This story came about as the result of a challenge set in 1990, by a friend of mine who I knew in Norwich, he was a writer and introduced me to other writers, some of whom were even on the famous Malcolm Bradbury course at the university. This friend set a group of us a task of writing a short story about a mundane object and as we were in a cafe at the time (I seemed to spend half my life in Norwich in cafes) he selected a white china coffee cup as the focus. Thus the title of this story which I wrote as a response, is supposed to be ironic. The story draws on my time living in West Germany in 1988. Whilst I was there I had my typical run of failed encounters with women, I pursued ones who were not interested, but two did seem interested in me: Marion and Helen, a German and a British friend respectively of a British woman I knew out there.
Marion was a medical student and seemed able to switch between being demure and sultry. I was now becoming conscious that compared to many of the people I was meeting I had really no experience with relationships and especially not sex and worried I would not be able to perform to the required standard. However, I had never been uneasy about discussing these topics which tended to mislead women into thinking I was 'a man of the World'. Apparently Helen who was passing through on her way to Hungary was keen for an encounter with me and was rather bemused when I did not pick up the signals. Of course female signals are always difficult to decode and with my lack of experience I did not have a clue.
This story focuses on what did not happen with Marion and like 'Guardian A' can be seen less as a 'what if?' story than an 'if only ...' story. As I age I do wonder if a lot of this was wishful thinking. However, perhaps I was right to think that I had missed some chances. As I have had so few sexual encounters in my life I probably still do not know. The best guest comes from the fact that Helen's friend and another woman from the circle told me bluntly that they were suprised I had not taken up on Helen's offer. Of course, I had no idea that I had received an offer and brushed it off as it being not the kind of thing I was into (not really knowing what the 'kind of thing' was, but I think they thought I meant brief flings). It was a shame as Helen and Marion were both very beautiful, interesting and exciting women. To some extent I could not believe that they would be interested in a geeky, odd looking and physically scarred man like me. I had been too ingrained by the bullies at school to think that young women only liked the handsome, tough and cool guys, when of course women like all kinds of men.
Of course having a relationship with a foreigner would have been as hard as I guessed it would be at that time. Even then I knew I was bad at languages and I have forgotten a lot since then. I find it hard to get work even in the UK, so the idea of setting up home in West Germany or Hungary or something was a fantasy. I have this idea that when I die I will be able to look at the very many forks in my life and be able to see what would have happened if I had taken the alternative path. Given how unstable my life has been and often unhappy, and the fact that I constantly seem to make the wrong judgements, I keep assuming some at least of the other paths would have been better or at least happier. Of course I may be entirely wrong and this life might be the best one I might have ever been able to get. However, if nothing else taking some of these other paths would have at least got me some more sex! In addition, whilst I have lived the opposite, I am now a big advocate to young people of a range of homilies: 'seize the day', 'a life lived in fear is a life half-lived' and 'it is better to die on your feet than to live your life on your knees'.
I put the white china cup back on the matching saucer as the strong coffee swilled down my throat. I stared through the white-walled room of the small café-bar where I sat, into the wider backroom where the band were mumbling their way through the last numbers. They were “Captain Leopold and the Committee of Seven” or so the blackboard notice told me. I had seen them around here before, they seemed to be friends of the owner. It was more of a jam session than anything serious, but provided a comforting background noise. I wondered whether to remove my coat, it was drying rapidly, but I wasn’t going to stay. I was just in here because it was the only place down from the tramstop, the one without a shelter, but the one on the line that would take me across the river and downstream. I was going to go from here rather than the main stop a few streets away: the rest of the mob might be there. I had lied about being tired, I think they knew where I intended to head, but the way things were done no-one stated the truth. If I ran into them again it would get more awkward.
