The Trainor Diary: Jan 1 to Jan 15
S. A. M. Trainor
Dept. of English Literature
University of Glasgow
Please find enclosed a draft copy of The Birmingham Quean.
This book originally came to light as a 25m roll of brown parcel paper I discovered in the filing cabinet of a staff room at a major Russell Group University English department (not my own) whilst looking for the man I thought to be its author. I had no idea of its existence at the time & was interested in his whereabouts for different reasons. The text took the form of a narrative poem printed on A4 sheets & then glued onto the inner surface of the parcel paper, around which a large number of annotations had been handwritten in various colours of ink. The poem was a contemporary parody of Byron’s Don Juan, narrated by the Queen’s head on a counterfeit one-pound coin, concerning a drag-queen called Britannia Spears. The notes & foreword were fictionalised — just as they are in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for example — purporting to be written by a rather fusty old Oxford Don in 1953.
When I found the man I’d been looking for, he managed to convince me to destroy this document. Between us, I assumed, we had the right to take such a decision. I soon discovered I was wrong: we had the perfect justification, perhaps, but neither the license nor the capability. What you have in your hands, therefore (& I should thank you in advance for taking it out of mine), is a reproduction of the text I’ve made from memory & my notes, interspersed with an account of how I came to find it, trace its authorship &, finally, to reconstruct it.
I can really offer no more useful summary of its contents than that. It genuinely defies synopsis.
S. A. M. Trainor
P.S. If Hannah Arden contacts you, pretend you’ve never heard of her… or me.
Thursday, January 1
STRATFORD UPON AVON
The building didn’t seem too threatening at first. I was relieved. You forget just how undemonstrative Midlands architecture can be. After ten years amongst Glasgow’s looming spires, I’d been expecting something steepling & monumental. Our University Tower looks for all the world as if it were designed exclusively to attract fork lightning & vampire bats. Instead, this was the kind of place librarians & dentists might retire to. I was ushered hurriedly past the tea urn into the meeting hall, smoothing the back of my hair down, clutching freshly printed pages underneath a crumpled jacket sleeve, & glimpsed a gently terraced garden with neat lawns & raised flowerbeds beyond a bright Victorian conservatory where the mingling aromas of mint & coffee hung a bit too heavily to seem completely innocent. You could imagine Elgar writing overtures in it.
I bustled past the audience up to the lectern, rubber soles squeaking on the parquet, trying to look more busy than disorganised. I cleared my throat & began.
The date was June the 28th & this was my first ever conference: the Fourth Annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference in Stratford. The paper was a rather haggard would-be article on the phallic/anti-phallic comedy of Lear’s Fool, called: ‘Cocking up King Lear’. As usual, I was claiming something ‘serious’ should be read as comedy: Robert Armin, the professional midget comedian in Shakespeare’s company, so the argument went, doubled as Cordelia; when the King carries onto stage the body of his daughter, (& Burbage staggers on with little Robert Armin), howling, failing to revive her, it’s a moment of acute black comedy that likens Lear (with his unresponsive mini-me grotesquely dragged up as his favourite daughter) to the impotent fool unable to make his limp marotte stand up & scare the ladies. Imagine, I suggested, Walter Matthau carrying Danny DeVito, or Barker cradling Corbett.
Despite a slightly tense exchange with one conference member (who had a pair of crutches leant authoritatively across her lap) about evidence that Robert Armin was genuinely a little person, the audience seemed by & large to be quite entertained. Afterwards, back in the conservatory, I was saved from a dickie-bowed old theatre critic (who had deftly segued from the usual stuff about Erasmus into a fruity anecdote concerning the compromising position in which two particular actors he could name had once been found during a closed rehearsal of the stocks scene) by a surprisingly forceful grip on my arm.
Someone had grabbed my right elbow. She pulled me round, mid-conversation. (A woman).
“Sam, can I just borrow you for a second? Sorry Derek, you can have him back in a minute, I just need to get some details.”
She had a nice smile, dark lips, friendly-looking dimples, long brown curls. She was obviously trying to help me out. I’d only turned up that morning & had every intention of slipping away quietly again during coffee; I was about to make my own excuses (only a little earlier than I’d predicted) in order to rebut a very optimistic advance on the part of the man I now knew to call Derek. Despite this, I was immediately pleased she’d intervened.
