Sometimes, when I watch people weaving their curved paths through a crowd, with their little glances, feints and unconscious signals, then it seems to me to be like an exquisitely choreographed ballet.
Of course, at other times, life is more like a mosh-pit. This is about one of those times.
Characters first. Imagine a stage. Last night we went to the theatre and so this part is pretty easy. Make them colourful and distinct.
No. This isn’t easy at all. I can imagine people on a stage, but then what do I want to say about them? That the one on the left looks like a mad rainbow in his Technicolour Dreamcoat. That he’s called Joseph? But then what! He’s my brother, so I should know all about him. But what do you need to know? Okay, he’s up from Brum for a visit. I’m in York. He’s twenty-four and he’s as giddy as a box of frogs.
The lady to his right is Caroline. She’s got a face like a slab of granite. All angles with a skin you could sand planks of wood down with. Outdoors type. She’ll have rope for muscles when she’s forty; you can just tell. But for now – she’s my one and only, older by a year, sister. Down for the day and losing, just for now, that chewing-bricks Dundee accent she uses up there. For all of that, it doesn’t stop her calling me a choob when I say something daft. Yeah, you’re right; a what? I could look it up, but I don’t want to know. I can see the meaning in her eyes anyway. She was always disappointed by me. Dunno. Ask her yourself.
And then there’s me. What do you want, my OkCupid profile? The photo of me visiting Stonehenge last year for my 25th? Or this: I’m a dead ringer for Prince Harry from when he had all his hair. I’m on the stage too. Obviously, I’m the one writing as the other two catch up. I must look like I’m sketching them because I keep glancing up and down, up and down.
In about five seconds, one of them is going to screw up her face and a second later they’re both going to pay the first attention they’ve paid me since they arrived. I had curried beans for lunch and … hold on, here it comes; and … Oh, wait, what’s wrong? No-one’s looking! Ah, I know why – it didn’t happen. I made it up. I do that. Don’t we all? Actually, they’re still just ignoring me.
Okay, that’s enough of that, let’s see if we can plot ourselves out of this paper-bag of people. Or alternatively, we can make some stuff up. How about we just do that. A zombie story for instance. I always fancied writing one of those. Not so keen to be in one, but it’d be nice to put all the people I don’t really like into one and they get them eaten one by one. Sound like fun?
Uh-oh. Alert. They’re both looking at me. No idea why. Got the feeling they just asked me a question. Stop writing, phone-apps-media-recorder, tap the red button. I’ll transcribe it later.
“What!” That’s me.
“Have you farted?” Caroline. Common as compost.
“Nah. I just wrote that I did, but I didn’t.” I shut the notepad and put the phone on top, screen down.
“He’s up to no good. I can tell from his eyes. He has this look about him when he’s done something bad. Like, his face looks like it’s going to explode or something. It goes all red and …”
Joseph doesn’t half like to go on. I can’t be bothered to write the rest. You get the idea.
“Nah.” I don’t say much with my mouth. Most of it is already in the notebook. Not much to say once you’ve written it all. It’s like it’s already been said. And no-one likes repeats.
“So, you up for it?” Caroline.
She rolled her eyes and …
Hold on, let me just rewind a bit and fill in the scenery. The rain’s falling again outside the window and steam’s dripping down the wall above the cooker, partly ’cause the kettle’s just boiled but mostly because the gas rings are on. No central heating and no other way to keep it warm. Spring’s not very good at getting old houses with high ceilings warm. Like living in a bando sometimes. Okay, translation for all the mummies and daddies out there: abandoned house. You’re welcome.
… said, “we’re going to a gig. Wanna come?”
“Sure. Where? Who?”
“Whoever’s on down the Leadmill.”
I made a show of thinking about it, but there was nothing to ponder. Few bottles of Thunderbird to get us warmed up, best black skinny jeans, least smelly top (sniff those armpits) and we’re off.
Could have walked into town but Caroline didn’t want to get her hair wet. I could see her point. It would have been spike to frizz in five minutes flat. As it was, the walk to the bus nearly did her in. Me and Joseph have the sensitivity of hyperactive toddlers. If she hadn’t been holding her coat with a grip of steel, it’d have been gone. As it was, she just managed to keep it above her head. Cost her a boob-flash, but that was just par for the … Oh, okay, I made that up too. What can I say; I have a crude imagination. So sue!