I drunk more of my coffee. I had ten minutes before the last tram over there. I sat looking at my watch and back to the clock. It would take me five minutes to get up the road and dodge the traffic out to the stop. It was daft putting them in the middle of busy roads like that, but that was foreigners for you. They were daft. She was daft too, how could she go for an ugly git like me anyway? I cursed her. She was sweet though, too bloody sweet. She was bright but naïve, but how much of that was show? I hated all this, I liked things clear cut, well that’s what I said, but in fact me sitting in this place showed that was a lie. I could not cope with things out in the open, it all had to be discreet, euphemistic. That came from the guilt. She may be naïve, but she knew where she stood and she knew what she wanted. My mind spiralled back into the hang-ups and doubts.
I shook the liquid at the bottom of the cup. I didn’t really like coffee, but it seemed to be compulsory. Wet night streets, talking to yourself, sitting in a café: it demanded black coffee. I slipped off my coat, the window was steaming up again as the air got more humid. I probed the sides of the argument in my mind like someone who can’t help scratching a scab even when they know it is better not to. Back home it would be easy, there I got stoked up with pseudo-Catholic guilt every visit home. I felt the first pang of wanting to be back there.
I should have stood at the stop, at least then I would have only worried about how wet I was and whether those lights were the ones of my tram. Back home there would have been Ian and Chris to weigh up the arguments into the small hours and then it would have been too late anyway, but at least that would have been a way out. I always dumped the guilt of my indecision on others. I fingered the small packet in my inside pocket. That had been hard enough to go through but that had been in the warm afternoon and the stupor of euphoria had carried me through. I pulled my fingers away as if they had knocked a wound.
I tipped the coffee dregs into the back of my throat. I hated how coffee made you feel thirstier than before. What I really fancied was one of those really large, strong cold beers. I could see them being dished out, back there, to the band. I noticed they had stopped playing. But she had smiled and told me to stay off the drink tonight, that was a dead giveaway to the others, but the discreet amongst the mob had stopped the indiscreet from making anything of it. I peered at my watch and at the clock again but they both told me that there were only three minutes to go. I started as my mind went into overdrive, fumbling for the change and the coat. The lights cruising past, out in the street in front of the large front window, I recognised as the ones I wanted. I rushed to press my face against the glass, and at that angle I could see the lit number at the rear of the tram and it just confirmed what I knew. I waited as it paused at the stop with no-one getting on or off. I had to assure myself that it was too late. It left and it was.
I went back to the table, and sat down again. Two sets of arguments flowed back into my mind. I had worked it all out, and checked it on the pocket timetable. I knew that the tram had been the only option and I also knew there was no way I could walk all the way over there and arrive at a reasonable time. She would be well asleep by then, thinking me some repressed Briton. Then the arguments that had opposed me going in the first place kicked in as explanations why it was better that I was still here. Who wanted a relationship with a foreigner anyway? My grasp of the language was crap, I hardly knew her, what would the family say? Wouldn’t it be just what they had all said, all feared I would get up to? Was I up to it anyway? Wouldn’t it be even more of an embarrassment, more self-doubt and more pangs of guilt? That felt comfortable now. These previous doubts now came to fill the anguish of indecision.
I got up again. Fortunately no-one was paying attention to me hopping around. I had an ache to be wrapped in my bed, radio playing quietly, the pale bedside light illuminating the paperback and the door locked against the outside. I walked to the bar. I could have the large beer. The barman served me cheerfully. I drank it deep in gulps, and came up for breath. I walked with the large glass in my hands, drinking again and again. It was empty by the time I was near the door, I left it on a table there with the remains of the foam sliding down the inside. The barman waved as I left, I waved a numbed hand back.
I was outside. If I sprinted across the park then up the parallel street I could be back in the block while the rest of the mob were probably still paying for their kebabs. I broke into a run, glad that the rain had stopped. I ran quickly along the sandy park path, the beer penetrating throughout me. My mind dozily ran through the options to take, the best path, the best crossing to use to get me back to my bed that seemed so tempting now. This was the best way, I said to myself, stick with what you know lad, and you’ll have no regrets.