To Distract Me From Myself

“I would shoot guns and thrust bayonets through flesh to distract me from myself; I would whip, torture, wrestle, drive racing-cars over cliffs to distract me from myself; jump from helicopters, throw hand grenades to distract me from myself; I would march right left right screaming orders in my throat, obeying orders in my throat, to distract me from myself. I would build muscles I never knew I had, to distract me from myself.”
Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants, 1989: 45

The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

Sweet Fanny Adams

Granted, it could have been an airport, say, or any other point of departure for that matter, not necessarily a railway station. Then again, I wouldn’t want you to go thinking that his choice had been totally arbitrary, although he was, admittedly, no stranger to acts of random behaviour. It didn’t have to be an overcrowded railway station, but it sort of made sense somehow.

It’s like this: your train is due to leave any minute now. You look up from your book or paper — if you are reading, that is, but I think we can safely assume that you, mon semblable, mon frère, are reading at least one or the other, possibly even both, one after the other, or, better still, simultaneously. You check the time on your wristwatch, the kind that they advertise in The Economist and suchlike periodicals, something Swiss or German with knobs on (the more, the merrier) which exudes manly sophistication. Just as the Red Sea parted for Moses, the door slides open, blissfully pneumatic, to reveal a stunning Mary Poppins — stacked, stockinged, sorted — in a comely knicker-skimming skirt: entrancing entrance. Being the proud possessor of a Y chromosome, your eyes make a beeline for her A-line, zooming in on silken thighs, NordicTrack-toned. While she fafs about with her umbrella (which will be left behind, of course, accidentally-on purpose like), you are at leisure to divide her putative weight in kilograms by her hypothetical height in metres squared, thus reaching the satisfactory conclusion that the young woman’s Body Mass Index slots into the ideal 18 to 20 range. Stocky stoccado, scatty scattato, she click-clicks her way towards the only vacant space (which just so happens to be facing you) aloft a pair of chichi cha-cha heels, whereupon her petulant posterior takes a pew. As she crosses her endless legs with a hushed swish whoosh, the bright young thong hitches up her skirt a notch, pinching the flimsy fabric on either side of broad hips between manicured thumb and forefinger. At this juncture — when you are about to abandon wife and children, sail the seven seas or commit genocide because men cannot help acting on impulse — you notice that those are tear- and not raindrops irrigating her tanned, yet still unblemished, features. Ever the gentleman, or simply embarrassed, you interrupt your ornithological study and peer out of the window which, being in dire need of a good clean, forces you to squint in the most unsightly fashion. Now is when it happens. For a few split nanoseconds, another train pulling into the station tricks you into believing that your train is pulling out.

****

Adam Horton — 33, caucasian, 5’6”, underendowed, thinning on top — viewed this sensation as a perfect metaphor of his stumbling through life like a sleepwalker on a treadmill, a pet hamster on a wheel, or a commuter on the Circle Line. Hence the choice of a railway station over any other point of departure. But which one? Paris offered un embarras de choix.

Gare de l’Est was a definite no-no for some obscure reason. Gare d’Austerlitz was likewise ruled out: Adam, you see, had a passion for Waterloo Station. Watching the workers munching their lunch-break baps at the bottom of the up escalator, eyes cast skirtwards all the while, never failed to microwave the cockles of his little heart. Since childhood, he had conceived of Austerlitz as a sort of counter- or even anti-Waterloo; it was enemy territory. This still left Gare de Lyon, built in the grandiose style — probably the most pleasing, aesthetically. Gare St Lazare, caught between the red-light district and the posh department stores, scored a few brownie points. Proust’s lycée was close by, as well as the Opéra Garnier (a fine example of architectural eclecticism) and, more importantly, Marks & Sparks with its large lingerie section where Adam often indulged in a little lingering among the petticoats and suspender belts. There was also Gare Montparnasse, where the muses hung out, free and easy, serpentine locks flailing the air. They rode around like BMX bandits astride expensive Dutch bicycles sporting a saucy look on their freckly faces and precious little else. The area never failed to remind him of the time when he micturated on the tomb of Jean-Paul Sartre after burying his late goldfish (Botty, short for Botticelli) in the shadow of Baudelaire’s corpse. Such fond memories.

