs under just washed hair; a bitter, angry what-the-fuck?! jog down to the pharmacist.  One bottle of something, a demeaning self treatment which recalled the memory of a forlorn looking, fleabitten dog.  It was gone now anyway, he thought, pacing another pavement.  You couldn’t tell.  He just wanted to move, walk, see things, offer himself up to the opportunity of life, of something happening to him, rather than just sitting in his flat.  Nothing did, but still he walked, plodded without aim.  It seemed to Will, that the higher the concentration of people, of strangers, then the less inclined they are to communicate with each other.  A village, small town, a country lane, crossing paths with strangers; you might nod, say hello.  In a city like London there is no chance of this.  In cities, people have their people already: their friends and their family.  Otherwise they can become lonely and sad, grow bitter and fester.  Because other people are what it’s about for 99.999% of people.  And the remaining percentile are unlikely to live in cities.  That’s the point and the meaning of it all, Will figured.  Sharing, being with, living with, conversing and learning and interacting; growing and experiencing.  Living exclusively inside your own head is unhealthy and exhausting: giving yourself little treats and incentives, beating yourself up over the smallest of things, not bothering to eat properly, pathetically craving attention via Twitter (ghastly, addictive Twitter), being tired when you’re so miserable, having only art to stimulate (books, music and film), and football too of course (how much worse would he be without football?), not daring to offer yourself any real downtime when you’re genuinely switched off.  Aside from sleeping of course.  Beautiful sleep.  Then you worry that you’re so attached to sleeping, that bliss of unconsciousness, maybe that’s the answer.  If you really do enjoy unconsciousness better than waking life, if waking life without any basic human interaction is generally miserable for you, it’s been that way for a considerable time and shows little sign of changing: why not take it permanently?  Is that so irrational?  If he gets a car, the options open up to do it quickly, not harm or inconvenience many other people, wrap it up as an unfortunate accident: he was drinking, lost control, nobody else around.  He’d walked miles now, right into the centre.  Not far off, all that grand white building affluence.  Will wondered what the difference is between being sporadically hit by these waves of profound sadness, and enduring a clinical depression.  He had never seen anyone, talked about it or taken any medication; although people do, he’d known some who had, people you might not expect to, the most secure seeming people.  They said it was a clear chemical imbalance that had to be corrected, to maintain them on a solid stable path; not to waver one way or the other but remain constantly aligned.  It sounded frighteningly scientific to Will, unnerving: yes, ok, please control my brain.  How could it be so effective when everything depressed?  The people, or lack of them, the city, the news, still losing at that stupid fucking iPhone game however many times he played it, ale tasting vinegary when it shouldn’t, sneers, prices, crooks, the internet.   Ok, so this was a particularly strong one, but surely he’d be sucked out of it soon?  Slipping.   Will’s mobile phone slipped through a widening hole in the lining of his pocket and dropped down his leg, hitting the top of his shoe and skidding fast on it’s stainless steel back along the concrete bridge.  It impacted with a half full can of Fosters beer, lying on its side, and the device flipped in the air as if alive, but its momentum carried on, finding a small gap in the bridge wall.  He looked over the side in time to make out its falling arc and a tiny, tinny slap on the surface of the river below.  Will sighed, looking down at the small ripples.  He breathed deeply, in and out, trying to keep everything in.

remembering

Blokes drive Barry nuts for being rubbish, because he considers himself less rubbish in many ways, although he’s profoundly more rubbish in others.

It’s the memory thing which really gets him.  The way he can have chats with friends and they won’t ask questions or remember anything he’s said in earlier conversations.  Sure, he thinks to himself, they have their own life in which I only play a very small fleeting role, but surely they’d remember x or y?  Surely they’d just be polite enough to ask a question or two about me?  I remember stuff they’ve said before, which they don’t always remember having told me.  They should remember some stuff too?  

No.  Is that because you’re a bit dull, Barry?  Or because they are, and they’re blokes?  Or both?

When the boot’s on the other foot and Barry is speaking to a female person, and he remembers something they mentioned once, he’s made to feel creepy for his memory.  “Wow!  You remembered that?” they say, looking at him like he was making notes or hiding in the bushes outside their front door every morning for a month.  “Um, yes,” Barry replies.  Because he does remember stuff.

