Julian's bedroom was a box-room overlooking the front lawn. We used to spend a lot of time in there – neither of us had a job and I would bring armfuls of LPs; a toppling pile that I had carried on the bus and that I insisted that we play before we do anything else. There wasn't any décor to speak of. There were no books, and he only had a record player because his mum and dad had bought him one; he hardly had any records. When they had moved in, his mother had wanted him to sleep in the big double room, at the back of the house, but he had refused. She'd put all his stuff in there, ready for him when he came home from school, but he had moved it into the box room and wouldn't budge. At first, his mother had attempted a series of little touches – tie-backs on the curtains, posters that she'd picked up in town, or even knick knacks that she'd brought home from holiday – but they always ended up in the bin. Julian didn't even try to hide it; he would leave whatever he was discarding face-up for his mother to find. She told me this the first time I met her. Now, this afternoon, we were at the dinner table and she had been drinking for a couple of hours. She had Julian's slanted-looking eyes but her mouth – equally bee-stung; equally provocative – looked incongruous on her thin, wary-looking face. Her hair looked frosted and was up in little peaks and curlicues. She leant across the table and stroked Julian's cheek.
"He's a sod", she said.
Julian pulled sharply away. She held her hand up uselessly for a moment and then retracted it.
She smiled, unevenly.
She bore down heavily on the last word. She stubbed out her cigarette, squeezing the last of the smoke against the bottom of the ashtray, making sure. Julian's dad was scraping plates, impassively, and slotting them into the dish-washer. She leant over for the wine. It was nearly empty. She upended it then shook it up and down like a bottle of sauce. Julian was staring down at his plate.
"He doesn't want to please his mum. He's stubborn, that's what he is."
She looked me over slightly.
"I bet he's not that way with you", she said.
Julian was still staring down at his plate.
"See that?", she said. "He's embarrassed. I'm embarrassing him."
She tried to stroke his hair.
"Look at it. Just like a girl's."
Wordlessly, Julian stood up and scraped his chair backwards. He walked out and, mumbling an apology, I followed him. He threw himself on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. His leg was going up and down but then he steadied it.
"Fucking old cow", he said.
I didn't know what to say. He sighed, making a theatrical diminuendo out of it. At last, he said,
"Go on, then. Put another one on. Go on."
I was making him listen to the things he hadn't listened to on the tape. David Bowie. Ella Fitzgerald. The lazily drooping notes of Sly and the Family Stone. Afterwards, I got out the guitar and made him practise his singing. He often bucked against it, folding his arms and pressing his lips together or else keening in a stupid high-pitched voice. I knew, though, that deep down he could see the sense of it. It was a matter of self-presentation – he wanted to be in the spotlight and he didn't want to look ridiculous. Now, he stood with his legs a little apart while I started strumming. This was the first song that I had written that would end up on a One Hand Clapping record. I had wanted to write something that sounded weightless; something that drifted, and tingled. Already, I was trying to write Julian's sexiness into the songs. He couldn't do it yet, though. His voice lifted and then fell, lifted and fell, like an injured bird. Whenever he attempted a low note, there was an outrush of wheezy breath.
"Jesus", I said. "You sound like Marilyn Monroe."
"Thanks very much."
"Well, you do. Listen: the guy's in pain but he's not in that much pain."
It was always "the guy".
"Now try again", I said.
"Boring old cunt."
Nevertheless, he was placing his hands on his hips again. It wasn't much better this time, but I let it go. He closed his eyes.
"Now all the clean-cut boys with TV smiles", he sang.
He made an unnatural little flourish.
"Are cleaning up, I'm watching soap."
The lyric makes me wince now: the prissy neatness of "clean-cut", "cleaning up" and "watching soap", all next to one another like matching crockery. Still, you can tell what I was thinking, and I value it because of that. Julian could never have written "Watching Soap"; even here, in his bedroom, floundering with a new means of expression, he was more graceful than I could ever be. He stood poised on his toes, like a dancer. His hair kept falling back into place. One night, in The Hand On Heart, he had started talking to a woman at the bar. She was lovely – she must have been in her thirties, but her eyes were deep brown, like Bambi's, and her hair went down her back in rivulets. Her boyfriend was standing next to her. When he went to make a phone call, Julian took her outside. This was a mature woman, who had been talking perfectly sensibly up until that point. Julian led her by her little finger. He could never have written "Watching Soap" or "Without Love" or "Too Much In Love" because he never did what I did, lying on the sofa, banging the circulation back into my leg, watching some rotten film or other and yearning, like an idiot, towards the screen. Julian was seeing four girls at once. There was one girl in particular, called Sam. Her face was perky, pesky even, like a Disney face. She adored him, and I adored her; it was entirely in the order of things.
