NATD Chapter 3, Part 2

*

I even made a friend of sorts. She was a female friend, a girl named Harriet who hovered about me constantly as if I was some sort of special key to the world for her. She was a generally reserved, nervous person, studying Philosophy, the kind of girl who, if she were about to walk through a door first, would stop and stand to the side for fear of looking insolent. Often I would return from a day in town to find two cups of tea waiting for me in our kitchen, accompanied by her imperious questioning about my day. ‘Did you go to the library?’ ‘Have you met that Alice Stubbins?’ ‘When’s your next essay deadline?’ ‘Oh, isn’t uni haaaard?’. She play-acted as a less insecure person than she was, so she must have feared my judgement. I didn’t mind her, though, and actually found the companionship useful because it made me look more social than I was.

I had to admit she was a fairly good-looking girl, too: her face was sad and handsome, and her voice incrementally excitable. Sometimes, in the tide of drunkenness, I would ponder whether to have her, because I knew I could… But ‘No’, I’d think. ‘Not her. I need her.’

And then, my dear human, there were the drugs…

This was the most exciting thing for me. I had never tried any drugs before. One night some of the boys on my floor offered us all some MDMA – you might know it as Ecstasy, my dear human – and, of course, we all took it.

At the club when the pill hit I at first felt sick, and I looked at the people I called my friends to wonder what on earth they’d done to me; but then the sickness gave way to the most excellent, indescribable, most outrageous euphoria a human being could ever know. My head expanded and my heart flamed and my eyes darted left to right and top to down and my veins thumped an eternity and it was hard to know if I was perceiving anything anymore other than gorgeousness, sheer gorgeousness manifest in all the mighty things of this world that was so brilliant and immense and ecstatic and, oh, wasn’t it all just too much, wasn’t it all just one almighty cockfuzzlingbrainswirlingenergypeaking triumph! In this dreamy, chaotic intensity I went dancing through the descant circles of the night and wishing well all the restive souls of the place, thanking the things that made this possible and kissing all of everything I could place my kissing lips on under the silver night, glossed opalescent with me, me, me…

I couldn’t get enough. For a night I had been in a world that made sense, and for the first time in my life I felt as if I were connected to it. The love I felt within me was so different to my normal state of waking consciousness that I just knew I needed more. I proceeded to seek out every drug I could possibly find.

To this end I became a regular user of several substances, easily acquired from dealers around town whose numbers were traded furtively between students. My palate was constituted thus: MDMA for happiness; valium for tranquillity; marijuana for removal; 2C-B for hallucinogenic ecstasy; ketamine for somnolent ecstasy; and LSD for a change of reality. I explored all of these as often as I could with as many people as were willing, and if other people weren’t available then I would do them by myself.

How fascinating it was, my dear human, to find that all states of human consciousness could be calculatedly drawn out to their extremes with just the dropping of a pill. All emotions could be contained or expanded at will. Finally, I felt I had some control over myself.

*

My first year at Bristol passed in a rage of drugged and drunken impulses. Not a night went by where I was not engrossed by the ghost of drugs past, or where I was not at a nightclub or not getting with some girl. I had developed a reputation for being quite the lady’s man, as a gentleman ought to call it, and I secretly revelled in this whenever I heard it whispered about me. I found it easy to win over girls because I knew how to follow the script of a good-looking boy chatting up a good-looking girl over an inebriation-infused conversation. And with the wild confidence the drugs could give me, I was unstoppable; then, it wasn’t so much a matter of knowing if a girl was into it as knowing how to make her into it.

The Bad Place was still with me, though, my dear human. It lingered and lurked in the dark places of my being like the demon I hoped to cast out. With the drugs, I could usually keep it from taking me. Panic attacks happened every so often, but, if I was fast enough, I could take a valium or drink a beer and drown the bastard for a little while longer at least.

But sometimes, sometimes the desires it pushed me into were too much…

I started to develop a bit of a habit. It wasn’t something I did a lot – just once every so often. It was a dilettante interest, a dabble along the ocean of unknowingness.

You see, my dear human, when one must control, one must find something to control.

One night, for instance, I felt the Bad Place coming. I was in one of the trashy nightclubs on a Friday night, when the place was filled with locals rather than students. Locals nights yield high results for me: students seldom get as drunk as the young professionals who flatter their feet on the Friday dancefloor. I was alone, and I think exercising my usual combination of 2C-B and weed, and lots of valium because without valium I tend to freak out. But the Bad Place was coming nonetheless, so I searched more and more frantically for a target.

I knew not to look to the dancefloor, because on the dancefloor you’ll find a man guarding and preying on every woman; no, one must look to the corners, to the unusual spots of this screaming pit of sexual desires. 2C-B and weed make me sexually aggressive at the best of times, so I roamed about the venue as a lion would his territory, surveying the bar, watching the dancefloor, wondering which of these women I would make mine. I could have any of them – I assure you. I’m extremely good looking.

But there were no obvious leads – that is, until I rounded the corner to where the toilets were (my favourite spot), and – with an AAAAHHHYEEESSS – quietly congratulated myself on my first-grade opportunity. For there on the floor, a few yards down from the lady’s toilets like a treasure mapped out by the lasers, was a young woman, perhaps twenty-two or three years old. She was wearing a short, silky red dress, sitting on the floor with her knees tucked up and her head rolled to the side as if she was about to fall asleep. But her eyes were open, and she was very much awake, if not aware.

It was about as straightforward as they come. You approach them by asking if they’re alright, taking a seat beside them as you do so. Gauge how drunk they are. It’s usually easy to tell from their first answer. Sometimes they tell you they’re ‘a bit drunk’, or more normally that they’re ‘fine’. Then start making conversation with them. ‘Are you here with your mates?’ ‘Do you want some water?’ ‘Here, I’ll stay with you til you feel a bit better.’ Always maintain an air of innocence. Then get them standing up and gauge how well she’s looking. In the ideal situation, she’s so drunk she’ll go wherever you take her with no questions asked. Most of the time though, it might take giving her a few more drinks, or pretending you’re a friend of theirs and you’re taking her home because they’re too drunk. Sometimes you simply have to act as the attractive stranger, and get with them in the club first. Then get them outside as soon as you can so her friends don’t see her.

It was a textbook case with this girl. She was black-out drunk, so wasted she wouldn’t remember a thing in the morning. And she was also able to stand, which was perfect. I managed to get her out the front door without much trouble at all, apart from at one point she seemed to be about to tap the shoulder of someone, presumably a friend, and I had to grab her arm to stop her from reaching. Other than that it was a straightforward out the front, into the taxi, take her back to my room and ensure no one saw her come in or go out.

In the morning you have to be up and out of bed before they are, and hide elsewhere in halls. Usually they get their clothes on and leave as fast as they can; or if not, then you have to re-enter the bedroom claiming you don’t remember a thing either. I’m good at this bit. I’m a good actor. I just act all modest and embarrassed, give them a cup of tea and shoo them out the door. Ideally, of course, they don’t stay the night at all. You just get them straight back on the street. They always find their way home. If they vomit or pass out, I leave them somewhere they’ll eventually be found.

This particular girl I describe to you was almost a staple example, apart from one thing: when she was back at mine, she tried to call the police. I had to wrest the phone from her hand as soon as I realised what she was doing. Fortunately she was drunk enough not to be able to put up too much of a struggle, though she did kick and fly about a bit. She was on the verge of passing out, though, so I got her into my bed without her waking up anyone else on my corridor.

Unfortunately the girl passed out after we were done, so I had to let her stay the night. In the morning she left pretty swiftly though, and I barely had to introduce myself.

I was good at this, my dear human. I was so good that no one ever suspected a thing. People talked, of course, of my prolific success with women, but they always put this down to my handsomeness and ability of character. It was perfect.

And whenever the Bad Place came, I would do the same thing: take the drugs, take the girl, drink the spirits and forget all of my troubles.

There was no father looking after me. I was safe now. I didn’t need a father.

TBC…

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NATD Chapter 3, Part 1

*

I don’t know what happened that night at Arrizzi’s. My drunkenness had eliminated whatever strains of memory that might have made sense of the thing, and for a few days I lived in a terrible insecurity that I might have done something unforgivably embarrassing like shouted at Madeleine or tried to punch Joe Mailer. But no one ever said a word about it, and I wondered if I had imagined kissing that girl out of some sort of alcoholic hallucination.

The hangover the next day did all the punishment I could have expected to receive, however, as my indebted body paid back the loans of the night before. But even as the following days returned me to a more recognisable state of isolation, there was not the slightest sign of any girl I had kissed. Perhaps if she had been real then she had been at least equally as drunk as I was. Perhaps she didn’t go to my college, or was a lot older than me. I had no idea. I decided to never mention it to anyone.

Amongst the disarming swirl of effects this first hedonic experience brought me was the feeling that another shift in my consciousness had taken place, much as in the days after Mailer beat me up. At first I thought it was simply a mixture of hangover and heartbreak: for months after I was at pains to avoid Madeleine, desperately wanting to see her but knowing that every sight would be a thousand hammers on my heart. She and Joe Mailer became ‘official’, and, with no other friends to distract my attention, thoughts of them invaded my mind without the slightest care for the time of day. If a heartbreak consumed all your thoughts in the day, it ought only to be fair that it gives you a break in the night; but no. I would fume at inconsiderate hours, confronted by all manner of myriad miseries, staring insistently at her facebook page and feeling simultaneously ruined and righted at the sight of her with Mailer. Oh, how I wanted her – how I thought she had wanted me – how I hated him!

Most of my lower sixth year was taken up by this train of thought, until, sometime around 2nd May 2012, I realised I had exhausted my ability to feel both broken and whole at the same time. I had made some friends of sorts by then – at least people I could tolerate – and, as it happened, one day Madeleine disappeared.

I stopped seeing her around college some weeks before her A-Level exams were due to start. I checked her facebook but there was nothing on there. Then I started hearing stories about a girl who’d dropped out in the upper sixth. I assumed this was Madeleine. But then I heard more stories of people dropping out who were ‘mentally unwell’, so it became less clear; but perhaps what she had told me about her mental health really was true and she couldn’t do her exams. Part of me yearned to see her again and to make sure she was okay – I desperately wanted to be her friend and at least feel the swellings of my desperation soothed into a more stable kind of connection. But then another part took over that said it was for the best she was gone.

But, while thoughts of Madeleine had sunk deep into the furniture of my mind, I had begun to think more frequently about other things. Things had changed irrevocably, and badly. I was living with the increasing feeling that there was something monstrously wrong with me.

Almost as if the sight of Madeleine kissing Joe Mailer had awoken something inside me, the day after Arrizzi’s I felt in full force all the lonely desperation of my childhood crashing over me. But now, seeing that image before me as I lay in my sickly bed, I felt something new: the need to control.

I had felt it coming onto me for some time now: from birth, through childhood, into the dark hour of adolescence and the darker liftetime of adulthood that lay beckoning. I knew something terrible was growing inside me, revolted by the life that I was to be forced to live. There was nothing good about anything. I thought about my mother and the thing she called her ‘life’: trapped in a house and an office, distracted only by the piteous droning of television, gossip and alcohol, escaping occasionally to some beach for a week at a time only to come home momentarily changed, but in reality still trapped and still confused. What answer do people like my mother have to this life? Either they smack their minds into dullness, or they die.

So I needed to control it, my dear human: if I could control everything, then perhaps I could cease to make the world so terrible. I wanted it all to stand to some sort of moral attention, completely still under the watchful arrest of Charlie Gunn.

But this need was so great, and the underlying franticness when things were uncontrollable too much, that I began to shatter inside piece by piece. I was falling apart like a flower in my hand. And I felt it all beginning to end when, out of nowhere, on a late-June day beneath a sky that was a Mediterranean honey-blue, I had my first panic attack.

