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From Claire and Sophia

June 2, 2017

CHAPTER ONE

Where They Live.

When Jack was seven he found he could control his dreams. He could see them being projected onto the wall opposite his bed, and even had his own trademark, himself in a suit of armour, though his visual imagination wasn’t strong enough to stop his face looking too fat, too red, and rather ridiculous poking out of that shiny suit. But he could direct the action, choose the characters and setting, alter the ending if he wanted. This was a source of great satisfaction to young Jack, who often thought this power over his imagination was the only power he had. It didn’t prevent the many losses and disappointments of his boyhood, of course, but it sometimes made him feel a little better about himself.

As he grew older Jack’s fantasies became more elaborate and more closely related to real life, more of a matter for his waking hours. This process was exacerbated by the tremendous amount of fantasy material to which he subjected himself, by (it must be said) the study of literature and his ambition to be a writer.

When some new disappointment made him reflect on this Jack always decided to remain faithful to his idealistic visions and not compromise, partly for political and literary reasons, and partly because he just couldn’t see what else he could do. And so, unable or unwilling to release his grip, Jack naturally found himself dreaming less and less at night. And when he did happen to remember a dream Jack, who knew all about popular psychology, generally judged it rather obvious and corny, and dismissed it without further thought.

On this occasion Jack’s dream began with the image of the blue plastic eyebath from a bottle of Optrex, merrily bubbling in boiling water, in the imitation copper saucepan on the dirty old cooker, downstairs in the kitchen at 41 Mansion House Street, his friend John’s squat, where he happened to be staying that night. Jack had bought his very first bottle of this eye-cleaning product recently, and so, typically, he dreamt about it.

Jack lifted the steaming little tub out of the water with his bare fingers, and poured a measure of what he thought was Optrex into it. This liquid was in fact Dettol, a powerful antiseptic.

Jack saw the brown liquid wash up against his eye, saw the ancient symbol of an eye surrounded by flames, saw himself leaping about in pain and then running out of the house, until he ended up in St James’s Park. The verdant scene he found there stopped his eye hurting, but when his vision returned fully Jack found himself surrounded by couples.

He knew many of them – Ben and Jenny, Tim and Amanda, Hazel and George, Bill and Heather and so on. Single people he knew were there too, with some unsuitable or maddeningly attractive partner. And everybody was there, except Jack, who was not provided with a partner.

St James’s Park had turned into a garden of love, and Jack was condemned to be the one red eyed snake in the grass. He looked into the heavens, seeking relief from this oppressive vision, but even the birds in the trees were in couples. They looked smugly down on him, occasionally sending a white dropping to keep him company, singing their boring little songs to each other – with words such as “You’ve got a lot going for you Jack! Just don’t think about it and it’ll happen!”

The stinging antiseptic had found its way to Jack’s other eye, hot salty tears were stinging them, and Jack realised how quickly he was ageing, that he was still alone, while the dance of love went on all around him but out of reach.

“I am not a naturally beautiful person,” Jack said, “And life has already made me uglier. I cannot go on without love!”

The couples turned angrily on Jack. His misery was interrupting their happiness. They chased him around the park, yelling abuse at him, and being the only dressed person in the park made Jack feel particularly vulnerable. It was all deeply humiliating, and Jack’s agony finally welled up into an out loud cry of

“Claire!” Luckily, everybody else in the house was too asleep to hear him.

It’s hard to say whether she had really come out of his subconscious, or if the sound of his own voice had simply awakened that old, dream controlling part of Jack; whatever, Claire, miraculous as always, appeared.

She floated down from the sky, dressed as Supergirl (Jack had once daydreamed about going to a party with her, dressed as Batman and Robin, but Claire does actually look better in red and blue than in red, green and yellow). She looked a bit hazy, as Jack only saw the bits he could remember, but she had turned up, and just seeing her made Jack feel a lot better.

“Go on Claire,” Jack said, “Say something sweet to me.” He had her in his arms, and she did seem to be saying something, but her twangy Dorsetshire accent was beyond his powers of imitation, and so Jack only heard her murmuring. Reassured by the warmth of his bed, however, Jack took the lead and gently poured his heart out, until Claire woke him up by turning into a pillow.

