Our eyes first met in May 2007.
I had happened to glance up in the library at the same time as she had, while I had been trying to get my head around Robert Frost’s obscure metaphors, and she’d been trying to understand the McDonald’s business model (“That’s not a real thing to study,” I said to her later. At that point in my life I was much more snobbish, and in many ways more stupid. “Well, sorry, I’m only smart enough for Business Studies,” she had retorted good naturedly. I still feel bad about that comment to this day). I’d noticed that she was wearing an Avenged Sevenfold T shirt (it was 2007, that was considered acceptable). She noticed that I was wearing an open white shirt, waistcoat, and long motorbike boots. “You look like Mad Max the Pirate,” she’d said later. To be honest, I looked like an idiot. I still have the boots somewhere in the attic. I think a mouse lives in them now.
The first conversation we had was when I slipped out of my creative writing class on Wednesday (we were given half a day off for “career enrichment”) and wondered down the little sidestreet next to the drama department to have a smoke. None of my usual friends were there, and I had intended to read quietly for a few moments, but instead I’d seen her, smoking a Chesterfield and tapping on her phone. I realised I didn’t have a lighter, and so I’d shuffled up, awkwardly, and asked for a light.
We’d smoked together until the air began to fug with both the smoke and the awkwardness of it all, before I’d managed to splutter: “You have really cool – nice! – hair.” The stop start delivery that had taken the place of the much better opening line I had been rehearsing in my head managed to make the mutual awkwardness start in surprise and try to come to terms with the newer, purer form of awkward. She smiled, handed me a zippo with Jack Skellington engraved on it (“A 16th birthday present,” she told me later,) and, after a moment, told me her name. I pronounced it correctly on the fifth attempt.
I was thinner then. Even thinner than I am now. I weighed around 8 stone for most of 6th form, and stood six foot two. I didn’t have the beard, or any of the piercings, and my glasses were rounder, and my face, while thin, didn’t have the gauntness that haunts it today. Looking back on then, I’m struck by just how ridiculous I was as a person. Yet in spite of my absurdity, when I said “do you fancy a coffee?” she replied “Yes.”
“You gonna fuck her or what mate?”
“I said ‘you gonna fuck her or what mate’?”
I looked up from my script. We’d been intently studying scripts (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) for about twenty minutes in relative silence, breaking it only to compare suggestions on staging. Our A2 drama practical mock was coming up, and the scene, a mocking mimicry of the Night of Long Knives, was to be learned, blocked and staged in a matter of days. It was 2008 by this point, and winter. Rain spattered aggressively against the windows of the drama studio in a way that only Mancunian rain can.
My friend who’d asked the question was clearly bored of practising his American accent under his breath. The others in our group now turned to look at me.
“I…um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, rather pathetically.
He smirked a bit a me. Not in an unkind way. In his own way, he wanted what he thought was best. “You just need to get laid, mate,” was what he’d say, periodically, as we sat next to each other on the bus, or as we rolled cigarettes on the way to the library. Sex seemed to be a cure all for him, a kind of magic bullet that would blast through any depression, illness or anxiety. We had about two months between us in age, but seemed worlds apart. He could drive, smoked copious amounts of dope, was extremely well read in anarchist theory, and his levels of sexual experience vastly dwarfed my own. I’d been hazy with him on the topic of my own virginity. My first kiss had been only a few months before, an unpleasantly damp and tonguey affair in the common room. He, on the other hand, had been through almost a dozen women, as he liked to phrase it. In hindsight, my feelings of inadequacy about lack of sexual experience were ludicrous. People have sex whenever they want, or don’t. There’s no minimum or maximum age. Of course, the 17 year me wouldn’t have this epiphany for a few years yet. My friend reminded me of the absence of my sex life on a regular basis, though whether this was deliberate or not I couldn’t say. He’s married now, and is moving to Japan with his partner. His baby daughter periodically appears on my Facebook newsfeed, and stares perplexedly out from the screen, presumably wondering what the hell happened and whether there was any chance of going back in the womb, if only to avoid having phones and bright lights thrust in her face every few moments.
(If you’re reading this – your baby is lovely. But please stop instagramming her. I can see that she has a face, as can all 1200 friends of yours. We’d like a break.)
“Aw, come on, Chris. She’s properly fit.” My friend, ever the master at reading tone, continued. “You guys have been together for AAAAAAGES.”
