The road was dark yet shiny and, as the figure walked through the mizzle and over the crest of the hill, the clouds seemed to whirl mere inches above his head. This area was called the Four Winds, and the roads and houses huddled high above the rest of the city, while the slightest breeze grew strong and sharp this close to the sky. The air sliced through the clouds, forming a million dusky patterns typically ignored when the sun had set. Dark backlighting dark. Shade washing through shade. Hypnotic.
Joining dramatic sky to damp asphalt, and walking quickly, Paul Millar added his washed out, more grey than black, denim jeans and scuffed leather jacket to the patterns above as he descended down the avenue. He strode with casual purpose towards Mike’s parent’s small bungalow, nestled between rows of uniform houses, with uniform curtains, uniform gardens and uniform families. The light from dozens of television screens scraped through the windows and Venetian blinds to caress his long hair, highlighting the anticipation on his face. The party had probably started already.
Paul was a young man, almost 19, and was enjoying his last summer before University. This was a time of experimentation, with the pressure of school and exams finally just a dim memory, and a time to find a place in society. Somewhere to belong, with people he cared for, and who cared about him. His regular visits to Mike’s house had become the central focus of his summer, and each long walk ended in an evening where belonging seemed a possibility, even a reality. The small set of rooms upstairs in the bungalow was becoming an island for him, in an otherwise changing and increasingly empty world. The feeling of being dissociated from the rest of humanity which had been trickling into his mind over the last year was becoming a well of discontent within him. Life had really only begun for Paul, but he could not dislodge the fear that what lay beyond this summer was 50 years of uncertainty and day upon day without direction. He recalled the words spoken to him just the night before, as he was accosted by a drunk at his local bar.
“I remember when I was young, about your age my boy...” The unshaven man leaned uncomfortably close to Paul as he stood waiting for service at the bar. There was a disturbing smell surrounding Sam. It was earthy and moist, but not in the pleasant way of forests or freshly turned soil. He smelled of old, sweaty peat. His skin, wrinkled far beyond his years – he was born in the ‘50s – added to this effect, and looked like a scale model of a fetid bog. Every crevice and fold on his neck was accentuated by the dark shadows of dirt trapped within, and thick stubble burst from the cracks like strange, alien crops. For Sam, water was useful only for the distillation of rum, and liquid was plainly something you poured down your throat rather than wiping across your skin. A sudden smile crashed across his face, revealing a filthy glint in his eye and teeth that would frighten a shark.
“Oh yes, Paul my boy. I remember when I was your age!” He cackled, his laugh making Sid James sound like a choirboy, before dissolving into a rack of phlegm-fuelled coughing. His smile remained throughout, growing wilder by the second.
“I’m sure you do, Sam… Sure you’re still young!” Paul was convinced that the strange patina of dirt encasing Sam’s skin was about to detach and leap through the air to smother him. He tried again to catch the eye of the barman. Behind the dusty bottles that no-one drank, just above the obligatory Jameson’s whiskey mirror, Paul noticed a photograph of a proud-looking racing pigeon. Rounded and smug, the bizarre picture seemed oddly appropriate given his current company. Sam started to laugh again, and those sitting in the more comfortable seats around the bar glanced with nervous anxiety towards him, perched on his barstool like a sooty gargoyle wearing a worn tweed coat.
“Oh, Paul… I’m not through yet… but I’m not young like you anymore!” He clutched Paul’s wrist, too quickly for Paul to pull away. His hands were strong like thick claws, and his nails looked like he’d just clambered up from his grave for a swift half.
“Great to see you by the way. You’re a lovely man!” Paul smiled whilst his skin crawled, and Sam tried to look sincere. He was not convincing. Paul managed to attract the barman.
“Another pint there?” Paul nodded patiently, whilst Sam released him to root through his jacket pocket for something. The claw produced a handful of coins that would probably need autoclaved before he could legally spend them. He dumped them onto the counter, conveniently into a puddle of beer which at least made them shine, before ordering dark rum.
“No… I remember being young.” Conversation with Sam was quite a Zen experience. Given time and patience, enlightenment would be reached. If not enlightenment, there was at least the hope of the end of a sentence.