It was colossal; there had never been anything so terrible in the whole world; no, no NO NO NO, it was too much, TOO MUCH –

I tried to breath, but instead of breathing in the incomparable solace of summer, I found that I couldn’t breathe at all. The bloodways of my body shook with sick poison and my lungs stopped accepting the air that now seemed to flow away from me; I tried to cough out an explanation but there was none – my feet flibbed and flabbed forward and I felt a terrible sickness rising up inside me, a horrific, hot-tempered evil that flared in my heart and caused my thoughts to spin catastrophically into this abominable vacuum that I suddenly sensed around me, like the floor was opening up and everything, all that there had ever been throughout all history, was hurtling into it, into a final destruction – My dear human, I did not know what was happening to me – it was evil cascading like lava through me and my thoughts bent utterly on total, numbing death, my eyes stared wildly up at the sky and I gasped, uncontrollably, as I saw all time and space open up and destroy everything – all that I loved, all that I hated, all that I had never had the chance to do… Then it was final. I wanted to die. And I went spinning through the streets and telling myself I believed only in the finality of my youth and not of the universe, but I didn’t believe myself. Madeleine, the girl, the club – all of it paled from this sudden, new and terrible knowledge that had just dawned on me like the final sun to ever rise. I was going to die, and so was the universe – and there was nothing I could do about it.

As it happens I was at a barbeque with my mother at the time, and I had to excuse myself on the proviso that I felt the world was ending.

This was the price that night with Madeleine had left me: anger, fear, greed, panic. I wanted both to have the world, and for the world to never touch me again.

The fits of anxiety became increasingly frequent as that summer rolled on and died into autumn. They were always accompanied by the feeling that I’d done something wrong, that everything was meaningless, that, should I push gently on the façade of existence, all one would find is panic and emptiness. The thought of that night at Arrizzi’s brought this feeling in me. So did Dan. So did, for that matter, all adults: when I turned seventeen, I realised that I was terrified of getting older.

And whenever I felt the Bad Place coming, I would try and re-correct this feeling of helplessness by asserting control over something. I had to – if I didn’t then I would lose control of myself, and if that were to happen then I feared that the chaos that would take over would do something I dared not imagine. It was a remnant of my feelings for Madeleine, as if the outrageous passion I had felt for her had never found their correct target and had now grown wild and evil inside me. I became even more obsessed with girls than before – not individual girls, as such, but all of them, the entire other half of the population, a great, orgastic mass of sexual beings that my increasingly compulsive urges made me want to devour in one swallow.

It was one night some time into my upper sixth that these dour, demon desires first got what they wanted from me. I had felt them coming all day with the thought of being around people, and I was on my way to getting howling drunk out of sheer desperation to distance the madness. I needed to assert control over something, my dear human – and so I did it to a girl. I couldn’t help it. The Bad Place was coming, and I had been talking to an attractive girl in the year below who so obviously fancied me that it made me both want her and hate her at the same time. My breathing was shortening and heartbeats quickening – she was already drunk – I offered to get her a drink, and poured a load of vodka into a large cup of beer. She drank it without even noticing. And, when she was drunk enough, I took her stumbling frame to a bathroom, locked the door, and had sex with her.

I know this is wrong, my dear human. You needn’t tell me that. I even knew it at the time. And judge all you like, as you are well entitled to, but understand this: that at that age, suffering the things I suffered, this was the lesser of two almighty evils. I lost my virginity that night, and I barely even remember the girl’s name was Rosie.

And here is the thing you may not understand, the thing I so desperately need you to know about me and the things I’ve done: I feel guilty. I know I have done wrong. And I felt the guilt as surely as you would, my dear human. But what makes us different, you and I, is that for me the guilt felt right. I revelled in it. I positively craved it. Perhaps you do to – I after all know you as well as any human can know another, which is not at all.

This is it, my dear human: if you feel you are a sinner from birth, then trying to lead a moral life is like knowing you are a wolf and yet earnestly pretending to be a sheep. You know it is a lie: you know you want to be different; you know you want to destroy the world. Well, I knew I was a wolf, and there was nothing to stop me from killing the sheep. There is no God above, there is no Hell below, there is no cosmic judgement to strike me down in an after-life: there is only the great uncertainty of the here and now, with nothing more than my own biology in the spiral of eternity. We’re all just performances in this perverse game we call reality, and I was seeing through it all, and I was hating every bit of it.

The girl at the party passed out and seemed only to remember getting with me. Some girls who had seen us disappear questioned me on what happened afterwards, and I simply replied, ‘I didn’t realise she was that drunk’. There was something of a scandal about it for a while, but it centred more on the girl’s weakness than on my power. To all the world, it was me who seemed to be the one in control, not her; and I was the only one who knew the truth.

Anyway, my dear human, I cut forward now by some months. You’ve gathered my mental state now, so here are the practical things:

I did my A-Levels in English, History and Politics, and achieved excellent grades in all of them. Of course I did: I’m extremely intelligent. My tutor at college had urged me to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but when application time came round I couldn’t be bothered to sign up to the extra classes and interview practice and so on because I was too busy using my time as I wanted. I couldn’t care less for the life these people wanted me to have; they wanted me to have a career and earn money and be respectable. I spat at the idea. With every panic attack that came – in the day, in the night and in the interceding hours that no sane human knows – I saw more and more through the imagery and fakeness of the society I had been born into, and decided I wanted none of it. I wanted to stop being a part of anything.

But university, so I heard, was a way of getting away from home and of doing things you can hardly do anywhere else: I imagined violent dreams of endless sex and drugs, all night every night, while my stupid peers from home would do nothing special with their lives. I envisaged escape – I envisaged rapture.

So I randomly selected a handful of English courses at a handful of universities, and received offers from all of them (obviously). Then I wrote all their names on pieces of paper, hung them on my wall, and threw darts at them til I hit one. Whether it was fate or the randomness of my aim that decided it, it seemed that I would be going to Bristol; and on a bright September day in 2013, riding the crest of an Indian summer, Bristol was where I arrived.

*

I cried a silent cry of relief after my mother tearfully left me in the bedroom of my first year halls. I wasn’t sad to see her go; I was overjoyed at the opportunity to be a new person in a new city, with people who didn’t know me, wearing new clothes that I had specially bought to make myself look as cool as possible. I had mined the internet for ideas of what would look cool at Bristol, and spent as much money as I dared on new jeans, shirts, jackets, trainers, posters and wall-hangings. I’d bought posters of one of the only bands I’d every truly tolerated, Nirvana, as well as one of The Beatles because I’d overheard people at school talking about them in an apparently profound and elemental way.

I had decided that I was to have a new beginning: this would be the place where I would be able to unload my callous desires, forget the bullies who had held me back at school and conduct all my Godless affairs under the watch of myself, and no one else. People would meet me and see the Charlie Gunn I presented to them – the beautiful, intelligent, untouchable Charlie Gunn! The best Charlie Gunn there could ever be!

Strange introductions were made with the freshers on my corridor, and within two hours of arriving I was drunk. We decided that the only thing to do was drink spirits and join the hundreds of others heading out to the freshers events at nightclubs around the city, and I simply exploded with delight at the possibilities that shook my hand with every neon light and electric thump of meaningless musical melodies that greeted me on my way. I was as anonymous as the music and as ubiquitous as the darkness over the dancefloor, as excited as the alcohol that enflamed my soul and as determined as a warrior leading charge into battle. I got with a girl on my first night, and, were it not for the watching eyes of my new group, I would have done all in my power to get her back to my room and settle the unfathomable plague that was deforming my heart.

The alcohol rolled on, and I learnt the nights as places where thousands of people inebriated themselves to flashing lights and the faces of people they didn’t know. I was automatically a member of the group of students on my corridor, whom I made every effort not to dislike for the sake of the alcoholic ecstasies they would invite me into. They were all friendly but forgettable people with whom I explored the nightclubs of this new city. But my two eyes did not care so much for them as for the girls I came across; and, whenever the opportunity came, I leapt.

I learnt all manner of new things in my first weeks at university. I learnt, for instance, about the right amount of alcohol I could drink without being sick, about the simplicity with which girls could be won over with the right smile and the right compliment, and about the easy superficiality that seemed to permeate all relations here. You would meet a new group of people everyday, and they would have no choice but take you as you seemed right there and then. This suited me very much; they would never know about what had happened in my home town, and I could pretend to be the beautiful, charming man I could force myself to be for as long as I was around them. They would never know the truth, and I strongly intended to keep it that way.

TBC…

NATD Chapter 2, Part 3

*

It was Wednesday when I met Madeleine, which meant I had two days to prepare for Friday night.

I waited a cautious few hours after getting her number to text her, just to ensure I didn’t look too eager. The text read: ‘Hey, it’s Charlie 🙂 how are u?x’.

One ‘x’ I felt was a safe place to start. If I dived straight in with two or even three ‘x’s’, it might make her feel disconcerted. One indicated that I was interested but not necessarily easily won.

I sent the text at 7:49, and, to my joyous delight, received a reply at 8:01.

‘Hey :),’ it read. ‘Yeah, good, u? X’

She sent a capital ‘X’. I wasn’t sure if it was encouraging or just autocorrect.

‘Alright yeah 🙂 think I can make Friday night. What’s the plan? X’

‘Awesome!! Well im predrinking with the girls at Steph’s house then heading out there. Mayb bring some of ur mates? X’

This was an inevitable hurdle I had feared. I didn’t have any mates.

‘Yeah sounds good, see u in college tomorrow? Xx’

I tempted fate with the double ‘X’. Then she replied:

‘Yeah, sounds good!! See u tomorrow J xx’.

I wilted into delirium. She had equalled my double ‘x’. That had to mean she fancied me – why else would she do it?

My dear human, I was in a beatific turmoil. The night passed in a series of unquiet frenzies, my dreams all spinning round on the line between waking and sleep.

On Thursday I bounced into college like the human I had never been before, ready to catch time by the tail and invert all the old prejudices I felt still hung about me. I strode about as if I had just purchased the very foundations the place was built on, hiding my latent anxiety behind a layer of bravado, answering questions in lessons and not caring if I got them right (though I did get them right), secretly frowning down on the fools surrounding me because they didn’t have what I had. They didn’t have Madeleine – I did.

By lunchtime I had still not seen her anywhere. With a carefully considered confidence, I sent her a text: ‘Hey, u around college at the mo? Xx’. I hoped that perhaps I might be able to find her somewhere and use the lunch hour for talking rather than eating.

There was no reply, however, until four. I was just about to leave when I felt my phone buzz and read the following text on its screen: ‘Hey, sorry I didn’t reply earlier, heading for a cig now if u wanna join? Xx’.

The continued use of the double ‘x’ fortified my already swollen heart. ‘Yeah, sounds good. See you down there? Xx’ I replied.

‘Cool 🙂 xx’ came the reply.

Barely containing a smile, I pirouetted through the college gates and out into the street where a resurgent autumn lay beckoning me forwards.

Of course, though, there would be a caveat to this. That caveat was that I saw Madeleine, with the usual burst of excitement; but she was with Joe Mailer. They were surrounded by their mates of adjacent genders, walking down the street in the direction of the den. I could almost hear their filthy flirtation drifting out behind them as they walked.

I was in a spin and unsure what to do. The loneliness that had momentarily suspended itself now seemed to close in again, warning me that, unless my dreams came true, it would strike me down like lightning. I hung back, watching their laughing backs grow fainter into the distance.

With great reluctance, I text Madeleine: ‘Sorry, got a family thing on. Could see u later tonight tho? Xx’

‘Ah, that’s a shame,’ came the reply a few minutes later. ‘sorry ive got to work this evening! But would be cool to see u in college tomorrow J xx’

‘Yeah definitely see you tomorrow J xx’, I replied, savouring at least this temporary salvation.

God damn Joe Mailer! What if they were together? What if he wanted her more than me? ‘Impossible’, I spat as I started making my way home. She fancied me. There was no one else to be added to this divine equation. She had already seen me, already peered into my beautiful soul and found that it was equal to hers. She’d see straight through the cruel heart of Joe Mailer and reject him. I knew it.

Madeleine had accepted my friend request on facebook, and in a fever I searched through her entire history as recorded on this website. I started with her earliest photos. The first was of her aged about thirteen (I checked her date of birth and confirmed that she was indeed thirteen). She was at a dinner table, surrounded by people I presumed were her family. It looked like Christmas time. At that age, the face that had grown to be so soft and yet so striking was still soft and still striking, but in a downy way, in a way that made me think adults told her she would be beautiful when she grew up. In the photo she was looking out over the dinner table, a smile lingering on her nymphish lips.

