“I had a really bad dream. It lasted 20 years, 7 months and 27 days.”
Never Had No One Ever, The Smiths.
This started off as a ramble about the confusing world of masculinity in which I grew up, in order to get me writing something other than my crap novel that magically gets even worse every time I look at it. What it turned into, sort of unintentionally but also not really, was a lengthy piece about a significant relationship that I loused up but in a fairly poncey way. That’s what it ended up as, anyway.
More or less as soon as the events I go into here had taken place, I reframed them in a way that made me the victim and one of the innocent parties into the bad person. And I believed it because I specifically didn’t bother trying to remember the parts of it that might incriminate me. Because, actually, it was all my own fault. I’d told myself the same lie about it so many times that I believed it. I was upset, lazy and thick. That’s the reality.
It’s coming up to being thirty years since what now makes up the bulk of this story – the middle bit about my last year at university. Last week, when I was walking and Scott Walker’s “The World’s Strongest Man” came on, I started thinking about The First Year From Morecambe, as I sometimes do because I associate Scott Walker with her, like I associate Radiohead with my wife. I don’t really like Radiohead, but that doesn’t matter because The First Year From Morecambe didn’t like Scott Walker either. It’s not about the mutual appreciation of music, it’s more about the opposite of that, in a way. Sort of. Anyway, this time, instead of just playing back my memorised story about how a vindictive, scorned woman spoiled a nice relationship with her naked body and malice, I actually thought about what actually happened, for the first time since about 1993. And I thought, “Ah,” because I belatedly realised that what I’d tarted it all up as was, to be frank, bollocks
Oh, and The Smiths turned out to be possibly more pertinent to all this than I once thought, too.
I didn’t have any quotations in the first version, but, as will become clear, I don’t half enjoy being a bit of a ponce. So here we go…
“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch.
“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.“
I grew up in the 1980s: in the midst of the New Romantic era in a household in which the closest thing I had to music on a daily basis was the sound of my old man singing ‘Morning Has Broken’ as he repaired the holes in the wall that my mother had made, throwing things at his head and missing.
My family was into sport. Mainly Rugby League and Cricket. As an unquestioning child, I accepted this as my fate and consequently fell in with the sporty kids at school as I was in the football, rugby (union though, pfff) and cricket teams. What that meant was that, most dinnertimes, the jocks and I traipsed off to the changing rooms and spent the next hour and twenty minutes running around the field, kicking the shit out of each other and engaging in what we didn’t then call ‘banter’, or hurling abuse at each other that was unreasonable to be offended by because you were covered in mud, bleeding and anyway, you were one of those sportsing people and too damned manly to worry about trifling matters such as Matthew Hilton telling the world that he’d bummed your mother and she’d started to get into it.
On the bus to away fixtures, someone’d always bring a radio with them and there would be sing-alongs to the hits of the day and conversations about records. I kept quiet about both things as I knew nothing.
Even then, what struck me as peculiar was the tendency for these dead macho lads to prefer records that sounded – to me, at least – a bit soft. A bit puffy. I vividly remember one journey that was soundtracked by a coachload of twelve year old hard men singing along to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” by Elton John. Another was memorable for the shouting along to “Frankie” by Sister Sledge. I liked them too, I had no issue with girly pop, but I was surprised that these jocks didn’t either.
Anyway, I struggled with the concept that proper blokey-bloke men – the type that I aspired to be – were rude to each other, laughed at people who were unlike them, hit each other a lot, played games that resulted in broken bones and teeth (my front teeth were shortened radically by a cricket ball in the face aged about eight) yet listened to music that seemed to be for girls. I didn’t get it. Mind you, I didn’t get most things, so it didn’t burn a hole in my brain. I didn’t really get Rugby Union and I played that every week.
In the first year of secondary school, we spent a term on the option lessons – cooking, music, woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing, stuff like that. In one of my first music classes I invoked the wrath of the teacher. We’d been singing songs from ‘The Jungle Book’ (which I liked, although I wasn’t going to admit that) with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. The teacher had harangued us and demanded to know why we weren’t making more effort. He stood and looked at us, evidently with no interest in carrying on until someone had told him the nature of the problem. I put my hand up.
“Sir, music’s for girls,”
He went berserk. On the plus side, we didn’t have to do any more half arsed singing along to songs that we all enjoyed but were too super cool to show it. On the downside, he spent the next twenty minutes indignantly shouting questions at me that I had no answers to.
“What about The Beatles?”
I vaguely knew that The Beatles had been a thing. My mother used to sing ‘Michelle’ to me at bedtime, possibly to show off that she knew some French, but other than that, I knew nothing. I shrugged.
“My mum likes The Beatles.”
“Therefore The Beatles are ‘for girls’, are they?”
I looked blankly at him. Durr.
“What about The Who?”
The Who? The Who? Never heard of them.
“Who are The Who, sir?”
“Never mind. What about Duran Duran?”
Ah. Now, I had heard of them. Girls in my class either liked Wham! Or Duran Duran. Nobody went for Spandau Ballet, thank heaven for small mercies. The way Tony Hadley held his microphone with his fucking pinky sticking out like Lady Muck drinking tea on the veranda with Lord Charles was enough to give me a dose of the tremors. Still, there was no question that Duran Duran were undeniably, palpably, for girls. Even though I secretly enjoyed a fair few of their singles.
“Oh, Duran Duran are for girls, Sir,”
“But they’re men!”
Men. Yeah, right. Duran Duran didn’t look like men were supposed to look. They wore makeup, which was definitely for girls. Their clothes were all frilly and shiny. As eighties as it was possible to be, and whatever else people say about the eighties, they don’t talk about the increased prevalence of conventional masculinity in the pop music scene. All rolled up jackets, no socks, or pixie boots, and half-mast trousers.
I gave him a doubtful look.
“They are men.”
“Well, maybe. Just about. But it’s for lasses, isn’t it sir? Lasses are into pop music. Lasses are into Duran Duran. And Wham! And The Beatles.”
Neither of us got anywhere with the other. Maybe we both had a point. Well, he did. I was just confused about what it was that men were supposed to behave like. There didn’t seem to be any logic to it, not that I had any skill in terms of logic either, you understand. Not that I knew that either, which was to prove important in a way; my lack of intellectual rigour, or possibly just ability.
As the years went by, I couldn’t competitively carry on with all the sportsings because, while everybody else was shooting up and outwards, I resolutely refused to grow. Not on purpose, not like Oskar in The Tin Drum, but by accident, like Owen Meany in the book that hadn’t been written yet. I was alright with cricket, but I was left behind at Rugby, in which the rest of the team were getting on for six foot each, I wasn’t yet up to five foot. I was still about five foot nothing when I left school and very young looking with it. The other day, a woman at work had suggested that, at school, she imagined me as a long haired rocker. I showed her a photo of me at graduation, with a moptop. She said, “Did you graduate when you were twelve?”
John Squire pictured with his 1989 haircut, which I did my best to copy, replete with unpopular side parting which, With hindsight, was among the less offensive things about my demeanour at that point in time.
As the sportsings became increasingly dull to me and the arts became more appealing, I got back into reading, watching films and started listening to music, even though it was for girls.
I realised in the end that I wasn’t going to be one of these manly men like my old man, I’m just not cut out for it. On the other hand, wearing tartan jodhpurs and big white blouses didn’t appeal either. I knew that girly wasn’t the problem, it was something else that I couldn’t work out. Then I saw The Smiths on Top of the Pops and it was like having your body and brain realigned. Click. Oh.
I was interested in them – they didn’t seem very masculine and made a virtue of it. The sound of them was astonishing to me – the singing and the words swung around on monkey bars in my brain and kicked bits of it into gear. Nor did they look like they dressed up as effeminate pirates on spaceships made of tinfoil. Johnny Marr might have rocked a bit of eyeliner now and then but, if I was prepared to listen to Duran Duran, even on the sly, I was prepared to make concessions for him. I listened to what they had to say because I didn’t know anything and plainly they did. They talked about books, which I borrowed from the library, records, which I bought from second hand shops and films, which I looked out for on Channel 4, mainly. I learned and I loved it. Unfortunately, what I learned was that there was just more than one way to be cool, and this one looked pretty appealing. I did learn some things, but I didn’t have a great plan. I was clueless. Fucking clueless. I could crawl under a rock, where I probably should have been living.
