I Never Loved a Man
"Sometimes when we touch", I said.
I was sagging to one side. I righted myself then swiftly did it again, in the other direction.
"Fuck it", I said.
I roiled my hand in front of me.
We were balancing on gravestones. Julian had stretched both arms outwards and was neatly cruciform; a statue of himself. The wind was smearing his hair across his cheek.
"The honesty's too much?"
He wasn't listening. He was staring out, somewhat imperiously, into the middle distance. As I watched, he tilted one of his legs upwards behind him. He slowly turned his palms and placed the thumb and forefinger together. He made you want to take a pot shot at him sometimes. I wheeled my arms and stuck my gammy leg out, like a circus act. Giving up, I allowed myself to fall onto the grass.
"And I have to close my eyes and hide."
I panted it slightly. There was a pause. Finally, he shrugged.
"I'm sorry, love", he said.
He passed his hand over his head.
There was another, longer, pause. He seemed, for a moment, to be savouring himself: the fluting of his arms above the sleeves of his rolled-up jacket; the intricacy of his arrested fingers. Then, he dropped down, softly, gracefully guying himself by doing a little ballet thing with his feet, in mid-air. My leg had gone dead; it felt three times its natural size. Julian watched me while I rubbed and slapped it. He was gentling his hair back into place.
"'Words'", I said, bitterly.
I shook my head. He shrugged.
"Sorry", he said.
He didn't look it. He was lining up the shoulders of his blood-red leather jacket. His hair was all over his face again. His mum had cut it for him yesterday. I always used to say that it was just this side of a pudding basin, but Julian called it his Scott Walker. (He would never have known who Scott Walker was, if it wasn't for me.) Clouds loomed swiftly past. If you stood and gripped the church and then looked up – we had tried this earlier; Julian had grabbed me and shown me how to do it – it seemed like you were travelling at speed.
"It's just. How many times, you know?"
"It's not a maths test, darling."
I was leading him between the graves, with the church behind us. Even now, with the pins and needles slowly trickling away, my right leg was like something that I had to carry around with me. I lumbered over the stile, out onto the main road. A motorbike sneered past. Even on a Friday evening there were pockets of silence; moments when you sounded like you were talking from the inside of a bucket. There was a calm, pallid light. The noise of the motorbike seemed to be scribbling over it.
"It's like that tape", I said.
He tossed his head.
I'd made him a tape. I'd tried to include everything – sex; romance; Aretha Franklin; political commitment; loss; a generous amount of swagger – but you could, if you wanted, break it down into a series of moments, or epiphanies. The insolent, eerie pause after "that's", just before The Beatles sing "what I want". The way that Darlene Love seems, finally, to burst out of the confines of her song. It's on the word "home"; it's like a firework exploding. I had taken so long to get it right that it ended up being only half an hour long. Julian, however, hadn't listened to it. I'd handed it over in the pub, with not a little ceremony. That had been more than a year ago.
"Alright", I said. "Listen. Dan Hill. Got that? 'Sometimes When we Touch'. The second worst lyric of all time. There's a whole song of the stuff. Something about being trapped within his truth, for gawd's sake. 'An innocent prize fighter'. All that."
"Gawd" was one of our words; part of the private language that we'd developed. I was trying to use it as a bridge, so that he'd listen to what I was saying. His face was still opaque, however.
"Then, of course" – I laboured the "of course" – "at number one" – I did a little drum-roll – "there's 'I'm Still Waiting' by Diana Ross. You know: that line."
I looked over at him, expectantly. He wasn't looking at me. Even though it seemed like he was lounging along, I was, as usual, having to keep up with him.
"'He could tell I had no eyes, so he left me'", I said.
I left a little pause. He touched his hair again. At last, he said,
"I don't know, love."
"Love" was another of our words, like darling. It was meant to be mock-camp.
"It's just a big 'So What?', you know? As far as I’m concerned."
"Well, Christ. It's bad."
"Yes, I can see that. So what?"
"Because we want to do it. Because we don't want to do it badly."
