Edit: apologies for the many errors of all sorts, in some earlier, more drunken, versions of this post.
I'm in a pub in Blackpool, where I've been mystery shopping in two other boozers this afternoon. Paid hardly more than the minimum wage employees I observe, I send detailed notes about any departures from the behaviour that middle management think is what customers like, human interaction scored to the extent it resembles an assembly line.
I like a day away from Lancaster and getting a few free drinks and my tea. I like the dissembling and making myself anonymous; I'm in my own theatre for half an hour. I have to clock details of state of outdoor seating area; of hair, appearance and build, replies to my requests, state of toilet roll dispensers, and note if the curse of the upsell is missed. I always try to give them good marks. I overlook transgressions, I polish their sentences for them.
Middle daughter went to see Primal Scream in Liverpool on Sunday and was driven home by a strange man.
There being no connection to Lancaster from the last train from Liverpool to Preston, Kirsty and I had forked out £45 for a taxi for her last leg home.
"Dad, do you still have to pay for a taxi if you cancel it?"
"I suppose not, but what about getting back from Preston?"
"I've met a man on the train and he says he's dropping his son off at Uni and could drop me at home."
I ascertained that he had his son with him and his car at Preston; and that they were all sat round the same table. Kirsty and I liaised and decided it was alright, so we cancelled the taxi. Melanie ended up at her front door, driven there by a man she'd known for forty-five minutes. He just dropped her off, Melanie said her thanks, and without waiting for Kirsty's, he drove the ten miles back to his home in Garstang. What an excellent form of Lancashire behaviour. Can you imagine such a thing happening in London?
Intermission: I've just asked a young couple sat at a table not far from me if I'm anywhere near Blackpool South station. False eyelashes, carefully arranged white vest top to reveal the scalloped top of a black bra, on the one hand; number one haircut, baseball cap, jeans, on the other. They point the way but we carry on a chat. I am called into adjudicate in a black-blue colour differentiation argument. She lays her jet-shiny black nails against her coat. Her coat, which I've described as "black", now seems like a strong version of blue, and my argument is weakened.
She's having a few drinks before she goes to work. She's a lap dancer. "Blackpool's a shithole," he says, straight after she's told us her job. At the same time, I think, "if that's your instinctive sense of protectiveness towards her, wishing that there could be something better as a job for her, good for you, you proto-feminist;" and, "let her do it if she doesn't come to any harm. We all sell our labour at various degrees of degradation."
Saturday night, and to Bury Town Hall for an all-nighter. It's mainly a Northern night but they've recently opened an anteroom for those of us who like that other line, of disco > house > techno. We went in Olly's BMW, which, like its owner, is a fast mover which can get out of problems by quickly disappearing for a while.
I'm the only one at these nights who uses poppers. It makes me a cynosure of others' eyes for a while, which is irritating -- watching people wait for me to erupt into some kind of uncontrollable butyl nitrite-inspired Brownian motion after having the bottle at my nostril -- but whose advantage is being interpellated as someone who goes a bit too far.
I liked the half hour DJ rotation, although one DJ seemed to have a different understanding of the meaning of "half an hour", the overtime of which he used to treat us to some James Brown remixes, which I am always glad to hear again, only having sat through them 9,487 times before. Karen was dancing well in her grey heels, and it was an amusement to see men flick their eyes away from her as soon they noticed themselves noticed. A young, slender girl in a boob-tipping bustier was dancing well and uncaringly; another of a similar age was smiling through her e.
I went back downstairs to the Northern Room, aware that Olly's wife had "suggested" we wind it up at about half past four, a woman who cannot go out without patrolling hers and others' pleasure. I was inducted into a circle of people they know with meaningless but good-natured handshakes.
We got back to Lancaster surprisingly quickly. The speedo was holding at a steady 100-105, but as Olly is a scrupulously law-abiding man, and BMWs are made in Germany where they use kilometres, it must have meant we travelled home at around 65mph.
Coda: I've just been saying my goodbyes to the young couple. A guess the age game. Got her -- nineteen -- and overestimated him by three years -- he's twenty-nine. They met on a dating website and have become friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. I said that I was on that one too. He said that his mum would like to meet someone "on the level" like me. There's a bit of a standing up, about-to-go body language, testing whether we're serious.
