I go into town on the night I arrive home. I was bound to. I’ve been away for a while and I want to see what’s going on. I have a bit of a sleep when I’ve dumped my stuff in my room but, after that, I’m feeling more refreshed. Then I have a soak in the bath and get ready.
I leave the house and head up the streets. It’s weird coming back. There’s a feeling of novelty about it, tinged with the inevitable familiarity of the place you grew up in and, apart from the last three years, have lived in all your life.
I walk through the back streets, along the alleyway that cuts off a few minutes, past the second-hand record shop which I used to go in every day, on the way home, when I was in the sixth form. I have a look in the window. It’s not changed much since I’ve been gone, only the records on display are different. I’m going to have a look in there one day in the week when I’ve got time.
I leave it for another time and I’m soon on the main road. I cross over and head up the steps of The Queens and push open the door and head into the right hand bar. It’s quite full in here. Most of the clientele are of a similar vintage to yours truly. This is, according to tradition, the younger, hipper side of this particular watering hole, in contrast to its middle-aged and middle-minded sibling, which you access through the other door. That side is reserved for the g&t crowd, as they’re known, a crowd who are as conservative as they come.
If it’s election time and a visiting politician wants to canvas in a local hostelry, there’s no doubt about which bar he’s going to choose for his moment of publicity. It isn’t where the guttersnipes drink, I can assure you of that. The music’s too loud in here, for one thing, courtesy of the old jukebox that has had pride of place on the wall opposite the bar for as long as anyone can remember. It’s run through the selection of great tunes while I’ve been coming here. It no doubt did the same for the swinging sounds when Elvis was in short trousers. Right now, it’s blasting out its delights at maximum volume, which is perfect from where I’m standing.
I head to the bar and lean on it, trying to catch the barman’s eye. He’s concentrating on serving someone in the g&t bar. After he’s served them, he turns and looks round and spots yours truly standing here. He comes over and I place my order and, in a few moments, I’ve got an ice cold beer in front of me which I look at with all the love they have in that film Ice Cold In Alex. I put it to my lips, have a long drink, and start to feel good. It’s been a long day, with the train journey, and a sharp swig of amber nectar is what I need to get me in the mood.
I turn and lean on the bar and have a good look round. That’s when it hits me. I don’t know anyone in here. It looks like there’s been a changing of the guard since I’ve been away. All right, to be more specific, I recognise a few faces here and there. But I don’t know anyone to talk to. There’s no one I knew at school, for a start. Maybe they’re off doing things somewhere else.
So I stand and sip my lager and let the music blast into my consciousness. Then I head off elsewhere, see what I can find.
What else is there to do on a day like this? I lie in the garden, in the sun, pretending that my name’s Dustin Hoffman and I’m in a film called The Graduate and there’s a swimming pool I can cool off in, and lie on a Lilo with my Wayfairer shades on, whenever I feel like it. But there’s no swimming pool, only the lawn and, while the sun’s shining, it’s not as hot as Southern California. It’s a small town in the middle of England and it doesn’t have the ambience, somehow. It doesn’t stop me from dreaming, though.
I’ve been doing it all my life. Dreaming. Of course. What’s wrong with that? All the best people do. As long as your dreams are of the fabulous variety, so you’re fabulous dreamer, so to speak, what does anyone care?
I went to a few watering holes last night, just to rekindle the acquaintance, you’ll understand. It was the same as in The Queens. I didn’t know anyone. I lie back and think about it. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Do I really want to get back into the social groups I was a part of three years ago before I went away to seek my fortune in decadent academia? Have I moved on from all that? I think we know the answer. A new blank page to write in is just what I need right now. Let’s start it all again.
With those thoughts, I lie back on my sun lounger, sip from a glass of ice-cold orange squash, and let my mind drift away, back to the final days at university and the places I want to go to, once I’ve earned some money. With all that in mind, I need to start looking. I haven’t done anything about finding a job yet. I didn’t need to when I was studying, I always took the view that it was more important to concentrate on getting decent results than anything else, which is true. But I need to do it sooner rather than later. Though the odd day of idleness and taking in the vibes and sunshine isn’t such a bad thing.
With that in mind, I lie back and let my mind wander again. I reach over and put on my ghetto blaster, which I turn up a couple of notches. It won’t last. Someone will complain about it. Never mind. It’s what you have to do.
The weather’s changed. I wake up and hear the patter on the window. It’s not what I want for my Summer. But what can you do?
There were thunderstorms overnight, that’s what they’re saying when I turn the radio on. Though they didn’t wake me up. I could sleep through a war and not even realise it, that’s what they used to say. It’s still the case, especially after a few glasses of wine with my meal, which is how I indulged myself last night. I lie here for a moment and listen to the mindless chitter-chatter of the radio and turn it off.
