NATD Chapter 8, Part 1

I fox-trotted over to Lola’s on the twelfth of February with a pocket full of drugs. I didn’t know what she’d want, so I bought a grand selection off my dealer and took them all with me for her to peruse.

‘Ooh, quite the selection!’ she enthused, bowing her head over the various pills, baggies and tabs I’d spread over her desk. ‘MDMA, 2C-B, acid – what’s this one?’ She picked up a baggy containing four blue and white capsules.

‘4-HO-MET-,’ I replied with confidence. ‘It’s a hallucinogen. It’s like shrooms.’

‘Exactly like them? I love magic mushrooms.’

‘More visual, I think. I took it on a night out in second year and I thought the club I was in was the inside of a submarine.’

‘Do you have weed too?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well, mister Gunn, you have outdone yourself. You know what?’

‘What?’

She walked over to me, grabbed me forcefully by the waist and stared directly into my eyes.

‘I think we should take all of them.’

‘All of them?’

‘MDMA, 2C-B, acid, 4-HO-MET, weed, a few drinks – it’ll be wild!’ she trilled, and spun round onto the bed.

The house was on Manor Park, near the top of Redland Road where the hill almost flattened out on its way to the Downs. For some reason it seemed much bigger than it really was from the outside, towering over us with a full moon shining down like a scene from a gothic novel. It was a crystal clear night and unusually warm for February; the stars were all watching as indifferently as they usually do.

The party was just ramping up by the time we got there; the windows were flashing with lights and music pounded the earth all around it. A group of boys hung around on the street outside smoking a joint in between quiet flickers of conversation, next to a couple who were sitting on the garden wall with a bottle of vodka by their feet. A bouncer stood at the door letting people in.

‘Don’t worry, I put you on the guest list,’ Lola assured me as the bouncer checked our names and we swanned inside.

‘How magnificent!’

There were people everywhere, drinking out of tins and plastic bottles, trying to talk to each other over the boom of the music. The floors had been covered with what looked like several layers of thick clingfilm, which was just as well as drinks were being spilled and cigarette butts thrown in every direction. Knots of people lined all up and down the stairs and front corridor while others tried to squeeze through the mass; as I watched, a boy squealed with feigned delight and a girl kissed him impulsively.

At the foot of the stairs, Lola turned to me and pulled out her various pills. I followed suit and we swallowed them all together.

‘Lola!’ cried a girl. Lola was momentarily consumed by a great wrap of glittery arms.

‘Dani! So good to see you! How are you? Dani, have you met Charlie?’

The girl Dani looked up at me with the most impossible grin on her face, as if she was trying very, very hard to look a host.

‘Yes, yes, I think we have met,’ she said. ‘Weren’t you in Badock in first year?’

I confirmed that Badock was indeed the halls I was in.

‘I think I remember you from – oh, I’m not sure, but I’ve definitely seen you around the place. Are you Charlie Gunn?’

‘Why, yes, that is absolutely most certainly who I am.’

She paused, giving me an odd stare as if she’d just remembered something.

‘We’ve seen each other about the place,’ she concluded. She turned back to Lola. ‘How are you, darling? Come out to the garden, Steph’s out there with – do you know Felix Tether-Mason or Sam Hardly or any of those boys?’

I realised with an unpleasant flutter that these were Elliot’s friends from the Drogue night. We were following Dani to the back garden before I could think what to do.

‘Steph!’

‘Lola!’

The two girls hugged while I stood awkwardly behind once again. How many people did Lola know?

‘Lola, this is Felix, Sam, Pete-‘

‘Nice to meet you,’ they all said with that excited potential that young men experience in the face of an exotic girl.

‘And Charlie Gunn-‘

‘Charlie Gunn?’ said Sam in an alert voice. He stared at me for a moment. I wilted under his gaze.

‘Alright, mate,’ said Pete with an apprehensive shake of my hand.

‘How lovely to see you boys again,’ I said with more confidence than I felt, bolstered by the alcohol. ‘How have you been since last we met?’

They seemed to look at each other without actually doing so and I knew I was up against it.

‘Yeah, good mate,’ said Felix. ‘What happened to you that night at Drogue? You and Margot just disappeared?’

‘Yeah, we were all wondering where you two had gone.’

‘I, err… We went for a dance, I think. Then the… Drugs kinda got to us and, I think I took Margot home in a cab then just went back to mine. I mean, I went back to mine. I left Margot at her house. It’s a different house to mine.’

I glanced anxiously at Lola, who was watching us with an attentively blank face.

‘That’s what Margot said happened, to be fair,’ said Pete to the others. ‘Elliot wasn’t too happy about it though.’

‘He might be coming later,’ Sam added ominously.

‘What an amazing party,’ Lola sang to Steph and Dani. I knew she’d done it deliberately to cut off the conversation and, frankly, I couldn’t have felt more grateful.

‘Oh, thank you! We spent so much time on it-‘

‘Do you have any idea how much money it cost us?’

‘No – how much?’

They looked at each other to evaluate whether to tell her or not.

‘With the bouncer and everything – actually, I don’t want to say.’

‘Let’s just say parents had to help out!’

‘Say no more,’ said Lola with a raised eyebrow in my direction.

‘Who’s that rank girl over there?’ said Pete all of a sudden.

‘What? The ginger one?’

‘Yeah. Didn’t I see her on Embarrassing Bodies?’

‘Brutal!’ The lads all laughed together.

‘That’s a horrible thing to say!’ said Dani faux-derisively. Then she herself turned her head to see. ‘Which one?’

‘That’s Lizzie Hardwright,’ whispered Steph, leaning conspiratorially in towards us all. ‘Apparently she had a pregnancy scare with Max Olesen-‘

 Max Olesen!’ laughed Felix in hushed tones.

‘Who’s Max Olesen?’ queried Sam.

‘That’s that kid who used to wank ten times a day in halls.’

‘Oh, yeah! Eurgh!’

‘At least he found someone he could put it in,’ said Lola jauntily, and the others all had to silence their laughter as the poor girl in discussion was barely two yards away, standing with a friend and staring silently into the dancing crowd. I was a bit worried by this, though – if they knew what I did in my spare time, I dread to think how they would talk about me…

Scared of the conversation, I glanced around and evaluated the scene – but my eyes lighted on something rather surprising. From the darkness lingering on the other side of the garden fence, there came a leg, which was followed by two hands, a head and a body. All of a sudden a scream rang out, and another person followed the first. They were two men, and they were obviously homeless.

‘What the fuck are they doing here!?’ decried an ugly voice.

A great hubbub arose around the two men as they stomped over to where several drinks bottles had been left out and started to help themselves.

‘Dani! Steph!’ hissed a girl I recognised from halls (had I tried to sleep with her?). ‘Who the fuck are they?’

‘Get rid of them!’

‘Um, excuse me,’ said Steph to the two homeless men. Her ringing, upper class accent sounded absurd. ‘Please could you – um – please could you not? Could you leave please? This isn’t your party and you’ve just gatecrashed-‘

The men had found a near-full bottle of wine and were taking turns to swig from it while completely ignoring her.

‘Oi!’ shouted an enormous, square boy.

This time they looked up.

‘You heard her. Get out!’

‘Wossa matter?’ said one of the men, his waving slur telling us all he was already drunk. He had a gentle West Country accent that rode a coarse, rasping voice. ‘Nuffing wrong with us bein’ ‘ere is there?’

‘You can’t just break into other people’s property!’ barked the boy in a thick, sloping public school voice. A few more boys had gathered round, ready for a fight.

‘Well, ‘s not your property, is it!’ said the other one. ‘’S the landlord’s!’

‘No it ain’t!’ said the first. ‘’S her parent’s probably!’

‘Either way, ‘s not ‘ers!’

‘It doesn’t matter whose it is,’ said Steph, ‘the point is that it’s not yours-‘

‘So you’re the daughter of a millionaire or summing, and you won’t even share a lil’ bit o’ the party with us?’

‘No!’ growled the square boy.

‘Go on, jus’ a lil’ bit o’ wine…’

‘You got plenty ‘ere!’

‘I’m not the daughter of a…’ began Steph, but her sentence dried up abruptly.

‘We won’t be no trouble, honestly…’

‘She asked you to get out, so get out!’

With no further cues to come, the gang of boys laid into the homeless men and dragged them kicking and screaming into the house.

‘’S not fair!’ one of them was shouting. ‘All we want’s a bit of a party – we ain’t been to a party in years!’