Billy Liar was a big one. The film and the book. If The Smiths’ eponymous debut was, basically, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey set to music, then William, It Was Really Nothing was pretty much a précis of William Fisher’s life, had he married Barbara or Rita. Meat Is Murder was Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Mancunian Schoolboy, then The Queen Is Dead, despite being named after a chapter in the Hubert Selby novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and that whole late 85-mid 86 period was all about Billy Liar for The Smiths. In the title track, the line, “We can go for a walk where it’s quiet” is word-for-word what Billy suggests to Barbara before they go to the cemetery. Frankly Mr Shankly was Billy Liar’s conversation with his boss, Mr Shadrach, Cemetry Gates was Billy launching Barbara’s flaming tangerines among the soot-blackened graves of a parochial, northern town, in Vicar In A Tutu, Billy’s statement from his Grandma’s funeral eulogy, describing her life of “combating ignorance and disease” is quoted. London, the b side of Shoplifters Of The World, was a parallel universe take on Billy Liar, a universe in which he didn’t hop off and buy milk that neither he nor Julie Christie actually wanted. A universe in which he stayed on the train, which Morrissey pretty much did, even if I didn’t. Oh, Following this, The Smiths’ final album, Strangeways, Here We Come must come from Billy’s co-worker Stamp’s shout of, “Borstal, here we come.”
I was into Billy Liar anyway as it turned out because my dad had showed me it when I was a kid, along with The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner because he’d been at school with Tom Courtenay, even though he was a few years younger than him. His main memory of him was enjoying watching him throw up following the cross country race, ironically. My mother, who was at school with both of them, used to get the same bus and Tom Courtenay would regularly get off several stops earlier than he could have in order to avoid my mother’s friend Margaret, who continued to be a big talker, even by the time I met her.
Anyway, Billy Fisher seemed alright to me. In the same way that Holden Caulfield did, pretty much. Which is to say that the fifteen year old Middlerabbit might have missed the point of quite a lot of the art that he was exposed to. A situation that didn’t necessarily improve for several years in many cases. And, in all likelihood, is still ongoing. I didn’t literally mistake it for an instruction manual, but I was into it, and I sure as hell didn’t learn anything from it. Not in terms of not doing what Billy Liar did, at any rate. I could read, but I didn’t really understand.
Later, The Stone Roses also weren’t too butch. They were into difficult books, films I’d never heard of and wearing flared trousers – a strict no-no from the 80s. They looked great. They were funny and irreverent. The distance between The Smiths and everyone else, and later The Stone Roses and everyone else was preposterous. To me, anyway.
I think what attracted me to them was brains. Not that I’m making any claims for myself – too right. I’ve got brains, but I never did anything with them, most of the time. Still, enjoying something that wasn’t scared of having a brain as well as a heart was what I was looking for, so it seemed.
It struck me as odd though that the audiences for both of these bands tended towards the overtly masculine, and were a bit shy about showing much in the way of brains. I’d grown up with them – not personally, but that kind of person – and knew them. I followed The Roses around in 88-89 and the crowds weren’t soft arses like me, they were like sportsing people. They were uncouth. Most of them, anyway. They didn’t seem to mind that the sleeves had modern art on them, for Christ’s sake. As far as I could gather, The Stone Roses – magnificent as they were – were responsible for wrecking ‘indie’, as I knew it. I’ll write about that another day.
Perhaps the point is that The Roses, in particular, might have had brains, but they didn’t ram them down anyone’s throat. They were there if you looked for them, but if you didn’t, hey! Manchester La-la-la, and all that. It worked, I suppose. To be honest, it needed a bit of Manchester La-la-la, or else it may have become a chin stroking, pipe smoking, yoghurt knitting fest.
Diversion – Scott Walker
Most of the edit is in this part and the bit that follows it. This first section was originally here.
I was into The Walker Brothers and, at the very start of my last year at university, Scott Walker’s first four albums were finally issued on cd. I didn’t have a cd player at that point and wouldn’t for at least another five or six years. What I did have was my last month’s wages from The Odeon burning a hole in my pocket. I’d have bought the records, but they were like rocking horse shit. What I also didn’t have – and which was of apparently less pressing concern to me than buying compact discs that I didn’t have the equipment to play them on – was anywhere to live. I never sorted accommodation out at the end of a year because I was a clever little twat. And also because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent over summer due to being a full grant kid. Or I was too tight to. Take your pick. All of them, a bit.
I was dossing on a (girl) friend’s bedroom floor. This girl, who I worked with during the holidays, also went to York – although St John’s, not the ‘proper’ one. I stayed with her for a few days until I’d managed to sort myself a room in halls. She was Jane who, the next summer, would encourage me to go out with Jayne so I didn’t go out with Clare again because that upset her. Jane was a nice girl. Jayne was too. They all were.
I bought all four Scott Walker cds and, when I had a minute, found myself a room just off campus at what was then called St. Lawrence Court, house ‘G’, room 2, ground floor. By that point, most people had cd players, so I thought I’d make friends with someone there who had one and get them to tape me my Scott Walker cds.
On moving in, I was immediately quite taken by a third year girl who was very similar to my girlfriend at the time, who had gone to do her third year at university in Bologna, Italy. It turned out she – my girlfriend Clare – had been nobbing pretty much everybody with a Y chromosome – before and during, but I didn’t know that then.
The first one to break it to me was Clare herself. . Sort of. She told me over the payphone in the launderette one evening during the first term. It was busy, so that was nice. She’d met this Italian kid with whom she’d really made a connection. He had dreadlocks and a deeper knowledge of European new wave cinema than I ever would. I think she might have expected me to be pleased for her, but I wasn’t. Even though I’d already vainly pursued someone else who was possibly even more posh than she was and was, at that precise moment, in the process of trying to impress another significantly less posh but markedly more appealing first year girl who was currently keeping an eye on the Spaghetti Bolognese that I was cooking for us as I was dumped over the phone from, ironically, Bologna. Clare’d probably told me so I wouldn’t go and visit her that Christmas – which I was thinking about – unless I fancied holding up score cards after they’d finished shagging, which I was trying not to think about.
Next summer, back home and licking my wounds from the last nine months, I was told about her additional partners by people we’d both worked with over the previous summer, of which there were several. Partners, I mean. Some of whom were friends of mine. I was upset and humiliated because everybody knew except me. All the other ones were what everybody else told me about, and then they all sympathised with me, which was even worse. It was embarrassing: the pity.
The timeline of the cosmos’ karmic scales might be a bit non linear because maybe this was my, sort of, retribution for what I’m about to tell you. To be fair, I got what I deserved from all concerned. Mainly. I deserved far worse from some of them.
I’d pursued the third year embarrassingly clumsily as soon as I moved in, and she didn’t seem all that interested, and with good reason. Criminally vulgar, I regularly didn’t have any trousers on. Nothing much happened as a result of my trouserlessness, but not for lack of trying on my part. It wasn’t entirely one-sided: we were kissing and engaging in a spot of light petting: we’d have probably been alright doing the same thing at the swimming baths. Almost certainly in France. Provided I could have managed to keep my trunks on, which wouldn’t necessarily have been a realistic proposition for me at that point. Actually, we wouldn’t have, but I was more keen on moving physically onwards. She didn’t tell me to go away but it was still pretty grotty. With hindsight, she probably didn’t want to just be a quick shag for a fairly promiscuous young man for some reason or other. Chicks, eh?
She also had a cd player, but not a tape deck that was actually attached to it. By November, getting nowhere fast with the southern, posh, rich, arty girl – in terms of taping Scott Walker or getting in her knickers – my head was turned by the first year girl from Morecambe and not just because she had a cd player with a tape deck.
Up to that point, I’d had blinkers on for the third year and I suspect that she’d just been playing it a bit too cool for a bit too long – based on what happened later. Which wouldn’t have mattered except I’d discovered that The First Year wasn’t the – presumably relatively bright – ditzy blonde, pretty girl who was probably going to have a moustachioed, motor mechanic boyfriend called Shane back home in Morecambe – stereotype I’d assumed she was, at all. She taped them and, when she handed it all back to me, our our eyes met and all of sudden there was something more in there than I’d expected and it was like having someone reach into your chest and suddenly grab both your lungs in their hands and squeeze them tight. I asked her if she’d listened to them at all, and she replied, “It sounds like Love Boat music,” and I just melted into the floor. It was a bit like hearing The Smiths for the first time again. Click. Oh.
