I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan, and the words ‘An ugly man needs good clothes’ were uttered or scribbled down by him on some documentary or album sleeve many years ago. I don’t rightly remember where I heard or saw them but they stuck with me. It was when I was studying for my A’ Levels that they hit me. And they changed me. Until then I had dressed like a slob. I didn’t care what my clothes looked like. I knew I looked bad as a whole and so assumed – stupidly – that the clothes I wore could have no impact on that. But I trusted Leonard Cohen. I trusted Leonard Cohen and so I began to dress well. I was still an ugly man of course. A very ugly man. Uglier than Leonard Cohen could ever even dream of being, with his saturnine Hebrew roguishness. But, the difference was, I had very good clothes, and it made me feel a great deal better. And that showed.
So when I walked into the not especially charming and not especially friendly bar of the Hufflers Arms at precisely 8pm – an hour after some of my classmates had promised to arrive – I was dressed well. But I was sweating like a pig.
I was scared.
I made for the bar and ordered myself a pint of Guinness. It seemed to take hours to settle between draughts. When it finally arrived, I glugged at it like a bad kisser.
The pub was busy. As I sipped at the second half of my drink and glanced around, I recognised no one. I knew I’d have to wander through to the other rooms. Scenarios began to assail me. What would the first person to recognise me shout out? Which of the hideous, heart-wrenching barbs that passed for nicknames would I be forced to relive first?
I turned around to see the smiling face of the first woman to whom I ever offered my unreciprocable love.
To my credit, I didn’t stutter. Not much anyway. A slight cha-cha-cha on her surname, but nothing to tango to.
And then she leant forward to hug me and something leapt inside me. It was my dinner – the wrap I’d scoffed in Charing Cross before getting the train over here. But I managed to hold it down as she pecked me on the cheek and said, ‘Wow!’ Her hand still on my arm, she said, ‘you look good, man. How are you?’
Bless her. Bless you, Angela Cha-cha-charlton, for that small but much appreciated kindness.
I looked at her, felt for a moment that I was holding back tears, then pulled myself together. ‘I’m fine,’ I told her. ‘I’m OK. You know?’ I added. ‘I’m alright.’ I wanted to say, ‘I survived. I survived the five years of torture that was my comprehensive education.’ But instead I just smiled inanely, glad I was there. ‘How are you?’ I managed. ‘You look…’ I stopped. How did she look, this woman whose face had filled dozens of socks with my plump ungainly seed? She looked… actually she looked old. Tired. Sad. ‘You look fantastic!’ I cried.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘I look like my grandmother is how I look. I’m alright though. It’s good to see you.’
‘Can I get you a drink?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Please. That’d be great.’
I bought her a drink. A rum and coke. Classy. While I was being served, her phone made a noise so she picked it up and put it to her ear. ‘Oh, hi,’ she said. ‘Yeah, I’m here… No, not yet, I’ve just arrived, but you’ll never guess who’s here… No, no, don’t be silly. No… No, why don’t I just tell you and we can maybe not waste our lives…’ Then she said my name. No nicknames. Just my name. Again it was appreciated. ‘Yeah!’ Whoever she was talking to was, I sensed, not so kind. ‘Yeah, I’m standing next to him actually… OK, alright, see you in a sec.’
She had said it. The person on the phone to Angela, whoever it was, had said it. She shrieked it after the mention of my name. ‘Bag of Elbows?!’ she’d shrieked. I had a lot of nicknames at school, but that – along with its diminutives – was without doubt my most popular. Actually, maybe it’s time for a quick list. It’ll be good for me. Purgative. So, names I had regularly tossed in my face during my five years of secondary school education included:
• Bag of Elbows
• Edgar Allan Elbow
• Elbow Allan Poe
• Elliot Elbow
• Greasy greasy spot spot (thanks to Blackadder Goes Forth for that one)
• Ten Bellies
• Twenty Bellies
• Elephant Man
That’s not exhaustive of course. There was also a long list of names derived from the fact that the first syllable of my surname rhymes with ‘fat’, and by extension, ‘prat’, and ‘twat’, but I’d like to retain a little anonymity if you don’t mind. Anyway, you get the idea. And a great deal of the abuse was elbow-related. The elbow theme all kicked off in the first week of secondary school. I was 11 years old and Gary Turnbull said to his friend Simon Wharton that I, sitting at an adjacent desk, had ‘a face like a bag of elbows’. Despite the fact that it made my first year absolutely unbearable, I can still see that it was quite a perceptive and well-crafted observation. There’s truth in it. I do have a face like a bag of elbows.
