The Picture of Leon Brittan
‘The past is real – it is all there is.'
- H.P. Lovecraft
I hope you’re not angry with me for writing to you like this. Even if you are, for God’s sake DON’T STOP READING until you get to the end! You needn’t worry about me having a go at you or Rob or begging you to take me back again – that’s all out of my system now, I promise. And as for my Legacy Edition Necronomicon, you’re welcome to keep or even chuck it if you like. I’m only getting in touch now because I’ve been thinking over what you said the last time we met, about having nothing left to say to each other. I’m beginning to realise you had a point (and of course the fact that you haven’t spoken to me since proves you were at least half right), but before we go our separate ways there’s something very important I need you to know. I’ve never told anyone about it before but I should have told you long ago, not least because you were always asking me to, sometimes as often as twice a night... Yes, that’s right, this letter contains nothing less than the REAL REASON why I couldn’t have full sex with you the whole time we were seeing each other!(!)
Okay, sorry – I need to get your attention, but that was just tacky. I’m not here to play games or make flippant remarks – partly because it would be unfair to you, but mostly because what I want to say has very serious implications for every living creature on this planet. Don’t stop reading! I’ve not gone mad and I’m not mucking about. The story I’m about to tell is true in every detail and you must try to believe it no matter how hard that seems, because it proves that my impotence was never anything to do with me not loving you, or not thinking you were gorgeous, or being a closet bender. It was to do with primal forces of inhuman evil.
Before we go on, I should probably warn you that this is going to take some time. If I only told you the essence of it, you’d never believe me – it’s only going to make any kind of sense if I tell you everything, exactly as it happened, and let you decide for yourself whether I’m insane to think as I do. (Also, I think you’ll find that the following comprehensively repudiates Rob’s claim that I’m ‘too big a mong’ to write bestselling horror fiction. In terms of style, I mean – because, make no mistake, this is no mere fiction. I wish to God it were!)
Anyway, it all started way back in 1991, on the day I moved out of my parents’ to go to the Poly. My new home was a Halls of Residence where there were no Halls of any kind – if anything it was more like that bit you always get in films about the Navy, when the siren goes off and they all scurry about and it’s supposed to be amazing that no one bangs their head on anything. My dad had driven me up there and helped me move my stuff in, and we were both sitting on this saggy old bed looking out of the window. All you could really see through it was the mud-flecked front end of a Nissan Sunny, because the ground floor of the building was four foot lower than the car park beside it. A concrete cliff sloped down from the tarmac under the Sunny to a narrow ditch directly below my window, and this was full of fag ends, wet crisp packets, some brown stuff and a single blue glove.
To a sensitive lad who’d been coddled and cosseted like a suburban Lord Fauntleroy throughout his formative years, it felt a lot like the wrong side of the tracks – tracks that were themselves the wrong sort of tracks, and in the wrong country at the wrong time of year. I’d always thought leaving home would be pretty cool, but now I’d actually done it I just wanted to go straight back, hug my mum, run up to the attic and smoke a joint while looking at my old toys.
We had both been silent for some time when my dad finally said, ‘Of course, you’ve got to imagine how it’ll look when you’ve got your posters up.’ His concern choked rather than cheered me up, and to spare us both the ignominy of an emotional scene I mumbled an excuse and stepped out into the corridor.
The plan was to break down quietly in the communal bathroom, but on my way there I realised I’d just stepped over a mechanical duck. I turned and stared – yes, a mechanical duck. It was lying on its side, wiggling its wings feebly and emitting the kind of cracked, tinny wheeze a robot might make if it tried to impersonate a very sick old man. Its skin was metallic – probably brass or copper – but tarnished enough to make it look at least five times older than the knackered lino it whirred and shivered on.
I knelt to take a closer look. Although beautifully made it was obviously malfunctioning, because every few seconds it seemed to seize up and a green paste oozed out from an opening near the back. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why anything mechanical should have a green paste inside it, and was just reaching down to touch the duck’s arse when I heard:
‘Merciful Heaven, no!’
A girl came running down the stairs. She was very short and looked every inch the no-nonsense politico, dressed entirely in black with a mousey crew cut and heavy yomping boots. She knelt down beside me and gently picked up the duck.
‘I can’t believe I dropped this! Do you know what this is?’
I said no as we both stood up. ‘It’s an original Vaucanson. Do you know anything about Vaucanson?’ I was going to say no again but she immediately went on: ‘He was celebrated as the master mechanician of his age, a genius who electrified the crowned heads of Europe with his “philosophical toys”. He exhibited this duck in 1739; it walked, quacked and ate grain off the floor, but the real show-stopper was that it was then able to excrete what it had just eaten, having apparently digested it.’ She ran a finger over the rear of the contraption and showed me the paste. ‘See?’
I nodded and went Mm. It was unsettlingly like wearing one of those headsets you get at museums, but I was still well impressed. Her voice was so gentle and mellifluous it made Jenny Agutter sound like a roadworks.
‘Vaucanson claimed that the food was broken down by a miniature chemical laboratory in the duck’s stomach, but many years later this was exposed as a hoax: the paste had been loaded into the back before each demonstration, while the apparently consumed grain went directly into a secret compartment.’
She smiled up at me expectantly, clearly believing this to be something of a rib-tickler. I laughed politely and she looked pleased. ‘This really is worth a tremendous amount,’ she said. ‘To me, I mean – it’s not an original, obviously.’
The conversation continued along more conventional lines, with introductions (she said her name was Wendy Constant), the exchanging of course details, complaints about the smell, etc. She came from Broxbourne and was taking Computer Science, which seemed odd because she looked more of an arty type. But it did chime with the way she spoke: she was relentlessly didactic and precise about even the most trivial things. I felt myself beginning to cheer up – she had beautiful brown eyes and a smile that could have set light to the sea, although at that stage I still thought she was bound to be gay.
A man carrying a cardboard box full of books appeared behind her and said ‘Beep beep,’ because we were blocking the stairs. Wendy moved to one side and glanced at him. ‘Oh – here’s my dad.’
His thick spectacles and combed-over bald patch were standard issue absent-minded professor gear, but his clothes made him look more like someone who’d just woken up in a bookie’s: a wise-guy brown leather jacket awkwardly superimposed over faded V-neck and deplorably flimsy pastel shirt (deplorable because I still shudder at the memory of its shaggy underlay), with little spots of what looked like egg mayonnaise garnishing the whole. We’d barely said hello to each other when suddenly he came out with, ‘So you’re one of these young bucks who’s going to ravish my little girl, are you?’ I laughed, but stopped quickly when I realised no one else had. He watched me intently for a moment before adding, with a broad, eager grin, ‘Well it’s all right by me – just make sure you get a receipt.’
‘Go away, you’re annoying us,’ Wendy said sharply. His face fell and he stomped moodily upstairs, treating us to a glimpse of the peeling Hard Rock Cafe logo on the back of his jacket. As surprised as I was by all this, I was initially less struck by how creepy he'd seemed than by how cool she’d looked dismissing him.
She told me to ignore him and we went on talking for a bit, but a lingering sense of mutual embarrassment made us both a lot less interesting and we were soon agreeing to see each other around. I went back to my room, saw my dad and immediately burst into tears.
After he’d gone I ventured out to put my milk in the communal fridge. Only a small section of the L-shaped kitchen was visible from outside the doorway, and as I approached I could hear two unseen people arguing. A man’s voice was saying, ‘You are such a fucking tease.’
‘Look – I’m here now, and that means you’re not coming near me again, okay?’ This I recognised as Wendy’s voice.
‘I know the bed’s a bit small, but we could always put the mattress on the floor...’
‘I said no!’
Assuming she was just having a spat with some previously undisclosed boyfriend, I walked in anyway. But there was no boyfriend, just her and her dad, standing at the sink with their backs to me. She was washing something up and he was stroking her arse... The last thing I heard him say as I half-tiptoed, half-sprinted back to my room was, ‘It’s the least you can do after making me carry your crap around all day.’
I spent the rest of the night in bed with Radio 4 on, chain-smoking in a rather melodramatic fashion and egging myself on to be sick with worry about what I’d seen. In the end, though, I had to admit that there was practically nothing I could do without knowing her better. She’d seemed to be in control of the situation and would doubtless be safe enough until I got up the nerve to broach the subject; in the meantime I would just have to concentrate on cultivating our friendship, so I’d be ‘there for her’ when she was ‘ready to talk’.
But of course I totally failed to do this. Within days I had fallen in with a collection of white, male, middle-class stoners almost exactly like me, and the months that followed were a mad whirl of budget ciders, Tolkienesque board games, stolen road signs and disputes surrounding the ownership of farts. They were a nice enough crowd but they all spent a lot more time talking about women than to them, which disappointed me a bit. Not that I was pining for toga parties or pantie raids, but it might have been nice to spend the evening with a mixed-sex group occasionally – or once, even.
Unfortunately there was no question of me finding these women myself because I was still a virgin, and the very idea that I might one day go to bed with someone was beginning to seem increasingly preposterous. I just couldn’t see how it was done, how it could even be possible to effect a transition between having a lovely chat with someone and panting naked on top of them – and I was so terrified by the prospect of bungling that moment of transition that it seemed safer to avoid the possibility altogether. So I never talked to girls, unless they were going out with someone I knew, and if by some freak chance one of them started talking to me I’d obviate any risk by giggling and gurning like a medieval lackwit.
