My mum wakes me up with a mug of tea. I’m in my old bed, in my old bedroom, on the 13th floor of a block of flats in the centre of Sunderland. Unlucky for some.
It's May 31st again. I don't know where the time has gone.
‘Happy Birthday, Karl,’ she says.
I sit up and take the tea from her. I thank her. Both of her hands are bandaged, on account of her arthritis. She's not sure the bandages help.
‘How are you feeling?’ she says.
I nod. ‘I still can’t remember anything,’ I say.
I know there was an accident. I know I was unhurt, pretty much. And I know nobody was with me in the car. That’s all I know. Everything else is a blur wrapped in a fog marinated in a long lost dream.
But I remember this place. I remember these windows through which I peered from the age of 13 to 19; beadily and greedily through big clunky binoculars I peered at the people of the city going about their night business, and I saw things you people wouldn’t believe. I tossed potatoes at urinating drunks on the shoulder of Parker's chip shop. I was hung from my heels by drunken friends at my own behest. And I remember all that like it was last week. Last week, however, eludes me.
‘But apart from that,’ I chirp. ‘I feel full of beans! I feel positively reborn, like today is the first day of the rest of my life. I’m 42!’ I cry. ‘It’s a magical number! It’s like, anything can happen.’
‘Silly sod,’ says my mother. Then: ‘Ooh. A thing came for you.’ She shuffles out, returning seconds later with a thing in her martyr’s hands. Is it a gift? It looks like a large card. She hands it to me.
It is a sign.
I take it in my hands...
...and all at once, it all comes flooding back.
I remember everything.
And I feel sad. And frightened. And excited.
I am alone.
'What is it?' says my mother.
'This is a keepsake from a dear old friend of mine,’ I reply. I look into my mother’s face. There is confusion. ‘Some guy I met on the road,' I explain. 'He really knew time, you know? He was like a saint, but crazy and with a big old heart. He set me straight about a few things.' I nod significantly. 'I guess you could say he pointed me in the right direction.’
‘Stupid bugger,’ says my mother. ‘Drink your tea,’ she says, ‘it’s getting cold.’ And she trundles out.
I put down the sign and get out of bed. I pick up my tea, open the window and take a deep breath. The city used to stink of brewery fumes. Now there's nothing.
It's cold. But May is almost out. As of tomorrow, clouts may be cast with alacrity. I smile, nervously. It's scary, but I look forward to casting them.
It's like, anything can happen.
Monday, 31 May 2010
My mum wakes me up with a mug of tea. I’m in my old bed, in my old bedroom, on the 13th floor of a block of flats in the centre of Sunderland. Unlucky for some.
Sunday, 30 May 2010
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.
Saturday, 29 May 2010
‘My name’s Carl,’ he said. ‘With a “K”.’
I took a big swig of whisky. It burned. Karl with a K was crossing his right hand across his chest for me to shake. I did so, hesitantly.
‘Nice to meet you, Stan,’ he said, holding on for slightly too long, not meeting my gaze but instead staring ahead at the road which suddenly seemed to be moving at a fantastic speed. Then he turned to face me, still holding my hand. ‘Or should I call you Charlie?’
For the second time today, I pulled my hand away like I was fighting free of a coked-up zombie. The steering wheel jerked to the right in the process and the car briefly mounted the central reservation.
‘Easy, tiger!’ cried Karl, grinning maniacally as he took control of the vehicle.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ I demanded, recoiling slightly, suddenly sweating. ‘Who are you? How do you know all this stuff?' I was breathing heavily. 'Am I in any danger?’
‘Oh, don’t be such a ponce,’ he snapped, but with a smile. ‘You were always a bit of a soft-arse,’ he said. ‘You wear it well though. It works in your favour.’
‘What favour? What are you talking about?’
‘Eeeeeeeeeasy,’ he said. ‘Take it easy. You’re not in any danger and there’s nothing whatsoever to be afraid of. I promise you. OK? In actual fact, I'm just beginning to see, it’s all great. It couldn't be better. I don’t know how the fuck we got here, but I think it might work out really well.’
I sighed and tried to relax again. It seemed like a mere matter of minutes ago that I was in the very hand-hammock of sensory paradise. Now I didn’t know if I was coming or going. My brain was fizzing with the seemingly impossible nature of what I was having to attempt to deal with…
…I was sitting in a strange car with a strange man who claimed to know more about me than anyone alive, and then went some way to proving it by calling me by my real name.
In all my gauche moments over the last two and a half years, my real name was one of the few things I never managed to give away, anywhere. I could conceive of no way he could know it. My brain was gyrating.
It had started raining. I glanced from the wing mirror to the windscreen. It was probably about 20 per cent covered with tiny prisms of rain-water. I immediately became considerably more tense than I already was.
I hate not being in control of a motored vehicle in which I happen to be moving at around 85 miles an hour. How long would he leave it before he switched on the wipers? What was he waiting for, for God’s sake? This was my life he was playing with. I had to bite my tongue. ‘Turn them on, man!’ I wanted to scream. When it got to 75 per cent invisibility, I would say something. Ready. Now! ‘Do you think....’
He managed to flick on the wipers at the exact moment the first syllable came out of my mouth. I made a petulant noise, and was just about to cry, petulantly, ‘So? Don’t you think you owe me an explanation?’ when from his left hand on the steering wheel he lifted a finger – as if it had a paper mouse attached to it – and he said, ‘Hold on a sec. I know a place we can sit and chat. Nothing sinister. Just some underground car park.’
He pulled off the motorway. I looked out of the window and tried to see where we were, but I couldn’t see anything. I assumed that his joke about the underground car park was indeed a poor attempt at humour and not an insidious double-bluff. I forced myself to assume that I was not in any danger. At least not physical danger. What I did feel, however, was an epic sense of profound unease.
We drove across a roundabout and along a couple of dark suburban streets. I had no idea where we were, and I didn’t much care. It was just a place.
Then we were pulling into a car park that was maybe a quarter full. He drove into a far corner, slowly, and reversed up against a wall. ‘So we can see what’s coming,’ he said.
‘What are you expecting?’ I asked.
He switched off the windscreen wipers, and then the engine. ‘I really don’t know,’ he said. ‘Something though.’
The rain was coming heavy now, blatting onto the roof of the car like a tiny riot. Karl switched on the interior light and unfastened his seat belt. It was the first time I’d got a proper look at him.
He was about 40 years old. A small dirty-looking indentation on the bridge of his nose told me that he probably wore glasses most of the time. Maybe he took them off to drive. No. He was wearing contact lenses, the moist rims of which were also illuminated by the tiny stark light between us. He had short brown hair, greying at the temples and skinny, hairless arms.
‘Awwww,’ he said, resting a girlish elbow on the steering wheel. ‘You’re not ugly at all.’
I shook my head and sighed. I felt sad. And a little scared. ‘Please tell me what’s going on,’ I said.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’ He looked away and rubbed his eyes. ‘Oh, how I’ve dreaded this day.’