"You get so uptight about this stuff. You turn into this little old man."
"Because it matters. We could just be a showband, if you'd rather. Or an oom-pah band. Why don't we do that? Let's be an oom-pah band."
"God, look at you."
"This is important. Pop should be."
I held my arms out like I wanted an embrace.
"I thought you hated all that."
"No, not windswept or pompous or anything. Overwhelming, you know?"
"Not some badly written Greetings Card."
"No, right. Because you made the rules. Nobody listens to the words."
"Well, yes. You do."
"But nobody else does. Words are just, um."
Now it was his turn to roll his hand in front of him. He did it, of course, with much more grace than I did. Whenever Julian did anything, it looked like he was demonstrating it for somebody.
"Static", he said.
He had a slight lisp; just the hint of sibilance. He cultivated it. Whenever he was trying to be nice – to do nice, like an actor would – it was like a seditious whisper, undercutting what he said. You should have heard him say "sexy". Girls went mad for him. He was pleased, just now, despite his claimed indifference, at having found the word he wanted. His mouth made a triumphant moué, somewhere between a pulse and a moody pout.
"Static", I said, expressionlessly.
"They get in the way."
"For Christ's sake, Julian."
"See: there you go again. Fuck it. Can't we talk about something else? This is boring. You get obsessed and then your eyes start bulging and then it's bye bye happiness. You get so fucking..."
He gestured up and over his head.
"Earnest", he said, finally.
"We're meant to be putting a band together."
"Yes, a band. OK? We're not going off to fight a war."
"Maybe you're not."
But he was speeding up. It was spring, in 1984. There were no smart phones; no texts. You were never quite sure who you were going to meet. We'd just walked past the textile factory and we could see the roundabout that led up to the town. My village was ten miles away. There was a weir and an antique shop that looked, from the outside, like an aquarium. You walked past walled-in apple trees down to "The Happy Yeoman", and that was it. Which was partly why I always tried to take the sudden downswing of his lawn at a run. We had ignored all the pubs en route. We had only just left school and were terribly conscious of our aspirations. We didn't want to meet any of our ex-colleagues, as Julian called them. We preferred the graveyard. Being there seemed witty. It formed a backdrop.
I'd first seen Julian on Sport's Day. He was sprawled out, lying almost on the track, while, just beyond him, crowds of kids were jumping up and down. He was facing in the opposite direction and, as I watched, he pulled a tiny ball of fluff from out of his navel. He held it up and revolved it, like a jewel. That was what I responded to, I think; that quality he has of relishing the distance between him and everybody else, of playing it up, almost, for his own amusement. Of course, I also thought: who does he think he is? Limping past, I nearly kicked him.
Still, I watched out for him. He was new. He wasn't doing any of my subjects but he started sitting in the common room at lunchtimes, occasionally disappearing for a cigarette. I could tell he was particular about the way he dressed – prissy, almost. He had a surprisingly ugly voice, a sort of suburban twang, that he would try to remember to moderate, talking as softly as he could. He'd curl up, sometimes, like a cat, and he soon got a reputation for being effete; an artistic dreamer. Girls would cluster near him, trying to talk to him, but I was gratified to see that everything just seemed to bounce off him. I couldn't tell if it was arrogance, vapidity or honest-to-goodness alienation. Then, one day, he stuck his hand into a mug of boiling coffee. He was testing its temperature, he said; his hand was red for hours. There was a certain amount of showmanship to the way he did it. He'd waited until there was a crowd around him and then plunged his hand in so that the water slopped over the side. Even as he winced, he managed to look remote and self-possessed.
