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Danny’s Navel Adventure. by Toni Bryan



PUBLISHED BY: Toni Bryan on Smashwords

Danny‟s Navel Adventure Copyright © 2010 by Toni Bryan

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

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***** Dedicated to My Son, Tony


A special word of thanks. To my dear friends, Dino, Mary, and Stefan, who provided the necessary inspiration and to whom I sincerely apologise for the outrageous liberties I have taken in their name for the sake of art and tongue in cheek humour. My deepest thanks to Stela Ivanova for her continuing belief in me, generosity of time and spirit in having to endure my alleged wit.

This story is a humorous look at life and how the determination of one man can lead him into the most ridiculous of situations. It‟s my hope that you enjoy this and that by the time you‟ve finished reading it, life won‟t be as bad as it might seem. Above all it is a story about love and the need to express our humanity. I hope you agree.

***** DANNY’S NAVEL ADVENTURE The greatest questions always arise from those moments spent in the luxury of complete idleness!


1 Questions get you into trouble Coming from that great garden of social delinquents, ne‟er do wells, scoundrels, and general miscreants, the working class, I don‟t suppose I gave the subject of the fairer sex or love much thought. Which for a man, born into humble and Neanderthal origins, that‟s neither surprising or that unusual if the truth be known. However, and I say this sheepishly and in a hushed whisper so my fellow brethren won‟t catch it, that behind every brilliant, or otherwise, man there‟s a genius of a woman if we‟re being truthful about it. Not for one moment would I ever tell a woman that, although they like to keep reminding us of the laws of nature. The laws of nature, according to women, are that men are endowed with two brains and if it wasn‟t for women neither would get much use. If I‟m being honest again, which for the male species is a bit of an oxymoron, I don‟t suppose that they‟re that far from the truth. As you can probably guess from the tone of the conversation so far, well it‟s not a conversation really given that I‟m actually sitting here talking to myself, I‟m having a few doubts about this and that. For reasons beyond a man‟s logic, most women complain about this because you prefer talking to yourself rather than them. But sometimes you need to talk to yourself because it‟s the only way the world makes any sense, and based on my own experience I‟m in no doubt that a woman‟s world, on the whole, makes absolutely no sense at all. But women never tire of telling you that their world makes perfect sense, whilst your world is just utter nonsense. Whose side you‟re on depends, largely, on whether you‟re wearing a skirt or trousers. And as women wear both whenever it suits them, I guess the odds are largely stacked in their favour. Anyway I digress from what I was thinking about sitting in this old, much beloved, battered armchair of mine, which was the subject of love. In biological terms I suppose the idea of creating man in evolutionary terms was to create a hairy body that would keep him warm when he got thrown out of the cave after an argument with the wife. What the argument was about in the beginning I think men have forgotten about in the mists of time. But to my knowledge women keep reminding us of it, but because it happened a long time ago, and men having a notoriously short attention and memory span, men don‟t have a clue what their women are going on about so they just agree with her, if only to

keep the decibels down to a decently low level. This makes the woman feel superior to the man. The man, meanwhile, then believes he‟s inferior because he couldn‟t put forward an argument that had any useful meaning to it. That‟s on account he doesn‟t have a clue what the argument is about. But the woman does so therefore it makes perfect sense to her but no sense to him. I know that I‟m digressing but looking at your naked navel makes you think all kinds of weird and wonderful things, which are totally irrelevant to what you were thinking about in the first place, love. For a man I know that I‟m in real danger of falling flat on my face, after all love is like the splitting of the atom; get it wrong and all hell is let loose. But then being a man reckless stupidity is one of our finer points. All you know is that love is there but you can‟t see it, which puts it on a par with wind, which men are naturally inclined to share. Of course on St. Valentine‟s Day it‟s no coincidence that the Beaufort scale rises in direct proportion to be the amount of wind being expelled in the name of love. Personally, I think it‟d be a great idea if February 14 th was declared a global public holiday and everyone had to spend the day in bed with their beloved, whether that be the wife, girlfriend, boyfriend or five-finger Grace, which if you‟re unsure about and have never been a confirmed bachelor, it‟s your hand; right or left doesn‟t matter so long as it‟s a snug fit. In a perfect world women would also make every man responsible for getting up to make breakfast, but I can see the problems with that if you‟re gay. Which man would make breakfast? And if you‟re a lesbian there isn‟t a man to do it. If you‟re a man alone is breakfast all that important? And if it is you‟d probably be wishing that that there was a woman next to you as she‟d probably take care of it. And if you‟re a woman on your own, you‟re probably glad that you don‟t have to get out of that very nice, warm, comfortable bed and can have a decent lie in. On reflection it‟s probably a stupid idea, especially if you have kids who think the parents have gone completely demented because instead of the normal arguments and inane insults flying around the kitchen table, there are two love sick animals lying in bed who should be put out of their misery and shot. Have you ever noticed how pre-teenagers think you‟re being naughty if you show any kind of love and affection, whilst teenagers think that you should be shot for being so disgusting because you‟re way past the age of love and sex; teenagers think sex is something they‟ve discovered and can‟t cope with parents who ruin their street cred. And whilst I‟m at it I‟d outlaw the likes of Hallmark and all those bloody rose growing companies on the 14th. They just make men look guilty when they forget it‟s Valentine‟s Day, or letting their women folk think that it‟s the only day of the year when men are supposed to be in love with them. But you have to agree that love is something that you can‟t really explain. I mean when you say “I love you” in English the woman looks at you all gooey eyed, and then in the next moment thinks you‟ve been up to no good and guilty of something akin to murder. Maybe it might be a damn sight easier if we were to learn it in Spanish “Yo te amo”. Then at least, being English, it‟d have an exotic, romantic, feeling that love is supposed to have. Of course you‟d probably end up being worse off. As a woman‟s logic would likely be that you‟re uttering something that‟s not what it‟s meant to be, but

some form of devious code for calling her a stupid idiot. I don‟t suppose men can win either way. Here you have to envy women because they seem to have love sussed out. Cynics out there might say that‟s because women are genetically programmed for love, which doesn‟t really explain why Ma Barker loved her sons but was equally happy with murdering people. Others might add that love is a woman‟s thing, that‟s on a par with the monthly period. Men know it happens but want to avoid it like the plague; others might happily conclude that women lead men to think love is sex, because foreplay has something to do with making love. But thinking about it, and if I‟m being really objective about it, women do have a better understanding of what love is, or supposed to be. Of course men have a vague idea of what it is but no great understanding of what it really is; apart from it being three useful words in the beginning of a relationship that opens the way to a woman‟s knickers. And much later on, three words that lead to problems because you‟ve forgot to say it with the same feeling as you did in the beginning, or you forget to say them with any kind of spontaneity later on.

2 Philosophy So there was the crux of my problem, sitting in my old battered armchair, that‟s outlasted every relationship I‟ve ever been in; and I‟d imagine that most men are naturally great philosophers in old battered armchairs, my mind became preoccupied with what exactly was love? Sometimes it comes to pass, for no reason at all as in this particular case, that a question begins to bug you, nagging away, interfering with your normal delusions, most of which are determined by the amount of little testosterone men wearing hard hats there are in either brain. Now I could‟ve been a real man, you know one of those fabled outlaws who‟d been involved in an audacious, and successful, bank robbery, riding hard across the American mid-west plains for six days without a change of underwear, who having arrived in a small town heads for the saloon, his manly scent enough to kill a skunk dead in its tracks. Yes, I could‟ve been a real man proudly wearing underwear that would‟ve stood upright when removed, scowling and trying to look like Hannibal Lector without any emotion in my body. But that‟s not me; no matter how big a testosterone punch kicks in. When I‟m alone in the armchair, I‟m sort of soft, blubbery, in that kind of cute seal pup way, before it gets whacked across the back of the head by an hairy arsed Canadian participating in the annual rites of passage seal cull. As a member of a strange sub species of the Neanderthal family I occasionally like to stretch the grey matter into a warp zone once in a while. And whilst any woman worth her salt might think that men have two totally useless brains, I sat comfortably in the most relaxing place in the world, or at least my world, I dare say that they‟d be gobsmacked to find me giving any thought to the idea of love in a purely philosophical way. But gazing at your navel, where the hairs sort of form surreal patterns that have a mind of their own, and which would have caused Jackson Pollack to paint in another style had he realised the potential of belly button hairs to break every abstract and surrealist rule, the upper brain becomes full of quite useful, or useless, questions that need an answer of some description. The lower brain simply sleeps because that‟s all it does these days. So it goes without saying that for most men, the notion of love is to go where the angels fear to tread. If you‟re the Neanderthal sort of guy love is a four-letter word,

which if used sparingly brings in the kind of thirty-second response you‟re genetically programmed for on a good day. Or if dwelt on as a subject, thought of in any great detail and talked about, you‟re labelled a raving gay screaming to be freed from the closet. By the way, as the thought aimlessly floats through this vast desert of intellectual pretentiousness, women expect you to say that you love them but don‟t expect to hear it said too often. If you do they think you‟re heading towards being incarcerated in the local nuthouse, or worse they think you‟re hiding some secret from them and so view your declaration of love with great suspicion. As I sit here in my armchair, wondering why it is that some of the hairs around my belly button go one way, whilst others go another way; or why some hairs are longer than the others; or why the hairs in your belly button are called fluff; I take a break from the intellectualising and actually wonder if I‟ve ever truly been in love. Now the very thought of broaching the subject of love for most men only happens when they‟ve become, how shall I say it… oh yes…tired and emotional; which means that they‟re at that point in the evening when they let their guard drop, distinctly merry and well on the way to becoming as drunk as a celibate bishop high on the fragrance of his house keeper‟s knickers wafting about outside on the clothesline. Even here macho rules apply because the subject can only be discussed with someone they can trust who‟s also had one too many beers. Should they be on their own and start the conversation with a likely looking fellow male sympathiser, it‟s almost certain they‟ll get short shrift along with threats of serious physical damage at worst, or being subjected to the most lucid anally retentively colourful language known to the male species, at best. And this is how it is when a stalwart member of the male species opens his mouth and the word „love‟ carelessly falls from his upper orifice. It doesn‟t take much effort to picture the scene of two male friends sitting at a pub table bemoaning the fact that the „old lady‟ doesn‟t understand them. So the world as they know it is against them and they‟re feeling sorry for themselves, and they‟re fed up with talking about sports, politics and work. Eventually, because there‟s nothing else to talk about, they start to slide into a territory they‟ve never been comfortable with, soften up and feeling very relaxed, due to the excess of dutch courage, begin to talk nonchalantly about love. “You ever been in love.” The first philosophy asks the other. “Course.” The second philosopher replies with an expression of complete uncertainty. “How did you know you were in love?” The first philosopher enquires with all the bravado of a young monkey swinging from a branch high up in the tree canopy for the first time without its mother on hand to rescue him if it all goes badly wrong. “I just knew I was. What about you?” The second philosopher answers without answering the first philosopher, throwing the ball back into his opponent‟s court. “I was the same.” The first philosopher returns the service with a crafty backhand stroke. “How many times you been in love?” The first philosopher asks, hoping to catch the second philosopher on the back foot.

“About the average.” The second philosopher answers in the way all men do when wishing to give the impression that the middle stump has seen plenty of action on the cricket field. “Me too. Fancy another pint?” Both philosophers concede a draw so as not to lose face in front of the other; both subconsciously accepting that any emotional display is quite likely to lead to some form of public ridicule. “Wouldn‟t mind. All this talk about love is thirsty work.” When you think about this type of conversation, you sort of realise that love is a taboo subject for a man. Suddenly it dawns on you that you‟re now in your middle ages, men haven‟t, frighteningly, progressed that far in terms of Darwinian thinking. So having reached this point in life, and because you‟re bored with counting the hairs around your navel and wondering if it‟s possible to use the hairs attached to your belly button for a hair transplant because you're getting balder each day, you do a summing up. Then you suddenly realise that you‟re stumped for an answer because you have no idea if you‟ve ever truly been in love. And if you have been in love, how do you know that you‟ve been in love? All of a sudden it dawns on you that you may not have actually been in love, but spent your life seriously in lust; which, being a man, you thought was love. Sitting there counting how many navel hairs have started to turn grey, for no other reason than it stimulates the shallow probing of an infertile mind, the problem of being in lust or love causes a ripple of concern; it only being a ripple because being a real man it‟s easier to deal with lust than with the subject of love. After all lust takes up only the space in your brains that it‟s supposed to, ten minutes of grunting and groaning about the size of breasts, the shapely bum and so on; for the lower brain the activity lasts no longer than thirty seconds on a fairly good day. But love is far more complex, and to the mind of a man love comes either as a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates, and as both bring a smile to the face of the one you love that simply confirms it is love. But then she throws a spanner in the works when both brains fail to function and she asks the question “Don’t you love me anymore?” By saying this, she‟s simply confirming that love is lust and lust is love. But then she confuses the issue even further by trying to make you feel better by saying things in a very soft, soothing voice, which for some reason makes you feel like you‟re in bed with your mother, who‟s, god forbid, naked. To some men, the sight of their mother lying next to them naked might have some kind of strange appeal; after all, if we‟re being honest about the matter of love, some men take the idea of “a mother’s love” just a bit too far for my liking, as you‟ll no doubt discover if you‟re inclined to read the tabloid press. The thought of my lying next to my seventy year old, shrivelled up, toothless mother who‟s the size of Buckingham Palace, is too horrifying to even contemplate for one nano second. And thinking about it such a scene wouldn‟t get into a Stephen King novel as he‟d be having nightmares just contemplating it. Anyway, not wanting to dwell on the fact that once upon a time I was the result of either lust or love, and certainly not wanting to have a mental picture of my naked mother spread-eagled on the bed, I quickly decide that, as I understand lust and I don‟t

understand what love really is, and as Iâ€&#x;ve got nothing better to do with my time, Iâ€&#x;d do some research on the matter.

3 Cavemen know best Being a man, logical thought is a pretty normal affair so I decided to call Dennis, a close friend whom I‟d shared many a drunken night with. After another mug of coffee, and lifting my T-shirt to see if my belly button would further inspire me and help clear the muddy waters, I called him; Dennis is an old mate from my university days and when it comes to women a veritable font of information, most of it dodgy. Dennis‟s idea of the “ideal woman” is that she should be rich, deaf and dumb, and own a very large brewery. In addition she should be intelligent enough to know where the rubbish goes, be able to make endless cups of coffee, be the perfect hostess and servile, have the perfect body, hairless apart from on top of her head, all her own teeth, wears a thong, and will give into his every sexual whim, which listening to him is vast. He once told me that there are two kinds of women; those you shag and those you talk to. I reckon that if he got involved with a woman who could talk and shag he‟d end up in the nuthouse suffering from a terminal case of incurable bewilderment. “Hi Dennis” “What‟s up?” Dennis asked without any thought to a cordial greeting. I never took offence at Dennis‟s lack of cordiality; it was part of his personality, or lack of it, when he answered the phone and knew you. “Nowt much, just in a bit of a quandary.” I said in my normal non-committal tone of voice, not wishing to appear any less of a man than Dennis. This was difficult as Dennis considered Neanderthal man the perfect role model, something you should aspire to on an hourly or daily basis. “How long she been up the duff?” Dennis thinks a quandary is some kind of problem related to sex, and despite his very expensive education will never be persuaded that it‟s not. “No; nothing like that. Anyway I haven‟t had a bonk for ages…” “Well the bitch is on heat if you fancy a change!” Even for Neanderthal man Dennis‟s idea of a sense of humour leaves you cold at times. “God, you‟re a perverted bastard!” “Lovely ain‟t it! So what‟s the prob?”

“Well I‟ve been trying to understand what love is, the emotion that is. You any ideas?” “You gone for the back alley?” This was Dennis‟s way of asking if I‟d become gay. “Fuck off you idiot! No I haven‟t. I was just wondering about it, that‟s all.” The phone went silent for a few seconds, and then there was this crescendo of laughter from Dennis. “You‟re fucking barmy! What the fuck do you want to understand? Look mate, it‟s easy. You say, “I love you” to the bird and she thinks you do. You buy her chocs and a bunch of pansies and say “I love you” and you prove you do. Now when she says it, you know for definite she‟s gone all mushy on you and getting into her knickers ain‟t gonna be a prob for a while. You see mate it‟s important that she‟s under the impression that you love her, but you don‟t have to love her in that soppy, hairy fairy, “I‟m a raving kind of poofter” way. Jesus mate! If we all start asking what the fuck love is, there isn‟t gonna be a man left to hold his head high.” “But I thought it was something more than that.” I asked, sounding a little too naive. “Jesus! You doing dope you plonker?” According to the world of Dennis, a man showing the least bit of emotion was either a smackhead, in need of a swift boot up the arse, or should be sent to the local mental asylum for an unspecified length of time. “No, I just got intrigued by the thought.” “Look, when it concerns a bird all you think of is fucking the arse off her. If she‟s tasty then hang on to her and have some fun, but for fuck‟s sake forget the love crap. It ain‟t healthy for blokes to think like arse stabbers.” As can be guessed, Dennis has never got to grips with the fact that we‟re living in politically correct times. “Thanks for the advice, see you at the party.” “Yes, and for christ‟s sake go and get laid! See you mate!” Dennis was in fits of hysterical laughter as I put the phone down. Although I‟d known Dennis for years I had doubts about what he‟d said, and decided to ignore it. I‟ve no idea if I was getting soft in my old age but I seemed to be on a different planet to him.

4 techno-4-idiots Being of a logical disposition my first port of call was the Internet, which really does no more than prove that men have the potential to provide the world with something extremely useful, but instead end up using it to pamper to the lowest common denominator, the second brain. The great joy of the “search box” is that techno idiots like me can enter two words, my English teacher would‟ve been proud of me, and up pops a thousand pages of information, which gives the upper brain such a jolt that I‟m tempted to suck my thumb. But you can‟t blame the Internet, after all it‟s the perfect slave to man‟s every whim; O that women were as subservient and that the illusory “G spot” was nothing more than the “G” on the keyboard, easily found and touched, giving a gentle squeak when pressed. I can‟t help but think that the world of sex might be far more satisfactory if women were as user friendly as a computer keyboard. The only problem when using the all singing all dancing twenty year old 386 pc at my disposal is that it‟s so slow, so slow that if it was entered into a race against a snail and a slug, it would come in third. I take some comfort in the fact that this wonder of ancient technology works precisely at the speed my upper brain functions; which happily means it doesn‟t moan, groan and utter obscenities when I touch the wrong button. Typing the word “love” into the empty search box fills me with a feeling of excitement, a longing that I‟ll find, in the space of milliseconds, the answer to my quest. I sit mesmerised by the icon spinning in a wondrous centrifugal way, and although it‟s no different to watching the washing machine turn endlessly, there‟s a real sense of adventure in the unknown. Pandora‟s box finally arrived, delivering millions of links to the world of love. A colossal number of opportunities to find out whether I‟d been in love or not. Millions of ways of spending the next forty years stuck in front of the pc screen, my eyes slowly dimming, sliding helplessly into total blindness. For a moment or so I sat there thinking of being a real man and ploughing through the never ending links to unknown pages hanging about in cyberspace, waiting to be tickled. The thought of what Phillip Marlowe would have done, faced with such a mass of evidence, didn‟t help much, nor did the

fleeting image of Miss Marples bent over the table, the tweed skirt of her twin set rising, slightly revealing a pair of virgin white frilly knickers causing the lower brain to shrink inwardly, leaving me in no doubts that the night ahead was going to be a very long one. As for Sherlock Holmes, another trip spent on cocaine, heroin or morphine might have continued to better occupy his time. Faced with the prospect of ploughing through a never ending Everest sized amount of pages containing who knows what, I returned to the kitchen to make a very large mug of strong coffee, which contained enough sugar to keep my doctor verbally entertained and active for three months. Returning to the normally comfortable chair on which I was to become even more intimately involved, I could‟ve sworn it had become more like “old sparky” than the plush leather piece of luxurious decadence I‟d spent many a happy hour sat in. Manfully I took charge, although, as with every manful activity, this was just an illusion pampering to notions of grandeur that never stand up to any superficial scrutiny. The truth is that men either have a tendency to be like Dennis, stooped, hairy and no knuckles on his hands due to them having so much contact with the ground; or able to operate any form of technology because it‟s designed by another man. Those things in the kitchen, washing machines, irons, vacuum cleaners etc are only understood by women because they were designed by men so as not to be used by men; thriving at the apex of the food chain I nibbled on a fairy cake. Idle curiosity, for a man, is a bit like making determined New Year resolutions, a good idea after drinking ten pints of chemically enhanced, liberally mixed with gas and brown water that revels in the name of British beer. But the after morning plunge into reality, throbbing head, a gut suffering from chronic heaving, and a backside so hot it needs a session of colonic irrigation by the local fireman putting his hosepipe where the sun has never seen the light of day. Whilst no man worth his salt would ever consider complaining about the rigours of war, I being in a present state of some delicacy due to my quest, which is allowed because occasionally men do have a sensitive side, I stare at the Internet list in front of me. Any man who can use a computer is, in my eyes, perfectly capable of working out acronyms and for the next three boring hours, despite the odd feeling of immense superiority having cracked this or that rare code, I discovered that geek speak was way beyond my simple ken. Even Ghandi would‟ve been hard pressed to find any kinder word than idiot to explain how I felt. Out of boredom, I suppose, or appealing to my macho mentality, which is more likely, I moved the sweaty covered mouse and pointed the cursor at a word I‟d never seen before, “MILF”. Although curiosity should have got the better of me, and under any other circumstances I‟d have immediately clicked on it, I spent a little time exercising the vastly undeveloped single cell sitting atop my shoulders. It‟s a sight to behold, and any man watching another man in a state of thought will telepathetically urge him on to even greatly inspired peaks of banal drivel. Working on the assumption that each man on earth has a brain containing one cell, mostly in a state of torpor, there are approximately three billion brain cells lazily drifting through life, it‟s

quite depressing to realise that the total world population of male brain cells would fit in twenty female brains. After thirty minutes of getting nowhere, apart from the nervous system calming down due to the deluge of caffeine racing through my slowly clogging arteries and veins, I finally gave into the inevitable defeat and clicked on the search page that put the word milf halfway down. Never in my worst nightmare did I ever envisage the pictures I was now sat in front of. My eyes blinked in horror; my eyes screwed up so tight that the vacuum behind them was threatening to drag the optical nerve backwards, with the avowed intention of strangling the life out of the solitary cell, now hopelessly lost in the confusing vast emptiness of my upper brain. The wind outside rattled the window frames, the room spun, my mouth agape, the single cell working so frantically it was in danger of immediate overload, the thought of self-combustion becoming a swift reality; death a mere second away. Do you ever get that peculiar feeling? The one full of disgust, where, no matter the honourable intention at the beginning, you end up feeling like a perverted idiot? It‟s a delicate son‟s nightmare to see a crinkly old woman cavorting around, naked apart from the enormous pair of knickers that must have been the inspiration behind Baden Powell‟s successful attempts to house twenty-four pubescent spotty male teenagers under the same canvas roof. Her bra would have served as a pair of swinging hammocks for two brawny sailors, serving aboard a submarine. As for the picture of this lusty female, it‟s impossible to believe that she could be that supple: I mean when did you ever see a sixtyfive year old, bent over, poking her head through her open legs, greedily feeding on something I‟d rather not describe. True I‟m being a little over dramatic...but who wouldn‟t be if they were faced with an image that bore a striking resemblance to my mother.

5 “The font of all knowledge... especially when it comes to a pink blancmange” The Internet proved a disaster, and having discovered that “MILF” means “Mothers I‟d Like to Fuck.” I gave it up pronto, if not sooner. Sexually rampant grannies isn‟t something that bears thinking about, and certainly not to be contemplated when I think of my own mother; who I‟ll only ever believe spends her days in such exciting pursuits as knitting the horrible socks she gives me every birthday, Christmas and at any other time of her choosing. With the Internet out of the way I decided to start from a woman‟s point of view. A fleeting moment of logic dictated here that women‟s stuff, books, magazines and so on, were a great source of material; and so it proved, but not in the way that I‟d expected. The first step was to try and understand what a woman thought love was. Being a man and not knowing any better, I remembered seeing a programme on the telly all about love. The one woman that I can remember waxing lyrically about it was this enormous old bird, dressed from head to foot in pink. She had black eyelashes the length of a peacock‟s tail, and was reclining on a chaise longue, reminding me of some antiquated madam who owned a French brothel. I still recall looking at this pink vision; she looked somewhat comical especially when she spoke. It was like watching a talking pink blancmange, speaking with a very aristocratic accent, as though the only thing that had ever been in her mouth was a couple of cooking plums. Anyway, I didn‟t really take her all that seriously. It‟s a problem I‟ve got with my betters, the educated British middle class. When it comes to the English language they either speak in words that sound good but mean nothing, or they speak with a tongue that spends its time more usefully licking bottoms. Be that as it may, and I was blowed if I could remember what her name was, I traipsed off to the public library to see if they could help. The girl at the information counter was a bespectacled thing, sort of mousy in a vulnerable kind of way, standing about five-foot three inches. She was dressed in jeans and I presume a white polo shirt, she had this loose fitting navy blue jumper on so I couldn‟t really tell. I suppose she was

the junior librarian, having just finished her studies or had recently graduated from a college or university somewhere. “Good morning sir. How may I help you?” As she said this I noticed that she‟d already assumed the air of the typical librarian. She looked at me as though I was a hopeless case. Someone, who didn‟t know one end of a bookcase from the other, or that catalogue numbers were a method of quickly identifying what section you should be looking in. She also adopted that peculiar librarian habit of peering over the top of her glasses so as to infer she was intellectually more superior than I was. It didn‟t matter that I‟d been through a lifetime of real experiences, and that I was probably twice her age. She obviously thought that the real world was in a book somewhere. I, being a man and human, was obviously far less interesting than Gulliver on his travels. “Morning. I‟m looking for romance.” I said, happy that I‟d begun my quest. “Perhaps you might try the personal columns in the Nightly Post sir” She replied condescendingly. “No I‟m not looking for real romance; I‟m looking for romantic books.” I replied with a hint of sarcasm. “Ah. Do you want male, female or gay writers? The way she slightly drawled out the word “gay” in a hushed whispered tone of voice I took it that she thought I was gay. “Well female actually. It‟s for a research project I‟m doing at the moment.” For some reason my voice suddenly became deeper. “Novels, biographies, poetry?” Librarians have this annoying habit of being very specific I thought. “Oh…urh…I‟m not sure. Any advice?” I said this in a professorial tone of voice, kind of absentminded and vague. “Well if I knew what kind of research it was, I might be able to help you.” She said this in a tone that indicated I was something of a moron. “Ah yes…” I said in my best imitation Einstein voice, “…well I saw this very large pink blancmange speaking with an aristocratic voice on a television programme, she was talking about the idea of love and what it meant. I thought that might be a good starting point, but I‟ve no idea what her name is.” The look she gave me left me in no doubt that I was a moron. “One moment sir, I‟ll go and ask the senior librarian if they know who you mean.” Her expression left me in no doubt that I was a pain in the neck, and that she had better things to do with her time. I stood at the counter and waited for what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only five minutes or so. The time dragged by, mostly because this old biddy behind me kept looking at me, as though I was an inmate at the local nuthouse. You could see her mind doing overtime, conjuring up perverted stories about a fifty year old guy asking very young librarians for “dirty books”. For some reason I began to feel very guilty; much in the same way you do when you see a police officer approach you, looking at you with beady eyes, eyeing you and down, sussing out whether you‟re on the wanted poster back at the nick. “It seems sir, that the lady author, to whom you referred to as a “pink blancmange”, is none other than the prolific romantic novelist, Brenda Castle.” This was said in a

somewhat patronising tone, and now not only was I a lover of pornography but also a naughty little boy, disguised as a moronic idiot. “Thank you and where may I find her books?” I asked wanting to flee the oppression I was beginning to feel. Mothers and female librarians have this gift for making you feel worthless as a man. “Upstairs on level three. Take the lift and ask the receptionist to point you in the right direction.” Clearly from her tone of voice she was happy to be rid of me. “Thank you.” I replied. I sort of scampered away without trying to appear as though I was scampering. As I escaped I could hear the old biddy and the young librarian talking in hushed tones, it was as though I was listening to the echoing of a judgement being passed on the guilty at a hanging trial. As is normal at public libraries, where the library is four stories high, and lifts have been installed for use by the elderly, the disabled and others too knackered to climb the several flights of steep stairs, the lift was out of order. The thought of climbing all those bloody concrete steps without the aid of an oxygen mask was not what I intended. It had been years since I‟d done any physical exercise and climbing the stairs to bed was enough to send me into a fit of wheezing, spluttering and god awful coughing. However, I was on a mission of love, and if I was to truly understand the meaning of love, then for the love of humanity, even if I died valiantly in the attempt, I‟d be bloody minded enough to succeed. Twenty minutes later I staggered to the double doors, grabbed hold of their chrome handles and fell flat on my face in an undignified heap, as they swung open towards the reception desk. As I dropped to the floor I spluttered out the words “romance, romance, romanccccccccccccccccce!” Five minutes later I feel this wet thing dabbing away at my forehead. The first thing that sprang to mind through the hazy fog was that a dog had cocked its leg and was relieving itself over my face. Then I hear this husky voice asking me if I was alright. “You alright dear?” the kindly voice said sympathetically. “Uh.” “You alright dear?” The receptionist repeated in a slightly softer voice. “Um…I think so.” I sounded confused and had no idea where I was at that moment. “Stay there the ambulance is on its way; it won‟t be long.” This was said in a matter of fact tone, much like a recorded message that is repeated forever and infinitum. “No, no. I need romance not an ambulance.” I wasn‟t being very cooperative. “No sir, I think at this moment romance is out of the question. And it is county council policy that if someone has an accident in the library we have to call for an ambulance.” I later found out that the county council doesn‟t appreciate having dead bodies lying around its public libraries, and the first sign somebody is possibly heading that way the staff call an ambulance. I found out later that this particular library called the ambulance on a regular basis due to the amount of seventy year olds having to climb the stairs because the lift never worked. I now understand that the library is reviewing where it keeps its romantic novels. “But I‟m ok.” I said in a slurred voice. “We‟ll let the nice ambulance people decide that.” The receptionist said, pinning me down with a strength that belied her slim stature.

