Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 12

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from or

The electric tea kettle rattled and hissed, then shut itself off with a click. I opened my eyes and saw Claire sitting at my desk, reading. I rolled to my side and silently watched her make two cups of tea as the sleep ebbed from my brain.

"It's hot," she said, extending a steaming mug of tea.

I sat up in bed, leaned against the wall and sipped my tea. It was sweet and seemed to lift the weight from my eyelids. Somehow every cup of tea she made was perfect. She opened the window and the morning air was cool on my bare skin. My muscles ached. I warmed my hands on the tea mug and felt the warmth of its steam on my face. I took in a deep breath and looked up at her.

"Thank you, Claire, for making me tea," Claire said.
"Thank you, Claire, for making me tea," I said.
"You're welcome, darling. Now thank me for this."

She handed me a small white paper bag with "Southsea Bakery" written on it in red letters. Inside was a piece of carrot cake -- quite possibly the best carrot cake made on the planet.

"Superb! Thank you."
"Does it rock?" she asked, smiling.

I had only once used the overly American exclamation, "This rocks!" around her, but she had teased me about it ever since.

"Yes, Claire. It rocks. It rocks hard."

She giggled in her soft, wonderful way. It was more like a hum -- "Hmm, hmm" -- that was light and beautiful and made you feel good when you earned it. This was how our life had been for the past few months.


After the Christmas holiday, Claire and I had been talking and drinking Bombay Sapphire in my room one night when suddenly my arms were around her, then we were kissing, then I was taking off her clothes, then we were having sex -- incredibly good sex, with her on top, and me (after years of highly orchestrated frustration with Allison) able to satisfy a woman simply by being there. I needed only to lie back and enjoy the show.

She slept in my room that night -- the two of us cramped onto a twin-size student bed -- and we had sex in the morning. It, too, was incredibly good. We had incredibly good sex yet again that night. We had a lot of sex -- all of it incredibly good -- and within a few weeks I was using more delicate phrases like, "making love." But Claire was always honest.

"Fancy a shag?" she would ask.

Soon, she had the key to my room. She would come up to escape her drum-and-bass-music-loving next-door neighbor and do her studying at my desk.

She was beautiful, and I loved to stare at her while she read. She would chew on her pen and twist strands of her sandy blonde hair as she thought, then attack her notes; scribbling with a sort of madness that seemed desperate to get down every thought before it escaped. She was left-handed and wrote by grasping the pen in her fist, yet her handwriting was the flowery sort girls develop for themselves when they are 14 years old.

I would sit on my bed and pretend to read, but she knew I was staring at her. She would at first toy with me, not making eye contact. She liked to torture me by playing with her hair and running her fingers across her lips. I'd look at my book, read about three words, look up at her, shift, cough, stare some more and repeat the process a dozen times. Finally, she would set down her book and acknowledge my staring, and I would kiss her and we would make love. Or, shag.

Afterward, she would press her body against mine and fall asleep with her head on my chest. I would run my fingers through her hair, touch her neck, kiss the top of her head and hold her close to me until I fell into a happy deep sleep. I never shook in my sleep or dreamt about fighting as I always had and sometimes still do -- and my heart felt full.

In the mornings, if one of us didn't have to go to lectures, she would make tea. Sometimes the two of us would make a full breakfast together or walk down to a bakery for some pastries.

Claire was wonderful to me in all ways, and I did my best to be unquestioning. It seemed the only condition of our relationship was that we not discuss it. I had only once brought up the subject. It was in early February and I was trying to determine what she wanted for Valentine's Day. We were lying in bed and I was kissing the fingertips of her right hand.

"This is nice," I said. "Whatever 'this' is."

She patted me on the jaw in a playful slap and said something that at the time I found to be so profound I wrote it down: "Definition ultimately leads to clarification. Clarification ultimately leads to redefinition."

I bought her a teddy bear, anyway.


"You'll want to finish up," Claire said, pointing to my tea. "I'll need you to take me to Tescos."
"It's 8 in the morning. I was out late."
"Yes. I know, I came 'round at about 11 and you were still out -- jumping off piers, apparently. Why were your clothes wet?"
"Andrew was whacked out on drugs or something. We ended up chasing him into the water."

