"There's vice out tonight," she said, as we pulled away from the kerb, "an' I just saw one of the fuckers in an unmarked car!"
I pushed the accelerator too hard and the wheels of the old car I was driving span on the tarmac. We looked at each other and started to laugh. It was past midnight but the air that blew around us in the car was still warm from a summer's day. When we'd stopped laughing she said to me: "Well then, what do you want?"
"I guess I want to have some sort of sex with you."
"Ha!...Everybody wants that!" she looked at me and smiled, "you got much money?"
"I'm not a rich man, no," I said; she laughed again
"You got twenty-five?"
I said that I had it.
"O. K then!" she said. "You must make a lot of money."
"I do O. K - a couple of hundred every night I work. The guy I was talking to, before I came with you, he used to come and see me when I worked in a massage parlour, came to see me, special. He'd give me sixty, seventy pounds a time in the parlour, but when I asked him for thirty tonight he said it was too much, can you believe it?"
I said that I couldn't.
We were lying beside each other on a mattress in a room that overlooked the street; there were little bottles of cosmetics, a mirror and some letters on the floor; a radio was playing. She told me about a man that used to pay for her to watch films that he'd made. They would sit in his room and watch a film, he would pay her and then she would leave. She told me the story of one of the films she'd seen there and I remember that the story echoed in my mind and seemed to me to be full of meaning. She fell asleep and I lay beside her and looked at her. Her legs were decorated with a tattooed constellation of little blue stars that she'd made herself with ink and a needle. I felt a lot of emotions that I wasn't able to put words to and some that felt like a kind of simple peace. When she woke up we dressed and I drove her down the road and bought us each a bottle of beer to drink. I have tried many times to remember the story that she told me that day but it seems to want to stay forgotten.
Once I'd met her and we'd gone back to my room and she was sweet and giggly and she kissed me and rolled around with me like I was some kind of instant boyfriend and I loved her and loved every moment of it. She asked me for fifteen pounds and I was happy to give her the money and happy to drive her to a place where she could spend it. She opened her hand and showed me the little pebble-like thing and it was tightly wrapped up in see-through plastic like a boiled sweet.
I took a job in a spacious old house that was built all through with high ceilings and stained-glass windows. Each day I'd sit in a room with the people that couldn't manage to live anywhere else and I'd listen to them talk and then I would talk myself, from my knowledge of the matter, of how it was to live a good life in the world.
"I remember, I'd taken some smack, I think I'd injected it - I did inject it; I hadn't done very much but even so, I was totally fucked, I was shaking. I couldn't really stand up but it was freezing where I was so I tried to walk to another room where there was a heater - I couldn't make it - I just collapsed in the corridor and I'm lying there shaking and thinking that I'm going to die.
I was there, well, I don't know how long I was there but all the time I was lying there I was thinking about this porn that I'd got hidden under the bed in my room. That's all I was thinking about. I was thinking that if I died, then my mum would come and clear out my room, clear my stuff away - and if she did, she'd find this porn. I was wishin' I'd thrown the fuckin' stuff away - I really was - that's all I was thinkin' about."
I talked with a young woman who'd gone crazy working as a prostitute and had ended up living at the place where I worked. I'd spend half the night driving around the city looking to buy sex then I'd sleep, go to work in daylight and, between-times, try to figure out if it was possible to live a life like this. Listening to her turned my mind into cotton-wool - I heard that she'd started selling sex in the toilet of a public bar down the road, then she just disappeared.
"New years eve; I'm eighteen years old. I'm walking home, it's one, maybe two in the morning, it's cold and I'm drunk. Old guy walks past me on the street and he says "Happy new year" to me and I say "Happy new year" back to him. He starts to talk to me about I-don't-know-what and then he invites me back to his house to have a drink with him and, because it's New Years Eve and all, I go.
And we have a drink and he suggests I spend the night at his place because it's cold outside and I say "Well, no, I'll go home, but thanks anyway" and we talk a bit more and he asks me to stay again and this time, and I don't know why, I say yes.
And I'm in his bed and I don't know what I'm doing there but I can't seem to figure out how to get out of there and he tells me that I'm beautiful.
I ask him, for some fucking reason, if he's gay, if he's always slept with men and he says "Well, now and then."
And I saw his dick or I think I saw it or I think that I remember seeing it and then I'm in the kitchen downstairs and there's a plate of ham on the table and there's mould growing on the ham.
Then I'm back in his room and there's a bottle of sleeping pills beside his bed and I steal the bottle of pills.
And then I'm back on the street, walking home with a bottle of pills in my pocket." Elizabeth talked to me in a deadpan monotone for about a week. She talked about her children being taken away from her and about the times she'd tried to kill herself. I had lots of good ideas about things that she could do to make her life a better place; I told her about these good ideas.
I got called into work one night to find that she'd stuck her head and her arm and her leg through a plate-glass window and twisted and slashed herself. She didn't want to go to hospital so she fought with the ambulance crew and the police and with anyone else that came in sight. We wrestled her into the back seat of a police car; I held her by one arm and a policeman held her by the other arm. We drove to the hospital very fast with the siren going and the blue light flashing and all the time she was trying to kick the driver and punch us at the same time. We were all of us covered in her blood and we walked into the hospital like we were all three walking from the battlefield. She opened her wounds and bled on the nurses, she screamed and she shouted - she told the doctor to go fuck his mother, she raged and she cried till at last the drugs took a hold and she slept.
I read a book that was written by a monk and in the book it said: "...creatures remain untouchable, inviolable. As soon as you try to possess their goodness for its own sake, all that is sweet in them becomes bitter to you, all that is beautiful, ugly."
