Finger Foods: This would be chapter 1 of Colin's 2003 NaNoWriMo effort, which sorta dissintegrated into nothingness as, during the course of the month, Colin both failed to write anything more than a few hundred words a day, and ended the month by getting hopelessly distracted by falling in love. So it goes. This is also the first fiction other than The Knight, The Princess and the Love Potion I've actually posted here... eek.
I guess my story begins on the day that Lucy and I split up. Somehow it seems fitting; in keeping with the notion that all endings are beginnings, and vice versa.
That endings are also beginnings is merely an artefact of the way that we, as humans, classify states and times; the complexity and continuity of the universe, or in the smaller scale our lives, is too much to imagine without simplifications, abstractions and generalisations.
For example, to refer to 'the day that Lucy and I split up' is a simplification. It makes the issue easier to deal with. It divides my time into two distinct chunks, with a clean line in between. A straightforward distinction between Before, when we were together, and After, when were apart. This simplification glosses over the grey area in between. Extending into the the 'Before', there were several weeks of increasingly stilted conversations, awkwardness and tension between us. No arguments, no fights, but there was a change in the wind. A subtle, gradual shift towards a colder, northerly breeze.
Extending into the 'After', well... to say 'Lucy and I split up
' is also a simplification, in a way. It makes the issue easier to deal with. It glosses over the more brutal but accurate description of the situation:
'Lucy dumped my wretched ass.' Extending into the 'After' was a brief period of adjustment where the reality of what was happening sunk in. I found myself asking questions that my heart already knew the answers to. I found the ground beneath my feet no longer seemed as stable as it had been for the previous twenty four years. I found a coin in my pocket and squeezed it hard to give myself something else to focus on. Later, I found the milled edge of the coin had bruised its image onto my fingertips.
This period lasted something like three minutes, and concluded with Lucy handing me a scribbled list of grievances before turning and walking away.
1. You've become dull.
Well, I guess I can't argue with that. Earlier on in the relationship, we went out more. We laughed more. We were wilder, and everything was more exciting. But that's only natural, isn't it? We were younger, we were still discovering each other, and our lives, finding out how they should fit together. I still believe this is the way it's supposed to be.
You can look around the world, and whenever you find happy couples, the very first adjective that springs to mind is 'dull'. You don't see happy couples in their thirties out at wild parties dancing the night away, or rocking out at concerts. Generally in fact you don't see them, because they're at home reading or watching TV or doing whatever they do.
I thought Lucy and I were going to grow dull together.
2. Indie snob
So not true. I have at least one Public Enemy CD.
3. Too clingy
Okay, I admit it. I can be quite insecure, in general. But... well, let me explain it by reference to a song. You know 'Comfort Comes' by the Manic Street Preachers? "The difference between love and comfort, is that comfort's more reliable and true."
Sometimes it feels like that's all I need. Maybe it's not about love, it's about comfort. Before I met Lucy, I always had a... someone. When I closed my eyes to sleep, there was someone in my mind. An imaginary someone, or a borrowed image of someone I knew; mutated and simplified, made perfect by the imperfection of my memory. I'm convinced it's something deeply hard coded in the human brain that does this. We have the ability to anthropomorphise everything. Headlights are the eyes of cars. We see strangers in shadows and faces on distant planets. The complexity of our social interactions is such that it only works at all because of all the mechanisms that have evolved in our brains to support it. The brain wants to see faces.
Imagine trying to derive from first principles how to recognise human faces. If it wasn't for those little purpose built networks in the brain that are analysing everything we see for some sort of 'faceness' property, how would we get along?
But without the imagination... without some image of someone, my head is too lonely a place for me to abide. Maybe my brain simply misses what it's trying so hard to look for. Or maybe it means that, in a very real sense, people aren't complete on their own. All I can say for certain is that since I met Lucy, she's been my image of comfort; she's who I see when I close my eyes. The addressee of my internal monologue.
