An old man goes to a park to drink a few cans of lager, and ends up reviewing his life.
He could stand in the centre of his room, stretch out his arms and touch the wall on either side. The small window gave a view of a brick wall, and the drain emptied out directly below. In summer, the rising smell forced him to keep the window closed. As a result, the room stank of cigarettes, stale sweat, dirty blankets, dirty laundry, and the plastic shopping bag filled with rubbish that hung on a nail by the sink. From time to time his underwear, drying on the radiator, though not thoroughly rinsed, masked all other smells. Every time he came home all of these smells hit him, but he never wondered if they were the cause of his perpetual headache.
Three or four times a week he got the urge to have a drink. Then he would buy a ten-pack of beer from his local discount supermarket: ten small bottles of German beer. His intention was always to drink only one bottle, this always became two, and two became three. Usually by the fifth bottle he had climbed into bed with a book and the TV turned on with the sound off, for the company. When he finished bottle number ten, he turned the TV off, curled up and went to sleep, not because he was tired, but because he was already in bed and had nothing else to do. This had been his routine for years.
There were times when passing a pub he felt the temptation to push open the door and go in. But the smoky rooms he remembered were gone, replaced by what he called Fashion Statement Drinking Emporiums, designed to appeal to a transient population. The young men he saw going into these places looked like homosexuals. The women looked pointy and callous, especially the mousey ones. Then there were the Biker Bars; dark pits of despair filled with noise and smelly people.
Now was one of the times he felt he needed a drink. Sick of drinking at home, and afraid to go to the pub, he bought four cans of Lager and went to the park. The deep front pockets of his heavy black coat held two cans each. He didn’t know exactly where in the park people went to drink, but he wanted to avoid the places where tramps met. The thought of becoming a tramp frightened him; he had seen them fighting; the ugliness of their lives disgusted him. He imagined a world where fun-loving movie drunks congregate in lilac groves and sleep on the dappled ground.
His favourite writers had all been down and out and drunk, and he wanted to be one of those. Although he read, not for instruction or adventure, but merely to pass the time, he told himself he was searching for Life’s Eternal Verities. He didn’t know what Verities actually meant, but it felt right. If you told him it was the plural of verity, a noun meaning a true principle or belief, especially one of fundamental importance (Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Twelfth Edition), he would have agreed with you, although he wouldn’t really have been any clearer.
* * *
He sat on a bench and took a moment to catch his breath before reaching into his pocket for the first can of Lager. Just then, a child ran past, her arms flapping, and her hair bouncing; she was laughing, chasing a ball. The sight cheered him. He watched her catch up to the ball, crouch down and pick it up with both hands. He watched her run back the way she had come; watched her throw the ball and watched the ball bounce once before landing a few feet from her. A man in his thirties clapped hands and cheered. He picked up the ball and then looked at the old man on the bench. Their eyes locked and the old man felt threatened.
* * *
He recalled a day at the local swimming pool when he was seventeen, advising a child not to leave his clothes unattended. The child’s father, he looked about fifty, suddenly came into the room. He looked at the pasty teenager talking to his son, ‘What the fuck’s going on here?’
The father stepped past his son and pushed the teenager up against the wall, pressing his forearm against the boy’s neck, ‘What were you saying to him?’
‘I just said to bring his stuff with him.’
‘Yeah, cause bastards like you will rob him.’
The older man turned to his child, ‘Is that true.’
The boy nodded.
He let the teenager go and turned to his son. He smacked the child across the back of the head. ‘Don’t be so fucking stupid next time.’
* * *
He looked around and noticed the climbing frame, the sandbox, the see-saw and swings, and it slowly dawned on him that he was sat in a playground. He immediately had a snapshot of himself, a grizzled old man, panting at children in the park. He panicked and, feeling lost and afraid, he got up off the bench and shuffled out of the playground.
He walked around for almost half an hour, hoping to become invisible in the crowd. Suddenly his vision filled with what appeared to be the face of a Pixie shouting at him, ‘SMILE, IT’S FREE!’ He jumped back, automatically stripping what was left of his teeth. The girl looked at him, looked at the yellow teeth, looked at the space where his front teeth had been. Then she noticed his eyes, almost the same colour as his teeth. She jerked her head away, more disturbed than disgusted. Until this moment, her vision of life admitted only the beauty. Beauty was whatever rhymed with her vision of life. Although she didn’t know it, it was a vision also shared by the man who had just put the first cracks in her world.
