December was icy, icy. The minute I got back to my house the next day I packed my things like my life depended on it (which, in many ways, it did), and within the hour was at Temple Meads trying to find the next train home.
I felt restless and uncomfortable as soon as I stepped through the door. My mother sped about the place, putting the kettle on and throwing cushions into different positions on the sofa as if it would seem tidier.
‘How are you, darling? I feel like I haven’t heard from you in years. You look utterly starved! Here, sit down while I put some toast in for you. Would you like some champagne?’
‘Champagne? Why on earth are you offering me champagne?’
‘Oh, you know – Christmas, the fact you’ve just come home. It’s practically evening now, given the sun goes down at four.’
It was two in the afternoon.
I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be comforted by the presence of my mother. Maybe I thought she would remind me of happier childhood days and a world outside Bristol. But of course this was nonsense: my childhood was not happy, and now I just wanted to run away again.
I spent those uninhabitable December days lying around the house, playing video games and sporadically picking up books and throwing them at the wall ten minutes later. It was hard to concentrate. I occasionally took myself out to walk into the woods, avoiding the town as much as possible lest I encounter some sodden character from my teenagery past.
The Bad Place slowly simmered down into a flat, dull loathing that weighed down in the pit of my stomach, like an ugly stone that made everything feel very heavy. Rather than outright terror, I felt as if life was simply too difficult. But still, I made myself get out of bed every day and do things – I don’t know why, but I refused to let myself question it at this moment. I felt like now wasn’t the time to be giving up.
But then there were times when it ceased to be merely heavy but morphed into terrible, heart-thumping anxiety. This came mostly when I was looking at my phone. I knew Elliot would see everything I posted, so I decided to cover my tracks by posting a series of feminist articles from various newspapers. Each one came with an ingenious tagline of my own, such as: ‘This is SO accurate:’ or ‘This. Everything About this.’ The personal touch made it seem more believable, I think. The odd person liked them, which gave me a steady glow, but all I cared about was the possibility of Elliot seeing them. Or even Margot. In fact, maybe any of the girls from my past… Maybe if they thought I was a feminist they would forget any suspicions they might have had. I posted more articles, fighting the fear that someone would comment suggesting I was anything but a feminist.
And every so often I would search for Lola, but I couldn’t find her profile.
Now, my dear human, I must admit that Lola had done something very strange to me. Since that first night I met her, she had been haunting my days and nights equally, burning me up with a bizarre frustration that I did not recognise from earlier infatuations.
Infatuation… Why did I leap to this word?
I did not naturally like her, my dear human. She made me feel uncomfortable more than affection. I didn’t know why. But she had still snagged something in me and it hurt like hell…
We text a little bit; terse, infrequent messages about what we were doing at that moment – or, rather, what I was doing. She never explicitly told me what she was up to. Instead, she would send me an elusive message like, ‘Just slipping away for a bit. Hbu?’
There were no ‘x’s in our texts, no façade of intimacy or warmth. Just this brutal, frank plain of suggestiveness that in all truth masked our uncertainty about each other.
‘I know hardly anything about you,’ I text her one night. She replied: ‘Do you want to find out more?’
I don’t know. Did I?
‘I’m from London. I’m nineteen. You interest me.’
‘Which part of London?’
‘Why do I interest you?’
‘Because you’re so dark’
I nearly laughed at the banality of it, but didn’t because it made me feel special.
So what if a girl fancies me because they find me interesting, I thought. I am interesting. I’m fascinating. I’m extremely good looking, extremely talented and a downright enigma to most people. What woman wouldn’t find me alluring? She’s just a silly little girl who’s trying to exert power over me.
Though I knew I was lying to myself. Lola was exerting power over me; it was working all too well.
I got bored at home and smoked all the weed I took back from Bristol. Every night I craved to be higher than I could reasonably get, and one night I got drunk in my room and took a 2C-B capsule. The room began twisting and the surfaces were rippling, so I went out for a walk and listened to music as I went. But the outside was scary, so I retreated back indoors and took five valium to try and calm down.