4. You're too introspective
I can't read 5; the ink is kinda smudged. I think I may have been crying.
* * *
Whether it's by biology, social pressure or just plain old convention, there are differences between how men and women handle things. A woman in my situation might have called a friend, who'd have come over to hold her hand, scoop ice cream, and listen to her complaints; to tell her that all men are slime and scum; and that, cognitive dissonance be damned, she'd soon find a better one.
In my situation, I called Ted.
"Ted?" I hoped the modulation of my voice was doing its best to remain strong and manly in the face of almost certain impending emotional breakdown.
"Let me check... yup! What can I do for you, Mikey?" came the reply. Oh, Ted, how you fail to crack me up.
"Lucy dumped me."
"Ah. So... you're not going to be playing doubles tomorrow?"
About five minutes after I'd wordlessly hung up, Ted phoned me back.
"So, yeah... hope I wasn't out of line there."
"No, it's fine. I was just a bit upset. Sorry I hung up."
"Okay, cool. So. Steve says what you need is a lads' night out. Stag's Head, half nine? Be there or be... err, square."
"Well, I don't... hey, wait, you told Steve?" Silence. I sighed and resolved that a 'lads night out' would be a perfect opportunity to give Ted the kind of scowling that he wouldn't forget in a hurry. "Fine. Stag's head at half eight. After University Challenge."
A woman, in my situation, would be disappointed in her friends. Possibly. I wasn't trying to imagine what Lucy would be doing, because our situations were totally different. The opposing sides of the same coin.
The Stag's Head was, as you could probably guess from the name, one of those typical 'old man' pubs, with the characteristic flavour of dinginess that I've never been able to pinpoint the origin of; perhaps it's beer-soaked sunlight that does it, or perhaps it's the evaporating oils from the skins of the regulars; if I were the sort of guy who paid attention to interior decorating programmes I'd probably have been able to explain it in terms of lighting fixtures, colour selection and sawdust-strewn bare wood floors. It's not the sort of place you'd normally find the trendy young student population like myself. It's also been closed for business for the last three years.
In its place, there stands a contemporarily stylish, comfortably furnished pub, run by a large brewery chain. It's not a typical student pub either, but since the staff is now largely made up of students, it tends to be inhabited by certain student groups, largely revolving around one or two members of staff who are, on the whole, more than happy to abuse their staff discounts in the names of both Friendship and, more importantly, Sticking It To The Man.
The place was never referred to by its current name. Lost somewhere in the mists of time and rumour, the origins of this nomenclature are thought to be both reactionary, and hierarchical. Reactionary in the sense that to acknowledge the pub with its proper name would be to condone the tendency of capitalism to spawn market-dominating multinational corporations which destroy resources and exploit the under-classes that work to keep the machinery of society running; or at least according to Ted's "Marxism 101" mentality.
Certainly the reason that the name continues to be ignored is the hierarchical one. It's like an initiation rite, as newcomers and first years have to be taken aside and told discretely that the 'Stag's Head' actually refers to an entirely different pub. "What? You didn't know that? Oh, but of course, I for
got you're a first year!", and if the admonition came in the wake of a fresher's late, rain-soaked arrival, then all the better. A piece of obscurity perpetuated by its victims in the cruel hope that one day, they'll be paid back the humiliation by inflicting it on some other.
As well as the name, the Stag's Head retains a few of its original regulars. Almost comically stereotypical in their trench coats and flat caps; almost tragically lost and bewildered by the clean, angular lines of the comfortable sofas and low tables. The one concession afforded them by the brewery is the dart-board in the corner behind the stairs, around which they tend to gather. The board is, of course, hardly ever used. These are not darts-playing men. Long past their Keith Talent days. The dart board functions more as a symbol around which to congregate, not because this is the place where darts are played, but because it's simply part of their idea of what a pub should be. What it should contain. A pub is a place with beer and a dart-board.