I then started calling in on The First Year’s room during the day, where we’d sit chastely – and clothed, unusually for me – underneath her duvet, listening to The Smiths. Drinking tea, smoking and plodding through reading lists of irritating books; we learned about one another instead of learning about animal learning theory and nineteenth century novels about being reasonable. That all started around about the Reading Week. There was more to life than books, you know. Well, actually, there was quite a lot more. Too much, if anything.
We got together and immediately everything was a lot easier than I was used to with girls. But it was more than that because I was experiencing something I had no experience of. It was like finding you had a third hand that you didn’t know existed. It was like those dreams where you take a step and the ground’s not there and you wake, gasping. Like that, except you don’t wake up and you plummet, eyes wide and mouth agape, into a warm, welcoming ocean that doesn’t drown you so much as hold you safely forever in its loving, watery embrace . My insides were pitching around: guts twisting and lurching back into place like they were on elastic whenever I saw her. It was ace.
Prior to the transition from platonic friendliness to kissing, when I’d tried to impress The First Year with an impersonation of domesticity by cooking spaghetti bolognese, she’d sounded surprised when she announced, “Middlerabbit, this is really nice!” Like she’d expected it to be horrible. She might also have just said it to be kind because I’d only just been dumped and she was being nice about it. Or maybe she fancied me too. Or maybe it was nice; I made it from scratch and a lot of blokes didn’t cook at all like that back in the early 90s. I couldn’t do anything else, mind you.
Whatever it was meant as, her compliment, even though we spent a lot of time bed, I’d been getting the distinct impression that it was going to take a long time before we ended up in bed bed, and I was like a dog with two dicks. However, if I was going to be not having it off with anyone in particular in G House, I’d have rather been not having it off with The First Year than the Third Year.
Had The First Year and I never met, The Third Year and I would probably have had a really nice time together. And that’s not to suggest that it was the fault of The First Year’s because it wasn’t. Once you’ve pickled your gherkin, there’s no getting your cucumber back, is there? I don’t mean that in a phallic way, incidentally. And, while I didn’t feel the beautifully gut wrenching plummet that I did when I finally got to know The First Year, The Third Year and I got on well.
A couple of weeks earlier, The Third Year had taken me out for a drive in her mini one Sunday afternoon – where there wasn’t any music or people who were young or alive – and, as people had in those days, there was a map in her car. We weren’t going anywhere in particular, except to the green bits. Realising that we weren’t far from Castle Howard, where an adaptation of Brideshead Revisited had been filmed a few years previously, we headed there to be overwhelmed, like Jeremy Irons had been on telly. It was shut, but we thought we could park up in the deserted, out of season car park and have a walk around the grounds, perambulating idly about like ghosts of Edwardian decadence in the twinkling fog, what with us and our terribly pleasant afternoon at the country pile, dahling. I’m only messing about though, frankly, she was that posh, she’d probably have fitted right in with Julia and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. When you were telling her something, instead of saying, “Oh, right,” or “Yes, go on,” to encourage you, she’d say, “rarely,” meaning “really“, and I’d say, “No, quite often, actually,” because I was fucking hilarious*.
Even Clare, who’d gone to convent school, and whose father was a poet with a villa in the Algarve, wasn’t as posh as The Third Year was. I was into it. I liked posh birds – cheers – even though I had more in common with people who, like me, lived in those ugly new houses and who had the milk bottle out on the MFI kitchen table at breakfast. I was drawn to girls from across the tracks from me for mainly superficial reasons. I liked Nancy Mitford and knew the difference between “U” and “non-U”. I wasn’t impressed by the bourgeoisie or their vulgar aspirations to be the sons and heirs of nothing in particular with their lounges, radios and mantelpieces because I thought she – Mitford – was great, and I just went along with what she said. The Third Year was more than just an accent that emanated from an orthostatic young woman whose excellent posture was probably a result of years of ballet lessons in high ceilinged, oak panelled old houses. Or, equally likely, deportment lessons in Switzerland. She was someone who had her pictures in frames on the wall, as opposed to just being blu-tacked up. Wine glasses in her room. Wine. Table lamps with scarves over them. It was like a snazzy, bohemian garret during the last days of the Weimar Republic, but without so much of an undercurrent of anti-semitism brewing nearby. I’d never seen anything like it in real life.
Anyway, even though Castle Howard was shut, you still had to pay some ludicrous fee for parking, so we drove off and missed out. It didn’t matter. There’d be plenty more days like that. There weren’t, of course. Not for us, anyway. Which was also my fault. In fact, if you could just assume that everything’s my fault unless I say otherwise, that’d be great. Oh, and don’t hold your breath, will you?
She was doing History of Art, and I was interested in that. On her wall hung a print of a Georgia O’Keefe flower – one of the ones that look like fannies – and I thought it was probably quite a lot sexier than what I had blu-tacked on mine, which was an enormous poster of Guernica, the Picasso painting about Franco letting the Nazis practise their bombing on a Spanish town full of women and children. Thinking about it, we both had the right art on our respective walls. Hers symbolising the beauty and allure of the female sex, and mine depicting a cubist nightmare of heartless barbarity. Our pictures may have given a more perceptive psychology student some sort of perspective on our personalities. Naturally, I didn’t give the matter any thought at all.
And, despite my assertions to the contrary, even years later on – here – we had some really nice times. We always did. We always had a laugh. Conversation was never stilted. We didn’t really argue about anything. We were nice to each other – well, she was actually nice to me, I was at first, then I briefly did an impression of it because, I suppose, I was on the make.
In the previous edit of this post, I had my original description of events here. However, when I decided I needed to remember what had actually happened I just vomited it all out on here. It leapt all over the place and, when I was reorganising it a bit, I accidentally deleted that paragraph and I can’t work how to get it back, but it was basically along these lines...
I returned to my room from the kitchen late one morning, when The First Year’s friends who had come up to visit were, to find The Third Year naked in my bed. She was only there because she knew about The First Year and me, and she was determined to wreck it by having sex with me because she didn’t want me and she didn’t want anybody else to either. We had sex because I was too young and virile to not have sex with the wicked temptress.
I did admit to being responsible – a tiny, little bit – but not really. I admitted that I just left the Third Year, shagged and alone while I pulled on the first pair of trousers I could find and went back into the kitchen, where one of The First Year’s more observant friends noted that I had a different pair on to the ones I had left the kitchen in. I said, “My bags weren’t working for me so I changed them.” They seemed to think that was a groovy thing to say (and/or) do. I didn’t think I was being clever about having sex with the third year while I was courting The First Year. I just wanted to blame someone else and continue pretending to be cool instead of actually doing things that made any sense.
That wasn’t what it was actually like though. Playing back the memory, instead of just reading the blurb on the box as usual, I remembered what happened, which is this, with my inferences that still might not be right but any errors are unintentional. This time…
One morning, The Third Year’ll have woken up feeling randy, and thought one of these two things:
- Middlerabbit was there and he’d do. Scratch an itch with him, so to speak. That might be it, but I’m not convinced it is for reasons I’ll get to.
- This was as good a day as any to step up the physical relationship that Middlerabbit had been persistently pestering her for and to cement their relationship which was developing nicely. He was interested in what she had to say, she found him appealing in a gauche sort of way, what with his floppy hair and gentle Northern accent. And having sex with him might put a stop to his crude habit of taking his trousers off and rubbing himself against your leg – like a dog that needs a bucket of water emptying on its head, but you distract it with a biscuit instead.
One of those, more or less.
It’s not like I didn’t ask her what was going on when I walked back into my room and closed the door as she pulled back the covers of my bed to reveal her nakedness as one of the first, pale afternoons of autumn pulled up a chair to doze off in. She bit her lip and looked up at me mischievously because she was being naughty and she was enjoying it.
I said, “You’ve changed your tune. What’s brought this on?“
Clear as day, same as everything else. When I look, it’s there. The light in the room – the muted cries of the fading summer whimpering through inadequate orange curtains. On the ceiling above my bed, I’d stuck a cut out newspaper headline that read, “Orgasm Over In A Flash“, which she would probably have considered a somewhat optimistic statement, should she have reflected on it later.
Diversion Diversion – Eaten By Wolves & The Third Year.
