It was Wednesday when I met Madeleine, which meant I had two days to prepare for Friday night.
I waited a cautious few hours after getting her number to text her, just to ensure I didn’t look too eager. The text read: ‘Hey, it’s Charlie 🙂 how are u?x’.
One ‘x’ I felt was a safe place to start. If I dived straight in with two or even three ‘x’s’, it might make her feel disconcerted. One indicated that I was interested but not necessarily easily won.
I sent the text at 7:49, and, to my joyous delight, received a reply at 8:01.
‘Hey :),’ it read. ‘Yeah, good, u? X’
She sent a capital ‘X’. I wasn’t sure if it was encouraging or just autocorrect.
‘Alright yeah 🙂 think I can make Friday night. What’s the plan? X’
‘Awesome!! Well im predrinking with the girls at Steph’s house then heading out there. Mayb bring some of ur mates? X’
This was an inevitable hurdle I had feared. I didn’t have any mates.
‘Yeah sounds good, see u in college tomorrow? Xx’
I tempted fate with the double ‘X’. Then she replied:
‘Yeah, sounds good!! See u tomorrow J xx’.
I wilted into delirium. She had equalled my double ‘x’. That had to mean she fancied me – why else would she do it?
My dear human, I was in a beatific turmoil. The night passed in a series of unquiet frenzies, my dreams all spinning round on the line between waking and sleep.
On Thursday I bounced into college like the human I had never been before, ready to catch time by the tail and invert all the old prejudices I felt still hung about me. I strode about as if I had just purchased the very foundations the place was built on, hiding my latent anxiety behind a layer of bravado, answering questions in lessons and not caring if I got them right (though I did get them right), secretly frowning down on the fools surrounding me because they didn’t have what I had. They didn’t have Madeleine – I did.
By lunchtime I had still not seen her anywhere. With a carefully considered confidence, I sent her a text: ‘Hey, u around college at the mo? Xx’. I hoped that perhaps I might be able to find her somewhere and use the lunch hour for talking rather than eating.
There was no reply, however, until four. I was just about to leave when I felt my phone buzz and read the following text on its screen: ‘Hey, sorry I didn’t reply earlier, heading for a cig now if u wanna join? Xx’.
The continued use of the double ‘x’ fortified my already swollen heart. ‘Yeah, sounds good. See you down there? Xx’ I replied.
‘Cool 🙂 xx’ came the reply.
Barely containing a smile, I pirouetted through the college gates and out into the street where a resurgent autumn lay beckoning me forwards.
Of course, though, there would be a caveat to this. That caveat was that I saw Madeleine, with the usual burst of excitement; but she was with Joe Mailer. They were surrounded by their mates of adjacent genders, walking down the street in the direction of the den. I could almost hear their filthy flirtation drifting out behind them as they walked.
I was in a spin and unsure what to do. The loneliness that had momentarily suspended itself now seemed to close in again, warning me that, unless my dreams came true, it would strike me down like lightning. I hung back, watching their laughing backs grow fainter into the distance.
With great reluctance, I text Madeleine: ‘Sorry, got a family thing on. Could see u later tonight tho? Xx’
‘Ah, that’s a shame,’ came the reply a few minutes later. ‘sorry ive got to work this evening! But would be cool to see u in college tomorrow J xx’
‘Yeah definitely see you tomorrow J xx’, I replied, savouring at least this temporary salvation.
God damn Joe Mailer! What if they were together? What if he wanted her more than me? ‘Impossible’, I spat as I started making my way home. She fancied me. There was no one else to be added to this divine equation. She had already seen me, already peered into my beautiful soul and found that it was equal to hers. She’d see straight through the cruel heart of Joe Mailer and reject him. I knew it.
