An angel might have a skin like yours
but would she have such alarmed eyes?
Twin shaved armpits
twin tweezered teats
twin depilated thighs
One fringed twat
Each day I left sonnets
by your pillow
but you preferred ten-pound notes.
The best looking
ones always seemed to be at the far end of the platform of the Underground when
the train came into the station. The window of his living room faced
approximately in the direction of the West End, and his street’s location on
one of London’s forgotten, bricked over hills enabled him to gaze out over an
immense geometrical wasteland of chimneys, television aerials and roofs, each
one of the latter conceivably sheltering Miss Perfect Ecstasy 2003 if only he
knew how to meet her. He tried answering small ads in Time Out, even got a
couple of responses, and progressed as far as an embarrassing rendezvous in a
pub in Camden Town, from which he would have escaped via the lavatory window if
only he had been able to open it. He tried going on political demos in support
of postmen and nurses and troop withdrawals. For a couple of weeks, inspired by
a chance collision of supermarket trollies, one of
them propelled by a schoolgirl with cherry coloured Dr Martens and a
deliciously lopsided grin, he explored the possibilities of various branches of
Safeways and Sainsburys. He
even tried going to dances at the
And then, one morning, after wandering for two or three depressed hours through some of the least known back streets of Shoreditch, he found himself standing beside a canal. It was overlooked by the endlessly repeating windows of a group of tower blocks but he knew that if he threw himself in amongst the rusting prams in the canal, no stunningly pretty girls’ club swimming champion would dive from a ninth floor balcony to his rescue. He contemplated throwing himself in anyway.
‘Don’t do it,’ said a voice. ‘You can help me instead.’
response would have been: How did you know what I was thinking? But
‘You see that round slightly bluish pebble by your foot?’
‘Pick it up.’
‘Now drop it in me.’
‘Because if you do I’ll grant you three wishes.’
The square of water at his feet plopped impatiently.
‘Three wishes. They’ll really work, too.’
‘So what’s your first wish?’
‘I wish I was incredibly good-looking.’
‘You are’. The voice made it sound so simple. ‘And your second wish?’
‘I wish I had an incredibly beautiful girl friend.’
‘You’ll meet her later today. And the third wish?’
‘Can I save it for later?’
‘If you like. I’m usually here,’ said the voice: but suddenly there was no longer any water in the space between the flagstones, only a shadowy muddy hole that smelt of someone else’s fart.
On the way home
More than somewhat bemused he stepped into the next room. The most heart-rendingly beautiful girl he had seen in his whole life was standing by the table, leafing through a copy of Socialist Worker.
The girl looked away for a moment, her delicious larkspur-coloured eyes filling suddenly with tears, but when he put his arms around her she dropped the copy of Socialist Worker and stuck an eel-like tongue in his mouth.
She was called
came up to
‘Oh, he was a boy I once knew,’ said
thing was that he didn’t really want her. Hormones called to hormones, but only
at the fifth form biology text book level. It was like having it off with
One thing he
couldn’t understand about
‘You won’t believe this,’ she said, ‘I was really depressed and lonely, I mean it was so bad I even tried placing a small ad in Time Out – you know Ugly Duckling seeks Hans Christian Andersen to help her become Beautiful Swan –‘
‘I saw that one.’
‘No, I thought it a bit soppy.’
‘So apparently did everybody else. I got no replies at all. Then one day I was coming home from a demo against the reintroduction of the Poll Tax, all on my tod as usual, and I stopped at a little old fashioned cabbagy-smelling corner shop, and bought one of those cardboard cartons of Ribena, you know, the ones that come with a green plastic straw with an articulated bend and have a little hole covered in silver foil. This time, when I poked the straw into the hole there was nothing inside the carton, though it felt full, and when I took the straw out and tried to squint into the hole, you won’t believe this, but a voice inside, definitely from inside but coming from a long way away as if from infinity, offered me three wishes if I would drop the carton in the litter bin at the point in Holloway Road where the buildings towards Archway have the appearance of a skull.’
‘Three wishes. So I thought, golly, and wished to be incredibly beautiful because I thought that might make a difference to my life, and I wished for a smashing boyfriend.’
And there we both were.’
‘Yes.’ She smiled at him, her wonderful larkspur-coloured eyes laughing and wistful at one and the same time, and it was impossible to believe she had ever not been unbelievably pretty. ‘There we both were.’
‘And you held on to your third wish for later?’
‘No. My third wish was … ’ She hesitated. ‘My first two wishes I thought were too personal, so I wanted to wish for something bigger than my own life that would help other people. So I wished for a revolution.’
‘Perhaps we’ll have to wait a bit.’
That night, as so often, he awoke after a couple of hours’ uneasy sleep and lay pondering the question of what he was going to do with his third wish. It was a question that would not go away. He wanted to sleep, but it nagged at him like an exposed nerve in a broken tooth. His Third Wish.
For a few moments he seemed to doze, and then he woke again with a start. In the distance, on the other side of the city, but quite distinctly, there was the sound of artillery fire. Every thirty seconds or so orange flashes lit up the drawn curtains. There was a machine gun firing some streets away and, once, a shout from the pavement just below their window and the sound of running foot-steps. He waited for the police sirens, perhaps the braying of ambulances, but there were none of the customary noises of law and order coming to the rescue. Suddenly there was a detonation that shook the whole house. He had an idea it came from the police station on the other side of the park.
We surfed six seconds side by side
Upon a sea of semen
Till sucked asunder by a tide
Of desperations deep and wide
Pulled taut by gender’s demon.
Though all night snuggling thigh to thigh
A wider void stretched between our minds
Than between the Boeings in the sky
Vast pinball tables wired to fly
That twinkled through the pulled-down blinds
Twelve months on I simply stutter
If by happenstance we meet
Now separated by a gutter
Where discarded sports pages flutter
Between no longer footsying feet,
Last year’s orgasming miaow a mutter
Between loud buses in the street.
In the Wilderness
Having just completed a laborious volume on the World Wars and brought to a conclusion a decade-long phase of my life when my capacity for sentiment dwelt claustrophobically on scar- and medal-encrusted battlefield heroes, unceasing seepage of blood, statistics of fatality, and killing machines, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on my own solitary confrontation with imminent death.
I was born too
late to be swept into the boredom of National Service. I have only once fired a
gun, and that was a .410, puniest of farmyard weapons. If I have ever been shot
at, my unknown assailant used a silencer, and missed. I have heard bombs
explode in various cities. The first, in
The coastline of
The agriculture of this mountain zone was once much more prosperous. The retreat of our species can be traced in successive phases: here two or three courses of squared stones just below an exposed crest, the remains of a hilltop cottage abandoned perhaps three centuries ago, there on a hillside the roofless walls of a farm abandoned a hundred years ago, or lower down a still-roofed but rusty-padlocked dwelling in a valley. Occasionally one would meet peasants herding goats, gloomy men very unlike the village extroverts who figure in accounts of partisan warfare in 1944. A turn in the path might confront one with a view of the Mediterranean, shining like a vast diamond cupped between distant mountainsides: the Tyrrhenian Sea across which the Greeks came to this land in their oared galleys two and a half millennia ago, across which the British and the Americans came in their drab armada four years before my birth: a clean sea, when viewed in the perspective of history and mountain distances, not the septic broth resembling beer which I lived beside down on the coast.
On 4 June 1985 I
hitchhiked to Acerno, which I had picked out some
time earlier as a good starting point for a mountain walk. Acerno
was not untypical of the small towns of the interior of
I left the town
along the road to Calabritto. This was an almost
impassably pot-holed band of tarmac running along one side of a deep gorge and
doubling back along the other side, coming out on a crag almost opposite the
A couple of kilometres from Acerno, shortly after skirting a farm with the inevitable barking dog, the road passed a queer watershed where two largish mountain torrents started from the ground within yards of each other and flowed in opposite directions, creating a pass into the next valley. I left the Calabritto road and followed a footpath through this pass, calculating that it would eventually lead me to the neighbourhood of Olevano, another hill town. Acerno was now on my right hand, but on the other side of the hill. After walking through a chestnut grove I found myself on the side of a long valley about two kilometres wide. It was difficult to be sure what was at the bottom of the valley because of the fall of the land: the opposite side was a succession of attractively wooded crests, quivering in the noon sunlight. One hill top seemed to have been cleared for cultivation, with only three or four pine trees left standing. It reminded me of English downland.
