Aaron is tumbling through the sky. A muddy wash of colour envelopes him like a shroud. His arms are outstretched, groping the air and he’s falling, screaming my name, again and again. His cries are so loud, so insistent, he actually shakes me awake, out of deep dreaming sleep. I sit up, struggling to see in the dark. The air is thick and wet with damp and I shiver as my pupils swell to find the light. My boyfriend Ed thrashes around beside me, muttering and annoyed. He kicks the duvet over the edge of the thin, lumpy Futon and I snatch back at the cover, suddenly aware of the cold. Then I wake up again, out of that weird stage when you think you’re awake, but you’re still in the dream state, and everything’s slow and viscous, like you always imagined sinking in quicksand would be. I’m shouting too now, the voice in my head is the sound coming out of my mouth; Aaron’s words have become my words and as he screams my name I’m screaming his and I can’t stop saying it.
I miss the seven-forty-something out of Paddington and now it’s 8.15 and we’re only just pulling out of Slough. I‘m wearing a shoulder-padded power suit to my low-paid publishing job, editing some boring computing journal out in the sticks. Late. Again. The fast train to Reading speeds by, a blast of air clipping my cheek as we lurch out of the station at two miles an hour. I stare out through the dirty glass. Grim industrial estates flicker by, gradually giving way to a more rustic vista: untidy allotments, a little field with a lone and shabby pony, bare Birch woods dotted red, white and blue with old Coke cans and plastic bags.
The train passes through Taplow, Burnham, Dorney, Bray – all apparently pretty Berkshire towns – which is strange because to me they’re four tower blocks along Adelaide Road that have mutated into a meaningless mantra inside my head – Taplow, Burnham, Dorney, Bray – always in that order. A relic from when I was six and spent whole days riding my bike round the block. But today I’m distracted from my distractions. All I can think about is Aaron.
The Prompt Corner, South End Green. The windows were always steamed up, and there were rows of formica tables, checked black and white on top, with surgical green stop clocks on the side, uniform as salt and pepper pots. The owner was Greek or Turkish – I was never sure - and would put up with a gaggle of screeching pubescent girls in ripped fishnets, mini-kilts and monkey boots, drinking two teas and a hot chocolate between them for three hours. Eventually, he’d get sick of ogling Sinead and Cressida – two ballerinas turned punk who went to stage school in the West End and drank cappuccinos - and tell us to spend some money or go. He didn’t want us driving away his core clientele.
Old men with white hair and black wrinkles and a few tweedy academics would sit there all day sipping endless coffees, smoking Gitanes and playing chess against the clock. On Saturday afternoons Aaron would sit among them, ignoring us on the other side of the room. At fourteen he was a nationally ranked player; but as he confided one night while we were lying on the floor of my bedroom, pretending not to notice our legs were touching and flicking through X-Men comics: he always tried to keep his grading low for competitions. I couldn’t understand; my motto was - if you’ve got it, flaunt it. He walked me through the whole concept slowly until the penny finally dropped. You win more money that way.
He only broke even that time, so we all bunked in round the back to see The Exorcist at the Hampstead Classic, on a late night.
About eight of us sat in the back row, feet on seats, munching our way through giant size cartons of popcorn, smoking Bensons and calling each other cunts. All the girls shrieked at the bit with the projectile vomiting and grabbed on to the boys.
‘Your mother sucks cocks in hell!’ we growled, over and over, while attempting 360° head swivels as we trooped out of the cinema at half-one in the morning. I did it too, but only half-heartedly: one because I didn’t know anything about sucking cocks which was embarrassing, and two because I was terrified of becoming possessed like the girl in the film.
Aaron and I weren’t like real Hampstead kids who lived next door to titled architects and TV personalities. We had to get the North London Line home to Kilburn, or walk back past the cemetery. I had an evil step-dad and he had the wicked witch of the north, south, east and west running the show at his place. His real mum was in a loony bin up north somewhere, but we never really talked about that. He was more clever than me: he could read music, write poetry, play chess, piano, basketball. They all listened to Radio 3 at his house, and he could do maths.
On the way back to mine we detoured via the hospital because as
usual, I was dying to do a wee. We were fidgeting in the foyer for ages
before we realised the lifts weren’t working.
‘Look at that – God’s lift is out of order –‘ I laughed, enjoying the brief moment of my mistake. The sign actually read “goods lift is out of order”. ‘We’ll never get to heaven then.’