I only mention all this so you’ll know that it wasn’t callousness or torpor that stopped me making friends with Wendy sooner – it was just that she was a girl and I was, in all seriousness, scared of girls. I still saw her about, of course, and we’d usually say hello, but she always seemed to have someone with her, and it always seemed to be one of the foreign students, and there was never any chance of butting in because she’d always be speaking to them in Spanish, Russian, Chinese or whatever. It got on my nerves a few times, and I had to draw the line at folk singing in the common room, but it was hard not to be just a little intrigued by a person who could talk to seemingly anyone... Sometimes, when I saw one of her friends walking around without her, I’d be tempted to ask them how she was doing – but that was impossible, because they all wore brightly coloured clothing and listened to soft rock.
When we came back after Christmas I realised I hadn’t thought about her once over the holidays, and the incident in the kitchen already seemed like something I could safely ignore; actually, the only thing I or anyone else in the Halls could think about at the time was the terrible biting cold, and the maddeningly unapologetic uselessness of our in-room heaters. Temperatures were so low you didn’t even need to risk the theft of your perishables by leaving them in the communal fridges any more – you could just put them in a plastic bag, tie it to your window latch and then close the window so that the bag was left hanging outside. Of course, it was only worth doing if your room was on one of the upper floors, but this detail somehow escaped me. I think I just did it because everyone else was – reasoning, perhaps, that anyone who was willing to brave the icy ditch outside my window for the sake of an economy mousse probably deserved to have one.
And so it was that one afternoon, just as I was waking up to the first Neighbours of the day and frowning to hear that a noisy game of football was taking place in the car park, a plasticated swish and thump outside my window alerted me to the possibility that someone was interfering with my provender. I sat up in bed, opened the window and reeled in the bag. Wendy’s duck was inside it.
It was in even worse condition than before: an eye was missing and one of its wings was half off. I opened the curtains to look for clues and found several members of our esteemed rugby club staring back at me. It seemed they had been using the duck as a football, because the game had stopped and one of them was gingerly picking his way down the bank of my ditch in the direction of the bag. I glared at them and they walked off – guffawing lustily but with an air of suppressed embarrassment, as people trying to be students and hard at the same time are wont to do.
I got dressed and took the duck up to Wendy’s room, which was on the first floor and directly above mine. When she saw it she gasped, ‘Oh my stars!’, grabbed it and disappeared into her room. The door swung closed and I very nearly took the hint, but a vague sense of annoyance that I’d not received due thanks – coupled with intense nosiness – made me push it open and step inside.
I think I was expecting her room to resemble a zany inventor’s workshop, with bits of robots everywhere and Bubo, the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans, flapping cutely about. In fact it was just like all the other rooms in the Halls, with minimal furniture and bitter lemon wallpaper. A long notice board covered half of the wall over the bed, just like the one in my room except here there were actual pictures. They were all neatly laminated and arranged in a strikingly anal way, almost like a little portrait gallery as opposed to the usual disheartening ‘My Crazy Mates Back Home’ collage effort. Wendy had laid the duck out on her desk and was crouching over it with her back to me. I advanced a few centimetres into the room and said, ‘Glen and that were actually playing football with it...’
She spun around, furious. ‘Fucking sport,’ she spat. ‘We were better off with public floggings...’
‘Are you going to tell on him, then ?’ I asked, not a little childishly.
‘Nah – he’ll be dead soon enough. I'd like to find the other eye, though.’ She looked at the empty socket, then at me. ‘You’ve already been so kind I almost feel ashamed to ask, but is there any chance you’d help?’
For the first time ever I found myself looking into a girl’s eyes without flinching – I’d like to say something poetic like ‘for what seemed an age’, or ‘for how long, I cannot say’, but of course it was only for a couple of seconds. Even so, I have to say I felt less morbidly apprehensive during those two seconds than at almost any other time in my life. Those eyes... Nothing bad could possibly happen as long as they were looking at you.
Five minutes later I was sifting through my ditch for that other eye, the duck’s one. I sifted enthusiastically because I was now In Love. The clouds parted for an instant and a freak ray of sunshine hit my back, making me feel almost warm for a second and giving the surrounding detritus a colourful, even festive air: the blue glove waved in my hands, a smiling cartoon character on one of the crisp packets made me think of greetings cards, in fact the whole squalid process of turning over the black mulch seemed as lazily agreeable as a village fete lucky dip. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was in some other world now, a place where the most extraordinary happiness could strike at any moment and everything really was beautiful in its own way. Only one thing bothered me: how had those louts got their hands on her duck in the first place? I imagined Glen leering around her room, tripping deftly onto the bed and raising a single lascivious eyebrow. God no, could it be? I had to know.
‘So er, when did you first notice it was missing?’
From the brink of the ditch she said, ‘What do you think of this: it didn’t go missing at all.’ She folded her arms and hung her head. ‘I actually lent it to him.’
‘He told me he wanted to sketch it! And of course I was just fascinated by the idea that he might have a sensitive side... God! You’d think after all this– ’ She stopped abruptly and sighed, shaking her head.
So she did like Glen! Embarrassed by the strength of my feelings, I looked back down into the ditch. Suddenly it was all just muck again. I got to my feet with every intention of giving up, but in the process kicked something small and round into the side of a nearby Coke can: the eye!
That completely settled it, as far as I was concerned. Whatever she’d done or not done with Glen was obviously in the past, and her destiny was to be with me – for was I not the finder of the eye?
It looked as though she might have agreed, because she celebrated my find by jumping into the ditch, hugging me and giving me a big kiss on the cheek (I can still feel that kiss...). (And loads of yours, natch!) After that we went back to her room for tea and toast. I sat on the edge of the bed and she at her desk, with the chair turned around to face me. As we talked I glanced discreetly in her mirror at a picture on the notice board behind me. I couldn’t quite make it out but it really looked like Leon Brittan, Conservative Home Secretary 1983-85. Soon I was unable to concentrate on the conversation because I kept wondering whether it was really him, and if so what the hell he was doing on the bedroom wall of a super bit of stuff like Wendy. Looking around for somewhere to put my teacup, I affected to notice the picture for the first time: ‘Oh! Is that, er, Leon Brittan?’
‘Who?’ she asked, and then, seeing where I was looking, ‘Oh, him. I don’t know – is that his name?’
‘Yeah, you know, he used to be a government minister.’
‘Oh, of course. That’s right.’
‘It was already here when you moved in, then?’
‘No, that’s mine.’ She seemed like she wanted me to drop it, so I did – and, actually, I never got around to asking her about it again. It was her who brought it up in the end, at the very end of that night which ended everything for me, and now I know the truth I can no longer see any picture of that man without seeming to glimpse stygian gulfs of unutterable horror...
But I digress. At the time I just looked at the rest of the pictures on the notice board in the hope that a bit of context would explain everything. They had clearly been taken from a wide variety of sources: one looked like a page from a Littlewood’s catalogue and several others like plates from old library books, while the newspaper clippings ranged in hue from snow white to first-piss-after-a-drunken-collapse yellow. All they had in common was that they were all portraits of single human subjects, and although one or two looked like actors’ publicity photos, Leon’s was the only face I recognised.
It all seemed a bit weird so I tried to think of something else to talk about. ‘Did you do anything nice for Christmas?’
‘Nothing special,’ she said. ‘Just me and Dad.’
‘In Broxbourne, right?’
‘No, he sold our old house a few weeks ago. We stayed in London, at the Dorchester Hotel.’
‘Very nice. Are your mum and dad divorced, then?’
She took a sip of tea and hesitated a moment before replying. ‘She died. When I was twelve.’
‘Oh God, I’m sorry. That must’ve been... I mean I can’t even imagine.’
‘Dad began to rely on me for everything – I had to grow up a lot faster than my friends, and lost a lot of them as a result. But at least I managed to keep him happy.’
‘So where’s he living now?’ I asked quickly, so she wouldn’t notice the look of horror on my face.
‘He’s gone to work in Dubai. It took me weeks to persuade him to accept the transfer, but now he’s finally gone. He’ll be very well paid but very busy, so we won’t be seeing much of each other from now on. I doubt, for instance, that you’ll ever see him here again.’
I was relieved to hear it, but something about her offhand manner made me doubt she was telling the whole truth. And not even the rose-tinted fog of my fledgling infatuation could make me see her dad as a corporate powerhouse when he just didn’t look old, happy, or clean enough. As for the Dorchester – wasn’t that the one where they had Beefeaters on the door? How could a man in a brown leather jacket get his hands on that kind of money?
Then she said ‘Do you fancy going out later?’, and suddenly I lost the thread.
We arranged to go for a drink at the Queen’s Shadow, which was notorious among our fellow students for being full of dangerous local types and not selling foreign lagers – Wendy chose it, she told me, because she knew we wouldn’t be bothered there, and in any case they’d recently started doing Hegelbrau. I felt almost sick with anticipation: was I really going to have a ‘date’? Then I thought no, probably not – she probably just wants someone to confide in about her dad. Then I thought no, she hardly knows me – she probably just wants to talk about how cool Glen is and ask if I think there’s any chance.
I washed my hair and put on my special shirt. Wendy was still bent over her duck when I called for her and hadn’t changed at all. She asked if I could come back in an hour and I told her not to worry, as nonchalantly as the twitching corners of my smile would allow. I went back to my room and tried to watch some TV but, fidget-ridden, moved to the Halls’ bar less than five minutes later.
