It is Friday night, a cold and miserable December in 1984. We're all crammed into the unheated cottage of uneven floorboards for warmth, music, and the downing of enough cheap booze to fool ourselves into believing we're having the sort of wild time you're supposed to have when you're nineteen. Bob is leaning forward, speaking in confidence but unable to quite pull it off because he never really got to grips with discretion and is in any case already too drunk.
'That one with the red hair,' he says. 'I could really do something for her.' He probably means Amanda, who could almost be Mary Poppins but for the short cropped hair dyed bright crimson.
'Oh yes?' prompts Alison, amused but uncomfortably aware of the direction in which the conversation is heading.
'Yeah - and I could do something for you and all. Do you want to come to bed with me?'
She laughs, but it's very awkward. 'Erm... no.'
Bob looks up to me. It's difficult to tell whether he's glaring, or if that's just how his eyes are. 'If he wasn't here I could say more,' he growls. 'Is he your boyfriend?'
'No. He's a friend.'
Phew. Bob sighs his relief, a theatrical noise which almost makes light of the uncomfortable situation. 'I didn't think your taste in men was that bad.'
I barely know Bob. He isn't a student, but someone from the village, a regular at the White Horse which is our local pub. He's probably in his early thirties, conspicuously single, and Hollytree House - in which Alison is presently living and which serves as the venue of the party - has been traditionally populated by young female students, some of whom are - as Bob has quite clearly noticed - a bit on the tasty side. You can't really blame him for trying.
It's awkward because I've been following Alison around like a lost puppy all evening, hoping for some opening - conversational rather than gynaecological on the grounds that in an ideal world one will lead directly to the other. If I can just talk to her without interruption, if I can just get some time in which to reveal my sensitive side, if I can just...
Except I already know on some level that any effort I make in any romantic direction will be inept and intrinsically comical and is hence doomed even before I've broached the subject of my record collection. I'm wasting my time, just hanging around like this, but I can't help myself; and in some sense this situation serves me right.
Somebody told me that Bob suffered from polio as a child. This is why he alternates between crutches and a wheelchair. He has the legs of a ten-year old boy. He is like a weird human ball, a balloon with two useless strings dangling beneath, and he delights in how uncomfortable this makes the rest of us with our Ben Elton™ brand student politics, and our reluctance to say anything which might somehow make us look like arseholes and in turn reduce our chances of getting laid - pointing out that Bob is actually a disagreeable tosser, for one obvious example.
'What's the hardest part of the vegetable to digest?' he asks, savouring the horror on our faces because we've all heard the joke before, but in exclusively able-bodied company.
No-one says a word.
We laugh, but we're all trying to work out whether this is the empowerment of the differently abled through the deconstruction of offensive stereotyping, or just some poor fucking cripple jumping through hoops for attention, helping out with his own exploitation. It's okay to use the word cripple because that's how Bob describes himself. Well, okay - he doesn't, not exactly...
A year or so later, we are now sort of friends, or at least drinking buddies. Bob wheels back from the bar of the White Horse carrying one pint at a time, apologising for the delay which is due to his being a raspberry.
'You're a raspberry?'
'Raspberry ripple.' He looks at me like I'm stupid. 'I'm a fucking cripple, ain't I? I thort all you students were supposed to be intelligent.'
This is also what I once believed, but I've been taking my degree at Maidstone College of Art for almost three years, and I'm beginning to wonder. To be fair, it's not that my colleagues lack intelligence by any means, but somehow I have failed to really connect with them. I don't understand them or what motivates them, and sometimes the bewilderment seems mutual. I've been living in the village of Otham for nearly two years, and by this point have made friends with some of the locals in the pub, people my own age or a little older with no connection to either the art college or any related or conspicuously Bohemian demographic. I find their company refreshing and direct. One advantage of living in a house in which I am the only male is, I suppose, that I serve as an ambassador for those locals eager to make an impression on my housemates. They find it is easy to talk to me without giving the game away regarding any ulterior, more blatantly testicular interest in the other residents of Hollytree House; although some of the regulars are clearly less bothered about subtlety.
Dez is one such individual. When my housemates are around he wheels out clichés like the one about how they could both make beautiful music together, or he asks what a nice girl such as herself might be doing in a place like the White Horse without any trace of irony. He resembles Dickie Davies, presenter of World of Sport, and he seems to be drunk and happy most of the time. Communication is rendered almost impossible by his inability to focus on any one subject for longer than a minute, and most of the time he is lost in a quiet, happy world of his own.