He faltered, and then corpsed. I made him go over it another three times but then he threw himself on the bed.
"That's enough", he said. "I can't stand it."
He stared up at the ceiling, his arms flung out behind him.
"You're so diligent", he said.
He made it sound like a terrible insult. I sighted my guitar at him.
"You have the attention span of a child", I said.
"I am a child."
He rolled over and picked his jacket up from the floor. He took out his cigarettes and lighter.
"Open the window", he said. "I don't want her to catch me smoking."
"She won't be that angry, surely."
"Oh, she'll be delighted."
He stopped and slotted a cigarette into his mouth then pulled his hand away like a magician; the cigarette seemed to be growing out of his fingers. Lighting it, he pulled the smoke that he had just exhaled back into his mouth then exhaled again, slowly.
"She'll be my fucking co-conspirator."
He said the last word with even more venom than he'd said "diligent".
"She won't leave it alone. It'll be 'our secret'."
He shuddered. He had got up and was smoking out of the window, wafting his free hand backwards and forwards.
"What is it with you and your mum?"
He was staring out of the window and I couldn't see his face properly.
He ran his fingers through his hair.
"I don't know. She doesn't love my dad."
He seemed matter-of-fact about it. He had used invisible quote marks so that you could tell that his mum had told him this but he was also distancing himself from having to say it directly. He turned and looked at me. Just for a second – for the tiniest of moments – his face looked unguarded rather than challenging or opaque.
"I get the lot", he said.
I wasn't sure what he meant. He was squinting slightly, as though he was expecting a blow. Then it was over. He did a little pout.
"Anyway", he said, "fuck her."
I felt almost close to him. He had pushed his cigarette against the outside wall; it splintered into sparks. Then he threw it away, as far as he could, and got back on the bed. He carefully arranged himself, bending one leg under the other, and I played a couple more LPs. I couldn't tell if he was listening or not. I stayed for another hour but then I had to get back – I'd promised my dad that he could have the car. I'd only just passed my test and I was still having trouble organising my leg. Dad was tolerant, and amused. Both my parents were perfectly placid. They were approximately barrel-shaped and could sit on the sofa all night, with just a bowl of peanuts between them, letting the light from the TV dribble over them. They hadn't even got annoyed when I had told them that I didn't want to go to college; that I wanted to move to London, get a job and form a band. "You have to take these things as far as you can", my dad had said. It was infuriating. Any rage that I felt – and I cherished it, wherever it came from (the leg; I blamed the leg) - was smothered in an atmosphere of permissive blandness. Dad had a gun, a regulation army pistol, that he had stolen, or been given. It was still loaded but he kept it in a glass case in the hall. He had jokingly stuck a sticker on it: "Not to be opened except in case of emergency". I used to look at it sometimes and try to make the connection between it and him. I always failed.
I played all of this up for Julian, complaining about their lack of ambition and mimicking the way that they toddled slowly about the room, but I knew that I was never going to be like him, not really. True, I felt self-righteously disaffected, but I knew that I'd still visit them. Julian, on the other hand, had sworn that, once he had left, he would never go back. He was desperate to outdistance everything and everyone.
Which was why he jumped at the flat. It was in North London, a couple of miles beyond Wood Green, in a row of shabby town houses. We travelled up there the next week and got the landlady to show us round. She wrestled briefly with the key – backwards and forwards, like it was a safety deposit box – and then, at last, the door opened directly into the hall of the flat below. Upstairs, the flat itself had two bedrooms, one at either end, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom, which had been done out in a dull purple colour. There were patches of damp on the wall and odd little shadows on the carpet. There was no central heating, just gas heaters in the bedrooms and a heating light in the bathroom, and you had to light the cooker with a match. I was embarrassed but when I looked at Julian he was nodding and smiling. Talking to him, the landlady had obviously decided to let us have first refusal. She was old and her back was curved into a question mark. There were flecks of dried powder on either side of her nose and mouth. Nevertheless, Julian was murmuring down into her face. He was crooning, the way you'd talk to a baby or a lover. He had one hand on her arm and was steering her slowly away from the bedroom that faced the stairs. She was fascinated. There was, in her expression, the same kind of heightened attention that I'd seen in Sam, or the woman in The Hand On Heart. Julian glanced at me and pointed his thumb towards the bedroom, over his shoulder.
"Mine", he said.