The next hour was spent drinking incredibly quickly in the company of a vague acquaintance from the Doctor Who Society, to whom I repeatedly intimated that I’d be spending the rest of the evening alone with a woman. He never asked me who she was, so I never got the chance to say ‘My lips are sealed’, but the way he avoided eye contact whenever the subject came up made me feel magnificently suave. By the time I returned to Wendy’s door I was inclined to wonder what all the fuss had been about.
Then I saw. She hadn’t really done much – just put on a bit of eye make-up and some tight jeans – but the effect was inexplicably awe-inspiring. Here was Woman, in all her ineffable, patchouli-scented mystery: bold as Boudica, classy as Cleopatra and horny as Helen of Troy. And I was literally going to go out with her!
The Queen’s Shadow, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment: sticky carpet, powerless fruit machine, multiple shades of dim chestnut and maudlin maroon. There was no music or big screen TV, and the blackboard advertised Tuesday’s Meat Raffle instead of Today’s Hot Specials. It was the kind of place my grandmother had warned my dad about, but because Wendy had chosen it I showed every sign of being charmed by its authenticity. I seated her on a spongey banquette and insisted on getting the first round, all gentlemanly-like.
Only one other customer was standing at the bar, and in my drunkenness I saw no reason not to stand right next to him. A tiny landlord rose slowly from a low stool beside the cash register and nodded at me.
‘Two pints of Hegelbrau, please mate.’ You always had to say ‘mate’ – no one could tell you were a student if you said ‘mate’.
He went to pour, but the tap sputtered and nothing came out. It was kind of obvious what had happened, but he still watched the tap expectantly for a surprising length of time before finally conceding, 'I've got to change the barrel’. He was gone for ages – long enough for me to gain a disturbingly intense awareness of the man standing next to me, who hadn't moved or made a sound since I'd arrived. In the end it just got embarrassing so I looked straight at him and said, ‘Evening?’
He might not have heard me, but somehow I was sure he had. He looked sober enough, and in his grubby designer tracksuit he could almost have been a personal trainer whose confidence had taken a knock or two just lately. He still didn’t move, though – he was too busy standing bolt upright, staring straight ahead at a completely undistinguished part of the wall behind the bar and just not moving. When I tried ‘You alright?’ and that didn’t work either it struck me that he might have been deaf, but at that very moment a phone started ringing and he shouted ‘Phone!’, presumably to the landlord, without once shifting his gaze or moving any part of his body besides his mouth.
Of course, the obvious conclusion would simply have been that he thought I looked like some kind of wanker, but I really didn’t get the feeling that there was anything malign about his silence. Perhaps he was just an ordinary bloke with time on his hands, who’d just happened to stroll into a pub and find himself in the market for a bloody good stare.
‘Whoa!’ I whispered to Wendy as I lowered the pints onto our table. ‘That bloke’s a nutter!’
‘Really? Why?’ she asked, without making any effort at all to lower her voice.
‘Better tell you later,’ I hissed. But the moment I sat down I realised I probably should have kept it going, because I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about and was a bit too drunk to really try. ‘Well!’ I said with a stupid grin. ‘Here we are, then. Eh?’
‘I’d like to think so. But who really knows for sure?’
There was a longish pause while I tried to think of a clever answer. ‘Your duck!’ I cried, having failed. ‘What about that, then. All sorted is it?’
‘Not really, no. I managed to get the eye back in myself but I’d need professional resources to repair the wing. I don’t suppose you know anyone who restores artefacts? I used to have contacts all over the British Museum, but they’re all... They’ve all moved on, now.’
‘Poor little sod... In the wars. You’re alright, though, aren’t you.’
She gave me a funny look. ‘Well, yes – I’ve not been physically harmed, if that’s what you mean.’
‘Good. That’s the main thing, innit?’
‘And how about you?’
‘Are you all right?’
‘Oh yeah... You betcha.’
‘I only ask because, frankly, you seem a bit pissed.’
‘Do I?' I chortled archly. 'Do I really?' I leaned forward and tried to rest my chin on my hand, but my elbow slipped and knocked an ashtray onto the floor (this was the olden days, remember!). The contempt for my idiocy which had been threatening to register on her face for nearly a minute now finally did, and I realised I would have to rein it in. ‘In fairness, though – yeah, I am a bit. Sorry. I wouldn’t normally start any earlier than this but I, you know. I had some good news from home.’
My eyes glazed over as I searched for the easiest lie. Right away I thought of Bouncer, the mutt I’d left behind: his ailing back legs trailing over the scrubby grass of the playing fields as he lurched after his ball, my mum’s sad face when she said he might not be around for the Easter holidays. ‘My... dog,’ I said. ‘Got better. His leg.’
‘Oh, I love dogs!’ she beamed. ‘What breed is he?’
I told her, and then there was another question, and another. She wanted nothing less than a complete understanding of Bouncer’s life and works, the better to compare him to every one of the many, many dogs she’d known and loved back home. This took quite a while and I should have been very bored, but Wendy had a way of making even the most arrant soppiness sound strangely urbane. My hopes for the evening began to rise; it stood to reason, after all, that anyone who already had soft spots might easily acquire more.
We finished our drinks and Wendy got another round. While she was away I found myself thinking about Bouncer again, and for the first time got a real sense of how bad I was going to feel when he died. I started to wish I hadn’t lied about him – it was easy enough to imagine how nicely she might have comforted me if I’d told the truth...
By the time she came back I felt so wretched and desperate to change the subject, I actually asked her about her course. ‘So! Computer Science. Tell me... everything.’
She laughed. ‘Sorry, but I’ve only been doing it for three months – and what I do know doesn’t exactly make for winsome badinage.’
‘Is that a computer word?’
‘What’s the appeal, though? Isn’t it a bit boring, all those endless rows of numbers and... floppy discs?’
‘The way I look at it, people are useless in so many ways – they spend most of their time preoccupied with sex and most of the rest of it sleeping, eating, brooding about the past or worrying about the future... It’s no wonder they can’t always add up properly or remember things from one minute to the next, but what they can do – the truly incredible thing they are actually doing – is create devices that do all that stuff far, far better than they’d ever be able to, thereby making themselves, in the process, just a little less useless. Maybe, one day, that little will become a lot – it is my fond hope. But whatever the future holds, I don’t see how any thinking human being could fail to be excited by such a project.’
‘Floppy discs...’ I chuckled.
‘And it’s not just about automating tasks and processes, either; information technology is beginning to have a cultural impact, too. The World Wide Web is going to change everything.’
‘Oh yeah, I heard about that. What’s it actually for, though?’
‘Well, we don't need to get into all that now,’ she smiled. ‘What about your course? Isn't it a bit boring, looking at films all day?’
So we started talking about films, and it turned out we had loads of favourites in common. We also liked all the same records, all the same books and all the same celebrities (that is to say, she liked everything I liked – I’d never heard of a lot of the stuff she was into). It was beginning to get quite spooky when, out of the blue and as casually as if He were just another band or afternoon quiz show, she asked, ‘What about God, then? Do you believe?’
‘Nah. S’all rubbish, innit?’
‘Is it? Really?’ She feigned dismay. ‘Then I’ve been a perfect dunce!’
‘What? You mean you do?’
‘Sorry, it’s just you don’t seem… I mean you don’t dress like a Christian.’
‘Well, I’m not one, as such.’
‘Jewish?’ She shook her head. ‘Ah!’ – I clicked my fingers and pointed at her (a little rudely, it seems to me now) – ‘Buddhist.’
‘Nice enough man, but he couldn’t give you a straight answer if you asked him the bloody time.’
‘Alright, I give up. What are you?’
‘Nothing in particular. But I know for a fact there’s a God.’
‘For a fact, eh?’ I suppressed a superior sneer. ‘And how on earth can you know it for a fact?’
She took a long, slow sip of her drink and gave me a sideways look, as if trying to decide whether or not to let me in on a secret. ‘What would you say... if I told you I’d met Him?’
I didn’t actually say anything at all, because my attention was suddenly elsewhere: that bloke I’d spoken to but not with at the bar had drained his glass and was now walking across the pub towards the door behind me. Just before he drew level with our table he reached into the pocket of his tracksuit trousers and pulled out a set of car keys, along with something else which stuck to the back of his hand for a second before peeling off and gliding to the floor. He was, needless to say, too preoccupied with his view of the door directly in front of him to notice it, so – hoping to finally engage him in conversation – I reached down and picked it up.
It was a Polaroid, and because it had landed face down I got as far as saying ‘Er...’ with a view to adding ‘mate’ before I had a chance to see what it was a Polaroid of; then I turned it around, and that ‘mate’ died in my throat.
What I was holding was nothing more nor less than a photograph of an erect penis. The shot was blurry and too bright but it was definitely of a penis, and – to my mind, at least – a stupidly large one. You could see this because its owner’s hand was cradling it; his face was dimly visible in the background, grinning down with pride and something not unlike tenderness, for all the world as though he were teaching it to swim or taking it for its first day of school. And even though his features were a little indistinct there could be no doubt that the owner of the appendage was also the owner of the tracksuit the photo had fallen out of – none other than our old friend Wall Eyed Wally, a.k.a. the Staremaster.
‘Oh... my... GOD!?’ I said – in a low voice, because he’d only just gone through the door.