'How's it going, Dez?'
He chuckles, smiles and begins to sing. 'People are strange, when you're a stranger...'
'That's the Doors, yeah?'
'Faces come out of the rain,' and more grinning, more laughter as he sinks into his seat swaying gently from side to side. He was a child of the sixties, so he once told us, although no obvious vestige of his supposed former hippiedom remains beyond the playlist of his internal jukebox. Apparently he's married, but we've never seen his wife in the pub. The quality of their relationship is probably quantified by how much time he spends here, and how none of us have ever seen him sober. Maybe she just doesn't like the Doors, which I can understand. I don't like them either.
On the other hand, I have myself come to feel something of a stranger over recent months by terms which both Dez and Jim Morrison would possibly recognise, because it's 1987 and this is the end of the road I've been on more or less since I started school. I am about to find myself squozen from the metaphorical nozzle of the education system, deposited as an incoherent and unemployable dollop upon the cold, grey cake of reality. I have no idea what I am going to do or how I am going to move forward. I have no discernible skills for which anyone in their right mind would pay me a wage. I've spent three years taking a degree course, studying film and video in a fine art context, and from this study I have learned that I have neither aptitude for nor interest in either film, video, or fine art. Up until this point it has been easy enough to coast along, picking up the grant cheques, paying the artificially reduced rent, and hoping something will come along before I'm in the position of having to worry about it; but the free ride is over. I have my useless degree, and I've spent the summer at Hollytree House, hanging on for as long as I can before the arrival of fresh students obliges me to find somewhere more expensive under my own steam. Most of the people I know have gone home to parents for the summer, so it has been just myself and the locals from the White Horse, more or less. Peculiarly, I am now one of them because I am no longer a student, just another hairy no-hoper drinking and smoking to kill time between dole cheques.
Okay - it's not so bad as all that, because I have at least learned that I am capable of making friends with regular people, people who couldn't give a shit about the films of Tarkovsky, people who don't engage themselves with projects, who don't have a show coming up in a small privately run gallery on the Upper Fant Road. Mostly we talk about music, or life and how generally shit it can be, or anything that's funny; and we drink because it provides a sense of continuity in a world of uncertainties.
Dave was the first of the locals to talk to any of the students, possibly being a little younger than most of his colleagues - closer to our age - and less inclined to join in with the ribaldry of fuckin' student scrounger arty wankers dyed hair pouff smoking that marrer-banana are you a boy or a girl, mate? Dave is well-dressed and looks sharp, like he might play the congas for Modern Romance. I think he works at Topman, but he's very funny and he likes New Model Army so he can't be all bad. Sometimes he brings someone over to our table and has me recite the lyrics to Vengeance because I know them off by heart. This is part of a campaign in which he hopes to convert others to the cause of New Model Army, so dutifully I oblige.
Escaped the net in '45, hiding out in South America,
Protected by money and powerful friends,
Hoping the world has forgotten by now,
All the things that you did in the Nazi Death camps,
The people that you tortured and killed.
You can live your life in expectant fear,
Sure some day you'll be made to pay.
I believe in justice
I believe in vengeance
I believe in getting the bastard, getting the bastard, getting the bastard...
I gulp my lager, face red from having been put on the spot whilst nevertheless enjoying the attention. Mark sits, but seems unimpressed. This is Dave's friend, a biker with the leathers and the thin spiv 'tache across a face otherwise reminding me of Bill Beaumont, captain of the England rugby team.
'Don't you think that's great?' Dave asks, incredulous.
Anyway, we talk, and weirdly we become friends over the next few evenings. Mark is intrigued by the fact that I've taken up cartooning, mainly for my own amusement. He mentions Ogri as drawn by Paul Sample in the back of Bike magazine. I remember Ogri well from reading it when my dad was a subscriber, and suddenly we have things in common.
Mark loves bikes and spends his spare time taking them apart then putting them back together again. He seems to have become something of a local authority in his field, and has a gang of little followers from around the Senacre Wood estate on the edge of Maidstone - impressionable school leavers with bum fluff moustaches who burn around the country lanes on their tinny little fizzies - a fizzy being a 50cc motorcycle of the kind you ride if you're not yet old enough to legally ride a more powerful machine. I confess to Mark that I always hated those little twerps, and so he regales me with hilarious accounts of the feckless ineptitude of his little band of acolytes. He too finds them somewhat comical. This is all conversationally alien territory for me, and not the sort of thing about which I would ordinarily give a shit, but Mark is witty and a nice bloke, and he spins a fine yarn.
