In which The Author and his friends get older
As Messrs Gilmour and Waters had it:
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No-one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun.
Pink Floyd, ‘Time’
Helen R. didn’t exactly celebrate her birthday last Sunday. I’m not allowed to tell anyone how old she is, but as it was the first anniversary of her 29th, I think you can probably figure it out. C— has her birthday tomorrow. She’s in her early thirties, and I’ll say no more than that. Naomi in my Creative Writing group at uni thought I was in my early thirties as well. I gave her the number of my optician. At the ripe old age of 46, I’ve finally had to bite the bullet and get a pair of reading glasses. It only means that, to the casual observer, my hastily scribbled notes are even more impenetrable than previously.
My mate Leighton P. turned 51 last week. That means that I’m far nearer his age than I am to any of the girls, but I don’t feel like a dirty old man when I fancy them. In Aberdare, the only women my age whom I know are either happily married (with or without kids), or divorced with kids, or seeing someone else, or complete lunatics. Younger women (in theory) shouldn’t come with that sort of baggage. Some girls do.
Anyway, while I was back at uni, I suddenly felt a lot younger – mainly because I was surrounded by young people again. It took me back twenty years, to when I fell into the book trade in 1989. I say ‘fell’, because none of it was planned. I’d gone into Cardiff for the day, just for a change of scene. In Lear’s Bookshop (which occupied about half of the Royal Arcade on both sides) I spotted a rather tasty redhead behind one of the counters.
‘Oh,’ my penis said to my brain, ‘I wouldn’t mind working here!’
My brain agreed, and at a different counter my mouth asked for an application form. About a fortnight later I was invited for an interview in Cardiff. It turned out that the vacancy wasn’t in Cardiff, but at the Polytechnic of Wales.
I didn’t even know that Lear’s had a shop at the Poly, but it was nearer home and much easier (if not always quicker) to get to. And, of course, it was full of students. The second interview, with Richard the branch manager, was a typical late-1980s bookselling affair – a quick chat, a look round the shop to meet the others, and a few pints in the Otley for lunch. Those were the days! I started in the spring, and when autumn came, along with it came the tide of students. I was young and so were they. And about half of them were female. So, even though I’d missed out on the redhead in Cardiff, there were compensations.
One of the first students whom I made friends with was Vicky M., a crazy humanities student from Hertfordshire. I can’t remember why we struck up a conversation in the first place, but we hit it off immediately. I remember she threw a snowball at me one day when I was going for lunch. (Did I mention that she was an immature student?) Then she vanished off the scene completely. I figured that she’d either changed institution or dropped out. She turned up again when I started working in Dillons. That was where she’d rematerialised, working in the fiction department. The last thing I heard of her, many moons ago, she was on the island of Iona getting her head together. She could be anywhere now.
The same goes for Jothi, Anne-Marie, Teresa, Lakshmi, Catherine, Sam, Therèse, Debbie, Siân, and all the other girls who used to come into the shop regularly. Some used to call in just to pass the time of day, I think. I never asked any of them out, even though at least half the ones I’ve mentioned were definitely my type. The only one I ever caught with up after our respective times at the Poly was Siân. She was friendly with a couple I knew through Bristol Class War, and turned up while I was staying with them for the Ashton Court Festival in 1990 or 1991. Andy had described her to me, but I didn’t put the name to the face until we met up in the Broadmead one afternoon.
One particularly lovely girl was a post-grad at the Coastal Research Unit, and she used to order the most obscure books imaginable. I never found out her first name, as she only ever put her initials on the order forms. But she had a really pretty face, long red hair, and glasses. Just my type, in fact. And, since she was a post-grad, we’d have been closer in age than any of the first- or second-year students I’d been chatting up regularly. But once again I drew the line at inviting her to join me for lunch one day.
I was joined for lunch one day by a junior lecturer named Fiona. She’d only just taken up her post, and we’d got talking when she called in to deliver her class’s reading list. She turned up in the top canteen one day when it was quite busy, spotted me reading the paper, and asked if she could join me.
‘It’s nice to see a friendly face in here,’ she said in her soft Scottish accent. She gave the lie to Shappi Khorsandi’s line, ‘You never meet a Fiona who isn’t a complete bitch.’ We were about the same age as well, (she was a bit older) so we had more to talk about than just exams and student trivia. We chatted for ages about the place, and she told me she took a dance class in Cardiff in the evenings. That was just before I was made redundant, so I’ve no idea where she is now either.
There was another redhead who used to pop in once in a while – a humanities student with the most fantastic name imaginable: Wendy Quelch. She was ordering a book of Howard Brenton’s plays, and when she told me her name I couldn’t help laughing.
‘Your first name was made up by J. M. Barrie, and your surname was the name of Billy Bunter’s teacher,’ I told her.
‘I know,’ she laughed, ‘I’m a completely fictitious person!’
When the book arrived, I broke the First Law of Bookselling and slipped a note inside it before she picked it up. I hinted that I’d like to take her for a drink some time, if she was amenable to the idea. The other people working in the shop were female, and nobody else could have got their hands on it between the warehouse and the shelf. I think it was pretty obvious who it was from, but the invitation fell on stony ground anyway.
Anyway, I was thinking about this a couple of days ago, in the wake of Helen’s birthday. I’ve known her for just over eleven years, which means that she was eighteen when we first met. Since then, her life has taken some unexpected twists and turns. My life proceeded in a straight line for the next five years or so. Then it went completely chaotic until I ended up where I am today. Through all this we’ve stayed firm friends. And yes, if the opportunity arose I’d be chuffed to bits if our friendship went a stage further. But it won’t – because ultimately she’s young enough to be my daughter and that really would make me a dirty old man.
As for the girls from uni first time round – they’ll all be in their early- to mid-forties now. I found myself wondering where they are now. How many of them are married (with or without kids), divorced with kids, seeing someone else, or just complete lunatics? There’s no way of knowing. There weren’t even mobile phones in those days. People simply vanished twenty-odd years ago, without leaving any trace. At least the gang I was studying with the second time round are on Facebook, so we can keep in touch.
Moreover, did my taste in women somehow get trapped in time (for the final time) at around that stage of my life? Am I doomed to perpetually fancy girls who are young enough to be my daughter? (Or worse still, in a couple of years, my granddaughter!) Maybe Gene Hackman’s character in Under Suspicion has a point when he defends himself to Morgan Freeman’s character. After all, we all used to fancy young girls when we were younger. Some of us still do.