I tracked her adolescence through the photos. There were images of her at home, then on holiday, then latterly at parties. There was one photo of her in particular that infuriated all the envy in me, of her sitting on a park bench at night, surrounded by people all gathered round her like she was the core of their delight. She was fifteen. She was already beautiful. I was furious at the thought that, somehow, I could have been there with her; that, somehow, I had missed out on something.

Her later photos showed her in all her magnificence as the seventeen-year-old she now was. There were a few from some party in June, what I thought must be her leaving party from London. They all had tens, sometimes hundreds of likes.

In the midst of my research, I pictured her coming towards me on the dancefloor at Arizzi’s, pictured her silent lips meeting mine, pictured the rest of the people there knocked back in awe from the perfect partnership that had just materialised before their eyes. ‘Of course!’ they’d say. ‘How did we never see it before?’

It was midnight when I finally turned off my laptop and settled down to sleep. But sleep did not come.

*

Friday came, and throughout the day I was an excitable sack of anticipation. More than ever, I didn’t care about other people. I cared only for Madeleine and for the ascendance to heaven that would come that night.

At lunch, I again didn’t see her, so I swept the outside areas until, to my ecstatic glory, I found her sitting on one of the benches facing out to the games pitches. She was, as usual, surrounded by her girlfriends.

Rather than interrupt their chatter, I waited patiently by the entrance to college until they came inside for lessons. Then, when she was near, I appeared around the corner as if I was headed in the other direction.

‘Hey!’ I said, catching Madeleine in the crowd. The girls all stared at me, and some giggled.

‘Oh, hey!’ said Madeleine as the others walked on. Her face was immediately that transplendent glow that made me feel certain of our connection. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Yeah, it’s good! I’m just going to – um… I left my bag outside somewhere.’

‘Oh, right. You coming to Arrizzi’s tonight, then?’

‘Yeah, sure,’ I said, surprised that she’d even ask such a question. Wasn’t it already certain in both our minds? ‘What time are you gonna get there?’

‘I dunno, like, ten maybe? Ten-thirty.’

‘Cool. Cool, yeah – I’ll see you there.’

‘Yeah, see you there!’

She walked off with a smile that stained my thoughts as I walked outside.

It had to happen! It had to!

After waiting a few minutes to make sure they were gone, I turned back inside and burned with desire.

When four o’ clock came round, I hung around by the front gates to catch sight of her, but she didn’t appear. I went home, my mind focussed like a pistol on the job at hand.

I’d searched online for what the custom was for nightclubs. Trainers seemed to be an absolute no – according to some chat forums, some clubs would deny you entry for wearing them – so I tried my smartest pair of shoes with a slim pair of black chinos and a navy blue shirt. I tried to find out if I should wear a tie or not, but the internet offered no conclusive evidence that I should. Rather than risk it, I picked out a purple tie that went with the shirt.

There was no sign of my mother. I spent three hours trying on outfits, then sat in front of the TV and tried to watch whatever mindless bile was pouring out of it, flicking through the facebook news feed on my phone as I did so. I wondered whether to text Madeleine, but was unsure what to say. Then, at seven, I sent her a message saying, ‘Looking forward to seeing you later 🙂 xx’.

There was no reply for a while, and I grew anxious. Then my phone buzzed, and I leapt on it only to find it was a text from my mother.

‘I’m out with Dan tonight darling. Have a good sleep. Be sensible xxx’.

This confirmed everything I had already hoped to be true. My febrile imagination brewed with fantasies of taking Madeleine back here and enjoying all the immense possibilities of losing my virginity…

Slowly, the clock ticked forward. My anxiety was rising with every move of the second hand.

I went to the store cupboard by the kitchen where my mother kept her alcohol. When the light flicked on, it showed a hundred different kinds of food and drink; but there, at the end, was the alcohol. It sat like an unguarded treasure.

I perused the different bottles with fascination. There were several bottles of wine, all white apart from one red, two of gin and one vodka. I had never got drunk before, and I didn’t know what to take. With an empty plastic bottle saved from earlier, I poured as much vodka out as I dared – enough, I hoped, that my mother wouldn’t notice. It smelled vile – like hand sanitiser. And when I tasted it, it was even worse. It burnt the back of my mouth and all down my throat like it was petrol. But, still, I thought, this was what you had to do before going to a nightclub.

I thought it best to dilute it with something, so I found some apple juice in the fridge and poured it in until it was about half and half. It still tasted foul, but more tolerable now. I sipped on it til the hour hand reached nine o clock.

My nerves were dancing a tango when it came within a reasonable time for me to text Madeleine again. ‘Hey,’ suddenly feeling proud of my slight drunkenness, ‘what time u thinkin of heading? Xxx’.

I went straight for the triple ‘x’, hoping my inebriation would excuse me my indulgences. A reply came straight back:

‘Hey!! We’re probs gonna go in like forty minutes or so!! X’.

Only one ‘x’. I swigged from the vodka and downed the last of it. Being drunk was a strange experience, I thought. It was disorienting, but it dulled my feelings. I decided I liked it. Anything was better than what I had been feeling before.

But my senses started to spin, so I drank a glass of water to try and settle myself. That made me feel better; I felt great, actually, almost euphoric. Tonight I could get with Madeleine!

I felt like I needed some music to improve the atmosphere, so I searched spotify for something I thought they might play in a club. I played five seconds of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees before shaking my head in disdain at my own choice. Obviously they wouldn’t be playing seventies music in a modern nightclub. I found a ready-made playlist entitled ‘Club Bangers’ and, not recognising the name of a single song on it, pressed play.

The thumping, hedonic house music that came out felt much more like the right sort of thing. I placed the phone on the counter and span round to face the fridge, then extracted one of my mother’s open boxes of white wine and poured myself a glass or two. I drank one cautiously, wondering how well wine mixed with vodka, then decided to move my party of one into the sitting room. I plugged my phone into the TV speakers and tried to dance to it.

There is something rather releasing about dancing by oneself, my dear human. There are no other mortal eyes to strip you of your freedom with their imprisoning gaze. There is only you, yourself and your other self, the one that watches everything that happens to you; the third person eye. I was thinking of myself in the third person because I was trying to evaluate how I would appear in the eyes of Madeleine when we met on the dancefloor and the inevitable happened.

I’d already decided I’d make up a story about how my friends had bailed on me at the last moment – maybe I’d say they were going to meet me at the club, then glance dolefully at my phone and pretend that they couldn’t make it after all.

Nine-thirty came around and I poured myself another glass of wine. I was drunk, my dear human, very drunk; but I had no previous experience to compare this to, so I assumed that this was a normal state for a drunk person.

Arrizzi’s was about a twenty-minute walk away, so after five minutes I poured the last of the wine into my water bottle and readied myself to leave. In a daze, I checked that I had my keys and my wallet, then walked around the house switching off all the lights. Then I remembered that burglars would be deterred if there were lights on, so I put them back on again.

Then I set off, locking the door behind me and sipping my wine as I went.

I had never experienced anxiety under the influence of alcohol before, and found the simultaneous beat of the hammer in my heart with the delirious swirl of the outside world to be both confusing and enervating. I wondered whether Madeleine would already be there when I arrived. I feared that Joe Mailer would be there – or that I wouldn’t get in at all.

The dry, amber streets I tapped down reminded me of all the reveries I had imagined adulthood would be filled with, and I was briefly proud of myself for being like this, for being drunk and going out to a nightclub. I breathed in a hot, sweet dose of cool, October air, keeping the bad thoughts at bay, keeping the thoughts of Madeleine at the forefront.

Arrizzi’s was just off the high street. I peered out from a side road to see if I could recognise anyone. There was hardly any queue outside, and the bouncer seemed to be letting people in without checking for ID. That released a weight from me. Then, as I continued to drink my wine, Joe Mailer and his mates appeared up the road. I dipped back into the shadows, petrified they would see me. I dreaded to think what they would make of finding me alone and drunk like this.

I watched them pass, laughing a little bit too loud and chanting laddish nothings as they ditched empty plastic bottles by the roadside and entered the queue for the club. I could see the back of Joe as he seemed to deliberate with the bouncer; then, after about thirty seconds, they were let in.

I gulped down what little air my lungs would manage. There was sweat on my forehead. But I had no time to deliberate on whether to move now, because my lady blue came into view. She was surrounded by her friends, dressed in a short, dark, lacy dress that revealed the most skin I felt I had ever seen on a human being ever. My panic swelled into fever once more. The alcohol was stressing these emotions into something I had never felt before, a kind of insanity that the sight of these females made roar like madness.

I watched them join the queue along with a few other locals, all of whom looked equally drunk, the women in their mini-skirts and high heels, the men in clothes not dissimilar to mine. They all looked much older than me, even the girls who I knew were my age. As they all filtered inside, I for the first time felt like a child thrown into the wilderness before his time. I felt panicked, and my stomach felt sick. I threw the empty bottle of wine to the floor and waited a few seconds for everything to settle, then stepped out like a soldier into no man’s land.

The bouncer was an enormous, bald-headed man who looked like an emotion couldn’t have filtered through his muscles if it tried to. I kept my walking straight as I crossed the road, knowing he would be watching me.

‘Alright?’ he said as I approached. I was the only one in the queue.

‘Yeah?’ I replied. ‘Yeah, I’m alright. Mate.’

He eyed me for a moment, then looked down and started playing with his phone without a word. I hung there by the entrance for what seemed an eternity, paranoia playing my mind like an organ. I could hear the thumping music inside and I felt the sweat on my palms again.

A few people came into the queue behind me. They were a few years older, perhaps in their late twenties, and were laughing together to let everyone know they were experienced at this kind of thing. The bouncer continued to play with his phone, then, after a minute, glanced up at the queue of now four or five people. He looked down at his phone again.

‘Yeah, go in,’ he said, keeping his eyes on the screen. I stared at the bouncer then at the door as if something else were supposed to happen.

‘Come on, mate, don’t hold the rest of us up!’ said the guy behind me with a leering sneer. I didn’t turn to look at him, just flushed red and slid inside.

You had to walk down a dark staircase to get inside, like descending into a dungeon. The darkness was a relief; it hid my fear more than I could ever have hoped to do alone.

A bored-looking woman covered in tattoos was waiting behind a window at the bottom. She said something as I approached, but the music was too loud to hear.

‘Sorry?’ I shouted over the till, realising that this was the cloakroom.

She glared at me with contempt.

‘Fiver,’ she repeated, like an angry robot.

‘Oh!’

I pulled out a five pound note and handed it over, and, with a callous grind on her chewing gum, she took it off me and stamped the back of my hand with one movement.

I lingered to see if there was anything more required of me, but she was already looking to the guy behind. I swiftly moved on for fear of being shouted at again.

Then, the apotheosis of my imagination detonated like an air-shattering dream before me, because I walked out on the dancefloor and collapsed within myself.

A vast, dark cavern opened out before me like it had sucked in the night from outside, hammering with hard, frantic music and enmeshed with flashing lights bursting between pulsing bodies like dark ghosts in a hellish pit. Humidity and sweat burst onto my skin and my feet stuck to the floor as I tried to move them. There was a good number of people there, but not enough to fill the main dancefloor – through the darkness I could make out doors leading to other rooms.

Immediately aware that I might be seen by people I knew, I circled the main group of people centred around the bar. It took just a moment to find Madeleine: she was leaning upwards, sending her euphoric laughter pulsing all about her as she re-centred the gravity of the room. The tint of a smile brushed my lips with the sight of her, but it was denied a full career by the realisation that she was talking to Joe Mailer. He was propped on the bar making cocky gestures towards her, grinning that arrogant grin. The woman behind the bar served them drinks, a beer for him and some kind of dark liquid in a glass for her, and he paid for it. Anger and desire flashed through me. Suddenly the beating of the music was like a war drum.

I hung around in the shadows hoping no one would notice me. The thought that Joe Mailer or one of his mates might see me alone was a chaos unto itself. I could see their silhouettes in the crowd, talking and dancing with Madeleine’s friends. Interspersed between them were older people I didn’t know, and I hid myself behind them.

After a minute, however, Mailer moved away to some dingy corner of the club, and, jumping at the first opportunity, I sprung forward through the crowd to seize her before she could move away.

‘Madeleine!’ I blazed as I materialised beside her at the bar. She had been in the process of turning away, and suddenly rolled back to see me smiling my manic smile at her.

