|Jul/Aug 2004 fiction|
Flamingos, that's right, they stand on one leg? I mean you're a big fat pink bird, big belly, you got two legs, so you use one?
Lemmings chuck themselves off cliffs, yeah?
Why do African elephants have different ears to Indian elephants? Fer God's sake, come ON! All that Darwinian shit, all the evolution, stick an ocean between two continents, wait a million years, and what do you get? One set of big, gray ears, another set of big, gray ears, but a teensy bit different. Hoo-fucking-ray.
And why, oh fucking why do we fall in love with people who fall in love with people, who fall in love with the people who don't want us? Why is there this big shit-aching circle of not-wanting? There must be circles somewhere where it goes right round all the way back to miserable Jack or suicidal Jill. Hey, YOU!! Will you turn round, you moron!? LOOK! Jill wants you. She's beautiful, she's lonely, she wants YOU, your heart, your love, your body, and meanwhile you want Jenny?
You big, dumb, pathetic computer programmer. Jenny wants Tom! But Tom is getting married to Angela (even though she doesn't love him, doesn't even fancy him).
No, Angela desperately wants Clyde. This Clyde screwed her when she was pissed one Christmas party (he doesn't remember much about it) before moving on to stalk Sheila, but Angie-Baby, Angie thinks it's love.
Oh, she knows Clyde is unattainable—Clydes always are—and she's sad. That's why she's marrying Tom, but meanwhile, while the day comes closer, she's bonking David, her boss. She's not sure why.
David is unhappy because ten years ago he didn't turn round and he accidentally caught the woman he thought he wanted to marry. She, of course, was wounded. (Her name is Olivia.) She'd had a bad experience when her merry-go-round broke down and she got off with a guy called Nigel, but Nigel's two friends were in the next room, and, well...
The morning after pill worked, but she still wasn't sure, and she wouldn't go to the HIV clinic, even though Marcia (who wore her dark hair very short and liked to hold Olivia's hand and stroke her face) said, "But you must. Oh, Olly, you absolutely must!"
Sheila, well, Sheila, Sheila is so unhappy, she likes to tease stalking Clyde. She stands naked at the window, licks the end of that over-sized vibrator, and drops her hands below the window-line. She doesn't even use the stupid thing; but to wait at the window, to arch her back and watch (or at least imagine, because he always hides) C-C-Clyde gives her the kind of happiness that has turned her into a functioning drunk.
Jill wants Jack.
Jack wants Jenny.
Jenny wants Tom.
Tom thinks he wants Angela.
Angela wants Clyde.
Clyde wants Olivia.
Marcia wants Olivia.
No-one wants Marcia.
Marcia doesn't want Marcia.
Olivia wants to forget.
Jack, just turn round. You're not a fucking flamingo. Turn round!
He used to have this dream, this wild idea, that at absolute ground zero, right inside the mushroom, something might survive. Once he read how when the battleship HMS Hood blew up (a 500 pounder straight into the magazine) a guy deep in the ship was shot like a bullet up through nine decks, didn't touch a side, went two hundred feet up, came down in the sea, and lived. Like that.
Once he was sat on a train, opposite a woman called Gloria. She smoked. She read Jilly Cooper. He stepped away to use the stinking British Rail toilet, there was a bang, thirty-five dead, and this Gloria was spread over thirty yards of track. Like that.
They called it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, how he ate wild lunches, drank red wine by the litre-and-a-half, then ate out for dinner, drank more wine, then sluiced down Italian Brandy Liqueurs.
They said PTSS. PTSS was the reason he punched a guy half to death for stepping in front of his car. "You stupid, dumb arsehole. You trying to die? You stupid—" Slap-slap-slap.
And then it faded, he put on ten years in one, two stone, and a thick, unpleasant skin. He stopped wanting love and started needing sex. He'd take anything, take on anything. He fucked for company.
What he couldn't be was alone.
And then he was better. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. I went to the wedding. His bride dressed in red and stood on impossible heels. She was pregnant. They called the kid after me. He was a good kid. They thought it might hold them together.
But she started going out nights. Girl's night, Thursdays, aerobics Friday. Would he stay in, mind Robby? Was he OK? He looked low. Did he want to go for a run, she wasn't going out till seven-thirty?
"I don't like you going out," he said.
"You can come with me," she said.
"I just want to stay in," he said, "With you. Me and you. I want to put my head on your lap and fall asleep."
"I've made arrangements," she said.
The night it happened, he came round. He shook my hand. He said, "Rob, you're all right. If you'd been my Dad..." Then he went off. A neighbour was minding Robby, him and Dee were going out. Then he said, "Give us a hug, yer bastard," and laughed.
It was almost real.
They found them in the car, in the river. I asked them not to tell me anything else. I got Robbo. He's upstairs. Nice kid. Like his Dad.
Me and his dad, we used to wonder. If you drove a car into a river, and sat very still, how long would the air last? Was the car waterproof? How did you get out? How cold would the water be? We used to say, is there a spot, right at ground zero, that no matter how bad it all is, right there, right in the exact middle, where it's safe?
Waiting is what he remembers. He was a child, he was a young man, he was alone in the house, beside the coal fire.
He always sat so that the monster, the intruder, the burglar—someone from inside him—had to come through the sitting-room door and TURN. That was enough, he thought then, enough time to allow him to pick up the poker, stand, threaten.
This is what he suddenly remembered yesterday, that dark, slow-burning, totally certain expectation, that fear, those demons. But demons who only went through doors, and had to check, turn, swivel, and face the raised iron weight, his last-ditch defiance.
Now he is an old man, stiff, unwieldy. He has lived with central heating, no coal, no iron poker, for fifty, sixty years. (He doesn't remember when he finally stopped imagining but he thinks he was a young man.)
He might talk about this, or write. In his diary he might say, "When I was young, I had a terrible fear, and I sat, always the same place, a poker nearby."
But what worries him now is that he must have been alone so much—he is certain the memory is real—and what does that say about his growing, what does it say about loneliness, what does it say about now, the jealousies, the fears, the layers of scar-tissue, the long aching night of his life, the way he would fuck for company, how he would wheel round to find another way, any way to avoid an empty house, the dull, simmering fire, and his corner, his, the demons, his, the dark, defensive poker?