On my side of the valley it was open terrain: grass and a few bushes. There was a footpath worn on the turf just below the skyline on the side facing across the valley, with a sheer drop a little lower down, and I walked along this path, supposing it must lead somewhere. Over the previous few months I had developed the habit of striking out in whatever direction seemed most picturesque: sooner or later one would always come to a townlet or a road leading somewhere or other. On this particular day the track continued very distinctly for some hundreds of metres and then disappeared. This was not unusual. The footpaths in the mountains were in many cases centuries old, but with the contraction of the rural population they might not be visited for years. Torrential rains and, at this altitude, prolonged frosts from December to February, caused frequent minor landslips. In the warm weather plants grew unchecked. It was quite standard for footpaths to disappear into the middle of a bush, and to resume two or three boulders away to left or right. I thought this was what was happening here, I had forgotten that goats, whose only urgent business is to eat, often double back on their own tracks.
I was casting around for the continuation of the footpath, stumbling amongst boulders and rocky outcrops with a loose top-soil thinly covered with herbage, when I slipped and fell, slithering some distance downhill on my bottom towards the sheer drop down into the valley. I was only brought to a halt by a thin tree appearing providentially between my legs, just as used to happen in those cowboy serials they used to show at Saturday Morning Pictures. The tree, a juniper, grew horizontally from the point where the slope down into the valley became a precipice. I was at the very lip of an overhanging drop of something like fifteen metres. Behind me a loose shaley surface sloped up at 45 degrees towards a flatter area about four metres beyond my reach. There were no handholds, only a few tufts of leafy weed, which came away in my hands as I tugged at them.
Digging in my fingers I managed to scramble almost back up to the footpath, slid again, and was saved by another providentially placed tree. I tried again, reached even higher, slipped again, and was stopped from shooting over the precipice by the first tree. The pullover which I had been carrying knotted by its sleeves round my neck fell away out of sight below.
It was a warm
sunny day. Glossy white clouds drifted overhead with ostentatious indifference
to my plight, as if flaunting their denial of the Pathetic Fallacy of the
French Romantics, who liked to think nature was disposed to echo human moods.
Perhaps, I thought, it was just that I lacked
Be organized. I
tried to think through every move as rationally as I could. Be calm. After my
second attempt I gave up the idea of trying to regain the disappearing footpath
above me. I had been saved by trees that were thin and insecurely rooted; I was
heavy and my back-slidings towards the precipice had
attained uncomfortable velocity. Statistical probability suggested that next time, even if I managed to grab a branch as I slipped I
would nevertheless scoot out into the void with an uprooted tree in my hands.
This time the cinematic model was Tom and Jerry,
The alternative to scrambling upwards was to scramble downwards. To my left as I faced the Elysian Fields across the valley the cliff face had crumbled and sprouted shrubs and there seemed a possibility of sufficient toe and finger holds for a descent. I had been more than averagely cowardly about climbing trees as a boy, and I had no knowledge of mountaineering or rock-climbing techniques: but I did not have much choice. I managed to edge over towards the crumbled-away descent and found three or four easy holds. I succeeded finally in clambering down to within seven or eight metres of level ground. Then I ran out of finger-holds.
No doubt anyone with experience of mountaineering would have found further progress as easy as boarding a bus. For what seemed ages I considered my predicament. The sound of the stream hidden amongst the trees was nearer and louder and cooler and wetter. The sun continued to beat down on my head. I tried to decide whether to throw myself into a small spindly tree whose top was just below me, and count on it bending under my weight and lowering me gracefully to the ground, or whether to try and find more finger-holds in order to come down lower before jumping. Finally I made up my mind that it would be ridiculous to launch myself deliberately into space and then break a limb. I kept remembering my lack of daring when trying to climb trees as a child. I managed to descend a bit lower and was within two or three putative handgrips of a spot where I could stand when my feet slipped, and my hands were torn out of their holds. I fell: I remember only a sense of confusion as in any fall, a bang on my chest, surprise that I was still falling and that I bounced so easily.
I ended up in a huddle perhaps five or six metres below my last foothold, having rolled some way down the comparatively gentle slope at the foot of the cliff. My right foot looked as if it was somehow wearing my left shoe. It barely hurt but I supposed it was broken. For a moment I felt faint, as after even a much smaller fall, and lay waiting for the pain, but then I realized I was more or less all right. A circle of skin had been ripped off the tip of the big finger of my right hand as it had been torn away from the cliff face. I had great scratches on my hands and arms, on my left shoulder and over the area of my left kidney. My left knee and shin were bruised, and the front of my chest was beginning to swell: but nowhere was I bleeding. One of the scratches on my left arm has resulted in a permanent scar three inches long but it was never an open wound. There was a single round splash of bright blood on the rock beside me but I have no idea where it came from.
priority was to drink. I tried to stand and was startled at how promptly my
right leg gave way under me. I was only able to move by dragging myself forward
with my hands and slithering downhill through the undergrowth on my bottom.
Beside the stream I found a barbed-wire fence. After drinking I had to decide
which way to go: back along the fence in the general direction I had come from,
or further into the unknown. In the direction of the Acerno-Calabritto
road the fence ran uphill. For all I knew it might take on an impossibly steep
gradient a little beyond the nearest curtain of trees. In that direction,
moreover, I knew that the first human settlement I reached would be the farm I
had skirted just before I had come to the watershed and the pass between the
valleys. That would have been an hour’s trek for someone with the use of both
legs. For me it would be four or five hours. But what really decided me was the
recollection of the barking dog: either an Alsatian or one of those gigantic,
cream-coloured, completely fearless
At first I hopped from fence-post to fence-post. Then I found a stick large enough to support me and hopped with that, but it soon broke. I used several sticks during my one-legged anabasis: most of them snapped under my weight after three or four strides, often causing me to fall quite heavily. It was like a variation of Russian roulette, trying to guess which step forward would drop me flat on my face. Though I was in the middle of a wood – mainly I think beach, lime, sycamore, ash and elder – there was no mature timber. There were plenty of saplings long and thick enough to support me but because they were still green and springy they were too tough to break with my bare hands. There were also quantities of dead branches lying amongst the undergrowth but I never saw one much thicker than my thumb, and at that thickness the dried-out wood quickly gave way under my weight. If I had been carrying a pen-knife I could have made a serviceable crutch out of a sapling in ten minutes: but I wasn’t carrying a knife.
Part of the time I hopped, with or without a stick, falling frequently. At first I also tried crawling on my hands and knees but this was too painful. I don’t know how small children manage but my knees could hardly bear it, especially on a hard stony surface. My foot could give me minimal support when standing but not enough to enable me to take a step. It seemed mainly the exterior swelling that ached, but even if the damage was only a sprain the foot was clearly useless for the time being. The most comfortable means of progress left to me was to slide forward on my bottom, facing backwards, pulling with my hands and pushing with my left foot.
Once in every ten minutes I could hear the neck bells of goats in the distance and after trying to guess how close they were I filled my lungs and yelled for help. Ai-u-t-o! I supposed that was what Italians shouted. I had never actually heard one calling for help. It was strange how feeble my shouting sounded in the open. The breeze which gently turned up the pale undersides of the leaves on the surrounding trees seemed to swallow up my voice completely. I felt I would have been inaudible a hundred metres away. The eventual clink from a neck bell came back too late to be any kind of response.
The track beside the fence became a surface wide enough for a tractor and began to rise, leaving the barbed-wire fence behind. As I hopped and slithered up the incline, the place where I had fallen began to come into view. While clinging above the cliff face I had thought that the impassable area was no more than a few metres wide. I now saw that I had been at the edge of a vast overhanging bluff which extended down one side of the valley for a couple of kilometres, a human-dwarfing cliff that seemed to belong to a virgin primeval continent, gloomy and menacing even in the bright sunlight.
Little streams crossed the path every hundred yards or so and I could drink as much and as often as I wanted. Soon I was using the streams to punctuate my awkward progress: twenty yards of hopping and falling, eighty of slithering, then lap, slurp, splash. One might expect, if one had nothing else to sustain one but mountain streams, that at least they would taste like Perrier, but it was in fact the most undistinguished water I have ever drunk, certainly far below the standard of the landscape. It was cool and clean but I think deficient in lime and too rich in something like alum: at any rate remarkably flat and insipid. To supplement the water there were occasional small patches of wild strawberries, some as large as a fingernail, but all virtually without flavour. Sometimes I would find as many as twenty in one patch. I suppose they contained fructose but obviously not very much. They were all I was to have to eat for three days.