He turned and watched her walk away, a little closer to the ground. He imagined she must be about sixteen. Some lucky bastard would be fucking her tonight. In situations like this he never pictured himself as the lucky bastard. He smiled, twenty years earlier she was the sort of girl he went for, but they didn’t really go for him. He felt those earlier yearnings now, and they left him with a sense of hopelessness.
He continued on to another park and searched for the Children’s Playground so he could be sure not to sit anywhere near it. He found a bench facing a bandstand and sat down. He closed his eyes and listened to an imaginary orchestra play highlights from Wagner. He felt a soft breeze on his face and opened his eyes. He looked around, feeling displaced, like he had just woken up. He hadn’t been sleeping, but for a moment he was surprised to find himself in the park. He reached into one of his pockets for a can of Lager, then stopped and decided he’d better wait, let it settle. He took out his tobacco, rolled and lit a cigarette. As he smoked, he felt himself move further away from the people around him. Sound came to him as if he were listening with ears still waiting to pop after a long flight. He became infused with a sweet melancholy that made him feel like a Romantic Hero. There would be a woman, one day. There would be passion, one day. There would be light and life and music. Whenever he felt like this, it was always just one woman, never women.
The cigarette burned his lips and he spat it out, swearing and standing up to brush it from his clothes. He looked down at the glowing end, angry for a moment, then bent and picked it up. He went over to a bin and crushed the cigarette stub out. He found himself concentrating on this action as if he were playing a role and wanted to sell it to some unseen audience.
He went back to the bench and sat down, finally taking a can of Lager from his pocket. He held the can away from him and slowly pulled back the tab. The froth bubbled out and down the side of the can. A tiny amber stream flowed along the back of his left hand from the thumb to the wrist. He switched the can to his right hand and shook out his left. He licked the remains of the Lager and looked in wonder at the thin white line that made the rest of his hand look filthy. He tried to remember when he’d last cleaned himself. It was not that he didn’t care about his appearance; he always made a point of being presentable. Every morning he looked in the mirror to see if he needed a wash, and for a long time now he hadn’t. But he would have a wash tonight, maybe a shave too.
He took a long pull at the can. The Lager was warm and watery, but it would do, and besides, what can you expect at four cans for under a fiver? Still, it was better than the wine he could get for the same money. He bought a bottle of wine once, when he wanted to be sophisticated.
* * *
He had read somewhere that drinking wine with his dinner would elevate his pallet, this would elevate his mind which in turn would elevate his life. Faced with all the wines at his local supermarket he experienced a kind of overload. He almost walked out of the shop, but that would mean adding another failure to a list that was getting far too long. He stood for a long time searching for a solution. Then it hit him. He discounted the white wine because that was a women’s drink, He discounted all the wines with contemporary designs on the labels because that wasn’t proper wine. He discounted everything costing more than a fiver because he couldn’t afford to spend that much. Finally, he found a bottle that fulfilled all the requirements of a good wine as he understood it. A dark bottle with a label that looked ancient, and a name that recalled some TV commercial for Port or Brandy, something like that.
He went home, proud of his purchase and proud of himself for having taken decisive action to improve his life. Once he regained the safety of his flat, he opened the wine and set it on the table to breath until he had cooked his dinner. He popped a frozen ready meal (curry chicken and rice) into the microwave and turned the TV on, keeping the sound low. He believed he did this so as not to disturb the neighbours. In fact it was so they wouldn’t know he was home; otherwise they might start talking about him, and it wouldn’t be anything good.
The microwave pinged. He opened the door and took out his dinner, then went to the bed and sat down, (he had only one rickety chair that was dangerous to sit on). He spread a towel across his lap and poured the wine into one of the four crystal wine glasses which he had bought for two hundred pounds. He bought them as an investment, knowing that one day he would be hosting dinner parties, and when that day came he didn’t want to disgrace himself. Holding the glass by its stem, he lifted the wine to the window to check its colour.
The poor quality of the light made this a futile gesture. That didn’t matter because he didn’t know what to look for, and did not have the language to express it. The colour, a deep burgundy, seemed OK. He lifted the glass to his nose to check the wine’s nose, he loved that expression. Again, he did not know what to look for, but the words, naughty, cheeky, and impertinent floated through his mind and assured him that he had chosen wisely, better than those Nob-heads that spend twenty or thirty quid on a bottle of wine!