I was surprised. Not by the peremptory nature of his command but because the other bedroom was much larger. It had a row of picture windows and, this afternoon, light was everywhere, filling it up like water. Julian had chosen something like the room he had at home; the bed was a joke, like a painting by Van Gogh, and you had to squeeze around it, breathing in, virtually, to get to the wardrobe. He had mimed doing it and the landlady had laughed, uproariously. Now, she didn't want to let him go. She made a big production out of clinging to him as they went down the stairs. Then, of course, she had to get her breath back. Finally, she led us outside; led Julian, rather. We stood in an awkward little group, out on the pavement. The flat was ours, she said, if we wanted it.
"Oh yes", Julian said. "Yes we do, very much. Don't we Simon?"
I nodded, guardedly.
"He'll ring you", he said, blithely.
She looked a little crestfallen.
"Simon's very reliable", he said. "He deals with all my stuff."
He walked her to her car and kissed her on the cheek. We walked back, down to the tube station. The street led onto another street, which led onto a broad, tree-lined avenue. The houses all looked solid and foursquare, like safety deposit boxes. Funny to think how different they were inside; how they'd been divided up, piecemeal, into flimsy, disconnected spaces.
"All your stuff", I said.
He shrugged, and grinned.
"I'm not your secretary."
"No, love, of course not."
He was still grinning.
"You're my sidekick."
I was having to keep up with him again. I was slightly breathless.
"Anyway", I said. "I'm not even sure if I like it."
"What's to like?"
He stopped to look at me properly. His face was unusually defined. There was something poking through that I didn't think I recognised.
"This is London. That's the best we're going to get. You have to make your mind up. Either you want to do this thing or you don't."
He made a conclusive gesture, like he was erasing something with his hand.
"End of", he said.
He turned, on his heels almost, and carried on walking. I'd been so used to thinking of them as my plans – as my dreams – that I hadn't thought he might have ambitions of his own. We took the train back from London, hardly talking, and then, that night, we both got drunk. He was more effusive than usual – his gestures were broader, like he was about to burst into song – and, in the end, I had to coax him down from the roof of the pub. He was balancing on the ledge, his arms outstretched. He would never have jumped, we both knew that. It was more an act of aggression than anything else; a tiny crowd had gathered, mainly girls, and he kept making little dodges and feints, smiling in triumph whenever they reacted anxiously. The next morning, I was up before him. I waited for him in the living room, among his mother's statuettes and gewgaws. There was a pompous-looking mouse, with a top hat and fob watch, and a rabbit in denims, bawling into a handkerchief. A pierrot was lolling in the corner of the room. His mum was scrubbing the carpet in her dressing gown, a cigarette in her mouth. She looked tough and wiry; her skin, devoid of make-up, looked like cloth. She had given me a cup of coffee, wordlessly, and now she worked around me. After about an hour, Julian got up. He was in an oriental-looking robe. He walked slowly and carefully but, apart from that, he didn't look any the worse for wear. He looked like he looks in some of the posters now; mussed up, that's all, like he's been having a pillow fight with teenage girls. He disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a cup of coffee. He sat on the sofa, lolling, a little, like the pierrot, and studied his mum. At last, he pointed at the carpet.
"You missed a bit."
She inhaled so that the tendons on her neck stood out. With careful nonchalance, she balanced her cigarette on the edge of an ash-tray.
"I didn't hear you come in", she said.
Her face was taut. When she was sober, it fulfilled its promise of wariness. Julian sighed.
"Well I came in. Clearly."
Scowling, she snatched at her cigarette. She aimed it at his face.
"Don't get smart with me", she said. "Your father and I were worried sick."
I'd had trouble dragging him home. He'd hung off the neck of the statue, up by the church. I was worried that we might be seen by somebody from The Blue Boy but all the pubs had been emptied out by then. He'd tried to pose but had lost his balance and had had to jump down. He had pissed, in an ostentatious arc, against the side of the church and had sung all the way home, even down Broom Street, where the houses stared at you like disapproving parents. The road ran up and down, a series of soft breaths, and he had had to stop at the end to throw up into a nettle bush. We didn't get in until one o'clock.
"You were snoring, as I remember", he said.
He was looking down at his nails with a studied air of unconcern. He was the only male I'd ever met who did this by looking at the back of his hands; the rest of us pulled our fingers down over our palms.
"Anyway", he said.
He was still looking at his nails.
"I'm of age."
"This is my house."
He smiled to himself, broadly, so that his mother could see.
"While you're in my house", his mother said, seemingly ignoring him but bearing down on the last two words, "I'd ask you to show some more respect."
"I was going to speak to you about that."
She stiffened slightly.
A wisp of smoke seemed to rise from her, like steam. He looked up at her for the first time.
"Simon's rented a flat in London", he said.
He was trying to speak casually. He looked like he was attempting to hold her gaze but I could see that he was looking past her, down the hall – towards the door.
"He's asked me to move in with him."
