Rain On The Window
We met, Liz and I, at a demo. I can't remember what the protest was about now, but, then, there, on a quiet backstreet away from the surging screaming crowds, the wailing sirens, Liz had a handkerchief, and I had a bleeding head.
I didn't tell her - not then, not ever - that my head wound was from slipping and stumbling hard against a stone window-sill as I ran away from the demo, trying to not get involved, rather than from the police truncheon she always assumed. As a guilt-ridden middle-class politics student, she needed a working-class hero, and I… well, at the time, I had nothing better to do.
She took me home with her that day, back to the house she shared with a handful of other students. She took me straight to bed.
Part-way through, I remember looking down at her; seeing her trembling with a delicious fear that she was being so daring, so brave. I had thought that kind of thing had long gone, left behind with Mellors and Lady Chatterley. Nevertheless, it seems that, for a certain type - the middle-class liberal - there was still that… well… I suppose… strange attraction towards the workers.
I saw it again, later that evening, when she took me downstairs to meet the other students. It took a while before I realised I was on display like some rare exotic specimen Liz had bravely captured out there in the wild working-class jungle.
The students, all girls who called themselves women, sat with grim fascination as I told them about working in the foundry. Then, when I told them how the strong-armed take-no-shit-from-no-one men had been left defeated and dumped, about how Jack, our militant union rep had broken down and wept when the foundry finally closed down forever, they were almost on the verge of the politically orgasmic in their outrage on behalf of those noble workers.
For the remainder of that evening the rest of them looked upon Liz with a mild jealousy that I found unsettling. I wasn't used to that intensity, of being the focus of attention. Up until then most of the girls I had known were still setting their sights on someone higher than mere factory fodder like me. They had dreams of urbane clean finger-nailed and after-shaved office men in suits with company cars and a future with the possibility of semi-detached housing estate lives to come.
Liz took me back up to bed that night with a kind of victory flourish as she ostentatiously pulled me from my seat amongst the other girls on the sofa; taking me upstairs with her. Of course, I doubt if any of the other girls did want me in anything other than theory, or saw me as anything other than a vague dreamy possibility. Still, I suppose the left has never really managed to untangle itself from the Romanticism that surrounded its youth: from Blake, and Wordsworth and so on and so forth. Even now, post-Thatcher, even post-New Labour, I still see left-leaning friends who haven't managed to disentangle themselves from the romanticism of the left. Or, come to that, even grown out of the faded mythology of rock 'n' roll - yet another bastard offspring of Romanticism - despite their advancing years.
The price I had to pay for those warm nights alone with Liz were the evenings away from the cosy squalor of the student house. At least one evening a week we spent in cold bare rooms at the Student's Union, or the smoke-stained upstairs rooms in the type of pub I would never normally frequent. I spent hour upon hour watching verbose prigs, with more earnestness than sense, putting the world to right through long tedious self-aggrandising speeches while Liz squirmed in ecstasy in the seat next to me. I remember her clutching hard at the top of my thigh, or even stroking my cock through my trousers, whenever someone lambasted Thatcher and the Tories.
After each meeting there would be several more hours, in the Union, down in the pub, or - even worse - back at someone's place where the talk would go on and on… and on. Then, there would be the long slow walk back to Liz's house with her babbling on like a kid who'd just met Santa. I just wished for the peace and warmth of the bed as she slept beside me, her head snuggled against my chest under my left arm and her thick curly hair tickling my nose. I loved the smell of her hair; it was the colour of autumn leaves, red, copper, gold and all shades between and smelt like autumn too, of smoke and mists and ripening apples.
That autumn turned to winter and still we clung to each other. That day we’d spent in bed. She was sitting on top of me, my nose buried deep in her thick hair as she moved slowly; muttering sighs into my neck and chest.
“Liz! Liz! She’s gone. The old cow has fucked off!” Gemma burst into the room. “They’ve finally dumped her!”
Liz turned to stare, open-mouthed as Gemma. She stroked strands of her sweat-damp hair from her face. “You mean…?”
“Yeah, yeah. Oh, fuckin’ yeah!” It’s on the telly now!”
“Bloody hell. I must….” Liz grabbed the duvet, wrapping it around herself as she got off me,
“This’ll wipe the bloody smile off Simon’s face,” Liz laughed, pushing past Gemma in the doorway to bound down the stairs. In the doorway, Gemma looked down at me naked on the bed, at my erection standing lost and alone, and then back at me. I saw the thought flick across her eyes.
“Who is Simon?” I said, recognising the name but being unable to place it.
“He’s the leader of the Conservative Students at Uni,” Gemma said with an obvious contempt. “A complete wanker.” Then she was gone too. As I lay there, I could hear the girls laughing, shouting and cheering downstairs. From the fragments I could make sense of, I gathered that the Tories had finally dumped Thatcher, that she would soon no longer be Prime Minister. I sighed, got out of the bed and dressed, knowing that Liz would now be busy all night with her political cronies.
