Here comes the big hill leading up to the area where she lives. He doesn’t know exactly which house it is, although he’s been there once, after a night at the Angel. Her parents were away, and they were sat in her front room, which crackled that night with pissed-up euphoria, listening to soul divas on her old gramophone and passing around reefers. Some sort of party - he remembers that much, and she talked to him a bit, but was also flying around chatting and flirting to other, older guys, from a circle further than this town of extremes in South Manchester, big and friendly and slightly intimidating people with garish alternative brand name clothes, phat pants, bodies peppered with piercings. He never minded; he felt happy and exalted just to be sitting there with a drink that the babe Carmen had made him, in her house, with her and these older, friendly people and this good, pissed-up atmosphere as comfortable as a thick, warm blanket.

He reaches the crest of the hill, starts walking down Brent Street, down which awaits the Blue Angel, calling to him like a beacon of light and laughter. Stood outside the pub doors, hearing the music and the clink and smash of glass coming from within, he hesitates slightly, getting that involuntary rush of fear he always gets when walking into a social situation. Part of him still believes that this whole thing is a mistake.

He got the call at about half eight, the point in time where he had silently given up on the evening and had resigned himself to sitting in and reading his library books: King, Miller, Joyce. Sometimes they don’t call him, and there’s no resentment because there was never any hope: as far as he’s concerned, every phone call is the last phone call and every night the last night. He doesn’t expect them to have the same obligations to him as they have to each other.

Getting in there and going up to them, the fear is even worse. They’re sat ‘round two big tables and there doesn’t seem much room to sit down. For a terrible moment no one notices him. His heart’s pounding rapidly, the blood’s swilling around in his temples and he thinks he’s gonner pass out. Then his friend Nicole turns around and sees him and it’s all right, she’s standing up and she’s hugging him, she’s holding him in her arms and everyone is looking around and saying ‘hey,’ someone is slapping him on the back. Nicole is so warm, so friendly, she’s someone you can always talk to, she’s the mother hen of the group, and being buried in her chest he feels he could hold her forever. She likes to gather people around her at all times in a gentle affirmation of their friendship. He knows that ultimately though she couldn’t give him what he needs; she can give security and nothing else.

Room is made for him at the table and he sits down, next to some slick-haired guy called Malloy he doesn’t know, and Nicole’s current exploiter, a student called Cliff Gaines. Nicole seems to get into these long, drawn-out relationships: first a month or two of couply bliss, then the rows start, the crying fits, the big scenes, and then, eventually, the painful, quivering extrication. He wishes sometimes that he could sort Nicole out, give her some solid reassurance.

Kelly, the guy who rang him tonight, the gregarious hedonist of the group, slams a pint in front of him and ruffles his hair aggressively before going off to talk to this party chick in the group who he’s trying to cop off with. Payne takes a swig of the pint, that first good pull on the beer feeling heady and intoxicating and making him feel instantly secure. He lights a cigarette.

In the commotion, he’s only just realised that she isn’t there. He glances around the table and no, she’s not about. He feels a pang of disappointment but stifles it quickly, reminding himself that it’s stupid to feel like that, stupid basically to be feeling the way he does about her. Her social orbits are wider than his, she goes away to mysterious cities with unknown people, comes back to the Blue Angel with purple marks round her eyes, paler skin and weird stories. This world she lives in seems strange and alien to his insular lifestyle of college, reading and drinking. He once asked her, driven by curiosity, ‘So what is Ecstasy like?’ and she looked into his eyes for one heart-stopping moment and said, ‘It’s wonderful ... it’s like you feel so good and everybody loves you, you’re all right with everything … it’s like all the love in the world.’ It sounded like a paradise to him, but he knew that her world contained his world and she was just passing through like a comet, leaving broken hearts behind in the slipstream.

He takes another long swig of his pint and zones into the chatter on the table, listening to three different conversations at once, his mind assimilating and separating the voices as they mingle and overlap.

Well, it’s really weird, right? You know? They’ve had this real sexual tension for a while.

Yeah, the whole lifeling flirtation thing.

