There’s no reason for me to tell this story.
I mean, I’ve got a few dozen hours of counselling behind me, a few afternoons in the company of a guy who used to wear brown glasses and made tea in cups adorned with QUANGO slogans which he gave me and which I drank, taking two sips every ten seconds (I didn’t count, it’s just an average really, I can’t say it’s accurate, could be miles out, I just drank it because I wanted something to occupy myself with and he always looked straight at me), always with little bits of something floating in it.
I’ve got no idea what was wrong with the tea. I mean the guy was a council specimen or something, you know, GP referral, all because I started wetting the bed for the first time in my life. Nothing for 20 years and then warm puddles and a smelly bed. And then tea in a cup that told me by virtue of its very existence that ‘Harringay Adult Learners’ Day 2008′ had a far larger budget behind it than I would have guessed if, say, it was a question in a pub quiz or if someone had thrown it at me in an argument to prove a point about bureaucratic wastage.
The fact is this tea tasted old, like it had been zapped in a microwave. Like he’d had a full cup of old cold tea sitting in a cupboard ready to be zapped and re-used. I drank it out of malice, a petulant gesture to show I wasn’t going to be some deferential patient patient, would not sit on the edge of his chair and wait to be fixed, to have my brain caressed with words (probably) lifted from a textbook I could (probably) have read and got more out of than him.
So this is a throwaway gesture. No need to tell this anecdote at all. Any motivation that comes from a purely selfish place that I allow to exist within me cannot be constrained by force of will, I mean what’s the point of trying to guess at these things? I said to the guy with the old tea, what do you expect me to offer you that I can’t offer myself? And I can’t even give you anything you actually want, and I said that maybe I misunderstood Freud but at the heart of the talking cure there seems to be a basic fallacy in that how can a mind talk itself into a cure if it’s fundamentally unable to know what’s ‘wrong’ with it (if anything)? This I said in not so many words or perhaps I did say something articulate and it was close to what I meant in that situation but anyway I remember his response and I’ll even quote directly. He said:
“Well, sometimes it just helps to talk.”
Oh very good. And this came from a man who couldn’t even bring himself to make his helpee a fresh cup of tea.
But soon enough I thought I would fill the time in between double-sips of old zapped tea in a QUANGO vehicle with a narrative, a narrative from which is derived the anecdote I’m about to embark upon. Please don’t be misled, I said at the time and I say again now, this for my own benefit, not yours.
But the only benefit even I get, as far as I can tell, is that of being able to set down in an organised and satisfactorily ordered form a memory which has been fizzling gently in my mind like an unexploded shell embedded in the wall of a freshly dug trench. And you must understand that I’m telling this anecdote in a form refracted from an earlier attempt.
I wonder if I’ve made enough excuses. Can we ever make enough excuses? Probably not.
About a year ago (no, nine months) I was walking in the rain with Carl, the two of us feeling that soft mist of rain that carries down the cold from somewhere high. On the road with the barber’s shops we were walking to the bus stop, and every time we passed an open shop doorway I imagined us making an entrance mid-conversation and maybe all the faces in that shop would turn toward us in mild appreciation. Our entrance salvo would be vehement like this earnest rejoinder from Carl:
“But surely the reason you always argue with her is that the two of you are actually very similar?”
I considered a wry smile as if to say well I know we have powerful sexual chemistry that’s only to be expected, but settled for relative honesty.
“No, the reason we always argue is that I deliberately provoke her.”
“It is tempting.”
Carl is the best listener I have ever known, and doesn’t have a clue that there’s another way to be. He genuinely frowned with concentration at this point.
“Why does she annoy you?”
I looked away, then realised I was doing it deliberately for dramatic effect and looked back and spoke quickly.
“I hate them. I hate their bitterness, their small-mindedness, their self-righteousness, their fuzzy logic; but most of all I hate their passive-aggressive ignorance.”
“You hate women?” A small hesitant laugh.
“No, not women. I hate ‘feminists’.” We crossed the road blind at this point, forcing the cars to stop and gazing with mild unworried surprise when they got close.
I resumed my clarification on the other side.
“OK, not real feminists. Whatever they are. People who understand a lot more than I do. I wonder if I should read The Female Eunuch? Maybe that would help.”
Then, as I find it is many times in a day, my eye was ‘irresistibly drawn’ to the skinny-jeans-clad arse of a girl, just straining at the seams, I mean tight you know when you can see the outline of even a small g-string and you can just picture the girl rolling back on her bed that morning dragging, heaving those mercilessly tight jeans up her legs.
