This story is taken from my new collection A Large Can of Whoopass which is out now, check awwilde.co.uk for more details.
Andy and Ben are best of friends, kings of banter. Theirs is a steadfast and inseparable kind of friendship that formed in kindergarten and grew on the playgrounds of both primary and secondary schools. The first time Ben went round for tea at someone else’s house was at Andy’s and vice versa. Andy and Ben’s nickname as children, used by both sets of parents, were Alfa and Beta.
Alfa and Beta used to love fish fingers, chips and peas but now it’s cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers. Their families love the great outdoors and often enjoy camping holidays together, enriching fond times in fresh air around roaring campfires.
Andy and Ben are part of a group of teenagers, but it is they who command the most respect within the clan. On occasion, they are cruel to the weaker members of the clan, but this is normal for boys of their age. I use the word clan because they live in Scotland, on the west coast, in an idyllic fishing village surrounded by hilly climbs adored by cyclists, including Ben’s father. It is a beautiful part of the world. The North Atlantic Drift, which starts in Florida, breathes warm air into the local flora and fauna and palm trees grow where palm trees shouldn’t. Travel guides refer to the area as Nature’s Jewellery Box.
Andy and Ben don’t give a shit about nature. They are skateboarders. They like concrete, asphalt and tarmac: the man-made. For them, the best possible use for the trees that populate the hills is as plywood for jump ramps and pulp for paper to print Thrasher Magazine, for which Ben has a subscription. They are the giants of this small skateboarding community. Andy’s father is a carpenter with access to three-ply plywood. After school and every weekend they wheel the ramp he made to a particularly smooth section of coastal road and practice the tricks performed by American skaters in Ben’s magazine. This section of road becomes known as The Spot. The clear waters of the Firth of Clyde will act as the backdrop to the clan’s collective recollection of this formative time. Andy is the first person to land an ollie kick-flip at The Spot. Ben is happy for him, but he is also deeply competitive. The trick eludes him for some time and dents his boyish dignity.
The Spot quickly becomes the place to hang out. Most of the teenagers in the village congregate there and find roles for themselves, as viewers, participants or love interests. Some of the traits and emotions first embarked upon here will echo throughout the lives of the kids far beyond their teenage years, to a time when the term kids is itself a distant echo, and, perhaps, an unspoken promise between two twenty-somethings. It is at The Spot where Ben first sees The Girl and The Girl first sees Andy. She is eating a fig.
The Girl arrives at the start of the six-week summer holidays and to all the boys she looks like the future. Not much is known about The Girl and that’s the way she liked it. The Girl has moved to the village from Edinburgh and will be attending the same school as the clan in September. She is not tall, but not too short either; she has Italian blood, dervish hair and mismatched eyes – left blue, right brown. There is something curious about her skin too. It is clear and fresh, ageless almost.
The Girl’s first few visits to The Spot fan flames in boys’ minds. Facing out to sea with her back to the clan, she thrones herself on an emerald green bench over which her hair cascades. She doesn’t attempt to interact, just reads one Greek tragedy or another, eats figs and draws the boys’ stares towards her like an explosion. At 4pm she floats from the bench, across the grass and along the perimeter of The Spot. The cacophonous sound of skateboard tricks and teenage jive is muted by this parade. Ben thinks she is the most exotic and phosphorescent beauty ever to grace the earth, but his teenage years betray his vocabulary and the feeling she provides in his loins forces one four-letter word from his lips: braw.
On The Girl’s fourth visit to The Spot, Gabrielle, an intermittent member of the clan, extends the hand of friendship to the enigmatic newcomer. Gabrielle discovers that The Girl is quite adept at giving very little away and rarely concludes her sentences.
It is not uncommon for someone new to arrive overnight. Families move around and relocate all the time. The Girl’s arrival, welcomed by the male members of the clan that summer, is made even more mysterious by her coy ways and lack of history. One of the clan has cousins in Edinburgh, near to where The Girl claims to be from, but they’d never heard of this most ravishing beauty. But none of the boys care too much about these mysteries or reasons entwined in her auburn ringlets – the small gorillas growing in their testicles dictate that one of them must win the right to remove her bra. Over the long hot days of no school, The Girl deploys her coquettish charm with nuclear abandon, becomes very popular indeed.