“But I‟m ok I tell you!” I‟ve begun raising my voice at Attila the Hun for sitting across my chest and holding me down with her knees. The ambulance crew arrived ten minutes later, coming up via the service lift; apparently it never breaks down due to being serviced regularly and a volume of health & safety rules entirely dedicated to safe working practices in the workplace, which says much about the state of British customer service in the public sector. Apparently it‟s perfectly ok for a customer to pop their clogs providing the ambulance has been called. But the good health and enslavement of the British worker is enshrined in law. And the serf must be prevented from dying where they‟re employed. “You alright sir?” The ambulance man said kneeling beside me with a weary look on his face. “Yes, but I only want romance…” I say with eyes wobbling about in their sockets. “Now sir, there‟s plenty of time for that.” I wasn‟t all that convinced by the tone in his voice. “Doesn‟t look good. I think he‟s suffering from a mild form of delirium caused by the bump to his head as he hit the floor.” The ambulance man says this to his colleague in a sort of casual way, to which his lazily unconcerned colleague simply nodded in agreement. “Look sir, I think it would be a good idea if we took you to the hospital just to get you checked out, and make sure no real damage has been done. I‟m sure there‟s nothing to worry about, but it‟s better to be safe than sorry.” I‟m sure there was a hint of sincerity in his voice, but I couldn‟t tell for sure. “I want Brenda. Gimme Brenda. I need Brenda!” I was now feeling slightly delirious from the bang on the head. “Who‟s Brenda?” The ambulance man asked the receptionist. “I‟ve no idea, perhaps it‟s his wife.” The receptionist shrugged her shoulders with indifference. “Did he arrive with anyone?” The ambulance man asked trying to locate the whereabouts of the enigmatic Brenda. “Brenda, Brenda, where art thou oh lovely Brenda?” I‟m now reciting Shakespeare, or at least an up dated version of it. “Brenda will be here soon sir.” The ambulance man quietly says this to reassure me, although puzzled as to why Brenda hadn‟t appeared. “I‟ve no idea who he arrived with. The first time I saw him he was sprawled out across the floor, not moving.” The receptionist forgot to mention that she was engrossed in conversation at the time with a woman she obviously found attractive. “Oh my beautiful pink blancmange, why doust thou hide thy voluptuous body from me. Do I not want to sink my teeth into thy sweet, milky, succulent body?” “Why‟s he talking about pink blancmange?” The second ambulance man asked the first. “No idea. Clearest case of delirium I‟ve ever seen.” The first replied, casually picking his nose. “What‟s your name sir?” The first ambulance man asks me. He is leaning over me, whilst the second holds me down to stop me struggling. I wanted to get up.

“I‟m the man with no name. Go on make my day punk.” I say this with both eyes crossed, wearing a gormless smile. “Where are we sir?” The second ambulance man asks me this, whilst giving the first a wink. This clearly indicating that I‟m off my rocker. “I‟m here on the floor, being held down for no good reason that I can think of. Oh yes I can! We‟re in England, that green and pleasant slime bucket of a country ruled by that megalomaniac Blair and his blue rinse sweetheart Bush!” The sarcasm in my voice was biting, not helped by a local police constable who had just gone off duty and was looking for a book of love poems he could recite to his superintendent. Both were having a secret relationship with each other. The constable called on his radio for backup, saying there was a highly disturbed individual being pinned down to the floor by two ambulance men, screaming something about a pink blancmange using a poor rendition of Shakespeare, imitating Larry Olivier.

6 The joy of being treated by the NHS The doctor finally saw me, three hours after I arrived at the A&E. All this time I‟d been strapped down to the trolley as a precautionary measure and I couldn‟t move anything except my mouth and eyes. “Well what do we have here then?” The doctor‟s tone was on the patronising side, which is par for the course for those who believe that they‟re God, walking around in a white coat, smelling of Armani aftershave, looking like George Clooney. Doctors also tend to suffer from a peculiar medical condition known as “Intellectual Pomposity”, apparently if you‟re not afflicted by this neurological condition, it‟s impossible to become a doctor. “What we have here is a man who‟s trussed up like a Christmas turkey, waiting for some evil, knife wielding, maniac to pronounce him well and truly stuffed.” I warbled. Clearly I was in a horizontally challenged position, but I thought what the hell. “Erm…I see we have a comedian. Now what happened to bring you here?” His bedside manner was on a par with his intellect. “God, don‟t you lot in the National Health Service talk to each other anymore?” It seems that the higher you climb the ladder, the less likely it is that you‟ll talk to those below in case they appear much brighter than you are. “Yes, we do. And it might help us get along if you cooperated.” His sarcasm was a bit much. “Well I was looking for romance in the library, which I was told was on the third floor.” “Is the library a good place for romance? I wouldn‟t have thought that you could be romantic with lots of people sitting around.” Laying there strapped down I began to wonder how much intelligence you needed to become a doctor. “Well not romance actually, I was looking for love.” I wanted to see just how intelligent doctors were. “Ah. I see. A case of eyes meeting through the gap in the bookshelves.” The doctor‟s face softened slightly and a faraway look appeared in his eyes. Clearly an idiot I thought.

“Not really, but I was told by a friend you could find whatever you were looking for at the library.” I sort of giggled inwardly. “Can‟t say that I‟ve ever found love or romance in a library.” There was sadness in the eyes of the doctor at this point. I was doing all that I could not to burst out laughing, which wasn‟t helping the throbbing head much. “My friend told me, that there was every kind of romance and love in the library.” It took me all my strength not to burst out laughing as I said this. “Anyway, the report here says that you kept talking about a pink blancmange and someone called Brenda; can you shed any light on those two things? Having now begun to reach the early stages of being compos mentis I could but I was too busy having fun. “Well I used to eat a lot of blancmange when I was a kid, most often in a sherry trifle that my mum used to make for Sunday tea; still does for that matter. As for Brenda, I don‟t personally know anyone by that name. Do you know anyone called Brenda?” “And you‟ve no idea why you‟d be talking about them?” He ignored my question. “Not that I can think of.” The doctor put back on his doctor face and looked at me, with what can only be described as a look of psychiatric interest. “Well as far as I can ascertain you have suffered a mild concussion, coupled with a swelling to the right temple caused by your head hitting the floor when you fell in the library.” “What does that mean in layman‟s terms?” I asked not being medically informed. “You‟ll be dizzy for a couple of days, with a headache that we‟ll give you painkillers for, and the lump on the right side of your head will disappear after a week but the bruising will last a bit longer; probably ten days or so. I think it would be wise to keep you in overnight for observation and see how you feel tomorrow afternoon. Is there anyone you need to inform? We‟ll be happy to give them a call” His bedside manner improved slightly now the examination had been completed. “No, I‟m on my own and the nearest family is miles away. For one night it‟s not worth bothering them.” I didn‟t want anyone worrying my mother, as she‟d become convinced that I was suffering from a blood clot on the brain. In the past this has led to all kinds of weird and wonderful conditions that have no known medical terminology, but which my mother would be fully conversant with. Once in the hospital there might be a psychiatrist passing by, and upon hearing my mother might decide the world was a much safer place if she was detained for a while. “If you need anything let the nurse know and she‟ll help you out.” Before I could ask for the straps to be removed the doctor had disappeared through the curtains that hid me from the rest of the A&E. Eventually an extremely large nurse came in and proceeded to take off the straps. As she slowly undid each one I wondered if she‟d had ever been in love, I noticed she wasn‟t wearing a ring on her wedding finger. I did sort of fleetingly wonder why they called it the wedding finger on account that it‟s us that get married and not the finger. Then I sort of wondered why all those medical experts and fitness gurus on the telly keep telling us that we should be taking more exercise, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and leading healthier lifestyles, when here I‟m being untied by every broken health rule in the book. Then I took comfort in the fact that half the experts in the medical world tell you not to eat anything grown in soil because it‟s likely to be full of

toxins, herbicides, insecticides, fertilisers and genetically modified. Then the thought passed through my mind that probably more people die trying to get fit than those who refuse to take any exercise. “Excuse me nurse, have you ever been in love?” I asked trying to avoid the very large breasts that were in danger of suffocating me as she undid the straps. “Bit of a personal question isn‟t it.” She replied somewhat softly. “Yes I‟m sorry for asking but I‟m doing some research on love. I‟m trying to find out what it really is so I can find out if I‟ve ever been in love.” She looked at me and smiled. “How old are you?” “Fifty.” “And you don‟t know if you‟ve ever been in love.” “No.” I said and sort of felt embarrassed at the answer. “Then you‟ve never been in love, because if you had you‟d have no reason to be asking the question.” At that she took away the straps and disappeared through the curtains, gently giggling to herself. Sometimes it‟s better to accept defeat when a woman is clearly brighter than you are.

7 Bookstores, gay rights & old rockers I was released from the hospital the next afternoon, the doctor satisfied that whilst I may have been suffering from an unknown psychiatric disorder, I was as sane as I was going to get and that my head injuries were nothing worse than a bad bang on the head that I‟d quickly recover from. With that he ordered my release thrusting a fourteen day sick note into my hand and said that if I continued to suffer from an headache, or it got worse, or I started vomiting, or I suffered from double vision for longer than an hour, or I felt dizzy, or…and so the list went on, I was to come back in for another check-up. The big nurse said goodbye, and wished me good luck in my quest, and then as she walked away she stopped, turned round, looked at me and gave me the kind of smile that mothers give you when you‟ve done something wrong. It was a sort of knowing smile that makes you feel safe but utterly stupid. Now at home and not wanting to go out, the head was throbbing away like a pneumatic drill hammering away into the road, I lay on the sofa with a pen and pad and started to jot down the odd idea of where I could found out what I needed to know. I wasn‟t going back to the library (1) because I didn‟t fancy scaling Mount Everest again, and (2) because I‟d never be able to look the receptionist on the third level in the face without feeling ridiculous. Due to the headache I couldn‟t concentrate so I got off the sofa and drifted over to the CD collection and rummaged through the two hundred or so looking for something to play. I picked up Robert Palmer and the Spice Girls but abandoned them on account they‟d have been too much for my head to cope with. The only thing I could cope with was Julie London, whose singing always reminded me of the most delicious honey dripping off the tongue. Laying back on the sofa I listened to the lyrics, most of which were about lost love, the end of love, the beginning of love, the hurt of love, the joy of love, the doubts of love, the hope of love and so on. The thing that struck me was the words used. Love seemed to be just a bunch of words inadequately expressing the idea of love. Julie wasn‟t to blame for this because you could hear the human emotion of love with every note she sang, but it still sounded like a collection of words put together for the purpose of explaining what the lyricist thought love was. This got me to thinking that the nurse had been wrong, and

though I didn‟t know it at the time I had been in love, it was just that being male I couldn‟t accept that I‟d been in love; and being male lust was the only known and understood aphrodisiac . I then put Billie Holiday on and listened carefully to the words she was singing, and love seemed to be this extraordinarily painful emotion that women seemingly have to endure with their man; the man not really giving a shit what he was putting the woman through. But even though Lady Day sang like nobody else can, I still didn‟t get what love actually meant in real terms as an emotion. Now that my curiosity had been pricked I went through my CD collection, playing dozens of love songs and still came to the same conclusion. What I found confusing to my aging and befuddled upper brain was that someone could sit down and write about love, and someone could sing those words with great emotion, but nobody could actually explain it in a way that I could understand. At this point I decided that I was an idiot, suffering from delusions of love, no further forward in my quest. I went back to my belly button to see how many grey hairs had grown in the last few days; at least they were something that made sense to me. The next week saw me getting better. The headache had all but gone, leaving behind a fuzziness that I couldn‟t decide whether or not it had been there in the first place, before the fall, or whether the fall had actually shaken my brain so violently it decided to enter the land of the living. On finding out that it‟d been sitting all those years inside the skull of a man, the fuzziness was the brain‟s way of complaining it was in the wrong head of the wrong sex. The swelling on the side of the head had shrunk to the size of a walnut and just about as wrinkled due to the fluid inside not having disappeared evenly; the bruising took on a black/brown/purple/yellowish hue that resembled a birthmark high on crack cocaine. The upside was that I kept getting sympathetic looks from women in the supermarket, and men thought, you could tell by their admiring glances, I was a bit of a lad and if I looked that battered god only knows what the other guy looked like. In the supermarket, due to the fuzziness, I kept rubbing my head in the same that Columbo does when he knows who has committed the murder, and women would come up to me asking if I was ok. I, being a man and not wishing to miss an opportunity, played the sympathy card and said that I‟d been involved in a car accident with a drunk driver, and that I was still suffering from the concussion I received when my head collided with the windscreen due to the seatbelt breaking free and the airbag not working due to a fault in the design system. I just smiled when they guided me round the shelves, helping me with the shopping, filling the trolley, advising me what I should buy, what to avoid and so on. A couple of times they even treated me to a cup of tea afterwards because I looked so done in due to the stress of it all. I‟d truly forgotten what it was to be mothered. Whilst this was fun, and I did enjoy it more than I should have, the question of what was love kept interfering with the fuzziness, which for some reason kept drifting in and out like an ebbing tide. So I did nothing else but write indecipherable scribblings down on several sheets of ruled A4 paper, that I‟d found somewhere in the flat. Such appalling handwriting was an embarrassment to me, but any blame cannot be laid at my door, the blame is entirely the fault, rightly, of those middle class educated liberals who thought it was a brilliant idea to abandon compulsory handwriting lessons at school. Why they did

so is a completely unfathomable mystery to me, except I don‟t feel all that embarrassed when I see the state of the doctor‟s writing on my prescription. It‟s somehow comforting to think that a five-year-old child has far more legible handwriting than a doctor who has spent countless years training to become a doctor. Perhaps it‟s part of the Hippocratic oath, “Thou canst only wear a mantle of white, and cure the ill of sickness, whence your writing becomes a nightmare to read.” Anyway, having not progressed that far in finding the Holy Grail of love, and having abandoned my notes, I couldn‟t read what I‟d written, I decided to go to the local cathedral of books, Butterstones. I‟d never been in before on account that I‟m not a great reader, I sort of wander into charity shops and pick up the odd tatty tome that probably has deep and meaningful conversations with the shop manageress, but when I get home I sort of put it down somewhere, never to find it for weeks on end, by which time I think that I‟ve read it and return it back to the shop where I bought it from. From the point of view of being thought of as a thoroughly decent chap, who is utterly altruistic as regards the local community and who believes in recycling the inspirational ideas of the likes of Jeffery Archer, then I‟m your man. However, in terms of being a thoroughly well-read chap, full of witticisms and intellectually stimulating I‟m not, and as far as regular reading goes I get as far as page three of the Sun newspaper, happily avoiding pages one and two. Even though I say it myself, and the last person to ever say that capitalism is capable of fulfilling any dream save going to hell eventually, Butterstones was a revelation. The store was massive and rose four storeys high into the grey, rain threatening sky above. More importantly, even though there was trepidation in my mind that I‟d have to scale K2, something that I‟d no intention of doing, the lift actually worked: perhaps the moral here is that the county council should be privatised and left to fend for itself in the market. As far as the eye could see there were books, lots of books and more books. In some ways it was like the library, except there were no dog eared pages, no torn dust covers, no bus tickets left inside, no obscene ditties on the inside front cover, and no drawings by a three year old child of mummy, daddy and pussy the three legged cat with one eye. More noticeable was the freshness of the place, the lack of human odours as you walked around, the only smells that I could detect were the books themselves, nice, bright, shiny, untouched by the unwashed masses, and a sort of floral scent that gently wafted around in the air. The staff were fairly young, which was a bit off putting considering that the only thing the young know about love is lust and sex, either saying they‟re getting it or are saving themselves before getting it. Anyway, the good news was that it was like walking into the United Nations, every ethnic group seemed to be represented, as well as every type of sexual gender, man, woman, gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, asexual, nonsexual, openly sexual, disgustingly sexual, sickeningly sexual and a few celibates, and I shouldn‟t wonder if a few eunuchs weren‟t floating around somewhere; and this was just the staff. Don‟t ask me how I recognised all these various types, but seeing which member of staff was tending to which books sort of gave me a clue. So having been initially gob smacked by the surprise of it all, I went up to the information desk and met

my first hurdle, the individual about to inform me where I should go to find out the meaning of love. “Good morning sir. And what may I do for you?” I stood there rigid, not knowing what to say; this was the first time I‟d ever met anyone who was so obviously GAY! He stood there, all five foot ten inches of him, wearing eyeliner, a gold hoop in each ear, and using a tone of voice that I‟d only heard on television. HE WAS SO CAMP! “Oh!” I said with complete and utter surprise. I‟d always led a pretty sheltered life, this encounter just proved I‟d actually been living deep underground and that life wasn‟t as I knew it. “Oh I know sir. Bit of a revelation bumping into me isn‟t it?” The voice got camper. “Uh…yes…no…” “Don‟t worry love, my tongue becomes ever so twisted when I slap my eyes on something I‟ve never seen before.” For some unknown reason his eyes lit up at the thought, and he gently licked his lips with the tip of his tongue. Then he proceeded to look me up and down ever so slowly, sighed quietly and said “Mmmmmm.” “I‟m looking for romance…” As soon as the words fell from my mouth I knew I‟d made a monumental error, but too late the damage was done. “Me too! He started gesticulating with his hands and body in what I can only describe as…no there are no words that can describe how gesticulating his body became. “No! No!” I was nearly in tears. “Come on love, no need to be shy; not round me.” He puckered his lips slightly towards me. “No, I need romance and love.” I was past caring. “I know. We all do. It‟s what makes the world go round. You ever been to the Pink Angel, absolute darlings go there. I‟m sure we can find you a nice friend there. I‟m free at eight!” “Whilst I‟m flattered that you think you can find me a nice friend, and that you want to take me to the Pink Angel, and that you‟re free at eight, I only came in for a book.” I was somewhat surprised to find that I had such a deep manly sounding voice. “Ooooo you are a one aren‟t you! And what would that be, something by Joe Orton, Kenneth Williams, Julian Cleary, Graham Norton?” He got a bit snotty when he said this. “Actually I‟m looking for female authors…” “To find your feminine side then sweetie?” “No, to discover what the meaning of love is.” “No luck with females then. Have you thought of…” I didn‟t let him finish. “Could you tell me where I can find the female novelists section.” I was getting a bit exasperated with him. “Oh alright. It‟s on the fourth floor. Take the lift over there and someone up there will help you.” He sounded a little dejected that I wanted to escape his clutches. “Thank you for your help.” Pavarotti would‟ve marvelled at the depth of my tenor voice. As I walked away I could hear the sighs coming from his mouth; I also heard “I just love straight men in denial.” The lift doors closed me off from the world and I breathed a deep sigh of relief as it started its upward journey.

A few moments later I‟m stepping out of the utilitarian, perfectly functional lift, that resembled a four-star sardine can, and headed towards the information desk. Seeing the guy behind the desk, I realise that Butterstones is probably one of the few capitalist businesses in England that takes seriously its commitment to equal opportunities, and actually gives a shit about the people who work for it. Whilst I‟d fended off the unwarranted attentions of Gay Pride on the ground floor, here I was faced with Mr. Casual, wearing a pair of tatty denims and a Motorhead T-shirt and sporting a pair of Harry Potter type glasses. He was young, or so I thought, from a distance, possibly in part due to the cascading, dark brown wavy hair that tumbled carelessly over his broadish shoulders and the attire he was wearing. Meeting eye to eye I encountered a face that had clearly suffered the ravages of a delinquent teenage period, pockmarked and slightly greying. For some strange reason I felt at ease, maybe because, close up, I wasn‟t much older than he was. He was wearing a genuine smile and seemed happy in his job: which proved that wearing a collar and tie was not essential to good business practice. For a moment I pondered on the thought of how counter-productive it was to wear a suit. Most businesses demand you wear one, for the only reason that it, apparently, sends out a signal that you‟re dealing with a business that‟s professional and upstanding. Then I thought about the times I‟d been ripped off by someone wearing a suit, or lied to, or conned into this or that deal. And then came the list of the people you‟d never invite to dinner because they‟re parasites of the worst kind, the politician, the lawyer, the car dealer, the salesman, estate agents and the endless number of people all wearing a suit. It‟s funny how the English hang on to this ridiculous idea that a suit represents something, which in real life evaporates the moment they‟ve got their grubby little mitts on your ballot paper or signature on the dotted line. No, give me a person wearing tatty jeans, grotty T-shirt and an honest smile, far more trustworthy in my opinion. “Yes sir how can I help you?” Said, I thought, with the right amount of cheerful sincerity. “I‟m looking for female novelists.” “You want romantic novels, or horror, or sex, or cut a man‟s balls off kind of stuff.” A man of honest language I added to my previous thought. “Romance and love.” I breathed inwardly and finally felt more hopeful of getting somewhere. “Well we‟ve got the Victorian melodramas like the Bronte sisters stuff, but I wouldn‟t recommend that as it‟s boring crap and there‟s no sex in it, but it‟s full of romantic delusions. Then we‟ve got Brenda Castle‟s books full of romance, virgins and idiots in shining suits of armour running around wildly on horses. Or there‟s the new writers like Erica Sykes spouting on about women swearing like men, acting like men, shagging like men but still retaining their femininity.” He‟s my kind of salesman, I thought, honest to the point of bluntness. “Just point me in the right direction and I‟ll look to see what I can find, thanks.” Sometimes shopping is a pleasant way to pass the time away. Maybe Butterstones had realised that the key to success was to make the customer an important part of the business, rather than most businesses which are just there to make as much money as they could by screwing everyone who was willing to be screwed, without any great thought to

proper customer service. Maybe it might not have been a bad idea to go back to corner shop mentality, where people did matter and the goods sold themselves; and having a leisurely chinwag about nothing in particular didn‟t hurt either. The next two hours was spent reading the back covers of about every book on the shelves. The ones that I completely ignored were those that had won awards or short listed for an award, on account that they‟d be a boring read due to nobody who‟s male and from the working classes would ever take seriously what any middle class educated idiot would have to say. So I was down to a pile of about thirty, all written in the last ten years, all dealing with real life. I know that authors don‟t know about real life, because they spend most of their time stuck in rooms writing, and the only way you know real life is to actually be a part of it, but them writing about it is the only way I‟m going to have any idea what love‟s all about. The next hour was then boringly spent reducing the pile down to three books, all three about working class women trying to find a man, married to a man, and getting divorced from a man. I thought that way I‟d get an overall, if imperfect, view of what love was.

8 Softly, softly...catchee male monkey I have to say there was a bit of a revelation when I‟d read the books, because I actually started to sympathise with the female characters and the problems they had had with the men in their life. But most funny of all was that I actually knew some of the women in the books, I certainly knew the men, and I did wonder if the authors had been living where I lived when they were written. And whilst I still didn‟t really understand what love actually meant, I began to get an inkling of what it was, it was about hope, despair, the heart, the mind, sadness, joy and things like that. It was all those things going off at the same time, in a sort of jumbled up way, but at the same time in a structured sort of way, which caused my single brain cell to become confused and little the wiser. I left any more reading alone whilst everything sank in, and a strange thing happened, I began to look at women differently. They became people, which before they were just women. I noticed, walking along streets that women had taken on a different aura they actually came from Planet Earth and were a part of the human race. Now it‟s quite obvious to everyone that women are from Earth, but as a man you think they are a completely different species, totally unrelated to men. Men are natural football and rugby players, women only do it to piss off men and brag about their thighs being bigger, stronger and more muscular than a man‟s, and having seen some women rugby players there‟s no argument from me on that point. But this was a different feeling, nothing like a biblical “on the road to Damascus” thump on the back of the neck feeling, but a sort of…how can I explain it…a softening inside, a bit like eating jelly and not chewing it properly, just swallowing a wobbly bit. Sitting in the armchair, and due to my confusement, I pulled up my T-shirt and noticed that my belly button hairs hadn‟t got any greyer, perhaps they were trying to work out what colour they should be, or maybe they were taking a hormonal rest, or having a meeting to determine the ratio of grey coloured hairs to black ones. Anyway, I racked my upper brain, the lower one occasionally appreciates the rack thought, to think where I‟d had these feelings before because they were vaguely familiar. As usual the upper brain deserted me, it always does when it either has to think or do anything remotely responsible.

Several hours later I‟m in the kitchen making the single man‟s piece de resistance of culinary delights, a frozen Hawaiian pizza, when for no reason, other than complete absurdity, I suddenly shout “MUMMY!” The brain, no doubt excited at the thought of exercising its sniffing senses, out of the blue brings my mother up. Now, as is normal for the male brain, there was a considerable time lag between exclaimed word and reason for why said word was exclaimed. The time difference is normally the time it takes to cook a pizza. Having returned and sat down in the armchair again, I‟ve got a matching sofa but if I get on that I‟ve no idea if I‟ll survive its violent attacks on me, I look at the manufactured mess in front of me. Have you ever noticed how a frozen pizza looks wonderful on the packet, everything piled high, lots of ham, pineapple, cheese, liberally spread tomato sauce, only to find half a dozen pineapple chunks, a dozen pieces of what I presume is ham, the thinnest coat of sauce and enough cheese to fill a cocktail sausage roll. And why is it whenever you slavishly follow the cooking instructions, you end up with a crust that needs a hammer and chisel to cut through it. As for the sofa, it has a recliner at each end, which for some reason is specifically programmed to attack me when I least expect it. Once one of the recliners shot out as I was walking by smacking me hard on the knee, then if that wasn‟t bad enough it decided it really didn‟t like me and hit me full square in the nuts; the pain was excruciating and I spent the next few days walking around in the manner of a South American sloth with only three legs; now I just sit in the armchair, it‟s safer. Oh yes, mummy. Munching manfully on the pizza crust, do these things carry dental insurance in the price I wonder, I suddenly realise why I shouted mummy, these pizzas are great for unclogging the male mind, and clogging the gut system; I wonder if NHS doctors prescribe them for patients suffering from diarrhoea? Anyway, I cast my mind back, always great at remembering events long ago hopeless at remembering names and dates, to when I was a nipper and remembered how it felt to be tiny and have this big shadow wrap its arms around me, protecting me from the bogey man, or wiping the tears away from my eyes because my next door neighbour‟s daughter wouldn‟t let me play with her Barbie. Or on my first day at school where I walked into the playground and then spent the rest of the day trying to find ways of escaping from the POW camp I found myself locked up in. It really did frighten me, hundreds of strange kids, all ages and sizes, running riot in the playground, and then when a bell sounded, the same kids automatically forming a line and then ceremonially marched back into the school building by these strange adults who insisted on being called “Sir” or “Miss” or “Mr.” or “Mrs” something or other. After lunch on the first day my mother was called back to the school, the headmaster explaining that I tried to leave the school several times in the morning and would she mind telling me not to do this as it was against the school rules. My mother put her arm around me, looked me straight in the eyes and simply said, “Stay here.” Then she proceeded to give me a big hug, so I stayed because I felt safe living inside this zoo, with its high chain linked fences, locked gates, and a man in a green uniform wandering about sweeping up the mess. But those cuddles and hugs, rustling my hair, letting me cry, and allowing me to be who I wanted to be made feel soft inside, and I suppose it was ok to be emotional.

But that only lasted for about a year because then I became a member of the gang, and the boy began to learn how to be a male and learned how to live by the masculine tribal rules passed down by generations of Neanderthals. I suppose I‟d learnt that girls were nothing more than figures of ridicule at first and then things to be possessed, then to be ignored, then treated indifferently, then finally as something to be put up with as a necessary part of belonging to society. What was true was that I never considered them as bright as I was, or as practical, and what did it matter if they were better than me at science or maths or English, they were woosie subjects and hardly useful to my life. As time passed my mother gave me less cuddles because I was a “man” and so emotions and feelings got buried away until they never surfaced again, and I guess love went the same way, because love was “girly” and “soppy” and “homo”; yet here I was, years later, sitting in an old, worn, comfortable armchair, having finished the pre-fabricated tasteless frozen pizza, lazily rubbing my hairy pot belly, feeling very strange because the child in me had awakened, and women had taken on a new hue. But though I was feeling strangely content I still had no idea what love really was between a man and woman.