‘Oh, hey!’ she said, leaning over her glass of something I now identified as coke. I thought it must also contain vodka. ‘How are you?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m good, thanks,’ I replied, suddenly remembering to play the cool guy in this drama. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Yeah, alright. Are you here with your mates?’

I swallowed a dry-throated, wine-flavoured swallow.

‘Um, they’re – yeah, they’re on their way. Got delayed. My mate was driving and his car broke down.’

‘Oh, that’s a shame. He was driving to a nightclub? Isn’t he drinking?’

I swore like a bitch at myself. I hadn’t thought of that.

‘He wasn’t going to drive after. Anyway, I dunno when they’ll be here but they’re on their way.’

‘Cool.’

Silence somehow eked out in the space between us, even though the music was thumping about us like the devil’s hammer. I thought desperately for something to say, then, reasoning that I could blame all careless actions on drunkenness, decided to send a compliment her way.

‘You look beautiful,’ I shouted over the noise. ‘I like your dress.’

‘Oh. Thank you.’ She seemed embarrassed and turned away to gaze at the mirror on the other side of the bar. I glanced into it and saw the reverse image of us two, standing in the most unheavenly silence there had ever been.

‘Do you want to dance?’ I asked, the sweat encroaching on whatever parts of my body it hadn’t already drenched.

‘Um, maybe in a minute,’ she said, and once again offered her smile. But this smile was different: it wasn’t like her usual grand, beatific grin. It was a smile that said an uncertainty.

‘Okay,’ I replied. I span my head round, looking for something to distract from my awkwardness, and in so doing accidentally caught the attention of the bar-girl. She leaned over with her ear tilted towards me, and I suddenly realised she was expecting me to order a drink.

I nearly said ‘a beer’, but then caught myself and said, ‘I’ll have a Peroni, please.’

A Peroni appeared in front of me and I paid the £3.50 for it. Madeleine was now talking to a girlfriend on the opposite side to me. I waited for a moment, hoping that she might turn round again and start talking to me in the way I dreamed she really wanted to – but then an intuitive panic hit the inside of my chest, and I knew instinctively that Joe Mailer was returning. I slid away into the crowd and found that I was correct. He arrived back at the place I had been standing, leering into the darkness like he had just seen a rat scuttle through his house. He put his hand on Madeleine’s shoulder, and when she turned around she gave him the smile that broke my heart. It was the smile I wanted her to shine on me.

Then, with a gesture from him, they stood up to dance. I kept watching from my lonely place on the dancefloor, but I knew it was already over. Like a perfectly choreographed piece, they moved together on the dancefloor, swaying in and out of the pulses of the lights and sounds, swigging from their drinks in time to each other, moving closer and closer towards each other until, hideously, horrifically, as if the whole world would draw to a close, they kissed.

There were no words for me to say, and no one to say them to. I gawped at the spectacle like only a broken-hearted fool could, hating what I saw but unable to look away. They just stood there, in the middle of the dancefloor where everyone could see them, kissing and kissing and kissing.

I couldn’t take it. I downed my beer and walked round to the bar to order a vodka and coke like I’d seen Madeleine drink. Then I glanced around and there they still were. As I looked they stopped kissing, but Madeleine broke into a laugh, a hot, embarrassed laugh like she was overcome by him. Then she looked up into his face and I saw her drunkenness for the first time. It was the look I recognised in my mother when she was drunk, eyes falling about out of a sagging face. But she still looked beautiful, and she still looked at him like he meant something to her. I took my second beer and practically ran into the next room.

I was a mess, and the alcohol was making me feel sick. The room I had walked into was full of sofas and sitting booths. I found an empty booth where no one could see me and threw myself down on it.

It was too hard to articulate my pain. My head was swimming, and I was starting to lose control of my limbs – but my thoughts were a typhoon of the girl, seeing my girl, my Madeleine, kissing that bastard… All my dreams of greatness and all my feverish teenaged imaginings of sex, love and fulfilment vanished like the drink I downed from my hand.

There was nothing left, nothing… I was going to go back to an empty house, and the loneliness was going to return – I could already feel it closing in on me, this hideous feeling of dread…

But then someone sat on me.

It was a girl. At least that much I remember.

Hear this, my dear human: that, though what happened next may have appeared to be within my control, I cannot say with full certainty that it was. For the final drink I consumed sent me into a state which I had never experienced before, but which I have returned to several times since. My memory cuts into splinters as I try to piece together the events that followed.

The girl hit me at much the same time as the alcohol. The room dissolved into blots of obscure colour as I tried to make out who she was, but I couldn’t. She was half-conscious and seemed to have stumbled over to me before passing out – but then, it transpired, she hadn’t completely passed out. She was still awake, enough to get her on her feet.

I remember passing through the dancefloor like a spirit with a soul in tow, and then up the stairs to the street. No one stopped us, not even the bouncer, so the girl must have looked awake enough; and yet I remember her being so heavy, like I had to carry her more than she could walk.

I don’t remember walking home. At that point my memory caves. But I do remember getting to the house and seeing all the lights on, then leaving the girl outside while I checked there was no one there. There wasn’t. I came back outside and took her upstairs.

Then I took her to my room and laid her on my bed. I turned off all the lights, so that if she became fully conscious she might not see who I was; and, of course, this meant that I could not see what she looked like either.

Then, I did what it was out of my control to stop myself from doing. I took her clothes off, and I had sex with her.

I had never experienced anything like it before. Although the alcohol was begging me to pass out, I forced myself to stay awake because it was so obscene, so simultaneously wrong and right. I was thrilled and terrified, and I knew it was wrong, but the thing is that I wanted to be wrong. I had felt wrong all my life; I had felt guilty all my life; and now, my dear human, I was doing something that would justify that guilt.

The girl stirred beneath me. I think she may have been at least part-conscious, but I was confident she would not remember.

What I do remember is being finished, and staring at her naked body on my bed, fascinated and obsessed by the female form in all its reality. I daren’t turn the lights on to see it fully. I didn’t want to see what the face looked like.

Instead, I touched it and worshipped it like it was a special treasure, like it was an exotic animal to be gazed at through a cage. But this can’t have lasted long, because at some point I must have made the decision to get her out. So I dressed her, then carried her outside – I cannot remember if she was walking or if she had completely passed out – and I found a green space somewhere. I don’t know where it was. It could have been someone’s garden, or a park. It might have been the field opposite my house. But, wherever it was, it was done – I laid her down on the ground, looked to confirm that no one had seen me, then ran away into the night.

And no one ever found out what I did.

End of Part 1.

NATD Chapter 2, Part 2

*

One day after college, I hung around by the front gates, again using my phone as a cover for my spying. Then, with the same, familiar rush, I saw her leaving with her friends. I recognised their faces now too, and found them to be dull and uninspiring, especially in the resplendent light of her presence. A dappled Autumnal light waltzed over her laughing face as she passed. She hadn’t seen me. I waited until they were a suitable distance away, then began to follow. This was my opportunity.

But then my phone rang, which was a surprise because no one ever rang me.

It was my mother. I sensed that she was drunk.

‘Charlie!’ she trilled down the line, the sound of another voice fading out behind her. ‘Charlie, darling, are you finished for the day? I want you to come home. There’s someone here I want you to meet.’

I could already feel the dread in my heart as I tore myself away from my daily pursuit and, minutes later, found myself closing the door to my house behind the hollow shell of myself.

My mother was in the kitchen, and I could hear her voice and the sound of another’s laughing at some indistinct joke.

‘Charlie!’ she trilled again when I entered. There was a man standing beside her, dressed in a suit. He was handsome and middle-aged and reminded me of the people she used to invite round for parties after-work. They were both holding glasses of wine. ‘Charlie, I want you to meet someone. This is Dan. Dan, this is Charlie.’

‘How you doing, boyo?’ grinned the man, extending his free hand in the expectation of receiving mine back.

I froze. His outstretched arm stayed hovering before me, awaiting my grip in some recognition of each other’s masculinity. An awkward moment passed. Dan seemed unclear about what to do. He retracted his arm.

‘It’s very nice to meet you,’ he said, maintaining his salesman smile despite his evident uncertainty.

My mother eyed me. ‘Charlie, it’s very important for me that you meet Dan. Because –‘ she flushed red and fluttered her eyes over him. ‘Dan is my new boyfriend. And he’s going to be around quite a lot now.’

I opened my mouth to find some words but there were no words for saying. The cold, vague loneliness that had been hanging around me suddenly seemed to rise up and concentrate itself in my chest. It was a hard, unmanageable feeling of panic.

‘It’s very nice to see you,’ I seemed to say, but it felt as if someone else was saying it. ‘I mean, meet you.’

Dan smiled a broad, fake smile.

‘And you, mate.’

‘Mate.’ The word sickened me. I hated him. I hated everything that he was – his perma-tanned skin, his just-so suit, his ‘live for the weekend’ mind. I could smell it on him like a rat in a gutter. He had no dreams and no future outside money, property and mundanity; he would never achieve anything. He would never be anyone. I knew this about him and I hated him for it, because it was what I feared in myself.

‘How’s college going?’ he asked, attempting to nurture some unnatural partnership between us. My mother looked at me eagerly, her eyes imploring that I say the correct thing. But I didn’t want to do what was ‘correct’; I wanted to do what I felt.

‘I – I’m sorry,’ I said, still staring at him. ‘I have to go.’

I immediately turned tail and left.

‘Charlie!’ my mother called after me, the anger and disappointment she had feared falling out her mouth. ‘Charlie!’

But I was already gone.

I didn’t want him there, this man – it scared me more than anything. The cigarettes were in my rucksack, and I was going to smoke them, all of them. I didn’t care if it made me sick – at least it would be a change of consciousness, at least it would distract from the reality I felt pulsing through my brain.

I practically ran down to the woods. The trees were waiting to hide me, and I slid thankfully into their careless embrace.

The panic subsided slightly as I reached the stream. The gentle chattering of the water in the cool autumnal air soothed the outer edges of my distress, but it still lingered in my veins. I needed more than a stream to cool me down now.

But then, when I turned down into the den, everything fell apart. Because there was no one there – except Madeleine.

She seemed just as surprised to see me there as I was to see her. My being froze with a calamity of impossible emotions. She was standing by herself, smoking a cigarette and looking at her phone, but now looking at me, her solitude scarred by my arrival.

Neither of us spoke for a moment. Then, as all my previously distant dreams focussed before me, I collected a word from my mind.

‘Hi,’ I said.

‘Hi,’ she said back.

The wind clicked through the leaves. A million possibilities crashed through my mind.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

The corner of her mouth curved into the beginnings of a smile. ‘I’m Madeleine. You’re Charlie aren’t you?’

My heart exploded. She knew who I was!

‘Yeah. Yeah, I’m Charlie. How did you know who I was?’

‘I, um –‘ she paused, seeming embarrassed. ‘I’ve seen you around the place. I think we have mutual friends on facebook.’

‘Oh, really?’

I struggled to contain the greatest grin of my life.

‘Yeah,’ she said. Then a pause. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Oh,’ I spluttered, realising I must have been staring at her like an idiot. ‘I’m just, er, having a cigarette. A fag.’

‘Cool. I didn’t know you smoked. I’ve never seen you down here before.’

‘Maybe we just didn’t cross paths.’

I put my bag on the ground and fished out the cigarettes and the matches. I was trying desperately hard not to give away the fact that I was shaking. I tried to light up a match but my strike didn’t coincide with the box.

‘Do you want a lighter?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thanks.’

She laughed, handing over the lighter. ‘You use matches?’

‘Yeah,’ I laughed back.

‘So old school,’ she said. She seemed almost impressed.

‘I’ve just – always used them. But lighters are easier.’

I lit up the cigarette and dragged on it, then immediately realised I was going to cough. I tried to let the smoke go as smoothly as possible, but it wouldn’t go. I spluttered as I tried to contain it.

‘You alright?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,’ I said with reddening eyes. ‘Just went down the wrong way.’

‘Yeah, I get that sometimes.’

‘So,’ I said, trying to distract from my inability to smoke. I took a seat on the edge of the hollow. ‘I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new?’

Her face brightened and encouragement soared through me.

‘Yeah, I am. My family just moved here this summer from London. It was my step-dad’s idea. He said he didn’t mind commuting. And my mum said she wanted a bit of space for me, but, to be honest, I kind of wish we’d stayed where we were.’

