A Reunion by Dot

A man and a woman are in a coffee shop. As it happens, they’ve met before, but today they’re not here to see each other. In fact, he is quietly reading at a table by himself when she, looking for a seat, asks if she may join him. “Please do,” he says, looking up and gesturing. This is enough to spark a sense of recognition in her.

“Oh, hello.”

“Hello. Sorry, I’m not sure I remember…?”

“It’s Julia, Julia Kennedy. But I think I may have made a mistake. You look familiar, but perhaps… do you mind telling me your name?”

“Tom Ferris.”

“Oh! So that’s where I know you from. You were in The Aardvarks.”

“I was indeed, though it’s been a while. You must have bought one of our records or come to a gig?”

“Bought one of your records! I bought everything you released. I was a huge fan. I saw you as often as I could. I was heart-broken when you guys split up.”

There’s a pause in which they both wonder how he can answer this, and in which they size each other up a little. She’s very smartly dressed in a black skirt, white blouse, black suit-jacket and two-inch heels, with makeup and hair just so. He’s a lot less smartly dressed in red jeans and t-shirt with a leather jacket. He’s a big, fair, handsome man in his mid-thirties, running slightly to fat, with stubble that hasn’t quite achieved the status of a beard.

“So, do you still listen to much music?”

“Not as much as I’d like. I’ve still got all of your records, of course. But I’m pretty busy with my job so I don’t follow current music much these days. What are you doing now?”

“Oh, bit of this, bit of that…journalism mainly. Well, it’s a nice blast from the past to meet a fan. I don’t encounter too many of those these days. To be honest we never had that many of them anyway.”

“I don’t know. You certainly had a loyal following. And there were some bigger venues as well as the clubs and pubs.”

“So there were. I used to like playing festivals – that’s not really the same thing anyway.”

“I always liked the small gigs. Selfish perhaps, but I liked the intimacy. I saw you play in a couple of clubs – Macmillan’s, for instance.”

This is the point at which he realises something that she recollected rather earlier, viz. that, about ten years before, on a brown leather sofa in a small storeroom-cum-changing room at the back of Macmillan’s, while his bandmates courteously loitered in the bar, the two of them had engaged in sexual congress.

“Yeah, Macmillan’s. Good times at Macmillan’s. I don’t think we played another gig there after…that time.”

“A few years ago I could probably have told you exactly where you played on the rest of that tour, and the festivals after that, and the farewell concerts that autumn, but I don’t remember now. I guess I’ve moved on,” and she smiles.

“We’ve all moved on,” he replies. “Only way to move, isn’t it?”

And that would probably have been it – a chance encounter, a mildly uncomfortable conversation – had not Tom had an appointment with his solicitor that Tuesday.

“I’m very sorry I can’t be there,” says Mr Adams on the phone. “I’ve to go to a funeral down the country. But I’ve passed all the documents to my junior and she will talk you through them. You’ll be safe in her hands.”

It turns out the junior is Julia.

“So, this is the contract for sale. You sign here… here… and here. It’s a bit of a bargain, isn’t it?”

Tom is buying a one-bedroom apartment on the edge of a gentrifying area. The price is what they call competitive, owing to some spectacular 1970s carpets and the lack of a shower. He doesn’t have any spare savings to do it up, but he’s not going to tell Julia that.

“It’s affordable,” he says, “and a good size for one person.”

She explains the next stage of the buying process and watches while he writes a frightening cheque for the deposit and a somewhat less frightening one for her.

“Bye bye money,” says Tom.

Julia tidies everything efficiently into the correct trays and files. Then she has a look at the clock and mentally calculates how much she still has to do that afternoon.

“This is a day to celebrate,” she says. “How about I buy you lunch?”

“I’m not that poor,” he says. “I can afford lunch.”

“You’re not doing too badly if you can afford a flat in this market,” says Julia. “We could go Dutch?”

He has considerable misgivings but says yes. After all, she’s still very attractive.

“So, what have you been doing in the years since I…in the last few years?” Tom has decided that this might be easier if they talk about her.

“It’s kind of obvious,” says Julia. “I’ve been turning into a solicitor. I did the law society entrance examination. I got the Overend Scholarship, you know – that means I came top in the exam. Clever me. I had a training contract. I did more exams, didn’t do quite so well in those but they went fine. I got my first job as a qualified solicitor in the firm where I trained, and then after a couple of years I moved to Adams and Flynn. I bought some hair straighteners. And here I am.”

“Fair play to you,” says Tom. “And are you staying somewhere nice?”

“I bought an apartment in” – she names a fashionable urban area – “with my boyfriend a couple of years ago.” Tom rapidly assimilates the boyfriend. “But he’s left me, so now I’m investigating whether it makes sense to buy him out.” Tom unassimilates the boyfriend. “How about you? I’m surprised you didn’t stay in music.”

