|Apr/May 2000 Fiction|
Sefton Street is one of those long straight streets that lead down to the seafront of Brighton. While I was at a conference there last year, I went back to have a look at the house which thirty years ago had witnessed some of my great triumphs and traumas, the house which most of us remember from our student days where, apparently doing nothing, we did a lot of our growing up. Brighton has gone both ways, some of it into the decaying squalor of Social Security B and Bs, and the other tarted up and gentrified. Our student house had fared well: the dark blue front door shone like polished enamel and the rustication around the ground floor had been carefully accentuated. Fashionable hangings adorned every window.
The little newsagents-cum-grocers where we used to buy our milk and cigarettes was still there on the corner, now under new management. The prevailing ethos was the same, though. "I WAS DIANA'S SECRET LOVER" gloated the headlines as I went in for a box of matches.
"Swan or England's Glory?" asked the man.
"England's Glory, please," I said, which, in a strange way, is where my story begins and ends.
Because the bell on the ground floor didn't work, callers had to resort to a number of strategies to attract the attention of people upstairs. Veterans would hammer the door or kick it, shout or throw stones at the window. Shinning up the drainpipe had also been known, but only to the desperate or inebriated. A car horn was unusual but that summer afternoon, someone was going at it hammer and tongs.
Sean reluctantly put down his biography of Trotsky and went to the window.
"Well, bugger me," he said, "the Queen of Sheba."
His image was appropriate. Leaning on the horn of an open-topped red sports car and looking up through dark glasses was an elegant middle-aged woman. I say middle-aged, and in retrospect, this definition may have been almost correct, although in those days, we would have applied it to anyone over the age of twenty-five. She wore a pale green suit and her long black hair was corralled by a headscarf.
Sean flung up the sash window, but he wasn't going to let his proletarian principles slip.
"Yes, what do you want?"
"Does Heather Sterling live here?" I heard the faint cut-glass tones from the street below.
"Yes, but she's not here now."
"Look, I'm her mother. I brought some of her things down. Some things she wanted."
"OK," said Sean. "Hang on a minute," and then, to me, in his strongest Geordie accent: "Go an' open the door, Gordon. I can't hardly understand a word she's saying."
I tripped down the stairs to the cavernous and fetid hallway to let Mrs. Sterling in. She put out her hand: "Penny Sterling. And you must be?"
"Gordon," I managed, overwhelmed by this vision from Vogue.
"Oh yes, I've heard of you."
To think I could figure anywhere in her consciousness seemed immensely flattering. I indicated the stairs and, as she brushed past me, her perfume hit me in some region of the brain normally reserved for other things. The Queen of Sheba. All she needed was a brace of panthers on leads and a retinue of African slaves.
Once in the living room, she removed her headscarf and threw down her handbag, giving the place a quick once-over as if to ascertain that this was indeed the correct kind of place for students to live--the carpet thick with the crust of the ages, the images of Hendrix and Captain Beefheart on the wall. She seemed satisfied and sat down as elegantly as it was possible to sit down on the misshapen sofa, which sulked like a badly stuffed animal. Sean, with characteristic rudeness, returned to his book. My eyes wandered to some underwear that mysteriously adorned the coffee table but she said:
"Don't clear up for me, darling. I'm used to squalor."
I found this hard to believe and retrieved the offending article nonchalantly.
"So where is Heather?"
Sean and I exchanged quick glances and it was Sean who rose to the occasion: "I think she may have gone to the library to revise for her re-sits. Probably back later."
"I see. Do you mind if I wait? I'd like to speak to her while I'm down here."
Sean made an offhand "be my guest" gesture and she settled down for the wait. Actually, both of us knew that Sean's statement was not exactly true. Heather was with Latif, the Ghanaian conga player, and was unlikely to be back till the next day or even the next week. In fact, at that moment, it was likely that they were engaged in the diplomatic mission of cementing post-colonial relations.
