[Wrote story. Probably going to recycle somewhere else. Pretty long. Exercise in extreme detail. But does have a point. Maybe make a cup of tea. Maybe read something else. Whatever.]
She didn’t open her eyes once that morning, and I guess that should have been my first clue, really. As to all the other clues, well, they were here and there, big and small. But the eyes thing, that should have been the one to give it away before all the others. She didn’t open her eyes and look at me once, even when we spoke. You don’t really think about these things when you’re hungover and warm and your back is aching and there’s a girl cuddled up beside you. Your brain isn’t very receptive to clues of any nature in that state, even the ones your own body is whining out, about getting water, about getting dressed, about getting the fuck out of there. So your brain just tells your body to shut up. What does your body know? I knew what I was doing, at the time.
I met Lucy at a party that was either just getting out of hand or just getting started. It was my flatmate’s boyfriend’s bandmate’s friend’s girlfriend’s party and I felt slightly removed from proceedings. So I brought along two cousins from different sides of the family so, if anyone asked, there would be at least two people whose chain was a little longer than my own. I brought the birthday girl some French wine and she smiled and said she was going to Paris. I asked who got her that trip and she said her boyfriend. I protested that the wine was really very good, even though I don’t know that much about wine except that people stand on grapes when they make it in cartoons.
Someone brought a dog, so my cousins and I petted him for a while thinking he looked pretty scared but also thanking him that at least we weren’t the strangest strangers there. Then one of my cousins talked to some Norwegian exchange students while the other flirted with a girl who looked mostly like himself. And I remember thinking that was odd but not too odd. I drank my rum and diet coke and got steadily more drunk and steadily more lost. There was a happy blonde girl and a camp black guy I kept running into and every time I wanted to pass them they made me tell a joke. It’s hard to come up with stuff like that on the spot, I think, so I gave them the old “woolly jumper” the first time. They groaned but let me through and rolled their eyes playfully. The second time I was ready for them and gave them the “cycle path”, which is a great, great and underrated joke that you should really hear.
Anyway, I must have gone upstairs because I was sitting beside Lucy on the top step and talking to her about War and Peace. I’ve never read it but it’s my ma’s favourite book and Lucy said she was enjoying it and just over three quarters of the way through, I think. I tried to talk to her about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino in the same start-stop-wait-give-me-a-second-to-form-a-sentence way I talked to everybody about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. But she heard me out and we joked a bit about something that I can’t remember and then her friend came over and we all joked about something, probably not the same thing.
Sometimes you talk to someone and you’re drunk and what they say doesn’t really dig a decent enough trench in your memory, so it gets supplanted and overrun by simpler things. Like gestures or expressions or that kind of thing. A hand on your arm, a glance from one of your eyes to the other, a smiling squint like they recognise you. Nothing out of the ordinary, I realise, but still welcome and attractive little sparks of human contact, you remember those. What I mean by that is that she smiled and she didn’t try to run away, and this is always an assured sign of social victory in any drunken person’s mind. My cousin was downstairs insulting the girl who looked like him until she stormed away. They repeated this little tango three times in total before they agreed to go home together. My other cousin had made friends with this one man and his hat and was watching my flatmate’s boyfriend’s bandmate dancing on a table in the living room, which was really a dance floor for everybody at this time of the night.
We were drunk and ready to leave, so I went and found Lucy and insisted on giving her my number written out in pencil on a scrap of paper. Her friend was standing beside her and I remember she looked awkward about it. I was drunk and smiling and I said something enthusiastic and intolerable about talking to her on the stairs and then I waved and walked home with my cousins and the girl who looked like my cousin and a dumb grin on my face as if I was trotting home on horseback with the cavalry and I knew everybody fancied the cavalry.
I played a videogame for a week and read The Sun Also Rises, which was boring me into a coma until it wasn’t boring me anymore and became very good. For two of the days I cringed when I thought of giving my number to the girl at the party, who I couldn’t remember the name of. I went to Cambridge and got hammered with my old school friends, which always feels to me like a reunion of family. And since I like my family I had a great time. But the shenanigans of that crowd are best left for another time. Nah, we went to a Wetherspoons and I talked to a burly, pugnacious guy who liked to smile and shake hands and start fights when he was out on the lash with all his lads. He told me about the fights and about how they would go out looking to get into a mess. I was vaguely reminded about something Chuck Palahniuk did but I didn’t want to say that to him. But anyway there were a lot of misadventures probably not worth mentioning. One of my friends and I stayed up in a cottage drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle in our sleeping bags and talking about Rwanda and the Congo and how Shooting Dogs is a brilliant film that you’ll only ever watch once and me talking shit about Jamie T and how Sheila is the best song because when you listen to the lyrics it becomes a full-blown Shakespearian tragedy. I said I’d write an essay on it. You should always listen to the lyrics.
On the hangover we went back into town and I had to force some soup into me to recover while everyone else had already had bacon buddies back in the house. One of my friends talked about going to see the ‘Flighty Japes’ in concert and ending up snorting cocaine with them and slapping the lead singer on the ass, just out of coked-up compulsion. I hoped he hadn’t ruined the band for me because I’d only just discovered them and quite enjoyed their happy gnarling and I didn’t want to think of them as coke heads, even though in hindsight it’s pretty clear from their lyrics. You should always listen to the lyrics. I got on the train and went home to London.
In Liverpool Street I got a message from a girl called Lucy, who said she had lost my number but found it again and thought she’d say hi. I smirked at the wee lie about her losing the scrap of paper because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about stuff like that. But I was happy she sent me a message and it snapped me out of my hangover. I didn’t know her surname, so I just put her in my phone as ‘Lucy Tolstoy’. I thought I could just about remember what she looked like and what we talked about. I asked her how War and Peace was going and over the course of a week she said that progress had been made. She’d finished the book and asked would I like to borrow it. I took her up on it and she agreed to a drink as part of the contract. I thought I was doing pretty well for myself, so I smiled.
