Moving backwards

London’s scale tires you now.  You live in an inner anywheresville suburb and you’re considering a move two steps back to City 1.  This is as much for the people and the place – which you’re fond of (though beware the blurred unreliability of nostalgia), as for the sake of change, of refreshment and difference – which you need.

Is moving back admitting defeat, going backwards, reversing? 

It shouldn’t be, of course. 
Go where you think you’ll be happiest.

That makes reasonable sense.  But there’s still that nagging feeling that you’ve given up, resigned ambition and sense of discovery by failing to seek newness again, rejecting a forward step in favour of a backward one, even if the city you’re moving back to isn’t of an insignificant size.

Discarded dreams of living overseas seem silly now, naive and idealistic.  Perhaps if you’d had balls and said ‘screw it’ a year ago: just went, flew by the seat of your pants a little, then who knows?  Not a strategy for the risk averse though, or for those comfortable with a certain living standard.  You didn’t want to wind up in a huge houseshare doing an average office job in an overseas country just because it was an overseas country, did you?  You still don’t.

Do you?
Or do you.?
No. You’re getting too old for all that now.
But still.

You don’t know.

Another part of you wonders if you shouldn’t stop moving from city to city.  Get a new flat or move to a different part of town, sure.  But only by hanging around a place for a while can you gain a real mass of contacts and connections.  It takes time to develop in the same way a business can, the number of people who are willing to pay you money for doing what you do.  You have to sit tight and hold your nerve.  Cutting and running means you keep having to start again and starved of water / beer those young sapling connections wither and die.  You had periods this year when you thought perhaps you were beginning to develop such a network. 

And your romanticised view of City 1, those memories and associations you’re applying are disproportionately positive.  Like fond memories of an ex, you don’t recall the crap stuff so readily, how your supposedly best mates can be generally rather rubbish.  They have their own lives and partners now anyway.  You’ll still be sitting in a room – albeit perhaps a nicer one – on your own, doing exactly the same work you’re doing now: work which you feel largely ambivalent about.

But you need the promise of change.  Difference.  A closer feeling community with fewer people, even if it’s ostensibly artificial. 

You wouldn’t be dying by making a move back.  Your passport wouldn’t be stamped LOSER and frozen for all time.  It’s just one move and all the cities of the world will still exist if you make it.  There’s nothing final about the decision. 

Having said that, you could see yourself tiring of City 1 again in another 18 months to two years, getting restless and retracing your steps by moving back to the smaller cosy betweeny City 2, still easily restless, still unshackled, still free but utterly aimless. 

And then what?

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The charmability / novelty equation

A number of female demographics are eminently more charmable than others: Mums are quite a cinch; in fact most mature ladies over about 40, old people, generalising wildly, but those from overseas can be relatively easy to defrost too.

On the other end of the spectrum there’s the severe impossibility of females who occupy roughly the same demographic, but sit on the other side of the gender fence.  White middle to upper middle class, youngish, upwardly mobile women.

There’s a sturdy drawbridge which tends to abruptly slam down whenever I say “hello.”  I don’t know why this is.  Guarded uptight Britishness, maybe.  Natural defence in the face of a probable leery prat, perhaps.

I’ve enjoyed as much success with members of the fairer sex from foreign climes, as with those from the home turf.  Novelty helps here: I’m comfortable slotting into the English type, adhering to preconceptions.  I enjoy it and find it easy adopting the affable English outsider persona.  It works like nothing else back home.  And I’m no good at accents.

At a professional function, a middle eastern barmaid was considerably easier to chat with – notwithstanding that this was obviously her job – than the arctic yet predictably attractive PRs.  It’s remotely possible they knew I worked in a similar field so were uninterested to begin with.  But the effort involved in engaging in a professional conversation was considerable and I soon withdrew.

While this was a professional context, it could be applied elsewhere.  There appears to be a direct equation between charm and novelty.  You’re seldom charmed by anyone who appears quite ordinary.  There’s a spark of difference, a wit or style of flattery that penetrates and disarms.  If, to those of a similar age and background, you immediately appear just like everyone else – you have no dazzling smile or devilishly handsome looks upon which to fall, there is no immediately obvious Unique Selling Point, you’re not even dressed to impress. Is it only natural to assume disinterest?  Especially if they’re barely inclined to listen or engage.

