I Should Have
I wasn't afraid, yet, I was just tired. I'd called Matt when my present, extremely dodgy boyfriend who I was trying to save, threatened me with a heavy glass ashtray, held it up to my face and shook with anger. I ran to the phone box and called Matt. He'd two-timed me and knew he owed me, so along he came, scooped me onto the back of his bike and shot off with me into the darkness.
'Fancy going to a rave?' he'd said.
Raves were happening all over the country. It was the early nineties; everything was evolving and every weekend, empty warehouses throbbed with the beat of illegal music. Inside, people danced to the drugs they were taking. I'd read about them in the newspapers. There hadn't been any ecstasy-related deaths yet - that would come later as bad drugs flooded the market, created by immoral amateur chemists who cut the original stuff with anything they could get their hands on.
'Why not?' I said. I grabbed a change of clothes from my student digs, slept the night at Matt's - on the sofa - and in the morning we hitched to London.
Now I was thinking it had all been a huge mistake. I should be in my bed, having an early night, instead of in a car full of people I barely knew or didn't know at all, screaming through the countryside on the way to an illegal rave which would go on all night, unless the police got there first.
Inside it was vast, empty and loud. I could feel the music inside me. On the improvised dance floor, a few people shook wildly, their movements accentuated by the strobe lighting. Lights hung down, on the walls were UV pictures, weirdly lit by moving lights. Groups sat huddled on the floor.
I should have left. I should have found my way out of the labyrinth of sheds and warehouses, all joined by sheeted corridors, and gone to a hotel, alone, until I could catch the train back in the morning. That's what I should have done.
But instead, a pill was pushed into my hand.
'I'll look after you,' said Matt, and I knew he would. Slimebag as a boyfriend, solid as a friend. I shrugged. Why not? One day this would just be a memory. Maybe I'd enjoy it. I put the pill in my mouth - it looked like a small paracetamol - and swigged from a bottle of warm, shared water.
Instantly, I regretted it. I wondered if I could get away with going to the toilet and spewing it up, but Matt was smiling wildly at me.
'You'll love it,' he said. His friends arranged themselves on cushions against the wall and one of the women patted the cushion next to her.
'Should be good,' she said. 'These are from my mate in Amsterdam. Said they're amazing.'
I nodded. She looked at me. 'You all right?' she said.
I nodded. She looked at me harder. 'This your first time?' she said.
I nodded. She grabbed my arm.
'Oh my God, your first E. I'm so jealous. There's nothing like your first E. Have a fucking wonderful night,' she smiled and kissed me.
I sat, awkward as I always was in groups, wondering that if I went to the toilet would everyone see me go? Would they all watch me? I didn't know what to do. I watched everyone else. I watched them fall into each other. Matt joined me and took my hand.
'You're okay,' he said. 'Do you feel anything yet?'
I considered. I was bloody terrified, but wasn't about to admit it. I felt my heart rate start to pick up.
The music changed. It got stronger. I could feel it inside me.
Colours got brighter. I turned to tell Matt and saw his eyes, huge and deep, dark and beautiful.
'Wow,' I said.
'Wow,' he agreed. 'Want to dance?'
I shook my head. I had a fear of dancing in public. Since primary school, when I'd been awkward and gangly and as far out from the in-crowd as it was possible to be, I'd been laughed at once at a disco. I struggled on, at disco after disco, watched others intensely to see how they danced and tried to copy their moves. I was laughed at time and time again. I smiled when people told me to 'cheer up love'. I tried to move the top half of my body as well as my feet, and in the end I gave up, aged 15. I stopped dancing and sat down, or went outside for a fag. Dancing made me feel awful, in a nutshell.
'You need to dance,' Matt said again. 'Trust me.'
At that point, everything began to go weirder and weirder.
'Try to relax,' said Matt.
I shook my head. 'I can't,' I said. I felt myself curl up.
'Let your shoulders drop,' Matt said. I looked around me and tried to un-hunch my shoulders. They were rigid.
The place had filled up. The music was... it was amazing. I could feel every single tiny sound within every single bar of music. People danced, everywhere. I was on my own with Matt, I suddenly realised. Where had our group gone?
My face began to feel funny. I didn't know how to hold it. My heart started to bang, uncomfortable, a bird trying to escape from my lungs. If I shouted, would it fly out?
'Jen, dance with me,' Matt said.
I didn't want to but I didn't want to stay sitting down.
I got up.
I didn't know what to do with myself and the colours were swirling around me and the music was inside me and everywhere I could see people talking, close together, swaying, dancing, holding hands, hugging, moving as one great big breathing organism.
And suddenly, I knew I was part of it. For the first time, I knew I was with other people, not alone in a crowd as I usually felt. I was together, in the same beat, as everyone.
'Relax...' Matt murmured in my ear. I tried really hard, and dropped my shoulders. I felt myself begin to move. I felt the music fill me up and I felt myself as a part of this whole pumping dance floor, one person of many, one cell of many, in colour, seeing the music in the smoke, feeling my hands moving all by themselves, to the ceiling, wayyyyy above, touching the air and feeling it in my fingers, being hugged by someone from behind and swaying into them and dancing to their beat and moving their way, then moving gently away and moving in my own way and the colours got brighter and oh my god, who knew dancing could be like THIS?
