IT WAS OCTOBER.
BY BRENDAN BENNETT
A disregard of literature, or the entire world beyond television, in fact, when I was fifteen, led to my outlook on life being largely formed, or skewed, by high-on-budget, low-on-realism American sitcoms and films. I believed in one-line wonders, hopeless hints. If the situation arose.
Kissing a girlfriend on the cheek she would say ‘Thank you.’ I would part, snail-pace, and stare solemnly into her eyes and whisper, ‘Any time.’ Just the kind of thing that I had digested time and time again, willingly force-fed by the big, blue TV, I put out in to the modern world, a place it was never meant to be.
I was sitting at home when the phone rang ‘ring ring’ and an acquaintance offered kindly to take me out for the night with a few of his friends to see a band in Cambridge. This was October; the days were short. I was younger than them, idler. I decided to go. I slipped on an alternative t-shirt (Lord only knows what I’d be without booze, it read) and jeans that were too small.
We drove in gentle rain, my older peers and I, and I watched the cold saffron lights of traffic through the droplets on the window, husky guitar and vocals rock and rolling from the radio to accompany the damp smell of smoke in the car.
Cambridge is a beautiful city, one that I began a love affair with that night.
We had an hour before the show and I was awkward, inexperienced, with these adventurers. They took me to a pub. I was wearing juvenile clothing. I laughed at the name of the pub. The Baron of Beef. I stood outside with one of the boys whilst two others confirmed if they were going to ‘get served,’ a kind of status that meant more and more to me as a boy of that age in that time, and I was terrified. As I sat inside with a pint of Carlsberg, I was blatant and visible around men and their facial hair; I was just a boy.
I would learn the art of blending in to the pub background later; I would never learn to handle my drink. I was merry when we reached the Corn Exchange.
This was my second concert. My first was much bigger. This was cosy. It was all scarves and interesting haircuts. At that moment, everything that I did was written into some great, invisible script, the workings of my own film.
We, now intoxicated adventurers, slithered into the ambience of the hall.
[Cut to a shot of the scruffily dressed boy’s face; he laughs with his companions, but we see that his eyes are lingering to one side, not inconspicuously, and the jokes from the adventurers surrounding him can not be heard as his concentration slips.
A shot from farther away shows the diversion of his attention.
Maybe twenty yards away, gathering in the empty gap of the hall, three girls, fitting perfectly into the Cambridgian surroundings.
An overhead shot shows the girls eventually moving over to the wall nearest to the boys, and the adventurers follow them with their eyes and entire bodies, that predatory instinct.]
It is a haze as to how I, a boy with a girlfriend that I had worked to get for a whole year, convinced the adventurers to shuffle discreetly backwards towards the group of young ladies after the usual courteous flirtation of sideways glances; as to how we ended up talking to them, about college (that I wasn’t in) and sixth form (that I wasn’t in) and classes and other kinds of introductory questions and answers before the band came on; ended up lifting them on our shoulders, to music I’d never heard, too loud to say a word; ended up putting all of their names in upper caps into my phone and then sleeping my way home, occasionally catching glimpse of the cold saffron lights of traffic.
End of scene one. Exeunt.
Back in our own territory, we took our pick. One boy to one girl. As one of the four boys was not with us to choose, he was eliminated as one of the ‘adventurers’ and the rest of us, we became, in our first of joint romantic explorations, friends. Brendan, Chris and Nathan. We made our first judgements, as people do. I chose the quiet girl [let’s call her Monday for the sake of privacy, though her name was the kind of peculiar one that you’d never heard before, you’d just assumed it was a surname, and it was just the sort of thing to attract my attention].
The girls and our respective judgements of each other collided at one party as we all called each other in a twisted knot of [drunken] phone calls. Nathan was ‘too outgoing’ and I was the ‘too young and uninteresting’ one. Oh, woe was me.
It did not hurt to judge but hurt to be judged.
We met in Cambridge. Their town. I wore my pseudo-leather jacket and looked older, but I was still the uninteresting one to them. I was aware of this, and they were aware of my labelling of one amongst them as ‘grumpy.’ Yet Monday, the quiet girl, looked at me in a way that said ‘interest’ even though it was her labelling of me as ‘too young.’ Eye-contact. We went to the cinema, and I made the sort of comments that you would expect from the shy, endearing boy from any teenage romance. ‘CERVEZA DE PASION’ shone a San Miguel advertisement from the titanic cinema screen. That means beer of passion, I said. We went to the train station and we boys watched them run to the leaving carriages, clinging to their coats as they did so. We were left with smiles on our faces. I like to think that they had smiles on their faces, too.