‘Jus’ a lil’ bit o’ wine!’

One of them briefly managed to get away, but the boys laid into him and smacked him to the ground. When they carried him off, there was a spray of blood left on the ground where he’d fallen.

‘What did you make of that?’ said Lola as chatting voices returned.

I was staring at the blood the man had left behind.

‘How old do you think they were?’ I said.

‘I don’t know. Fifty? Sixty?’

I felt the Bad Place kick into life.

‘I can’t believe that can happen to people…’

‘It can,’ said Lola. She was staring hard at me.

‘What if it happens to me?’

‘Maybe it will, Charlie. We all run the risk of destitution, loneliness and despair. That’s what can happen in this world. That’s the deal you didn’t know you struck when you were born. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Now,’ she began in a sprightly tone. ‘Shall we peruse the manor?’

Before I knew it, she’d taken my arm and was guiding me into the house. I cracked open a tinny and drank greedily from it to try and tame the Bad Place back into silence – but then, just as we had reached the top of the stairs and were exploring a room that had been filled up with plastic balls like a children’s ball pit, everything began to feel a little funny.

‘I think I’m coming up,’ said Lola with a grin, and promptly threw herself into the ball pit where she scattered plastic spheres around with a fit of giggles.

I was about to join her, but my feet were rooted to the ground – a tingling, burning sensation was erupting in my stomach and shooting down to the ends of my hands and feet. As I watched, the image of Lola swimming in the ball pit started to become more and more vivid, as if god had just turned up the clarity on reality and everything in existence was becoming more and more rich to the eye; but this only lasted a second before a tremendous thundering exploded inside me somewhere and a catastrophic nauseous swirl came pulsing out –

I stumbled back but lost awareness of my feet, my feeeeeett had vanished into a gorging black gorgeee canyon and I was leaning against the wall and only the papeoasj[o perimount tip topppypyp of the ttop awas fihinqloj lcichnemaaknm;[POK[PL

OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH HEEEEELSFBP MEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!

Screaming stidlyyylmrs I wentent finto the bathroooomm andnt there was augh boiiyyyy I scremd OUUTUTUTHUT MEAlknf WAAAAAAYYY

Everything vanished; for a moment, there was an absolute and perfect blackness.

Was this it? Something thought. Had I died? If this is death, it isn’t so bad. It’s rather roomy.

But then, piece by piece, reality began to seep backwards into me, and my senses slowly gathered that there was music, then that I was holding something, then that there was a wall in front of me. No, it wasn’t a wall, it was… A toilet.

‘Gunn! Gunn! What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?’

I twisted my head around. There was vomit in the toilet bowl. There was also vomit on the floor, and on the shoes of the person behind me. I thought about getting up, but a wave of weirdness surged through my body and everything I looked at seemed to ripple. I felt sick again.

‘Gunn! You gonna pay for this, you freak?’

It was Elliott. I’d been sick on Elliot’s shoes.

‘Terribly – terribly, sorry, old bean,’ I gurgled, trying to get to my feet. Everything was waving very, very hard.

‘Do you know how much these shoes cost?’

‘Oddball, old sport, how many finance were they? I can spare you a few sickles but I haven’t any galleons on me just this parsec-‘

‘What are you spouting? Fuck this, get out of my way. I was about to piss before you came in.’

‘Jolly good, old horse! Yes, it is all rather goshanninny, isn’t it…’

I stumbled back onto the landing and tried to get my bearings. That was a door, and so was that, and that’s a door… What was a door? Oh yes, I suppose it was this one.

Lola was lying giggling amongst the balls and I fell in and joined her.

‘How do you feel?’ she asked, but she started laughing too hard for me to reply so I just stared at the ceiling where a disco light was surfing about.

‘Grandiose,’ I replied. But did I actually say something or did I just think I’d said something? HELP!

‘It’s brilliant!’ she cried before succumbing to a second attack of hysterics.

Everything felt very strange. The room was full of people (I think), but they were all looking away. As my eyes trundled over the plastic balls, patterns formed before me –

‘It feels like – like –‘

‘Like we’re whistling on syrupy silver goulash through a galaxy of gorgeously gurgling conundrums?’

‘Exactly. How did you know that was what I was going to say?’

‘Because we’re intimately connected, Charlie Gunn,’ she said, rolling over and kissing me on the mouth.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever been infinitely connected with someone before.’

‘Actually, I think it feels like we’re in a play. Shall we be in a play?’

‘Like a stage play?’

‘Yes. Do you want to be in a stage play?’

Charles:          (From stage left) Why not?

Lola:                (Standing upright) Oh, how gorgeous! Oh, Charles, what spankingly good fun this is! I shall be ever so excited to show off my gown at the ball tonight.

(She spins, twirling her gown about her while Charlie looks on admiringly).

Charles:           You’ll be the sparkle in every admirer’s eye. You’re like a diamond with a  spinning wheel headball that rolls whereso’er it wishes.

Lola:                Quite! Oh, how marvellous, how simply, idly, tenturripitously marvellous! Shall Miss Annabel be in attendance?

Charles:          Annabel Turner? I certainly should hope not, given on what’s on not that Your Dear Charles has had an encounter with such a woman in prior hours.

Lola:                An encounter? My dear Charles, you mean you courted her, didn’t you?

(She appears apprehensive). 

Charles:          My dearest Lola, the truth is I have indulged many a lady, hither and thither on the tide.

Lola:                Oh, Charles, you are such a ladies man. Any sensible girl should find herself in your power.

(They kiss tenderly.)

                        And, after all, it is all about power with you, isn’t it?

(Enter Harriet and Robert, clutching martini glasses to their hands and laughing tremendously. Harriet is wearing a gown, the opulent, ornamental aesthetic of which she wears with some self-consciousness. Robbie wears an evening suit lightly as if he is unused to it. They are both drunk).

Harriet:           Oh, goodness, Robert! If it isn’t our wonderful friends Charles and Lola!

(They all kiss in greeting). 

We were just about to take a wander about the ball pit. Would you care to join us?

Charles:          I believe we were going to partake in a dance –

Lola:                No, Charles, right now we shall do what I want, and I want to peruse the ball pit.

Robert:           He looks as if he’s not used to taking someone else’s decisions!

Charles:          I must admit I am not.

Lola:                (Laughs) All men want is to be independent, but they know they can’t do it.

Harriet:           A most incisive truism, Lola.

Robert:           Let us wander about the ball pit.

(They stroll about the ball pit, making insightful observations on life, the universe and everything in it, then after a turn make their way into the other rooms of the house). 

Charles:          I must say, I feel ever so remarkably happy, my love.

Lola:                I quite agree! It’s like walking on a life of endless rays.

Charles:          And you look so beautiful, my dear-

Lola:                I know.

(She turns to face him).

                        You look beautiful too.

(They kiss).

Charles:          You scare and intrigue me.

Lola:                I know I do. And you… well. I shouldn’t care to say.

(They jump up on a table and Charles chases Lola around the room).

Charles:          When I look at you, it looks like you are spinning through outer space, all these shapes and stars flying outwards from your body…

Lola:                Your head is akin to that of a bird’s – a peregrine falcon, or a bald eagle!

Charles:          You’re a shimmering, sherbety piece of Daisy daylight, both light and dark like the moon and made of a thousand tastes.

Lola:                You’re a confused young man who has no better way to ascertain his position and direction than to thrust his hedonism into every young woman who crosses his path.

Charles:          However did you know?

Lola:                I’m fantastically clever. Now – shall we dance?

Charles:          Let’s.

(They enter the ballroom dancefloor, where a thousand other couples dance in perfect unison with each other across an opalescent, interstellar, neon-tiled space. They are the stars of the ball, shining like the epicentres of a galaxy, and as they dance the universe bends in their direction to show what profound force they carry when they are together).

Charles:          How remarkable it is to think, my dear, that every human in this room carries with them a life that is as confusing and complex as our own.

Lola:                Remarkable, indeed, darling. Why, look at that one.

(They look at a boy on the dancefloor and his internal thoughts show themselves before their eyes. It’s as if the boy is acting out what his mind thinks about. He puts on a suit and holds a briefcase).

See, he’s afraid of going into working life.

Charles:          And worried about whether he’ll do better than his school friends.

(A woman glances at him from across the room and a flicker of hope within him turns quickly to depression).

Lola:                And he only likes women who approach him first. How novel.

Charles:          And this girl over here –

(He gestures to a girl dancing nearby).