The ollie kick-flip can be a right bastard to learn. To master tricks of this nature, you must first learn a new language – with your toes – and then teach this language to a piece of wood with no brain but a mind of its own. To remain in a place of un-understanding of this language is to suffer a million splendid spaz-attacks in front of your close friends. In life some friends secretly hope you fail. This desire is the result of a tug-of-war between innocence and want. A tug-of-war prevented from turning out as well as hoped because ambition is rarely unadulterated.
Andy is generous with understanding. He spends afternoons coaching Ben on the toe-language of the ollie kick-flip. At The Spot, he skates beside him giving guidance on technique and speed in encouraging tones, sacrificing his own progression to harder tricks. Ben takes the advice through envious teeth, keeps crashing. Then has to leave The Spot early to go to the opticians. The results of his sight test prove him to be long-sighted.
The day that Ben finally lands the ollie kick-flip that has been so spectacularly eluding him is ruined by a tremendous volley of heartbreak. It is as if the god of skateboarding is telling Ben to take up another sport! The day is fluoro-bright. Late August’s sun creates a heat haze and softens the tarmac that forms the surface to The Spot, itself a hive of activity. Teenagers are swimming, mixed groups are playing rounders on the shingle beach and Ben is skating out of his skin. On three consecutive occasions he comes very close to landing the trick, he becomes imbued with focus, delirious almost. As he feels his feet connect with the skateboard deck, he knows it’s good. Everything goes slow motion high definition. His heart quickens. Ben looks up to see if Andy has witnessed his triumph to see The Girl kissing Andy.
The Girl and Andy only break up their smooch as The Cycling Club of Dunoon roar past wearing spectacularly-patterned, vividly-coloured jerseys, most of which are emblazoned with the word Coppi. Ben can only stare at The Girl. He is stained with grey.
It is only natural that The Girl chooses Andy over Ben. Andy is more athletic and better looking. But this doesn’t stop Ben feeling rejected. It festers and leads him into the valley of the doldrums. He spends time in his room, looks out of the window or at the ceiling, throws away seasoned conkers and reads his father’s cycling magazines. He finds out that Coppi is the surname of two steadfast and inseparable brothers, Fausto and Serse, both giants of the cycling community. Tragically, Serse died in Fausto’s arms after crashing in a race they had both been competing in. A race in which Serse sacrificed his own chance of victory in order to help his brother out.
In the kitchen one morning, Ben’s mother is listening to Ken Bruce on Radio 2 and preparing lunch. Ben is hovering by the fridge, wanting to talk but unable to find the words to do so. Sensing this, his mother asks if he’s OK. She has already noticed his spark has vanished of late. Ben recounts a jumble of awkward feelings. Listening intently and speaking in calm, gentle tones, she offers sanguine advice about not forcing affairs of the heart. She is a strong believer in fate and proves to be something of a sage. As their heart-to-heart is reaching its end Phil Collins’s ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ spills from the radio and they both laugh. Ben’s mother gives him a cuddle, tells him that she loves him and that he’ll get over The Girl.
The rest of summer is unusually hot and turbulent for the best friendship of Andy and Ben. They spend less time together, and their position at the centre of the clan gradually dissolves. Andy and The Girl make the most of the longer nights and Andy tries hard to loose his cumbersome virginity. Ben feels his best friend has taken The Girl he adores from him and that the The Girl he adores has taken his best friend away too. It’s difficult.
Spectacularly failing to understand that old maxim, A Closed Mouth Gathers No Foot, Ben makes a series of sly insults about Andy behind his back and fosters a schism in the clan. When Andy and Ben do skate together it’s not like before. Andy puts Ben down in public and the clan laugh at Ben’s expense as he fails to learn new trick variations. To her credit, The Girl never joins in and openly discourages Andy from such cruelty. The clocks go forward. Leaves clog drains. The sea becomes choppy.