“I sort of did. One of my jobs is giving guitar lessons. But of the four of us only Brendan is still in a band. They’ve really taken off recently, in fact – The Equalizers, you’ve heard of them?” Julia assumes what she hopes is an intelligent expression rather than a blank one. “Sean of course left us to form Minor Strivings, but they didn’t last that long and he’s now in insurance.”

“Minor Strivings was a good name for a band. I have to admit, I loved everything about The Aardvarks except the name.”

“Yes, we could have been huge with a better name. Or maybe not.”

“So what did you do when the band split up?”

“Do you want the short version or the long version? OK, here’s the short version of the long version. I was pretty depressed as I’d poured a lot of energy into that band, so I decided I wanted to get right away from the whole thing and I went to the US on a working visa. While I was there I travelled around, did some busking, worked in bars, the whole package; it was fun I suppose, one way of killing a year. I certainly gained an encyclopedic knowledge of Greyhound coach routes. Then I came back, looked up a mate who worked for Pop Immersion and blagged my way into a job reviewing bands. Drunk on power and my lust for revenge, I ruined the careers of many a fine act.” He pauses. “Not really. I got married but she left me – we’ve got that in common. I had no money. I wrote a bleak, sensitive novel. I still had no money. So I started teaching guitar – lots of boys with brilliant air-guitar technique, trying to make actual sounds – and took on more journalism. These days in fact I’m mostly a film critic.”

“Oh, it must have been you who wrote that review of Project Doom that said the designer should get an Oscar and the scriptwriter should get analysed. I noticed ‘Ferris’ in the byline but didn’t make the connection. I enjoyed that film, you know. Watching films is my main hobby these days.”

“I enjoyed it too, but the subtext was seriously twisted. What did you think of it?”

“I always think about these things from the point of view of the girl. She’s so silent in that movie, isn’t she? I imagine her watching your man having nightmares about his mother and festooning himself with guns, and thinking ‘Would you ever get over yourself, yeh great eejit.’ And then she could make him a cup of tea.”

Tom laughs. “I have to review a film this weekend. It’s not an action movie this time, it’s an arthouse one, The Silver Wind. Would you like to come too? The Lifebuoy Cinema, Saturday at 7pm. What do you think?”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

As he leaves the restaurant, he wonders why he’s arranged a date with someone who makes him feel like a failure. He’d be surprised to learn she’s wondering much the same thing.

Outside the cinema on Saturday he feels better when he sees her. In jeans and a short-sleeved top, with her hair unstraightened and slightly tousled from the breeze, she looks much more like the girl he remembers from ten years ago. For her part, wearing flat shoes she notices acutely how much taller and larger than her he is. During the film they share popcorn, but he doesn’t put his arm around her.

“What did you think?” she asks as they emerge.

“I thought it was shite,” he answers frankly.

“Really? But I thought it was rather lovely and moving. The piano score is gorgeous. And that part where the girl drops the letters in the stream and lets them float away, I found that really powerful.”

“Nah, hokey cliché’d crap. Seen it a million times. Face it, the film was shite.”

“Is that what you’re going to say in your eloquent review? The film was shite?”

“No, I’ll get out my thesaurus and say it was ordure.”

There’s a grin on his face, she’s smiling too, and they’re noticeably more relaxed together now they’ve had an argument.

“Fancy a drink? The bars round here are a bit dull but I know a good one about ten minutes that way.”

He leads her across the main road from the cinema, up a couple of small streets, and into an area that’s full of small, late-opening eateries, kebab joints, shops selling witchy clothes. The bar is long and narrow with tables tucked into nooks, and he ushers her to one of these and buys her a glass of wine.

“So, were you a follower of other bands or just of us?”

“There weren’t any others I was as into, but I used to go to gigs all the time. It was a really big part of my life and it just…stopped. Legal training is a lot of pressure, and my old friends had gone to different places and my new friends didn’t share that with me.”

“But you still have the flame of rock’n’roll hidden in your heart?”

“Perhaps. Mostly sausage roll. I try to eat healthily but sometimes I get dark desires.” She looks at him solemnly.

“Oh, do you now. And does Mr Adams know about your dark desires and your wild youth shagging bands?”

“I didn’t shag bands. Just you.”

“What, only me?”

“You were the only guy from a band, I mean.”

“Ah yes, you targeted me for your corrupting wiles.” He’s teasing but she’s a little annoyed.

“That’s pretty rich, when you were the ones cutting your swathe through the tender young music fans of Britain and Ireland.”

“Hardly. We were scarcely Led Zeppelin, you know. We just took the odd opportunity from time to time. Actually I’m not sure Nick ever did – maybe once. He’s a very quiet fella, is Nick.” Nick was the drummer.

“What happened to Nick?”

“He’s in the pink these days, actually. He has his own business dealing in rare musical instruments, and he’s written the definitive book on modular synthesizers.”

“Anyway. My point has to do with pots and kettles, and you’re the pot and you were a lot dirtier than me.”