My friend Nijul (sic), was also known as “Eaten By Wolves” after he got a few of us lost on a day out in a forest during our first year. A day out that involved a lot of walking where there weren’t any paths and Nijull deciding – because he’d spent three months volunteering in a Native American Reservation before coming to university and, especially, having been a bit obsessed with a big film of the time, Dances With Wolves – that he was a bit Native American himself. He didn’t need the palefaces’ maps, Kemosabe, and got us lost until long after dark, to the sound of something feral ominously and dementedly baying at the moon. “Dances With Wolves?” I rhetorically accused him in the moonlight, “Fucking Eaten By Wolves, more like.” And it stuck, much to Nijul’s chagrin.
Anyway, he called on me one day when I wasn’t in and he left a note on my door that said where he was living and that he’d been round, but also that “...some hoity-toity bitch answered the door and another girl asked who it was, and she said, “It’s just someone boring for Middlerabbit.” She’s the fucking boring one…” and he went on at length about what a terrible person The Third Year was. It’s a good job I’d not told her he was called Eaten By Wolves.
She’d have been arsing about with him and, like a lot of people, Nijul didn’t expect women to be funny and thought some of the funny ones were just rude. Nijul was a nice lad but he wasn’t funny. Inadvertently on occasion, maybe. He lived with Iain and me at Fairfax House in our first year, and told me after about a month that I’d “be first against the wall when the revolution comes.” He meant that I was a class traitor who’d ponced out by going to university instead of engaging in the class struggle alongside my proletariat comrades in the hotbed of radical political activism that was Hull in 1990. That sort of thing would be a big no-no when they stormed Vanbrugh bop and dragged me off to face the firing squad one Thursday night, following the overthrow of the petit bourgeoisie and their lounges with radios on their bloody mantelpieces.
End of Diversion Diversion.
For that first month I had been really quite taken with The Third Year, and she’d not been giving me free milk when she had a cow to sell, so to speak – this is with hindsight because I hadn’t cottoned on at the time that she was probably playing it cool. I genuinely thought that she was sick of me because her version of playing it cool was remarkably similar to Clare’s version of dumping me (although I don’t think she was shagging anyone else) which I had plenty of experience of.
During the summer before, Clare and I had been at it one afternoon – we were great when that was happening and pretty ordinary as regards everything else – and she’d looked into my eyes and breathlessly told me that I was “…going to fuck some beautiful girls this year.” You know, while we were having sex. Like she was getting off on it. Maybe she was. I wasn’t. I wanted her so I could put her on a pedestal. Her. Not these hypothetically beautiful girls I hadn’t yet met.
Still, if these were the sort of beautiful girls who Clare had in mind – who both lived in the same house as me – they were fine with me but they didn’t really speak to each other.
They didn’t really like each other. On the other hand, I don’t suppose they’d really had a conversation about anything much in the first term. They’d both slag the other off when I was with them. Nothing dreadful, just young girls who were a bit wary of one another. They’d probably have got on if they’d talked to each other was my perspective, which I didn’t share with either of them, for obvious and beautiful, noble reasons, naturally.
The house had its little cliques. On the ground floor, along with me, was Tony, who never spoke to anybody much. He might have been gay – which would have been fine. I was a terrible boyfriend, but I wasn’t homophobic. We had a couple of chats, I think he thought I was a bit basic, really. He was a lot more alternative than I was. I was more or less a sixties-psychedelic-slash-indie-kid and he was bordering on Gothic. He dropped out too and, after Christmas, I told Iain from Southend about the empty room – I’d lived with him for the first two years and I gathered that my name was soon going to be mud among the girls – all eight of them probably, and with good reason. At least I’d have someone to talk to when the First and Third year finally compared notes. He wasn’t getting on with the kids in his house. He was alright, I didn’t dislike him, but we had nothing much in common. Some music, but that was about it. We kicked a ball around most afternoons. Typical shallow bloke relationship, really. Alright, you know? Nothing startling. We were no Butch and Sundance. On either side. He talked to me about his spots and how great his imaginary Swedish girlfriend was. I used to make ludicrous stories up to see if he’d believe them. He tended to. The First Year was unimpressed by him, and particularly by my encouraging him to move in. I knew what she meant because I always knew what she meant. It was a notably crap idea, among some stiff opposition that year.
Still, the cliques. On the first floor were four first years, but I’ve forgotten one of them completely, I didn’t pay enough attention at the time to create enough of a memory. Anyway, one of them was a fairly plain girl who had an acoustic guitar and was positioning herself as being The First Year’s stout and jolly friend. She wasn’t a protest singer, even I knew that. She was alright. She looked like she was going to be an Akela at Cubs within the next fifteen years. Kumbayah was going to feature more heavily in her future than Come dungeons dark or gallows grim. She used to bring me my post. If it was airmail from Italy, she’d tell me she thought it was from my girlfriend as she handed it to me, and I’d tell her that she wasn’t my girlfriend because she’d run off with an Italian grebo. That went on long after I’d blown it, so maybe The First Year was under the same impression as The Third Year might have been – that I’d just decided to turn my affections back to Clare because she’d talked to this girl about my getting letters from Italy. I don’t know. Anyway, my personal Postlady called The First Year “Sass“. Which I think The First Year may even have encouraged. But she was only 18, let’s not forget, and there are far worse things to do at university – like everything I did – than cultivate a cool nickname for yourself among your less cool, dowdier friends. There was also a quiet Scottish girl too who was only 17 due to the examination system there. She didn’t hang around with the other two much. She seemed pleasant enough, but I didn’t really get to know her very well. Still better than whoever the other girl was.
On the top floor were four third year girls – The Third Year, Noirin, and Sam and Camilla. Sam and Camilla did everything together. They were pretty straight. Nice girls, I’m sure. I called them “Samilla“, because they were. They’d come downstairs and cook together, and The First Year and I would sit, drinking tea and smoking fags, and watch them bumble along. Smirk at the squares, you know? They weren’t very interesting. They were personable enough, but they were bland. The Third Year and Noirin would speak, but they weren’t particularly close. She might have had slightly more to do with Samilla, but I’m not convinced – she wasn’t a dullard, and they were a bit. I’ll get to Noirin later…
Anyway, The Third Year and her evident change of heart. I climbed into bed, and we kissed. I broke it off and asked her, “What’s brought this on?“
And she said, “I just really fancied you this morning.” Or she rarely fancied me: one or the other. Maybe both. And I thought that was a sweet, spontaneous and sexy thing to say. And then we had pretty perfunctory sex. You know, like you need water but you don’t necessarily spend very much time thinking about how your cup of tea feels about it. Three weeks earlier, and everyone would have had a far better time. It wasn’t her fault that I was warped as a result of the constant state of concupiscence consistently raging in my trousers – on the rare occasions when I had any on, that is – and that a couple of weeks’ sexual abstinence seemed like several decades to me. Perhaps, had I paid more attention to a female’s perspective on the relatively positive aspects of regenerated virginity when The First Year swapped over Mozzer for Madonna in her room, I might have learned something from her too.
I did feel bad as it was happening – that much from my first account was accurate. Not for The Third Year, which would have been nice for her anyhow – cheers – but for The First Year. For myself too, because it was dawning on me that I hadn’t really thought about what would happen if we actually did have sex. And, as the act went on, it began to dawn on me that it would have been quite a good idea to have done that earlier.
I decided to knock my relationship with The Third Year completely on the head at some point in the middle of having sex with her, and not even because of her. I didn’t tell her or stop or anything, naturally.
I was too stupid to know how to develop a relationship where you’d started off living together, and then fallen in love with each other – that’s what happened to me, I think that’s what happened with The First Year – The First Year pretty much did all of the heavy lifting in that area. And all the other areas as well, if I’m being realistic. My brain knew that having sex with someone else wasn’t going to help matters, but it also wasn’t my personal favourite neglected organ at that precise moment.
One day in the kitchen, first couple of weeks in November, I was reading bits of the gig listings aloud from that week’s NME, and noted that The Wedding Present were playing in York about a week on Saturday and said I thought I’d go to that. She said she’d like to see The Wedding Present too, so I said I’d get us tickets. I was dead pleased.
A couple of days later, again in the kitchen, she asked me what time they were playing, and whether she should have her tea before she went out. I said we could go to McDonald’s first if she fancied, and she said, “Yay! Then it’ll be more like a proper date!” She gave me her smile – and she had nice teeth – that felt like the sun rising. She had a smile and a half, that one. The thought pleased her. She wanted to go on a date with me. She was doing it in front of other people around the kitchen table too, so that meant that we were going public. Girls didn’t often ask boys out, and this was her manoeuvering me into asking her out because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was impressed as well as thrilled. I’m hazy on the timeline, but I’m not sure we’d actually kissed by that point. We might have.