We moved past quickly enough and the girl glanced up and caught my eye. I held her gaze for a quick half-second and then looked away like I always do. She was dark, probably Turkish, probably late 20s but hard to say, probably with a man.
I realised that Carl was carefully making a point.
“…just reactionary? I know she comes out with some mad stuff, but can you really say she’s not a real feminist?”
“Let me put it this way. I’m not just talking about her but any number of girls we know who are so well read and ‘feminist’ that they spend half an hour on makeup before they go out to clubs wearing all sorts of shiny tight shit.”
Carl leant against the wall of the bus shelter looking genuinely pensive and gazed into the barber’s shop in front of us (that is to say, the barber’s was on our side of the road and Carl was leaning on the pavement side wall of the bus shelter, we were both on the pavement side, neither of us bothered watching for the arrival of the bus, one always comes soon enough, no point worrying about it). As always on this road and strangely the barber’s shop was a social club of sorts full of men and I wondered about this then and also why from these places the guys always emerged with the same haircut, like a fade but with grease on top, and I wondered this and if Carl was thinking the same and I thought I would ask him but didn’t because I (probably) wanted to hear my own views to see what they were, not about the barber’s shop men but about the other thing. I remembered something.
“The other week her and Em came back from that sweaty place that does world music. I was still up. They were pissed, obviously, but they also had this, like, conspiratorial smugness about them I’ve never seen before. They kept quoting from some American teen film and giggling idiotically, so I decided to wind them up.”
Carl was still watching the barber’s shop social scene, now frowning more intently, raised voices inside, strongly accented. I knew he was still listening. He’s always listening.
“They were talking about creepy guys. How the ones that approach them are always the weird ones. They were like: why do they look at you like you’re a piece of meat? I mean what a cliché. So I said: does the success of your night, when you go out, rest on the level of attention you get?”
“I think there’s some sort of argument going on in there.”
“Obviously they hated that. She was incensed. Started pouring scorn on the idea, going on and on about how demeaning it was to be approached by these guys and how it was essentially a necessary evil if she was to find a non-weirdo. I said was it possible for this to be a two-way situation? No, no way. If she was to approach a guy in a club he’d think she was easy. I mean, for fuck’s sake. There’s no hope. Do you think there’s any hope?”
“Seriously, look at this.”
I looked at this, following the small nodding arc of Carl’s head to look through the window of the barber’s. I saw the dark girl with the magnificently tight skinny jeans standing in a room full of men. There was a knot of them at the back, clustered around and remonstrating with one guy who was short, who wore an ill-fitting shirt that flopped halfway to the knees of his cheap-looking jeans, balding he was this guy but not old. He had the look of a man who feels something is required of him. Of all this knot of men only he was watching the girl who may have been watching him but I couldn’t see if that was the case because she had her back to the window. What I did see was that indeed and to all appearances she did have a man and maybe it was he for whom she lay on her bed in the morning and and dragged really very tight jeans up her legs. And here he was, the man, her man (probably) who stood facing her and me, tall this guy and taut with tight white t-shirt and big arms, his forearms I remember as being large particularly or maybe it was only because I saw that the girl’s arms were very slender and pale compared with her dark hair and eyes, but mostly in comparison with the guy with the forearms because he had her left wrist gripped in his right hand, painfully, had it raised oddly and was shaking it for emphasis as he delivered to her what could have been described as a ‘stern talking to’.
Aggrieved in a way that this dramatic tableau was intruding on my denunciation, I gave a short sharp laugh forced out in spite of not being overly happy or comfortable with what I could see, the girl’s wrist, gripped hard and tight and really far too tight because I could see the pressure from his fingertips compressing the flesh. And then he was moving, the guy with the large forearms, out of the door and towards us into the street (well, onto the pavement), and he dragged the girl, same grip on wrist, her face scared but actually (probably) beautiful and then they were right in front of us and I was unnerved and then I looked away from them and at Carl and as I did three things happened (probably) simultaneously.
1) I heard the sharp violent sound of an open palm connecting solidly with an area of flesh.
2) The girl made a noise composed of pain, fear and moisture.
3) Carl’s face contorted and his hands leapt from his pockets.
As my head rotated carrying my field of vision back towards the source of 1 and 2, in the corner of my right eye I glimpsed in a shard of my sight a white shape rapidly approaching, and with my head still rotating and my eyes seeking lock-on my feet took me backwards in a stagger away from the bus shelter wall.