“I admit I’ve been a bastard in my time. I did once hook up with a girl – a sweet girl, she deserved better – almost entirely because I couldn’t face another night on a floor with Sean, and I knew that the pay-off for a little bit of effort would be getting to sleep in a bed. My back was killing me on that tour, and Sean snores.” His grin is now extremely cheeky. “I lucked out – double bed.”

“Beats a sofa,” she says.

“Certainly does. It wasn’t a very good sofa, was it? Sorry about that.”

“I’ve definitely known better sofas. More prolonged sofas.”

“Jesus, yes. Sofas can be awkward when you’re six foot four.”

“I don’t regret it, though. Even though it wasn’t an especially good one. I like to be able to look back and remember a period in my life when I lived so intensely. Music did that for me – I mean, it wasn’t just the fan part. I like to know I was capable of being so swept away by something, when I’m doing some boring conveyancing at 6.30 in the evening.”

“Does your job really bore you that much?”

She thinks. “No. I suppose it doesn’t. I’m good at it and I like doing it well. I like Mr Adams, I enjoy seeing these little slices of people’s lives and helping sort out their problems. But it doesn’t compare to what you do. To all the things you’ve achieved, all the things you make.” He’s silent, somewhat disconcerted. “I read your book, you know. I found it in a bookshop after we met the last time. I really liked it.”

“It’s extremely nice of you to say that. You probably doubled my sales figures, too.”

“Oh, stop being so self-deprecating. You should be proud of what you do.”

“No, I am. I am proud of it. I suppose I’d like to set the world alight and be famous and everything, and it would be nice to have a tad more cash, but really, I was pleased with that book. I was pleased with our records too, back in the day. I knew we’d managed to make them sound how we wanted. I guess I’m just a bit self-conscious when you’re so smart and successful.”

“OK, I’m preening a little now. Perhaps what each of us needs is a fan. For mutual appreciation.”

“You’re a very pretty and intelligent woman.”

“You were always the cute one in the band.”

“This mutual appreciation thing is going quite well, isn’t it?”

She laughs.

“Have you finished your drink? Would you like to…um, the place where I’m staying at the moment, it’s just round the corner.” She takes his hand.

They cross another road, through a door, up some stairs. She notices the colourful clutter of his flat, the strewn desk, the vinyl collection and the guitar on a stand in the corner. The mattress is, happily, of an excellent quality. An hour later, lying satisfied in each other’s arms, they agree it was much better than the last time.

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Shouting at surveys

images

Dot writes: the Irish Times is publishing a series of articles on its recent Sex Survey. This offers a snapshot of sexual attitudes and behaviour among those people who read the Irish Times and are happy to fill in surveys about sex.

Now, I love filling in surveys, so long as they aren’t customer surveys, so I filled in this one. However, my love of surveys is perverse, because I also tend to want to shout at them. It takes an enormous amount of energy and attention to reduce discursive answers to the kind of graphic people want to publish, so surveys like this are normally multiple choice. There are grave problems with multiple choice answers: so often, the right answer just isn’t there. Moreover, you can often see the direction of thought that governed the construction of certain questions, and you can see it’s wrong.

In this particular survey the one I particularly wanted to argue with was a section that asked ‘Are you happy with your body?’ There were two possible answers: yes and no. Now, who can really answer yes or no to that question? Certainly not me. My body serves me well. It has successfully produced and fed babies, and I was very happy with it for doing that. It is not currently sick, and there are bits of it I think attractive. It is a convenient height and only slightly on the fat side. But there are plenty of other things I’m not so happy with, things I’ve always been self-conscious about and other things that are the result of ageing and my erratic hormones. So – yes, no, I don’t know. I answered no to that question, but really it was a coin toss.

This question was followed by one on whether you’ve ever had difficulty achieving orgasm. Here I was irritated by what seemed to be a transparent assumption underneath the organisation of the questions: discontent with your body might lead to difficulty achieving orgasm. And, especially now I’ve seen some of the reporting on this question in the paper, I’m also irritated again by the crudity of the question: do they mean recent difficulty? Difficulty that you actually consider a problem? Any difficulty whatsoever at any time? There are so many shades to this that are being ignored here, and since it’s a rather sensitive issue for people I do consider that a problem.

I realise I’m completely true to type in my reaction here. I’m an English lecturer. We believe in nuances and complication, because that’s the sort of thing literature is good at exploring. Ken, with his philosophical training, is capable of considering reductionism elegant, which is why it is so strange and intellectually stimulating for me to be married to him. I get the intellectual stimulation from having to explain to him why he is wrong…

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The Passage Tomb by Dot

“Hi Hannah, it’s Clare. Can I come over?” I can tell from her voice something is wrong. I think I know what it might be, and I’m right.

“He’s leaving me. There’s someone else.” Her face is white. She hasn’t cried yet. “He told me just now. He’s going to go and stay at his parents’ place for the night, but I didn’t want to be in the house alone. Can I stay in your spare room?”

I tell her yes. I tell her she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes.

