E-mail R.P.T. Owen at: email@example.com
I found a story one day in a book of dreams that was written at the end of the last century. In the story a father watches beside a sick child in a candle-lit room. He stays beside the boy for days and nights on end without sleep; he does everything that he can but the fever will not release the child from its grip and, finally, the boy dies. The father keeps a vigil beside the bedside until he is exhausted and can stay awake no longer; asking an old man to pray by the body, he goes into the next room to lie down. He falls asleep and has a dream. He dreams that his son is standing beside him, touching his arm and saying: "Father, can't you see that I am burning?" He wakes up and rushes back into the room to find that the old man is asleep and that a candle has fallen over and set light to his son's bedclothes. I had been driving for a long time that night; I'd smoked a lot of cigarettes in the car and driven many times around the same circuit of streets; I was tired and bleary-eyed and dry. When I saw her for the first time she was walking with her back to the traffic, giving little looks over her shoulder at the passing cars. I saw the signs and our eyes met as I drove by - but when she got into the car I realised that something was wrong. It was too late to do anything about it, though, I was locked into the business and I didn't know how to stop. She asked me for thirty pounds and I gave it to her even though this seemed like a lot of money to me, more than I had ever paid before. She gave me directions and we parked in a darkened backstreet that didn't feel very secluded or very safe. She unzipped me and I looked around to see if anyone was watching us. She took my limp dick in her hand; it didn't do anything. I moved slightly in my seat and she flinched away sharply. "I thought you were going to hit me," she said. I told her that I wasn't going to hit her but saying the words seemed to make it worse and when I moved my hands a moment later she flinched again. I was in a dark street, it was cold in the car, and a woman who seemed to think that I was going to kill her was rubbing my limp dick. "You can come back to my house next time," she said, "I'll trust you then and you can kiss my titties and fuck me if you like." I moved my hand slowly in the darkness until I could feel her small breasts through the fabric of her blouse. She gave up with me and I was relieved that it was over. She picked up her little hand-bag and stepped out of the car, reached up under her skirt, pulled her knickers down and squatted. I had no idea what was happening until I heard the sound of her piss hitting the asphalt. She stood up and walked away. But that wasn't the first time. For a year I had made the effort to be someone and the act had almost stuck, but twelve months of the everyday lie and I was breathless, itchy and ill at ease. I found myself walking through city streets at midnight trying to figure out what had happened; I looked at every building, at every car that passed and at every person that I saw on the street. I'd get into bed at the end of the day and close my eyes and twenty minutes later I was dressed and back out on the street again. I needed to know and I couldn't seem to rest before I did. I was frightened walking around out there on my own, lit with sodium and wide awake; I was frightened that some guy was going to lurch out of the shadows, beat the shit out of me and rob me. Saloon cars would hearse and surge around me in the darkness; a glimpse of a woman walking alone and my heart would hammer, my legs feel weak; it felt like I was going to die right there on the street.
"It's O. K," she said, "he's white." We were walking up the stairs to her flat and she was telling me about her boyfriend who would also be there. We got to the top of the stairs and went into a hallway. I had a glimpse into a room where a young man was sitting in front of a television. We went into the bedroom. She needed the money, she told me, because she and her boyfriend wanted to move on and leave the city and they couldn't afford to get their van back on the road. She took off her tights. "It'll be an extra fiver if you want me to take everything off," she said. It was a bright summer's evening outside and I remember that the room was very still and very quiet. I gave her the five pounds. She undressed and laid down on the bed without speaking. Later that week I saw the two of them in a van, she was driving. I didn't see their expressions or, if I did, I don't remember them. I do remember thinking that if there was a moral to be drawn from any of this then it was not one that I could understand.