Friday, January 2
We got talking, at first (for Derek’s benefit) on some concocted administrative theme about the registration fee. They had no record of my payment, she was saying, but that was almost certainly the institution’s fault. Derek caught someone else’s eye, not wanting to eavesdrop on a potentially embarrassing exchange. As soon as he’d gone, Hannah (she said she was called) confessed she had nothing to do with the organisation of the conference & was just trying to help a newcomer out of a tight corner:
“Apparently, he comes here every year & tries to pick up boys. It’s quite sad really, but I feel more sorry for the poor guys he buttonholes. Don’t know what’s hit them, some of them. I could tell he’d go for you from the minute you breezed in. Just thought I’d keep an eye out.”
“Well, thanks, yes: much appreciated.” Breezed was nice: I felt more like I’d scurried.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be too critical. Half the people at these things are here for sex.”
I made an effort not to splutter my tea: “You think so?”
“Of course they are: it’s the only time some of them get to see the light of day. There’s a very fine line between postgraduate research & masturbation: the two go hand-in-glove, so to speak.”
I laughed again. I really liked this girl already; she was funny, in a quiet sort of way: you sometimes had to strain to hear what she was saying as she moved around you smiling at people.
“Conferences are all about playing at having a career, & you know what that means...”
“Precisely. Graduating from fiddling with themselves to actual intercourse. The most attractive feature of an academic career for a large number of these people is the promise it gives them of access to two things the majority wouldn’t have a hope in hell of finding in the real world...”
“Which are?” I prompted. It was obvious she’d practised this, but it was no less charming for being rehearsed. She certainly wouldn’t have had much trouble in ‘the real world.” she blushed a little at her own studied forwardness & went on.
“... an almost endless stream of people in their formative years of sexual independence over whom they can exercise a nurturing influence, & a culture of relaxed sexual mores resulting from the relativistic philosophies (of one sort or another) they tend to circulate amongst each other for precisely the reason of justifying the sordid things they get up to in their bedrooms & their cosy little book-filled offices.”
“I know. Some of the stuff that goes on at my place...”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, nipping any ill-advised workplace gossip in the bud, “I’m Hannah, by the way. You’ve been dragged away from sweet old Derek only to get an earful from me. So, you’re from Glasgow, then. You didn’t come down this morning did you?”
Saturday, January 3
“No, no. My mom & dad live in Birmingham. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone.”
“That’s nice. Do you get down to see them much?”
“Not really, no. Usually just Christmas. I agree with you though... these conferences.” Not that I knew anything about it. I lowered my voice to her level none the less: “They’re mostly about posturing — even the ones for students — & it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they’re advertising what’s in their heads or in their knickers.” I was entirely failing to sound as pithy as her.
“Yes, or maybe they’re saying what’s in their heads is sexy enough that it doesn’t matter about the disappointment in their knickers.”
“Cunning linguists,” I suggested.
She smiled wryly at the dry old joke.
“Would you like a biscuit?” she offered.
I took a custard cream. Only on polite occasions like this do I forgo the simple pleasure of prizing the top off a sandwich-type biscuit & using the filling as the medium for an impression of my crooked bottom teeth. I bit into it conventionally, in cross-section as it were, trying to hide my disappointment.
She watched in silence. She could have taken this opportunity to drift away, but she didn’t. Perhaps she was taking a little pleasure in my crumby discomfort.
“So,” it took what seemed an age to swallow the sweet pulp of the biscuit & busy my tongue about the residue between the upper molars, “what’s your research?”
This is actually the worst question you can ask a budding academic. It tends to be interpreted amongst PhD students as a complete lack of interest: desperately significant of an absence of common ground beyond the University. If you want to get off with a PhD student, you can talk about anything — the more mundane the better — soap operas, shoes, children’s TV, the crap jobs you’ve had (they’re both particularly good subjects), Christ even the weather — whatever — but never your research. The ideal topic at this juncture would’ve been the custard cream. I was fully aware I’d potentially shifted the conversation from one of flirtatious cynicism to one of dreary self-justification. I don’t think I did it deliberately. Though I may have been retaliating for the biscuit trick.
“I usually lie when people ask me that.”
“Me too,” I lied, “truth is I’m not that sure.”