9 The mysteries of love So what was love? Having an inkling is one thing, but knowing for certain was another matter entirely, and at this point in time I was more confused than certain; for a man this is perfectly normal because emotions are hidden away and not given much in the way of a public airing, bit like never hanging your dirty washing out to dry. I looked back, carefully, on all the relationships that I‟d been involved in, and sometimes I said the immortal words “I love you”. But then again I‟d not said it in some relationships for no other reason I was having a bonk, and whatever affection there was, was based entirely on sex and not much else. With my ex-wife I said it all the time at the beginning, then it tapered off, unless it was a means to get something, until such time that the words were nothing more than a meaningless phrase. Ok I know that‟s not fair, but a man‟s gotta do what a man‟s gotta do and whilst that‟s no real excuse, it‟s a fact of life. If men are honest about it, they‟re as mystified by the idea of love as I am, and because they can‟t get to grips with it, on account that love is do with emotions and a happy man is a repressed man because a repressed man doesn‟t have to deal with explaining emotions. Besides this, men tend to think that lust = pleasure, whilst love has a lot in common with duty, and a man being a man will always do his duty once he‟s had his pleasure. Men view duties in much the same way they view love it is something they‟re expected to do, whilst lust is something they want to do. And so it was with the ex-wife, I‟d say I love you because that‟s what she expected me to say from time to time. In hindsight, there‟s a luxury if ever there was one, in my more soppy daft moments I probably meant it, but the actual emotion of love I was none the wiser about at this moment in time. And have you actually thought about when you say I love you during sex, it‟s a bit like making sex more civilised, because when you don‟t say it you think more like a rabbit going at it ten to the dozen. So there I am, sitting in the armchair, counting the black hairs and feel sorry for them because they‟re well and truly in a minority, wondering if there will there be a law passed to protect the black hairs from discrimination by the grey ones, who have a much larger majority share of the surface they‟re both settled on. And then you wonder if the black hairs are happy hairs, and is it possible for the black ones to integrate successfully with

the grey ones? But then you poke around in your belly button, remove the fluff and discover that the black hairs are probably unhappy because there are more grey ones. Which begs the question are black hairs in decline due to demographics, and does an increase in grey hairs have a depressing effect on the growing elderly population? Or are the black ones so stressed out by the increasing grey ones, they give up the ghost and succumb to their inevitable demise? Such questions need an answer, but all my hairs seem to have taken a vow of silence, largely I suppose due to the fact that I‟m the landlord and they are the sitting tenants; or they remain in the dark as much as I do. All in all spending this much time discussing belly button hairs is a pretty relaxing thing to do, although if I was married or living in delightful sin I dare say the woman of the house would be somewhat aggrieved that I wasn‟t paying as much attention to her as I am to my hairs; hell, nothing‟s fair in life is it? Of course, she might take the view that I was on the edge of insanity, or I was edging firmly towards my second and final childhood; who knows, for you can never tell what goes off in the mind of a woman, part of their undeniable charm, isn‟t it? Just at that moment the phone rings and I answer it. “Hello, to whom am I speaking?” I was very relaxed, therefore flippant. “Hi you dickhead! It‟s James. Are you on drugs? You sound strange.” “No. I was just counting the hairs around my belly button.” This might have appeared a strange and surreal activity to some stranger, but James was an old friend so well versed in accepting the odd, eccentric ways of his friends. “Oh. Right. Anyway Jack‟s throwing a party at his place in a month‟s time and wants to know if you‟re up for it. All you need to bring is a six pack of whatever, the nosh‟s being supplied, as are the birds.” “Feathered sort?” “No you dipstick, the flesh and blood type that wiggle and wobble as they walk. Jesus Danny, you sure you‟re not on drugs.” “Nope! It‟s strange how navel hair have a relaxing effect on you. Do you ever sit down and talk to your navel hairs when you‟re pondering on the big questions of life?” A perfectly innocent question I‟d have thought. “Erm…not long for the loony bin I shouldn‟t wonder! Catch you on the flip, gotta go!” “See you mate!” That‟s one of the pleasures of male friends, short and to the point telephone calls lasting all of a minute. Talking to your mate on the phone is a bit like having sex, both last for about the same amount of time. Of course all this talk about belly button hairs has set off a chain reaction of thought. I mean did Einstein only discover the theory of relativity after washing his hairs in the bath. Was Newton so engrossed in his belly button he failed to notice the falling apple and when it smacked him hard on his head did he shout gravity instead of grey hairs because he was stunned? Did Isosceles only discover the mathematical equation for a triangle when he was playing with his hairs and moulded them into a triangular shape? These, and many more like them, are questions we should be asking in our quest for knowledge; there‟s no question that the hairs around the navel are crucial to our

understanding of the universe and beyond. Perhaps NASA should train its astronauts in hair recognition techniques, so as to grasp the complexities of space travel. But if you leave the question of navel hairs alone and study your belly button, it strikes you that this is the very point where life began. Where without the belly button there‟d be no life and the question of love might never have arisen. Then it comes to mind, which for a man is a luxury, that all mammals have belly buttons in approximately the same spot; which makes you wonder if all mammals are related and in terms of evolution is the dog closer to men than we thought. Was Darwin‟s theory of evolution correct? If it was why didn‟t he consider the importance of the belly button in his studies? Then you think that the belly button is round in shape, and wonder if the earth is really flat, but we say it‟s round because the belly button is round, and that men of intelligence like to discover things whilst navel gazing, so naturally assume everything is somehow connected to the belly button. Do belly buttons have an effect on relationships lasting? I ask myself. Well I think it‟s an important consideration, because they‟re a hole, and if two holes are pressed hard together you tend to get a vacuum; which probably accounts for all that noise when you‟re making love. I mean is that sucking noise, as bellies touch each other, the vacuum working? And do people with a protruding belly button have better sex with a belly button that‟s a hole? Then you have to consider the poor sod who doesn‟t have much of a dick, would he be better off making love to the belly button, because at least his dick would fit instead of feeling like it‟s lost in space. Then you think of the women, like Lucy, who have a massive belly button and it was great filling it with things like ice cream or cream, it was a great way to have a snack in the middle of it all: so were belly buttons designed as a food receptacle you have to ask. But you still have to come back to the main point under discussion, which I‟ve no idea about now,...oh yes, does a belly button have anything to do with what the meaning of love is. If I‟m objective about it I don‟t suppose they do, they‟re just there, a handy sort of thing for making you think about much weightier things in life. And that‟s what love is, a great weight on my mind at this moment in time.

10 Love in the office I didn‟t give the question of love much thought for the next week, for some strange reason I was busier than usual, which was a bore. I can always tell when we‟re busy the profits from the coffee vending machine go down and Mr. Meakin, the general manager, goes around in a huff. He does this because the vending machine was installed by his brother, and is into sharing the profits with him. On a good week Meakin makes around £50 in profit, so normally likes to disappear to the local golf club where he‟s a member and on the committee. As far as I know he plays off a handicap of 14, which in golfing terms means he‟s an average player, although every Monday morning he has some anecdote he likes to tell us about during the team meeting. Most of these stories are typically boring and not in the least bit funny, but he‟s your boss so you just smile and laugh at the appropriate moment. Come to think of it the ever-growing pile of paperwork is much funnier. Anyway, when profits are down he avoids the golf club and has to endure Saturday and Sunday shopping with the missus, something he has no tolerance for whatsoever. You always know that profitless Monday is going to be a bitch, because he needs to vent his anger on someone, so everyone gets a bit of his mood. As it was Wednesday morning I had a break from the tedium of shuffling paper into different piles; each pile was put in order of urgency and those that were most urgent went to the bottom, so after the ten minute coffee break I could resort the piles so that the very urgent were at the top, then after lunch I would resort them again so the least urgent went to the bottom of the pile. Ok I‟m not actually doing anything but people think I‟m busy and that‟s all that matters, me looking busy. In the small kitchen, by small I mean two people in there constitutes severe overcrowding, I met Albert who was wearing a pained expression on his normally expressionless face. Albert‟s facial nonexpressiveness is a legend and you never know whether he‟s happy or constipated. So him looking a bit glum is a sure indication that something‟s wrong. “Morning Albert, you don‟t look too happy with the world.” I said in that very flippant way men have when talking about emotions, concealing the genuine concern they have for someone they like.

“Morning Danny. Bloody wife‟s in a sodding bolshie mood with me and giving me hell.” This is a grave crisis for any married man, which makes me thankful mine disappeared. “Erm. What you been up to?” I asked sympathetically. “It was her fortieth birthday at the weekend so I took her shopping to get her a nice gift. I thought it‟d be nice to show her how much I loved her.” I knew automatically he‟d done the romantic thing and took her to an out of town electrical appliance supermarket. It never ceases to amaze me that men can never do the right thing when it comes to showing how much you love your beloved one. It simply goes to show that what a man thinks is love and what a woman thinks are at the opposite ends of the universe. “Go on.” I refrained from giving an all-knowing look and simply smiled sympathetically again. “Well a couple of weeks ago I noticed the iron and the washing machine were looking a bit tatty, so I thought…” men always get into trouble when they start to think “…buy her new ones, they were after all…eh…oh I don‟t know…anyway they were old, about ten years I reckon…” when men have no idea how old electrical appliances you can be sure they‟ve never used them “…so I thought why not treat her to new ones. You know, something practical, useful and new, it shows you care, appreciate what she does and shows how much you love her.” Now to a man who‟s married, an electrical appliance is like a bunch of roses, a big box of assorted chocolates and new clothes. The fact he takes her shopping for these things is the icing on the cake. So he‟s proud of himself, he doesn‟t realise that to a woman there‟s nothing in the least bit romantic about the updated version of continuing drudgery. Being proud of himself for his wonderful foresight and attention to detail, that and the fact he‟s showing her he loves her, he fully expects to be rewarded in some way, a smile being the initial indication of how clever he is. But when he receives first the quizzical look, then the raised eyebrows, then the curl back of the lips, then the blast of anti-male sentiments followed by the blazing abuse she hurls at him, followed by the silent treatment, he‟s all at sea, lost and wondering what in hell he‟s done wrong. But then that‟s love for you between men and women. “Now your point of view I understand perfectly. I mean if you bought your mother a new washing machine she‟d be highly delighted…” “Too bloody right Danny!” I could‟ve sworn a slight smile appeared on Albert‟s face, either that or he was wincing from his haemorrhoids playing up again. “…and let‟s not put too fine a point on this, your mother is a woman and being a woman she‟s shown us how we should treat the women in our lives.” “Bloody hell I can‟t argue with that. I mean where did we get to know how to love a woman; that‟s what I want to know. Bloody obvious innit, sodding mother, that‟s who!” Albert now feels the injured party and that his wife is an ungrateful bitch. You see all men want a mother‟s love all their lives, psychiatrists call it “unconditional love”, and whilst the vast majority wouldn‟t dream of getting romantically attached to their mother, nevertheless the female they‟re having carnal knowledge of is no

different, in psychological terms, to their mother when it comes to everything else outside of bonking. “However Albert, it might help if we take a bit of a backward step.” In male terms this means to concede defeat. “Danny I‟m not going down that road, not even if she won‟t let me bonk her for the next three months!” Albert‟s refusal to concede defeat is common to all men, and sure as hell means that they‟re going to give in, but being men they need to be seen roaring like a toothless lion. “What had you in mind?” Albert knows what I‟ve got in mind, because all men are bound by the same unwritten and unspoken rules handed down the centuries from father to son. The rules were never written down because women learnt how to write first because they needed to remember what shopping they needed. One of the first rules of men is don‟t write anything down that might give away what you‟re doing, what you want to do, what you intend doing and with whom. Any man who breaks this rule is liable to find himself in deep shit with the woman he loves. A man tends to believe what his woman says because she‟s like his mother, who never lied to him; whilst a woman rarely believes what her man says on account that most men are habitual liars when it comes to telling the truth. “Well…um…she might have a point and you might have been better off taking her to a nice restaurant for a slap up meal so at least she has a break from the kitchen one night a year.” “Yes…but…as she…em…spends most of her time in the kitchen I thought that she‟d appreciate the gesture and life would be a bit easier. Anyhow, there‟s no way I‟m going back on what I‟ve done, which was done with the best intentions. Jesus! What is it with women these bloody days? I never have these problems with me mother!” You know that Albert‟s going to crack at some point. When men discuss these issues it‟s amazing how flexible a man is, or can be. This is on account that a man understands a man, and that all men are lumbered with the knowledge that women are superior when it comes to intellect; but if you let a woman see this then she has you by the balls for the rest of your life, and never lets you forget the fact that she defeated you. “Well Albert, it‟s a bit like a game, and if we‟re honest women are a bit better at it than we are. Think about it, your wife goes out to work, she probably earns the same as you, does all the things that we don‟t like doing, the shopping for instance so has control over what we put in our stomachs, giving us that nice stuffed feeling, and so the list goes on. Now women, despite what they say, like doing the housey bit because it gives them a sense of power. I mean if we were as domesticated as they are, they‟d be lost and wouldn‟t know what to with themselves. But because we‟re trained by our mothers not to be domesticated, and know that somebody‟s going to pick up after us, we naturally hand over power to women. You see mothers are wise old birds, they know that if we ever found out housework was so bloody easy, they‟d have let the sisterhood of women down, and no woman will ever side with a man when it comes to housework.” “Oh heck! I‟d never thought of it that way Danny.” Like all real men I‟m pretty handy when it comes to bullshit.

“So you see Albert, it‟s not that they don‟t appreciate us buying them appliances, they do, but the reason they complain is because we‟re interfering in their domain, the kitchen, and you can‟t do that and expect to get away with it, so they give us hell when we try.” “Good point Danny! Never thought I was interfering, just helping, helping a damsel in distress.” Don Quixote attacking windmills suddenly appeared in my mind for no reason I could think of. “There you go Albert! And of course the other thing is that they withdraw the nookie when they‟re not getting their own way. I mean it doesn‟t matter if you haven‟t bonked the missus for weeks, they know that if they threaten to withhold it, the thought of you not getting it causes you to give in. So whichever way you look at it, we‟re well and truly screwed and can never win.” Albert disappeared into the depths of the office, his head bowed, his forehead bearing the marks of a confused man, wondering how to extricate himself from the mess he was in. As a man he‟ll probably go home with a bunch of red roses and a box of chocolates in the hope of a reconciliation and a bonk, only to find his missus on the warpath because it‟s took him three days to apologise. But like most women, she‟ll holler and bawl for all she‟s worth, give him what for, disappear into the kitchen, cook the dinner, and then having savoured her moment of glory become his mother, hug him and tell him that he was a stupid prat for having taken her for granted. And then to top it all off she‟ll say what a great lover he is after he‟s made love for 45 seconds.

11 Paperwork, chores...& Jack I didn‟t see Albert for the rest of the week, he was sent to another branch of the company for a few days to do something or other, so I never knew how his domestic bliss ended up. The weekend came round in due course, and it was a relief to escape from the pile of paperwork that I‟d worked so hard on. I‟d not actually done anything in reality, but after years of shuffling paper I was a dab hand at appearing to do something without doing anything. Anyway Meakin didn‟t appear in any way concerned, so I must have been doing a good impression of being hard at it. Saturday was taken up with all the normal delightful chores associated with a divorced man‟s life, the shopping, the flit around with the Hoover, bugger the duster dust only settles to a certain height so why make more work for yourself, and that other arduous task filling the dishwasher with a week‟s worth of pots and pans. Washing clothes is the easy bit; you just shove everything in the washer regardless of colour. I found out one day that if you bought clothes that were colour fast, washed them at 40c, the bore of having to do different colour washes no longer existed; so who am I to disagree with such logic: I suspect such logic comes from a woman, who was pissed off one day with her man, so threw all his clothes into the washing machine, hoping that they‟d come out in weird and wonderful psychedelic colours; unfortunately her plan backfired. When it comes to the housework I‟m a slave to doing things precisely; I normally allocate precisely one hour to get it done, and if I‟ve not finished it gets done the following weekend: I‟ve much more important things to do, such as picking my nose, or scratching my butt. Having not spent the week giving the idea of love any thought, except for Albert‟s matrimonial bliss, and that doesn‟t really count, the mind slowly drifted back to the subject, the mind was bored due to the endless amount of mindless telly the BBC and ITV companies insisted on dishing out. ITV you don‟t mind because it‟s free, but the BBC, or Bloody Boring Crap as it‟s now affectionately known at work, threatens me with jail if I don‟t stump up the outrageous licence fee I‟m charged, they should be shot, or bombed out of existence for the dross it endlessly churns out. The BBC haven‟t yet cottoned on to the fact that the reason it does so badly in the ratings is because people are watching ITV

in protest, and not because people actually believe ITV‟s offerings are any better than the BBC‟s. It says much about the state of television when your belly button is infinitely more interesting than the rubbish on the goggle box. Anyway, the question of love raises its head again, and I‟m still none the wiser. No matter how much I ruminate it over I‟m still no nearer the answer. I begin to wonder if it‟s genetically programmed in a woman, and that as women don‟t have an Adam‟s apple, it‟s nature‟s way of compensating them for the loss of the protruding lump. Perhaps that‟s the answer; women are biologically possessed with the power of love, whilst men are biologically dispossessed. That would explain a lot. After all women are biologically different to men, so it‟d make sense to include love in the difference. I mean women must have been designed to have feelings; they seem to cry a lot, whilst men don‟t have many feelings and they never cry. At the back of my mind, which is reassuring knowing that my mind has plenty of places to wander around, although what the sound is I‟ve no idea, perhaps it‟s the air from outside passing through keeping my thoughts fresh, is this nagging feeling the idea of love is far more complicated than some biological difference. I‟ve no real idea and start to wonder if splitting the atom was far simpler; it must have been as men were involved. After more useless deliberation, silently arguing the merits of biological determinism, I remember that from studying sociology, where the lecturer was a raving lesbian of a woman. Now I‟ve nothing against lesbianism, after all it‟s every man‟s dream to be in bed with two women watching them go at, but she was a bit hard to take. Every lesson seemed to be based around the theory that in terms of human progress, women were light years ahead in terms of evolution, but men had remained little different to when they began, scraping their knuckles on the floor as they walked along, grunting sounds that had no translation into any language known to woman. She also came up with this stupid idea that if men were to give birth, the world population would have been vastly smaller than it is at present. She also made the ridiculous argument that if a man was as multi-skilled as a woman, there‟d be no need for men to complain that they didn‟t understand women, that multi-skilling makes the brain more efficient in terms of productivity, and being able to do several things at the same time increases intelligence. On that basis she claimed that men were largely idiots because they were only capable of doing one thing at a time, and her definition of an intelligent man was that he could two things, whilst a genius could do three things at the same time. Any man able to do four or more things at a time should clearly consider having a sex change. In a confused state I sauntered back to the kitchen, refilled my mug with the final lukewarm dregs from the coffee machine, and stood gazing out of the opaque window. The weather outside was turning gloomy, clouds becoming laden with rain, the sun slowly covered by the greyness of the soft gentle, feathered, shaped edges of the, strangely, comforting shapes above. Wistfully I let out a sad sigh. At the bottom of it all was the feeling that I‟d been missing something in life. The male menopause, a very civilised way of saying “whoopee...time to find out whether the engine can still perform with 100,000 miles on the speedometer”, was hovering about as a motive for this state of morose thinking; but I dismissed it, as all men, worthy of the title, dismiss it.

The only thing for it was to phone Jack. Jack was worth his weight in gold at times like this, straddling the great divide between caveman thinking and appreciating the finer points of women. At least he‟d listen and pay attention, something Dennis only did when it was strictly black and white and on a level that didn‟t require much in the way of thinking outside the cave. “Hi Jack!” This always made me laugh and I‟d stifle the giggles, immediately causing me to relax. “Hi Danny. How‟s life?” Jack always asked this out of genuine concern, happy to hear from me, glad to find out what was happening in my life. “About the same as always. Nothing much has changed, just in a bit of a flummox.” “How come?” Jack asked in a soft tone, instinctively knowing that I needed to talk “I‟ve been wondering about love, and what it means.” “Any reason why?” Jack asked in his normal, quiet, understated but firm way. The thing that binds Jack and I together is the common humanity that exists between us; that and a lack of fear of going beyond the acceptable boundaries of the male foreskin. “Em...well...I just got to playing with my belly button and it sort of came to me. Then I fell over in the library chasing pink blancmanges and was hospitalised overnight...then a raving gay guy took a fancy to me in Butterstones. To top it all off Dennis probably thinks that I‟m firmly on my way out of the closet...” Sometimes words come pouring out for no other reason than the incontinence pants no longer hold back the floodgates of verbal diarrhoea; sadly, most things made in China proudly wearing a CE label and branded with a British or American name, and soaked in the sweat of a child earning 10p an hour don‟t stand up to much abuse. “Ah...” you always know when the light bulb is switched on in Jack‟s head, generously endowed with three brain cells. You can only guess his mother was disappointed and secretly said nothing in case she was accused of bearing a male child that was going to be the next evolutionary development in men, those who are emotionally liberated. Jack continued “...I see...or at least I think I do. Mind you, I‟ve no idea what a pink blancmange has to do with it. As for Dennis and his rampant homophobia, which borders on the criminally insane, ignore it; you‟ve as much chance of changing his mind as any politician actually doing something remotely unselfish and which doesn‟t personally benefit them in some way. By the way, what are you talking about?” It then struck me that I hadn‟t mentioned that I was trying to find out if I‟d ever been in love. Whilst Jack may be extremely bright, it was a bit too much to expect him to fathom out the depths of a topic that even I didn‟t understand. “God...I‟m a dickhead! Sorry...I‟m on this bloody quest to discover if I‟ve ever been in love.” The phone took on a surreal silence, remaining silent for what seemed an eternity. “Ooooooooah!” Jack thoughtfully replied with the level of solemnity that is Jack‟s trademark when confronted with something he has no immediate answer for. “So no answer then?” I interjected somewhat abruptly, feeling fed up and the tiny bit miffed that for once Jack was on a different planet.

“Well...let me this a flight of fancy?” At times, despite Jack being very bright, you get the distinct impression that he only has one brain cell. “No it‟s not! I‟m being serious! Jesus! Fucking hell!” I guess this is the male equivalent of the female menstrual cycle. “Is it the normal male desire for female urge that can‟t be explained?” I‟m fairly sure that somewhere along the timeline of male evolution Jack and Dennis are somehow related. “If I knew that we wouldn‟t be having this particular conversation.” I answered rather snottily, more out of frustration than any real animosity towards Jack, although the thin line between being pissed off with myself and a lack of answers, and Jack‟s obvious lack of knowledge was beginning to become blurred. “Don‟t think I have an answer...well not at the moment. Let me think about it for a while.” Jack said sardonically, sensing the frustration in my voice and not wishing to get into a stupid argument with me over something that had no real logic to it. Nor for that matter was it a subject that had any concrete foundation to it, apart from opening a can of worms that were no doubt viciously amused at the thought of sinking their toothless gums into some dense macho male flesh. I left Jack with a softening, but begrudging, tone of voice, which just goes to show that no matter how much the male spirit may wish to go beyond the normal boundaries of his narrow intellect, the child remains in a sulk.

12 Monica and men! After listening to Jack I got this very queasy feeling that men are naturally strange, and it was no wonder that women struggled to “understand us”. Perhaps we were put on the earth just to show how appalling men as prototypes are; women came later much when they discovered Cosmopolitan and the orgasm. Maybe I was turning into a “raving poofter” as Dennis put it, and that where I‟d thought I was a man of steel, now I was beginning to fall apart at the seams turning into a strawberry jelly. Although I‟d no idea, whatsoever, what the emotion of love meant, just thinking about it was dragging me into the quagmire. Perhaps that‟s the purpose of love, an evil scheme thought up by women to cut off the balls of men, and because they constantly get screwed by men, it‟s their way of screwing us; or I‟m being to think that I‟ve got a screw loose. Anyway after Dennis‟s font of unlimited wisdom, and Jack‟s surprising lack of it, I decide to tackle this another way. Well if the male brain is incapable of progressing any further than the caveman‟s, perhaps it might be more helpful if I go and stick my head in the lioness‟s mouth and get it straight from the mare‟s. But then how do I do that? I mean if I go up to a strange woman and start prattling on about love, she‟ll think I‟m coming on to her; think I‟m a raving lunatic, think I am gay or think I‟m one lonely sad git. As luck would have it the phone rang. “Hi” “Danny, it‟s Monica! Hi.” “How are you, it‟s been a while. You ok?” I last spoke to Monica about four months ago. “Yes, just thought I‟d give you a bell to see how you were, life and all that.” Monica‟s exuberance for life, sometimes felt like being hit by an out of control blow up doll, filled with hydrogen gas. I threw caution to the wind and let stupidity hit the proverbial fan. “Monica, what do you know about love?” She began giggling for some inexplicable reason. “Who‟s the lucky girl?”

“There isn‟t one. I was just wondering about love.” “Why?” “Oh, it sort of came to me as I was studying the hairs around my belly button.” “Were they blowing you kisses?” Monica is beside herself, and I could see the tears of laughter running freely from her eyes. “Give over will you!” When I‟m being serious nobody seems to take me seriously and think I‟m sliding down the slippery pole into the “Golden Age” or the “Third Age” or I‟ve completely lost my marbles. Friends being friends always think the best of you and tend not to disagree on certain issues. “Ok. But I don‟t understand the connection between the hairs around the belly button and love. Even for my logic, it‟s…um…a bit off the wall.” Monica had composed herself, although I could still hear muffled giggles. As for Monica‟s logic, well she‟s a woman, and her comments, despite all the acts of parliament that have been passed to protect the rights of women, simply show that in the brain department it‟s unlikely men and women will ever see eye to eye. “To be honest I don‟t either. Anyway I just got to wondering if I‟d ever been in love and what love actually was.” “Are you going through the male menopause?” Monica is convinced that men and women both go through the menopause. She says that women get hormonal treatment and men enthusiastically head for their second childhood or chase after nubile teenagers. She may have a point. “No, well not that I‟m aware of.” I said this becoming aware that the Dylan Thomas in me was slipping towards Doubting Thomas; John Thomas was nowhere to be seen. “So you‟re not aware of whether or not you‟re going through the menopause. Hmm…well as one of the symptoms is denial, there‟s probably a good chance you are. But then you‟re a man, and if nothing else experience has taught me men have no comprehension of what being aware means; so maybe you‟re not.” Monica equates “being aware” as being a wholly feminine characteristic and that when men use it; it is simply a means of hiding their stupidity. She may have another point. The thing about Monica is that she has this habit of being able to point out the stupidity that lies just beneath the surface of all men, without making them feel in the least bit stupid; which in the end makes you feel like a complete moron. She‟s always so damned reasonable, and she tends to bring out this protective instinct, which means she tends to get away with blue murder. “MONICA!” I raise my voice in protest, but know that it‟s fallen on deaf ears. Monica has this problem with her ears; they only pay attention when a man says something interesting; for 99% of the time they‟re having a rest. “Yes dearie!” When she uses “dearie” you know that wicked sense of humour is hovering around in the background. She‟s the only woman I know that can be sarcastic without sounding sarcastic. If she‟s in a bar on her own, sitting at a table flicking through Cosmopolitan, within minutes of her first lazy sip of a drink she‟ll be approached by some guy, which for those women who have no idea how to give a decent blowjob, they should watch her sipping from a glass. I‟ve seen some things in my time but I‟ve never seen any woman use her lips and tongue like Monica does; her lips gently nibble the rim

of the glass, then parting them she sips a little of whatever she‟s drinking, and then her tongue lingers longingly on the drink. Her friends keep telling her about it, but Monica‟s ears somehow become blocked. When guys see this they lose all sense of reason, and like bees around a pot of jam, they head for the honey. Anyway, guys being guys approach her, asking her if they can join her, buy her a drink, and tending on her mood and the kind of man she‟s into that month, invites them to join her and she agrees it would be delightful to wile away some time. To a man this is the floodgates being opened to a night of bonking; to Monica it tends to mean, “I‟m bored”. Now, you always know when Monica is bored, because she likes nothing better than to talk and the subject, like her choice of man, depends on her mood. If she‟s happy she enters into the ritual that men thinks is going to get them laid, giving compliments, listening to what she‟s saying, or appearing to, being attentive, cracking jokes, and being anything but themselves. She lets them get on with it, toying with them, doing all the things that women do to lead a man up the garden path, only for them to find it‟s a dead end: life‟s much easier being her friend. If the government ever got to slapping a government health warning on dangerous women, I‟m surprised they haven‟t as men consider the female species “femme fatale”, Monica would be wearing the first one issued. “Don‟t you dearie me, you patronising cow!” The great thing about being close friends with a woman is that you call them things you wouldn‟t dream of calling them if they weren‟t close friends; at least not so loud that they can hear it. “God I love a bitch!” Monica thinks that calling a man a dog is an unforgivable slur against the canine species, dogs after all are generally lovable, pretty clean, can be trained and do as they‟re told; her understanding of men is spectacular it has to be said. “No, I‟m not going through the menopause, and anyway I don‟t agree that men have a menopause, they just go into their second childhood. All I‟m interested in is the idea of love and what it is. The last time I looked you‟re a woman, so I‟m assuming that you‟d know more about it than a man would.” It was my turn to be sarcastic. “Meow! Well hello tiger! I love it when you talk dirty. Come over to see me sometime honey!” “Will you get serious?” “Mmm…so butch and forceful; I could eat you!” The thought of Monica eating me does not bear thinking about: if I did think about it the second brain would have to be hospitalised with permanent rigor mortis. “I give in!” “Just like a man. Hasn‟t a clue how to cope with a real woman!” Maybe she has another point; if this were a game of tennis I‟d be banned from the men‟s game for life and sent to the University of Eunuchs. “Any useful thoughts, hints that might help, pleaseeeeeeeeee!” I said this in a very pathetic way. “I love a man who knows how to grovel to his superiors.” Whilst I normally love Monica‟s sense of humour, this was beginning to piss me off. For the next ten minutes Monica carried on in the same way a runaway train does when it‟s going down a steep slope, the brakes having failed, and the track is perfectly

straight: train tracks that are straight are a rarity in Britain on account that, like roads, they tend to follow old sheep tracks, and as we know sheep are not known to have a brain that understands straight lines. The Romans did, but their time in Britain came to an end because they forget that the British traveller needed a roadside café to stop at for an insipid cup of tea. When the modern Romans came back to visit the land their ancestors had conquered, they discovered the motorway restaurant and decided that any country that had the gall to call the stuff served up as food, “food”, was a lost cause and called off the next invasion. “Well thanks for all your help!” I‟d given up asking her about love, clearly she was having one of her frivolous days and was in no mood for any kind of serious conversation. “Think nothing of it sweetie! Always a pleasure. Ciao bambino!” The avenue leading to love was nothing more than another cul de sac.

13 The day when childhood finally vanished I was disappointed by my lack of progress, and it became clear that asking friends for help was heading nowhere. It seems you can talk to your friends about anything; anything, that is, apart from love, which tends to bring out the worst in people. But then I consoled myself with the fact I was English and being English love is something rarely spoken about, except as a pre-thought, or an after-thought, but rarely said as a now thought; unless of course brain number two is at the moment of joyful release and then it‟s said as a “whoopee” thought. Perhaps I should start a self-help group and call it “Trying to find love?” But it‟d probably be a disaster. I can imagine it, loads of complete no-hopers turning up, hoping to find the man or woman of their dreams, thinking that it was a quick way into someone‟s knickers or Calvin Klein‟s. Besides the only thing I was capable of organising was a huge pile of paperwork into another huge pile of paperwork, so the complexities of running a club for would be loveholics was way beyond me. There was the option of taking a night school course in philosophy or women‟s studies, where I might find an answer to my dilemma, but decided against that due to my sociology experiences. It struck me as funny that despite the joys of unfettered access to millions of useless web pages, when you typed “love” into the search box all that came up was thousands of pages dedicated to love, provided that you had your credit card handy, you were well and truly alone and didn‟t mind ploughing through every sexual perversion known, and as it turned out unknown, to man, woman or beast. I‟d no idea how much I‟d led a sheltered life until the Internet arrived, then I realised that where love was concerned the English man was as firmly entrenched, encamped, and forever swanning around some Neolithic swamp as ever. As in all cases where a man runs out of ideas, time to call upon that angel of mercy and wisdom in all things, MUMMY! Sunday afternoon tea with mum is a ritual that once upon a time was the norm, these days it‟s definitely abnormal. The only place I know where to be truly civilised is my mum‟s Sunday tea. Here she serves up cucumber sandwiches, tea stewing in a china teapot, the best china used, Melton Mowbray‟s finest fat filled, heart attack city, porkpie, loads of Branston pickle, enough pickled onions to ensure you‟re heavily farting for the

next week, and the most luscious homemade sherry trifle you‟ve tasted in your life. However, the only drawback is that she expects you turn up in collar and tie, highly polished shoes, looking like every dog‟s dinner. If there‟s a thing out of place she simply tuts, gives you a withered look and then firmly ensconced on the Stone of Scone, in reality a chair that‟s older than the Mayflower sailing over the pond to America, she goes on a tirade about standards having dropped to an appalling low level. This you have to endure for around thirty minutes, it‟s no use trying to interrupt she‟s stone deaf and shouting at her simply makes her think you‟re agreeing with everything she‟s saying. “Hi mum!” I said loudly and cheerily “Haven‟t I told you not to use that American language in my house? To mum any slackening and familiarity in language, even with those she gave birth to, is considered the root cause of why we, the British, lost the glittering empire. She‟d never realised that the British Empire was nothing more than a great English exercise in seeing how many people they could happily enslave at the same time; that and having a bigger empire than the French. “I am sorry mum. I forgot we still lived in the nineteenth century.” Such a comment caused her to lash out with the cushion she was puffing up; it struck me softly on the lower back. She couldn‟t hit me any higher because I tower over her. “Listen Daniel, in this house, my house, we do things as we should and not as they do out there.” “Out there” was her phrase for the world beyond the front door. I often wondered if she‟d spent a long time in prison and had never recovered from the shock of being released into the world out there. “Yes mum.” I put on my best impression of a puppy begging forgiveness for having crapped in her shoes. We sat down in the best room, a room that had in it all the best stuff in the house; a room that was only used on a Sunday. Sometimes I felt a stranger and thought I was on a guided tour around one of the stately homes we went to visit when I was a kid. As I grew up I thought it was a bit much for the lorded gentry, having a history that had screwed every working class person they‟d come into contact with, continuing with the philosophy of screwing everyone, but nowadays charging everyone an arm and a leg to get screwed, regardless of what social class they belonged to. “So how was your week Daniel?” “The same mum.” “So you have been working hard?” “Yes mum, very hard.” Being from the traditional working class, mum was very proud of me for getting an education and working in an office as something important. As she was seventy I didn‟t have the heart to disappoint her, so I refrained from telling her I really shuffled paper around for no other reason than there was paper to shuffle around. “Good and I have started yoga classes.” I was somewhat surprised by this piece of news, and the matter-of-fact way she said it. “I am sorry, you have done what?”