He slowly brought the wine glass to his lips, savouring every instant of this first step to a better life. He felt the wine flow into his mouth; it was disgusting. It went down like treacle and tasted worse, but it had cost £3.99, and he wasn’t about to waste that money by throwing the wine out. Maybe that’s how wine is supposed to taste. He ate his dinner slowly, using the curry to mask the wine. He finished the bottle and passed out.
Sometime in the night he was woken up by a loud noise which he identified as a headboard banging against a wall. Fear closed around his heart like a fist, leaving him feeling weak and wounded and worthless. Very slowly, so as not to make any sound, he climbed down from the bed and stretched out on the floor. He pressed his ear to the carpet, straining to hear that delicious sound of people in love. A few final gasps and they were finished. Now he was afraid to move because surely they would hear him and know what he had been doing. He lay there until he heard a toilet flush, then quickly climbed back onto the bed and began to masturbate.
* * *
He finished the first can of Lager and put the empty into his pocket. He did not want to draw attention to himself by going to the bin. He took a second can from his other pocket, so the weight would be evenly distributed. He cracked open the can and began to drink.
He noticed a couple of girls stretched out on their coats in the shade of a tree. One of the girls lay on her back with her phone held at arm’s length above her face. She was pressing the screen with her thumbs. The other girl, on her stomach, looked around the park, talking to her texting friend. He thought they seemed nice. The girl who was on her stomach smiled at him. She hadn’t been looking directly at him, but he knew by the way she turned her head when she spoke to her friend. Then both girls sat up and turned to look at him. He felt embarrassed, afraid they might come over to talk. He noticed the way each girl’s T-shirt fell from her breasts. He didn’t want this; he felt ashamed, but he had no choice. Against his will he imagined feeling the girl’s breasts, tasting them; in some part of his brain he believed that he and the girls were peers.
He believed this because early in life he learned to reflect other people back at themselves. This action had now become an automatic response that he was unaware of. It began because at his core he knew he was unacceptable. Complications during his birth left his Mother unable to have any more children. She never forgave him for murdering the daughter she might have had. For the first few years of his life, he was raised as a girl to atone for his crime. When he started school and had to be a boy, the hugs that once were filled with love became exercises in squeezing. Every day his mother would reassure him of her love, ‘Even though you don’t love me.’
‘But I do Mammy.’
‘No. If you did you wouldn’t have done what you did to me.’
Other times she would prove her love by telling him, ‘I hope I die before you. I couldn’t bear to watch you die.’
For months after that he had been afraid to go to sleep in case he died. He was afraid whenever his mother was out of sight, in case she died. What would happen to him without his mother to protect him? Eventually he accepted that he was scum, and life became a little easier to deal with. His father went along with this because raising children was women’s work.
Throughout the intervening years, he never realised that his mother had been mentally ill. If he had, he would have been ashamed of it, the way she had been ashamed of her brother’s illness. Instead, he reached his fifties with his natural need for affection perverted into a desire for sex with young girls. He believes their love is pure, that selfishness and cruelty are not yet a part of their nature. He has never acted on his desire because he is still paying for his crime. But one day, when he is forgiven, maybe with one of the girls who are now sitting on their coats. He doesn’t yet know that sex with a fourteen-year-old girl is child abuse. Child abuse is rape, and rape is sex without consent, and he would never do that.
He smiles openly at the girls now, wondering what it would be like to stretch out beside them, (not to do anything nasty) just for a bit of harmless fun. He imagines sharing expensive whisky and wry observations about life. There would be no harm in giving them a drop of Whisky. He was younger than they when he had his first drink. He tells himself that if he were twenty years younger he’d chance it. But he knows that would not have happened. Then he realises that even if he were twenty years younger he would still be too old, over twenty years too old. This is the first time he questions his 'twenty years younger' philosophy. ‘Twenty years younger,’ another automatic response. He wonders where he picked it up, and then he remembers; it was while reading the comments section of a porn video online; not bad porn, good porn, healthy porn. He only watched porn on sites where the actresses have their own accounts, post their own videos and engaged with their fans, like any other celebrity.
The only problem he has with porn is that it no longer gives him an erection. He frequently finds himself feeling sorry for the dead-eyed girls who have so clearly switched off while being fucked in the ass by someone they met only ten minutes earlier. Sometimes, while watching a cock pound some young ass, he wondered if the producers were trying to arouse his desire or pay some kind of oblique tribute to Stephenson’s Rocket. Sometimes he wanted to save all of these women. But wasn’t that part of it? Wasn’t that part of the role they were playing? Their comments seemed to say so. He never considered the possibility that the comments had been left by someone paid to engage with viewers; to be the viewers’ fantasy of that particular porn star; to encourage subscriptions to paysites.