In spite of the conditions, I decide to head into town. It needs to be done. I can’t hang round here all day, can I? I push myself out of bed with an effort and head downstairs. I’m the only one in, the folks are at work. I have some cornflakes and coffee and a quick shower.
Then I consider the sartorial. A pair of slim-fitting Levi’s will do the trick today, along with some old plimsolls I find at the back of my wardrobe and a navy blue t-shirt. I finish it off with an old raincoat.
I head out of the house where it’s stopped raining and make my way up the street. I think about getting a bus into town but I’m not in the mood for that. So I keep going, dodging puddles, trying to keep my plimsolls clean. I manage it for the most part.
A while later, I arrive in town. My first port of call is probably one of the dullest of my life. I’ve got to go and register at the dole office, meet the benefit gang and sign my life away. I go up to the door and walk in and the sense of officialdom hits me hard in the gut. I look round and there are people who give the impression that they’re downtrodden, looking through job advertisements on the wall. I suppose I ought to do that.
I go up to the desk and the middle-aged woman asks me who I am and what I want and the rest of it. I give her my details and sit down and she does whatever benefits people do to get you on the system and set up to receive the dole or benefit or the social, or whatever they want to call it these days. To my mind, it’s a few weekly drinking vouchers which will half prepare me for the kind of life I used to enjoy back at my version of the dreaming spires, which already seems so very far away and a long, long time ago even though it’s only a few days.
I don’t take in everything that’s said. She tells me I need to be available for work and to come in every other week to sign on. That’s fine, I tell her. I’ll do that. Then we’re finished and I think about looking at the jobs but I can’t bring myself to. I need to get out of the door and into the world.
I head out and the weather’s still rainy. I walk down the street, the drizzle on my collar and I feel like Marvin Gaye on the cover of What’s Going On, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’ve been reduced to signing away my willingness to do whatever they think I should do that will keep me occupied. I forget about it. I make my way towards the second-hand record shop that I walked by on my way to the pub the other night. But the intervening years have made me forget the arrangements the guy who owns the place sometimes makes. I walk up to the door and the legendary words “back in five minutes” face me. That normally wouldn’t matter. But, today with the rain, I don’t feel like hanging around. I need to go somewhere else. So I walk down the high street and decide to go for a coffee in the Lite Bite at the top, where at least it’s warm. A coffee will go down a treat in this weather. It always does.
I head off for The Queens again. It has to be done. I walk in and it’s pretty packed, for a weeknight. I’ve got my raincoat on and the collar’s up and I catch a reflection of myself in the mirror opposite. My hair’s soaked. I got caught in a downpour as I was coming here. My feet are damp as well. Rolled up jeans and deck shoes aren’t necessarily the best way to wade through a walk to the pub on an English Summer night like this.
I forget about it as I lean on the bar and the boy who served me the other night comes over. The jukebox isn’t as loud as it was on Saturday, which is a shame because I like the blast of rock and roll that’s coming out of its big speaker. The boy asks me what I’d like and I say a lager again and, in a few seconds it’s in front of me and I take a drink.
I turn round and survey the pub. I imagine I won’t know anyone here again. Then I spot them. There’s a group of boys I used to know when I was at school. They’re sitting in the corner, round a table. I used to hang round with them a little in my last year in the sixth form. If I’m honest, I never really felt a great affinity with them. They were just people to hang round within those last days, the ones before you were to go out into life and leave home and seek your fortune elsewhere. The world would be your oyster, that’s what they told you. No one told you that you’d be back here after three years, with very little to show for it.
One of the boys turns round and spots me standing at the bar. There’s a faint look of recognition on his face and he smiles a little and nods his head. I nod mine back and decide to go over and revive old acquaintance, after all this time. His friends look up at me.
I go over and sit down. I don’t know if any of them are pleased to see me or not. And I don’t know if I’m pleased to see them. There are words exchanged about what people are doing, what degree you ended up with, and what your plans are next. It transpires that all of these have things they’re going on to. One’s doing the same as people I knew at uni and heading round Europe, another’s got a job in the City somewhere and the other’s going abroad to a villa that his girlfriend’s parents own. So what are you doing, one of them asks me? I sit and shrug my shoulders and say I’m not sure. I’ve only been back for a few days and need to sort my plans out. No one says much.
As we’re sitting here and exchanging small talk and reminiscing on occasion about school, it hits me. We’ve moved on, all of us. We may have been on the same wavelength once, when we had known nothing of the world beyond the confines of this small town. But now we’ve got different ideas and influences. We’re not moving in the same direction, which we were three years ago. The world has changed and so have we. This will probably be the last time we meet. Perhaps ever.