“Apparently it’s one of his work colleagues. I haven’t met her, thank god. He says he hopes we can stay friends.” I can’t describe how she says that word. Then she falls into my arms and howls.

I stroke her hair. Between the tears, she’s still talking. “You know the stupid thing? I want to have sex. I want to have lots and lots of sex, and I want to have it with him. He always did it so well.” This is really more than I want to hear. I feel sick to the stomach with pain for her. I feel like a leech growing fat on the terrible energy of her sorrow. I hold her close.

I’ve reached that life stage when the divorces start – I think there are more in the forties than the thirties, but plenty of my friends are now into their forties. I don’t know what yelling and crying they’ve done on other people’s shoulders, but the abandoned women I know, and a few men, seem to be taking it staunchly, though there are some nasty things happening in lawyers’ plush offices, and fissures opening up as social circles divide into his half and her half. I know a fellow mother at the school who came here from France for her husband’s job, and now he’s left her and gone back to France, but he can’t understand why she won’t go back too so he can have his children close by for visiting days; who wouldn’t want to live in France? And another friend who didn’t mention to any of us that her three kids’ father was gone until it had been a fait accompli for months, but who quietly took in a lodger to pay the bills and booked herself a weekly session with a psychiatrist. It’s simpler for Clare and Christopher; they have no children, and she is still only twenty-nine (so is the new squeeze, apparently; he’s a serial cradle-snatcher). She can pick herself up and start again, but right now she’s in my house, and she’s ripped apart.

“I had a dream last night that’s not hard to interpret. I dreamt he was there in the corner and I started kicking and punching him. Kicking his legs, punching his sides and head, just beating him up with every ounce of strength that I had. He was kind of passive, just curling over and shielding his face with his arms, but somehow that made me even more vicious. I didn’t know I had it in me to be so angry about anything. I can’t remember what I think about things any more. Which opinions were mine and which were his? People talk about dividing up the record collection but I have to divide up my head. I’ve been with him since I was twenty-one and I don’t know who I am, if I’m not his.”

She’s hardly eating at all; it’s as though she has to purge the years with him out of her body, until she’s almost as light and pale as air.

My husband hugs me when she’s left the room, conscious of what we have, aware of how I’m the shield Clare has placed between herself and the world for a while. I’ve become hypersensitive and the deliberateness of his gesture annoys me, just as I’m unfairly annoyed by the way he wants to tell me in detail about the interesting political think-piece he read today, or the way he puts the dishes away when they’re not fully dry. I have the children and Clare and I’m not sure how much spare capacity I have for him, especially when he is being so kind. I reflect that I am lucky to have him.

I see Christopher in town, looking at white goods with the new girl. I notice how, without being embarrassing or acting unsuitably for a public place, he’s taking every little opportunity to touch her; when I see his face turned towards her it’s full of happiness. Probably he has done the right thing – for him. Maybe the right thing for Clare too; they’d gone into a cul de sac, I think, marking time and wanting different things that they weren’t pursuing. Christopher is a romantic, ardent, charming; he likes to be in love, he thrives that way. I wonder if he’s really capable of a long, slow, ordinary togetherness, though to do him justice he gave it a good try with Clare; in fact, I’d thought of the two of them she was the more discontented. Then again, in most couples there’s one who has the initiative and, just as he was the one who courted Clare in the first place, so it was his part to call an end. In my marriage, I’ve always been the one who made the moves.

“I could do anything, now. I could travel. I wouldn’t have any money, but it doesn’t matter – I could teach English, or pick fruit, like the gap year students.” She’s stopped crying now, after a few days, but the skin of her face has a raw and fragile look. “I could do voluntary work abroad or go and be a warden on an island nature reserve.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know yet, but I can feel something waiting to take shape. I don’t want to stay in my job.” She gives a tiny sideways shake of the head, as though she’s flicking off something that irritates her. “Listen, could you come away with me for a few days? Would Martin mind having the kids on his own for that long? I need to go somewhere, but I don’t think I’m ready to do it alone.” I wonder if I can stand it; I feel I’ve soaked up enough tears for a whole trousseau of handkerchiefs and need to be wrung out and spread somewhere sunny to dry. “My sister will be back from America at the weekend and she’s going to come down and help me start sorting out the house. I just need a little ritual journey before I’m ready to be a grown-up again and leave you in peace.”

I say I will go with her, and Martin says he understands.

We’re going to a coastal town, a place Clare went with her university friends as a post-finals celebration, just before she met Christopher. We’ve booked rooms in a hostel because we’re doing this on the cheap, but they are separate rooms, not bunks in a dorm. It’s a beautiful part of the country with wild hills all around and it’s a bit of a drive to get there; we put together a collection of CDs for the drive, choosing things we can sing along to. We have the Dixie Chicks, Roxette, Madonna’s Greatest Hits and a compilation called Women in Rock. Clare’s a bit young for them, but she likes power ballads. We feel silly at first but quickly relax our inhibitions to ‘Listen to Your Heart’ and ‘Black Velvet’, though as I listen to a fair amount of current music I wish I’d slipped in at least a couple of things less determinedly orientated towards nostalgia and female bonding. We talk about our childhoods, our student days, the music we liked in our teens, the drama groups we used to be in, first boyfriends. We’ve been friends for a while but most of this we haven’t talked about before. I realise I’m enjoying myself.