‘What? What is it?’ Wendy leaned forward, trying to see; I pulled away and held the picture behind my back.
‘No, sorry, but you don’t want to see this. Trust me.’
‘Why not? What is it?’
‘You don’t want to know. Seriously!’
‘Come on. Just give it to me, eh?’
‘Sorry, but no.’
‘Look, this is childish. Give– ’ She lunged – and just as I’d thought/hoped, it turned into quite an enjoyable little tussle. At one point I was holding the photo so far behind my back she had to practically lie on top of me, and I could feel all the softness of her body and her hot breath on my ear... (SIGH!) In the end, though, I bowed to the strictures of chivalry and let her win. Apart from anything else I was just so sure she’d get a laugh out of the picture.
She looked at it for a second, then handed it back to me without reacting in any way. ‘Eh?’ I smirked. ‘Eh? Told you he was a nutter, didn’t I!’
Now she was the one doing the staring – it was quite the hip hobby to have that night. I noticed, too, that some of the colour seemed to have left her cheeks. ‘Well?’ I laughed, a little nervously now. ‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t “think” anything, but I can’t believe you just showed me that. Can we go, please?’
‘What? Go? Why? Look, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you but I honestly didn’t mean–’
‘Never mind that. Let’s just hit the road, eh?’
‘No, let’s just calm down for a minute...’
‘I’d rather go right now, thanks.’
‘I haven't finished my drink.’
‘Bloody finish it then!’
I did what I was told, but as the thunderous silence lengthened and my gulping grew ever more frantic I had to wonder whether leaving it might have been the more dignified option.
Once outside we started walking back to the Halls. For a long time neither of us spoke, which at least allowed me to stifle my belches. I was still trying not to show myself up because I was still In Love. So what if she was a little highly strung? We could have one of those fiery, doomed European arthouse romances: shagging all night, arguing about existentialism all day and then trawling seedy bars for people to have affairs with so that later on we could slap each other’s faces and shag some more...
I decided to get things moving right away. ‘Anyone would think it was my bloody picture. And I didn’t “show” it to you, you took it off me. Remember?’
‘I’d actually much rather we just didn’t talk about it.’
‘Wow. And I thought you were so sophisticated.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Oh, you know... You’re mature and intelligent and all of this – you’re a woman of the world sort of thing, aren’t you? I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to laugh at something like that but I honestly wouldn’t have thought you’d, you know...’
By this time we’d arrived at the Halls and were crossing the moonlit courtyard to our block. Everyone else was still in the bar, so it was completely silent apart from a thin, distant flapping sound which could have been a ghostly flock of birds but was actually a load of breakfasts tied to window latches. To my great surprise Wendy took my hand and squeezed it. ‘Please don’t say anything,’ she whispered. ‘Let’s just call it a phobia and forget about it.’
That suited me fine. ‘Of course,’ I grinned. ‘Do you fancy a nightcap, then? I’ve got some Nukey Brown* in my room.’
‘No thanks. I won’t be good company after that.’
‘Oh come on, I find that hard to believe...’
‘No, really. I’ve had quite enough for one night.’
‘But you seem fine...’
‘Look, I’m tired okay? Another time.’
She sounded impatient but I kept on, even though we were now standing at the foot of the stairs outside my room: ‘Okay, okay. It just seems silly to let what happened spoil our evening when we were having such a good– ’ And at that moment the last and mightiest of the evening’s belches erupted from my gullet with magnum force, utterly poisoning the air between our two noses.
She rolled her eyes and started walking up the stairs. ‘It seems stupid to you because your brains are in your trousers.’
I wasn’t having that. ‘I said silly!’ I cried, as gruffly as I could. She didn’t look back but her heels hit the steps a little harder and she cursed in a language I couldn’t understand. I retired hurt, wondering what the hell it had all been about – me, her dad, or the whole lesbian thing.
In any event I felt intuitively that our date had not been an unqualified success, and certainly didn’t expect her to knock on my door at eleven o’clock the next morning, so when she did – smiling, fresh-faced and wondering if I fancied going shopping for books – it was all I could do not to giggle and hug myself like an ewok getting the Toronto blessing. We ended up spending the whole day together without once mentioning the previous evening, and had a great time without even getting pissed. The day after that we went to the museum, where I made her laugh really hard for the first time by impersonating William Blake in the manner of Blakey from On The Buses.
And so a pattern was established: we hung out. She introduced me to a few of her friends – Helene, Poria, Zbignew – and they all seemed very nice. I’d been expecting to find a seething love rival somewhere among their number, but to my amazement none of them seemed to think of her like that. In fact, no one besides me seemed to think of her like that, and outside of the foreign contingent very few seemed to want anything to do with her. She wasn’t shunned, exactly, but girls in particular would often give her an odd look when she spoke to them, as though they’d heard she wasn’t quite trustworthy but couldn’t remember who from.
My friends, on the other hand, all thought she was a crazy dyke who was stringing me along for her own twisted kicks. It could have been true for all I cared, but I quickly began to resent the way their attitude complicated things for me. And it seemed so silly, because I felt sure that if we all, say, sat down to a curry together, the whole so-called problem would simply disappear.
The minute we all did sit down, Geordie Dave made a smirking reference to Wendy’s cropped hair and habitual attire by asking whether Sinead O’Connor was missing a jumper. ‘No’, she replied. ‘Is Sesame Street missing a Muppet?’ I laughed and got kicked under the table, I don’t know who by – after that, it was all over bar the scowling. My friends went all monosyllabic and I had trouble talking normally to Wendy in front of them, so she spent most of the evening making bitchy remarks about us to the waiter in his native dialect. I couldn’t blame our fellow diners for taking such an interest – you don’t often get to see an Indian waiter laughing at a crowd of silent young white men in a British curry house – but it added an extra element of discomfort to what was, by any measure, a fucking disastrous evening.
The next day my erstwhile crew came round and huffily declared that it was them or Wendy. The way they put this implied that it would, in some way, be a difficult decision for me, but of course I’d already made it.
I didn’t miss them – besides you, Wendy was probably the best friend I’ve ever had. We went everywhere together and talked about everything, which was sort of her specialist subject. She told me how thermos flasks worked, where to find Virgo in the night sky, why buses always come in threes, what to do if I ever stepped in quicksand... The only thing she never told me anything about was sex, which was obviously a bit of a shame from my point of view, but for a while, at least, it didn’t seem to matter that much. Here, after all, was this incredible woman with a brain the size of a large print Bible, and all she seemed to want was to tell me stuff and make me laugh; under the circumstances it would just have been churlish to embarrass us both with clammy innuendoes. And hey, who knew – maybe she’d end up making a pass at me, right?
I probably would have been content to go along like that forever if the weather hadn’t got warmer. But as soon as those chunky black jumpers started coming off, and I was confronted by the tight black vest-tops they’d hitherto concealed, it got harder and harder to ignore the fact that I really, really wanted to have sex with her. Although, physically, she wasn’t my type at all – very short, flat-chested, no bum to speak of – every part of her seemed perfect to me, just because it was all her. There were times when just looking at her wrists or the nape of her neck could be enough to bring on my asthma. And then there were those eyes... which is where I’d have to stop, because something in those beautiful eyes always warned me off. It was sadness, a more profound and desperate sadness than I could ever understand, and whenever I noticed it I’d remember about her dad. Then I’d find I couldn’t bear the thought of making a pass at her, and feel like the lowest worm on Earth for even entertaining the notion – right up to the moment when I went back to my room alone, and realised I couldn’t bear the alternative either.
In any case we kept on seeing each other as friends, even during the meningitis outbreak when we were all supposed to stay in our rooms (Glen died).
In early June the date of the May Ball was announced. Me and Wendy spent about three days laughing at the very idea of it, then got some tickets. This was largely my doing – we were due to move out of Halls three days after the event, and I thought that if I hadn’t set my cap at her by then I might never get another chance. For some reason I assumed that a party atmosphere would make me more likely to take that kind of drastic action, and her more likely to tolerate it. More to the point, I’d get to see what she looked like in a proper girly dress.
When she came to my door that night in her pink (pink!) ball gown, it wasn’t easy for me to make the expected remarks about how ridiculous she looked. In fact it was as much as I could do to stop myself weeping, just because I’d never seen anyone not off the telly look so beautiful. I’ve heard that there are surf bums with the souls of poets who weep that way when they watch the sun going down over ‘the ocean’, and rheumy-eyed old gardeners who’ll do likewise when sheltering beneath the spreading branches of oak trees they planted in their youth. As far as I’m concerned those people are all SOFT, but having seen Wendy that night I do now understand at least a little of what they go through. Her beauty seemed to have no sexual or even social motive – it was only there to improve the world, to make being alive seem like an amazing free gift. I felt lucky just to be standing near it.
‘What do you think, then? Be honest.’
‘Urk! Heh-heh-heh. Well, look at... you. I mean!’
‘Just tell me it’s more Doris Day than Barbara Cartland.’
‘Oh no, I mean... It’s Doris. Definitely Doris.’
‘Oh dear, are you all right? Where’s your inhaler?’
The venue for the Ball was a former swimming pool that had been converted several years earlier into a sort of low-rent conference centre. A stage and dancefloor had been set up in the main hall, where the pool had once been, and the Students’ Union had decorated the whole area with old sheets and a bunch of ugly papier-mâché heads left over from a particularly challenging production of Pere Ubu. Doors at the side led to what used to be the changing rooms before they were converted into pokey, unconvincing offices – now they were pokey, unconvincing chill-out rooms.