Matt never left my side. He laughed with me, seeing my delight, his face wide with love and joy and his eyes huge and bottomless. I wanted to tell him everything, but at the same time I could see that he already knew, so it was all right.
'You're a great little dancer,' said the woman I'd sat with earlier, whose name I didn't know but it didn't matter because I loved her as I loved Matt and I could see they loved me. And I knew that I was a great little dancer. All this time, I could dance. I could dance and dancing was the most wonderful thing in the whole world and I wanted to do it all night long. I felt my body move in ways I'd never imagined. I just gave myself to it, and felt different parts of my body respond to different parts of the music. In one section of music was a whole world of movement.
People shared their water with me. I hugged and spoke to people, I walked around to try dancing in a different place. Matt came with me. He took me to the loo every now and then. I knew we'd be friends forever. I made seemingly hundreds of new friends. I spent hours talking to someone about how they gt the scar on their wrist, listened to a long and amazing story, only to realise we were still in the same song and we'd gone into some new time frame, where love made the rules.
Everywhere we wandered, people were friendly. There was nothing frightening about this, not at all. Everyone was looking after each other. There was no alcohol and therefore no violence. Everyone there was together. In many ways, it was incredibly beautiful.
We drifted and danced and sometime later, the colours began to fade.
'Do you want another half?' said Matt, and we shared another tiny paracetamol-thing.
Lifetimes later, when I was sore from dancing but unable to stop, we noticed the light had changed. It was greyer.
'Time to go,' said somebody, and I wanted to cry. But I was aching in entirely new places. I felt empty but full of love and goodness and joy. I was entirely relaxed. Matt and I laughed along at life, held each other up and climbed back in the car.
Somehow, going home, there was much more room. We were all softer around the edges.
I should have stayed home that night. It was risky, I was afraid, and I didn't really know what I was doing, who I was with or where I was going, or what I was taking.
I shouldn't have gone.
And yet, what would I have missed? Lifetimes of dancing in one long lovely night. Connections, meeting people in different places, in different parts of themselves.
I never felt shy about dancing again. Matt and I are still friends. The woman was right, there never was anything like my first, and after a few more attempts, I gave up. I have since danced on tables and bar tops in a variety of countries. I dance often and wildly, and I never, ever worry about what I look like. That fear, with me beforehand for fifteen years, never came back. The connection I found was something magical and I've discovered since that if you look at people, you can see that depth anyway. You just have to know how to look. And you can feel that connection any time you like. You open your own door, and people will walk right in. You don't need the drugs. I wouldn't touch anything now, anyway and I rarely did again.God knows what awful chemicals things are cut with nowadays. I don;t even know the names of drugs now.
Illegal or not, dangerous or not, that night a door opened. I was shy, awkward and totally lacking in self esteem. I was afraid of letting go; I was afraid of people's opinions of me, especially in the way I moved. I didn't trust my body; I didn't trust my heart. I was closed off from so much of the good stuff in life. That door needed to be opened. If it took a drug to do that, well, so be it. I would hate to still be the woman who was too afraid to dance.
Perhaps I should have been more careful, all those years ago, but I'm very glad I wasn't.
Sprung from the prompt of
I should have – it’s no answer
more a dog on a flock of questions,
nipping at my heels,
herding me towards a wall
I’ve never faced; a mirror image
it will crack me to see.
I’m talking to you
but you haven’t realised -
and neither had I -
I’m also talking to me.
What should I have done
about love like running through quicksand;
our culture of claws through cages;
my vacuumed voice; who owned
my body when I craved his worship.
2 in the morning,
a taxi driver, Waterloo Bridge,
Champagne but I think
I threw up, stopped it.
I think but all I have is preamble.
I’ve lost that night.
I should have told someone.
I should have been helped.
I should have known.
This story begins with a book, no that`s not exactly right, it actually began the day he was born; but there isn’t enough space here to tell you the whole story of Paul Hegarty`s life so we`ll settle for one of its most pivotal points, the moment he found “The Book.”
“Get one of the flight cases down from the attic will you, Patsy`s going to London for the weekend with her friends.”
Paul heaved himself out of the armchair, grumbling to himself, “Footballs on in a minute and she picks now to remember.”
He got the stepladder from the shed, deliberately thumping it off the banister, to show his annoyance, as he carried it upstairs.
Tigger they`re cat was already pacing back and forth on the handrail under the attic trapdoor in anticipation, he knew that Paul carrying the ladder up to the upper landing meant only one thing.
“Oh no you don’t,” he said scooping the mewling cat up into his arms before dumping it into Jack`s old room, “I`m not chasing you around the bloody attic for a couple of hours,” he snarled, shutting the door.
He was fairly certain he knew where the case was, as he gingerly stepped from rafter to rafter, murmuring, not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last, “Must floor this bloody thing.”