Clare takes me for a walk along the beach, a route she’s done before. She shows me how in the cliffs, if you know what to look for, you can see fossils eroding out. The line of the coast has changed even in the years since she was here; landslips in the winter storms have taken out some beach huts she remembers. The worsening weather and rising seas of global warming will eat away ever more quickly at these beautiful, crumbling shales.

“Last time I was here, I remember I was planning to take a year out and then go back to uni to do a master’s in marine ecology. I remember talking about it with my friend Aisling on this very beach. Of course it didn’t work out like that. But I might look into it again. I’d like to do something positive for, you know, the world” – her tone is self-mocking but she’s perfectly sincere.

I say something encouraging in reply, but though she seems to be in a hopeful mood the emotional extremes of the past week suddenly return to me and I feel a plunge of horror: what future for my children, when the glaciers are gone and fresh water scarce, when the land is shrinking and the fish are dead? I think of the day-to-day maintenance of my life, the meal plans and making of tea, the small tolerances and attentions in the service of permanence, of raising new adults and keeping my man, and I wonder why I bother with any of it. But I know it’s no use to think like this and the weight soon lifts; it’s a warm and glowing summer evening. We buy wine and a takeaway on our way back to the hostel.

There’s a terrace outside the hostel where we sit to eat. Clare manages more of the meal than I expected, but the wine quickly defeats her; one glass in, and she gets the giggles over one of my less stellar jokes, declares that she’s very tired actually, and retires to bed. I’m not sleepy at all. I linger with the rest of the bottle, listening to some girls nearby who are quietly picking out songs on a guitar.

“Do you mind some conversation? I’m here on my own and I’m not feeling too contemplative.” It’s a man who’s been sitting a few spaces along from us. He’s maybe forty-five, short grey hair receding at the temples but a strong face and a fit, wiry physique.

“Go ahead. I’d like a break from contemplation myself. You look as though you’re probably on a cycling holiday?”

“Yes, I’ve been touring all the way up the coast. I’m taking a couple of rest days here and then I’m going to carry on going north.”

I ask him about his route and he tells me about the small towns he’s been travelling through, the time he dropped his tyre-mending kit in a stream and the man he shared a dorm with in the last hostel who seems to have inadvertently given him a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He talks amusingly, enjoying my attention, and it occurs to me that I, who’ve been feeling rather old by comparison with Clare, am at least as much younger than him as she is than Christopher.

“Have you seen the chamber tomb yet?”

“No. What chamber tomb?”

“It’s up there on the hill, only ten minutes walk from here. I came across it this morning; the signpost is pretty cleverly hidden. Come on, I’ll show you and the walk’ll help you settle your dinner.”

I rise to follow him and at this point I do wonder what I’m doing, but it’s such a lovely evening, the moon is up and the sunset’s not yet faded; I decide to find out where this leads.

We walk up the hill, brushed by the bending grasses that fringe the path. Not quite at the top, there is the tomb. It’s a pretty good tomb, a passage tomb with a low stone entrance and a tunnel that goes into a mound built out from the hill.

He dares me to go in and I crawl inside. It’s almost immediately pitch dark; I grope my way into a rounded, womb-like space that’s fortunately big enough for me to turn around in, so that I can emerge again head first. He doesn’t try to get in there with me, but as I scramble out he reaches down a hand and helps me to stand up. Then he puts the other hand behind my head and gently kisses me.

I feel a mixture of gratification, astonishment and panic. I think the following, more or less simultaneously:
what about Martin
this is nice
he tastes of coffee
and what about the children
oh, poor Clare, the irony
I have probably had too much to drink for satisfying sex
Martin.

I step backwards. I don’t seem to be able to form words for a moment, but I raise my left hand and spread out the fingers to show him the wedding ring. And I’m fortunate; I’ve picked a nice man to lead on and then reject. He gives a slightly rueful smile, and with a bend that’s almost a bow he offers me his arm. And we walk back down the hill to the hostel and to Clare.

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Frank’s story

Ken writes:

I like this as a piece of calligraphy really. I guess watching Dot writing short stories has inspired Frank to give it a go.

