Leia um trecho
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:
1) Alison Ashworth
2) Penny Hardwick
3) Jackie Allen
4) Charlie Nicholson
5) Sarah Kendrew.
These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you'd sneak into the top ten, but there's no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you're just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueller than it is meant to, but the fact is that we're too old to make each other miserable, and that's a good thing, not a bad thing, so don't take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it's just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.
Alison Ashworth (1972)
Most nights we used to mess around in the park around the corner from my house. I lived in Hertfordshire, but I might just as well have lived in any suburb in England: it was that sort of suburb, and that sort of park - three minutes away from home, right across the road from a little row of shops (a VG supermarket, a newsagent, an off-licence). There was nothing around that could help you get your geographical bearings; if the shops were open (and they closed at five-thirty, and one o'clock on Thursdays, and all day Sunday), you could get into the newsagent's and look for a local newspaper, but even that might not give you much of a clue.
We were twelve or thirteen, and had recently discovered irony - or at least, what I later understood to be irony: we only allowed ourselves to play on the swings and the roundabout and the other kid's stuff rusting away in there if we could do it with a sort of self-conscious ironic detachment. This involved either an imitation of absent-mindedness (whistling, or chatting, or fiddling with a cigarette stub or a box of matches usually did the trick) or a flirtation with danger, so we jumped off the swings when they could go no higher, jumped on to the roundabout when it would go no faster, hung on to the end of the swingboat until it reached an almost vertical position. If you could somehow prove that these childish entertainments had the potential to dash your brains out, then playing on them became OK somehow.
We had no irony when it came to girls, though. There was just no time to develop it. One moment they weren't there, not in any form that interested us, anyway, and the next you couldn't miss them; they were everywhere, all over the place. One moment you wanted to clonk them on the head for being your sister, or someone else's sister, and the next you wanted to...actually, we didn't know what we wanted the next, but it was something, something. Almost overnight, all these sisters (there was no other kind of girl, not yet) had become interesting, disturbing, even.
See, what did we have that was any different from what we'd had before? Squeaky voices, but a squeaky voice doesn't do much for you, really - it makes you preposterous, not desirable. And the sprouting pubic hairs were our secret, strictly between us and our Y-fronts, and it would be years before a member of the opposite sex could verify that they were where they should be. Girls, on the other hand, quite clearly had breasts, and, to accompany them, a new way of walking: arms folded over the chest, a posture which simultaneously disguised and drew attention to what had just happened. And then there was make-up and perfume, invariably cheap, and inexpertly, sometimes even comically, applied, but still a quite terrifying sign that things had progressed without us, beyond us, behind our backs.
I started going out with one of them...no, that's not right, because I had absolutely no input into the decision-making process. And I can't say that she started going out with me either: it's that phrase 'going out with' that's the problem, because it suggests some sort of parity and equality. What happened was that David Ashworth's sister Alison peeled off from the female pack that gathered every night by the bench and adopted me, tucked me under her arm and led me away from the swingboat.
I can't remember now how she did this. I don't think I was even aware of it at the time, because halfway through our first kiss, my first kiss, I can recall feeling utterly bewildered, totally unable to explain how Alison Ashworth and I had become so intimate. I wasn't even sure how I'd ended up on her side of the park, away from her brother and Mark Godfrey and the rest, nor how we had separated from the crowd, or why she tipped her face towards me so that I knew I was supposed to put my mouth on hers. The whole episode defies any rational explanation. But all these things happened, and they happened again, most of them, the following evening, and the evening after that.
What did I think I was doing? What did she think she was doing? When I want to kiss people in that way now, with mouths and tongues and all that, it's because I want other things too: sex, Friday nights at the cinema, company and conversation, fused networks of family and friends, Lemsips brought to me in bed when I am ill, a new pair of ears for my records and CDs, maybe a little boy called Jack and a little girl called Holly or Maisie, I haven't decided yet. But I didn't want any of those things from Alison Ashworth. Not children, because we were children, and not Friday nights at the pictures, because we went Saturday mornings, and not Lemsips, because my mum did that, not even sex, especially not sex, please God not sex, the filthiest and most terrifying invention of the early seventies.
So what was the significance of the snog? The truth is that there are no significance; we were just lost in the dark. One part imitation (people I had seen kissing by 1972: James Bond, Simon Templar, Napoleon Solo, Barbara Windsor and Sid James or maybe Jim Dale, Elsie Tanner, Omar Sharif ad Julie Christie, Elvis, and lots of black-and-white people my mum wanted to watch, although they never waggled their heads from side to side) to one part hormonal slavery to one part peer group pressure (Kevin Bannister and Elizabeth Barnes had been at it for a couple of weeks) to one part blind panic...there was no consciousness, no desire and no pleasure, beyond an unfamiliar and moderately pleasant warmth in the gut. We were little animals, which is not to imply that by the end of the week we were tearing our tank tops off; just that, metaphorically speaking, we had begun to sniff each other's bottoms, and we did not find the odour entirely repellant.
