Friday, 21 August 2015

Out of the Woods

As 1993 swung around, I was living in the largest room of a shared house in Lewisham, living otherwise alone and very much aware of approaching the ten year anniversary of when I'd last had a girlfriend. The ten-year anniversary of my last having experienced naughty naked nudity with a lady of the opposite sex was still a little way ahead - 1997 to be specific - but as things stood I had no reason to doubt that it was going to be an anniversary I would celebrate with a lonely beer and Death in June records. Life in London was okay but a bit solitary, and work at Royal Mail was often tough. I had discovered the music of Death in June through being a member of a group called Konstruktivists, with whom Death in June shared a distributor in the form of a company called World Serpent. At the time I subscribed to the view that Death in June were simply exploring controversial or otherwise transgressive ideas and imagery, and that when they sang songs likening, for example, a high-ranking members of Hitler's Nazi party to a bouquet of preciously scented flowers wreathed in a legacy of golden tears, I tended to give them the benefit of the doubt, appreciating the startling image for its contrast of beauty and horror. It hadn't really occurred to me that the theme of such a song might actually state a belief of the gentleman in question having been a right nice bloke and someone to be admired.

I was slowly slipping off the deep end, and I was dimly aware of the process. Both the cartoons and the music I produced, by which I justified my existence, were becoming increasingly cranky and prone to the psychological quirks of the terminally insular - cruel humour and a delight taken in provocative authoritarian imagery. I was heading down the bitter road trodden by fifty-year old men who never leave home but continue to live in the houses in which they grew up, eventually marrying someone resembling their own late mothers. I was developing a condition which might best be described as an ingrowing personality, the end result of belief in one's own bullshit - the lies we all tell ourselves in preference to owning up to either flaws or failure. Thankfully this was the point at which Mandy showed up.

Mandy was a friend and former flatmate of Christine, girlfriend and her indoors to Carl, my bestest pal. We met each other a couple of times in mixed company at pubs, but the encounters had not made any significant impression upon me, probably because I had been sat in the corner nursing a pint and frowning whilst thinking really hard about Death in June records, about no-one understanding me, and about how none of them could ever hope to appreciate the pain of my daily existence, a pain which I bore without complaint because I knew it was my duty and my burden to be so much more deep and meaningful than everyone else. Thankfully, the encounter made some impression on Mandy, and an impression which was at least different to the one I had been straining to project.

She sent me a card on Valentine's Day, which pretty much knocked me sideways. It wasn't that I never received Valentine's Day cards so much as that when I did they were usually sarcastic to some degree. Detective work followed, resulting in conclusive proof of source and sincerity, and then a phone number; and I phoned her up just like that. It had never before occurred to me that this was how it worked, that you could just phone someone up if you knew they liked you, and you could phone them up with some sort of expectation of things moving along. Until that point my understanding of the politics of sexual attraction was based on the idea that if you liked someone, it was best to make sure that they never found out. So much for that biology 'O' level.

We met one Sunday evening in a pub on Lewisham Way in New Cross. It was a date, I suppose you would say. I'd had my hair cut specifically for the occasion. We talked and she laughed at my jokes, which wasn't something I had anticipated. She told me that she really wished I hadn't had my hair cut, and that I should probably shave off the ludicrous beard I'd been cultivating in hope of it making me appear intellectually florid. We seemed to like roughly the same music, and even though everything seemed to be going swimmingly, just like on the telly, I still couldn't quite bring myself to acknowledge the reason for our both happening to be there in that pub and at that time. This seemed to amuse Mandy no end.

'I er um,' I suggested helplessly. 'Well it's just that like er I um sort of well we er you know well I,' and so on and so forth, and then a kiss just happened as though brought on by some intangible force, as I suppose it was. I stroked her hair and said, 'you have a really nice skull,' then immediately realised that I had just told my date she had a really nice skull. I was unaccustomed to any sort of physical contact, and this was the thing which had occurred to me and the words had just fallen out of my mouth. She seemed to understand, although that didn't keep her from laughing at the absurdity of a significantly weird observation.