This may be, in part, due to the fact that Barry doesn’t speak to all that many people so his brain is less burdened with stuff to remember, but he does still pride himself in having a strong memory when most people, especially blokes, don’t.  That’s still not ok though, if it makes you look like a creep.

The memory thing struck him again when chatting to someone he thought was going to become a good bloke friend several months ago, then their relationship wained.  Despite a handful of decent nights out, feeling like they were establishing a bond, certain things irked, Barry supposed mutually.  Enough for their manlove to both dwindle anyway. 

This saddened Barry, but not that much, which then saddened him some more: that he could just drop people, suddenly become less fussed when he realised they were a certain way, nice enough but plastic, not altogether that bright.

His ability to let friendships wither and slide was relentless.

books and films and music – March

Read

William Boyd – Ordinary Thunderstorms
Ever readable if not always that convincing, not quite the narrative verve and swagger which I loved in Restless.

Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze
Highly rated and Booker longlisted, my hopes weren’t met here.  Though embellished with occasionally breathtakingly lyrical descriptions which always kept me reading, the subject matter and characters fundamentally failed to engage and my reading of it was stalled throughout.

Nick Hornby – High Fidelity
Second novel of ‘Double A Side,’ which I’m re-reading for first time in years.  As readable and recognisable as I could remember.  I swell with envy reading Hornby, but could read him, or at least this era of his work, forever.

Recently ordered new Dave Eggers, new Jon McGregor and a now cheap paperback of Mantel’s Booker winner, which I imagine will take me forever.  Tempted to buy new McEwan also, but cunningly bought it as a gift in order to borrow afterwards, because I’m selfish like that. 

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in or out

His studs sank readily into the sodden turf and he surveyed the endless expanse of football pitches through thick hazy drizzle.  Paul did a quick cost / benefit analysis, standing a few short paces onto the turf, several away from the clubhouse and dressing room his team-mates were still filtering out of.  He wasn’t feeling great and had been surprised his voice still sounded so droney and infected when he spoke for the first time in a while.  It was shakeable though, surely the last dregs of illness, forgettable if he could play from the start.  Then there was the vulnerable hip / lower back / hamstring / whatever the hell it was.  A dull ache which twanged sharply on standing up after crouching or leaning down, just as it had when he’d plucked a pair of long socks from the kitbag.  It could capitulate entirely or he could run through it, numb it by playing, forget it and, who knows, that might even right it.  But he wouldn’t want to enter the match as a substitute then leave it two minutes later after his first full sprint or leap left him in a pathetic crumpled heap, and his team one man short.  

The manager had pestered him to play during the week, text messaged and called.  Paul had told him he wasn’t definitely sure: he was ill and still struggling with an injury but would let him know towards the end of the week.  An abrasive and occasionally abrupt Northern Irishman, his manager had sniffed at him, said ok.  Paul had messaged him to say ok,  he was in, the previous day.  Then he immediately received a one word reply: sub.  Cunt, Paul thought. 

The weather became more relevant.  If it was temperate and sunny, he wouldn’t mind going sub.  If it was grey and cold and raining, his appetite for standing on a touchline for 45 minutes of a Saturday afternoon wouldn’t be as great.  And the reasons for him being sub were sound enough: his attendance had been poor over recent weeks, through the injury and illness.  It was reasonable, it wasn’t like they were competing at any sort of high level.  The team were crap regardless and remained so in his absence, losing each game by a margin as fat as their goalkeeper.  It wasn’t like he was investing in a meaningful, dramatic and poetic competition here.  They would in all probability lose horrendously and it wouldn’t be a fun experience.  In the changing room one youngster told Paul he had been missed out on the pitch, and was angry when Paul revealed he was to be substitute.  “That’s fucking bollocks.” 

The opposition – vaguely familiar to Paul – were heading out to warm up over a full half hour before his team would mobilise.  They exchanged half glances and nods with Paul as they passed in the tight corridor.  Paul was always on time but didn’t know why.  Nobody else was.  His team-mates, from the manager down, were always predictably and inevitably slow to gather and change.  There had been a handful there when he opened the changing room door, amiable greetings, handshakes and banter exchanged, kit forced into his arms.  So he had dutifully changed.  Numbers looked desperate for a period, then they had surged into the changing room with minutes left to the official kick off, which was only ever a rough guideline.    

