We couldn't have planned for the Paris attacks, but we spent a long weekend in Brussels right at the height of the state of emergency.
It's the first time I've been on a dancefloor whilst outside, through the square window, soldiers and police are walking around brandishing yard-long guns. But we carried on dancing, despite the cancellation of the Saturday night on the orders of the police.
On the first night, without it being arranged, we were taken under the wing of one of the DJs, Willy, for whom the word "connoisseur" was invented, someone deeply knowledgeable about both soul music and Belgian beer, and who introduced me to many beers, amongst which was the first ever Swiss lambic, and who was to be our guide for the rest of the weekend.
On the Saturday night, we had been invited to join the DJs and the organisers for a meal, but we were the only ones that made it to the judurically becalmed suburb where it was to take place. The patron, talkative almost to the point of irritation, presented us with the amuse-gueules he'd made to welcome our party: little balls of something I hope never to eat again -- foie gras.
Afterwards, me and Trina went for a couple of drinks in an old bar in the Place de la Chapelle. I was listening to a woman who was speaking slowly and in straightforward French to her friends -- although I don't know what made one of the latter scowl and wring out the briefest of replies, when, concerned that we were crowding them on the long table, I said "Pardon, ça ne vous derange pas si nous nous asseyons ici? On peut bouger si vous preférez." But manners are difficult to get right à etranger, and perhaps to a Belgian that sounds like "You're taking up all the room. Budge up, can you?" Anyone who could tell me what was wrong with that, please do.
Willy rang to say he could pick us up in half an hour and take us to a bar outside the police cordon where some of his friends would be. It was but half past ten, we were in Brussels, yet Trina didn't want to come along, so she walked back to the flat on the one night when a woman could walk home alone at night unworried.
Willy picked me up from the Place de la Chapelle and took me to a bar somewhere in St Gilles where we sat talking and drinking with a couple of his friends and some other people who just happened to be there. Trina was delighted to see me at dawn, merrily pissed, and gave me the warm welcome home for which her sex is famous when faced with a drunken man clattering noisily in at 7.30am talking about Swiss beer.
"You could have rung. It's 7.30. You're going to be all grumpy in the morning." "I can only see one grumpy person here," I said. Why do all women behave like this?
Central Brussels opened a little on Sunday, but the club was only just outside the cordon, and only a dozen or so people made it in, but those inside danced to some great music, from the less irritating end of Northern Soul to the more modern Soulful House that moves my trouser creases more directly. We made V-signs to whoever was responsible for the perturbations. I thought that some members of the Belgian armed forces look a bit like lads out on a fancy dress do.
Trina floated about, disarmingly e'd-up, coaxing a Spaniard and her Portuguese friend onto the dancefloor. This gorgeous woman from Nottingham was sinuous in black and her chatty husband didn't seem to mind me scanning her.
Willy was there. "The English," I said, "behave like imperialists." "Yes, and so do the French." We couldn't help but hear a loudly-spoken man with a London accent at the bar, doing an occasional single clap that is an act of attention-seeking passed off as an access of aesthetic pleasure. "He's a Cockney," I said to Willy. "Yes, and he is behaving like one too."
I went to dance with Miss Nottingham, before, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a fly about to land in the ointment. Our Southern friend was complaining to Trina about the couple who were sat in the corner quietly using the wifi. I went to rescue her and he asked me whether I thought that most people in Brussels look like criminals. "Bear in mind, mate, that you're saying that whilst wearing a pork pie hat and talking in a Cockney accent." He didn't understand, so I had to simplify it for him. "No, I don't, to be honest" and he walked away.
At the Eurostar terminal on the way back, we got talking to a couple from Essex about beer, and he opened a bottle of Dutch dubbel for us to share. On the train we opened our stash of Moinette, Mort Subite (a jam of melted strawberry penny chews, but Trina likes it) and a couple of Floreffe.
The five minute walk from St Pancras to Euston was a wade through gritted teeth and self-asserting impatience. No idea of the space being social.
On the train back to Lancaster we got moved into first class by a former colleague of mine, and had two large glasses of red.
Pub news. Bumped into Erica and hubby, pleasantly off their heads. Erica had had two friends round for lunch yesterday and they'd got through eight bottles of wine, a bottle of gin, and two grams of coke.
Then Vic and Barry turned up. Barry is keen on us blokes to go out "not on the pull -- you've not got to think of it like that" -- which means it is exactly like that.
It was partly my fault. I was moaning about the predictable pattern of all my dates: a night down the pub which ends up her saying she's had a lovely night and other sinking compliments, and an offer of Farce book.
I told Barry that were this night of vapid peacockery were to happen I would do my best and not be miserable or detached, at least until midnight.
The students are out en masse, inoffensively group-absorbed, all long a's and lingerie tops; do we have to faces on some of them as a man conducts them with a waving hand into tequila shots. The Left Hand Miniskirt Hold Manoeuvre as girls go flimsily up the stairs.