Yeah, and you know, in town they have these little contests, like, to see who can cop off with the most people…

Yeah…

Well on Saturday, Kelly with this total slag, this stranger, they were practically humping out there, man, this big space around them, the DJ pointed them out, and Jay was well pissed off in the cab back home, she was dead quiet, like.

Could be the comedown. Jay always gets bad comedowns.

No, it wasn’t. It was him. They’ve been flirting on and off for about a year now and I reckon things are gonner come to a head soon … seen him there, chatting up that Carly chick … bet he’s only doing that to piss Jay off as well. Well, you know what Kelly’s like, he’s all dead confident and full of bullshit but underneath I reckon he’s a bit insecure.

Yeah, Jay’s like that too but in a different way. They’re both very focused but insecure people.

So how’s uni going?

Not good. Failed the first year.

Again?

Yeah. Never turned up. I’ve spent four grand on coke.

Downer.

I never turned up for any lectures. I did my final exam off a three-day session. Just stayed up for seventy-two hours, snortin’ chang, then did one last line and went to the exam hall. I fell asleep after forty minutes, and when I woke up I found out I’d just written ‘No toys for Timmy,’ over and over again.

What are you going to do?

Stay here until they tell me whether I can come back for a third time.

You know what they say, ‘Third time’s a charm!’

Yeah, actually it’s good for me to be back here. It’s so quiet and you can’t even get weed here. Whenever I go to the cities I just end up taking loads of drugs and losing it completely.

Always the way, eh Davie boy? Another pint?

Yeah, cheers mate.



Give me your hand. I want to read your palm.

Arright.

Here we go… This is your Mound of Venus. Heh heh, mound. It means you’re gonner have two kids. And this is your lifeline. It’s very short. Pass the pen, I’ll extend it.

Thanks.

I always say the most erotic part of a girl is her hands and neck. Did you have a good time at Tangled on Saturday?

Yeah, it was fine. Just chatted all night, like.

Yeah, I was just fucking wrecked. I was a mad one. I never seen you there before, though. Where you been hiding yourself?

School, sixth form.

What school do you go to?

Posh private place.

You don’t have any kind of uniform, do you? Shit, did I say that or just think it?














He’s finished his pint and he goes and gets another one. The sinister bearded guy behind the bar seems to know he’s underage, but just winks at him complicitly, the same way he quietly oversees the frequent lock ins. Payne likes listening to people; having not much of a life himself, he prefers to learn about other people’s, their intricate connections, their dreams and their fears, their histories and anecdotes, their truths and affectations. This world is infinitely fascinating to him, and also scary; he feels that one day he’ll have to enter these forests of chemistry and connection and maybe those loose jagged branches will tear his skin apart. He’s a good listener, people like this about him, women like this about him. Plenty of drunk and drugged women have poured out their hearts to him over the time he’s known this group he’s with.

But the door crashes open and she’s there framed against the black road. She’s walking into the pub with the brown leather jacket and neck scarf trailing behind her, and she has an entourage of two flanking her train, two of the girls from the higher orbit who he doesn’t really know, and hardly notices. He tries to resist the urge to look around when she’s come in, but the reaction of the others around the table - garrulous laughter, macho greeting, awed looks - forces his head round. His chest seems to constrict, wind rushing through his lungs, like his stomach was imploding, unable to take in her beauty: the hair flowing over her silk black scarf, skin so pale and clear you could just drink it, the way she hangs herself, just stood there delighted at the affirmations she is getting, swaying slightly, looking a little pissed. He has this picture of her in his head sometimes when first thing awake, or drunk, or halfway to sleep - lying there thinking, yeah, getting there, come on the mother ship, beam me up - and that causes a constant state of desire. But seeing the babe actually in front of him, actually there, real and fleshy and alive, blows him away every time, blows all the pictures out of his head.

She goes to the bar with orders from her mates and he’s sat there, tremors of love and fear rushing through his body, rippling out off the chest and flowing through the synapses. His skin tingles all over. He realises that he’s finished his pint as well and he’s up to the bar.

She looks ‘round and sees him, takes a swig of this weird tarty blue drink she’s been given, and goes, How you doing man, gives him this euphoric hug, her nails going down his back and stroking his head.