                        She’s pulsing with anxiety – she’s picturing herself being born and then dying…

Lola:                A classic.

Charles:          I think I recognise her… And if I did anything at all, it will affect her life somehow…

(A web seems to appear around her, representing all aspects of her existence. He reaches out and touches it, sees the ripples spreading throughout her reality and stands back in faint awe of what he is capable of). 

Lola:                Did you sleep with her, Charles?

(Charles stares in horror as he realises that he attacked this girl two years ago).

Charles:          A turn about the gardens, don’t you think?

(Lola looks at him searchingly).

Lola:                Very good.

TBC…

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NATD Chapter 7

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?

‘Tell me’

‘I’m from London. I’m nineteen. You interest me.’

‘Which part of London?’

‘Shoreditch’

‘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.

‘Yes, darling?’

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!’

‘Where’s Dad?’

‘Oh.’

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?’

‘What friends?’

‘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 ;)’

TBC…

 

NATD Chapter 6, Part 2

It was inevitable that I couldn’t escape Elliot forever. The night before term ended for the Christmas holidays, Harriet dug me out of the prison I had made for myself in my room and forced me to come to the pub. I had submitted the essay asked of me that afternoon, hastily and thoughtlessly thrown together under the influence of whatever had kept me awake the night before, and had subsequently been smoking joints to see me through til the evening. Then at about five I’d taken an unmeasured dose of 2C-B, and at the particular moment at which Harriet began enquiring after my presence I had started to feel somewhat frightened of the walls I was surrounded by. Consequently I agreed to come to the pub, though more out of a desire to dampen the Bad Place with alcohol than any sense of social duty.

Lola had sent me one text the day before, which I had not replied to. It said: ‘Let’s meet up on Thursday’. Thursday was tonight.

The pub on the Clifton Triangle was heaving with students. Harriet and I made our way through the great mass of them, nodding every so often at those who were less absorbed by the glowing ensemble and seemed to recognise our faces, though quite often they would look quickly away at the moment our eyes met as if we were some sort of demonstrable evil. Well, at least they did to me. I don’t know if they did to Harriet. I worried greatly about that. Did they know I was evil?

I thought perhaps the dose of hallucinogens I had taken was stronger than I’d realised by the time I got to the bar. I based this largely on the fact that the bar was moving. And suddenly I was afraid that girls I had slept with in the past were all around me. Last Christmas by Wham! was playing.

Robbie Boltham joined us for a drink. I thought about texting Lola.

‘She slept with who?’ a deep voice belted out to my left. ‘No! No way!’

A group of people around the boy laughed with an attention-soaking intensity.

‘She did!’ said a female voice. ‘She said she didn’t remember any of it!’

‘And that’s why you shouldn’t do drugs, kids,’ said another boy, and they all laughed again.

A glass smashed somewhere behind us and some loutish voices cheered. I decided to try and be enthusiastic.

‘Right, what are you two drinking?’ I said suddenly to Robbie and Harriet. ‘Come on, first round’s on me! What’s it going to be? Gin? Beer? Vodka? I’m gonna have a vodka. Maybe a double. Maybe a triple! Who knows? What are you having?’

Harriet swayed in the amber half-dark while Robbie just stared at me.

‘Cool,’ said Robbie, effectively stating the opinion that I was not cool. ‘I’ll have a pint of Foster’s.’

‘Foster’s! Fantastic! And Harriet?’

Her eyes ticked like a nervous clock over the happy hour deals.

‘Oh – um – well – I’ll have a gin and tonic. Please, Charlie,’ she added. ‘Thanks for offering!’

‘My pleasure! Oh, the pleasure is all mine! All this pleasure, all of it is mine! What to do with it? What does one do with so much pleasure?’

I slithered my way to where the bargirl could see me and ordered the drinks with aplomb, tapping my debit card extravagantly on the card reader like the departure of money from my account was a welcome alleviation. But then, just as I was about to turn with the three glasses balanced terrifically in my grip, I froze – for no good reason, as it happened. I thought the girl next to me was… No. She wasn’t.

‘Drink up!’ I cried, shoving the glasses into their hands and slamming my vodka past my lips like I was trying to break a dam open.

‘You’re being a bit Patrick Bateman today, Charlie,’ Robbie laughed anxiously.

‘What does that mean?’

‘You know – American Psycho?’

‘I don’t get it.’

‘Charlie doesn’t get much,’ said Harriet with that anxious smile that told me she was merely trying to be my friend somehow.

‘I don’t get anything.’

I gulped more of the vodka and gazed at the glittering silver faces scattered about the pub. I was suddenly rather taken by them, as I feared I would be. They were all very beautiful, my dear human; all of them. Every face was tight and trimmed and shining, each one emitting its own indecent ray of gorgeous, youthful beauty, each one turned into the self-involved, adoring smiles of friends and lovers, the sparkling potential of excitement coursing like misty waves over and among them. They were all lovely in the gentle Christmas light, probably all going home to loving families who could offer them a warm house and a sense of belonging the likes of which I could never know. I felt deeply, deeply jealous of all of them. Every last one who had a friend or a lover was better than me; every last one who didn’t suffer from the Bad Place, who hadn’t committed such sins as I had, who wasn’t as disgusting as I was on the inside. Perhaps many of them were happy. Perhaps none of them were lonely. I hated all of them.

NO – I WAS BETTER THAN THEM.

I finished my drink and made to get another one, leaving the fools Robbie and Harriet without a departing word.

The fact is, my dear human, that I am better than them. I am the best. I am better looking, more intelligent, more charming, more talented and more likely to succeed than all of them. I will be famous – I will be rich – I will be one of those beautiful stars who grace the screens of your memory forever. I will be immortal – just you see! I’ll prove them all wrong!

I butted into the bar and felt once again the hallucinogenic wave ripple over me. 2C-B and weed! 2C-B and weed!

There was a girl next to me and I turned to her.

‘Cool shirt,’ I said, for she was indeed wearing a ‘cool shirt’. It was a dark red corduroy, a kind of American rockabilly-style shirt, the kind I wanted myself. I made a mental note to get a shirt just like that one, because I’d look good in it. Better than her.

The girl looked at me with an instinctive display of disgust. A second passed in which she adjusted to the shock of a stranger having spoken to her.

‘Thanks,’ she finally said with a curt air of dismissal, and immediately turned away and walked off with her friends.

I cursed the stupidity of the girl for not realising my excellence and ordered another double vodka lemonade. I needed more than this, much, much, much, much more.

Returning to the evidently unsettled Harriet and Robbie, I suggested with brilliance: ‘Why don’t we go outside? I want to smoke.’

We jumbled through a mass of young sweethearts and wasted youths to the smoking area, where dark and hazy laughter diffused beneath a lantern-hung evening. Harriet and Robbie immediately bumped into people they knew, who I was sure I knew too but didn’t want to engage with – though inescapably I saw their faces, and recognised all of them from halls. When they saw me they gave me that half-decided, obligatory wave, and I raised an eyebrow or two as I tried to roll a cigarette like hell.

Then I was texting Lola: ‘I want to see you.’

Then a person was in front of me, and then I looked, and then it was Elliot.

I text Lola again: ‘Immediately, please’.

I hadn’t seen him in the pub, but I realised now he must have been sitting at the table just three tables down from here. Or was it four? What if it was five!? Pete, Felix, Chris and Sam (were they their names?) were there. They were all looking over, wondering with magnified intensity what it was that Elliot was going to say to me. Indeed, I was muchly wondering this myself.

‘Where’ve you been?’ he grunted.

‘Enjoying my Christmas,’ I said with a blunt stare up at his enormous, rigid face. I had to say, he looked oddly beautiful. In fact, for a moment, I had the strangest desire to kiss him.

‘I’ve been looking for you. We all have. Everybody has.’

His fist tightened visibly by his side.

‘Well – here I am!’

‘What the fuck happened with you and Margot?’ he spat with barely withheld rage. Were it not for the fact we were in public, I was sure he would have punched me.

The Bad Place flared – air suddenly seemed scarce.

‘What do you mean what happened? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all. When? Why?’

‘You know exactly what I mean, Gunn. Last Friday. Drogue. You and Margot disappeared together. Now she’s refusing to tell me what happened.’

‘What do you mean refusing? We left at the same time – that’s all!’

‘And then what? Did you go home?’

He leaned so far into my face that I feared he would eat me.

