I’ve never been a good judge of character at first sight, and when Michael decided to challenge our sociology teacher’s views of Durkheim, I presumed he was showing off.
‘But what is collective consciousness anyway?’ he said, his voice full of frustration and curiosity, as if he was addressing a crowd. ‘Surely it’s just an easy way of making everyone feel part of the problem and the solution, forcing us to imagine we can change anything, and forgetting we’re all going to die. Camus was right, life’s just absurd and worthless.’
Michael sat back and crossed his arms. Our teacher, Mister Phillips, wasn’t used to this type of outburst, most of the time we nodded and went along with his explanations. Occasionally someone would ask for more details about a particular sociologist – Weber, Comte – and how their ideas differed, but the classes were always calm, actually quite boring.
I looked at Michael’s profile. He looked satisfied and ready to begin his next challenge. I hadn’t previously noticed how good looking he was. His cheekbones were high and defined like an old-days film star.
‘Well, Michael, that’s an interesting question, although I don’t think Camus ever said life is worthless, he postulated…’
‘But it is, isn’t it? Whatever we think or feel or try to do, it all gets forgotten or leads to more talk, more ideas, like teaching, it’s a circle of nothing.’
The class was silent. Everyone seemed to be waiting for either Mister Phillips or Michael to walk out and slam the door. I glanced at Debbie – I had met her some weeks before at the college induction day – she smiled back and raised her eyebrows.
‘I think it’s time for a break,’ Mister Phillips said. He forced a nod and smile and turned around to wipe the whiteboard clean.
I found Michael at the back of the canteen, next to an open Fire Exit door. He was reading Marx and smoking a cigarette. I wanted to make a memorable first impression.
‘Are you actually reading that?’ I said, immediately regretting my choice of words. I had tried for friendly and funny, but I hadn’t modulated my tone and sounded accusatory. I expected to be told to fuck off.
‘No, it just makes me look good,’ he said.
‘You do look good. It’s working.’
‘Aren’t you going to get something to drink?’ Michael said, stubbing his cigarette out on the floor and kicking the butt outside. He pulled the Fire Exit door shut and stretched. He seemed the complete opposite of the inquisitor from the classroom.
‘I didn’t bring enough money,’ I said, noticing Debbie walking towards the table. She was holding two cups.
‘It was a black coffee with two sugars?’ she said to Michael.
‘That’s fine,’ he said, smiling at me and rolling his eyes as he took a sip. I assumed I had missed a joke, but smiled back anyway. Debbie watched him drink as if she had made the coffee herself.
‘You always look as if you have something to say. Why do you stay so quiet?’ Michael said to me. He reopened the Fire Exit door and lit two cigarettes, handed one to Debbie and offered me the other. I took it, even though I didn’t smoke, and began with a small drag, attempting to hold my breath as long as possible without inhaling. I coughed and sent a white-grey cloud across the table. Both Michael and Debbie laughed. Debbie didn’t take her eyes off Michael and seemed to be completely in his thrall.
‘I don’t know. My dad’s a sociology lecturer at the university. I suppose I’m only here to make him happy.’
‘Social science is easy. State the obvious, add a few statistics and people think you’re a genius,’ Michael said. He drank the rest of his coffee and pulled a cigarette out for himself. I caught Debbie’s eye and smiled. She smiled back quickly, as if it was only good manners, and gazed at Michael again. He was wearing his usual black leather jacket. It was identical to the one worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One including the belt buckle. His black hair – short back and sides with a rising quiff – and thick eyebrows made him look like Montgomery Clift. Debbie’s hair was bobbed and bleached and she wore a chiffon scarf as a hair-band. I had recently watched Breathless for the third time and she reminded me of Jean Seberg.
‘Say something when we go back in. Just be yourself, make Phillips work for his money,’ Michael said. He put his half-finished cigarette out by dipping it into the dregs of his coffee and stood up. ‘You’ll feel better if you speak your mind.’
Debbie followed him out of the canteen, always a few steps behind him.
I did speak up after that, and for the next few days I felt uninhibited, and focused on proving myself to Michael.
‘Do you want to come back to my house. I play guitar and I need some lyrics. Do you write? You look like you do,’ Michael said to me, after classes, a week or so later.
‘A bit of poetry, badly. But sure, I’d like to listen and see if I can help,’ I said, surprised by the invitation. Michael had seemed distant the last couple of times I had seen him. I assumed he was getting bored of me.
Michael’s home was a large Tudor-style at the end of a winding drive, well away from the main road. Oak trees leaned against the side walls and there was a sense of unwelcome in every darkened window.