None of the student crowd pay them any attention, or even know them by name. They keep themselves to themselves largely, and as far as I know there's never been even one word of conversation passed between the two camps. As I arrived at the Stag's Head, I swept past the dart-playing oldies and on up the stairs to find Ted and Steve already engaged in some random card game which disappeared as soon as I sat down and demanded, in my finest Withnail, to have some booze.
Accepting the manly slaps on the back, the words of commiseration, and the foaming ale set before me, I sat back and breathed a little through the awkward silence, wishing that my audience would resume their card game, or at the very least say something. Anything. So I took the initiative.
"Paxman was on top form tonight, then," I ventured.
"Ehm... don't you want to talk about,.. you know... Luce?"
It was at that point that I knocked back the first pint and started spilling my innermost. And after that, the night becomes a little hazy.
"It's like... it's like I'm falling. You know, down a long, narrow chasm. Like Wylie Coyote or something. It just feels like I'm falling, and I keep falling and I can't... what? Oh, yeah, I'll have another thanks.... yeah, so it's like I keep falling and I can't stop, and I can't see the ground. And I guess the analogy kinda breaks down there, because I don't really think there is a ground of any sort, because I'm already as low as I can go."
Ted, Steve and the random associate of theirs that had just joined us nodded sympathetically at my ramblings, and as I accepted the second pint they made vaguely sympathetic sounds. A handful more random associates of random associates of Ted and Steve turned up, none of whom I recognised. I tried to explain my theory about women and men's reactions to being dumped, and the reactions of their friends. I think I may have misrepresented myself, and had to explain to Ted in great depths that no, I did not want to hold his hand. I just wanted some damn ice cream.
It felt almost as if I was holding court. They flocked around me to listen to my half-assed platitudes; some faces I'd never seen before, but were friends of friends. Coming to pay homage, or simply to rubber-neck at the emotional train wreck that I had so inadvertently and, now, publicly become.
I attempted to buy a token round; as the inadvertent hero (or, perhaps, victim), of the night, drinks were being pushed into my hand all night long. I fumbled in my wallet to pull out some cash for the attempt, but was waylaid by the inevitable passport size photo of Lucy. The table saw what had happened, and fell deathly silent. I pulled a grimace, and looked, somewhat unsteadily, around the faces of the members of my court, and decided that I should probably explain my thoughts about loneliness and our ability to anthropomorphise.
"See... ever since I met Lucy, she's lived in my head. It's like, when I close my eyes, she's there. Because I need someone to be there, 'cause that's how brains work. They have to see people even if they're not there, because that's what brains are supposed to do. I didn't explain that very well, did I?" No reply. I pressed on.
"And, like, I'm so used to sharing everything with Lucy, or at least I thought I was, that my internal monologue thingie... it's like I'm addressing it to her. But now... now she's still there in my head. But she's not an image of comfort anymore, she's... an image of loneliness. And whenever I'm thinking of things, I'm going to be thinking them too Lucy, and... she's not going to want to hear it. So my whole life is suffused and underpinned by this skin, this foundation, of pure rejection, because the only 'relationship' that's left between Lucy and me is something like Dumper and Dumpee!"
Somehow my point seemed to be getting lost. I wasn't trusting my ability to communicate such abstract concepts, so I reached for a more tangible metaphor.
"Okay, it's like this. You know the old guys? The ones downstairs? Oh, of course you do. The ones downstairs round the dart-board. That's the ones. Well,.. they're like the last remnants of what was here before. The real
Stag's Head. My relationship with Lucy was like the Stag's Head. It was there, and it was something bigger than just me, like the Stag's Head was to the old guys. Something... bigger than them. I guess that's a bit literal, actually.
"But you see, it's not there, is it? Not anymore. It's gone. All that's left is the memory of it in our heads. I'm like the old men, hanging aimlessly around the same old place where the pub used to be. And this picture of Lucy I have, in my head, or..." and here I brandished the passport photo, "...or this one I have in my wallet. They're just symbols. They're just like the dart-board that the old men hang around. They never play darts, they just..."