‘What the fuck?’ I cried. ‘Get on with it!’ A part of me – the fantasist perhaps – was almost beginning to get excited. It was thinking about those moments in books and films about special people, gifted people. There’s always a moment where someone tells them that they’re not like other children. No. They have super powers. Was this baldy-armed man actually my fairy godfather, about to grant me my all-time number one favourite self-centred fantasy wish and make me irresistible to women? He took a deep breath.
‘You don’t exist,’ he said.
‘What do you mean? I don’t exist. Of course I exist.’
I listened to the rain. It was heavy and loud and sinister. And wait – was that a timely creak of thunder off in the distance? What the fuck was he talking about, I didn't exist?
‘I said,’ I said, ‘“Of course I exist”.’
‘I know you did,’ he said. ‘But you don’t. I’m sorry. I suppose you exist up to a point.’ He pondered, then continued. ‘But only inasmuch as you’re still just a somewhat fictionalised version of me.’
I was shaking my head, squinting my eyes, almost beginning to smile. ‘Are you a looney?’ I asked.
‘I swear I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘I made you up. I can’t believe you don’t know it, frankly. Even the fact that I’m sitting here talking to you is so idiotically unfeasible that I swear, I’m practically on the verge of believing in something. God maybe. Maybe even you.’
My God, I thought. ‘You are a looney,’ I said.
He laughed. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry it’s difficult for you to get your bulbous head around.’
'Oy!’ I snapped. ‘There’s no need to be rude.’ I hate that.
He held up his hands. ‘I apologise,’ he said. ‘I was out of line.’
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘you're wrong. It’s not difficult for me to get my head around. It’s impossible for me to get my head around, and the reason it’s impossible for me to get my head around is that it actually is IMPOSSIBLE!’ That last word I screamed a little. ‘This is not a Woody Allen play, for fuck’s sake. You know? So, please, I’m really begging you, stop fucking about and tell me the truth.’
‘The truth,’ he said. ‘OK.’ He took the whisky from me and took a swig. ‘Your real name is Charlie Weaver. It’s actually the same name I gave to the central character in an unpublished novel I wrote years ago. It’s actually a bit crap I think, as names go. A bit obvious. It doesn’t matter though, ‘cause it was a pretty crap book.’ He took a breath.
‘You have a scar on your back from a boil which first came to fruition when you were fifteen. It’s in that place on your back that you can’t quite reach, the blind spot between both sets of fingers. It started small but grew to the size of a throbbing fist. Finally it erupted in a religious studies exam. You stood up slowly, trying not to attract attention, and, holding your blazer in your right hand, you walked from the exam hall with a surprisingly believable veneer of calm. Your shirt was already clinging to your torso because of your excessive sweating, but now of course your entire back was drenched with a fairly rancid concoction of blood and pus.' He paused and winced sympathetically. 'Occasionally the boil comes back.’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘No!’ I cried again. ‘How do you know about my boil? It isn’t possible!’
‘I gave you that boil!’ he yelled back at me. ‘That's how. I borrowed it from someone I used to work with years ago. You don't actually have a boil. Because you're not actually real.’
He was doing my head in. He was doing a brilliant number on my brain, Derren Browning my mental gravy into oblivion and I had no idea how he was managing it. But I did know one thing: I knew I existed. It was time to put a stop to this with cold, hard logic.
‘OK, so,’ I began. ‘I don’t exist. Right? I’m not here.’
‘I never said you weren’t here,’ he interrupted.
‘Oh, come on!’ I cried. ‘You can’t have your cake and eat the fucker! Either I exist or I don’t.’
‘OK, OK,’ he said. And again with the raised hands, as if he feared I was going to pop him one.
‘So I don’t exist,’ I resumed. ‘So what about the last 10 hours or so? What about standing by a road and having orange peel chucked at my head? What about Polio Peter and his happy finish baguette? Does he not exist either? What about Vic and his tit-rolls? Did you make him up too? Eh, God-boy? You narcissistic freak, you.’
‘Those were things that happened to me when I was in my early twenties,’ he replied. ‘When I used to hitch a lot. It was a tenner for a tit-roll in those days too. That’s inflation for ya.’
‘Don’t make jokes!’ I cried, upset. ‘What the fuck?’
He laughed. ‘Look, most of your life is just stuff that happened to me at one time or another,’ he said, smugly, ‘or to my family or friends. I'm sorry and everything, but you’re going to have to deal with it sooner or later.’
I was getting angry now. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll believe you if you can answer me one more question.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said.
‘If I don’t exist,’ I asked, ‘What’s causing that terrible pain in your head?’
Before he could respond, I punched him as hard as I could in the face. Although it was my left hand, it was quite a slug and I felt his nose shift under the sudden pressure.
He cried out and covered his face with his hands. ‘You fucker!’ he cried. ‘You absolute shit! What the fuck did you do that for?’
I sat back against the car door and smiled, slightly self-satisfied, slightly afraid of retaliation. ‘Well, it's a fair question,’ I said. ‘How can a man who doesn’t exist smack some fucker in the mush?’
He held his face in a nest of his hands over the steering wheel. ‘Jesus!’ he shouted. ‘It’s really throbbing.’
Suddenly, I snapped. ‘Alright, I’ve had enough of this. I’m either getting out here and going back to the motorway, or you’re going to tell me what’s really going on.’
‘I’ve told you!’ he whined.
‘Alright, fuck that. Until you can explain how I managed to punch you in the face, if not by the pure force of my very existence, then I don’t want to hear another word about it. And if you don’t want to take me to Sunderland, then tell me now and I’ll make alternative arrangements.’
He was dabbing at his nose with a piece of tissue. There was blood. Huffily, and with a series of pain sounds, he stuffed twists of the tissue into his nostrils to stanch any flow. Then he started the car and drove off. As he did all this – and melodramatically – he gave the following little speech:
‘Fine, fine, fine. Fine. I’ll take you to Sunderland, and when I drop you off, that's it. I never want to see you again. That’s you and me finished. As it happens, I don’t know why you’re here. I know I wrote you down because I did. I was there. But I don’t know how you’ve managed to become independent of me. That’s got me pretty fucking stumped actually. If you want to know the truth. I was thinking maybe parallel universes or something. Or maybe a wrinkle in the space-time continuum. But then I’m no scientist. Even so, despite all that, I was prepared to run with it. You know? I was prepared to dig in and try to make the best of it. I was even imagining introducing you to my mum and my sisters. I was imagining the conversations, and the laughter, and it was beautiful. You know? It was like a fucking Christmas film. And what did you do? You punched me in the fucking face! I can’t believe you did that. I… That’s not how I wrote you. I made you placid and nice. Or at least I tried. Obviously I’ve failed you. And this is how you repay me. Well, to hell with you. I don’t forgive that shit. Not that. I’ll drop you off in Sunderland and you can carry on with your so-called life without me. See how far you get. Violent motherfucker. Oh – and you don’t want to hear another word about the fact that you don't exist, do you not? Fine. Suits me....’
By which time we were pulling back onto the road. Onto the motorway. I thought again of Jack Kerouac.
I only realised I’d fallen asleep once I’d woken up, maybe an hour later, just as we were passing a sign that said that Sunderland was 27 miles away.
Thank fuck for that.
It had all been a dream.