Because if they did listen, even if only for a moment, then they’d almost certainly want to dive into your pants right away. Or not.

Fearsome female control freakery

I had my doubts about his girlfriend before: was she insecure in the relationship, horribly cold, a control freak, an attention seeker, merely a tiring ball-ache?  I was meeting up with him for the first time in about two months, a fast-talking young Scottish guy with bags of energy.  Our pre-Christmas relationship had fizzled as we realised professional, personal and social differences. 

Still, we did get on well and didn’t want to lose touch, so we decided to meet up later in the Thursday evening, after the leaders’ election debate, in the upstairs bar of a dimly lit, sofa-rich venue in Soho.

We’d only been there for about half hour when his phone buzzed, and he said the words in passing, before answering the phone.

“Laura’s coming, by the way..”

“Oh.”  My heart sank.  It was covertly agreed beforehand that this would be a boysy catch-up.  We’d enjoyed evenings before Christmas like this, where, freed from his girlfriend, we’d had several drinks and chatted to girls: had fun.  Despite being in a long term relationship, he clearly loved it (“all in the chase, man”): the attention and thrill of performance which he revelled in.  He explained where we were to her, then hung up.

“Yeah, sorry.  I didn’t know.  She’s been out with a mate from work so…”

She arrived a few minutes later, drunk and gabbling about cocktails, hijacking the evening for a time, consummately strangling the momentum of chat we’d built up.  I nodded, smiled, asked civil questions about work and her teaching course – she was clearly destined to become yet another female teacher who spoke excessively about her work.  It was starting already, I thought, listening, glazed over.  My friend had recoiled at the social invasion too, even though she was his girlfriend.  He became quickly tired, sullen, unresponsive and slumped in the sofa like he wanted it to swallow him.  I continued to make polite small talk with her, not much caring about the answers to my questions. 

She’d sat without a drink for a short time, saying she didn’t want one immediately because of those crazy strong cocktails.  When I rose to visit the bar, she gladly accepted my offer.

I returned, graciously deposited bottles of beer (“you’re very welcome”) and resumed chatting about business to my friend, marginalising his girlfriend.  I‘d bought the pain in the arse a drink; the least she could do was let us talk about what we wanted to talk about.  Hell, I’d be really charitable and not even mind if she wanted to join in. 

But predictably enough, she didn’t.  She sat there peripheral and vaguely sulky.  Neither of us made any attempt to change the conversation or integrate her and she didn’t try to become more involved, sitting there mute and drunk, swigging distractedly at her beer.

On finishing the bottle, she began pulling on her coat and looking pointedly at her boyfriend.  We’d only been there little over an hour in total.

“I’ve got to go, I have to be up for work in the morning,” she said.

“…” 

Chilly glances and icy looks were exchanged. 

“You going too then mate, or…?” I asked, my voice wavering, tension escalating deliciously.

“Er, ehmm..” he dithered, not knowing.

“If you want to see the lady home, that’s cool,” I said.  “We can call it a night.”

She saw he was more leaning towards staying there, letting her go.  Those cold eyes of hers returned.  She was used to getting her way, bending her malleable man.  That sort of thing terrifies me about females.

Still he said nothing assertive, either that he’d stay or go, exuded a confused ambivalent lethargy.

“Right.  Ok then!” she said, and walked out.

“You want to go after her?”

“Nah, she’ll be fine.”  He shrugged, as if he didn’t care.  “Want another one then?” he smiled, a lightbulb flicked back on.

He tried to persuade me that I would get on with her if I spent more time with her, if we went out on full nights together.  I wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince me or himself.  He’d said this once before, following the chip incident, and I’d blithely nodded in agreement.  Yeah, maybe.. (whatever, don’t care). 