‘I – yes. I went home. I wasn’t feeling right. I don’t know about Margot.’

‘She said you got the same taxi then can’t remember anything.’

Thank God! I thought. She can’t remember!

 ‘Oh, yeah that’s right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, we got the same taxi, that’s right, then – Margot got dropped off at hers. Yeah. Yeah. Then I went back to mine. Yeah. That’s it.’

Elliot glared like a dragon woken from his deathbed.

‘Then why-‘ his fist tightened even more – ‘why is she now at home?’

‘Because a home is where people live?’

‘Fuck’s sake, Gunn! She’s gone home home. To her family. She’s not well. She’s not mentally well. She says she’s got some problem and I don’t know what. And I can’t help but feel, Gunn, that it has something to do with you.’

‘What! I had no idea – I mean, I didn’t realise she was unwell-‘

‘She wasn’t before, but she is now. And it happened overnight.’

‘Are you sure there was nothing going on before? You know these things are complicated and can come out of nowhere, it’s a common problem these days, the modern affliction-‘

A sinewy fist gripped my shirt.

‘I know it has something to do with you – I know you did something to her.’

My panic was flailing, my world collapsing –

‘I know you’re a criminal, Gunn. I know you did something bad. You gave her a pill, you took her back to your room, you-‘

‘Elliot!’

Harriet suddenly stepped in in a flurry of concern, but her characteristic sense of being out of place immediately replaced whatever human endeavour had driven her forward.

‘What’s – what are you doing?’

Elliot glanced down at me then back at Harriet, then released my collar. My head surged with something bad, bad, bad. He glanced at Harriet then returned his stare to me.

‘I’m asking Charlie about Margot,’ he said, his eyes keeping level with mine. ‘Because I think he did something with her.’

Harriet dithered a moment, unsure what to say.

‘Did he do something with Margot?’

‘No!’ I appealed. ‘I don’t know what he’s talking about – Margot just went home.’

‘I don’t believe him,’ said Elliot.

‘But – Elliot, what are you suggesting?’

‘I’m suggesting that – that this filthy snake did something to her. Raped her.’

The sound of many people intaking breath seemed to ring around me. I feigned the greatest, most absolute shock a man has ever feigned in the history of life. Elliot, I noticed, looked away. He was now staring at the ground.

‘Elliot,’ said Harriet with slippery, carefully chosen words. ‘That’s a very serious accusation. That’s a very serious accusation,’ she repeated. Her breathing was short and panicky. ‘Are you absolutely sure that’s what you want to say?’

Elliot leered a hefty, sweaty anger, his hot, maddened eyes swashing about my face as if the pores of my skin would lead him to the truth about what happened that night.

‘I don’t know,’ he finally admitted. “But my girlfriend is sick. She’s depressed. She tried to commit suicide-‘

‘Oh my God,’ gasped Harriet.

‘And it all started after she met you.’

He pointed one last, desperate finger at me. I assumed the aforementioned look of shock and hoped there might be some innocence located within it.

‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘Do send her my condolences.’

Time froze. Elliot stared. I briefly felt as if I was on a boat in the eighteenth century. Harriet whispered into my ear:

‘Charlie, I think you should go.’

The following moments coincided with another more intense rippling of anxiety and psychedelic confusion, as time attempted to restart itself in fits and starts like an old car engine. I remember having a glass in my hand and Elliot being in front of me, then having a cigarette in my mouth and sprinting away from the pub, then being round the corner and running hellishly towards the Victoria Rooms and Whiteladies Road, a frenzied, hideous run that was causing the Bad Place to come back and eat me, eat me my dear human –

I was on the phone, and I was calling Lola. I was outside the Victoria Rooms, standing in the fountain. Everything was spinning, everything felt wrong and ugly and nauseous, everything felt – like I shouldn’t be there at all-

‘Ah. I was wondering when I was going to hear from you.’

‘Where are you? I want to see you.’

‘I know you do. Come to my house. You’ll know it’s mine because I’ll be outside smoking five cigarettes and wearing no underwear.’

Laughter, then the phone clicking off. Then a text message with the address of her house on it. Startled but strangely calmed by the sound of her balmy voice, I began my journey through the itinerant night to find the house at the top of Elmgrove Road.

The trees were hanging low over those stony, twisty Victorian Redland streets, and somewhere in the midst of them I found Lola’s house and was up in her room before I remembered where I had come from. She lived on the top floor, just as I did – marijuana smoke hung like an intoxicating winter mist in the air, and through it melted a dark, red-purple hue from the lights she had positioned in the corners. A vinyl player revolved on the floor, playing some distant, piano-based something I couldn’t make out, and through the window opposite her bed was that view of the city where all that was visible were the lights of houses and stars blended together because you couldn’t make out where the earth ended and heaven began.

Lola wrapped her arms around me, but then when I turned to look at her she wasn’t touching me at all but was sitting on her bed, lying against the corner of the room with her legs open and her red eyes watching me closely.

‘Why did you want to see me?’ she asked.

‘Why should a person want to see anyone?’ I replied.

‘The desire for connection. The desire for sex.’ Her eyes didn’t leave me. ‘The desire, however mistaken, to try and find some salvation in this universe.’

‘Is it so mistaken?’ I asked, and I felt a hammer blow of panic at the prospect.

‘Perhaps. After all, we can try and love but we will die. And if we fall in love then dying is all the more painful because we have to let go.’ She shrugged a masculine, feminine shrug, purposefully sliding her eyes down her legs, which she revealed to me like gems in a jeweller’s hand.

‘But if we don’t love,’ I said, trying to find a way out. ‘Then we are doomed to the worst loneliness.’

‘We’re doomed if we love and doomed if we don’t,’ she said. ‘We’re doomed no matter what. Now, come on. Do you want to be doomed with me?’

TBC…

NATD Chapter 6, Part 1

While I dwelled in a world of my own, locked away in the simple abyss of my own bedroom, the world outside was furious. Whenever I looked out the window or at my phone screen, or heard the news or saw someone else’s face, I felt the bitter press of an Earth that has lost whatever easiness it may once have had. And I wanted it to stop.

On the streets of Bristol that week were loud, furious protests that reminded everyone how terrible everything was. On the Friday, thousands of women took to the streets to protest against rape; on the Saturday, people of all colours and creeds protested against Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States; on the Sunday, there was a Christmas market which everyone used as an excuse to drown their sorrows in an alcoholic supernova.

Across the globe, an abstract madness infected people everywhere. Everyone was lonely, everyone was together, everyone was separate. My dear human, to be born into this age is to feel separate and scared, vain and self-loathing, competitive and helpless, and not to have a blind clue what to do about it.

I have often wondered to myself: what is it that is making all these people so insecure? Why is that I have felt this strange, ubiquitous depression myself? Why can we not do anything about it?

A thought came to me while I was walking the whizz-planed corners of the wild room of a nightclub, dippsy-daisying on magical substances and feeling enshrined in the flare of the bopping lights. Is it because we don’t know where God is? I was gazing into the straddle bound kaleidoscope of a staircase when I saw it ascending up and up and up, higher than perhaps any staircase of human proportions ought to be, and I wondered: is that God at the top of it? So I set foot after foot up the stairs, and began to climb and climb so high the ground descended and collapsed and the air rushed every way it could until I was in a different place altogether, sidling through a floorway of space and stars and reaching out trying to touch something but never quite finding what it was that had first called me forward. I felt that God had summoned me, but when I reached the place I needed to go it elapsed that I had in fact been fooled and there was no one there at all.

I stared into the dawn of human cognition and remembered the time when that first person said the word ‘I’. That was the beginning of the movement from God in heaven to humans on earth. From then we became no longer one, but many separate things, each with our own trapped sense of self-consciousness and each with the unacceptable knowledge of our own mortality. Our ancestors had religion to overcome this: collections of tales and practices that they thought might quell the existential terror. Some people still cling to these. I don’t, my dear human. I can’t. There is no God. I have called out for Him in the night, and no one answered. If there was a divine sensibility to the chaos of existence people would not suffer, and yet there is so much suffering… Evil transposes itself into even the most mundane of the day to day.

Why is there this suffering? Not because a God is helping us. There are no myths that help me transcend the decay and death of the material world. There is no trans-substantive force that can aid the people on the street crying for justice. There are drugs and there is sex, and there is the feeling of being high in a nightclub and the feeling you are invincible and that, perhaps, for that night alone, there is no death, that you are invincible, intimately, eternally connected to the fellow humans around you who, for that brief, insubstantial moment, you love…

But then you come down and you sleep and you wake up and the world is the same bare, ugly place it was in the sober hours of yesterday. What then?