The story of Igrum the builder

The story of Igrum the builder

From the bottom left:

Igrum ros
a budr one ivn
hi had the tyicn
pox ren hi had tht
ticine pox ali
ns yrived afd the
aliens a

That should be:

Igrum was a builder. One evening he had the chicken pox. When he had the chicken pox aliens arrived. After the aliens a…

Obviously he asked me and Hugh how to spell various words but it was sometimes lost in translation. The r/w thing is interesting (when/ren ros/was). We have trouble spelling things out for him, because he has learnt different names for the letters. Hugh has learned the older names, but for Frank the ee-sound is the name of i as in ink, not e as in egg. Of course, it’s not hard to adjust one’s practice to accommodate, except that I speak with a Kiwi accent so I have real difficulty getting the name sounds right for an Irish kid. When I say ee, it is the sound of egg (because when I say ‘egg’ it sounds a bit like Eek!). i as in ‘ink’ sounds like u and all the other vowels are switched around too.

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The Man in the Library by Dot

Sarah had decided she was in love with the young man who worked in the library. His days seemed irregular, but he was normally there on Tuesdays, so she went there every Tuesday on her way home from school. Sometimes he was doing something involving a card index and a computer, sometimes re-shelving books, sometimes answering queries. He was tall and thin but with broad shoulders and a humorous, intelligent face. He was more interesting than the boys at school and much older, perhaps twenty-three. It wasn’t the sort of library where the staff wore name badges. She knew almost nothing about him.

Sarah scrutinised the young man for clues, but there wasn’t much to go on. The library was a cool place so he tended to wear jumpers, meaning she could not deduce his interests from his t-shirts. The only things he had ever said to her were things like ‘near the window on the left’ and ‘it’s due on the 24th, hope you enjoy it’. Sarah borrowed books by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, Georgette Heyer and Margaret Irwin, Jane Austen, the Brontes and Wilkie Collins.

One day, at a loose end on a Saturday, she went to the library at lunchtime and saw him sitting outside in a patch of sun, a book in one hand and a sandwich in the other. She could see the sandwich was overloaded with salad, some of which was falling out onto a sheet of crumpled tinfoil on his lap. She went a little closer in what she hoped was a casual way – he was fairly near the door – and squinted sideways to see the title of the book. It was Portnoy’s Complaint. As she watched, unselfconsciously he laughed.

Sarah waited a couple of days and borrowed Portnoy’s Complaint, taking care that it was one of the women on the issue desk. She read it at home in a mixture of squeamishness and arousal. Did the young man from the library identify with this? Had he done, did he do, all these sexual things? (Sarah was cautious with her own body; it was still in many ways a mystery to her.) How could he sit outside reading a book like this with such relaxed absorption? She tried to picture him in his personal space, his house or room, but she could only manage slightly modified versions of her own bedroom with its unwise colour-scheme, chosen when she was twelve, and the left-over teddy bears. She imagined him taking her knickers down and entering her on the hard carpet behind his desk in the library.

For a while Sarah avoided that particular desk on her weekly visits, but her sensitivity began to subside and curiosity to reassert itself. She became ingenious: she needed a really complicated query that he couldn’t answer in a sentence. She consulted Amazon and the online catalogue to make a list of books that would send him to every corner of the library, carefully including a couple it didn’t have at all.

Ann Carr, A Glut of Tomatoes and Salad Vegetables
Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis
The Lonely Planet Guide to New York City
Guillaume de Laubier, The Most Beautiful Libraries of the World
Louann Brizendine, The Male Brain
Chris Casson Madine, Bedrooms: Creating the Stylish, Comfortable Room of Your Dreams
George Martin, Making Music
Jedediah Barry, The Manual of Detection

She ducked out early from a shopping trip with her friends and went to the library the next Saturday, in case her nerve should fail by Tuesday. Her luck was in and he was there.

‘Whoa, that’s quite a list. But I think I can find most of these for you.’

The plan was going even better than she’d hoped. He checked the catalogue with practised efficiency and noted some shelfmarks; she noticed he was able to find Freud, the Lonely Planet Guide and George Martin without checking.

The Male Brain is sh- it’s not very good. Why don’t you try this one instead? We don’t have your book on libraries, but is it libraries you’re interested in or great house architecture? I can show you the architecture section. That last one is fiction so it’s just shelved under fiction in alphabetical order as normal.’

It was such a warm day he was in a t-shirt and she could see the muscles of his upper arms flexing as he reached the books down to her. She was close enough to smell his deodorant.

‘There you are. You have pretty eclectic tastes, don’t you?’

She’d done it! He was talking to her! He was interested! So, inevitably, she blew it.

‘It’s – it’s for a school project.’

And she walked off to the issue desk feeling the red flood into her cheeks. Fool. Idiot. It took her two minutes to realise she hadn’t even said thankyou, and another five to remember he’d seen her every week in her uniform.

She lugged all the books home in the big bag she’d brought for shopping and slumped on the bed with them. Feeling that she might as well, she started to read them. She seemed to have taken a sudden side-turn into non-fiction. She pondered redecorating her bedroom with lots of drapes and wondered if she could manage a trip to New York when she was eighteen. Freud was curiously readable and the architecture book substituted for de Laubier’s Beautiful Libraries intrigued her with its visions of cool, lofty spaces. She texted her friend Jenny and asked if she wanted to go into town the next day to infiltrate buildings.