On Saturday she called and said she had two questions to ask me. Firstly, did I have a bicycle? And secondly, did I like jungle music? I didn’t want to be too negative sounding over the phone so I said I didn’t have a bicycle but I thought jungle music was OK. I didn’t really know what she meant by jungle music because I have never been very good at telling genres apart. I get the same thing with colours. I’m not colour blind I just don’t know which colours mix together to get the other colours. It’s the best way I can describe it. I can’t remember the names of different hues or shades. If you put crimson and maroon in front of me and ask me which is which, there’s precisely a fifty-fifty chance I’ll get it right. The same with music genres. It’s the best way I can describe it. I can tell country from classical but I can’t tell grime from dub step. I guess there are primary genres and secondary genres like there are primary colours and secondary colours. I can’t describe it any better than that. I didn’t really know what she meant by jungle music, so I said it was OK, and sure enough it is.
There was a place in Balham that was holding a Christmas bike fair and she wanted to know if I’d go along but if I didn’t have a bike she would understand if I wasn’t game for it. I didn’t really care about bikes but I said there was no better time to get started on a hobby, so I would go and get started by buying a bell, then work my way up to a chain, then some handlebars maybe the following year and I would have a bike in no time. She agreed. I felt pretty good about it but I was still unsure how the jungle music came into it, since I got cut off when she was telling me. We just arranged the rest by text message so the plan was a bit garbled in my mind. We didn’t need to meet for a few hours, so I played a videogame for a while where I drove a car around some dirt tracks on a tropical island and ran over a buffalo by accident. I was glad nobody was in the room when I hit the buffalo because it would have looked as though I had done it on purpose, the way I was driving so badly. When it was time to go I got dressed, realised I needed to shave, got topless again, passed the razor over my face pretty methodically, and finally got dressed again in a different jumper. I felt good about my date, even though in hindsight it seems kind of strange to bring a guy out to a bike fair on a first date.
The Christmas bike fair was held in a bowls club that wasn’t really a bowls club. It was a bar. It was a pretty nice bar in fairness but it was full of bikes and people and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I met Lucy outside and kissed her on the cheek and looked at her and then I could remember what she looked like. She had straw coloured hair and she looked familiar to me. I don’t mean familiar because of the party I mean familiar from before the party. But I didn’t really think about it, I just went in with her and got us some pints of Ubu and Trumans ale and walked around the fair with her. It was weird seeing bikes in a pub that weren’t a hundred years old and nailed to the walls. In Ireland they love nailing bikes to things. But in the bowls club they were professional bikes and they were on display everywhere and there were salespeople pitching specialised parts. One of the specialist vendors had laid out all his shiny chromatic bicycle bits on trays with little cocktail sticks sticking up with labels on, like they do with meat in a butcher. He wore an apron to complete the illusion and I said to Lucy that I liked this very much. In another room there was a couple of exercise bikes set up side by side next to a big clock like the one off Countdown and people would race against each other on them, red versus blue. We joked about that and moved around the place.
She was interested in the bikes in the manner of an enthusiast who isn’t too enthusiastic. She had bicycle posters, she said, and when I asked her how many bikes she had she held up three fingers and smiled. She was looking at the sales stands while she held her fingers up. I thought maybe she was too engrossed in the bike stuff to look up at me while we spoke but she never really came across as much of a geek as the rest of the people in the place. I don’t know if she was trying to act cool or if she genuinely was cool, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt because that’s what you do when you really like somebody who likes bicycles. I looked around at the others in the room. There were a couple of dogs trotting around on leads and a lot of checked shirts, and it got to the point where I couldn’t tell hipster from authentic cyclists, since they appear almost exactly the same.
Upstairs there was a stand for people supporting the Herne Hill velodrome. She said she’d been there a few times, although not for a while, and got into a conversation with one of the fundraisers. He told us that the land the velodrome was on had been in the same hands since Shakespearian times and I tried to be funny about the whole thing by saying to Lucy that by supporting the velodrome she’d really be supporting Shakespeare, which is always a worthy cause. It wasn’t very funny but the fundraising man smiled anyway, and I guess that was nice of him to do. Maybe I should have just told the “cycle path” joke. But I didn’t think of that at the time, which is a pity because it honestly is a good joke.
Lucy bought a plastic water bottle from the velodrome people with their logo on the side. She promised a little girl at another stand that she would put some of their gold handlebar tape on her Christmas list. We sat down and drank a little and joked about whatever, and she twisted the water bottle around in her hand without really noticing that she was doing that.
After a while she opened her bag to put the water bottle in and admitted she hadn’t brought the copy of War and Peace with her to lend to me, and she would tell me why: because it was shit. I said that a couple hundred years worth of everybody else disagreed with her but okay. She said it wasn’t that it was shit, not really, but the ending was shit. She told me about the ending and about some bits in the middle in a really cloudy and vague way. She told me that lots of really interesting things happen. People fall in love, they join the army, they go off to war, they die. Things like that, she said, and all this she told me without giving any names or major plot twists away, which I appreciated even though it was clear to me that I really wasn’t going to read it anymore, since she had said it was shit. And what’s a couple hundred years of everybody else to the word of a girl with straw-coloured hair and a pint of ale? It’s not much, is the answer.
She said that she was reading Brave New World now, actually had just finished it, and didn’t really know what to think. I leapt on that because it’s one of my favourites and I talked all about Mustapha Mond and John the ‘savage’ and that dialogue they have at the end, where it’s really hard to disagree with Mond because he’s so logical and firm about lack of suffering being the most important thing. Even though you know something is wrong with the place and John is onto something, even if he can’t get the words right when he’s talking to Mond. Like he just can’t put his finger on precisely what’s wrong. He has to resort to Shakespeare too. I remembered an interview with Huxley I watched on the internet and wanted to tell her about something he said in it. But I forgot the words, so I tried to tell her about his essay on patriotism and nationalism instead. I said his essays were really good, I had read some in university. I tried to quote him but the thing he said was so long and finely crafted. You can’t really whip something like that out at any old bike fair, it’s really difficult. So I stumbled and bastardised his wording. What I really wanted to say was this, here, I looked it up:
“The personified entity [he means the ‘nation’] is a being, not only great and noble, but also insanely proud, vain and touchy; fiercely rapacious; a braggart; bound by no considerations of right and wrong… As a loyal nationalist or party-man, one can enjoy the luxury of behaving badly with a good conscience.”