When I mentioned potential wedding bells, he blibbled uncertainly like men do, but said that she had mentioned it.  “I’ve got an empire to build man!” he exclaimed.  I asked him if he wanted to though: marriage etc. if everything with her was all going well enough.  He shrugged. 

Given my expert form in relationships, I counselled, “If you love her, go for it, living together for two and a half years should have given you a good enough idea.  If you don’t, shit, you’re 25 years old mate.”  I left it at that, not needing to scream at him that he could be completely wasting his youth.  Because he’d actually use it too, wholeheartedly seize a young, single metropolitan life with everything he has.  Unlike me, who sits back, thinks too much, doesn’t so much go with the flow as build a dam, then effortlessly screws up.

He shrugged again, not wanting the conversation, so we moved it on elsewhere.

brief befriending

The first floor function room of his preferred local pub regularly screened live football matches.  Large, airy and high-ceilinged, it was an elegant old room which overlooked the Thames.  More than this, it was perfect for watching football.  No active bar, seldom anyone in there who wasn’t concerned by the action on-screen, Barry felt less self conscious about sitting on his own watching football.  Several lone men often dotted the room, sitting like toddlers transfixed by CBeebies.

It was clear that there had been a function in the room before he arrived.  The far side of the room was populated by little over a dozen football fans.  All of them Arsenal, Barry suspected: a smattering of red, a couple of those retro yellow away tops.  Yuck.  The near side of the room, where Barry had entered, was populated by a mixture of glassy-eyed emotional people who hugged a lot and didn’t know if they were coming or going.  Tables were littered with bunches of expensive looking flowers.  None of them wore black, but this was presumably at the request of the deceased.

Barry stood between the two zones in no-man’s land, his eyes on the screen in the near-side, waiting for the emotional huggers to disperse or sit down, so he could pick a seat.

“Are they coming or going?” Barry asked a man around his age who had taken a stool in the near-side half of the room, and nodded towards the cluster of milling people.

“Going, I think,” he replied, cheerfully enough, and looked back at the screen.

“Kaboul’s playing?” Barry asked.

“Yeah, I know,” the bloke said, shaking his head.

“Krancjar suspended, or..?”

“No, injured.  You support Spurs too?” the bloke asked.

“Yeah,” Barry said.  “Are they all Arsenal over there?” Barry nodded to the other side of the room.

“Looks like it.”

Still, the whispy congregation in the near-side of the room showed no sign of going, kept hugging each other like it was an elaborate modification of pass the parcel.  Barry tired of standing like that and put his pint down next to the other bloke’s.  He took a stool from under the television screen on the other side of the room.

“Mind if I join you here?” Barry asked.

“No, help yourself,” he said.  Seemed like a decent bloke, Barry thought.

They sat and watched the football, exchanged disappointment about the recent semi final defeat and observed the congregation eventually settle.

On the screen, the football was punched clear from a crowded Arsenal penalty area.  Tottenham’s nineteen year-old debutant Danny Rose arrived to meet it, carefully watching it fall out of the air, thirty yards from goal, before carving his left foot through the ball.  The connection was perfect.  It arrowed between players and over the goalkeeper’s ineffectively clawing glove into the roof of the net.

Barry and his new friend were instantly on their feet, freed to cheer loudly in a pub largely containing Arsenal fans, because they’d found each other.  All jubilant fists and almost embarrassed wide smiles.  Fuck em.  Strength in numbers, even if that number was only two and their voices were the only ones that sounded.  Men in the other half of the room glowered.  It was an important match for their team too.

A searingly brilliant goal meant Spurs were beating their arch rivals Arsenal, a usually superior team, 1-0 in a crucial game.  Barry didn’t stop smiling for several minutes.

Over the following seventy minutes of the match, the room’s population of Arsenal fans grew: more appeared in the near side of the room, meaning they were hemmed in.  It didn’t feel bad.  Barry chatted with his new friend easily.  They exchanged names and occupations during the half time break, offered to buy each other beers – although their drinking paces were mismatched on each occasion.  He was a solicitor for one of the large firms in town (rich bastard then, Barry surmised), newly married, about to buy a house out in Kingston after five years renting in this area further up river.