“Is that what we’re doing? Going on a date?” I asked, smiling back and teasing her a bit because the penny had dropped. Sort of. I was an idiot, and it was only a matter of time before she realised that because she wasn’t.
“Yes,” she said. Still beaming at me.
She thought I was clever. “You’re the cleverest person I’ve ever met,” she told me a week later. I told her she wanted to get out more. She told me to take a compliment. She told me off if I asked her for anything “in (my) shop voice“, which I’d never heard of before but knew exactly what she meant. It wasn’t like she was being bossy, sorting me out like that. What she meant was that our relationship was special, and that I should pay attention and treat her like what she was to me and not like someone from whom I was buying biscuits. She was teaching me how to be an adequate human being, and I was grateful and crapping myself a bit at the same time. I didn’t want to blow it, but I was worried that I already had.
And I’d belatedly realised: my God. She was extraordinary. I’d never met anyone like her, and it was like I’d always known her. It was like she knew what I was thinking before I did. She saw straight through me, and she still liked me. I’d never felt anything like it. Whatever it was, I had no frame of reference for this.
Speaking of intelligence, The First Year also said that she was a bit cowed by university because “There are loads of really clever people here, and that was my thing at home.” Which I wasn’t convinced by at that point – it was early on in our relationship when she dropped that one – because she was stunning and she couldn’t possibly have been known for her brains, looking like she did. Like a young Debbie Harry with flatter vowels. Her eyes were bottomless pools of encouragement and vitality. I hadn’t realised how clever she was, and every day she impressed me more and more. Perceptive, insightful and beautifully articulate. And she was sharp, too: really funny. Quick and spontaneous. You had to be on your toes and it was a joy to be with her.
“Nice one,” I said, trying to be Mr Cool about it because this was happening in front of the other first year girls and I was super cool*, you see. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a date before.” Teasing, not panicking. But actually panicking, you know?
I mean, I had been on dates, I’d just never heard it called “a date“. It wasn’t called “dating” where I came from. Nobody was “dating” in Hull, which she enjoyed my being a native of due to The Housemartins having made a big deal out of it five years previously, and she’d been into them. In the home of The Fish City Five (despite there being only four of them), you were either going out with somebody, or you weren’t.
Anyway, we went. I didn’t even particularly like The Wedding Present, – I did a bit – and I dare say she wasn’t that bothered either, and I was a bit shy. I don’t remember a lot about it, I was quite nervous. I’d been on dates, even though I hadn’t called them that, but not many. Generally, things tended to start like a one night stand and you’d see how it went. Then you did the same thing with someone else when it all went tits up. I wasn’t used to this sort of thing. Inexperience made it slightly awkward for me, but also it was because I was starting to feel scared about how the stakes were now so much higher. Because she was, miraculously, even better than she looked.
I was hopeless. In my room a couple of weeks or so later, early December, she told me that was scared because she’d never had a relationship with a boy and things be this easy. You know, it felt right. We fitted together, like your hands do. It was like meeting someone you’d always known, but for the first time.
What was happening was – I think, and I don’t know because I’m not her – that The First Year was telling me that she was falling in love with me and she was worried about opening up – emotionally – and getting hurt. And I was busy acting like I was too cool for Christmas because I was shitting myself: now it was surely too late to tell her. Playing it cool, or trying to, contrary to Paul McCartney’s recommendation in Hey Jude, as well as not being remotely in line with what I actually felt.
I ignored my pounding chest and told her that I wouldn’t worry about it, and that we should just enjoy what we had in the moment. It sounded pretty cool to me, but Paul McCartney knew better than I did about such things, frankly.
Diversion⁴ – Love, love, love.
I thought I’d been in love with Clare – I was convinced – but that had been more akin to Sunday Worship, with me as the congregation and her as Jesus. I practically conferred Papal Infallibility on her, which wasn’t her fault, but nor was it love. When we went out again the next year, I went straight back to being in awe of her, and got my hair shirt out again. She was keen and happy, but only for a bit. And then I was back to being faceless, fawning and boring.
With The First Year, it was nothing like that at all, and it was breathtaking. I didn’t fall in love with anyone else until I met my wife, five or so years later, and that was similar. I thought she was good looking, and then we finally had a long conversation late one night at work, and I realised how funny and cool she was – and is – and we know, You know? It was no less profound. It just wasn’t the thunderbolt you get the first time. By then I’d experienced that sort of thing before, and the first time, obviously, I hadn’t. The first time, I didn’t know what to expect, or even what was happening, the second time was more like relief at it being there again after worrying that it was never coming back. Thank God, you know?
In between making a mess of the relationship with The First Year and meeting my wife, I went out with quite a lot of people, and they were all great, but I didn’t get that feeling I’d first had The First Year with any of them. And it bothered me because, at that point, and as far as I was concerned, I’d been in love with Clare, then I’d fallen in love with The First Year, and I thought that was just what it was like, going out with people now I was in my twenties. And it rapidly transpired that it wasn’t. I kept going back to what had happened, but only the self-serving parts of it – meaning, the sort of way I described it here first time around, and I didn’t question it and, consequently, I didn’t learn anything from it either.
After every relationship breakdown, I went over it again. In 1995, I even went back to York, where I hung around the English building – the one on campus, there were others off it – in the vain hope of bumping into her and telling her that, belatedly, I understood and to try to get her back. I didn’t see her, though my heart was in my mouth whenever undergraduates filed in and out. I went home wondering whether it would have been reasonable to ask someone who worked there where I could find her, having decided that it wouldn’t have been.
What if that was it? One chance, and I’d blown it. What if some people really do have a soulmate and they blow it within a month of meeting them? It was like the film Naked, where David Thewlis says, “Have you ever thought, right, that maybe you’ve already had the greatest moment in your life, and all you’ve got to look forward to is suffering and misery?” And nobody wants to think that, do they? Even if it’s true. Especially if it’s true.
End of Diversion⁴.
On the last day of term before Christmas, The First Year went to the Christmas Ball. Naturally, I didn’t. I didn’t go to any balls. Because I was too super cool* was the impression I liked to cultivate, and that was part of it, but it wasn’t my scene, really. It wasn’t what I was used to at home. It wasn’t that it was Towny, it was more that it was a bit basic. The sort of do where you’d need restraining from hanging the DJ, even though he was probably playing Panic at the time, but for the wrong reasons or something. You had to get your tickets early, and I hadn’t. It would have been a good laugh with The First Year. Ian Brown said, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,” but I disagree with him: it’s not where you’re at, it’s who you’re with.
Before she went to the Ball, we talked about what was going to happen afterwards. We’d spoken about sleeping together but I wasn’t pushing it. I didn’t want to put her off by being over eager. Desperation is desperately unattractive, isn’t it? I could have shown a bit more enthusiasm though. It would have been a good idea. I told her I’d leave my door wedged open, and if I was awake, of course, come on in – if you want to – or if I was asleep, she could still sleep with me. It was what I wanted more than anything. I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t tell her anything much. Fear. You heard.
Anyway, The First Year went out to her ball and I packed my stuff up to go home for the Christmas holidays the next day. My mother was picking me up, which was always a bit hectic, but I had too much on my mind to worry about her. A lot to think about.
But I didn’t. Think, I mean.
When the time that I knew the ball would be finishing drew closer, and giving her time to get back – by herself, again, cheers – I put my fag out and turned the light off.
I don’t know, but I suspect that might have been the night that she had in mind for us to consummate our relationship. Maybe not, but we’d never actually slept together, despite having spent an inordinate amount of time in bed – mine and hers – together, doing the things that lead up to that. Her throwing Middlemarch at her door for not having any paragraphs, me gently stroking the inside of her forearm with the back of my finger because she liked that. What her favourite line from Shakespeare was, which was gruesome and funny at the same time. That sort of thing. We had a very sweet courtship. It was innocent, educational and entertaining. Funny. Like children’s television programming on the BBC was supposed to be, but with more emphasis on snogging than you generally saw on Bagpuss.
But we didn’t consummate anything. And the reason we didn’t – if that was what was going to happen – was because I pretended to be asleep. I heard her come in and gently ask if I was awake, and I did a bit of mumbling to imply I was asleep. I don’t know why I did that. Even as I did it, I was wondering what I was playing at. For a change, you know?