Wendy and I arrived to find everyone all smiles, which didn’t seem quite normal for the time of evening. There wouldn’t normally have been as many people dancing as there were, either, but I didn’t really notice that at first – it was only when Geordie Dave bowled over, gave me a bear hug and quaveringly confided that the old gang hadn’t been the same without me that I knew for sure something funny was going on. It turned out someone at the Halls had finally found a reliable ecstasy connection a month or so earlier, and everyone in the building besides Wendy and me had been completely off their feed ever since.
I felt strangely indignant about this: part of the charm of going around with Wendy had been the tacit understanding that we were always having a much better time than anyone else, yet here they all were with their fresh faces and ultraviolet grins and no one seemed jealous at all. I’d never even thought of doing ecstasy before but now I wanted in. Dave duly furnished us with a pair of pills and, despite Wendy’s protestations that drugs never really did anything for her, we both took one.
After seven double rum and cokes I decided the pills were duds and confronted Dave about it. Aghast, he immediately got me two more with his own money. Wendy didn’t want another so I ended up having both. Do you see where this is going?
Half an hour later I was sitting on a bean bag in one of the chill-out rooms with my head in my hands, thinking about the term ‘cold sweat’ and how I’d never properly understood it before. The pills had not, strictly speaking, been ecstasy at all, but a heavily cut, student-grade knockoff; it was like being dunked repeatedly into a barrel of distilled grief, and every time I went under my eyelids fell until I felt I might never open them again...
Wendy knelt on the floor beside me, stroking my back and whispering gentle encouragements into my ear. Under different circumstances this would have made me the happiest clown in town, but at the time it just helped to convince me I was facing the final curtain.
‘This is it,’ I moaned at the skanky carpet. ‘I’m fucking finished. Why, eh? Why the fuck did I do it?’
‘Hush now, don’t think that way,’ cooed Wendy. ‘It’s not your fault. You just wanted to have fun like everyone else.’
I imagined this sentence paraphrased on my headstone, then my mum’s face as she wept over it. ‘I don’t want to die!’ I gurgled.
‘Oh silly, you’re not going to die. Not tonight, anyway. Not for a long time.’
I made a humming noise that approximated ‘Really?’
‘Yes, of course. It’s just those pills, filling your head with nonsense.’
I hummed ‘Maybe.’
‘I guarantee it. Any minute now you’re going to feel absolutely fine… Better than fine, probably.’ She went ‘Sssh’ a few times as she stroked my hair, and each time the horror subsided a little further.
Suddenly I thought, ‘Why am I staring at the floor, anyway?’ and snorted at the absurdity of it. Then I looked up and saw that I was completely surrounded by people on bean bags with their heads in their hands. ‘Look at that!’ I thought. ‘What a bunch of losers!’
‘There!’ said Wendy. ‘Feeling better?’
‘Better than better. The best!’ It was true – the worrying rushes had passed, and now everything was jubilation. ‘And it’s all thanks to you, Wendy! You’re the best friend I ever had!’ I hugged her and took her hands in mine. Then I thought, ‘It’s quite ridiculous that we’ve never kissed!’ and kissed her quickly on the lips in a friendly way.
‘Well I’ve got to look after you, haven’t I?’ she said, smiling. ‘I’d have found this last year quite unbearable if not for you.’
‘Wow, I can’t believe you just said that! I feel exactly the same way about you!’ I cried. All I could think about was kissing her again, and I wasn’t in any condition to think twice; closing my eyes, I pulled her towards me and did it, properly this time. It felt wonderful at first, but when I tried to put my tongue in it came up against some kind of rigid, fleshy barrier...
I sat back and smiled a shifty smile while she wiped the back of her hand on the bean bag. I started to apologise but she raised her other hand to silence me, saying, ‘Not necessary.’
‘But I want to,’ I said, grinning. I was dimly aware that something catastrophic had just occurred, but any emotional response I might have had was smothered by the pills. If anything, I was in the mood for dancing.
Wendy took a deep breath. ‘As I say, you’ve been a tremendous help to me over the past few months and I very much hope that we will continue to be of assistance to each other for a long time to come. However, I wouldn’t wish you to be under any misapprehension regarding the parameters of our relationship or the potential flexibility thereof. The simple truth is that I have no interest in sexual congress of any kind, with you or anyone else, and this situation is unlikely to change at any time in the foreseeable future. I appreciate that it must have taken considerable courage for you to offer me this tribute, and apologise if my rejection of it causes undue distress, but those are the facts as I see them.’
I waited until I was completely sure she’d finished before speaking. ‘So you’re saying– ’
‘That’s right. I don’t want sex, and I never will.’
I was relieved by the air of finality about this last pronouncement. Perhaps now we’d be able to put the whole silly business behind us and concentrate on having fun! ‘Hey, not to worry!’ I said. ‘I’m just sorry to have embarrassed you like that. Must have been the pills!’
‘We’re still friends then?’
‘Of course! Come on – let’s go for a dance!’ I took her hand, stood us both up and practically skipped to the dancefloor. I spotted Dave and gave him a wave; he returned an exuberant thumbs-up and made his way over. When he got within three feet of us, though, his face fell. ‘Jesus, man,’ he bellowed. ‘Are you alright there?’
‘Yeah, great!’ I shouted back. ‘Why d’you ask?’
‘Sorry mate, it’s just that... you look fuckin’ awful.’
I knew it was true. Right away I could see myself the way I must have looked to him: wild-eyed, sweaty and unkempt, with a rigid grimace tracing irregular circles around the lower half of my face. A lot like him, in fact, except I was probably about ten times worse. I probably looked like the kiddie in that anti-ecstasy advert – ‘After a while, you just couldn’t talk to him’ – or Nick Cotton having one of his cold turkeys. No better than a junkie... My God, what was to become of me!?
Everything started to look bad again. The dancers around me became B-movie cannibals, entranced by the thudding, repetitive beat – if that beat stopped, might they not just tear me to pieces? And the speakers – were they shaking like that because of the volume, or because they were extracting the precious air I needed to survive?? I tried to dance but my feet felt stuck to the floor, and the lights seemed to be squirting some kind of shiny liquid into my eyes. And that’s when it finally hit me: ‘Wendy doesn’t want to be my girlfriend!’
As luck would have it no one had taken my bean bag, and I had just enough strength left to hold my head in my hands. But five minutes after I dropped I still felt like I was falling.
A reassuring hand on my shoulder made me look up, and there was Wendy’s sweet, concerned face looking down. ‘Fucking God...’ I said, on the verge of blubbing yet again. ‘I can’t believe I tried it on with you! You must really hate me.’
‘Of course not. I love you.’
‘What, really?’ It was good to hear, even though I knew she didn’t mean it like that.
‘Isn’t it obvious? Look at all the time we spend together...’
‘Like an old married couple.’
‘Meaning no sex.’ I didn’t mean to sound bitter – I just wasn’t capable of ignoring the first thing that came to mind.
‘Actually, we’re more like boyfriend and girlfriend. Only without the sex.’
‘Er... What does that actually mean, though?’
‘It means I love you, foolish!’
‘As a friend.’
‘No, more than that.’
‘Like a brother, then.’
‘No, like a boyfriend! Why is that so hard to believe?’
‘Because we don’t... you know... do it.’
‘And we never will.’
‘Right.’ It took a moment for the shattering implications of this to sink in. Then: ‘What, really? Oh, don’t say that – I fucking love you, mate!’
‘I know you do,’ she sighed. ‘I’ve known for a while, I’m afraid. I should have talked to you about this sooner, really, but we just seemed to be getting on so well.’ She stopped and thought for a moment. ‘Do you remember that first night we went to the Queen’s Shadow? When I got upset about that photo?’
‘I told you it was a phobia, which was true in a way. But it’s not just a fear of – ugh – "the male member"... It’s a fear of anything to do with sex.’
‘Hey, not to worry – I’m scared of that too!’
‘It’s different. You’re a virgin, yes?’
So it was true – they really could tell just by looking. ‘Mm.’
‘So you’re probably just scared of sex because you’ve never done it. But that doesn’t stop you thinking about it, does it? I bet you think about women’s... bits all the time. My bits, even.’
How embarrassing! But I managed a sheepish nod.
‘Well, that’s normal,’ she said soothingly. ‘But it’s not like that for me. I can’t stand people’s bits – the way they look, the way they move, the whole idea of them. And “fear” is actually too weak a word to describe it. I suppose, really, it’s more a horror of, er, bits.’
She frowned, then, and so did I – it was disconcerting to see her lost for words. ‘Hang on, which “bits” are we talking about? Just genitals, you mean?’
She winced and nodded.
‘All genitals? Male and female?’
Now she actually shuddered with revulsion. ‘Yes, and please stop using that word.’
‘What word should I use, then? I don’t think I can sit here talking about “bits” all night.’
She glanced upward as though scanning a mental list, alternately grimacing and shaking her head as she assessed each option in turn but found them all equally abhorrent. Eventually she looked back at me and said, ‘How about “generative organs”? Actually, no – make that “G.O.s”.’
‘Anyway, I have these nightmares about them. Always have had, ever since I was old enough to know what they were. And I do mean they, because the G.O.s I dream about aren’t actually attached to anyone – they, er, move about by themselves. And they’re the size of people.’