Barry envied but liked him, and volunteered information about himself.

He always found meeting and conversing with men much easier than meeting and conversing with women.  Part of it was the neutered threat, the lack of any ulterior motive for innocent discourse.  Being relaxed.  He imagined he came across as a fairly ordinary bloke, happy to have a blokey conversation about football or business.  He was comfortable in this domain; no pressure, no relentless paranoia about how he was being perceived and judged.

It sounded obvious from the outline he gave of himself that there was no female or significant other, but he always wondered if he should qualify his sexuality more deliberately than saying I Play Football (and therefore I must be straight?)  If instead, he should say: “So you know, in case there was any faint doubt in your mind: I am single and straight.  Just useless with women,. Ok?”  Or if he should create a girlfriend to seem more regular and reliable.

Early in the second half Gareth Bale calmly sidefooted Spurs into a two-goal lead.  Again they leapt from their seats, clinched this time and amidst the heady euphoria, even came close to hugging.  It was a struggle to believe their two goal advantage.  The rest of the room hated them, their disdain palpable.  They giggled, still fixed on the screen.  God, this was fun.

Both men wondered aloud about doing this again, mentioned the remaining Spurs fixtures and whether they were on television, if they would come here to watch it.  Both said they probably would.  Barry wondered about swapping numbers, regretting again that he still hadn’t replenished his wallet with business cards.  Much easier to pass off a card with contact details, Barry thought, than go through that whole mobile device tapping game, which does feel a bit gay.  Even asking for a number in that situation, it was a bit much, awkward, and a declaration of Having No Friends.

Heurelho Gomes contorted himself impossibly to keep Arsenal at bay once again.  Barry exhaled, sipped his pint and shivered off the phone number idea, glad that he hadn’t done any such thing and compromised himself like that.

Arsenal scored, making the final ten minutes of the game a terrifying horror film.  Gomes continued to make a string of fine saves.  Arsenal fans in the room cheered louder and louder, evermore animated and anguished with each spurned chance, increasingly bitter towards Spurs and their fans as they revelled in the slender lead.  “Yeah yeah, well done Spurs, you’ll still come 5th!” one growled at the screen, revolted by what he was seeing.

“I Just Love The Fact We’re BEATING ARSENAL!  That’s all I really care about!” Barry said quite loudly to his companion but not really to his companion, eyes concentrated on the screen.  He was more drunk on the football than on the one and a half pints he’d consumed since kick off.  It looked possible now, they could hold on.  They really could do this!  His grin was spreading, he afforded himself the moment of being a dick.

The final whistle sounded, relief and joy were absorbed.  A final celebratory, congratulatory clinch.  It would be remembered, this game, by all the fans who’d witnessed it.  They did it.  Final dregs downed, no numbers swapped.  Barry needed to visit the Gents, his new friend had to get back to his wife.  “Maybe see you in here again then.”

It being London, they didn’t.

the zigzag home

Barry walked down the street, still tutting to himself and shaking his head, half looking for cabs.  He saw an open fast food shop with people trailing lazily out of the front door.  Chips sounded like a good idea.  He entered and joined a straggly queue.  Two American girls spoke pointedly at each other, around two other guys.  “Aw, man, tell me you’re not seriously considering..” the one asked of her friend, possibly sister, seeming appalled.  The subject of her disdain was standing right there, nonplussed.  He was fairly short, bald, mid thirties, slightly overweight and quite smug.  He was getting some tonight, he didn’t give a shit what anyone said or thought; fuck you, his face said.  Barry agreed with the one who had spoken: he looked horrible.  But her sister argued back, “Like YOUR love life is so perfect?!  What about that..” 

“Who’s next?!” an asian man in white overalls interjected over the counter.  Barry approached, placed his order and paid.  The ongoing entertainment fizzled out disappointingly as the protagonist tipsily retracted in a sulk.

Barry received his polystyrene box and looked around him.  There were seats and a sprinkling of sad looking, quiet, drunk people sitting at tables.  None were free.
“Do you want to join us?” a young female from one quiet couple asked him.  The man sitting opposite her looked grey and moody, like she was trying to aggravate him.
“Erm, no you’re all right, thanks,” Barry said, remembering how much hard work women were.  Worth the effort?  Yes, unfortunately.