"Actually, they sometimes do," Ted interjected, "in fact, they're playing a game just now."
"...okay, hardly ever. That's not the point. The point is: they don't hang around the dart-board in case they want to play darts. They hang around it because it's symbolic," I felt like I was reaching some sort of conclusion, and in the excited rush, my arms were flailing wildly in a series of verbose, intricate and entirely abstract gestures.
"So, that's all I am," I concluded, "an old man hanging round a symbolic dart-board," I waved the photo again, just to make sure there wasn't any ambiguity left, "clinging to the memory of something that's gone and is never coming back."
As soon as the words "never coming back." escaped my lips, the triumphant conclusion I'd been building towards collapsed into a panic stricken moment that was almost as intense as shock. I had to excuse myself and make my way quickly downstairs to the gents' room to freshen up.
Freshening up consisted of staring at myself in the mirror for a few minutes, locking myself in a cubicle crying for a few more minutes, before falling into a more in-depth inspection in front of the mirror.
I looked into my eyes. Slightly puffed up from crying, they were a distinctly different colour than before. They seemed more alive and vibrant, a brilliant turquoise to their normal pale blue. Tears and blood pressure, I supposed. I wondered what gives eyes their colour, and how exactly it changed. Perhaps the whole thing was an illusion, the contrast of the blue with the suddenly bloodshot red whites. I thought of coloured contact lenses and wondered if they could be used to disguise tears; or if tears could be used instead of coloured contact lenses. "The police are reportedly looking for a man in his mid twenties with brown hair and brilliant turquoise eyes."
I cleaned myself up to the point of respectability: no signs of tear stains, that's a good start. Eyes looking normal. "Two goldfish in a tank, " I tell myself, "and one turns to the other and says, 'Do you know how to drive this thing?'", and there's even a small smile playing across my lips. I'm ready for my close-up.
By the bar, I froze. I closed my eyes and saw Lucy. I opened my eyes, and saw... Lucy.
Lucy was sitting at the bar with a fresh cocktail of elaborate colour and construction; not, by any means, the sort of thing that she'd normally be drinking. The reason for this probably had something to do with the stranger with whom Lucy was quite conspicuously flirting. Rather than disappear back to the men's room, I pressed on upstairs, keen to avoid Lucy's eye. I got there to find the crowd were preparing to leave. One of the random associates of random associates was named Craig, and was also, it transpired, inviting everyone back to his place with the promise of a fine range of whiskies and brandies. Leaving suited me fine. We trouped downstairs, and though I was determined not to let my eye go anywhere near the bar, the roving eyes of men, as women are keen to observe, have minds of their own, and I saw them, leaning intimately, exchange the smallest of kisses.
My blood ran cold with betrayal, and with the futile impulses of violence that seethed through my mind and flooded my bloodstream with adrenaline. I felt betrayed not only by Lucy, but by my own heart's inability to deal rationally with the situation; by my body's inability to follow through with the impulses. Stale adrenaline and alcohol started my hand shaking. I struggled to find a metaphor for the situation, in the hope that it might tell me what to do. I laughed out loud when it struck me. Louder than I thought I did; Lucy spotted me, and was staring with what I can only assume was embarrassment.
I regained control of my senses to give an impish grin through the numbness, and resolved that though the metaphorical meaning of the gesture would be entirely lost on Lucy, the more obviously tangible meaning was quite sufficient for the occasion. I took the photo from my wallet and, with my audience's eyes on me feeling like a distant panel of judges, I interrupted the old mens' fortuitously scheduled darts game for just long enough to wedge Lucy's image behind the guard wire over the treble-twenty.
Imagining the '10's and '9.9's held aloft by my judges, I made my way solemnly out to the street, where I immediately bent over double with nausea and vomited into the gutter.
Dignity is merely a case of deferring inevitable indignity 'till nobody else is looking.