But listen, Laura. On the fourth night of our relationship I turned up in the park and Alison was sitting on the bench with her arm around Kevin Bannister, with Elizabeth Barnes nowhere in sight. Nobody - not Alison, or Kevin, or me, or the sexually uninitiated retards hanging off the end of the swingboat said anything at all. I stung, and I blushed, and I suddenly forgot how to walk without being aware of every single part of my body. What to do? Where to go? I didn't want to fight; I didn't want to sit there with the two of them; I didn't want to go home. So, concentrating very hard on the empty No. 6 packets that marked out the path between the girls and the boys, and not looking up or behind me or to either side, I headed back towards the massed ranks of the single males hanging off the swingboat. Halfway home, I made my only error or judgement: I stopped and looked at my watch, although for the life of me I don't know what I was attempting to convey, or who I was trying to kid. What sort of time, after all, could make a thirteen-year-old boy spin away from a girl and towards a playground, palms sweating, heat racing, trying desperately to cry? Certainly not four o'clock on a late September afternoon.
I scrounged a fag off Mark Godfrey and went and sat on my own on a roundabout.
'Scrubber,' spat Alison's brother David, and I smiled gratefully at him.
And that was that. Where had I gone wrong? First night: park, fag, snog. Second night: ditto. Third night: ditto. Fourth night: chucked. OK, OK. Maybe I should have seen the signs. Maybe I was asking for it. Round about that second ditto I should have spotted that we were in a rut, that I had allowed things to fester to the extent that she was on the lookout for someone else. But she could have tried to tell me! She could at least have given me another couple of days to put things right!
My relationship with Alison Ashworth had lasted six hours (the two-hour gap between school an Nationwide, times three), so I could hardly claim that I'd got used to having her around, that I didn't know what to do with myself. In fact, I can hardly recall anything about her at all, now. Long black hair? Maybe. Small? Smaller than me, certainly. Slanted, almost oriental eyes and a dark complexion? That could have been her, or it could have been someone else. Whatever. But if we were doing this list in grief order, I'd put her right up there at number two. It would be nice to think that as I've got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that evening in everything that has happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one. Of course, I have never had to take that long walk again, and my ears have not burned with quite the same fury, and I have never had to count the No. 6 packets in order to avoid mocking eyes and floods of tears...not really, not actually, not as such. It just feels that way, sometimes.
Penny Hardwick (1973)
Penny Hardwick was a nice girl, and, nowadays, I'm all for nice girls, although then I wasn't so sure. She had a nice mum and dad, and a nice house, detached, with a garden and a tree and a fishpond, and a nice girl's haircut (she was blonde, and she kept her hair a sort of sporty, clean, wholesome, form-captain mid-length), and nice, smiling eyes, and a nice younger sister, who smiled politely when I rang on the doorbell and kept out of the way when we wanted her to. She had nice manners - my mum loved her - and she always got nice school reports. Penny was nice-looking, and her top five recording artistes were Carly Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Elton John. Lots of people liked her. She was so nice, in fact, that she wouldn't let me put my hand underneath or even on top of her bra, and so I finished with her, although obviously I didn't tell her why. She cried, and I hated her for it, because she made me feel bad.
I can imagine what sort of person Penny Hardwick became: a nice person. I know that she went to college, did well, and landed a job as a radio producer for the BBC. I would guess that she is bright, and serious-minded, maybe too much so sometimes and ambitious, but not in a way that makes you want to vomit; she was a version of all these things when we went out, and at another stage in my life I would have found all these virtues attractive. Then, however, I wasn't interested in qualities, just breasts, and she was therefore no good to me.
I would like to be able to tell you that we had long, interesting conversations, and that we remained firm friends throughout our teenage years - she would have made someone a lovely friend - but I don't think we ever talked. We went to the pictures, to parties and to discos, and we wrestled. We wrestled in her bedroom, and my bedroom and her living room, and my living room, and in bedrooms at parties, and in the summer we wrestled on various plots of grass. We were wrestling over the same old issue. Sometimes I got so bored to trying to touch her breasts that I would try to touch her between her legs, a gesture that had a sort of self-parodying wit about I: it was like trying to borrow a fiver, getting turned down, and asking to borrow fifty quid instead.
These were the questions boys asked other boys at my school (a school which contained only boys): 'Are you getting any?'; 'Does she let you have any?'; 'How much does she let you have?' and so on. Sometimes the questions were derisory, and expected the answer 'No': 'You're not getting anything, are you?'; 'You haven't even had a bit of tit, have you?' Girls, meanwhile, had to be content with the passive voice. Penny used the expression 'broken into': 'I don't want to be broken into yet,' she would explain patiently and maybe a little sadly (she seemed to understand that one day - but not now - she would have to give in, and when it happened she wouldn't like it) when she removed my hand from her chest for the one hundred thousandth time. Attack and defense, invasion and repulsion...it was as if breasts were little pieces of property that had been unlawfully annexed by the opposite sex - they were rightfully ours and we wanted them back.
