I hadn't been dreaming.
This wasn't a soap opera.
Would that it were.
Would that it were.
It was almost one in the morning. I looked across at the driver, at Karl with a 'K', and everything came back to me. The argument. The falling-out. The fight.
I felt bad.
‘It’s my birthday next week,’ said Karl.
'Really?' I said. ‘Happy birthday for then then,’ I said. 'Sorry about your nose.'
‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘It’s stopped bleeding. And I’ve been medicating the pain away.’
I started, imagining he’d drunk the rest of the whisky, but then I spotted the pungent odour of fading marijuana. ‘Is that dope?’ I said.
‘Now he moves,’ said Karl, smiling. ‘Ow,’ he said, stroking his nose gently, yet ostentatiously. Then he reached into the pocket of his door and handed me a ready-rolled joint and a lighter. I wondered briefly whether smoking a joint was entirely wise, then I lit the joint and took a couple of extravagant tokes.
The dope hit my brain like a sock full of sleeping bees. I would never tire of that feeling.
'You have to admit though,’ I said, softly, ‘that was all pretty weird.’
He didn’t reply.
‘You're not still harbouring delusions, are you?’ I said.
He sighed. ‘Let’s not,’ he said.
I laughed. I smoked some more of the joint and laughed some more. ‘But it’s insane!’ I cried, tears of stoned emotion springing to my eyes. ‘It’s wholly solipsistic! I don’t mean to be cruel,’ I said, and I swear I didn’t, ‘but you really need to see someone. You know? You need professional help.’
He smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said. Then he laughed. ‘That would be a hell of a twist,' he said, 'if you got me committed.' He laughed some more. ‘Then you could move into my flat and take over my life.’
I’d stopped laughing. ‘I can't believe you're still banging on about this. I hoped for a minute I'd dreamt the whole thing.’ I sighed. I smoked. ‘Listen,' I said, softly. 'How do you think you created me?’
‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘Let’s talk about something else if you want to talk.’
‘No, no, come on,’ I insisted. ‘What do you think happened?’
He blew air into his cheeks and held it there for a long time. ‘Are you absolutely sure you want to hear this?’ he asked. He looked at me for a moment, then looked away.
‘I asked you, didn’t I?' I pulled a petulant face. ‘I can handle it,’ I added. I had another drag. ‘Do tell,’ I said.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Well. In August or September of 2007, I had a dream in which I said to a friend of mine. “Why don’t you write a guide to finding love for ugly men?” And in the dream, my friend, slightly affronted at the implication, said to me, “Why don’t you do it?” And then I woke up. And I thought, yes, why don’t I?
‘So I started writing, and I wrote about myself, but I wasn't quite ugly enough, so I gave myself eczema scars, and elbows in my head, and an extra 80 pounds of flab, and I called myself Stan Cattermole, whose real name was Charlie Weaver.’
He paused and glanced at me. I returned his gaze passively, inwardly marvelling at the gift for convolution which was running amok in the decaying bread-basket of his brain. ‘Please go on,’ I said. ‘You have my full attention. This is absolutely fascinating.’
‘Well, that’s it really. One thing led to another and the rest you know only too well. I suppose I should be proud that somebody I wrote took on such… life. I am proud. I’m proud of you, Stan.' He nodded at me, slightly sadly. 'You know, the first time I knew something was wrong was when I saw your appearance on GMTV. That’s when I knew the rules had changed.’
My mouth was open. The joint was dead in my hand. ‘But I am real,’ I said. ‘I was on GMTV.’
'I know you were,' he said. ‘I saw you with my own eyes.’
‘So I do exist then.’ I held out my hands as if to accept an offering. ‘We can both accept that at least?’ He nodded. ‘And I've existed for 32 years,' I said. ‘We can accept that too.’
He pulled a face. 'Hmm,' he said. 'That's where I have to disagree with you.'
'But – why? I've got a past,’ I said. ‘I had a childhood.’
‘Not really,’ he replied. ‘I wrote that for you. That was me. Those were scenes from my childhood, mostly. Some of my brother’s, some of my dad’s.’
I became exasperated again. ‘Will you stop saying that?’ I cried. ‘I am not a replicant!’