We almost have a little gang now, myself, Dave and Mark, then those on the periphery such as Dez, Bob the Raspberry, and AJ.
It's difficult to figure out AJ, the bearded man-child with the squeaky voice. He seems kind of simple, but slips into nasty comments with worrying ease. Bob has become similarly difficult. His humour is a means of dealing with his disability, and because he finds it funny to make people feel uncomfortable, but sometimes he just takes the piss and needs to be reminded that we're not all the enemy. My friend Paul Mercer comes over for a drink one evening and we sit in the pub trying to come up with names for our band. Alun Jones has left Apricot Brigade and I have joined as replacement, but whereas Alun played drums, I'm operating a drum machine and playing a Roland SH09 keyboard. It will, we suppose, be very different to Apricot Brigade, so we need to come up with a new name. Our ideas are dreadful, and Bob wheels himself up to our table to suggest Artific - a variation on the word terrific which includes art because both Paul and myself were at art college. It's a terrible suggestion, but it makes a pleasant change to find Bob in jovial frame of mind, as opposed to roaring drunk and hell bent on offending as many people as possible. Sadly it doesn't seem to last and he becomes an increasingly distant figure as September approaches.
'Ain't choo bought no girls wiv you?'
'Not today, Bob.'
'Fat lot of fucking good you turned out.'
Months pass, creeping in terrifying fashion towards the date at which I must make a decision about what I am to do with my life and secure alternate accommodation before I'm physically turfed out. I'm trying not to think about it too much, but at least I can commiserate with the guys at the pub.
It's got to the stage where now, as I return from Maidstone on the bus, sometimes I'll stop off at Mark's house in Senacre Wood to see what he's up to. Usually he'll be out front, underneath his bike fiddling away. His place is easy to find because he's painted a six foot tall bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale on the door of his garage, and made quite a good job of it. I stand around in my long, long coat - acquired from Oxfam and traditionally beloved of Joy Division fans in the early 1980s - and we talk as Mark continues to piss about with carburettors and the like.
'That's the problem with working on one's machine,' he announces, getting up and reaching into a pocket. 'I keep forgetting to smoke.'
So we have a fag and talk some more.
My cartooning has achieved focus in the form of an ongoing strip which I have a vague plan of publishing as a series of fanzines. It's the story of the band I'm in - the Dovers - although most of it is either heavily embellished or completely made up, and I'm improvising as I go along with no clear idea of where it's going. The story entails Chris, our drummer, being reborn as an all-powerful force of evil named Dark Chris, and the manager of our band is former president Richard Nixon who now lives in a flat in Lewisham. Mark himself has entered the story as idol and leader of a bike gang comprising slightly clueless juveniles. He seems to appreciate my inclusion of the cartoon version of himself.
One evening he drops in on me at Hollytree House in order to inspect the progress of his latest adventures as a cartoon character, the scribblings as he calls them. Unexpectedly he has bought a notebook of his own poetry with him. I had no idea he had any creative instinct, but I guess he had no really good reason to mention it before, and probably hasn't had much encouragement. He reads some out, and I record in my diary that I am surprised and impressed, which I state as someone who generally isn't well disposed towards poetry as a medium. Mark is a dark horse, testament to my realisation that there's really no such thing as just some ordinary bloke. As I have long suspected, the dividing line between the wildly creative visionaries of art college and all those sofa-based product-sponge consumers out there on the other side is something we have invented in order to make ourselves feel special. This is the first thing to make me feel good about the prospect of life beyond the art college safety net.
Eventually, following a series of bus journeys back and forth between Otham and Maidstone, and Maidstone and Chatham, I have a new place to live in the Medway towns, specifically Glencoe Road. It's a bedsit - one large bedroom with a sink and a cooker in the corner - and is basically crappy, but it seems like a step in the right direction.
Bob lives with his mother opposite the White Horse. I've never called on him before, although sometimes I've met him at the gate and we've both gone across the road to get drunk. He's been off-ish of late, but I'm moving out of the village and that seems a big enough development to justify my calling on him. One last drink and then I'm off.
'What jew fuckin' want?' he jokes.
'Well have a nice life,' and he closes the door, and I realise he wasn't joking. I suppose it wasn't completely unexpected.
I have a final pint in the White Horse, alone, and that's the end.