In the morning, disentangling ourselves from each other’s arms, we had a fag and a cup of tea, and then she went to pack. My mother arrived before dinner and, where normally I’d have encouraged as little interaction as possible with my co-students as possible, this time I wanted her to meet The First Year because she was ace. I was so proud of her.
I took her up the stairs and knocked on The First Year’s door, who opened it, beaming at me as she always did, and I introduced them. It had taken me two and a half years before I introduced Clare because I knew they wouldn’t get on. Mind you, I didn’t really get on with either of them, so who knows?
My mother couldn’t stand Clare. My old man wasn’t taken either. He called her Fruitcake. “You’re on a hiding to nothing with that one, kid,” he’d tell me as I lay in awe on my bedroom floor, saying, “Oh-woah, smother me, mother,” periodically after getting the boot again.
I mean, it was a big deal. My mum was much more taken with The First Year and clucked about her all the way home. Before we set off, I nipped back upstairs to kiss her goodbye. She said, “Your mum’s just like mine.” And I thought, you have no fucking idea.
Speaking of people with no fucking idea: nor did I, but more generally. It didn’t occur to me to get in touch with her over Christmas or, Heaven forbid, get a couple of days off from working at the pictures to go and visit her. Which must have done wonders for her self-esteem. First, he falls asleep before you get into bed with him at night, then he doesn’t speak to you for a month. She probably thought she’d got the message but really, I was just useless. And later, once she found out about me and The Third Year, or decided that I must have got back together with Clare, well, what clearer message could I have sent that I didn’t really give a shit about her? I’d not reciprocated all the times when she’d told me how she felt about us, and she probably thought that this must have been why. And who could blame her? What I sent was the opposite of the message I wanted her to receive. I was thrilled to be with her, but I couldn’t imagine that our relationship would have survived her finding out that I’d shagged The Third Year a month previously. She didn’t know about it, but when she found out, that would be it. The end. I’d been a resident of Dumpsville, population Middlerabbit plenty of times before, and it was never great, but what was it going to like following being with her? Maybe The World’s Strongest Man could have coped with hearing that it was all over with The First Year, but I wasn’t him.
I don’t know when they found out about each other. I’ve only recently realised – and I might be dead wrong about this too -that I was under the impression that The First and Third Year found out about each other and that was what culminated in all relationships terminating at room G2, St Lawrence Court. It wouldn’t have helped, but I don’t think that was necessarily even the main issue – I may be wrong. The issue was my attempt at pre-empting the fallout that I thought would inevitably result from that. That, and my persistent inability to be straight with anyone: from what I was doing, to what I was thinking. As a result of my not telling anyone what was going on, I suspect – but don’t know – that both girls assumed I just wasn’t really interested and, probably, had resumed my relationship with Clare. Because you don’t keep writing to, and receiving letters from someone who you’ve just broken up with every week or so, do you? That thought never even occurred to me. I loused it up pre-emptively. Gave up on it through embarrassment. Didn’t even try.
The best I can say is that I didn’t intend to be stringing two girls along at the same time. Especially not two intelligent girls who lived in the same house as me. Even Man About The House wouldn’t have tried that one on. And I didn’t think I was some sort of player – I didn’t want to go out with both of them at the same time. That sort of thing would have been considered to be a sign of being some sort of gigolo, and I wasn’t one of those. If the topic of having two girls on the go at once ever cropped up in conversation, I’d say, “I can’t satisfy one woman at a time, what the hell am I going to do with two of them?” and I wasn’t joking, even though I was.
Maybe I’m wrong about it. Maybe they didn’t even give it much thought. Again, I don’t know for sure, but certainly The Third Year continued to be pissed off with me for several months, The First Year either wasn’t bothered at all, or was good at keeping the look from her face if she was.
I’d abandoned ship in anticipation of The First Year finding out because I couldn’t face her breaking up with me. I just separated myself from The First Year after Christmas so there couldn’t be a moment when it all ended. I didn’t really go to see her in her room anymore, and I missed her. Later that year, I got The Tindersticks’ first album, and there was a song on it called, “The Not Knowing“, and it goes: “The not knowing is easy, and the suspecting, that’s okay. Just don’t tell me for certain that your love has gone away.” And that’s what it was. I didn’t want to hear that it was over.
When we returned after Christmas, hair brushed and parted: atypical me – I had a side parting which irritated the first year – and she wasn’t keen on Iain from Southend moving in next door. She was a bit cool with me, but no wonder. I’d hardly covered myself in glory, even without having cheated on her with a housemate. I went to get myself something from the shop and when I came back, The Third Year was in my room, reading one of my books and waiting for me. She asked me if I’d had a good Christmas, and I had I gone to Italy to see Clare?
I told her that of course I hadn’t gone to Italy to see Clare because she’d dumped me, which she knew all about. But, again, with hindsight, why else would I have so abruptly cooled things with her after we’d had it off? It makes sense that she assumed I’d just started going back out with Clare again. We still wrote to each other. My personal Postlady still delivered my mail to my room, like she was practising for bob-a-job-week, and noted Clare’s letters. I’m not saying I was the hot topic of conversation or anything, but I dare say that I wasn’t the only person who she mentioned to that I was getting letters from Italy in a girl’s handwriting. I still liked Clare. I was still impressed with her knowledge and demeanour. I was still grateful to her for introducing me to things like poncey foreign films and how to have sex so that the girl enjoys herself too. But we weren’t a couple – long distance or otherwise – despite how it must have looked. I’m not blaming my Postlady either – Middlerabbit got a letter from Clare today. Big deal. Maybe she didn’t even mention it.
From then on, I just ignored the both of them to the extent that you can when you live in the same house. The Third Year because I was already ignoring her, and The First Year so there wasn’t one moment when all my bullshit blew up in my face and ruined what we had. Because I was a coward, unlike Georgia O Keefe. At some point, one of them must have mentioned something about me. I don’t know. I just avoided dealing with it because I didn’t know who knew what, and to speak would be to incriminate myself. Maybe everyone found out when the following happened.
This next part is from the older version, which I’ve left it in to show what a dick I was for tarting it up to look like this, and then for believing it until very recently.
I knew The Third Year was pissed off with me because I was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea one breakfast time and it was busy. The Third Year came from the stairs and announced to me – but in the sort of voice that you might call ‘inclusive’ – that she’d been to the doctor and she had an STD, thank you very much, and that I should get myself tested too. The reason she was telling me this, she continued, was so that I didn’t give Clare the filth that I’d given her. The room went quiet, as you’d expect.
I said, “Ah, cheers for that, Third Year,” And off she went, job more than done. I suppose I might call that the ‘dancing on the grave’ phase of relationship breakdowns, in that all of my relationships were dead because I’d killed them all through stupidity, selfishness and greed. Apart from with Clare, but only then because she was even worse than I was. She knew Clare had dumped me, perhaps she was just prescient about what would happen later. If so, hats off.
Naturally, I went to the doctors’ and got myself tested, which was another extremely intrusive and unpleasant experience on most levels. Later that year, I went to the doctors again with broken fingers. He asked me to take my clothes off again, which I thought odd even though I didn’t usually need asking twice. It was a bit weird. He might have been worried about me because I was a skinny little bugger. On the other hand, maybe he was a pervert. It’s the doctor. What are you going to do? Then he taped my fingers up and wrote me a note for the examiners about my broken fingers.
Anyway, when the results came back, I was clean. Nothing at all. I thought about breaking the news to The Third Year in the same manner that she’d broken her news to me, but in the end decided I’d been enough of a dick and, just kept my mouth shut.
I wondered whether she actually did have whatever it was she had, or if she just made it up because she was pissed off about something else I’d done. Or my still living there being a shitty reminder to both her and The First Year. If she really did have an STD, she didn’t get it from me, which leads off somewhere else entirely where I really couldn’t be arsed going. So I left it. I don’t know why she bothered; my name was already mud and she’d already got what she wanted. Maybe she was just keeping her hand in or something.
Broadly speaking, that is what happened, but my interpretation of it was very biased in my favour. Back to the edit…
She didn’t know about The First Year when we did it, so she can’t have done it out of malice. I suppose she might have known by this point. It wouldn’t have taken much for it all to come out. But either way, fair enough, really. I’d not treated her well at all. Yeah, alright, I was in love – properly – with someone else, but I just had nothing to do with her after we’d had sex. It was all my fault, and I didn’t want to recognise that because it would have meant that I’d have had to admit to myself what I’d been like – and for far longer than was remotely reasonable. If any of it had been reasonable. Which it wasn’t.