I went to the place where the monks lived. I found myself in a room full of silent people. A bell would ring and we would go into a big hall and sit there in silence. When it was time to eat we'd go into another room and bow to the plates on the table in front of us, eat in silence, finish our food and bow to our empty plates. We would work in silence, read in silence, sit in silence and then sleep with the sound of the wind and the rain and our own hearts beating on silence.
One day at the monastery, in winter, I was outside chopping up logs with an axe. A little red bird perched on a fence post and watched me chop the wood. The bird scooted from one post to another but it wouldn't fly away completely, it seemed to want to stay around and keep an eye on me. I stopped for a moment and looked around at the bleak, white valley that was spread as far as the horizon and I thought to myself: why don't I just come here to live? Why don't I just stay here and live here and die here and get buried in that little cemetery under the pine trees over there? The rest of my life is a joke, I'm sick of it and burned by it and bored of it so why not? Why not?
So I lived with this idea in my mind for a while - it was a dream that looked good to me and I looked good in the dream. I saw myself there with my shaven head and the same peace beaming out of me that shone out of all the other monks who'd been there long enough to have burnt the world's idiocy out of their lives. It seemed like a good idea.
One day I saw a photograph of the inside of the monk's private meditation hall. Until you became a monk you were not allowed to go into this hall and it seemed like a big secret to me and one that interested me very much. The photograph showed the stained-glass windows in the hall from the point of view of someone on the inside.
That was it; I went back lots of times after that but it was all wrong and it stayed wrong and in the end I just stopped going. Monique looked as if nothing in the world could ever surprise her.
"You don't like me do you?" she'd said to me, "You never talk to me."
After that we started to talk to each other.
I ended up drunk with her one evening in a deserted all-night caf‚. The caf‚ was a dark, windowless room at the top of a narrow flight of stairs; loud music was playing. There was a little Korean guy running the place on his own and when we'd come in he was sitting crouched over an electric fire - it was the middle of winter. We held hands, drank bad coffee out of plastic cups and talked about love.
"What about your boyfriend?"
"Well," she said, "I don't know - I love him, I don't love him - what can I say?"
"What about me?"
She was quiet for a moment. "We have a drink - we hold hands - it's nice."
"I could say that I loved you."
"Sure," she smiled at me, "you could say that." "Let's get out of here and find a cheap hotel," said Monique, "let's go and get a cheap room somewhere, somewhere we can make love - do you want to?"
"Yes," I said, "yes, I want to very much."
We left and started walking around the city.
"I don't think I know where to find a cheap room around here," I said. We walked some more. A moment ago we'd been heading in a direction, now we just seemed to be walking.
"I have to make a phone call," she said, "wait for me."
I sat down in a shop doorway and watched her in the phonebox. She talked for a long time; while I sat there I thought about the prices of hotel rooms.
She came out of the phone-box. "He said to me: "sure, go ahead and sleep with him - only don't bother coming back here afterwards - I don't want to see you again if you do that."
I walked her to a bus stop; as she got on the bus I said to her, "You know what my phone number is don't you?"
"I know what it is," she smiled at me, "but I'm not going to ring you."
"Is that a promise?"
"It's a promise," she said. One more time she smiled at me and then the bus pulled away and took her back to the place where she lived with her boyfriend.
We did see each other again after that but all the time she was telling me quietly that we would soon have to stop, that she didn't want to do this anymore. One day she rang me up and said 'goodbye' to me, she said it kindly - and that was it.
I went home and listened to my parents and their friends talk about the war. My father showed me some black and white photographs that I'd never seen before. One showed a smiling man in a beret and overalls who was standing on a low, blackened mound.
"That's Stanley," said my father, "I think he died last year. He was in the plane with me - we both bailed out at the same time - what he's standing on is what was left of the plane after it crashed."
I looked at the photograph again.
"This one," said my father, "her name was Veronique." A picture of a woman dressed in 1940's clothing; she looked out of the picture with a steady gaze. "She was one of the people that owned the farm where we hid after the plane was shot down. We wrote to each other once or twice - after the war was over. She made a handkerchief for me out of a bit of my parachute and embroidered my initials on it."
I left soon after that and got on a train. I sat on the train wondering about my father and this woman called Veronique.
"And the whole Earth was of one language and one speech...
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven: and let us make a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they have begun to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore the name of it is called Babel: because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of the earth."
My father is unaccustomed to using answerphones. He left me a message: "Your mother's home." My mother had just spent a week in hospital. There was a noise on the tape afterwards that made it sound like he was trying to say something more, but the phone went dead. Just a muffled sound and then the bleep as the message ended. I re-wound the machine and listened to it again. Then I listened to it one last time before I hit the 'erase' button.
I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote a letter to Monique:
Hey, given a bit of time I've finally got around to getting pissed off with you! Put out the fucking flags!
What I want to say to you is: fuck all this bullshit and just fucking marry me.
I'm serious and why not?
I have a dumb-ass, stupid, lonely, fucked up life and it sucks - but you are the only woman that I have ever met that I could speak to about every fucked up stupid bit of it and not think that they'd get horrified and fuck off.
I hate the fucking way you control the fucking access I have into your organised fucking life. I feel like a rat in a fucking maze.
Fuck your boyfriend...
...and fuck you if you're dumb enough not to fucking recognise that we could've gone all the fucking stupid way to death together and it wouldn't have been a waste. There has never been anyone else that I could say that about ever, and if you just piss off...
...well, it's just a fucking waste.
fuck fuck fuck
"Good-bye," you said, "I cannot (fucking) see you again."
end of fucking story."
This story appears courtesy of Peter McNeice.