Luckily, however, there were traitors, fifth columnists, in the opposing camp. Some boys knew of other boys whose girlfriends would 'let' them do anything; sometimes these girls were supposed to have actively assisted in their own molestation. Nobody had ever heard of a girl who had gone as far as undressing or even removing or loosening undergarments, of course. That would have been taking collaboration too far. As I understood it, these girls had simply positioned themselves in a way that encouraged access. 'She tucks her stomach in and everything,' Clive Stevens remarked approvingly of his brother's girlfriend; it took me nearly a year to work out the import of this manoeuvre. No wonder I still remember the stomach-tucker's first name (Judith); there's a part of me that still wants to meet her.
Read any woman's magazine and you'll see the same complaint over and over again: men - those little boys ten or twenty or thirty years on - are hopeless in bed. They are not interested in 'foreplay'; they have no desire to stimulate the erogenous zones of the opposite sex; they are selfish, greedy, clumsy, unsophisticated. These complaints, you can't help feeling, are kind of ironic. Back then all we wanted was foreplay, and girls weren't interested. They didn't want to be touched, caressed, stimulated, aroused; in fact, they used to thump us if we tried. It's not really very surprising, then, that we're not much good at all that. We spent two or three long and extremely formative years being told very forcibly not even to think about it. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, foreplay changes from being something that boys want to do and girls don't, to something that women want and men can't be bothered with. (Or so they say. Me, I like foreplay - mostly because the times when all I wanted to do was touch are alarmingly fresh in my mind.) The perfect match, if you ask me, is between the Cosmo woman and the fourteen-year-old boy.
If somebody had asked me why I was so hell-bent on grabbing a piece of Penny Hardwick's chest, I wouldn't have known what to say. And if somebody were to ask Penny why she was so hell-bent on stopping me, I'll bet she'd be stumped for an answer too. What was in it for me? I wasn't asking for any sort of reciprocation, after all. Why didn't she want her erogenous zones stimulated? I have no idea. All I know is that you could, if you wanted to, find the answers to all sorts of difficult questions buried in that terrible war-torn interregnum between the first pubic hair and the first soiled Durex.
And in any case, maybe I didn't want to put my hand under Penny's bra as much as I thought. Maybe other people wanted me to touch her more than I did. After a couple of months of fighting on sofas all over town with Penny, I'd had enough: I had admitted, unwisely in retrospect, to a friend that I wasn't getting anywhere, and my friend had told some other friends, and I was the butt of a number of cruel and unpleasant jokes. I gave Penny one last try, in my bedroom while my mum and dad were at the town hall watching a local dramatic society 's interpretation of Toad of Toad Hall; I used a degree of force that would have outraged and terrified an adult female, but got nowhere, and when I walked her home we hardly spoke.
I was offhand with her the next time we went out, and when she wen to kiss me at the end of the evening I shrugged her off. 'What's the point?' I asked her. 'It never goes anywhere.' The time after that she asked whether I still wanted to see her, and I looked the other way. We had been going out for three months, which was as near to a permanent relationship as you could get I the fourth year. (Her mum and dad had even met my mum and dad. They liked each other.) She cried, then, and I loathed her for making me feel guilty, and for making me finish with her.
I went out with a girl called Kim, who I knew for a fact had already been invaded, and who (I was correct in assuming) wouldn't object to being invaded again; Penny went out with Chris Thomson from my class, a boy who had had more girlfriends than the rest of us put together. I was out of my depth, and so was she. One morning, maybe three weeks after my last grapple with Penny, Thomson came roaring into our form room. 'Oi, Fleming, you spastic. Guess who I knobbled last night?'
I felt the room spin round.
'You never got so much as a bit of tit in three months, and I shagged her first week!'
I believed him; everyone knew that he got whatever he wanted form whoever he saw. I had been humiliated, beaten, out-performed; I felt stupid, and small, and much, much younger than this unpleasant, oversized, big-mouthed moron. It shouldn't have mattered so much. Thomson was in a league of his own when it came to matters of the lower body, and there were plenty of little jerky creeps in 4b who had never so much as put their arm around a girl. Even my side of the debate, inaudible though it was, must have appeared impossibly sophisticated to them. I wasn't losing that much face. But I still couldn't understand what had happened. How had this transformation in Penny been affected? How had Penny gone from being a girl who wouldn't do anything to a girl who would do everything there was to do? Maybe it was best not to think about it too hard; I didn't want to feel sorry for anybody else except me.
I expect Penny turned out all right, and I know I turned out all right, and I would suspect that even Chris Thomson isn't the world's worst person. At least, it's hard to imagine him skidding into his place of work his bank or his insurance office or car showroom, chucking his briefcase down and informing a colleague with raucous glee that he has 'knobbled' said colleagues' wife. (It is easy enough to imagine him knobbing the wife, however. He looked like a wife-knobber, even then.) Women who disapprove of men - and there's plenty to disapprove of - should remember how we started out, and how far we have had to travel.