Tomorrow: The End of the Road
Friday, 28 May 2010
‘I know exactly how you feel,’ said the driver as he pulled out into traffic and I huddled over his heater, thanking him profusely through teeth that were now properly chattering. It had grown preternaturally cold, like the air was choked by a stillborn summer.
‘I used to hitch a lot when I was younger,’ he continued. ‘Never in the middle of the night though,’ he exaggerated. 'You must be a little bit mental if you don’t mind me saying so.’
I agreed that I was.
Gradually, thanks to the three quite violent drafts of hot air pumping into my face, feet and hands, I began to regain some semblance of body temperature. I was shivering. Good shivers though. Warm shivers. Piss shivers. ‘God, that feels good,’ I said. I thought briefly of the old man again.
No pleasure for him.
The driver laughed happily. ‘Open that dashboard,’ he said, his eyes fixed on at the road but his left hand pointing vaguely. ‘Not dashboard. Glove compartment.’
I opened it. It was overfull with paper and pens and documents and CD cases and coils of cable from chargers which tied the whole mess together forever like liquorice laces.
‘Root around at the back,’ he said. ‘There should be a little bottle of whisky. If you fancy it. Do you good.’
I rooted like a truffle pig but could locate no whisky.
The driver made a small noise of dawning memory and reached into the inside pocket of the car door. ‘Ahaaa!’ he said. ‘Of course.’ He passed it over to me and said, in the obligatory Scottish accent. ‘A wee dram’s what you need, laddy. You wee sleekit beastie, you!’
‘I’d love some,’ I said, taking the quarter bottle of Jack Daniels from him gratefully and holding it softly between my tingling fingers. Like it was some kind of elixir.
‘Don’t worry by the way. I haven’t touched a drop,’ said the driver. ‘I mean, in case you were worrying I might be inebriated, which you probably weren’t, but might be now. Now that I've mentioned it.' He laughed. 'Help yourself anyway. Finish it if you like.’
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘Just a wee dram likesay.’ I tittered, slightly embarrassed, and slowly unscrewed the cap. I only really properly discovered whisky about a year ago, and I'm still just really learning to appreciate it. I had a feeling that this would be one of the finest whisky experiences I would ever have. If I was Sal Paradise, I would’ve been making mental notes. I was making mental notes... The smell hit me like the smell of abandoned coal mines and obsolete shipyards and the roar of a billion insects and black clouds swooping low over chickenshacks and churches like the broken dreams of baggy-legged drunks and repressed jessies. Yeah, yeah, whatever. Another small shiver rustled through me.
I was thrumming with anticipation.
‘I haven’t got a glass I’m afraid,’ said the driver. ‘You’ll have to go commando, or whatever the glassless equivalent is. Squaddie. Go squaddie!’ And with that, he flicked on his CD player and the loud music mixed with the hot air and the anticipation of the whisky to create – and I honestly don’t think I exaggerate – one of the happiest moments of my life. What really tipped it into mythical, however, was the fact that the song suddenly filling my brain was one I truly love. It was loud. He turned it up.
This is our decision – to live fast and die young.
We've got the vision. Now let's have some fun!
Yeah, it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?
Forget about our mothers and our friends.
We’re fated to pretend.
I took a sip of whisky. And another. The spicy liquid seeped across my tongue and scorched its way into my throat like acid reflux. I knew from what little experience I had that you had to wait for the plea- aaaaahhhhh, there it was. I closed my eyes.
‘How long had you been waiting there?’ the driver asked.
I looked at my watch. ‘A couple of hours,’ I said. 'Roughly.'
‘Ay carumba,’ he said.
I nodded, clutching at the whisky, my eyes glazed over as if with dreadful memories of the past 72 hours, shivering in a crevasse with a splintered tibia.
But there is really nothing, nothing we can do;
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.
‘Shit, you must be hungry,’ said the driver. ‘Are you hungry?’
I thought about it. ‘Umm... not really, no. Thank you.’ I wasn't hungry at all. On the contrary, I felt absolutely excellent. The heat and the whisky and the rhythm of the loud music and speeding car which was going to take me all the way to Sunderland had mingled in my essence like a delicious cocktail of total relaxation. ‘Thank you for your hospitality though,’ I said. ‘It really is massively appreciated.’
‘Think absolutely nothing of it,’ said the driver. ‘Your pleasure is my pleasure. If you do get peckish though, there’s some stuff on the back seat. Cakes and crisps and stuff. There’s even some Hob Nobs,’ he said, smiling, expectantly.
I lifted my head, suddenly curious. ‘Why are you smiling?’
He shrugged as he drove. ‘No, no, I'm not.' He was. 'It’s just that, you like Hob Nobs.’
‘You like Jack Daniels too if I remember correctly.’ He glanced at me and smiled. 'I mean, I know I'm not Audrey Tautou, but still, this is a pretty good lift all told.'
Suddenly I felt cold again.
‘What’s going on?’ I managed. I remembered the time I thought someone from the blog was following me. That same sense of paranoia descended upon me now, like a shadow from behind. But this had nothing to do with the blog. This was real life.
‘I read your blog,’ said the driver, only slightly sheepishly. ‘And I follow you on Twitter.’
‘Ahhhh,’ I said. 'Well, OK then. That’s not too weird. I suppose. Just a coincidence.'
‘I probably know more about you than anyone else alive.’
‘That’s a bit weird,’ I said. My voice cracked over the words.
‘Don’t panic,’ he said. ‘Have a Hob Nob. It's going to be a bumpy night.'
Posted by La Bête at 08:51
Thursday, 27 May 2010
Somewhere slightly north of Ashby-de-la-Zouch I stood by the side of the road and watched the day die.
It seemed like the early evening had barely got into its stride and already a Stygian gloom had descended over the bowels of England like a blanket of halitosis. I stood by a motorway road-sign and smiled.
It was a fake smile.
I was coming up on an hour of standing, waiting, being ignored, and I was hungry. I wondered whether to wander into the service station and fill up on saturated fat or stodgy bread. A sausage roll maybe. Or a baguette.
My only concern was that if I left my spot now, I might be turning my back on my dream lift with English Audrey. It’s like when you’re waiting hours for a bus. Should I just start walking? you think. But you know if you do, the second you’re out of running distance, the bus will appear on your horizon like a dream you're about to forget.
Only a nincompoop would desert his post now.
I deserted my post and went inside for a feed.
Forty minutes later, back on the road, a large fried breakfast and two cups of tea slopping around inside me, I felt gloomy. The gloaming had slunk in and vanquished all signs of the summer. My mood began to change. I started to feel down. About myself. About everything. Being ignored by a succession of strangers didn’t help. It’s awfully dispiriting. Not that I feel anyone is under any kind of obligation to pick me up – far from it – and I’m always overawed and excessively grateful when anyone does. It’s just the disdain that people show you in their furrowed brows, the embarrassment in their quickly averted gazes. I never realised that hitching was so clearly associated with begging for so many people. I can see why of course, because basically, it is begging. It's asking for something for nothing. And I know that sort of thing rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. But it really oughtn’t.
The bulldog frowns and ostrich eyes are of course as nothing compared to the scowls, the mouthed obscenities and on one memorable occasion, the coil of orange peel tossed from the open window of a speeding white van.