He once left comments; after carefully working out what to say, so she would know he was a gentle, considerate lover; a real man, and not one of the creeps she usually had to deal with, he left the following message: ‘If you would like to get together, I would be happy to make love to you properly. The way you deserve to be loved. You deserve better.’ As the weeks passed, he read her replies to other messages, and every day he grew angrier that he was being ignored. He finally decided that she was just another bitch, just out for herself.
The video in question showed a schoolgirl who had just had her first period. She was trading sex for good grades. Her bio on the site claimed she was eighteen. When it later emerged that she really had just had her first period and was the victim of an international porn ring, he forgot about his comments and his hate. He felt ashamed of having watched the video. He berated himself for a week before realising it wasn’t his fault, after all, how was he to know? His anger softened into pity for what they had done to him. Soon after that he switched to Lesbian porn; at least he knew those Rug Munchers wouldn’t lead him on.
* * *
He catches the girls looking at him and realises he has been staring at them. He tries to think of something to shout across, something funny that will let them know not to be afraid. He makes what he thinks is a funny face. The girls do not respond and so he shrugs his shoulders, grinning stupidly, and tries to come up with something else. But at that moment all he can think to do is drink. It’s a way of breaking the connection without appearing cowardly.
In his imagination the conversation flows smoothly, he is witty and urbane; he is Cary Grant. In reality, he never knows what to say. He recalls dancing with a girl and trying to think of something clever, some brilliant insight to unlock her heart. He was sure that was the key. Finally, he gave up and asked,
“What do people talk about when they’re dancing with you?”
Accepted wisdom had it that you dance you talk you shift you fuck. Sometimes talking came before dancing. Sometimes there was no dancing. He had seen people together at tables, chatting easily with other couples, although how they could hear each other is anybody’s guess. At some point during the night, it would be discovered that one or both, of these couples, had left the club. The boys in these equations rarely talked about it afterwards, this was a measure of maturity, as was the swagger that told all. When they dispensed their wisdom: who would fuck and who would suck, who to avoid because she was probably riddled, who was still nice and tight, this was a measure of experience. Not being mentioned was a measure of how much they liked a girl.
Listening to this as a young teenager, he believed every word. Even when they were telling the truth, they were not talking about having had sex with a girl; they were talking about having had sex on a girl; it was something they were doing to her to prove something to themselves, and later to others. It was what men did.
Not having an image of manhood to live up to, it never occurred to him that others might, and that that image had been gleaned from bad movies, (images that had nothing to do with actually being a man), and the fear of being seen as weak.
The idea of having a relationship with a girlfriend was as alien to him as the idea of suddenly discovering he was Black or Chinese; it is simply beyond the scope of his imagination.
He wanted to be like his friends. He was young and horny and wanted to fuck, so he waited for her answer; certain she would teach him how to negotiate her to the car-park, or the ditch that climbed down to the river. She looked at him and offered a confused smile.
“Football,” she said.
For a minute, he thought she was joking. “Are you into football?”
She inclined her head, raising her eyebrows and pulling in her chin. She let out a short mocking laugh.
“What are you into?” he asked.
“Oh, you know, different things.”
“What do you think about Dracula?”
“Which one?” she asked. “There’s loads of them.”
“Loads of them? No. The book. Have you ever read it?”
Again, the mocking laugh. “Ah now, I’ve got better things to do than read books I don’t have to.”
He’s disappointed; his entire well of conversation is worthless. There are other girls, girls with whom he could talk for hours, and who want him, but some of those are reputed to be ‘tight as a Gant’s Chuff’, while others are not generally considered beautiful. He’s afraid that if he goes with one of these girls, their shame will become his.
He tried to think of something else to talk about. He knows nothing of football, but now that he knows its importance he will make the effort. In two weeks, he will turn on the television and endure twenty minutes of boredom as he watches a ball being kicked around, before a pitch invasion sparks a riot between police and spectators.
The girl buries her head in his shoulder. He drinks in the smell of her. He feels every point of contact between them. He’s embarrassed by his erection. The girl looks up at him and smiles. He moves to kiss her, but she buries her head again and they move in silence until the song ends. She takes her arms from around his neck. “Thanks.” She leaves the dance floor. He can feel people laughing, but in fact nobody is paying any attention to him. He watches her walk up to the balcony where someone pulls her to him and kisses her. She pulls away, laughing; relaxing into his arms while they talk about God knows what. He never understood how other boys got away with that. His friends told him they were being masterful, but when he tried it, the girl told him to fuck off.