And I told her the whole story of Andrew's misadventure and his nakedness and how when we returned to the pub where Andrew had stripped down, his clothes were nowhere to be found. So we wrapped him in Jared's enormous flannel shirt, making him look like a child in his father's work clothes. And we had to walk 30 minutes home because no taxi would take four soaking wet guys, one of whom was naked but for a flannel shirt.

"Andrew is the ugly one, yeah?" Claire asked.

I gave a quick snort and nodded slightly as I took another sip of tea.    

"I don't like him," she said. "He's a bit funny, you know? His eyes are set back in his head and he just sort of stares at people. You know what I'd do if he got near me? I'd rip off his ear. No, really. My uncle was in Royal Marines -- he says you can just grab hold of a man's ear and fall to the ground, and it'll pop right off. That's what I'd do to your dodgy friend."
"He's alright. You've only met him once."
"It was enough," she said, smiling now. "I should have your ear, too, for going into the sea. Your clothes smelled awful when I came in this morning. I should have thrown them out."

Instead, she had washed them, as she did with all my other clothes. Sex, tea, and free laundry service; she was quite a catch. But it unnerved me that she had taken to washing my clothes. It made me feel like one of those psychologically abusive husbands you would see on "Oprah" before she decided to focus exclusively on diets and celebrities.

I've never understood how Oprah got those guys to be on her show. If you're male and your wife wants you to go on Oprah with her, things are not going to go well for you. Don't do it. But I could just see myself somehow being dumb enough to show up, and sitting in front of an angry studio audience, getting verbally torn into by Oprah. Then I would be like all those stupid men and offer up weak arguments in my defense: she likes doing my laundry, it gives her a sense of purpose; the Lord Our God commands that women do my laundry.

"You just don't understand," I would say. "This is just the way English girls are. The way men and women deal with each other -- their understanding about each other's place in society --- is just a little different than in the United States. It doesn't mean that Claire isn't quick or intelligent. This is just the way she is. She also won't go to the shops alone most of the time. It can be noon on Saturday, but she won't go to city centre by herself."

"I don't understand?" Oprah would say, raising an eyebrow.

Then, having insulted Oprah, I would spend the rest of my life being spat upon by every woman I encountered.

It would have been useless to tell Oprah that Claire was doing my laundry against my will. Claire collected my clothes while I was in lectures and would have them clean and fresh-smelling upon my return. She even pressed my shirts. Once, in an attempt to convince her to stop, I created a set of specific instructions for the way my clothes had to be folded, my trousers hung, and my shirts pressed. But she simply acquiesced to these methods, making me feel even worse.

It's quite possible that I spent far too much time thinking about laundry.

It's also possible that I simply didn't see the hook of the thing.

"Why is it," I asked from the shower, "that you will go down to the bakery on your own, but you have to wake me up to go to Tesco with you?"
"Carrot cake weighs less than my shopping."

Claire was sitting on my bed, reading, when I got out of the shower. She had put on fresh sheets -- the slightly sea-smelling sheets of the night before now piled in a corner. She wore a pair of comfortable old blue jeans, a white cotton blouse that tied together at the top, and a red button-up sweater. She had a number of handmade bracelets on each wrist and a bead necklace. She made cheap, old clothes look sexy. Her hair hung down a little past her shoulders and frizzed out in cute, bouncy curls. She rarely wore makeup -- her face was clean, athletic and naturally beautiful.

She swam every day -- sometimes more if she was stressed -- and her body was a testament to the benefits of regular exercise. Her muscles were toned, and the bead necklace seemed to highlight the strength of her neck. When I say she had a strong neck, it makes her sound like a Hungarian weightlifter -- that's wrong. She was small, about 5-foot-5, and I envisioned her gliding through the water, otter-like, with unmatchable speed. On land, she moved with a sort of fluid grace that I figured came from swimming.

She was sat with her right elbow resting on her knee as she read. She held the book in her left hand while her other hand played with her hair. She looked like that first picture in a Playboy photo shoot: the picture that sets the tone. Most of the time, the girls in those shoots are in a barn. Barns are apparently great places to get naked.