Jackie Allen (1975)
Jackie Allen was my friend Phil's girlfriend, and I pinched her off him, slowly, patiently, over a period of months. It wasn't easy. It required a great deal of time, application and deception. Phil and Jackie started going out together around the same time as Penny and I did, except they went on and on: through the giggly, hormonal fourth form, and the end-of-the-world 'O'-level and school-leaving fifth, and on into the mock-adult sobriety of the lower sixth. They were our golden couple, our Paul and Linda, our Newman and Woodward, living proof that in a faithless, fickle world it was possible to grow old, or at least older, without chopping and changing every few weeks.
I'm not sure why I wanted to fuck it all up for them, and for everyone who needed them to go out together. You know when you see T-shirts piled up in a clothes shop, beautifully folded and colour-coded, and you buy one? It never looks the same when you take it home. It only looked good in the shop, you realize too late, because it had its mates around it. Well, it was kind of like that. I had hoped that if I went out with Jackie, then some of that elder-stateswoman dignity would rub off on me, but of course without Phil she didn't have any. (If that's what I wanted, I should perhaps have looked for a way to go out with both of them, but hat sort of thing is hard enough to pull off when you're an adult; as seventeen it could be enough to get you stoned to death.)
Phil started working in a men's boutique on Saturdays, and I moved in. Those of us who didn't work, or who, like me, worked after school but not at weekends, met on Saturday afternoons to walk up and down the High Street, spend too much time and too much money in Harlequin Records, and 'treat ourselves' (we had somehow picked up our mothers' vocabulary of post-war abstention) to a filter coffee, which we regarded as the last word in French cool. Sometimes we called in to see Phil; sometimes he let me use his staff discount. It didn't stop me from screwing his girlfriend behind his back.
I knew, because both Alison ad Penny had taught me, that busting up with someone could be miserable, but I didn't know that getting off with someone could be miserable too. But Jackie and I were miserable in a thrilling, grown-up way. We met in secret and phoned each other in secret and had sex in secret and said things like 'What are we going to do?' in secret and talked about how nice it would be when we didn't have to do things in secret any more. I never really thought about whether that was true or not. There wasn't time.
I tried not to run Phil down too much - I felt bad enough as it was, what with screwing his girlfriend and all. But it became unavoidable, because when Jackie expressed doubts about him, I had to nurture those doubts as if they were tiny, sickly kittens, until eventually they became sturdy, healthy grievances, with their own cat-flaps which allowed them to wander in and out of our conversation at will.
And then one night at a party I saw Phil and Jackie huddled together in a corner, and Phil was obviously distressed, pale and near to tears, and then he went home, and the next morning she phoned up and asked if I wanted to go out for a walk, and we were away, and we weren't doing things in secret any more; and we lasted about three weeks.
You'd say that this was childish, Laura. You'd say that it is stupid of me to compare Rob and Jackie with Rob and Laura, who are in their mid-thirties, established, living together. You'd say that adult adultery beats teenage adultery hands down, but you'd be wrong. I have been one point of a triangle several times since then, but that first point was the sharpest. Phil never spoke to me again; our Saturday shopping crowd wouldn't have much to do with us either. My mum had a phone call from Phil's mum. School was, for a few weeks, uncomfortable.
Compare and contrast with what happens if I make that sort of mess now: I can go to different pubs and clubs, leave the ansaphone on, go out more, stay in more, fiddle around with my social compasses and draw a new circle of friends (and anyway, my friends are never her friends, whoever she might be), avoid all contact with disapproving parents. That sort of anonymity was unavailable then, though. You had to stand there and take it, whatever it was.
What perplexed me most of all was the feeling of flat disappointment that overtook me when Jackie called me that Sunday morning. I couldn't understand it. I had been plotting this capture for months, and when capitulation came I felt nothing - less than nothing, even. I couldn't tell Jackie this, obviously, but on the other hand I was quite unable to show the enthusiasm I felt she needed, so I decided to have her name tattooed down my right arm.
I don't know. Scarring myself for life seemed much easier than having to tell Jackie that it had all been a grotesque mistake, that I'd just been messing about; if I could show her the tattoo, my peculiar logic ran, I wouldn't have to bother straining after words that were beyond me. I should explain that I am not a tattoo kind of guy; I am, and was, neither rock'n'roll go-to-hell decadent or lager-squaddy muscular. But there was a disastrous fashion for them at our school around that time, and I know for a fact that several men now in their mid-thirties, accountants and schoolteachers, personnel managers and computer programmers, have terrible messages ('MUFC KICK TO KILL', 'LYNYRD SKYNRD') from that era burned into their flesh.
I was just going to have a discreet 'J(R' done on my upper arm, but Victor the tattooist wasn't having any of it.
'Which one is she? "J" or "R"?'
'And how long have you been seeing this J bird, then?'