"So, Gordon, aren't you going to introduce us?"
"Sorry, Mrs. Sterling. This is Sean."
"Pleased to meet you, Sean. And what are you studying?"
"Me, I'm studying engineering. I'm going to do something useful with my life, not like this character."
"American Studies," I apologized.
"Ah, America," sighed Mrs. Sterling, as if to dismiss the whole continent with these two baleful words. "My husband's there at the moment."
Sean's interest perked up with the mention of the satanic superpower.
"And what's he doing there?"
"Probably screwing everything in sight. Especially if the fleet's in."
"Jesus!" Sean whispered.
Of course, we both knew something of Heather's father and his notorious West End productions. His pan-sexuality was constant fodder for the News of the World, but I was still shocked, having assumed it was all some kind of publicity stunt.
"Anyway, Sean, it sounds like you hail from somewhere considerably north of Watford."
"Newcastle, me. Me dad works in the docks."
His father was a naval architect, but this was not the time to remind him of the fact. He guarded this working-class credential jealously. My own background was clearly less exalted than his, distinctly lower middle class, but Sean lived this fiction with such conviction that even he had come to believe it. In a strange way, so had I.
"Have you ever been there?" he challenged with a rather overdone rising inflection.
"I did go to the races at Doncaster once. I believe that must be quite nearby. But I'd like to go. I imagine the people must be very warm."
"Aye, when they're not freezing their arses off in the Arctic conditions."
Mrs. Sterling gave a little laugh at Sean's embattled attitude.
As the conversation skidded to a halt and Sean withdrew into a contemptuous isolation, I looked desperately for some displacement activity and put Trout Mask Replica on the Dansette. Mrs. Sterling took out her makeup and started fixing some inconceivable imperfection in the façade. She wasn't so old; her knees didn't look in the least scrawny and her hair, now loosed from the headscarf, had a wonderful dark lustre. Sexual stirrings merged with sympathy for this woman, so beautiful and so wronged by her playboy husband. What could he be thinking of?
When the famous lines, "That's right, The Mascara Snake. The tin teardrop, bulbous and tapering" came up, she looked vaguely in the direction of the music and gave a ruminative "Hmmm."
"Sorry," I said, "shall I change the record?"
"It was just that I was thinking--how long is that daughter of mine likely to be?"
"Come on," said Sean, always ready for battle. "You can't really be her mother."
I squirmed a little at Sean's directness, but the thought had crossed my mind.
"No," she replied. "Actually, her stepmother. But I've sworn an absolute oath to Terry to keep an eye on her while he's away."
"I thought as much," said Sean. "But that's quite a challenge, you know--keeping an eye on Heather."
"I'm beginning to realise that," she replied wearily. "If you don't mind, I'll give it a little longer. But I don't want to interfere with your routine--whatever you get up to in the evening."
"That's all right, honestly," I blurted out. "Look, you must be hungry. Can I get you something to eat?" The offer was rash. Domestic arrangements in that house were ad hoc to say the least. The kitchen, which was on the top floor, was also, mysteriously, but traditionally, the repository for rubbish, and you had to step over several bursting black bin-liners to get to the fridge. The fridge was invariably either empty or sparsely furnished with a few rancid leftovers. Therefore, it was greatly to my relief when Mrs. Sterling said:
"I have a better idea. Let's go out for a bite."
A great idea, but there was a drawback. Sean and I looked at each other. For students, this was a time of great famine, before the subsistence grants arrived.
"I'm not sure..." I started, but Mrs. Sterling sensed the problem.
"It's all right, sweetheart. It's on me."
Sean stirred into action: "In that case..."