Two December days after Ben hears that Andy and The Girl had a screaming match in public, The Girl knocks on the door of Ben’s parents’ house. Ben’s father answers the door wearing his cycling gear and shouts upstairs for Ben to come down: You’ve Got Company, he says. It is bitterly cold as Ben and The Girl talk on the front step and the conversation is awkward, but this is mainly because Ben’s father is readying his bicycle in the garage within earshot. As Ben’s father makes his way down the gravel drive, Ben notices that the word Coppi is printed on the back of his father’s jersey.
The Girl suggests to Ben that they should walk to The Spot. He agrees. On the way there she holds his hand and tells him that Andy is unbearable. And that she thinks she made a mistake choosing Andy over him. He can’t take his eyes off her or believe his luck. Distracted by hopes crashing from his subconscious into his hands, he tries to listen carefully. He chooses to hear just enough to start a fire. Then they kiss, inhale each other, and pull close lambswool and sweatshirt cotton. Lost in a tryst, the lashing storm offshore doesn’t even register. They snog for hours or minutes; it’s not important which. Then he walks her home as if his teenage life depends upon it.
The next morning has come, and Ben has hardly slept. The wind was making grand speeches all night, and such was his excitement, serious shut-eye proved impossible. He rises unnaturally early and heads straight to The Spot to relive the night before. Amidst the winds of the North Atlantic Drift he can taste her breath. This is it. He is sure. Rain and seawater from the storm gathers in puddles and forms a patina on the smooth surface of the asphalt. Ben stands with his left foot on his skateboard, gazes out to sea along the rugged coastline. He is mirrored in the water on the asphalt, viewing the world upturned. Ben catches sight of his reflection, gently moves his skateboard and watches as ebbing ripples dissolve him from view.
When Ben arrives at the school gates, grand larceny has been committed on his tender heart. Andy and The Girl are walking arm in arm and she is wearing his blue parka. They make love eyes at each other. Ben can’t work it out. He skips tutorial, sobs stupid tears in the disabled toilet. Andy is guilty of larceny, he reasons, but The Girl is still grand.
During the morning’s French lesson, Ben sits behind Andy and stares a hole in the back of his head. On the back page of his exercise book, Ben writes down all that The Girl said to him last night, lines of dialogue in Bic and white. Constellations of words on ruled paper, some joined-up and flowing, others heavily lined in jagged uppercase. Some of these words match his feelings to the events of the night before. Others are inconclusive. But nowhere between speech marks on that piece of paper is the line from her that goes Andy and I are finished.
The foreign language spoken by the teacher floats around the classroom. Palms on temples, elbows on desk, Ben stares into the engraved graffiti on the desktop: football chants, playground slander about school discos, names of couples encased in hearts shot through with arrows. Ben had meant every word he had said to The Girl, he’d said them a thousand times before – always alone, always to her. The night was a realisation of his feelings for her, valuable, highly charged. The fact that this encounter clearly didn’t matter to her doesn’t matter to him. Struggling to understand if the words on the page – or the experience – are real, he finally burns through the front of Andy’s head and sees a bad way out.
If what is real is undefined and nebulous then why not lie to get what you really want? Ben wants The Girl. Wants The Girl for good, for better and is prepared to do the worst to get her. He keeps the tryst and kissing and pulling of hips a secret, deposits his upset in box marked Machiavellian.
Gabrielle, the intermittent member of the clan, was intermittent because she didn’t really understand the fickle dynamics of popularity. Gabrielle was too straightforward for most teenagers to grasp. She did things because she wanted to do them, liked people for her own reasons. She adored Andy, so much so that behind the rack seating in the assembly hall at a school disco, he fingered her for fifteen minutes straight. Or four slow dances, depending on which version of the story was told. And the story was told, not by Andy, but by the members of the clan who watched the fingering between the gaps in the rack seating. For Gabrielle, Andy is a dreamboat on a skateboard, a mountain of popularity she has never got close enough to.
With enough deceit to poison the well of teenage friendship, Ben tells Gabrielle that Andy still has feelings for her. And with the very same mendacious mouth starts a rumour about Andy and Gabrielle in an unlit bus shelter on the very night he had been with The Girl. Over the course of a week, the rumour takes on a life of its own, grows horned details, and skulks around the playground in search of new anoraks to call home. When Monday comes, Ben suggests to Gabrielle that she write Andy a note, and even offers to pass it on for her. Kind and considerate: cupid Ben. With a swipe of a metal rule between frame and door, he breaks into Andy’s locker and places the note in Andy’s blue parka, the very jacket The Girl likes to wear.