Jack stretched out his pleasant thoughts as long as possible, and sank back into luxurious sleep once or twice. Even when he was fully awake he stayed in bed for another hour, because Claire had promised to wake him up before she went to college. While she continued not appearing Jack read a little book he’d got her to lend him for the night, as a break from the OUP edition of Tennyson he was ploughing through, an old green illustrated selection of poems by Keats. He stopped reading half way through “The Eve of Saint Agnes”, because Keats lines about Porphyro entering his lover’s bedchamber seemed so much more vivid and beautiful and real than his ideas about Claire coming for him. After that he just watched the day become more gloomy, through the uncurtained window. Jack’s disappointment grew ever keener, until he was thoroughly miserable. But he stayed at his post, determined not to be the one to break faith.

Jack was finally prized out of bed at about noon by a humble call of nature. He dressed and quietly made his way to the bathroom, creeping like Porphyro in the poem, but at the castle too late.

The door to Claire’s room was opposite the bathroom, and it was the first thing Jack saw one he’d finished in there. A sign saying Do Not Disturb was hanging from the doorknob. Surely Claire would want to be woken, as she was late for college, and our Porphyro should enter her enchanted chamber and curtail her slumber? But there was that sign warning him.

Jack’s ever uneasy conscience won a compromise out of him. He rattled and knocked the door as softly as he would have shaken Claire herself, far too softly to wake any sleeping occupant.

“Claire?” Jack called, feeling ridiculous, knocking and rattling more loudly, now he was confident the bedroom was empty.

“That blasted Porphyros’s got here first,” Said Jack half humorously. Then he worried that his attitude was altogether too competitive and goal orientated, and thought perhaps that this was where he was going wrong. But, after standing there for a while, reflecting on the various influences society had brought to bare on his character, and deciding that his cultural heritage had in fact placed deep inside him some spiritual virus, which would always prevent him from achieving any goal, Jack turned and stamped down the stairs in a truly foul mood.

Looking at the broken banister, the spraypaint flowers on the walls, and other signs of his friends’ attempts to make the house their own, Jack even began to think that they too were just cynics who were out to waste and destroy whatever they could get hold of. He was forgetting that they had their difficulties too, partly out of envy, but also because of a sneaking admiration for people he could never restrain.

The house was actually in a pretty sorry mess. It was basically sound, but its owners had left it standing empty for some years, and the squatters who moved in at a steady rate weren’t given time to fix the place up properly before the owners kicked them out. A nice enough place to rest your bones in, though; no doubt it had been the pride and joy of some respectable Edwardian family, whose remaining spirits gave the place an atmosphere of calm, presiding over the activities of its current occupants like anxious but heroic parents.

As he entered the living room Jack saw John maniacally sweeping it out with a stiff horsehair broom. John hadn’t seen him, and so, knowing his friend’s fondness for the Pink Panther films, Jack decided to surprise him by rushing up and grabbing him from behind. Jack carried out his plan with unusual vigour, shouting

“Not now Kato, you fool!” so John would know it was only a joke. John, however, was in no mood to be trifled with, and Jack found himself flying in the direction of the sofa with a blood-curdling scream ringing in his ears.

After a silence during which Jack freed his leg from the back of the orange sofa, while John coolly continued sweeping up, the two of them engaged in conversation as though the violent incident had never occurred.

“I hate this place. It’s always in a mess, I’m the only one who ever tidies, and we’ll probably be thrown out by the end of the month anyway.”

“Are you sure?” Jack asked, anxious about Claire.

“We’re waiting for a court date, it’ll come,” John said wearily.

So Jack discussed this problem with his friend. He hadn’t yet gained any personal experience of these matters, and his suggestions became increasingly fanciful until John was irritated into changing the subject, which gave Jack the chance to ask casually,

“Oh, have you seen Claire this morning?”

“Just long enough to stop her emptying her muesli into the sink. She was out ages ago.”

Jack had expected this, but he had been trying to persuade himself that she’d decided to take the day off school and would reappear soon, and he couldn’t conceal his disappointment.

“Oh, she said she’d wake me up!”

“She put some music on, didn’t you hear it?”

“But she said she’d bring me a cup of tea and everything.”

“You’re sick, man. What you need is an experienced older woman with thighs like tree trunks.”

“Claire’ll be like that soon enough, I just want to see her get there.”

“You’d vanish at the first sight of a hair on her chin.”

“Well, there’s a few years to go before that eventuality.”

“Don’t be sure of that, cradle snatcher.”

“Grave robber!”

“Nymphophile!”