Sunday, January 4
I tried to apologise with my eyebrows. Shifting the focus back to my own faltering research had been intended as an olive branch. In fact, I regularly confessed to my uncertainty. If you can really call it a confession, that is. I would later realise, thanks largely to Hannah’s influence, that the appearance of disillusionment &/or desperate vagueness is actually a way of looking keen in certain British academic circles. Everyone assumes you’re making the best of a bad job or muddling through. It’s what they do in Oxbridge. It’s almost patriotic.
“Well, actually I only lie to academics. Would you call yourself an academic, Sam?”
I appeared to think about this for a second. I only ever really lied about my research to people outside the University: friends & family. You could get away with it more easily. “No,” I said.
“Good,” she grinned conspiratorially, “do you fancy grabbing an early lunch?”
“Okay then, why not.”
I took a last quick look around me for a reason not to go. Despite the possible professional advantages of hanging about for a bit, I’d never actually intended to do so in the first place & would certainly not normally be upset to leave a congregation of chinwagging oddballs in the company of a sexy girl. Without exchanging any more words, Hannah & I sloped away together through a narrow corridor that led to the foyer.
It was relatively difficult to see after facing the sunny patio full on. Hannah was nothing but the pencilled outline of a slim young woman in front of me. I felt an unaccountably guilty thrill as she emerged back into the light filtering through the window above the main door & reached up to take a cream-coloured jacket by the collar & whip it off the hatstand. She slung it over her shoulder, opened the door with her other hand & gestured with her eyes for me to lead the way.
We chose a respectable local pub & found a quiet corner snug, away from the bar. Not that there was anyone at it yet, apart from the landlady & two old blokes with glasses of wine at opposite corners picking over two different portions of the Times: a better class of drunk in these parts. It was only half eleven after all. We started to drink beer (which she bought) & then she let me in on her research.
“I’m studying academics themselves. That’s why I lie to them;” she began, “they’re like a cult I’m trying to infiltrate.” She slid her eyes from side to side like a cartoon spy.
I smiled in response & leant forward, my chin on my hand.
“Seriously though, I’m studying academics in the Humanities in the same terms as Cultural Studies used to look at subcultures in the 70s & 80s. I’m particularly interested in how groups mimic & subvert one another’s activities & behaviour in order to adaptively define themselves. Encounters between academic subgroups are fascinating — that’s why I come to these conferences — but encounters between academics (with their academic hats on as it were) & other social groups — in sociological or psychological field research for example — are much more important. They’re often these... antagonistic moments of identity subversion.”
Monday, January 5
She chuckled likeably at her own jargon: “One of the ways counter-cultures (if you want to call them that) define themselves is by consistently undermining & mocking attempts by people like journalists & academics to define the group from outside the group. The upshot basically is that all the results are skewed. The process is entirely non-empirical.
Social scientists who study the behaviour of subcultural groups usually find what they look for precisely because these groups protect themselves by giving external commentators the performances they want to see. The conclusions & theories of social science are themselves very often just the stylistic signatures of academic group identities: as arbitrary as shaved heads or dreadlocks... or Charlotte Hornets caps on the back of the bus. They mean something, but only to other members of the group. Outside the group, they only say what group you’re in.”
I nodded in vague agreement. “Like all the different types of gowns, you mean... or PhDs for that matter: hardly seems any point in writing a thesis at all when only four or five people are ever going to read it... or care.”
She frowned a little at my weak analogy.
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bother,” I continued, trying to appear a little more engaged in what at the time seemed a typically unimaginative bit of Political Correctness. “Maybe I’m saying I shouldn’t bother. Yours seems much more... worthwhile: in itself.” Platitudes, I thought, maybe I should argue with her instead: “It does seem like a slightly self-defeating thesis though. Aren’t you just doing the same thing they are?”
“Well, no,” she seemed pleased with the challenge, “the up-side is there’s feedback in the process... a kind of dialectic’, she added tentatively, “if you like.”
At the mention of that word, I tried to pitch my smile somewhere between knowing superiority & enthusiastic encouragement. Whatever it looked like — a sufferer of Bell’s palsy, I imagine — she carried on:
“... or there should be anyway. As pompous & self-deluding as this stuff usually is, it sometimes manages to stimulate the self-definition of the objectified groups, in defiance of the objectifying commentary. It’s a whole different kettle of fish writing ‘from’ a culture rather than ‘about’ it. That’s a good thing. It’s what all the best cultural critics do. Just look at Stuart Hall.”