‘When we get in, go straight to my bedroom. It’s at the top of the staircase. Go straight in, okay. Are you hungry?’
‘I’ll get us some beers. Do you drink beer?’
‘Beer is good, thanks.’
Michael looked through the small window in the front door, its bubbled glass making the view distorted. He looked side to side and back to me, flashing a pretend-smile.
‘Here we go,’ he said, unlocking the door and opening it slowly. He beckoned me inside and pointed up the stairs, holding his left index finger to his lips. He closed the front door as if he was coming home in the middle of the night.
I climbed the stairs as quietly as I could. I wasn’t sure what was expected of me and why the house was so still, but I had been given a task and I kept my eyes on the open door at the top.
I stopped in front of the bedroom, glancing to my left and right, as if I might be mugged or run over. The landing ran into darkness at both ends, There were three other rooms on each side. The far-end room to my right had a line of light at the foot of its door, a shadow passed back and forth across the line as if someone was moving around, but I assumed it was the trees swaying, blocking out the sunshine. A creak on the stairs behind me made me turn quickly. Michael was holding a plastic square of four beer cans. He nodded towards his bedroom door and followed me inside.
‘Why do we have to be so quiet?’ I said, opening one of the cans and taking a long drink.
‘My father works at night. He can’t sleep if there’s any noise,’ Michael said. He looked out of his window and drew one of the curtains shut.
‘But you said you want to play some guitar, won’t that wake him up?’
‘It’s not really the same, and the walls are pretty thick.’
Michael reached under his bed and dragged an old acoustic guitar out. He tuned it for a few moments.
‘This is quite new. I don’t have any lyrics yet. I want it to be about a weird family tree. See if you have any ideas.’
Before I could ask any questions, Michael began to play. The music sounded like a loop of the same chord sequence to me, a generic base for the lyrics to rest on. I couldn’t think of any words that might fit.
‘What do you reckon?’ Michael said, putting the guitar on the floor. He snapped another beer can open.
‘It’s really good, loads of possibilities. But I would need time to work something out. Do you have any recordings I could borrow?’
‘No, not yet. I could bring something to college. I want to write this one quickly. It’s for my sister’s birthday.’
‘Does she live with you?’
‘Sort of. She and my mum travel to and from Hong Kong a lot. We lived there for quite a long time, near Victoria harbour.’
‘Do you go with your dad?’
‘No. I don’t like it there anymore. My dad’s always busy. He buys and sells things from here.’
‘Okay. Well, I’ll try and come up with some words. It will probably be really terrible. May I use your bathroom?’
‘You may. Do you always talk like that?’
‘May I this and that.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I speak proper. Where’s the pisser?’
Michael laughed and sprayed some beer onto the carpet. He looked up and the smile was already dying.
‘You’re being serious? All right, it’s directly across the landing. Go straight there and back, okay? If the door’s closed, come in here and wait. Don’t try and force it open, okay?’
I closed the bedroom door slowly, looked left and right again. At the far-end of the landing there was still a line of light along the bottom of the frame, but there weren’t any shadow movements. The bathroom door was open, but I made sure I walked in with care. There were bright pink tiles floor to ceiling and a mouldy white shower curtain covered in smiling yellow ducks. Four orange toothbrushes sat side by side in a dark green plastic cup on the window sill and the wall-mounted mirror above the wash-hand basin had a horizontal crack across the top. It felt like standing in the middle of a fever dream. I finished quickly, flushed the toilet – afraid I had made too much noise – rinsed my hands and reopened the door. I tip-toed to Michael’s room, heard his voice, knocked twice and went in.
‘Are you all right?’ I said.
‘Of course, why?’
‘No real reason, just thought I heard you.’
‘I was trying out some words for the song.’
We finished the beers and Michael went to the kitchen for some more. I looked around his room: a James Dean poster hung above his bed with one corner flopping away from the wall. He had five or six books on a shelf by the window. I only recognised one title – The Naked and The Dead. My father had a copy.
After the second round of drinks I was feeling drunk. Michael looked exactly the same, unaffected by the alcohol.
‘You like Debbie, don’t you?’ he said, lighting two cigarettes and handing one to me.
‘Yeah, of course, she’s really nice.’
‘She is nice, but what I mean is, you like her, yeah?’
‘Not in that way, no. You two make a…’
‘Don’t say ‘a great couple’, please.’
Michael smiled and took a long drag. He sipped some more beer as smoke poured out of his mouth over the top of the can.
‘Do you want to be with her, to have her body, do what you want with her?’