I suppose Liz and I must have carried on together for some time beyond that day. We had no big break-up, we just drifted apart as she immersed herself in politics and I was left more and more alone. To me, those post-Thatcher days, though, they all seemed so grey, featureless unmemorable. It was a bit like the bloke they replaced Thatcher with, I suppose. I always have trouble remembering his name… something bland… a bit dull… ordinary…. Major, that was him.
I remember once, about that time, Liz staring out through the window watching the way the wind and the rain were busy vandalising our puny human world. Outside the wind lashed out at the trees lining the street. Those trees, it sometimes seemed to me, had grown cowed and fearful through their years of constant suffering under the elements. The rain fell hard and loud… well, not falling, more like hurled down in huge handfuls by the angry wind, almost as if the wind was issuing a challenge to the rest of the world. Liz sighed and quickly drew the curtains on it all before coming back to bed.
She was cold against me as we snuggled closer. At least I felt capable of warming her, I felt that was something, but she turned away from me once she felt warm again. She lay on her back with about six inches separating us. She lit a cigarette and sighed the smoke up towards the ceiling.
I lay there, watching her. There was nothing else I could do, except listen to the wind throwing its handfuls of rain at the window as it howled in frustration around the outside of the house.
Liz stubbed out her cigarette. "Let's fuck," she said.
Later, we dressed facing away from each other and not really talking. We had grown quite adept at not talking to each other, or rather, talking to each other without saying anything. We could discuss food, the weather, day-to-day stuff, but there was this big thing between us we could only talk around, not about. We both knew it was all over, but we had nowhere else to go. Nowhere else we wanted to go.
No, actually – to be honest - I’m not sure that Liz really ever noticed I’d gone. She just seemed to immerse herself deeper and deeper into politics until I became superfluous, an irrelevance to her life.
So... one day I moved out while Liz was at a Labour party meeting. I left her a note saying I’d gone, in case she didn’t notice I wasn’t around any longer. Then I did the traditional thing and went out and got drunk – a lot. In a way I was glad it was over. I could stop pretending to care about politics, the world, seeing everything distorted through politics. But, still, I needed those drinks to teach me how to forget Liz herself.
One morning, a few weeks or so later, I was sitting staring deep into the steaming heart of a cup of black coffee in a department store restaurant when I thought I heard someone calling my name. Looking around gingerly, so my throbbing head didn’t explode, I noticed a large red blur behind a table in the far corner of the restaurant. When my eyes eventually focused, I could see that Father Christmas was calling my name and gesticulating for me to join him at his table.
For a moment, I wondered about pink elephants and whether I’d been overdoing it a bit. Then Santa pulled his beard down and I recognised him.
“Hello, Jack,” I said as I crawled into the seat next to him.
“You look a bit rough this morning, mate,” he said, tucking the white beard under his chin and throwing the red hood back off his head.
I nodded, and then wished I hadn’t.
I almost nodded again, but remembered just in time. “Er… yeah. You know….”
He asked me if I was still on the dole. I was, of course. “This was the best I could get.” He tugged at the sleeve of the red robe with disgust. “Me a skilled worker… or was… once.” He sighed. “I used to spend more down the pub on a Friday night than I get here for a week’s wages.”
I nodded, carefully this time. Steel working was always a very thirsty business. You needed the first few pints just to replace the sweat you lost during your shift.
“Still,” Jack said and took a sip of tea. “Every bit helps, especially at this time of year. What, with the kids and so on.”
“Well,” I said. “I was lucky that way. For you married blokes with kids I always thought it would be a bastard. Bloody Tories, eh?”
“Yeah, bastard Tories,” Jack turned to me, looking hard into my bleary eyes. “Mind, though, our lot weren’t much better. I used to go to the meetings, before these youngsters took over. They promised us the world….” He looked at me like someone who’d lost his world, like a priest who’d lost his faith. “Didn’t they?”
“Yes.” I thought of Liz and her friends… her comrades, and all those magnificent promises they were still making to each other. All the plans they had to put our world to rights. But, as I looked back at Jack I couldn’t see a place for him in either the world we had now under the Tories, or in those plans Liz and her Labour pals were so busy making for everyone.
Jack looked up sharply. “Shit it’s the boss… the manager… bastard.” Jack slurped his tea down, standing up as he drank. The bloke in the suit over by the restaurant counter looked at Jack and then slowly brought his wrist up, pointedly looking at his watch; obviously relishing the power he had over his workforce.
“Wanker,” Jack said.
I smiled. “See you, mate. Good luck,” I said as his big red bulk lumbered hurriedly away. The manager stood there for a moment. I could feel him watching me, but I pretended to be oblivious to him. I knew he was debating whether it was worth his while to throw an obvious non-spender like me out of his precious shop and onto the street. Someone called him away, though, before he could decide.
I thought about Liz as I got up and left the shop, smiling at the memory of the smell of her hair. I decided then and there that the drinking would have to stop. It was time for me to get off my arse.
I realised Jack was right, but I never had a chance to thank him. Thatcherism is little more than an easy theme for nostalgia television these days. Back then, though, those of us living in the industrial heartlands could almost understand those that did kill themselves. When their entire world collapsed around them, we felt the suicides had a certain clear-sighted courage the rest of us lacked.