“Well, John, all that’s beside the point because I’m not complaining about this as a disappointed suitor or anything like that, merely as a friend who expects to be treated with courtesy and respect.”

John looked at him with his sad, wise Irish eyes, saw right through him, and said,

“No matter. They’re all bitches from Hell. Let’s see what’s for breakfast.”

John marched into the kitchen while Jack lagged behind, absorbing the information he’d learned about Claire that morning.

So, she hadn’t kept her promise to wake him. Jack’s first reaction was that this proved that she truly didn’t care for him. But, on further consideration, he had to admit that similar things had happened before, and yet she always greeted him with the exact same warmth and friendliness as she had when they first met. So perhaps she had just forgotten again. Or maybe she hadn’t really promised at all. And shouldn’t Jack realise that it was a pretty cheeky and patronising thing to ask of her anyway?

Yes, that was it; and the very fact that she was prepared to make this point and risk Jack getting heavy about it proved that she did care about him really, and so Jack decided not to mention it the next time they met, unless she mentioned it first, in which case he would apologise to her for his arrogance.

Jack would go to any lengths to avoid thinking badly of a woman he loved.

Jack meanwhile, having removed the top layer of mess in the kitchen, was rooting through its various cupboards and surfaces, trying to compose a breakfast from the meagre remains of a very stoned shopping trip some days before. At last he found some Tabasco sauce, and when Jack stumbled in he exclaimed

“Mexican eggs!” An announcement which rather puzzled Jack, and sent him lamely back to the living room, to play his part by getting the telly warmed up.

A quiz show was on. Jack was quite good at general knowledge, but he didn’t follow it very well because he was still thinking about Claire.

Now that he’d forgiven her, and so having proved to himself once again that his love was justified, and not the delusion of a vain and sexist male, Jack went back to loving her again. What a fine, delicate way she had of expressing herself! Really, the way she had chastised him was the epitome of discretion. Instead of worrying about whether she cared about him, Jack must learn to read this subtle feminine language.

It was like something out of Jane Austen (he had read “Emma” for A level English), a misunderstanding which would do no harm once in the end.

Soon he was away in a favourite picture of himself as the twentieth century’s Mr Knightley. That is the gentleman whom Emma eventually marries, thanks to his patience and superior wisdom. He made an excellent role model for Jack, but one whom he found hard to match. Austen would have blamed this on his inferior breeding. Nowadays we of course know better.

Soon after Jack reached his more or less satisfactory conclusions John came in with their breakfast – eggy, red and steaming.

Jack always felt a bit guilty about eating, and ate quickly, with machine like efficiency, hoping to get the meal out of the way and resume the conversation. So much for him.

John, by way of contrast, having laboured to put it together, ate with evident enjoyment; some would say with sensuality. Sometimes he lifted his piece of toast high into the air and dropped it and the mixture straight into his mouth. Jack would glance over, decide not to comment, and decide that, no, he couldn’t carry off such flamboyance, he would drop egg all over his jumper.

After Jack had cleared the plates away and returned with the coffee the conversation turned to what they would do that day. Neither of them was going to college, as Jack had finished that summer, only returning to London a few weeks ago, and John’s schooling had not been designed to lead to further education.

“Zead’s party’s tonight,” said John.

“How much did he spend on it in the end?”

“Everything.”

“What will de do?”

“Well, he’s selling tickets on the door, but I can’t see him making much out of that. Never mind, it should be a good crack.”

“Poor Zead. How much are the tickets?”

“I don’t know. Anyway, I’m not paying. He won’t mind.”

“Oh dear, I never get away with that sort of thing.”

“Don’t worry, dear, we’ll get you in.”

At that moment Ziggy burst in, as though he was eager to back up John’s reassurances. He was actually looking for the makings of a joint and, ignoring the other two, hunted the ashtrays and every corner of the room for likely looking roaches and dogends.

Ziggy was tall, with a fine, historically featured face. But Jack often found his manic intensity and rather patronising manner alarming. Ziggy enjoyed playing the foreigner in London, and had claimed so many nationalities that nobody was quite sure where he came from.

He was wearing nothing but a straggly purple silk dressing gown and a punk teeshirt, from out of which his genitals swung. Looling like a turkey’s neck.

“Where’s all the rubbish gone?” He asked testily.

John told him it had gone somewhere he had never seen, the outside bin, but further rowing was prevented because he had thought to save everything that could possibly go into the construction of a joint. Then Ziggy mentioned that he’d received the court notice, and words had to be said.