It was a balmy late July evening as we set out through the streets of Brighton. Sean seemed to fancy an al fresco feast of roll-mops and chips, but Mrs. Sterling clearly had something more elaborate in mind. As a sort of compromise, we decided on a pre-dinner drink and dropped in at the Velvet Explosion. It was early evening and Sean used a little influence to get us past the door free of charge. In some previous incarnation, he had known the bouncer. In the club, the stale smell of the night before had not yet been replaced by the current atmosphere, and, with the lights on, the black velvet and sheet steel décor looked cheap. Mrs. Sterling led us to the bar and ordered.
"Two bottles of Newcastle Brown…"
"Make it four," Sean interrupted. "They don't last very long, you see."
"I see," continued Mrs. Sterling. "Four bottles and a vodka Martini. Better make that two. No, on second thoughts, six bottles."
We were impressed.
We found a table and sat down to watch the house band. To our considerable surprise, Latif, resplendent in the colorful robes of Africa, was adding some fluent conga rhythms to the small jazz-rock ensemble. When he saw us, he flashed us a cocky smile, and we responded by raising our bottles. Here was a man of serious credibility, a man you felt proud to be associated with.
"Do you know that black fellow?" asked Mrs. Sterling, clearly intrigued.
"Why aye man," Sean enthused. "That's Latif, the Ghanaian conga man."
"He's a bit of a celebrity," I added.
"I'm not surprised," murmured Mrs. Sterling admiringly.
As Latif moved up a notch in rhythmic intensity, Sean and I exchanged looks. It could be awkward if Heather now emerged from the "library" into the decadent heart of the Velvet Explosion.
"So, you like this kind of music, Mrs. Sterling?"
"Gordon, you are a sweet boy, but if you call me that again, I'm going to clobber you with one of these bottles."
In a lull in the proceedings, I caught Latif at the bar and quizzed him about Heather. To my absolute amazement, she was indeed at the library, but was intending to catch the train into Brighton later on.
"And who's the chick, man?" asked Latif with serious interest.
"The chick?" I was dumb.
"Yeah, man, the chick sitting with you at the table."
"Oh, that's Heather's mother."
"You're kidding!" He expressed his vast sense of wonder with a roar of laughter. "Come on, you'd better introduce me."
"Are you sure?" but before my objections could be voiced, he was leading the way to the table.
From the moment Latif introduced himself, adding the impressive title of Prince to his previous plain Latif, Penny and he seemed to really hit it off, leaving me and Sean dangling meaninglessly off the other end of the table. In our earshot, Latif explained, somewhat ambiguously, that he was giving Heather "lessons" and then the conversation became intense and private; Latif was explaining something; Penny was looking at him sceptically over her dark glasses; they both burst out laughing. When the band struck up again, Latif explained that he was going to sit this one out. Sean and I were a little peeved. Our meal ticket looked as though it was about to be hoovered up by Latif's endless mysterious charisma.
The room, which had been empty when we arrived, was beginning to fill, and now, excluded from the conversation, I looked around to see a small group of mods around the thirty mark looking pointedly in our direction. They seemed to have some interest in us and started moving through the tables. When I looked around again, Latif was coolly disappearing over the stage and out of sight.
Menacingly, the three men sat down at our table.
"He a friend of yours?" asked one of them.
"What? You mean Latif?"
"Latif!" he scoffed. "Latif? What kind of a name is that?"
The question was meant to be rhetorical, but I tried my best: "Yes, he's from Ghana. He's a great conga player."
My answer was obviously not cutting it, and the man continued to stare menacingly into my eyes. "Are you just stupid or are you deliberately pissing me about?"
My expression was attempting to say "Neither" when Sean waded in.
"Hey, what's the problem man?"
The accent brought an immediate response.
"Hey, Gaffa, we've got a Geordie," said another mod.
"Yeah, a fucking Geordie. I hate the bastards," reasoned Gaffa.
Penny, who had been listening to all this, decided to intervene.
"I have no idea what you people want, but I'm becoming tired with the tone of the conversation and suggest you fuck off before I call the manager."
"Ooh, la di da!" said Gaffa, and then to me: "Who's this? Yer mum?"