Instead I said something else, about how nationalists and patriots and soldiers don’t need to feel bad when really they should. She said it was very interesting and I decided to think she was only half-lying when she said that. Anyway the subject changed.
She had a call and a couple of text messages while we were talking. She was finding out what the plan was for that night and said we were going to go meet some of her friends in North London. I didn’t know much of London. She said she lived in Camberwell. I said I didn’t know where that was, even if I recognised the name. She was shocked and made fun of me for not knowing London. I pleaded green, I had only been here a year. She’d lived here her whole life. Of course I didn’t know where Camberwell was.
The kiosks selling bike things were packing up their stuff and getting ready to leave, and Lucy decided to buy three more water bottles from the stall behind us for different people in her family as presents. She said that on Christmas morning they all go for a jog together as a tradition, which I observed was certifiably insane. She said they do it on Boxing Day too, all apart from the littlest sister who stays behind to make pancakes. I said the little sister got all the brains and told her about big family feast in our house and how we don’t get out of bed ‘til noon.
A guy from one of the closing stands came over and asked Lucy if she wanted to buy a china mug she’d been looking at earlier in the evening, with a cartoon head of some renowned British cyclist on it. She ummed about that for a minute and said she really wanted it. But of course she’d just bought every plastic water bottle in the building, so she was not too keen. I piped up and got it for her because I was sitting there between them and I felt like a dick, just sitting there holding an empty pint glass while she considered a polystyrene box and bit her lip. She really wanted it, so I got it for her and felt like even more of a dick, smiling at the salesman like I thought I could buy affection, like I could buy a mug and that’d be it, problem solved, she likes you. I mean, I didn’t really think that at the time, I only thought it afterwards. At the time I figured I was just being polite and cheesy.
She smiled at me and put the mug away in her bag, then smoothed down her dress. I figured out why she seemed familiar. She looked a lot like a girl I used to see in university. An animal behaviourist and a vegetarian. A hippy, in the nicest way. A girl who I never started seeing in earnest and always disappointed. I regretted a lot of things to do with that girl. Lucy had the same eyes and smile and lips. She looked a lot like her. Of course, I wasn’t going to mention that. Jesus. Nobody wants to think that. That they remind someone they like of a former lover. That kind of thing is likely to worry you, to crash around inside your skull. It’d just be kind of rude. Kind of unwelcome.
She looked at her phone and said we’d better go soon if we wanted to meet her friends. She stuffed all the cycling paraphernalia into her bag with some trouble and said this explained why she was always late to things. She said her bike was nearby. I told her I should get a backy the whole way to North London, or maybe sit on the handlebars. Did she have a basket? I could sit in that easy enough. She smiled and said she hoped I didn’t mind getting the tube to Highbury & Islington and waiting for her there. I didn’t mind, so long as I could find a bar near the station. She said I might see her friend waiting for her too, a Spanish girl called Mariana with curly short dark hair and glasses. I said a lot of Spanish girls fit that description but I’ll keep a look out. We left the bowls club and I walked her to her bike where I said I’d see her soon. Then I wandered up to get the tube across town.
I felt maybe she was a little eccentric or something, or a bit distracted. Everything about the date was super casual, like we were already friends or lovers who didn’t really need to do anything fancy or over-the-top. Like she already knew me and knew I wouldn’t mind taking things really easy. I was sorry I had nothing to read on the tube, except safety signs and adverts about watches and gadgets and other stuff I didn’t need. When I got to the other side I saw three girls that fitted Mariana’s description, so I put my head down and walked to the bar next to the station because I didn’t have the stones to harass, potentially three, random women. Lucy came and we locked up her bike and we walked to KFC. She asked if they had any vegetarian food. I said it’s called ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’. Not ‘Kentucky Fried Avacado’. She said she ate meat maybe only once a week. I asked the usual question: ethics or taste? An ethics thing, she said, meat is fucking delicious. I got a chicken burger and she just got some chips and I thought we were going to sit down but she hurried us out and said we needed to get drink and get to her friend’s flat.
We arrived there with some beers and rum, smelling of our fast food. She introduced me to ‘everyone’ and introduced ‘everyone’ to me, then sat down on the floor around their coffee table and started chatting to her friend. I put on my extrovert face and introduced myself properly to ‘everyone’, minesweeping the room for names and relationships. I discovered a Dan, a Sarah, a Matt and a Mariana, who had found her own way. I uncovered the link between Dan and Sarah, which was romantic, and the tie between Mariana and Lucy, which was knotted with exchange trips to Spain and other holidays. Dan said something like he used to work with Lucy, and they all knew each other from university somewhere along the way. That’s where the friendships were based really, in university. He sat down after shaking my hand and twisted his moustache, which was thick and impressive over a beardy coat, like a British army officer’s circa Zulu Dawn. I guess he had just kept it on after Movember had passed.
Lucy sat on the floor and ate chips while Dan and Matt argued over what music to play. Matt was a tall guy with a posh voice and thin eyes. He smiled a lot. They put on Jamrock by Damien Marley in the end and then afterwards came the indeterminate dubstep or grime or drum and bass. I couldn’t tell. Tarantula by Pendulum came on, I recognised that one and realised I was instinctively bobbing my head and knee to the rhythm along with everyone else, so I was in good company even if I didn’t really know the genres. I chatted to Sarah a bit. She was a tall girl with an uptown accent, straight outta Suffolk, who worked in PR and laughed heartedly at my shitty jokes about London and all its dreadful stressy quirks. Dan put his hand on her knee to get her attention and I turned to speak to Mariana, who was pretty quiet but looked happy enough. She said she was from a town north of Madrid and I asked her if it was near Leon. She looked surprised and asked how did I know Leon, most people here didn’t. I knew Leon because I had played as the once-powerful Kingdom of Leon in a medieval strategy game for the PC, but obviously I didn’t tell her that. I just said I knew it from a map in history class at school. She looked impressed at my memory in that really brilliant expressive European way, but she really shouldn’t have been. Maps, I said, I really love maps. It’s true though, I do.
