The last summer of the w.., p.12
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.12

           Tim Lott
 
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  Inside, Strawberry moved towards the stage, still limply holding my hand. Just before we reached it, she turned towards the stall selling Shrew magazine.

  ‘Hey, Vanya, could you look after the boy for a few minutes? If you can bear that much testosterone messing with your oestrogen.’

  Vanya was taking some change in return for one of the magazines. She didn’t look up.

  ‘“The boy”?’

  ‘Adam. He’s staying with Henry down at the boat. His nephew.’

  Now she threw me a glance.

  ‘Makes no difference to me.’

  ‘Great. Listen, you coming down to Troy’s later?’

  ‘I might drop by. Yeah.’

  Strawberry let go of my hand, and Vanya beckoned me behind her table. Strawberry mounted the stage and picked up her guitar. I sat on a single upright chair to Vanya’s left.

  Strawberry hit the first few chords of a song that I recognized as ‘Freedom’ by Richie Havens.

  Vanya handed me a copy of Shrew.

  ‘Here. Educate yourself.’

  I took the magazine and started to flick through it. It was badly printed, and contained headlines like END HUMAN SACRIFICE – DON’T GET MARRIED, WOMEN’S MOVEMENT AT THE CROSSROADS, THE NEW WAR AGAINST WOMEN.

  Strawberry was getting carried away with ‘Freedom’, her voice cracking again.

  Vanya sat down next to me. She smiled. She had a certain odd, contradictory atmosphere to her – an earth-mothery aura of concern and indiscriminate warmth mixed with an undertow of thoroughgoing, scattergun resentment.

  ‘So what do you think of it?’

  ‘Um.’

  ‘You can be honest.’

  ‘Everyone seems kind of pissed off.’

  ‘Do you know much about the women’s liberation movement?’

  ‘Not really.’

  ‘Any of the articles in there catch your attention?’

  ‘One of them said that all men were rapists.’

  ‘Who knows what’s buried in the hearts of men?’

  ‘Even so. All of them?’

  ‘Not every article reflects the views of the management.’

  ‘Is that you?’

  ‘I’m part of the collective. Would you like a cup of tea or something?’

  ‘No thanks.’

  ‘Biscuit?’

  ‘No thanks.’

  ‘Do you masturbate?’

  I stared at the floor and picked at my fingernail with my front teeth. I hoped I wasn’t blushing too obviously.

  ‘Of course you masturbate. You’re a . . . what? Fifteen-year-old boy?’

  ‘Seventeen.’

  ‘What do you think about when you masturbate?’

  ‘I . . .’

  ‘Don’t worry. I’m all in favour of masturbation. It’s universal. I’m just asking what you masturbate to.’

  ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ I muttered into a space somewhere in front of my chest.

  ‘Then why won’t you tell me?’

  ‘Women.’

  ‘What kind of women?’

  ‘Ones without any clothes on.’

  At that moment Strawberry appeared, clutching her guitar. I hadn’t even noticed her stop singing, but I became aware of the faint after-smattering of applause.

  Vanya looked up and smiled innocently, as if we had been discussing gardening or cake recipes.

  ‘You’re talented, Straws.’

  ‘Have you been giving the boy a hard time?’

  Vanya gave me a soft look.

  ‘I’ve been yanking his chain a little. Makes a change from him yanking his own.’ She prodded my arm playfully with her index finger. ‘Have I been giving you a hard time, Adam?’

  I shook my head.

  ‘He’s a bit shy, isn’t he?’

  ‘He has hidden depths, I’m sure. Listen, Troy and I are setting off now. Come on, Adam. See you at the square, Van.’

  ‘You know, you should make some recordings or something. Wasn’t Troy going to make some introductions? He’s connected, isn’t he?’

  ‘He says he is. But then, he says a lot of stuff.’

  Troy appeared behind the stall, lugging a box of crystals.

  ‘I say a lot of stuff? About what?’

  ‘Whatever you say stuff about. I mean, you’re not short of opinions,’ said Strawberry.

  ‘He’s a bullshitter,’ said Vanya, throwing a rolled-up scrap of paper at his head, which bounced, like a pebble on a trampoline, off the halo of his hair. ‘Olympic-standard.’