“I was about 20, oh yes. Your age. I thought that the world was full of opportunity.” He gazed over the counter thoughtfully, perhaps looking for the reflection of a younger, cleaner Sam. “All I had to do was do my best – understand?” Paul nodded, and took a sip of his beer. “You’re a lovely man, by the way! It’s great to see you again.” A cool breeze swept hopefully past them as the pub door was opened, and Paul glanced behind him to see a tiny, middle-aged man enter lugging a large speaker at least as tall as himself. This was ominous – The Homestead had been suffering an infestation of dire musicians calmly murdering songs with the help of backing tracks and dodgy microphones. However, the real investment was in the amplifiers, merely so no corner of the pub would be safe from ‘Born to be Wild’ in the style of Daniel O’Donnell. Paul sensed the need to leave after this pint.
“No… your best. That’s what everyone said!” Sam was oblivious to the draught and, to be honest, probably looked forward to the music. He could cackle at each missed high note without annoying others, and he’d been known to spend whole evenings confusing serious singers with hilarious comedians. Paul had, in fact, often wondered why Sam wasn’t barred for life. Apart from being the biggest income for The Homestead, it was likely that Sam was physically attached to the stool. Paul nodded his agreement.
“Yeah… that’s what they tell me. Do your best!” Sam smiled as Paul agreed with him, sipped his rum and rasped out an amused laugh. The claw reattached to Paul’s arm, and Sam leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Anyway.” Eye contact. “That’s all rubbish.”
Serious glance dissolved into another crazy laugh, as though Sam had remembered a particularly funny joke. “There’s nothing out there for you, my boy.” He laughed again. “Great to see you, though. You’re a lovely man! No, nothing out there at all. No-one gives a shit if you do your best or not.” He lifted his glass again, the surface of the sticky rum seemingly waiting for an unfortunate sabre-tooth or mammoth to wander by. “I tried so hard when I was your age… Worked my arse off, and got nowhere. Worked so hard I ended up in the madhouse for three months. Kicked out of work, and my wife left me.” His laugh died a little, and the light caught the corner of his eye as though a tear was forming. “Said I’d had a nervous breakdown… Me… nervous breakdown!” The moisture in his eye suddenly dried as though any self-respecting tear wouldn’t be seen dead on Sam’s crusty cheek, and the face split open in yellow grin. The dry, mad laugh escaped again. “Nervous breakdown!”
Nervous breakdown my ass, thought Paul. Maybe schizophrenia.
“But I’m alright now… oh yes. Fine now! Got my house, my diggers and my rum!” He released Paul’s arm and looked away, chuckling darkly to himself. A discordant, computerised ‘bossa’ beat started from the corner of the room, and Paul drained his pint. “You’re a lovely man… great to talk with you again!” Sam smiled and lit a possibly recycled cigarette butt.
“You too, Sam… see you again.” Paul decided to leave before the “history of bad music” lesson started in earnest, and he patted Sam on the shoulder as he walked to the door. “Take care.”
The words “lovely man” followed Paul into the cool, dark evening, leaving this strange philosopher to his rum.
As he walked towards Mike’s door, with the electric bell dangling from wires through the letterbox, he thought of crazy Sam. It struck a chord, albeit a chord struck on a un-tuned £10 electric guitar clattering through a cheap stereo using spaghetti for leads. He had been feeling increasingly alone in the world since he finished school, and the euphoria of passing his exams only lasted for a few moments. He’d spent fourteen years in formal education merely to receive a slightly torn strip of paper, with his grades detailed in faded dot matrix print. He felt cheated by it all. They were just letters. “B” standing for “not as Bored as I could’ve been”. “C” for “Crap revision”. “D” for “Didn’t really care that much.” Measures of how bothered he was when revision couldn’t be avoided anymore. Ways of avoiding parental disappointment. Means to make mum and dad smile. Tick a box. Answer a question to get a plastic piece of pie, “I’ll take Science and Technology”, please. Figure out “10 across” in the Sixth Form centre. The Independent, of course, because you are. Aren’t you?
The work. The exams. The boring evenings trying to suck dull facts into an unwilling brain. They seemed to be a waste. He’d got his place in University because of them, and that was probably something to look forward to, but beyond this he felt that his ties to most of his life were cut by a single, grotty sheet of paper. “Thanks for your time… here you go. Close the door on the way out.” Anticlimax. ‘A’ grade anticlimax, although a couple of ‘A’ grades might have lessened the blow a little. Paul recalled endless afternoons the previous May, drinking coffee, watching crap TV, and experimenting with the sandwich maker. Each evening brought the exams closer, and every evening seemed too early to worry.
So much potential. The chance to get top marks. So much good bad TV. The chance to see what ham and strawberry tasted like. So many detailed revision notes. Such opportunities to do medicine or veterinary studies.
Paul simply couldn’t be bothered.