“I have decided to take up yoga. It is good for my health and body.” There was an unknown bit missing. My mother has never done anything remotely concerned with keeping fit, let alone some oriental mumbo jumbo. “Why?” “Because!” My mother has always spoken in the shortest sentences possible for fear of being misunderstood; what the difference is between being misunderstood and not understood has never been clear in my mother‟s mind. In this case I was suffering from not understanding what I‟d misunderstood her to say. “My doctor thinks it is a wonderful idea at my age. Therefore I shall do it.” When my mother gets a bee in her bonnet there‟s no shifting her; but I still got the feeling there was something else she wasn‟t telling me. “Well if the doctor thinks it is a good idea, then go for it.” I wasn‟t sure about the wisdom of my encouragement. “Daniel! What am I supposed to be going for?” There was a hint of panic in her voice; clearly she hadn‟t understood what I‟d meant by “go for it”. I suddenly realised that she‟d probably never heard the phrase. “Oh. I mean I think it is a good idea for you to go to yoga classes.” I‟m sure she heard the doubts in my voice. “So it is not a good idea, and you think you know better than my doctor, who knows my body better than I do.” The thought of her doctor poking around my mother‟s body was not a happy one. “I am not saying that. If you think it is good idea, and your doctor agrees, then it must be a good idea. But I do not understand why now; I mean you not exactly twenty are you?” “So now I am too old to be looking after my body, is that what you are saying!” There was a hint of menace in her voice when she said this. I had visions of sherry trifle running down my head after she had slung the bowl at me. “No. There is nothing wrong with looking after your body as long as it is not too much for you. Anyway why this sudden interest in your body?” “Because…well…um…because...” When my mother becomes vague, there‟s something definitely afoot. “...because I have discovered it.” I was lost, what on earth had she discovered to cause her to become interested in yoga and her body. “Discovered what?” I asked naively. “It!” Her voice was a strange mixture between eureka and plain embarrassment. “What is “It”?” I asked even more naively. “You know, It.” My mother has this wonderful knack for saying something incredibly meaningful to her, but which has absolutely no meaning to the rest of the world. “Mum, I have no idea what you mean by “It”. Please explain.” “Daniel! It is very rude of you to be asking me, your mother, questions like that.” “But I do not understand what you mean by “It”” “Daniel, what I mean by “It” is…um…”It” and it is not something I should talk to my son about, but it makes me happy!”

I‟ve no idea what she‟s talking about, but you know that it‟s something important because my mother has this knack of telling you something is important without explaining what it is. At such times it‟s best just to agree and move on, hoping at some point she makes herself clear. “Well as long as you are happy, that is all that matters. Now, how about some trifle?” We spend the next thirty minutes talking about nothing in particular, she bringing me up to date on the continuing saga of Mrs. Dewhurst‟s downward drift into mental instability. Apparently Mrs. Dewhurst‟s life is filled with never-ending dramas, the latest being trying to sexually abuse the young policeman who‟d come to escort her home after she was found wandering around the local street with her Zimmer frame in the altogether. According to my mother Mrs. Dewhurst didn‟t appreciate the constable‟s attempts to cover her up with his jacket so she tried to ram one of the Zimmer‟s legs into his crotch. “Mum, what do you understand about the emotion of love?” I finally decided that I needed to talk about the thing that was bothering me. “What do you mean?” There was a sort of accusing look in my mother‟s eyes, which had narrowed slightly and had taken on a steely expression. “Well, I have been wondering if I had ever been in love before, and I do not know if I have.” “But you have been married for twenty five years.” My mother naturally assumes that if you‟ve been married for that length of time, you must still be in love. The fact that I‟d been divorced and separated from my ex for the last ten years didn‟t come into the equation, because my mother thinks once you‟re married you‟re always married. “And how do you think you got here? By stork?” “So I was the result of…” She didn‟t let me finish. “Daniel. There are some things a son never talks about with his mother. However, and because you are my son, and I will not be here for much longer, I think it is time we had a chat about…um…because your dad is not here to have this chat, and…um…it might be better if I spoke to you about this matter.” This was the longest my mother had ever spoken in her life, so I knew it was very important. “What is it mum?” I asked softly, forgetting that she‟d see my lips moving but wouldn‟t hear a thing. “What?” When she can‟t hear anything, she always says “what.” At that moment the doorbell rang, which was a complete surprise to me, nobody came during Sunday tea because this was decreed, by my mother, that I‟d be the only one allowed to come. My mother flew out of the chair in about the same time it took Ben Johnson to leave the starting blocks when he was full of steroids during the Olympic Games. Whatever she‟d put in her tea, I wanted some desperately. As the front door was the other side of the best room, I heard her open it and welcome someone in. I couldn‟t hear what was being said, but clearly it was someone she knew and from the tone, which I thought was a bit too friendly, someone she knew very intimately. After about five minutes she came back in, wearing a smile that was a mixture of the Cheshire cat having licked the remains of a bowl of Devon‟s finest clotted cream, having first consumed a year‟s total production, and a somewhat pre-pubescent, embarrassed,

look reminiscent of a young girl having just discovered a set of strange, warm, tingly feelings when nature decides it‟s time to abandon the Barbie doll. Being male, and utterly hopeless at reading body language, especially my mother‟s vast acreage, I just sat there wondering why she felt so pleased with herself. Not for one moment was I aware of the ticking atom bomb that was about to explode beside me. “Daniel, I‟d like you to meet my friend John.” For some reason the strict adherence to the use of proper English in the house had disappeared. John appeared behind my mother. He was wearing a Harris Tweed suit that looked so old, I imagined it to be his demob suit from one of the wars after World War II. Despite its obvious age, it looked good on him, hanging as it did in the manner it was supposed to. He was six inches taller than my mother so they appeared to fit together. A little more disconcerting was his slender arm around my mother‟s waist, something that my mother was obviously enjoying, and which I was not. All of a sudden a horrible thought shot through my brain, “It” was SEX! Then I thought “you crazy bastard”, then I thought “oh my fucking god!” then I was lost for thoughts, never mind obscene words. I sort of got up from my chair, well sort of got up in the same way opposite ends of two magnets cling on to each other and refuse to part unless they‟re prised apart with great force. Stood up I shook John‟s extended right hand with such a limp handshake, that he either detected what I was thinking, or desperately not trying to think about, or he thought I was a full-blown member of the Freemasons, or even worse, maybe not, I was a raving queen. “Hello John. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Bugger mother‟s slip into informal English. In situations like this formality is called for and even if she was prepared to forego Sunday tea etiquette, I wasn‟t. “Hello Daniel, if I may call you Daniel. Good afternoon and pleased to meet you at last.” How long had this been going on I thought. “Yes, you may, and please sit down.” I think I said this with a bit too much firmness, and I think I collapsed into the chair because I was in shock. “Would you like a cuppa Daniel?” My mother never uses the word “cuppa” so I sort of choked and spluttered. John sat there, grinning slightly; having taken off his grey, checked, cloth cap, his thinning hair stood up, I swear, in the shape of two horns. “Uh…oh um…yes.” I‟m not sure if such a word exists but I could hear myself saying “Oh ferlummings!” Even if Sunday tea is becoming a comedy of errors, or a latter day Greek tragedy, now I‟m becoming less perturbed by the moment, and coarse expletives are less urgent than they were a few moments ago. “And what do you do John?” I began acting like a father, sniffing out the future prospects of a future son in law. “Oh…nothing really. I‟m retired and have been for the last seven years. I now fill my time with going to the local church hall for yoga classes, which is where I met your mother six months ago.” Things were becoming clear. I was sat in the presence of an aging Lothario, raping and pillaging lonely old ladies, plundering their pension books, stealing my sherry trifle; I wasn‟t a happy bunny at that moment.

“So you met my mother when she started yoga classes?” I eyed him suspiciously. “Yes, quite by accident. I suffer from a slight backache and my doctor recommended that I take up yoga as it would help my muscles.” The thought entered my mind that local family doctors, Mafia branch of the British Medical Association, had decided on yoga classes as a means to encourage OAPs to take up extra exercise outside the House of God. Then the thought that God was whooping it up on his Zimmer frame with St. Joan‟s centuries old skeletal bones was too much to bear. I‟d no idea, which was worse, my mother‟s crinkly bottom cavorting underneath John‟s much lighter, but as wrinkled body, or God getting down on an old bag of bones. “Erm…I see.” There was nothing else I could say; the nightmare had decided to poke its head around my door. My mother was sat next to John, each smiling at the other; the smiles reminded me of two septuagenarians smoking the last dregs of the finest pot, and high with it. They appeared like two inane mannequins that had suddenly been brought to life, and were having problems deciding which part of the body they should rub together to get it going after a lifetime stood on the same spot in the same shop window. The thought of that sent a nasty spasm down my neck. “Danny, would you like some more triffle?” I was now well and truly gob smacked! My mother had never called me Danny in her life. The thought of her ever saying it was tantamount to a full-blown confession to having been a woman of the loosest virtue, single-handedly taking on the entire D-Day invasion force swelling the south coast of England in 1944. And “triffle”? A word that came deep from the bowels of the deepest part of the working class well. The moral fibre of my family environment was breaking down. And any surviving pretensions that the mother of my childhood was on a par with the Virgin Mary, finally destroyed.

14 The lane to nowhere leads somewhere Feeling a mixture of umpteen emotions, none that I showed publicly for that‟s not the thing for a man to do, I left my mother‟s for a walk. As I left there seemed to be a demonic glint in John‟s eye, presumably due to thoughts of a real life dual Lotus position with my mother; who it seemed was in just as much hurry to be back indoors, hidden by the seclusion of the den of antiquity I was departing. If I‟d been in the least bit objective, and it hadn‟t been my bloody mother, being male I‟d have probably given John a knowing nod and a wink, and silently mouthing the words “go for it my son”. Objectively there‟s nothing more demanding of respect to a male brain than the thought of a man of seventy who‟s still got lead in his pencil and knows how to scribble away as it were. I could‟ve sworn the lower brain complained at that thought, as the only action he‟s seen plenty of is the shadow from my mug of tea, although it‟s a dab hand at stirring it, as they say in this part of the world. Before my very eyes, and what seemed a droning in my ears, my mother had become a Mata Hari figure, admitting that she and John were happily ensconced in an active relationship, and in her words “I could like it or lump it!” I gave up the ghost and buggered off for the rest of the afternoon, or early evening as it turned out. The thing about life is its twists and turns, and where you think all is settled and happily boring, it suddenly throws a fit and punches you hard on the nose, causing you immense pain, helped along by a swift kick up the arse. Sometimes this is to be welcomed if only because in your delightful semi-comatose existence, a rude awakening makes you aware that you‟re still actually breathing. In my mother‟s case life was actually taking the piss, and there was no way I was going back to sleep for fear that the bogeyman would come and taunt me. Yet thinking of the afternoon‟s events she hadn‟t come out with “I‟m having a shag with John” type of speech. But that‟s because she‟s seventy and the word “sex”, or anything remotely concerned with it, has always been swept under the carpet, or hidden in the wardrobe, or ignored, or somebody else‟s problem. No, she hadn‟t mentioned it directly, unless you count “It” as being direct, which is being vague but precise in the words of a seventy year old woman having tons of sex with an aging Lothario throwing

Viagra down his throat like there‟s no end to tomorrow! My question concerning love went unanswered; not surprising when you know Don Juan‟s likely to turn up and the son‟s an embarrassment in the way of carnal pleasure. In the only recourse left open to the English male in a time of hurt masculine pride, it was time to down several pints of whatever passes for chemically enhanced British beer. The following morning was not a pleasant experience. Most of it was spent actively glued to the toilet seat, on account that I‟d decided to be brave, or stupid, there‟s a thin line between the two. My “brave deed” was to try the local brewery‟s new brew, aptly named the “Stewed Prune.” Now for those unfamiliar with the great and magnificent British brewing industry, there‟s no longer a local brewery left, at least not round my way. All the local breweries have been swallowed up, turned into sports centres, or flogged off as prime real estate. What are left are big distribution centres, the beer being made on some sprawling and non-descript industrial estate hundreds of miles away. And as is the way with seasoned beer drinkers, they get fed up with lager, which is fizzy water coloured like cat‟s piss, bitter which tastes like anyone‟s piss and any other thing the breweries monotonously and endlessly churn out and have the audacity to call it beer. What is certain is that a man‟s drink is anything but these days, equally certain is due to the interfering busybodies in the EU, who think that German and Belgium beer is the proper thing, British beer has had to succumb to the world of chemistry to get a taste resembling foreign crap. Anyway the point of this tirade is that these days discerning quaffees of real beer want stuff made from proper, natural, ingredients, British of course. So it‟s left to the odd eccentric brewer to churn out some muck or other, which brings a smile to one end and fluidity strain to the other end; some of these concoctions work one end after more or less immediately drinking it at the other end, which tends to be a bit unfortunate at times. And because these oddities in the brewing world have a delightful sense of humour, they come up with weird and wonderful names and beers. Some bright spark, no doubt seriously miffed at his wife, decided to add prunes to the beer with the unfortunate result it was highly intoxicating with unfortunate side effects. I, like other British beer drinkers, tend to ignore the label on the bottle, or keg, thinking that nobody in their right mind would stick actual concentrated prune juice in the beer, and that such a wonderful name is somebody‟s idea of a practical joke. I was painfully wrong, my arse was painfully sore, and Meakin was painfully pissed off at me for taking the day off work. The only consolation being that it‟d literally blotted out any memory of my mother and John going at it like two snails, at their age even a snail‟s pace had to be carefully taken for obvious health reasons. The day duly wore on at about the same speed my hangover and trots began to wear off and by five in the afternoon I was feeling a bit chirpier. I avoided phoning my mother, as I had no intention of barging into the middle scenes from 9½ weeks; the thought of all that wheezing would‟ve killed off any idea I had that matricide should be kept on the statute book of the penal code concerning murders. Of course none of this had anything to do with my search for the meaning of love, and the thought of my mother wasn‟t helping. Even though I was fifty I was feeling

sympathetic towards the view held by teenagers that sexually active parents should be taken outside and put out of their misery. Whose misery, probably mine. As it was still early evening I decided to go for a walk, working on the principle that lungs full of toxic exhaust fumes was far better for you than a mind full of pensioners indulging in orgies. The English night air, in the rush hour, which is never an hour, as it seems to stretch out for about three, is pretty invigorating should you happen to walk along a main road. As with all exercise, walking has this unfortunate habit of making you breathe harder than you normally would, particularly if said walking exercise is actually longer than 100 hundred yards, so no matter how slow you might be ambling along, the further you go the deeper the breathing, the more intoxicating the fumes from the passing traffic; which has this peculiar sensation of making you feel as though you‟re high on cocaine, whilst simultaneously dying from asphyxiation. As it was a Monday the rush looked heavier than normal and the concentration of exhaust gasses seemed to be floating around at chest height. Particularly vexing was the great plumes of oily diesel fumes, which spewed out in clouds of contemptuous protest at the sterling efforts of Friends of the Earth. The drivers of the trucks, all 40 tonnes, seemed to look the same, great hairy arsed characters, fags hanging out their mouths, guts the size of beer barrels due to having eaten thousands of that traditional English delight, the full English breakfast delightfully swimming about in enough fat to burn a church candle for a thousand hours. Somehow it seems far less dangerous to be sucking in diesel fumes than standing close to a British lorry driver who‟s intent on expelling organic wind into the atmosphere. At this time of day, whilst it might be irritating to be breathing in the entire American, British and Middle East petroleum manufacturing output, one of life‟s small delights is that you can walk faster than a Porsche can move. At this time of night you‟re likely to see cars full of business suits, there‟s something very surreal about the British businessman hollering away, arms waving about like a demented baboon, talking directly to his windscreen. Occasionally you might get to feast your eyes on a shapely pair of thighs, the already short skirt riding ever higher as the middle aged, peroxide bleached blonde, jiggles about in her fabric covered seat, trying to recapture her lost youth whilst listening to Kylie Minogue‟s latest hit. Then of course there‟s the young filly, who in the grand tradition of English fashion, wears totally unsuitable clothing, far too tight, making grunge seem like an Armani statement, yet is absolutely oblivious to how ridiculous she looks. There‟s something comforting in the fact that most English men remain dressed as their mothers have always dressed them. Then there‟s the fashion statement. As I come alongside it, a monument to a flagrant misuse of the earth‟s diminishing natural resources and man‟s appalling lack of ingenuity, I stop, standing, looking, wondering how much further the middle class will plunge into the depths of complete pretentiousness and mediocrity. Whoever came up with the idea of designing the gas guzzling monster suburban 4 wheel drive, and thought what a wonderfully whoopee stroke of genius it was, deserves to be locked away in a mental asylum. These cars, well they‟re not cars really, they‟re too big and stupid looking, are every statistician‟s dream. They generally contain hubby, wifey and 2.4 children, deplete

the earth‟s fossil fuels at an astonishing rate, burn more rubber than the entire condom industry, pollute more air than trees can produce oxygen, cost more than the national debt of some small Latin American country, and driven by individuals who continue to leave scientists puzzled as to why the humble earthworm scores consistently higher in IQ tests. Walking along the line of virtually stationary vehicles, you can‟t help but notice there‟s that weird look that British drivers have when sat in a small, confined, metal box, a box that they‟ve been led to believe is the glorious gateway to freedom, escape from the woes of life around them, the ultimate expression of individuality; sadly the only individual act the British car driver is capable of is the pair of furry dice, the nodding dog in the back window, and “Chas & Shaz” at the top of the windscreen. It‟s always struck me as somewhat odd that the British mentality is incapable of doing anything remotely individual, save the wonderfully cheerful eccentric, and always conforming to whatever the neighbours are doing, even though they‟ve never spoken to their neighbours in their lives, apart from saying “Good morning” for no other reason than it‟s nothing more than a reflex action in a moment of trying to escape having to converse with someone you‟ve either no desire to, or having to delay the trip to McDonalds. Sadly it tends to be men wearing this strange, slightly hypnotic look, and no matter the variation in facial features, the differing ages, the full head of hair, the bald pate, the expression remains largely the same. I suppose that‟s to be expected given that most cars are basically the same design, sporting the same limited range of colours, designed by designers who all attended the same kind of schools, and sold by salesmen wearing the same kind of dark suits. The car was once an individual treat, now it‟s just a means to an end, and at this very moment in time, walking along this line of sameness, the end for every driver doesn‟t appear much in sight really. However, women tend to be doing something else rather than watching where they‟re not going. It never ceases to amaze me how women always seem to be doing something, even in the car. As I‟m walking along the long line of stationary cars they all seem to be doing something, it‟s as if they‟re genetically programmed to be constantly active. I‟m pretty sure that God decreed, in His infinite wisdom, that men should be as stupid as they are so that women had a meaningful purpose in life. Mind you, a feminist might argue that God was a woman; therefore it was natural that men should appear as stupid as possible so giving women every possible opportunity to show men the error of their ways. I can‟t help but notice that more than half of the women drivers are applying cosmetics of one description or other; whilst I dare say that most of the men are wearing cleanish underpants because their mothers always told them to wear a clean pair in case they had to go to hospital. The thought did strike me that when it comes to the statistics men for some reason seem to have far more accidents, but then I‟ve always said that women should be given free insurance, as they never have an accident, they just cause them. What man worth his salt can keep his eyes on the road when there‟s a bouncing pair of boobs, a delectable looking behind or a skirt that‟s so short it‟s in danger of showing someone‟s breakfast. But whilst it‟s fun to wile away a moment or two most of the men in the traffic jam either have that look of pure evil, reminiscent of Michael Schumacher‟s psychotic grin as he ploughed into Damon Hill‟s car, or the look of teenagers standing around in the public

school shower, normally Eton but any school‟s the same, after games comparing willy sizes only to find that Jack‟s has grown by half an inch in a week whilst everyone else‟s has remained the same, except for Justin‟s who‟s appendage seems to grow enormously whenever he‟s in the vicinity of a naked male body; considering the state of the Conservative Party there‟s an overabundance of Justins, all hidden in closets, all happily driving 4 wheel drives, and all wearing a look of painful constipation to due to the amount of British sausages they enthusiastically ram down their throats. Then there‟s the look of the married man, wearing a weary expression, spending time looking towards the heavens silently praying that God will forgive him for telling his mother lies about her dreadful cooking, whilst his equally drearily married spouse berates him for forgetting to put out the incontinent cat, who that morning decided it wasn‟t going any further than their son‟s bed and relieved itself there. Then there‟s the single/divorced man look, which is forever shifty, eyeing up the female car driver, proudly proclaiming his car is the ultimate penis statement; if he‟s driving a Mini then it has nothing to do with size, but everything to do with the quality of the engineering, structure, form and being oh so laid back he knows where a woman‟s G spot is. But such strolling soon begins to clog up the lungs, the wheezing becomes more noticeable, the eyes begin to itch, and life at that moment has to end. It doesn‟t end in the literal sense, it ends when you take a sharp left turn down this tiny track, which millions of years ago was a tarmac surface but which now resembles the moon‟s rock strewn surface. Walking along this road, you head back in time, away from the McDonalds culture, moving through the landscape of England‟s green and pleasant land, where the only thing you breathe is fresh air and suck in the glorious aromas of fresh cowpats. I couldn‟t help thinking that the British are a bit eccentric in their attitude to roads. Everybody thinks it‟s a good idea to build bypasses around villages and towns, but nobody wants to destroy the environment to do it, but they still want their bypasses. Eventually they get them, after months, sometimes years, when all the joys of planning consultations have taken place. Everybody takes pleasure in the “win-win” situation; villages become forever cut off from the real world and dozily dream away their existence, the villagers return to the rituals of old and unseen from the rest of the civilised world pick up from where they left off, producing offspring that uncannily resemble each other, bearing the same family names, acting in the same strange manner and talking in an incomprehensible dialect that is very peculiar to the English countryside. The planning authorities win because they see themselves as the guardians of their particular patch of ground, and the proud burghers sitting on the various planning committees, finally feel important because they get interviewed on telly and come out with long monotonous moronic words that only politicians understand, and which the rest of the world dismisses as being no different to the dung the farmer spreads on his field. Life for Councillor Symonds is good because he has a voice that for once in his small, miniscule, pathetic existence means he‟ll be feted by the great and good in the locality, perhaps invited down to have tea with the Minister of the Environment on the terrace at the Houses of Parliament, where he happily kisses the bottom of the equally stupid minister, whose only claim to fame is coming to the rescue of a lesser spotted woodpecker. The woodpecker decided it was a perfectly sensible idea to build its nest in

the trunk of an old oak tree, the oak tree being 500 years old was on its last legs and was in severe danger of toppling over in the slightest breeze so the good minister decided to intervene on its behalf, succeeding in having it shored up by wooden pillars, saving it from an ignominious collapse into historical oblivion. The woodpecker was a side issue, for the tree once upon a time bore the burden of hiding Charles I, who at the time was fleeing from the glorious revolution of puritanical brevity, led by Ollie Cromwell, whose lust for power was only bettered in modern times by one Adolf Hitler, unless you count the wholesale destruction performed by Maggie Thatcher & Tony Blair, the Laurel and Hardy of British politics. It‟s also a win for the road constructors, who secure the contracts to build the roads by spending a little of their profits and entertain all those they figure to be important luminaries in the never-ending quest to build roads. Whoever wins the road-building contract is assured of the continuing profits and employment for the next thirty years, due in large part to British roads being in need of repair from the moment they are built, hence the miles of motorway littered with lanes being coned off due to road repairs, although why the miles of orange and white cones exist is anyone‟s guess as no-one seems to be working. But as I‟m walking down the lane the main road I left thirty minutes ago has disappeared, and the only noise to be heard is the breeze rustling through the coarse grasses. The grass sways gently, bending in harmony to the silent sounds of some imaginary piece of sensuous music. It‟s somehow an hypnotic moment of pure idyllic peace, where some innate sense of contentment rises to the surface, and my mind is at its most relaxed. The question of love naturally arises, and surrounded by Mother Nature‟s natural delights, it‟s not that surprising. Fifty minutes ago I was Mr. Neanderthal, gawping at bare female thighs, feeling wistfully horny, going through every position that‟s carefully illustrated in the Kama Sutra, now I couldn‟t be any further away. I guess most men feel as I do at this very moment in time, the underbelly of emotions seeping to the surface, carefully released in a moment of privacy, secure in the knowledge that such emotions need to be released but only in the seclusion of a place where they can‟t be seen. I‟m now in a dreamlike state, male thinking dominated by the overwhelming emotion of female thinking, liking it and without a care in the world. Unfortunately, whilst such a state is one that makes life strangely pleasurable, it does mean that with my head in the clouds I‟ve no idea what‟s in front of me and fall head over heels as I trip up on the rotting tree stump that‟s hidden by the swaying grass. “OH FUCK IT!” I shout as I clumsily tumble towards the fast approaching ditch that‟s filled with stagnant water. Thirty seconds later I‟m covered in the sludge and slime of a foul smelling liquid, generously coated in some kind of decaying lime green vegetation, my face and hands caked in a thick, gungy, clingy, substance that‟s a filthy brown colour, reminiscent of my mother‟s sterling attempts at making gravy. At times like this, whilst it‟s ok to curse, blaspheme and roar like a demented lion who‟s just had his balls kicked, there‟s little point in sitting there sulking over something that was your own fault for not paying attention.

So I climb up the four-foot high ditch bank, clinging to tussocks of grass to aid my ascent. The warmth of my body already beginning to dry the hideous mess covering me, I resembling something out of a Stephen King book. Getting to the top of the bank wasn‟t that difficult if you ignore the sight of a grown man sliding backwards due to the wetness of his clothes, and man‟s determination that all man-made sloping banks should have no real footholds; unlike nature, who whilst giving you a shitty time occasionally, at least decrees that banks have the occasional foothold somewhere close by. After five minutes of scrambling in true mountain goat fashion, I plonk myself on the tree stump and proceed to remove the bits of nature that have managed to find their way into every exposed orifice at my disposal. It‟ a strange sensation smelling something that tastes completely different, and at this precise moment I sit silently, and manfully, cursing the entire medical profession for saying that roughage in the diet is very good for you. Although I‟ve no idea why, as I‟m cleaning my eyes, brushing away the caked on muck, I think how bland supermarket food tastes; somehow god‟s earth seems to be full of the strangest tastes, and whilst some are clearly revolting and cause me to heave slightly, some aren‟t all that unpleasant. For instance I can taste the peppery taste of watercress, a slight hint of peppermint, smell the subtle aroma of garlic; but mostly all I can taste is the back end of a cow. Thirty minutes later I‟ve sort of got myself cleaned up a bit, brushed off what I could with a clump of dead grass that came free with a bit of a struggle, and whilst I‟d be consider persona non gratis at every eatery in town I felt somewhat cleaner and more at peace. Perched on the tree stump I gaze around, looking for nothing in particular, and although I‟d walked this way before I‟d never took much notice of what was around me. I comfort myself in the knowledge that the English spend a ridiculous amount of time in the countryside, going for walks, having picnics, doing leisurely pursuits like boating and fishing, hiking and rambling, but never take much notice of the things around them, or what they‟re trampling underfoot. Strange isn‟t it? Britain has some of the most varied and gorgeous landscapes in the world, yet nobody looks at it really, at least in any depth. It sits there, not really doing anything; just gloriously splendid in every hue of colour known to man. Every bank holiday weekend the hordes of fair-weather day-trippers shoot up the M6 to the Lake District. There they alight full of British cheer, despite the fact it‟s raining, as is normal on a bank holiday weekend, and slowly amble around Lake Windermere for a few hours before heading off home. But with that British frame of mind they look no further than the end of their nose, drink disgustingly horrible tepid coffee or worse still tea that‟s been stewing in a metallic urn for hours on end, eat curled up, stale, cheese and tomato sandwiches or even fish „n‟ chips that ought to be condemned under the Trades Description Act. But here I am, damp, mud caked, looking like an American B movie actor who‟s starring in “The swamp man from outer space”, and I find myself staring at the little joys of nature. The last time I was this close to nature was many moons ago, too many to put a precise date on it, and with the passage of time I‟d long forgotten about the weird and wonderful world around us. Thinking about it, the last time I had any real contact with

nature in all its glory, was when me and Peter Huggle ran around the garden like lunatics with a pond net. We decided one day, as only nine year old boys can, that it‟d be brilliant to see how many winged beasties we could capture, stick them in a disused jam jar and watch them eat each other. Off we ran, and ran, and ran in circles like demented banshees, screaming, wailing, and making all kinds of fearful noises. Our nets became gladiator nets, swished this way, swotted that way, thrown in the air, wafted about in scything motions, but for all the effort our reward was meagre. We ended up with a flying beetle, a couple of moths, a butterfly and three houseflies, none which bothered to take any notice of us when we kept shouting at them to eat each other. They sat inside the jar and did nothing, which wasn‟t how we planned it, we wanted to see who would eat who; they just ignored us. We released the beetle very carefully because it was big and thought it might jump on us, deciding that we might taste better than its companions. The moths stayed where they were and wouldn‟t budge, no matter how many times we shook the jar for all we was worth, so we left them alone. The butterfly died during the jar shaking and the flies flew around the jar as though they were on fire. This was boring and Peter decided it‟d be a great idea to see what would happen if we pulled off the flies wings, one by one. As my hands could just about get inside the jar I was the nominated fly catcher, having never done this before I‟d no idea that flies could move so fast, so I must‟ve looked pretty stupid with my hand stuck in the jar. Peter laughed all the way home, and I remember crying a lot after my mum gave me a whack across the back of the head for being such an idiot. Now I was nicely relaxed, with a pie like crust covering most parts of me, my mind drifted back to the three books I‟d read and their after effects. Two hours ago I‟d returned to the land of caves, grunting, smirking as only a lustful man can. Now I was away from the influences of civilisation, alone and without a care in the world and it felt a much nicer place to be in. It felt quite wonderful to sit there on the stump, watching the grass slowly dance in the breeze, see the soft fluffy dandelion seeds rise gracefully into the air, listen to the faint sounds coming from close by, hear the melodious songs of different birds in the distance, and admire the blue sky broken up by whitish clouds. At that moment in time there wasn‟t a better place on earth. I‟d no idea what had happened but I found myself being awoken with a rude start. Around me was Mother Nature doing her worse, loud claps of thunder rang out in the near distance, further away the lightening spat down from the heavens, the air tingling and charging with static electricity. The downpour was brutal in its intensity, I got soaked to the skin and the dry piecrust liquefied as only mud can when subjected to such a deluge of water. Despite this, and being so used to the ever changing moods of the British weather, my mood remained relaxed and happy in spite of the squelching sound coming from my sodden shoes, the dripping mud washing out of my hair falling down onto my face, and the sopping wet clothes covering my slightly shivering body. Sometimes you can do nothing else but smile.