So, if we now have enough numbers..? Paul thought, standing there in limbo between clubhouse and pitch.  He walked back to the building and met the Northern Irishman at the bottom of the steps. 

“How many players you got now?” Paul asked.
“Thirteen,” he replied.
The obvious next question was whether that thirteen included Paul or not, but he didn’t ask it and the manager didn’t confirm.
“Ah, you’re comfortable then.  Look, I think I’ll do one then,” Paul said, meaning he’d go.  “I don’t much fancy standing around in this,” he added, gesturing the dank grey weather by way of explanation.
“Well it’s only 45 minutes then I’ll stand around in it.”
“Yeah, but I’m not feeling so great anyway so…”
There was a small pause as they looked to one another for a reaction or decision, players from other teams walked around them, heading to the pitches.  Paul knew it was a mutiny of a sort, but he wasn’t throwing a tantrum about it.  Just changing his mind.
“Look, good luck yeah?” Paul said, and headed back inside to change out of his kit.

Other teams were marching from the building towards the park as he left, the blustery drizzle still falling and sweeping sideways.  It added to a peculiar sense of finality.  The next scheduled game was somehow the last in the season, despite the many January and February postponements, underlining the relatively small size of the league.  Most of its teams were far better than Paul’s and their final game was a double header: two matches of an hour each, both of which they would almost certainly lose heavily.  He’d give it a miss.   That match a month earlier could have been his last for the club, especially considering he was still toying with the idea of leaving the city.

nesting

As the motorway ribbon unwound in front of him, Toby wondered about the last twenty four hours and the city he’d left four years ago but still felt peculiarly attached to.  It had associations of student days and the faltering beginnings of a career, the first years of parent-free independence.  Waking in the affluent suburb a short walk from the centre, its peacefulness struck him: that quiet.  He had lived in this part of town for a while too, had enjoyed it, but like everywhere, eventually grown bored and restless.  Though a capital city of reasonable, if not enormous size, its local feel always surprised him on returning.  The way he could walk through the town and see a number of familiar faces: ones he knew and would stop and speak to, others who were only ever familiar faces, but who were almost belligerently still there, permanent seeming fixtures. There was a homely comfort to be found in the localness, despite that grating anti-Englishness which pervaded so much.  Earlier that lunchtime, Toby and his friend had idly walked through town, fending off hungover drink-weariness after a night on the town.  High streets awash with lunching office staff, shoppers and a plentiful supply of predatory clipboard clutchers, they had stopped and spoken to no fewer than three old acquaintances, friends, forgotten people.  This sort of thing didn’t happen in London. Toby remembered his reasons for leaving: seeking change and difference after being there too long.  Few of his friends shared the ideology; they were happy enough to stay put, so had.  That lunchtime had been gloriously sundrenched and the city looked good; a gigantic makeover of a city centrepiece had recently been completed, injecting a creative, continental feel.  It was difficult not to be impressed by the city he used to consider his home.  In a strange way, he still did.  Because of the memories it invoked?  Because this was still where he had lived the longest?  Or merely because of the general rich remembrance of details after a long time away; homage.  That travel agent where we booked our trip, that bar where we met those nutters, that shop where you bought that dodgy shirt for that party.    Why did he live in London if he didn’t need to?  It was a question a few people had asked him over recent months.  One which he had no answer to.  If it’s expensive, which it is, and you’re not that happy there, which you’re not… then..  Have you now paid you’re London dues?  Done it for a while as young people do, so now you can return, back out, go somewhere else to slowly wither and shrivel?  Or might you be energised with the possibility of newness, different places, an engine to go and visit new regions?  But are you remembering the city too fondly, nostalgically, and forgetting the shit? Toby asked himself as he overtook a Mercedes.  You knew more people, technically had more friends, but were essentially just as bored and lonely there, if you remember.  Don’t be seduced into going back, returning to the cosy familiarity because you happened to see a few people you know one sunny lunchtime, he warned himself.  Press on.  But is that what you’re doing?  The other side of his brain counter argued with himself.  Pressing On?  He dabbed the brake pedal gently, increasing the space between his car and the van in front.  Really?  Sitting in that room all day everyday not doing a great deal, that’s pressing on is it?  Oh fuck off, he told himself, indicating left to leave the motorway.

brian

Brian had prepared himself, had expected it, but it still came as a suckerpunch as she refuted all his suspicions within an email, raised hope, then landed the ‘however.. friends’ blah in the final paragraph.