My eyes slotted home. The white shape was the tall man with the tight white t-shirt and the forearms and he fell past me inches away but low down his head was, reminded me of the way sprinters are when they surge to the sound of the gun, keeping one step ahead of falling on their faces and this bus shelter it was all glass but thick you know and you would expect and I did expect that in such a situation, I mean yes the glass is thick but won’t it yes and when the man with the forearms hit this glass with the top of his skull it sounded like very hard wood hitting very hard wood and that was all.
The man with the forearms seemed to crumple. He fell backwards and was languid in the way he went down flat on his back in between me and Carl. Then the girl with her hands over her mouth like a doodle of a surprised person, and next to her just outside the doorway of the barber’s the balding man with the ill-fitting shirt no longer looked as if he thought something was required of him but actually like a child who has been praised for petulant misbehaviour for which they fully expected to be punished.
I looked at Carl. He looked at me. We looked at the ground in front of us. At the men struggling to get through the doorway of the barber’s. Up the road. Down the road. At the girl.
I heard Carl multiple times afterwards tell what he saw happen and I discovered what I hadn’t seen which was good in a way and an education I suppose but he told it so many times he got staccato and dead in his delivery and that annoyed me.
He would say guy came out with the girl. Girl pulled her arm away. He raised hand. She freed wrist. He hit her face. Hard. Guy in shop came out fast. Behind. Pushed him in the back. Tall guy fell forward off balance.
Then there was blood on the ground and the guy with the forearms had greasy hair but now it was wet and he had been still only for a second (probably) on the ground but he sat up with a grey face, spat on the ground and the girl was shaking and otherwise very still but not as still as the balding man with the ill-fitting shirt. Forearms guy started to get to his feet.
I looked at Carl. He looked at me. We looked at the ground in front of us. At the men watching in silence. Up the road. Down the road. At the girl.
On his feet and slowly moving forearms man was in the personal space of shirt man who wasn’t reacting and when the fist of forearms man cracked his head back shirt man didn’t actually flinch, but his eyes closed and he went back into the arms of one of the barber’s shop guys who none of whom looked as if they knew what they were supposed to be doing and this one held up shirt man for some reason. Forearms man gathered up some of the loose shirt of shirt man with his left hand, coiling it with sharp looping motions.
The men were all remonstrating once more and this time it was with forearms man. The girl was shaking more and more. Then as if I had un-paused a video feed she seemed to collapse outwards into furious life and those pale hands had nails that she dug into the hair of forearms man.
His head was wrenched back and as the girl gasped as if winded out snap went the right forearm of forearms man. The girl’s arms dropped to her sides and she stopped gasping. The hand was a vice around her neck.
All at once the men from the barber’s shop fell silent.
As the rain still fell from high and brought down the cold the girl’s face was tilted towards the sky by the hand around her neck and for a moment it seemed as if she savoured the sensation of the rain on her face. Forearms man looked like a dynamic statue of marble and I thought he would never move as he held his arm out with his hand at the girl’s neck and her standing on tiptoes. Now all the men behind this conjoined pair were a mute audience that might have been assembled for a group portrait of some note and dignity. All of us were waiting, shirt man well yes even he waited but on the ground having sunk neglected to the dark wet pavement.
I wanted to see them, his eyes, and I looked closely but they were closed and slowly the hand that had held shirt man’s shirt covered them and I noticed as forearms man began to rub these now closed eyes that his skin was wet. We were all wet, standing in the rain. The rain was falling heavily now.
I couldn’t understand it.
How I hadn’t noticed the rain getting worse, I couldn’t understand it.
Yes, she was on her tiptoes, the girl.
When he let go of her neck, forearms man, pushing her away, all I could think about as she pattered backwards, step step step towards the edge of the pavement, was this: she was on her tiptoes.
The edge of the pavement was there, I could see it, of course it was there and the girl went going backwards, step step step. And then one more step that missed the edge.
We weren’t looking for the bus, Carl and I, the bus which always comes soon enough, not looking for it no and neither was she but all of us saw that it was here now, it had come, soon enough perhaps and fast enough even as it braked hard and heavy enough. Yes it was heavy enough. But heavy as it was it still bumped as it went over her.
I looked at Carl. He looked at me. We looked at the ground in front of us. At the men flooding past us. Up the road. Down the road.
At the girl.
In the last session I had with the man with the old tea I finally got around to telling him about the girl on her tiptoes. En pointe, that’s what they call it in ballet, I told him. The girls do it and the boys don’t.
He smiled and nodded. The talking cure. I sipped his old tea.
I didn’t go back after that.