I was frightened by the aggressive masculinity of the parlour - the other customers (who were all firmly in the lager-squaddy muscular team, and seemed inexplicably amused to see me), the nude women on the walls, the lurid examples of services offered, most of which were conveniently located on Victor's forearms, even Victor's mildly offensive language.
'I'll fucking be the judge of that, not you.'
This struck me as an odd way to do business, but I decided to save this observation for another time.
'A couple of months.'
'And you're going to marry her, are you? Or have you knocked her up?'
'So you're just going out? You're not lumbered?'
'And how did you meet her?'
'She used to go out with a friend of mine.'
'Did she now. And when did they break up?'
'Saturday.' He laughed like a drain. 'I don't want your mum in here moaning at me. Fuck off out of it.'
I fucked off out of it.
Victor was spot on, of course; in fact, I have often been tempted to seek him out when I have been plagued by diseases of the heart. He'd be able to tell me in ten seconds whether someone was worth a tattoo or not. But even after Phil and Jackie were ecstatically and tearfully reunited, things didn't go back to the way they had been. Some of the girls at her school, and some of the boys at ours, presumed that Jackie had been using me to renegotiate the terms of her relationship with Phil, and the Saturday shopping afternoons were never the same again. And we no longer admired people who had gone out together a long time; we were sarcastic about them, and they were even sarcastic about themselves. In a few short weeks, mock-marital status had ceased to be something to aspire to, and had become a cause for scorn. At seventeen we were becoming as embittered and as unromantic as our parents.
See, Laura? You won't change everything around like Jackie could. It's happened too many times, to both of us; we'll just go back to the friends and the pubs and the life we had before and leave it at that, and nobody will notice the difference, probably.
Charlie Nicholson (1977-1979)
I met Charlie at tech: I was doing a media studies course, and she was studying design, and when I first saw her I realized she was the sort of girl I had wanted to meet ever since I'd been old enough to want to meet girls. She was tall, with blonde cropped hair (she said she knew some people who were at St Martin's with some friends of Johnny Rotten, but I was never introduced to them), and she looked different and dramatic and exotic, because up until then I had lived in a world where girls had girls' names, and not very interesting ones at that. She talked a lot, so that you didn't have those terrible, strained silences that seemed to characterize most of my sixty-form dates, and when she talked she said remarkably interesting things - about her course, about my course, about music, about films and books and politics.
And she liked me. She liked me. She liked me. She liked me. Or at least, I think she did. I think she did. Etc. I have never been entirely sure what it is women like about me, but I know that ardour helps (even I know how difficult it is to resist someone who finds you irresistible) and I was certainly ardent: I didn't make a nuisance of myself, not until the end, anyway, and I never outstayed my welcome, not while there was still a welcome to be outstayed, but I was kind and sincere and thoughtful and devoted and I remembered things about her and I told her she was beautiful and bought her little presents that usually referred to a conversation we had had recently. None of this was an effort, of course, and none of it was done with any sense of calculation: I found it easy to remember things about her, because I didn't think about anything else, and I really did think she was beautiful, and I would not have been able to prevent myself from buying her little presents, and I did not have to feign devotion. There was no effort involved. So when one of Charlie's friends, a girl called Kate, said wistfully one lunchtime that she wished she could find somebody like me, I was surprised and thrilled. Thrilled because Charlie was listening, and it didn't do me any harm, but surprised because all I had done was act out of self-interest. And yet this was enough, it seemed, to turn me into someone desirable.
And anyway, by moving to London I had made it easier to be liked by girls. At home, most people had known me, or my mum and dad - or had known somebody who knew me, or my mum and dad - when I was little, and consequently I'd always had the uncomfortable feeling that my boyhood was about to be exposed to the world. How could you take a girl out for an underage drink in a pub when you know you had a scout uniform still hanging in your closet? Why would a girl want to kiss you if she knew (or knew somebody who knew) that just a few years before, you had insisted on sewing souvenir patches from the Norfolk Broads and Exmoor on your anorak? There were pictures all over my parents' house of me with big ears and disastrous clothes, sitting on tractors, clapping with glee as miniature trains drew into miniature stations; and though later on, distressingly, girlfriends found these pictures cute, it all seemed too close for comfort then. It had only taken me six years to change from ten-year-old to a sixteen-year-old; surely six years wasn't long enough for a transformation of that magnitude? When I was sixteen, that anorak with the patches on was just a couple of sizes too small.
Charlie hadn't known me as a ten-year-old, however, and she didn't know anybody who knew me, either. She knew me only as a young adult. I was already old enough to vote when I met her; I was old enough to spend the night with her, the whole night, in her hall of residence, and have opinions, and buy her a drink in a pub, secure in the knowledge that my driving licence with its scrambled proof of age was in my pocket...and I was old enough to have a history. At home I didn't have a history, just stuff that everybody already knew, and that therefore wasn't worth repeating.