I tried not to laugh as she took another swig of Burton Ale. The pint seemed immense in her slender fingers & the only Stuart Hall I could remember at this precise moment was the one who said here come the Belgians! in It’s a Knockout! Maybe I was getting drunk already. I secretly wished Hannah was.
“If it takes some busybody to get the process going, then so be it. I hope I’m doing both.”
Tuesday, January 6
“So what do you actually do by way of research then?” I asked, “apart from hanging with the homies at conferences.” I was getting into this. I didn’t exactly know, or to be honest care, what she was going on about (I was still trying to replace the memory of Jeux sans Frontières with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) but the way she spoke was so fluent & bright it bordered on a kind of midsummer delirium... Yeats’s bee-loud glade. I couldn’t have hoped to be so chirpy, even this late in the morning. But then I had been up all night finishing the paper in my old bedroom at my mom & dad’s.
She paused for a second, as if about to change the subject — perhaps to take exception to my question — but thought better of it:
“I’m shadowing someone else’s research.” She looked me in the eye: from one eye to the other, in fact.
“Do they know?” I quipped, in order to break the tension.
She nodded my flippancy aside & continued: “He’s doing primary research & I’m analysing it — his research — looking at the effects it has, the reasons behind it: the real reasons.”
“God, he must be a good friend... to let you pull his work apart like that.”
“He’s interested in the same kinds of things as me. It’s more pulling together than pulling apart, I hope. It wasn’t really my idea at all. He as good as asked me.”
“As good as?”
“Well, you know, there’s a certain etiquette to these things. He wouldn’t want to seem immodest. That’s part of the research as well, I guess: a chapter maybe.”
“So who is he?” Not a partner, I hoped, but not out loud. “Was he at the conference?”
“& there’s a certain etiquette to this type of thing as well. That isn’t something that you get to ask me.”
“Oh, sorry,” I muttered, but she didn’t actually seem very serious “I’m... I guess I’m something of a neophyte.”
“Better a neophyte than an epiphyte, though, huh?”
I laughed quickly, half getting the joke. Mistletoe was an epiphyte, I remembered: a kind of parasite. Anyway, my relief that she wasn’t above a bit of crap University witticism herself was difficult to hide.
“Sorry, one of the dangers of studying academics is you end up talking like them... Besides, I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to. It’d influence the research & make the whole thing a lot more complicated if anyone else found out who the subject was.”
“I suppose you’re right. So, what? Do you follow him around then?”
“Not exactly, no.” She paused, then, impenetrably: “I guess I do go where he’s been though.”
“To boldly go where one man has been before.”
Wednesday, January 7
“That’s right” she chuckled politely.
“The prime directive,” I announced, milking the joke until it suddenly seemed to make a weird kind of sense.
She rolled her eyes by way of a playful dismissal of any such infantile analogies between her work & anything to do with science fiction. She clearly didn’t know much about Star Trek, though. So I thought I’d work in the idea:
“Isn’t there a danger your activities, your presence (however shadowy), might end up seriously affecting his work: making it into something else, something designed entirely for your consumption?” She winced at the word ‘consumption’. “Or, on the other hand, maybe it could make him try too hard to produce something which confounds your interpretation?”
“I seriously hope so. That’s the point.” She beamed. There was some niggling uncertainty behind her confidence however.
“This dialectic effect you were talking about?”
“If you like.” She seemed a little suspicious of the question, & suddenly rather fed up with the conversation.
“Interesting. So... on that thought: fancy another? Same again?”
I ordered two more pints, resisting the temptation to look back & check if anyone else could see just how pretty she was from this corner of the bar. She might be looking over here herself.
She changed her tone to gently ironise proceedings on my return, “Anyway, what about yours?”
I began a deliberately self-deprecating outline of my thoughts on comedy: how we should reread certain seemingly dead-pan sorts of writing as comic performances — especially criticism & theory, but also how I couldn’t decide between following this idea up with a critical thesis on some delimited area of literature or criticism, or by actually coming up with my own new stuff: supporting the expansion of comic (rather than simple, truth-conditional) writing in the academy by actually doing it myself... blah.