But we still do this because we need to get away from something. We are running to get away from the hideousness of work, from the loneliness of life and from the intolerability of our own self-awareness. We are doing this because we are afraid to die.

But nothing will keep us from dying; nothing will stop us from plunging; nothing can save us, unless there is a soul within us all that lives on to be lonely in another place.

This, at least, is what I thought to myself the day after Lola kissed me. Isn’t it good, my dear human? Aren’t I brilliant in analysing the human condition in such a way? Aren’t I a genius?

Aren’t I?

TBC…

NATD Chapter 5, Part 3

I didn’t see Elliot again the rest of the day or night. At home there was only Ciara slumping around in her grey tracksuits, ignoring me other than to send me a look of malediction when I encountered her making coffee in the kitchen at midnight.

The following evening Harriet and I met a dark and bright Lola on Cotham Hill and walked up to the Student’s Union, where Harriet’s friend Robbie Boltham joined us. He was a small, beautiful, silky boy I suddenly remembered from halls, who spoke quietly and gave the impression of being intelligent but a little awkward. Lola seemed to smile and twirl with everything she said, and I encountered the distinct sensation of falling as we sank our obligatory two drinks before the show.

But the more fascinated by her I became the more uncomfortable I felt. I was watching her closely all night, and was quite sure she was doing the same to me but managing it in moments I wasn’t looking. Either that or she wasn’t really interested by me at all and I was utterly paranoid.

The production, apparently, was a success. It featured some very serious student actors taking themselves very seriously in a very serious play, and although I abhorred the earnestness of it all I somehow found I was immensely jealous of the main actor. The boy playing Eddie Carbone was beautiful and – I clench my fist to admit – very good. There was something ineffably attractive about him. He reminded me of a blunt instrument that could nonetheless still cut you. It was his youth and his seriousness that I envied, even though I knew I had both of those things. It was inexplicable at first. I kept sneaking glances at Lola whenever he was taking centre stage, but her face was untelling. I went back to imagining myself as the protagonist, and by the end intensely desired for the whole audience to have been watching me, to have been applauding me, for Lola to have been looking at me.

In the bar afterwards we continued to drink, and I sank into a solitary silence over the sound of undergraduates describing the play with academic terms they had only recently learnt.

‘I felt as if it were the gender boundaries that were more restrictive to knowledge – knowledge in the Foucaldian sense, you know – rather than class. The social differential is still too abstract, too undefinable in a trans-Atlantic context.’

‘But the promulgation of capitalist knowledge is endemic to all genders, where it varies by class-‘

‘No, no, no, it varies by gender because the female – that is to say, the cis-gender female experience – is intrinsically different to the cis-male experience as they are their own class, their own perspective, their own people….’

‘I loved the main actor,’ said Harriet over a pint of lager. ‘I thought he was the best thing about it.’

‘Yeah, he was good,’ said Robbie, ‘but he kind of stole the limelight from everyone else. And, like, I get the play is supposed to be about masculinity and the implosion of the ‘man of the house’, but Beatrice didn’t even get a look in. She was just kind of… there. Not doing anything.’

‘But isn’t that the point?’ said Lola, to whom I was standing in close proximity in a state of implosive perplexity. ‘Bea doesn’t get a look in because it’s all about the man. It’s all about how masculinity always subverts femininity and women always get smaller as a result. His wife is only there to provide a counter-point to his need for control.’

‘I guess so,’ said Robbie. ‘But she was a bit too passive for that. I think they could have worked on her character a bit more.’

‘Women always get diminished by men,’ bemoaned Harriet.

‘I don’t see how you can say that,’ said Robbie. ‘You’re taller than me.’

Harriet laughed at this.

‘Don’t men suffer from this arrangement as well?’ I asked Lola, but I realised as I spoke that I was directing the question to no one because she had suddenly vacated her place. A third of a gin and tonic remained where she had been standing.

The cast of the play had just entered the bar and an enormous cry went up from the assembled crowd, who busied themselves around them like ants. Congratulations were flying about like explosions in a fireworks-night sky. ‘We loved you…’ ‘The aesthetic was stunning…’ ‘So involving…’ ‘You must have rehearsed so hard…

As I looked I saw the main actor, surrounded by other people who in that moment seemed equally as beautiful as him. He was smiling modestly, barely talking, looking more at the floor than anything else. Then he looked up, and our eyes met for a second. Then he looked away.

‘I got you a G and T,’ said a newly re-arrived Lola after what must have been a few minutes.

‘Oh, cheers,’ I said with the appropriate surprise, and finished off my fifth beer of the evening.

‘You study English, don’t you Charlie?’ said Robbie. Lola and I clinked our glasses together.

‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘I’m extremely intelligent.’

There was a pause, and then Lola burst out laughing. Harriet gave a half-laugh and Robbie seemed not to know what to do. He emitted a conscious chuckle after a few seconds.

‘Right. What did you make of it?’

‘Well, it’s very interesting you ask that really. I feel like I’m not qualified to comment because I don’t really have a father.’

‘Oh – err… Why does that not qualify you to comment?’

‘Because,’ Lola interjected once again. She seemed to be wanting to read my mind as she saw fit. ‘The play is about the destruction of the father figure. Charlie has no father figure. Neither have I. But Charlie feels it means he doesn’t understand father figures and so has no perspective from which to comment.’

A rainy silence fell about the table.

‘Precisely,’ I said. Then to Lola: ‘I didn’t realise you don’t have a father?’

‘That’s a story for another gin and tonic,’ she replied.

‘I don’t know that you need to have a father figure to understand the play…’ said Robbie.

‘Maybe you do,’ said Harriet with an unstoppable flicker of her eyes over me. ‘Maybe you need to understand, like… ­Why a father might implode like Eddie does. Or fancy his cousin, though that’s a bit weird.’

‘His niece,’ corrected Robbie.

‘Incest is often a feature of the search for self-recognition,’ said Lola sagely. Then she twisted her neck to look at me with such a comical expression that I laughed for perhaps the first time ever.

The bar frenzied with bright young things soaking their souls in the dark amber light, and as the clock swung forwards we finished up and made our way out to Queens Road. I was uncertain about what our plans would be until Lola said to me: ‘I think we’re going for a walk’.

‘Oh, are we? Sure.’ Then to Robbie and Harriet: ‘We’re going for a walk’.

The latter left us, and like that Lola and I turned up towards Clifton. We walked in a wary, self-observant way, the way two people who have just met each other do when they want to impress. We were either watching our feet hitting the pavement or the outlines of the buildings pressing against a warm, blue night, making a show of only occasionally glancing away from our surroundings to look at one another.

As we went under the tumbling arc of the trees in Victoria Square, Lola broke our unquiet silence with one of her habitual leaps into a dark and unprompted topic.

‘Do you think people have always been sad?’

It felt more natural this time, what with the alcohol rolling about in our veins. I kicked a damp patch of dead leaves before I answered.

‘Are people sad?’

‘I think so. Don’t you think?’

‘Yes, I do. I think people are miserable.’

‘Did you hear about the boy who killed himself last week?’

‘No?’

‘Oh, it’s dreadful. He was in first year. Only eighteen. He hanged himself in his room in halls.’

‘Christ…’

My imagination leaned somewhere unpleasant but the gin kept it from going too far.

‘Apparently no one knew about it… But that’s what they always say, isn’t it? No one knew they were depressed. There’s always a sentence in the newspaper article that says ‘his death came as a total shock,’ or something like that. And an unidentified source says ‘We had no idea, he always seemed so happy to us’. I don’t get it. Why is this happening?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘They’re saying suicide rates are rising across the world. Apparently we’re in the middle of a spike. But why?’

‘I don’t know,’ I repeated.

‘It makes no sense…’

We passed under the archway into Boyce’s Avenue.

‘I’m not sure anything really makes sense. I’m constantly asking myself that: things like, ‘why was I born who I am?’ ‘Why do some people talk to me when others don’t?’ Or, I don’t know, ‘Why do we live on a spinning ball in a thing called the universe?”

‘But that sort of stuff is removed from this, though, isn’t it? Some things do make sense. Behaviour sort of makes sense. People do stuff because of other stuff. I got out of bed this morning because I wanted to meet Charlie Gunn and see a play. I chose to come to Bristol because I wanted to study Philosophy here. But ‘I killed myself because I looked happy’? That doesn’t link up. It’s schizoid.’