Penny coolly beckoned him over, and, to our amazement, Gaffa obeyed. She took him aside and said a few words. In those few magic moments, his aggressive posture wilted visibly to one of submission. He nodded, and we heard him say: "OK, keep your hair on."
His friend took up the cause: "You asked what the problem was. It's this," and he produced from his pocket a small object wrapped in silver paper. He gave it to me.
"Go on," he said. "Open it."
"Uncool, man!" Sean objected.
I opened the package and looked down at the lump of resin.
"Give it a sniff. Go on, taste a bit."
I broke a little corner off the deal and tasted it.
"Well?" demanded the man. "What is it?"
"Exactly. For a quarter of an Oxo cube, I paid your friend twenty quid."
"More fool you," said Penny. "Now if you don't mind?"
The sidekick was about to say something when Gaffa grabbed his arm and stopped him: "Well," he said, "next time you see our friend, just remind him that he owes Gaffa twenty quid. Incidentally, no more of this Latif crap. His name is Des, and this is probably the nearest he ever got to the dark continent."
"Are you sure you've got the right person?" I asked.
Gaffa didn't need to answer and just gave me a pitying look.
They left with Gaffa explaining something to his friends.
"How did you manage that?" Sean asked Penny.
"I mentioned a few names of some of my London acquaintances. Some of the people who finance my husband's shows. They are the sort of people who can guarantee an audience. He seemed to recognize one of the names."
"What, the Kray twins?" asked Sean, clearly impressed. His reading of Genet had planted in his head the idea that criminals were revolutionaries in their own small way.
"Sort of thing," replied Penny.
"You know something, you're a dangerous woman, Mrs. Sterling!" said Sean.
She smiled: "You don't know the half of it."
I remember that dinner at Angelo's went off pretty much without a hitch except that the management objected to Sean's "muscles" T shirt and loaned him a ludicrously outsized jacket and tie, a strategy that only seemed to add hilarity to the proceedings. Those were conservative days as far as food was concerned and Penny graciously helped us decipher the menu. She was on good form and entertained us with anecdotes from the glittering world of London showbiz and the London underworld, but as she drank a darker reality began to show through. She began to vent some spleen against her famous and wayward husband. We had no idea, darling, what it was like to be married to a queer with all his nasty little queer friends. Life, apparently, was comfortable but oh so boring. One didn't like anyone or trust anyone. More wine was poured and she thought she might jack it all in and come and be a student. After all, she wasn't that old.
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Sean enthused. "But tell me Penny, I'm curious - how come you got married to a homosexual? I mean, it doesn't seem entirely logical."
She took a deep drag on her Perfumed Cloud and contemplated Sean's question.
"But they're all bent, you see--the whole British upper class--only they're very hypocritical about it. You would never know to look at them. And anyway, I don't think I'd be any better off married to a navvy who demands a fuck every night. At least Terry doesn't pester me."
This explanation didn't seem entirely watertight, but its effect was stunning enough to segue the conversation into a demand for the bill. When it arrived, Sean said "Do you mind?" and had a look at it.
"Bugger me!" he said and handed it back.
"I know, I know, it could feed a northern town full of proletarians for at least a month," she sighed. "But don't worry about it, darling. Life is hard and my mission for today is to feed a couple of starving students. Terry can afford it."
Life was about to get harder.
As we emerged from The Lanes into the town centre, I was suddenly examining the pavement from very close range. The world went black and red.
Someone said "Get the Geordie fucker!" and I recognised the voice of Gaffa. I rolled over and looked up to see Sean pinned against a wall being pummeled by a group of skinheads. Despite his slight appearance, Sean could be a hard bastard. He was one of those skinny, white-skinned youths who could summon up deceptive strength, but against these odds he was powerless. He went down and they started to put the boot in. I staggered to my feet and tried to say something, but the words would not come out. I lurched into the road and a car, swerving to avoid me, crashed into a shop window and started off an alarm. By now, a small crowd was gathering, thoroughly enjoying the evening's entertainment.