"Oh fuck this -- give her my number. What's the worst that can happen?" I rip a page out of my diary. I'm already open-eyed curious about his mum. I hope she rings me, on the back of her son's vouch.
Wendy rings asking me if I was down the pub, saying she's free for half an hour. As she walks in, Kim rings. I wave to Wendy. "Kim, I'm terribly sorry, but Wendy's here. Could we do this another time?" Almost before I finish the sentence she is expertly understanding. Later that evening, I text her. "I'm sorry about curtailing you so rudely this afternoon. It's just that I lose any semblance of manners once I see Wendy, even towards you."
Wendy gets us a bottle of wine, asks me about London. She's on form, going on a riff in which we are compared to additives in food. I want to put my fingers in her hair. We finish the wine and she goes to the bar, coming back with two glasses of port. We make some arrangements for me taking her dog out two days this week while she's at work. "The keys will be in Kitty's recycling bins. Stay as long as you want. Riffle through my knicker drawer, have a bath..."
Afterwards, she texts me, saying that I really am one of her favourite people in the world, and confirms our arrangement to take a bottle of port up to the park on Monday.
I try writing back but my fingers slow me down, as does my self-censorship, attempting, far too late now, to avoid saying what she doesn't want to hear. I leave it till the evening, so that I can respond in a measured and restrained way.
And you are one of my very best favourites too. I love being with you, I miss you when you're not around, I love your irreverent, unpredictable, bright, witty, conversation. I love looking at you. I think you're utterly gorgeous, newly gorgeous every time I see you, and wish I could rake my eyes over you constantly. You make my life better for being in it. I missed you too when I was in London, because it's you that I always want to share everything with. I am, therefore, for all practical purposes, in love with you, although I must turn my head away from the radiant obviousness of such an inconvenient conclusion.
Thank you for today -- that all-too-short bit of the kind of heady near-delirium that you bring with you was all the more enjoyable for it being unexpected. If I could have written my ideal first full day back here, you would have been the first person in it.
Monday's ours. And in the meantime I look forward to rummaging in your knicker drawer, and Kitty's recycling bins, tomorrow and Friday.
And then the melancholy sets in. I wish I didn't have to go to a sex club in Blackpool. I wish it could be with Wendy, part of the same spectrum of feeling for her that I already have. I wish I didn't find our rare, three-second embraces so thrilling, so opiate. I wish I didn't re-run them in such a viscously slow recall. I wish I didn't remember every tiny ridge and fold and hem of her clothes under my stroking fingers, millimetres away from her skin. I want her to want to stroke me too, instead of her holding me, willingly enough, but without desire. Mine for her is deadened through its enforced privacy, confined within the boundaries of me, expressed only in flat, inanimate, black and white typed words.
To London, where I was hoping to combine a conference, a Chicago-meets-Sheffield Deep House night in Brixton, the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy, and seeing Melissa. I achieved one of these, the conference.
My situation forces me into such indignities as staying in dormitory hostel accommodation. It started well, with a decent soul band playing in the bar, but the weekend was about to take an Iberian nose-dive. In the bunk beneath me, a native of the noisiest country in Europe snored in Spanish all night, despite me frequently kicking our bunk in the hope of at least temporary relief.
I woke up drained, only half there. They served us a prison breakfast: instant coffee, palely shaded white bread warmed some distance short of actually toasting, sopping cornflakes floating in a mere of milk, and a pot of sugar solution labelled as yoghurt. But I suppose my customary petit déjeuner of coffee, croissants, whisky porridge and kir pètillant, is beyond the budget of a fifteen quid a night hostel.
At the end of day one of the conference, I felt like crying with lack of sleep. A challenging night was ahead: sitting in a pub for three hours until Melissa took me out for my tea in Brixton, then go out dancing till 5am, then wander about a bit to find a caff, on a freezing and rainy morning, until the conference started again.
I succumbed to emailing Trina to ask if she could lend me £60 for the cheapest hotel room I could find at 6pm. I was booked into "Travelodge Croydon Central", where I expected to bump into Alan Partridge at any moment. Melissa, to my utter relief, cancelled due to her son playing up. I had half a bottle of port, a cheese and onion and crisp sandwich, tried a blurry page of The Tin Drum, and went to bed.