He laughed and looked at me expectantly. ‘Go on!’ he said, eyes wide. ‘Say it!’
‘I am a human being!’ I lisped.
Karl laughed wildly. ‘Oh, I do like your sense of humour!’ he gushed. ‘And your John Merrick impersonation is so, so, so very much better than mine. That was nice of me.’
I sighed. I was feeling bad. Epic unease had shifted, had melted into existential despair. It was the psychic tectonics. I realised that part of me was beginning to accept that what Karl was saying might have some validity, and to even begin to believe such a thing is to begin to negate one’s own existence. It felt very odd. I imagined that if I could see a photograph of myself, my image would be fading, like Marty McFly. I imagined Keith’s picture of me, the Hockney one, dissolving before my very eyes...
I was slipping away.
But then again, maybe this is how he wanted me to feel.
Maybe this Karl character was a super-high-functioning sociopath who had been stalking me for some time and had decided to use the information he had gleaned to destroy me. For some reason. A sick game maybe. You know how these sociopaths are.
It seemed implausible. But then the alternative was even more outlandish. Yet again, I sighed.
‘Listen,’ I said.
‘Tell me,’ he replied. ‘Tell me everything.’
‘I feel really sad,’ I said.
He looked over at me and said, ‘I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry. I don’t want to make you feel bad. I never wanted that.’
‘I don’t know how you know what you know,’ I said, my voice like the voice of a hungry mouse. ‘And frankly, until you can explain the blood on your face, I don’t even want to think about it anymore. It’s giving me the hives.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Karl. ‘I’m sure that if I were in your position, I’d feel exactly the same.’
Then we lapsed into a slightly tense silence. A minute passed. I’d be arriving at my grandmother’s house soon, and there would be no big eyes, and no big teeth, and everything would be alright.
‘It’s almost 18 months, now, isn’t it?’
The sentence broke my reverie like a fist in a bowl of soup.
‘What is?’ I asked.
‘18 months without sex,’ he said. ‘I think it was the second week in February, 2009, that you last had any kind of physical sexual congress with another human being, and if memory serves me well, any pleasure that there might have been in the coupling was pretty much overwhelmed by a veritable freak show of sadness.’
‘This isn’t possible,’ I muttered.
‘You know how you’ve always harboured homosexual fantasies?’ he said.
‘What?’ I snapped. ‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Come, come,’ he said. ‘I know you have. I put them there.’
Suddenly, like a greased guillotine, the penny dropped. ‘Oh my God, you’re going to rape me, aren’t you?’
He looked at me and rolled his eyes dramatically. ‘Yeah, right. Christ. Don’t flatter yourself, fat boy. Listen, the thing is, right, I don’t know how this happened. I’m almost as baffled as you are, frankly, but the fact is you’re here, and you’re apparently real. We’ve established that. So, I was thinking, as neither of us has had sex in a very long time, and as we’ve both, on very rare occasions, nursed a perfectly natural curiosity to know what it might be like to suck another man’s cock.... Well, it seems to me, like an opportunity too good to miss. If I may speak frankly.’ He glanced at me to gauge my reaction. My reaction was one of absolute horror, and profound disappointment.
‘Is that what all this has been about?’ I cried. ‘Sex?’
‘Oh, come on,’ he chided. ‘Don’t be so uptight. We are the same person. It’d be masturbation, basically. And oral sex. Give me that joint. Please.’
I lit it, took a drag and passed it. I laughed. ‘You really are insane,’ I told him. ‘And this is an incredibly elaborate ploy to get me into bed.’
Karl laughed too. ‘Oh, come on,’ he said. ‘Get your cock out!’
‘No!’ I howled. ‘I’m not gay!’
‘It’s not gay if fifty per cent of us is fictional, you bender.’ He handed the joint back, unsmiling.
Slowly, the mild hysteria, slightly charged with sexual tension, drifted into the past. I wiped my eyes and sniffed.
‘Please stop being strange,’ I said.
‘Oh, alright,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘That’s OK,’ I said. ‘Forget about it. Let’s put it all behind us though, eh? What do you say? How does a fresh start sound?’
He nodded, smiling. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘A fresh start sounds like just what the doctor ordered.’