She seemed keen to speak.

‘Oh, really? Did you like London?’

‘Yeah, I mean – it probably wasn’t very good for me. My mum really wanted us to leave, I think partly because she wanted to be somewhere different after divorcing my dad and getting re-married and everything. And she said London wasn’t good for my health. But all my friends are there, and I was halfway through sixth-form-‘

‘You left halfway through sixth form? So you’re in upper sixth?’

She nodded and took a drag on her cigarette. I took a drag on mine as well, but this time just let the smoke hang in my mouth before blowing it back out, pretending I’d inhaled it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Couldn’t they wait a year?’

‘My, er – my health isn’t great. They wanted me to be in the countryside.’

‘Why, what’s wrong with you?’

I said the words out of a sudden desperate compulsion to care for her, but immediately cursed myself for their tactlessness.

‘Sorry, I – I didn’t mean to ask so bluntly.’

‘No, no, it’s fine.’ She continued to stare at the ground. ‘It’s not a big problem, I mean – like, my mental health isn’t all it should be. It’s fine.’

‘Oh.’

I tried to carry this off as dispassionately as I could, but the news shocked me. This girl had a problem with her mental health? Didn’t that mean depression? How? She always seemed so happy, and she was so beautiful and so popular. I didn’t know what to say.

‘Um,’ I almost whispered. ‘Do you feel alright?’

Now she laughed that familiar, full-hearted laugh, raising her head up in that way I had often seen her do, snapping in a miraculous sudden into the fulfilled angel I recognised from college.

‘Yeah, I’m fine!’ she almost sang, looking so happy she could have floated up into the sky. ‘It’s just a thing that happens every once in a while, like, nothing to worry about. I just –‘

Then, immediately, she was back to that melancholic stare, the half-second smile sliding away again.

‘I sometimes get a bit – like, I once tried to – it doesn’t matter.’

Then she looked up at me and forced the smile up. And I smiled back. But, god, something was strange. This was not how I had imagined her to be. Reality was smacking hard against the dream, and I tried once again to remember what it was I had thought her to be. I almost wanted to get facebook up and compare her to her profile picture.

‘Cool,’ I said. But it wasn’t cool. I reminded myself I was speaking to the girl who had dominated my soul for weeks now. ‘So, like – how are you finding it here?’

‘Oh, you know, like, it’s fine. I’m just getting to know people and stuff. How about you? Have you been here a long time?’

‘My whole life.’

‘Oh, right. What was it like growing up here?’

‘Boring. I want to leave it all behind – I want better things.’

‘You look like the kind of guy who could have better things.’

My cheeks flushed red with excitement. She said it in such a suggestive way, looking at me in just that way she looked on facebook, that I suddenly felt absolutely certain that she fancied me.

I took a deep but subtle breath in, trying to keep my racing heart in the slow lane. I felt like I could boast to her and she would love it.

‘I think I could. Like, I’m smarter than most of the people here. And I’m a really good actor, and writer. I want to be an actor,’ I told her proudly, deciding that this would be the best of my personal fantasies to lie to her about.

‘Really?’ she seemed deeply impressed. ‘What kind of actor?’

‘Oh, you know. Movies, probably.’

‘That’s amazing.’ She stared at me with wide, fantastic eyes. ‘I bet you’re going to be famous.’

‘Well,’ I gulped. ‘Hopefully.’

‘You know, a group of us are thinking of going to Arizzi’s on Friday. Do you want to come?’

I wasn’t sure if it was because of the cigarette or not, but I my mouth dried up. Arizzi’s was a nightclub in town – one of the two my town had. I had never been to a nightclub before, but the thought that I might go to one with Madeleine – that I was being invited by Madeleine – well, my dear human. It was as if reality was on my side after all.

‘Oh, really? Yeah. I mean, maybe. I’ll have to see what I’m doing. But, yeah, sounds cool.’

‘Sorry if it’s a bit sudden,’ she simpered, and I thought her cheeks went a little red. ‘I’m just trying to get to know people, and, well – you seem nice.’

‘Nice’, I thought. I was more than nice. I was beautiful; I was brilliant; I was the man for Madeleine. I was absolutely positive that she fancied me now.

‘No, it’s cool. Shall we – um – exchange numbers?’

She shined again. ‘Yeah, sure!’

She gave me her number, and I wrote it into my phone like it was the most precious piece of information the universe had ever surrendered unto a mere mortal such as I.

‘Cool,’ I said after we had double-checked I’d got it right. ‘I’ll text you.’

She smiled at me, a sugary, sherbety smile that burnt an animal fire in my dark places. I smiled the smile of connection, of suggestion, my eyes striving to see through her, wondering if she meant what I hoped to the world it meant. Then I laughed, and dipped my face from embarrassment.

‘So, I’ll, er – I’ll text you.’

‘Yeah,’ she giggled. ‘Cool.’

But then, of course, the heaven that had made its bed in this hollowed out piece of earth began to disband, because there were the sounds of lads approaching from up the path.

I knew it would be Joe Mailer.

‘I have to go,’ I said in a distempered sudden.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, I forgot my mum’s new boyfriend is coming round. They’ll be waiting for me. Got to rush. I’ll text you!’

‘Okay!’ she called after me as I threw my rucksack on and scrambled up the slope.

I glanced to the direction the boys were coming from, and could already see flashes of them through the trees. I ran in the opposite direction.

My dear human, this was surely the greatest moment of the life of Charlie Gunn up to this point. The epicness that I had so craved in my boyhood had, in the space of a few minutes, swung eminently closer, like a star finally turning its light on the correct planet.

I stopped running once I was out of sight, and stood still to breathe in the deep air of a glorious place.

Oh, what magnificence! What extraordinary things there are in this world! As I passed by, the lovely stream unveiled its shining, silver bosom, and the trees adumbrating the heavens above seemed to nod a pleased, encouraging movement in the stark, euphoric wind. How suddenly it had happened! What chance had there been that we would meet that way? And that she would act the way she did towards me? Maybe, finally, the universe had guided me towards a deity that would recognise the brilliance that danced through my bones, the beauty that sang in my mind, the immortality that I would surely leave upon the earth. One day, this would be written in my biography: the first of Charlie Gunn’s string of gorgeous, reality-defining girlfriends, met in a smoking den in their boring hometown where they raged against the world and set out on the journey to raise themselves above it.

I fantasised a pantheon of fantastic fantasies as I walked home. I thought, of course, primarily of Madeleine – her marble neck, her lily shoulders, her Godlike soul that shone with mighty beneficence through her eternal face – but then about me. I thought how this meeting could elevate me above all the other verminous youth I had been surrounded by all my life. I would stride into college with Madeleine by my side, everyone knowing she was my girlfriend, everyone suddenly acknowledging the exceptional status that I had always had but they had never had the intelligence to recognise. She would make the world see my greatness. I wanted to wear her like a medal round my neck.

The streets hummed a melodious tune as I walked home, my heels barely brushing the ground for the dance I was on the verge of breaking into. Friday, Friday, Friday – Arrizzi’s, the nightclub. I would text her tonight and begin to lay the groundwork – flirt with her, flatter her, confirm what I already knew to be true, which was that she fancied me, and I fancied her. Oh, I more than fancied her – I loved her!

Did you need ID for Arrizzi’s? No, I was sure you didn’t. I’d heard older people at college talking about how they never ID’d there. It was famously careless. I felt, anyway, that I looked older than most sixteen-year-olds. People were always commenting on how mature I looked.

A nightclub! That was the place that people went to get with each other, wasn’t it? All those TV shows and films where it happened, where the boy and the girl dance together on the dancefloor and slowly slide into each other’s arms until finally, inevitably, impossibly, they kiss…

And sex. Lord, I had pictured Madeleine naked before – but what if – what if ­– we had sex? That’s something that happened after nightclubs, I was certain. My consciousness exploded with all the colours of how it might happen, how it would turn out her parents were out and she would tug me gently home, or – more likely – that my mother would be out. Yes, of course! It would be Friday, of course my mother would be out. She’d be at Dan’s. Thank God for Dan!

This Friday, I was to lose my virginity. And to the most beautiful girl who ever lived.

All these ecstatic things tumbled through my mind as, at terrific length, I arrived home.

Dan and my mother were in the living room when I waltzed in on a cloud of euphoria.

‘Hello,’ I sang as my mother made to get up from the sofa where she had been sitting with her leg over Dan’s. ‘Don’t get up, please – everything’s quite alright.’

‘Are you feeling a bit better, Charlie?’ she said, in that way that urged me to do the ‘correct thing’. Dan watched me obliquely from her side.

‘Yes, yes, quite better, thank you. Terribly sorry I was so rude earlier, Dan,’ I said, offering my hand. He seemed stunned for a moment then took it with a surprised grin.

‘That’s quite alright,’ he said. ‘I’m sure it’s hard having a –well, having a new man in your mum’s life.’

‘Well, that’s all as happens, isn’t it, you know, people move on. Anyway, I have schoolwork to do so I’m going to my room. See you later.’

And before they could say another word I was upstairs, behind closed doors, adding Madeleine on facebook and living the orgastic reality of all my tasty, teenage dreams as they sprung to life on the screen before me.

TBC…

NATD Chapter 2, Part 1

*

When I woke up, I was surprised to find it was October.

I had slipped into a coma. Not a physical coma, my dear human, but a spiritual one. After the beating, I took two days off college ‘sick’ until the weekend, then took the next week off too. I contemplated never returning, perhaps begging my mother to help me find a new school. But I kept thinking about Madeleine, and held my tongue whenever my mother was home. I didn’t want to tell her I was missing college, so I would dress in my college clothes at the hour of day she might return. She rarely asked any searching questions about my day, so it was easy to make her believe all was as it should be.

In the days I spent indoors, I began to notice again, more acutely than before, that strange, sad disconnection I had begun to feel as a boy. It was coming up inside me again, both filling me up and emptying me out at the same time. It sucked me of my will. I sat on the sofa for hours, unable to move, occasionally casting a cold eye at the world outside as the seasons slipped by without me to witness it.

I looked at photos of Madeleine on my phone. Any brief compulsion to add her as a friend had gone for now – I hadn’t the strength to stomach the idea that there would be no notification telling me she had accepted my request. Instead I merely sifted through what photos of her were available to people who were not her friend. There she was, again and again, on a beach, at a party, at a wedding, so close and yet so far away.

Then I flicked through my facebook news feed, and saw all the happy images of all the happy people I was at college with. Their bright, social faces leered out of camera lenses like demons reminding me that I was not with them, that I was excluded. They reminded me that my youth was limited, and it was not being lived.

I didn’t cry. I never did. Instead I tried to watch films, but they slipped vacantly over my eyes. Then I went to bed and slept an exhausted but restless sleep.

On the second day, I thought again and again about Joe Mailer and Madeleine, Joe Mailer and Madeleine – what if they got together? No, I wouldn’t contemplate that. It would destroy me. I may not have known this girl yet, but I needed her to stay open because she was the only thing that made me get out of bed in the morning.

My mother returned that evening, two days after the event and by which point the blood had gone and I had dressed up my bruises with makeup I’d found in her room.

‘I’m so sorry I’ve been away, darling,’ she said, sending a hurried text on her phone as she spoke. ‘I went to stay at Dan’s for a few days – you know Dan, don’t you?’

I didn’t know Dan. I assumed it was her new boyfriend.

‘Do let me know how college is going – I’ve just got to go back to the office now. Something’s come up. Love you.’

She started spending less time at home than usual, which in some ways was a good thing because it allowed me to spend more time in the house hiding away from the repulsive world that lay beyond it.

But I was a lonely tendril in this building, flailing out with nothing to connect to. There was nothing to do, no one to talk to. I could feel the despair dawning.

Towards the end of the week, I finally left the house. The weather showed the first signs that September was not eternal and winter had to come eventually. It was cloudy and grey, but still warm. A breeze swayed in the air.

With my hood up, I walked through town, fearful I would see someone I didn’t want to – fearful even of seeing Madeleine, because the material incarnation of her body would be too much for me. On a screen, I could control her. In real life, she could do anything.

I went to the church and began to walk around the graveyard. I don’t know why, but something drove me there. I observed the gravestones one by one as I passed, noting the names and dates of the people who lay beneath them. Occasionally there would be an epithet still legible.