In the end, however, he had plumped for Gare du Nord which houses the Eurostar terminal. Adam’s grasp of French had greatly improved over the past twelve months, but he was looking for a lady who spoke the old mother tongue. Besides, the word ‘terminal’ had a certain ring to it, the finality of a full stop.

****

The air hung heavy with Chaucerian expletives; dropped aitches were strewn about his feet. Here and there, love thugs sprouting Hoxton Fins were reading redtops from back to front. The odd diamond geezer was getting twatted while his missus flaunted the latest erogenous zones. In the distance, a posse of blue-rinsed senior citizens could be seen giving a spirited rendition of the hokey-cokey. A good vibe was being had by one and all. If I should die, Adam muttered, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign railway station that is forever In-ger-land. And there she was.

Sweet Fanny Adams.

Sweet Fanny Adams and no mistake.

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

Their eyes met, pairing off at first sight. The earth moved, orbiting at half a kilometre per second around her celestial globes — a couple of scalloped cupfuls with peek-a-boo trimmings — in what can only be described as a new Copernican revolution. For the first time since Mrs Horton’s belaboured parturition, when he was eventually sprung off into the world, Adam didn’t feel at the wrong place at the wrong time: he was back in the bountiful bosom of Mummy Nature. As if to celebrate this return to the much-maligned Ptolemaic system, a gaggle of gurgling putti glided overhead to the strains of syrupy muzak and departing trains. All in all, it was an auspicious overture, fraught with the promise of premise.

‘Adam,’ said Adam, extending his right arm.
‘Margherita,’ said Margherita, giving it a hearty shake.
Still reeling from that initial, blinding smile — let alone the handshake — he struggled to regain his composure. ‘Have you read The Leaning Tower of Pizzas by N.E. Tchans?’
‘Is that the one which ends with an epic battle between gangs of pre-pubescent herberts bouncing around on orange space-hoppers?’
‘Yes.’
‘No, but I read a review at the time.’
‘Well, it’s all about this Mr Soft Scoop bloke, right, who comes from Italy and settles down in South London where he falls in love with a girl called Margherita.’ She was fiddling with her umbrella, a faraway look on her face. ‘Like you, like.’
‘Oh, I see, yes. Sorry, I was miles away.’
‘I know: that’s the attraction,’ he sighed sotto voce, before getting a grip on himself. ‘Anyway, you should check it out some time — if you’re into lolloping lollipop ladies, lesbians from Lisbon, the romance of ice-cream vans, that kind of thing.’
‘Sounds right up my street.’
‘I see it as a contemporary footnote to Dante.’
‘Talking of contemporary feet, mine are killing me.’
‘Dying on our footnotes are we? One footnote in the grave, eh? How long have you got left?’
‘Long enough to grab a bite to eat — or so says my chiropodist.’
‘I think there’s an Italian just round the corner that might tickle your fancy.’
‘Sounds great. I feel like a pizza.’
‘I’m not surprised, love, with a name like that.’

Adam caught a fleeting glimpse of the dark, gaping twilight zone between Margherita’s parted thighs as she uncrossed her legs to get up. That topsy-turvy Bermuda Triangle twixt skirt and stocking exerted a gravitational pull of such magnitude that he was sucked in, there and then, never to re-emerge. He picked up her bulky suitcase, l’air de rien, but in his mind’s X-ray eye he could see her neatly-packed unmentionables. He was big on smalls was old Adam Horton.

‘Heavy, innit?’
‘It’s a burden I feel I’ve been carrying all my life.’ He turned to face her, fair and square. ‘This may sound potty, but you are the hollowness inside. At last, I have found my sense of loss.’
‘I’m flattered,’ she said in Estuarine undertones, blushing a little. Her dimpled cheeks resembled two squashed cherry tomatoes, only bigger. ‘I always like to be of assistance to strangers.’
‘After you,’ said Adam, bowing theatrically and showing the way with her suitcase like a truncheon-toting gendarme stopping the traffic for pedestrians. He couldn’t help noticing the shaft of light that fell on Margherita’s top bottom — proof positive that the sun shone out of her behind — before leaving the station, hot on her high heels.

They repaired to a Greekish spoon which Margherita praised on account of its ‘atmosphere’.
‘Looks great,’ she gushed, surveying the menu in the window, ‘I feel like a cocktail’.
‘I’m not surprised, love, with a name like that.’