We passed a sign for Sunderland. 10 miles. I'd be home in fifteen minutes. I began to relax again. Soon this bizarre encounter would be a thing of the past.
‘Don’t worry about your gran,’ he said.
My face tortoised with fresh confusion. This seemed like a very odd thing to say. ‘Why did you say that?’ I asked.
‘Well, because I know you’re worried about her, and I also know, there’s no need to be.’
I sighed. There is nothing more wearing than being told – over and over again – that you don’t exist, and nothing more distressing than thinking it might be true. ‘How do you know?’ I asked, knowing for a fact I wasn’t going to like the answer.
‘Well, firstly,’ he said, ‘she doesn’t exist.’
'Oh, do stop banging on. No one exists as far as you're concerned. I don't exist. My grandmother doesn't exist. Next you'll be saying Father Christmas doesn't exist!'
'Now you're just being silly,' he said, deadpan. 'We'd be lost without a sanity clause.' Then he smiled his smug smile again. 'May I continue?' he asked.
I shrugged. He continued.
‘Secondly,’ he said, ‘I wrote that phonecall.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ I demanded.
‘That conversation you had with your poor old non-existent grandmother,’ he clarified. ‘I wrote it. I wrote it,’ he repeated, ‘and you experienced it.’
‘Alright then,’ I said, angrily. ‘What did she say?’ This is where I had him. Everything else he knew about me – the Hob Nobs, the boil on my back, even my real name – any sociopath worth his salt could have found out. But the conversation I'd had with my grandmother on Thursday evening, I hadn't breathed to another human being. He couldn’t know. I baited him with my eyes.
‘She said,’ he said, '"I'm goin into general on Tuesdah mornin to get another couple of blood tests and a X-ray." She said, "They just want to have another look at me bowel. Al be aalreet though. There’s knee need to come up if ya busy man son like like like."' He even did the voice.
I was desperate. 'What about NotKeith?' I said.
He shook his head. 'Sorry,' he said. 'NotKeith is my friend Steve. We were students in Liverpool together. He's the one who did all of Keith's pictures. He's the one who lives in Burnley. He's got a wife and three kids though. Unlike Keith. And ginger hair.'
I started to cry. It seemed to come from nowhere, but obviously it had been building up for a few hours now.
‘Are you crying?’ said Karl. ‘Please don’t cry. I’m sorry. Listen, if it’s any consolation, remember, she’s not actually going into hospital. She hasn’t even got diverticulitis!’ he chirruped. ‘Isn’t that good?’
I sniffed and dried my eyes.
‘That’s my mum,’ he continued.
‘What is?’ I asked, groggily.
‘It’s my mum who has the diverticulitis,’ he said. ‘And the arthritis. Poor old sow.’
I shook my head and let out a little whimper.
‘Look,’ said Karl. ‘I know I freaked out a bit earlier, when you assaulted me.' His hand rose to his face instinctively, protectively. 'But I really think this could actually be a pretty great thing, you know? We can actually be mates. I don't care that you don't exist. It's not like I'm prejudiced. Some of my best friends don't exist. What do you reckon? Do you want to be mates?'
‘Really?’ Relief sounded in my voice.
‘Of course!’ he cried. ‘What did you think, that I was going to have you whacked or something?’ He laughed.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’
Then, quite suddenly, a strange question took shape in my head and discombobulated me thoroughly. ‘So...’ I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it. ‘So who wrote the book I wrote?’
Karl scowled. ‘Oh God, don’t even mention the book.'
'What do you mean?' I asked.
'Well, to answer your question, I guess we both wrote it,' he said. 'But more importantly, have you fucking seen the back cover of the paperback?’
I had. Of course I'd seen it, and I'd been really quite upset by it. Remembering, my mouth shrank to the size of a penny, or a farthing. I shook my head angrily and tit-rolled my eyes. ‘London fucking Lite,’ I said, recalling the single blurb on the back cover. ‘London fucking Lite!’ I repeated, angrier still. ‘The least respected publication since... I don't know what,' I said, feebly. 'Not only was it free...'