It was New Year; hopes were high. Plans were made.
We met in Bishop’s Stortford. My town. We and our girls, and twenty other friends [Bishop’s Stortfordians], all huddling and drinking in the sticky industrial area; great, grey cranes and nothing more appealing in our surrounds except for Monday who was glorious and Parisian amongst the grey, in a felt coat and beret, smiling like she always did at the awkardness of the situation. I remained far away from her while we walked a mile to the venue, hurling the only sleeping bag amongst the entire group on my back; tooth-brush, too.
On arriving, everything was as it should be: a parent-free house, corridors seething, throbbing with people and their drinks, acquaintances and strangers alike, smiling, bad music, too many coats in the hall to count. I kept my pseudo-bohemian blazer on - dumped my sleeping bag - joined the surging crowds – chose my nectar – shook hands. It was far too loud to entertain real conversation. Nobody ever got very far past the ‘how-are-you’s before somebody else entered the room and started the same conversation.
We all know what New Year is about. It’s all spirits and sex, beer and blowjobs, and so one of the conversations of the night, with another girl with whom I had been somewhat romantically involved for a few months went something like this,
‘Not too shabby.’
And then we kissed.
[Cut to a shot of Monday, three seats away from the kissing couple, staring, hurt written over her pretty face, having been invited out to New Year’s bash by a boy who liked her – who at least said he liked her – only for him to do something like this, to reveal his true masculinity. Surely not? Her two girlfriends in the whole party join her in scorning him, only they do so with words. They wait for the kissing to finish. They all look at him in turn. Then they leave in single file, for smokes.]
What the fuck did I do that for? Could have stopped it. Didn’t.
“How are you?”
“Not great. I just totally fucked up with Monday.”
I watched her from the kitchen through the patio doors, her cigarette and her bottle of wine, and waited for her to return, which she did.
[Cut to a shot of Monday strolling past the boy, with an unnerving, disappointed smile, a shaking head in dismissal; he chases hopelessly after her with quivering, upward eyebrows, apologising again and again.]
[Cut to a close-up of her face as she turns and acknowledges him with the same smile.]
“What the fuck did you do that for?” That question again. I couldn’t answer. I retired.
“How are you?”
Later, I went up to her, I sat down next to her, conspicuously, as if nothing had happened. I talked to her, explained myself, staring off in to the corner of the room in shyness that I guess she found endearing.
“I apologise. Because I do like you. I suppose I’m drunk. And that’s the best I’ve got.”
It was honest.
Later, outside by the patio doors, we kissed.
Then, the wine hit her, she threw up. Her girlfriends took her away.
I found her later, hunched against a yellow-brick wall, not quite as bright and Parisian - I guess that Bishop’s Stortford rubs off on people. I crouched down next to her. The wind offered no mercy when I wrapped my blazer around her shoulders; I shivered, heavily, spasms of muscle in an attempt at warmth – this whole self sacrifice just so I could crouch next to her and, finding out that I had missed the countdown, lean up close to her and whisper ‘Happy New Year’ with a very, oh so very, soft kiss on her forehead.
We slept on the same sofa, after she recovered, and then we kissed; the real deal, not the clumsy, dizzy affair of earlier; this wasn’t followed with red wine discharge. It was warm, filling me to the brim like I were a hot water bottle, like it was my very purpose to be warm and this was granted to me by this one creature. And it lasted for hours. If we were awake, we kissed; if not, we slept.
In the morning - though it had been morning for hours, it was merely brighter now - Monday got up from our sofa. Her friend got up and left Chris. Their other friend emerged from the bathroom and so did Nathan, looking well exercised, and he joined Chris and I as we watched them float away. We had smiles on our faces.
End of scene two, I guess.
But! she forgot her handbag. Make-up and all. And this was my guarantee. We would simply have to meet again.