Was it then that I made up my mind? I wasn't conscious of it at the time but all of these things added up: his recklessness; the way he made a point of disregarding everyone; that air he has of tasting himself. I had already started writing songs. Negligible things. An odd little romp in G. Something that sounded like "Itchycoo Park". And I knew that nobody was going to watch me sing them. It wasn't the leg so much. True, it's always been My Cross To Bear, since birth – it pops up in my dreams, sometimes, with a life of its own; it stops me talking to people and can still make me feel angry and out-of-kilter – but it was also true that I could imagine flaunting it, exaggerating how I limp to taunt an audience. My voice is adequate, too, a muffled growl. But I don't look right, and I have the wrong demeanour. There's a heaviness about me; I take up too much space. Nothing quite works: my hair is an indeterminate shape and colour (Julian's is golden brown), my nose is just a little too large and my eyes are muddy. I've always overcompensated. I won't join in; I don't talk to anyone that I don't know. I get these crushes – wordless things – then I write songs about them. Pretty soon, I realised that I wanted Julian to sing them.
And now it was two years later. I'd carefully buddied up to him. It wasn't as though we had any other friends. We were inseparable, everybody said so. He'd proved to have an odd voice, at first; he seemed to be straining it through something. He didn't know how to project. He was too obviously conscious of himself. He preened, woodenly, and it ended up looking like kabuki theatre. Still, he obviously loved it and he was showing a certain amount of promise. We'd done a couple of gigs, just me and him with me on a guitar, and, afterwards, what few girls there were would all squeeze as near to him as they possibly could. We had a song called "Fluctuating With The Pound". It was a fantasy; a song about having a girlfriend who spent too much. The chords descended in a slow burlesque and, as he sang it, the girls stared at him as if he were really going to take off his clothes. Whenever I bumped into people on the street, I predicted great things.
We were at the top of the hill now, with the market-place stretching out below us. The town had a reputation for being pretty but, from where we were standing, there was just the usual run of shops. The market was being taken apart and, except for the stallholders, there was nobody about. Everything looked the way that we felt it was: stuck, somehow, and moribund. I paused, but Julian was still striding away determinedly. He led me half-way down the hill and then he suddenly wheeled around. He placed his hands on his hips.
"I'm bored", he said.
I eyed him warily. I'd discovered, early on, that he was arrogant, vapid and alienated. It was an unpredictable combination. Slowly, I said,
"I'm sick of The Hand On Heart."
He raked his hand through his hair.
"It's the only place we ever go. It's full of old men."
"It's got a good jukebox."
"I don't go out on a Saturday night to listen to a fucking jukebox."
"Anyway, there's loads of girls."
Julian snorted. The kind of girls who went into The Hand On Heart were not of any interest to Julian, and it wasn't as if I was going to talk to any. It had two bars but they were virtually interchangeable; there were nautical maps and pictures of old pugilists and the seats had a leather sheen, like boxing gloves. The ceiling's sponged-on patina of age gave a cosy feeling to both rooms. Whatever Julian wanted, I could tell it wasn't going to be cosy. I felt a slight acidic chill begin to settle itself in the bottom of my stomach.
"So what do you suggest?"
Julian grinned and pointed across the road, beyond the market place, to the mock-Tudor frontage of The Blue Boy. I shook my head.
"No", I said. "Absolutely not."
His grin had widened.
"What's the matter, Simon?"
He took a step towards me.
The Blue Boy was where the farmhands and the tractor drivers went to drink. On a Friday and a Saturday night you could see them lurching out at closing time. They walked slowly and menacingly, like they were struggling underwater.
"Just one", Julian said.
"Just for a laugh."
He had his hands on his hips again. The sun was behind him, making his jacket seem an even deeper red. He looked incongruously iconic.
"They'll take one look at you", I said, "and nail you up behind the bar."
We went in, though; he challenged me and challenged me until I felt I had to. It was a wide, barn-like space, with a pool table at the other end. There were floor bins, and wet-look posters. The jukebox was playing something doomy-sounding and complicated.
"Oh, this is lovely", I whispered.