Madeleine had accepted my friend request on facebook, and in a fever I searched through her entire history as recorded on this website. I started with her earliest photos. The first was of her aged about thirteen (I checked her date of birth and confirmed that she was indeed thirteen). She was at a dinner table, surrounded by people I presumed were her family. It looked like Christmas time. At that age, the face that had grown to be so soft and yet so striking was still soft and still striking, but in a downy way, in a way that made me think adults told her she would be beautiful when she grew up. In the photo she was looking out over the dinner table, a smile lingering on her nymphish lips.
I tracked her adolescence through the photos. There were images of her at home, then on holiday, then latterly at parties. There was one photo of her in particular that infuriated all the envy in me, of her sitting on a park bench at night, surrounded by people all gathered round her like she was the core of their delight. She was fifteen. She was already beautiful. I was furious at the thought that, somehow, I could have been there with her; that, somehow, I had missed out on something.
Her later photos showed her in all her magnificence as the seventeen-year-old she now was. There were a few from some party in June, what I thought must be her leaving party from London. They all had tens, sometimes hundreds of likes.
In the midst of my research, I pictured her coming towards me on the dancefloor at Arizzi’s, pictured her silent lips meeting mine, pictured the rest of the people there knocked back in awe from the perfect partnership that had just materialised before their eyes. ‘Of course!’ they’d say. ‘How did we never see it before?’
It was midnight when I finally turned off my laptop and settled down to sleep. But sleep did not come.
Friday came, and throughout the day I was an excitable sack of anticipation. More than ever, I didn’t care about other people. I cared only for Madeleine and for the ascendance to heaven that would come that night.
At lunch, I again didn’t see her, so I swept the outside areas until, to my ecstatic glory, I found her sitting on one of the benches facing out to the games pitches. She was, as usual, surrounded by her girlfriends.
Rather than interrupt their chatter, I waited patiently by the entrance to college until they came inside for lessons. Then, when she was near, I appeared around the corner as if I was headed in the other direction.
‘Hey!’ I said, catching Madeleine in the crowd. The girls all stared at me, and some giggled.
‘Oh, hey!’ said Madeleine as the others walked on. Her face was immediately that transplendent glow that made me feel certain of our connection. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Yeah, it’s good! I’m just going to – um… I left my bag outside somewhere.’
‘Oh, right. You coming to Arrizzi’s tonight, then?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ I said, surprised that she’d even ask such a question. Wasn’t it already certain in both our minds? ‘What time are you gonna get there?’
‘I dunno, like, ten maybe? Ten-thirty.’
‘Cool. Cool, yeah – I’ll see you there.’
‘Yeah, see you there!’
She walked off with a smile that stained my thoughts as I walked outside.
It had to happen! It had to!
After waiting a few minutes to make sure they were gone, I turned back inside and burned with desire.
When four o’ clock came round, I hung around by the front gates to catch sight of her, but she didn’t appear. I went home, my mind focussed like a pistol on the job at hand.
I’d searched online for what the custom was for nightclubs. Trainers seemed to be an absolute no – according to some chat forums, some clubs would deny you entry for wearing them – so I tried my smartest pair of shoes with a slim pair of black chinos and a navy blue shirt. I tried to find out if I should wear a tie or not, but the internet offered no conclusive evidence that I should. Rather than risk it, I picked out a purple tie that went with the shirt.
There was no sign of my mother. I spent three hours trying on outfits, then sat in front of the TV and tried to watch whatever mindless bile was pouring out of it, flicking through the facebook news feed on my phone as I did so. I wondered whether to text Madeleine, but was unsure what to say. Then, at seven, I sent her a message saying, ‘Looking forward to seeing you later 🙂 xx’.
There was no reply for a while, and I grew anxious. Then my phone buzzed, and I leapt on it only to find it was a text from my mother.
‘I’m out with Dan tonight darling. Have a good sleep. Be sensible xxx’.
This confirmed everything I had already hoped to be true. My febrile imagination brewed with fantasies of taking Madeleine back here and enjoying all the immense possibilities of losing my virginity…
Slowly, the clock ticked forward. My anxiety was rising with every move of the second hand.