‘The size of people...’
‘Look, I do know how this sounds, okay? But I’ve been dreaming about them for so long, and the dreams have always been so vivid, that they’ve started to seem real to me. Those things...’ She paused; I think she was trying to hold back a retch. ‘As a child I used to tell myself they were from outer space – I even made up little stories about their “home planet”, just to reassure myself that they wouldn’t be able to get me.’
‘And what exactly would they have done, if they had?’
‘Taken me over. Joined themselves to me, like monstrous implants, and taken possession of my soul. I know I’ve no reason to imagine that real G.O.s are anything like my nightmare version but, again, those nightmares have always been so horribly intense that I find it really difficult not to. I just can’t persuade myself that they belong anywhere near a human being. They look... tacked on. Freakish. Unnatural.’
‘But how can they be unnatural? We wouldn’t even be here if not for... G.O.s.’
‘I know, but I mean just look at them.’
‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘What’s right?’ she demanded, suddenly exasperated. I got the impression that she was covering old ground, that I was merely the latest in a long line of uncomprehending bozos she’d tried to explain this to. ‘I mean, if God had come up to you before you were born and said, “Listen, I’d quite like to hang this angry-looking cyclopean grub onto you – it will bulge, shrivel and drip a range of malodorous fluids into your underclothes without so much as a forgery of your consent, and you’ll spend all your time looking for somewhere to stick it so it’ll stop bothering you for just one minute, but that can’t happen until it’s spat out millions of tiny wriggling tadpoles, which by the way it keeps in a wrinkly bloody sack around its neck because they’d all die if they were inside your actual body,” would you have said, “Righto God, that all sounds perfectly natural”?’
‘Well, no, but– ’
‘And what if you’d been born a woman? How do you think you'd feel about having blood slash bits of tissue pouring out of you for four days of every month, just because you didn’t let any of those sodding tadpoles in at exactly the right time on exactly the right day? Or about suffering what’s commonly considered to be the worst pain it's possible for a human being to experience, just because you did? Pretty “natural”?’
She did go on but I wasn’t really paying attention, mainly because I’d just remembered something really important, i.e. her fucking evil dad; for the remainder of her diatribe I could only curse the dumb drugs in my thick head for making me selfish enough to press the issue when the source of her phobia was so obvious and intractable. There were others in the room who did listen – and any who didn’t ‘tsk’ at the disruption of their ambient journeys were soon leaping from their bean bags and racing for the lavs with their hands over their mouths – but I used the time constructively to plan exactly how I was going to be ‘there for her’ once she’d finished.
When the time came I said, ‘Wendy, I’m sorry but I think I know what all this is about.’ Then I told her about what I’d seen in the kitchen that night, and how badly I’d wanted to say something about it sooner, and how my concern for her had prevented me from making any kind of pass even though I’d really, really wanted to. It shames me now to admit it, but I rather enjoyed enlarging upon that last point. The nice rushes were beginning to hit me again, and under their influence all the starry-eyed moonings and cowardly evasions that had characterised my time with Wendy now seemed almost to have a whiff of gallantry about them... I don’t think she was with me on that one, though. When I first started about her dad she was all stark-faced consternation and downcast nodding, but after she’d heard me burble on about my own sensitivity for a minute or two I have to say she looked pretty angry.
Eventually she was forced to interrupt: ‘I can’t believe you’ve known all this time and never bloody said anything.’
‘I didn’t know what to say! I thought it’d be better to wait until you said something.’
‘And can you guess why I didn’t? Go on, guess.’
‘Um... Because you didn’t want to talk about it?’
‘How astute. So let’s not.’
Ignoring (indeed, totally failing to notice) this circular logic, I ploughed on. ‘But don’t you think it might be connected to what you were just saying? About the G.O.s?’
She stared at my feet for a moment, then sighed in grudging agreement. ‘I dare say. But still, I’d really prefer not to talk about it. Can’t we just pretend you never found out?’
‘Sure, but do you really think that’s the best thing in the long run? I can’t see how you’re ever going to get rid of this phobia thing without talking to someone about what happened with your dad. I don’t mean me, necessarily – there are counsellors and things.’
‘And why is it so important I get rid of it? It’s still just about possible to make one’s way around this world without having G.O.s shoved in one’s face, you know. My phobia doesn’t affect my day-to-day life one iota. If anything it protects me – from STDs, unwanted pregnancy, emotional trauma, mucky sheets...’
‘All the same, I mean... You’re missing out on a big part of life, aren’t you.’
‘You’re missing out, you mean – I’m really not bothered. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to expose the innermost workings of my soul to some new age witch doctor just so you can get your end away.’
I squinted at her in bleary disbelief. ‘What? This hasn’t got anything to do with me.’
‘Well spotted.’ She folded her arms and glared at some fluorescent Celtic daubings on a pillowcase tacked to the wall behind me. I thought, ‘It seems she doesn’t want to discuss this now, and I have to respect that.’ For about two seconds. Then I had another sumptuous headrush and thought, ‘But I’m brilliant – of course I can help!’
‘Okay then, forget about the sex thing for a minute,’ I said. ‘What about your dad? Do you really think he should be allowed to get away with what he’s done to you? Because he will, if you carry on keeping it to yourself.’
Softly, she said, ‘He won’t. He... hasn’t.’
‘Of course he has! What d’you mean? He’s living it up in Dubai, isn't he?’
‘One way or the other, he’s gone.’
‘And what if he loses his job? What if he wants to come back for Christmas?’
‘He won’t be coming back. Trust me. He’s gone.’
She looked into my eyes for a long time – as long as it took for me to think what she wanted me to. Then, at last, I was speechless.
Seeing my face, she cheerily added, ‘And even if he does come back, I’ll have my boyfriend here to protect me, won’t I?’
‘Yeah, of course... Obviously I’ll always help in any way I can...’
‘Sex or no sex?’
‘Sex or no sex.’
‘Well, then – that’s all that matters, isn’t it?’ She reached up and ran the tips of her fingers down my cheek; the electrical charge of her touch was so amplified by all the interesting crap in my system that it felt as though her fingertips were laying luminous tramlines as they slowly descended, and making every dormant follicle in their path dream of producing hair that might one day stand on end.
‘Thank you,’ she said, while I was still whimpering.
‘God, what are you thanking me for?’
‘For being the best boyfriend a girl ever had.’
Somehow I didn’t feel like arguing any more. I was just overjoyed to be her boyfriend at last – or rather, to learn that I had been all along. And I’d never even need to try kissing her again, because just one touch of her fingertips had proved more potent than a thousand of those primitive flob-swabs. I grinned and hugged her until she asked whether I still fancied that dance.
I woke up at around three o'clock the following afternoon, and had to pick through the rubble of my central nervous system for a good half hour before I could clear a path back to the previous night. The first thing I remembered was that yes, I had actually tried to kiss her. That all-important moment of transition between normal reality and the World of Sex would now be forever represented in my mind’s eye by a punitively vivid freeze-frame of the confused expression on her face as she’d wiped her hand on that bean bag. I was mortified by this, but at the same time not completely sure it had really happened. Why would I have done such a thing, even on drugs? And how, after it had all gone so wrong, could I have cared so little about it that I’d spent the rest of the night lurching around a dancefloor like some mad panda?
I needed a chance to think, which meant having a burger and some Formica to stroke. Wendy’s footsteps resounded across the ceiling as I was putting my pants on, making me freeze on the spot with one leg still raised. I didn’t want to see her before I’d worked it all out, so I resumed dressing on tiptoe. It had been ages since I’d gone anywhere without asking her along; my tiptoes felt treacherous.
In the queue at McDonalds I had another flashback, because the bloke directly in front of me was wearing one of those brown leather Hard Rock Cafe jackets. ‘My God,’ I thought. ‘Her fucking evil dad – and I actually asked her about him...!’
Another, more indistinct recollection threatened to peep through. Hadn’t she told me she’d stopped seeing him, or reported him or something? Certainly I knew she’d reassured me on the matter. What was it she’d said again...?
He won’t be coming back.
Well, she could have meant any number of things by that – and besides, Wendy was the most civilised person I’d ever met. The idea that she could have killed anyone, even a child-abusing scumbag, was absurd. But then I thought of Glen, and how the doctors were supposed to have said they’d never seen a case of meningitis quite like it, and the look on Wendy's face the day I brought her duck back...
He’ll be dead soon enough.
Oh, fuck. But no – it just couldn’t be. Brilliant as she was, it was hard to see how even she could have engineered such a thing. Poisoning? Witchcraft? Voodoo?
And then the bloke in front of me turned around with a greasy brown takeaway bag in his mitts and it actually was Wendy’s dad. No doubt about it – live, not dead, and in person, not Dubai. His piggy eyes narrowed contemptuously, but only because I was in his way: I could tell he hadn’t recognised me.
I wavered for a moment – still really into the whole burger idea – but soon realised I had no choice, and got outside just in time to see him turn a corner into a side street. At first I thought I’d only follow him for a bit to see where he went, but after a minute he pulled something out of his pocket, raised it above his head and started stabbing wildly at the air with it. When these gesticulations were answered by a distant electronic hiccup I realised he’d unlocked a car and called out, ‘Mr. Constant!’