Lucy asked when Dan and Mariana were going to have a Spanish conversation and Dan started speaking Spanish with lots of hablos and soys and a really good accent but pulling lots of modest faces and adopting all the expressiveness and hand gestures. I couldn’t stop smiling. All the lispy Spanish words came rolling out from under that British bushel of a moustache. He was really on form and everyone was impressed. I asked donde esta el bathroomo and was told in the hall a la directia and we all had a giggle. By the toilet I saw Italo Calvino and a bunch of Penguin classics I didn’t recognise the names of and I considered complimenting Dan and Sarah’s reading material when I came back into the room. I never did that though. After I came back I just glanced at their bookcase and saw hundreds more all neatly rowed up. Almost every book had an orange or black spine and in parts they alternated, like the skin on an American milk snake. I felt like I was in really strong company and I wanted to talk to them about Italo Calvino but it wasn’t really the proper time, since Dan was making jokes and poking fun at Lucy for putting me on the tube while she pedalled off. He said he had something to tell her, and listen, he was only saying this because he was her friend, but she was fucking weird. We laughed and he turned to me to nod and say that she really was. I told him I already knew, I had just been taken to a bike fair and I don’t even have a bike. And this is just the start, he said.
Lucy put on a green jumper with a load of sheep patterned on it and everyone said what a cool jumper it was, and fair enough it was. The conversation turned back to genres or something else and I looked over to Lucy and tried to catch her eye because I was feeling pretty merry and she looked nice to me in the silly jumper and I wanted to smile her way but she was still picking away at chips. I waited to see if she’d look up. I waited for as long as is appropriate, maybe four seconds, then gave up and thought not much of it and went back to listening in on the jokes. And, although all the people were strangers, everything about the scene was familiar and I knew what had to be said and what had to be done and I felt I had been inserted into the group more-or-less successfully, like a memory card in a digital camera, slotted into place.
A taxi came and we got our coats and jackets and I slugged the last of my tinny of Tyskie into me and followed. The neighbour was seeing somebody out of the flats at the same time and they left their door open. So Dan gestured with a little twitch of the head toward the flat and Sarah took a few clownish sidesteps to their door and peeped in nosily for our amusement but probably also out of a long-held curiosity too. She said their flat was very nice and we all passed the neighbour on the way out the door and got in our taxi. Matt said he’d get in the front so the seat beside me was open for Lucy. She had to go and get cash out or something, so we waited for her to come back and the others chatted shit and joked about her slowing us down when she came back.
I don’t remember much about the journey to the club. I didn’t think I was blinded, but I guess I really was.
At the club, we passed a bouncer who searched the girls’ bags and gave us all a little feel-up while being super polite about it, asking how we were doing and how our night was going. He was the most cheerful bouncer. He gave us all a smile and wished us a good night’s drinking as we each passed. I followed the rest down some stairs and I think Lucy waited a little for me, or I waited for Lucy because we got our hands stamped at the same time. One of us wouldn’t let the other pay but I don’t rightly remember who. The little blue mark on my hand was all inky and bleary, it didn’t really give me any clue as to what the place was called. It was small and it was full to just the right amount of people. A full dancefloor and a bar with two or three possible points of entry. Bassy music reverberated through all the bodies like gunfire and we were all getting our bearings. I decided to volunteer for cloakroom detail and took everybody’s jackets and Lucy’s bag up to the girl in a tiny booth. After that, we drank.
I don’t remember much. I talked to Mariana a lot. I joked about Spain and tried to speak Spanish, but didn’t really try, I was just being really poor at it on purpose, the way you do when you’re clowning around. I talked to Dan a little and said he was really funny. I think I said it about five times. You know how it is. He was polite about it. I talked to Matt and he said he knew the DJ, or the guy who was helping the DJ, or someone on the stage. It wasn’t really a stage, more a section of the floor devoted to the act. I told him I wasn’t really good at telling the difference between dubstep tracks but I liked the sound of them anyway. The same way you might like the sound of a particular instrument, like the trumpet, but you can’t tell what notes they’re playing. I mean, I said something like this, I didn’t describe it as good as all that. He got it, though, he got what I was saying. I didn’t really get to talk to Lucy much in the club.
We were at the bar’s side and somebody had ordered a lot of tequila’s, which isn’t my best shot and by the groans that went up around the place it didn’t seem like anybody else’s best shot either. I said to Mariana that this must have been child’s play to her. She shrugged a Spanish shrug. We did another tequila. Then later we did another tequila. I felt sort of sick after that one, and there was all fire and illness in me, so I waited until everything settled and I joked about something unworthy just to prove I was over the shock of the drink, then waited patiently, then smiled and went to the bathroom. I thought I might be sick, so I went into the cubicle. But I felt fine after a few seconds and just shook my head and laughed at myself. I came out and everyone was dancing, so I danced with them. Then it was my turn to get some drinks for folks, so I went to the bar.
Then something nice happened. Lucy came over to say hello. I said I liked her friends, they were good characters. They were very funny. She said I was doing very well and I smiled. She leant towards me and I asked if she was going to kiss me and she just nodded, so we kissed. I took the drinks back to the others and Lucy gave me a hand. Then we danced some more and Lucy kissed me again. She kissed a little like the girl she reminded me of. We danced a lot more and she disappeared. I danced with Mariana and Matt for a long time and it looked like Dan and Sarah had gone home. Lucy reappeared and we all got our coats and stumbled upstairs and went off into the street. We wandered around for a bit by the roadside. We waited for Lucy to get some water from a 24-hour garage. She came out with water that was flavoured like flowers, like elderberries or something. We flagged down a black taxi and decided to drop Matt off wherever the hell he lived. We all had one sip of the flower-water and decided it was a bad, bad purchase. Lucy asked if she could roll the window down. She wasn’t feeling very well. Orange light passed over her face with every streetlamp and she didn’t move. She just sat there with her head turned, breathing in the stale, cold London wind, her eyes closed and her hands folded over her coat. A strip of hair was caught over her face. She didn’t move it. She looked like she felt bad. That made my heart lurch, seeing her like that. Or it could just have been the taxi. In any case, I think I was quiet on the drive back home.
