The title comes from an Elvis Presley song released in 1960. I cannot remember the precise circumstances which prompted this. It was rooted in the fact that in the 1980s we were exposed to many cultural references to children being more strait-laced than their parents and empowered by New Right-Thatcherite thinking, correcting the now despised hippy-like behaviour of their parents. I think it was also prompted by seeing how often mothers became strong allies of their sons' girlfriends and wives.
This story was also prompted by the mother of a friend of mine in Norwich who ran off leaving him with his father and went to live on a lesbian commune in the Netherlands, though her son was rather doubtful of his mother's commitment to purely single-sex relations as she apparently fancied the local (male) farmer too, I guess she was bisexual, a term even young people were not overly familiar with in the early 1990s. Another prompt came from the lesbian landlady of a friend of mine who was living in Oxford at the time, ironically she moved away just as I moved to that city. The landlady had children and had been previously married (in those days only opposite sex marriages were permitted in the UK). I think I was also influenced by tabloid stories of mothers' seducing their daughters' boyfriends and fathers their sons' girlfriends. Such things would often drive me to want to turn the story on its head and challenge the assumptions.
I was accused by a friend who writes non-fiction of being a 'vampire' of people's lives, using their experiences to provide the basis for my stories. To some extent I think that is unavoidable. All writers are the sum of not only their own experiences but also the experiences they have heard about or witnessed. Even in the most fantastical settings we tend to come back to humans behaving the way humans have always done. I suppose the important thing is not to make the source overly identifiable and I always took care to mix together different people's stories and change names and locations. Writers do draw on society and its people and I believe that is necessary if you are going to produce authentic writing. In contrast another friend complained that I tried to write stories about things I had not experienced personally and she felt that that was wrong. This has long been a complaint from people who have lived through traumatic events or are from non-Western cultures that it is wrong for others to even try to write about those things as they will never get it 'right'. In response, I would argue that if we simply stuck to what we knew personally then there would be a lot of dull writing and I was conscious that a lot of my stories had been terribly introspective as it was. In addition, I would argue that everyone has the right to write about whatever they choose, leave it to the audience to decide. A kind of segregation in which people say, 'you are only permitted to write fiction from the perspective of a white man aged 41 living in southern England in 2009 and what he might experience' would kill writing; fantasy and science fiction writing as well as all historical fiction would be impossible. Anyway, often people who have experienced things first had produce writing that is too raw for the audience to really engage with and comprehend and there is a real need for the writer as interpreter to connect between the occurrence and the reader.
Look back now this story seems a little trite, but I think as with my blogging and with a few of my short stories, it was also about me getting out some irritation at society and its attitudes in the only satisfactory way I knew.
The Girl of my Best Friend
Paul pressed the button and the doorbell buzzed in the depths of the flat. Nervously he pressed it again and stood back from the frosted glass of the door squinting to see the shapes of people moving in the hallway behind it. Moments later the door was opened and he was hit by a waft of hot steam, cooking steam laced with vegetable smells.
“Hello.” The woman standing there was just into her forties but she looked a decade younger. Her hair was shorter than when he had last seen her, cut much shorter at the sides and with just the hint of being gelled up at the front. She wore long colourful earrings in the shape of parrots that twisted on their little perches as she smiled warmly.
She wore a a large denim shirt, a couple of sizes too big for her, as was the fashion, beneath it a brilliant white teeshirt. A couple of wooden bangles rattled at each wrist. Paul let his gaze fall, mustering courage to speak. He let the Sunday lunch smell wash across him as he stood there. She wore maroon leggings and navy blue espadrilles. She looked slim, she looked happy.
“Hello Mum.” Paul said. He looked up again into her eyes, they looked worryingly bright.
“Ian not with you?” She asked, taking a couple of steps across towards her son.
“No, Mum he got some work.” Paul lied without compunction.
“Oh.” She let out a little hint of disappointment, though she knew that to see Paul here at all was a major step. Ian might be easier to win round in the long run. Ian had had less personal disruption in all this than Paul or their father. “Call me Jen...”
“Why?” Paul grunted but his mother did not hear him.