“When did you get it?” Asked John.

“Oh I don’t know. Last week some time.”

“Well don’t sit on information like that, you blasted fool!”

“It’s not important, I know many other places.”

“Like this one, I suppose.”

“What date are you due to appear?” Jack asked, hoping to end the panic.

“Not for another three weeks – the end of July.”

“Great, the weather will be perfect for camping,” John said, still annoyed. At least it wasn’t for a while yet. “I want to see that letter,” He told Ziggy.

“I’ll go and get it right now,” Ziggy said, jumping up.

“Not right now,” I’ll look at it later,” John said wearily, as Ziggy knew he would.

Ziggy became conciliatory, one of his most annoying modes, tickling John under the chin and tousling Jack’s hair in an affectionate manner, until the other two were too irritated to be depressed.

And so they hashed over their vague plans for the party, which gave Jack the chance to confirm that Claire was going and that, therefore, he must too.

By this time Ziggy had made one of his strangely spindly joints, and their conversation was given piquancy by certain furtive glances in its direction. Ziggy had the annoying habit of letting it go out for ages because he was still talking, which Jack approvingly thought might be a better way to smoke. When John got hold of it he set about improving it, using a grubby finger covered in slobbery spit. Jack, as always, got the roach end.

They were watching a popular Austalian daytime soap, commenting on it with boyishly vulgar humour.

“Go on Shylie,” Said John, “Make him beg for it!”

“Poor Harry, he’s doing his best.”

“His best isn’t good enough for Shylie, though.”

“Look, it’s the backless tee-shirt!”

“She’s turning, she’s turning round!”

“Get your tits out!”

“Ziggy!” Jack protested, rising to his feet in a judgmental fashion, “You go too far. Please restrain yourself. You know I abominate crudity.”

“You were joining in a moment ago.”

“I was joining in, Zig, with an attempt to deconstruct the show by witty parody. I would never, never use such means to avenge my lust on an innocent young actress.”

“She’s not innocent. That tee-shirt isn’t innocent.”

“Come off it Jack,” John said, “She’s just a page three girl dressed in a suburb.”

Jack named the actress like a barrister naming his client “Is a talented young performer who is quite simply a rising star. If she’s forced to mildly exploit her body for the sake of her career, well, blame the tabloids, blame the calendar makers, blame yourselves, gentlemen. But never, never blame her.”

“Well, why do you watch this rubbish, then?” John muttered, getting bored.

Ziggy, however, had sensed a weak spot, and began singing in a high, far away voice,

“Jack, Jack? It’s Shylie. I’ve come for you, darling. I’m wearing the backless teeshirt. It’s reversed!”

“All right Ziggy, I take your point.” Said Jack, feeling a lot less morally superior than a moment ago. But Ziggy would persist.

“I’m waiting for you, my dear, in the garden.”

Jack slumped back into silence, feeling rather ashamed of himself. He really did hate women to be degraded by such dirty talk, but often, as now, got a bit overexcited and forgot himself. And he had to admit he would have enjoyed the scene conjured up by Ziggy’s singsong, but knew it could never be. So he felt a bit uncomfortable now, and started to wonder if he should go back to Bill and Heather’s for a while. He had about five pounds on him, and would have to spend half of it on fares if he went home and then came back in the evening.

There were things Jack should be doing; letters, job applications, his writing. But none of it seemed particularly urgent, and Jack knew that Bill and Heather would both be out until late. Jack didn’t want to go, he wanted to spend the day with John and Ziggy, but he needed a reason for doing so. So it was lucky for him that John chose that moment to ask him if he felt like coming along to see John’s friends in Camden Town.

Jack jumped at the chance, although Lucy was the only one of the three names John mentioned that he could remember. Then John said,

“We’d better phone them first, so let’s go to the pub.”

“Me go too!” Ziggy eagerly cried. Jack was less enthusiastic, as he thought of pubs as rather drab, horrid places, and could see his fiver disappearing very quickly. But John assured him that the landlord was a friend of his, who would be only too glad to cash a cheque, even though Jack didn’t have a card.

So, after sternly instructing Ziggy to get dressed before he joined them, they left.