I could have spent all day looking at her.

"Stop staring at me," Claire said without looking up from her book. "I've got more planned than just a trip to Tescos; you need to get dressed. I'm going to buy you lunch. I'm going to miss your birthday tomorrow, so we're going to celebrate it today before I have to make my train."

Claire was from Bournemouth and went home every weekend. I decided not to tell her that my birthday had, in fact, been the weekend before. In her absence, I had gotten very drunk and thought about Allison for the first time in almost two months. I cried so hard, sitting in a heap and leaned up against a lamp post a few hundred feet from a chipper van at 3 a.m., that a number of fellow drunken lads sat down to console me.

One of them was named Alan. He had a shaved head, a tattoo of the Portsmouth Football Club crest on his left forearm, and a long scar on his right cheek that had come from being "glassed" -- having a broken pint glass shoved in his face during a fight. He was missing his upper right incisor and canine teeth. His voice had been turned to gravel by years of beer, cigarettes and shouting at soccer matches. He put his arm around me and shared one of his cans of Tesco lager. He had three kids by three different women, he explained, so he knew and understood the opposite sex.

"This bird, she's of no use to you, mate," Alan said. "She's not worth this. You've got to sort yourself out."

I think that's what I had been doing. I was finally letting go of Allison -- feeling her piece of me finally die away.

In every relationship, that other person holds a piece of you -- a sort of timeshare in your soul -- that exists solely for them. When that relationship ends, you have to let the part that once belonged to someone else die away, so new relationships can grow there. Allison had held a large stake of me. Without her, though, that part of me was useless. That vast, empty, unused plot of soul tormented the other parts. It was an emotional brownfield.

I had been afraid to let it go. I had tried to block it all out and pretend that it wasn't there, that it never had been there. I wanted to believe that if I ignored Allison's piece of me it would somehow cease to have ever existed. But it was there. And by trying to look away, I kept myself chained to it for months. I nurtured it and tried to drag it along all the way to my birthday, when something clicked and let me know that I had to finally admit it was over. Some people might have done such a thing quietly, possibly sitting in front of a journal and pouring their heart onto a page, or staring thoughtfully at a sunset after a long walk. I chose to get very drunk and find solace in the sturdy but surprisingly tender embrace of a Portsmouth soccer hooligan.


"Last night Emma and I went into that Firkin pub you sometimes go to," Claire said.

We were walking back from Tesco now. I was carrying all the shopping while Claire shouldered the burden of a chocolate bar.

"It was full of Chinese people," I said, finishing her sentence.
"Yes. That was sort of odd."
"Thursday night is their night to go out. I think I may be to blame."

I told her of how Anne and Tony had brought me soup when I was ill during the Christmas holiday. When I got back from Paris the second time, I insisted upon taking them to the pub. They became exceedingly happy and unintelligible after just two drinks, and eventually gave up on English altogether, leaving me to smile politely and play with a matchbook.

Ever since then, I had noticed an increasingly large contingent of Chinese/Hong Kong students -- Anne and Tony among them -- making the Fleet and Firkin their Thursday local. I would like to think the tradition persists to this day. What better legacy than to be the guy who introduced Chinese students to English culture?

Claire laughed out loud.

"Sweet Benjamin -- doing his part to improve race relations in Britain," she said, swinging her arm around mine.

That was new.

One of the unspoken rules of our happy, undefined relationship was that we pretended it did not exist when we were outside the tiny worlds of our rooms. Now, still with her arm around mine, Claire violated the rule even further and pulled me close to her.

"Fancy a shag?"
"I thought you were going to buy me lunch."

I'm romantic like that: a woman asks me if I want to have sex, and my immediate response is to worry about the loss of a free lunch.

"One can do both, you know. We can shag and then have lunch. Come on, I'm up for it. Get going."

Those last words were whispered in a soft purr. They danced in my ear and sent shivers down my back. She tickled my ribs and teased me all the way back to halls, where we didn't so much as put away her shopping as throw it at the shelves and refrigerator. Then I picked her up and carried her to her room, where we had incredibly good sex.


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