I might not have given The Third Year an STD, but I had infected her with my casually and dismissive, if unintentional, cruelty. I’d hurt her, hadn’t I? Which is what makes me think I probably wasn’t just the most convenient (un)available male when she fancied a shag one day. She wouldn’t have bothered trying to humiliate me in the way that would – presumably – hit me where it hurt unless she was upset, would she? You know, tell the world that Middlerabbit’s full of STDs – of course he is, have you seen what he’s like? Avoid the pestilent one. I wasn’t going to be first in line to fill too many vacancies for a back scrubber in G House. It wasn’t about me having a minature umbrella shoved down my tallywhacker and excruciatingly scraped back out again – although I I dare say she would have found that to be an unexpected bonus if I’d told her about it – it was about hurting me like I’d hurt her. And fair dos, I had it coming.
The Third Year thought she was getting a relationship with a reasonable human being, not someone who shagged her once and never spoke to her again. Which was what I would have been in her eyes. Because that’s what happened, isn’t it?
It was ballsing it up with first year that I was mortified by though. If anyone had the reason and means to show me up for the twat I was, it was her. And she didn’t. The remainder of that year, in terms of the first year girl, I’m hazy on. I felt ambivalent about it. I was desperate to talk to her and also desperate to not talk to her. She could – and did – leave an impression. When she felt like it, however, she made it like she hadn’t really been there at all, and that’s what it felt like moments later – like the ghost of the first year had conversed with you in the kitchen but about what, you couldn’t really say. I don’t know how she did it, but I thought it was clever. I hated it as well. She withdrew her affections. I think she probably thought I wasn’t that arsed, or I’d have made more effort. Which wasn’t true. I’d just gotten myself up to my neck in it, and I didn’t even have the most rudimentary idea about how to get out of it.
Diversion Diversion – Noirin.
Later on that year, after I’d ballsed it up with the Third Year and The First Year, I decided to add to the shit I’d dumped on my own doorstep by engaging with Noirin – after a boozy night out – as well. While her boyfriend hammered on the door, demanding to know what the fuck was going on. We weren’t quiet because we were plastered, and the poorly stifled giggling probably didn’t help.
At some point, including stopping so that I could misguidedly try and fail to urinate out of her skylight – we were shitfaced – and the knocking had long since subsided, Noirin realised that she ought to go downstairs to see if her boyfriend was still there. Her boyfriend had always been dead pleasant to me. We’d chatted in the kitchen a few times, and he’d always been alright. He’d given me more than one joint and had nothing back from me. We didn’t know one other well – especially in terms of him having any idea of what I was like – but we had enough of a relationship for me to be clear that he was her boyfriend and that he wouldn’t be especially impressed by me making dubious noises with her while he hammered on the locked door. I say, “for me to be clear…” I knew the social etiquette was that you didn’t try it on with other people’s girlfriends – especially people you knew – but I didn’t really have any truck with that. People regularly left their partners to go out with someone else most of the time as far as I was concerned, so everyone was fair game.
I went to my room and cocked an ear towards the kitchen, where I heard her talking to him, and him not replying.
I don’t know if I was under the impression that I could flounce around nonchalantly and then he’d doubt what he’d heard, or if I was rubbing it in like the twat I was more than capable of being – which would have been a stupid move because he had a gun. He shot ducks and ate them. I got the impression that he was a bit feral. Country folk, you know? I knew rough people, but I didn’t know anyone who killed their own food, for Christ’s sake. So, yeah, he wasn’t the ideal angry boyfriend – I was always meeting angry boyfriends – funnily enough, given my laissez-faire attitude towards other people’s relationships – and my favourite type was the non-violent, pious variety who would be, ideally, both shorter and narrower than I was. Fuck knows what he was, the shoot-it-then-eat-it maniac, but he wasn’t one of those. I might have been at a top university, but I wasn’t learning anything. That’d show the Bolsheviks who Nijul was going to grass me up to.
Diversion³ – Libido.
I didn’t think I was clever for doing it because I didn’t think at all. Despite believing that I was some sort of thinking person who was into art with brains. Years later, I read an interview with George Melly – the English Jazz bloke – and he said that when his libido left, it was like being unshackled from a madman. And that’s how it was for me too. George preferred boys, but it’s the same thing. Since going out with my girlfriend of the previous few years, I’d been more or less insatiable. No, actually. Just insatiable.
Having said that, it can’t just be that I had the libido of a bonobo monkey because there were times when I actively avoided having sex with people who I probably should have. Poor Sharon, I refused to have sex with after about a fortnight; Angry Chick, I wasn’t remotely interested in sleeping with, but did so out of politeness and awkwardness; I stopped midway through our first attempt with Helen the previous year because I realised I wasn’t into it; what happened with The First Year on the last night of the first term.
I think it was probably based on my being a bit neurotic. I just wanted people to want to go to bed with me, and wasn’t all that interested in actually going through with it half the time. What other explanation is there? I wasn’t leaping off trains to London to buy cartons of milk that nobody wanted, but it wasn’t far off.
Years later, I was going out with another girl who told me she was a virgin, and she wanted us to, you know, have sex, and I wouldn’t do it. She turned up naked in my bed too, after I’d gone downstairs to make us cups of tea – beware of going to the kitchen when girls are in your house, that’s my advice – and when I said to her, “Look, you’re not a virgin because nobody wants to have sex with you, are you? You’re a virgin because you’ve been saving it for someone special, and I’m just not.” She was dead upset about it. As well she might have been. Not because she was missing out on a night of ecstatic sexual pleasure – I’m deluded and I’m crackers, but I’m not that crackers – but because it was rejection, wasn’t it? Who wants that?
Maybe it was some last vestige of The Smiths’ influence on me and I, too, wanted the hills to be alive with the sound of celibate cries. I don’t really know if or why I might have wanted that. Or what such a thing might even sound like. I can’t imagine it was that but, on the other hand, what kind of idiot kicks naked, attractive virgins out of their bed and makes them cry by not having sex with them? Me, apparently. I’m that kind of idiot, but not only that: I’m lots of other types of idiot as well. I’m a virtuoso moron. I’m glad I didn’t do it with her, because I was right about me not being anyone special, but I was also wrong because it wasn’t up to me to decide who was and wasn’t worth losing her virginity to, was it?
So that’s not consistent with what I did, either, is it? At school, I’d done alright with girls, but I wasn’t one of the popular kids, and now, in a different pond, suddenly, I sort of was. But it still doesn’t make any sense because I was so inconsistent. Maybe I’d just got into the swing of things the previous summer. I wanted to be good, but I wasn’t very good at being good.
End of Diversion³
Anyway, back in the kitchen with Noirin and her boyfriend. I languorously made myself a cup of tea. You know, boiled the kettle, washed my mug out, teabag in, milk and sugar out of the cupboard, stir stir, leave it to brew for a couple of minutes. Milk, sugar. No hurry. And Noirin was sitting maintaining eye-contact with her boyfriend, suddenly sober and like someone pretending that their fucking great dog isn’t spraying foam, snarling and straining on the leash at the (Middle)rabbit, and her eye-contact was the leash. I breezily asked, “Alright?” and received a rapid, “Yeah, fine, no problem.” from Noirin. No blinking. He would have beaten the crap out of me – and he wouldn’t have been the first or last boyfriend to do that, and they all had good reason – and Noirin was stopping it from happening. Probably explained that he’d get chucked out this time, after the duck murdering and eating incidents. Or just witchcraft or something. I sauntered back into my room and didn’t lock the door because, well, fuck knows. Have you noticed a lot of rational thought going on here? Well then.
End of Diversion Diversion – Noirin.
In the lead up to my finals after Easter, I spent the warm, summer days indoors – because I’d done just enough work to realise that I was totally fucked. Other than going to fitness class and to kick a football about for an hour in the afternoon with Iain, I didn’t go anywhere or do anything productive. I’d neglected my studies. I spent more time writing to Clare than I did working. Same thing again – just avoid the issue by distracting myself with something else and living in la-la land. I was playing in a five-a-side football team with some kids from my course, but I got ill – probably through stress: self-inflicted, let’s face it – and couldn’t keep any food down for weeks. I was too ill to run around, so I went in goal. I tried saving a shot which banged my hand against the metal crossbar and broke two of my fingers on my right hand, the one I would have been writing my exam responses with, had I any fucking idea about what it was I was supposed to be answering. I ended up writing an apology on one of the papers, saying that it wasn’t the professors’ fault, they’d done a good job and I’d just fucked around. I expect that went down about as well as everything else I did that year.