By the time night fell I was beginning to think I might have made a mistake in my choice of direction. The path continued uphill. I tried to sleep, since it seemed inadvisable to move on a path which was too dark to see, but it was too cold for sleep. I would lie for twenty minutes, the flinty surface grinding into my hips and elbows, trying conscientiously to doze and then would have to continue my forward progress merely in order to stop shivering. I was at least a thousand feet above sea level and as it was still relatively early in the summer the drop in temperature at nightfall was considerable. It had not occurred to me, right after my fall, to scramble around looking for the pullover which had preceded me down the cliff.
About midnight – but really I had no idea what time precisely, for my pocket watch had stopped – I reached a point in the path where it rounded the side of a bluff and then began to descend. From this vantage point I expected to see lights from houses in the distance but there were none. I was now at least twelve hours away from the farm with the barking dog. I had no choice but to continue dragging myself forward along the lightless path.
It was a long night, and when dawn finally came it was still some hours before the sun rose high enough to provide warmth. I was supposed to be conducting an examination at the university from 9 a.m. onwards: it looked as if I was going to be late. I continued pulling myself along backwards with my hands, pushing with my one good foot, occasionally scrambling upright and hopping. When it became warmer I tried occasionally to doze, with my foot arranged where the sunlight was filtered through leaves, since the direct heat of the sun made it ache, but even with the wind in the trees as a lullaby I never quite managed to doze off. I tried once or twice to put my damaged foot on the ground, to test if the sprain was adjusting itself, but it would give way under me with a cautionary stab of pain. I was still not sure that it was broken, but the simple fact was I could not walk and I began to realize that if help was not fairly close I would not reach it before starvation brought me to a halt. The prospect of being killed, more or less, by a mere sprain was so demeaning as to seem all the more probable.
I was not especially worried by the idea of dying. I was thirty-eight. All the things I had wanted to do as a young man I had done, though none of them in the classic, consummate, triumphant way I had envisaged. Approximate achievement of ambition had brought me no sense of fulfilment but had made it clear that I would have felt little more content if I had achieved my programme in a more unambiguously perfect manner. I had a steady relationship with a girl I did not love enough. She would be sorrier to lose me than I would be to lose her, but I had long since given up hope of being really touched by anyone who wanted me, and did not think that death would cheat me of anything in the consuming passion line. I had a book, my fourth, nearing completion but knew that nobody would care enough about my ideas to add the finishing touches it needed and see to its publication: but my previous books had been failures professionally and commercially and this last one, because the best and most original so far, would probably founder in even greater apathy. Once I was dead none of this would matter. It was no such bad idea to leave the game while still one and a half points ahead. Death now meant that I would not die agonizingly and protractedly of cancer, or achieve brief public fame and be assassinated in front of the television cameras, or have a lonely and physically degraded old age.
I had only two worries. People in my predicament traditionally found God in their worst moments of danger and isolation and I did not want this to happen to me. I had been to a school where the chaplain was a former mining engineer who had discovered God when lost and alone down a mineshaft. Just as he was giving up hope he had stumbled on the track of the underground railway used to move coal from the pit face to the bottom of the mineshaft. He had followed the rails to safety. This experience, he once claimed, had led to his taking Holy Orders. I had decided he was a charlatan some time before leaving this school. Now I found myself thinking not of the existence of God but of the humiliation of having to explain a conversion of this kind to my friends. As it turned out, God failed to manifest himself in my extremity. I was alone, totally alone, with the trees and the streams and the silent mountains but I never once felt the presence of God. However beautiful, however hostile and threatening to my mere existence, the woods and the mountains remained simply woods and mountains.
The second worry was my strength. Not that I was not strong enough, but that I was too strong. A diet of watery-tasting wild strawberries, cropped at the rate of two from this clump, five from that, three from the next one twenty minutes further on, was not going to sustain me indefinitely. The occasional ant or spider that crossed my path looked neither appetizing nor nourishing. Dragging myself along by my hands was heavy work, much more so than walking for all that it was so much slower. I knew that eventually I would be unable to drag myself any further: but I also calculated that from that point it would take a further six or seven days for me to die, and that I would be conscious almost till the end. I have never liked waiting and there was all the waiting I remembered in the prospect of that long, light-headed wait for death.
In other respects I was remarkably comfortable. My foot hurt only when the direct heat of the sun beat on the swelling. I also had a broken breast bone which did not subsequently show up in X-rays but which grated audibly when one pushed the midpoint of my chest. It continued to make a grating noise whenever I looked over my shoulder all through the ensuing summer but neither caused pain nor, now, interfered with the strenuous employment of my chest muscles involved in hauling myself backwards along the path. There was no risk of thirst, and I felt no hunger. Confronted by this challenge to its survival, my body was beginning to close down every function, every operation, that was not absolutely indispensable. My stomach did not rumble emptily or signal hunger pains. The digestion of the last meal I had before my accident slowed down so that it was to be more than a week before I had another bowel movement. My penis dwindled and retreated and lost the power of erection, which only came back slowly after six weeks, and my scrotum shrivelled up. My mind contracted. Mentally I felt perfectly alert, and while resting between bouts of dragging myself forward I would poke twigs inquisitively at passing creepy-crawlies, but though I kept telling myself that I could be using all this enforced quiet and solitude to do some hard, coherent thinking about whatever political, philosophical, historical, critical or aesthetic problem I ought to be working out, it was as if the tap supplying the energy for abstract thought had been turned off. I was not in pain, I was not preoccupied, I was able to focus my external senses, but my body was economizing on my powers of abstract ratiocination. Once the sun had risen I was warm, cheerful, neither anxious nor bored. It was like a picnic that had gone on too long, not disagreeable in itself but with the question of how one is going to get home always at the back of one’s mind.
Shortly before nightfall the path joined a serviceable dirt roadway, wide enough for two vehicles to edge past each other. It was the sort of dirt track that one expects to join up with a main road a couple of corners further on. Near the junction was a capsized corrugated iron barn and a field of lush coarse grass. The latter seemed to offer a more comfortable bed than the flinty track of the previous night but I found it difficult to arrange myself.
A couple of elder bushes covered with sprays of white blossom gave the place the atmosphere of a long-abandoned garden. The wooded slopes where I had descended sprawled into a rolling woodland extending in the direction taken by the dirt roadway. The field where I lay was at the edge of a valley. On the far margin were mountains rising to bare peaks one after the other, like the backs of oxen. These became the merest crouching shadows in the dark. It was soon bitterly cold again. This time I lacked the energy to continue crawling and hopping through the night and lay on my fragrant but knotty couch, dozing fitfully, all through the hours of darkness. Once or twice I saw the headlights of cars about four kilometres away, on the other side of the valley and at a slightly higher level, but with the intervening ridges it would probably have taken a two hour walk to reach the road: and the whole point was I couldn’t walk. After some hours I noticed a curious white light in a clump of trees about three hundred metres away. It was curious because it had a much whiter radiance than ordinary house lights and somehow suggested some sort of pre-war industrial lighting. I had not noticed any normal domestic lights in that direction earlier in the night. I would have to wait till daybreak before investigating in any case, as it would involve making a bee-line across broken terrain, away from the comparatively easy going of the dirt track. After a while however I realized that it was only the moon rising. This, incidentally, gives an idea of the contrast between my predicament at that moment and my customary style of life. I had gazed at the moon yearningly or speculatively hundreds of times in the past but only during the hours directly following the setting of the sun. I knew in theory that the moon sometimes rose later in the night but I had never seen this happen. I don’t know why I hadn’t observed it the previous night.
The first occurrence was that, dragging myself round a bend, I saw a Fiat van parked further along the dirt track. On the far side of the track was a wooded descent, with a wooded ascent resuming right alongside the van: just a wooded hillside with a track running along its flank, and a van tidily parked on the track. I thought perhaps the driver was collecting mushrooms or looking for strayed goats. I shouted, but my voice seemed even more inadequate in the immense landscape than it had two days earlier. I dragged myself up to the van and found that it was rusting, the interior stripped. It had probably stood there for two or three years. I felt too lethargic to be disappointed: it proved at least that people occasionally came here.