I wanted to correct him. We hadn’t been together for ages. Had we? At what point did it start to count? After two dozen coffees in the little vegan delicatessen in Manchester’s North Quarter? After three trips to the cinema (the last one had been Iron Man, a film neither of us had enjoyed until the Black Sabbath song came on over the credits), and one trip to the theatre (“I have a spare ticket to Macbeth!” I had lied, having in fact begged, stolen and borrowed to afford an extortionate ticket to the Royal Exchange theatre). Did it start to count when you touched someone else? Our contact had been limited. Did it count when someone hugged you for longer that was considered socially acceptable at the bus stop? Did it count when you kicked yourself for not sweeping her off her feet like some manly noir era hero, though knowing you and how fucking clumsy you were, that would probably result in you throwing her in the path of oncoming traffic.
My lack of response to the question clearly struck a nerve. He dropped his script in exasperation. “Chris, you need to cheer up. Relax. Live a little, go out and -“
“- get laid. I know.” I repeated. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind,”
“What, like Cambridge?” someone else said, with a sneer.
Cambridge. Yes, I did have Cambridge on my mind. It had been three days since my interview, and five months since my English teacher, a potbellied, bearded Santa Clause like man, had finally, after months of pestering, got me to put “Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge,” as one of my UCAS options. Actually, I lie. What had really got me to make that final call, and start a chain of events that led me to the city that I would still be a resident of eight long years later, was:
Scene: Picadilly Gardens, Manchester.
Two teenagers sitting on the grass. One pretending to read Bleak House, the other picking her nail polish off and drumming her fingers on the cover of the book.
Her: “So are you going to apply to Cambridge?”
Me: “Fuck knows.”
Me: “What’s the point?”
Her: “The point, Chris, is that if anyone can get into Cambridge, it’s you.”
Me: “Would you like it if I applied?”
Her: “I would like it very much. Now stop reading that book and let’s go do something fun.”
Three days before, I had found myself sitting on the Ely to Manchester train (a journey I would become depressingly familiar with in later years) at around six pm. I check my phone for the first time that day. A text from my Dad (When will you be home.) and one from her:
How did it go? x
I hesitated, then wrote: Weird. The guy interviewing me had the same name as me. x
Lol! Was he anything like u? x
Only if I gained a hundred pounds and played the lute x
(If you happen to be reading this, Professor Chris Page, I am so sorry. I was a dick when I was 17. But I also changed my name, so hopefully you aren’t still getting my post).
Do u think u got in? x
Another pause. I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. It was my 18th birthday in a week’s time, and that offered more dread to me than an archaisms of Cambridge’s admissions process.
Guess we’ll see. What have you been up to? x
Missing you. x
Sometimes words can have a particular charge. They can make butterflies spring to life in your stomach, and make your skin flush and your heart skip a beat.The first time I felt it was somewhere between Chesterfield and Sheffield on a horrible damp day in December 2008. It took me a good fifteen minutes to summon the courage to write:
I miss you too x
Wut time does ur train get in? x
About 7.30 x
Do u want 2 see me? x
The following year I deleted every text we’d ever sent one another, with one exception: Missing you x. The intensity of those two words comforted me and also burned me. At the end of my first year at Cambridge, I was mugged, and my phone was stolen. I regretted the loss of the text far more than the loss of my wallet.
Fast forward to August 2009. It had been a rough summer. I had become very isolated.
I hadn’t heard from her for a week. That worried me. Hence, when I got the text: (Need u x) I dropped what I was doing, dodged past the inevitable question (“are you trying to see what whore again?”) and got the first train to Manchester.
What’s wrong? You ok? x
Talk 2 u in person. meet me @ afflecks x
Afflecks Palace is a department store in the North Quarter of Manchester, part goth shop, part vintage fair, part insight into the mind of a late 2010s emo kid. I found her sitting in the cafe on the top floor. I had run from the station, and then up four flights of stairs. She was sitting by a window, her hands wrapped around a large mug of black coffee.
“Hey! How are you?” breathless and red in the face (I need to stop smoking, I said to myself, a mantra I would be repeating until the age of twenty five).
She didn’t reply, or meet my eye. She was stirring the coffee with the tip of her finger, a habit I’d always considered extremely unhygienic, but rather endearing. “How are you?”
“Fine. Awful. Who cares. You’re doing that thing I do.”
“The turning the question around thing. Back off, that’s mine.”
I tried to be funny. It didn’t have the desired effect. She continued to stir her coffee. I took off my coat and fanned myself with a menu. Something was amiss. Not just in her behaviour, but in her dress. She was wearing a Slipknot t shirt (a present from me) but also something I’d never seen her wear before.
“Nice armwarmers.” I said, trying a different tact.
She flinched at my words, and I started to panic and question what I’d done wrong.