Two old men sat underneath the dartboard, looking like they'd been left there, half-inflated. Elsewhere, there were knots of hunched over drinkers, all in jeans and T-shirts. We made our way up to the bar and Julian leaned provocatively over the counter, beckoning to the barmaid. I caught the word "lager", just at the end, and was grateful, now, for the way he softened his voice. I stood awkwardly beside him while she slapped, in her slippers, over to the shelves. She was in her forties; squat, with a square jaw, her midriff bulging out between the buttons of her shirt. Her teeth were the colour of soaked-through cardboard. Despite the light outside it was murky in here. A kind of dreamscape; a pub that had been misremembered and transmogrified into something threatening. The fruit machine began a jangling version of a TV theme I couldn't put my finger on and it was like dream dissonance, the moment when you know you must wake up, only you can't. The song on the jukebox had changed. Now there was a chugging guitar and the sound, seemingly, of someone vomiting.
"Just one", I said.
He lit a cigarette.
"Fancy a game of pool?"
"No. Absolutely not."
But he was already walking over towards the tables. He had a slow-seeming, languid lope. Like everything he did, it looked like he had come to some kind of aesthetic decision. I wished he wouldn't do it here. His buttocks rose and fell provocatively. He swung his arms, loosely, the smoke from his cigarette making little arabesques behind him. Shouldering off his jacket, he stretched up to take the cues from the racks and leaned over the table, one leg up, his arse pointing towards a group of drinkers nearby. He played the cue out slowly, backwards and forwards, while I fiddled with the coin mechanism and set up the balls.
"My break", he said.
He gave the ball a tremendous thwack. It landed near the drinkers, who were all staring at him. Seeming to ignore them, Julian picked it up. There was something in his stride, though; he didn't so much walk away as sashay. They kept staring at him. There were four of them, all in their early twenties. They had long hair and hadn't bothered to change their work clothes. Their shirts were like dirty paint-smocks and their boots were covered in cow shit. One of them had been slowly and ponderously making a jigsaw out of a beer mat. His hands were like gorilla's hands, with little tufts of hair growing beside the knuckles. Another had a tremendous belly, which he was resting on his knees. Julian daintily set up the ball again.
"That was a practice shot", he said.
Smoking no-handed, he sighted down along the cue.
"For Christ's sake, slow down", I said.
I didn't just mean the way he hit the ball. He was jazzed up, responding to his audience. His gestures had become slightly more stylised; he was tilting his head, now, like a movie actress. The skin on my face, meanwhile, was taut and I had cumbersome sausage fingers. My voice seemed to be coming from somewhere off to the side. He grinned at me. It didn't reach his eyes; his eyes were elsewhere. It was the look he had when he had taken something. When he was experiencing that first rush.
"Boring old cunt", he said.
I leaned into his ear, articulating fiercely.
"This isn't school."
He turned and pouted, so that his lower lip stuck out voluptuously, but then he left it there, like he'd forgotten what to do with it. He took a long time sighting his cue. He made a show of getting into the music, grinding his lower half to the grinding of the guitars. Then, at last, he took a confident shot that sent the balls all over the table. The noise of contact made me wince. I looked nervously over at the people who were watching us. The man with the belly was struggling upwards. He stared at Julian for a moment and then, one slow leg after the other, propelled himself effortfully towards the bar. I could see the other two now. They were generic-looking, with the same beefy faces and stranglers' hands as their friends. Julian had potted a red. He went dancing, on tippy toe, around the table.
I could feel my heart struggling rapidly. I felt like everybody in the pub was staring at us. Whenever I had to walk around or take a shot with their table behind me I could feel it as a prickle on the back of my neck. I had finished my drink too rapidly. Looking through the bottom of the glass I could briefly see two Julians, both amorphous-looking and slippery. I was praying for the game to end. Julian was taking his time, however. He was gentling his cue and mock-sighting, comically. He was shimmying to the music. I couldn't hit anything, meanwhile; my hands wouldn't do what I wanted them to. The man with the belly had brought the drinks back and had sat for a while, staring at us. Staring at Julian, rather. Julian seemed to be playing up to him. At any rate, he carried on dancing and preening. At last, the man stood up. Looking hard at Julian, he slapped a 50p down on the side. He kept his hand over it, glowering across the table. Julian lifted his cue, and grinned.