To some extent it's been about the drink these last two weeks. There's been a bloggy congeries, from Exile asking a question of Furtheron and then a comment of mine prompting a post of his. There was also Will Self's fascinating essay on nicotine in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. Nicotine, he said, is like heroin and crack: you're in a permanent state of withdrawal.
Our local paper unwittingly caught my mood too. It reported on a list of the fifty local authorities with the highest level of A&E admissions which were recorded as being connected with alcohol. We came forty-first out of about six hundred.
I am mid-email in the office where I do a bit of reception work each week. The clients have all had their talking-to, and it is just me, Maria José and the white noise of the photocopier.
"Can I say...", she hesitated, "something personal?" "Yes of course," I said, unworried. I find most people boring, and their hesitant preambles rarely lead to anything. "I notice you have not had a drink tonight." I am confused. We have access to a kitchen and I can get myself a drink at any time. "What... you mean..?" And then it dawned on me.
"Because I notice, you have not had a drink today."
"Oh alcohol, you mean?"
"Yes, alcohol. You have not had a drink of alcohol?"
"Er... yes I have," I said. "Oh well perhaps that is for you every day."
"I hope you don't mind," she continued, thwarted in her well-meant positive reinforcement. "No, no, not at all," I said. I couldn't think quickly enough of a follow-up that would make her feel unembarrassed, and she gathered together her kilos of files and bade me an over-smiled good evening.
A few days later, I am with what has become a regular coterie of sots. Nathaniel walks in. "Alright Nat? How are you?"
"Shit. I've been sacked. Well, suspended, but I'm going to be sacked."
He's a barman and has been helping himself to the top shelf. "'Do you want to see the CCTV?'" said [the landlord]. No, it's OK, I know what this is about. Can we get on with it?"
We tried to gee him up, but then he told us it's the fourth time he's been caught doing this. He said that he throws up most mornings. "I'm just afraid of what's going to happen." Behind his closed eyes he was looking upwards to avoid crying in front of us. "It's one of the best jobs I've ever had. I really like working there, and I've fucked it up." He gave up his resistance and went to the toilet.
While he was upstairs I said to the others "If you're like that, why don't you get a bottle of gin or something and keep it in your jacket and swig it when you're out of the CCTV?"
It was my brother's 50th on Saturday. Trina was supposed to be driving us and the girls over to County Durham. She arrived from her house in the morning looking frazzled, saying that the rain was sluicing the roads in her flatlands, and there was a fog of spray on the M6. She didn't feel up to driving over the Pennines.
We were only going over for the day, and it would only have been for a sober pub meal. Only my sister of my family drinks, and I feel uneasy drinking in the company of uncomprehending teetotallers. "They are not our comrades," as Sergei Korovin said; but I regretted missing it, and posted his present with a letter.
We went down the pub instead, then came back here and put some house music on. I curtailed the dancing after an hour or so, suggesting we could have sex instead. Which we did.
I feel like a fucking dog, a fucking, dog. Even after we had outwardly gone to sleep, I was mentally composing a filthy card to Frances -- "I know looby, but the best fucks are the mad ones" -- who lives five minutes away. Permutations of zips and skirts and dresses and kitchen tables and cock and mouth and perineum and the reverse cowgirl and her gorgeous widened W arse from that viewpoint. I turned Trina over and fucked her again. Not right is it?
I took my youngest to the dentist in Morecambe the other day. Slashing rain and what felt like a long walk from the railway station to the surgery, during which part of the patched sole fell off from my left shoe, so that I was blotting my foot with every step.
The first question he asked my sixteen-year-old was "Do you smoke?"
Partly in the light of Isabelle's comment, and partly because I thought it might be worth trying to have a bit more patience in this internetted age, I texted Naomi tonight.
Hello Naomi, I hope it's not too late to say this but we had a lovely night and we got on, and the acid test, I don't think either of us were struggling for anything to say. So just a suggestion -- do you fancy going out again? X
Hi, I enjoyed myself but as you predicted I'd like us to just be friends but I know that's not what you're looking for. I'd like us to stay in touch and go out but it's whether you are OK about how I feel. I'm busy this weekend but let me know and we could meet up again sometime which I would like. Looby -- you are a one-off, sweet, honest and entertaining. Thanks for the message and hopefully see you again. If you would like to connect on Facebook it's [...]
Thank you for being so honest and for your kind compliments. But I'm not really looking for a friend. All the best x.
Ah ok I understand. I sincerely hope you find someone who is lovely. You deserve it and as they say -- there is someone for everyone. Hugs x
Yes, Naomi, and as they don't ever say, "Look, I just don't fancy you," the modern form of which is paper-thin, unwelcome compliments, and then an offer of Facebook.
A friend of Kim's asked me if I fancied showing him how to set up a few things on his computer. He's a racing commentator and needs to get to grips with cron jobs and so on.