He ate as he walked, the chips appearing to quickly disappear.  Perhaps he was hungrier than he imagined.  Disposing the polystyrene box into a bin, Barry found he was even less sure where he was.  It felt faintly dangerous, high rise blocks growing up around him as he walked further on, in what was surely the right direction, wasn’t it?  The residential buildings looming, there was nobody else on the street.  Don’t get mugged, don’t get mugged, he told himself in his head, as if telling himself not to get mugged enough times in his head was a surefire way of not getting mugged.  He consulted a map on his phone and grew more confused, slightly scared and walked back the way he had come, quickly finding a cab to ferry him back into the comfortingly populated centre.

At the Night Bus stop he chatted with a spindly disproportioned female whose microscopic skirt exaggerated infinite legs, although she still looked like somebody’s daughter.  She was studying in a small northern university town and missed London’s size and anonymity, hated the close, in each other’s pocket feeling of university.  London’s anonymity was what was beginning to depress Barry.  It could be handle if you’d just had a date like that, he supposed.  Unlikely to ever see her again, unlike if you live in a smaller city or town.  But rarely seeing strangers twice, never bumping into people, having to make military plans to meet up for a drink: that was a ball ache.   She got off the bus three stops before him and he wished her luck.

The formativeness of university, Barry pondered, gazing out of the window at the well-to-do riverside borough: it was a strange one. 

A week earlier he had chatted to a successful young radio DJ at a gig, a man a few years younger than him who had broken into mainstream radio at a sickeningly young age, when Barry was at university.  Now, despite appearing slightly bumbling and not innately charismatic in person, he was respected nationally, travelled widely, had nice, central pads in Cardiff and London.  Horribly likeable, complete bastard, Barry thought. 

He remembered chatting to him briefly at a gig during his university years, the best part of a decade ago.  Barry’s girlfriend at the time had had a thing for him and giggled like a schoolgirl when they spotted him at gigs.  This annoyed Barry, although he could appreciate that there was charm in his inauspiciousness, the way he could linger alone and unnoticed against the back walls of dark clubs in a totally unpredatory, unthreatening fashion, and be a reasonably influential figure. 

Having engaged him between songs by asking after local bands of his student era, Barry questioned how he broke through as a radio DJ at such a young age.  Hospital radio, a chance meeting, that local villagey, who-you-knowness of Cardiff.  Now he had one of the most enviable jobs Barry could think of, and he could feasibly do it for many years to come, if he wanted to.  “Thems the breaks,” Barry supposed.  But he didn’t strike Barry as a person in possession of especially dynamic, ambitious drive.  It had simply fallen for him, like life does for some. 

That could be unfair though: a convenient deflection for the bitter, cowardly and unbelieving.  As he reached the lower deck the bus lurched and slowed quickly, as if the driver had forgotten a passenger had dinged the STOP bell.  Barry allowed his knees to bend, compliant, and waited for the doors to open.

Date with contingency plan

Barry wasn’t very sure about it.  He was never exactly brimming with conviction where females were concerned, but at 36, she was more than just a couple of years older and the first couple of times they met were far from regular.  All the same, what did he have to lose?  It was worth a punt, the other options had long been exhausted, as expected, and she might even be a laugh.

She nonchalantly tossed a spanner in the works with another message received mid afternoon.  Could he bring a friend with him because a friend of hers was at a loose end and wanted to come along.  She wanted backup all of a sudden?  Barry said he’d ask around, but it was late notice.  He asked around but it was late notice, people had plans.  Then he received another message saying her friend had now remembered something she needed to do, so it was back to the original plan.

Females are designed to confuse me, Barry thought.

He passed through Vauxhall station, which was sprinkled with more than a few clusters of mean looking police officers, some of whom were questioning young people who didn’t look native.  A faint edginess was in the air, but Barry passed through freely enough, knowing he had over twenty minutes to make a ten to fifteen minute tube journey through town.  Sitting stationary in Pimlico for twenty minutes made him late, with no recourse mobile notification.  Other station platforms enjoyed mean looking police officers too, the tubes themselves were painfully slow.

