It was a lucky thing that happened to me that night, when Chris rang me out of the blue, that I had been smoking some particularly pleasant grass immediately beforehand. What he had to say to me, and the way he chose to say it in, was very much the kind of thing that requires the listener to be as relaxed as possible if all hell is not going to break loose. What is worse, though, is that this one simple phone call has now left me in the middle of a series of complicated moral dilemmas, each one with its own particular urgency, and all instigated, somewhere along the line, by Chris. Chris sits in the centre of the web of confusion and aggravation that has tangled itself around my consciousness and grins like some demented alcoholic spider, while I dig myself ever deeper into his pale world of savagely mixed metaphor and shallow insight dressed as convincing point of argument for a mind deficient in intellectual development, despite its obvious sharpness and keenness.
My girlfriend said that it sounded to her as if he simply "hadn't got it together," and of course, as usual, she is right, but I think that it runs a little deeper than that. Chris is not in a position from which he can get it together. Not on his own. This position is not entirely his own fault, either, although he could have made it a great deal easier on himself had he only made a few of his key life decisions a little bit more thought through. This is not a man who should be giving up courses at universities. This is not a man who should still be living with his parents. This is not a man who should be drinking in the afternoons, and for all I know, the mornings, too. This is not a man who should have been judged, as far as he is concerned, once and for all time, by the results of the examinations that he took when he was sixteen and eighteen years old. This is not a man who has survived the break up of the state school education system under the Conservatives; his family was never rich enough to afford private education. He had brains, but no-one ever knew, and when he started slipping in his results, because he thought that no-one gave a shit if he did or not, he continued slipping, because he had been, as usual, quite correct in his analysis. No-one at all did indeed give a shit whether or not he started underachieving. In fact, they assumed that his results were in fact precisely what was to be expected from a boy of his lower middle class small minded suburban background. Not bad results, as such, not poor results, just average, B grade, hum drum unexciting fair passes. He has had all confidence in his own ability beaten out of him. It is as if he had actually been tied up and beaten with whips until he promised to stop trying to have the will to excel, until he promised never to dare to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, if he tried to do something, he might succeed.
Maybe he actually was beaten. I don't know. I'm not sure that I even have the energy to care too much. All I know is that I have spent the intervening years since Chris and I were friends in trying my utmost to escape as far away from the suburban nightmare we both shared as kids as is humanly possible, and what happens? The morose bastard rings up and dumps his failure, his depression, his neurosis back onto me!
But it gets worse still.
Of all the people to fall in love with me, it had to be Chris. Of all the people to fall for me, it had to be him. He doesn't know that he has. He is simply not built to accept the fact that he is gay, or at least bisexual, but he is. He is obsessed with me. Utterly obsessed. I hadn't realised it until he rang, and kept insisting that he was pissing me off, that he shouldn't have rung me like this, that he was talking shit, but oh, it was good to speak to me, and, well, he really really missed me, and I had to come and see him, I had to come and visit him, I hadn't changed a bit, I was just what he thought I was going to have been like after this time, and he really missed me, but he was sorry, he was sorry for talking shit, and for wasting my time, and for going on like this, and he shouldn't have rung, and that, no, I wasn't glad he had called, I was just saying that.
I had conversations like that with the first few girls I was emotionally involved with, in my mid to late teens. He must be in love with me. He hasn't seen me in five years.
Now, however, I understand why I still get Christmas cards from him every year, and the occasional letter that I genuinely do mean to reply to some time, but somehow never seem to get around to actually doing.
Now, however, I understand why I really should have told him to fuck off nicely, somehow.
Now I know why my instinct, which told me that it was an enormously bad idea to agree to see this guy again, was what I should have followed. No. Mr. All-things-to-all-people here follows his conscience over his instinct. His conscience tells him that he has a moral obligation to stay in touch with this ghost. That he must go and see him. Have a drink with him. Promise to write to him. Become a part of his life, again.
I am an idiot. It is not even as if I can say that I should have seen what was coming coming. I did see it coming. I just didn't think that it would happen. Not really. Not to me. Not like this.
I have just left university. Oxford, in fact, where the people who claim to be middle class and suburban mean an altogether more expensive set of things to the middle class suburbia that Chris and I grew up in and are still trying to escape. Oxbridge is no longer the preserve of the upper classes, true. However, it is still very far indeed from being a real meritocracy. The difference between Redbrick and Oxbridge is now essentially the difference between upper and lower middle class. Somehow, the semi detached houses that most of my Oxford friends came from seemed to be bigger than ours were. They seemed to have read more books, that is, more of the right books, and always to have been encouraged to excel, to have a go, and to do things.
I personally, was always lucky at school. I was the one in most classes who got encouraged. Chris was never encouraged. He looked like harder work than I was, which he was. This is the difference between state and private schools. The state system treats everybody like Chris, with a very few lucky exceptions like myself. Private schools seem to treat everybody as I was treated, and even in the few individual instances where they do not, those who have slipped through the net of a good, expensive and elitist education still end up better off than Chris, because they at least have a network of old school friends who are together and are doing well. This is the immorality of elitism in action, and I have been the freak who slipped through the statistical net. It is funny, though, the way in which every single person that I knew at Oxford who went to state schools, myself included, were the children of either academics, or social workers, or psychologists, or psychiatrists, or something of that ilk, and so were encouraged at home. All of them. Every one.