The second occurrence was towards evening, when the road passed near a fair-sized mountain torrent just where it issued from a kind of miniature gorge. I crawled down to the water, on the principle that the larger the quantity of running water, the greater the likelihood of human settlement. Dragging myself along the bed of a stream was of course no more uncomfortable than dragging myself along a track, merely wetter. The gorge was small but spectacularly picturesque, with crags and tufts of vegetation arranged with almost Chinese elegance. I christened it the Caverns Measureless to Man, which indicates that as yet my mental activity had not completely ceased, though perhaps already moving in unwonted directions: of course the gorge was not really a cavern, and not so very big, but it had an authentically Kublai Khan-like atmosphere. And as I was slithering across the wet rocks of the torrent I heard voices.
I called out. There were three men a little further down the stream but when I shouted they promptly moved away and I had only the merest glimpse of them through the undergrowth. A minute later I saw a car moving off amongst the trees. I struggled on, and reached the junction of two quite broad though still unmetalled dirt roads. The tracks were scored out of a grey, almost cement-like sandstone, with short tough grass growing in streaks down the middle. A fair amount of rubbish was strewn along the verges: the Italian conception of a rural beauty spot is as a place where one goes to tip one’s domestic trash. I was lying beside the road, feeling by now very much like the unfortunate traveller in the story of the Good Samaritan, when the men I had seen came by in their car. There were actually four of them, dressed in expensive casual gear, evidently from the city of Naples or Salerno, They had probably been fishing, though their appearance in the middle of nowhere at 6 p.m. on a working day may have betokened something more nefarious than merely poaching trout. The car passed me quite slowly and when I called for help the passenger next to the driver shouted back through the open window Aspett – wait. I waited, not being able to do much else, but they did not reappear.
I passed the third night on an uncomfortable bed of uprooted weeds, wrapped in dirty polythene sheeting. It was not much warmer than the previous nights. Before composing myself for sleep I wrote a good-bye note to my girl. Apart from the obvious reflection that I would have preferred to have been curled up in bed with her, I had not given her a lot of thought, but the last thing I could do for her now was to tell her that at least I had been thinking about her at the end.
In the morning, as I was hopping forward with the last of my rotten sticks, a peasant in a battered pale-blue Fiat passed me going in the direction of the Caverns Measureless to Man. I waved, and just after he passed me he slowed down and looked back, as if wondering whether I wanted a lift. He evidently decided I was heading in the opposite direction – of course he could not see that I was injured – because a moment later he accelerated and disappeared round a bend. It occurred to me that one of the dirt roads that joined up just after the Caverns probably led to a short-cut across the mountains.
On that day I made only about five hundred metres’ progress. I had to rest much more frequently, and for longer periods. I passed an abandoned farm, and shortly afterwards encountered half a dozen cows grazing in the roadway. Again I had a moment of enervated hope: there would be a cow-herd. But there wasn’t. The presence of the cows merely indicated that this was the kind of place people did not usually come to: otherwise it would have been unsafe to leave the cows unattended.
It crossed my mind that I could refresh myself by drinking directly from the largest cow’s udders, but I knew nothing about milking cows, and thought that, even if I managed to manoeuvre myself under the beast, I would only manage to get shat on, and trodden on, and perhaps break a few more bones.
The dirt road ran parallel to, and about four metres from, a quite considerable river, about as broad as the Thames at Oxford but much faster, and with dense thickets growing down to the banks on either side. I think it must have been the Tusciano, and the streams I had drunk from previously must have flowed into it, for it had the same insipid taste. There was a constant swish and rumble from the river that made me think there was traffic passing only a little way ahead, but however much I strained my ears I could hear no sound of car horns or voices and I knew that if there was a road ahead it would be another two or three kilometres further on: and I was now simply too weak to drag myself that far.
I still felt well: simply incapable of effort. All the heroic narratives I had read of wounded soldiers dragging themselves along for days, in spite of gaping wounds and inconceivable pain, failed to inspire me with their example. Clearly I lacked the resilience and sheer animal will of the more memorable wounded heroes. Perhaps I didn’t care enough about staying alive. Not life, not death, but the several days, probably disagreeable, that must elapse in my passage from one to the other, were the only subject of my foreboding. Having seen two cars already I thought I was as likely to be found where I was as two hundred metres further up the track, and I resolved to make myself comfortable, and at least be warm at night while I waited for rescue or release. A particularly lush roadside crop of cardboard and polythene bags suggested a good place to stop. I found an empty lemonade bottle. The river was close to the road but about a metre lower down and in my weakness I found this few feet of boulders and tree roots awkward to negotiate. One last effort would enable me at least to fill the bottle to supply me for some hours longer. I was rinsing this bottle, my feet up at road level, my face almost in the river, when a red pick-up truck passed me, heading in the direction of the Caverns Measureless to Man. The driver of course could not see me.
I noticed that the pick-up truck was loaded with bricks and rubble. It was probably the local builder on a fly-tipping expedition. I crawled back up to the road to wait for his return.
At about mid-day on 7 June the red pick-up came back down the dirt track.
And here I am.
At the publishers’ party
she was a smiley blonde who knew his name
from an article in The New Nerd
On the bus back to his abode
she was a tiddly giggler
amused by elbow-jabs and alliteration
In his living room
she was a silhouette with taut tum
tilted in tight trews tut-tutting to his bookshelf
In his bed room
she was a pump-up rubber doll with shoulders smelling of bath gel
and a gerbil smelling of wee
In the shower next morning
she was two pink points pouting at his solar plexus
pronouncing and announcing: –
I’ve just (splash) finished with my boyfriend
and don’t want to you know start (splash) straightaway
organizing my you know life around (splash) another
At the front door
she was a blonde back of a head with bangs
running away from saliva on a coffee cup
and sweat on the outside of three concertina’d condoms
beside the sheet-strewn altar where they had unmade love.
Numb Night in N16
Still seriously mind-warped he took a short-cut between the allotments and the backs of the neighbours’ houses, along a narrow lane between back-yard gates and iron railings. He was just level with the Turkish Working Men’s Caff’s back windows – they were his next door neighbours – when a man stepped out in front of him, not as tall as he was, wiry-looking, dressed in denims and a red woolly ski hat, holding a knife in an awkward way that might denote esoteric expertise.
‘Gimme your money, your wallet.’
‘Just a friendly
boarded caps who had suddenly appeared three places forward from where the ring
side seats should have been. He stood up, dusting his trousers. ‘Just coming home from a stroll with the lady. A small spat became a pushing game. One of those, you know, wrestling matches.’
The girl was supposed to look as if she had an intense dislike of being interrupted by the police while, you know, wrestling. Instead she looked as if she had at intense dislike of men who thought it funny to discover that what they were squeezing was, you know, her left tit. Fortunately the two looks were very similar.
‘Well, that’s warmed me up,’ she murmured in a choked voice, pulling off her woolly hat, releasing hair to her shoulders. ‘It’s cold isn’t it? Can we .....?’
‘Any means of identification?’
‘Live near here?’
This house here. The front door is just round the corner.’
‘No, sir, that’ll be fine,’ said policeman Number One – or was he Number One Million and One? He was surrounded by a penumbra of sounds from other policemen jabbering at him over the radio, like speeded up walkmen, apparently a different voice in each ear-phone. A car alarm went off in the next street: he didn’t even flinch.
then.’ he said, stepping aside to allow
‘Good night, sir.’
the girl called unnecessarily from the door mat, in a voice inflected too high.
Even if she wasn’t called
He closed the front door on the two chequered caps.
‘I live upstairs,’ he said quietly. ‘You’d better go up.’
She followed her up to the top of the house, to a front room with a leafy patterned three-piece suite which clashed with the fitted carpet, and a view over the park and the main road north from Islington. He switched on the light.
As he had
suspected, she was beautiful. No, that was the dope talking, but she was
definitely a lot better-looking than the usual run of people who assaulted him.
One of those well-scrubbed, well-chiselled choir-boy faces, good skin, sweet
sulky mouth, nose like
‘I guess the pigs’ll hang around for twenty minutes or so, lurking, listening to their radio’s. Changing a suppository perhaps.’ He was really zonked: once the immediate crisis was past the adrenalin had gone phut and he was completely brain
‘Oh, shit.’ she said. ‘Look, can I stay?’
‘There’s the sofa, shortie. I’ll give you a couple of blankets. And a pillow. Sorry it smells. There’s sheets if you want them.’