I went to the store cupboard by the kitchen where my mother kept her alcohol. When the light flicked on, it showed a hundred different kinds of food and drink; but there, at the end, was the alcohol. It sat like an unguarded treasure.
I perused the different bottles with fascination. There were several bottles of wine, all white apart from one red, two of gin and one vodka. I had never got drunk before, and I didn’t know what to take. With an empty plastic bottle saved from earlier, I poured as much vodka out as I dared – enough, I hoped, that my mother wouldn’t notice. It smelled vile – like hand sanitiser. And when I tasted it, it was even worse. It burnt the back of my mouth and all down my throat like it was petrol. But, still, I thought, this was what you had to do before going to a nightclub.
I thought it best to dilute it with something, so I found some apple juice in the fridge and poured it in until it was about half and half. It still tasted foul, but more tolerable now. I sipped on it til the hour hand reached nine o clock.
My nerves were dancing a tango when it came within a reasonable time for me to text Madeleine again. ‘Hey,’ suddenly feeling proud of my slight drunkenness, ‘what time u thinkin of heading? Xxx’.
I went straight for the triple ‘x’, hoping my inebriation would excuse me my indulgences. A reply came straight back:
‘Hey!! We’re probs gonna go in like forty minutes or so!! X’.
Only one ‘x’. I swigged from the vodka and downed the last of it. Being drunk was a strange experience, I thought. It was disorienting, but it dulled my feelings. I decided I liked it. Anything was better than what I had been feeling before.
But my senses started to spin, so I drank a glass of water to try and settle myself. That made me feel better; I felt great, actually, almost euphoric. Tonight I could get with Madeleine!
I felt like I needed some music to improve the atmosphere, so I searched spotify for something I thought they might play in a club. I played five seconds of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees before shaking my head in disdain at my own choice. Obviously they wouldn’t be playing seventies music in a modern nightclub. I found a ready-made playlist entitled ‘Club Bangers’ and, not recognising the name of a single song on it, pressed play.
The thumping, hedonic house music that came out felt much more like the right sort of thing. I placed the phone on the counter and span round to face the fridge, then extracted one of my mother’s open boxes of white wine and poured myself a glass or two. I drank one cautiously, wondering how well wine mixed with vodka, then decided to move my party of one into the sitting room. I plugged my phone into the TV speakers and tried to dance to it.
There is something rather releasing about dancing by oneself, my dear human. There are no other mortal eyes to strip you of your freedom with their imprisoning gaze. There is only you, yourself and your other self, the one that watches everything that happens to you; the third person eye. I was thinking of myself in the third person because I was trying to evaluate how I would appear in the eyes of Madeleine when we met on the dancefloor and the inevitable happened.
I’d already decided I’d make up a story about how my friends had bailed on me at the last moment – maybe I’d say they were going to meet me at the club, then glance dolefully at my phone and pretend that they couldn’t make it after all.
Nine-thirty came around and I poured myself another glass of wine. I was drunk, my dear human, very drunk; but I had no previous experience to compare this to, so I assumed that this was a normal state for a drunk person.
Arrizzi’s was about a twenty-minute walk away, so after five minutes I poured the last of the wine into my water bottle and readied myself to leave. In a daze, I checked that I had my keys and my wallet, then walked around the house switching off all the lights. Then I remembered that burglars would be deterred if there were lights on, so I put them back on again.
Then I set off, locking the door behind me and sipping my wine as I went.
I had never experienced anxiety under the influence of alcohol before, and found the simultaneous beat of the hammer in my heart with the delirious swirl of the outside world to be both confusing and enervating. I wondered whether Madeleine would already be there when I arrived. I feared that Joe Mailer would be there – or that I wouldn’t get in at all.
The dry, amber streets I tapped down reminded me of all the reveries I had imagined adulthood would be filled with, and I was briefly proud of myself for being like this, for being drunk and going out to a nightclub. I breathed in a hot, sweet dose of cool, October air, keeping the bad thoughts at bay, keeping the thoughts of Madeleine at the forefront.
