doorstep challenge

I pocketed my keys and glanced down the stairs.  Through the front door’s lower pane of glass I saw feet and legs, horizontally splayed across the doorstep.

Erm.

Was someone trying to extract a letter from one of the flat’s letterboxes?  Was it a labourer working at a meter I didn’t know was there?  I descended the short flight of steps and opened the flimsy door.  Ours was a block of flats tucked into a missable corner of the court, but it had long concerned me that the lock was weak, the door easy to break if you wanted to.  One not especially hard, well-placed kick could see you inside without much problem.

On the doorstep I discovered a man in his mid twenties, lying prone across the doorstep.  He wasn’t addressing the letterboxes or any concealed meter.  He wasn’t addressing anything at all.  Closely cropped hair, unshaven and wearing dark clothes – a black shellsuit-type top, he wobbled unsteadily on his knees, neither conscious nor unconscious.

“Hello mate!” I addressed him, wondering if he posed me any immediate threat.  I didn’t want to touch him but carried on talking loudly at him, trying to rouse him.  “What’s going on here?!  You alright pal?!”

Gradually he stirred, facing away from me, heavily concussed, never looking directly at me but aware I was there.  His face was bleeding; crusty red, caramelised-marks scarred his face from a beating he’d taken maybe an hour or two earlier.  He slowly found his unstable feet and staggered away from the building.

I followed close behind.  This wasn’t good but did it merit an emergency call?  I gestured the sign of telephone to him as he sketchily looked back at me, tottering off in zigzags, knock-kneed.  He walked squarely into a bush and bounced out of it.  “You sure you’re all right?  You want me to call anyone?  Ambulance?”  He found the narrow gap out of our courtyard and away, towards the canal, perhaps retracing the same route he’d used to get in.

Maybe it didn’t warrant blocking up an emergency phone-line, but it needed reporting.  I remembered seeing an Ambulance parked out the back before I left the flat, just over the footbridge.  It struck me as peculiar because if it had been for a hotel resident – the only building in that immediate vicinity, it would have driven into the hotel car park, not outside.

Compelled to report it I decided to walk in the direction of town, rather than in the direction of the bay, as planned.  I’d find a policeman or car or ambulance soon enough.  A police van overtook me and stopped at a set of traffic lights fifty yards ahead.  I broke into a run to catch up with it, knocked on the window and, faintly embarrassed to feel breathless after what was a short run, quickly explained my findings to a distinctly nonplussed looking driver.  “Oh yeah, we’ve just come from there,” he said, looking pissed off.  “I’ll turn round now.”  Clearly something had happened but he wasn’t going to tell me what.  Our short exchange concluded before the lights changed from red.

While I’d clearly judged the character as unsavoury from the outset and might have extended more basic human sympathy had he not fit a certain type quite so well, I’d done my bit.

As I was headed in that direction, I walked on into town, a taste of unsettling violation permeating within.  Whatever criminal violent shit had brought that guy to my doorstep?  What actually goes on a stone’s throw from where I live, work and sleep?  A cosmetically safe, respectable place where other singles, couples and families live?  It’s city living.

Even so, you don’t really want those things happening so very close to home.  They’re just for films and fiction.  Not for what happens when you open your flimsy front door.

best in class

I’m fairly middle class and have no obvious material hardships to speak of, so my inverted snobbery is even more nonsensical, and perhaps even flawed.  In truth I’m not sure how legitimate my criticism is, or how much it’s influenced by my own bitterness and severely stunted, never-out-the-blocks ambition.  There’s my caveat for what follows, which could all be bollocks.  Or partly bollocks.

However, it increasingly seems to me that those in front of and behind cameras are rich kids done better.  At the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday the room seemed largely populated by the already rich and powerful, even the youthful ones had that sheen of belonging.  Not many looked like they didn’t fit.  The BAFTAs host, Jonathan Ross, and his buddy Ricky Gervais stand out because of their comparatively modest roots, the fact they had to work harder to be brutally different and stand out.

In the DVD ‘making of’ extras for gritty urban British debut film, ‘Shifty’ – done on a shoestring budget of a hundred grand and shot in four weeks – the makers, producers, writers, didn’t seem all that gritty and urban to me.  More like they could have been called Rufus or Will.

If there’s talent and ambition and drive enough, we can hope it will come through.  But my sense is that today it’s only getting a whole lot harder.   For this generation of recessionary strugglers, those who don’t or haven’t had parents able to tide them over while they chase their dream, the reality of having to make money means ambition can easily bleed away.

I’m similarly cynical about successful business start-ups.

When the risk is reduced because the financial parental cushion is behind them, or because Daddy’s mate runs a successful VC company, there’s more freedom.  When the fear of failure is reduced, it’s much easier to try.

With the added ‘who you know’ bonuses, a splash of dedication and a sprinkling of ability, you’re well on the way.

a new friend

The transition from team-mate to friend is probably not much different to any brokered friendship.  You start with a common ground of going to one place over a sustained period: a class, a group, a pub or a club; you do your thing while you’re there; you separate and come back together and do it again.  You can sense things about them from what they say and how they behave, and you gravitate towards certain people and not others as a result.