By 9pm I was really tired of hitching. It had been an absolutely ridiculous idea inspired by an odious book and I wanted no more part of it. I wanted to go home. I was a grown man, for God's sake. A grown man with a badly paid job, standing out in the murk of an unlovely summer's night, goosebumps pricking at my skin, begging. I should have got the fucking train. Why didn't I get the train? Fucking Jack Kerouac, that's why.
I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. Oh, please, Jack. Do shut your whining trap.
I found myself drifting into a self-loathing jag. Christ, I was a cunt. If I insisted on hitching, why hadn't I started at 6am instead of fucking 3pm? Why didn't I have a car? What happened to my car? My brain shook its head and swore. Why didn't I have a decent job and a decent car and a decent wife and a child and a life? Hmm? Because I was a fucking worm, that's why. There was no getting around it. I was a useless fucking waste of space. No wonder people were averting their eyes and scowling at me. No wonder they were throwing orange peel. Balls to orange peel. They should be throwing coconuts.
I stomped. And as I stood and stomped, increasingly pissed off – Where is my beautiful wife? – I began to feel cold. What if I die here? The darkness of the night had brought with it an unseasonable, unreasonable chill. My teeth threatened to chatter. I should have worn more clothes. I couldn't believe I didn't have a hoody with me. What a cock. Never cast a clout till May’s out. My grandmother had warned me.
For the first time I began to feel afraid. What if no one picked me up? What if the temperature continued to drop? What if I was still here at midnight, frozen to the spot, quite, quite dead?
The sky was starless, the roadside unlit. I wondered if I was actually still visible from the road. I felt pretty invisible, I have to say. And if I couldn’t be seen, who's to say I was actually there? Did I in fact exist?
My face was rubbery with cold. ‘Do I exist?’ I said out loud.
As if in reply, a Road Runner beep sounded off to my left. I jerked my head and followed the car that had made the sound. It slowed to a halt twenty or thirty metres ahead of me. I snatched up my bag and sprinted after it.
When I reached the car, the passenger-side window was already rolled down. I squatted, steadying myself against the door, and I peered in. The driver turned on the interior light so I could see his face and he smiled as if he’d been expecting me.
‘I can take you to Sunderland,’ he said. And he said it proudly, but with a hint of surprise, like a little boy who – apropos of nothing – had happened upon a wonderful idea. The light above his head provided a fitting approximation of a cartoon light bulb.
‘Hop in!’ he said.
I hopped in, my maudlin mood a thing of the past.
I was happy.
Everything was going to be all right.
Tomorrow: Crumbs in the Cocktail
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
'And this was really the way that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.'
– Jack "Oh Dear" Kerouac, On the Road
That was interesting.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...
My plan was to be at Brent Cross by 7am. Sadly, for the simple reason that I am a gargantuan oaf and spent most of the wee hours of Sunday night thinking love-thoughts about an Audrey Tautou lookalike, I didn't make it till gone noon. Well, OK, if you want the absolute truth it was probably nearer 3pm when I finally arrived at the North Circular at Staples Corner. The business end of the M1. I took out my sign.
That’s where my gran lives, you see. Sunderland. Not Drearsby or Blighton or Cockchester or any of that other nonsense, but Sunderland. That’s right – the time for playing games is over.
I actually made two signs. One super-positive and packed with good vibes – the one you see above – the other less so…
I knew I’d made the right choice to go with the upbeat one, however, when after only around ten minutes, my first lift hissed to a halt thirty seconds up the road. And when I climbed into the passenger seat, although I was very grateful that I’d got off to a good start, part of me was also a tad disappointed. Vic looked nothing like Audrey Tautou.
Vic was a trucker. Long-haired, stoat-nosed, unshaven, three pairs of knickers hanging from his rear-view mirror.
He was very friendly. Very chatty. He told me, quite without shame – rather, au contraire, he told me with a great deal of ostensible pride – that when he was in his 20s, it became his ambition to have a T-shirt printed which bore the slogan, ‘I fucked the world before the world fucked me’. He would only permit himself to get this T-shirt printed, however, once he'd actually had sexual relations (penetrative) with at least one woman from every country on the planet.
‘I did pretty well an’ all, if I do say so myself,’ he said, himself, all ruddy cheeks and beaver teeth. ‘Go on, test me.’
I didn’t understand. I don’t really think I wanted to understand.
‘Name a country,’ he said. ‘And I’ll tell you if I've been there or not. If you know what I mean.’
‘Alright, then,’ I said. ‘Lichtenstein.’
‘That’s not a country!’ he cried. Either he knew that in my head I had spelt it incorrectly, or else he was just feeble-minded.
‘Ask me a proper one.’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘England.’
‘Check,’ he said. ‘Many, many times. I live there in fact.’
‘Wales,’ I said.
‘Check,’ he said. ‘Many times.’
‘Croatia,’ I said.
‘Check,’ he said. ‘Mirna. It means “peace”. She was a piece an' all. Eh? Eh?' He winked at me. 'Ask me another.’
This went on for some time. When I grew tired, Vic explained that the only reason he had failed to complete his task was that he’d got one of his sample pregnant and decided to do the decent thing.
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
‘Thanks,’ he said.
Vic did a funny thing. When he referred to his wife, he did so using the expression ‘ball and chain’. I really didn’t think people did that in real life.
I asked him if that meant that he’d been faithful since he was married.
‘Define “faithful”,’ he said.
‘I have my answer,’ I said.
‘Nah, nah, nah,’ he insisted.
He went on to explain that although he hadn’t had penetrative intercourse with anyone but his wife since he entered, perhaps only faux grudgingly, into the bondage of matrimony, he had paid for the occasional hand-job. ‘And every now and then,' he added, 'I treat myself to a tit-roll. Twenty quid for a tit-roll. Not bad, that.’
Interestingly, Vic still maintained, apparently perfectly seriously, that he didn’t actually cheat on his wife. He respected her too much for that. In fact, the only time he would ever grant himself a pass would be if the opportunity arose to sleep with a woman from Burkina Faso. ‘It’s in Africa,’ he said.
‘So I believe,’ I said.
Turns out Burkina Faso was like the holy grail back in his ‘fuck the world’ days.
I asked him how long he’d been married.
‘Five months,’ he said.
For all his coarse boasting, casual misogyny and bravado, I think Vic was actually a really nice bloke. He was very warm and generous. He shared his sandwiches with me. And he told me stories about how great he was.
Most probably he was just seeking affirmation, validation, love. But then who isn't? Eh? Eh?
Some of us just go about it in a funny way.
Vic dropped me at Leicester Forest East services, where he couldn't resist letting me know that he'd once enjoyed sexual relations (penetrative) with a girl from Nuneaton, just down the road. Apparently it was very nice.
I said my thanks and goodbyes, wished him luck with Burkino Faso and gave a silent prayer that as he drove away, somewhere in Lancashire his wife was in rhapsodies of carnal euphoria, practically suffocating in a veritable tsunami of sausage rolls. If you know what I mean.
Tomorrow: Seize the Baguette!
Monday, 24 May 2010
I'm late. I should've been on the road hours ago. Years ago, by God. What have I done with my life? Oy.