Arrizzi’s was just off the high street. I peered out from a side road to see if I could recognise anyone. There was hardly any queue outside, and the bouncer seemed to be letting people in without checking for ID. That released a weight from me. Then, as I continued to drink my wine, Joe Mailer and his mates appeared up the road. I dipped back into the shadows, petrified they would see me. I dreaded to think what they would make of finding me alone and drunk like this.
I watched them pass, laughing a little bit too loud and chanting laddish nothings as they ditched empty plastic bottles by the roadside and entered the queue for the club. I could see the back of Joe as he seemed to deliberate with the bouncer; then, after about thirty seconds, they were let in.
I gulped down what little air my lungs would manage. There was sweat on my forehead. But I had no time to deliberate on whether to move now, because my lady blue came into view. She was surrounded by her friends, dressed in a short, dark, lacy dress that revealed the most skin I felt I had ever seen on a human being ever. My panic swelled into fever once more. The alcohol was stressing these emotions into something I had never felt before, a kind of insanity that the sight of these females made roar like madness.
I watched them join the queue along with a few other locals, all of whom looked equally drunk, the women in their mini-skirts and high heels, the men in clothes not dissimilar to mine. They all looked much older than me, even the girls who I knew were my age. As they all filtered inside, I for the first time felt like a child thrown into the wilderness before his time. I felt panicked, and my stomach felt sick. I threw the empty bottle of wine to the floor and waited a few seconds for everything to settle, then stepped out like a soldier into no man’s land.
The bouncer was an enormous, bald-headed man who looked like an emotion couldn’t have filtered through his muscles if it tried to. I kept my walking straight as I crossed the road, knowing he would be watching me.
‘Alright?’ he said as I approached. I was the only one in the queue.
‘Yeah?’ I replied. ‘Yeah, I’m alright. Mate.’
He eyed me for a moment, then looked down and started playing with his phone without a word. I hung there by the entrance for what seemed an eternity, paranoia playing my mind like an organ. I could hear the thumping music inside and I felt the sweat on my palms again.
A few people came into the queue behind me. They were a few years older, perhaps in their late twenties, and were laughing together to let everyone know they were experienced at this kind of thing. The bouncer continued to play with his phone, then, after a minute, glanced up at the queue of now four or five people. He looked down at his phone again.
‘Yeah, go in,’ he said, keeping his eyes on the screen. I stared at the bouncer then at the door as if something else were supposed to happen.
‘Come on, mate, don’t hold the rest of us up!’ said the guy behind me with a leering sneer. I didn’t turn to look at him, just flushed red and slid inside.
You had to walk down a dark staircase to get inside, like descending into a dungeon. The darkness was a relief; it hid my fear more than I could ever have hoped to do alone.
A bored-looking woman covered in tattoos was waiting behind a window at the bottom. She said something as I approached, but the music was too loud to hear.
‘Sorry?’ I shouted over the till, realising that this was the cloakroom.
She glared at me with contempt.
‘Fiver,’ she repeated, like an angry robot.
I pulled out a five pound note and handed it over, and, with a callous grind on her chewing gum, she took it off me and stamped the back of my hand with one movement.
I lingered to see if there was anything more required of me, but she was already looking to the guy behind. I swiftly moved on for fear of being shouted at again.
Then, the apotheosis of my imagination detonated like an air-shattering dream before me, because I walked out on the dancefloor and collapsed within myself.
A vast, dark cavern opened out before me like it had sucked in the night from outside, hammering with hard, frantic music and enmeshed with flashing lights bursting between pulsing bodies like dark ghosts in a hellish pit. Humidity and sweat burst onto my skin and my feet stuck to the floor as I tried to move them. There was a good number of people there, but not enough to fill the main dancefloor – through the darkness I could make out doors leading to other rooms.