‘But they didn’t kill themselves because they looked happy, they probably did it because they hated the world.’

‘Yeah, I mean… But why should more people be hating the world now than before?’

‘Because everything’s wrong.’

‘Maybe it just feels like everything’s wrong, though.’

‘Same thing.’

We passed a homeless person by a bus stop, and Lola unflinchingly reached into her pocket and dropped some coins by her head without looking to see how much she was giving her. The homeless person didn’t say thank you because she was either asleep or passed out.

‘You see,’ I said as we carried on. ‘Stuff like that happens in this world. Homelessness. It’s screwed up. If the world was a good place, that wouldn’t happen.’

‘The world is fucked,’ she agreed. Then with a twist of delight she added: ‘Everything’s fucked. Ooh! Have you been on the swings over there before?’

She pointed somewhere across the green on the other side of the road and before I knew it she was over there herself with me following wildly behind. She all but vanished into the darkness before I found her in the children’s play park by the Suspension Bridge, mounting a swing.

‘You’ve got a real knack for spontaneity,’ I gasped into the thick, breezy air. ‘How do you do it?’

‘Oh, I don’t know!’ she replied, building up momentum on her swing. ‘My mind is like a massive ball pit. I’ve just got to go with whatever it brings up.’

‘That’s an exhausting way to live,’ I said, though didn’t add that I was subject to exactly the same caprices. I sat on the swing beside her and began a thoughtful rock back and forth.

‘Utterly. Sometimes it can be disastrous. But sometimes I get the full rush of something beautiful and it’s just – delicious.’

‘You’re trying to tell me you’re a slave to your mind?’

‘Oh, absolutely. There’s nothing I can do.’

‘Same for me. I’m trapped.’

She didn’t reply to this, but instead continued to swing back and forth in the darkness. After a few minutes she got bored and jumped off.

‘Let’s go to the bridge. I want to look at the lights down in the city. It always makes me feel like I’m looking at something more important than I really am.’

We slithered out of the park and down to the Suspension Bridge. Two security guards were on watch and eyed us carefully from their CCTV-screen filled office as we walked by. Presumably their main job was not to protect the bridge, but to stop people from jumping off it.

Lola was right about things looking more important in the nighttime. From up on the Bridge, Bristol spreads out beneath you like a pageant of stars thrown down from the cosmos and caught in the valley’s bowl, rather than a collection of electrically powered lights for people who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. In fact I thought it would be a good idea to say this to her.

‘They don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, do they?’ she agreed, her starry head drooped in gift-wrapped despair. ‘No one knows. No one has a clue.’

‘No. And we don’t have a chance.’

‘Maybe we might have done, if we’d both had fathers and been pointed in a clear direction. Maybe we wouldn’t care so much about how screwed everything is. But now… Now all I see is the dreadful stuff of the earth.’

‘Is that to do with having a father?’

She turned her inky eyes to me, and the seemingly sudden apparition of her face enflamed something powerful in my chest. But it wasn’t my usual urge to have someone – at least, not as I knew it. It was uncomfortable but flavoursome at the same time, like the first lick of a taste you know must be slowly acquired over time.

‘What are you looking for?’ she said.

I paused and let the distant honking of a car drift away below us.

‘Peace,’ I said.

‘What are you looking for in women?’

‘In women? What do you mean?’

‘I mean in women. Don’t you sleep with women?’

‘I – err – well, I have done. I mean, not all the time. It’s something that happens to me sometimes.’

‘What are you looking for in them?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. I just – I like them.’

‘Do you ever feel lonely?’

I felt something snap.

‘I never feel lonely.’ The lie was so obvious and discordant I may as well have dropped a brick between us. Lola practically glanced to the ground to see where it would have lain.

‘I think you’re lying.’

‘I’m not. I never feel lonely. Do you?’

‘No,’ she replied. ‘Never.’

I eyed her carefully, confused by what I now saw as her strange illusion of both familiarity and strangeness. I felt her to be especially female, but then, in fits and starts, violently male. When she turned her head one way, she was a girl – in the other, a boy. She was an expert liar and a supple truth-teller. In the same moment, I felt I knew both exactly what she was getting at and absolutely nothing whatsoever.

‘I think you’re lying,’ I said.

‘So what if I am,’ she shrugged. ‘What does it matter to you?’

‘Nothing, I suppose. If being lonely means other people aren’t in your life then it really does have nothing to do with me.’

‘So you’d only have an effect on my life if I wasn’t lonely?’

‘I suppose.’

She laughed.

‘You couldn’t be more wrong.’

‘Who are you? Why are you talking to me like this?’

She laughed again.

‘You’re an odd one,’ she said.

‘You can talk,’ I said.

‘Absolutely,’ she said. ‘We’re two of the oddest people alive. Aren’t we marvellous?’

‘Why did you ask me out for coffee? Why did you want to talk to me about all this stuff?’

‘Isn’t it enough for me to say I just thought you were good looking and leave it at that?’

‘Because –‘ I held my tongue for a moment. ‘I don’t think it’s true.’

‘What, that you’re good looking? No, you’re right. It’s more than that. It’s because you’re interesting, too.’

‘Yes… I am. I’m very good looking and very interesting.’

‘In fact, you’re fascinating.’

‘Yes… But so are you.’

‘I don’t know about that.’

‘No, you are. You unnerve me.’

She gave me a look of delighted shock.

‘Do I? Well, then we’re a perfect match, aren’t we?’

‘Do I unnerve you?’

‘I couldn’t possibly say.’

‘I get the feeling that I know you much better than I should, but also that I don’t know you at all.’

‘Well, isn’t that something.’

She grinned that large, tonic-like grin at me once more, and I felt the sudden need for a joint.

‘I’m sure it’s because I’ve invaded your privacy,’ she continued. ‘We’re a society of stalkers now, after all. That’s what facebook has done to us: made us more withdrawn, more anxious and more curious about other people’s lives. A whole generation of people taught to advertise themselves at all times and to envy those they can’t compete with.’

‘Profound.’

‘I know. I am. Shall we go?’

She led me away from the bridge and we walked through the silent, mid-week streets to Southleigh Road, where Lola’s house was. It took her all the way to her door, which felt odd because usually in these situations I was making a break for the girl’s bedroom. That’s all I had ever known: a girl shows an interest, no matter how vague or disrupted, and I would twist her into whatever shape would fit me that night. But I wasn’t feeling this now. As she mounted the front steps and turned to face me, her dark, handsome face looking up through the black and amber night, I felt something very, very unfamiliar indeed.

I was about to speak but she cut me off.

‘Don’t add me on facebook,’ she said. ‘Not yet, anyway. I’d rather get to know you in my own time.’

‘Who said we’d be getting to know each other?’

‘I did.’

And then, with the flash of her own control across my vision, she leant in and kissed me.

SHE kissed ME, my dear human! She did it to me!

Before I knew it the door was closed and I was standing with her number in my phone, and then I’d spun under the misty trees of Whiteladies and was back in my room lighting up a joint, then another, then another and a can of beer –

Something was boiling up inside me – some itching memory of something traceable but indistinct that had lain dormant for a very long, very uncomfortable time…

I sat back in the armchair by the window and smoked and drank and stared at the spotted city below me, but it didn’t feel right. I took an old bottle of cheap whisky off the shelf and swigged from it, then finished the rest of my beer. I was feeling alternately hot and cold, suddenly thirsty then suddenly not.

Everything was closing in, my dear human, everything was feeling not quite right at all, no not quite right at all… I span round and stared at the poster of the horsehead nebula that hung opposite my bed, and found that it was moving beyond the boundaries of its paper and the stars were seeping in all their opalescent madness into the wall –

– I thought I saw a figure in the corner of the room, but when I looked it had moved and there was nothing there at all –

I drank more whisky and smoked another joint, but nothing was dulling the feeling of panic that was closing my throat and nauseating my stomach, and nothing was stopping the sense that everything everything everything was futile, pointless, hideous, painful – oh GOD, what if after death there is nothing but terror and pain? What if we don’t even exist? What if loneliness is the only thing that is true?

I dug five valium out of a drawer and sank all of them with a glug of the whisky.

Who was this girl? What was she doing here? Why had she done this to me?

Was it because of her I was feeling the Bad Place coming?

Why was I alive at all? Why had I been born?

Selfish parents! Stupid humans!