My face is angular in unexpected places. I have a bold and erratic bone structure with prominent, uneven cheekbones and a large, off-centre chin. Plus a horribly virulent and for a long time untreated case of eczema left patches of dark and gnarled skin all over the place, but mostly my face, like – very much like – wrestlers’ elbows. So, naturally, my nickname took root. That’s what I became. To a certain extent, and certainly in the minds of people who know me from school, that’s what I am.
‘You’ll never guess who that was,’ said Angela, sipping at her drink.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Probably not.’
‘Ah.’ Yes, I remembered Karen Walsh. ‘Oh, joy,’ I said.
Angela laughed. ‘Don’t worry, everyone’s grown up a bit since school. Even Karen.’
‘Just a bit?’ I try to pull a sophisticated face but I think I just look mean. ‘So you two are still friends then?’
‘I suppose so, yeah. But I hadn’t seen her for years. Not since the first reunion.’
‘This isn’t the first reunion then?’
‘No, no, not by a long chalk. The first was probably five years ago. Now they meet up every few months…’
Angela then spent five or ten minutes filling me in on her life since school. It went like this: bad GCSE results followed by two years at McDonald’s where she worked her way up to assistant manager; met, fell in love and moved in with a Pole before Poles were all the rage; fell pregnant but lost the baby when Pole punched her in the kidneys; left Pole, quit job, paid for her and her younger sister to travel around the world for six months; moved to north London and retrained as a primary school teacher; got a job in a school in Hackney. Which is what she still does and despite the frustrations and the often enormous workload, she loves it.
‘We should go and find the others,’ she said. My stomach turned. I was enjoying talking to her, listening to her. I didn’t want to find the others at all. ‘Let me just get another drink,’ she said, knocking back the rest of her rum. ‘Do you want another Guinness?’
And so it began. Suddenly a bunch of faces reared up at me from the past. Here's a quick profile of the ones I spoke to most this evening. (Incidentally, I decided it was only fair to grant them the same amount of privacy I’m granting myself, so names have been swapped about and changed ever so slightly, just to stop weirdoes doing weirdo stuff on Facebook or Friends Reunited or – God forbid – in real life.) So…
Name: Neil Stores
School nickname: Storesy
School achievement: violence – Storesy was the hardest boy in school, until the arrival of Dave ‘Magma’ Wilson in the third year (even then though, Storesy was still quite hard, and ever more willing to prove it).
Adult employment: Security guard at the Orchards Shopping Centre, Dartford.
Physical arc: Excellent. Clearly in near-perfect physical shape, although severely disfigured with tiny scars, presumably from blade play, and very bad tattoos, including one on his left eyelid, which I am assured means he has spent some time in prison. Probably for ABH. I’m guessing. I didn’t ask.
Psychological arc: Poor. He’s still an absolute, unmitigated moron. He had a copy of Nuts in his coat pocket. He has the letters c, u, n and t amateurishly inked onto the knuckles of his left hand. I’d love to interview him for a job.
Name: Deborah Mills
School nickname: Deb, Debs, Millsy
School achievement: perfection. Managed to irritate almost everybody with whom she came into contact by being so damn perfect. Well spoken, beautifully turned out, very bright, achingly pretty – always gave the impression that she was in entirely the wrong school. Other girls hated her because they felt that she felt that she was better than them (she clearly was better than them). Boys hated her because she wouldn’t let them kiss her unnaturally red lips or put their grubby fingers up her skirt. I always quite liked her though. It was like she was as much of an outcast as me but for entirely the opposite reasons. I was very surprised to see her in the pub this evening. Of all the people that were there, she was the least expected.
Adult employment: Publishing person at Random House in London. Currently on leave to look after dying father which is why she was in Dartford, and maybe why she was quite so caustic.
Physical arc: Very, very good. She’s a very good-looking woman. Men stare at her with their mouths open. That’s it.