The thing about a mosh-pit is that, although it doesn’t look like it from the outside, there are rules. Sure, they’re unspoken and so … yeah, actually they might all be in my head. You might think that it’s a hyperviolent free-for-all: all those arms going at ninety miles an hour, eyes rolling back in their sockets and those rictus grins, but that’s just pure show. Legs planted, looking like we’re defending our little territory to the death, but in our minds, we’re all there together. We’re one machine. A love machine. And if someone happens to slip and go down, then we pick them back up. Scoop down and set them right. And yeah, you get the odd one or two who don’t know the rules and use their elbows and fists, but, like as not, they’ll mysteriously go down. And they won’t get up again. And they learn. We all do.
She … Yeah, you knew there was going to be a she. It says love in the title. She was kissing all the fellas, and some of the girls too. And so, three-quarters of a bottle of Thunderbird and two cans of Red Stripe in, I said: “Where’s my kiss?” Fake petulance. I didn’t know her. Not before that.
Two minutes later I was laying flat on one the benches in the cafe area and she was laying flat on top of me. She wasn’t light, but I wasn’t bothered.
Three hours later she was at my place. A few of us crammed into a couple of taxis; impromptu party, and she slipped into mine. Brother, sister, friends and stranger (but getting more familiar by the minute).
Four days later I met her for a drink. We drank and we talked and we drank some more. She didn’t follow me home that night; even though I wanted her to.
Five weeks later and I was at her place and I was laying on top of her and she was crying and saying no. That she didn’t want it to be like it was with all the others. I didn’t ask her what she meant. But it wasn’t. I mean, it just didn’t happen.
Six months later and we were in town and she was teasing me and touching me and wanting more than I was willing to give and that evening didn’t really end that well.
Seven years later and I see her on the internet. A photograph from a strange angle with the kind of effects on it that took me ages to undo bring back to flesh and blood. She’d lost whatever fat she had and looked better for it. And she was a scriptwriter too. Won some prizes, had some of her stuff performed. But then nothing after the first few years. Strange. She just stopped. I could have sent her an email. But I didn’t. I would have known what to say. But I just didn’t
Meanwhile, going back to minute zero, my sister and brother were standing in the crowd, arms aloft, saluting the song that’s just ended. They’d entangled themselves in it. Music is so much better when you’re ears are singing along to it too and they … okay, let me try this thing that they call polyphony. I’m not God, so it’s not real. You just have to pretend along with me.
‘Wow, this is good. Good, good songs so glad I came here and the sweat, shirt soaking, t-shirt wring it out afterwards, going to be cold outside borrow brother’s jumper, he’s kind so he’ll let me but wow this song, that guitar, hey that guy looking at me with those come-here-eyes. Come here right back at you, dude, come kiss me, kiss me, kiss me. Gah, that girl draping her arms around his neck, scratch her eyes. Caroline! What’s got into you, not that drunk. Am I? Must be. Hey, this bass is good. Gotta dance. Jump up and shake it.’
And she did. Is it okay to put thoughts in other people’s heads like that? Writers do it all the time, but they’re making things up to put into stories. Then again, so am I. And it’s fun. Wonder what Joseph’s thinking.
‘Am I one of the bright and shiny people? Maybe not. Maybe I’m a bug; a bug-ugly punk with a big nose and a …’
Yeah, okay, Joseph; maybe I’ll just leave that to you. No sense in upsetting the punters with that kind of misery. Hey, though – this is kind of fun. What about that chick over there, the one with the bright red lipstick and the mournful face. She’s cute in a kind of a sultry way. Wonder what she’s thinking.
‘I swear that if something doesn’t happen tonight then I’m just going to go home and draw myself a bath, strip right down, ease myself into the water and slit my veins open.’
‘And not just across my wrists this time, but up and down. Get them good and open. Empty them out into the water. Empty this body. No more waking up wishing I hadn’t woken up. No more. Just no more. I’m so sick of this dreary life where nothing makes sense and no-one says anything that means anything. Such a dreary, dreary life. Insipid people. Nothing. No-one. Slit my veins. Say goodbye. Say goodbye with kisses. Salutations from a defective. A broken head slut.’
Of course, none of that is real. But then again, none of any of this is either. Memory is as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Not propionibacteria pulling the mind apart, but new experiences poking and prodding the old ones into new shapes. I know I asked her for a kiss then, but I already told you that. And I know the kind of dance that that starts.
And I kept her dancing. Trod on her feet for as long as I could. Sometimes it was a good old mosh, sometimes a foxtrot across the ballroom floor and sometimes just a soft shoe shuffle. But eventually, life collapsed into something other than what we really wanted. Things start, things end. We can’t keep dancing forever, but we do what we can.
Writing this is my way of saving us from oblivion. Maybe you have a different way. I try to accumulate. A drift of words to store against the years. To save me and maybe save us all.
And now there’s just this to say: love is still the answer when you don’t know the question. That and kisses.