Now he’s how much older? Jesus, it must be the guts of forty years, and what is he? A new awareness of despair answers the question. He’s a fifty-six-year-old virgin, drinking warm Lager on a park bench in London, and trying to be invisible while dressed for winter in the high summer. For the first time in his life, he begins to wonder if he’s done this to himself.
He reaches into his pocket and takes out another can of Lager. He looks at it for a while, a tune playing in his head. He’s not sure if he wants to drink the Lager or throw it away. He thinks maybe if he doesn’t drink it then that action will be enough to change his life completely, that he will walk away from the bench a different person. He likes the drama of that idea. He pictures himself living in a Close, with a pleasant wife and playful children; he drives a posh Nissan and plays golf on weekends; he pictures himself in an ad he saw as a child. Going deeper into this dream, he sees the woman’s bright red lips smiling, her eyebrow, shaped and coloured, rising to let him know that he is a token male idiot. He sees them both at a cocktail party. He hears people comment on her beauty, and his reply, ‘Look at their trousers, they love her.’ Going deeper still, he sees himself sitting on the floor at her feet, his head resting in her lap, her fingers through his hair, absently caressing him while she reads something vital and obscure. From upstairs comes the sound of happy children and their minder, whom he will later fuck. She is blonde, with puffy nipples and puppy fat.
He shrugs off his fantasy and cracks open the can of Lager, still telling himself that he’s not going to drink. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding the can of lager with both hands. He looks around the park, taking mental snapshots of the different groups of people in love with their various lives. He begins to trace a connection between them. He starts to wonder what they think about. He resents the idea that no one ever shouted at one of them: ‘Smile, it’s free!’ He resents that it was shouted at him. What right did she have to do that? She knows nothing about him. He is suddenly saddened by the thought of someone so young waging such fierce war on life. He feels a wave of pity for her; for all that will pass her by.
He sits back up, depressed by the pointlessness of the exercise. He begins to feel that drinking in the park is a mistake. The playground, the Pixie Chick, the girls on their blanket, even the cheap Lager; all these things and all the associated memories have stripped away his image of himself. He is left with a picture of a dirty old man; physically, emotionally, mentally, dirty. Now for the first time he notices the smell. He begins to know why he’s alone. He finds himself fighting back tears. He finds anger and contempt, for them and for himself. He doesn’t know what to do.
He hears voices behind him and discovers the girls had not been looking at him. They had been watching a couple of boys walking along the path. As the boys walk over to join the girls, a sudden belch escaped his mouth and all the surrounding heads turned to him. He can feel his face turn red. He wants to run but is afraid to draw any more attention to himself. His pride rebels, although he doesn’t know that’s what has happened. He spreads out on the bench – he has a perfect right to belch, if he so desires – then he notices one of the kids aiming a camera-phone at him. He drops his head down, trying to hide.
He is mortified by the thought of his family seeing the picture online. He hasn’t spoken to them in years. Now he decides to write a letter home. The reply will tell him that his family are all dead; that they had died thinking he was dead. He feels the shame of failure and hears himself trying to explain it away, ‘It’s all about who you know.’ He doesn’t realise he’s talking out loud until he hears a rough voice say, ‘You’re fucking right.’
He looks up and when his eyes adjust to the light, he sees a scrawny bum in a shell suit; matted black hair and grey in his beard, eyes like a burned-out porn star. He sees his future in the bum and it terrifies him. The bum asks for change, he’s sixty pence short for the bus. He’s telling the truth, but the man on the bench knows only that a knacker wants money for drugs. He shakes his head and holds up the can of Lager. The bum looks at the can and the corners of his mouth turn down. He mumbles something that leaves the man on the bench afraid of being stabbed, and then moves on.
The colour drains from the man’s face. He’s shaking inside and afraid of losing control. He feels powerless, naked; again he fights back tears. The can of Lager falls from his hand and he shudders with sudden fright. He sits there watching the Lager poured onto the grass.
He hears laughter and knows it is directed at him. He raises his head enough to peer out at the world. He sees the camera-phone still aimed at him; they have videoed his encounter with the bum. He knows that later they will post it online and he promises not to watch it, but when he gets home he will scour every video hosting site he can find, searching for himself. He will not find anything because there is nothing to find.
He stands up and now, keeping his head down, he stumbles out of the park. He is no longer certain of anything.