I wasn't raised by wolves. I was raised in a semi-detached house in a small town; there was a garden with apple-trees and a kid next door to play with. My father was a clerk in a factory that made parts for power plants, my mother was a housewife. Every evening my father would come home from work, he'd eat a meal and then he and my mother would sit in front of the television and smoke cigarettes. I remember the cloud of smoke that used to form in the room where they'd sit, it used to hang there halfway between the floor and the ceiling and when someone got up it would swirl around and swoop after them as they moved. They cared for me the best they could and loved me, I am certain, as much as it is possible to love another person in this world. Neither of them ever did anything mean to me that I can remember. Neither of them ever did any thing mean to me that I can't remember, either. I remember a conversation I had with my father when I was about eight years old. I was sitting on the floor and my father was sitting in an armchair, reading the paper. I can't remember why I was thinking about this but I asked him: "Dad?" He lowered the paper and looked down at me, "Dad...what's communism?" "Well," he said, and then he took a moment to think about the question, "...it's a system...that doesn't work." I remember a conversation that I had with my mother one day. I can't remember why I wanted to know, but I asked her: "Mum...how do you spell "poison"?" She moved her lips a little as she tried to order the letters in her mind and then she looked at me with her eyes wide open: "I don't know how you spell it!"
She was beautiful. She was the best that I'd seen on the street that night and I'd seen four or five who looked too ragged and sad and crazy to even think about. It was going to be bad and I didn't think that there was a lot that I could do about it. I'd been driving for about an hour, wheels running over the same roads back and forth. When I saw her for the first time she was leaning over and talking to a man in a car; she was maybe sixteen, with long blond hair. I prayed and swore and swerved into the forecourt of a derelict cinema ahead of them and waited, trying to breathe. The engine was running but I couldn't hear a thing. In the silence I saw her walk around the corner and come towards me. She got into the car and sat down next to me. She smiled at me. We drove down a side-street into a darkened car-park beside a children's playground. She told me her name, told me she was seventeen and that she sometimes worked in a beauty parlour; as we talked she shuffled out of her clothes. When it was over I checked the condom as I took it off to see that it was still in one piece, rolled down the window and tried to throw it into the playground but it snagged against the fence and hung there in front of the headlights. When she'd gone I sat in the car and tried not to think. I had come, but I knew what else was coming and I didn't want it to start just yet. I went back to the place I was living and sat around and smoked and tried to stay awake.
By the time I was a teenager I had reached the conclusion that the world was an insane joke and that all there was to do was die. I didn't want to have anything to do with the business of making a life in the world. Every time I slept with a woman I would afterwards be bombarded with a misery I couldn't understand and a sense that all there was to do, the only things worth doing, were either to kill myself or become a monk as soon as possible. I'd lie there afterwards, not able to speak, full of thoughts of what a fucking joke the world was, thinking about being a monk and getting away from this insanity, disappearing into silence, into nothingness and peace.
"This is the place," she said. She pressed a button and a bell rang. "Is this your place?" I asked. "No," she said, "my grandfather lives here, he lets me use a room," she looked at me, "but it's O. K, he's all right, I give him a fiver every time and he's O. K about it." An old guy came to the door and let us in. He looked at us, looked at me, then turned and went through a doorway out of sight. "You got to give me the fiver now so's I can give it to him, but don't worry," she said, "it's included in the fifteen." I gave her the note. "Where's the bathroom?" I asked her, "I've got to have a pee." She pointed me to a little door. "It's in there," she pointed to another door, "and we'll be in here." I looked around in the shabby bathroom; I couldn't live like this, I thought - then I thought, but I am living like this. I found her blowing her nose. The room was bare, just a bed and small chest of drawers with a mirror on top, a few make-up things, a waste paper basket, not much light. She took off her clothes. She had a scar on her stomach reaching up about three inches from her navel. I thought about asking her where she got it, but I didn't say anything. When it was all finished I got myself a cigarette. "Do you want one?" I asked her. "I'm O. K, thanks," she said.
I was in love for sure, that's how it seemed to me - every time I bought sex I'd spend a week thinking about nothing but killing myself. Like the full-stop after the sentence, the sentence would be served, the point pressed home with guns and poison, bridges, ropes and knives. It seemed as though my life had turned to shit and I couldn't watch a bus go by without seeing an image of myself beneath the wheels.