Immediately aware that I might be seen by people I knew, I circled the main group of people centred around the bar. It took just a moment to find Madeleine: she was leaning upwards, sending her euphoric laughter pulsing all about her as she re-centred the gravity of the room. The tint of a smile brushed my lips with the sight of her, but it was denied a full career by the realisation that she was talking to Joe Mailer. He was propped on the bar making cocky gestures towards her, grinning that arrogant grin. The woman behind the bar served them drinks, a beer for him and some kind of dark liquid in a glass for her, and he paid for it. Anger and desire flashed through me. Suddenly the beating of the music was like a war drum.
I hung around in the shadows hoping no one would notice me. The thought that Joe Mailer or one of his mates might see me alone was a chaos unto itself. I could see their silhouettes in the crowd, talking and dancing with Madeleine’s friends. Interspersed between them were older people I didn’t know, and I hid myself behind them.
After a minute, however, Mailer moved away to some dingy corner of the club, and, jumping at the first opportunity, I sprung forward through the crowd to seize her before she could move away.
‘Madeleine!’ I blazed as I materialised beside her at the bar. She had been in the process of turning away, and suddenly rolled back to see me smiling my manic smile at her.
‘Oh, hey!’ she said, leaning over her glass of something I now identified as coke. I thought it must also contain vodka. ‘How are you?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m good, thanks,’ I replied, suddenly remembering to play the cool guy in this drama. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Yeah, alright. Are you here with your mates?’
I swallowed a dry-throated, wine-flavoured swallow.
‘Um, they’re – yeah, they’re on their way. Got delayed. My mate was driving and his car broke down.’
‘Oh, that’s a shame. He was driving to a nightclub? Isn’t he drinking?’
I swore like a bitch at myself. I hadn’t thought of that.
‘He wasn’t going to drive after. Anyway, I dunno when they’ll be here but they’re on their way.’
Silence somehow eked out in the space between us, even though the music was thumping about us like the devil’s hammer. I thought desperately for something to say, then, reasoning that I could blame all careless actions on drunkenness, decided to send a compliment her way.
‘You look beautiful,’ I shouted over the noise. ‘I like your dress.’
‘Oh. Thank you.’ She seemed embarrassed and turned away to gaze at the mirror on the other side of the bar. I glanced into it and saw the reverse image of us two, standing in the most unheavenly silence there had ever been.
‘Do you want to dance?’ I asked, the sweat encroaching on whatever parts of my body it hadn’t already drenched.
‘Um, maybe in a minute,’ she said, and once again offered her smile. But this smile was different: it wasn’t like her usual grand, beatific grin. It was a smile that said an uncertainty.
‘Okay,’ I replied. I span my head round, looking for something to distract from my awkwardness, and in so doing accidentally caught the attention of the bar-girl. She leaned over with her ear tilted towards me, and I suddenly realised she was expecting me to order a drink.
I nearly said ‘a beer’, but then caught myself and said, ‘I’ll have a Peroni, please.’
A Peroni appeared in front of me and I paid the £3.50 for it. Madeleine was now talking to a girlfriend on the opposite side to me. I waited for a moment, hoping that she might turn round again and start talking to me in the way I dreamed she really wanted to – but then an intuitive panic hit the inside of my chest, and I knew instinctively that Joe Mailer was returning. I slid away into the crowd and found that I was correct. He arrived back at the place I had been standing, leering into the darkness like he had just seen a rat scuttle through his house. He put his hand on Madeleine’s shoulder, and when she turned around she gave him the smile that broke my heart. It was the smile I wanted her to shine on me.
Then, with a gesture from him, they stood up to dance. I kept watching from my lonely place on the dancefloor, but I knew it was already over. Like a perfectly choreographed piece, they moved together on the dancefloor, swaying in and out of the pulses of the lights and sounds, swigging from their drinks in time to each other, moving closer and closer towards each other until, hideously, horrifically, as if the whole world would draw to a close, they kissed.