Sarah didn’t go back to the library for a few weeks, but she had to return the books so she ventured in again. To her surprise, as she passed the young man at his desk (he had the card index today) he looked up with a smile and spoke to her.

‘Did you enjoy any of those? It was a pretty varied collection.’

‘I liked Freud. And the architecture one. I liked that. My friend Jenny and I went to look at the cathedral and the new conference centre.’ (She was being normal! She was talking normally to him!)

‘Do you like modern architecture? I don’t know a lot about it but we have some good books on individual architects you might like to try. Look for Le Corbusier – he’s been very influential. Renzo Piano has done some amazing skyscrapers, if you’re into big expanses of glass like the conference centre. Or there’s that Spanish architect, Gaudi, who designed all those incredible buildings in Barcelona that look like melting goblin castles. I guess he doesn’t really count as modern but you should check him out.’

Sarah thought he seemed to know a lot about architecture for someone who didn’t know a lot about architecture. She borrowed books about Le Corbusier, Piano and Gaudi, and also Frank Lloyd Wright because she liked the look of the house on the cover.

Back home, she found the photographs of Le Corbusier’s buildings repellent; they made her think of all the miserable concrete office blocks she’d ever been in when her parents needed to renew a driver’s licence or talk about the mortgage; and of Piano’s buildings she preferred the great green boat of the NEMO museum to his glittering towers; but Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright in different ways appealed strongly. She hunted out her pencils, neglected since she’d had to pick her exam subjects and chosen Economics because it was supposed to be more useful than Art, and drew Lloyd Wright’s house Falling Water, rather faintly. Then she drew the Casa Milá in Barcelona, but instead of the roof, which she found lumpy, she made the lines of the windows grow upwards into trees.

The next week at the library the young man helped her find a book on architectural drawing. She noticed how long and graceful his hands were and, as a psychological experiment, allowed herself to revisit that vision of him fucking her on the floor. She managed to take the book off him without dropping it, which she thought was quite impressive really.

The week after that he wasn’t there. She went back to the conference centre, without Jenny, and stood in the middle of its shiny floor, but though the height and air pleased her she found the endless glass monotonous. She imagined a house for the young man: a curved roof with slanted windows, slender pillars to hold it up, books around the walls, so it would be like a forest of books with dappled light and shade. She drew the room as best she could, but she didn’t put any figures in it. Then she drew a ridiculously opulent chamber of love full of drapes and couches, and a naked girl on one of the couches, her hand trailing over her own thigh. It didn’t come out quite right but she thought she might try it again later.

He still wasn’t there the next week and she plucked up her courage to ask one of the other staff.

‘Where’s…?’ – but she realised that, after all, she’d never found out his name.

‘Oh, he’s away for a couple of months now,’ said the woman, clearly not needing any explanation of who was meant, and looking slightly amused. ‘He’ll be back by autumn.’

Sarah borrowed a book about Zaha Hadid. Then she went home and drew a house that was round, like a nest, and made of an interlace of slanted beams with glass in between for windows. It would have half-floors at different levels so that she could look down or up or across, but curtains to shut off the sections so that she could curl away in them when she wanted. Like a nest, it was open at the top, so she could fly out.

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DNA, wolves and warm potatoes

Dot writes: it’s already June. How did that happen and why hasn’t the weather noticed? Anyway, hip and funky Dot has been using the months well to listen to lots of new and semi-new records. Here are some of my favourites so far from this year’s listening.

j.viewz

So incredibly up-to-the-minute am I these days that I’m really into an album that’s not even finished yet. I thoroughly recommend you spend some time browsing through the DNA Project by j.viewz. The website belongs to a New York musician called Jonathan Dagan, who’s documenting the process of making his new album track by track. You can hear all the pieces of the songs as they come together and read/listen/watch as he finds his inspiration through different places, collaborations and sounds; if you subscribe you can also download the component audio tracks and do your own thing with them, if that’s a thing you do. It’s a gorgeously designed website and a fascinating concept and, as a bonus, it turns out I love his music. I took advantage of a free download of his 2011 album rivers and homes (I note he’s not much into capital letters) and it’s full of rich, interesting production – lots of eighties vibes to my mind, but with modern manipulations – coupled to melodic songwriting. Here’s a track I particularly like from that earlier album; I love the Peter Gabriel quality in his singing, the athletic buzzy bass-line that kicks in after the first verse, and the saxophone at the end. The opening notes remind me of the old Thames Television jingle.

Wyles and Simpson

Wyles and Simpson sound as though they should be a law firm or, given what elegant young women they are, perhaps a team of lady detectives in a period drama, but they’re actually an English electronic duo who’ve recently released their debut album (November 2014, according to iTunes). The opening track, Stormy Skies, gives the flavour of Abigail Wyles’s cool, clear voice and Holly Simpson’s moody synth chords and satisfyingly crunchy beats, but the whole album is full of beautiful harmonies and textures.