There was something about what Lola had said to me that night on the bridge… I couldn’t shake it no matter what I took or how high I got…
Christmas day came and went with a visit from my mother’s sister, an equally dull, specious human who tried to cover over her lacklustre life as an accountant by talking loudly and believing herself to be very funny. Though I felt ill I made myself drink as much champagne as I could to alleviate the burden of her presence. People like that make me panic – they are hard evidence that all that awaits us is a terrible job, a sense of loneliness and ultimately death – and money, as if money ever made us feel better.
‘I don’t want money!’ I croaked to myself that night as I sent tobacco smoke down my sore throat. ‘I just want… I want…’
I was trawling through facebook and, randomly, on a whim, I stalked a girl called Alicia Rutland. Alicia Rutland was the first girl I slept with at Bristol. It hadn’t been totally unconsensual, so far as I remembered – I think just alcohol was involved, though potentially more for me. Perhaps 2C-B too. It was in the first two weeks of first year, when I was just discovering drugs and people liked me because of the sharp, beautiful boy my outer surface was. Alicia must have thought I could be a boyfriend or something. We met at pre-drinks and I convinced her I was a genius when it came to literature – ‘I bet you’re really intelligent, aren’t you?’ she said over a vodka lemonade – and she fell into my arms later that night at Drogue. It didn’t take much to get her back to my room. She left her number by my bed but I never called her, and though she smiled whenever she passed I never returned it.
Then I stalked the profile of another girl, then another. Harriet Keyes, Cece Lovett, Hetty Flowers, Hanna Seager, Izzy Killen… All these girls with shiny, rosy facebook faces that smiled out of perfectly timed profile pictures and shared intelligent, high-minded articles, who shared photographs of them with friends and holidays and nights out and cups of coffee in artisan cafes… Did I feel remorse? Should I have? What if I damaged them? Some of them didn’t even know they’d slept with me. Some of them must have been dazed and confused. Some of them must have been unwell…
So did I feel remorse?
No, my dear human. I do not feel remorse. And I hope it doesn’t seem too much of a grandiose leap to tell you that the reason I feel no remorse is because I look at humanity, with its inescapable suffering and absurdity, and I see it pale next to the leviathan problem that is the universe in which we live. Humanity may have morals, but the universe does not. All of us are condemned to live in confusion, suffer from all myriad of potential pains, and ultimately all pass away into the void of darkness that dwells on either side of this ridiculous plain that we call life. I see no reason to be moral when this picture is before me. One man can live a life of breaking his back for the good of others, while another can be utterly selfish and live a life of hedonistic luxury, and at the end of the day both of them will meet the same fate. We will all die, no matter what kind of life we have led. There is no such thing as morality. The universe does not care.
But still, still… Something unsettles me so…
When the day came for me to go back to Bristol, I approached my mother in the kitchen. I was bleary-eyed and exhausted from the drink and drugs, and my head was in a fog. But I had to ask her something.
She was wiping the table, even though it didn’t need to be wiped.
‘Mum?’ I said.
She didn’t look up.
‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘Of course, sweetie. Though it can’t be about Dan because I don’t know a thing about him now. I don’t even know where he’s moved to.’
‘No, I don’t want to ask about Dan… I want to ask…’
I paused as I tried to gather the words together. My mum looked up.
‘Darling, what’s wrong? You look like death!’
Her face softened into a sad, sympathetic look.
‘Darling, I – he – I don’t know. You know I don’t know. He went abroad years ago and still hasn’t been in touch.’
‘He just took all his things and went one day?’
‘I’ve told you before, Charlie.’
She stared at the table for a moment then started wiping it again, much more vigorously than she had before.
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘I’ll take you to the station in ten minutes.’
‘Well, you passed. Just.’
A lethargic January rain fell against the window of DeSleep’s office. DeSleep turned over my latest essay and examined the marker’s comments.
‘Professor Allan seems to think you wrote this in one sitting. It’s hardly an unreasonable conclusion, given you got a third.’
He lay the paper down by his computer and sighed heftily, in a way that suggested he would rather not be dealing with this. I nearly chirped up to inform him I’d rather not be dealing with it either.