I stopped at one I could read clearly. It said: ‘Here Lies Mary Lewis, Born December 9th 1843, Died January 8th 1891. A Beloved Daughter, Sister, Wife And Mother. May God Be With Her Now.’

Mary Lewis had been forty-seven when she died. I wondered what she had died of. Did she know she was dying, or did it happen suddenly? She must have believed in God, like all those fools did back then.

Did that, I wondered – did that comfort her as she lay dying? Did she believe that God was looking after her?

But if God was there, why did he let her die when she had children to look after? Unless they had died too. Perhaps all her family were already dead when she passed.

I walked away hurriedly. This reality is so cruel, my dear human – that such terrible things can happen in it.

Not knowing where to go, I came back to the entrance of the church and, unthinkingly, went inside. It was empty, apart from the vicar who appeared after a moment by the altar. We looked at each other for a second, our eyes caught in an odd awkwardness; then he looked away, with a quiet look on his face that seemed to understand I wanted to be left alone. I hated him for it, though. I found it condescending.

For two minutes I sat on a pew and considered the figure of Jesus suspended on the cross above the altar. Then I looked at my phone, and once again looked at the photo of Madeleine. I held the phone up so that the images were side by side, Jesus on the left and Madeleine on the right; and I decided which one I preferred.

I stood up and walked away. But, before I crossed the threshold to the outside world, I stopped and looked behind me, checking to see if the vicar was still there – checking to see if anyone, anywhere was watching. There was only silence and emptiness.

Then I spat on the floor. Then I went home.

*

It was Madeleine that brought me back; Madeleine that kept my heart alive; Madeleine that fed my spirit; Madeleine that gave me reason to live. For the first time in my life, I had found a God, and it was she that saw me through the darkness of my days.

The following Sunday night, in devotion to her, I slipped outside and made my way to her street. From the other side of the road, I watched her house, checking all the while to see that no one noticed me standing there. Then I saw a light go on, and – for just a few seconds – there she was! I must have gawped at the holy image. Though only moments long, I engorged myself on her presence. She came over to the window and, without noticing the adulating boy standing before her, looked out for a moment. Then she closed the curtains.

I could instantly feel the wearied depression of the week before slip away and energy return to my body. What a rush to see her features once more! It was as if a doctor had given me a shot and the medicine was flying through me, nursing back my dented spirit.

I returned to college the next day. Though I was better, I was not at my full health – I feared, dreaded the appearance of Joe Mailer and his cronies, and was not motivated to engage in my work either. But maybe, I surmised, if I harnessed some of the energy I felt for this girl, then I could slowly bring myself back to care for the other things – like my work, or like making friends. I kept the fact that I had never spoken to her at the back of my mind. Dreams are like stars, my dear human; they are best kept distant.

Something fundamental had changed within me. I could not express what precisely it was, but some subtle and yet profound shift of consciousness. It was not entirely comfortable. The loneliness that I had felt as a child and that had returned to me last week had abated in its intensity, but now it was somehow also more present. It was if the empty surge of dread had subsided to leave a residue of seclusion in its wake; now it was everywhere, all the time, constantly lurking in the mid-tide of my consciousness like it had worked its way into the very walls by which I walked. Healthy people I felt to shrink from me. The faces of the students I passed in the corridor seemed to have changed somehow, morphed into strange, alien forms – but, physically, were I to stop and stare at one, I could discern no difference. The change was subtle but pernicious. It was an inarticulate shift towards a new loneliness.

As I went to my classes, I found that I was even less inclined to speak than before. Instead, I got on quietly with the work assigned to us, focussing my befuddled mind on the task at hand and getting everything done faster than before. I had an English essay to catch up on, and I wrote it in one study period without proof-reading. When my teacher handed it back the following week, he had given it an A*.

It was strange and disorienting. I walked about the campus like a soldier returned from war, flinching at the sight of anything that might be Joe Mailer like a veteran from shell shock. I saw the crowds of people about me evolve and grow into their new friendship groups, and I felt even more distant than before. If I could try to describe it to you, my dear human, I would do it thus: like being enclosed by a dense, imprisoning cloud, through which you can always see the outside world but cannot be a part of it. Although the bruises of the attack had worn away, this is what they had left behind them: the pain of victimhood.

I kept my weary eyes on a constant watch for Madeleine. My mind was ticking like a bomb throughout the day, anxiously awaiting the sight of her; then, whenever I thought a glimpse of her had brushed my vision, my heart would rush with icy water, a million shards of glass surging out of my stomach and stifling my throat. Usually, it was just some other girl with blonde hair. But then, when I saw her, the effect was elephantine, almost too much for me to handle.

I was sitting in the lunch hall that first Monday, surrounded by students but making conversation with no one. Then, I glanced up, and in the queue for food was the immediate, unmistakeable, material form of the girl. I seized up. She was laughing, as she so often seemed to, chatting high-heartedly with the girl beside her, her head raised in this beatific performance of joy that enraged every sense of my being with confusion and wild, uncontrollable desire.

The thoughts would spiral through me: what if she saw me alone? What if she knew who I was? What if she had been as taken with my face as I had believed her to be that first time she looked at me, outside when I had seen her meet Joe Mailer?

I kept my head down whenever I thought she might look my way, then raised a tentative eye at her. She had stopped talking, and instead was looking out over the rows of students at their lunch tables, quietly and distantly taking them all in one by one. Then she looked my way, and I stared again at my plate of bland, tasteless food. After a minute I looked up again, and she was at the food bar collecting her lunch. I took my food, barely touched, scraped it into the waste bin and made a hasty exit. But then I lingered at the door, pretending to be on my phone, furtively studying her from across the room. I watched her sit down with her friends and once again resume her show of voluminous joy, laughing with full, rosy cheeks at whatever mundane words were unfurling around her.

How beautiful she was! How like an angel! She lit up even the dreariest of rooms with a transcendent magnificence, as if she were not really human but of some higher breed altogether. Then, lest I be caught staring, I made myself leave, and for the rest of the day swirled with images of her, both real and fake.

I lived for this unbearable, nauseous thrill. In my new state, I found petty interactions with other humans even less agreeable than before. There was solace only in the occasional distraction of my schoolwork and in the deep state of gorgeous uneasiness that sightings of Madeleine would plunge me into.

As the days drew on, I also began to see Joe Mailer and his mates about the place. At these moments I would immediately collapse within myself and run away. If there was even the slightest chance I had seen him at the end of a corridor or across a playing field, I would make an instant diversion. One time I saw him coming towards me, and in a moment of flagrant panic I threw myself through the nearest door and slammed it shut behind me. I had walked straight into the middle of a Psychology class.

‘Can I help you?’ asked the rather stunned teacher, a mousy-haired middle-aged woman with thin, bird-like features.

‘Err – no. Sorry.’

Then I left without explanation.

Weeks passed like this, and by the time I had resolved to find a way to speak to Madeleine, it was October.

I came back from college after a day of Madeleine-hunting, and, as usual, found the house to be empty. After the sounds of youthish chattering about my ears between the hours of eight-thirty and four, the bored silence of the house felt noticeably different. It was still unpleasant; everything had been unpleasant since Joe Mailer hit me – apart from Madeleine. But today the silence spoke an opportunity, and I slipped upstairs into my mother’s bedroom.

I knew instinctively where to look. There was the double bed before me, sleeping only her and an occasional fortunate other for the last eleven years at least, and at the foot of it, by the great window overlooking the garden, was the dresser. Around its central mirror hung photographs of things she held dear to her: a black and white image of her mother as a young lady, next to an equally colourless image of herself as a baby. There was a colour photograph of her father in a suit, posing perhaps for a company profile picture. Then there were two of me. One was me as a baby, crawling towards my mother’s arms in the garden, presumably taken by my father. The other was a posed image of me aged nine, smiling into a camera as I had been told to.

There were three drawers to either side of the chair. The top-right one was her makeup drawer, at the bottom of which lay the photo of my father I had first found when I was eight. The one below that, though, was the one I wanted. I opened it and shifted whatever paraphernalia was lying around in there – mainly jewellery – and, turning over a handsome, unused handkerchief, found what I was looking for. A near-full pack of cigarettes.

I took it and hid them in my room. My plan would be to go down to the smoking den whenever I thought Madeleine might be there, and happily open up conversation with her. We’d be fellow smokers, fellow abusers of the same substance. Smoking was supposed to be social, wasn’t it?

But after I hid them, the thought suddenly struck me that I had never actually smoked a cigarette before. I should probably practice first.

I slipped the cigarettes into my pocket and took a box of matches from the fireplace in the sitting room. Fearing the appearance of my mother, I walked up the road outside my house to where a small outcrop of trees dug into the neighbouring field, jumped over the roadside ditch and hid myself among the leaves.

It took a few tries to get the cigarette lit, but after a minute I managed it – and instantly started coughing. The back of my throat was unprepared for this sudden hit of hot, acrid smoke. But I was determined to keep trying. I inhaled again, this time leaning my head upwards so the smoke could slip easily down my neck. I held it there for a second, then released it as smoothly as I could. I coughed again, and regarded the cigarette with watery eyes. Then I kept trying until the cigarette was done. I lit another one and practised again, then went home feeling nauseous, my head swimming, and lay down in my bed until I felt alright again.

I didn’t care about how I felt – everything was about how I looked. This was my way into Madeleine’s life, I felt sure of it.

TBC…

NATD Chapter 1, Part 3

A sleepless night greeted a morning full of opportunity, but this time for one opportunity alone: Madeleine, Madeleine, Madeleine. ‘Madeleine Whitestone,’ I sang quietly to myself as I dressed. ‘Madeleine Whitestone and Charlie Gunn. A dream come to earth.’

The moment I was on the college grounds my mind was whirring with the billion possibilities our first meeting might give us. What scenario would precipitate our first meeting? What beautiful becoming of souls would occur when our eyes first locked and love was made inevitable? I burnt with ambition as I scoured the college quads and corridors, my eyes never resting for that first distinct sighting of my Madeleine.

But, again, my immediate hopes were doused with reality. My first English and History classes came and went, and I again found myself surrounded by disgusting, uninteresting humans who would never amount to anything. I tempered my scorn with hope as the day drew on.

More lessons, then lunchtime came and lunchtime went and still there was not a sniff. I rested my attention for moments at a time on any attractive girl my mind passed – it was a college of two thousand students, so there were a few, but not enough. And none of them were as good as the one I was searching for. I was already certain of it.

I barely spoke to anyone all day other than the odd arduous introduction to someone who would inevitably prove themselves to be a waste of my time, and by the end of lunch I was again feeling the downhearted drag of uncertainty. My next hour was a study period, so I decided instead to scour the outside areas once more.

I stepped out onto the central quad – a dull, red-bricked square around which the college revolved – and, seeing everyone that was not her, moved out to where the grounds gave way to the games fields beyond. There were a few benches here on which useless teenagers spent their stolen minutes to sit and exchange gossip about uselessness, and I wandered up the path behind them to see if she was there. I was about to turn back, when, all of a sudden, she appeared before me like a spirit from heaven.

There was a group of maybe five or six girls all perched on a bench that was not big enough for all of them. In the middle was that shock of sumptuous blonde hair I immediately recognised from facebook – dulled by an English sun, but unmistakeable to my mind. My heart seized up and my body became suddenly stiff, like all the ease had burnt from my muscles. I forced myself forward until I was just behind them, but close enough to overhear the conversation.

‘ – a weird thing happened last night,’ I overheard a voice saying. Its ecstatic, harmonious tones made me know it was hers.

‘What?’

‘My step-dad says he went outside for a cigarette and saw a robber in our garden.’

‘What!’ said one of the other girls, for whom I did not care. ‘Seriously?’

‘Yeah, one hundred percent serious!’ said Madeleine.

‘Like, he was breaking into your house?’

‘Must have been. Like, what else was he doing there?’

‘Did he catch him? Did you call the police?’

‘No, apparently he ran away as soon as my step-dad saw him. He called the police and told them but they don’t know where he went.’

‘That’s so stupid,’ said another girl who sounded significantly less intelligent. ‘Like, why would you try and rob a house when you’re obviously all inside?’