‘What?’ my voice sounded high.
‘It wouldn’t mean anything. You could have her and both forget about it afterwards. She’d do it if I asked her. Is that what you want?’
Michael tapped some ash out of the window. He maintained eye contact with me.
I glanced at the James Dean poster and wondered if it would slide onto Michael’s pillow any moment now, face down. I thought about Debbie lying, smiling, on the bed.
‘I like both of you… together, but I don’t want Debbie. Thanks for the offer.’
Michael slapped his knee and laughed.
‘I knew it, Debbie was right about you. Have you ever thought about acting? You have a really interesting, expressive face.’
‘What does all that mean?’ I said. My head was swimming.
‘Nothing. It’s all fine. All over and done.’
‘I should be going now.’
I put the rest of my cigarette into my half-empty beer can.
‘Are you okay? May I know that?’ Michael said, shaking his head. He was looking out of the window, cracking the knuckles of his left hand. I noticed three long scars on his wrist and, what looked like, four finger-mark bruises. I was too drunk to focus on a question and told myself he probably hurt himself, perhaps with the guitar.
‘I’m fine. I’ll see you at college tomorrow. Don’t tell Debbie about any of that, okay?’ I said.
‘Yeah, okay, college, Debbie. I’ll take you to the front door.’
I walked a few feet away from the house, stopped and turned around to ask Michael for directions back to the bus stop, but he had already closed the door, without a sound. I didn’t want to knock again, in case I woke his father.
I felt too hungover the following day to really care that Michael wasn’t in classes, guessing he had been as drunk as me and was suffering for it. I thought about asking Debbie where he was, but worried she might laugh at me, that she and Michael had shared the hilarity of my drunken impotence after I left his house. Three days went by before Debbie approached me.
‘Have you spoken to Michael recently?’ she said.
‘No. I was going to ask you the same. Have you called him or been to his house?’
‘He told me not to.’
‘Not to what?’
‘Never to call him or go to his house. His father sleeps and works a lot. Would you go and see if he’s all right.’
Debbie looked as if she was about to cry.
‘Sure, okay. I’ll go this afternoon. Call you later.’
I could see the darkness inside Michael’s house from halfway along the drive, but that didn’t surprise me. The oak trees looked as if they were protecting the building and I couldn’t bring myself to knock on the front door. I assumed the family had gone away. Maybe Michael had been persuaded to travel back to Hong Kong. Debbie wouldn’t ever know the difference.
I sat on a large stone by the open gate to the driveway and stared at Michael’s window, half-expecting to see his mocking face watching me. I noticed a black, plastic bag under a weeping willow to the left of the front door. I looked behind, at the empty road, to the sides and allowed my eyes to search around the facade of the house before deciding to look into the bag. I walked along the drive expecting someone to stop me.
I picked the plastic bag up and jogged back to the large stone. My mouth was dry as I opened it. The only thing inside was Michael’s leather jacket. I needlessly turned the bag upside down and shook it, imagining a note of explanation falling out. I stood, folded the bag up, put the jacket over my arm, took a last look at the windows and trees and walked away to catch the bus.
‘So there wasn’t anyone there, no note or anything?’ Debbie said, later that day on the telephone. She had asked the same questions a dozen times or more.
‘Nothing. A neighbour said she thought they had gone back to Hong Kong for a while,’ I lied.
‘Hong Kong? Gone back? Michael never mentioned Hong Kong.’
‘Really? Right. I am sorry, Debbie. Shall we have a chat tomorrow? Perhaps a drink after college?’
‘Okay. Thanks for trying.’
I wore the leather jacket during the telephone conversation. It was a good fit. I took it off and put it into the plastic bag again, and hid it at the back of my wardrobe. If Debbie came over she wouldn’t know it was so close. She would probably want to keep it, but I felt as if it belonged to me now.
As I made a start on the lyrics for Michael’s family tree song, I also made a silent promise to him – that I would look after the leather jacket and Debbie until he returned home.
D D Gothard has a CertHE and Masters degree in creative writing from Ruskin College, Oxford and Bath Spa University. He has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals - most recently in The Honest Ulsterman and The Incubator. Gothard was shortlisted for the Waterstone's Writer of the Year Bursary in 2009. "Friendship and Afterwards" (Yolk Publishing 2014) received a People's Book Prize nomination. "Simon says" (Urbane Publications 2015) was a WHSmith's Bookshops bestseller. "Reunited" (Urbane Publications 2016) was a Blackwell's Bookshops featured novel. The author was an arts correspondent for After Nyne magazine.