Much of what happened next is easy to tell and at odds with many of the complexities of love. The Girl finds the note, hears the rumour and turns up at Ben’s door in quick succession. His plan seems to have worked. Getting what he wants unseats his feelings of rejection. The Girl and Ben’s relationship, awkward at first, blooms after a showdown at The Spot in which Ben challenges Andy to a fight, only for him to refuse, then exclaim for all to hear that The Girl isn’t worth it. The brotherly bond that once seemed unbreakable sinks in the clear waters off the coast of The Spot. Ben stops skating for good.
Between A Level results and driving tests, kids become not kids any more. By the next summer the clan itself disbands. The Girl and Ben live in each other’s pockets and feel they have outgrown village life. They move to Edinburgh at Ben’s suggestion in their nineteenth year to find work: to embark on a new shared life.
Ben never mentions Andy: the ploughman never looks back.
* * *
Thirteen years have passed. The Girl and Ben broke up four years ago, which came as a total shock to half of their new circle of friends, but not to the wise reader. This circle of friends had only known them as a couple. For the Girl and Ben they assumed a succession of tiny steps towards parenthood and a later life further enriched with grandchildren visiting a stone cottage somewhere on the coast. Ben too kept this version of their shared future in his heart.
The first four years of their time together did much to suggest that they could become as close as Ben hoped. However, there was for Ben always an emotional gap with The Girl, although he tried not to think about it. He had only confided this fear with his mother. She had told him to talk with The Girl about it and to trust his instincts. The emotional gap could be his own, she said. The Girl may not require the same closeness as he. Coming from his mother, who had a strong sense of the way things should be, this view seemed sound and trustworthy. But he never did discuss the gap or what lay in it with The Girl – chose to subsume it internally. On the nights she was allowed to stay over, feeling flushed and lying naked under the covers was when he felt closest to her. A place of their own in the big city held plenty of possibilities.
Their first flat in Edinburgh smelt of damp. They moved after six months and spent a summer furnishing the new place from flea markets and antique fairs. On Sunday’s they would rise early and look for objets d’art in and around the city. The Girl had a thing for purple and Ben grew to like it too. He joked that the flat resembled a Byzantine love nest and The Girl loved this idea of romance in another time. Without fail they would stop for Sunday lunch each week. Gorging themselves on meat, wine, cheese and the newspapers was something of a birthright to their Edinburgh life: a bona fide treat before they went back to work. It was in the handful of pubs close to their flat that they formed a new clan.
In the years that followed, life settled into an entirely pleasurable routine of work and weekends. New friendships were cemented both as a couple and individually. This new clan coined new nicknames based on experiences at music festivals, style choices and eating habits. Ben became the Benmeister on account of his fondness for strong German lager and would regale the group with tales of what a good skater he was back in the day whilst drunk. Exaggerated stories in which Andy’s tricks became his. Stories in which Andy was Tippexed from view.
Then, late on in The Girl and Ben’s twenties, one of the couples pulled out an ultrasound image and announced over Sunday lunch that they were expecting. They may as well have been expecting a bomb. Very gradually and one by one, half of the couples began to unravel in the face of that three-month baby scan.
Unbeknownst to Ben, The Girl had fabricated a team-bonding work trip to Aberdeen and aborted their first child in a clinic two months previously. The records she picked on the pub jukebox sang of melancholic longing or violent disruption – it was Joni Mitchell or Joy Division and nothing else but. Ben knew the cellar door was opening on him, but instead of discussing the return of her aloof nature, he wanted to know when they would be trying for kids. The Girl would never engage in such talk; just bit her lip till her eyes watered. In the bathroom Ben hid her contraception. In the bedroom they stopped having sex. The gap that Ben never addressed opened up and The Girl grew distant. Ben delivered superlatives about a daughter with her mother’s eyes in the dead of night, The Girl made fake sleep noises. Three months of decline and getaway plans followed.
