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A Brief History of Regret

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1958

A restaurant, Italian and very red — tablecloths, seat backs, flocked wallpaper on the long walls, swags of plastic fruit beside the archway leading to the kitchen. Purple wine in the centre of the tables. Not over-full, but busy. Jolly. Not the kind of place for epiphanies, if one were given to anything in the revelatory line.

Philip can’t be sure what made his mood change, becoming pensive, slightly melancholy in the bright room. Oliver laughed, then Sylvia, and Oliver poured more wine from the rope-basketed bottle, slopping a little on the rim of Philip’s glass. When he drank it was clear he was tipsy, his tie loosened, throat bare and narrow, wine staining his lips. When he drank Philip felt something — an opening, an inner space. An odd, hollow feeling, like a tooth after the dentist’s had at it. He’s rather drunk himself, it seems, trying to fill himself by staring like a fool, fixating on shapes, on jaws and muscles, hands. On gestures. Eyelashes. Jesus.

He’s drunk with an ache where there shouldn’t be. He thinks he could call it — must call it — desolation. His mind’s run straight to sleeplessness, to endless nights. To Oliver who meets his eyes and knows.

 

1968

Phil doesn’t come here much, tends to hang around the chambers late, have drinks in a pub close by. Articled clerks aren’t exactly flush enough for the West End. But, it’s fascinating watching the people stream down Charing Cross Road. Sylvia, the young court reporter, undoubtably pretty and unexpectedly attentive, he comes out with her on occasion. Her birthday, his big case. She dawdles outside the brightly lit theatre lobbies and watches the tourists, the flower children, the eager young gangsters moving like polished relics of the fifties.

The older people, fashionable still, threes and fours of them with places to go. Like them, on the other side of the road, a woman and man in their forties, emerald dress and dark suit, hand in hand and being towed along by a younger man. He’d be thirty perhaps, flowing golden hair and a sky blue suit, his arm looped through the thinner man’s elbow. When he laughs, it’s from his core, broad and carrying. The woman shrieks at him, Harry, she calls him. Harry pushes them to the left and the others propel him right, so they weave tipsily, fondly down the footpath. The man rests his head on Harry’s shoulder, briefly. He watches Phil observing them and doesn’t make to lift his head or drop his arm. Their eyes hold for several seconds and it makes Phil feel odd. Conspicuous. Alone, when he doesn’t notice being alone in crowds, not before now.

Still, there’s something else. A curious kind of recognition that makes no sense, really. After all, it is okay these days. Well, not proper, but people do, nowadays. They can now. It shouldn’t make him feel this thing, this sudden, butterfly-winged surprise.

 

1958

A vacant flat. He’s an afternoon free and a flat he can’t get off his hands. Oliver’s not in the market, they both know that. It took him a second or two to catch his breath when Philip called him and in the pause after the invitation Philip could imagine his face, a small smile starting a light in his eyes. His acceptance was clear, surprised. And here they are.

“Here we are,“ says Oliver, sounding like an impersonation of an estate agent. He turns a circle in the empty room then shoves his hands in his coat pockets, grinning. Philip traces his fingers through the dust on the windowsill behind his back. He feels nervous, out of sorts. He feels ready to give Oliver the tour, brazen it out and leave.

Oliver’s off, opening a door with Aha! He spins around and Philip can’t mistake him.

“The master bedroom.” His hands do a vaudeville flourish. “Spacious.” There’s his eyebrow, haughty, conspiratorial. “Private.” He lingers in the doorway then vanishes.

“Oh.” He’s muffled now. “It’s empty.”

Philip’s in the doorway, no idea what he’s doing, voice light, delirious. “Really?” Ridiculous and God. Oh God.

Oliver nods, a hand out for Philip, his breath coming oddly, like he’s lost the power of speech and Philip goes to him. It’s a rush. All a rush and when Oliver’s head bangs the wall and Philip starts a torrent of apology, Oliver laughs. He reaches his hand up and cups Philip’s head as if to soothe a bump, lifts his face for Philip to kiss and it was simple. Simple as that.

 

1978

Syl is the first thing you notice when you descend the break-neck stairs to Insomnia Records and get your eyes used to the gloom. She’s twenty-two and looks like she’s lived her whole life in Soho, most recent address: Insomnia or the caff across the street. You’ll be invited to a play, no doubt. It was something by Brecht the first time Phil went. Or partly by Brecht. The theatre was downstairs from a sex shop and he wondered if they supplied the sets and costumes, too. He remembers black paint and white sheets on the floor, blood coloured goop flung about and a beautiful young black man who took off all his clothes.

Syl wears the boots everywhere, the ones she wore in that performance. Black, military and clunking. She makes the floors rattle. Somehow she maintains a sideline in shop-lifting. God knows how. Phil thinks she takes advantage of people trying not to stare.