* * *
By the time we had got to Craig's flat, I had managed to sober up just enough to begin to come to terms with my reactions. Part of me was impressed by the balls and bravado I'd demonstrated in administering such a public nose-fingering to Lucy, and part of me was ashamed for the childishness that I'd acted with.
I told myself that the incident had, without question, ruined any chances I may have had of ever getting back together with Lucy, but at the same time I already knew, I realised, that I never had any chance.
Of the tangible reasons she'd given me for the breakup, not one of them, or even all of them in combination, should have been enough reason for the breakup; and it seemed clear as daylight that the one reason she didn't mention, didn't even need to mention, was so blindingly obvious that I should have seen it all along. She just didn't love me. As simple as that, and that should have been enough reason in itself to break up with me. And in my own idealistic way, I approved of her decision. I didn't approve, however, of the character assassination that she's felt the need to force upon me in order to rationalise the decision.
I did a quick bit of mental arithmetic and tallied the scores, figuring that the dart-board thing was more or less adequate retribution, and that, all told, this had the potential to be one of the more amicable breakups of history. Satisfied with this conclusion, I was snapped out of my introspective accountancy.
"Mike. Hey, Mike. Glenmorangie or Laph-or-aig?" Steve was brandishing two bottles of whisky, in one hand, and a small empty glass in the other. I briefly considered asking for a shot of each, but I thought the sarcasm of the heresy might be lost on Steve who was just naïve enough to try it.
"Glenmorangie, if you'd be so kind." I cocked a drunken half smile at Steve and watched him pour.
"That was brilliant. Dart-board. Perfect. Mike..." he dropped his voice a little as he handed me the glass, and with an earnest expression intoned "The new pub, Mike, is much better than the old Stag's Head ever was. And we wouldn't have it if they hadn't closed the old one."
It took me a second to recognise my own metaphor, and when it sank in I grinned and gave Steve a gentle but manly punch on the shoulder. I raised my glass, and with a "You better be right about that, Steve," I threw back the liquor and let the fire strip through my throat to my stomach. How I managed to hold it down, I have no idea. Steve looked at his own glass, and quietly intimated that he didn't care if it was regarded as heresy or not, he was going to find some ice.
"Ladies and Gentlemen... or, conveniently, 'Gentlemen', it seems..." began Ted in his loudest public speaking voice, "A toast! To Mike, who showed us how to handle the fairer sex with respect, dignity, and fiery vengeance!" The room half-heartedly raised their collective glasses, in deference to Ted's overestimation of his own eloquence as a raconteur.
I looked around the room. The only thing I can recall about Craig's flat was that there was more or less nothing particularly remarkable about it. Ikea furniture that would have looked a lot more stylish in the catalogue than in the actual home; a moderately proportioned television and stereo. I made my habitual bee-line for the CD collection. Little of interest, mostly chart pop, R and B, and a few middle-of-the-road rock compilations. Nothing remarkable. Nothing incriminating, nothing redeeming.
I sneaked off to the kitchen after Steve; wondering where he'd got to in the surreptitious quest for ice he'd so wilfully and sneakily undertaken. After inadvertently locating the bathroom and the boiler cupboard, I located the kitchen and a rather pale looking Steve.
"Find the ice then?" I asked. He only nodded in response. "Aha. And...?" he pointed at the freezer. "Nobody likes mimes at parties, Steve," I teased, "they get the windows all smudged up" and I opened the freezer, pulled out a tray of ice cubes handed them over. Steve blankly, silently accepted the ice cubes and continued staring at the freezer.
I cocked a tipsy eyebrow and tried to catch his gaze, before something in the back of my mind made my head swim with what almost certainly was shock. Acting with a clarity of mind that I would love to claim was my own, but which was in fact entirely the work of those Sixteen Men of Tain, I took the ice cube tray back from Steve. "It is I think high time," I conjectured, opening the freezer door, "that we headed home, don't you think?" I asked, setting the ice cube tray back in its place on the top shelf, next to the ice cream and the freezer bags of severed human fingers.
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