Ben arrived home to a Dear John letter on a Thursday night. Two pages of I’m sorry and I’ll never make you happy. This was the life she had chosen but it was not the one that she wanted. She needed closeness! Fucking cheek of it! Two pages for twelve years. Three years per side of watermarked A5. Don’t try and find me, she said. He didn’t. He couldn’t leave the flat for a week. Surrounded by purple with a heart as blue as a baboon’s arse.
It took Ben four years and another disastrous relationship to enjoy his own company. Even now his heart is still bruised and diminished of capacity. He is single, enjoys reading and the internet and loves cycling: a sport his father suggested he take up to beat the blues. These pleasures align on eBay, where he spends more time than he should, prowling for vintage bike parts and accessories, clicking links and reading articles on great cyclists and classic cycle races. One day he hopes to attend L’Eroica, the vintage cycle race in Italy. Ben still lives on the outskirts of Edinburgh, in a different flat. It’s a nice place, but the coastal roads and dramatic scenery of his west coast home have become prevalent in his dreams of late. Ben returns home on the weekends to visit his parents regularly. He always takes his bike. It’s his pride and joy.
On one such weekend the conditions are perfect for cycling: blue skies blotted with wispy clouds and no more than a little wind rolling in from the Firth of Clyde. Ben’s father’s health is deteriorating and his legs are no longer fit for the hills. He suggests to his son a rewarding route that includes a place to stop for lunch. On the road Ben’s pace is brisk. He becomes mesmerized with the rhythm of pedalling and the scenery, the rhythm of pedalling and the thoughts of childhood. He stops only to refresh himself in the many streams that run alongside the roads. He passes many other cyclists and few cars. Food is fuel and the needle is hovering just above the red. Ben checks his father’s map: nine miles till lunch. He rests his bike against the whitewashed and weathered stone wall of the pub. He places the order, a ploughman’s and a pint, and pays for the food. As he leaves the pub the glare of the sun is ferocious and causes white flecks on the periphery of his vision. When his eyes adjust to the brilliant daylight he catches sight of a man admiring his bike. The man turns around, it is Andy.
Are you, said Andy, still stirring my porridge?
Go shit yourself, says Ben. There is then a hesitant pause suggesting that this could go one way or another. Then raucous laughter and a firm handshake.
Sometimes in life things happen at a specific time in a specific place with a specific set of circumstances acting as a backdrop. Some people call this fate, but not Andy or Ben: they call it good fortune. Andy is also an ex-skater cyclist. They discover that they both took up cycling around the same time. They share not only a passion for a vintage racing cycles, but a similar aesthetic. They share a few jars in that glorious beer garden in full bloom, and cycle back together via The Spot. No kick-flips, just chain rings.
They meet at Andy’s house the very next weekend. It’s another hot one, Scorchio says Ben as Andy opens the front door. As they ready the bikes in the garage, Ben notices a jiffy bag with an Italian postmark. He recognises the handwriting instantly. Inside the bag is a Suicide Shifter (a gear lever to you and me), extremely rare, but also exactly the same one that Ben lost in an eBay auction two weeks previously. Ben and Andy suddenly realise they have been outbidding each other for bike parts, and not just this one either. They laughed out loud at the esoteric nature of this coincidence. The day is a triumph.
In the house he grew up in, Ben has trouble sleeping that night. He comes downstairs, opens the fridge and lets the light shine out into the darkness of the kitchen. He cools himself in front of the fridge, and then wanders throughout the downstairs looking at family photos in silver frames, then returns to and remains restless in bed until fatigue temporarily defeats the incessant whirring of his brain. In the semitranslucence of dawn, he dreams he is cycling alone through the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by rolling hills in every distant direction. There is no sun, yet it is lustrously bright and his racer in British racing green refracts light in diamond shards. Above him, there is an endless supply of uninterrupted sky in Yves Klein blue. Below and in front, the white gravel track stretches out offering a clear view to a distant vanishing point – the brow of a hill. There is again the hypnotic rhythm of motion: the supreme feeling of cycling, of his legs and his breathing, the distilled movement of his body, all working together, aligned by the symmetry and beauty of the land that engulfs him. He looks from the sky to the ground, from blue to white and white to blue and back again. Everything he knows about the life of a cyclist implies perpetual movement, yet his unchanged distance from the vanishing point tells him he’s not making any ground. Almond-shaped droplets of sweat fall in rivulets from beneath his cassquette and down his forehead, a film of chalky dust covers his tyres, the sweat lands upon it and the obsidian darkness of vulcanised rubber momentarily bursts through.