  ‘Get knotted, you old dyke,’ said Troy affectionately. ‘You coming with?’

  ‘I’ll be there later, I guess. And I’m not a dyke, you fairy.’

  ‘See you later, Van. Sorry there won’t be any muff-hunting. Only Pattern and Adam.’

  ‘And Strawberry,’ said Vanya.

  ‘You ain’t going to get Strawberry munching at the Axminster, dear. She’s entirely post-sexual.’

  Twelve

  Troy’s home was a one-bedroom flat in a Regency square, with a very large front room – maybe twenty-five feet long and nearly that much across – put together beautifully. Every single object – statuettes, vases, clocks, gongs and chimes – seemed to be in precisely the right place. There were abstract oil paintings on the wall, one of them just uninterrupted brown covering the canvas from corner to corner. The floors were plain varnished boards, which in those days was radical. There were rich, dark-patterned rugs that smelled of citrus fruit. There was no television, neither was there an overhead light suspended from the plaster ceiling rose. Evening sun was coming through the high windows that overlooked the square. The sashes were open, admitting a mild breeze into the room.

  There were two immense three-seater sofas – one red, one dark blue – both upholstered in velvet plush and decorated with vividly embroidered scatter cushions. There was a coffee table with intricately carved legs that, Troy informed us, had recently arrived from Kashmir, and a hanging on the wall dyed in a pattern that showed white roses against a pink background. There were a couple of dining chairs, and a few large cushions on the floor.

  I had been there for about an hour, and was slowly beginning to unbend. The conversations at the Fayre had left me uncomfortable. These were clearly people who didn’t mind saying what they felt, and this was the opposite of the convention in Yiewsley. Being asked whether or not I masturbated was bad enough, but the fact that Troy was unashamedly homosexual discomfited me even more. My experience of gay people came entirely from the television – Larry Grayson or John Inman. Troy was nothing like this stereotype. He was powerfully built, with a six o’clock shadow on his garden-trowel chin and muscles that rippled through his T-shirt. Although he did occasionally lapse into rather arch forms of speech – describing himself sometimes in the feminine – there was nothing particularly mincing or camp about him.

  I was loafing on one of the floor cushions, sipping on a glass of not very well chilled white wine. Strawberry was reading Troy’s palm on one of the sofas, while Pattern and Vanya were arguing animatedly on the other. Pattern was starting to raise his voice. Vanya got up with a look of distaste on her face and walked over to me. She carried a half-drunk bottle of wine with her.

  ‘How you doing, boy?’ She lowered herself down on to a cushion beside me.

  ‘As soon as you start losing the argument you just walk away, don’t you, Vanya?’ Pattern snapped from the sofa.

  ‘That’s not why I’m walking away, Pattern. I’m walking away because I’m bored with your rantings and because I’ve decided that Adam has been ignored quite long enough. He’s come all the way from – where is it?’

  ‘Yiewsley.’

  ‘Yiewsley. Wherever that is. And hardly anyone has talked to him since he’s arrived.’

  ‘I’m OK,’ I mumbled.

  ‘Funny that you were overcome with empathy at the exact moment that you couldn’t sustain your point any more. So you walked away. It’s what you do,’ said Pattern.

 
Oh, how female of her,’ said Troy drily, without looking up from his palm, where Strawberry was tracing a line with her finger.

  ‘You said it,’ said Pattern.

  ‘What do you know about females, Pattern?’ said Vanya. ‘You’ve only had one girlfriend since you were fifteen.’

  ‘Therefore. I know the mindset.’

  ‘On a sample size of one.’

  Vanya turned her attention to me.

  ‘Do you find me attractive, Adam?’

  ‘Am I allowed to?’

  ‘I’m not really a lesbian, you know. Troy is just using his sledgehammer wit.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘I’m not flirting with you either. You’re still a kid.’

  ‘Everyone keeps saying that. Like being a bit younger than everyone else makes me some kind of simpleton.’

  ‘I didn’t mean that.’

  ‘I’m not bothered.’

  ‘I’m sorry about that interrogation earlier about your personal habits. I was bored and cranky. I get like that when I’ve got nothing else to do. It was rude of me. I had no right.’

  ‘It’s OK.’

  Troy got up from the sofa.

  ‘I’m going to have a VERY long life,’ he announced.