15 “Dolce Vita” “Morning Daniel! Nice to see you back from your hols!” Meakin was, how shall we say, in a funny mood. Well funny in the sense he appeared weird to me and everyone else in the office; but to him I suppose he thought he was being jocular. How anyone with the personality of a slug can think they‟re funny is beyond even my simple intellect. “Morning Mr. Meakin.” My reply hinted at being sheepish and I didn‟t look him in the eye, which must have made me seem a bit furtive and dodgy. “So how was the trip then? You haven‟t got much of a tan.” The slug is now on a slimy roll. “Well no, but I was laid up in bed, so the chances of getting a tan were a bit slim.” My reply was a mixture of lies, slight apology and slightly more sarcasm than Mr Sluggy. Meakin disappeared into his office, no doubt wanting to hide away from the rest of us. I sighed with relief that he hadn‟t questioned me any further; I mean how are you supposed to sound convincing when you mention that your backside was on fire for most of the day, your head was filled with half a dozen workmen all using pneumatic drills, but the worst thing of all was taking an involuntary bath in a watercourse because of your own stupidity and not watching where you‟re going. “Here Danny, you fancy going to the Regal on Friday after work?” Barry was a bit of a lad, and being twenty-two had no qualms about doing anything that contributed to that weird and wonderful practice, male bonding. Barry was really into it in a big way and spent as much time proving he was as much a male as he could be. If he went out he‟d head for some pub, where he knew there‟d be plenty of single girls, or divorced women, and pitch in with a zeal reminiscent of a five year old who‟s surrounded by every known sickly sweet thing ever invented and proceeds to munch away to his heart‟s content until such time his stomach can‟t take anymore and pukes it all back up. “We‟ll see. No idea what I‟m doing at the weekend and Friday‟s another four days away. Ask me again on Thursday afternoon.” The Regal is a strip joint, where Silicon Valley comes in the shape, or several shapes, of cleavage, that once revealed it‟s obvious that none of them were ever designed by Mother Nature, or if they were Mother Nature was seriously doped up on heroin. It‟d have also passed for the worst decorated bordello

known in the sex industry, if it weren‟t for the regular police raids, which stopped any stripper or punter getting carried away with activities likely to cause a serious disturbance of the peace, whilst wearing the most stupid of smiles. “Yeh, right! I‟ll give you a bell Thursday afternoon to see what you‟re doing.” “Ok Barry, speak to you then.” The age difference between me and Barry was nearly three decades, but he didn‟t mind and had no problems with the so called generation gap that existed. In Barry‟s eyes once you‟d hit the twenty-one mark men were men regardless of age, which was a pretty refreshing kind of attitude. His problem was that he thought that if he possessed bundles of energy, so did every other man; he forget, probably because he‟s yet to get there, that when a man gets older his body naturally slows down in accordance with the natural laws of nature, and a thirty year difference is one hell of a slowdown. I mean I like to party occasionally, stay out at the weekend, but these days getting to bed by one in the morning is the preferred choice, whereas Barry will keep going until seven in the morning if given half the chance. Of course, at this moment in time I was still questioning my own thoughts regarding the fairer sex, and whether I‟d ever been truly in love; Barry‟s still at that age where the idea of love is wrapped up in manly conquests and notches on the bedpost. If I‟d sat down with Barry to discuss the finer issues of love he‟d have no doubt labelled me a raving queer at worst or on a collision course with a lengthy stay in a lunatic asylum. As soon as Barry asked me to go to the Regal I knew that I wouldn‟t be going, in his heart Barry probably knew that as well: if nothing else the day off work, the walk along the lane, the soaking had all sort of washed away the cobwebs that had been festering away in the grey matter for as long as I can remember. I was slowly becoming convinced that not having had a date for god knows how long with a woman, there must be a good reason for it. I couldn‟t help think that most men in their infinite wisdom are blessed with the myopic eyesight of a dinosaur on its last legs. It refuses to die and struggles to carry on. It makes every possible sense to carry on regardless, and not give up without a mighty fight, but it dies all the same; that‟s the way of nature, and I don‟t suppose most of my fellow brethren will ever see it in any other way. The morning passed slowly, boringly and without much interruption to the paper shuffling that had to be done. Apart from Albert, who decided to walk by my desk and say hello but nothing else. Albert‟s face betrayed nothing as usual, and his voice remained dull and lifeless, devoid of any emotion. With nothing to do but shuffle paper, except to shuffle off the mortal coil at some point in the future, the mind began to wander aimlessly into the regions of the brain I‟d no idea existed. It‟s said that we only use about ten percent of our grey stuff, and most of that‟s filled with god knows what rubbish, totally dominated by Action Man, GI Joe and Tarzan swinging gaily through the trees. Thinking about it I mused over the idea that having been negligent in feeding my brain anything remotely useful throughout its existence, or at least adding another ten percent, which had nothing to do with the world of muchos machos, I couldn‟t find an argument for not doing so now. And so with a faraway look I slowly drifted into a world I‟d never really viewed with any real conviction, me and emotions.

Something had stirred in me, more so today than before. I‟ve no idea why, but it was probably due to the events of yesterday. It had somehow amazed me that I could be sitting there, no longer interested in the joys of my navel hairs, but taking in the softness of the countryside. It was as though there was a pull towards a thing so instinctual that it resonated deep in my subconscious, that no matter how you try to explain it you couldn‟t. The first thing when men mention emotions, are that such emotions are governed by a set of rules, which logically have no basis in being logical. A man‟s emotions are tied into a narrowness that conforms to a world inhabited by only men, a bit like a pride of male lions content to sleep for twenty-three hours of the day and pig out for the other hour, food delivered by the female puss, and no more complicated than that. Things like gentleness, tenderness, softness have no place in the world of men, they are the domain of women, the refuge of “womanly” things, unspoken about, given no greater thought than at the appropriate moment that‟s perfectly ok, providing they are not overdone and no more than lip service is paid to them. A man can‟t be in love because it‟s not natural to the species that‟s progressed no further in its enlightened thinking than poking its head out of the cave entrance. A man understands lust because brain number two is perfectly in tune with the emotion of the moment and the environment it finds itself in. In this there‟s no need to work out the emotional details, just react to the circumstances of the moment and then roll over and go to sleep. But that doesn‟t really make sense does it? I mean if the only thing governing a man‟s emotions is the need for a bonk, how come I‟ve existed in a perfectly functionary way since my last relationship three years ago? I admit that I haven‟t worn my heart on my sleeve openly, but I‟ve still felt pissed off at the world, which means I‟ve been angry. I‟ve always given what coins I had in my pocket to the beggar on the street, so I can be compassionate. Walking in the park I‟ve stroked the odd dog, so that‟s being tender. Watching kids in the playground I‟ve often helped pick up kids who‟ve fallen over and said a kind word or two, so I‟m sympathetic. Alone at home I‟ve sort of cried a tear or two at silly moments during a film, so I can be soppy. And the list goes on. But I‟d never thought of any emotions until now. Putting the thought of emotions on hold it was time for something to eat. Lunch was in a place called “Dolce Vita”. It was situated about ten minutes walk from the office, in a little side street that would never be found had you been looking for it on a tourist map. The street was full of old, worn out, buildings made of bricks that had become blackened over the seventy years they had stood. If you looked closely you could just about make out they were red or orange when they were new, but I don‟t suppose anybody chose to scrape away the grunge of pollution, so the street appeared to be what it was, a rundown part of town. As far as I could make out the Dolce Vita had always been there, decades before the area started to become built up with offices of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. A long time ago it was a residential area, densely packed with two ups – two downs, mainly filled with working class families, mostly immigrants who had decided to settle there because there were no jobs in their countries because of the devastation left in the wake of WWII. Then about twenty years ago the local council declared the houses as being unfit for human inhabitation, so bulldozed the lot of them down, completely flattening

everything apart from the existing businesses, probably due to a decision that decided it was ok to completely uproot entire communities, spreading the people far and wide, whilst leaving businesses to carry on regardless, despite no longer having any custom to keep them going. From the outside there was nothing to entice you into Dolce Vita, and looking all around you, if you didn‟t know any better, you‟d have sworn it had been condemned as unsanitary, ridden with rats, and liable to give you a bad case of botulism. But appearances are deceptive, and inside it was cleaner and more genial than most of the posh restaurants in town, who charged five times more to eat half of what you got at Dolce Vita‟s. The inside was filled with eight wooden tables, each large enough to sit four biggish adults, the table tops in that hideous 1960‟s blue Formica that used to be all the rage before the advent of MFI, IKEA and DIY. The tables had probably been there since the last decorating spree, the walls were painted a Mediterranean blue and the fading colour was probably a warning of what the Earth would like if we carried on killing it with our incessant desire to pollute. The white chipped metallic framed chairs must have been just as old, but they were safe and comfortable enough to perch upon for three hours or so. Scattered around the walls were pictures of Italy, most of them posters from the Italian Tourist Information Office extolling the virtues of Rome, Tuscany, Lake Garda and other places. As was my normal routine I came here most lunch times and tucked into the special menu, which normally consisted of pasta, freshly baked ciabatta bread stuffed with olives, followed by an Italian pudding of some description or other. After eating here you could understand why the whole of Italy closes down for the afternoon, the servings were enormous, freshly prepared and cooked to order; many was the afternoon I‟d feel like sleeping until five. “You no home to go?” The wonderful thing about Francesca was that she always got her English mixed up, but could get away with it because it‟d was said with a voice that reminded you of Isabella Rossollini speaking seductively on a very warm sultry night. Francesca was the daughter of the original owner, who‟d died years ago, and must have been in her sixties, yet still retained her attractiveness, more I suspect due to her zest for life, love and not taking everything all that seriously. “No, I no home go to! I come Francesca for big belly!” Having known her for the last ten years both us had relaxed and enjoyed the banter that flew between us. Not wishing to belittle or offend her I‟d always speak in the same kind of English, something that Francesca appreciated. “You spend time a lot here!” “Because pasta great!” “You get women to cook pasta! You send women to Francesca! I show what keep man happy!” Francesca said this in a slightly softened voice, which betrayed her concern that I had no “special” woman in my life. Despite being widowed for the last ten years Francesca wasn‟t short of attentive paramours, and had a very healthy love life. “Too much trouble!” I said laughing loudly. “Passion! Love! Amore! Fights! Life! You not these have three years for! It fall off soon!” Francesca disappeared into the kitchen, laughing her head off, to make my

order of penne with a thick Bolognese sauce liberally sprinkled with finely shredded fresh basil and Parmesan cheese. As the place was empty Francesca decided to join me for lunch, as she often did when it was quiet, and her company was always enjoyable. “You need women to like life.” Francesca said as though she was mothering me. “But my life ok.” Francesca threw her hands into the air and at the same time let out a big guffaw, clearly disbelieving every word I said. “No, life with no women shit for you!” Francesca looked at me with an expression that bordered on the contemptuous. “Ok. A woman I‟d like, but me not find one.” There was an obvious sadness in my voice for Francesca leaned over the table and gently patted me on the hand in a motherly kind of way. She then raised her eyes to the ceiling, rubbed her chin with her left hand, lightly stroking the silver cross that hung from her neck with the right hand, and began muttering something or other in hushed tones. For a moment I thought she was talking to God. “I fix this for you!” The suggestion was a welcomed one, but after a few seconds I didn‟t fancy the idea of being fixed up on a blind date, especially with someone who may or may not come from a part of the world where it‟s difficult to turn down an offer you can‟t refuse. We carried on eating, the conversation centred around nothing in particular, the red wine, light and fruity, was a joy to the senses and disguised its alcoholic strength, which was not a good idea when there was four hours left at work. Then I thought to hell with it as Meakin wouldn‟t be there on account of him being elsewhere on business. “You come Monday lunch and I do special for you!” Francesca was smiling immensely and obviously pleased with herself over something. I, on the other hand, stumbled out of the door, tripping on the step, nearly collapsing onto the pavement outside, but managed to steady myself enough so that I sort of remained upright and didn‟t look any bigger an idiot than I already was. The afternoon passed peaceably, the mountain of paperwork left untouched, and the foul tasting office coffee drunk by the bucket load. Albert had much the same idea and hid himself away in the corner of the office with his feet up on the desk, reading the newspaper and answering the odd telephone call. Barry was otherwise engaged and his time was equally divided between his head buried in the joys of some soft porn magazine, occasionally surfacing for air and making personal phone calls to one friend or another. At four o‟clock I told Albert and Barry to “bugger off” for the rest of the day, I was happy to hold the fort and as nobody was doing anything productive it seemed senseless for everyone to be somewhere they‟d no real desire to be. Both left without making a protest, Albert saying a lack lustre, and downright miserable “bye”, whilst Barry, ever the lad, enthusiastically said, “see yer!” I replied, considering the amount of wine drunk at lunch, with a very composed “Cheers guys.” The office was dead and until this moment, all alone, I‟d never bothered to look at it in any detail. The workstations, or tables, bore all the signs of a modern office, telephones, 19” flat screen monitors, cream keyboards, infrared mice, staplers and the rest of the useless paraphernalia that constitutes the working environment. In a way it was

anonymous, without any real soul or useful purpose, ten minutes ago there‟d been three of us in the office, yet whatever I knew about Albert and Barry it was as though they‟d never existed, except in some dreary dream I‟d had during a very disturbed night of weary sleep. But the peace was nice, and as the phone was unlikely to ring, it rarely did after four on a Friday afternoon; I settled down into my mock black leather swivel chair and pondered my navel once again. With my shoes off and my feet resting on the edge of the table without much of a care in the world, I leaned back with my hands clasped around the back of my head. I thought of the coming Saturday night and the invitation to Jack‟s party, and although I was never one for going into town for any reason unless I had to, Saturday morning would be spent searching for something amusingly stupid that I could give as a present. What that was to be I‟d no idea and probably wouldn‟t until I came across it, and if I didn‟t there was always the fall back to a bottle of spirits, boring but sensible because Jack liked his tipple every night of the week. The effects of the wine had begun to wear off a little, and I felt less muggy headed so with nothing better to do I drifted back into the land of love. It was still an enigma that had no answer, and gently patting my tummy knew that I‟d never been in love. Every time I‟d had a relationship and uttered the words “I love you” it was as though the words were hollow filled tubes with nothing solid holding them together, something had always been missing but I‟d no idea what it was, and being male had never thought to ask “what?” I wondered if love was actually a genetically female thing, because my mother clearly understood it even though she‟d never spoken about it or given me any sort of hint as to what it was: apparently mothers don‟t teach their sons about love, except a mother‟s love, which is entirely different to the love between a man and woman. Monica, deep down, even though she was forever larking about and treated life as a series of comedic adventures, knew what it was because she‟d sometimes felt the despair, anguish and heartbreak that comes with end of a serious love affair. Francesca lived a life that saluted the unknown joys of love and its ups and downs and relished it for it brought her joy and made her feel oh so alive. I, on the other hand, had simply walked through the countryside and missed everything there was to see, because I‟d never bothered to open my eyes, and failed to feel the warm, soft, gentle breeze of a glorious late spring day, because I remained densely wrapped up in the heaviest of my deep winter clothing. A wave of sadness came over me, for some inexplicable reason my body shivered involuntary, as though someone was walking over my grave, and the world seemed very empty. I stretched, leaning back in the process and the chair decided to keel over in protest. In trying to prevent the inevitable collapse I reached out and did no more than grab the pile of papers closest to me. The papers merely did what they always do in a crisis, flew and scattered in every imaginable direction known to the compass; falling backwards, and unable to steady myself, my head collided with the wall to the back of me. On reflection being drunk, or at least half cut, softened the blow and had I been fully compos mentis my head would have exploded in pain on impact, as it was it merely felt like Mr. Johns, my old geography teacher, smacking me across the back of the head with

a paperback edition of “War and Peace.” The only thing that worried me was that I thought I heard an echoing sound as my skull hit the concrete wall. Trying as best as I could I attempted to free myself from the chair, my left leg had somehow got wrapped around the chrome tube, which housed the metal post that lifted the seat to the required height of comfort and swivelling action when I was bored, which was often. Eventually I managed to untangle my ungainly frame, my trousers suffering a slight tear around the knee having got trapped in the lever mechanism that adjusted the lumbar back support integrated into the chair‟s ergonomic design. The scratch on my kneecap bled as only scratches can and the blood flowed freely until the body‟s defence mechanisms kicked in and the blood clotted of its own accord. I limped slightly as I made my way to the washroom to clean myself up, and with the knock on the head combined with the effects of the red wine, I felt very woozy and very much the worse for wear. The washroom, as usual, was suffering from a lack of paper towels, much to Meakin forever complaining that we used far too many and so restricted the amount we could use, so cleaning myself up was a bit of a problem. The towel in the machine was set at head height and getting my knee up to it was difficult, but for a man such difficulties were not insurmountable and I clambered up onto the toilet seat lid, forgetting that it was built of flimsy plastic, purely designed for the purpose of hiding the bowl and not for carrying my weight. It‟s a strange feeling, standing on the lid of a toilet seat. It‟s as though for a moment the earth beneath your feet is made of hardened volcanic detritus, a layer so deceivingly thin, that the moment it encounters a weight greater than its ability to withstand fifteen seconds of stress gives up the ghost and ignominiously sucks you under. The next thing I know is that the world is a place I‟d rather not be. It is reminiscent of a distant, faraway, mango grove situated on the very muddy banks of a deserted island, formerly used as an atom bomb testing site, and just as brown and green now the mangoes have decided to reclaim back their land from us. At such moments there are many expletives that could be used, but fail to see the light of day because being English the actual act of expressing your displeasure in the emptiness of a deserted office seems a bit pointless. Ten minutes later, the shoes having been rinsed under the cold water tap, and the aging, but splendid, Argyll socks thrown into the wastepaper bin, I slowly made my way out of the building; I‟d no desire to be seen, and as it was six on a Friday thankfully everyone had disappeared for the weekend, apart from the security guard, who remained firmly entrenched in his little cubicle of an office behind the reception desk, watching the telly and happily ignoring the video camera screens that filled the wall in front of him. As he couldn‟t see my damp, bedraggled, heavily creased trousers with the tear in the knee, I gave him a relaxed, courteous cheers of a greeting, to which he responded in his normal, couldn‟t care less fashion. A brisk walk home, lasting all of fifteen minutes, passed by uneventfully. Thankfully there wasn‟t many people about, and is the way of the British mind, and never actually understanding the story of the “Good Samaritan”, unless it‟s a real crisis and then it‟s time for an inquest over a mug of tea, simply ignored me and carried on with their own,

unknown, lives. In a way I like that about the British, their desire to remain completely anonymous, stuck in their own little worlds, enjoying the delights of someone utterly eccentric providing it doesn‟t affect their own well-ordered and conforming existence. Thankfully one of the greatest inventions known to man is the power shower and its ability to flail the skin off your back, whilst at the same time making you feel wonderfully relaxed and tingling all over. It also has a deep psychological effect in that it makes you think you‟ve washed away the misery of the day, and all the crap that goes along with it. Having told Barry earlier in the day that I wouldn‟t be going to the Regal, I‟d nothing planned for the evening apart from a night in with a takeaway pizza, Hawaiian as was normal, a couple of cans of some dreadful beer I‟d got from the supermarket last weekend, and a DVD or two. One of the joys of having a university education is that you can come up with innumerable reasons for not having to think, it‟s probably the only useful thing I learnt at university, so the night was likely to be glued to some stupid film or other, which suited my present mood wonderfully. Munching away on the hard crust of the pizza, my mind lazily wandered around to the question of what to get Jack for a present. I came up with the thought of a blow-up something or other, but dismissed it for being an infantile idea. Then my mind wandered to some form of mechanical “toy” he could use, but dismissed the thought of an electric toothbrush, as he might not appreciate it for some reason or other. I did think of DIY tools but gave up on that idea because every time Jack has a tool of some description in his hand, he becomes mentally unbalanced and goes on a frenzy of activity, all disastrous and all very expensively having to be fixed by a professional. I then gave up on the idea of what to get him, and decided to wait until I was in town the following morning.

16 The joy of shopping The following morning was not the best preparation for the task of getting a present, nor was wandering around town in search of one. However, no matter the thumping head, the very sore knee, the black, blue and yellowing bruising to the leg, and the stiffness that decided it wanted to be part of the package leading to my grotty state, into town I had to go; you simply don‟t turn up at one of Jack‟s parties empty-handed if you don‟t want to be the butt of this or that joke about being Scottish for the next three months. One of the best known cures for my present condition was the hearty full English breakfast; if it doesn‟t cure at least death has been pleasurable experience, the heart attack might not be nice but dying with a belly of England‟s finest in you is equivalent to John Wayne getting whacked at the Alamo with his boots on. There‟s nothing like devouring and wolfing down half a pig, a couple of eggs that were never destined for any other purpose in life but to make me smile, half a plate of flatulent producing baked beans, two thick pork sausages riddled with fat, two slices of fried bread, topped off with lashings of tomato sauce, and swilled down with a steaming hot pint mug of tea. After filling my gut with such fine fayre, and taking a very lazy shower, I felt much better; I‟d also taken a couple of heavy-duty painkillers, which were beginning to kick in and easing the aching and throbbing that seemed to be everywhere in my body. I was now ready for the task ahead. Town on a Saturday morning was, as usual, a tortuous affair. By ten o‟clock the streets were throbbing with every hue of human colour. Mothers pushing baby buggies filling up with the shopping. A child is normally holding onto the aluminium frame, of the buggy, with a grip so tight that it‟s threatening to defy every known law of physics, crying with enough tears to keep the Niagara Falls going for a month. Then it decides to scream at a level of decibels that would do any North Sea coastal inlet foghorn proud, causing the already flustered and “I hate fucking shopping” mother to walk even faster, trying to hide her embarrassment and going into swift self-denial that the “thing” beside her actually belongs to her. The poor bairn will one day, no doubt, represent Great Britain in the Olympic sprint races, winning a gold medal in the 400 metres, silver in the 200, and a bronze in the 100. He‟ll stand on the podium proudly fingering his medal, the

tears trickling down from his eyes, his mother overcome with the pure joy of the moment, and he‟ll suddenly remember all the missed moments of teenage fun, the getting drunk on a pint of beer, the clumsy first kiss, the wet dreams, the gorging out on junk food, the staying out late at night, the mischief teenage boys engage in, and the tears will change to one of regret, wondering what the hell it was all about. Then there are the thirteen-year-old girls going on twenty. Most of them are wearing inappropriate clothing for their age, trying their hardest to look like sophisticated adults. They talk in a language that sounds really grown up to them but which simply betrays the fact they‟ve got some more growing up to do. They wander around with no great purpose in life except to look through shop windows, staring with envy at the older teenagers buying the latest fashions. Each of them dreaming that one day they‟ll be flirting with boys, fall deeply in love with their knight in shining armour, coming to rescue them on a pure white charger. Life will be exactly as it is in the latest edition of “TeenWorld!” Nobody has the heart to tell them that life is life, and that whatever wonderful, romantic nonsense is swimming around in their tender minds, in a decade‟s time reality will have barged its way into their ordinary lives, leaving them stranded, lost and a long way from the innocence of the moment they‟re presently enjoying. Teenage boys aren‟t that much different, and filled with surging hormones, growing bones, the odd strand of baby down appearing on their faces, voices alternating between high squeals and deep tenor, clothes bearing all the signs of trying to remain cool, individual and as scruffy as possible, they do as much window shopping as the girls albeit looking at the most expensive pair of stupidly priced trainers they can lay their envious eyes on. From the protective and loving care of their mothers boys have now moved into the materialist world of senseless consumerism. A whole new set of rules starts to impinge on their growing decline into the wonderful world of manhood. It‟s more or less at this point that boys and girls go their own different ways, disappear into completely different time periods and society relishes the differences. For girls I suppose love becomes the one defining factor in life, upon which all hangs, where life‟s difficulties can be resolved and overcome, where there‟s forgiveness, hope and emotional release. For boys though it‟s about being a man, of fighting your way through life, making tough decisions without thinking all that much about the consequences, playing games that become increasingly complex but still remain dim-witted ones for all that. Whilst I don‟t suppose for one minute I‟ve ever wanted to be female, I can‟t help watching the women and girls around me, thinking that I‟ve missed out somewhere along the line. Sat, resting on a metal bench in the shopping centre, people are milling around either with a definite purpose, such as buying something or other, or want to buy something but can‟t really afford it, or because life‟s not been all that kind to them don‟t have the means to buy anything remotely extravagant and even the basics are sometimes out of their reach. Yet looking at every facial expression under the sun, you can‟t help but think this idea of love is in there somewhere. But whilst there are the obvious signs of love, the peck on the cheek, the tender kiss upon the lips, the gentle guiding hand placed on the small of the back, the hugs, holding hands, eyes that don‟t leave the individual they‟re looking at, and so it goes on forever in

all the different ways humans have at their disposal, my brain, despite all the evidence in front of my eyes, still has no idea what the emotion of love is. And the truth is probably that I‟ll never know because at my tender age, it‟s never likely to happen. There was a bit of my sadness in my face, I suppose, as I got up slowly and made my way unhurriedly through the crowd that seemed to be growing ever larger. I guess my mind wasn‟t on Jack‟s present really, and that I was preoccupied with the question of love, as I‟d been intermittently throughout the past three weeks. I still had no idea why I‟d started to pay all that much attention to love, apart from not being able to think of anything else whilst playing with the hairs around my belly button. That act of selfaffection probably marked a turning point in my life, but why then I‟ve no idea and I don‟t think I was all that bothered why either. As it was now 2.30 in the afternoon, the morning had disappeared and the afternoon was more or less halfway through, and Jack‟s present wasn‟t firmly within my grip, I buried the idea of love deep into my subconscious and in the only way a man seems able to, promptly forgot about it. The shops were packed and it wasn‟t long before I was being hustled, pushed, crashed into, ankles rapped, tiny kids running about seemingly intent on causing me a serious groin injury as they barged into me, bouncing off my legs, causing even greater pain to my war wound. An hour later I‟d bought a couple of CDs, a bottle of Scotland‟s finest firewater from a distillery I‟d never heard of, situated on some small Scottish Isle a few miles off the Western Highlands coastline. Another hour later I was back home, settling down with a hot mug of tea, a cheese sandwich and several pieces of malt loaf, thinly sliced and liberally spread with unsalted butter. And as only a well-fed but war weary soldier can after the duress of a short, but hostile, battle I fell contentedly asleep on the couch. I woke bleary-eyed but refreshed three hours later to the sound of the phone ringing its head off, and completely ignored it. Whoever it was could go and whistle and if it was that important they‟d ring back later.

17 Three musketeers “Hi twat! What do you want?” Dennis greeted me with his normal amount of cheerful intellect, further punching me on the shoulder as I walked through the door, a bit on the heavy side as he tends to do when he‟s trying to be affectionate in that manly sort of way. “Hi shithouse!” I shouted with just as much intellect, ignoring the slight pain from Dennis‟s punch, which whilst Dennis might consider it to be a gentle slap of affection he has no idea how hard his punches can be in a playful mood. Still I‟m a man, so I didn‟t wince or flinch or pull a face that might give away my discomfort. However, in retaliation I did slap his back a bit on the hard side, which caused him to wobble slightly. Both of us stood nose to nose pulling contorted faces, ranging from sticking our tongues out to that of championship contenders for the World Gurning belt. “Oh cut out the crap you two, will you?” Jack appeared from the kitchen carrying three bottles of beer, a big smile on his face, which got bigger when he saw the goodies bag in my hand. “Go disappear upstairs and see to Yvonne, you pervert!” Dennis and I said together in unison, curling up in laughter at the thought. Yvonne was a blow up sheep that Dennis had bought for Jack‟s last birthday, and was so named because Dennis had been chasing this woman for about a fortnight and got nowhere in his attempts to seduce her. “Cheers you plonkers!” Jack said, obviously pleased to see us, clinking his bottle with ours. “Down the hatch and up the butt!” Dennis called out, banging bottles with us. Listening to Dennis nobody would have guessed that he‟d left university with a good degree in English. “Yer right dipshits!” I said with a smirk, playfully refusing to clang bottles with either of them. “Like the grog then?” The one thing about Jack‟s parties is that he always has some kind of foreign beer in; the only problem is that, generally, the beer has an unpronounceable name more than two syllables long. None of us could get our teeth around these ridiculous European non de plumes, nor ever likely to on account that when it comes to foreign languages we can just about cope with American and Australian English but nothing else.