We settled into a routine of dates here and there, getting to know each other better, mapping the territory of our relationship. We went to see a ton of bands together - Suede, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Manic Street Preachers, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails, Lydia Lunch and others. Then on Friday the 14th of May, 1993 as we sat drinking in the Nag's Head in Rochester, Kent, Mandy suggested we should consider looking for a place in which we would live together. I recall the proposal having been made in the Nag's Head, and the date is written on a Polaroid photograph taken at the time. We had gone down to the Medway towns in Kent for a day out, and the Polaroid SX-70 camera went everywhere with me. It had been a Christmas or birthday present and I'd had it since 1981, but had never really got much use out of it because the film was so expensive. Now I had a job and a weekly wage and could afford to splash out the occasional fifteen quid on one of those cartridges of ten snaps and the necessary flash bar, although somehow I was still too cheap to buy myself a proper camera, which would have paid for itself within a month at the rate at which I had begun snapping photographs. Being in a relationship at long last had made me suddenly conscious of the passage of time, of how many years already seemed to have passed without consequence. My life was moving forward, and I took to documenting people and places as though I knew I would never see any of them again. Accordingly I have over three-hundred Polaroid photographs mostly commemorating my drinking habits between the years 1993 and 1995.

Mandy and I had been seeing each other for about three months before deciding to look for a place together; and the first photograph taken at our new shared flat in Derwent Grove, East Dulwich is one of myself, sat in the kitchen in my Royal Mail uniform smoking a fag. The date written at the bottom of the picture is 16th of December, 1993, which was a Thursday, and so I assume we must have moved in around the beginning of the month. We had not yet even known each other a year, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time, and neither of us was getting any younger.

Our relationship was neither the smoothest nor the most tempestuous in human history. Sometimes it was fun, and other times it was a pain in the arse, but most of the time it was nevertheless better than being single. Mandy was an extrovert with an occasionally raucous, even somewhat volcanic personality, whilst I was roughly the opposite. I had always imagined that true love - as seen on television - would be intense and all-consuming once it came my way, because my belief in smouldering love affairs of the kind which might be soundtracked by Cocteau Twins albums had remained more or less unchanged since I was about thirteen. I had difficulty adjusting to the realisation that this wasn't how it worked in the real world, and so I was quite insecure and needy, alternating with brooding and bitterness at the universe having betrayed my vision of perfect, everlasting romance.

Mandy's younger sister, recently finished at university, came to live with us with the intention of finding work in the capital, which she eventually did. Some days I found this awkward, even a little crowded, and at other times it was something of a relief to have another person there, meaning it was less awkward on those days when Mandy and I didn't seem to have a whole lot to say to each other. Then about a year and a half after we moved in together, I moved out, having found a cheap but generally decent flat in which to live in Lordship Lane. Mandy had been pursuing a course of art education and would soon be moving to Norwich to take a degree, and I wouldn't be able to afford the place in Derwent Grove on my own so it had seemed a good idea to take the new flat while it was available. This left just the younger sister, Zoe, although she appeared to be on the verge of moving into her own place anyway, which was what she did. It turns out that it also left Mandy somewhat homeless given there still being four months to go before she migrated to Norwich, and so she came to live with me in Lordship Lane for a while.

This was a strange time, neither one thing nor the other. It was obvious that things weren't entirely great between us, and whatever we had shared would soon be drawing to the end of its natural life; but on the other hand we didn't really discuss it. It was just there, something which was going to happen and which had to happen regardless of how anyone felt about it. Worse still, Buster our beloved cat was run over within weeks of moving to Lordship Lane. He was large and black with a white bib, about four years old, and we loved him. Losing him was horrible.

Eventually September rolled around, and by wearisome coincidence my thirtieth birthday was also Mandy's final night in London. We had some friends around for a drink and a send off, but I found it a strange, sombre occasion. At the end of the evening she said, 'don't go funny on me,' because she knew me well.