‘You got any food?’
‘Yoghurt, chocolate. Bread. Orange juice. You can’t cook.’
I already know I can’t. Hey. Show me.’
He showed her what was in the fridge.
‘Take it,’ he said. ‘I’m crashing out.’
He got back to his bed-room and fell on his bed. After two hours or so he woke up, half-way human, needing a pee.
Someone was in his kitchen.
Oh, it was the girl.
‘I wanted another yoghurt,’ she said. She had taken her clothes off except for a tee-shirt, and she noticed him looking at her bare legs. ‘Got any dope?’
‘Why do you think? To roll a joint with. To roll the smoothest and best-joined joint you –‘
‘No.’ The fly had stopped circling her head and was now whizzing around inside his skull, crashing into things. ‘No,’ he said again.
‘Look, I’m sorry I tried to mug you. And I’ve eaten all your caramel eggs, and this is your last yoghurt. All the same I thought, you know, a joint to round it off would make it perfect.’
He weakened. Probably something to do with the fading mark of a love-bite low down on the side of her throat.
He gave her his stash, large-size papers, one of those cards mini-cab
services keep thrusting through your letter-box, and watched her roll the spliff. She was right, it was smooth and tapering and
elegant, like her fingers, like her wrists and fore-arms, Her
thighs were tapering and elegant too but instead of being smooth had a delicate
silvery fuzz that said, ‘Don’t stroke me unless you’re
‘Tell you what,’ she said, ‘We’ll smoke it in your bed so you won’t keep looking at my legs.’
They smoked it in his bed, passing it back and forth, making cocktail party conversation about his being a university teacher, and taking it in turns to brush ash off each other’s front. The spliff seemed to spend more time going from hand to hand than being toked. When he finally stubbed it out they continued moving in ballet
like unison, nose to nose – he was so stoned he managed to bump his head against hers – mouth to mouth – he hadn’t realised he was such an expert kisser – right hand to left whatsit – amazing how co-ordinated he was, considering – duvet to floor – knees to waist –
‘I suppose those policemen think we’re doing this anyway,’ she said.
‘Oink! Oink!’ said the bed-springs.
ate half a box of jellied fruit and told him her name wasn’t
‘And I’ m
‘How do you do?’
They shook hands.
After that they
were having it off again and
‘Your what?’ he said slowing down.
‘My knife, I left it in the lane, back of the house. Someone will – Shit. Oh, go on, there’s no need to stop.’
But when, twenty oinks from the bed-springs later, he rolled off her, she said as if on cue: ‘My knife, you wouldn’t go and look for it would you?’
‘Why me? Why not you? It’s your knife.’
‘I’m so, you know, comfy and warm here.’
‘So am I.’
‘My leg’s gone to sleep from having all your weight on it just now.’
‘If I go down, do you promise to show yourself to me at the window?’
‘O.K. But really and truly, I’m worried someone’s found my knife.’
He struggled back into his clothes and went downstairs, head reeling. His dick didn’t fit in his underpants any more.
He searched around in the lane at the back of the house. The knife was lying in deep shadow against the step of one of the back
yard gates. A lock knife, imitation bone handle, but handsome and strongly made. He turned to locate his bed-room window. She wasn’t there yet, the bitch. He needed another pee. Something to do while he waited. He undid his zip, fumbled tender meat, and let zeeeee. Oh, good, his curtain was twitching, being drawn aside, and there she was, thirty yards distant, framed in his window, the light behind her. After a moment she turned sideways on so the light fell on her tits.
She wouldn’t be
able to see him where he stood in darkness but he waved his knife at the
window, still peeing. This was it, dick to hand, the woman you had just shagged
flashing at you from your own bed-room window. This was what they called
pissing towards paradise. There was a sudden golden light – wow, it was more
like doing acid than being on dope, perhaps she had
managed: to slip him something. He chortled out loud, scarcely even hearing the
policeman with the flashlight saying, ‘Oh, it’s only
She’d stayed in with migraine, she said, all day:
Instead of her tomboyish dungarees
She was wearing a
Which, vampishly vee-fronted to the knees,
Showed him her sternum and the inside angles
Of untanned boobs which she essayed to hide
With a perfunctory flick of elbow and bangles,
Trying also to shove her cat aside
From the water, a necessary part
Of her fixer’s ‘works’, like the college tie,
Sole relic of life with her previous guy,
And now a tourniquet about his heart,
Knotted around the arm, tram-lined and bangled
From which the blood-suffused syringe still dangled.
The Girl Who Danced
She was, as far as was humanly possible, the companion he had dreamed of having as a student, when the idea of living his life as a full-time author had first taken on contour and detail in his fantasies. She read every book he suggested, and if he temporarily ran out of suggestions she picked out for herself books he might have recommended but had not yet got round to mentioning, including those he had written himself. She also seemed to remember every incident in every book she read, though increasingly her remarks about them struck him as not fey but insipid. When he had first known her, in the days of her £300 a week heroin habit, she had used to say, ‘One day I’m going to write it all down, what it’s really like, what it really feels like, to be a heroin addict’, but since she had come off she never referred to her addiction – except one evening when, apropos of nothing in particular, but with a deliberately significant glance at him, she remarked, ‘Something’s missing’ – and she made no sign of embarking on a considered autobiographical project. Perhaps this was just as well. Sometimes she would sit in the field that ran down to the willow-lined stream behind the cottage, sketching the trees and the cloud castles of late summer cirro-cumulus with the slightly constrained air of one resuming a duty – she had returned to her ballet exercises in apparently the same spirit – but when the lengthening of the shadows brought her back indoors, honey-limbed, fine hair bleached white on forearms and temples, the squiggles on the paper she carried looked as crude as a six year-olds drawing of a garden.
He wondered about making her write something on the subject of her wholesome, hopeful, hockey-playing, hanging-hamburger-bars, hand-patting pre-heroin, pre-hypodermic teens (the Chelmsford version of American Graffiti), on the theory it was not the dramatic externals but the evocation of subjective states that made literature: but in the end he decided that her literary aspirations belonged largely to the phase of their relationship when she was still saying things merely to impress him.
Punctually at twelve noon and, when he also did an afternoon writing stint, no less punctually at four, she would sashay into his room – sometimes do a cartwheel from door to table – swoop to the left into an open-eyed kiss of varying daily wetness, swoop to the right to prop herself against the back of the authorial chair, and let him read bits of his latest chapter to her while the wood pigeons crooned unevenly beyond the French windows.
‘You’re my muse’, he would tell her, whereat she would pull a face: and she indignantly repudiated his suggestion that she should present herself each noon wearing only a carnation. Once, to tease her, he accused her of only being interested in him for his books. ‘That’s not true at all!’ she responded, with even more of a ringing note than usual in her always clear emphatic voice, and gave the back of his chair a vigorous push that almost tipped him out of it. But he kept remembering the evening, still less than a year previously, when he had called at the squat in Tufnell Park where she had then been living and had found her in the middle of fixing. The syringe sticking wince-makingly out of her forearm and the man’s neck tie which she had knotted above her elbow as a tourniquet had by then become familiar, and what had disturbed him most was the cosy way she was fending off her two pet kittens from the tumbler of water she needed for the syringe, comfortably domestic and relaxed, while the syringe dangled from her tram-lined arm. She looked as if she was posing for a Bennetton advert illustrating how completely unhygienic it was possible for a lifestyle to be. Adding to the effect was the bizarrely out-of-character nightie she was wearing – the kind of nightie a 1950s-vintage travelling salesman might give as a bribe to a barmaid – lace-fringed and with a neck-line that plunged to her navel and showed the inside angles of her unsupported breasts. In the unshaded electric light of her basement her cleavage looked porous and sallow and distinctly saggy, so that physically as well as morally there was an aura about her of dissolution, of human personality in an advanced stage of disingregation, and he had suddenly thought: ‘I can’t go on, she’s not worth it, I don’t particularly even fancy her.’
But he had gone
on. She had been his tragic princess: he had been
He had gone on, he had defeated the dragon (or vampire – the Dracula analogy fitted in better with the rows of punctures marks and the syringes filling with her blood), he had won his princess as prize: and now he found himself regretting those early days, when she had been interested in him chiefly as a source of money for her dealer, and had treated him with an abrading mixture of bribed encouragement and resistance (‘Stop looking at my legs like that,’ she would say: ‘I’m not bits, I’m me,’ leaving him wondering how to explain to her that just because he was fighting to save her life and soul, it shouldn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to like looking at her).