I couldn't get to sleep last night. I was tossing and turning. Dramatically. I kept going through increasingly unlikely lift scenarios. It reminded me of when I was 17 and learning to drive. The fantasies I'd have that one day the gnarled fascist who was teaching me to drive (a Conservative councillor who was ridiculously proud of the fact that he'd driven everything from a Sherman tank to a tricycle and insisted on smoking in the car for the simple reason that I didn't have asthma and could therefore bog off), would suddenly be replaced by an exotic and amorous gentlewoman with a short skirt, an intoxicating fragrance and long leather gloves.
God, I haven't changed a bit.
I was still awake at 4am. And terribly sore. Eventually though, I nailed it. The ultimate lift fantasy...
She pulls up just ahead of me in a shiny old orange Beetle with a Porsche engine and no roof. The sun is beating out of the sky like Mike Tyson in a temper.
I jog to the side of her car, looking surprisingly lithe. 'Thanks for stopping,' I say. ‘I really appreciate it. How far are you going?’
‘Would you believe I’m going all the way?’ she replies, eyeing my sign. 'Hop in.'
I gasp a gasp of unadulterated jouissance and hop in. As we pull out into traffic, I strap myself in and for the first time I get a good look at her face. My heart falls open like a broken clock. ‘You,’ I gasp. ‘You know who you look like?’
‘I know, I know,’ she says, rolling her dark eyes. I decide not to push it.
Once we get moving, she asks me my name. I tell her.
‘My name’s Camilla,’ she says.
‘That’s nice,’ I tell her. I ask her what she does. It’s a boring conversation-starter I know, but it’s practical. ‘I used to be a doctor,’ she says. ‘Now I write and illustrate children’s books. Also, although it’s not regular work, I can make a lot of money standing in for Audrey at film premieres and the like.’
I nod my head smiling. I knew it. ‘It is an uncanny likeness,’ I say, coolly. 'One-nil.'
She chuckles coquettishly. ‘Well, I’m a couple of years older than her, so actually I don’t look like Audrey Tautou. Audrey Tautou looks like me.’
‘Fair enough,’ I say. Except I say it in French, with a very sexy accent.
Camilla speaks French fluently. As well as 40 other languages.
She looks over at me as she drives, smiling mischievously. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ she says. ‘It’s a bit cheeky.’
‘Of course!’ I cry. ‘I love a cheeky question.’
‘Well, I was wondering if we could stop somewhere, maybe find a hotel, get a room and just lie on a bed for the rest of our lives, kissing. I’m very attracted to you.’
Before I can close my mouth, she is decelerating, parking on the hard shoulder and moving toward me. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask, alarmed.
‘I can’t wait for a hotel,’ she says. ‘I need to kiss you now.’
And so on. She also has MDMA, she’s really, really funny, and she fucking loves me.
I'm sure it's going to be exactly like that.
Here I go...
Friday, 21 May 2010
H is for hitching of course. But also – of course – for haemorrhoids.
So it goes.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to prepare myself for going ‘on the road’, as they say. So last night I watched The Hitcher, the original one with Rutger Hauer as the eponymous nutbag. It’s a pretty dumb film on the whole, full of giant silly holes. But it did make me think of a few things not to do on Monday.
Another thing that made me think of things not to do was the story of Randy Kraft. (Thanks a lot, Maria in Oregon.) Randy Kraft. Great name for a porn star. Unfortunately, Randy Kraft is not a porn star. He is a serial killer. If you read about his early life on Wikipedia, however, you might as I did feel a certain sadness for him. You should. He was mentally ill. And it’s your duty as a human being to feel empathy and sympathy, otherwise you're not doing it right.
Another thing that made me think of a few more things not to do was a poem called Hitcher by Simon Armitage. (Thanks a lot, Sophie in Essex). Here, if you simply can’t be bothered to follow the link, is a brief excerpt:
I let him have it
on the top road out of Harrogate -once
with the head, then six times with the krooklok
in the face -and didn't even swerve
You know what?
I’m going to get the train.
No, not really. I joke, I joke. It’ll be fun. And what’ll make it fun is that I’ll be meeting people, and people are full of slips and slurs and twists and turns and grace and care and love and hate and voodoo. And I really, really love them. Really. Even the cunts.
A wise man once said: ‘Being is other people.’ It was me.
So I’ve made a list of Do’s and Don’ts, to help me on my way. (Was there ever a more annoying expression than ‘do’s and don’ts’? No matter how you render it…
do’s and don’ts
dos and don’ts
do’s and don’t’s
douze en danse
...it always looks wrong. But there’s no way around it. Aaaaaah, life.)
Do make a sign. Otherwise people won’t know where you want to go. Duh. I’ve made two.
Do dress like someone you might want to pick up if you were driving along the motorway and saw yourself there. Oh. Unless that is, you’re an incorrigible sex pest.
Do not dress as a French maid with a giant butt-plug round your neck, no matter what else you’ve been told.
Do smile. Smile like a man who is full of hope and dreams and excitement about his part in the endlessly emotional, eminently fascinating, predominantly enjoyable toboggan ride that is life.
Do not smile like Ted Bundy.
Do take deodorant. Apply roadside in a lull. You don’t want to be honking in someone’s private space. And it’s going to be hot. Damn hot.
Do not cover yourself in excrement before accepting a lift.
Don't smoke by the side of the road, no matter how cool you might think it looks.
Don't drink from a bottle of whiskey by the side of the road. (If there’s anybody looking.)
Don't turn to the person who has picked you up, two minutes into your journey and say, referring to the last guy who picked you up: 'I cut off his legs, and his arms, and his head, and I'm gonna do the same to you', and then start laughing maniacally. It's just rude.
Do be gracious.
Don't judge people by their appearance, but if someone looks like a psycho, make a run for it.
Don't get picked up by a serial killer. Or Simon Armitage. Neither are to be trusted.
Do the right thing.
Don’t blame it on the sunshine.
Don't blame it on the moonlight.
Don't blame it on the good times.
Do blame it on the boogie.
Actually, on second thoughts, don't blame it on the boogie. (Don’t even use that word. It’s highly offensive.)
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Do wah diddy.
Alright, I’m done. Done wah diddy.
If you have any to add, I’d be honoured to hear them. If not, wish me luck, and if I do happen to end up on the local news or God forbid, a headline in the Metro: LONDON MAN DISMEMBERED AND EATEN IN GRISLY M1 SEX MURDER – grieve not; dry your instinctive tears with the knowledge that at least a small part of me will have relished the novelty of it all.
Damn you, Maria in Oregon! Look what you’ve made me search out and devour… The Freeway Killers.
Pish. Enough of my silliness. See you in the North.
Posted by La Bête at 07:25
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
I have hitched before, but a long, long time ago, and it wasn't enormously momentous. I was with NotKeith. I think we were 17 at the time, but we may have been a little older.
Keith’s dad dropped us off on the other side of the M25 out of Dartford. It was early. Slightly too early. I’d overslept, keelhauled into consciousness with a shrill summons from the kerb. I hadn’t even had time to perform my morning purification ritual (poo). So much so that no sooner had Keith’s dad wished us luck and rejoined the traffic, I realised I really had to go.