He gingerly lifted the bellpush, always aware of Mike’s younger brother. The comic explosives expert. He recalled the previous week, when he and others had been rushed into the avenue by Mike’s brother to witness… well, a small lego house. It was a simple bungalow model, with a short, pretty chimney, several lego trees which had only come onto the market – previously you had to build your own trees from green bricks, a few of the rare and precious 2x2 blocks, and a lot of LSD to see them as plant life – and two lonely lego figures outside the front door. Paul sat on the wall next to the garden, while Ross fiddled with a few bits and bobs around the chimney before lighting a match cautiously. He then grinned disturbingly and ran back into the driveway. The others watched as Ross jumped over, then behind, the wall and said shortly “you’re probably too close.” Mike and Paul smiled at Ross before an enormous “boom” erupted from the lego house. What had been a lego house. Paul remembered picking pieces of plastic out of his hair, as he pressed the buzzer again.
Somewhere in the bungalow an electric bell buzzed.
So much stress, and such an anticlimax. Paul needed a party.
Mike’s brother opened the front door, and grunted in a disinterested way. Down the hall Paul saw the weird, watery lights coming from Ross’s room. Filled with aquaria, and a variety of homemade bomb-making equipment for blowing up cakes, lego houses or Mike’s friends, Ross wasn’t part of the upstairs collective. Paul walked through the house and along the extension corridor that led to Mike’s rooms.
The first thing one notices as you climb the narrow stairs to Mike’s room is the smell. A musty, oriental scent tumbles over the stairs from the incense burning above. The light is subdued, and voices can be heard above the music beyond the door. Paul opened it and entered, passing from the damp, cold world outside, through the airlock of normal household life, into the warmth and sensual assault of Mike’s room. The party was already in full swing, although Mike’s parties never swung. They immersed.
Candles, scattered randomly to illuminate some areas with a bright yellow flicker, and others with the gentlest of coloured tints, lighted the room. Tiny specks of red fire indicated the incense sticks, with smoke coiling from their tips and drifting toward the dusky ceiling. Furniture, old and used, appeared to grow from areas in the room –organically becoming part of the atmosphere. Ornaments were everywhere – not the pristine, well-dusted variety found in the neat rooms downstairs – rather an assortment of jaded baubles, their poor condition adding the beauty of experience to their appeal. Others had handled them, enjoyed them, yet annoyed them with dusters and polish. Now they were home. Gathered over several years from second hand shops, auctions, and skips, Mike had an obsession about such items. Each reflected a facet of him, and they were rich in number and variety.
Then there were the people. A huddle of girls, sitting on the mattress that served as Mike’s bed, acknowledged Paul with a smile as he entered and looked for a spot to rest. Clad in flowing, delicate skirts and tops, made all the more special by the rich, dark patterns of the cloth, these were the ‘hippy chicks’ – the permanent additions to these parties. Unlike most, these girls were proud to be intelligent, interested, artistic, and each was the more beautiful for it. No sexes at Mike’s place. People were just that; people. There was sex, from time to time, and relationships blossomed occasionally, growing out of the spiced incense into the real world. But if the romance didn’t continue, bitterness would be stifled by the peace in this room. People were like that here. You could leave things be, and enjoy even sad memories. The girls were eating toast.
Paul reflected momentarily on how remarkable this was, before taking in the remainder of the large room. Lounging around, either on the floor, on soft pillows or beanbags, were others. Young men, with long, shabby hair, each dressed uniquely, which was the only uniform code for the group, sat listening to the music, talking quietly, or reading as Paul took a seat next to the bookshelf by the window. On hot summer days folk would climb through onto the flat extension roof, and play guitars or just rest in the arms of the warm sun. Paul, Mike and Wig once played a short gig for a group of pigeons.
It was well received.
In the middle of the room, slightly to one side, sat Mike, reading through an LP cover with another girl. A wave and a smile towards Paul. He was a man with an electric spirit – a magnetic personality that drew all to him, notwithstanding his gentle demeanour and soft smile. He was the core of the collective, more than a friend, and intimate with everyone. Mike made ‘people persons’ look antisocial. When someone entered his sphere of reality, Mike’s gravity did the rest. Within minutes deep bonds would be forged, and life before Mike was almost forgotten.
If Mike sparked flames in those
around him on his own, when everyone was together in his presence firestorms of
belonging burst into being. This was the essence of Mike’s parties, and this
was why Paul felt so drawn towards them. They shone brightly in the bleak
emptiness and anticlimax of life, and detached souls arrived and became
addicted. Young, filled with passion, but trapped in a straitjacket world.
Mike’s parties made you free.