  He put a record on his state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen stereo. The Stooges.

  Pattern sat smoking on the sofa, twitching his leg up and down, agitated.

  Vanya leaned over and spoke, quite loudly over the music, into my ear. ‘What do you think of Strawberry?’

  ‘I’ve never met anyone like her. In fact . . .’

  ‘I can’t hear you.’

  ‘I said I’ve never met anyone like Strawberry. I’ve never met anyone like the rest of you, either. I’m not used to people like you.’

  ‘How so?’

  I tried to work it out.

  ‘None of you seem ashamed.’

  ‘Why should we be ashamed?’

  ‘No reason. But people act like they are.’

  ‘Do you? Feel ashamed?’

  I wanted to say, ‘All the time.’ Instead I shrugged.

  ‘Do we make you uncomfortable?’

  ‘A bit. But it’s sort of interesting.’

  Vanya took a packet marked MAHAWATT out of her pocket and extracted a long, thin, black cigarette. She lit it and blew a cloud of smoke in my direction. It had the faint tang of liquorice. She blew another cloud in the direction of Straw berry.

  ‘I get worried about her.’

  ‘She seems a little undernourished,’ I said.

  Vanya nodded. ‘No shit. And that’s just her body. No part of her seems to be able to receive nourishment. She’s like a clam. All closed up and chilly and salty inside.’

  ‘She seems friendly enough.’

  ‘Friendly has nothing to do with it.’

  ‘Maybe that’s the way she is because she’s American.’

  ‘Yeah, they’re friendly folk,’ called Pattern from the sofa. ‘Ask the Viet Cong.’

  ‘Keep your nose out of it, Pattern.’

  ‘What part of America does Troy come from?’ I said.

  Vanya laughed. ‘Troy? He’s not American.’

  ‘Canada then.’

  ‘He’s from Stoke-on-Trent. And his name isn’t Troy. It’s Jonathan. Jonathan Swindles.’

  ‘Jonathan Swindles?’

  ‘Perfect, isn’t it? Dickens himself, et cetera.’

  ‘I would never have guessed.’

  ‘He talks the talk, I’ll give you that. He has quite the spiel. Strawberry says you couldn’t tell. But he worked as a local-radio DJ for a while. In Stafford, I think. It was the thing to have an American accent. So Jonathan got himself one. And then got himself an American name too. Very resourceful fag. It helps sell those silly rocks.’

  ‘But Strawberry is American, right?’

  ‘Oh yeah. Born right there in Loopyland on the West Coast.’

  Vanya took another sip of the wine. She suddenly seemed angry.

  ‘Do you know what happened to her? Do you know what they did to her?’

  The conversation, as so often since I had arrived, was taking a turn that was too grown-up, too far out of my field of experience. I stayed silent. There was a small fleck of spittle on Vanya’s lip. Her eyes looked wild.

  ‘Well? Do you know?’

  I said I didn’t.

  Vanya’s eyes looked bleary. It occurred to me that she was quite seriously drunk.

  ‘It was a real thing what they did to her. Really something. I don’t know. What the fuck is wrong with people?’

  Just then Pattern flopped down on the floor between us.

  ‘What I’m saying is, Vanya – what I was trying to say – is that class is the fundamental lodestone, the most significant indicator of power. How the man on the hill maintains hegemonic—’

  ‘“The man”. Look, Pattern. I don’t wish to be rude. Well, I do, actually. Just leave us alone, will you?’

  ‘It’s capital, Vanya. You’re being naive. It’s money. It’s always money.’

  ‘People who think it’s always money are always overly interested in money themselves. You’re pissed off because you’re poor.’

  ‘You’re trivial. You’re playing your games fighting against housework and ironing while Indochina is burning. We sit and do nothing. You’re guilty.’

  ‘So are you, then.’

  ‘We all are.’

  ‘What am I responsible for specifically, other than not catching the next plane out to Saigon with my trusty cutlass?’

  ‘Apathy and smugness. You’re smug because your daddy left you a pile when he checked out, and your husband has a paying job. Which is more than you do.’

  ‘You’re married?’ I said, trying to defuse what was threatening to turn into a serious breach of the good feeling in the room.

  ‘Why shouldn’t I be?’ said Vanya.