Why couldn’t I explain this to anyone? Why would no one listen?

A shot and a drag and a shot and a drag and I was trying to drown it, waiting for the substances to do something, waiting for the valium to hit, waiting to be free of this mortal incapacity…

I was being sick out the window, and I realised I’d put on some music but I didn’t know what the song was called or who it was by…

I screamed into the darkness, a finite shriek to whoever might be there to listen, but in answer to my fear there was only silence, and there was no one there to hear me cry, nothing there to fill the emptiness

Then I –

TBC…

NATD Chapter 5, Part 2

After plans were agreed upon and we’d used our phones to buy tickets, Lola and I stepped outside to find the overcast, end-of-summer morning had given way to an amber autumn afternoon. The redness in the leaves of the trees seemed suddenly very pronounced, and the wind not quite so cold.

‘It’s so lovely,’ Lola simpered as she gazed at the trees. ‘Forget the library. Why don’t we go for a walk? I want to go to Royal Fort Gardens. It’s such a good place to sit when you’re supposed to be somewhere else.’

We walked side-by-side up Tyndall Avenue and past the Physics Building, or side-by-side so much as she would let me for she kept pushing herself forward at too brisk a pace, like a child excited by everything she saw. She attracted the attention of more than one passing undergraduate as we went, but seemed totally oblivious to it.

‘I’ve never really spent much time in Royal Fort Gardens,’ I said in a moment when our proximity was close enough.

‘Oh, they’re lovely,’ she replied, gazing at the eponymous Palladian house. ‘Someone once told me it’s called ‘Royal Fort’ because it was a fort for the Royalists during the Civil War. Isn’t that interesting? We’re standing on land that was fought for the king.’

‘It’s a shame the king lost. I thought the house is just offices now.’

‘It is. Everything beautiful disintegrates eventually. And I hate the monarchy anyway. If it were down to me, everything would be destroyed and rebuilt again as something beautiful that everyone could be a part of. Especially offices.’

We rounded the corner to the top of the hill, from where we could see the Wills Memorial Building and the odd roll of cityscape through the slowly unravelling trees. A few students sat around smoking cigarettes, as well as an old academic in an over-sized tweed jacket whose hair looked like it was also dying with the autumn. Lola ran down the hill without a word to go and examine a branch she particularly liked the look of. I stayed where I was, too self-conscious and generally too off-balance to follow her.

Her sudden distance relieved me a little because I felt troubled. It wasn’t for quite the same reasons as the morning. Then it had been life, the universe and myself; now it was life, the universe and Lola. Discounting Friday I had known her for all of forty-five minutes, and yet in that time she had mysteriously seemed to change both the weather and my temperament. She was madly charming, utterly peculiar and utterly unreadable. As I watched her from the hilltop, I tried at least to decide what I thought of her figure: it was slightly tough, slightly voluptuous, almost muscular. I couldn’t quite categorise her as feminine.

After a few minutes she came back up the hill, gasping with her great, tonic-like grin on her face.

‘What are you standing around for? You’re missing out!’

‘On what?’

‘This,’ she said, indicating the garden beneath her with a flourish. ‘Don’t you want to look more closely at it?’

I eyed her carefully, then, for the first time in years, I think I felt

the beginnings of a smile on my face; a smile that wasn’t forced. It felt so unnatural that I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

‘I think I need to have a nap,’ I said eventually. ‘I didn’t sleep much last night. But I’ll see you tomorrow evening for the play?’

‘Oh, yes,’ she grinned. ‘Yes, you certainly will.’

TBC…

NATD Chapter 5, Part 1

‘It’s not looking good.’

My tutor’s chair creaked as his unshapely body sat back in it to study my essay marks. A bird chirped tauntingly outside and I thought, ‘At least you don’t have to deal with this.’

Hendrik DeSleep had called me into his office on a matter of ‘grave urgency’, as his email had put it. He had been my tutor for two years now, but this was only the second time I’d met him. Every time he’d asked to meet, I found some excuse to get away. This time it was unavoidable. I wanted nothing to do with him; I wanted nothing to do with adults. He was everything I hated.

He was a fat, balding, boring South African who seemed to barely even be interested in his own topic field of post-colonial literature, nevermind anything else. In the days when I’d actually gone to lectures, he’d once given a talk introducing post-colonial studies that was so dull half the audience fell asleep. He didn’t seem to want to know his tutees, and I’d make a fair bet that none of them wanted to know him either.

He reclined now in his cheap office chair, beneath a front-cover poster of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.

After a fat, indulgent minute, he spoke again.

‘Your marks have been slipping rather dramatically, mister Gunn,’ he wheezed. ‘I’m rather surprised. You did very well at the start of your first year, but, as your marks show, you nearly failed your second year and you’ve failed both your essays so far this term. This isn’t good.’ He looked at me as he said this last sentence as if I had thought that perhaps it was good. Then he rubbed his forehead tiredly, and, with all the air of someone who wishes they were somewhere else, asked, ‘What’s – what’s going on?’

‘I’m struggling,’ I replied.

‘Yes, I can see that. But why?’

‘I don’t know. I’m not feeling well.’

‘Not feeling well? Do you mean mentally or physically?’

‘Both.’

DeSleep didn’t look at me, but instead moved to his computer screen and opened up some university intranet page.

‘If you’re not feeling well, you need to go to the health services. Or look after yourself better. Have you been to the doctor?’

A pang of fury exploded within me.

‘No.’

Do you know what it’s like to be afraid of life? I wanted to say. Do you know what it’s like to fear death like I do? Do you know what it’s like to have no future?

‘Well, then you must. Do that straightaway. But, as it stands, you’re in very serious danger of failing both of this term’s units, and therefore the year. You know what that means, don’t you, mister Gunn?’

I glared at him, but he just continued to stare at his computer, filling out what looked like a feedback form of some kind.

‘It means you’ll either have to re-take the year, or you’ll fail your degree. And you don’t want that do you?’

Perhaps I do, I thought.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Perhaps not.’

‘Go to the doctor’s. Are you talking to your parents?’

I laughed, much longer and harder than seemed appropriate.

‘No!’

DeSleep looked at me now.

‘Go to the doctor’s, Mr Gunn. And make sure you focus on your next two essays. I’ll be in touch soon.’

‘Thank you.’

I stood up to leave, and glanced once again at the ‘Things Fall Apart’ poster. Then, as the door was closing behind me, I heard DeSleep yawn.

*

I thought briefly about calling my mother, and I got up her number on my phone, my thumb hovering over the green button and wondering whether to press it. Then I locked the screen and put it away.

It was nine-thirty on the Monday following Friday’s confused ecstasy, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was rarely up this early, but I hadn’t been able to sleep and so had decided to turn up to DeSleep’s meeting anyway. I could go to the library, I thought – or I could go home and smoke a joint. But Elliot could be in either of those places, so in the end I decided to take a walk instead.

As I walked past the pleasant, grey-stone Victorian houses of Redland, I reflected for the umpteenth time on the events of the weekend. A strange, depressed tension had invaded the house after Friday night. I’d slept with Margot, but was uncertain as to whether Elliot, Harriet, Ciara or even Margot herself were aware of it. My sense of time and space had been confused, but my understanding was that Margot and I had gone home earlier than the others, and she’d left before they’d returned. I don’t know if they saw us leave, but they certainly knew we were gone. Margot was high, and I was quite sure I’d fed her something, probably valium but perhaps something else as well. Elliot spent the following two days at Margot’s, and in the short spaces when we did see each other he ignored me with a conscious, malignant calculation. I didn’t know what she’d said, and I didn’t know what Elliot knew. In a depressive spin from the drugs and the circumstances, I’d decided to try and stay away from them all as much as possible. I felt horribly, horribly guilty, and my anxiety was making it hard to think. The Bad Place was plotting something bad.

I walked up Tyndall’s Park Road, sparing a glance at the student health services and momentarily wondering if I should go in. Then I turned away into Cotham, and walked up hill and down hill til I was in the dingy, graffitied alleys of Stokes Croft.

DeSleep’s talk had frightened me; not just because of the potential failure of my degree, but because of the inevitable failure of life. Reality is absurd, confusing and brutal. I needed something to tell me it was otherwise, but all I saw on my lonely journey was evil.