“...no-one’s formal here.” She kept talking. Jen ushered Paul into the hallway with a sweep of her arm. He winced, avoiding her touch. He suppressed the knee-jerk sense of disgust that arose when she came too close.
Jen closed the door. “Anna’s making the lunch. Would you like anything to drink?”
“She’s here?” Paul said, again snapping his head up from the self- protective slouch he had assumed. It sounded more startled than he had intended.
“What do you expect me to do? This is our flat. Hers as much as mine.” His mother’s voice had a tinge of annoyance. Paul could not tell if she was just weary of having to argue the same old arguments, or whether it was something defensive. He guessed it was the latter - a natural response of protecting what she had here, from the world and even more from her family. Her old family. However much he knew he should not, he felt discarded.
Not surprisingly Jen seemed to know his thoughts. She wrapped an arm around him, but withdrew it when she saw it made him more uncomfortable.
“I can see you saying to yourself she does a lot more of that these days. She never did that when she was living with us.” Jen laughed really trying to cheer Paul up. The last thing she wanted was another scene.
“Yeah.” Paul smiled. This was supposed to be bridge building. Whatever the sick feelings his mother’s lifestyle stirred up in him, it was not bad enough to lose contact with her. He had sat through many worse, more embarrassing Sunday lunchtimes in his day. He should show his experience, his strength and show he could survive this one without screwing it up even worse.
“I bought this.” Paul hauled the bottle up from where it dangled near his legs. He released the green paper wrapped bottle from the sweaty grip of his fisted hand. His mother took it from him as if it were a child.
“Thanks. We’ll have with the meal.”
“It’s in ten minutes.” Paul recognised Anna’s voice from the kitchen. It made him feel sour. To think she could hear him and his mother. He felt intruded upon. He felt like spitting, he felt like leaving.
“Go through to the living room. I’ll stick this in the fridge.” Jen said brightly.
Paul walked into the living room. It was not as bad as he had expected. If there had been joss sticks or the lingering smell of dope he would have left. The deep blue carpet had clearly been vacuum cleaned that morning. The settee did have some ethnic print blanket draped over it and a large paisley patterned bean bag shaped to someone’s backside lay on the floor. There was the obligatory black hi-fi and television, stark against the brilliant white walls. He actually quite liked that, especially with the blue band around the walls near the ceiling which matched the carpet. There was a pot plant he knew, an Impressionist print and an enlarged black and white photo of a Lincolnshire church he remembered Anna taking the previous Summer.
His eyes tried to avoid the small collection of photos, just in case something would alarm him, something would bring it home. However, the flash of colour at the corner of one told him it was a copy of the shot of him with Ian, Dad and Mum in that taverna. That made him happy. He slumped into one of the two large wicker chairs, rather than the settee. It meant no-one could slump down beside him.
He gazed at the church photo, keeping his eyes off the stack of magazines on the coffee table. So far he had seen nothing “pervy” as Ian would have called it.
“How do you like it?” Jen said as she breezed back into the room. She had two cups of coffee in her hands and a biscuit time wedged under one arm.
“Alright.” Paul nodded non-committally. Jen smiled, she knew from her son that was praise.
“Anna’s got to do a bit more on the sauce. So I thought you’d like a quick cup and a biscuit.” She set the cups on the table.
“Did it take you long to get here?” Jen asked.
“Not really, would have been forty minutes in the week, on the bus. Took about an hour today.”
“Not bad then. You’ll have to come again.”
Paul said nothing, he stared down into his coffee and took a sip. He felt slightly malicious. He was not going to make her job any easier making conversation. It would get worse when they joined Anna. He had not expected that on his first visit. Him and Mum alone would have been more bearable.
“Yeah, suppose.” Paul realised he was beginning to sound like a recalcitrant teenager. At least she was not going on about that her and Anna were doing this and her and Anna were doing that. Then again was it not more insidious, trying to kill him with kindness, getting to accept what she had done. That just reminded him more of the bitterness he felt. Was it surprising that he felt unwanted by her now? However much she might say to the contrary he knew he was not part of her new life. He was glad he did not have a sister. She would have felt disgusted being leered over. It was too much. Paul swallowed the bile in his throat and shuddered at the thoughts.