Bastard, I thought. She looked from him to me then back again.
"Has he", she said.
Then back to me.
"That's very good of him", she said.
I didn't know what to say.
"Mum", Julian said, "we're in a band."
"That's right. The two of you."
She was still looking at me. I couldn't so much as smile; in the glare of her attention every gesture would have felt blown up to more-than-life-size. Finally, she said,
"He never says anything. Have you noticed?"
"You're just being shitty now."
She turned to face him.
"Listen, you little turd."
They were speaking over one another. Julian was trying to be as casual as possible – he was still lounging in the same position, one arm outlining the top of the sofa – but I could hear the strain in his voice. His adenoidal twang had become more and more obvious. His mother's hair was rats' nested, in sticky knots, and her dressing gown had come slightly undone; the base of her neck looked scooped out and you could see a bathetic glimpse of the top of a salmon-coloured bra. Her eyes were big, angry circles, like a silent movie star's.
"I don't give a fuck where you go", she said. "You can live on the moon for all I care. Just don't come crawling back to me when your little love nest goes tits up. Don't think I'm going to open the door and be, like, 'Oh, son, son. Thank God you've come home!'"
She ground her cigarette out.
"I won't give a shit", she said.
The tendons on her neck were pulling her skin upwards. She had, I thought, forgotten I was there. She had the same knack as Julian; that strange ability to be dramatic regardless of where she was and who was watching. Julian had become calmer. It was because he had reached the eye of the storm, I thought. He knew, too, that staying calm would make his mother madder than ever. He shrugged, elegantly. It was like the prelude to a dance move.
"So don't", he said.
He stretched his arms and smiled.
"You'll have a spare room", he said. "Why don't you invite Uncle Tony?"
The effect was dramatic. She reared slightly backwards and said,
She took a breath. Fiercely, she gestured with a long sweep of her arm.
"Go on", she said. "Get out. The two of you. Out."
Julian looked himself up and down. He was still resting his cup of coffee on his knee, and his bare feet had sunk into the carpet.
"You can't expect."
"Now, I said."
He shrugged, and slowly uncoiled himself. He pushed himself out of the sofa, sighing on a slow, downwards note. His mother flung herself around and stormed towards the door. Julian tilted his head in my direction but he didn't look at me.
"Come on", he said.
His mum was halfway down the hall. She was just about to open the front door when she saw that Julian was heading upstairs. I was behind him, still in the living room, and for a moment I thought that she was running at me. Instinctively, I ducked but then I heard her reach the stairs. Peeking out, I saw that she had grabbed Julian by the hair and was trying to pull him downwards. Julian was attempting to hold his ground and had braced himself against the walls of the stairwell. He said,
"Get off me, you mad cow."
The effort was making his voice sound strained. His twang was even more prominent, like an instrument that was out of tune. Simultaneously, his mother was screaming,
With an attempt at dignity, he said, as calmly as he could.
"Get off me and I will."
"You're not going up my stairs."
He braced his legs and lifted his arms above his head in a slow gesture of surrender. He leaned forward slightly so that he wouldn't overbalance.
"I mean it", his mother said. "You're not going up those stairs, not ever, not into one of my bedrooms."
"No", he said tonelessly.
His hands were still above his head.
"Whatever you say", he said.
There was a pause, then she backed slowly away, still keeping an eye on him. He stayed where he was for a second, gathering himself. I wasn't sure what he was going to do but then he carefully followed her down. I got out first; I didn't want to be left alone with her. I watched him saunter towards me, in his bathrobe, out of the door then down the drive. I had stopped to wait for him, on the lawn. His mother slammed the door behind him.
"Jesus", I said. "You're a liability. They're all throwing themselves at."
He walked straight past me. I had expected him to stop; to sit it out and wait for his mother to calm down.
"Oh no", I said. "No. Julian don't."
But I couldn't stop him. It wasn't until he got to Broom Street that he started to slow down, and to enjoy himself. I had resigned myself to it by then. I had nearly walked away but felt that it would have been disloyal. I walked beside him, trying not to look at him. We sauntered strangely on, down Broom Street, past the graveyard and almost into town. We didn't talk. There were a couple of van-drivers outside the textile factory and Julian graciously acknowledged their cheers and catcalls. He was in his element now, his rear rolling provocatively as he walked past. I knew that he was longing for someone to ask him what was wrong, just so that he could proclaim his martyrdom. Even barefoot, he was ahead of me; he didn't seem to need to look where he was going. Even after what had happened – after all that sturm und drang – he was ten times more assured and more serene than I could ever be. Lovelier too, of course. It was genetic, like the ability to roll your tongue. He smiled sideways, and did a little wave. Again, I thought: bastard.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.