Cool, la, he manages to say, looking into her eyes. They seem to change colour, the irises, every time he sees her.

What you been up to?

Fuck all really, he says, not noticing the barmaid, a plump niceboy moll with a face like a stone slab, looking to take his order. Just going to college, reading books.

What books you been reading? He orders a vodka and coke.

I read this thing, like, er, The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King.

I’m really into Robert Herrick at the moment, she says. There’s this poem, To Electra. I can’t get it out of my head. ‘I dare not ask a kiss… I dare not beg a smile…’ her recitation trails off into the ether.

And before he knows it they are actually talking, having a proper conversation as they go back to the tables. Somehow there’s a load of bench space - Kelly and Roy and Davie have got up to play darts - and he’s sitting there facing her, looking right into those eyes - they seem to be green today, like two jewels set in marble - and they’re just sat there, talking about books. They’ve had conversations before, undoubtably they must have done, but always when they talk the shyness bites in after a few mumbled sentences and he has to go hide in the crowd.

This time it is amazing and totally natural, a real good flow. Even the two pillhead birds she’s with are listening, seemingly impressed, chipping in occasionally, but their interruptions are as remote as the sound of a plane crossing the sky. She says she wants to be a poetess one day and he mentions he’s done a few short stories. It’s something he never, never talks about, those magic hours of the early morning with the A4 pad and the pen, but she seems really interested.

You gotter bring ’round some of your stuff, she’s saying to him. Bring it out next time.

Yeah, I will, he’s saying, and you. You gotter bring some of your poems out.

He could imagine a great bulky folder full of flowing black lines scribbled on pages ripped out of textbooks, paintings, semi-autobiographical events written on speed at five in the morning, all in that beautiful flowing script. He knows she’ll probably forget to remember his request, forget to bring out that folder, but this doesn’t mean she’s heartless, it means she’s got a mad life and a short-term memory half-fucked by chemicals. And he didn’t want to press this. He never talks about anything personal, and he especially never talks about his writing. You know how many people try and turn art into a currency. He swigs at the vodka and coke.

Then she disappears somewhere and he’s left alone with an empty glass. He goes up to the bar, gets another pint of Carling, and sits there drinking it, near to Nicole and Jay having this big girly chat. Girls. Women. He didn’t know women and he didn’t get off with them too much. The type of woman that seemed to be in vogue in Manchester, cold-eyed townie molls with leather skirts and two inches of foundation on their skin, seem more scary than arousing. His looks and his shy, scared demeanour sometimes clicks with the older, friendly, maternal type.

There had been this bird at a club he’d been to, the one and only time he’d been to a club, a young, fit thirty-one year old with mad frizzy hair and knee-length boots, and she’d loved him up all night long - snogging him, stroking his waist, groin-grinding, the lot. ‘You’re such a cutie,’ she’d been saying, seemingly all she’d said all night. There had been more words, surely, but they’d all merged into this seamless babble in her sweet Leeds accent, and he only remembered being called cute.

Perhaps women like this sensed that he needed to be protected from the world and the forests of chemistry and connection. He wouldn’t mind having a bird for a while, just for the company, someone to talk to at night. But deep down he knew company wasn’t enough. Sex was not enough. He could see himself lying beside some older woman in a post-coital haze, eyes closed waiting for the mother ship, and not being able to get there because he’d be thinking of her. So when he was around other birds he kept his head down and his pint full.

He gets yet another pint and goes into the pool room where Kelly is flirting with her. He has her head in a lock and is pulling her onto his chest. She’s laughing and squealing and he’s going, ‘Come on, tiger... Easy now…’ He feels no jealousy, no rage, just this weird sadness that she isn’t with him. She’s got off with other lads in the group; he’s never seen this but knows it instinctively, from overheard conversations. She was naturally promiscuous, all her relationships ended in tears or tragedy, and she was highly sexed; a powerful drive down there, at the centre of her.