But I still felt a fraud. I was like all those people who suddenly shaved their heads and said they'd always been punks, they'd been punks before punk was even thought of: I felt as though I was going to be found out at any moment, that somebody was going to burst into the college bar brandishing one of the anorak photos and yelling, 'Rob used to be a boy! A little lad!, and Charlie would see it and pack me in. It never occurred to me that she probably had a whole pile of pony books and some ridiculous party dresses hidden away at her parents' place in St Albans. As far as I was concerned, she had been born with enormous earrings, drainpipe jeans and an incredibly sophisticated enthusiasm for the works of some guy who used to spoldge orange paint around.
We went out for two years, and for every single minute I felt as though I was standing on a dangerously narrow ledge. I couldn't ever get comfortable, if you know what I mean; there was no room to stretch out and relax. I was depressed by the lack of flamboyance in my wardrobe. I was fretful about my abilities as a lover. I couldn't understand what she saw in the orange paint guy, however many times she explained. I worried that I was never ever going to be able to say anything interesting or amusing to her about anything at all. I was intimidated by the other men on her design course, and became convinced that she was going to go off with one of them. She went off with one of them.
I lost the plot for a while then. And I lost the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits and the exit sign. I hung around Charlie's hall of residence until some friends of hers caught me and threatened to give me a good kicking. I decided to kill Marco (Marco!), the guy she went off with, and spent long hours n the middle of the night working out how to do it, although whenever I bumped into him I just muttered a greeting and sloped off. I did a spot of shoplifting, the precise motivation for which escapes me now. I took an overdose of Valium, and stuck a finger down my throat within a minute. I wrote endless letters to her, some of which I posted, and scripted endless conversations, none of which we had. And when I came round, after a couple of months of darkness, I found to my surprise that I had jacked in my course and was working in Record and Tape Exchange in Camden.
Everything happened so fast. I had kind of hoped that my adulthood would be long and meaty and instructive, but it all took place in those two years; sometimes it seems a though everything and everyone that has happened to me since were just minor distractions. Some people never got over the sixties, or the war, or the night their band supported Dr Feelgood at the Hope and Anchor, and spend the rest of their days walking backwards; I never really got over Charlie. That was when the important stuff, the stuff that defines me, went on.
Some of my favourite songs: 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' by Neil Young; 'Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me' by the Smiths; 'Call Me' by Aretha Franklin; 'I Don't Want to Talk About It' by anybody. And then there's 'Love Hurts' and 'When Love Breaks Down' and 'How Can You Mend A Broken Heart' and 'The Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness' and 'She's Gone' and 'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself' and...some of these songs I have listened to around once a week, on average (three hundred times in the first month, every now and again thereafter), since I was sixteen or nineteen or twenty-one. How can that not leave you bruised somewhere? How can that not turn you into the sort of person liable to break into little bits when your first love goes all wrong? What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?
People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands - literally thousands - of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives.
Anyway. Here's how not to plan a career: a) split up with girlfriend: b) junk college; c) go to work in record shop; d) stay in record shops for rest of life. You see those pictures of people in Pompeii and you think, how weird: one quick game of dice after your tea and you're frozen, and that's how people remember you for the next few thousand years. Suppose it was the first game of dice you've ever played? Suppose you were only doing it to keep your friend Augustus company? Suppose you'd just at that moment finished a brilliant poem or something? Wouldn't it be annoying to be commemorated as a dice player? Sometimes I look at my shop (because I haven't let the grass grow under my feet the last fourteen years! About ten years ago I borrowed the money to start my own!), and at my regular Saturday punters, and I know exactly how those inhabitants of Pompeii must feel, if they could feel anything (although the fact that they can't is kind of the point of them). I'm stuck in this pose, this shop-managing pose, for ever, because of a few short weeks in 1979 when I went a bit potty for a while. It could be worse, I guess; I could have walked into an army recruiting office, ort he nearest abattoir. But even so, I feel as though I made a face and the wind changed, and now I have to go through life grimacing in this horrible way.
Eventually I stopped posting the letters; a few months after that I stopped writing them too. I still fantasized about killing Marco, although the imagined deaths became swifter (I allow him a brief moment to register, and the BLAM!) - I didn't go in quite so much for the sicko slow stuff. I started sleeping with people again, although every one of these affairs I regarded as a fluke, a one-off, nothing likely to alter my dismal self-perception. (And, like James Stewart in Vertigo, I had developed a 'type': cropped blonde hair, arty, dizzy, garrulous, which led to some disastrous mistakes.) I stopped drinking so much, I stopped listening to song lyrics and with quite the same morbid fascination. (For a while, I regarded just about any song in which somebody had lost somebody else as spookily relevant, which, as that covers the whole of pop music, and as I worked in a record shop, meant I felt pretty spooked more of less the whole time.) I stopped constructing the killer one-lines that left Charlie writhing on the floor with regret and self-loathing.