You’re presented with a choice – whether it’s made consciously or not: keep your acquaintance within those known parameters or go an extra inch.  There’s seldom any harm or risk in it: seeing if they’re ok outside the environment in which you know them best.  Particularly if they’re the same gender.

It was clear after just a few chats that he and I shared a few things.  Most importantly perhaps was our self-confessed status as loners.  At 36 he’s much further embedded than I.  I don’t know if he’s more comfortable or if he just seems to care less, although he doesn’t appear to care very much about anything.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t put effort in on the park.  A nifty-footed midfielder still with a decent turn of pace, he’s clearly played a few levels higher and you can see why some call him “Messi’s Dad.”  The truth is he’s actually the older cousin of a star Premiership player with commendably strong family values.  I won’t say I haven’t thought about selfishly developing the friendship as a route to tickets.  I’m not sure if this is a realistic prospect, but I can dream.

Beers on club socials have been followed by beers on a smaller club gathering last Saturday, and beers during the football on Wednesday.  He’s also an avid cinemagoer, on a par if not exceeding my regularity.  He travels long distances to attend film festivals and thinks nothing of killing whole days watching back-to-back movies.  It was this added to football which cemented a familiar kinship of some kind.  We’d tumbled from an early evening screening at around the same time and stopped to chat.  “So, you’re the kind of bloke who doesn’t like to admit how often he actually goes to the cinema too, aren’t you?”

We’ve spoken about being single, living alone, travelling alone and general independence.  As a former army man who spend a good amount of time in Northern Ireland, he’s on a different level of self-sufficiency to me.  He confessed with a modicum of embarrassment (“I don’t tell many people this”) about spending two weeks entirely alone in a rural Tasmania when travelling, thanks to experience picked up in the field, in various places.  I instinctively knew what to ask about, and what I couldn’t.  Or shouldn’t.  He has weathered narrow eyes which look like they’ve seen, you know, pretty bad shit.

There is something not entirely normal about him, I admit.  Not the sort of guy who’d spontaneously flip, but so calm and able it might be difficult to communicate with him at times.  If he decided to shut down on you, there would be no way back in.  In a way we’re both typical potential psychopath murderer types.  People might say of both of us, like they say of psychopaths, that we’re quiet men without many friends who live alone.  I’d really like a rampaging gunman to be a nice Dad and Husband of flawless repute.  Just once.  It’s always the single lonely guy who’s subjected to suspicion and bad press.

We’ve spoken about implicit rejection from other social groups as you get older and remain single.  First couples split off with each other and, after a period, they friend-up with other couples.  Then couples with kids friend-up with other couples with kids – potentially marginalising those without, and singles with kids do with other single parents.  We appear to seek symmetry in our friendship groups at each stage of our lives, and it can seem nonsensical.  Perhaps more so to the marginalised, to whom it feels more pronounced, less like a natural thing, more like a lazy thing.  Should a single person really rock the core balance of a couples’ dinner party?  Perhaps it’s unnecessary over-empathy, fear of awkwardness, a culturally British thing.

We’ve spoken about how friends, older, best known ones, can be shit.  How they can let you down and how you need to get out and do it yourself if you want to travel.  How you can’t sit and moan and wait for them all the time.  Perhaps there’s been a degree of smugness in those chats as we’ve virtually slapped each other on the back over our pints of Guinness.

Sitting in coffee shop reading a book during a slow mid-February afternoon, not at the peak of spirits, my mobile wobbled with a text.  He was going to see two films: he knew I’d seen the first (already discussed) but if I fancied Paul, the second?  I was also heading to an early evening screening but wasn’t fussed about the second and told him as much.  We bumped into each other by the escalators, where he was waiting for another friend who was running late, or might not show up.

Do I want to be quite so settled in my solitariness as my new friend aged 36?  No.  Looking at him I see how it happens, that inexorable slide into caring less, giving up, taking what’s offered when it’s there.  How is it halted?  By good fortune or not at all?  You deal or don’t.

the rejector seat

“Youcn awll come back to mine if you want?” she slurred and wobbled slightly, moving towards the door, her friend holding her arm.

My team-mate looked at me hopefully. He’d been chatting to her friend, who though marginally more sober, wasn’t the finest female specimen in the world either. He wasn’t bothered. “Shall we then? Want to?”

“No,” I said. “Not even a tiny bit.”

“Oh, really? I…”

“No mate.”

“No just for a..?”

“No.”

Soon after he’d made the introduction of his colleague, I felt hunted.. She stood slightly too close and employed a frighteningly fixed style of eye contact. She was a big-boned woman, rather obvious and very drunk. We had cyclical conversations because she remembered nothing I said, despite seeming interested and looking as if she was listening.

“Well do YOU remember MY name?”

“Yes.”