There were plenty of times he wasn’t around, plenty of blank spaces for things to happen under the social façade of work-pub-work - intimate sleepovers, group holidays, encounters in club toilets. He’d once seen her in the Blue Angel with this guy called Robinson, Robbo. They were just talking innocuously, and at the end of the conversation she’d stood up, flicked his ear in a flirty way, laughed coquettishly and went off to the bar. And the guy let her go watching her with this expression of total abject longing. How much desire and pain had she inspired in people?

He tries to avoid envy because there was no point. You got these bad feelings sometimes. Love is a beautiful dream when requited, a living hell when not.

He feels the old style fear again, distorted and submerged by the booze, and just sits down by the pool table.

The night goes on. People pass through, separate into little subsects: the lads in the pool room playing darts and pool, the pairs of girls huddled in a corner discussing mysterious situations in hushed, intense voices, the large groups of laughing guys and girls hovering about. And him. He was alone. They called him The Genius, The Professor, a proper dark horse. He seemed to be anonymous but instantly recognisable: he’d be walking down a corridor at college, just staring into space, and people who passed him who’d met him before, no matter how tenuous the association, would raise their eyebrows or smile painfully at him, sometimes fearfully, as if wanting to avoid reprisal.

It is almost last orders now and he gets another pint of Carling, by this time fairly pissed. Sits with it in a large group, Kelly, Nicole and Jay among them, sprawled on the bench by the front window. They’re having this rambling, dislocated conversation and he’s enjoying listening to it, and every so often he’ll chip in with something, which everyone takes notice of. One girl turns ‘round and goes, ‘See, you don’t say much, but what you do say is like, really profound.’

She’s there. She’s there among them somewhere.

It doesn’t look like the promised lock-in is going to happen, so everybody has one last pint and then leaves, aided by the barstaff turning off the lights and then sitting on a table smoking cigarettes and giving you evils across the room. The cold air feels invigorating as the group spill outside into the road in a hail of goodbyes; people are shouting, laughing, holding on to each other, and she is more euphoric now, as the drink’s got into her and made her feel alive, rubbed off the dreary stain of the day. She’s walking upfront, with her two mates, arms ‘round each other’s shoulders, and he’s walking alone. Some of the boys are singing.

And he knows soon when they get to the end of the road they’re gonner be off, back to their detached houses in the old country, and he’s gonner be doing the big trek back to town, alone. The same long trek he made to get here, through the park with the stone memorial to Longwood’s fallen, past the Three Horsemen with its cheesy Eurodisco shite contaminating a quarter-mile radius, running the scally gauntlets on the shopfronts and the garage. One ritual ceremony of hugging, kissing and handshaking and then he’ll be alone with his ideas and desires. This doesn’t really matter because he’s so drunk he’ll just walk on, not really noticing the landmarks, the fights outside the pubs, just in an alcoholic haze. He’ll think of her because the drink knocks down the defences, all those fantasies and dreams seeping in through the gaps. He thinks of ideas for stories, paragraphs form in his head, and the babe entwined with all that, everything sucked into those beautiful ever-changing eyes, the last thing he sees before crashing out into crazy, booze-sodden dreams. His fantasies of her, they’re just about them holding hands, walking through the fields near his house and talking about books and kissing. He didn’t go further than that. Kissing was the cut-off point. He didn’t envisage any mad-arsed sexual scenarios or grand ambitious relationship. That didn’t come naturally and on some level he knows it is dangerous to hope for too much.

They get to the end of Brent Street and Kelly is hassling people for dope; he wants to go for a smoke on the park, but it ain’t happening tonight. He gets slapped on the back by some, hugged by others, ignored by many. She’s wandering up the road and she hasn’t spoken to him. She’s supported by her mates, and as he turns to the crest of the hill she suddenly breaks free of them, runs down and grabs his arm and kisses him, almost violently, on the lips. For one, maybe two seconds her nicotine breath mingles with the strange perfume she wears and he’s got the thick, lovely smell of her hair.

‘member to bring those stories out next time, yeah baby?’ she shouts, heading back up the road.

I will, he says, with false nonchalance, holding an arm up as he walks over the road, looking at the ragged group of shadowy figures on the pavement. He tastes her in his mouth all the way home.

Copyright © Max Dunbar 2002. Title graphic: "Sweat" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2002.