Wolf People

When Ken and I met, I was the one who owned CDs by Judas Priest, Metallica, Van Halen, and Linkin Park (yes, really) while he was mostly listening to Kraftwerk. However, in recent years he has embraced the rock aspect of my record collection, especially AC/DC, while I’ve been getting increasingly keen on electronica and sample-led music. But I try not to be narrow, and Fain by Wolf People (2013) is the first of two records bought this year that appeal to Rocker Ken. I got onto it through Twitter, where I saw it described as ‘folk music played by Black Sabbath’. The band do indeed draw on the folk and ballad traditions for the lyrics and their sound has a real early seventies feel. There are twin lead guitar lines and some great touches with rhythm, especially in this track, ‘When the Fire is Dead in the Grate’ – try to count out the bars and see what I mean. Great stuff.

Ryan Adams

So I thought I’d check out Ryan Adams. I have a vague feeling it’s not cool to like Ryan Adams, though probably cooler than liking Bryan Adams. Who cares – I like both of them. Ryan Adams’ self-titled 2014 album is another record with Ken-appeal. We were listening yesterday and talking about all the classic acts his songs remind us of – I heard echoes of Springsteen, Ken thought ‘I Just Might’ recalled ‘I Touch Myself’ by the Divinyls, and a repeated reference point is Tom Petty. (I read an interview in which Ryan Adams talked about how the industry wanted to force him into the wrong boxes, and he protested ‘I’m not Tom Petty'; but Tom Petty is great and insofar as there’s a resemblance it’s definitely a good thing.) Echt American guitar rock. Sing along and sing your heart out. And, watching the clip below, try not to think too hard about why exactly someone decided to illustrate this song with Elvira and her cleavage.

Hot Chip

The new Hot Chip album comes in a choice of covers. I bought it in a colour that matches my favourite fleece, which I think sums up my relationship to pop culture pretty well. The video to the single ‘Need You Now’ has a curious time-slip plot with some transitions I don’t quite understand; Ken might not find it philosophically coherent. But it’s a beautiful song.

If anything I’m even keener on the brilliantly funky conjunction of rhythms between the bass and guitar in ‘Easy to Get’, but there are lots of good songs on this album. More electronica, though there’s guitar and other traditional instruments in there too.

Susanne Sundfør

To finish up, Ten Love Songs by Susanne Sundfør is a wonderfully big and tuneful album of Norwegian pop that came out in February this year. My friend Mar pointed out that the lyrics aren’t always the greatest, and I certainly agree some of the time. For example, consider ‘Memorial': ‘You took off my dress / And you never put it on again’. Um? Most of us can dress ourselves, surely? BUT ‘Memorial’ also goes completely bonkers and turns into a piano concerto in the middle, and how could anyone resist that? Recommended.

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Big Bertha

Dot writes: fat is a feminist issue, right? I’m trying to work out what my feminist perspective is on this character, whom I’ve just encountered through a guide to Avengers characters Ken has bought for the boys. Hugh thinks she’s great, by the way.

Big_Bertha_from_GLA_1_June_2005

From the Wikipedia entry:

Big Bertha (Ashley Crawford) is a fictional character, a mutant superheroine appearing in comic books published by Marvel Comics, notably as a member of the Great Lakes Avengers. She was created by John Byrne and first appeared in West Coast Avengers vol. 2 #46 (July 1989)…. Big Bertha has the ability to make herself superhumanly strong and durable (to the point of being bulletproof) by becoming extraordinarily obese. She can also purge most fat from her body through vomiting to take on a slimmer appearance. In addition to her mutant powers, Ashley is also a skilled pilot of conventional jet aircraft.

The disturbing bulimia detail doesn’t make it into the guide the boys have.

So…the frightening power of female fat. A superpower but also a mutation. The female body at once unstoppable, enveloping, sexy, leaky and disgusting (that vomiting). A curious comment on the way all super heroines look like models (incredibly muscly busty models) in that this lady’s normal form is a supermodel, and her super form is grotesquely enormous. Does this get the feminist thumbs up? Powerful lady bucking the stereotype? Or thumbs down because of the preoccupation with body-size? Or do we see this as something more interesting than a Good or Bad Thing – something playful and weird, a bit of a category bender?

While we’re on gender and bodies, I thought the name Big Bertha sounded familiar and of course it is the nickname of a well-known enormous German WW1 howitzer.

300px-Dicke_Bertha.Big_Bertha

 

It’s notable that this – ahem – remarkably phallic instrument of destruction should have a female nickname, but it’s not the only feminine gun: Mons Meg springs to mind, the vast fifteenth-century bombard now kept at Edinburgh, and all those army scenes of men being told to think of their rifle as their wife or mistress (it comes up, for example, in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time). Men have often given female names to the difficult tools that they wrestle with, things held close but warily, which is surely why ships are female. And I guess that if we want to go the Freudian route guns are vessels and receptacles, tunnels as well as trains. But, well, aren’t people odd.

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