Olive trees, rows and rows of olive trees, muscular branches in rude health line the gravel track on both sides. There is the smell of blossom. It is potent and alluring and everywhere. He stops pedalling, coasts for a moment, breathes deeply, takes in the rarefied air of farmers and artists and poets and the sound of the chain rings on his bike is almost symphonic, small individual noises – from small individual mechanical parts – hint at a melody that he completes in his head, an intricate melody that completely transfixes him and removes him from the moment.
When he returns, he is closer to the vanishing point; on the brow of the hill he can just make out two figures waving to him from beneath a tree at the edge of a dense wood, he feels recognition with every sense in his body other than sight, he knows them but he doesn’t know them, he doesn’t know why he must reach them, just knows that he must.
He pedals harder. They move further away.
He coasts. They reappear.
They call him by name. He pedals in explosive bursts and coasts in deep breaths and comes closer, closer still. It is a woman and a child. Both are wearing matching delicate white lace dresses. The tree provides them with welcome shade, brown hair cascades down and obscures their faces. Like a gift, the child wears a green bow around her waist. Ben not longer needs to pedal. He lays down his bike. The woman waves and darts into the woods, auburn ringlets flailing behind her, she looks back moving her hair from her face and motioning the child towards Ben in one fluid movement. The Child walks towards Ben, holds out her impossibly gentle hands and offers him a fig.
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’
With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,
And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.
And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.
O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.
And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.
For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
‘Thou art God, and Law, and King.
'We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’
Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud
Whispering - ‘Thou art Law and God.’ -
Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’
And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.
For he knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.
So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament
When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:
'My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!
‘He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me -
Misery, oh, Misery!’
Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses’ feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.
When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak and frail
Like the vapour of a vale:
Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky
It grew - a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.
On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning’s, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.
With step as soft as wind it passed,
O’er the heads of men - so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked, - but all was empty air.
As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.
And the prostrate multitude
Looked - and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:
And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.
A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose
As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother’s throe
Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood, -
As if her heart had cried aloud:
'Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.’
I wasn’t strictly innocent. In fact, my innocence could be better described as naivety: naivety masquerading as uncultured charm. It was very laddy in deep-space Essex. Football dads and Ford factory floor humour that Swarfega couldn’t sanitise. Cars were cleaned on Sundays and Friday night’s alright for Dansak. It was driving me mad. I wanted, needed, something more than the one thousand boredoms that crept from the corners of my bedroom. I was excellent at drama, won a scholarship someplace fancy. Someplace fancy with pedigree human beings.
When I moved to north London I couldn’t pronounce ‘tuna nicoise’ — but I knew the difference between disco-bobulated and discombobulated. I knew that difference every single weekend. It was the early-nineties, house-music-all-night-long. The Ritzy became the Soundshaft. Benson & Hegdes became Marlborough Lights. Dave became Seb. Big logos became no logos. The UCI multiplex became Tate Britain. Not having a bird became not seeing anyone at present, dahling. All of these suburban crimps ironed-out after I stopped pressing the button to open sliding doors on the tube.
The chameleon does change his spots. I learnt to act at acting school and I learnt to act socially. Between the hours of 11pm and 3am on a Friday night, all that pretence stopped on the dancefloor at Soundshaft. The excitement would start when my alarm went off in the morning, become palpable by lunchtime, unbearable by the time we’d set off for the tube. Charring Cross: alight here for acidouse.
The queues, ridiculous — ridiculously good places to drop pills. The bouncers, surly. The searches, intrusive — very probably hostile, met with a grin. No amount of totalitarian bullshit mattered when you were thirteen-footsteps from the record that went dur-dur-dur, dur-dur-dur-dur-dur. The record with no lyrics that said everything and changed plenty.
Obviously, I live in L.A. now. Hell-bent on edamame, I’m not sure I recognise the version of me that karate-chopped poppadoms in Dagenham.
But I do know I miss him.