Through Cotham you can see the pretty townhouses reserved for the rich and beautiful, but secretly unhappy and emotionally deprived; through Stokes Croft you can see the homeless decaying in their droves, making no secret of their deprivation. Two drunkards were shouting and screaming at each other on the Cheltenham Road, only they weren’t drunk as much as they were high on something. Perhaps it was heroin, perhaps it was acid. Perhaps both, and more. Rich, ‘respectable’ people passed invisibly by as one of them, a woman with enormous dreadlocks and missing teeth, shrieked something inexplicable at the other and threw an empty glass bottle at him. On the other side of the road, an old Afro-Caribbean man was smoking a joint without the slightest care in the world. That’s how people survived, I supposed: they stop caring.

But I couldn’t stop caring. As I entered the streets of St. Paul’s, I glanced through every window and wondered what discord occurred behind each one every day. How many marriages had fallen apart here? How many children had starved? How many teenagers had committed suicide? How many tears had been shed – and when did they stop being shed, and why?

On Bond Street was the Cabot Circus shopping centre. Hovering over the fast, grey traffic was an enormous advert for a fashion chain featuring two models, a boy and a girl, posing together with a precise, mathematical beauty. Their smiling faces suggested both desire and satisfaction all at once.

I wandered inside, and absent-mindedly bought a new pair of trainers. I don’t know why; I didn’t need them. But they satisfied something quiet and ephemeral within me, just as the pair I now threw away had done when I first bought them. They cost eighty pounds.

The streets began to feel strange, and I began to feel more and more distant. The faces I passed were harsh, dissatisfied and angry. Vast, concrete office blocks reminded us all that there were illimitable heights we were not invited into. A woman sat alone on a bench in Castle Park looking sleepless, watching her daughter play with a mobile phone. Although the autumn was beautiful, winter was inevitable.

The world felt huge, infinite and terrifying. I reached the river and stared at the water, and didn’t understand what the water was; then I looked at my hand, and I didn’t understand what my hand was. I felt sick; I felt the Bad Place.

What’s the point of living when we are all going to die anyway? Why stay alive when everyone I know will die, and the Earth will die, and the universe will die? Why persist when reality is so cruel? 

Death underscores everything. I felt it now, my dear human, this terrible thing: the original fear, the first, primal terror of being alive.

But then my phone rang, and when I looked I found it was my mother. I didn’t answer. Instead, I took off my new shoes and threw them in the river.

Then I walked home in my socks.

*

Sometime around twelve I arrived at the library because I didn’t know what the hell else to do. The thought had briefly run through my mind that perhaps I should try and write a good essay and save my degree, but as I approached the sliding doors of the gross, brutalist building that passed for a centre of learning I was no longer so sure. In fact, I was about to turn around and go home when a voice ripped through the fog of my loneliness.

‘Charlie?’

I expected for some reason to see Harriet, but I found it instead to be someone I thought was familiar.

‘Do you remember me?’ said a girl. She was standing on the steps up to the library, a cadent ray of midday light catching the side of her face.

‘Didn’t we meet…’

‘We met on Friday at Drogue,’ she said decisively, with a little smile. ‘My name’s Lola.’

Lola, Lola… The name came back to me, but my head had been so far removed from normality that it was hard to formulate these things.

‘Lola… Yes! Of course, you’re Harriet’s friend. Aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, that’s right. I do Philosophy with her. Sorry if you didn’t realise who I am – I’ve got a real habit of scaring people with my memory. I think memory is one of the most terrifying things, don’t you think?’

‘I suppose so,’ I agreed with hesitant surprise. ‘But then isn’t terror just one subjective interpretation of the condition of being?’

‘Yes, if you think existence is up for interpretation. At any rate, we only think we exist because of our memory most of the time. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t know much. Things would be an awful lot nicer.’

We paused as the rustle of a rising breeze passed by us together with a group of girls talking loudly about their weekends.

‘What are you doing now?’ she decided to ask me. Then before I could answer she said: ‘Coffee?’

‘Coffee? Certainly – yes, I could have coffee. Coffee,’ I added, perplexed by the concept.

Lola smiled delightedly. ‘Alright, let’s go. The library can wait.’

*

We found a little café on St. Michael’s Hill, from which we could see the enslaved students locked at their desks through little windows in the side of the library. Lola was ahead of me at all times and practically ordered me a drink without asking what I wanted.

‘So,’ she said, once we were settled in the far corner where fewer people could hear us. It felt a little conspiratorial. ‘Tell me about yourself.’

‘Well. I’m not really sure where to begin. I’m always a little baffled by the mystery of myself, to be quite honest.’

I thought, or thought I heard, a tiny note of fascination in her throat, before she burst out laughing.

‘Amazing! “The mystery of myself”… We all are. But now, seriously,’ she said, huddling over her cup. ‘I don’t know you. You’re fascinating aren’t you?’

Utterly baffled, I took a careful, considered sip of my coffee – extra strong at my request. She was watching me with large, saucy eyes.

‘I don’t know that I am. I mean, yes, I am. Of course I am. I’m very intelligent, actually. And I used to think I’d be famous.’

‘Famous doing what?’

‘I don’t know… I just assumed something would come along that would guarantee it. Acting or modelling or something. You kind of do when you’re sixteen, don’t you?’

‘Don’t you still?’

‘Well…’

‘I know you do. Everyone does. I do. Did you know that two-thirds of the country’s children say their only aim in life is to be rich?’

‘Really? I didn’t know that.’

‘They’d probably say the same thing about fame. Did you know that half of all schoolchildren are depressed?’

‘I can’t say I’m surprised… But where are you reading this? I can’t tell if you’re being genuine or if you’ve been reading the Daily Mail.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Why are they depressed?’

‘I thought life is depression.’

‘Perhaps it is.’ She flicked her eyes into her coffee and then back at me. ‘What are your family like?’

‘I don’t really have much of one. I grew up with my mother, and that was about it. She has an aunt but I’ve only met her once or twice.’

‘And your father?’

‘Left when I was five.’

‘Do you talk to him?’

‘No. I don’t know where he is.’

I felt for the first time in years something strange and uncomfortable forming with in me, some offshoot of the Bad Place that had lain dormant waiting for its moment to be nudged awake. This girl confused me. In the few minutes we had been sitting together she had interrogated me thoroughly, and yet somehow kept the inexplicable sense of having kept one eye on what was happening in the rest of the room. She’d constantly be glancing around, and yet give you the sense that she was only focussed on you. She seemed both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, just like how I felt about myself, only fantastically, extraordinarily female. And yet…

‘You don’t know where your father is?’ she said with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow. ‘You mean he just – disappeared?’

‘Yes. Exactly that. I don’t know where he is.’

‘And you’ve never tried to contact him?’

‘No… It was a sort of unspoken rule between me and my mum. He ran off with another woman and she wouldn’t hear another word about him.’

‘That’s tragic. Do you think he got bored of being old?’

‘That’s what I always think… That’s one of the things I’m most afraid of. Getting old.’

She stared into her cup.

‘Me too,’ she said.

‘All that happens is you die inside… You get a job you don’t like, you work hours that exhaust you, you earn money that keeps you alive, you have children who worry you and you have a marriage that falls apart… Either that or you stay alone. And I don’t know if I like either option.’

‘And then you die,’ she said. ‘And then you die.’

We paused and let this unfortunate fact flitter about the table.

‘Are you scared of dying?’ I asked.

‘Are you?’

‘Lola!’ came a voice, which this time did indeed belong to Harriet. ‘And Charlie,’ she said with some surprise. ‘How funny, I didn’t think you two knew each other that well.’

‘We don’t,’ I said as Lola and I exchanged glances. ‘We just met outside the library.’

‘How funny,’ she repeated. Then to me: ‘I wasn’t sure you’d remember meeting Lola after… Well, on Friday.’ She was evidently indicating the hefty dose of drugs I had taken.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,’ interjected Lola. ‘I was on plenty of things too. I’m surprised I even lived to see the sun come up.’

‘Christ, guys. You should slow down.’

‘I’ll slow down when I die,’ I thought to myself.

‘What are up you to?’ said Lola, sporting that high, energetic grin.

‘Actually, Robbie and I’ – she indicated someone called Robbie with a wave of her hand towards the café counter – ‘were just talking about getting tickets to see a student show tomorrow night. It’s A View From The Bridge. Maybe you’d like to come?’

‘Yes!’ trilled Lola with a spike of loveliness. ‘That sounds great! What do you think, Charlie?’

I looked from one face to other, examining their femininity in what felt like a new-found but still uncomfortable clarity.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Why not?’

TBC…