We’re not the same people as we were. And the funny thing is that doesn’t disappoint me. Not at all.
I don’t bother going out today. I don’t need to. I’ve spent enough time kicking round town since I’ve been back. And my folks have started asking me what I’ve been doing about getting a job. They’ve asked me what jobs I’ve applied for, which adverts I’ve seen, what my plans are. As my answers will be in the negative for all of those, I suppose I need to do something about it all.
So I spend the day firing off job applications. I apply to arts groups, councils, financial institutions, retailers, newspapers, the lot. Of course, I have to write my cv first, which I spend the morning doing. Then I send it, with a covering letter introducing myself, to anyone and everyone. After sending that lot off, I’ll just sit here and wait a while for the job offers to start coming in. Ideally, I’d like to do something creative but it will all be down to money. If they’re offering a decent amount, I won’t worry too much about what field it’s in. Though I know that my goal as a writer at the NME is just a matter of time.
Later in the day, I check out what’s on the television. I never used to watch it when I was at uni, it fries your mind with its banality. I need something that’s going to stimulate the mind, not rot it with endless soap operas and quiz shows. But I fall into the trap of letting it pull me in. I spend the afternoon in front of it, watching those same quiz shows and soap operas that I used to despise when I was a student. I almost start to find them entertaining. But not quite. My mind isn’t frazzled to that extent yet.
I turn it off after a while, succumb to boredom. Then I go and make a strong coffee to keep me awake. I sit at the kitchen table, flick through some Sunday supplements from the newspapers of a couple of weeks ago, and look at the adverts. There’s an interview with an old rock star from the sixties about what he’s doing now, what bands he likes, his investments, and that sort of thing. I finish reading it. I was into him more when he was revolutionary, not joining the investment bank lot. I suppose I’ll get used to that later on, when I get a job somewhere.
I put the magazine back on the side. I sip my coffee and look to see if there are any more jobs I can apply for. There aren’t.
I go back and turn on the television again. There’s a film on now. An old black and white one about the war. I’ve seen it an endless number of times but it’s worth watching again.
I finally make it to the second-hand record shop. It’s the third time I’ve seen it since I’ve been back and, each time, it’s either been shut or it’s had a “back in five minutes” note. But today it’s open. There’s a little bit of a break from the rain and I head down to it.
The guy who owns it nods his head to me as I walk in. I can’t believe he recognises me from when I used to go in before. I’m not the same as back then. I don’t say anything in acknowledgment. I just walk over to the stacks of records and start flicking through them. I love them, records. There’s something about them that gets down deep, makes me feel something approaching emotion. It’s the familiar covers, the ones I’ve seen all my life. Each of them means something, marks a spot in where you were at a particular stage. I want more of them. To help me through my days. I pick a couple up, start looking at the sleeve notes, taking them out, and checking the vinyl for any scratches. I can’t see any. This guy looks after his records. I slip them back into the inner sleeves and put them back. I’m interested in one or two of them. But do I have to get them today? Will they not wait until I’ve got more money? Will they not wait until the benefit boys have given me my handout for the week?
On the other hand. These records won’t stay here at this price. If I want them, now is the time. So I look deep within my pocket and produce the necessary green notes and hand them to the man behind the counter. Then I leave; new purchases in my hands, and make my way back home.
I’m sitting, watching another mindless chat show when I hear the letterbox clatter. I get up from the settee and wander over to the door. There’s a postcard here and two letters. The postcard’s for me, it’s from Max. He’s in St Tropez. It’s got a picture of the harbour, the sea filled with yachts and other small boats. It’s all right for some, I think to myself, as I walk back into the lounge, to my chat show and the sound of rain, once again, on the window.
I sit down and look at the other two letters. They’re both for me. They’re in window envelopes, with my name written in an official way. I tear the first one over. It’s from a financial company where I applied for a job the first day I started my search. “Thank you for your application,” it says. “I regret to inform you…” That’s it, I don’t need to read anymore.
I toss to one side and look at the other. The envelope is brown, whereas the other one was white. That’s the only difference. The typeface of my name and address are the same. I look at it and wonder. Is this my ticket out of this small town and to somewhere else? I don’t hang about waiting. I tear that one open as well. The words are a carbon copy of the first. They look as if they could have been written by the same person. An unimaginative one.
I think about screwing the letters up and throwing them in the bin. But I’ll keep them. If I ever have to show anyone the number of jobs I’ve applied for, and the reaction, they’ll serve their purpose I would think. Otherwise, I might make a collage out of them and set fire to it.
I look out of the window at the rain falling, the television with its banal nonsense, and the letters next to me. It’s going to be a long, wet summer.
Maybe everyone’s like this for a while when they finish university. Unless you’re in the south of France, of course.