“Tastes a bit like sweaty armpits.” This was Dennis‟s normal way of saying that he either wasn‟t fussed or that it was just about passable as something resembling beer. A real man‟s beer had to have a number of distinctive qualities, according to Dennis. The first was the thicker the head the morning after the more virility it endowed you with. The second was that if you couldn‟t chew on it, you might as well drink your own piss. The third was that only beer that freely exercised the bowels could qualify as a beer. Somewhere down the line he added that any beer served by a woman sporting anything less than a 36 inch “G” cup should be banned from a life of public servitude and wenching. Dennis took his theories seriously, no matter how implausible they might be in real life. Of course, when he started the funnier it got, which only encouraged him more. “Dunno. Alright I suppose, but it isn‟t anything to write home about.” I said, personally preferring the pure delights of Guinness, but I wasn‟t likely to refuse anything at a party that came in a beer bottle. Jack burst out laughing after we‟d quickly downed the contents of the bottle; I‟d finished mine just after Dennis. “What you laughing at?” Dennis demanded to know in that non-threatening sort of way that exists between close friends, but to an outsider looks like there might be trouble. “You pair of idiots! That beer is an alcohol free German shandy called “Radler!”” Jack thought it was hilarious and doubled up in laughter. Dennis and I looked at each other, and then we looked at Jack. The next five minutes was complete mayhem and mirth as we beat Jack up with a French baguette each, all of us ending up on the living room floor covered in crumbs and hard crusty flakes. Jack, having finally escaped the battering by baguette, put a CD on the player, some rubbish by R.E.M., which he said was their best album yet, but to me it was dreary, about as inspiring as a musical based on a severe bout of manic depression, and lyrically it used about two dozen words repeatedly. I went into the kitchen to find a decent bottle of beer to drown my sorrows. “What is that god awful noise in the living room?” Dennis asked, clearly distressed at the thought that he‟d have to endure R.E.M. the entire evening, and possibly having to rip apart a tampon so he had something to shove in his ears. Jack‟s place, being entirely male, didn‟t possess such things as cotton wool balls because most men have no real idea what to use them for. Dennis worked on the principle that one of the girls coming would have a tampon in her bag. I just left things alone as it wasn‟t my problem. “Oh. He‟s decided to be Mr Cool tonight and play some crap he thinks might get him laid.” I said this as matter of fact as I could, not wishing to enter into, at least this early in the evening, any debate regarding sex or anything remotely related to it. “I‟ll go and give him a hard time for a while!” Dennis said with a malicious smirk on his face. “Whilst I‟ll stay here nibbling and sipping!” I said, not wishing to get in the way of Dennis‟s weird sense of humour. Of the three of us I‟ve no idea who‟s the funniest or the most sarcastic. All of us have our moments, especially when we‟re together, and it‟s not unusual to side with each

other, even if we‟re arguing with each other at the same time, when we decide it‟s time to have fun with someone else. I suppose the camaraderie that held us together was that we were all odd bods. Dennis and I had bumped into Jack late one night; both of us feeling the worse for wear after a night on the tiles, having sank about seven Guinness‟, a couple of double highland malt whiskies and suffering from a severe lack of food, which was a stupid thing to do. Coming out of the pub into a cold mid-February night, we were very happy and singing a poor rendition of “Ten Green Bottles”, which had nothing to do with bottles at all, our arms around each other‟s shoulders, leaning on each other for moral support and not really caring about anything in particular. As we stumbled and slid, due to the thin coating of rain that had turned to ice, we drunkenly fell on Jack, who had the misfortune to pass by us at that precise moment in time. In a heap, Jack was drunker than we were, we sat, leaning on each other and giggled like little girls: I guess, from a distance, that we resembled a Native American Indian‟s wigwam, our backs to each other in a triangular shape. Then we started singing sea shanties, which were completely obscene, although I‟m sure none of them had ever been sung at sea, and I‟m pretty certain they were made up on the spot, the music probably a mixture of any tune that sprung to mind. How we managed to stand I‟ve no idea, and keeping our feet somehow anchored to the ice, we hugged each other because we were feeling very soppy about life. Jack then decided he was having fun with us two reprobates and invited us back to his place for a very large nightcap or three. As they say “the rest is history” and fifteen years on you couldn‟t get three closer buddies than we were. Sometimes I‟d often wonder how we managed to stay together. The three of us were all different characters and I suppose far apart in terms of thinking, but it worked for whatever reason. Dennis is stereotypical male, all grunt, all competitive, necking beer down faster than it can be produced, gregarious to the point of absurdity, sees girls divided into two camps – sleep with them but don‟t talk to them – talk to the other camp but don‟t sleep with them, life is to be lived at speed with no time to waste, work fulfils his dreams but disappoints him constantly because of the idiot he has to work for, although what Dennis actually does for a job is anyone‟s guess. His hospitality‟s famous, the door is always open and a beer thrust in your hand as soon as you take your coat off. Emotionally he is about as tight as the Chancellor of the Exchequer when it comes to giving out money that has nothing to do with votes. But he is a great laugh, brilliant company, generous to a fault and nothing is too much trouble if he can understand it; if he can‟t understand it he‟ll go off into his world, ignore it and pretend that it hasn‟t happened, not because he has a streak of meanness or is uncaring, but because there are no shades of grey in between the black and white that explains his world. Then there‟s Jack, always wanting to a part of what‟s going off, heart of gold and much bigger when he‟s helping in some way, and although busy most of the time always there at the earliest opportunity to sort you out. He‟s methodical in everything he does, you start at stage one and go through most things step by step until it‟s finished, but he‟s an engineer so it‟s not that surprising. Mind you if you didn‟t know him and you saw him sitting in a coffee bar you‟d swear he was a nervous wreck. He lives, drinks, eats and

survives on thirty mugs of strong coffee a day, which causes him to appear like a quivering raspberry jelly at times. In terms of emotions he‟s far easier to get on with than Dennis, for whom Freud came up with “anally retentive” to explain the strange male condition “social and masculine indoctrination”. In layman‟s terms this means - Be born with a dick, two balls and a twinkle in the eye - Only cry when you want to suck a breast - Decide which brain to follow, if it‟s the one on top give up life as we know it - If you see a woman, become a dog and follow the scent - Never tell a woman the truth, she‟ll accuse you of lying - Be strong and silent, never use words with more than one syllable, two syllables means you want to have a conversation - Always roll over and go to sleep after sex otherwise she‟ll think you‟re in love - Always buy presents that you can use in case she throws them back at you - Give in immediately to everything she says, don‟t give in to anything, admit nothing, deny nothing, plead guilty to everything, somewhere along the line she‟ll forgive you because you‟re in tune with her logic - Never argue with a woman, you‟ll never hear the last of it In terms of thinking Jack and I have progressed in terms of how we view women, we‟re in the dark ages, whilst Dennis remains deeply ensconced in some cavern somewhere. Although none of us would admit it, whilst being with each other is great, all of us were feeling that there was something missing. Dennis, as usual said nothing that departed from the script of life he clung on to remorselessly. Jack was drinking even more coffee than was normal and seemed a bit fed with life in general, whilst I had become engrossed in my navel hairs. All of us touched upon our dissatisfaction in some way, but I was the only one that had gone in search of an answer, the meaning of love, but being a man amongst men never said anything that went much beyond the boundaries of acceptable Neanderthal behaviour. Ten minutes later Dennis wandered back into the kitchen, rooted about in the fridge for a beer he could drink, and opened it with a musical bottle opener that played “God save the Queen” to the sound of a flushing toilet; apparently Jack picked it up in a Paris department store when he once went on a business trip and had a few hours to kill one afternoon. “He‟s decided to put something else on in a minute.” Dennis said with a smile on his face. “What you done?” I asked. I knew that particular smile well, it was known as the “blackmail smirk”. “Just reminded Jack which side his bread‟s buttered on.” “You‟re a bastard!” I said with an equally knowing smile. I knew full well that Dennis had something up his sleeve, and like a magician pull the rabbit out of the hat at the appropriate moment, should it be needed. “Yep!” Sometimes Dennis can be a smug prat when he chooses to be.

Sure enough the music changed after about five minutes and Marvin Gaye was banging out the old hits in great form. “So when are they getting here?” Dennis asked, eager to pounce on any unsuspecting female that came within striking distance of his wooden club, hewed out of an Elm tree that had long disappeared due to Dutch elm disease. “It‟s early yet. Give it another hour or so.” Jack fired back.

18 The Wall Two hours later the place was full of people I knew well, vaguely knew or hadn‟t a clue who they were. The music had been left up to Dennis, who with his normal exuberance, cheerful demeanour and just plain zest for taking nothing serious at a party was let loose on the world as the resident DJ. For reasons of his own, and which nobody bothered to question, he had brought his iPod with him. On it there was 25 gigabytes of all kinds of stuff that ranged from the ridiculous “The Magic Roundabout” by Jasper Carrott to the plain obscene “Wet Dream” by Max Romeo. Jack just let him get on with it and simply stared in disbelief from time to time at the ceiling whenever the Spice Girls played, or Duran Duran got a hearing every now and again. As it was fairly early on in the party, everybody stuck to their own little clique not wanting to venture out of the circle they had surrounded themselves with. Most of the girls there seemed to be with some guy, or keeping close to the person they had turned up with. This frustrated Dennis no end, who did no more than seek greater sanctuary in a steady stream of constantly flowing beer, munched away on tortilla crisps, and subconsciously undressed each and every woman he laid his eyes on. “Hi Terri. Nice to see you. To see you nice!” Terri was a bit of a cutie, who I‟d known for the last three years or so. “How‟s it hanging dude!” She replied with a new accent she‟d obviously acquired during the nine months she‟d spent in New York, working at the American office of a major European computer software company who specialised in system solutions for something I was technically incompetent of understanding. “You‟re looking good! When did you get back?” I kissed her on each cheek affectionately and then gave her big soft hug. Terri was one of life‟s “beautiful people”; in the time that I‟d known her I‟d never seen her lose her temper and probably had the sweetest disposition known to man. But underneath it all lay a canny, steely resolve and an intellect that left Dennis, Jack and I floundering in her wake and happy to walk in her shadow. “A couple of weeks ago, but I was only here long enough to unpack and pack again as I had to shoot off to Silicon Glen in Scotland to sort out some balls up.” She said this in

such a way that you knew a man was responsible for the cock up. That was the thing about Terri; she had the patience of a saintly angel when it came to us three, but not much for idiots parading around in trousers. I didn‟t bother to follow it up. “Good to have you back; you up for hitting town and a bite to eat next weekend?” I asked Terri knowing I was making an offer she couldn‟t refuse. “Sounds good! The Hut „n‟ the Castle?” The Shed, as we called it, was a smallish restaurant, situated at the foot of the medieval castle walls, serving the best food in town, and where the beer only came from small independent breweries. The owner, Toni, spelt that way because he was proud of his German ancestry, loved to remind us that Tone, or Toni without the “i” but with an “e” was a man with only one ball in German, was a man who believed in the sanctity of beer and abhorred the dross relentlessly churned out by the large breweries. It was the favourite watering hole of the four of us, and it wasn‟t unusual for us to either arrive around six in the evening and stay until closing, or arrive around eight and stay chatting until the early hours of the morning with Toni. “I‟ll book a table for next Saturday then. You any idea what time‟s best for you?” I asked chirpily “Seven would be good. Think the others would be up for it?” Terri replied already knowing the answer. “I don‟t think they‟ll take much persuading.” I spent the next hour engrossed in the kind of small talk that only exists between close friends, most of which is completely unintelligible, utterly moronic, but wonderfully stupid and delightfully relaxing. As we both sat on the sofa, that occasionally doubled up as a bed for the night, we caught up and chilled out, sometimes not bothering to say anything, just sitting there in our own little world, revelling in each other‟s company, ignoring the ever-growing melee around us. The party had started to come alive, people were loosening up, drinking more freely, getting drunker as the beer, wine and spirits began to pour liberally down ever eager throats, and Dennis was getting ever more silly. The thing about Dennis, is that while he‟s brilliant company and a scream to be with, he‟s about as emotionally open as someone suffering from a bad case of haemorrhoids. In his attempts to appear cool and relaxed when he‟s dancing he moves his body in what can only be described as “The Dance of the Bamboo Cane”. He stands upright, virtually static, slightly moving as though he‟s standing in a breeze, his arms at 45° angles clamped into his sides, his hands clenched into a fist, his expression serious and unchanging. In many ways he‟s no different to Action Man in that wooden kind of plastic way. Dennis was now on a mission, he‟s always on a mission of some description, and with everyone sorted out in a fashion, talking to someone they knew, trying to talk to someone they didn‟t know, talking to someone they‟d really like to know, talking to someone because there was nothing better to do and not wanting to appear abnormally strange and a “Johnny no mates”, Dennis decided to home in on this blonde girl who was about fifteen years younger than he was, who seemed to be a little lost and out of her depth: she was standing close to the doorway leading into the kitchen, where all the booze and food was. Looking at the girl you could see why she was attractive to Dennis. She was very girly in that obvious feminine way, all the bumps and curves in the right places, long

curly locks, a sort of button nose and blue eyes, and the killer, a short skirt with tight top that clung close to her body. Dennis walked over in his usual way, a sort of casual, laid back style that hid his naturally deep affection for those he cared enormously about. When out on the hunt and prowl he was a man, and a man had to do what John Wayne would‟ve done: I don‟t think the caves and clubs are that far from his thinking at such times. As is Dennis‟s way, in the order of life he got a bottle of beer from the fridge, took out the ones from the freezer and refilled the fridge, put more in the freezer, had a nibble on something and then started talking to the girl: Dennis has an order to life and remains firmly wedded to it. Meanwhile Jack was having a deep and meaningful with Terri, who by now was feeling very happy and sloppy, she was on her fifth or sixth beer, and was being very playfully rude to him. Jack was protesting about something she had said, but he always does when Terri‟s on a roll and having fun at Jack‟s expense. When you watch them sometimes there‟s an overwhelming sense of care and compassion in their relationship, but Jack being Jack, he has a very sensitive nature, he gets upset for no good reason at Terri‟s affectionate quips and ribbing. Terri on the other hand knows that anything we say is generally said without any malice, even if it‟s insulting and derogatory, and whips back with a piece of sarcasm that can kill at thirty paces. Yet for all Jack‟s complaining you can‟t help but think that he enjoys it all, despite his protests to the contrary. In the meantime, whilst the other three were engrossed in what they were doing, I was sat in a darkened corner slowly sipping from a bottle of Belgium beer, which explains why they‟ve never managed to produce anything remotely interesting. Beside me was a guy I‟d never met before and we were engaged in a conversation that had absolutely no point to it. “So, you don‟t like it then?” He said; I had no idea what his name was and was well on the way to unconsciousness some point in the very near future. “Nope, it tastes like cat‟s piss!” Having never tasted the urine of a cat I‟d no idea if there was any truth in that particular statement. “You drunk it before?” “Nope!” “You‟re a virgin then?” “Yep! I‟m saving myself for a rainy day.” “There‟s a lot of that, isn‟t there?” “What rainy days or virgins on a rainy day?” “Both I think. But I could be wrong:” “You a virgin?” “No. I‟m in love with five fingered Grace.” “Me too.” “That‟s good.” “Nothing to prove.” “No, nowt at all. With that my very inebriated companion closed the rest of his eyes and drifted into whatever land he‟d chosen to visit.

I sat resting my eyes, half asleep from the amount of alcohol that had decided to go on a journey involving any vein it could find, ones where it had a free passage and didn‟t have to struggle too hard to get past the fatty deposits happily clinging to some vein walls. Whilst medically it‟s not a good thing for deposits to be left to accumulate, unfortunately they‟re a fact of modern day life and I was buggered if I was going to ignore whatever bit of pleasure there was left open to me in the time I‟d got left on this god forsaken planet. Occasionally I‟d open my eyes and peer through the haze of beer induced fog, nobody seemed all that clear, just figures that were becoming indistinguishable and seemed to have no solid form to them. The room had taken on a surreal quality, whereby it seemed to be gently spinning in a strange undulating motion, as though I was sat astride a wooden horse that was part of a fairground carousel. Such images are not good for the upper brain; they are confusing and lead to a slight attack of neurosis that diminishes in line with the amount of clarity that appears fleetingly in the odd lucid moment. At such times, fed up because there‟s no one to talk to, not that you want to talk because that involves an enormous amount of effort, pleased that you‟re on your own because nobody will be able to hold your interest, the wall your back is resting against becomes your best friend. One of the joys of the “wall” is that it understands you perfectly, and no matter what you may drunkenly blurt out, normally a confession of some description, you know that it won‟t pass judgement on the human errors likely to be contained within your admission. “Hello wall.” Reassuring silence from the wall. “You know I‟m a little drunk. Pissed as a fart. Lovely innit!” No answer from the wall. “What‟s love mean wall?” The wall is gently sympathetic and remains softly silent. “I agree wall.” The wall doesn‟t have an argument at this point. “It‟s flummoxed me!” The wall stands proud and slightly laid back about it. “I mean what‟s wrong with me?” The wall, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly came to life. “And what‟s your name?” The voice is unusually soft and seems to be talking with an exotic female voice. “Danny” “Why the question about love?” For some reason the wall is beginning to reach long lost parts of my manly soul. “Dunno. On my mind constantly; can‟t stop thinking of it.” Exactly what parts of the wall I‟m reaching I‟ve no idea. My eyes are well and truly shut at this point, and I‟ve not realised that I‟m having a conversation with someone. I‟m now convinced that I‟m speaking to the wall and the wall is answering me.

“Why are you thinking about love? A strange thing to be thinking of at a party.” The wall said this in the only way bricks and mortar can. By now I was being seduced by wall, falling in love with the wall, lust being completely out of the question as it would have hurt trying. “I‟ve been thinking about it for a while?” There was something comforting about talking to the wall, a kind of release. “Um…Have you ever been in love?” The wall‟s tone had sort of switched to a slightly disbelieving tone; which, all things considered, wasn‟t all that surprising. “I don‟t think so.” I wasn‟t lying because I didn‟t know if I had or not. Besides I‟d reached the point of inebriation where there was no going back. At this point I slipped back into the land of nod, but not before opening my eyes blearily for the last time. In front of me stood a very blurred and indistinguishable shape that was completely unrecognisable as either a man or woman. I just smiled at my new friend, the wall, and forgot the world I was presently a part of. The following morning, or rather early afternoon as it had just passed midday, I woke with the mother of all hangovers and had anyone suggested the surgical removal of my vastly enlarged head, I‟d have happily laid on the operating table and let them get on with it. Jack and Dennis were already up; we‟d slept where we‟d fallen, some kind soul throwing a blanket over us, slowly clearing away the debris and devastation of the previous night. Neither of them were in any fit state to be cleaning, and it was clear that every time they bent to pick up rubbish they suffered immensely. Wearing a pair of black jockey shorts and a T-shirt I dragged myself into the kitchen, avoiding any sort of conversation with Jack and Dennis apart from uttering a very lifeless “Morning”, both of them muttering something I presumed was a return of the same. The coffee machine was on, percolating away, the smell slightly nauseating but none too unpleasant, any smell was a bit much for my tender nose to bear, but having been in this position god knows how many times before something I could manly suffer with. Pouring myself the biggest mug of coffee possible, liberally sweetened with several spoons of sugar and a good splash of milk, I slowly ambled into the living room and cleared a space on the sofa, on which Dennis‟s bedding remained in a crumpled up mess. I‟ve no understanding why, suffering from a bad hangover, the individual parts of the body suffer from an excess of weight that‟s wholly disproportionate to their size. As I bent my legs, to sit down, they groaned under the weight of my upper body, which in turn wanted to detach itself from my arms, with my head bitterly complaining about everything. Eventually Jack appeared and sat next to me. He was four mugs of coffee in front of me, and not to put too fine a point on it smelt like he‟d spent several days trapped in a brewery malt house making thousands of cigarettes. Although more lively than I was, therefore far abler to string at least a coherent sentence together, nevertheless looked as dynamic as a newly painted wall that had begun the long, tedious, process of drying out. “How you feeling?” Jack asked me in a slightly slurred tone. “Feeling like shit.” I replied, not wanting to enter into any kind of discussion. “Me too. Great party though, crap ending.”

“Why?” I asked immediately regretting it. “Terri buggered off early due to something I must‟ve said.” “Dickhead! What you done this time?” Conversations like this I didn‟t want, but somehow felt, in the name of friendship, I had to get involved in. “No idea. All I can remember was that we were having an argument over something that was said; next thing I know she‟d gone.” Jack, being too sensitive at times, nearly always gets it wrong where Terri‟s concerned. “Stupid prat! She probably left either because she was tired or too pissed and didn‟t want to kip here. Mind you, the way you smell this morning I‟m not sure I want to be here either.” Jack looked a little confused and raised his right arm, stuck his nose into his hairy armpit, had a good sniff and agreed. He got up off the sofa, giving a wonderful impression of someone who was a hundred years old, and disappeared into the bathroom for a shower. Dennis came and sat down beside me, or rather flopped down with as much decorum as a very large bull rampaging through the china department at Harrods, finally collapsing under its own weight as it keels over and dies after being shot dead by the police for causing a public disturbance. “Bit of a one, aren‟t we?” I had no idea what Dennis was waffling on about. “What?” I wasn‟t in any state to discuss anything with Dennis. Dennis has this unnatural ability to sink an ocean of beer the previous night and within an hour of waking up the following day, carry on as though he‟d been teetotal all his life. “Chatting up Isabel.” Dennis also has this habit of talking in riddles when it suits him and his weird sense of humour. “Who?” “Isabel” “Who‟s Isabel?” I was at a complete loss and had no idea what he was prattling on about. “Come on you old dog! Are you trying to tell me you‟ve no idea who Isabel is?” There was a broad smirk on Dennis‟s face as he said this. “No I haven‟t! The last thing I remember was sitting with my back to the wall, completely out of it.” The conversation with the wall I didn‟t mention as I‟d either be the endless butt of Dennis‟s merciless humour, or Jack and Dennis would think it was time to get me committed. The fact that Dennis had once spent the entire evening talking to a mannequin, under the illusion that he was having a discussion with a beautiful woman who was deaf and dumb, and thought Dennis was interesting, was neither here or there. “Are you sitting there and telling me that you‟ve never met Isabel?” The disbelief in Dennis‟s voice mocked me as only Dennis‟s voice can. What Dennis seems to forget is that whilst the three of us, or rather four if you include Terri, spend a lot of time in each other‟s company we don‟t necessarily know other people, either because we‟ve never been introduced to them or they don‟t belong to the circle of people we spend a lot of time with. “No I‟ve never met Isabel, and I‟ve no idea who you‟re talking about.” Dennis looked somewhat puzzled. This was probably due to Dennis knowing a vast amount of

people, and naturally assuming that he‟d introduced every one of them to us at some point. Dennis went on to explain in his very unique way, speaking with a sardonic and confused manner of voice, that I‟d been speaking to Isabel for fifteen minutes or so towards the end of the party, and that she couldn‟t work out if I was the saddest git on earth or the most hilarious guy she‟d ever met in her life. I was hilarious in the sense that I‟d spent the entire conversation thinking that she was a wall. I ignored this and told Dennis to leave me alone because I was feeling as though I‟d been trampled on to within an inch of my life by a herd of African bull elephants during mating time. Dennis disappeared into the shower, after Jack had vacated it, for the next fifteen minutes. My slowly awaking senses indicated it might not be a bad idea if I went in after him. I thought no more of Isabel, she was nothing more than a name Dennis had mentioned, and all I remember was a very vague shape that might as well have been the wall. Had I not been suffering from a horrendous headache, a body that no longer wished to be alive, and a serious case of cotton wool mouth and severe dehydration, my interest may have been stimulated a little. But as all women know all too well, a man suffering is a man who wants to be a child again. There‟s no known medical cure for a hangover. The causes of a hangover are a wilful self-indulgence in knocking back as many forms of alcoholic drink as you can get away with. The British view the size of a hangover to be in direct proportion to the good time you‟ve had. On that basis I‟d had a brilliant time at the party, although I couldn‟t remember much about it. Having experienced far too many good parties in my life, the only cure for a hangover was a big plate of the greasiest nosh I could find, washed down with several mugs of hot, sweet, milky tea. The thought was not a pleasant one, but the only palatable cure I knew. Joe‟s cafe was about a fifteen minute walk away from Jack‟s place, and I made my way over, my gait unsteady, my body dragged along reluctantly by a part of my mind that had absolutely no sympathy for the state of suffering I was in; sometimes in life, no matter the reluctance you might feel, it‟s best to go along with the sensible part of your character. Due to the uncertainty of my steps, a brain that was operating on ten percent of its normal capability, and a body that was suffering from the concrete overcoat around my shoulders, I arrived at Joe‟s twenty five minutes later. Joe‟s cafe, like Francesca‟s place, was a throwback to a bygone age. It had opened during the late fifties when rock & roll was beginning to sweep the country, when town cafes began selling coffee by the bucket loads, teenagers pouring in so they could listen to Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Joe Brown and Marty Wilde doing their stuff, competing against the likes of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Frankie Avalon, Bill Haley and Bobby Darin on the Jukebox stuck in one corner of the room, normally close to the front window so as to attract even more teenagers in. The place now had its regulars, who came in everyday of their lives, mostly pensioners who had never moved away from the locality, who in the ensuing years had become alienated from a world that operated at an ever-faster rate of knots. It was a place to reminisce away the time, look fondly back on the simplicity of life forty or so years

ago; a sanctuary to shelter in and hide away from the wretched nature of progress and technology: technology that promised to free humans from the drudgery of work but which had come up with a new way to enslave people and make their lives even more miserable, stressful and unrewarding. As it was around 1pm the cafe was virtually empty, a couple of old guys were slowly sipping tea from off white mugs, one of them reading a Sunday paper, the other staring absentmindedly out of the slightly grimy window. I sat in the corner where I wouldn‟t be disturbed, wishing to be left alone, incapable of entering into anything but the most banal conversation. I put on my “I want to be left alone” face, and the two guys avoided looking at me in agreed acknowledgement, returning to what they were doing. After about ten minutes of feeling very sorry for myself, Diane came over to take my order. “Afternoon Danny! What do you fancy?” Diane was the owner of Joe‟s and when she‟d first bought the place about six years ago she had visions of turning it into an upmarket café, a place that had a sophisticated, middle class, cultured background. There was talk, then, of the town growing, more service companies moving into the area, but the recession hit and the plans drifted away to nothing. The locals protested vehemently and Diane let sleeping dogs lie, and whilst Diane would never get rich from the cafe she made a reasonable living, enough at least to do the things she wanted to with her life. “A life!” I weakly quipped. “Good night then!” “Oh give over will you Di. I‟m in serious pain and I need some grub! What‟s the special today?” “Me on toast!” Di had a sense of humour that completely ignored any kind of distress I was in. “Is that with marg or butter?” I answered weakly and pathetically. “Make up what bit of mind you have whilst I fetch you a big mug of tea.” Like most women of a certain age Di had worked out men long ago, and did no more than smile. The day‟s special was just what the doctor ordered, mashed potato, mixed vegetables, steak and kidney pie, thick gravy and rice pudding, all washed down with three big mugs of sweet, milky tea. Whilst I may have felt like the Pilsbury dough boy and stuffed to the gills, the worst aspects of the hangover were slowly beginning to dissipate and numbness replaced real pain. “Thanks Di!” I said as I left the cafe, two hours later, feeling a lot more human. “See you Danny! What you need is a good woman.” Di quipped as I wandered out onto the main street. Di was right, as are most women when you get down to it.

19 Me, Gabriella...and the mafia The thing about Monday‟s is that it‟s always destined to be one of the most boring days in your life. Ahead of you are five days of work, five whole days of listening to Meakin, five days of shuffling paper, five days of wishing the weekend would arrive. And Monday always starts with the gospel according to St. Meakin. The gospel according to St. Meakin revolves around an agenda, prepared by the saint himself, that is, according to St. Meakin, an agenda to iron out the challenges, there are no problems just challenges, to map out the duties and details of the week ahead, and see if any of us can come up with any ideas to improve efficiency and productivity. Thus Monday is always designed to make you think that the word “work” is an idea, lasting five days, forty hours long and a never-ending jail sentence; something that you‟re forced to do by the commandant of Gulag 7, a.k.a. God in the guise of St. Meakin. I think it was Barry who suggested, one Monday morning, that we could burn down the office, have a four week work break, start from scratch and we‟d be far more productive than we were, especially if the insurance company could be persuaded to send us to Goa to recover from the effects of smoke inhalation. Meakin asked Barry who would start the fire. Barry replied that would have to be Meakin because it required someone who was highly intelligent, used to taking charge of difficult situations, didn‟t panic in a crisis and could cope with lots of questions under pressure. Meakin thanked Barry for his “splendid” contribution, looked immensely smug and pleased with himself, and failed to hear the barely audible sniggers coming from Barry, Albert and myself. “Good morning gentlemen!” From the tone of Meakin‟s voice it was obvious he‟d been allowed to make love that weekend. From what we knew of Meakin‟s home life, which admittedly was largely hearsay, his wife was a bit of a dragon who not only breathed fire but thought having sex was to be avoided unless it was absolutely necessary; necessary, apparently, meant once every six weeks on a Sunday evening at 9pm and to be completed by 9.10 on the dot. “Good morning Mr. Meakin!” We all replied in unison. “Number one on the agenda. I‟ve noticed that the paperwork is beginning to pile up again.”

“If I may say something Mr. Meakin.” Albert said with his normal deadpan expression. “Yes Albert.” “The paperwork is piling up again because there‟s too much paperwork in the office and not enough of us to deal with the ever-growing pile, which is now threatening to become a mountain of paperwork.” “And how do you account for this increase in paperwork Albert?” “Well, as I see it Mr. Meakin, a lot of the paperwork has very little to do with work, at least in the sense that it might be related in some way to work such as a short memo, but nothing in the sense that it‟s urgent. But because we‟re following your orders that we treat all paperwork with the same priority, and carefully read every piece of paper, this takes time and the pile of paperwork grows to the point where we can‟t handle it properly.” By now I‟ve switched the brain off the subject of work, knowing full well that this particular issue will keep going around in circles for the next thirty minutes. I think about lunch and Francesca‟s “special” as she put it. “And what do you think Danny?” Why Meakin wanted to involve me I‟d no idea. “Well if there‟s a suggestion we can find ways to improve efficiency and productivity I‟m all for it.” “Well Danny, Barry has suggested that we devise a way to prioritise the paperwork, so that we concentrate on the order of urgency.” I had no idea what Barry had suggested as I wasn‟t listening. Meakin always gives this impression of industrial democracy until the time the idea proves useless and then he blames the cock up on everyone, or he accepts the plaudits that fall from higher up when its successful, claiming it‟s his idea. “And how would we determine what‟s urgent, or more urgent than something else?” A sensible question I thought. “Danny, why do you always come up with something or other that puts a damper on a very good idea.” Meakin looked very aggrieved at me, leaving me in no doubt I‟d be better off saying nothing else. “It just came to mind, that‟s all.” “Well it‟s nice to know something is able to spring to mind occasionally.” Such a sarcastic remark from anyone else would have resulted in a thick lip. I promptly shut up. St. Meakin droned on for the next thirty odd minutes, detailing areas of concern, saying who had to do what and when, in between the agenda items throwing in the odd golfing anecdote, all of which had been heard before at least a dozen times and all equally boring and pointless; I mentally went back to sleep. Meakin kindly informed us that he would be leaving immediately after the meeting; he had to go to head office for a series of meetings, and would be away for two days, returning on the Wednesday morning. I could have sworn Albert smiled at the news; both Barry and I looked at each other in disbelief and surprise because neither of us had ever seen Albert‟s lips move beyond a certain fixed point. Then Albert winked at us both, the smile was definitely there, the corners of his mouth had risen slightly, and his eyes sparkled, as we‟d never seen them before. Barry and I disappeared into the kitchen to make a coffee. Meakin disappeared out of the door. Albert disappeared behind his desk.