‘Mister Gunn, your marks have cause for concern.’
You don’t say.
‘At this rate you’re not on course to pass the year. You’ll need to pull out some outstanding marks in your final round of essays to get a 2:1. That is what you’re aiming for, I assume?’
‘I suppose so. If I want to get a job I suppose that’s what I’ll need. But maybe I don’t want to get a job.’
‘Well, you’ll have a hard time of it if you don’t. Did you get your January essays in alright?’
‘I sent them in, if that’s what you mean.’
‘And how did you feel they went?’
‘I handed them in.’
DeSleep eyed me dully. He appeared about to stifle a yawn.
‘Did you – er – did you ever go to see the doctor?’
‘Doctor? Oh, yes. Yes, absolutely I did.’
‘And is everything okay?’
‘Just hunky dory, sir.’
‘Right. Well, I hope these next essays return some better marks. You’d better be off.’
He spun his chair back to his desk and I was out of there before he could think of anything else to say.
A grizzly, iron-grey sky hung heavy overhead as I wandered up Woodland Road and to the arts library doors, where I hung outside and smoked five cigarettes before braving the indoors.
I spent four long hours finding the books on my reading list, staring at all the beautiful girls seated around me and whittling down the time scrolling through facebook before I decided I’d done enough for the day and head home. As I passed through the study area I saw the heads of Sarah and Di over the top of a partition, and their eyes momentarily met mine before we both looked away. I exited swiftly.
Elliot was waiting in the kitchen when I arrived. He was surrounded by his revision notes.
‘Ah, Gunn,’ he said loftily, like I imagine the teachers at his boarding school would say to the pupils. ‘Did you have a nice Christmas?’
‘Cheery,’ I replied, unsure whether or not he was being genuine.
‘I didn’t realise you studied anything,’ he said, referring to the pile of books I’d set down on the counter. ‘Or are you studying more ways to get girls into bed?’
‘I didn’t rape her, Elliot-‘
‘I’m only joking, Gunn, Christ! It’s not as if I actually care about my girlfriend-’
‘Why is everyone being so loud?’ moaned Ciara, who slugged in through the door in a cotton tracksuit and slippers.
‘Gunn was just telling me how merry his Christmas was.’
‘Gunn? Oh. Charlie.’
She put the kettle on and peered grimly at the top sheet of a lump of paper she held in her hand.
I looked at Elliot but he was making a show of studying his revision notes.
‘I’ve got to – revise,’ I said to apparently no one, because neither of them replied. Just as well, because they might have pointed out that I didn’t have any exams. I abandoned my plans for a cup of coffee and swept upstairs with the pile of books. The gold light under Harriet’s door told me she was in, and I hovered for a moment outside considering whether to say hello. Voices came from the kitchen downstairs and I heard Elliot say ‘I swear to God-‘. I ran up the second flight and into my room, where I hastily rolled myself a joint.
‘This is a nasty situation’, I thought to myself as I leaned against the windowsill with joint in hand and stared over the prematurely dark city. ‘Nasty, nasty, nasty, nasty, nasty, nasty. Maybe I’ll go out tonight and forget it.’
As the weed began to set in my phone buzzed. Of course it was Lola.
‘My last exam is on the 24th,’ the text read. ‘I would invite you over but I’ve not been feeling well, so I’ve got to go home’.
‘Do you have flu?’ I asked.
‘Haha no’ she replied. Then: ‘Friends from halls are throwing a house party on 12th Feb. Do you want to go?’
‘Annie Turner and that crew. You know them?’
My heart sank. Annie Turner and her friends lived with my old housemates. I’d once tried to sleep with Annie, but her friends had taken her away as she was ‘too drunk’, one of them told me. Of course she was too drunk, I wanted to say. That was the whole point. They had all been suspicious of me since then, and of course my old housemates probably weren’t too keen to see my gorgeous face reappear either. But then I thought I wanted to get high with Lola…
‘Yeah, sort of. Sure sounds good’
‘Cool. Can’t wait to see you on the other side of the sky again ;)’