Psychological arc: Good. She seems to have come to terms with the fact that people resent her beauty and composure and has developed a hard and rather abrasive edge. She was fine to me, but slightly nasty to a few other people. Just struck me as slightly mean.
Name: Darren McLaren
School nickname: Mac, Daz
School achievements: spitting (could always produce a ball of phlegm – so loudly and viscously that it would always make me feel physically sick – and spit it over enormous distances with pinpoint precision); violence.
Adult employment: Business Manager at NatWest bank, Dartford.
Physical arc: Poor. 15 years have not been kind to Mac and have transformed someone who used to have quite a pleasant face and a sprightly form into someone who has a pot belly and a combover.
Psychological arc: Moderate. Mac no longer seems to be under the impression that spitting phlegm at people’s backs is the height of sophisticated repartee, which is a good thing. But sadly, nothing seems to have taken its place. Knows a lot about finance. Has two kids, whom he claims to think the world of, yet he didn’t really have much to say about them. Dull as ditchwater. In a ditch in Dartford.
Name: Karen Walsh
School nickname: Kaz, Walshy
School achievement: bully
Adult employment: Social Worker, Lewisham.
Physical arc: Good. She looks OK, I must admit.
Psychological arc: Remarkable. More on Walshy later.
Name: Claudette Ramsay
School nickname: Claude
School achievement: Most willing to suck boys’ penises.
Adult employment: Secretary in an insurance company, Maidstone.
Physical arc: Swollen. Has much larger breasts than before. I suspect surgery.
Psychological arc: Good. She isn’t enormously bright but then she never was. Enjoys Arthurian legend for some reason and spends a lot of time online playing World of Warcraft, which is how she met her current boyfriend. He’s like, level 60 paladin or something. Still quite saucy it seems.
Name: Angela Charlton
School nickname: Ange, Charlie
School achievement: Had an affair with English teacher in fifth year.
Adult employment: Primary school teacher, Hackney.
Physical arc: Good. Looks a bit tired and pale, and slightly underweight. Still very sexy though. I would. Any day of the week. Monday, Friday, Sunday… any day.
Psychological arc: Excellent. Seems thoroughly sorted. Above it all. Cool.
So, there I was standing round one end of one bar in one Dartford pub in fluid clusters and groups with all the people mentioned above. It was an odd mix. And I had odd mixed feelings about everyone there. Some of them I liked immediately. For some of them I still held grudges. And that was odd too, because I had no idea really who any of them were.
The main difference between now and then however, is that now I’m no longer crippled by shyness. When I look at Storesy, Mac and Bucky for example, and I find out what they’re up to these days and what they’ve done with their lives, I no longer feel ashamed; I no longer feel the shame they used to make me feel, or rather, the shame I used to allow them to make me feel. They may be better looking than me – although Mac’s not a million miles away – but now the things I can do that they can’t, mean so much more than my fugly face.
So what are those things, I am forced to ask myself. Well, I am fairly intelligent, by most yardsticks. I have a quick mind and a quick tongue. I have opinions that I can quite eloquently articulate, without too much trouble. I can be funny. I have empathy and instinctively attempt to put myself in the shoes of the person I’m talking to. Or anyone else for that matter. And that makes me – for the most part – feel a certain closeness, something approaching understanding, and with that comes tolerance and compassion. I’m not saying I am the Son of God, but there’s definitely something saintly going on behind this nasty mask.
Plus, I dress well.
So. There’s lots of drinking going on and there is a good atmosphere. I feel pleased with myself. I’m glad I came. I speak to everybody there over the first couple of hours. I find out what they’re doing and explain what it is I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. None of us – except Alex Mussett and Angela Charlton – have done anything particularly exciting. At least Alex and Ange have both travelled for more than a couple of weeks in a hotel here and there. Storesy I discover, has never once set foot outside the UK. He doesn’t seem particularly perturbed by this fact.
‘But there’s so much going on,’ I pointed out. ‘There are like, about 200 countries in the world, and like, nearly seven billion people out there. Don’t you want to maybe, experience a bit of it?’
He scowled at me, and half-laughed, but not in a mean way. ‘You don’t get it do you the thing is I really couldn’t give a fuck about all that you know what I mean? I’m happy where I am and with what I’ve got. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the rest of the world if I’m honest.’ His face had softened. He was genuinely trying to explain. I felt quite touched, probably in a rather patronising way.