****

The walls were festooned with fairy lights, garlands of garlic and pictures of Asma Assad, the Syrian President’s trophy wife. The waiters were all male to a man. It soon transpired that none of them were actually Italian having been born and bred, through no fault of their own, on the wrong side of Thessaloniki. (‘Oh, that’s a shame, isn’t it?’ cooed Margherita, detaching each word as if dismembering some wingèd insect.) The chef, a diminutive Algerian with an endearing paunch, had a Saddam Hussein mustache going on and a nice line in knock-knock jokes. The toilets were typically Turkish.

Having taken in the scenery, Adam proceeded to pour out his heart and a couple of cheap, albeit cheerless, bottles of Sidi Brahim. Whining and dining, in medias res.
‘We are all post-Denis de Rougemont.’
‘Couldn’t agwee maw,’ said Marwghewita, making a mental note never again to shpeak wiv her mouf full. Frankly, she didn’t have a clue what he was going on about.
‘We are the first generation to know full well that love doesn’t last, and yet we cling to the ideal like shit to a protective blanket.’
She turned up her already-retroussé nose. How more retroussé can it get? he wondered.
‘Maybe it’s just me. The whole thing’s very Oedipal, I know.’ Adam cringed at his attempt to laugh it off.
‘I could spank you, free of charge, if you think that might help.’
‘I’d rather not if it’s all the same with you,’ he replied rather primly, his flushed face a slapped-arse crimson, ‘but thanks for the offer. Might even take you up on it some other time. Except…’ Adam paused for effect, ‘there won’t be another time.’ He sighed, baleful, into his bowlful of miniature bow-ties, topped up their glasses and cleared his throat. ‘Love stories are like fairy tales…’
‘Aren’t they just,’ she interrupted, a trifle too eager.
‘…in that we know the end from the start. Only it’s not and they lived happily ever after, is it?’
Tears welled up in her belladonna eyes.
‘You know, someone should really write a different kind of love story for the new millenium. It would start with the foregone conclusion and work its way back towards the unknown: how it all started in the first place.’
‘Will you write this new-fangled love story?’
‘I’m writing the first pages even as we speak — with your assistance, of course.’
‘I like to be of assistance.’ She smiled a wet smile.
‘Shall we call it a day then?’
‘Call it what you like. It’s your book, your call. So that’s it then, is it?’
‘Yes. In our beginning is our end.’
‘We’re obviously going nowhere slowly.’

Margherita seemed in a hell of a hurry all of a sudden, even her nose was running. Where is it running to? he wondered. To by-corners Byzantine, I’ll be bound, and wondrous Wherevers, to the end of the earth, at the end of its tether. Then he shrugged — to himself and at it all — because it didn’t really matter anymore, it really didn’t. Whatever: yeah, right.

It was raining when Margherita stepped out of the restaurant. Adam watched her amber umbrella disappear from view, a Belisha beacon of hope on a dimmer switch. He scribbled a few words on the paper tablecloth. D’elle, il ne reste que ses tagliatelles.

****

The door slides open — which is where you came in. You assess her golden-delicious breasts as if you were picking apples on a market stall. You think that a man should never trust a woman who offers him an apple, let alone two. You think that this woman’s tits are perfectly identical, for Christ’s sake. Like bookends.

God knows what happens next. God — and you.

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I’ve just noticed that Leora Skolkin-Smith has appended a really nice comment to one of my stories. It was posted on 26 September 2007:

“This was a fascinating work. So many lines alone struck out at me.
But this was central for me pulling me into a whole,

‘For a few split nanoseconds, another train pulling into the station tricks you into believing that your train is pulling out.

Adam Horton — 33, caucasian, 5’6″, underendowed, thinning on top — viewed this sensation as a perfect metaphor of his stumbling through life like a sleepwalker on a treadmill, a pet hamster on a wheel, or a commuter on the Circle Line. Hence the choice of a railway station over any other point of departure. But which one?’

I think there is a beautiful sorrow in it, mixing with gritty lust and sudden unexpected phrases like ‘At this juncture — when you are about to abandon wife and children, sail the seven seas or commit genocide because men cannot help acting on impulse —’.”

Thanks, that made my day.