I heard someone say "Watch the woman!" and a strange liquid crack silenced the hubbub.
"Oh, no," said on of the skinheads," she's fucking killed him," and I was aware of their Doc Martens clattering off up the road.
Someone helped me to my feet and I joined the spectators, mesmerized by the sight of Gaffa sitting in a stunned heap on the pavement with blood pulsing regularly from a neat stiletto hole in his forehead. Penny was putting the offending shoe back on and discussing the matter with a policeman.
Considering the gravity of potential charges--GBH, unlawful wounding, causing an affray--things went remarkably smoothly at the police station. My own mind was filled with shameful images of public humiliation and Sean muttered darkly about inevitable police brutality, but within five minutes of arrival, Penny had secured us a pleasant interview room well away from the Saturday night dregs. She had ingratiated herself with the constable who accompanied us and did a good job of explaining her thoroughly maternal reasons for being in Brighton. Within the hour, a solicitor had arrived and, as Gaffa did not intend to press charges, we were able to make a brief statement and go. The desk sergeant waved us on our way like old friends whose departure would leave a hole in his life. He was glad to have been of assistance.
As we limped home, I felt a vast sense of relief, but Sean was putting another gloss on things. Perversely, he seemed almost disappointed at the outcome.
"It's only because of you they let us off you know." He addressed his remark to Penny. "If it hadn't been for your fancy lawyer, we'd have been in the cells tonight."
Penny put up with the remarks for a hundred yards and then stopped.
"You've got quite a chip on your shoulder haven't you? In fact, you're quite an ungrateful little sod."
"It's just that your sort of people..."
The sentence finished in a groan and the wet slap of Sean's meal hitting the pavement. We halted for a few seconds, averting our eyes from the scene.
"Feeling better now, darling?" asked Penny.
"I'm all right," Sean replied and we stumbled on.
Penny was limping slightly and took my arm for support.
"Here. That's right," she said and pulled my arm round her waist as we walked on.
It was with a feeling of intense pleasure that I supported half the weight of The Queen of Sheba. The feeling of relief coupled with the strong musky scent from her hair were almost overwhelming and I began to wish the walk longer. My hand around her waist became intensely tactile in contact with her slim frame and I felt the firm contour of a breast against my torso.
Back at Sefton Street, a small crowd had gathered to witness an amazing sight. They were looking up and saying things like, "Don't do it. Life can't be that bad!" One party suggested someone went to get a blanket to catch the potential suicide. An elderly resident took a different view and asked what the world had come to with strange black men climbing up drainpipes to murder us in our beds. She invited him to go back to Africa. At that moment, the prospect probably felt quite attractive.
"It's all right, just go away," hissed Latif from the first floor window ledge. We could only presume that he had seen a light left on and had climbed the drainpipe in the reasonable belief that we would let him in. Now we weren't so sure we would as we made our way in a dignified fashion to the front door, smiling nonchalantly to the crowd of onlookers as if such things happened every day.
Once inside, we considered leaving him sitting out there for a while. He knocked on the window; he smiled; he pleaded.
"Suppose we'd better let the bastard in," said Sean and flung up the sash.
"What a night!" said Latif as he clambered through the window. "You can't imagine."
No one spoke. Latif said, "Christ, man, I need a joint," and started to roll up.
"Not that Oxo stuff, is it?" Sean quipped.
"Oxo? Don't know what you're talking about, man. No, this is the best Red Leb."
"Glad to hear it," said Sean. "Wouldn't want to be polluting me lungs with some sticky beef extract."
Latif looked down at his handiwork and came close to contrition.
"I take it you met Gaffa."
"You could put it that way," I replied. "In fact, we nearly died for you tonight. He set a bunch of skinheads on us."
"Gaffa? You should have told him to fuck off."
"We did," said Sean. "That was the problem."