However, I am neither so arrogant nor so short sighted as to believe that it is simply Oxford that has been my escape route from Chrisdom. It all runs a lot more deeply than that. Some of my closest friends are non-Oxbridge people (a phrase not without its own ironies). Some of the most talented and together people I know didn't go to university at all (worse still).
The real difference between Chris and myself is merely thrown into sharp relief by the Oxbridge snob in me, not defined by it, nor created by it. Chris is trapped in a world of limited horizons. He is incapable of ambition as long as he does not have the vocabulary in which to conceive of ideas, plans and escape routes from his semi-detached upbringing. He is incapable of forming relationships with other people without concealing himself behind layers and layers of the most impenetrable barriers of silence, obfuscation, self-delusion, procrastination and irrelevance. I have no idea what Chris is really like. Nor does he. For some reason, he is too terrified of what he might actually prove to be like to dare find out, even just for himself.
It is thus that he fails to approach his life in the correct way. Things that should be seen as peripheral, as tools, as adjuncts to life, such as sex, drugs, rock and roll and so on, are for him invested with more power and meaning than they deserve. They become central entities in themselves, enormous and cruel in their overshadowing and overwhelming of his underconfident personality, and they therefore remain for him illusory chimeras, just out of reach, taunting reminders of his own inadequacy.
Those for whom this is not the case are either hated or loved, or both. Such as myself. Sex? Part of my life. Drugs? Yeah, man, why not, if it's good stuff. Rock and roll? Do you want to hear my band's demo? If not, fine. I don't really care.
Why? Because these are not my life. These things are not my identity. These things are neither my ambitions nor my goals. They are tools, adjuncts, facets, aspects of my life. None of them are so central to me that I could not survive without them. They are just the normal social trappings of the child of the 90's that I am, free of major social dysfunction. At least, free of unusual social dysfunction. My particular personal social dysfunctions are in fact the very epitome of the current fashionable trends in these matters, and show me, I have been assured, to be a young man with the most exquisite good taste in personal peccadillos, even if I say so myself.
Foremost among these is a deep distaste for my background, the gloomy acres of semi-detached mindlessness that encircle London completely, like the strangling hand of an animated corpse in some cheap shit horror film.
The corpse could be Chris's. I genuinely thought that I had managed to escape it, and then he called me, thrusting himself and his putridity back into my life. It cuts deep, because, as must be clear, my escape is not yet complete, and I am not yet fully confident in it.
Worse still. Chris and I do in fact have one thing in common, besides the background thing. We both want to make it as writers. The difference is, that for me the ambition is as yet unfulfilled, and I have to date not published anything of any sort anywhere, not for want of trying; I have accumulated what has to be one of the most impressive collections of rejection letters in North West London. Chris, on the other hand, has in fact already published his first novel, which I have not seen, but understand is in fact dedicated to me. From what he said, it seems to have sold moderately well for a first novel from an unheard of young writer, although he claims that it is complete rubbish.
But, Chris desperately wants to write something that is worthwhile. It was one of his more lucid topics of conversation on the telephone. Something that will last, something that will really reach people, move people, touch them in their hearts, affect the way they see the world. Something that has real meaning. Something that will have an effect.
I didn't have the heart to tell him that it is too late. The doors of that particular hall of fame closed some while ago, at least to us. The age of the white male middle class straight English writer is over. No-one needs to read what we have to say any longer, for it has already been said, far better than any of us are capable of doing, by those who preceded us and inspired us. We are irrelevant. We are boring. We are, by definition, worthless.
There is plenty of new and interesting literature being written, but if it is by men it is not by white men; if it is by white men it is not by white men writing in English, and if it is by white men and in English you can bet your bottom dollar that they are not heterosexual.
All of which is exactly as it should be - we have as a group retained far too large a slice of the pie for far too long, we have undermined our own longevity by blocking out other voices, and the backlash is entirely justified. I keep my rejection letters as a living symbol of the whole thing. I still write myself, despite it all, in the belief that it is still possible for me to reach a stage where I am able to live on money earned from writing. Writing something of actual worth, however, is no longer an option.
I really haven't the heart to tell Chris.
And now I have really cocked it. After he rang me the first time, I was inspired to write a short piece about an unpleasant, young, aspiring, verbose, arrogant and fundamentally pessimistic writer who gets called up out of the blue by someone they never thought that they would ever hear from again, who, naturally, resembles Chris very greatly, etc, etc. The story, to my immense surprise, was published in some literary magazine - I really had not thought very much of it at all, and, in my opinion, ought to have seriously considered either completely rewriting it or scrapping the whole thing.
This all shows how deeply immature and undeveloped my technique of self-appraisal is. If the piece sold, it sold. That is all it needs to do. Art would have been nice, but History has sold me out on that one. Oh well. I'll settle for Money.
Meanwhile, Chris saw the story and read it. He rang me immediately to discuss it, and to congratulate me on my 'success.' I was supposed to be having a drink with him tonight.
(A drink. I don't drink. Not in London. I am too reliant on having a car to be able to drink.)
He did not mention anything about having recognised any of the characters. Can he really not have seen that the whole thing was a poison pen portrait of him? Can he really have missed all the huge giveaways? What can he really have thought of it? He is no fool, for all his lack of other qualities.
I turned up at the appointed pub, slightly early.
Why did he not turn up?
I tried to ring him.
Why was the phone at his house permanently engaged?
I went to see if he was still at home.
Why was there a policeman at the door of his house, with three police cars and an ambulance parked outside?
I began to panic.
What have I done?