I held my hands up in resignation. ‘That’s fine. I’m happy you’re happy. I just can’t help thinking, you know….’
‘Yeah, you always thought too much,’ he interrupted. ‘That was your problem, mate.’
‘Well, what the fuck else was I supposed to do?’ I realised I’d kind of snapped this. And I swore. And I don’t often swear. I’m not a big fan of foul language. ‘There was nothing else for me to do. I was hardly the most popular kid in school.’ I snapped that too. I smiled at him, deliberately. I could feel myself getting emotional. That wasn’t really supposed to happen. Calm. Calm. ‘What do you want to drink, Storesy? Let me buy you a drink.’
Later on, I’m standing talking with Ange, Deb and Claudette. I’m drunk. They’re drunk. We’re all drunk. The conversation has turned to physical appearance. Not mine, but it’s only a matter of time.
Claude is lavishing praise on gorgeous old Millsy. And rightly so. Then she extends her praise to Ange, congratulating them on managing to keep their figures.
I interrupt. ‘Oh, God, Claude. Don’t you know it’s seriously bad form to start talking about weight in the presence of someone who’s morbidly obese?’
‘You’re not morbidly obese,’ chirp Claude and Deb.
‘You are definitely obese though,’ says Ange.
Claude gasps and cries, ‘Don’t be mean.’ Deb says something similar as Ange gives a ‘What did I say?’ face.
‘It’s OK,’ I say. ‘As it happens, she’s right.’ Ange gives me a playful punch on the arm. I scrunch my face up at her. Not really sure how that goes across.
The conversation remains cosmetic and Claude is talking about overdoing the sunbed she frequents maybe three times a week. ‘I think I’m addicted to it,’ she says. ‘It’s just about the only time I ever leave the house, outside of work. I even do it in the summer.’
The mention of the word summer sets off a ripple of moans about the weather and how bad the summer was, before Deb mentions that she thinks she’s completely phobic when it comes to sunbeds, and indeed the sun, and is obsessed by skin cancer. She is very pale, but she has long reddish hair so she looks stunningly attractive rather than sickly. I look sickly. ‘I went to a tanning salon once,’ I say, ‘but I came out in a rash. I think I was allergic.’ They laugh. ‘It’s far from funny,’ I insist. ‘But it’s good that it gets a laugh I suppose. It’s good that my suffering brings a little happiness into the world that way at least.’
‘Oh, poor you,’ says Ange.
I laugh. I like Ange. ‘No, but it’s a nightmare,’ I persist. ‘It’s like there’s nothing I can do to even pretend that I’m healthy or…’
‘You could lose weight.’ Ange again. Followed by the disapproval of Claude and Deb. Claude I think is one of those people to whom the idea of saying anything remotely offensive in a social situation is anathema. She actually blushes.
I smile. ‘No, she’s absolutely right,’ I say. ‘Losing weight would be a good place to start.’
‘No, but I think it’s really good.’ This is Claude continuing to shy away from the truth. ‘You know, everyone is so vain these days, and I include myself in that, although you might not think so to look at me. I’m a complete slave to vanity and I hate it. I think it’s really good that you’re not… you know, that you haven’t give in to the pressures….’
‘What makes you think I haven’t given in to the pressures of vanity, Claude?’
She stops talking, unsure if I’m joking or not. She looks into my face, her drunken eyes focussing on my many-elbowed face. ‘No, I just mean…’ She is lost.
I put her out of her misery. ‘I know what you mean,’ I chuckle. ‘And I know there’s a complement in there somewhere desperately trying to fight its way through to the surface and I really appreciate it, honest I do. But you’re going to have to give me a blow job to make up for it.’
I’m drunk. Part of me wants to be embarrassed and apologetic for what I’ve just said but it’s getting laughs and it was only a joke for God’s sake – kind of – and the new me is a little bit more loose-lipped than the old me. And I like him.
Ange is patting Claude on the back, really quite firmly. Claude is choking, having laughed some of her wine up into her nose and brought on a coughing fit. ‘Seriously though,’ I continue. ‘It was very difficult for me at school, being the only boy in the third, fourth and fifth year that you never went down on.’
