I believe I actually wrote this as one of my last pieces at Sixth Form college but I do not think it made it into the school magazine. It may have followed that period but before I went to university. It certainly reflects what I was beginning to feel that I had been foolish at Sixth Form and passed up so many opportunities especially with women, simply out of fear. As it turned out, I was not to lose my virginity until 2003 at the age of 34. I wonder if I had known that I would not have got so anxious over my string of failures and the way I seemed to run in fear from women who were attracted to me and pursued those who had no interest in me instead.
The story's relevance was revived when I reached university because I just continued to behave in much the same way and by now not only missing chances with women but also things like travel. Thus, this story was revised and put into wordprocessor format. I have always been a little embarrassed by the story, as whilst it reflects my uncertainty about how much control we have over our lives (by the time I left university I was convinced I had no control over my life and that the life I was living was predestined), I have never been as courageous as Ian. Suicide was very appealing to me at the time, but I still lacked the courage to take that option. I lacked the confidence to apply for the sort of jobs I might have been able to get so ended up in mundane clerical ones, though on reflection that may have been more realistic than aspiring for better jobs.
There are tones of my father in this, as he seemed convinced throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that the only hope for me was to emigrate. However, my experiences in West Germany 1988-9 were to make me utterly fear going abroad, let alone living there and I was not to leave the UK again until 1995. Now I think about it the dialogue between Ian and his guardian reflect my own relationship with my father who constantly put me under such pressure without offering any solutions and perhaps I wished he had been more like the guardian shown here.
The courage of Ian stemmed from the fact that I wanted to get people thinking about how you can be brave in one part of your life and not in another. This was strengthened when I saw the president of the sports association of the university who had done a great deal of public speaking and performances on the pitch, was utterly shaking when put in front of a student radio microphone, something I took for granted as ordinary.
Ian pushed the door closed behind him. The house was gloomy, but light was spilling from upstairs, someone must be in. He sniffed, thinking he could smell something strange but his cold prevented him from determining what it was. He hung his coat and scarf on the peg by the door.
“Hello.” Ian called out, expecting a reply, but none came, one of his housemates must have left on the light to deter burglars. The flicker of a thought that it might be an intruder sprinted across his mind and soon faded from sight.
Cautiously Ian walked up the creaking stairs with their red patterned carpet worn away in the centre. As he reached the top, he realised that the light was coming from his room, and was more of a glow leaking out from within it. He stepped quietly onto the landing. From there he could see the back of a tall man in a long raincoat, his hands crossed. He looked like some plain clothes policeman waiting for the family of the bereaved to return, daring not to touch the furniture and with only the view from the window to break his boredom. It was the glow around him that alarmed Ian.
“Come in Ian.” the man said, not turning. Ian obeyed without thinking, walking briskly into the room shaded by the strong shadows caused by the light.
Ian gently sat down on his bed, feeling as if he was back at school; a pupil who had entered his headteacher’s office. The man looked to be in his thirties. His face was strongly defined and pale; he looked like some Roman statue. In contrast the light brown of his raincoat looked intense and out of place on him.
Ian analysed his thoughts, he did not feel alarmed at talking to this stranger, and not even that the man was a stranger, but someone he had known for ages.
“You can’t deal with this form.” The man said calmly. “I suppose it does not matter which one I assume.” His outline flickered quickly through a range of human shapes and his clothing became the style of a hundred fashions, only the face remained almost as if it were detached from the rest. The changes stopped; the man seemed out of breath. He now wore something from the 1930s, all white flannel and he carried a panama, which he fiddled with between his fingers.
“You could never decide how you liked anything, I could hardly expect you to decide on the style of my manifestation.” A carnation emerged from his buttonhole and grew into bloom, he sniffed it. “Indecision is hardly surprising I suppose, just one of the many complaints laid against you.” The man sat down in a business-like way in the room’s only chair and pulled out a manila file from the tan case beside him that Ian had not previously noticed. The man paused and looked up from reading the file.
“I’m going to have to make you believe aren’t I? Otherwise we’ll never get anywhere. I know you never believed in yourself, but you could at least have faith in others. As I was saying at last year’s conference: how can you reconcile free will with a universal plan? I’ve not got a bias either way. I just wish that management would lay down clear guidelines for getting involved. As it is, I never know where I stand.” He paused and stopped preaching his argument. “Well, with you, I’m going to push the rules until they snap.”