Much as I empathised with her booze-addled memory, it was refreshing to be on the more sober side. Eventually I began inventing different names for myself, a girlfriend (failed to have the desired effect), new occupations and ways how I knew her colleague.  But she never registered them and never gave up trying to win my favour.

Mindful my team-mate was still chatting to her friend, and not wanting to be rude, I kept chatting – it was more entertaining than not chatting, watching her wobble about the place and not really know what she was talking about. I briefly felt like a strangely proud, weirdly noble figure in the great male / female game, like I’d won something back.

Being in the rejector seat felt like clawing back a consolation goal during a heavy defeat. See? It’s not ALWAYS me sacrificing pride.

*

Several hours earlier the assembled substitutes and substituted yelled at me from the touchline to keep close to the young black kid up front. Within twenty seconds he’d glided past me once again. The last man in defence, I lamely grappled at his upper arm but he still gracefully broke free and lofted the ball over our goalkeeper to make it five. It was miserable. Most of the opposition were literally half my age and I was never fast even when I was their age. They were so gleeful and smug and adolescent and eminently smackable. I sat disconsolately in the muddy goalmouth as our keeper went to retrieve the ball from his net. I thought about not playing next week. It stopped being fun when games kept going like this.

In the pub afterwards – uncharacteristically packed out thanks to the Scotland-Wales rugby match, the immediate memory of our match faded and momentum developed around the idea of beers that evening. Having no plans, I was easily tempted.

It meant tolerating a young, boring buffoon with terrible breath for large slices of the evening. Standing, nodding, listening to him drone uninterestingly, convinced what he was saying was interesting and / or amusing, while infecting my nasal passages with that odour and not flinching: it was an ordeal, and not much fun either.

Thankfully others joined to lighten the blow and I shuffled towards them.

One was employing a novel media tactic in his own personal crusade for female attention: a YouTube mashup of stills and video content taken from his Facebook profile set to an upbeat dance track and spliced with witty quotations about how great he is. Crafted with a healthy quotient of cheese and irony, it was an amusing watch and had been receiving mixed results, helping him to secure a number of digits from girls in bars, and even on the street during nights out.

I was then declined entry to a nearby venue with a dress code, due to over-casual footwear. The doorman couldn’t be persuaded to swap. Three, less club minded amongst us broke away to late traditional pubs, leaving Mr Halitosis and Mr YouTube sensation behind.

We might have appeared an odd mix: the 21 year-old bashfully scruffy northerner, the 36 year-old hook-nosed ex-army guy with ferrety blue eyes, and me. Although conversation remained fairly simplistic, it was fine. The 36 year-old made me feel better about myself: also long-term single, also frequents the cinema alone slightly too much, also tired by female trials, also a dreamer and a traveller. I don’t want to be him in six years’ time but it showed that this sort of thing happens; there are others.

Our young northern striker left us to get food and head back to his girlfriend and we went to find one more pint and recycle conversations we’d already had once or twice in the evening. It was in the final late, dark, locals’ pub that we bumped into his colleagues.

the power of like

And lo, the uncharacteristic glut of back-to-back weekend social activity continued..

The late time, the dark bar / club setting, the rough degree of intoxication: all were similar to previous weeks. The key difference this time was that I rationally figured out that I liked her. It wasn’t even entirely driven by phwoar lust, though naturally there was an element of that in the first instance: she was attractive, I was attracted.

More notable than this was her manner and confidence, an openness and mischievous humour – not unlike my own. There was a flirtatious crackle and pace to the conversation of the kind which had been sorely wanting a week before. And this time there were no immediately obvious barriers of distance or age.

Again I had consumed more than enough alcohol to drink, but I was functioning reasonably well. However, when I rationally deduced the extent of my like, I stalled. It congealed as we spoke into a drippy cooing Fuckinell clot in my brain, impeding the flow of other thought. This led to a pause in which I hoped I didn’t appear to be leering, and Nice To Meet Yous, and an end to our first chat.

We went back to our groups and came together a couple of times, I actively sought her out. Forgetting her name the second time didn’t help to smooth my progress.

My group of football team-mates splintered further, people headed away, it was late, folk were drunk. I’d had enough as well.

Why do I find those horribly forward words so impossible to expel. “Could I get your number?” Doesn’t feel like it should be so hard. – Not that I even knew she was single, and could hardly have been surprised if it turned out that she wasn’t. (Ok, this one would have provided an irritating barrier). But the truth was that asking that question never really occurred to me. It’s just not in my repertoire. The potential for awkward snubbing is far too great. I’m a coward who shirks risk on many levels.

So although I know females usually want males to initially assume control, they want you to drive, I’m rarely able to do that. It’s much easier to place a business card into her palm when you kiss her goodbye (I don’t actually use them for much else) then run away and hope that maybe – you know the chance is slim, but maybe..? – and pathetically pine, and be ultimately disappointed again. Because of course she has a boyfriend and you barely registered in her evening at all.

I love all this shit. It never ever gets tedious in the slightest.