Close to midnight, yellow streetlight clouds rat-race above me, teenage girls at darkened bus-stops, waiting. I was standing at a cross-roads and a voice beside me spoke - it said: "You lookin'?" A young woman was standing next to me, eyebrows raised and smiling. "I guess," I said," I, ah, guess I'm looking at you but - I don't know if I can afford to..." "Well," she said, "It's normally twenny-five, but, ah - how much you got? You got ten, fifteen poun'?" "I think I can stretch to that," I said. "Well, come on then," she took my arm, "I know a little place round here." I walked beside her. Cars passed us and I tried to see inside them, see if anyone I knew was driving; I had a respectable job and a face to lose, the only face I had. I couldn't see a thing. "You live roun' here?" she asked me. "Not far away." "Wha's your name?" I gave her a name; I can't remember if I lied. While we were walking I was wondering where we were going and sneaking looks at her as often as I could; she was beautiful. I couldn't believe I'd bought the right to touch this woman, to touch a woman. I thought of the idiot hours that I'd spent in clubs and bars, hours of fear and sweat and every woman looking like a window into holiness and everything there was to want. Here I was, finally, up on the big screen. We turned into a small park with grass and some kind of playground; railings, trees and darkness. She led me down a bank to the edge of pond and we walked around it until we came to an area shielded by bushes. I watched her as she took her jacket off and put it on the ground for us to sit on; we sat down next to each other. We talked a little about money. I scrabbled around in my wallet and gave her twelve pounds in change, all the money that I had on me. "What do you want," she asked, "full sex or oral?" I looked at the sheen on her beautiful face and I looked at the shape of her body. I thought that if I had sex with her I would get some kind of terrible disease and die. I was afraid. "Oral," I said. Through a chain-link fence across a stretch of wasteland I could see a man riding a bicycle in circles round a streetlamp. "Can I touch you?" I asked. "Sure you can," she said, "do you want to, er - get it out for me?" I fiddled with my pants and dick in the darkness while she unzipped her top and opened her bra. I reached out and cupped her breasts in my hands while she rolled a condom onto me. She took my dick in her mouth and bobbed her head. I couldn't feel very much. I squeezed her breasts. "Ow!" she said, and her head came up. "Oh god I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't mean to hurt you." She went back to my plastic-coated dick. I put my hand on her head and touched her hair, she made a little movement like to say - no, don't do that. And I came. She sat up and began straightening her clothing. I pulled the condom off and threw it into the pond. She stood up and tried to brush the grass and dirt from her jacket - she seemed unhappy at how messy it was. "Are you going to walk back with me?" she asked. I stood up and looked at her, looked around me; through the park fence I could see the red tail-lights of a car. I couldn't walk with her again, I was too frightened of being seen. I had to get away. "No, I'm going the other way." "O. K then," she said. She held out her hand to me and I had to look at it for a moment before I understood. We shook hands. That was the first time.
"I don't think that I can be your friend if you can't promise me that you'll never do it again." I was having a phone conversation with an old friend of mine called Annalies. I'd told her a few days before about my having bought sex several times in the past year; It hadn't seemed like a big deal to her and I was pleased that I could stop making this part of my life a secret. She'd thought about our conversation she told me. She had realised how upset it had made her and how much her picture of me had been changed by my telling her what I had done. She didn't like the person that I now seemed to her to be. The only way that she could see us staying friends was if I made a promise to her that I would never do it again. I knew that I couldn't promise that. I knew that all the resolutions I could make wouldn't stand for a moment if my life turned back in that direction. About some things I was powerless and no amount of good intentions on my part could do a thing about it. We had many phone conversations in those weeks, me shouting and crying and trying to make her understand, but none of it did any good. She had all the resolve that I seemed to lack and she wanted nothing more to do with me if I couldn't make that promise. I had known her for a decade as a friend and there had been a brief season in that time when we'd been lovers. There was no single person in the world that I felt closer to and I knew that my life would feel bleak and stupid without her. I recognise the world I live in now as having started around that time.
I could say that it all felt like a kind of death and like being in hell, but I'd also have to say that it felt like I was dying from being too much alive; dying because I could see and dying because I could breathe - but those are not the right words. Maybe that's the reason that I put myself in that place time and again, because in that place there are no words, and because it was something that I could never tell anyone about, because it wasn't just some cheap shit to be passed from hand to hand, it felt like being finally alive for the first time ever and everything else before that was like being a dead man.
One day I was alone with my father and I watched him knock a round hole in the thick wall at the back of our house, watched him put a window in that wasn't there before. He put a stained glass window into the hole that he had made; black leaded lines that held small pieces of ruby, emerald and clear crystal glass in a circular, geometric pattern. I might have been five years old - but it's hard to remember. I knew that my mother was in hospital but I don't remember the reason for her being there.