Claude recovers enough to say, between loud sniffs and mutterings of ‘oh dear’, ‘Well, you never asked, did you? Everybody else asked.’
To which Ange said, ‘You’re in there, Stan. She’s just a girl who can’t say no.’
To which Claude replied, ‘Hold your horses, Ange love, that was 15 years ago.’
‘A leopard never changes its spots,’ Deb pipes up.
‘So what, you’re the same prissy bitch you were when you were at school, are you?’ says Claude, wiping her eyes with a tissue.
‘Now this is more like it,’ Ange laughs. ‘This is what I come to these things for!’
‘If you thought I was a prissy little bitch then, then yeah, you probably still will now, but that might say more about you than it does about me,’ comes Deb’s considered, slightly prissy reply.
‘Yeah, no change there,’ Claude snaps back and they both laugh drunkenly, all talk of my oral pleasure washed away on a wave of slightly bitter nostalgia.
Speaking of which, here comes Storesy with a tray of drinks. ‘Here you go, peeps,’ he says. ‘Peeps!’ I repeat, grabbing hold of what I think is my fifth, but it could my eighth Guinness. ‘Cheers!’ I shout. Suddenly everyone is standing around in a rough circle, everyone has drinks and we’re all manically clinking each other. ‘Look in the eyes!’ says Alex, to everyone in turn. ‘The eyes!’ Cries of ‘Eyes!’ are reverberating around the pub. ‘Here’s to the past!’ I cry and there are more clinks, ‘The past!’ bouncing round a few wet mouths.
Then last orders are called, more drinks are purchased – I’m drinking vodka now, which I know is a stupid idea right then as I’m pouring it into my fat neck – and people are talking about Christmas. Storesy, Ange, Kaz and Claude reminisce about some Christmas party where Graham Uren (who had the piss taken out of him constantly for that surname) got so drunk that he believed he was possessed by the devil. Complete breakdown. Oh, the hilarity. Well, I wasn’t at that party, but I do remember that Christmas. The Christmas of 1992. I remember the last day of term particularly well, because it was the day I was tied to a goalpost on the school football field, wrists tied to the crossbar with a length of rope so that I was stretched onto my tiptoes, and my trousers pulled around my ankles; the day 30 or so fellow pupils came to look and laugh and point and I had to wait for 25 minutes before anyone had the decency to let me down.
‘It was funny though,’ says Mac.
‘No.’ I look at him, really trying to stop my eyes from tearing up. ‘No, it really wasn’t funny,’ I repeat. ‘It totally fucked me up for a long time afterwards and it really wasn’t funny.’
Mac is aware that there is a situation. He glances back and forth at other faces, grinning.
‘Have you ever been publicly humiliated, Darren, or bullied?’
He squirms and nods his head, ‘Alright, mate, I’m sorry. It was a long time ago, you know what I mean…’
I am about to continue to argue with him, when Karen steps forward and grabs my arm, gestures for me to follow her and walks me away from the group towards the door and out onto the street, where she takes hold of my wrists, looks up at my face and into my eyes and says, ‘Stan, I just wanted to say, I’m really, really sorry for the part I know I played in the torture that you must have had to put up with day in and day out for years in that… horrible fucking school. I’m honestly, genuinely so sorry.’
That was it. I burst into tears. My hands flew up to my face and I began bawling. Karen tried to put her arms around me. I resisted at first but then, forcing myself to try and stop weeping, gradually lowered my arms. Her face was wet too. She smiled at me, put her arms around my neck and squeezed me. And off I went again.
I don’t believe I’ve cried that hard since I was at school. Maybe not since the Christmas of 1992. I held onto her like I could squeeze the life out of her if I wasn’t careful and I cried like a giant ugly baby. And if you think I’m ugly in the cold light of day, you should see me with a skinful on a cold winter’s night with my mad face sobbing and snot dangling from my nose.
‘It’s alright,’ said Karen. ‘It’s OK. Everything’s OK now. Come on. Come on, let’s get your face dried up.’
And gradually my sobs subsided. Karen gave me tissues. ‘I’m really glad you came tonight. For selfish reasons I mean. It really made me confront some things that I’d been pushing to the back of my mind, you know?’
I blew my nose. ‘This is not Oprah,’ I said, and I laughed.