‘Or the toilets,’ he countered, suddenly making a face and staggering towards me with a zombie flesh eater look. ‘This is the one that goes straight up to the LOCKED WARD.’
I swiped at him, in that ‘girl hits boy but doesn’t really mean it’ way and tried to look serious. After all, I still had to go to the loo on my own.
Back in the home counties. I arrive half an hour late for work and
am immediately confronted by Ivy, who calls out, ‘Morning,’ as loud as
she possibly can.
‘Trouble with the trains?’ Eileen asks, looking at her watch. I sweep off to the kitchen to fetch a tea and when I return Ivy is standing at my desk.
‘You see -,’ she waves the offending article at me. ‘Look, on page 34 you’ve got COBOL in small caps and here it’s upper and lower case.’
Eileen and Ivy spend their days typing faster than I can edit and complaining about my consistency – or lack of it.
Eileen stares over at me, pushes her low-slung Deidre Barlow glasses up to the bridge of her nose and smiles.
‘So, are you going back for Christmas then?’
‘Back ?’ I ask, knowing full well where this one’s heading.
‘Well, it is Jamaica isn’t it?’ Ivy doesn’t bother with the smile.
I spend lunchtime scouring The Guardian for jobs.
Two weeks pass and it’s Christmas Eve before I know it. Ed’s away in Wales with his family and I’m getting ready for Dano’s birthday party. As usual I’m wandering around aimlessly, rummaging through pyramids of clothes; conjuring mess like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. I start shuffling through an irrelevant pile of papers and turn up an antique card, covered in inky violets. It had arrived on Valentine’s Day – anonymous. But even though I recognised the writing I couldn’t quite believe it was from Aaron.
Things were different now: The Prompt Corner was a Perfect Pizza, and I saw more of Aaron’s older brother, who used to come round, chop up vast lines of dodgy sulphate, then disappear mysteriously to the bathroom for twenty minutes. The last time I’d seen Aaron he was fat with Largactil or ‘liquid cosh’ – the stuff they pumped people full of in prison to keep them quiet. He sat round the kitchen table for what seemed like days. He could communicate with Marilyn Monroe. The conductor of the orchestra he played violin with had put a black magic hex on him. He knew what had really happened with the Kennedys. I grimaced. So, the rumours were true: Aaron Gold had taken too much acid and lost the plot.
I arrive at Dano’s party. It’s in one of those big, white houses
with tall, tall ceilings in Belsize Park. The bass is booming out Lee
Perry and the front room is heaving with people so the whole floor is
bouncing up and down in time to the music. I make my way to the
kitchen, through a hallway lined with people who couldn’t stand me at
school and spot Kevin McConnell in a black trilby, holding court by the
fridge. I wave - and wade through the crowd.
Before I can ask, he asks, ‘Have you heard - about Aaron?’
Visions of strait jackets, needles and looming Nurse Ratchetts run through my mind. ‘What? Has his dad had him committed again?’
Kevin looks at me, and pauses for a second, ‘He jumped out of Burnham. Out of my brother Kieran’s flat. Out the window. Didn’t you know?’ I keep staring, and he finishes his sentence. ‘The 22nd floor.’
I can’t move. All I can think about is the last time we spoke. It was early days for me and Ed and we were so in love we could hardly walk straight. Ed’s there with my flatmate and her boyfriend and we were all pissing around, having a laugh. The phone rang. It was him. I’d told them all the stories, they knew about ‘the card’.
He was playing jazz piano at Dingwalls. Did I want to come? But I was barely listening and suddenly I was barking strange messages down the phone, mum should never have given you this number and don’t call here again. I could hear this party in the background and his voice getting smaller and smaller and I wanted to tell him I was sorry, that I didn’t mean it, that I missed him. But everybody was listening, so I didn’t. I put the phone down instead.
A thin blond girl trips over my foot and spills red wine on me
without apologising. Kevin McConnell finally realises that I didn’t
‘When?’ It’s all I can say, even though I already know the answer.
I stick my head out the window, feel the cold air bite against my skin and shut my eyes.
Aaron is tumbling through the sky. A muddy wash of colour envelopes him like a shroud. His arms are outstretched, groping the air and he’s falling , screaming my name, again and again.
I am more awake than I have ever been. This is not a dream.———–
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