  ‘She married a plumber.’ Pattern. ‘It was a political decision. Otherwise known as slumming it.’

  ‘I happen to love Tony.’

  ‘When he’s not down the pub or at the footie.’

  ‘There are cultural differences.’

  ‘Like him knocking you about.’

  ‘I told you, I walked into a double-glazed French door. Talking of political decisions, I heard that you and Moo decided not to go ahead with the kid.’

  ‘Yeah. It was one of those things.’

  ‘Moo was on board?’

  ‘More or less. I figured we shouldn’t be going around having kids if both us aren’t completely into it.’

  ‘You figured. Pattern, no couple are ever both completely into it, or anything else. You’ve just got to take the plunge and hope for the best.’

  ‘What would you know about it, Van?’

  Vanya’s eyes clouded.

  ‘We’ve tried.’

  The music suddenly cut off. Strawberry, who was drinking soda water with lemon in it, stood up.

  ‘Come on – let’s dance! The frug. You know? The mashed potato. The boogaloo!’ The Stooges were powering into their anthem of disenchantment, ‘1969’.

  Nobody moved, but Strawberry launched into a frenzied series of movements that resembled less dancing, more an epileptic fit. Her arms and legs were all angles. There was no fluidity to it. If it expressed anything at all, it wasn’t music, but confusion and anger.

  After a few seconds, she toppled over on to the floor. She started laughing – not a healthy laugh. Then she rose and adopted an actorly pose, a pose that affected nobility and almost convinced.

  ‘Life is beautiful.’

  ‘Amen,’ said Troy.

  ‘For you, maybe,’ muttered Pattern.

  Strawberry’s body seemed to slump.

  ‘I want to go to bed.’

  ‘It’s only nine o’clock,’ said Pattern.

  ‘I’m tired.’

  ‘You’re always tired. You’re going to stay tired until you start eating some proper food. All that macrobiotic shit is just another schem
e dreamed up for fleecing the gullible.’

  ‘I’m sure you’re an example to us all, Pattern, when it comes to non-gullibility.’

  ‘You’re making yourself sick, baby.’

  ‘Thanks for the insight, Patty-cake. Anyway, sorry to be a wet rag. Vanya. Adam. You can choose which couch you want. I think the blue one is nicer.’

  I thought the party was going to fade out then, but five minutes later Strawberry changed her mind. Just as suddenly as she had decided to go to bed, she emerged from the bedroom in Troy’s oversized pyjamas and announced that she’d got a second wind. I could see through to the bedroom where she had been changing. The bed was huge, easily big enough for Troy and Strawberry to sleep without even touching.

  Troy went to the cupboard and started searching for something, while Pattern fiddled with the music system. Having selected a Kevin Coyne album, he came and sat down next to me. Vanya had headed off to the kitchen to refill her glass.

  ‘Adam, right?’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘Adam from Yiewsley. So what are you going to do when you leave school, Adam from Yiewsley?’

  ‘I’m not sure. Worst comes to the worst, I can get a job in my old man’s shoe shop.’

  ‘How’s that working out for him?’

  ‘Not great, I guess.’

  ‘How about your mum?’

  ‘She’s dead. She died a few months ago.’

  ‘That’s tough.’

  ‘I thought I might go into computers.’

  ‘Technology, man. They’re replacing the humans day by day. Twenty years, ain’t going to be any fucking jobs. You know what the future is? Mass unemployment. Or nuclear war. Add up to the same thing. We’re all fucked.’

  ‘Anyone played the dice game?’ said Troy.

  ‘The what?’ said Strawberry.

  ‘Haven’t you read The Dice Man? Luke Rhinehart?’ said Vanya. ‘It’s about some guy who throws a die then goes upstairs and rapes his neighbour because the die tells him to. Sort of a male-fantasy novel.’

  ‘You’re missing the underlying theme of the book, Van,’ said Troy. ‘What if you lived your life randomly? That’s the question he’s exploring. Perhaps it would free you.’

  ‘I think throwing the die sounds like a fun idea,’ said Strawberry brightly.

  ‘Let’s give it a kick. My life is pretty random anyway,’ said Pattern.

  ‘OK, this is the way we’re going to do it,’ said Troy. ‘We come up with a set of options—’

 
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