The junction we were at backed onto woods which rose steeply from the hard shoulder on the other side of a shallow dry trench, if I remember correctly. I jumped over the trench and scrambled up and away into half-arsed thickets. As soon as I was hidden from traffic, I pulled down my trousers and pants. I crouched. I felt like Stig of the Dump.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done a poo in a bit of woodland down the side of a motorway, but if you have, you’ll know it’s not something you'll ever want to recount in ghastly, practically palpable detail, particularly if at the time you'd neglected to avail yourself of anything with which to wipe the horrified walnut shell of your bleeding, freakishly distended rectum which sobbed and throbbed from exertion so that it was almost breathing, its odious breath a heady cocktail of rotting dog, ammonia and chips; its lips aghast, gaping, like a messy eater who’s just seen a ghost.
I shouted down to Keith. ‘Keith!’ I shouted. ‘Have you got any toilet roll?’ He didn’t have any.
Reader, I had no choice. Foul as it was, I grabbed dead leaves from the cold earth and tore the living from the branches of my bowel-friendly bower, pushing them against my poor dirty bottom, old before its time, and rubbed away the leftovers.
With the terrible tools at my disposal, I did the best I could and, apart from a slither of stool beneath a couple of fingernails, I think I pretty much got away with it.
So I did myself up, scrambled out of the thicket, down the bank, over the trench and joined Keith at the roadside. I remember thinking he looked rather silly standing there with his thumb out. I was just about to tell him what a terrible time I’d just had when a car pulled up ahead of us. Our faces lit up. We grabbed our bags and ran.
‘Where you going, lads?’
We didn’t have a sign. That was stupid.
‘Whitstable!’ we replied in unison.
‘I can take you as far as Rochester,’ said the driver.
We hopped in.
Keith got in the back before I could, so I got in the passenger seat. The driver was a middle-aged man with a moustache. He was on his way to work. I don’t think he said what he did but his car suggested it was something manual. He was perfectly nice and everything but he didn’t seem to want to talk. After a bare minimum, a mere smattering of superficials, he switched on Radio One and we became silent.
Which was when I noticed the smell of excrement.
At first it was more like the mere threat of a smell, or maybe just a memory. I assumed it was my fingernails and surreptitiously hid them away in the folds of my coat.
Then it became stronger, and I realised that when he had turned on the radio, the driver had also fiddled with his heater, flicking the switch that made hot air come through the footwell. This in turn led me to the realisation that when I had left the thicket, I must have inadvertently trodden in my own poo.
God knows what the driver thought had happened. He probably assumed that I’d shat myself and was too polite to say anything. Or else he had no sense of smell.
The rest of the trip passed without incident, unless you count the stench, which persisted.
And that, for better or for worse, is pretty much all I can remember of the classic Dartford-Whitstable road trip of the spring of ’94. We did make it to Whitstable as I recall. And we had a bag of cockles each and caught the train home.
I know. It’s not the greatest story in the history of hitching. There was no poetry, no jazz. I didn't even find myself on the road, for God's sake! Hopefully that'll happen next week.
In the meantime, have you ever hitched? Yes, you. Was it any good? Did you find yourself? Did you get where you were going to? Did you like the things that life was showing you? Tell me your tales. Go on, inspire me. Or frighten me if you must...
Monday, 17 May 2010
How the Car-Crash of Jack Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose Inspired Me To Get My Thumb Out of My Bottom and Hit the Road
Truman Capote famously trashed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with the words: ‘That’s not writing. That’s typing.’ All I can say is, Capote must have been in an uncharacteristically charitable mood that day, because it’s not typing. It’s projectile vomiting.
‘Spontaneous prose’ Kerouac called it. Pretentiously.
'Kerouac typed rapidly on a continuous scroll of telegraph-paper to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of paper. Kerouac's dictum was that "the first thought is the best thought", and he insisted that you should never revise a text after it is written.'
Wow. That's some seriously misguided egomania right there.
Now there were two things, it seems, that we can blame for spontaneous prose. The first was jazz. Not good jazz, however, but the interminably cacophonous crazy jazz that’s basically an improvised orgy of musical masturbation that you always have to turn down when it comes on the radio because you can’t hear yourself think. Kerouac loved jazz. (And he loved the spirited Negroes that made it!).
The second thing was Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassady, portrayed in On the Road as Dean Moriarty.
Dean Moriarty is the driving force in On the Road, and the subject of the besotted narrator’s haphazard hagiography.
An odd character to idolise, Moriarty is, amongst other things, a thief, a woman-beater, a practising paedophile, an inveterate bullshitter and a ghastly, unreliable drunk. Worse than all of that, however, at least from the point of view of the beleaguered reader, Dean Moriarty is a monumental bore, obsessed with his own intellect and labouring under the embarrassing misapprehension that each and every one of his rather mundane thoughts and observations is intrinsically interesting.
What really fascinates and arouses Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise – barf – is Moriarty’s spirit. You see, Dean Moriarty is free. Like the Negroes and the Mexicans and the crippled boys and beggars, like the raw-living big-laughing yokels uncorrupted by affluence, Moriarty has soul and spirit and he lives pure and fast and beyond conventional morality. He does what he pleases. And he doesn’t stop talking and he doesn’t stop moving. He never stops. He is the patron saint of ego-propelled perpetual motion.
I get the impression that in 1957, this was all very interesting.
But I can’t really imagine it. I mean, I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been shocked by the ground-breaking innovation of this book. I suppose too much time has passed. Or else I don't have enough imagination. However, the book is not without its shocking aspects. The paucity of plot, for example, is horrifying. As is the piss-poor characterisation, the leadenness of the imagery, the humour bypass and the more general, all-pervasive joylessness.
They blather on, Kerouac's deadbeats, about their fascination with life, yet they seem utterly incapable of really enjoying it. And why do they have to be so earnest and pretentious and unassailably self-important? I think I’ve met people like Kerouac before. They’re the same people who refer to themselves as ‘artists’ far too readily and rarely, if ever, have the heart to laugh at themselves.
But maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe the book was important because, as Kenneth Rexroth suggested at the time, Kerouac demonstrated to the world – perhaps even unwittingly – that his generation of self-obsessed delinquents were in fact a pack of worthless hypocritical vermin. That’s not a quote. This is a quote:
‘These innocents dash madly back and forth across the country, but they aren’t even very good at hitchhiking … Their values are those of the most conformist members of the middle class they despise, but enormously hypertrophied. They are demoralized and unsuccessful little Babbitts. This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square.’
Rexroth also wrote, of Kerouac’s follow-up novel The Subterraneans:
‘The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about – jazz and Negroes. His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to boil … As a natural concomitant, Kerouac’s attitude toward Negroes is what, in jazz circles, we call Crow-Jimism, racism in reverse.’
Yes! That is so true. In your face, Kerouac! Rexroth is a great writer. You know just from reading a couple of his sentences that he didn't stick with the first thing that came into his head. To be fair, however – if I must – Rexroth also wrote this in his review of On the Road:
‘This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels. This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity. Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible. Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention.’