Dolce Vita was busy for a Monday lunch. Six of the tables were groaning under the weight of various antipasti dishes, main courses, salads, bread, and red and white wine. Louis Prima was singing in the background, some of the people were singing along in a boisterous manner obviously having a good time. Others were sitting, chatting, shouting at each in a good mannered way. The few kids that were there had the run of the place, and although delighting themselves in a game of tag never looked as though they would ever collide with anything they shouldn‟t. I immediately turned around to leave, thinking I‟d walked into a private party of some description or other. “Danny! Where you go?” Francesca grabbed hold of me and gave me the biggest bear hug that was in serious danger of squeezing the life out of me, and affectionately kissed me on either cheek. The room suddenly took on a menacing atmosphere. It became decidedly chilly. The silence was deafening. Fear overwhelmed me. The men in the room eyed me up and down with deadly earnest, for all I know mentally deciding which bit of me they were going to separate from my body in the slowest and most brutal way that came to their minds. The women cast a critical eye over me, sizing me up for some reason, probably the small box I‟d be put in after the men had done with me. The children merely carried on with their fun and games. “What you doing you ignorant peasants! You put wind up Danny!” Francesca bawled it out, laughing her head off and playfully tapping one of the kids around the back of the head as he passed by. “Ugh!” I said in response to the moment, not knowing what the hell was going on. “Danny, I promise special, this special for you! You like my family, yes? Come you meet family, you feel hunger, yes?” Francesca dragged me into the centre of this seemingly huge melee, which crowded around me, pulling me into them, kissing me on each cheek, slapping my back, shaking both hands, shouting god only knows what, in what I presumed to be an Italian regional accent. Eventually, the human pandemonium subsided and I was led to a table in the centre of the room, which for some reason had been left empty. “You sit here.” Mario said in a very deep, gruff, voice; the kind of voice that‟s not healthy to meet on a dark night, as you wander aimlessly through the roughest part of town, lost and without any clue as to where you are. I complied with the request, a hand the size of a shoulder of ham firmly helping me into the seat. Mario Canella looked like every gangster I‟d seen at the pictures. He wasn‟t tall, around five feet eight inches, but he was rotund and although he looked like he‟d spent his entire life over indulging himself on mountains of pasta, the stout frame had clearly been pretty muscular in Mario‟s younger days. This wasn‟t helped by a nose clearly broken at some point in the past, and an air of confidence that exuded violent menace should the need arise. I sat, thankful that when it came to the law of the jungle I was happy to play dead to ensure I stayed alive. The informality at the beginning began to disappear, and individuals came up to me to say “Ciao”, grasping my hand either with a firm handshake, the men, or holding it lightly and politely, the women. Mario sat beside me, saying little to me but translating when the

need arose from time to time. For some reason everyone looked at me expectantly, a vision of hope in their eyes, a smile of support across their faces, and a politeness of manner normally reserved for the Queen of England. I, being me, didn‟t think such behaviour was odd, thinking that this was the norm when Italian families entertained their guests. Francesca began filling the empty table; soon it was filled with some Italian dishes that looked out of this world, they weren‟t from the normal menu and I presumed cooked especially for this occasion. As I‟d never seen most of the dishes before I was naturally hesitant about tasting them, but what the hell I was sure that Francesca had no intention of poisoning me, no matter how much Mario might want to slice me up into Parma ham. I‟m sure he didn‟t, but now sitting at his own table his eyes refused to leave me, steely and cold as they remained throughout. Ten minutes later Mario got up and disappeared into the kitchen, whilst Francesca carried on looking at me approvingly every time she came to the table. As she finally finished putting the banquet on my table, she softly stroked my left shoulder affectionately as she went and sat down at a table a little distance from me, smiling. The room hushed and it was so silent that had a beetle decided to run across the floor at that moment, you would have heard its heart beat. There is a moment in a man‟s life when for all the accumulated wisdom he has, or normally doesn‟t have, time stands still. The moment is frozen and he is rooted to the spot. He simply stares into a void, a space around which there is a density that permits him to see no further than what is directly in front of him. “Danny, I‟d like to introduce you to my cousin, Gabriella.” “OH! Um…yes…I‟d like to introduce you to Gabriella!” Mario gave me a look that signalled an execution was imminent if not sooner; Gabriella looked at me as though I was the biggest idiot the human species had ever had the misfortune to inflict itself with, and I was clearly not in Darwin‟s mind when he was thinking of the human species evolving. The reason for my going gaga was that Gabriella was stunning. She was around fortyish, which was no big deal, slim but curvy in that Claudia Cardinale kind of way in her heyday as an actress. Her long, dark auburn, flowing locks, sensuously tumbled carelessly about her face, the full lips dark pink, the eyes as black as the night and shaped like olives, her skin naturally light brown. I was Radio Gaga, Radio Gaga to borrow the song by Queen. This is the very moment a man‟s two brains act in perfect harmony with each other. The upper brain forgets everything, it has no language ability, it cannot reason, it cannot function, it simply turns into this soup, not unlike a caterpillar pupating into a butterfly or moth; the lower brain is all keyed up for this moment, it takes control. It likes nothing better than to be a very naughty brain, sticking its tongue out, going into convulsions, and slowly, or suddenly, becomes demanding, devoid of sentiment, it throbs with excitement and likes banging on the door to be let out to play. If it doesn‟t get its way, it weeps, shrugs its body in disgust, protests in many embarrassing ways and finally goes back to sleep in disgust when it can‟t get its own way.

I stood there, mesmerised, deeply in serious lust, my mouth was agape, and if I wasn‟t seriously aware of it, in danger of making a complete arsehole of myself within the next ten or so seconds. Mario saved the day. “You sit with Gabriella and talk.” Somehow the tone in Mario‟s voice had softened, and was more of a wishful sort of sound rather than any kind of impending threat. I did the gentlemanly thing in the circumstances and sat down before Gabriella. Mario raised his eyes to the heavens, convinced by now I was just a complete moron, uncivilised, barbaric and understood perfectly why the Romans decided to abandon Albion when they did. Gabriella sat opposite me, eyeing me with some suspicion, looking at me in a very curious way. As my mouth had not yet fully closed I thought I might be dribbling from the corners of my mouth, or maybe I was beginning to foam at the mouth in the same way as a dog well on its way into the latter stages of rabies. Eventually I spoke, as it seemed Gabriella had no intention of speaking. “Thank you for coming today.” To try and appear perfectly normal I decided the best course of action in the circumstances was to be as formal as possible, whilst retaining an air of friendliness in the proceedings. “I come because Mario want me to come. I no come for you, it to honour my family.” “I‟m sorry…” I began but was interrupted by Gabriella. “Why you sorry? I not have bambinos so family try to get man so I become big and fat mama! But you English and maybe lonely for woman, because you no passion for love, so no woman.” God I got the point perfectly! It seems that English men are cold, unemotional, and as distant from every human experience as it‟s possible to get. Somewhere along the line, English history and culture was beginning to slowly disintegrate. “But I‟m not lonely…” It seemed that Gabriella liked to interrupt. “Why you here with me? Why you not home with woman?” Gabriella looked at me with her piercing black eyes, and there was a hint of raw honesty in them, something completely unnerving in them. “I‟m here because Francesca wanted me to be here. And I‟m not involved with anyone at the moment.” There are times when the English language is wholly capable of being massively misunderstood. “Ah! So you come because Francesca want you here, you make love to Francesca. Man only come for woman so make love to her, or feed fat belly.” Due to a man‟s selfdelusion he never acknowledges he has a potbelly, he simply has relaxed muscles. “That‟s not what I meant. Francesca said I should come for lunch today. I had no idea I would be meeting her family and you.” I completely ignored the fat belly comment. “You not like me then?” This is the start of a game that no man can win, least of all an English man. “Yes, you‟re beautiful…” “Ah! So I beautiful so you want make love to me?” The ground beneath me is beginning to open up and threatening to swallow me whole.

“No I don‟t want to make love to you.” The moment I say this I know that I‟ve committed a serious error of judgement; I was about to be damned if I did, and damned to hell if I didn‟t. I am now in the realms of space that divides a man from a woman, whereby a woman expects a man to act in a certain way, yet doesn‟t want him to act in that particular way. Sometimes it‟s obvious that a woman finds a man‟s behaviour questionable and offensive, and then you understand the rules. But sometimes games are being played, it‟s called the courtship ritual, whereby the man is largely incapable of recognising the ver y subtle signals being given out by the woman. “So I ugly and you want make love to older woman?” “Gabriella! This is the first time I‟ve met you. You‟re a beautiful woman. But at the moment I don‟t want to make love to anyone, especially where there‟s a room full of Italians. Now, what I would like to do is just talk as Mario suggested, so we can get to know each other.” The lower brain suddenly decided to go into a disgruntled hibernation, had one final deep breath and disappeared into the land where everything is reduced to miniscule proportions. The air suddenly relaxed between us and the tension disappeared. Gabriella became quite animated and went on to explain who was who in the room. Mario it turned out was a nice guy who put on this air of menace so as to be as off putting as possible. He had once upon a time been an amateur boxer, and that his nose had been broken just prior to his last fight as an amateur. Apparently he‟d been messing around in Francesca‟s and fell off one of the tables he was dancing on to try and impress some young Italian girl, who he was seriously in lust with. The fall ended his pugilistic career because up until that time he‟d never felt any real pain, and now he had he didn‟t fancy having a career where it hurt most of the time, so he became a florist instead. Flowers, it turned out, were Mario‟s natural home. Not only was he naturally inclined towards flower arranging, it opened the door to many a woman‟s heart. His male friends were highly sceptical in the beginning and would taunt him without mercy, only to grow in admiration when he started to date some of the most beautiful Italian women in the district. Mario was never without a beautiful woman on his arm wherever he went, and not averse to helping his friends out whenever he could, so becoming the unofficial local Italian dating agency. Gabriella explained that most of the couples in the room had met through Mario, and as a way of saying thanks had generously fed him the finest Italian cuisine known to the world; which explained his size. Gabriella went on to explain that she had no intention of marrying anyone; she was too free a spirit to be tied down to the home and babies. For her life was to be on her terms, regardless of what anyone chose to believe, and now in her forties the family were beginning to accept her way of life, but still kept arranging blind dates for her in the hope that someone might capture her heart. She had no doubts that had she been back home in Italy, she would have had to get married so made it plain and in no uncertain terms that she was staying put where she was. She then went on to tell me that she was happy with her life, had more than enough love to cope with, and saw no reason why she needed to get tied up with one man. Fleetingly I thought how nice it would be to get tied up by Gabriella.

As the rest of the lunch was clearly going to be a very long one I called Albert at the office and explained that I wouldn‟t be back that afternoon. “Hi Albert, Danny here.” “Danny who?” Clearly the smile had turned into some form of deep mental disturbance. “Danny you idiot!” “I don‟t know any Danny Idiot!” There was a side to Albert that he‟d hidden for years. “Stop buggering about! I won‟t be back this afternoon as I‟m stuck in a meeting that‟s dragging on.” “Oh! You mean Danny Harrington, who sometimes spends a little time in the office, although what he does here nobody has any real idea.” I could have sworn I heard both he and Barry laughing, then I realised that the speakerphone was on and having nothing better to do decided to have some fun at my expense. What threw me was that I would have expected Barry to do this but Albert, never! I apologised to Gabriella for the interruption. She was quite laid back about it and said that she understood; she explained that she was always on her mobile phone during work time, so there was no great problem. Gabriella also went on to explain that she was a senior psychologist at the local headquarters for a pharmaceutical company, who specialised in mental illnesses attributed to mental degeneration due to the aging process. What she thought of me I had no idea, but it did strike me that I might be a suitable case study on the evidence earlier, at the beginning of lunch. After soldiering on manfully over the mountain of delicious food, but never seemingly getting any further forward in demolishing the dishes on the table, apparently it was Francesca‟s custom, at family gatherings, to keep every table piled high with food, whom she would humorously berate for not eating anything, even if they had consumed enough food to live off the amount of calories, protein and carbohydrates they had swallowed for the next year. And if the European Union was still having problems with its wine lake, largely because of the French producing massive wine surpluses that were wholly intended for foreign markets that couldn‟t be sold due to its poor quality in France, yet welcomed by the English middle class because it was cheap and dreary, and being French wine was naturally sophisticated, they could send the Spanish and Italian part of the wine lake here to Francesca‟s. I had never seen so much wine flowing as I did at Francesca‟s, and even more surprising, nobody appeared that drunk; I put that down to the massive amount of pasta soaking up the gallons of alcohol drunk. Eventually, Gabriella decided, for the sake of appearances, that she would introduce me to everyone personally at each and every table. This was done both for politeness and because it was expected of her by the family. She explained that she would talk in Italian, thus making it easier for everyone to understand what was being said and that it wouldn‟t lead to misinterpretations either on my part, or the situation at hand. Before we rose she explained that whilst she had had a pleasant time, and would happily meet me for a friendly chat over a cappuccino from time to time, nothing was going to develop romantically. She also said that I was a very nice guy and easy company, but in terms of passion it was her experience that English men were about as passionate as an octopus

without any tentacles, laying on the bottom of the seafloor wondering how it was going to get up. After what seemed an eternity, and then more some, I had been introduced to everyone in the room. At each table I politely shook hands, and everyone took it in turns to kiss me on each cheek. The expressive faces mostly bore the signs of resigned failure, but conveyed sympathetic smiles. Some of the women looked to the heavens with slightly doleful eyes, gently clasping their hands together as in silent prayer, presumably reciting the rosary. We finally got to Mario, who had been watching Gabriella and I throughout the whole lunch. Within an hour he had already become aware of the direction the blind date was going, and was not unduly surprised for in the time he had known Gabriella he had become well used to reading the signs she gave out. When it came to Gabriella, Mario had the patience of a thousand catholic saints, the Wisdom of Solomon, the forgiveness of God and accepted that she was a wild child, who would never be tamed by man or beast. When it came to men Gabriella was her own woman, and Mario could do no other but indulge her character. Gabriella adored him for it. “On behalf of my family, I thank you for the respect you have shown us by coming today.” This sounded like a line from “The Godfather”, and suddenly I began to picture Mario as a worldly, kindly man with murder in his heart. “I thank you for the invitation and kindness you‟ve shown me, and it‟s my hope I can return such an honour at some point in the future.” I was now paying my respects at the Court of Don Canella, and through the slight alcoholic haze probably giving an Oscar winning performance for Best Supporting Actor in a dramatic role. Mario put his arm around my shoulder, or rather put his hand upon it as I was some inches taller than him, and affectionately patted me. I suppose the pat was no different to the one a trainer gives his jockey when he comes second in a two horse race, and has been clearly outclassed by the winner. “I‟m sorry if you‟re disappointed, but Gabriella, God bless her, is a child sent to test the patience of all saints; she is her own woman and I hope you‟re not offended by her refusal.” Mario sounded apologetic for some reason. I reasoned that it was probably due to Italian men becoming offended if a woman they are introduced to by a family, gets turned down for some reason that offends either their honour or ego. I had been turned down so often by women that this was par for the course, and nothing unusual; if nothing else I‟d had a superb lunch, drank some excellent Italian wines, met a lot of characters I wouldn‟t have ordinarily met and spent the best part of four hours in the company of a beautiful woman. I had nothing to complain about or feel in the least bit upset by Gabriella‟s rejection of me as a man. I thanked Mario and told him there was nothing to apologise for. “You are a gracious man to take such a view, and I am in your debt. Please, you come to me if you need help with anything.” Mario turned to Gabriella and said something very passionately and extremely fluently in Italian, causing her to look towards the floor and with a look of embarrassment on her face. I took Gabriella‟s right hand and gently kissed the back of it, as one does in that very English understanding of the continental way of doing something in a very polite, but

friendly way. My eyes drew level with hers and I winked slightly, my smile friendly and I softly said “Thank you for being such wonderful company, and I‟ve had a great time.” Whatever Mario‟s experiences with English men, I hadn‟t appeared as he thought we were. Neither for that matter had Mario really acted in a manner straight out of a gangster movie. In fact I think both of us were pleasantly surprised at how we had acted; even if I still wouldn‟t like to bump into him on a dark night, I knew that if we did we‟d happily spend some time having a chinwag about men‟s stuff and all that. Francesca was nowhere to be seen, my guess was that she had disappeared back into the kitchen, cleaning away, too embarrassed to look me in the face for having introduced me to Gabriella and it turning into a non-event. I asked Mario and Gabriella to thank Francesca for me, which they were happy to do. With a final wave goodbye, and mightily impressing everyone with my “Ciao”, I left and walked with a spring in my step as I made my way home.

20 The loneliness of new management Tuesday passed by with the perfunctory amount of abuse I had expected from Albert and Barry: neither passing up the opportunity to make some kind of derogatory remark concerning my taking „unofficial‟ holidays as and when I chose. Thankfully I‟d not said what I had been up to and made up some pathetic excuse for being away. Barry kept smiling at me with a smile that indicated I‟d spent the afternoon in bed with a woman, constantly repeating the old Monty Python catchphrase “Nudge Nudge Wink Wink, Know what I mean?” Albert, on the other hand, had a faraway look which expressed his envy that I was happily ensconced in an illicit affair with some vamp, whose husband was away. I didn‟t deny such thoughts, mainly because men like to think that when men are being men, they are to be lauded for having chopped down another tree and swung the trunk in the same manner as a very burly Scotsman tossing the caber at the Braemar Highland games. Albert was still in a cheery mood, which meant that the muscles in his face got some light exercise, and neither Barry nor I had any understanding why; but we didn‟t question it and let sleeping dogs lie. Barry got fed up with getting no real response from me because of his jibes, apart from the empty paper cup I threw across the room at him, so got stuck into a copy of Playboy. He also took full advantage of Meakin‟s absence and spent some time surfing the net, trying to find chat rooms where he could, hopefully, hook up with women around the forty mark; apparently this month‟s target was to have sex with at least five, where there was no chance of any kind of commitment but every chance of having for what passed as a chat after the deed had been done. Maybe he‟d begun to mature a bit. Wednesday was a mixed day; Meakin had arrived first thing in the morning with a face resembling thunder. His two days away were about his move to another branch on the outskirts of Dundee, where he had been given lesser responsibilities, a drop in salary to reflect this and a step down in company car. Meakin had argued his point, he told us, but the company were adamant due to the restructuring that was taking place and he had to accept it or resign; Meakin was nearly sixty and knew that getting another job at his

age would be virtually impossible and didn‟t fancy the idea of having to spend most of the day in the company of the dragon. A Mr. Hanratty, a senior executive from head office, turned up later that day and took me into Meakin‟s office, who had been told to go and get a cup of coffee somewhere for an hour. “I understand that you‟ve been Mr. Meakin‟s unofficial second in command whenever he‟s been out of the office for some reason or other.” “Yes sir.” I replied. Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir, I silently thought. Whatever my feelings about Meakin on a personal level, he was still the boss and I owed him some semblance of loyalty. “First of all, may I call you Daniel?” There was a slight softening in his tone, which surprised me. “Yes sir, but I prefer being called Danny.” “Certainly. The second thing is, my name is Kenneth Hanratty, and depending on the outcome of this meeting, which Mr. Meakin is aware of, I shall either be addressed as Mr. Hanratty or Kenneth; that depends entirely on you.” The one thing about the English language is that it‟s possible to say something without ever uttering the actual words, so I began to have a good feeling about the meeting, and my unbending loyalty to Meakin was slowly beginning to bend and waver in the present wind. “I‟m not sure what you‟re getting at Mr. Hanratty. I understand from Mr. Meakin that he‟s being transferred to the Dundee branch.” “Yes Danny that‟s correct, which means I‟m in a position to offer you Mr. Meakin‟s position as the manager of this office.” Whilst I had an inkling that was what he was talking about, to actually hear the words from Hanratty‟s mouth was a bit of a shock. The thing about me was that I had no desire to become any kind of manager, assistant manager maybe, but work had never been the be all and end all of my life and I was very happy to drift along with as few complications as possible. Now I was being given an opportunity to progress, to move up a rung of the ladder in the company, at my age I wasn‟t likely to get another opportunity such as this. “Well to say I‟m a little surprised is a bit of an understatement. Why me?” I was always good at asking the obvious question. Hanratty went on to explain that the company had had the branch under a watchful eye for a number of months, as with all the branches in the company, and the branch‟s performance had been falling away, albeit at a very slow rate but nevertheless at a rate to cause some concern. It was decided that a new management structure needed to be put in place, and whilst the company might normally have dispensed with the services of Meakin, had he been much younger, it was decided to give him an opportunity to move to a branch that had no strategic importance in the company‟s future plans. Apparently the Dundee office was maintained for the purposes of having a foothold in Scotland should the need arise, and was simply allowed to tick over, the office contained one manager and one administrator. The present manager, Douglas McSweeney, had reached the statutory age of retirement and would be leaving in two months time; hence the opening for Meakin.

Hanratty then explained that my record had been exemplary, and the company felt that the moment had arrived when it was appropriate to promote me. In doing so I would be stepping directly into Meakin‟s shoes and taking over with immediate effect, my reaction was one of complete shellshock and panic. Hanratty merely smiled, no doubt recalling his younger days and suffering the same kind of reaction whenever he got promoted. The next thirty minutes were spent in the company of Albert and Barry, where Hanratty gave a summary of what he‟d told me in the office, my new office with Meakin‟s name on the door. They smiled and thought life would carry on before, but I knew it would change and not necessarily for the better. It‟s one thing being Meakin‟s assistant without any real acknowledgement as such, just an understanding that‟s what it is, and then becoming the “real thing”. Life was unlikely to be the same ever again and I didn‟t particularly care for the changes that would inevitably come in the coming months. There would be a distance between the three of us, a gap that couldn‟t be filled. Meakin finally arrived back, Hanratty merely shaking his hand in a very polite manner and wishing him good luck. Meakin bid Hanratty farewell and went with him to see him off, returning ten minutes later with little change of expression. “So Danny you‟re jumping into my grave as it were.” “I wouldn‟t put it quite like that Mr. Meakin. This is completely unexpected to me. I‟d no idea this was on the cards.” “No, I don‟t suppose you did. Still I can‟t say that this decision is all bad, at least I‟ll be able to escape the dragon now. She‟s decided that she‟s staying where she is, and that I can commute back home at the weekend. I‟m not sure she actually realises that Dundee is on the East coast of Scotland, some five hundred miles away. I guess it‟s about time I learnt how to fly fish and play golf, Scotland being ideal for both.” There was a strange mixture of regret and pleasure in Meakin‟s voice. I suppose being sent up to Dundee, to him, is a bit like sent to Outer Mongolia but at least it has the potential for new adventures at his age. The conversation ended, and Meakin spent the rest of the day clearing away his personal effects, taking the pictures down off the wall, putting his books into boxes, and eventually there was nothing left to remind you that Meakin had spent the last twenty years of his working life in this office, apart from the brass plate with his name on screwed to the door. I decided to leave it there until my own arrived as both a sign of respect for a guy I didn‟t particularly like, but also for the guy who gave much for the company and was treated as though his contribution hadn‟t amounted to much. At 4pm Meakin walked around the office and said his farewells to Albert and Barry; both of them couldn‟t really look him in the eye. Neither of them had that much respect for him, either as an individual or a manager. Meakin knew it, and probably realised in that moment that his management style was deficient in many ways; he was never a born leader but always did the bidding of those above him. He never dared question their authority, simply accepting that his betters knew better than he did. He never really amounted to much in life and simply bullied his way through his working life because he was in a position to do so. I don‟t think I‟ve ever seen a sadder figure than Meakin walking through the door. His shoulders drooping, his back slightly stooped, his walk

slow and reluctant to move forward. As he reached the door he turned to look back one last time; Albert and Barry ignored him, making out they were working, I smiled sympathetically, cordially, and walked into my new office. Ten minutes later the atmosphere had lightened considerably and I called Albert and Barry into the office. “Well I suppose you two buggers realise that there‟s going to be change, and that it‟s not going to be as it was.” I said this in my normal tone of being light-hearted Danny, which meant that I was still in assistant rather than manager mode. “About time too!” Albert replied, continuing to smile. “Yeh, couldn‟t agree more!” Barry said with a beaming smile on his face. “Albert, I can‟t help notice you‟ve been much happier these past few days, why?” My curiosity had finally got the better of me. “Oh that! I knew what was happening to Meakin but I couldn‟t say anything because the person who told me wasn‟t a hundred percent sure. Apparently a rumour had been circulating for the last month that he was going to be demoted, or moved somewhere else, or fired; nobody knew for sure, but there was something definitely on the cards.” Clearly Albert had to be watched in future, as he could be a problem. I was getting my first taste of life at the top; it‟s called conspiracy theories. “Well that takes care of that. Now, being new to this I‟ve decided that both of you can have the rest of the week off as paid leave, and are to return on Monday morning as normal.” “Great decision boss!” Barry said flippantly. I ignored it. “So both of you have a good time and I‟ll see you then. Have fun and don‟t be late.” Both of them couldn‟t get out fast enough, and had both of them been entered for the Greyhound Derby they would have come in first and second, both breaking the track record for the mile. Hanratty had suggested that after Meakin had cleared out of the building, I send Albert and Barry home for the rest of the week, as I would need the time to prepare myself for the job, and although I was well acquainted with it, it was up to me to come with plans for the future and implement them. Stage One completed. Stage Two meant hiring someone to replace me, which had Albert been livelier and friendlier to the world he‟d have got the assistant manager‟s position. But he was a miserable git and did as little work he could reasonably get away with. Barry was a big no no on account that the only thing that motivated him in the world was the amount of notches he hacked into the headboard of his bed. Hanratty had already arranged with personnel to advertise the post and I was to spend Thursday interviewing my replacement, something which filled me with some trepidation as I‟d never done any before. I explained that to Hanratty and he said no problem, as it was company policy for interviews to be carried out with a member of personnel there. Stage Three was the problem area, I had to become a manager. Being an assistant manager is easy, all you do is cover for the boss occasionally when he‟s away. You don‟t really have any real responsibilities in life, apart from the one or two the manager gives you when he delegates something he doesn‟t want to do. Life under Meakin had been a doddle, now it had the potential for nightmare.

Alone in the office, both savouring and fearing the moment, I became aware of the process of change. The past weeks had seen me begin to question a number of things, and the question of whether I had been in love or not had dominated my thoughts. Here I was with a new role in life I became immediately aware that I had nobody to actually share it with. Over the weekend I‟d no doubt inform all and sundry that I‟d got the job, and I suppose all and sundry wouldn‟t take me all that seriously and no doubt give me some kind of hard time, even if it was done with an enormous amount of affection. But I was alone and the office seemed to swallow me up. I had never felt so alone in all my life and for the first time that I could think of a pain appeared out of nowhere. I guess I‟d got used to living my life a certain way. I did what I did every day of the working week, which would never change so I gave it no further thought. I‟d gone as far as I expected to go and settled very nicely into the routine of it all; arrive at 8:30am, lunch at 12pm, return from lunch at around 1pm, go home at 5pm. When I was there I just shuffled paper around into piles that grew but never went down. The piles were put in order of priority, depending on how bored I was. I‟d answer the phone and deal with a query from head office. That was my working life and I‟d just suffered the biggest kick up the arse that I was ever likely to get in my life. But nobody was besides me to share it.

21 An old friend departs There‟s nothing in life that prepares you for change properly. You may be as prepared as you can for that change, you may reorganise your life to accommodate that change, but at the end of the day it can all be for nothing because life tends to have a mind of its own, or somebody else has, over which you have little control. I sat and thought about that whilst lazily munching through breakfast on Saturday morning. I thought how Meakin‟s life had been turned upside down because others had decided how his life was going to change and how he‟d had little control over the events taking place around him, of having no opportunity to influence those events. I suddenly felt very vulnerable with that thought and life became a little emptier. Until this very moment my life hadn‟t been that serious and I‟d never wanted it to be, maybe as a man nothing but sport and politics was serious, but for reasons of its own my mind had decided to refocus on more abstract matters. Perhaps I‟d reached a point where I‟d outgrown my childhood and wanted to know what adulthood was about. Most of the time I was with Dennis, Jack and Terri it was great, but it was if we were having a glorious time in kindergarten. I couldn‟t help thinking all of us were trying to escape life in some way, blocking it out and taking every opportunity to completely ignore it as best as we could. Maybe it was a reaction to the jobs we had, the companies we worked for, the whole ethos of work and perhaps our subconscious rejection of it in one way or another: work after all was nothing more than a form of enslavement that we went along with because it sort of served a purpose of sorts. I had no idea but it was great fun kicking our heels, laughing, doing stupid things, and just chilling out. Perhaps the past few weeks had been such a shock to the system it had had the same effect as an atom bomb unleashed on my desert of a brain, and if not of Armageddon proportions certainly enough of a loosening to alter my ancient perceptions. No matter, time to bite into the warm, crispy, overcooked bacon buttie, time to return to Planet Earth and do what every man does best, forget the intellectualising and get on with the main job in life, having fun.

Saturday morning over, the breakfast eaten, the lazy shower taken, the slinging on of anything decent enough to slum around in, which meant jeans and a sweatshirt, no shopping to do, it was time to head into the real world. As I‟d already arranged to meet Terri, Jack and Dennis for dinner at the Shed at 7pm, I decided to go on my lonesome for a lazy afternoon doing absolutely nothing but taking in the world around me, people watching. Saturday afternoon always reminds of the two halves of a football match, one generally good, the other bloody awful. Today was the good half, enough of a game to be interesting but not much doing by way of excitement. For some reason there weren‟t many people about, but that suited me fine and meant that I could stroll around unmolested and find a place to drink a cup of coffee without much of a problem. I had no understanding why but I seemed to be very sensitive to smells, and my eyesight sharper. For some reason my senses were more attuned to my environment and I had a vague, but comfortable, feeling of coming to terms with something that I couldn‟t explain. The feeling of emptiness returned for some reason. My feeling of emptiness was really strange for whatever deficiencies there were in my life, in relative terms I was a damn sight better off than a lot of people, I ate what I wanted, went out when I wanted, bought the stuff I needed when I needed it, did most of the things I wanted to, had good friends and a comfortable life, I had no reason for this sense of emptiness. When a man gets to a point that goes beyond his understanding he does the only sensible thing open to him, he ignores it; and so I did. When I start to think I have this stupid expression that resembles the face of a bear suffering from severe haemorrhoids caused by chronic constipation due to ingesting a massive amount of the wrong foods, despite such food being absolutely to die for and utterly irresistible; have you ever watched a bear devouring fresh salmon until it‟s had its fill, but carries on regardless until such time it decides that it‟s more fun to simple play with it, and then spends a lot of time just slowly slaughtering the salmon until it gets bored with the game. As I had no wish to appear looking as though I was an axe murderer, or had the potential to lean towards being one, I made a conscious effort to smile. People on the street often regard the act of smiling as the first downward step into the depths of madness. It is viewed with suspicion because nobody just smiles, there has to be a reason for the smile. It makes sense to smile if with you are with a beautiful woman, or the proud, doting parent of a new-born baby, or got engaged, or for some other reason people have a connection with and more to the point it‟s blatantly obvious why you‟re smiling. But if you‟re wandering about with a smile on your middle-aged visage for no apparent reason, then the world has serious doubts about your sanity, or rather lack of it. No matter I felt good, no doubt helped along by the very tasty woman who had just passed me, she returned my smile but I think it was of those smiles that hid her confusement as to why I was smiling. No matter, it felt good to smile, it felt very good to be no different to the child who has a naughty secret, won‟t tell you what it is and smiles knowing that it‟s causing you some frustration; there is indeed a delightful moment in life when you smile!