We dropped Matt off somewhere and he passed a few heavy coins in through the window to help pay. I told him to take them back and he refused. I told him to take them back or I’d just drop them out the window and he refused again, so I dropped one of the pound coins to make an example. But he just threw his arms up and walked away, all wobbly and indignant. We carried on to Lucy’s house and paid the rest. When we got in Mariana got settled into a sleeping bag and a mattress in the lounge. The house was pretty small and the mattress took up most of the floor. Lucy and I went upstairs to her room, where we kissed again. In bed she told me to bite her, so I bit her. I’m not really fussed about that kind of thing but she told me to do it, so I bit her and she bit back and we went to sleep. There was a faint feeling of second chance about the whole scenario and I smiled and felt myself vindicated.
The sensation of a dry mouth was the first thing I became aware of, when I was waking up the next day. Then the feeling of nearby warmth and spindly stray hairs on my cheek. I was pretty happy, except for all the usual physical and mental ailments that follow from tequila. I got up and went to get water and crept past a slumbering Mariana to the kitchen to fill up a pint glass in view of a pretty, sun-shiny garden outside. I can’t really remember the exact layout of the garden through the window but I remember thinking it was small and pleasant. I can’t remember anything else. I think I was still pretty blind, even then.
When I went back into Lucy I lay with her for a while. I liked her. She had a small room, a single bed, a bookshelf on either side, a desk squashed into place in one corner. I saw bicycle posters on her wall. There were a lot of potted plants. About six, or maybe seven. Aloe vera and spider plants and stuff like that. She had a tiny watering can beside them. I liked her and I liked her room and I thought I’d noticed all the interesting stuff so far, so I lay with her another while.
We exhausted the water and I went to get more. When I came back this time I noticed a baseball cap hanging on a rack on the back of her door. It was army green and had two knives, or sort of machetes, and a crown on it. I smiled and asked her when she was in the Royal Marines. She didn’t take up the joke, just said really plainly that it wasn’t the marines, it was the Ghurkas. I said ‘Heh, Gherkins’ because I was hungover-to-fuck and the words just sounded the same and I was running on all the stupid left in my brain and nothing else. She said it was her boyfriend’s cap, but he was dead now. Then she splayed her pale arm from under the bed covers and pointed across the room to a photograph framed in a cardboard stand and said, ‘that’s him’. I couldn’t really see him. I need glasses to see things far away but I never wore them and I wasn’t going to wear them in front of her so I just squinted limply. I asked her what happened, if she didn’t mind telling. She said something like: ‘seventeen bullets and electric fire’. I didn’t try to think too hard about that, so I said ‘sorry’. She said it was okay, it wasn’t exactly my fault. I said I know but that’s the thing you’re supposed to say. She said he was from Portadown in Northern Ireland. I said that was ten miles from my hometown, Lurgan. She said she knew. He’d studied in England. It happened two years ago. I asked what his name was and she told me it was Ethan.
I didn’t know what else to do. I was sad. I kissed her shoulder.
She fell asleep, or I think she fell asleep. But I wasn’t going to. I looked at her bookshelf and straightaway my eyes plucked out three books about Afghanistan without really looking for them. Your mind kind of does that when you become aware of something. I tried to look at the photo again but it was too far away and I could only see a bleary thumbnail of a uniform.
Portadown. Every time I spoke, I must have reminded her of him.
I lay on my back and looked up. My brain came to life, sober and angry, and stormed towards me as if from exile. ‘Seventeen bullets and electric fire’. I didn’t understand the ‘electric fire’ part, I thought maybe it was a military term or something. But the words rang there in my head anyway.
When I was really young and lived at home I would hear the echoes of gunshots from across the fields outside my house. At first I thought it was the British army men but my Dad laughed and told me it was only farmers shooting at birds. I remember I was afraid of the gunshots because I thought someday the farmers will shoot up at a bird and miss, and the bullet will have to fall back down again. What is to stop the bullet falling on my head? My dad said the bullets disintegrate in the air and I didn’t exactly understand the precise physical dynamics of a shotgun shell, like I do now with all my videogame-powered hindsight, so I didn’t believe him. I knew that one day the echo of a gunshot would be one of the last things I hear. I still have nightmares about being shot in the head and, after a long echo, dying of a vicious ringing in my brain.
That’s what the words were like to me. ‘Seventeen bullets and electric fire’. They echoed. They rang.
I mean, I didn’t think a lot of this at the time, it’s just what I now realise it felt like. It didn’t make any sense. At the time I was mostly thinking about how annoyed Ethan made me. Why would you go from Portadown to a warzone? Did he think he missed out? By only catching the tail end of all the horrid shit that happened at home, did he think he’d missed his chance? Why the fuck did he leave her behind, to go and shoot at people? What right did he have to go do that? Did he think he was being brave? Why didn’t he just stay fucking put in England, and be with her?
I stayed annoyed with him for a little while. More miffed than enraged, really. And then I was a bit sad again. I tried to sigh quietly and didn’t really do a good job of it and I hoped she hadn’t heard it. I had the horrible feeling of being traumatised by proxy. So I sat up for a while and then looked at her and she seemed peaceful enough, so I felt better and lay down again. She woke up and we both lay around, not really doing anything just complaining about how sick we felt and noticing how many marks we’d given each other, which seemed like a really teenage thing to do but it was fun anyway. I moaned that I’d have to go to work hungover in the evening and she said she had a Portuguese lesson to go to at noon. It was getting pretty close to that time. I asked her if she had been learning Portuguese long and she said this was going to be her first lesson. She wanted to go to Brazil. I noticed she had a cloth shoe organiser on her bedroom door that had ‘El Salvador’ written on it and I asked her about all the other places in Central and South America she’d been to and told her I was surprised she’d not been kidnapped but don’t worry it’ll probably happen in Brazil, since she wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro, so she wouldn’t miss out on anything. She bet me a tenner she wouldn’t get kidnapped and murdered and I observed the illogicality of gambling on her own death, since she wouldn’t be around to pay me when I inevitably won, but anyway I took the wager and we shook hands on it.