There were no words for me to say, and no one to say them to. I gawped at the spectacle like only a broken-hearted fool could, hating what I saw but unable to look away. They just stood there, in the middle of the dancefloor where everyone could see them, kissing and kissing and kissing.
I couldn’t take it. I downed my beer and walked round to the bar to order a vodka and coke like I’d seen Madeleine drink. Then I glanced around and there they still were. As I looked they stopped kissing, but Madeleine broke into a laugh, a hot, embarrassed laugh like she was overcome by him. Then she looked up into his face and I saw her drunkenness for the first time. It was the look I recognised in my mother when she was drunk, eyes falling about out of a sagging face. But she still looked beautiful, and she still looked at him like he meant something to her. I took my second beer and practically ran into the next room.
I was a mess, and the alcohol was making me feel sick. The room I had walked into was full of sofas and sitting booths. I found an empty booth where no one could see me and threw myself down on it.
It was too hard to articulate my pain. My head was swimming, and I was starting to lose control of my limbs – but my thoughts were a typhoon of the girl, seeing my girl, my Madeleine, kissing that bastard… All my dreams of greatness and all my feverish teenaged imaginings of sex, love and fulfilment vanished like the drink I downed from my hand.
There was nothing left, nothing… I was going to go back to an empty house, and the loneliness was going to return – I could already feel it closing in on me, this hideous feeling of dread…
But then someone sat on me.
It was a girl. At least that much I remember.
Hear this, my dear human: that, though what happened next may have appeared to be within my control, I cannot say with full certainty that it was. For the final drink I consumed sent me into a state which I had never experienced before, but which I have returned to several times since. My memory cuts into splinters as I try to piece together the events that followed.
The girl hit me at much the same time as the alcohol. The room dissolved into blots of obscure colour as I tried to make out who she was, but I couldn’t. She was half-conscious and seemed to have stumbled over to me before passing out – but then, it transpired, she hadn’t completely passed out. She was still awake, enough to get her on her feet.
I remember passing through the dancefloor like a spirit with a soul in tow, and then up the stairs to the street. No one stopped us, not even the bouncer, so the girl must have looked awake enough; and yet I remember her being so heavy, like I had to carry her more than she could walk.
I don’t remember walking home. At that point my memory caves. But I do remember getting to the house and seeing all the lights on, then leaving the girl outside while I checked there was no one there. There wasn’t. I came back outside and took her upstairs.
Then I took her to my room and laid her on my bed. I turned off all the lights, so that if she became fully conscious she might not see who I was; and, of course, this meant that I could not see what she looked like either.
Then, I did what it was out of my control to stop myself from doing. I took her clothes off, and I had sex with her.
I had never experienced anything like it before. Although the alcohol was begging me to pass out, I forced myself to stay awake because it was so obscene, so simultaneously wrong and right. I was thrilled and terrified, and I knew it was wrong, but the thing is that I wanted to be wrong. I had felt wrong all my life; I had felt guilty all my life; and now, my dear human, I was doing something that would justify that guilt.
The girl stirred beneath me. I think she may have been at least part-conscious, but I was confident she would not remember.
What I do remember is being finished, and staring at her naked body on my bed, fascinated and obsessed by the female form in all its reality. I daren’t turn the lights on to see it fully. I didn’t want to see what the face looked like.
Instead, I touched it and worshipped it like it was a special treasure, like it was an exotic animal to be gazed at through a cage. But this can’t have lasted long, because at some point I must have made the decision to get her out. So I dressed her, then carried her outside – I cannot remember if she was walking or if she had completely passed out – and I found a green space somewhere. I don’t know where it was. It could have been someone’s garden, or a park. It might have been the field opposite my house. But, wherever it was, it was done – I laid her down on the ground, looked to confirm that no one had seen me, then ran away into the night.
And no one ever found out what I did.
End of Part 1.