“Paul are you alright?” His mother looked concerned. She leaned forward.
He just grunted and nodded. He put down his coffee and gripped the arms of the chair as if he was about to lift himself out of it and leave.
“My work is doing fine. We’re doing really well this quarter. And you ought to see what Anna’s been producing recently. She developed a film yesterday. She’ll show you after lunch.”
“I’m not bloody interested.” Paul snapped as he twisted abruptly to look his mother in the face. She shrunk back defensively into her seat.
“It’s harder than you thought isn’t it?” Paul taunted. “Just set up house and leave it for a couple of months. Then get it all back together with your nice reconstituted open family. Christ! Dad just mopes around boozing, washing himself incessantly. He feels fucking dirty. Do you know that? You did that. Ian has a raging temper, he blows up at anything. He stays out all night. You made him feel rejected. Just because you couldn’t keep yourself in check. As for me, well. Do you know what you have done to any minute feelings of self-worth I had? Do you?” Paul wiped the spittle from his mouth with the back of his hand. He slumped back in the chair gazing into the black reflection of the television set.
Paul glanced across at his mother. She looked too calm, too unmoved. The calm part of him guessed she had beaten herself with the same fears too many times to feel any more pain now. They both sat there just listening to each others breathing and the sounds of pots and pans, and Anna singing in the kitchen.
“I’m sorry.” Paul said at length. All his good intentions had been swept away by her attempts to make it all appear normal. Those attempts annoyed him. She had stirred things up far too much to have let them settle this quickly. They might never do again. If that was the case, then it would have to be a clean break. He should not have come. He felt a fresh blaze of anger, she had made him appear the weak willed violent male. Well sod it, she could think what she liked, it was her fault. That comforted him.
Anna pushed the door open and sauntered into the room. “Hello, Paul.”
She looked little different, the nose stud of course, and a couple of extra earrings, little else. Her shirt was more faded than Jen’s, her leggings a floral pattern and her feet bare, but as she lowered herself into the settee beside Jen, it was clear they were a couple.
“I’m sorry lunch is going to take a little bit longer. About ten minutes. Okay?” She reached out her hand to rest it on Jen’s. Jen turned to smile at her.
“Go on then, bloody kiss, grope her, screw for all I care.” Paul hauled himself from his chair this time. He felt like throwing the coffee all over the pair of them. Instead he jabbed his foot against the coffee table and kicked it, sending the neatly stacked magazines across the floor. As it was his coffee followed, breaking the handle from the mug and spreading a dark stain across the carpet.
Paul hurried to the door. It was a mistake to have come. His mind ran with crazy thoughts. He felt like pouring petrol through the letterbox, smashing the windows, anything to purge the anger and remove the disgust.
“Paul.” His mother called as he fumbled with the door latch. He did not turn. If there was going to be a final scene he wanted it in public so that all the neighbours knew. This was not his mother.
He stood in the hallway outside the flat. Out here everything echoed.
“Paul, I’m sorry. Look come back in, have some lunch at least. After all the effort you took coming here. I thought you’d understand. I thought you were grown up enough. You must know I am happy, that this is right. I don’t hate you, I don’t hate Ian or Donald.” She looked pathetic, pleading with him.
Paul’s kinder side knew he was being narrow minded, bigoted even. Tantrums would not change things back. Yet welling in him was a sense of spite, to spit in her face and make this the last time she saw him. That would satisfy his anger, he could savour it for a week. She showed she did care for him, otherwise she would not have bothered even to invite him here. She wanted him to be happy in her happiness. More the fool her. She had shown her weakness and he would exploit it.
“Paul, what made you like this?” Jen asked more calmly now, almost in a soothing mother’s tone.
Paul was almost tempted. He spat at her feet, at the last holding back from actually spitting on her. “It was my fucking girlfriend you ran off with to set up house with.” Paul turned, stamping his feet on the concrete stairs. He slammed the door at the bottom. It was the last time she saw him.