I said in the meantime I could teach her some Irish and maybe that would get her by. She asked how I knew Irish and she seemed surprised. I said I knew some of it because I was a big dirty Catholic, when really I should have said I went to a Catholic school and they taught Irish there but I didn’t give a tupenny shite for all that ancient guff. I said my name should have been a clue, I mean, it is a very Irish name and in Northern Ireland you don’t exactly have a name like that if you’re Protestant. You’d have a more English name. She said my name didn’t strike her as overly Irish and I shrugged and said it really was. She said she thought Lurgan was a Protestant town and I said it was more of a fifty-fifty split. Portadown is definitely protestant, she said, and yeah she was right about that, it mostly was. Ah, I said, the good old ‘murder triangle’. That’s what it’s called, the area around my hometown and I always tell people that when I’m talking about home because, I don’t know, it’s an interesting and strange sort of thing to say and I guess it makes you seem like you’re from an interesting part of the world, right on Britain’s doorstep, when actually it’s kind of boring. She asked why it was called the murder triangle and I said, you know, on account of all the murders. I think it had the highest murder rate in the UK for a good while but not everybody was killed, it was mostly political, only some types of people were killed.
‘Like who?’ she asked.
‘Um. Policemen,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘and soldiers.’
‘Yeah. But I didn’t really want to say.’
She said that was okay, it didn’t really matter. She remembered now, there were two soldiers killed by the IRA during a pizza delivery to their barracks. I told her about the man who was supposed to have had a hand in it and how he lived in a Lurgan council estate that was a sure-fire Republican stronghold and basically a no-go area for the police and I told her how he always got arrested any time something like that happened but they could never pin anything on him. I told her my dad owned a shop down there and the police only ever came down in plain-clothes because if they came into the estate in uniform it would likely cause trouble or a riot or something worse. I plucked a story out of the dozens I have about my dad’s shop, about a bomb scare. And how the Post Office inside always gets robbed and pretty much the only reason for that is because of the word ‘Royal’ in ‘Royal Mail’, which I guess makes a legitimate target for the IRA. They never take money out of the shop’s tills because that would be like hitting their own people. She listened to the story and I watched her for her reaction and I’d already noticed that she wasn’t really opening her eyes at all. I put it down to the brightness of the room and her hangover. I mean, there are plenty of days when I don’t want to open my eyes. Plenty of mornings I’d like to be blind.
It was eleven. I told her she should probably get up or she wouldn’t learn any Portuguese. First though, I told her to bunk the class. She was hungover and she wasn’t going to be receptive to mad new words. I was certain of this. She declined. I guess because it was her first class she felt it was important, or maybe because she planned to go back to visit South America she knew she really had to learn. They spoke Spanish in El Salvador. Either way, she said she was determined not to miss it, except she didn’t look like she was moving very far when I told her to get up. She just told me to get up first.
I got dressed and went downstairs and found Mariana awake and she said she didn’t feel too badly, which I said was down to a tolerance of a certain Spanish substance formerly known as Tequila but hereby referred to as the Bad Stuff. Lucy came down and repeated the exchange, then walked me to the door, so I kissed her and left. I thought about saying something about meeting again soon but Mariana was in earshot and I didn’t really want to arrange something or talk nice when somebody could overhear. So I just walked on out.
I got to a main road and saw a Nandos and instantly recognised the place. I fucking knew where Camberwell was. I let the buses pass by and just walked home, partly because I was liking the cold fresh air and sunny day, but mostly because I didn’t want to get sick and vomit on the top deck of some heaving red monster. It made me uneasy to think of travelling by any other means, so I put my hands in my pockets and used my feet for an hour. I did the usual thinky thing on the dander home. I felt pride and anxiety and embarrassment and amusement all around the same time, or at least in such quick succession that it was hard to notice falling from one feeling into the other. My face must have looked like an actor doing a warm-up exercise, expressing every possible emotion one after the other. Oh no, I thought, the dreaded fit of ambivalence. A bit melodramatic, I know, but anyway that’s what I thought.
I got home and slept and went to work and sent Lucy a message asking her how she felt and asked did she learn any strange new words. She replied the next day saying yeah, she had felt pretty rough but she had learnt a bunch of new words but listen, she wasn’t looking for anything more right now for a whole bunch of reasons but she had a really good time and it was good to meet me. I sent a message saying, ha ha, no worries, take care of yourself, and signed it with an X. Then I got drunk on rum and watched a few Scottish sketch shows on TV and chatted to my housemates and got a little more drunk before dinner and played a videogame and in the videogame I killed a bunch of animals for their hide, then shot some pirates and burned their drug fields with a flamethrower while some tune by Skrillex was playing over the top, then went hang gliding and knifed some more pirates and protested to the lead character’s girlfriend that no, all this violence wasn’t really having an effect on me I was just doing whatever, blah blah blah and all the rest of that shite. I wasn’t really enjoying myself, I just did it all because the game told me to. At this point I was pretty drunk and it was late and I felt beaten down and tired so I climbed a radio tower in the game and jumped off the top and killed myself and that gave me a bit of limp distraction for a few seconds before I turned the console off. I listened to some music and went to bed and had a nightmare about being shot, except in this nightmare I was two different people and we were both shot, one after the other. Usually I wake up after being shot but this time my mind just transferred itself into the person next to me in the dream, and he was shot as well. Then I died and woke up and drank from the bottle of water by my bed that I keep ready as a good cure for this sort of thing, and then I went back to sleep.
I still remember the first dream I ever had about being shot. I was lying in bed in some rundown hotel when Daniel Day Lewis stormed into the room and blasted me in the head with a revolver. The sensation inside your head upon being shot in a dream is unique, I think. Everything goes black and there’s a surge of fear, but it’s fear without any real association with anything. Just isolated, indeterminate terror. And it feels a lot like a shockwave, or an electrocution, or an intensely uncomfortable dubstep except that it’s completely silent, taking hold of your brain and shaking it, first vigorously then relaxing at a very fast rate. And when everything is dark and still again, and the feeling is that maybe you have finally passed away, that’s when you wake up.