Because good, lower middle class boys are brought up not to stare and when Syl clumps down the stairs one day, while Phil’s flipping through the US Import rack, he swears he’s going to kill her. There’s a tall, pale guy with her, in tight jeans and a black t-shirt. Earrings, cigarette, messy hair — punkish but he’s a hold-out, still wearing eyeshadow like Bowie, shimmering red.

He’ll find out later he’s a playwright, avant-garde, bisexual, brilliant. A little twitchy, a little open and years from now Phil will curse the both of them for that. But now, he simply stares. Perhaps he goes slack-jawed, he really may as well have. Hopeless.

But Syl’s a force to be reckoned with and Olly will be introduced. Phil doesn’t know for months what captivated Olly. Perhaps his taste in New York punk bands, the zine he runs, or his arms, he has good arms. If he’s cynical, he’d say Syl knows he has a job —

Olly, already awake and standing by the window, smoking when Phil stirs, one morning months later. Olly turns and sees him looking. He points at Phil, two fingers and cigarette, he's trying his hand at directing now, so he points and says, “Yes! That. The way you look sometimes, as if you’re looking at a ghost.” He holds a hand up, dramatic, certain. “The way you’ve seen a ghost and it’s fine. You’re happy.

 

1958

The house is overrun now. With Bellyfinches, yes, along with other things. On the landing, a Bellyfinch’s chest swells. His antlers quiver. He knows he’ll meet one of his fellows and they'll each step sideways in a watchful curve, step forwards, backwards, then rush and clash like branches in a storm. Something stirs and sends him clattering down the stairs, scoring the wallpaper, kicking the sideboard and rattling the china as he pelts for the dark.

Over in Maida Vale, Oliver’s writing a novel, now. The absolute worst sort of novel he says, and he grins like he shrugs. No Bellyfinches, Philip supposes. No secret jungles, of course.

The sofa’s not easy to sleep on, unless he’s been drinking and even then it takes the merest thing to wake him. It must have been her footsteps. The lamp in the hallway has her in shadow and she says, “You talk, you know.”

Philip makes a speculative noise and turns his head. He may still be drunk. He blinks.

Sylvia runs her fingers along the door frame, as if she’s checking for cracks. She’s sleepy, turning to go. “In your sleep.”

 

1988

Philip knows him by sight, the youth worker who comes to plead his case with his local M.P. every other month. Philip’s a junior aide, paperwork and dogsbody and no use to the earnest young man with his pressed checked shirt tucked into his black jeans, his polished Docs. Philip can’t change the system. He’s a cog and he wondered if Oliver ever noticed he was there. (Oliver! He’d been calling him Billy in his mind until he discovered his real name — the clothes, the earnestness, the mousy, utilitarian hair — but Oliver, it’s perfect. Philip imagines him in the office, serious and persistent. Nodding gravely, biting his lip. Please. We need more.)

So, it was out of nowhere that he leaned on Philip’s desk after one of his regular petitions and asked him if he wanted a dog. Philip gaped and Oliver nodded at the framed photo beside his word processor. A greying miniature schnauzer. Brunhilda.

No. Brunhilda. Really?”

“Yes.” There’s mirth in Oliver’s eyes and Philip grins before turning wistful, before not turning muffled and chokey, not now. “It’s been five months.”

“I’m sorry.” He is. Oh.

“You see,” Oliver continues, “My flatmate has come into some beagles. Um. About twenty of them all told, but we’re housing seven now. Puppies, three and four months old, gorgeous wee things.”

Philip makes a gentle, approving noise. He can’t help himself in the face of this awkward glee.

“Hardy, loyal, friendly to a fault.” Oliver’s like a salesman, now. He’s a good one. “Wolf down any toxic waste that’s put in front of them, poor beggars. Sylvia’s mob liberated them and now I’m out-numbered.” He leans in, rueful and tender. Philip finds it an appealing combination.

“Come over and meet them? And Sylvia, of course. She’ll even put on her best boiler-suit for company.” When he writes his address and number on Philip’s blotter he leans close, takes the pen right out of Philip’s hand and when he’s finished he puts it gently back. His fingers are dry and warm. “There,” he says, a faint flush rising on his temples, and he leaves in a sudden rush.

 

1958

He stands in the living room, paces in front of the drink cabinet.

He doesn’t sit, not if he can help it, not there. He’s noted to have no interest in interior decorating, so he daren’t push for a new suite.

Once, Sylvia away at her mother’s, himself driven back from the pub by — let’s say rain, let’s say headache. Not the chance resemblance people sometimes have when they’re facing away, barely in profile, just shape and mannerism. Not the splitting point between memory and ghost.

Well, once, Philip slumped forwards, face in the seat, soaked with tears, shaking and thinking he’d still be there tomorrow, with Sylvia edging through the front door, leading with a hip, laden with bags. Still there, immobile with shame.