She laughed. She looked at me, smiled. ‘You know what?’ she said. ‘You turned out really fucking well,’ she said. And I was off again.
Back in the pub a short while later, there are more drinks, there is loud music and some dancing. But we’re being moved on. ‘But I was just getting going,’ I tell the barman. ‘Just get going,’ he replies, wittily. ‘We’re going clubbing, mate, come on!’ ‘Mac!’ It’s Mac! ‘We’re going to Air & Breathe!’ ‘Breathe!’ I yell. ‘Breathe!’
Then I really don’t remember anything else for a long, long time. Then I remember choking, trying to breathe, trying desperately to catch my breath, fighting the feeling that I was drowning. Then I remember movement, falling and tumbling. Then I remember waking up, my throat like a rusty cheese grater, parched, gasping. Then waking up again in a bed with a sweet-smelling duvet wrapped around and between my legs.
Light was filtering through half-closed curtains. I had absolutely no idea where I was. I was alone. I was naked. There was blood all the way up my legs.
No, I’m joking. There was no blood. Sorry about that.
I was awoken again at 10.15 by Ange. She knocked and popped her head round the bedroom door. ‘Wakey wakey,’ she chimed. I groaned, like I felt I ought. It seemed like a script. I pulled the duvet instinctively over my face, where I began to wipe it free of bits. ‘Where am I?’ I whimpered.
‘You’re at Ange’s house in Hackney,’ Ange replied. ‘You had a bit too much to drink and got a little bit ill on some poor girl, so Ange brought you home in a cab. Karen’s here too and you’re all about to eat breakfast together and have a good old laugh about the night before.’
‘Goooood morning!’ cried Karen, as I shuffled into the living room wearing, and most probably stretching, Ange’s dressing gown, which covered me well enough, but was rather pink and flowery, much pinker and a great deal more flowery than I felt. ‘Don’t you look good enough to eat!’ she laughed.
I sat down and was kept topped up with coffee, and orange juice, and water, lots of water and eventually some toast, while Ange and Karen enjoyed bringing me up to speed on the events of the previous night.
Apparently, we never made it to the club. Outside the pub I had an attack of best frienditis and began hugging everyone and telling them that I had learned a lot and that I considered them all very dear friends, while someone tried to organise taxis. I ended up with Claudette, falling into her a little. Ange witnessed this and shouted ‘What about that blow job, Claude?’ At which point Claude laughed and licked her lips at me and I remembered, while Ange was telling the story. I remembered the association triggered by that image. That scene in The Elephant Man when Michael Elphick and his pals are torturing Merrick and one of the whores is forced to kiss him. ‘He’s a real ladies man. Give the ladies’ man a kiss.’ I thought of that. And that scene where Merrick and the whore’s head are squashed together both a’wailing in terror...
It always makes me weep. It’s very powerful. It has bad associations.
Apparently, my blacking out and vomiting occurred at exactly the same time, so I was already on my way down when Claudette’s legs got between my puke and the car park of the pub.
I cringe into black coffee. I feel ill all over again. My head begins to spin. Bruises I’ve been reminded I have begin to throb in my arms and legs.
Ange and Karen are still very amused by the whole episode. ‘There was loads of it,’ says Karen.
‘It ran down her tights and into her boots,’ add Ange.
‘Gallons of it,’ insists Karen.
‘God,’ I moan. ‘I was aiming for Mac.’
‘I find that difficult to believe. You told Mac you loved him last night.’
Also, apparently, I professed my love to both Ange and Karen in the cab, as I was drifting in an out of consciousness. Also, by all accounts, I even made a coarse proposition or two. But I am assured my advances were ‘hilarious’ rather than, well, rather than ‘ugly’. So that’s something.
‘Something weird might happen to Claudette Ramsay as a result of you puking on her like that,’ Ange suggests.
‘What are you suggesting?’ asks Karen. ‘That she might never suck another man’s cock as long as she lives?’
‘Yeah, maybe. You never know. She might develop a phobia.’
I interrupt. ‘Ithyphallophobia.’ Pow! I know my phobias. If there’s one thing I know, I know my phobias. ‘Fear of the erect penis.’
Ange and Karen laugh, and Ange says, ‘I think we all might have a bit of that after last night.’ More laughter, more deliberately conspiratorial looks darting back and forth.