Penny was examining the only injury she had sustained, a slight graze on her knee. Her life was charmed in comparison with ours. My head was still spinning and Sean's face showed several nasty bruises, but Latif only showed an interest in her.
"You want to get that looked at," he said. "Could turn nasty. You don't want an infection."
Penny looked at the tiny wound thoughtfully.
"You think so?"
"Yeah, definitely. Let me look."
Latif took hold of Penny's lower leg in a professional fashion and peered at the graze.
"Look, I'll just clean it up for you."
Penny seemed to think it was a good idea.
"For Christ's sake," said Sean. "It's only a graze, man."
"Anyway," I added," what qualifications have you got?"
"I trained as a nurse, you know," said Latif.
"What, in Ghana?"
"No, London." He seemed genuinely mystified by my question. "Come on," he said, and dragged Penny off to the bathroom, turning in a purposeful way to grab a half-empty bottle of Vodka from the floor. "Antiseptic," he explained.
"Aye, man. You'll need antiseptic in there! But go easy on the Vodka," said Sean. He was quite right. In the risk-of-infection stakes, the bathroom ran a close second to the kitchen.
Penny and Latif took a long time over the minor operation. At one point, there was a little shriek and then it was quiet again.
"Must be doing a very thorough job," said Sean. I could imagine.
We had our suspicions, and when Latif emerged to roll another joint and pick up a couple of glasses, they were confirmed. The party in the bathroom became noisier. Glasses clinked and laughter could be detected: first Latif's, then Penny's, shortly to be followed by non-verbal utterances of an unmistakable kind.
A stone clicked against the window and I went to look. It was Heather. As I passed the bathroom on the way downstairs, I rapped on the door and suggested the occupiers hurry up. In a throaty baritone, Latif replied in song, quoting a famous hook line from the Supremes, and they both laughed.
"So," said Heather, weighted down with an unaccustomed burden of books, "Latif's here, I see." She indicated the congas which he had absentmindedly left by the door. "What's going on?"
"Hard to explain," I said.
As we passed the bathroom, Heather said. "God, I'm bursting for a leak," and pushed the door. "Come on," she insisted, "get a move on!"
At which point, I withdrew to a safe distance and shut the door to the living room.
Voices were subdued - surprised. Then voices became louder. Questions were raised of the rhetorical kind and then of a more direct variety. Feet pounded the stairs and a door slammed. I looked out of the window and saw Heather running across the street. More footfalls and another door slamming. Latif was following.
When the Queen of Sheba emerged, she was looking slightly shaken and started to collect her things as we sat in silence.
"Well, I suppose I'd better be going," she said and staggered a little under the influence. "I'm afraid I've really fucked up here." She sat down, put her head in her hands and started to sob. I started to melt but Sean was merciless, having spotted a chink in the armor of the ruling class.
"You only have yourself to blame, you know," he said.
"I know, I know," she said, rocking herself gently.
"Your behaviour was totally reprehensible and only goes to confirm what I was saying earlier. This is all to do with class. The bourgeoisie, they just can't resist the tendency to exploit the situation. Your behaviour was totally... situationist."
Sean's detour into the arcane world of Marxist language, which mainly touched on class, exploitation and colonialism, seemed to me thoroughly inappropriate, but strangely, Penny seemed to be listening and taking it all in. She lifted a tearful face to Sean and looked at him with baleful and mascara-smudged eyes.
"Go on. You're right of course."
Sean was not quite ready for this role of father-confessor to an upper class Jezebel. He stumbled a bit as he tried to put together the correct ideological analysis; all the time Penny nodded and sighed.
"Someone should have told me this years ago," she said and reached out to touch Sean's hand. "Thank you."
The remains of the Vodka were retrieved, joints were rolled and earnest ideological discussion ensued. Penny was the contrite student at the feet of the master. She thought she might take a degree in sociology. She was going to face up to her situation and take stock of her life. They were going great guns and it was at the point that Sean was explaining that sociology was, in fact, all bourgeois revisionism that I finally slipped into unconsciousness on the sofa.