He didn’t slow down so I broke into a jog (I know!) and shouted, ‘Mr. Constant!’ By the time I drew level with him I was panting. ‘Hey, excuse me!’
‘What?’ He sounded pissed off, but no more so than if I’d been a market researcher waving a clipboard at him.
‘We’ve met before. Don’t you remember?’
He gave me a quick sidelong glance but kept on walking. ‘No, sorry mate.’
‘I’m a friend of Wendy’s.’
‘Good for you.’
‘She told me you were in Dubai.’
‘Did she. And who the fuck’s Wendy when she’s at home?’
This was so unexpected that for a second or two I just stared at him. ‘You know – Wendy,’ I said haltingly. ‘Your daughter Wendy!’
He stopped and rounded on me, lifting his hands up towards my face. It seemed unbelievably menacing at the time, but when I recall it now I can’t help thinking it looked more like a shrug. ‘Listen mate, I don’t know what you’re on but I haven’t got any kids. Now then, are you going to ask me for money or a fag or what? My dinner’s getting cold.’
‘Don’t you remember me? September last year? We met while you were helping Wendy move in. At the Halls of Residence!’
That did it – he stopped walking and began to chuckle in an unwholesome fashion, like First Thug in a Famous Five book. ‘Oh, right. Well, it’s nice to see you again. And how is the apple of my eye, these days?’
‘She’s fine. No thanks to you.’
‘Eh? What did I do, then?’
‘I think you know.’ I looked him straight in the eye, challenging him to deny it.
‘No, I don’t. But I’ll give you one piece of advice, right? Stay away from that girl, she’s fucking mental.’
He got into his car and locked the doors. I tapped on the window but he ignored me and drove off.
So. There I stood in the too-bright light, not knowing what to think or where to go. I could hear someone in a house over the road watching a game show, and someone in the next street shouting at a dog called Buster. A fly, crawling across a broken paving slab, paused for a second before climbing into the chasm. So. What was I to think?
In fact I was still too wasted from the night before to think anything, so I started walking instead. Had I thought, I could probably have persuaded myself that he’d been putting me on, fearing that any confession on his part would end up being read back to him in a police interrogation room. But in the absence of thought I could only detect a feeling, a feeling of muted but mounting embarrassment. And the more embarrassed I got the more it scared me, because here was proof that on some level I already knew his bewilderment had been no act. I was embarrassed because someone I loved had lied to me, and I’d taken those lies out into the world to be laughed at.
By the time I got back to the Halls I was angry too – my anger at her deception bolstered by all the bitter rage of unrequited lust, which must have been gathering force in the murky backwaters of my subconscious for months. I wasn’t interested in finding out the truth, or why she’d lied. I just wanted to see her face when she realised I’d found her out, and tell her off so comprehensively that she’d have no choice but to respect and hug me forever.
She opened her door wearing a tartan dressing gown I’d not seen before, and looking so darling in it that the bitter rage of unrequited lust abated somewhat. I was still bloody cross, mind.
‘Alright,’ I said coldly, to demonstrate that things certainly weren’t.
She drew back with a little gasp. ‘Goodness me, you look awful. Have you slept?’
I walked past her and stopped in the centre of the room, savouring the silence of me ignoring her for the first time. Again I noticed the picture – that picture of Leon Brittan. Even at this moment of peak drama I couldn't help wondering why I still hadn’t asked about it, and felt just a little irked that in ten minutes’ time I might no longer be in a position to.
‘You’ll never guess who I just bumped into...’
‘Oh, I don’t know... Adamski?
‘Oh!’ For a split second her face showed dismay, even panic, but she soon regained her composure.
‘That’s right. And what do you think he said to me?’
She shook her head, watching me closely.
‘He said “Who the fuck is Wendy?”’
‘Zounds!’ she cried, apparently in all seriousness, before falling backwards onto her bed with a sigh. ‘I mean shit, that bloke told me he was going back up North.’
Although this only confirmed my suspicions, it still felt like a shock. ‘So... he isn’t your dad?
‘Didn’t you just say he told you that?’
‘He isn’t, no.’
‘So why the hell did you tell me he was?’
‘It’s complicated. Sit down and let me explain.’ I sat beside her and folded my arms, readying a sulk. ‘It’s to do with the G.O.s,’ she said.
‘Christ, not this again...’
‘You see, what I told you yesterday was about much more than a few bad dreams. It’s reality: that thing hanging off of you isn’t, and never has been, natural. The G.O.s really did come from another place to enslave us, and they’ve been enslaving us for millions of years now.’
‘Excuse me, but is this what you do? Every time someone gets close to the truth about you, you just come back with all this bollocks? And the closer they get, the more outrageous the bollocks?’
‘It’s not... rubbish,’ she said, still very calm. ‘If you’ll just listen...’
‘But I don’t want to talk about evil penises from another planet...’
‘I just want to know why you let me walk around thinking that that poor wanker in the Hard Rock Cafe jacket had done all those terrible things to you!’
‘How was I to know you were thinking that? I had no idea until last night, and I only withheld the truth then because you showed yourself to be so conventional in your thinking.’
I’d never been so insulted in all my life. ‘Conventional? Me?’
‘Oh, was I wrong? Is it not conventional to believe you can’t be in love without having sex?’
‘I don’t fucking know, but I never fucking said that!’
‘Can you please just for God's sake stop using that bloody word!’
‘Where's your real dad, anyway? Is he even alive?’
‘I’m trying to tell you! Are you going to listen?’
‘Good. But before I begin, two caveats: it’s a very, very long story, and you’re going to find it extraordinarily difficult to believe.’
‘Fucking try me.’
‘Well, fifteen billion years ago– ’
‘No, sod you, I’m not going to listen to this.’ I stood up and made to leave, but was still too gripped by residual longing to walk straight out. ‘I’m going downstairs now, okay?’ I said, peering at her from behind the opened door. ‘Come down and give me a knock if you decide to start making sense.’
‘Come up and give me a knock when you stop screaming,’ she replied, oddly. As I opened the door a bit further to give it a good slam our eyes met and I almost faltered. Because, in spite of her apparent detachment, her eyes were sadder than ever – and if it wasn’t her dad’s fault, whose was it?
On the other hand, has anyone who ever threw open a door been able to deny themselves the pleasure of slamming it? I couldn’t – and then, to further enhance the parallels between my conduct and that of a soppy teenage girl, I ran to my room, collapsed face down on the bed and sobbed into my pillow.
I emerged in the early evening and went to call on Geordie Dave. We rounded up Ollie, Saucepan, Hippy Matt and Davros and went for a drink at the Cat & Kibble (historical note: they’re all over the place now, but in those days there was only that one branch!). Within an hour I was drunk again. They all seemed pleased to see me, especially when I told them about the argument, and I didn’t mind when they said I’d be better off without her because it allowed me to believe, just for a minute or two, that she really had been my girlfriend. When I staggered back to my room at midnight it didn’t even occur to me to call on her or wonder what she was doing. I went out like a light.
When I woke up it was still dark, and my back hurt. And I wasn’t in my room any more.
I was lying on the floor of a cave, or maybe a tunnel – the walls were of porous rock but the regularity of their dimensions suggested purposive excavation (NB: if things start to get a bit purple at this point it’s only because the following is excerpted from an as-yet-unfinished novelisation of my experiences. Things’ll get back to normal soon, I promise. In the meantime, you can show this bit to Rob – and be sure to ask him who’s the mong now!). A dim, sickly green light emanated from a series of square panels set into the walls on either side of me and I could feel a soft carpet of thin grass under my fingers.
I leapt up in confusion and a sharp bolt of pain shot through my head, reminding me that it was still too soon after the Cat & Kibble to be making any sudden moves. Thus chastened, I passed the next minute or two in absolute stillness and silence, hoping against hope that some explanation would come to me and straining to hear any sound that might indicate I was not alone. The cave’s atmosphere was warm and close, with an almost nauseatingly musky odour – as though some gargantuan beast had, for untold millennia, been using it as a bachelor pad.
Despite this, I could detect neither sound nor sign of movement. Gingerly, and thanking God I’d been too out of it to get undressed the night before, I pulled my Zippo out of my pocket and sparked it up. Stretching to hold the lighter as far in front of me as I could without making footsteps, I discovered to my consternation that there was nothing before me but a wall of solid rock. I spun around in a claustrophobic panic (remember that time I got trapped in your niece’s Wendy house?), but thankfully there was no such obstruction behind me. The tunnel appeared to continue for some distance in that direction, curving around to the left so that its opposite extremity was concealed from view.
I knew I’d have to see what was around that corner sooner or later, but shrank from the thought of doing so right away. Instead I held the lighter up to one of the panels in the wall, curious as to what kind of bulb could produce so queer a light. There were no bulbs, however – the panels were, in fact, decorative bas-reliefs, their luminosity due to some species of fluorescent paint. I leaned closer to examine the designs and was startled to discover that they depicted, in grossly caricaturised form, human sexual organs. Yet this was no simple gallery of antique erotica, for not one of the organs in the pictures was shown to have a human owner. They didn’t even seem to have human skin: the phalluses were covered in interlocking plates much like a suit of armour while their female counterparts – which more than anything resembled a maniac’s attempt to copy a diagram of the female reproductive system from a biology textbook – were translucent enough for the viewer to discern a tangled network of blood vessels and nerve fibres beneath the surface of the uterus. This network became more or less visible depending on the angle from which it was viewed – a singular quality which I spent a minute or so experimenting with. But when I moved away to inspect the reliefs on the other side of the tunnel, I saw one of those tubes throb as if with a life of its own, and an unidentifiable black fluid appeared to surge through it...!