So there you go. It was the American Psycho of its day.
But fifty years is a long time. Today, historical curiosity aside, On the Road is not a good book. In fact, it really is a car crash.
Having said all that, reading On the Road did inspire me. I confess. Because I’m convinced that it takes a special kind of negative energy to turn a subject as readily compelling as hitchhiking into something as painfully mundane as On the Road, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and go on the road myself. And by God, if I don’t find something more interesting than Dean Moriarty on the way, I’ll cut off my own thumb and apologise.
So, next week when I begin the first of two weeks’ holiday, I’m going to celebrate by hitching up north to see how my gran’s getting on. I know that 250 miles up the sagging spine of Englandshire doesn’t really compare with Kerouac’s mammoth mythical treks back and forth across the United States, but, you know, size isn’t everything. And if William Blake could see the world in a grain of sand, I'm sure I can see something halfway interesting in the whole of the M1. Well, we shall see....
Saturday, 15 May 2010
Last night I found myself weeping upstairs on a bus to New Cross.
Because of this. It’s a post from Jim Sweeney, about living with MS.
Here's a tiny excerpt:
'I have no advice on how to live life. Except this: (a) grab life by the ears every day and French kiss it to the ground and (b) don't get to old age clutching a list headed, "I wish I'd......"'
Do read the whole thing. It's very moving. And very funny. And the 'song' at the end is lovely.
And I only hope that when I get MS – or whatever it is that gets under my skin and drags me away to nowhere – that I can handle it with such divine sparkle.
Have a nice weekend and if it's any way a physical possibility, live it.
Monday, 10 May 2010
I should have been a pair of ragged claws. Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. But I’m not. I’m a fucking sub-editor. Scuttling across scores of tiresome screeds and wasting vast swathes of my all-too-brief time on this planet poring over deeply dull, stultifyingly self-important crud.
I don’t want to be a bore about it – I know almost all of us have to endure the gluttonous teeth of the toad work squatting on our glazed faces and sucking out all that is good and vital about life – but today it was particularly irksome. Today, because I had to stay late to finish some especially egregious crud, I missed out on an opportunity to see something I really wanted to see. Something that I suspect might have moved me, and reminded me of the good stuff.
To wit, a recital, with the words of Pablo Neruda read by Charles Dance and set to the music of Astor Piazzola. When Astor Met Pablo it’s called, and it’s happening now. For one night only. My flatmate Imogen got me a ticket. All I had to do was be in Farnham for 8 o’clock. But because the toad was particularly poisonous today, I couldn’t make it.
So I came home, furious, and opened a bottle of wine. Night-coloured wine. Wine with purple feet.
I knew next to nothing about Pablo Neruda until yesterday when I watched Il Postino, and then, still weeping from the film, I found some of his poetry online and quickly realised that he’s awfully, awfully good.
I read a poem of his called Don't Go Far Off, Not Even For A Day and I found myself yearning to be in love, even in unrequited love (although preferably not), and I thought ah, yes… poetry.
I’ve always found poetry a little difficult and I’ve rarely read it for my own pleasure. In fact, I could probably only name half a dozen poets of whom I’ve read more than just a few lines. Probably very predictable stuff too. Let’s see… Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, ee cummings… um… I’m running out. Roger McGough. And aaaaah, Baudelaire. But only one poem. Oh, and a little bit of Keats.
So I have decided, on finding Neruda, on losing Neruda, that I must read more poetry. I think I might be ready. I think I might need it. And not just because in Il Postino, an ignorant man uses it to snag this heavenly creature…
I have also decided – because I started having premonitions of death and I really don’t want to die now, not now – that I shall stop riding my bike to work for the next three weeks. This means I can read poetry again on my commute. (Ugh, what a ghastly word.)
So I need your advice. Which poets should I seek out? (One good thing about work by the way, is that I can go in early and spank seven shades of sycamore out of the printer, so don’t hold back. And if a thousand trees must die in my quest to have the barnacles ripped from my brain and my emotional moorings stripped and scattered on the shore, so be it. You see? I need help.) What poets do you like? Which ones make you cry? I want to cry. Crying is good. As long as there is laughter involved too.
Oh, and Dylan Thomas! I love Dylan Thomas.
So, poetry please... if you'd be so kind.
Wednesday, 5 May 2010
Thank you so much to those of you who came to my rescue last night. I'm quite overwhelmed that within a few short hours, someone had typed out the passage, someone had scanned it, and someone had somehow sent me the entire book. I am indebted to all of you, particularly Timid Heathen for typing it out - that shows a special kind of devotion to niceness.
Anyhow, just in case you're interested, here's the anecdote. (Oh, and the Mark in question is Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son):
I knew Kerouac only at the end of his life, which is to say there was no way for me to know him at all, since he had become a pinwheel. He had settled briefly on Cape Cod, and a mutual friend, the writer Robert Boles, brought him over to my house one night. I doubt that Kerouac knew anything about me or my work, or even where he was. He was crazy. He called Boles, who is black, "a blue-gummed nigger." He said that Jews were the real Nazis, and that Allen Ginsberg had been told by the Communists to befriend Kerouac, in order that they might gain control of American young people, whose leader he was.
This was pathetic. There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man. He wished to play poker, so I dealt some cards. There were four hands, I think—one for Boles, one for Kerouac, one for Jane, one for me. Kerouac picked up the remainder of the deck, and he threw it across the kitchen.
It was then that Mark came in, unexpectedly home for a weekend from Swarthmore College, where he was a religion major. He was also a middleweight wrestler in very good shape. He wore a full beard and a work shirt and blue jeans, and carried a duffel bag. Everything about his costume and even his posture might have been inspired by Kerouac's books.
The moment Kerouac saw him, Kerouac stood and looked him over smolderingly from head to toe. The calm before a fight settled dankly over the room.
"You think you understand me," said Kerouac to Mark.
"You don't understand me at all. You want to fight about it?" Mark said nothing, not knowing who Kerouac was or what he was so mad about.
Kerouac praised himself as a fighter, asked Mark if he really thought he was man enough to take him on.
Mark understood this much, anyway: that he might really have to fight this person. He didn't want to, but then again, he wouldn't have minded fighting him all that much.
But then Kerouac sat back down in his chair heavily, shaking his head and saying over and over again, "Doesn't understand me at all."
Later on that night, after Kerouac and Boles left, Mark and I talked some about Kerouac, who was then completing his seventeenth and last book. He would die very soon.
It turned out that Mark had never read Kerouac.
I don't care for Jack Kerouac – neither his writing nor the man, or at least what I can glean of the man from his writing – but I find this story very sad nonetheless.
Tuesday, 4 May 2010
More or less exactly a year ago this month I sold all of my books. It was one of the most difficult and unnatural things I’ve ever done, as the first scene of my one-day-surely-to-fuck award-winning-if-I-ever-finish-it play The Collector clearly testifies.
There were 700 of them and I’d been dragging them around with me, and loving them, adoring them, for years.
Although I said at the time that I felt a certain lightness on letting them go – and no doubt at the time it was true – it’s also true that I’ve missed them, a lot, in the last year. Not all of them, obviously, but some of them, and frequently.