The man held up the opened file for Ian to see. His name was written clearly above a complex diagram of lines and intersections which were blurred by the numerous smudges and rubbings out.
“Down to business, we do not have long.” The man said, resting the file back in his lap.
Ian sat there, not entranced but with a feeling that disbelief had been suspended for him sometime back.
“Just answer the questions as clearly as possible.” The man commanded. “Number one: what was wrong with Melanie Jackson?”
“Nothing, she was great, attractive, caring...” Ian spluttered. All of it was true.
“Then, why haven’t you seen her in two years? I originally had you down as setting up home by the end of last September, a flat in Kensington. You didn’t like that London publishers’ job either did you?”
“Erm, no.” Ian replied, settling into his non-committal frame of mind that he tended to use in interviews.
“Then there was the substitute team: always hold a few up your sleeve just in case someone gets double booked, I say. But, no, you wouldn’t go for any of them. What about Sarah, Julie, Karen? And Yvonne, I had to get a special transfer for her to come into your life. What was the point of making you fancy them? I might as well have given you a train-spotter package and be done with it, but no I thought we would carve you out something nice this time round as the last two outings were a bit rough. At least you put in some effort during them.” The man’s temper seemed to be rising. “Huh?” he grunted.
Ian mused and tried to put up a defence. “I remember all the mistakes I made...”
“I know, that was part of the salvage package: trying to get you back on track, but you just kept adding to the mistakes you remembered. What about the place in Canada? I thought you’d love it, but no you prevaricate and vacillate until everything is too late.”
“Erm, well, I just felt I couldn’t do it, had no courage for any of those things, talk to any of those women.”
“Complete rubbish, what are you trying to tell me?” The man was red by now, but keeping restrained, he wiped spit from the side of his mouth with a pure white handkerchief.
Calmer, he continued. “You stand on stage, you help people choking in the street, talk to people most wouldn’t touch with a barge pole and you tell me you’ve got no courage. There are racks of people whose stomachs would turn inside out at that sort of thing, and you can’t find your way to getting a bit of fun, affection, success.”
Ian hesitated and began thinking over all the problems, all the potential embarrassments he had avoided, he knew he had faced, but those thoughts were suddenly checked.
“Look, I’m not letting you mull over that set of excuses again. Your virginity’s four years past its use-by-date. I had to get two special extensions from upstairs. You’ve caused me real grief with some of those departments, stretched their goodwill far enough.” He eased back into the chair that seemed deeper than when he had first sat down and sipped from a hip flask which had found its way into his hand.
“So you think you’ve got a right to screw all this up. Well that’s not an argument I want to get into again, especially not with you. We go through it every conference time. You’ll say that I should give you another chance. I did. But that’s sitting crammed at the bottom of the drawer over there, in the letter you haven’t looked at in over nine weeks. The deadline was this morning; the place in Bristol has gone. You’re busily locking yourself into the pits here, one room which takes all your cash and a life which you dreaded is here and now.
Well, that’s it. I don’t know why I’m here anyway, it’s against the rules and it wasn’t going to change anything. I don’t know whether I’m going to vote next year for greater involvement by us agents to stop all this mucking up of our plans, or less so that we can leave you all to screw it up yourselves.”
The man pulled out a pen. Ian felt exhausted, too tired to speak, almost as if the man had been drawing the energy for his anger from Ian himself. The man signed a form and shoved it into another manila marked “Dead Files”. He took another piece of paper and handed it to Ian, who took it without thinking.
“That’s your card for the interview tomorrow - Reincarnations. Get there on time, we’ll have none of this lateness. I don’t think I can be bothered to get there, after what you’ve done to my work this time.” The man was back into his headmaster character. “I rustled up something, my deputy will be on the case.”
The man stood up and Ian noticed how dark it had now got outside, there were only small points of light visible in the terraced houses along the road, and the street lights themselves, but now the glow from the man seemed not only to light Ian’s room but much of the house beyond.
“Time to go. Just one more thing to do.” The man paused as if he was an actor with one line to say. “Getting a bit dark isn’t it Ian, I’ll just switch on the light.”
Ian watched as the man carefully extended his right index finger. He heard the light switch click and saw the slight spark of the old system light the gas that had been leaking for forty minutes now. Flames burst through the house in seconds, drowning out the sound of a deep, firm voice, saying “Next time, do what you’re told.”