It was a mess. I couldn’t seem to make my ideas intersect as well as sometimes they miraculously had used to do all by themselves when I began to speak or write. (Hence my success as an undergraduate, & my funding.) I was groping around for a thesis like a man trying to scratch an itchy foot without taking off his shoe. She sat & watched me grope.
Somehow, though, with every garbled thought that struggled from my head, Hannah seemed to grow more pensive & less... happy. Eventually, as I trailed off into vapid speculation about writing a fictional thesis, something which might dovetail quite nicely with her own work (I was flirting very clumsily, I suppose) — a parody or something — she asked:
“Would you say it was... Creative Writing?”
Thursday, January 8
She seemed upset. “Maybe,” I concurred, if only in the hope it would cheer her up, “I don’t actually like to call it that. I think of it...”
I stopped. Her head had dropped. A sound like someone winnowing grain or maybe gold-prospecting with a riffle tray, began to emerge as if through the top of her head, interspersed with little gasps whenever her lungs demanded oxygen. Her shoulders & the chocolate ringlets of her hair shuddered slightly with the effort.
I couldn’t think of anything to do. A moment ago, she’d been as breezy as you like, & now... I’d certainly never had a reaction quite as bad as this one to an explanation of my academic work. Admittedly, my mom did fall asleep — & I mean, literally, she fell asleep — the first time I attempted to describe the thesis to her. She’d had a typically long day though, & was only asking out of kindness. This was different. Here was somebody who heard this kind of claptrap every day. She studied it. It couldn’t possibly have been my incompetence that had upset her, could it? It must be something else.
I didn’t think I knew her well enough to put an arm around her. I would have liked to. She had narrow shoulders that would’ve made my arm & hand seem unusually powerful & protective. I really would have liked to.
I searched my pockets for a tissue, knowing full well I didn’t have one. Eventually, she wiped her eyes & cheeks with the red cotton of her long-sleeved T-shirt. Her nose wasn’t running, thank God: the thought of snot dribbling over her top lip...
“I’m sorry,” she said, “very embarrassing, I know.”
“No it’s fine... really.”
“It’s just...” she tried to form the shape with her mouth of the first vowel or consonant of the word she was about to say; it kept changing. Entirely inappropriately, my sleep-deprived imagination suddenly envisioned her breaking into some early fifties popular jazz number like a character in a Dennis Potter drama. I really hoped she didn’t start to cry again; I didn’t think I could bear any more of those little syncopated gasps: “you... what you said...” she finally cajoled the words out, “it reminded me of someone.”
I waited. I wanted to know who. This was another ‘someone’ in her life: first the research-partner cum experimental subject, now the one who I reminded her of & who made her cry. If I’d said anything I knew I wouldn’t have found out. It’s like one of those old text adventure games. Sometimes you have to just write ‘wait’ a few times to make the right things happen.
Hannah lifts a ringlet of her hair away from her face & sighs.
Friday, January 9
‘You remind me of my favourite ever teacher,’ she admits, at last,‘He was a lovely man: an English teacher, & a poet. He taught us about the delicate power of words, how they actually changed the way people thought — not just what they thought, but the way they thought — & he taught us the physical beauty of words, how they make the body change when you say them: the lips, the tongue, the diaphragm, the expressions of the face. For him, poetry was something you could taste & touch; it was a lover: it could make you laugh or cry;sometimes you could argue with it, you could be furious; sometimes it would baffle you with its enigmatic behaviour; but always you wanted it to reach out & touch you, to comfort you or passionately tear your clothes away. He made us learn whole poems off by heart & perform them; which sounds fantastically dull, but it wasn’t. It was fantastically sexy.’
‘All the girls had a crush on him. One Monday, we were all told in assembly that he’d slid his motorbike on an icy road somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland & plummeted over a cliff. He was trying to get to a phonebox to call his fiancée. We all imagined we were his fiancée. The girls were all so distraught they had to close the school for a week.’
‘To this day, every time I hear ‘A Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ I tremble all over.’
‘You don’t know it do you?’ she asks.