When I woke up the next morning I didn’t feel too bad. My hangover was mild and I didn’t have work to go to and I felt like maybe I wasn’t too bothered about the Lucy Tolstoy thing anymore, so I smiled and got in the shower and rinsed myself mellow and bumbled down the stairs, mostly in a shrugging mood, so that if anyone asked me anything I resolved to shrug at them and happily enough just get on with my day off.
Then I sat down at my computer in the kitchen and checked my emails and felt miserable. I started thinking about Ethan the dead soldier and, now that I think of it, that was probably a stupid thing to dwell on. I tried to think about it but it wasn’t making any sense to me. I remembered the words ‘seventeen bullets and electric fire’ and it didn’t make any sense at all. An electric fire just sounded like it was a fire started by an electrical appliance; it wasn’t a military term, at least not one that any first-person-shooter ever taught me. It started to annoy me and I wanted to know the real story and anyway I was curious so I did the dumb thing and searched on the internet for ‘portadown ghurka died afghanistan’. I saw the name ‘Ethan’ and a list of stories that looked like they were all about the same thing, so I chose the second one down and it gave me a long story in the Belfast Telegraph about the soldier.
He had been killed by one of the Afghan national army soldiers the British had been training to fight against the Taliban. He was just about to turn 27. I scrolled down and it said that he had died from gunfire and the blast of a rocket propelled grenade. So, rocket fire. Not ‘electric fire’. I hadn’t heard her right. She had been turned away from me, to face the photograph on her desk. The word had been lost in pillows. It made more sense now. I was still curious so I read some more and kept scrolling down. I read about how he learned to speak Nepali with an Ulster accent and I read about his humanitarian work in El Salvador and I read about the funeral and I read his family’s dedication and I saw his picture and he fucking looks like me, he fucking looks like me, he fucking looks like me.
And it was like a gunshot from a hunter’s shotgun, reverberating down the years, hanging far off in the sky for decades, silent and ready, had finally come down. Down through the cold sunshine, down through the cumulus, through the roof of my house in Streatham, through my housemate’s keyboard, through the ceiling above me and through the crust of my skull.
I got up and walked around a bit and drank from my bottle of water. I didn’t feel very good about it. I got out my phone and thought about doing something. Then I was sad for the guy, then annoyed with Lucy. I wanted to send her an angry message. What the fuck was she thinking? Did she pull me just because I reminded her of him, and that’s it? Did she have any idea how fucking weird it feels to be made a doppelganger? I sat down and started typing a message on my phone. I looked at the photograph again. El Salvador. The humanitarian soldier. Someone who behaves badly with the benefit of a good conscience. But then, that wasn’t for me to say. He still looked like me.
I deleted the draft message and put my phone away because I knew it would be a dick thing to be angry with somebody whose boyfriend has died. I didn’t really know how she felt about anything. I wasn’t going to understand it. I knew I couldn’t. So I just sat there for a while instead.
Later on I told the story to my friend on the phone, the same guy I had stayed up drinking whiskey with, in the cottage in Cambridge. But I laughed while I told it and spun it all the funny ways so that when he heard it he wouldn’t think I was too upset about it. He still said it was really odd of her though and I would say something like: ‘Yeah, just as well I’m not seeing her again. Ha ha.’ Even so, I was sorry after I said that.
I thought a lot of stupid things, like maybe sending her a nice box for putting her memories of him in, so that she could ‘move on’ and all that psych-jazz. I wouldn’t put my name to it, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I thought about maybe sending her a book that would put into words how I felt better than I could put it, then signing it ‘A parting gift’ or some sad shite like that. But I never did any of those things, partly because they wouldn’t do the feelings I was having any justice, but mostly because they were creepy and insane things to do. I put it out of my mind as best I could and went to work and boiled the kettle for a week until it was Friday evening and I fell into a bar in Croydon with some good friends, where there was plenty of karaoke to be had. I know, most people wouldn’t have put Croydon down as a karaoke kind of place.
My friend Marius was bouncing in the seat next to me, he was so excited to sing some songs and he was smiling pretty much the whole time. He’s a hard guy to describe. He gives a lot of impassioned speeches and he loves as many little things as he loathes and he has a huge database-like brain for general knowledge and pop culture stuff. I once described him in university as a human RSS feed and he was very, very chuffed with the comparison. He’s probably one of my best friends. His girlfriend sat on my other side and intermittently got up to chat with the old blokes at the bar. Our friend Scottish Katy was there and she was laughing a lot and flipping through the folder of songs, making fun of all the terrible things. They had two songs by Jet but neither was the song everybody knows. They had Blue by Eiffel 65, which was the first single I ever bought and, I don’t know, I suppose that probably says a lot about me. Katy saw a song by All Saints and put it down on a slip of paper. Marius was filling out slip after slip, he was really going for it, karaoke was like a cult to him and he was convinced of its restorative and cathartic powers and I wasn’t going to question him on this point because I would have done anything to be restored and cathartisised, or whatever.