We decided to meet halfway, in Manchester -- walking straight into the mêlée of Man City v Sevilla, bellowing Englishmen and visiting fans from the loudest country in Europe. We squeezed ourselves onto a table in Wetherspoons with an elderly man having an afternoon out on the orange squash.
Bob, whom I hadn't met before, arrived and we got through a merrily talkative couple of pints -- racing commentator is quite an interesting job -- before he suggested another bar "which might be quieter." It was that testosteroned Argos-decorated bar opposite the Malmaison. Its website advertises "ice-cold refreshing beers", which tells you all you need to know about the target clientele: fat wallops bound into straining miniskirts and Crosshatched, G-Starred men. Mass muzak and strobing screens of football.
We had a single pint of international chemicals, before I said "Look Bob, we can't work in this place and everywhere's going to be packed today. Why don't we just sack this off for today and go to that poncy craft ale place near the station and at least have something decent to drink?" We sat amidst addicted texters, beards, square specs, and jeans with large turn-ups, and had an almost ten pounds round of Czech pilsner and English bitter.
On Thursday a woman from Preston got in touch saying my dating profile was "hilarious." A fortysomething woman (atheist, likes real ale, doesn't like camping) with a dark blonde bob and a black shift dress standing next to a Kandinsky painting in the Rijksmuseum is sex, and a portion of the night before I met her was spent in sexual imaginings.
A couple of messages later, she suggested meeting up. So we went to the Sun Hotel last night. I was tired and she was held up in traffic, and I had nodded off in the pub when she walked in, instantly making me wide-eyed in her low-cut mottled green knee-length cotton dress and green and creme flatties. I told her she looked gorgeous.
At the end, the usual circumlocution. "That's alright," I said. "This is why I'm single. Every date ends like this, year in, year out," a self-pitying remark I immediately regretted saying.
When i got in, I texted Wendy and Kitty. We'd spent the afternoon together in the same pub and they'd asked me to give me an update afterwards. "Oh well... yet another night of chatting myself into the friendzone. I am absolutely fed up to the back teeth of making all this effort and every date I go on sees me as a friend. What the fuck is wrong with me? Sorry just fucking fed up. Normal service will be resumed shortly."
Then I texted Naomi. "Hey I've just had a lovely night with, I kid you not, the most desirable woman I've ever met on this thing, who made it worse by being amiable and chatty company. I wish you well N and hope you find someone nice. All the best and thank you for schlepping up from Preston X"
She replied, "Aw, thank you you are very kind. I also had a brilliant evening. So refreshing to meet such a lovely genuine deep-thinking compassionate fun and interesting guy. I also wish you luck in finding someone who will make you happy. And you're a fab hugger. Sending love and peace Naomi x"
I don't give a shit about all that. I want to be found attractive. I want to be kissed. I got out of bed, took some speed, knowing that I was so tired that it wouldn't last long, and put one of my favourite house mixes on, to have a soundtrack on top of which to repeatedly say and think and make gestures to accompany the variants of "Friends, Naomi? Fuck that."
"I hope I haven't fucked it up with you already, Lesley. It's just that I'm not really into that social media stuff. Autumn's a lovely season and a repeat of that walk in better shoes would be a good idea."
What the fuck am I saying? I don't like walking.
"And let me say it was a pleasure to meet a woman who spoke her mind for a change."
"Why do you think you fucked it up? We had a larf and talked bollocks. What more could one want. A walk up the Knott or similar would be nice if you fancy it."
On Friday I had bad hayfever, and in the evening the whole of the front of my face and teeth and jaw started hurting; I didn't sleep much. Histamine reaction because of too much drink. Another opportunity for a lesson to be ignored.
Saturday, and Kitty and Wendy were sparkling with the prospect of a child-free afternoon. "Oops, I'm sorry! Wrong house. Beg your pardon," I said, to Kitty's near-neighbour, a twentysomething girl who has twice opened the door to see a stranger with a bottle of Prosecco about to walk in.
We divided the optical brighteners up between us, and waited until the head-shaking, oyster-swallowing bit had passed. The pain in my face was dissolved, then saturated into pleasure. I stroked my jawline almost not believing it.
It was our annual Music Festival, a giddy air in the streets, and a hint of Bakhtinian carnivalesque. In the Borough, a trio of young men from Leeds were playing wistfully on muted trumpet, drums, and keyboards. Lesley was sitting a couple of yards away behind a pillar, on what looked like another date. I didn't say hello. Kitty and Wendy said he looked permed and made-up. "It's OK," I thought. "I'm never in competition with any other man."
Sunday was Wendy's daughter's birthday, a flabby ceilidh at the yoghurt-knitters' cafe. Wendy's ex shakes my hand with a mistrustful, palm-avoiding concave.
"And who'd have thought," said Kitty, who had had a short game of dominoes before she left the house, "she's a drug counsellor," and moved her eyes to two o'clock. We gathered a group of fifty to seventysomething women round the table. A subculture of two ex-pub landladies, a drug counsellor, Kitty and Wendy, and me. So many stories, if only people would listen to women.
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