What Hannah really told me that afternoon was the following, (to summarise): she had lived for two years with her ex-partner, a bright but unpredictable postgraduate student called Amrit Singh who was doing a PhD in literary theory with one of those ambitiously short titles: ‘Plural Theories of Fiction Praxis’ or something. In the third year of his research he had taken a decision similar to the one I was myself contemplating (one which, by the way, his supervisor considered to be academically suicidal): namely, to shift from simply expounding fiction praxis (as he called it) to actually employing it. He began a vast & seemingly interminable piece of self-conscious writing & research called The Zomby Project, which, because he was intellectually very obstinate, nobody (not even Hannah herself) could convince him to abandon. “This was before I’d really started my own research,” she explained, “I didn’t have the right air of authority...”
Saturday, January 10
His research seemed focused very heavily on envisioning the City of Birmingham from the point of view of its vagrants. He became obsessed with one old tramp in particular, a silent & almost entirely unresponsive old geezer who he would follow everywhere in order to observe. He virtually became a tramp himself, only returning home from his wanderings (& whatever else he got up to) every other day or so to eat; & only once a week, at erratic intervals, would he visit the office he shared at the University to transfer the jottings in his notebooks onto the computer or to photocopy things (often new editions or references he’d found to Luther’s Liber Vagatorum, or something seemingly irrelevant about counterfeit coins).
This continued for about five months, during which time Amrit paid her no attention at all; he never even noticed that Hannah was becoming heavily pregnant. Her pregnancy was already well into its sixth month by the time she confronted him with the obvious truth to which he had somehow, up to that point, been studiously oblivious. “You have to understand,” she said, “I was still somewhat in awe of him. Most people at the University seemed to think he was some kind of an eccentric genius. I didn’t want to be the one who’d stifled his research. It sounds stupid, I know.” Once she had convinced him to acknowledge the situation, though, he promised to stay at home & be more responsible. Over the last few months, he did stay at home, but spent most of his time in the little study, which he was supposed to be transforming into a bedroom for the baby, writing up the results of his stalled research. (God, I almost said aborted). Hannah didn’t mind this too much because he seemed to be attempting to knock the thing on the head before the baby was born. So she let him get on with it. The baby could sleep in the same room as them for a couple of months, after all.
When Hannah finally went into labour, Amrit never left his study. She went to the hospital with her mother & a friend from University. The birth went okay. It wasn’t as painful as she’d expected but it had taken longer: four hours, which isn’t actually long at all but she’d just expected it to be quicker for some reason. Hannah was back in the house two days later & Amrit had never once been to visit her or their new baby boy at the QE. He was refusing to talk. He had fitted a bolt to the door. After a few hours of door banging & tears (the latter from both the baby & herself), she’d decided she was far too tired to care any more & that the best thing was to leave him to stew in his own juice for a while. This remained the situation for the next nine days — Hannah dealing with all the demands a new life makes upon the world & Amrit... doing whatever it was he was doing in his study & only sneaking out from time to time to piss or eat when they were both asleep, or occupied with something that distracted their attention.
Sunday, January 11
Hannah’s mother would come round every day after work to help her out. On the eleventh day of the baby’s life — he was still unnamed & officially unregistered (strangely, this was the thing that hurt her most, she said, perhaps because the comparison with the standard bureaucratic procedure had brought it home to her just how unusual & unfair her partner’s actions had become) — Hannah got up to answer the door to her mother, as usual, leaving the baby asleep in the kitchen (for once). She couldn’t have been gone for longer than a minute. They stood in the hall & chatted in hushed tones about the situation with Amrit, rehearsing the same old arguments, until they heard the baby crying in a strangely muffled way & hurried back into the kitchen to find Amrit slumped against the doorjamb with the baby in his arms, rocking backwards & forwards & repeating the word ‘no.’ Hannah screamed, worrying that he might do some damage, whether intentionally or not, & grabbed the bawling baby back off its father & handed him to her mom. She then approached Amrit, who was still rocking & saying simply, ‘no... no... no’ to the accompaniment of their wailing child, & reached out to touch his face. He flinched, then stood up & walked slowly down the hall & out of the house without closing the door behind him. She hadn’t seen or heard from him since.