Day Two of the conference was much better. With the benefit of sleep I was more able to appreciate the
tight shift dresses and blackly-tighted legs insightful and perceptive contributions to the papers we discussed.
I couldn't face returning to La Casa de Ronquidos, but instead found an airbnb in West Norwood, attracted by the suburb's bustling high street and modern leisure facilities.
At my lodgings, I was shown in and immediately whisked away upstairs, the hostess intuitively sensing that after a chilly walk to her house I was not in any way hoping to be offered a cup of tea or glass of wine. Instead, she handed me a tube of toothpaste -- "you might need this" -- and packed me off to my room. I slept well, until someone walked straight into my room at 6.45am, asking me if I knew where the iron was.
The second I stepped out from the bedroom, she emerged from her room next door, as though she'd been hovering, poised on a hair-trigger of the sounds of my utterances, zips, and clothing. "I'll show you out," she said, her intuition once again apprehending that as a paying guest I don't at all expect a cup of coffee or something to eat in the morning. Back on the streets of West fucking Norwood at 7.15am, I consoled myself with the fact that it's impossible to find a place to stay in London for seventeen quid a night, and there was no-one snoring, in any language.
Yesterday morning I spent the best part of an hour lugging my stuff round a polished-looking Streatham, failing to find Melissa's flat. Two bin men I asked hardly had the English to answer me. I gave up, then caught the train up to Euston, and travelled back with the other half of my bottle of port and a conversation with an academic returning from seeing her son. All was going amicably until a single woman in her twenties was ejected from the train, into a foul night, at Warrington.
Sensing something wasn't right, I jumped up just as the conductor ushered her onto the platform. She was going to Carlisle. "Don't get off -- I'll pay your fare," -- something which, I found out this morning, I'd have been unable to do -- but she declined my offer.
I sat back down uneasily, wondering about the bottomless well of human heartlessness that throws a young woman off a train on a November night a hundred miles from home. "Oh well," said my fellow traveller, "it's not raining, that's one thing," proving, as if we don't already know, that people from well-off academic backgrounds can be clever and stunningly ignorant at the same time.
Wendy texted me: "I'm off next week and school's back. So?" An unintentionally sexy message, which made me want to reply, "Prosecco, coal fire, and sex on the stairs?"
Instead, we spent Saturday night at a party at Kitty's. Melissa was up from London with her one-year-old son. It's an impossible kind of thanks to give a mother, but I was grateful that she didn't ask me to be part of the ritual adoration. She's aware I'd be faking it, and generous enough to spare me from it. Kitty moved solicitously about the room, never leaving a glass empty. Someone I know a little turned up with a guitar and played it well, which was far better than the tinny pestering pop music of Radio 6 that Kitty always puts on during social gatherings, and which I surreptitiously turn down when no-one's looking.
Wendy looked darkly beautiful, and there was a moment when everything -- for me -- went completely silent and still, as the low light washed her décolletage in infinitely shaded browns. My desire for her later found a stupid form of expression. As were sharing a chair together, I went, without thinking about it, to kiss her on the cheek, but at that very moment she turned slightly away, and I ended up holding a closed-eyed pout an inch away from her. I wasn't embarrassed; more, irritated with myself that I had, for the thousandth time, given expression to an wanted and unreciprocated desire.
It's busy in the Penny Bank on a Saturday afternoon, and I ask if I can attach myself to the end of a long table of older men who are absorbed in the racing. The barmaid comes over to change ours of the numerous televisions over to the rugby, and is met with a spontaneous "no!" from those seated beneath it.
A horse with a name which might be designed to illustrate the ponciness of the French language -- Tarquin de Seuil -- is in the next race. I collect a slip and put £2 on it. I am surprised at how absorbed I become for such small stakes, when my fellow gamblers are passing tenners and twenties around. As the race reaches its conclusion, my horse comes up on the inside, and I am levered up, as if a puppet, into a standing position. I shout fistily at the screen -- "Fucking got it!" Back from the bookies with £16, I understand that the unspoken protocol is now to divest oneself of one's winnings, and I do so, in a further hour of unsuccessful bets and sweary conviviality.