He had realised the obvious lack of chemistry too, of course.  Much as he tried to generate it, flirting doesn’t come naturally to Brian – being the victim does.  Being claimed by ropey tarts, not that that happens too much these days.  He understood that they were off kilter on a number of things, but on the same wavelength with a small number too.  She was more attractive than he’d remembered – had made a real effort, embarrassingly more than he.  On top of this, she was reasonably smart, demographically and culturally similar (white middle class English), not obviously insane: which all in all amounted to the best opportunity in some time.

They had missed and jarred in a few places throughout the course of the evening, she didn’t share his above average – ok, borderline fanatical – commitment to interests: football, film, music.  Brian internally groaned inside when she gave that empty, “oh, a bit of everything really” answer, in response to “what sort of music are you into then?”  That answer means you’re not really into anything.  He had sipped his drink politely and changed the subject.

Brian’s willingness to compromise unproudly grows with each year.  He no longer expects instant chemistry and fireworks, and if this were to ever occur, he would instinctively doubt the other.  He’s happy to be preyed upon by those who’ve been around the block a few times and see him as easy vulnerable meat, but if he were to be subjected to serious interest by someone who was smart and attractive, who he undeniably connected with and strongly liked from the outset: that would ring all manner of frightening alarm bells.  He simply doesn’t invest in the myth anymore, not for him.  Not after the things he’d seen.  Nobody could connect with him like that.

No, anything would have to be worked at, persuaded, coaxed along, requiring of effort; all of which he was prepared to do in order to not be a pathetically lonely idiot forever, to not grow more bitter, angry and generally miserable than he is already.  It would be fine, you just had to be methodical about these things, he reasoned to himself.  No point getting upset about it, not yet anyway. 

Brian works alone, lives alone and as a largely sour bastard, has few friends.  If he lived anywhere less easy to be anonymous than London, he imagines he’d be suspected of things, a source of gossip for elderly villagers perhaps.  The truth is that he’s not even that interesting.

He half watches a television news report in his immediate, mopey, blew-it-again rejected funk.  Something to do with the serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe and all the women he’d killed.  Always an option, Brian idly supposes, beginning to perversely empathise.  Not that he’d have the bottle to do that again.

spat out

“Well, I try not to be myself, as much as possible,” I finally relented and explained to my brother in the pub.  “You know, feigning like I’m an upbeat, positive sort of character.  Sometimes they buy it.  And I do too.”
He was giggling, we were onto our second large glass of tasty but extremely expensive Shiraz.  I was disgusted at the price of the round, no wonder I never usually drink it in pubs.
Pressed by the craving to physically voice the garbage that populates this silly identity, the urge to speak it to somebody I know in real life, I eventually caved in.
I explained my misgivings to him, why I didn’t speak about it, and he laughed, before acting exactly as I knew he would.  That faux patronising, “aww, but that’s so sweet, she sounds so eligible”.  I knew a reasonably adult, man-to-man conversation with him would be out of the question.  He would giggle, make fun and patronise  Even so, it still felt good to speak it, and out it tumbled with amusing punctuations, humour, genuine laughter on both sides.  It made it less serious somehow, not so important really – despite beating myself up over it most of the weekend, healthily removing, explaining my accidental, gauche inclinations like this.
“So, all I’d need to do would be log into your laptop, find this Twitter account and blog?  Mum would go mental.”  He always worries about what Mum would think, first and foremost.  It’s quite tiring.  Yes, my shrug said.  And I pretended not to be terrified of the prospect. 
“You know, basically I’m still a twat given to screwing up any potential opportunity in stupidly clumsy manner,” I concluded.
Hence swashbuckled.