Barry was just over half an hour late when he eventually emerged, and wondered if she’d have given him up.  He looked around the station entrance and his phone rang immediately.  He answered, continued his three hundred and sixty degree survey, and saw her.

Bit older, sure, but definitely not unattractive.  Great body; impressive, unignorable assets, perkily cheerful despite his lateness.  Generous make-up couldn’t disguise a chinline beginning to head south and a couple of pronounced lines which Barry didn’t yet associate with those in his immediate age group.  Human though, confident and brassy in line with his earlier drunken memory,clever too.  Not a bad start.

They went to a bar, bought pints and sat down at a small table.  Barry sensed she was more interested in talking than listening.  He often got that impression from females on dates.  But he was equally happy to ask the occasional question and let them conversationally lead, (and boy, did she conversationally lead).  A former saleswoman, able to get onto the property ladder when young people with regular jobs were able to get on the property ladder, just a touch materialistic and rather pleased with herself. 

Barry wished he didn’t make these harsh early judgements, wished he could vet his brain like a spam filter.  This wasn’t to say she displayed no interest in him at all, and she duly obliged with a series of questions which he duly answered.

They moved bars, it was still going ok.  This next bar was darker and she found them seats in a corner which was darker still and appeared to be populated exclusively by attractive young people on dates.  They drank more beer discussed football, arts, film and books.  A couple in the same section asked Barry and his companion to mind their seats while they went outside for a smoke.  The female of the couple, an attractive blonde, had asked as they left the darkened section.  She had put one hand on Barry’s shoulder and one on his knee and leant in close, addressing Barry’s companion and Barry with the request, which was introduced more ominously than necessarily.  “Can I ask you guys a favour..?”  Where had he been taken?  Was this ‘one of those’ places?  No.  She just wanted them to guard their seats. 

It reminded Barry how you became instantly less threatening in a male/female pairing.  There was no way he would have been approached like this if he had been with a male friend, in a larger group, or on his own.  Being out with a female gave such brilliant social acceptability, sudden validation.

Now it was getting late, almost last train times, but Barry had completely lost track of time and didn’t care that much.  Several beers apiece had been imbibed, he wasn’t thinking ahead, just enjoying the company and the conversation.

She asked the question he’d been dreading all night and it all momentum ground to a halt.  He’d had long enough to think of a plausible false answer, be imaginative and creative with it.  But he hadn’t so he drunkenly stumbled and choked on it instead. 

“Ok, I could think of something else to say, make something up.  But I’m just going to be honest,” he said.

“I’ll appreciate the honesty,” she said.

She didn’t appreciate the honesty.  Not at all. 

She’d asked what it was that he’d apologised for in the text, what it was that she couldn’t remember from that night when she’d been really drunk.  She just remembered reading the pathetically gushing apology the next day and didn’t know what it was for. 

Barry was unable to deflect the question now and his brain wasn’t up to the elasticity required of invention.  She didn’t accept a jokey change of subject so he told her the truth: there had been someone else he’d liked a bit better that night.

Females don’t like hearing that sort of thing.

Females like to be Number One as soon as you engage like that.  Barry is just happy to be considered at all, wherever he falls in any pecking order: 37, 4, wherever.  He knows that in a room containing any decent number of men, there will be better looking, more charismatic, smarter, funnier and richer bastards.  Being in with a shout is as much as he asks.

The truthful disclosure was an incredibly foolish move, he realised afterwards, quintessentially Swashbuckled in nature.  From that point she set out to unsettle him with a series of unanswerable questions.  “Oh, so I was second choice then?”  (Third or fourth actually, Barry thought).  This was precisely what had happened before, and what she had failed to recall: that she had discovered this and told Barry to fuck off, so he did.