I eventually wandered into this place called “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”. I couldn‟t help noticing how England seemed to be turning into a very big theme park of some description or another. Sitting down it reminded me of a bad Hollywood stage set, an American‟s romantic, misty-eyed view of what England used to look like. I can‟t ever recall an English tea shop ever being this way, all fake oak beams, fake wood tables, synthetic lace tablecloths, mock chinaware and stainless steel spoons, but I suppose that it was somebody‟s idea what one should look like: it wouldn‟t surprise me in the least if there was a chain of these in lots of English towns. The girl who served me did so with a sort of disinterested interest, a meagre smile along with an insincere but polite hello and the minimum amount of language to take my order of a coffee with a couple of buttered scones. There weren‟t many others in, a couple in their late thirties engaged in the comfortable talk of two people who had known each other for some time, two twenty-something girls giggling at something or other, and a youngish guy wearing a pink shirt and dark suit reading a broadsheet newspaper. That was the world of the teashop. Surprisingly, the coffee was ok; surprising in the sense that England has never really had much of a coffee culture, so good coffee is to be enjoyed for the rare moment it is available. Whilst tea is to wile away the moment in as civilised manner as possible, as it should be, drinking coffee has this habit of altering the mood in direct relation to the taste of the coffee. The smile remained fixed to my face, my eyes drifting away into a faraway expression, and the question of what love was returned, no doubt encouraged by the couple across the way who were gently holding hands and peering longingly into each other‟s eyes, the world around them having disappeared, so completely absorbed and engaged as they were in the conversation of lovers. I had started this quest in a moment of absentminded thinking whilst playing with my belly button and the hairs around it, and the experiences of reading the books, my mother becoming a femme fatale, my sat on a rotting tree trunk, visiting the library, talking to Hattie Jacques in the hospital, the conversations with Monica, Dennis and the gay guy in Butterstones had in some way influenced me, but hadn‟t really enlightened me all that much. To be honest, those conversations had been about as helpful as a eunuch swallowing a thousand oysters in the hope of becoming sexually active. Nor had the conversation with the wall at the party, not that I remember much about it. It seemed to me that I‟d never know the answer, admittedly I‟d not done that much research and I‟d sort of fumbled, or blundered, around in the dark, but from the bit I‟d done, from the answers I‟d got, I wasn‟t going to get an answer to my quest. If I did get an answer I had the feeling it be would somewhat lacking and reminiscent of a Mills & Boon romantic novel, which bore little relation to life. But the thing that did come to mind, as I sat drinking the coffee, was that my view of women was altering, and that I found confusing because they were beginning to emerge as individuals rather than “women”. Fleetingly I thought, as only a man can do when he‟s overwhelmed with the fear of the unknown, I was entering the male menopause, a downward spiral into a weird and wonderful world that meant my virility would have to be propped up by taking viagra for the next thirty years. I think it‟s a sad moment in a man‟s life when he‟s reduced to taking pills to rejuvenate the lower brain, but equally

where there‟s a downside in life, there‟s an upside and it was comforting to know that sex was still possible until well into later life. Somewhere along the line, what line I‟ve no idea, but along it women began to take on a different shape that went deeper and beyond their more obvious charms and delights. For a man to contemplate that he had spent the vast majority of his life thinking in one way, but may have been wrong in some way is a bit like the Queen of England admitting she‟d spent her entire life involved in seditious acts against the country; considering some of the acts passed in her name she probably has, but we‟ll never know. Anyway, I had obviously been coming to a point in my life, where the idea of lust was finally losing its sheen. Whilst lust is fine in theory, and not a thing to be mocked because it‟s the only crutch a man can identify with and understand, there was clearly a change of emphasis. I actually wanted to talk first, then get into bed with a woman, then talk again. The waitress in the tea shop expressed her displeasure with a very loud nasal grunt, and an even louder tut, when I spluttered and choked on the last remnants of the, by now, cold coffee. Then the shock on her face as I began to cough violently, seriously short of breath, turning a weird shade of blue, clasping my throat. She finally walked over to me, a look of horror on her face at the thought of seeing someone dying in front of her, and did what every waitress does when they have no first aid training, she whacked me hard on the back, which caused me to fly off the chair I was sitting on. The shock of my brutal beating brought me to my senses, and with the prospect of another whack being applied with equally vicious intent by the Russian weightlifter, I rose from the floor with as much dignity as I could. She then began panicking at the thought of either being charged with grievous bodily harm, sacked for appalling customer service, or very soon getting a punch on the nose from a very irate man. The others in the teashop did what all other Britons do in the same situation, they looked up to see what the commotion was, saw that someone had taken charge, and carried on as though nothing had happened. Through the tears, and the final weak coughs and tiny spluttering, I reassured the waitress that everything was ok, that there was no problem and could she get me a glass of water, which she duly did. As I sipped from the glass she mothered me like a hen, proud of producing its first clutch of eggs, and fussed over me like there was no tomorrow. After ten minutes of recovery time the fussing, thankfully, ceased and I bid the waitress a polite, but friendly, farewell. As I left, she refused to accept payment, I again reassured her that everything was ok, I was alright, and it was just one of those things that happened, much to her obvious relief and no doubt glad that I hadn‟t kicked the bucket at worse, or punched her at best. The fresh air, as I got outside, hit me and I took a very long and deep breath, filling my lungs to capacity, my chest feeling very happy it could still be inflated without too much trouble. As for my inflated ego, that was a little deflated due to the knowledge that this mere slip of a girl was perfectly capable of knocking me off a chair with one mighty slap on the back. I had no doubts in my mind that this story was to remain one of the many that remained hidden away from the rest of my world. I could imagine Jack‟s, Dennis‟s and Terri‟s reaction to it, and my having to suffer endless ribbing for the next six months because of it.

As I had a couple of more hours to kill, I wandered through the main shopping thoroughfare, and felt a little saddened that it wasn‟t much different to any other town in Britain. The corporate world had decided to brand itself in a way that made town centres more or less identical Lego sets. The buildings of old were slowly disappearing, replaced by what seemed to be prefabricated duplicates tacked on to each other. And whilst it may be sad to me, it was the way of the world, and I, being nobody in particular, couldn‟t do anything about it, so did no more than shrug my shoulders and ignored Legoland. Sauntering along I decided to window shop for no reason in particular, I didn‟t need anything and had no intention of buying anything. Window shopping is not exclusive to women; it‟s just that men are a little less obvious about it. I should image that men have a time span of thirty seconds whilst women seem to spend five minutes or so peering into shop windows. Men, upon seeing something in a shop window, will have more or less made their decision to look and go in the shop by the time they get to the window. This is to do with the fact that they know what they want, have the vision to spot it well before they get to it, and don‟t veer too far from what they have always bought; it always helps by shopping in the same place, men are creatures of habit if nothing else in life. However, should a man have a woman in his life, and said woman wants to drag Mr. Happy shopping for a change in “style”, there‟s always “trouble at mill” so to speak. Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry, especially when change is in the air, even if you‟ve no idea why. If nothing else the question of what love is has this knock-on effect whereby it‟s not just a philosophical question but also one that encroaches into other areas, such as the way you dress. I‟ve no doubt that I‟d spent my whole life dressed the way my mother had dressed me, pretty conservatively, dark blues, blacks and greys, apart from my teens where I‟d decided to be “different” and “individual” and my short period of rebellion, whilst accepted by my mother as a necessary evil, didn‟t really get too outrageous. The problem with shop windows is that your reflection stares back at you. Now you know it‟s your reflection because you can see the same face you look at in the mirror first thing in the morning; normally an unpleasant shock to the system until you‟ve drunk that first mug of tea, and then the horror story doesn‟t seem half as bad. Admittedly I dress to be comfortable, which for a man means you dress for no other reason than you can‟t be seen naked in public, looking at my reflection that might not be such a bad thing, and with my amount of English reserve certainly a very good thing. But in a way the reflection taunts you to do something different, after all you‟ve been this way for years, and for the last three years you‟ve not had a date; could my reflection be telling me something as I stand there and wonder. Clothes and the emotion of love, seemingly so far apart, yet somehow connected I thought.

22 A night to remember...and forget Dressed in a new pair of dark brown cords, a bit like having your legs covered in plain chocolate where someone has run a fine comb down them, a black shirt, the idea being I wanted to appear enigmatic, and a wool jumper in a darkish mauve colour to throw a bit of confused thinking into the air, I strolled into the Shed ten minutes late. The great thing about Dennis, Jack and Terri is that whilst we were all slavishly brought up to be punctual and on the dot for everything, you‟d only be excused if you were delayed by your being in the process of dying, or coming close to it, none of us were that fussed if any of us were late for no reason at all. At the weekends we were all of the same mind as Great Chief Sitting Bull, who apparently said “rise with the sun, sit in the shade when it gets hot, and go to sleep when the sun goes down.” He did add that at the time of Little Big Horn, he ignored his own advice and had hell of a party for a while. I‟ve no idea if there‟s any truth in what he said, most British history books are on the side of the underdog, and after the revolution against the British there‟s a bit of sympathy for anyone who whips American ass no matter how short-lived the victory. There they were, the three wise monkeys, sitting at their normal table looking at me with some amusement. I can‟t say that I blamed them, as they‟d never seen me in anything but jeans or slacks before. “Um.” Jack said in his normal way, which was to say nothing until he could find the words. The drunker he got he would either go into long periods of silence followed by complete irrelevance, or speak in a way that signified he was suffering badly from verbal diarrhoea and still be utter irrelevant. “Um indeed!” Dennis was trying to find something to say and you could sense his mind was working ten to the dozen, searching for an appropriate sarcastic remark. “Mm, I think you look nice.” Terri said smiling on account that she‟d been waffling on every now and again about us three guys changing our style in some way. She had a point. I looked like a tidy tramp that had very little imagination when it came to choosing clothes. Jack looked like he was still at university. Dennis remained firmly stuck in 1980s garb. Terri remained as she always did, wonderfully understated

but chic in the only way a naturally stylish woman can; I‟m sure there was some Italian blood flowing through her somewhere. As it was about quarter past seven, we got down to the serious business of the evening, drinking and eating. As I drank the same thing all the time, a wonderfully dark beer that warmed the cockles of my heart, arrived at the same time as the other three‟s so there was no waiting for the order. Dennis had done the decent thing and ordered as soon as he arrived, he arriving five minutes or so before Jack and Terri, they turning up together. They called his mobile and ordered their drink, which Dennis had a grumble about, complaining he wasn‟t an ordering service; Terri merely replied, “Get a life and get on with it!” Dennis did as he was told. Toni came up and had a bit of a chinwag with us, as normal it was about nothing in particular, light-hearted and frivolous, which got the evening off to a wonderful start. He then took our orders; I went with the big steak as I‟d had avoided eating much all day; Jack went with the pasta dish covered in a rich tomato and basil sauce; Dennis decided to have the bean casserole with beef; and Terri had the salmon in a lemon and dill sauce. “So, having decided to turn up as a raspberry and chocolate sorbet, what you been up to all week?” Dennis asked. “Oh cut it out Mr. New Romantics!” Terri quipped before I could get a reply in. Terri was referring to the period of the 80s when Punk music was replaced with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet, the craze amongst teenagers then for music that you could listen to without head butting the people around you. “Oh nothing much, just been promoted to manager at the office.” I said this in a matter of fact way, without a trace of excitement in my voice. The three of them looked at me in a state of disbelief, unable to comprehend that I had moved up the corporate ladder a rung. I, after all, was the least ambitious of all of them. “Uh!” Jack kindly muttered. “Yer what!” Dennis spluttered out, nearly choking on his beer. “Well done honey!” Terri said obviously pleased for me. “They got senile dementia at your place.” Dennis not yet able to comprehend that I was clearly brighter than he‟d given me credit for. “Uh.” Jack repeated, clearly confused by the news, taking a sip from his beer as though that might help clear the muddy waters a bit. “Bugger these two idiots! Cheers darling!” Terri and I chinked glasses, toasting and smiling to each other. Dennis and Jack just looked at each other, not knowing what to say really. It‟s not often possible to take the wind out of Dennis‟s sails but I‟d managed it and was joyfully savouring the moment. The food finally arrived, piled high on the plate as always. Toni was amused by something or other, which we couldn‟t understand as he tends on occasions to talk in riddles. Toni was a born comedian and was never short of a joke, one liner or some comical quip that he threw out with a lot of regularity and increasing frequency as the night wore on. I sometimes wondered if he was like Tony Hancock, on his own inherently sad and

perhaps morose and his way of coping with it was getting laughs when under the “bright lights of his “stage”, the Shed. “Joking aside, how did you end up getting the manager‟s job?” Dennis asked with genuine interest now that he‟d got over the initial shock. Whatever Dennis may have appeared like to the rest of the world when they saw us together, he was inwardly pleased when any of us did well and were successful in whatever we did. “Well I have to admit that it was a shock to me as well. I‟d no idea they were going to move Meakin from the office, and I‟d certainly no idea they had me earmarked for the job. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, head office has been restructuring the company for the last eighteen months and now putting in the changes necessary to move forward, and I was considered the best man for the job.” It somehow gave me a bit of a fillip to blow my own trumpet for once. “Two million unemployed and you‟re the best man for the job. It doesn‟t say much about the state of managers in this country does it?” Dennis joked in a tone of voice that let slip his delight at the news. Jack looked up from his pasta, opened his mouth as though he was going to say something, looked at the three of us, looked back at his pasta and took another forkful deciding that there was nothing to say. Jack was at certain times a man of few words. Terri gave me a big hug and a sloppy kiss on the cheek shouting “Congrats!” in that enthused manner she has. A few more jokes at my expense flew across the table, most of them concerned with my inability to organise a piss up in a brewery. As the banter flowed it was obvious that the more that‟s not said between close friends, does no more than show the amount of love that ties them together with a bond of humanity that nobody but them understands. As the night wore on we drank liberally and towards the end so much beer was being drunk the town was in danger of being declared as suffering from a severe drought. Toni didn‟t help matters by being overly generous and ensuring that Scotland had earned enough income to declare its independence from England. Upon hearing my good fortune, he disappeared for fifteen minutes returning in lederhosen and began dancing several Irish jigs to the music of some unknown Bavarian folksongs. Dennis decided that the opportunity was too good to miss and clambered onto the table joining in; he thought it highly amusing when he decided to audition for the “Full Monty”, he couldn‟t understand why virtually every woman over the age of fifty threw some item of clothing at him, and girls around the age of twenty looked utterly embarrassed. Jack, by now firmly intoxicated, remained sat where he was and simply swayed from side to side, much in the same manner as a hippy smoking a joint, listening to Janis Joplin. Terri let rip with the most exotic, or erotic, dance, which depending on how drunk you were, I‟d seen performed by any female. Her dance had absolutely nothing in common with the music, but everything to do with letting her luscious mane down and bringing the Shed to a standstill; how no man over the age of forty had a heart attack I‟ll never know, nor do I want to know how many wet dreams she caused that night either. I remained in control of myself, and not one to be an exhibitionist I naturally did nothing that could have been described as offensive. However, I did later learn that Jack got out his mobile and made a note that he needed to buy meat and vegetables, after I‟d mooned Jack at some point.

23 Walls are a many splendid thing The morning after is always the morning you swear not to do what you had done the night before, and so it normally follows that waking up is a time you wish would never happen. The only good thing about waking up and seeing the light of day, seeping through the chink in the curtains, is that you know you‟re alive; when you fully arise you realise it might have been better to have remained dead. Getting out of bed is a mammoth task in itself, getting to the bathroom is a nightmare, anything you manage to accomplish after that is on a par with a toddler standing on its feet for the first time and taking those initial few steps without falling on its backside. The only difference is that the toddler is wearing padding in the form of a nappy, you are wearing nothing; it hurts you more when slip and fall on the hard tiled bathroom floor. Looking at your reflection in the mirror, there‟s no longer any deceit just the god honest truth that time has taken its toll. Your hair, once the envy of the world with its natural curls, sheen and sheer vivacity, now resembles Medusa‟s head of snakes being blown about in a storm whipped up by Thor because he‟s very miffed with Woden. Your eyes no longer exhibit any form of intellect, just a deadened expression that makes you envy life at the bottom of a cesspool. In opening your mouth it‟s clear where the idea came about for producing cotton wool, where you‟re reminded that it might not be such a bad idea to get the teeth sorted out, and why it might not be such a bad idea either to get involved in a march against the misuse of chemical toxins used in the production of beer. You are indeed a sorry sight, and in this one defining moment, where you agree that this example of the human species should be put out of its goddamn misery, any thought that you could be in any way attractive to the opposite sex, let alone discover the meaning of love, is abandoned forever. A man, who can come to terms with the advancement of age, is a man indeed for there‟s no escaping the fact that any form of usefulness is nothing more than wishful thinking. But at least you have a full English breakfast to eat, providing you can get through the thought that you have to prepare and cook it. I don‟t care what anyone says about an English breakfast being unhealthy, fat ridden, and a sure way to your eventual demise by suddenly discovering you do have a heart, it‟s God‟s wish that man has a brain and that brain needs nourishment; I make no apology for

carrying on a tradition that has stood the test of time, propped up the British Empire and cured many a wretched morning after. As it was Sunday, I called my mother and said I couldn‟t come for tea as I was feeling under the weather and not up to it. “So you have an hangover?” My mother is well aware of my little indiscretions in life, and unfortunately not very sympathetic when it comes to self-indulgent alcoholic poisoning. “Yes mum.” I‟m feeling like a little boy being chastised by his mother for doing something naughty. “Your own fault! You will get no sympathy from me. I did not raise you to become a dipsomaniac! Stupid boy!” Now feeling rather guilty at missing tea with mother, my mother has this wonderful way with her, I begin to backtrack and say that I‟ll be there as normal. “Oh no. John‟s coming round for tea and then we plan to go out somewhere for a bit of something.” I had no wish to know what a “bit of something” was, thankfully my brain was incapable of conjuring up any horror films, so I just said “bye” and hoped she had fun; not that I hoped she had too much fun. The afternoon was clear and I got back into bed. The rumbling in my stomach had more or less given up complaining, and the mud that filled the brain began to turn into sludge due to the two paracetamol and gallon of tea I‟d drunk. I drifted off back into the land of nod, not really going to sleep but resting my very tired eyes when the phone beside the bed rang and blasted the stupid ringtone into my very delicate and sensitive right ear. “Yer.” I said in a very drowsy manner. “You up?” It was Dennis. His ebullient tone was not welcomed. “No, I‟m still in bed, suffering with the mother of all hangovers.” “God you‟re a lightweight, I‟ve been up since nine this morning!” I really do hate Dennis at times. “What do you want?” I asked grumpily. “Want to come round for a bite to eat later, about seven?” He laughed clearly enjoying the moment. “See you then. Now bugger off and leave me in peace cretin!” I happily went back to sleep. Whoever said that Sundays were a day of rest had clearly had to endure the British hangover. I don‟t for one moment believe it had anything to do with God resting on the Sabbath. I woke at 4:30pm feeling a much happier chappie, and peering into the bathroom mirror my reflection had improved somewhat, not much admittedly, but enough for me to think the world was a far better place than it had been some six hours ago. A long shower helped considerably, as did the clumsy attempt at shaving, which took twice as long as it normally did. More tea and a scone, baked by my mother, increased my awareness of the world around me. I felt ready to tackle the great outdoors again, and whilst I‟d have normally caught the bus to Dennis‟s I decided to walk the mile or so to his place, which enlivened me up no end.

The thing about Dennis is that he likes people and thinks nothing of inviting someone over, whilst at the same time inviting others too without ever saying anything to you. Sometimes it‟s just you and him, other times it‟s an unofficial party of sorts, so you never know what to expect. Dennis answered the door saying “hi” and dashed back into the kitchen, normal for him, and left me to fend for myself. Dennis‟s attitude to guests is you know where everything is, “help yourself”, and he carries on doing whatever he was doing in the first place. I took off my coat, grabbed a beer out of the fridge and passed a few moments in small talk, mostly about the previous evening. With a body draining away the previous night‟s excess of alcohol, and topping it up slightly again, although feeling ok, I wasn‟t much in the mood for any kind of talking that needed even the tiniest of effort. The doorbell rang, I answered it and there she stood, all five foot six inches of the most beautiful tribute to femininity that had ever graced the earth since Eve had seduced Adam with a Golden Delicious apple. How I must have looked to her I‟ve no idea, but gormless might have been an apt word. I just stood in the doorway, utterly entranced, with all my senses going into such a state of overdrive that all I felt was complete numbness. Never in my life had such an exquisite vision so entranced me. For some inexplicable reason the lower brain failed to react, replaced instead by my heart threatening to explode from my chest, which seemed to be registering the shockwaves at 7.2 on the Richter Scale. Never in my entire life had I ever been this dumbstruck, awestruck, or come unstuck in the manner I was right at that very moment. All I could do was stand there just staring, not a word coming from my open mouth, blocking the doorway, frozen to the spot. “Hello Danny. I‟m “wall” remember.” I‟d no idea how she knew my name, and it was a moment or so before “wall” connected. Some men can be quite brazen about their past acts; I could only blush like a virgin faced with the “big” question for the first time. “Oh…um…yes. Um” I didn‟t get to say anything else. “Danny invited me around for a bite to eat. I‟m Isabel, before you ask.” I was going to ask her name, when I‟ve no idea, but I was. “Uh…That‟s good. Pretty name; can‟t say that I know anyone of that name.” This was strange, tomorrow I‟ll become a manager and be able to function in the way I‟m expected to, at the moment I was about as able as an athlete without legs trying to perform the high jump. Isabel, it turned out, had met Dennis at a party somewhere, and Dennis being Dennis decided to do what he does best, make a complete fool of himself. Isabel was immensely amused by Dennis, and although never remotely attracted to Dennis, nevertheless they struck up a friendship that continued to this day. Why I‟d never met her before I‟d no idea, but it was probably due to her living ten miles away and our particular paths never crossing for that reason. The evening was spent pleasantly enough, although for some reason I kept quiet for most of it, which caused Isabel to make the odd quip here and there, Dennis saying very little content to let Isabel do most of the talking. She didn‟t seem to mind and happily chatted away about everything and nothing under the sun. For some inexplicable reason I

was as mesmerised as a rabbit by the headlights of an oncoming car, quirky and certainly not me. At one point during a lull in the proceedings I asked Isabel if she was Italian as she was olive skinned, Mario, Francesca and Gabriella was obviously floating around upstairs, she burst out laughing saying that she was as English as they come, born and bred in Liverpool. Her skin colour was apparently due to her grandfather, who was a Spanish sailor, and her grandmother who was the daughter of Irish Romanies. As she laughed her eyes sparkled, has I‟d never seen a woman‟s eyes do before. They seemed to have this irresistible urgency about them that pulled you towards them. In a way they reminded me of the tranquil nature of a soft grass meadow, the kind of lush green meadow that dances freely in the warm breeze of a rising young summer sun. They were tinged with hazel, the same colour as damp soil from which all life springs, nourished by and which keeps secret forever the tales and stories of life itself. Whatever was behind those eyes, I became spellbound beyond anything I‟d ever experienced before in my life. There is a moment in a man‟s life when something inexplicable happens. It happens because it is the normal way of life, and there is nothing you can do about it; this night was exactly that. The night passed by with Dennis happily, for him, retelling old tales about our time together, how we‟d met at university, stayed mates and regaled Isabel with the nonsense and escapades, mostly involving drink, which you‟d rather forget. Isabel laughed out loud; Dennis has this wonderful habit of making me look far more stupid than I actually am, but without sounding in the least bit malicious, even if it can make you grind your teeth on the odd occasion. By the end of the evening, around ten, it was time to leave so I made my apologies, as I didn‟t want to be late for my first day as manager; it was important that the agenda according to St. Meakin be delivered in much the same way by the gospel according to St. Daniel. Although a new face would be sitting in Meakin‟s chair, an old face would be delivering it.

24 Not the end...only the beginning If anyone had suggested that the next six months would have ended up in the way that they did, I‟d have called them a raving lunatic and suggested that it might not be a bad idea if they took an indefinite holiday in a mental asylum. But then meeting Isabel was a turning point in my life, from which I‟ll never recover. I‟m not sure how you actually define madness but if ever a man could have been declared certifiably insane, then I was a prime candidate; in other words I was the pot calling the kettle black. I suppose there‟s a point in a man‟s life when he reaches a crossroads, and either continues on the path that‟s been mapped out for him, normally bent over and knuckle scrapping his way along, or goes off at a completely different tangent and becomes a different shade of pink. What makes him go one way or the other is his experience of life and the way he exercises the upper brain, or doesn‟t as the case may be. Thankfully, as it turns out, the lower brain had been sleeping its little head off for more or less three years, occasionally popping out of hibernation, having a quick look at what the world was doing; nothing as it happens although he did get a bit frisky once in a while, only to return to where it was unlikely to suffer much in the way of disturbance. Somehow the lower brain all too often thought the world was as exciting as a pair of giant pandas trying to get it on in London Zoo. I guess I‟d become subconsciously stuck at the signpost of life and deciding which path was the best way to go. That and wondering, for no reason I could think of, what the emotion of love was. If nothing else a man begins his thinking, largely, in the most stupid of places and I don‟t think there‟s a much more ridiculous place than the hairs around your belly button. Yet, in such eureka moments, the sanity of the insane moment bears fruit of a kind. But as the last six months have shown me, when it comes to emotions, men wander around utterly blind, scratching around in the wrong places, and largely with their upper brain happily stuck where the sun never gets to shine. If the only thing I‟ve actually learnt these past six months is that it does no harm to look a bit closer to home, then I‟ve learnt a lot. As for my relationship with Isabel that‟s gone on from strength to strength, and I now fully understand what it is to be in love. Surprisingly, I never knew what it was to feel

the depth of emotions that I now do; at least the knuckles aren‟t suffering from that many scrape marks these days. It also seems that I can finally breathe in a real sense, and that my life as a man had been choking me for most of it. And even though I‟ve spent the last six months suffering the unknown joys of emotional bedlam, where few men have freely chosen to go, having gone through them I understand why perfectly. Had I known that I was going to wake up each day having to constantly stretch the upper brain in a way that‟s never happened before, and suddenly face a constant identity crisis, I‟m not sure I‟d have bothered to play with the hairs around my belly button in the first place. But you can‟t choose who you‟re going to fall in love with; there‟s no control over it, no defined set of rules to follow, no sort of anything apart from sneaking up on you slowly and then kicking you in the balls with a viciousness that takes your breath away. As every man will know, a kick in the balls is as painful as a vasectomy and to be avoided at all costs. Then there‟s the problem of not reacting in a “manly” way, of beginning to feel wonderfully comfortable with a set of emotions that have rarely seen the light of day, of feeling safe and protected in the arms of a woman, of it being ok to hold and share moments that make no sense to anyone else. The very reasons for your existence as a man seem to melt away, much in the same way the thick layer of ice thaws with the onset of early spring. The division between man and woman dissipates and you become separated by personality and not gender, and whilst the world may view you as a man and woman, you see nothing but the perfection of the imperfect individual. To the world that looks upon Isabel, they see a surface that‟s undoubtedly beautiful, the gorgeous head of dark hair that flows as freely as the wind in its most sensuous moods. A slim frame that sculptors wish to immortalise in the finest Italian marble and all those features that determine how beauty shall be defined. Yet whilst I may be fortunate to see these things, it is her eyes that continue to enchant me, that hold my attention, that remind me of what love really is, the absence of a man‟s love for lust. Her eyes bewitch me for whilst they may mirror her own soul, they see my own spirit and soul and I am hers in every sense of the word. After fifty long years I‟m now in love for the first time and there‟s no place I‟d rather be. It doesn‟t matter if it‟s imperfect from time to time, nothing is perfect, but it‟s as close as it will get. No, I‟ve no desire to be elsewhere, there‟s nowhere else to be. Nowhere but at the side of the individual, who explains what life truly is. Now I understand what it is to be a man, and not what life thought I should be as a man. It is only when the greatness of a woman truly touches the inherent weakness of the inner man, shall the man ever know what it is to love in its true sense; for then he will have both his spirit and soul blessed and the shallowness of masculinity shall be nothing more than an unhappy, but thankfully distant, memory. I‟ve no idea who said that, but it sums up the madness and chaos of the love I feel for Isabel. And whilst love is a wonderful thing to talk about, I‟ll leave it there, as it‟s my turn to wash up the pots. Oh...and whilst I think of it...the black and grey hairs around my belly button have never been happier. And my mum? Well she‟s now lost six stone, wears a permanent smile on her face and is off to Ibiza in a few weeks time. All you can do is smile!

The End…or maybe not!

A word of thanks. I wish to thank you for having got this far, and reading the book. As a published author, it‟s always difficult to know how readers will respond to a very personal endeavor that seems to have taken forever to write and finally complete. It is my sincere hope that you have enjoyed reading the book. Please feel free to contact me with any comments and observations you may have at the contact addresses below. About the author: I write under the pseudonym of „Toni Bryan‟, a choice reflected in celebration of my dad and my European travels, and reflects my own personal delight in „mucking‟ around with language. I believe that language should reflect the individual, in which case I accept I‟m a simpleton. I was born some time ago into a poor working class background, the workhouse was never far away and bread was a luxury meal. I left school at the age of 15 able to read and write and could do enough maths to play darts and work out the price for a pint of Boddingtons. At the grand age of 41 I graduated from the University of Nottingham, where I discovered that education was nothing more than an extension of capitalism; I happily remain a Marxist in its truest sense of the word. Presently I live in Germany after living for a number of years in Greece where I taught English. I remain optimistic that I‟ll still be alive in thirty years‟ time. I‟ve no plans to return to England. Connect with Me Online @: Twitter: Smashwords: My blog:

Danny's Navel Adventure  

Danny is one of life's armchair philosophers, and in a moment of complete absurdity asks himself if he has ever been in love. From that mome...