It was suspiciously quiet when I came round in the morning. I looked out of the window and Penny's car was still there. Sean's bedroom door opened and I caught sight of Penny, wrapped in a sheet, making a dash for the bathroom. Apparently bourgeois situationism was still rampant. Presently, Sean limped into the living room and slumped exhausted on the sofa. He didn't speak but rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling to indicate the ordeal he had been through. If he wanted sympathy, he wouldn't get it from me. I went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee, swilling the rancid milk around to disperse the coagulating scum on the surface. Penny came in and looked over my shoulder.
"I think I'll have black," she said. The clothes were elegant, the make-up meticulously applied and a strong reek of perfume almost entirely masked the scent of sex on her breath. She fumbled in her handbag for her pack of Perfumed Cloud.
"Oh, bugger," she said. "My lighter's fucked. You wouldn't be a darling would you and pop down and get me a box of Swan?"
In the newsagents, the morning papers shouted the headlines at me: "A SMALL STEP FOR MAN..." This was something that had passed me by completely, and, to be honest, the pictures looked a bit blurred and furry.
"Did you watch it on the box?" asked the man behind the counter.
"No. Otherwise engaged, I'm afraid. Was it good?"
"Bit of a let down, if you ask me."
"Got a box of Swan?"
"Sorry, no Swan. Only England's Glory."
As I stepped out into the bright morning, I looked down towards the sea and had to rub my eyes. Merging into the gun-metal grey of the sea was the fantastic outline of a warship--a cruiser at least--possibly a battleship, which seemed to tower to a height at least equal with me. I had no idea such things still existed. It was the perspective that was unusual, the way the whole gigantic contraption, with its incomprehensible complexity, its funnels and gun-turrets, its helicopter deck and bristling nest of aerials seemed to gaze down on the town, even though it must have been a few hundred yards off shore. Wafting up from the promenade came the faint sound of a brass band playing "Hearts of Oak" in some bizarre celebration of the nation's past.
I felt as though those monstrous guns would open up at any moment in retribution for the events of the night before, flattening Brighton like some modern-day Gomorrah. Seized by a sudden desire to go home for the day, I thought I might submit myself to the time-honored ritual of Sunday lunch in the sleepy reaches of suburbia.
Penny was just pulling off in the MG when I got back, and gave me a little finger wave, nonchalant and, once again, regal.
"Your matches!" I shouted, and she pulled up.
"Gordon, you are a sweetheart! Thank you."
"How are you feeling this morning?" I ventured.
"Absolutely fine. And thank you for helping me hobble home."
"My pleasure. Look. If you're going back to London, can I cadge a lift to Streatham?"
She opened the door: "Hop in, darling."
As the streets of Brighton whirled dizzily by, I lit us a couple of Perfumed Cloud and felt pleased that for the first time I had The Queen of Sheba all to myself. When we hit the dual carriage-way, it felt safe enough to talk.
"So you're really going to become a Marxist?" I asked.
She smiled and said, "What do you think?"
"You don't seem very happy. Perhaps it would help you find a direction."
"A direction, maybe, but happiness, that's a different thing."
I wasn't expecting philosophy but Penny pressed on. "That's what I have in common with Sean. Neither of us was meant to be happy. Now you're a different matter."
When we pulled up outside my parents' semi-detached, I was aware of a couple of curtains twitching.
"I'll make a prediction," she said. "You'll be happy. You'll probably live in a street just like this one. You'll have a steady job, you'll work hard and no one will thank you for it. You'll never amount to much, but you will be happy."
As I stood there watching the little red sports car turn the corner, I felt a little put down. But as the years passed, I often thought about Penny's prediction, and even though, then as now, I had this deep conviction that I was missing out on something, I am glad to say that it turned out to be substantially true.
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