I’m missing one of them now, and because I am a) skint b) short of time, and c) loath to buy any book that I owned for so many years and was then forced by circumstance to get rid of, I really don’t want to have to track down a new copy. And my local library doesn’t have it. So I’m asking you, the internet, for your help.
So, are there any Kurt Vonnegut fans out there? I should bloody well hope so. The man was a god. Anyhow, what I’m looking for is a copy of an anecdote that appears in Vonnegut’s autobiographical hotchpotch Palm Sunday.
I had this copy by the way.
Hardback. I got it secondhand. In Brixton I think.
Oh, bloody hell. I really miss my books. It's weird. In some ways I miss them more than I miss the people I sometimes miss. My books never hurt me. Actually, that's not true, but when they did, and when they made me cry, I loved them all the more. Go figure.
Anyway, the anecdote relates to an evening in which, toward the end of his life, Jack Kerouac comes round to Kurt Vonnegut’s house and, if I recall correctly, talks about Hitler (in an inappropriately positive way) and offers to fight Vonnegut’s son.
I’ve had a root around online, and have managed to find proof that I’m not imagining the whole thing, including this quote from Vonnegut:
‘He [Kerouac] was crazy. There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man.’
But I really need to read the whole episode again. I want to remember. So – do you have a copy of Palm Sunday and would you be prepared to scan or photocopy the Kerouac bit and stick it in an email for me? It’s probably only a page or two at most. I would be ever so ever so grateful. I’ll even buy you a drink if you can come along on June 4th. Hmm? What do you say?
Come on, internet! Do your thing.
Monday, 3 May 2010
I’m on the train.
From the north, back to the south. The coastline is really quite breathtaking. I wish I'd taken a photo of that. It's beautiful. It's the polar opposite of the inner cities. The sun is out at the moment and bright as a giant barbecue, making blinding clumps of whatever the heckfire that yellow flowered bush is that litters the hills above the sea. It's lovely.
I have two weeks holiday at the end of this month, beginning of the next. I was going to go away somewhere, on my own. Somewhere foreign, at least for a week of it. But I can’t afford it. I can’t afford anything in fact, for the rest of the year. Golf course! That looks like fun. I've never played golf. Oh, God. Please don't let David Cameron be our next Prime Minister.
What I’ve realised is, what with my tax debt, and my credit card debt, and my grandmother debt, I should be able to pay everything off by the end of this year – just in time for this job to finish. I feel like I’m in jail. I've got six and a half months. No remission. But of course it’s all entirely my own fault. So I should just shut the shit up and get on with it. And that’s what I’m doing. Honest, I am. Apart from the shutting up.
Rabbits! Fields full of 'em. Frolicking, they are. Glorious, glorious rabbits. Someone should write a poem about them. They're so full of life. And so tasty. God, I haven't had rabbit pie for years.
So anyway, I’ve decided – instead of going on holiday at the end of the month – I’m going to come back and see my grandmother again. Bless her. Not for the whole two weeks, but for a while. I think it does me good to see her. It’s been just a couple of days this time, but it’s definitely done me good. It puts things in perspective. Not just the paranoia of the spectre of death, but taking care of, and actually thinking about someone else for a change.
Next time I come up here, however, I’m going to hitch.
I’m about 20 pages from the end of On the Road and I’m pretty convinced that no one has ever written a more tedious, self-indulgent or pretentious book. I’m also pretty convinced that I could find better hitching stories to tell on one trip from London to the north east than Jack Kerouac managed to distil from five years or so hitching across the States. And I don’t say that arrogantly. I think just about anyone could come up with better hitching stories in one day.
Anyway, we'll see. For now it's back to work.
I leave you with something my grandmother told me only this morning. She told me: 'Never cast a clout till May's out.'
By the way, she was feeling much better this morning. She's still got to go back to the doctor tomorrow and she's got to have blood tests on Wednesday, but I'm not so worried now. So that's good.
Sunday, 2 May 2010
I’m up north. Grimstone. Bleakley. Hades-on-Sea. Whichever you prefer.
I’m here to take care of my grandmother. She’s got diverticulitis, which apparently is inflammation of the diverticulum, which apparently is an abnormal sac or pouch formed at a weak point in the wall of the alimentary tract. Twisted guts to you.
She went to the doctor last week. On the way to the doctor, she twisted her ankle and fell in the street, scraping her knee and cutting her hand. No one helped her up. As she was righting herself, a police car pulled up. They were looking for an elderly woman who matched my grandmother’s description. What for, I cannot say. My grandmother said she wasn’t the one they were looking for. Eventually the policeman questioning her noticed that her hand was bleeding. ‘Are you alright?’ he said.
‘No,’ my grandmother answered.
So they gave her a lift to the doctor where she was eventually prescribed an antibiotic called doxycycline. Unfortunately, some of the side effects of doxycycline are nausea, abdominal pains and vomiting. So my grandmother went to the doctor with pain; one day later she had pain and puking. She stopped taking the antibiotics.
I got here on Saturday afternoon, and she wasn’t very well at all. She looked awful in fact. And her voice was half a shadow.
I guess the only thing potentially worse than watching an old person in pain is watching a young person in pain. But then I don’t know. At least with a young person, you’re pretty sure that whatever it is, they’re probably going to get better.
I had a horrible thought the other day. It was wholly knee-jerk, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live with. It was when I heard my grandmother was ill, and it was, ‘Oh, well, if she dies, at least I won’t have to pay her back the money I owe her.’ That’s a pretty horrible thought, I’m sure you’ll agree. And believe me, I’m not proud of it. And I don’t want her to die. On the contrary, I want her to get better, and to feel great and to live long enough for me to be able to buy her a house nearer to other people who care for her. But realistically, that might mean both of us living into our two-hundreds. But if that’s what it takes, that’s what I want.
Christ, existence is horrific at times, isn’t it? Isn’t it though?
Having said that, she feels better today. I scrambled her an egg this morning and put it on a piece of toast, and thus far she’s managed to keep it down. Also, she’s doing the Daily Mail crossword (I know, I know, but what can you do?) and we’re listening to Smooth Radio Northeast (I know, I know – they even have something called ‘Smooth Unplugged’ – imagine that if you can). Also, she said she doesn’t know what she would have done if I hadn’t come up for the weekend. She’d have walked backwards and forwards, she said, from the bedroom to the kitchen, making tea and being sick.
So it’s good that I’m here. Not so good that I have to leave on Monday and leave her on her own to shuffle back and forth making tea and being sick.
But she’s going back to the doctor on Tuesday. Plus she’ll have other visitors next weekend. Plus she reckons she’s getting better. She says time is a great healer and all things must pass. She said she’ll either get better or it’ll turn into something nasty, and there’s no point worrying about that. At which point I went into the kitchen and felt quite, quite miserable.
Life is fucking unbearable. No, not life. Death. But there’s no point worrying about that.
We've just started to watch Little Miss Sunshine. I brought it with me. It was the only remotely grandmother-friendly film I own. I forgot about Alan Arkin's character taking coke in the opening montage. Grandmother made a noise. 'Oh, it's not one of them junkie films, is it?' she said. If she's not careful, I'll make her watch Bad Lieutenant.