The baby was fourteen months old now & had never met his father. The CSA had turned up nothing in all that time. There were enough Amrit Singhs in Birmingham alone to make the job nigh on impossible. Anyway, he probably wouldn’t use that name. He never did when he was ‘undercover’ doing his research. The baby’s name was Sam: like mine. She confessed this was actually the main reason she’d come up & spoken to me in the first place... though she had been interested in my paper too: its similarities to Amrit’s way of thinking. It was my abstract which had initially convinced her to attend the conference. She even thought I might’ve turned out to be him.
& also, if she was honest, her research was partly an excuse to go to places where she thought he might turn up. Or else to look for someone else who might... She wasn’t so much angry with him. She had been to begin with, obviously, but not any more. She was worried. He must’ve had a nervous breakdown; maybe renewing contact with his son might help to bring him back.
I didn’t know what I thought of that. I didn’t have children of my own, & hadn’t had a nervous breakdown... yet... touch wood. I wondered out loud whether men ever suffered from post-natal depression.
Monday, January 12
I don’t really know why I was still playing the likeable dimwit; Hannah was obviously still in love with her ex & anyway, she had a kid to worry about. I’d also, however, never had an affair with a single mother before...
“I think I know how to find him,” she said, returning from a trip to the toilet as if she’d made some kind of resolution in there, “but I just can’t face the job myself.”
“How?” I asked. I was about to say I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for, but in a strange way I’m pretty certain that I did.
“There must be something in his papers that could hold the key to his whereabouts. He produced an absolute welter of writing in that little study in those last two months.”
“You never cleared the study out? Or even read the stuff?”
“I couldn’t face it. He was always very touchy with his papers. Or at least,” she mustered a dark little chuckle to try & cheer things along a bit, “he never wanted me to be touchy with them. We once had a terrible row because I’d asked him to tidy up a bit. It was entirely for his benefit I was saying it. He could never find anything & it made him really angry with himself. To be fair, he never used to take it out on me, but he would punch himself on the jaw repeatedly & throw things about the place like a kid having a tantrum just because a reference to some obscure event in history from some even more obscure source had disappeared (even though he’d known precisely where it was before). I’d obviously moved things about, he would say. He had a very sophisticated system of piling things around his feet so that the layers of paper in his study corresponded directly to the way the memories of reading them were laid down in his mind. For this reason, my meddling attempts to rationalise his work like some kind of manic librarian (who could only put ‘one thing in one place at a time’: as if there were any other way of putting things in places) was actually more like a bull in a china shop than any rationalising influence. You just want to take my brain & make it like yours, he said. That really hurt.”
“So I promised to leave his papers alone from that point on: not that I’d ever meddled with them much before, only fished out the occasional unpaid bill or thrown away a few plastic-wrapped sales brochures or whatever, but the point was that I wouldn’t nag him about them either. When he left, I suppose I felt that tidying the room up would mean I didn’t care about him any more; like I was going back on our agreement. That was his brain in there. I didn’t want to make it look like mine.”
She held back her tears — not for the first time that day — moistening her lips to control the tension in her face.
Tuesday, January 13
I considered saying something jokey & complimentary about how cool her brain would probably look if it was a study — like a showroom in the Ideal Study exhibition, or something — luckily I thought better of it. I really would have to stop thinking about kissing her.
“But you’d never read any of it before?”
“No, never: I didn’t want to jinx the thing. Some people can be superstitious.”
“Yeh, I know.”
“To be honest, the real reason is that I’m absolutely terrified of what I’ll find. You know that moment in serial killer movies where they find the madman’s secret cellar, or a shed or whatever, with bizarre cuttings & things in foreign languages all over the walls... it’s a bit like that. You don’t really want to look at it: just in case... not even when you know it’s a fiction. It’s hard to tell whether all that stuff is just a symptom of the madness, or whether looking at it all that time, & working on it, whether it’s that strange, obsessive activity & all those crazy collages of information which have driven a previously sane man mad.”
“Haven’t you even been in there?” I asked, becoming genuinely worried I was being sucked into a gothic nightmare for a second.
“No, no, of course I have. I go in there almost every day, half expecting him to be hunched over the desk, asleep on his hands after working all night. I know full well it doesn’t really look like some nutter’s hideaway. It’s a perfectly normal, messy little academic study with books & papers everywhere. There’s a window. You can even see in from the garden. I’ve cleaned up all the coffee cups & ashtrays & stuff. It looks quite charming really. It’s just that if I started reading, I’d be terrified of plunging into some twisted, mind-altering fantasy he was constructing. The things he used to talk about were sometimes very odd. I couldn’t risk that, for Sam’s sake.”