He was reflecting on this one evening while they were sitting together reading. It had been a windy, restless day (the Equinox, he had informed her – to which she had responded ironically, ‘You always know how old everything is’, and whenever he had looked out of the window during the hour before sunset he had been oppressed by the sense of unseen people struggling to materialize amongst the waving trees; now, with the moon obscured by racing clouds, their presence seemed stronger and more insistent as the gusts of wind ebbed and waxed overhead amongst the chimney stacks. She was sitting sideways in an armchair across the room from him, knees up to her shoulder, one of his own books spread open against her slanted legs, and partly hidden from him by a curtain of flaxen hair as she bent over his words. She was still as physically graceful as she had always been though without the poignant contrast of the astonishing clumsiness she had sometimes used to exhibit with cups of coffee directly after a fix – but the physical novelty of her had been rubbed away by a spring and summer of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. love making. All that was really left, he realized, was a smiley blonde with a ballet dancer’s skinny ribs, 3-D tits, and a habit of assuming she was extra-special that was so ingrained that she had had to grab at heroin as an alibi when she began to realize that being wonderful at everything was not as easy as she had expected.
She noticed his eyes on her and looked up from her book with a familiar round
eyed, intent, questioning expression – almost exactly the same expression, he told himself resentfully, that she had always had when, before a fix, she had gone through her routine of energetically windmilling her tourniqueted arm to bring up the veins.
‘I don’t think I have ever felt so happy,’ she said.
Just like that.
‘You’ve never said anything like that before.’
Outside, amongst the tossing and creaking trees by their front gate, an owl hooted.
‘I kind of thought I might have been showing it,’ she said, with a tone and look that combined reproach and a kind of smugness.
Next day, when she came to his work room at twelve noon, she presented him with a short story she had written: seven pages in her very legible, semi-italic handwriting.
It was about a
occasion Natasha noticed an over-dressed woman of the BMW class throw a coin at
the feet of a beggar, in a manner that proclaimed, ‘Considering how much I pay
in taxes and rates to keep the streets clean, I shouldn’t really need to give
anything to charity, yet here I am, tender-hearted me, feeding the five
thousand.’ On the crowded bus home
Such little incidents built up in her, and when she got home she would often throw off all her clothes, start her favourite music on the player, raise her arms like a just watered flower, and simply dance: dance and dance to herself, round and round, from one corner of the room to the other, letting the music flow all over her, sucking in the notes and letting them flow all through her and carry her away until she dropped breathless and exhausted on her bed, with all the bad memories of the day, all the hurt she had felt purged away, cleansed, drawn out of her and dispersed in the air along with the fading notes of melody.
Natasha would walk in the wood at the end of the street, for she also found
comfort amongst the trees, one or two in particular that reminded her of the
beeches that had been in her garden as a child: she could lean against them and
found herself drawing strength and calmness from knowing they had experienced
more than one generation. One afternoon there was a man walking amongst the
trees, and they struck up a conversation. Afterwards
That evening, when she was once more alone in her room, and had switched on her favourite music, she discovered she was no longer able to dance to herself.
That was the story he read.
The only word for it was embarrassing. One wouldn’t have believed that it was written by someone who, a year ago, had more or less admitted to having been a hooker for the previous eighteen months, who had gone in the Pill for Chelmsford’s leading jazz pianist when she was sixteen, ‘in fact as soon as it was legal’, had been ‘practically raped’ by his best friend at her seventeenth birthday party, and had left home at eighteen to become a go-go dancer, before moving on via topless bars to the kind of night club where the hostesses cost less than the champagne. ‘I had to go back with this German guy,’ she had explained, having turned up two hours late for a breakfast date. That had been how he had found out. She had pretended to be surprised he hadn’t already guessed: she had already told him she had a £300 a week habit. ‘I couldn’t have done it without the heroin’ she explained. ‘Though of course if it hadn’t been for the heroin I wouldn’t have needed to.’ And now she had written a story that could have been by a bewildered but idealistic third-former.
It would have been too obvious, especially after all the times he had lectured her on the problematic relationship of authors and their characters, to have asked if she was Natasha, or if she had ever made a habit of dancing round her bed without her clothes on. And there was not much point in asking if she liked the idea of being secretly watched while dancing in the nude – she wouldn’t even let him in the shower with her unless he promised not to rubberneck.
That evening he asked her:
‘At the end of our story, the reason she can’t dance any more, is it that she feels disgusted to learn that the man she had liked so much has all the time been spying on her in her most private moments or is it – because you make her out to be sensitive and perhaps even too quick to see the ugly side of things, but you don’t show her being at all angry with the man – is it that she suddenly sees that she’s been dancing for him without realizing it, dancing not just to clean her mind but dancing to send a message to someone like him, and now she knows the message has got across?’
She thought about this briefly.
‘Both’, she said.
But he didn’t believe she knew. Yet the sheer ham-handedness of her story gave it something that his own writing had always seemed to lack: not just the awkwardness of sincerity but the knack of projecting the pulse and rawness of experiences lived, and feelings felt, before one even knew one could describe and give names to them. The feelings he was no longer sure he had ever had.
He looked across at her. She was once more deep in her book, evidently happy enough to wait till she was ready to discuss her story, or perhaps content not to discuss it at all. Her little-girl way of sitting sideways in the armchair, flaxen hair falling obliquely across her face almost to the tip of her nose, was one of his favourite, one of the ways he used to think he would always want to remember her, along with memories of her pirouetting on borrowed roller skates in the middle of the Great Court of Somerset House and spreadeagled naked on his bed (a few hours after the pirouette) looking up at him with an expression half way between depreciation and delight, eyes slitted with amazement or amusement, or perhaps apprehension. He had used to wonder, almost obsessively, if the men from the clubs had seen the same expression when in hotel bed after hotel bed they had climbed on top of her – she claimed she remembered nothing but closing her eyes – ‘why would I want to look at them?’ – and he had a sudden vision of the pages of her too legible manuscript, now minus paper clip, spread across her upper body, tilted this way and that by the splay of her breasts and the jut of her rib cage, and creased and crumpled by a man’s thicker body pressing against hers.
‘I love you’, he said, kneeling down beside her chair. He felt nothing inside: nothing beyond the sense of being separated from her by an immense river, a river as wide as the Amazon, with him on the wrong side. He started unbuttoning her blouse. Outside, from the sycamore beside the lawn, the owl was hooting again.
Speeches That Spilt Sperm
Most first times aren't as wordless as in chess
Where once you've seen the other's move you know.
‘Let's make love,’ you murmur, or, ‘Let's undress
And do it properly,’ or, ‘I must go
To the loo first,’ or (first time with fifth girl
Fucked), ‘This is childish,’ as she elbowed free
And hurdled to the window hair awhirl
To pull the curtains lest the neighbours see:
Even the classic, ‘Maybe I'll just slip
Into something more comfy,’ or newspeak
Pill-checks like, ‘Are you safe?’ or would-be flip
Demurrals like, ‘God, not again this week,’
Followed by, as you clutch another crutch
A breathless, ‘Do you always talk so much?’
Graduate Sex In The Early Seventies
years before Polly Morris, reviewing one of my books in Journal of the History
of Sexuality, ticked me off for appearing to believe that women's nipples were
‘normally sepia’, I discovered how Jackie M., a natural blonde with hair dyed
chestnut, had perfectly pink nipples that took on a beige tinge in the cold of
my bed-room at 40 Histon Road, Cambridge. Yet one was
very ignorant in those days.
My next girl, 337 miles away in Edinburgh – the first girl I ever went to bed with to have a tattered childhood teddy on her pillow and, though the third to hold my penis, the first actually to put it in her mouth – wouldn't let me have even a peep at her vagina, and said she had never tried to look at it herself, not even with a mirror: yet she was a conspicuously responsive sexual partner, gasping as I entered her – which I subsequently assured myself was a pretty reliable indicator of more than average randiness – and thereafter generally silent but intent, with a trick I found both piquant and endearing of humping back a half-beat after each of my thrusts, as if trying to snatch me back as I withdrew. Occasionally she would urge me, in her convent-girl's voice, ‘Tell me when you come, I want you to come all over me.’ She even gave me a love bite on the side of my throat. She was also the first girl – woman – to hook her feet round my spread legs, her ankles across my calves, in the supposedly classical beast-with-two-backs position, which turned out in practice to be less serviceable than it looked in pictures one had seen.