‘...but it doesn’t even fucking exist any more, I know!’ Karl seemed to enjoy finishing my sentence. Irony hovered like a child telling its first joke on his stupid face. I ignored him and focused on my frustration, my gobsmackoverdose frustration over that awful back cover which I swore I’d not blog about because it simply wouldn’t be professional. But what could I do? My back was against the wall.
‘They had,' I continued, 'at their disposal they had that fantastic quote by Dave Gorman, the comedian, everybody's favourite Dave Gorman, “Fave book of the year”, he said.’ I knew it by heart. ‘“Ace... I laughed lots and cried twice.”’ I fumed and twitched. I felt sick. I was beside myself. 'I poured my heart and soul into that book!' I screamed. 'And for what? Blocky yellow letters and the most embarrassing blurb this side of an accolade from Nick Griffin. And don't even get me started on Dave Gorman's tears.' I was filling up again. 'Wasted,' I said. 'And they didn't even consult me. That's what gets me.'
'Me neither,' said Karl. ‘Unbelieveable,' he added. 'You'd think under the circumstances, they might have at least asked one of us. You know?' His face shrugged its shoulders. 'Ahhh, but don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘It’ll all come out in the wash, eh? For better or for worse. Eh? At least you've got a book out! You should be proud! And everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover.'
I forced a smile to make him feel that his efforts to cheer me up were not entirely in vain. He seemed to buy it.
'Yeah,' he said. 'You'll see. Everything's going to be just dandy. Can I have that joint back, please?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said, relighting it and passing it on.
He took a big long toke and shivered as the smoke hit his brain. It was strong stuff. I wondered where he'd got it. ‘I’m surprised you can smoke that stuff and still be safe to drive,’ I said.
He shook his head and smirked as if I'd said something ludicrous. ‘Eh?' he said. 'I can’t drive.'
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘I failed my test when I was 17. Haven’t driven since. I still blame that evil Tory fucker that made me cry at the wheel if you want to know the truth, but... I'm not the type to hold a grudge.’
‘But,’ I said, interrupting slowly, bewildered, like a shy, slightly unsure little boy, about to point out the nakedness of the emperor for the first time. ‘You’re driving.' I smiled, not sure where this was headed. 'Look!’
He looked down at the steering wheel beneath his hands and his eyes popped apart and stemmed like epileptic thistles. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he cried. ‘How come I’m driving?’
I watched him, at first amused. Then not so much. He seemed instantaneously to have no idea what he was doing, whilst simultaneously hurtling along the A1 at over 90 miles an hour. He accelerated inadvertently, shot forward and came within a whisper of rear-ending the car in front. To avoid the collision he jerked the steering wheel to the right, narrowly missing – again, by a matter of inches – another car which was passing in the fast lane.
By this time my whole body was tensed to popping. Could this really be happening? I decided it couldn’t. But then life was odd.
‘I have to stop this fucking car!’ Karl screamed. He turned his body to look at the road behind him and in so doing managed to accelerate further and jerk the steering wheel further to the right. The driver's side of the car made contact with the barrier alongside the central reservation. There was a noise like the door being torn into pieces and then we were OK, back on the road, still speeding. I yelled out for him to hit the brake but he seemed to have his foot jammed on the accelerator. We shot across the motorway, left into the middle lane, straight through the slow lane and onto the hard shoulder. I grabbed the steering wheel and managed to keep us on the hard shoulder. The terrible din of panicked beeping and screeching of other motorists was overwhelming.
I reached for the hand brake.
There was a bridge crossing the motorway up ahead. I was screaming at him to hit the brake.
I pressed the release button on the hand brake and began to slowly lift it. The car began to slow. I held my breath. Karl stopped panicking and took his foot off the accelerator. The car slowed further. I relaxed.
Then Karl grabbed the hand brake, and yanked it.
The last thing I saw, or at least the last thing of which I was aware, was the nose of the car making contact with the concrete stanchion of the bridge and a light, a very bright light in which for the most fleeting fraction of a second I saw my own face reflected, screaming and terrified, and in that fleeting fraction of a second, my life flashed before my eyes, and I realised that Karl was right.
I don't exist.
Sunday, 30 May 2010
I hadn't been dreaming.
Posted by La Bête at 08:00