“I’m sure it’s perfectly normal... boring even.”
“In some ways, it might be better if it actually was insane: completely impossible to fathom — d’you know what I mean? — that way it wouldn’t pose a threat, I could just get rid of it all. Knowing Amrit though, it wouldn’t be like that: he was usually very precise & persuasive in the way he expressed himself. He could say the most unlikely things, as I mentioned, but you always wanted to go with him, somehow.”
“I think you should read it: some of it at least.” By now, I thought we’d reached the stage of friendship, even though it had been less than a couple of hours, (or perhaps, at least, we’d reached the stage of drunkenness) at which I could offer my advice.
“I think you should read it,” she replied.
I took a swig of beer to hide the shock. It was starting to taste a bit too warm & slightly acidic, but I wanted it all the same. I tried to laugh off her suggestion.
Wednesday, January 14
“No seriously,” she said, “I’m sure you’d understand it more than I would. It’s your field.”
I didn’t know precisely what my field was, but she was probably right about Amrit’s work being the kind of thing I was a little more used to reading than a Sociologist would be.
“Do you really think it would help get your husband back?”
“My partner: we never married, for feminist reasons... his rather than mine.”
“Shit, sorry,” I said, through ironically gritted teeth “desperately old-fashioned thing to say.” That really was a stupid mistake. The apology was even worse than the original gaffe. Desperately old-fashioned? I sounded like bloody Prince Charles. I was slightly mimicking her private-school accent, I suppose. I badly needed to eat something more substantial than a packet of salt & vinegar McCoys in order to soak up the booze. I was far too drunk already to make a rational decision on this subject. I couldn’t even remember the basic details, for christsake.
She grinned, “I do;” she pressed, “there’s got to be a clue in there of some kind.”
“Yes,” I nodded slowly, trying to use that few seconds to think up some way of wriggling out of this weird situation whilst simultaneously keeping open the possibility of seeing Hannah again; or, more to the point, of getting the opportunity to slowly take off her clothes. Nothing beyond sexual fantasies came to mind. There was nothing for it: I would have to change the subject.
“It must be hard looking after a kid on your own...” the words were like an instant cold shower; I usually have to think of my grandad pissing in a rusty metal bucket in the shed with nothing but a pair of wellies on, but this was just as good: “who’s got him now?”
I bit into my gums to avoid literally kicking myself as she took the hint & checked her watch, “My dad: he’s great with kids. I’d better give them a call though actually. He’s driving us back to Brum.”
“Yeh, sorry. I’ve been monopolising you.”
She smiled in a semi-stoical sort of way & finished her drink. I really was fucking sorry: sorry that I wouldn’t even get a chance to share her now.
She busied herself with her coat & phone & so on. She obviously had no intention of even leaving the pub at the same time as me after such a humiliating rejection of her plea for help. I took a quick sip of beer & put the glass back on the beermat with a gulp or two left in the bottom... like someone off Eastenders. I didn’t want to prolong the awkwardness by making her wait for me.
“Erm...” I didn’t know what to say. How the hell was I going to get her number now?
“Listen,” she chirped, coming to my rescue — it was an act of extreme generosity & forgiveness, I think — “I want you to think about it. I really would be grateful if you could just take a quick look at Amrit’s study one day... when you’ve got a bit of time.”
Thursday, January 15
I nodded as reassuringly, but also as non-committally, as possible. She took out a green pen & a pink rectangle of post-it notes & began to scribble something.
“I’ll give you my email address;” she said, “send me a copy of your paper... I’d be interested to take another look.”
She was about to hand it over — presenting it ceremoniously between her thumb & index finger like a priest with a fluorescent pink communion wafer — then thought better of it & leant over the altar of the pub table to press the sticky part gently against my forehead.
She smiled: more happily this time. “Bye bye,” she said.
For some reason (perhaps it was an act of penitence) I didn’t take the post-it off my head until the pub-door had shut behind her. I fully expected it to say dickhead or something of the sort, but it was genuinely an email address. It was obviously designed to let me know exactly where I stood though. Here it is:
I can still feel her fingers dabbing it on my forehead like a kiss.
© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2002-2008