I was so alarmed I dropped my Zippo, which stayed alight for a moment after it struck the ground. I looked down at the area thus illuminated and saw that the soft grass I had slept upon wasn’t grass at all – it was curly, wispy hair, sprouting from a smooth grey surface whose spasmic twitching beneath the naked flame suggested a monstrous kind of flesh...!
I yelped with fright and ran, choosing to abandon my lighter rather than risk direct contact with that abhorrent parody of turf. As I pelted through the tunnel – following it around to the left, then to the right, down a slight declivity and at last sharply upwards – I commenced going, ‘La la laaa’ at the top of my voice in a desperate bid to drown out the slapping of my trainers against that repellent sod, and clenching my fists as hard I could lest I became too acutely aware of its loathsome undulations. Eventually I was able to make out a patch of light in the distance which seemed too pale and bright to have been created by those hellish bas-reliefs, and the further I ascended the more certain I grew that it was daylight. Daylight! It was the first time in my life I’d ever felt genuinely excited by the prospect of going outdoors.
The light was streaming from an opening on the right-hand side of the corridor, and as I drew nearer it became apparent that this offered my only possible escape route; the tunnel I had been following terminated in an impassable barrier of fallen rock a few feet beyond it. In view of this I stopped beside the aperture, which was more or less twice the size of a standard doorway, and cautiously put my head around it.
What I saw then was enough to make me doubt my own sanity, yet it was so palpably real that my first instinct was rather to doubt the sanity of the universe. Standing before me, in a large open chamber, were two of the very monsters whose pictorial representations I had barely dared glance at a minute earlier – one male, the other female, and neither less than twelve feet tall. Now the musk became a miasma, but the frantic retches I had to stifle in the crook of my arm were caused as much by the tottering abominations before my eyes as by the charnel stench that stung them.
The male was perhaps the more grotesque of the two: its coating of armoured plates resembled nothing so much as a mosaic of scabs in various stages of recovery, and the swollen purple bulb of its head pulsated rhythmically like a hideously misshapen heart. Attached to either side of its base were two large, blackish-grey testes, whose lack of dermal covering and weirdly circular profiles gave them the appearance of blasphemous wheels. The female, though less immediately repugnant, somehow contrived to appear doubly alien: it stood upright on a pinkish tube analogous to the vaginal canal of a human woman, but supported itself with long fallopian ‘arms’ which extended from a uterine torso in scornful mimicry of the creature it would, in any sane world, have served. There were no ovaries at the end of these tubes, just the claw-like fimbriae that would normally have held them in place; the triangular points looked as white, as hard and as sharp as snake’s teeth.
The chamber itself was in darkness, but the phantastick beings glowed with a powerful unholy radiance which illumined every mote of dust within a five foot radius of what might rhetorically be described as their ‘bodies’. This was the light I had glimpsed from the tunnel, and I now realised that any escape I might effect would necessarily involve passing within plain sight of its originators.
Such an escape soon began to seem increasingly feasible, however – for the daemoniac creatures showed every sign of being engaged in a pitched battle with each other.
First the female took a swipe at the male, its right claw swooping down to catch the edge of one of the armoured plates, which came loose at the top but was not detached. The male reared up and appeared to thicken before reversing away from the female and bowing until its shaft was parallel to the ground. Its head pulsed – inflating to nearly twice its previous size – and spat a torrent of foetid black ichor at the female.
This discharge hit its mark with such force that much of the viscous fluid rebounded at once, but in the lull which followed the eruption I could see that a pint or more had adhered to the female’s torso. The damp patch began giving off steam, hissing and popping like bacon on a skillet; the female swooned as the uncanny acid did its work, eating into the surface of the uterus until it was peppered with perhaps a dozen weeping perforations. This appearance of enfeeblement must have been a ruse, however, for just as the injured thing seemed fated to collapse it lunged forward and lashed out once again at the male’s squamous hide.
Its slashing fimbriae found the male’s weak spot at once, wrenching off the armoured plate it had already loosened with a sickening splunch. The male reeled, as did I upon catching a glimpse of what its plates protected: dozens of miniature replicas of itself in tightly packed horizontal rows, all curled inward so that each row looked like a single roll of pinkish flesh until the male’s agonised thrashings disturbed it. Uncoiled, the smaller membrums virile waved drowsily to and fro like the tentacles of a sea anemone, which motion made them seem both painfully vulnerable and unspeakably malignant.
This was just too repulsive – even for me! – and I had to look away. It was then I noticed another doorway on the opposite side of the chamber, very like the one behind which I had been cowering, and beyond it a realm of dim blue light. That light was like a soothing balm to my fevered senses, for I discerned at once that it could not have been created by either the bas-reliefs or those aberrant creatures. A wild hope stirred in my breast that I was gazing out at an evening sky, and when this fancy was corroborated by the appearance of a fleecy grey cloud I almost cried out for joy. Of course I could have no idea of the elevation of that nightmare chamber, or of what might await me in the twilight if I escaped it, but at least now there was hope – as long as those manky-looking freaks didn’t spot me first...
Reluctantly I returned my gaze to the field of conflict, where it seemed a bloody resolution was now imminent: the male had pinioned the female’s vaginal stalk under its swollen head, disgorging a further sample of the foul ink onto its foe. The female’s arms were flailing wildly, and though its body was once again largely obscured by billowing plumes of noxious vapour there could be little doubt that its demise was nigh. It writhed and squirmed, thrusting its torso upward and stretching its arms to their fullest extent on the ground behind it, every part rigid with agony... But then, suddenly, it slammed its lower body into the ground, creating just enough momentum to draw itself up; the two great claws came together and inscribed a smooth arc in the air before descending rapidly to sink themselves into the narrow gap between the base of the male’s shaft and its left wheel.
Whatever tissue had been connecting the wheel to its owner was severed in an instant, and the male fell clumsily onto its side. The effect was oddly comic – the wheel rolled away with such an air of mischievous mutiny that one half-expected Laurel and Hardy to appear and start chasing after it – but at the time this only threw the unwholesome alienage of the scene into sharp relief. The female creature, now released, pushed its claws against the floor and lifted itself back onto its stalk. Looming over the fallen male, it manoeuvred its arms so that its claws were poised to attack two opposing points at the ridge of the glans: with a shudder, I realised I was about to witness a decapitation.
Just then, however, the air of the chamber was rent by a deafening clangour which seemed to come from the walls, the floor, the ceiling and the very pit of my belly all at once: a frightful blast of resounding dissonance which suggested both whistles the size of factories and bells the size of cathedrals. Its effect upon the female creature was instantaneous: the arms relaxed, the claws fell and the whole frame slouched perceptibly, like that of a boxer at the end of a bout. For a few seconds it remained motionless, as if listening intently, but when the cacophony abruptly ended it made another move towards its adversary.
Having steeled myself for another round of gruesome butchery, I was completely unprepared for what happened next. The creature seemed drained of all hostility and even urgency as it shuffled around to stand before the slit in the crown of the male’s still-recumbent shaft, and when it reached out to touch that unblinking eye it did so not with a claw but with its long, snaking vaginal appendage.
It went on to pat the surrounding area a few times – as though seeking to reassure itself that that part of the male was still undamaged – before withdrawing the appendage and pointing it at the ceiling. Then, as the whole creature trembled with what must have been an immense physical effort, the appendage began to expand laterally; at first I imagined it was literally growing, but once it had dilated to three times its original girth it drooped a little towards me and I saw that the skin had merely stretched to create more space inside. The appendage returned to the male, but this time it was wide enough to completely enclose his bulbous head. Using her claws to brace herself, the female bore down and slowly filled her distended inlet with the male’s wounded shaft.
I could not have been more mystified by this new development – was it simply a cryptic new phase in their ongoing battle, or were they sealing a truce? Were they, in fact, fucking, as you or I would fuck (well, you anyway)? Either way I had no intention of lingering long enough to satisfy my curiosity. With both combatants otherwise occupied and incapable of giving chase without first disengaging, I at last had an opportunity to gain the far doorway. Taking a deep breath and conquering an inexplicable feeling of embarrassment about intruding upon so intimate a scene, I launched myself toward that beckoning firmament and ran for my life.
But the doorway just led out onto a balcony, and the balcony was at least a hundred feet above the ground, and the sky overhead was not an evening sky. It was a night sky, darker than a demon’s dream – the vague brightness that had filtered into the chamber was only the reflected light from untold thousands of creatures exactly like those I’d just fled, oozing and churning over the bleak, rocky landscape as far as the eye could see. Every male was paired with a female and every pair was locked in the same silent, unreadable embrace... but there was much grim evidence that the fight in the chamber had also been replayed out here, countless hundreds of times, because for every living specimen there were at least five dead, and the shredded fragments of these unfortunates littered the terrain, still faintly glowing as the survivors rolled and clambered over them.
I stood and stared, paralysed by a horror which it is beyond my power to articulate. And then I wasn’t standing any more: someone or something gave me a hard shove from behind and I pitched forward, falling over the balcony rail to plunge head-first into that seething knot of corruption. I screamed...!
END OF PART ONE
*Newcastle Brown Ale