 

1998

Philip meets Ollie at Pride. He’s wearing glitter and wings and a pair of neon green plastic pumps. Tiny purple shorts and platinum blond hair, cropped in the manner of a man who’ll be shaving his head in a couple more years. High forehead, widow’s peak, but still those large, clear eyes. Long-limbed. Energetic. Concerned. Of course he works with the dying.

Philip spends the day and the night, the next day, too, unravelling him. He’s fascinating. He wants to travel. He loves small animals, craves well-bred, expensive dogs. Lives with his sister. He’s working on convincing her she doesn’t have allergies. He doesn’t work out, he’s skinny. Slender. He dances, though he isn’t all that good. He has four kinds of coffee beans in his cupboard and wants to believe that health food will save him. He believes in missing nothing, in staying up and out all night. He says that anything could happen, you never know. He believes as much as one can in safe sex.

He works at the Royal Free. Yes, he’s held many, many hands and there’s a change, a moment even though scientifically it’s a process, you know, a three or four minute grey area as far as oxygen and everything goes, so it shouldn’t be instantaneous — but you do know. You just —

There’s something.

 

1958

Philip walks past neat, quiet terraces on his way to therapy. He walks back unchanged, he suspects, but for the raw bitten nub inside his cheek. Unchanged, with a faint wash of blood.

He walks past the park in drizzle and thinks he can hear deviants scuttling in the shrubbery. Or foxes. Either or both. Everywhere, these days.

He walks home to a damp, chilly flat with a greedy gas meter. There’s always a globe out, or nearly out. He undresses to the eerie fuzz of street lamps through the drapes, climbs between the sheets with an insomniac crackle starting in his head. He often gets up to nurse a Scotch through the night, staring at the door for want of something to do. Remembering a soft knocking and Oliver, drenched, bird-shouldered, all the odds against him, even Philip against him in the end and still the spark of hope he held.

 

2007

It starts the morning after the party, the wanting to photograph Oliver. The creases around his eyes and the creases on the pillow. Stood before a hotel window, wrapped in a sheet like a diva. A blurred shot in a club, Oliver offering the camera a cocktail. Just after that one, his hand veered past the lens and he held the drink in Philip's face until he had to set the camera aside and swallow.

Oliver’s mouth wasn’t in that picture, but he’ll never forget it. He talks scandal like nobody Philip knows, like he’s sipping it rapidly from a frilly-brollied glass, cheeks bright, lippy like there’s a fat straw and fruit, eyes full of tropical gleam. He talks loud, hooks his audience then shifts pitch, low and glamorous, reeling them in.

Philip wants to catch him like that, freeze him in a frame full of life, if he could. He used to, quietly, think he was good, but at this, he’s effing useless.

 

2015

Sheet music spills down the steps of Victoria Station and Philip stops too late, a folder creased under his trainer. Looking down at him is a boy with gentle eyes and an untenable haircut — cartoon twist and flop in front, shaved at the sides. Skinny legs and an awkward instrument case, not a fiddle, Philip can tell that. He stoops and starts gathering papers, and after a couple of steps' worth they meet, both fumbling for the same page. Philip waves his hand at the boy’s person, asks him what he plays.

He plays horn, and Philip, being a tosser, being a god-forsaken pillock looks straight at his lips. He looks away at once, catching the start of an eye-roll in his periphery as he smooths the pages he’s collected. He can feel Sylvia and the horn player in silent, animated confab over his head. His neck itches and he’s wearing the firm’s London Marathon shirt.

Eventually he has to get up, straighten the pages and offer them to their owner, pull them back to smooth some edges before giving them back. He coughs. Sylvia stands sharply on his toes.

“Sorry,” Philip says. “You’re not running late, are you?”

The other fucker keeps a straight face, except for his eyes. Sylvia leans into his space, all sympathy and in on it now, clearly. “Of course you are,” says Philip.

He shakes his head, says that no, and really, he rushes everywhere. He talks fast, brushes his elliptical mop of hair from his eyes. “It’s a terrible habit.”

“Oh, Philip has terrible habits, too. Atrocious,” Sylvia says with enthusiasm.

He grins, sly, contagious. “Oh, I bet he does.”

“If you’re not late? Not busy?” He’s not sure why he’s doing this, it’s an alignment of terrible influences. He’s doing his best ironically-awkward and it seems to be working, it gets him a No, not busy, yet, said with a raised eyebrow, a smothered smirk.

“Great,” says Sylvia, “Wonderful. I need a drink.”

She snares a hand each and tows them up the stairs, so they nearly topple when after several steps, the horn player stops dead and says, aghast, “Oh, God, I’m so rude. It’s Oliver.” He’s blushing, looking terribly old-fashioned for someone with his hair. It’s rather sweet. Philip lets the hand he’d held out for balance settle on his shoulder and shakes his head, okay.

Oliver smiles at him. For him, it seems. “I thought you knew.”