'I won't,' I said, feeling as though I was helping out in my own crucifixion. As relationships went, there was some room for improvement, but it was nevertheless the only relationship of a kind which included me, and I couldn't even work out how I felt about it coming to an end. About a month later, I wrote:

Things have calmed down a lot. Mandy has gone to do a three year degree in fine art so I guess that's the end of that. I felt fucking gutted for a few days but I feel pretty good right now as it happens. My flat is clean, tidy, organised, and run along lines so strictly efficient as to put the golden years of Mussolini's Italy to shame.

Mandy had moved, and we had seen each other once or twice since when she came to collect what remained of her stuff. We even wrote to one another, but we now had separate lives and I really needed to get on with mine; and unfortunately in order to do so I needed to do something with all those conflicting emotions, because I needed my relationship ragnarok to be as dark and important as it had been in my imagination; plus I was now free to mutter and mumble about everything that had irritated me during the previous three years. I went funny, just as Mandy anticipated.

I nursed that resentment for years, telling myself it had all been her, not me, and all the usual crap which is better than facing up to the reality of your own bullshit. It made me feel better about the present. The truth was that I had gone into the relationship as the pure little soul, sat alone in his room clutching a single rose, unwilling and ill-equipped to engage with the real world; and the real world had accordingly kicked my ass. I eventually came to realise this during the last few months of my next relationship, another decade down the line. I had gone into this one with eyes open, anticipating a smoother ride through having learned from previous mistakes; except I hadn't really learned from previous mistakes and it all went tits up, albeit for entirely different reasons. Then one evening I found all of my old Polaroid photographs and began scanning them in a fit of nostalgia.

Marian looked on with a faintly acidic expression. 'I'm not sure how I feel about you looking through pictures of your old girlfriend.' Marian's position regarding her own history was, so far as I could tell, that it served to explain the psychological misery of the present, and was the source of those obstacles which she must overcome in order to attain acceptitude of holistic winningness and developmental emboldenation. In practical terms this meant destroying old photographs, or at least tearing them in two and burning the half featuring the person whom she would no longer even name, and then blaming everything else on her mother.

I thought of Marian attributing all the evil of the world to the legions of those who had let her down, then considered those old pictures of Mandy, pulling faces with a pint in her hand, howling with laughter at a bus-stop after some gig, stood on the beach in Anglesey proudly displaying the package of Pennywise brand sanitary towels which would fall from her bag at Crewe station only to be retrieved by actor Kevin Lloyd - then better known as Tosh Lines from The Bill - with the words 'I think you dropped these, miss.'

At least you could have a laugh with Mandy, I thought to myself, realising that this particular extended lesson had at last reached its punchline.

Another five years have passed, and it is Thursday the 28th of May, 2015. I am in a pub in London, an unusual situation for me given that my default setting is now married and sort of Texan. I am back in the old country visiting friends, specifically Carl and Christine on the occasion of their getting married. Mandy is also around somewhere, so some form of circle has probably just been completed. We meet and it's strange but wonderful as we talk, and as we talk without my finding myself filtering everything through the usual residual cynicism. We've both been through different kinds of sausage machine since we were last face to face, nearly two decades previous, but we seem to have come out of the other side, out of the woods you might say. Mandy is now a successful artist and soon to be a teacher, which she credits to my influence with far more generosity than I feel I deserve. Her life has followed an unorthodox course, but one which has at least been more interesting than it looked like being when first we met; and of course the same has been true of my own life. Were I able to go back, I would tell my younger self to lighten the fuck up, to take the moment for what it is, and to refrain from imposing upon everything expectations of Biblical scale importance; although I know my younger self wouldn't listen, and in any case maybe the important thing was that Mandy saved me from the evils of an ingrowing personality, even if it's taken me a while to realise as much.

We spend most of the evening talking, catching up, and comparing notes, and it's not as though no time has passed because actually it's much better, and to my own very pleasant surprise I realise that I am proud of this woman, and proud to know her.

So I got there in the end.

We both did.

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