Barry didn’t enlighten her about the other options from the speed dating, the other girl he had dated afterwards, the fact that yes: she had been at least third choice, maybe fourth.  Which was canny of him.   (“Now you are Number One though, there’s no more options left.  I messed all them up as well.  You’re not a contingency plan anymore; you’re the only plan left.”)  He thought it better not to any of say that out loud.

The evening had faltered late in the night, the bar kicking out, her enjoying Barry’s obvious discomfort and failing to accept his apology or move the conversation on.  She was offended at not being first choice, so she’s punishing me, Barry thought.  She grew flightily smug, supercilious and suddenly less likable.  It became annoying.  Listening to her gabble away haughtily, boringly, he clocked the time and sagged.  It was well past midnight and he was drunk, miles away from home and had unequivocally messed it up again.  All evening she had been fiddling with the neckline of her loose, round-necked black top, flicking it back and forwards, rearranging.  It was distracting.  Now Barry wanted to yank the fucking thing over her head, plunge her into full darkness and run away, leaving her to flounder.  But he didn’t.  He sucked up his punishment and sat there like a scolded child.

The last to leave the bar, they walked out onto the street and realised they were going in opposite directions, this was it.  He quickly kissed her cheek, said “goodbye, had a fun night, up until… anway.  I’ll erm.. yeah..” turned on his heel and walked off, trying to feel proud despite fucking up yet again.  Fucking up for being honest and flawed.  She said something to his back that he didn’t catch and cackled into the night sky.  Barry kept walking, looking out for cabs.

return

She sat down opposite me and leant across the aisle to wave her goodbyes.  I glanced out of the window on the other side but couldn’t quickly identify which cluster of frantically waving people were hers. 

At the previous stop a lone Mum had blown kisses and signed a heartfelt “I love you” to her daughter, who sat several rows ahead.  

The naked honesty of the gesture combined with a heartbreaking song The National were playing in my ears and with the horribly dysfunctional morning I’d just spent with my own parents.  Heat had momentarily squeezed into the back of my throat and eyes.

(The best son-mother tactic is to pretend everything’s all fine and be as relentlessly breezy as possible.  I can only do this for a finite time period.  Towards the end of a couple of days the front crumbles and I demonstrate hints of the grotesque emotional transparency found on these pages.  (I don’t walk around crying or anything; just being miserable, distant, irritable and not very nice)).

The girl sitting opposite was bleach blonde with serious split ends and a dowdy hippy look.  All the same, she hadn’t aged badly and appeared to have retained the open dizziness she zestily wore back then.  Confident and engaging, she smiled across the table but there was no semblance of any recognition.

She wore tiny leopardskin tops to some classes and was charged on artificial, possibly chemical energy which meant she was vocal in class.  We had quietly admired and leched at her from the back of the classroom: the kind of girl who had much older boyfriends and who would surely have kids by the time she was 21.

I didn’t have to talk and could have easily left my music in, not bothered.  I debated it in my head; whether or not to engage, mindful that this could be the last chance of a conversation with a real person for a while.  Sod it.  I popped out my earphones and stopped The National.

“Jo, right?” I asked, once we had moved off and travelled for five minutes.

“Yes, err, sorry..”

“10-ish years ago, an A Level class at the college just over…” I pointed.  We were coincidentally passing close to where our college’s messy string of ugly grey buildings had once stood.  Now there was a new housing estate  “..there.”

“Oh God, really?  I don’t remember much about back then to be honest.  I was quite.. you know, out of it a lot of the time.”

“Right.”

“Sorry, you are?”

I told her my name and she made a show of trying to remember, although she knew it was futile.  This is unsurprising.  I was exceptionally missable through all my educational institutions and making any impression even now, good or bad, is something I struggle with.  My initials are, probably coincidentally, ‘meh’: the same reaction I tend to generate. 

“No, no, sorry,” she said, “I don’t remember too much about back then.”

Over the next hour we chatted amiably about a range of subjects; that class and its tutor, bless her, work and travel: hers imminent, mine past  Conversation ebbed after a while as we fiddled with mobile devices and tentatively opened books.  We exchanged views on the books we were reading and offers of food from identical mother-made kitchen foil packages, (middle class British suburbia can be endearingly predictable).

