Basingstoke Love Song by Jo Bodley

Grey concrete paving stones, the pitted texture of table tennis bats, carpet the Brutalist architecture of the shopping centre precinct. The smell of chlorine exits through funnels from the underground Sports Centre in the New Town Centre Square.

Emerging blinking into the daylight from the womb-like interior of the afternoon disco, style tribes keep an edgy distance from one another; Punks, Goths, Mods, Casuals, Teds, Greasers, New Romantics. A lot of people defy categorisation; they think they are ‘normal.’

It’s 1979. I’m 17. I live in my head, in books. An eclectic mixture of books, as I have several older sisters who think nothing of leaving Justine by the Marquis De Sade or Colin Wilson’s God of the Labyrinth lying around, for me to peruse at my leisure.

I’m wearing a purple V-neck mohair sweater my mum knitted for me, with nothing on underneath. A black pencil skirt flecked with neon green and purple, and a dark green mod style leather coat with a button missing, both from a jumble sale, complete my outfit. I’m walking through Basingstoke with a very tall youth with short, dirty blond wavy hair, who bears a passing resemblance to Paul Weller, of The Jam fame.

Annabelle from Sixth Form had introduced us. My mother called her a ‘right little madam.’ Her parents had migrated from South Africa. She spoke with a pronounced Afrikaner dialect, when she got excited.

I watched her talk to him as if he was the love of her life, her head cocked to one side, her eyes slowly half closing then flashing open again. I didn’t know how to flirt. I catch and share the amusement in his eyes, the colour of Werther’s originals, and a bolt of electricity shoots through me, he’s so nice looking.

He’s wearing a cricket sweater too big for him, the sleeves cover his hands. That’s OK, because it's cold now that the sun has gone down. We dive into the steamed-up, Mister Munch Coffee Bar in the lower market square by the Bus Station and get two teas. This becomes a regular thing, and others join the penumbra of our burgeoning ‘relationship’; Bron, the drummer in his group (short for Bronwyn, so-called because he’s Welsh); Debra and Fiona, girls in the year below me

Each night I listen under the covers to the John Peel show on my tinny transistor, in order to have ‘material ‘to talk to him about. His favourite band is from Northern Ireland, they refer to themselves as, ‘Stuff Little Fungus.’

He’s the lead singer in a band called The Usuals. We talk about books as well as music; about Thomas Hardy. His obsession with ‘a figure in a landscape.’ Hardy wrote the town into Jude the Obscure; it was called Stoke Barehills. It’s where Jude meets his first wife Arabella, at an Agricultural Show.

Designated a new town in the 1960s, deemed suitable to take the predominantly white flight termed ‘London overspill,’ little remains of the original Hampshire market town, of the Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen used to dance.

He is both funny and clever, but has no plans to go to University; he’s a year older than I am. He talks about getting a job at the AA, its skyscraper headquarters one of the town’s largest employers. Is the music business too uncertain? Are The Usuals not that good?

I am their staunchest advocate, although I’ve never even heard them play. Despite being the instigator of The Usuals graffiti about the town, he seems to lack self-belief. His sister went out with Jean-Jaques Burnel of The Stranglers. She’s a model. We gaze at each other across our teacups. As he stretches out his uber long legs towards me, his bondage trousers give a discreet jangle.

I fancy him like mad, but I don’t really know what that means.

Two weeks later I find out. I’ve gone to the birthday party of a girl I don’t even know in the village on the outskirts of Basingstoke where he lives. There’s a whole group of us, Jane and Charles, Toria and Nick, Debra and Fiona, Paul and Bella, Bron and his girlfriend. Esther and me. We go into the Scout Hut where the party is and I see him there, hovering by the drinks talking to the birthday girl, but he looks different; he looks wrong.

He’s had his head shaved and wears a navy Crombie coat and there is a neatly knotted blue and white striped Chelsea scarf around his neck.

Time was, he’d laugh with me about the Skinheads he and his bandmates used to run from, to keep from being beaten up. With his long legs, he was a swift runner. Maybe they caught up with him, at last? An ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’ kind of thing?

He and the girls are laughing now. I go to the toilet and cry. Dry my eyes, blow my nose. As I go to the drinks table, he grabs hold of me and plunges his tongue down my throat. He lies me back on the table wet with drinks, I can feel the moisture creeping through the back of my top.

’Come with me back to my place,’ he says, slurring his words, pulling me upright and perching me on his knee as easily as if I were a Ventriloquist’s Dummy.

’I can’t,’ I say, ‘my mum would go mad. What about yours?’

‘She won’t mind,’ he says, gulping down another plastic cup of spiked punch.

There is a drunken waltz to the railway station, me supporting him, we are like contestants in a three-legged race.. We get to the platform opposite the one I want to get on. All the friends and acquaintances I came with are there on the platform opposite; Jane and Charles, Toria and Nick, Debra and Fiona, Paul and Bella, Bron and his girlfriend, Esther. It is like having an audience. A jury of my peers?

He drops his trousers and parades his erection, curved, like a scimitar. This is only the second time I have seen one. The first was when a neighbour’s daughter showed me a Dutch sex book, graphic black and white photographs of a couple at different stages of intercourse. I was 9. I ran crying from her house saying, ’My parents would never do that!’

‘Put it in your mouth,’ he says.

‘No,’ I say, and help him to get his zippy trousers back on.

He falls on me and we dry hump, fully clothed. There is the sound of faint applause from the crowd on the other side of the tracks.

We lean against a wall and I hold him in my arms. I gaze down at his face with his eyes closed, the line of his brow, his aquiline nose. It is like being close to a beautiful, feral creature, a deer or a fox; it feels like a privilege.

‘I have to go now,’ I say.

I leave him curled up like a Daddy Long Legs, leaning against the wall, limbs at awkward angles.

Nobody wants to sit next to me, on the train.

I call his number and his mother answers, tells me he is washing his hair. Which I know is a lie, because he doesn’t have any. Eventually we speak on the phone.

‘I never did anything like that before,’ I tell him.

‘Sure you have,’ he replied.

I remind him of vague promises, to meet, to ‘go out’ together.

‘I lied,’ he says, ‘I lie all the time.’

Within a week he was going out with one of the younger girls in our group, Debra.

A self-portrait in pastels on Ingres paper of mine gets featured in an Art Exhibition at the local library. As I approach I see his familiar, lithe bouncing gait moving towards me. He says something complimentary about my art.

I want to spit in his eye, but I smile, and say, ‘thank you.’ I tell him with some self-satisfaction that I have a place on a Foundation course at Winchester school of Art.

Seven years later, I’m passing through Basingstoke, visiting my widower father. We have just missed a train, so we repair to the Railway Tavern behind the station.

I go up to the bar to buy a drink and stand beside a tall, stooped figure with a shock of ringleted hair. A curly perm? We recognise each other.

He says something to me, but it is noisy in the crowded bar.

‘You're a barber?’ I say, ‘you cut hair?’

‘No, I’m a father,’ he says, and goes on to tell me about the teenage traveller girl he impregnated, about their shotgun wedding.

I’m in the clutches of a narcissist in the city, bleeding me dry, yet such is the capacity to lie to oneself that I think that he is the one who is trapped, and I am the one who escaped.

Selected: March Short Story Contest

Published in Issue #28


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