I made sure, however, that I was never in anything, work or relationships, too deep: I convinced myself that I might get the call from Charlie at any moment, and would therefore have to leap into action. I was even unsure about opening my own shop, just in case Charlie wanted me to go abroad with her and I wasn't able to move quickly enough; marriage, mortgages and fatherhood were out of the question. I was realistic too: every now and again I updated Charlie's life, imagining a whole series of disastrous events (She's living with Marco! They've bought a place together! She's married to him! She's pregnant! She's had a little girl!), just to keep myself on my toes, events which required a whole series of readjustments and conversion to keep my fantasies alive. (She'll have nowhere to go when they split! She'll really have nowhere to go when they split, and I'll have to support her financially! Marriage'll wake her up! Taking on another man's kid will show her what a great guy I am!) There was no news I couldn't handle; there was nothing she and Marco could do that would convince me that it wasn't all just a stage we were going through. They are together still, for all I know and, as of today, I am unattached again.
Sarah Kendrew (1984-1986)
The lesson I learned from the Charlie débâcle is that you have to punch your weight.Charlie was out of my class: too pretty, too smart, too witty, too much. What am I? Average. A middleweight. Not the brightest bloke in the world, but certainly not the dimmest: I have read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and understood them, I think (they were about girls, right?), but I don't like them very much; my all-time top five favourite books are The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and, I don't know, something by William Gibson, or Kurt Vonnegut. I read the Guardian and the Observer, as well as the NME and music glossies; I am not averse to going down to Camden to watch subtitled films (top five subtitled films: Betty Blue, Subway, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, The Vanishing, Diva), although on the whole I prefer American films. (Top five American films, and therefore, the best films ever made: The Godfather, Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs.)
I'm OK looking; in fact, if you put, say, Mel Gibson on one end of the looks spectrum and, say, Berky Edmonds from school, whose grotesque ugliness was legendary, on the other, then I reckon I'd be on Mel's side, just. A girlfriend once told me that I looked a bit like Peter Gabriel, and he's not too bad, is he? I'm average height, not slim, not fat, no unsightly facial hair, I keep myself clean, wear jeans and T-shirts and a leather jacket more or less all the time apart from in the summer, when I leave the leather jacket at home. I vote Labour. I have a pile of classic comedy videos - Python, Fawlty Towers, CheersM and so on. I can see what feminists are on about, most of the time, but not the radical ones.
My genius, if I can call it that, is to combine a whole load of averageness into one compact frame. I'd say that there were millions like me, but there aren't, really: lots of blokes have impeccable music taste but don't read, lots of blokes read but are really fat, lots of blokes are sympathetic to the feminism but have stupid beards, lots of blokes have a Woody Allen sense of humour but look like Woody Allen. Lots of blokes drink too much, lots of blokes behave stupidly when they drive cars, lots of blokes get into fights, or show off about money, or take drugs. I don't do any of these things, really; if I do OK with women it's not because of the virtues I have, but because of the shadows I don't have.
Even so, you've got to know when you're out of your depth. I was out of my depth with Charlie; after her, I was determined never to get out of my depth again, and so for five years, until I met Sarah, I just paddled around in the shallow end. Charlie and I didn't match. Marco and Charlie matched; Sarah and I matched. Sarah was average-attractive (smallish, slim, nice big brown eyes, crooked teeth, shoulder-length dark hair that always seemed to need a cut no matter how often she went to the hairdressers), and she wore clothes that were the same as mine, more or less. All-time top five favourite recording artists: Madness, Eurythmics, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley. All-time top five favourite films: National Velvet, Diva (hey!), Gandhi, Missing, Wuthering Heights.
And she was sad, in the original sense of the word. She had been dumped a couple of years before by a sort of male equivalent of Charlie, a guy called Michael who wanted to be something at the BBC. (He never made it, the wanker, and each day we never saw him on TV or heard him on the radio something inside us rejoiced.) He was her moment, just as Charlie was mine, and when they split, Sarah had sworn off men for a while, just as I had sworn off women. It made sense to swear off together, to pool our loathing of the opposite sex and get to share a bed with someone at the same time. Our friends were all paired off, our careers seemed to have hardened into permanence, we were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at twenty-six; we were of that disposition. Everything seemed much later than it was, and after a few months she moved in with me.
We couldn't fill a room. I don't mean that we didn't have enough stuff: she had loads of books (she was an English teacher), and I had hundreds of records, and the flat is pretty poky anyway - I've lived here for over ten years and most days I feel like a cartoon dog in a kennel. I mean tat neither of us seemed loud enough, or powerful enough, so that when we were together I was conscious of how the only space we occupied was that taken up by our bodies. We couldn't projectlike some couples can.