The chat was companionable enough: she was a PA at a rich property company, was going travelling for the first time in July.

As we approached the city I wondered if and how contact details would be raised.  It absurdly felt easier because there was prior acquaintance, however vague and historic.  That made it acceptable. 

“Are you on Facebook?” she asked, waving her mobile, as if to search, find and add me as a friend immediately.

I poked in my wallet for a business card but there were none.  Swapping numbers was apparently premature.  In fact, Facebook was the perfect medium for underlining such a meeting.   Easy to block if annoying and never see again.

“Um, yeah,” I said.

“What’s your last name?”

When we arrived in London, I feared the sort of soul-wretching awkwardness that usually makes me want to squeal for years to come.  So I moved quickly. 

“Nice to remeet you again anyway, cheers!” I said.

“Yes, take care!” she said. 

I squirmed inside (because I hate Take Cares), and buried myself into the anonymous throngs.

second fiddle

It’s an easy, long standing joke; one which I naturally inhabit as second child, and one which I play to. 

In the local pub, to neighbours, while sitting next to Mum:  “No, I thought I’d come home because my brother and his family are visiting tomorrow and there’s always a party when they’re here.  There wasn’t even any milk last time I came back.” 

During a cobbled lunch when the six month old tot is lumped onto a rug in the corner of the room: “Get used to it, kid; regular second child treatment.” 

These truths are underscored with a thick line of knowing, black humour. 

Home-made biscuit tins were full, old toys taken out of hiding, meals planned, activities considered, “my” bedroom converted into a playroom.

It’s understandable that a two-point-four family would generate more excitement in a grandmother (my mother) than her difficult, unfathomable second son.  This is acceptable.  (I’m not without comparison to The Stone Roses’ Second Coming). 

This time though, Dad disappoints.  I’d mentioned wanting a car and he’d mentioned looking around here, at home, and back in London too, as there would obviously be more to choose from down there.  With a sturdy and knowledgeable sidekick in my father, I would feel confident in landing a reasonable vehicle.  The more research I did, the more I suspected that there would be a better deal to be had in London. 

In nearly three years there, he has never been down to visit me in London.  I make the effort to sponsor and support him when he runs the London Marathon – and will do again soon.  He also comes down now and then on brief business trips, but we don’t meet up.  I naturally bow to the familial obligation of returning home now and then to feel emasculated and underdeveloped. 

He’s just.. well, not all that bothered really. 

As well being slightly lazy (never cooks or cleans, takes long afternoon dozes), I think he may fear London now, despite living there for a few years in his crazy hedonistic youth.  He’s grown used to a slower pace and the roads he knows which connect villages and small towns.  I sense he’s not assured in managing city traffic and is unnerved by newness generally: easily panicked by plans and travel, never prone to impulse, a meticulous planner.

Yet for all that, a good man: always there for his family, generous with cash, helped out my brother and his family as much as you’d expect with funding houses and cars and children.  The second child has been less demanding in this respect.  

As we trailed a handful of limited garages in our local area, I gleaned from his answers that, having actually thought about it, he wasn’t all that keen to come to London and help me.

I was grateful for his imparted knowledge, The Things To Look For, and that he was willing to take me round these local garages.  But I wanted him to want to help me out that extra mile; make a two hour trip to London sometime, perhaps stay overnight.  It’s not a common sort of request.

Never one to persuade anyone to do anything they seem reticent about, I steered him away from the idea.  Even though I came to understand that I wanted him to counter me and say, “no, no, I can come down.”  It sank in, the familiar realisation that Dad isn’t really all that arsed. 

“So don’t feel you have to if you…” I said in the car as we drove home from the last small garage, because we often speak to each other in incomplete sentences.  “I mean I’ll happily just go it alone if you’re..”

He didn’t say anything, made a phatic murmuring noise – of which he has a great range.  This one’s meaning was a non-committal yeah, you can do.

A common father-son communication breakdown; I should simply express my wish for him to make the effort.  But I want him to want to himself.  And he doesn’t, so he won’t.