Luckily for Jack, John had a sound instinct for a congenial tavern. Jack had assumed the floor of the pub would be covered in garish but dirty lino; that its clientele would be noisy, unattractive people, who only conversed by asking frighteningly foolish questions such as “What are you looking at?” Or, pointing to his plastic bag, “What’s that?” He thought that a fight might break out at any moment, one probably started by Ziggy; that he would, in fact, be entering a hell of aggression, discordance, and unthinking, unenjoyable vice. Jack had only recently left the strange atmosphere of a college campus.

“The Runcible Spoon” soon allayed these fears, as the floor was of lovingly polished wood, the other customers mostly quiet and polite and liberally leavened with the lunchtime, school uniformed crowd, and the ambience altogether quite amiable, made more soothing by the jukebox’s continuous supply of melodious, slightly depressing popular tunes.

Jack always appreciated the difference a friend such as John made in these situations, and felt a twinge of guilt for never making such a difference himself. He told himself this shyness was a fault, a sign of bad health and bad feeling. But his literary pretensions suggested to him that a degree of alienation was necessary to his art. As far as his heart was concerned, it just proved that life was meaningless to him without companionship. Companionship that is, of the right sort.

“So, Jack, tell us about Claire,” John said, accompanying his inquiry with a Sid Jamesian guffaw.

Jack, startled out of his reverie, sat there quietly for a moment, brooding over his reply. He wasn’t ashamed of the way he felt about Claire, of course, but he thought it would be discourteous to discuss his feelings with John before telling the girl herself, not to mention foolish. So he decided to play it cool.

“Claire who?”

“You know. Claire the fluffhead who lives at my squat.”

“Oh, her. What about her?”

“Yeah, right, what about her! You fancy her, don’t you?”

“Please John, that’s such a coarse expression. You talk as if she was a racehorse, a sweetmeat, a succulent titbit, to be scooped up and swallowed whole.”

“All right, don’t get excited. But she has got good form, and she is sweet, and as for succulent, her t-“

“John, please! You’re talking about a woman I… respect immensely.”

“Ah, sweet!”

Jack was pleased to think that John could recognise his feelings, and smiled inscrutably, hoping to leave this topic at this satisfactory point. But it turned out that Ziggy arrived at that moment and he, naturally, subjected Jack to much Continental ribaldry, which mainly differed from John’s Irish variety by the graphic gestures that accompanied it.

“So tell me about how you first met her,” Said Ziggy, as ever producing the irresistible question. It seemed a lot more relevant to Jack than the other things he’d been asking.

“Well, I met her briefly a month ago. She showed me round the house. Except your room, Ziggy.”

“Didn’t she show you my lingerie?”

“No, certainly not. She just showed me the main rooms, and hers was of course the nicest one, with all her art displayed with modesty and wit. Then she asked me to help with her English and we ended up reading King Lear together.”

“Did you end up carrying her round the room?”

“Certainly not. I make it a rule never to go as far as the fifth act on a first date.”

“It’s a pity she didn’t want help with her French.”

“Shut up John. It was just all very pleasant, harmless and natural. Don’t spoil it with your innuendo.”

“Then what happened?”

“John and Roxie came back and, if I remember correctly, we had lentil soup.”

“Oh, I remember it now,” John said, “You had a big argument with Roxie about whether Cordelia had ever really existed.”

“Well, Lear was a historical character. I don’t see why she couldn’t have been.”

“Is that all?”

“It was a lot for me, Zig,” Jack said, rather indignantly, “You don’t often get the chance to play Lear with such a lovely Cordelia.”

Jack felt his shoulders being grasped by Ziggy’s powerful, claw like fingers.

“This is not love, Englishman,” he was saying “This is mere poetry.”

“Well, Lear is poetry, yes, but I’m not such a fool that I don’t realise that Claire is worth much more than a few couplets. Part of the joy of it was because she’s not a natural actress – she’s too sincere for that. Of course I saw past the part she was playing. I hope she doesn’t think I’m just like Lear!”

Jack wasn’t sure whether Ziggy had been teasing, and he was beginning to fear he’d said too much. So, rather desperately, he said,

“Anyway, isn’t it your round?”

“I’d better phone,” said John, “Have you got any change?”

Jack handed over three ten pence pieces, secretly hoping that that was all he need contribute to this round. But John rushed to the phone and Ziggy said

“How much have you got?”

“Only a couple of quid, and I sort of need them for fares.” Our young romancer told him, which was pretty craven of him, as he knew that the arrangement he had made with his bank while at college meant that he could take another ten pounds from his loan account.