The next girl I
spent the night with, in
wiry blonde Italian swimming enthusiast named
It wasn't just my
ignorance. A girl I was friendly with but never got beyond holding hands with,
who had had two long-term boyfriends, was astonished to learn that men couldn't
simply have erections when and as often as they wanted, but ran out for the
night after three, four or, exceptionally, five squirts. A
St Hilda's girl with whom I failed to get an erection even
before the first squirt commented, ‘The whore of
In those days it was too early in one's career to work out the relationship between normal outward behaviour and being what was called ‘good in bed,’ or the possible significance of some girls keeping their eyes closed in sex while others stared up at one from the pillow, or the distinction between girls who took on sex, with some display of mixed feelings, as part of their teen-and-twenties exploration of life, those who were looking for love, and those who simply happened to be randy, like the girl in Edinburgh, who had all sorts of distinctions between ‘affaires’ and ‘love affairs’, told me, ‘You can make sex to me, you can't make love to me,’ and when I asked (in mid-copulation) if she didn't at least like me responded, ‘No, I don't like you, that's why this is so good.’ (She was a Catholic, kept on referring to herself as being in ‘mortal sin’ and claimed, ‘I only sleep with people because I don't have faith in life,’ but at other times she was quite alarming in her enthusiasm, telling me that I had a big penis and that it made her like me more. ‘That's awful,’ I said. ‘No, it isn't, if you had some good feature people would like you for it ..... well, perhaps it is awful.’ She even admitted that she was always especially randy directly after her period, though an additional factor in taking me into her bed may have been relief at discovering she had not got pregnant as a result of having sex while ovulating two weeks previously.)
Swedish Pick-Up in the National Gallery
Visitor from a superior planet
Inspecting the sick feverish natives
Feeling polite distaste
As they reach out for your body
With gestures sneakily commenced
Then freeze-framed before your gaze
Like Tarquin’s thigh-separating knee
Or Bronzino’s Cupid’s fiddling fingers
Not quite nice to think
That underneath their strangeness and fear
They too have tenderness
And penises shaped to fit your womb
'Where is the
bitch?' the photographer asked the group of technicians and studio assistants
who were waiting for
was a short-arse – the way his trousers bagged below the knee made it seem as
if the bottom six inches of his legs had been sawn off –.and tended to throw
his weight around to compensate for his lack of height. Nobody seemed in a
hurry to answer him.
'I'll phone her apartment,' he said.
But instead of
phoning he hurried down to the street, where his ZYX was parked.
She let him into the apartment. It had the feel about it of being someone else's home, borrowed for a hurried weekend.
'Of course I
didn't forget the bloody photo session,' she said. She was wearing a
dressing-gown which she held together at the throat, and he could see that she
had been crying. 'It's just that – I was just about to take a shower when
boyfriend. 'Just like that. No explanation. No –'
She gulped, and wiped her eyes, allowing the front of her dressing-gown to fall
'Roz.' he said.
She did not answer. He sat cautiously on the edge of her bed and began to stroke her upper arm. After a few moments she stopped crying and rolled over on to her back. She lay there, staring up at him. In the filtered light coming through the window
blinds her face was the colour of jade.
'Why?' she asked.
Her dark-fringed eyes, flecked like marmalade, were brimming with tears. He leaned forward self-consciously to kiss them away. She permitted this, even draped her long arms round his neck. The next thing he knew was that she had her tongue round his teeth and was pulling him down on top of her. She no longer seemed concerned with holding together the front of her dressing-gown and under it she had on only her panties. He could hardly believe this was really happening.
'I don't want to take advantage,' he said, after they had wrestled Cyclops-eyed, mouth to mouth, for a couple of minutes.
'What's this then?' Roz asked fondly, tweaking the increasingly prominent hardness at the front of his slacks. 'It's because of me, isn't it? Isn't it?'
'It hasn't gone like that deliberately,' he protested helplessly.
'I mean I'm fantastically attractive, aren't I?'
'I – yes – I –' Especially with her dressing-gown hanging open like that. 'I mean –'
'Quick, take it out so I can look.'
His erection was now so enormous that, in spite of his embarrassment, it was a relief (though by no means easy) to unzip his fly.
Easier said than done. His swollen tool simply refused to be packed back inside his X-fronts. Roz laughed.
'Here, let me help you,' she said. She put her hand around it, squeezing deliciously, and suddenly they were kissing tongue to tongue again. But this time she didn't have her arms around his neck because her hands were reaching down to her hips, shovelling down her panties.
She made a sharp intake of breath as he slotted into her. At first only the mouth of her vagina seemed wet – a dryness and tightness higher up impeded him for a moment, then ripened and melted, letting him in all the way. The bed creaked and the mattress seemed to whisper hoarsely as their bodies adjusted to each other's rhythm. From outside came the baritone rattle of freight cars passing a block away: after they had gone all he could hear was the bed and Roz going nnnnh nnnnnh.
He could hardly believe this was really happening. Her eyes were closed in a frown of concentration – there were still tears on her lashes – and the noises she was making seemed too relate to something she was doing to herself rather than what he was doing to her, but her hot flesh seemed to rise and curve and fill his hands plumply wherever he grabbed her, and when he tugged at her dressing-gown she shucked it off with a single practised movement, interrupting her self-addressed sex noises to remark, with her ordinary suburban intonation, 'God, I know you always were waiting for a chance to see me in my birthday suit.' And she glanced down at herself with a mixture of complacency and nervousness, as if checking that each one of her long perfectly sculpted limbs was in place. 'I can hardly believe this is really happening,' he told her. 'You dope,' she said, and then it was back to nnnnnh nnnnnnh and a series of aaaaahs! and a long period of silence which he couldn't quite figure out (silence that is except for the squeaking of the bed and the snoring noise made by the mattress as their bouncing alternately compressed and released it, and the minuscule but definitely detectable schlup schlup from between her arching thighs as his penis, hugely erect and in 3-D, pistoned in-out, in-out.) Another series of aaaaahs! followed by a breathless descendo oh ahah a couple of times, and finally a staccato cry like a tape recording of a laugh played backwards and that was it, he had given Roz Zimmer the big O: an orgasm perhaps big enough (he thought for one delirious moment) to send shock waves all the way to Alpha Centauri.
'Was it all right?' he asked.
He wanted her to say, 'You're quite a stud,' or something like that, but she merely raised two eyebrows and remarked, 'Typical man, wanting to analyse it afterwards. It's just something I do, you know.' She stretched ostentatiously and reached down as if searching for something. 'I haven't shaved my legs this week,' she confided.
'I like you with fuzzy legs,' he said.
Actually he wasn't sure if that was true. She had the most marvellous legs to look at but now that he had got his hands on them he found the muscles too large and coarse and slack for his taste. He preferred the sleeker, tighter muscling of her upper arms, even though they had that female thing of seeming stuck on to her body not quite correctly. He made her crook her elbow and make a fist so that he could feel her bicep.
'Like a little boy's,' he said.
'God, I hope you're not a queer,' she said, extricating herself and reaching across his shoulder to check her bed-side alarm clock.
there's no point in going to the studio,' she said. 'Everyone will have gone
off home by now. My agent's going to be furious when he finds out I was here in
bed screwing someone instead of being photographed. Not that I'll tell him what
I was doing of course.' She poked
'Of course I won't,' he protested.
Roz wasn't even listening.
'If you do, I'll
never speak to you again. Ever,' she said, staring at him with eyes the colour
of dawn. It was the last thing that would have occurred to
Was that it? he thought in panic – wham, bang, kapowee, and I'll never speak to you again, ever, if you tell anyone? 'No, hang on,' he said, and tried to kiss her, throwing his legs across hers so that she couldn't leave the bed.
'You're really randy, aren't you,' she said with a smirk, and allowed him to nuzzle the curve of her cheek – the corner of her mouth – the rim of her ear – the side of her throat – her –
Her legs opened under his. She gave him a quick appreciative squeeze with her left hand to test his erection : a moment later there came that sharp intake of breath he remembered from the first time.