Not long afterwards on a cold February morning I stood looking down at his coffin as spadefuls of frost-hard dirt slowly covered it. Later, all Jack’s old Labour and union cronies stood around together back at Jack’s council house. They spent hours whispering to each other, over limp ham sandwiches, about all the new changes to the party, about the new faces that were appearing and all the talk of something called ‘New Labour’.
By then I was off the drink and working again. I’d been given a job as a labourer on a massive new building site. At first, I was angry, but as time went on I learnt to appreciate the irony that I was labouring to help construct a sparkling new shopping mall on the site of the foundry where I used to work.
Once the mall was built, though, I was back on the dole again for a while. Through yet another job creation scheme, I got a job in our local library. After spending months out on a building site, it seemed like luxury to be inside again out of the cold, wind and rain.
Steve, one of my old pals from the foundry came into the library one day, looking for a particular book.
“It’s for my course,” he said looking down at the counter between us. He seemed embarrassed.
“I’m doing an O.U. – Open University - course,” he said.
I could see his face reddening. Back in the old foundry days such a thing would be almost unheard of, and anyone doing such an unusual thing would have expected to have the piss ripped out of him on an almost daily basis. Talking to him later in the pub made up my mind for me. I knew I didn’t want to ever go back to manual labour if I could avoid it. I had had enough of the back-breaking ‘dignity’ of labour. So, I too took an Open University degree and, later, got this job, here at the university library, on the back of it.
My first day working at the University made me think about Liz for the first time in years, made me wonder what had happened to her. Just for the hell of it I decided I would use the University library’s research facilities to see if I could find out what had become of her.
It didn’t take that long, a couple of lunch hours, or so. It made me smile, though, when I discovered that she had, in fact, married Simon, the Conservative student ‘Wanker’ she had seemingly so despised during her student days. I wasn’t surprised at all that she had become a ‘New’ Labour candidate though, and then later became one of the infamous ‘Blair Babes’ elected in 1997.
Therefore, when the government minister responsible for Higher Education came to visit the library last month I wondered how long it would take her to recognise me.
She was in that typical politician’s state of looking, but not seeing, the person in front of her as we shook hands. I had to squeeze hard to get her to look up at me, actually to see me. She reddened slightly before the professional politician in her reasserted itself.
Although we were expecting it, the announcement, during her speech of the forthcoming privatisation of the University Library Services still caused a ripple of disquiet to shift through her audience. After the speech, there was polite, but muted, applause. Everyone shifted away from her as she made her way through the groups of people standing awkwardly balancing drinks and nibbles.
“So, you do remember me?”
“Sorry, after a while you go on a sort of autopilot. So…? Well… I always wondered what happened to you. All I had was that note… then nothing.”
I thought about saying something cruel, cutting, but quickly realised it would just be too melodramatic, making it all sound as unreal as a soap opera. I just nodded.
“So,” she said, “you work here in the library of my old university? Now, that is something I would never have expected back in those days.”
“Yes… or at least I work here until your plans come to fruition, then… well….” I shrugged.
“Don’t worry about that?” She sipped from her glass of water.
“Well, I can’t help worrying. You know I have a wife, kids, a mortgage… now… well, all that usual stuff.”
“No, I mean….” She looked around, noticing all the journalists were still over by the drink and food tables on the other side of the room. “No, I mean I will make sure you don’t lose your job. That is… providing… of course….” She glanced meaningfully over towards the gathered journalists.
She saw the look on my face. “Not that I’m embarrassed about my… our… past. Just that it would… complicate things a bit, unnecessarily, especially if they found out about you getting involved in riots and being beaten up by the police. I still get called an ex-radical and all that crap. If they…” she nodded over at the assembled journalists, “discover I had an ex-boyfriend who was also an extremist… well… I could do without all the hassle. I definitely don’t want to be dumped back on the back benches again. All that stuff that belongs lost in the past; I want to keep it there, all right?”
She was still trying to read my face between glances back at the journalists. I was trying to decide whether it was worth the bother of putting her right about me tripping over that kerb as I ran and hitting my head on the window-sill.
She bit her lip, a mannerism that suddenly took me back to all those years ago. “Listen, Sam,” she whispered urgently, “if you don’t mention anything to those press bastards about our… affair, then I will make sure your job is safe after the privatisation.”
“How can you make that promise?” I said.
She smiled. “Simple. The company that will win the bid for providing the services - sort of - belongs to my husband.” She smiled again as a journalist came up to her.
“I couldn’t help noticing that you two were having quite a chat,” the journalist said, professionally appraising us as she drew closer. “Do you know each other?”
“Actually, did you know that this is my old university,” Liz said as she took the journalist’s elbow to lead her away from me. As they walked away, Liz glanced back over her shoulder. “Goodbye, Mr… Mr…. Thank you for your input. I’ll make sure it is taken on board.” After checking the journalist wasn’t paying any more attention to me, Liz winked. I nodded back and she smiled in relief.
I think I smiled to in relief that my job was safe and I wouldn’t be back on the dole again. On my way out that evening, I even considered whether to vote for Liz, come the next election.