Marius was called up and sang Tom Jones and the lady MC told all the ladies in the bar to calm down, it wasn’t the real Tom Jones. Katy got up and sang her All Saints, which has a spoken word section about a jilted girl asking why her lover left and it sounded quiet and sad when she did it with her Scottish accent. After two beers I was just about ready to sing. They called me up and I sang National Express by the Divine Comedy, which the karaoke organising lady said she had never even heard before but, ha, was it a funny old tune. We drank more beers and gin until the whole pub was pitching in with songs and singing along to their favourites and there was an old lady called Brenda who got up and sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow. When she sang it was like we weren’t sitting in a wood-panelled residential bar in Croydon anymore. It was like we were at the opera and all the people from her neighbourhood had suited up and slipped into a grand theatre and were behaving themselves for Brenda, and staying quiet just to hear her sing. Although obviously, it wasn’t. There was still a lot of chat in the bar. The only time you didn’t hear the chatter was when you were up singing yourself because you were too busy thinking of the words. Anyway, Brenda had a really beautiful voice and when I was getting tipsy and started belting out the Irish tunes I could see her sitting by the speakers at the front clapping and singing along with my Irish Rover, which is a good song to sing because you don’t really need to know how to sing you can just punk it up, no worries. She passed our table a few times in the night and we had laughs with her and Marius wanted her and me to duet Fairytale of New York, since it was the season and all. He tried to convince me of the perfection of this plan and said: ‘Think about it. Brenda is an amazing singer. And you’re a drunken Irishman!’ The parallels with Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan were ultra-evident, he said. I said if it came to it I would do it. But really I didn’t want to ask her in case she thought I was making fun of her. In the end I found myself on my feet doing the duet with Katy instead and Marius had to come up to me and tug on my jumper and tell me I was singing Kirsty’s verses as well as Shane’s and for Christ’s sake stop, those were Katy’s parts, you dick. I recognised this and said ‘whoops’ and then we did the rest of the song and I felt the pub singing along and got hugged from behind by a woman who was swaying and drunk and absolutely loving life. I was pretty happy with the whole situation and I was laughing more of the words than I was failing to sing.
Brenda said she would sing Fields of Athenry with me. But I didn’t really want to sing that song because it was too nationalistic. It just reminds me of politics. So we didn’t sing anything together after all. I sang Whiskey in a Jar.
Then we had the last drinks then danced a bit, then I was on the bus with Katy, who fell asleep, then we were at Coldharbour Lane and I woke her up and hurried us off and I was at the roadside putting Katy in a taxi and handing her a clutch of notes, then I said something like, ‘sorry for abandoning you but there’s someone who lives around here, I have to go and see someone who lives around here and I know that’s a shit thing to say but.’ Then I closed the taxi door and crossed the road and I was outside Lucy’s house ringing her doorbell once and stepping back one step and waiting.
I heard the window above me open and saw her head poke out, so I gave a stupid, embarrassed smile and said ‘I know this is strange’ and at 2am it really was. She disappeared and another girl who must have been her housemate peeped out to see what was going on. They both answered the door together and I remember thinking how good that was, that they had each other’s backs, you never know what weirdos might turn up on your doorstep.
Lucy was wearing her sheep-patterned jumper. I gave a stupid half-laugh and gestured to it before finally remembering why I was there. I asked if I could talk to her and I knew it was stupid but I wouldn’t stick around long. She said I should have called ahead but I said I didn’t really know I was going to be here, I was just passing on the bus and next thing, yeah. I think she saw that I was harmless and a pretty sorry sight at this point because she said I could come in and her housemate said she’d leave us alone now. So we sat on the stairs and I must have repeated ‘I know it’s weird’ in that dumb drunk voice at least a few times because I’m always so desperate to make sure people know I have a modicum of self-awareness and I guess when you’re hammered it really comes out. I said I wasn’t bothered about the one-night-standishness of it all, that wasn’t it. But I wanted to know, did she pull me just because I reminded her of him, of her old fella? She looked at me like… I don’t remember how she looked at me, but I remember it wasn’t annoyed. It was kindly, or something. She said, ‘No.’ I told her about seeing his picture and I said he looked like me. She smiled and shook her head. I said he fucking does, in a pretty pathetic sad voice but still I must have sounded pretty insistent. She went upstairs for a moment and came back down with the photograph in the frame from the desk in her bedroom. She sat down beside me and handed it to me. The frame wasn’t cardboard after all, it was wooden and smooth and sturdy. I saw it up close now. I couldn’t make him out too well but he didn’t look like me in that picture, he was in fatigues and holding his gun and looking at the ground with a grin on his face almost as wide as the big camo paint streaks he had on. A real braggart. But that wasn’t really for me to say, so I didn’t.
I said I had thought he looked like me, same eyebrows and big nose, and I stroked down my nose lazily when I said it. She said ‘No, not really. Maybe you sound like him a bit but that’s all.’ She smiled again. I think she understood. I laughed a bit. I said I thought she had wanted me because I was a doppelganger. She said no. I asked that it was just a thing then? Just a shag? And I remember thinking that I never use that word, it’s stupid, but I guess it was the only one flippant and silly and drunk enough to fit. She said, yeah, that’s all it was.
I felt a wave of something, like sorry relief. I breathed out and I must have stank of beer but I think I had to sigh real bad. That’s all I wanted to do. A big sigh like the pneumatic hiss of a bus by the roadside, letting out all the bad. So that’s what I did and afterwards I felt better. I smiled. I must have sat there for a minute because she said, ‘Okay, you need to go now.’ I got up and said, ‘Yeah, of course’ and I must have apologised, I mean I hope I did, because this was the last time I saw her and everything. She said it was okay, she was just impressed that I still remembered where her house was. I didn’t say ‘Yeah, it turns out I know London pretty well’ or anything memorable like that. I just said that an estate agent from around these parts had once screwed me over, which was true. Memory’s a funny thing like that. She let me out and I said bye and I walked away and I don’t think I looked back at her but I don’t mind. I’d rather that be my last regret about Lucy than the whole dead soldier thing. She really was beautiful.
I don’t remember how I got home. Maybe the bus. Maybe I walked it again. But I remember waking up at home and expecting to feel like a dickhead. Like I had done something super embarrassing. I remember wondering why I hadn’t been attacked by remorse about anything yet. I lay there with my eyes closed for a long while, and it was for no reason other than my hangover was really bad. After a time I got up and got in the shower and washed myself in the hot water and smiled and almost cried and everything was okay.
Anyway, this long piece of tarmac walks into a bar and orders a drink. A big guy walks up to the bar and bumps into him, spilling the tarmac’s pint. The tarmac growls and storms out. The big guy says to the barman, ‘what’s his problem?’ gesturing after the long streak of black tarmac. The barman says, ‘you’re lucky he didn’t kill you, pal. That guy’s a cycle path.’
Well, I thought it was funny anyway.