They look at me, mock-suggestively. I feel the blood rising in me.
‘You don’t remember anything about how you got from the cab, covered in your own vomit, into my bed, naked and clean, do you?’
My mouth falls open.
‘You’re hung like a horse, my lad,’ says Ange. *
I am embarrassed in a happy way. They explain that they dragged me upstairs, undressed me and sponged me down. ‘I swear you were awake,’ says Karen. ‘Go on, you can admit it now.’
I wasn’t awake. At least, not fully. I thought I was dreaming. It was really good.
I start laughing.
‘Part of him was certainly awake,’ says Ange. ‘Know what I mean?’ she adds in the voice of Marsha from Spaced.
I laugh for a while longer, slightly maniacally. Then I’m wiping my eyes. ‘Do you know, that was the best birthday I’ve had for years.’
‘Did you know it was his birthday?’
‘It was your fucking birthday?!’
Blimey. They were really annoyed. ‘How could you not say anything?’ they wanted to know.
I shrugged. ‘I dunno. It didn’t seem important.’
They decided that on the contrary, it was very important, and they made arrangements to take me out to lunch. Lunch turned into drinks turned into cocktails turned into a long day becoming very close friends with two women who in very different ways made my schooldays an absolute misery.
And it was an absolute pleasure. An unremitting joy.
And now, the next day, still not fully recovered, I must sleep.
Happy birthday to me.
Name: Stan Cattermole
School nickname: Bag of Elbows, etc, etc, etc
School achievement: ugliness. Was officially the ugliest child in the school, and it was suspected and often voiced, most probably in the entire United Kingdom. If not Europe. And so on.
Adult employment: Copywriter, freelance journalist, poet (alright, I don’t get paid for my poetry, but I still consider it an employment), Herne Hill.
Physical arc: Appalling. As a child I was fat and ugly. Now I am morbidly obese and ugly. And while my eczema’s not as bad as it used to be, the scars are much, much worse.
Psychological arc: Good. I no longer despise myself as I always have. I wouldn’t say I was happy but I’m definitely not as depressed as I have been all my life and I am, without doubt, 30 years old. It is time to make a change. My worry is that I won’t have the discipline and that in a year’s time, I will be exactly the same. If that happens, I may enter into psychological decline. But it won’t. Because I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of not giving myself the opportunities I deserve. I’ve had enough of using my ugly face as an excuse not to live. It’s time I started putting myself out there a bit.
Now, I’m no believer in Fate, so what I’m about to say, I don’t necessarily actually genuinely believe. But maybe a bit of me does. I don’t know. I mean, who knows, eh? Who knows? Well, no one knows for sure, but just maybe, when I signed up to Friends Reunited a month ago, I knew that it was the first step on the road to self-improvement. And when I received an invitation to this reunion, and it happened to coincide with my birthday, it certainly felt that it was meant to happen. It just seemed right. Because you have to face up to your past, before you can get on with your future. I don’t want to get all Jerry Springer on my own capacious ass, but I do believe that.
So. All of this. This is why I’m keeping this blog. Even more than finding love – which I accept is a long shot – I’m keeping this blog to encourage myself along this path to self-improvement and to keep a track of my various promises to myself.
To recap then, my goals are as follows – and they’re not New Year’s Resolutions. They’re New Life Resolutions, and therefore exactly the same but just slightly more pretentious:
- Lose 8 Stone in One Year
- Stop Smoking Completely and Forever on January 1st
- Do More Things and Meet More People
- Write this blog for at least one year – ideally, at least once a week, chronicling my progress with the other goals
- Find Myself a Girlfriend
Really, if I’m completely honest. Numbers One, Two, Three and Four only exist at all because of Number Five, but together they’re probably more important.
Wish me luck.
* It’s true that Ange did say those exact words to me, but I wondered whether or not to repeat them here. I realise everything I write here – you have only my word that any of it happened the way I say it did, or indeed at all. And I have said that I’m looking for a girlfriend, so claiming to have an enormous schlong could obviously be seen as a well-crafted deception in order to try and attract the kind of girl who really goes for a well-endowed monster. Well, whatever. Ultimately, you’re going to have to take my word for it.
Like a baby’s arm.