'I like it slow to begin with,' she said in her normal speaking voice, trying if anything to sound extra-casual, as if she didn't want him to think she hadn't yet figured out the correct male and female roles in sexual intercourse. 'Not too deep, but getting faster and deeper. That's right ..... faster and deeper ..... That's good ..... Nnnnnh nnnnnnh
complicated his growing urgency to make love to her as she had never been made
love to before. He knew that what was happening – actually he still couldn't
quite believe it was happening – was the fluke result of catching her
alone at a vulnerable moment, but he wanted to convince himself she would let
it happen again – and again and again – on a regular basis, and the only way to
do that was, now that he had the chance, to give her a fuck she would note down
in her little green book as scoring five stars more than the previous record.
He tried to project the full force of his love at her, willing her to feel
their togetherness, at the same time trying, thrust after thrust, to shove as
far as he could up into belly in order to reach – emotionally if not literally
and anatomically – her heart, and thereby obtain a real response from her, a
task he visualized as something like one of those fairground sideshows where
one has to bang a peg hard enough to make a bell ring. For a moment the way she
humped back at him, not in time to meet his own thrusts, but a half-stroke
later, as if to catch him off-balance as he pulled back, seemed especially
intimate, as if in half-ironic response to his own urgency, but then a new fear
hit him, that she was barely aware of him as Don Cormic
who had been in love with her ever since the holograph festival, that she
always humped back desynchronously like that, whoever
she was with. That was why she had her eyes shut – not because kissing with
one's eyes closed was a sign of true love, as one pretended when one was
thirteen, simply that she didn't need, or want to, look at him. When he kissed
her she sucked back at him with an aggressiveness that said only that his mouth
Her nnnnnh nnnnnnhs became aaaah aaaahs, building up to a climax like the soundtrack to the removal of a particularly recalcitrant back molar. Then she was there, they were both there. Together.
Then apart. Plop.
They lay side by
side for about as long as it takes to count one hundred in a game of
'You know,' Roz said, 'For a moment it felt exactly as if you were giving me a love bite.'
She sat up and found a titanium-mounted hand-mirror.
‘Gaard! Don't touch me! –' She burst suddenly into a flood of tears, throwing herself face down on her pillow, her slender shoulders heaving.
Gingerly he turned her over, began kissing the tears from her eyes and cheeks, till he noticed how each kiss caused her to give a little quiver, and her sobs to become more like a catching of breath, and lower down, her knees to spread and rise.
‘I'll have to keep away from the studio for weeks,' she said, suddenly all arms and legs, and all of them reaching, out for him.
Outside it was a lovely day. The windows of Roz's bed-room, tinted against Alpha Centauri's harmful omicron rays, emphasized the mauve of the clouds and the orange of the sky.
'Come on, you bastard,' said Roz, hooking all four legs round his.
He wished this wasn't really happening. He wished he was on another planet.
Just One Drop
Inside your heart your feelings cower
Like a trick-shop paper flower
Wadded together under power
Into a pill, small square and dour
Till a raindrop from a shower
Makes it unfold, and in an hour
Expand into a leafy tower —
But in your case all one needs do
Is find some bloke to piss on you.
From the Archives of Gaia Nova
If it wasn’t genuine it was the most accomplished forgery Z54FF6 CLINT had seen in all his two decades as an archivist. The document consisted of five sheets of paper or paper substitute bearing the dates, successively, December 31. 1799, December 31st 1899, 31 Dec. 1999, 31-12-2099 and 31-12-199. The paper/paper substitute, though wonderfully preserved, seemed genuinely of the vintages attributed to it — respectively late eighteenth, late nineteenth, late twentieth, late twenty-first and late twenty-second century. The hand-writing on each sheet had a curious family resemblance — on the paper dated December 31.1799 the double ss’s were written ſs and the double ll’s had the second l shorter than the first, otherwise the script was similar to that on the next two sheets; the fourth and fifth pages in the series were written in the squarish, simplified block capitals that had been adopted once writing by hand had come to be taught only for use in unforeseen contingencies, but retained an indefinable likeness to the older writing in the anglings of the junctions of vertical and horizontal lines.
political convulsions of the last ten years, the overthrow of the power of the House
of Austria in the Italian Peninsula and in Flanders, of Dutch sovereign
independence, of Polish nationhood, and above all of the family that has ruled
France for eight centuries, has caused some to talk of the imminent second
coming of the Messiah, others to speak of continent-wide conspiracy of
Freemasons, yet others of the subversion of morality or the triumph of a new
communal order. To me, who recall the tar-daubed heads of executed Scots
insurgents displayed on spikes at either end of London Bridge after the risings
in favour of the Chevalier de Saint George, and was at the Arsenal to greet Gustave III the morning he promulgated the restoration of
monarchical authority in Sweden, the course of recent events seems perfectly
familiar: almost tediously so from the universally mistaken insistence that any
of it is novel. Previous centuries have seen the trial and judicial murder of
consecrated kings, the dictatorial rule of fortunate but self-deluded generals,
the machinations of international loan speculators, the exile or proscription
of entire social classes, and the arrogant misapplication of lessons
purportedly learnt from Greek and Roman history. My grandfather has told me how
he saw Charles I step out on to the scaffold in Whitehall and I myself, on my
last visit to Paris, saw Louis Capet, formerly known
as Sa Majesté Très Chrétienne Louis XVI, kneeling at the guillotine, not far
from where, thirty-six years earlier, I had watched Damiens
being slowly torn asunder by four terrified horses. The one or two turns of
public affairs for which I recall no exact precedent, the short-lived
republican government composed entirely of university professors at
December 31st, 1899
It’s been a century that began hard and cruel but turned out better than might have been expected. Its greatness was in the early, cruellest years. Jefferson, whose house-guest I was both in Washington and in Virginia, used to say that the English bombardment of Copenhagen, together with the crimes of Napoleon Bonaparte, made that period one of the three epochs in human history, along with the Macedonian and Roman imperial eras, signalized by the total extinction of national morality; yet as I write these has not been a war in western European for nearly thirty years and they tell me that even private murder is less frequent than in former times.
31 Dec. 1999.
The end of the century again. The end of the millennium. Neither means much: the latter even less than the former.
remember the coming of canal navigation and the railways, of power-weaving and
electro-magnetism: consequently I am not likely to be overly impressed by the
microchips and miniaturized computers and mobile phones of the last decade. The
vast acceleration of the speed at which facts can be sorted and communicated
only emphasizes the perennial difficulty of, in the first place, formulating
facts that are objectively significant and, in the second place, deciding what
constructive use to make of them. The century began with the first transmission
of radio signals and, as Lord Rutherford predicted at the dinner I arranged in
his honour at the Reform Club, at one level it was a century dominated by radio
in its audio and televisual forms: but except perhaps
in accelerating a decadence in musical and literary art that was in any case
rendered inevitable by the spread of mass education, what difference did any of
this new science make? The machine-processed syllables of the first men
speaking from the surface of the moon were a lesser thrill for me than three
breathily mis-pronounced words whispered in my ear by Justina
as we crossed
As for biotechnology —
The fireworks are beginning.
massacres of the 21st Century have exceeded even these of the 20th Century. In
the 20th Century the millennium-old struggle between the Individual and the
Collective — the Principle of the Individual, the Principle of the Collective,
two different kinds of
course they had sailed round the world, sailed to Cape Horn and to
televised a trans-space video of them. Perhaps I wouldn’t have recognized her
amongst all the centuries of women who have passed before me if a chance
resemblance between the sneering smile of the colonists’ captain and the
sneering smile of
After so many years of avoiding the boredom of travel, I am to fly out to Titan the day after tomorrow, the first working day of the new century.
Z54FF6 CLINT replaced the papers in their capsule. ‘I suppose they didn’t have compulsory euthanasia at fifty in those days,’ he reflected, pressing the R-button to send the capsule back to the 87th basement level vault.
We met on separate courses, different tracks,
We called across the intervening gap
Approaching briefly on opposing tacks
Like satellites whose orbits overlap
At intervals too vast to calibrate:
This is my final wireless message, sent
(Though not quite sure of wavelength, range or date)
Towards the sector where I thought you went
When, as we spun apart, each heading for
Our different stars, the chance that brought us near
Began to lose itself for evermore
Amongst competing chances, and the fear
That soon the vivid image of your face
Will fade amidst the freezing wastes of space.
©A.D. Harvey 2006
©The bookstreet Group 2006
©Olympia Press, London 2006