‘I don’t know, like…’ She paused to take a fretful breath of air. ‘Maybe he didn’t realise we were in. Or maybe he was trying to take stuff from the garden. Like, I wouldn’t care, all the stuff in the garden was left over from people who lived there before us anyway. Like, take it.’ She laughed.

‘That’s so scary, like, I would be proper freaked if that happened to me.’

‘It’s so weird, like… Is that normal in this town?’

There was a general shaking of heads as the girls said it had never happened to any of them.

‘I heard about one burglary though,’ volunteered one. ‘Some old woman on the Denton Estate who got burgled by some guy, but the police caught him. My mum said he was some druggy freak our friends knew, like he was a total creep apparently and they’re not surprised he turned into a burglar.’

‘Gotta be such a freak to do that,’ said another girl, and they all hummed in agreement.

‘Still scary though,’ said Madeleine. ‘Like, what if it happens again? Maybe he’s like, targeting our house or something.’

‘I wouldn’t worry about it, Mad, like, there are freaks everywhere. He’s probably not going to come back now they know you’re onto him.’

‘Yeah…’

The conversation seemed on the point of dissipating when, as if from a vacuum, two boys who must have been in the year above appeared from nowhere and approached the girls. They were bigger than me, and I felt that violent hatred that they were good looking and arrogant.

‘Alright?’ they said, trying as hard as they could to look cool. I nearly snorted, but the girls all seemed to have snapped to a dainty attention at the presence of two ‘popular’ males. ‘It’s Madeleine, right?’ said one. He had immediately singled out Madeleine, and discomfort fell on me.

‘Yeah,’ replied Madeleine, and though her back was turned I could tell she was smiling the smile of the flirtatious and awkward.

‘You’re in my Psychology class,’ he said with an assuming smirk. ‘How’s it going?’

The girls giggled.

‘Yeah, good. How are you?’

‘Alright, yeah. I’m Joe, by the way. Basically, like, we’re in the football team and the cheerleading squad are looking for people to join. We were wondering if you might be interested.’

There was a cheerleading squad? How crass.

‘Oh, right. Er, yeah, sure. I could give it a go.’

The girls giggled again and the social pain of adolescence hardened like a rock around them.

‘Cool,’ said Joe, flicking his hair to the side. I hated him. ‘They’re doing sign ups at four at reception. Be good to see you there.’

‘Cool, yeah. See you there.’

‘See you later.’

Joe and his anonymous friend turned to leave as vacantly as they had arrived – but as he did so he glanced up and looked at me for a second. In an instant I felt that special loneliness of a boy watching a group of girls from a distance. Then he looked away and the boys left. The girls fell into each other in muffled fits of laughter.

‘Oh my god, Mad! Check you, getting all the attention!’

‘That’s Joe Mailer! He’s so hot.’

‘Is he?’ laughed Madeleine. ‘I mean, yeah, I guess he’s attractive…’

‘Oh my god, you should sign up,’ said another. ‘Bit of potential there!’

The girls laughed again, but Madeleine said nothing.

‘I should go,’ she said all of a sudden. ‘I’ve got to do some work. Got a study period.’

Seeming to have accepted Madeleine as their decision-maker, they all agreed to go. Painfully aware that I might be noticed, I started walking back into college – but I looked back for a second, and, in a moment that stunned me, I found Madeleine returning my gaze. I froze. The other girls were moving, but Madeleine was staying just where she was, looking at me in what I took to be fascination. I stared back. Seconds passed, but seconds are all infinity – I don’t know how long the moment lasted – but I looked away first, and, red-cheeked, walked back as naturally as I could. I looked around one last time to see if she was still looking after me, but she wasn’t. She was picking up her bag and following the other girls back into college.

I quickly headed for the library and found a seat where I could begin to still my beating heart.

She had looked at me! What could this mean? I read a thousand meanings into that moment – perhaps she was instantly fascinated by me! Perhaps all my dreams, hitherto scattered about in the careless air, had finally found a gravity and concentrated themselves on me. I pulled out my assigned reading, but again found no concentration. Madeleine – oh, my Madeleine!

How to get her attention now? How to open a conversation, seal the love I could so inevitably extract from her gaze?

Then an idea came to me: football. If she was signing up for the cheerleading squad and I was in the football team, we would have to meet. It would have to happen.

The problems were immediately obvious. I was not good at football, so far as my brief flirtation with it in the past had told me. But, then again, I had never tried properly.

It was decided: I would sign up for the football team.

*

At four, I checked the various club sign-up sheets on the pin-up board at reception. I found the football team sign-up, and added my name. I hadn’t seen Madeleine since that morning, and though I craved another meditation on her stunning features, I decided to head home. I had work to do.

My mother was not home, as usual, and I wasted no time. I plugged my laptop into the sitting-room TV and youtubed videos about the basics of football. For an hour I watched explanations of the basic rules, about different formations and about the best players in the world, and what made them so great. It wasn’t pleasant – I had never liked football because I associated it with lads and the kind of behaviour I was inherently above – but, with Madeleine in my mind, I drove bravely on. This was necessary. I had to perform for her, catch her eye amongst the competition and let her know that I was able to compete, that I was the best. If it worked, it would be the making of me – Charlie Gunn, the great Charlie Gunn, beautiful, intelligent, made for the best things the world could offer.

I was watching online videos of ‘historic’ football matches when my mother arrived home at eight.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked at the door of the sitting room.

‘I’m thinking about joining the football team.’

‘Oh,’ she said in a drudge-ridden kind of surprise. ‘How excellent. I hope it goes well.’ Then she left to go the kitchen, I assume, to open up a box of wine.

I stayed up til eleven watching videos about football, anything and everything I could get. Team try-outs were in two days.

But in my bed, as much as I tried to think about all the things I had learnt about this stupid game, my thoughts returned again to Madeleine. I lingered on the image of her face looking at me, and all the wonderful things she may have seen in it.

*

On Wednesday I made a lonely trip to Fulfilment Shopping Centre to buy a pair of football boots and some basic kit, as well as a ball. As the sun went down, I sparred with the ball in my garden, consulting youtube for advice on how to do keepy-ups and how to hit the thing with the side of my foot rather than the toe. But I couldn’t do it. No matter how hard I tried, the ball refused to meet my foot. The boots began to blister my feet, and, after who knows how long, I smacked the ball to the side in a fit of a rage. These moments kept coming back to me: moments of animal fury at my own incapability, at the thought that perhaps I might not be good enough, that perhaps I really was the hideous, outcast freak they had told me I was in secondary school. I didn’t like football – I didn’t like the people I was going to play football with. But if it brought me within a touch of Madeleine, then perhaps it would be worth it.

Needless to say, my dear human, Thursday’s football try-outs did not go well. Already scared by the presence of boys who all somehow seemed to be tougher than me, I tried to complete all the training exercises as best I could, but failed at almost every one. I had no adeptness in my feet: the ball would come my way and, remembering youtube videos about ball control, I would try and gently tap it but find that it soared off in an entirely unwanted direction. In basic passing drills, I lost control at the first touch; at penalty shoot-outs, I would slice it far from its intended place. In the final game we played at the end, by which time my disgust for this revolting sport and all the people that played it were coming to their peak, the ball rolled through to me as I made a perfectly timed run, copied almost exactly from one of the videos I had seen on ‘finding space’, and, with the goal beckoning for my shot, I swung my foot – only to find that, rather than my toe hitting the ‘sweet spot’, as it is known, I mis-timed and found the sole of my foot rolling over the top of the ball. And I fell over.

Laughter erupted all around. The demon was riding up within me – time was distorted, my thoughts a polluted fug – and, without a word, I stood up and walked to the sideline. I knew what would happen – my anger would explode again, and I would make these people who surely already thought I was a fool hate me even more. I would punch one of them. I wanted to – I wanted to kill something, destroy it like it had no place on this earth and never should have come into existence. But I tried with all my strength to keep it in, and simply walked away in silence.

A few of the voices behind started calling after me amid the laughter.

‘Oi, mate!’ came a voice from one of them, one I did not recognise. Suddenly he was beside me. ‘You alright?’

I was trying to control these uncontrollable emotions before I replied, but then I looked ahead of me and there, of course, as predictable as pitiful confusion, was Madeleine. She was strolling by and watching with her girlfriends. The moment I saw her I once again froze, then deftly calculated the performance I needed to put on. I immediately turned to the boy who had asked if I was alright and, springing a great smile on my face, told him, ‘Yeah, yeah, mate, just thought I’d rolled my ankle or something.’

I glanced at the girls as I said this to see if they had clocked the laddish unity I had feigned. They were still watching.

‘Alright, mate,’ said the boy. ‘Come rejoin when you’re sure you’re alright.’

He ran off, and I was left alone with the girl’s stares. Thinking quickly, I sat down and started massaging my ankle, as if to indicate it was an injury that brought me off rather than my own hateful stupidity. The girls seemed to watch for a moment more, then once again turned into themselves and continued walking. I hoped to god they hadn’t seen me fall over.

‘You coming back?’ called another voice from behind, and I realised it was Joe Mailer’s.

‘Err – nah,’ I replied. ‘Think I’ve done something to my ankle. I’ll sit the rest of it out.’

Mailer seemed to smirk, and hate pumped through me. ‘Alright, mate, you do what you want.’ Then he turned back to the game.

‘What’s that kid called?’ I heard a voice ask. ‘I dunno,’ replied another.

I lingered on the sideline for a moment more, contemplating whether to stay for the sake of appearances or to take my opportunity to leave. Masculinity was pulsing on the field like a bulbous sore, and I had no intention of returning. Then, when I saw the girls head in the direction of college, presumably to go home, I quickly collected up my things and left before anyone could ask me where I was going. Whistles sounded behind me to indicate the end of the try-outs.

Like a furtive snake, I followed the girls – the same group as before – through college and out onto the streets outside. Again, I couldn’t be sure what I was expecting to gain from this, but something, there had to be something. They stopped on a street corner for a few minutes, and I had to hang back some distance, pretending to play with my phone. Fear made me think I could hear the football lads approach from behind. Then, with swift, suspicious glances about them, the girls continued onward in the direction of the woods.

Every anxious step I took was a paranoid pleasure as I pursued the females down into the place where, as a child, I had wandered for hours in luxurious dreams, imagining myself to be the king of the world. The visions I saw then came back to me now as the houses fell away and the trees took over, looking on indifferently as the hunter pursued his prey.

A fair distance in, the girls stopped and looked around them. I was hidden far back, covered by a dense crop of trees. I was hoping that if they saw me, then at least the mud-stained football clothes would look impressive. But they didn’t, and, one by one, they disappeared off the track and down into a hollow in the earth, hidden behind the leaves, one I had passed many times but never descended into. I stayed where I was, fearing their reappearance. I wondered why they were being so secretive, and decided that they must be smoking.

Minutes passed, and I was about to step out from my hiding place to get a closer look – but then there was the sound of boyish chatter and tramping feet, and, as I turned, I realised it was the football team. There were five or six of them, and at the head was Joe Mailer.

‘Alright?’ he said in cock-eyed surprise. His hot, fierce eyes began to make me sweat. ‘Fuck are you doing here?’

‘Aren’t you the kid who was shit at football?’ said one, and they all laughed an evil, cancerous laughter. Their hot eyes suddenly made me sweat.

‘I was just-‘ I stuttered, but they cut me off.

‘Perving in the woods?’ said Mailer.

‘You are shit at football, mate,’ said another.

‘Fuck are you doing anyway?’

I could feel the darkness coming up inside me. I was stunned at the suddenness and ferocity of their attacks – like I was a long-sworn enemy rather than someone they had just met.

‘I was just – going home-‘

‘You were hiding behind a tree?’

‘Are you a freak?’ said one, but earnestly, as if he was both genuinely fascinated and revolted that this might be the case.

‘We don’t have space for twats like you at football,’ said Mailer, withdrawing a pack of cigarettes from his shorts. ‘I wouldn’t bother coming back.’

I didn’t get it – why the animosity? Why was it so sudden?

‘Fuck him, I want a cig,’ one of them pleaded.

‘Get the fuck out my way,’

Mailer barged forward and shouldered me back into the tree. And that was it – my mind gave way.

‘FUCK – YOU!’ I screamed. Before any of them could do anything I seized the back of Mailer’s shirt, tugged him back and, with all my might, slammed my fist into his face.