Ziggy, trusting innocent Ziggy didn’t question Jack’s statement. He just made an explosive sound that was half way between the French “Pah!” and that peculiar sucking noise some black people use as an expression of disgust. Then, to Jack’s dismay, he bounded over to the bar and wilfully engaged a tall, hairy looking Hell’s Angel in conversation. Jack watched their discussion with keen attention. He had never been involved in a bar fight himself, but he had seen enough film versions to be mentally prepared for the crisis, and was already looking for bottles and chairs to use as weapons. But he soon saw that Ziggy seemed to have won a new friend, and felt so ashamed of his own attitude that his story about Clare no longer convinced him.

He told himself that he’d said too much to his friends, that Claire wouldn’t like it, that if he wasn’t careful the whole thing would be over before he’d even told her about it, as had happened to Jack before. But there again wouldn’t it be even less honest to conceal these powerful and important feelings, and even more insulting to Claire? How could he let her know he loved her without seeming threatening?

“Well,” Jack said to himself in answer to these questions, “It’s up to you to express them in such a way that Claire would only realise how much she means to me, and not be distressed by realising how desperately I want her to love me.”

Jack had to pause at this point, as he knew that the kind of mating behaviour he was thinking of was not his forte. How could it be?

John and Ziggy returned Ziggy with a trayful of drinks and John with the news that the people in Camden were all busy.

Jack waited for a suitable pause, and then said

“Tell me, lads, how can we express our love of women without appearing to be the sexist pigs we in fact are?”

“You’re still thinking about Claire,” said John.

“No, I’m merely asking a general question that I feel is of immense importance to our generation. And the next one, of course, ’cause it’s up to us to conceive them.”

“Well, I think one should sleep with a woman whenever it’s remotely possible.”

“No, Zig, surely not.”

“They like it too, you know.”

“Yes of course, of course they do. But according to most of the research I’ve read they have to really like, like a chap before they’re prepared to, to put up the flagpole, as it were.”

“That’s rubbish!”

“What is it then, the size of your bum or something?”

“The time, the place, the drugs available,” said Ziggy, practically, “You have to wait until the woman is at a peak of ripeness. Then, don’t pause, don’t give her a moment to think, you have to strike like a cobra spitting its venom at a momentarily uncovered mouse.”

“So, you’re not going to tell me then.”

“Jack, Jackie boy, listen! Listen to what I am telling you. You ask me for technique, and I tell you live, live!”

“Excuse me, I wasn’t asking for technique. I know all about that. I could charm the pants off any woman if I wanted to. I can be “natural” and “spontaneous” with the best of them. But I’m not such a rogue that I would simply seize a girl because she’s an opportunity. Serious things are at stake – abortions, freedom, at least two human souls, usually more. You can end up doing terrible damage to a false love at the very moment a true one passes you by.”

“‘Rogue’?” John said disbelievingly.

“All right, I know we’re all human, and make mistakes. But after waiting all this time I couldn’t bare to make another bad decision where my heart is concerned.”

“It’s not that serious. You’ve just got to be yourself.”

“Yeah, John, sure. It’s all right for you, you’re a nice, cool guy, you can go with your instinct. I have the instincts of a lecherous idiot.”

“What’s the hurry, anyway?” Ziggy asked airily.

“You still don’t get it, do you? I’m not talking about getting my end away! I mean you can see where this country’s going, can’t you? We’re surrounded by examples of the evil effects of misdirected or squandered sexual desire. Just look at all the grubby perverts in the government. And what happens to love in these conditions? It festers in our hearts and turns into vile self loathing and hatred and sterile selfishness.”

Ziggy was suddenly excited into agreement. “My God you’re right! But what can we do about it?”

“Well, I believe that it is possible to love everybody, but each individual has to love each other individual differently. One doesn’t sleep with every other passenger on the tube train, but we all have subtle ways of communicating good will, if we wish. However, without one special person in your life you just can’t give your best to people. So, to get through this awful period without love in one’s life one needs some kind of form to guide you, one that at least gives you some hope for the future, that allows you to express the love you have without getting heavy about it, like good manners but a bit more sexy, like the way girls get hysterical about pop stars, or like a code of chivalry.”

“I don’t quite see the connection,” said John, understandably.

“Well, it seems to me that at the moment most people, and men in particular (if we want to believe some media propaganda) deal with this problem by trying to have it off with anybody, anywhere, whenever possible, like you just said. And when they’re not consciously doing that, they still are, but on a more subtle, subconscious level, which is even more dangerous. It leads to all kinds of misunderstandings and uncomfortable moments…”

“You’ve certainly had your fair share of those, Jack.”