“Thanks.” Her voice was so soft as to be imperceptible.
“When…when did you start wearing those?” I hesitantly reached out a finger to stroke the hand holding the mug. She drew it closer to her. I dropped my hand to the table and began to tap my fingers nervously.
There was silence. I tried desperately to think of something to say or do.
“I can’t see you anymore.”
“I said I can’t see you anymore.”
She finally looked up. She had been crying. Her eyeshadow was smeared, and her lip was bloody from where she’d been biting it.
“Is anyone watching us?” she asked.
“I -?” I frantically looked around, confused, and feeling a growing nausea. “I dunno! What’s going on -“
She rolled back the armwarmers. Her skin was pockmarked with angry red circular marks on both arms. I knew exactly what those were. In my darker moments, I’d inflicted them on myself.
“Who did this to you?” I said. “Who…burned you?”
“My brothers.” she replied.
“Because…” a long pause. The cigarette burns gleamed angrily in the stark light of the cafe. “Because someone told them about us kissing.”
The kiss. It had happened two weeks before. A Level results day. I had opened my envelope to find four A’s written on cream paper, and those four little letters had meant I had met and exceeded my Cambridge offer, and was going south. I ran to find her. She was with a group of her friends, posing for a photo. I drew her to one side, and whispered in her ear: “I did it!”
She pulled away, smiled, and kissed me. It was the first, and only, time we ever kissed.
These days I find it hard to get angry. It’s perhaps one of my greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. I am non-aggressive but terrible at standing up for myself. Swings and roundabouts, really. Perhaps the reason I got put off anger was because of furious intensity of the white hot rage I felt at that point.
“Why.” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand.
“Because you’re not Muslim.”
“Why does that fucking matter?”
“Do you think that matters to me?”
“I’ll kill them.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Go to the Police.”
“They assaulted you!”
“They’re my brothers.”
“I don’t give a fuck!”
Silence. The arm warmers were rolled down. She got up.
“I’m sorry, Chris. You have a future without me in it. I…” she stopped. My fists were clenched on the table so tightly I thought my knuckles would break.
She never finished that sentence. She just walked away. Her coffee remained on the table, steaming quietly to itself. I didn’t move for a very, very long time. Those burns had lit a spark somewhere in my mind. It would fizzle there for another four months until a chance encounter would provide the powder that blew me apart from the inside out.
January 2015. It is just after 3 am in the morning. My then-partner is asleep next to me. The rhythm of her breathing is rather comforting during this particular bout of insomnia. The cat is curled up between my legs on the bedsheet, and were I in a more optimistic mood, I would be reflecting on how lucky I was to share a bed with two precious beings.
Instead, I scrolled through Facebook. It was a soul destroying endless road that led precisely nowhere. When I had realised I wouldn’t be sleeping that night, I’d decided to be productive and write up a PhD proposal. Next to Facebook were multiple tabs to JSTOR articles. I’d read abstracts, gotten too depressed, told myself I was an idiot and wasn’t worth a PhD, and had returned to watching my newsfeed update itself with its eclectic blend of leftist articles, cat pictures, and various comedians complaining about PBH Free Fringe. Again.
Suddenly, in the little side bar of friend suggestions, a name popped up. I almost thought I’d imagined it. I clicked on the profile. She looked pretty much the same. Happier, though. She was smiling diagonally in the selfie, which had been artistically rendered in monochrome. She was still wearing long sleeves. Perhaps the burns were still haunting her.
Two mutual friends. Is that all that’s left? God, my friend purges were getting more ruthless by the day. Her timeline was mostly hidden due to privacy settings. I looked through it anyway. In 2009, I found a picture – A Level results day. A large group of mostly unknown students waving their AQA certificates in the air like flags of surrender. She was slightly off to one side, raising her certificate, but also listening to someone with their back to the camera who was whispering in her ear. Me. My 18 year old head half blocked her face.
Very little remained of the 18 year old me. I’d dismantled him and put away bits of him in a box, and replaced those bits with new bits born out of the sludgy and at times horrifying experience of growing up. What remained of her? She lived in Birmingham now. Good. That was at least a distance away from her family.
I write this is October 2016, in a very different place. The partner cheated and left and took the cat, and I got the hell out of Cambridge. I moved north again, and began that long slow journey of a PhD. Too much happened between January 2015 and October 2016 for me to process it properly, but I do recall this, this one thing: The dawn chorus is singing . My then-partner stirs and rolls over. I sigh deeply, take a deep breath, and click: “send friend request.”
To this day, I haven’t had a response.
But here’s hoping.