He would have fallen to the ground, but his mates caught him. I immediately knew I had made a mistake.

For a split second, he was in shock – but then he jumped straight back up and did everything it was within his power to do.

‘YOU – FUCKING – FREAK!’ he cried as smacked me. His mates joined in. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’

For thirty seconds they beat everything they could about me – my nose instantly broken, my stomach winded, my spine bruised as I bent over and they smashed me to the ground.

Then they kicked me, and, once it was clear there was no resistance, there was a silence as they momentarily contemplated what they had done. Then one of them – I assume Mailer – spat on me.

‘Don’t you fucking ever do something like that again,’ he hissed. ‘I don’t know your fucking name, and, for your sake, I hope I never find out.’

They moved off in fits of deep-throated contempt, but I didn’t hear what they said. I knew instinctively that the girls would have come up to see what was going on, so, before I had the chance to see how bad my injuries were, I was up on my feet, away from where they could see me, stumbling back to the street, back to an empty house, back to where my mother would not come back for two days and where there was no one to ask me where I got my bruises.

Tbc…

NATD Chapter 1, Part 2

First drafts…

I was just about to turn off the road in the direction of the woods when I heard a singing chatter behind me. I glanced across the road, and found a fascinating sight – a pack of females! Like an almighty bell had been struck, I instantly forgot what I had been thinking about. Girls, my dear human, girls! They were long-legged, long-haired and beautiful, and immediately the ringing in my head began to feel different – hotter, more passionate but still furious, like there was still something manic within but it had merely changed the object of its desire. The desire it had found was these girls.

I had paused on the opposite side of the street from them, just where a back alley led from the main road through a block of town houses into the woods beyond. I hovered at the entrance like a lone fish having just found the school he was always supposed to belong to. These girls were stunning, my dear human; they snapped up the attention of the world around them.

There were five of them, huddled together like a pack and glancing about themselves with the uncertain defensiveness of vulnerable animals in the open. Though all of them were attractive, and something about their being in a group seemed to triple their beauty, there was just one who caught my immediate attention. It was the blonde one in the middle – the only one smiling. In fact it was her that had made me turn my head, because I had heard her laughter. While the rest of them put up half-grins or simply stared blankly about them, the blonde girl was laughing loudly, broadly and musically. It looked from first glance as if she was explaining something to the others and, rather than wait for their reactions, was simply diving ahead with her own self-induced laughter. She seemed the sort of person who had so much laughter inside her that she had to habitually let it out or else she’d explode.

I stared at the immaculate choreography of the passing girls for what felt like far too long. Then, as soon as they were a safe distance away, I began to follow them.

I don’t know what I expected to gain from following them – perhaps some hint, some intricate suggestion of their orgastic nature that would fall to the ground as they went. I couldn’t be sure, but I followed anyway. I needed something to follow.

I trailed them all up the road, keeping a safe distance behind and glancing down at my phone if any of them looked behind. Two of them peeled off in one direction and the other three, including the blonde girl, turned another. They turned up in the direction of the High Street, then, I realised with a flutter, in the direction of my house.

Another one dropped off, then another one – and then it was just the blonde girl left. She was still headed towards my home. I daren’t let myself get too excited, but with every step and every turn, it became clearer and clearer that she lived near me. Before I knew it we were just one street down from my house – then she turned off to the left. It was her and I alone on this suburban street, the same sort of street you could find in any other town in any other part of the country, but at this moment full of an infinity of differences. No other street in no other part of the country contained Charlie Gunn, crouched behind a hedge, observing this dream-beauty, this abstract intention, treading unknowingly away up to her house. When finally she got to the door, she glanced around her – but I was already gone, and I knew she lived at number twenty-four.

*

Immediately, all other cares in the world were abandoned. Popularity, love, recognition – these things were thrown to the gutter as my eyes turned to new desires. All that mattered now was this girl.

The house was empty when I got back. I called out carefully from the doorway – ‘Mum?’. No reply. I checked every room in the house just to be sure there was no one there. Then, I went to my bedroom and opened up my laptop.

For an hour I trawled through facebook, hoping with a newfound passion that it would tell me who this girl was. She had to be at my college because she looked the right age and her clothes matched the dress code, and if this was so then we were sure to have mutual friends on facebook. I had over a thousand friends and almost all of them were from my town – she had to know some of them. I checked the friends lists of people I felt she might know, starting with a series of ‘popular’ boys. A girl as beautiful as her was surely going to attract boys arrogant enough to believe they deserved her company. I tried each of their profiles – Joe Parker, Matt Mayhew, Tommy Ogilvie – but a profile picture matching her outstanding beauty did not materialise. This gave me hope – perhaps she wasn’t friends with bad people. Perhaps she was different.

After an hour she still hadn’t appeared, and I was at a loss. To ease my frustration I picked up the book I was reading at the time, Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’, and settled down to concentrate my mind. But there was no concentration – my head was in too much of a frenzy, my thoughts as scorching as the devil’s palate – and I threw the book to the side after five minutes. I needed something more, and I needed it quickly.

I went to the landing and called out once more to see if my mother was home, but again there was no reply. It was six-thirty and still light outside. While I waited for the sun to fade, I went back to my computer and continued to try facebook, searching forensically for any trace of her existence she might have left through her online dalliances. Still nothing. Outside, the light withdrew into the grass and the trees. I was still alone.

Once the twilight was deep enough, I took my rucksack and left the house. If my mother returned while I was gone, I’d tell her I’d gone to the shop.

A settled, September silence greeted me on the road outside. The fields opposite were as quiet and untelling as ever. I slipped like a fox through the night, seeing no one as I went, and came out at the end of the girl’s street. There was no one around. My heart all in palpitations for fear my mother would appear, I glanced all round me – then I darted up the road. I arrived outside number twenty-four with sweat on my brow.

My initial thought had been to see if there was a family name somewhere on the front of the house, but I immediately saw this was stupid. No one in this town did that so far as I had ever seen, and this wasn’t like America where named mailboxes stood outside every dwelling. I didn’t know what to do next and was starting to feel a total idiot. It was a warm night, and several of the windows were open. Light was coming from almost every one. I stood there in muffled consternation, wondering if I should really just turn home before some provincial soul asked me what the hell I was doing – but then, slam! The sound of a car door shutting and voices chattering came from somewhere up the road, and then another sound of wheels roaring towards me. Panic flared within me like petrol set alight, and, in a moment of chaos, I sprinted forward and dived down the side of the house.

I rolled behind a pair of wheelie bins and waited for silence to return again – but it was difficult to discern silence now because blood was thumping in my ears, telling me to get away while I could. I stayed in the shadow behind the bins for as long as I dared, terrified that the moment I had run had been the moment someone in the house had glanced out the window and seen a strange boy coming their way.

A minute passed, and a lonely car drove past. Silence fell once again. I caught my breath and wondered why on earth I had decided to run – my nerves had got the better of me, and I hated myself for it. But there was no time to dwell. I was hidden down the side of the house, beside the brick wall that divided it from number twenty-two. Now I was this far, perhaps I would find some useful thing that would aid me in my search; I dreaded the thought of going to my second day at college with nothing to go on, lest I not find this girl again. Behind me, light was spilling out onto a pristine, summer lawn, and I decided to peer round the corner.

The garden was typical of every other house on these streets: neatly made flower-beds lining the perimeter and two ugly stone statues of naked, classical women flanking a white bench that sat at the far end facing the house. To my left was a large French window, from which bright light and the chatter of a television emanated. I was terrified, because all that would have to happen would be for someone to look outside and see me, but a wild compulsion within drove me to sneak forward, just far enough so I could see into the room. A thin, lacy curtain blocked my view, and I daren’t go any further, but I could just about make out the edge of a figure sitting on a sofa. Was that her? Please let it be her – I craved to recognise an inch, just something for my eyes to devour –

Suddenly the night was once again disturbed by noise, this time a phone ringing from within the house – from the open window directly above my head. In terror, I jumped back into the alleyway. How ridiculous this was! And yet I wanted something from being here. I needed to come away with something. After a moment I leaned my head around the corner to see if I could hear anything.

The phone rang for a few seconds before a door opened and the ringing stopped.

‘Hello?’ came a woman’s voice, too old to have been the girl’s. It must have been her mother’s. ‘Yes, this is Mrs. Whitestone.’

Whitestone!

‘Ah, of course. Yes, I remember. Whatever you recommend. It was her first day at college today, so I’ll be sure to let her know. Fine, I think – she doesn’t usually tell me these things. You know what she’s like. I’ll do my best and report back to you. Thank you for calling, Doctor Hart. Yes. Good night.’

The call ended and the door slammed shut.

I could have jumped for joy at what I had found – her family name! This wasn’t such a ludicrous adventure after all!

But I barely had time to savour the excitement before fear once again hit me – for at that moment, the unmistakeable sound of the French doors opening came to my ears. I glanced up and saw a large, middle-aged man step outside with a cigarette in his hand – but I didn’t have time to take him in properly, because I was up and away faster than any wind could take me.

‘Oi!’ I heard a voice shout, followed by the pounding of footsteps. But I was gone, sprinting away up the street and round the corner before he could have seen me. ‘Oi!’ came the shout again, already distant as I rounded up my own road, not stopping to look behind me. Some dogs on the adjacent street started barking, and the sound of loud voices carried over the houses. I reached the front door and hid myself away in the safety of my home.

I clung to the inside of the door for a moment to catch my breath, sweat dripping down my face.

‘Charlie?’ a voice called from the sitting room. My mother was back!

I stood up in apprehension, pulling myself together as best I could. How this would look, I didn’t know, but I was away from any immediate threat for now. I breathed in deeply.

‘Yeah?’

‘Why did you slam the door?’ asked the voice, with that familiar tint of disappointment running under it.

‘Did I?’

I went to the sitting room door and presented myself like a soldier on duty, but immediately realised I needn’t have bothered. She was obviously drunk. She was laid out on the sofa with a large glass of wine in her hands, watching some idiotic programme on TV about absolutely nothing. Her head rolled toward me as I entered, her prim little eyebrows burrowing slightly into her slightly tired, slightly sad eyes. It was depressing.

‘Where’ve you come from?’ her sagging voice demanded.

‘I just went to the shop.’ I indicated the rucksack over my shoulders.

‘Why are you sweating?’

‘Because – it’s warm outside.’

‘You’re not normally that sweaty, are you?’

‘Um – no, not normally. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe.’

‘I certainly hope not. It’s so off-putting.’

She turned back towards the TV, indicating the end of our correspondence.

‘Where have you been?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ she sighed heftily, like I’d mentioned some hideous task that still needed doing. ‘I don’t know – I had a drink with some people from work. What other way is there to get through a Monday night?’ She didn’t say this like a question, but like it ought to have been a fact.

‘Right.’ I hesitated, then withdrew from the room.

‘Charlie?’ She called again as I made for the stairs. ‘How was your first day at college, darling?’

‘Yeah, fine,’ I called back.

‘Good. I’ll see you tomorrow!’

‘I’ll see my girl tomorrow,’ I whispered under my breath, but all my mother would have heard was the closing of my bedroom door.

In a fever, I opened my laptop and went straight back onto facebook.

Whitestone, Whitestone, Whitestone… Yes! That’s her!

One glance at her profile picture told me it was her: the unmistakeable roundness of her face shining out of her lush, blonde hair in a photo taken on an eternal summer evening in some hot, exotic country far away from here. She was perched on a wall surrounded by an auburn glow, smiling like a roguish nymph caught in the middle of some secret, orgastic enterprise, her cheeks glowing with the camera light and her eyes full of this subtle fire like two devilish candles burnt away behind them. I stared at it like I had found the reason for my life. It had two-hundred-and-sixty likes – but she had only two mutual friends with me. They were both girls from school in the year above.

I deduced quickly what this might mean – that she was new to the area, and had not made many friends yet. Her popularity from wherever she had been before would surely carry over. This meant I had only a short time before she attracted the attention of boys I knew in my heart I could not compete with, no matter how brilliant I was. I could not socialise the way they could.

My frenzy now quietened, I went to the window, half expecting to see her father come marching down the road; but all was still outside. I drew the curtains and closed down the computer.

And as I lay in bed, once again tasting that sweet sugar that lined the pathways of the future, I let her name fall again and again over my wanting lips: Madeleine.

TBC…