Then I had to go home to Hull to get some work I needed for my exams. My parents tried to discourage me from coming home but I had to because my stuff was all over the place and they wouldn’t have found it.
I got home and noticed the dog wasn’t howling at the door to greet me – he was my dog from being a kid. I loved Albert and they’d had to have him put down because there was all sorts wrong with him, and he’d degenerated into an unhappy mess. He was having fits – clusters of them – pissing and shitting himself when he did, and trembling for hours after. He was a great dog, and I’d grown up with him. I picked my stuff up and went back to York on the bus. Sitting on the top deck on the front seat so nobody could see me, I wept as quietly as I could manage while I read the same sentence in American Psycho about four hundred times trying and failing to get to the next one so I could take my mind off it all. Patrick Bateman was worse than I was, but not by much, and at least he was fictional. It had all been far too much, this year. Apart from Albert dying, everything should have been beautiful but it was the opposite of that because I’d fucked everything up.
Back at G house, I gathered I looked a mess. Like the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray, finally the reality of what I really was had broken through the innocent, youthful veneer. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I’d given up shaving, and I wasn’t really capable of growing a beard, so I just looked grubby. I’d given up eating because I just threw up as soon as I did, so if I’d been scrawny the previous summer, now I was bordering on emaciated. I normally had my hair cut regularly, and I gave up on that too, just let it do whatever it’s going to do.
Girlfriend buggering off with an Italian, blowing it with The First Year, feeling dreadful about The Third Year, broken fingers, imminent ballsing up of my degree, dead dog. No sleep, so my eyes would have generally been fairly red, even if they were currently particularly red from crying on the bus about my dog. I was midway through a pasting and it didn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
So, yeah, whereas previously I’d been an emotional, intellectual and sexual wreck beneath a thin surface veneer, now I was a physical heap there as well.
And the Third Year and The First Year, both of whom I’d treated so badly without giving much, if any thought to were both – separately – really kind to me. I didn’t volunteer that my dog had had to be put down, but it must have been pretty obvious that I wasn’t coping very well anymore, and I told them what had happened when they asked, and tried my best not to break down in front of either of them. I was at rock bottom and almost all of it was entirely self-inflicted. The reality was that I’d never coped very well, even with day to day crap, let alone the ridiculous situation I’d engineered in St Lawrence Court. The only difference was that now, I wasn’t even capable of pretending that I was some sort of normal human being, let alone a super cool one.
Maybe I’ve made a bigger deal of it than it really was, my messing the pair of them about and behaving like I was living in some Rejected for reasons of improbable stupidity ITV sitcom pilot from 1972, and they weren’t that bothered. I don’t know – you’d have to ask them. But it was a big deal to me. And it’s remained a big deal because I just papered back over the cracks again and, realistically, just went back to exactly the same thing with Clare that had happened all the way through university. Until she dumped me finally, but did me a favour by making me act like a grown up by getting a flat and a job and all that. So, I have her to thank for that, really, but even that was mostly pretending.
After I finished my last exam, I just sloped off home. Two trips to drive all my crap back. It had been the best and worst year of my life. I wouldn’t even say that the bad bits – not really working for my degree, and scraping a third, which was better than I deserved; the guilt and the shame of being useless in my love life, all in the name of getting my end away – outweighed the good – feeling that falling feeling every time I saw The First Year – because you don’t get to feel that way all that often, do you? It could have been the best year of my life up to that point, with the ones that followed even better. But I fucked it up. So many chances, an embarrassment of riches and I ballsed up absolutely everything I touched that year. I don’t think I even said goodbye to anyone. I was ashamed of myself and didn’t want to be reminded of what a moron I’d been. Didn’t get any addresses or phone numbers. I just ran away with my tail between my legs and hoped for a fresh start. Got my story straight. Clap clap.
Not the world’s strongest man? No shit. Step aside Scott Walker: there’s a new weakling in town.
And let’s not get too sentimental here; had I not fucked it all up when I did, I would have fucked it up at least as badly at some point over about the next seven or eight years. So, maybe it was just bad timing. Maybe it’s just what happens at that age, and everybody has exactly the same thing. I don’t know, I only have my experience to go on. Experience is a hard teacher. It doesn’t piss about, but you still have to pay attention, and I didn’t do that for years. Even after all that.
End of Diversion
And yet, as the bulk of all this should have told you: when there actually was something to think about, I didn’t think at all. What I liked was the idea of it. Probably that it said something about me. That it implied some sort of depth to me that, frankly, just wasn’t there. I criticised everyone else for being shallow, but really, who’s shallower than I am? I like to think I’m all about depth, but I don’t think I can be, really. I’ve just been pretending. Playing at being a well-rounded human being instead of actually being one. Being Billy Liar instead of Julie Christie.
I do like a bit of something to think about, but it doesn’t mean that I’m actually going to use any of it to turn myself into a decent, tolerable human being. The best bands have a bit of passion and brains, and the best people have both too. I recognised that, even if it didn’t occur to me that I had neither, and that superficiality was no substitute for moral fibre.
Finally, the scales fell from my eyes. Ambrosia evaporated, and when the light entered into those blank, grey eyes of mine, I was appalled. I put a spin on it as they used to say, and chose not to look very closely at the reality again because I couldn’t cope with it.
I knew what I’d lost, of course. I knew that then. What I didn’t know then was that it doesn’t happen as often as you think it will when you’re a kid.
Thirty years ago, nearly. Why bother dredging though all that? The set text on human relationships, the Theme From The Likely Lads – Whatever Happened To You? states, “… I must go back ’til I find out where it is I’m going to.” And I agree with that. It’s the same thing as “He who fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat it” thing. I can’t stop being a dick until I work out how I’m a dick, instead of just doing whatever dickheaded move that pops into my head, even though I have no idea why I do any of them – and then argue that I’m not being a dick because it’s them doing that. That’s why.
I never saw her again, The First Year. Except I did, sort of. Maybe three or four years ago I was the Head of Literacy at the school I was at. Trawling through Twitter on the sniff for resources that I could use, I saw a photograph of three women sitting around a table that cropped up on the search. The woman in the middle was The First Year. There was no mistaking it. She’d lost the fringe she used to have, but she was smiling at one of the other women, and I thought, “I know those teeth.” I sent her a Tweet and followed her, but she didn’t reply. Maybe she was horrified at my finding her again after all those years. Or maybe my message was written in my shop voice or something. It probably was a bit. Whatever it was, I gave it a month, then unfollowed her so I didn’t look like I was harassing her. She didn’t block me, but maybe she thought that to do that would have implied that I was more important to her than I actually was. I don’t know. I don’t blame her though.
In a way, it turned out that The Smiths had a sort of overarching influence on the entirety of this story. How first they made me realise that there was an alternative to the mainstream in terms of pop music and masculinity. Then, in terms of providing a soundtrack to The First Year’s and my relationship which never really flourished in the way it probably would have. You had an idea what you were getting from fans of The Smiths – it was a sign that you enjoyed bleak humour, that you understood what a parochial upbringing was like, and that you were likely to be dealing with someone who wasn’t a total moron although there were exceptions, such as me.
The First Year never wanted to listen to I Know It’s Over. She didn’t dislike it because it was so desolate, like Balf wouldn’t listen to How Soon Is Now? She didn’t like it because of the word “slit“, in the line, “The knife wants to slit me.” That’s what she said, anyway. I was a big fan. My old man loathed it and would shout up the stairs to me, “Are you playing that bloody dirge again?” Some of The Smiths’ songs, I could imagine other bands doing, but not I Know It’s Over. Maybe other bands could musically do that sort of thing, to an extent but not the lyrics. There have always been songs about heartbreak and loneliness – it’s one of the staples of pop music – but not like I Know It’s Over. Opening with the description of himself being buried alive and crying for his mother, but particularly the verse that asks the questions – If you’re so (clever/funny/good looking/entertaining) why are you alone tonight? Most people, especially singers, aren’t prepared to do that because it’s too close to home and too near the bone. You don’t hear vulnerability like that on many pop records, do you? As Morrissey said in it, it takes strength to be gentle and kind, and I wasn’t, was I? Whatever else I was, I sure as hell wasn’t The World’s Strongest Man.
“There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all….”
George Eliot, Middlemarch.
Some more than others…