Sometimes we tried, when we were out with people even quieter than us; we never talked about why we suddenly became shriller and louder, but I'm sure we both knew that it happened. We did it to compensate for the fact that life was going on elsewhere, that somewhere Michael and Charlie were together, having a better time than us with people more glamorous than us, and making a noise was sort of defiant gesture, a futile but necessary last stand. (You can see this everywhere you go: young middle-class people whose lives are beginning to disappoint them making too much noise in restaurants and clubs and wine bars. 'Look at me! I'm not as boring as you think I am: I know how to have fun!' Tragic. I'm glad I learned to stay home and sulk.) Ours was a marriage of convenience as cynical and as mutually advantageous as any, and I really thought that I might spend my life with her. I wouldn't have minded. She was OK.
There's a joke I saw in a sitcom once - Man About the House, maybe? - a terribly unsound joke, where in a guy takes a really fat girl with specs out for the evening, gets her drunk, and makes a move on her when he takes her home. 'I'm not that kind of girl!' she shrieks. He looks at her aghast. 'But...but you must be,' the bloke says. It made me laugh when I was sixteen, but I didn't think about it again until Sarah told me she had met someone else. 'But...but you can't have,' I wanted to splutter. I don't mean that Sarah was unfanciable - she wasn't, by any means, and anyway this other guy must have fancied her. I just mean that her meeting someone else was contrary to the whole spirit of our arrangement. All we really had in common (our shared admiration of Diva did not, if truth be told, last us much beyond the first few months) was that we had been dumped by people, and that on the whole we were against dumping - we were fervent anti-dumpers. So how come I got dumped?
I was being unrealistic, of course. You run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anybody else at all. If you're going to go in for this stuff at all, you have to live with the possibility that it won't work out, that somebody called Marco, say, or in this case Tom, is going to come along and upset you. But I didn't see it like that at the time. All I saw then was that I moved down a division and that it still hadn't worked out, and this seemed a cause for a great deal of misery and self-pity.
And then I met you, Laura, and we lived together, and now you've moved out. But, you know, you're not offering me anything newhere; if you want to force your way on to the list, you'll have to do better than this. I'm not as vulnerable as I as when Alison or Charlie dumped me, you haven't changed the whole structure of my daily life like Jackie did, you haven't made me feel bad about myself like Penny did (and there's no way you can humiliate me, like Chris Thomson did), and I'm more robust than I was when Sarah went - I know, despite all the gloom and self-doubt that bubbles up from the deep when you get dumped, that you did not represent my last and best chance of a relationship. So, you know. Nice try. Close, but no cigar. See you around.
Penguin.co.uk: In High Fidelity one of the issues I suppose is whether music, that kind of thing, enables one to live life better or whether it's actually a retreat.
NH: One of the reasons I wanted to write High Fidelity was that I wanted to write from the point of view of a narrator who didn't have any of the hindsight that I was able to have in Fever Pitch. There seems to be more drama in somebody who is trying to make up his mind all the time and failing, and there's more potential for comedy.
In About a Boy, I think it is quite clear that Will is 'retarded' by popular culture. The kind of things he listens to and the kind of stuff he does is trivial. Whereas I think Rob in High Fidelity has got some soul, and his relationship with the music is quite soulful, but his relationship with other people is all over the place.
Round about the time I was writing Fever Pitch the publisher I now have at Penguin said he didn't feel that it did him any good. He read these manuscripts all day, and they were all about life and death, and he listened to great music in the car, going to and from work, and he felt that art gave him too much intensity. In a way Rob's job in High Fidelity is a trope, if you like, for writing. He listens to very raw stuff all day and it probably doesn't do you any good. I think over the last 10 to 20 years we've all had much more opportunity, more leisure time, and there's certainly more stuff around in terms of radio and TV, so I think we have a slightly distorted sense of what life is.
P: Do you think it's a particularly male thing to try and find metaphors for life rather than life itself?
NH: The male/female thing is interesting because when I wrote Fever Pitch and High Fidelity I presumed I was speaking on behalf of males to females. But particularly with High Fidelity the response I have had from readers has made me think that actually the gender thing doesn't apply anymore. There are an awful lot of women who responded to High Fidelity in what I would have previously thought of as a male way.
P: As a male reader I thought that phenomena - of collecting, arranging, listing - is a very male thing, but you think not?
NH: I think that the categorisation of things is maybe more male than female, but I think that the things women responded to in High Fidelity were more about just feeling messed up generally and clinging onto music or books as a way of getting through. Women who read the book seemed to look past that and look at Rob as a lost soul and identify with him because of that.
P: How should we read the ending of High Fidelity?
NH: The way I intended the ending was that it had the form of one of those old rock and roll films. At Rob's party he DJs and everyone gets together and dances. It has the feel of a happy ending, but I'd always intended for it to be very doubtful, and that Rob had taken the first tiny step on a road to something. It didn't necessarily mean that everything was going to work out, particularly in the relationship.
P: What did you think of the film of High Fidelity?
NH: I really liked it. What I liked most was that the film was personal to the filmmakers in the same way that the book was personal to it's writer: they grew up in Chicago, where the film was set, and they are all music addicts. So it became a film about them, which is the best sort of adaptation. People kept asking me about the transposition to the US, but it meant that the book retained all it's best features.