And we did meet again, several times. I gave her make-up back. Eventually. From then on it was perfection on repeat. It was the three of us couples, walking on the cobbled roads of Cambridge, frost, gloves and buttons and zips, and her smile, all of the time, her smile at my skittering eyes that looked at the clear sky, at the cobbled roads, at the gloves on her hands, at anything but her face. Sometimes it was dark and I would offer her my coat. But of course, it didn’t feel like perfection at the time. It rarely does.
On one occasion we were in Bishop’s Stortford, just her and I. Conversation never really existed between us; it didn’t really have to. When we did stuff under the duvet, under her pyjamas at my house that night, I can say now that it wasn’t because we didn’t talk. Some relationships just can’t be explained. I could say that our relationship was laconic. But at the time I squirmed, my body was sent into knots of awkward entropy, and I shuffled, and I sighed; it was funny for her; but for me it was excruciating that I couldn’t be anything more than skittering eyes and company under the duvet, something as glorious and Parisian as her.
Now. There is something terrible that must be divulged right here. Something shocking. Something inherently male and adolescent. Because it was during this time, betwixt every scattered meeting where I would watch Monday out of the corner of my eye for the fascination quivering within me, that at the local meetings, of industrial, Stortfordian origin, I would, almost nine times out of ten, end up, inexplicably, kissing that other girl from New Year. Let’s call her Tuesday.
Whatever shiver of guilt I felt at betrayal I would fight off, and we would kiss. And then I’d hop on the train to Cambridge, I’d meet up with Monday, and we would kiss, too. And that was pretty much how things went, for months, from the very beginning, to the very end.. And for the life of me I can’t think why.
And neither ever found out. I told myself that I would have tell them, if they asked, had they needed to know. But in a fifteen year old’s mind, I was never going out with Monday, we’d never gone so far as consummating the relationship with the words, ‘Would you, er, well, go out with me?’ so it was fine, sort of. I wrote up a pros and cons of both girls against each other, because I knew I had to choose one, but always settled for both.
But everybody has a favourite day of the week. Mondays make your eyes hurt because it’s so bright in the morning, but by Tuesday your eyes have adjusted to the lights to the point that they’re not even worth complaining about any more, not worth mentioning.
[Cut to a shot of the bus-stop, at least seven of them in total, all lined up in a row, lines of people branching off from each. The saffron streetlamps gives the hot air from every mouth an eerie glow before it dissipates. Two couples get on a coach, and they speed away. Ely is the destination. The roads outside, as they get nearer to the destination, are not lit, and so the reflection of both Monday and Brendan are vivid from their window.]
We walk from the bus-stop. We all sit around in the front room of Chris’ girl’s house. When they slip off to make drink, Monday and I kiss and talk, and it’s lovely. We go up to bed, all in one room. Them to their bed; we to ours, a single-bed, close for comfort. When the others are asleep, Monday and I, we, have sex. Silently. And then we sleep.
In the morning, I have a shower, I have some toast, we get dropped off at the train station and I neglect to mention to Chris that I am no longer a virgin. We get on our train, I clean my teeth with a bottle of water and the toothbrush in the inside pocket of my blazer.
At home, I text Monday, asking her to take the pill. She does.
When she gets a new phone, after a month or so of silence, as she lost her other phone, she decides that the travel is too difficult, that it’s not going to work out.
We don’t meet up again.
But I have Tuesday. I go out with her. It’s summer; a whole new story.
But I see her at the Corn Exchange, a whole year later; everything in Cambridge reminds me of her: the Eat restaurant, the shopping complex [where we met before my virginity she took], and this place more than any other. She’s with the same two girlfriends as exactly one year ago. I’m stuck in a perpetual déja-vu; the usual flirtation of sideways glances, too much fucking beer; she’s been haunting my dreams since the cold hit England and there she is, within reach, rather than as a shining, godly symbol of romance itself as she has become in my mind. I shuffle over to her. I say hello, we talk. And she’s smiling at me like she always used to do, when things were awkward, but I’ve done things this summer; I’ve had lots of sex, I’ve done lots of marijuana; and I don’t feel awkward at all. And I guess I’m in love. But she’s too good for love.
I kiss her on the forehead, goodbye.
[Cut to Monday getting in to her car, the yellow bricks of the Corn Exchange acting as a backdrop for me, who gets smaller and smaller as the vehicle drives away, until there’s nothing left to see.]