“All right, John, please, don’t personalise this. I think I’m on to something rather important here, so don’t interrupt.

“Where was I? Oh yes, misunderstandings. The fact is we’re all a bit lost these days when it comes to matters of the heart because most of the time we just don’t know what’s really going on. If, for instance, you meet a woman for the first time and feel an overwhelming rush of emotion, a powerful desire…”

“Like you did when you met Claire!”

“Quiet, Zig, please. When that happens, is it really monogamous love as we have had it described to us, or is it just a lustful kind of desire for something out of the ordinary, or even a mere libidinous impulse trained to a Pavlovian intensity by our corrupt culture?”

“You’ve obviously given a great deal of thought to this question, Jack.”

“Thank you, John, I have. Actually, I’ve thought about it too much, but when a teenybopper screams at her idol, does she think?”

“I’ve seen a few wet their pants.”

“In your dreams! When a courtly knight pays homage to his lady, or sickens because she is above his station, does he have to wonder what to do? No, he doesn’t have to, it’s all in the code understood and, most importantly, respected by all.

“If you fall in love with somebody these days it seems the only thing you can do is have sex with her or forget her. You can’t do anything else because if she doesn’t want sex with you you can be sure she’ll disappear in the twinkling of an eye, probably somebody else’s.”

John and Ziggy both tried to argue this point with Jack, but he really thought it was true, so in the end they let him continue.

“It’s a terrible thing to feel that your affection and interest is just a drag to most people, especially in an age such as ours, with so little sense of faith or community. I think we all feel it, whether we admit it or not.”

“So what’s your solution, clever clogs?” Asked Ziggy.

“We have to devise ways of acting out these strong emotions which are public, unequivocal, non-threatening and, yes, even beautiful.”

“You mean sort of spunk festivals like they have in Italy?”

“No, John, there’s a danger I fear that they would degenerate into an unsavoury health hazard. No, it should be nice, subtle, dignified things. A mode of dress, perhaps. Works of art or public service, dedicated to the ideal.”

“So when you become a big failure you can turn round and lay the blame on your ideal one.”

“It mattereth not whether you succeed or fail at the end of the day, pal, but one must know that the thing one worked for was worthwhile.”

“It sounds better than working for some crappy conglomeration,” Said Ziggy, “But I’m mostly fond of not working at all.”

Jack smiled wisely.

“It’s brave of you to say that, Zig, but we both know it’s not true. What about all the time you spend doing taxidermy? Isn’t that your way of striving for perfection?”

“I like handling guts, if that’s what you mean.”

“Sort of.”

“All right Jack. We can get hold of some nice duds and generally paint ourselves up a bit, no worries. But who or what is to be our ideal?”

“Well, I think Claire would be quite a suitable subject.”

“Aha!”

“Wait a minute. I simply mean that a beautiful young woman such as Claire, while needing to be loved, and preferable worshiped…”

“Like all of us.”

“Yes, damn you, like all of us. Needs to be loved but is probably getting hassled all the time…”

“By perverts like you!”

“By men whose love she doesn’t know how to respond to. I wouldn’t be surprised if all that attention seemed more like aggression than affection to her. If we created a sort of cult dedicated to her, however, one that makes her laugh but makes her feel sort of proud at the same time, then I think we could really boost up her confidence, and help her to dispense that magic these women possess a bit more freely.”

“Bah,” said Ziggy, losing patience, “We all possess magic.”

For once Jack was quite stern.

“”I don’t mean competitive mumbo jumbo. I mean the stuff that keeps the planet turning despite our efforts to mess it up!”

“But what does Claire get out of it Jack?” John asked gently.

“The three half pint mugs were all empty now, and even Jack felt the need to find a conclusion to their conversation.

“I already told you” he said “It would be good for her peace of mind, and for her ego, and it would give her a clear context in which to act, without confusing or upsetting anybody.”

“Anyway,” John said, raising his glass and swashing the last drop of beer about, “She’s a fine girl and I’m sure she knows we all love her. So here’s to her health.”

Ziggy joined in the toast with his usual enthusiasm.

“To Claire, our America.”

“And to the friendship she helps us to share,” Jack added, gratefully.

And so, in this vague and humble way the lads began the cult of Claire, and chivalry briefly flowered again in North London.

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