I text Kim, saying that I've found the pub for us and the dog when they come over for a few days between Christmas and the New Year. I imagine us sitting together there, me licking up the misapprehension of others as they flick their eyes between us, wondering and envious of me, their vague imaginings of sex.
I take the phone outside. The Jehovah Witnesses are at their stall, the men in their excessively correct American suits, the women dressed with such a boxy, secretarial severity that it's almost sexual. I want to ask Kim about her experience of sex clubs, and what to expect in a first visit. I am possessed of -- and sometimes by -- a drive, the like of which has never been as strong, or seemed so natural. It's a synaesthetic spectrum in which art, writing, reading, dancing, music, drinking, drugtaking and sex, all bleed together. An old Modernist and Romantic trope, I know, but no less real for that.
Its quality, however, is diluted by my lop-sided relationships with women. Dates end with me being told I'm "sweet", a word which makes me want to smash my pint to the floor; female friends take my arm, not my hand, which makes me feel like a jaunty Enid Blyton character about to enjoy sharing a beaker of lemonade. Being treated like this, over and over again, can occasionally accumulate to something between unease and humiliation.
One could think of more attractive a setting than a sex club in Blackpool in which to explore it, but I want, at least occasionally, the first premise of meeing a woman, to be sexual.
Without knowing of this plan, my mother wrote to me last week. "Have you read The Book of Revelations? That tells you what happens to people like you."
It's half eleven on Saturday morning. The girls are watching this depressing, gruesome DVD about zombies, so I've left them to it and am having a hair of the dog in The Seat of Learning, the thick pleasure of layering drink on that from the night before, like your head being stuffed with paper.
My eldest was in an open-air performance last night as part of a kind of Lancashire Diwali called Light Up Lancaster. They pranced about with paper lampshades to an electronified Four Seasons. Kitty, Wendy, and The Little Dictator were there too. I don't enjoy this sort of thing. It's too spectacular, a manufactured attempt at wonderment by electronics. There are too many children there, giving me myriad opportunities to accumulate slight irritations with others' child-rearing practices.
"So, Wendy, have you, er...started on anything?" "Well, not really. Well, just a bit of mdma, and some speed. And a bottle of Prosecco." "Oh right, just a nice quiet family teatime then."
In the loos in the Fur Coat And No Knickers Arms, I caught up with them somewhat. We were all wearing these ridiculous Minnie Mouse flashing ears. Kitty bumped into her headmistress, who knows me slightly through my girls. She's one of these good-looking, stylish women married to a lump of a man who dresses in black jeans and bomber jackets. Kitty and I chatted amiably to her before we returned to our respective tables.
Kitty made an alarmed gesture with a twisted mouth. Outside, she said "Fuck. Sitting next to your headmistress when you're shitfaced on mdma and speed." "You were fine, Kitty. Honestly, you don't look shitfaced. She's really good-looking though isn't she? Makes me wonder I bother trying to make an effort if you can dress like a fucking binbag and get women like that." "Shhhh looby!"
Later, back at Wendy's, The Little Dictator sloped off to bed, then Kitty went too. Me and Wendy put some better music on, racked up a bit more, and danced around the room. She looked gorgeous as she danced, in her tight brown dress and her new haircut, an untrammelled bob. I like looking at her, and she likes being looked at. I mean, really, sexually, looking at her, more scanning than looking. I was getting turned on; the pleasure of my stiffening cock stuttering up against fabric. She has this movement she does, whether deliberately or not I don't know, of taking hold of her skirt hem in her fist and pulling it up slightly. I was stroking my mouth watching her, and caught myself murmuring, "Go on Wendy, go on, higher."
I can't remember what preceded the moment, but we ended up in a long holding of each other. I felt like I was collapsing, into a nowhere of her. I stroked my hands through her brittle, treated hair, over her shoulders and along her body, before stilling with my hands clasped in the small of her back, pressing her gently into me. I opened my eyes for a moment at the same time as she did. I closed them again, and parted my lips. We were on the cusp of kissing.
One of her favourite tracks came on and she separated us, smiling broadly. She checked to see if I was looking at her, then did that stroke of her eyes down my body and on to a spot on the floor between us, a look which says "watch me turn you on."
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