"Winner stays on?"
I thought the man was going to hit him there and then. There was a tightening around his jaw and the muscles along his shoulders were suddenly bunched up. I looked over at the other table. They were watching us avidly. I realised that one of them – one of the two at the back – was a girl. Even as he was looking at us, her boyfriend was slowly dripping peanuts into her mouth. His hands were covered in huge rings, like knuckle-dusters. Julian seemed to be revelling in the intensity of the attention. I didn't know what to do; I could feel my legs shaking slightly beneath me. Julian's packet of cigarettes was on the side of the pool table. The man extracted one, slowly, staring at Julian while he did it. Lighting it, he didn't take his eyes off him. Finally, he said,
"Having a nice time?"
It sounded like something out of Thomas Hardy: "oi" for "I". He had a deep, surprisingly measured, voice. It was like a record slowing down. Julian continued to grin at him.
"Remember me again, will you?"
Julian shrugged. The man flicked his match across the table, barely missing Julian's face. He clenched his own face into a violent-looking mask.
He spat it, virtually. Julian's mouth did something like a tiny heartbeat; a mixture of self-deprecation and challenge. There was something else in there as well, something disturbingly like sexual provocation. If the music had been different – if the guitar hadn't sounded like a mechanical digger – and if you could have extracted the sense of threat, then that mightn't have been an inappropriate response. The air was supercharged with something. Julian said,
"Thank you very much."
He gestured at the man's trousers.
"I mean, I saw you notice me."
I looked down, swiftly, and then back up again, not wanting to get caught. It was true: I had seen an erection. Julian smiled but he had known what he was doing; he had begun to back away even as he'd said it. The man was coming around the table now. Julian blew a kiss and started to run, not even glancing back at me as he sprinted out of the door, the man lumbering after him. The other three at the table had stood up and were advancing towards me. I knew I couldn't outrun them. Putting up my hands in an apologetic gesture, I started to try to apologise, or explain, I wasn't sure which. Adrenalin was insulating me, so that, when the punch came, I experienced it as a sudden sound more than anything else. There was a faint buzzing out at the edges of consciousness, like the low hum of a radio, and, from far away, I could feel myself feeling it. There were two or three more – I was starting to feel frightened; they had toppled me over onto the carpet and a boot was making contact with my stomach – but then the barmaid was there. She was shouting something, I couldn't hear what, and pummelling them away. It had only lasted a minute or two. She almost had to lift me up and then she helped me out, half-dragging me. I was, absurdly, aware of the paintbox reds and blues that she had plastered over her cheeks and eyelids. She propped me up against the wall outside and peered carefully at me. My face was starting to hurt. Satisfied, she said,
"I wouldn't come back if I were you."
I went to say something clever but then just nodded. Before I could thank her, she was hurrying back inside the pub. She was conscious, I think, of having helped the enemy; her altruism only stretched so far.
We had only been inside for a little over half an hour but, out here, it was almost dark. The shop-fronts opposite had been drained of colour. I hurried across the empty market place and hid myself inside the shelter of a shop doorway. I was shaking again; my face was hurting properly now. I wiped my nose and my hand came away with blood on it. In this light it looked black, like it had been rubbed in dirt. I was shocked, but I was also – I had to admit it – partly exhilarated. What an effect Julian had had! Whatever the man in the pub had felt it was more than anger; he had had to turn it into violence, I was sure, just to get rid of it. Now, if we could only build on it. If we could turn it, somehow, into a routine…
I should have run away screaming. Instead, I waited. After a while, I could see the man on the other side of the road. A cacophony came blurting out of the pub's opened door and then he banged it shut behind him. I pushed myself away from the wall and started back. I was staying at Julian's house tonight. His parents were out, and he had the key. I didn't know where he was, but I would wait for him on his lawn. I would give him a hard time for leaving me in the pub. I'd mimic him, the way he wiggled and the way he fondled his cue. But I would wait for him. Why shouldn't I? I thought I could see our future opening up in front of us.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.