He had to move a heavy cardboard box aside to get to the set of luggage, in his hurry not looking where he was putting it; and is always the way when we`re in a rush, it toppled over, spilling most of its contents.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit,” he cursed, bending to retrieve the books that had escaped the box. They were the usual assortment of chiclit that Kate loved to read he noticed as he glanced at every other cover. As he picked up the third to last escapee he noticed that the cover didn’t bear a drawing of a half-naked Fabio lookalike cradling the usual damsel in distress, but a simple top to bottom title
“The Hell?” he said, feeling his jaw drop, realising that for the first time in his life he was gaping, actually gaping. He turned the book over, the blurb claimed it had insider information on sex toys, that it would teach the reader how to seduce a man by simply walking into a room; and how to give (and receive) orgasms.
“Jesus” he breathed, stunned by the idea that his wife of thirty six years had bought such a thing.
Paul and Kate had both been virgins when they`d met, though in the best Catholic tradition, less so by the time they`d married. Their sex life had followed a predictable trajectory, satisfying until the kids came along, petering slowly out as they grew older. There was always a reason; don’t wake the baby, then the babies became toddlers, the toddlers teenagers, the teenagers adults, until it became routine, rare silent and mechanical, devoid of excitement and passion.
Slowly Paul returned the book to the box, interlocking the four flaps so they wouldn’t flip open if it fell over again and collected the red carry on case he`d come up there for.
At the trapdoor he paused, downstairs he could hear the “Vvvmmm, Vvvmmm,” of the Hoover as Kate methodically vacuumed the living room carpet. If she`d been waiting for the case at the bottom of the steps he would never have gone back to the box and retrieved the book, and most likely he would`ve forgotten all about it , but she wasn’t there, she was downstairs, preoccupied, and so he did turn back, and did retrieve the book.
As he shut the trapdoor Kate called up to him, “Did you find it?”
“Yeah I got it,” he shouted back to her, surprised at how much his voice trembled and how guilty he felt. He tried to tell himself he wasn’t doing anything wrong as he hid the book in his bedside locker, putting it in the middle of a stack of other books he was still trying to find the time to get around to reading. Turning its spine inwards so it was unreadable; then turning the spine of the books above and below it inwards too so it didn’t stand out.
“What are you doing?”
Paul nearly jumped out of his skin, he hadn’t heard his wife come up the stairs, “Nothing,” he said defensively, “Just looking for…uh, uh,” he grabbed the first book that came to hand, “this.” He held up Alex Fergusons latest book.
“Hhmmph,” she said, “You’ve left the trapdoor open,” and picked up the case.
He read the book over the next three weeks. Initially passing over the chapter on getting to know yourself, it all seemed a little too gynecological to him, but when he reached the end he went back and read that chapter too; after all he`d reasoned an old dog might be able to learn a new trick or two.
He fell, if not in love with the idea of this new Kate, at least in lust with her. Finding himself fantasising about her reaching out for him in the night, for the first time taking charge of their sex life, what little there was of it.
But then a voice, one he`d never heard before chirped up, “And what makes you think you deserve such a woman?” it asked, its tone snide and hectoring, “What`ve you ever done to deserve a woman like that?”
They say that your life flashes before your eyes as you die. But Paul didn’t have to wait for such a terminal event, as, over the next couple of days, his conscience remorselessly dissected his failings as a husband.
He relived every moment when he should have told his wife he loved her, but couldn’t bring himself to say the words. The times he`d contemplated buying her flowers, knowing how much she liked them, then didn’t, worrying she might accuse him of something.
He remembered he hadn’t even been in the hospital, never mind the delivery room when she`d gone into labour.
“Did you even comfort her at the graveside when her father died?” his malevolent Jimney Cricket asked.
He would have liked to say he had, but he wasn’t sure, which he felt meant he was actually sure he hadn’t.
It seemed to him that the book that had held out so much promise had turned on him, becoming a mirror, and he didn’t much like what he saw in it.
It was that morning, a cool Friday in November that the dagger was given its final twist.
He was thinking about the book again, and Kate, when the voice asked, “Why do you think she bought it?” he`d been wondering that same thing, why had she bought it?
It wasn’t as if their sex life had improved any in the last year, if anything it was worse than ever. She was sleeping with her back to him as close to the edge of the bed as she could, another inch and she`d topple out for sure. And on the few occasions he`d worked up the courage to reach out to her she`d pushed him away, no longer even resorting to excuses like, “I`m too tired,” or I`ve got a headache.”
No these nights it was simply a blunt, “Feck off,” and a stiffening of the back for emphasis.
Why buy the book, he wondered, not for the first time, it sure hadn’t improved their sex life.
“Your sex life,” the voice murmured, not without a hint of malice, accenting the word “Your.”
If you had suggested to Paul three weeks ago that Kate was having an affair he`d have laughed into your face. But as the cold chill of the idea stole over him, he felt like doing anything but laughing.
For the umpteenth time that morning he picked up his mobile, it was already open to Kate`s text line and with shaking thumbs he typed
I LOVE YOU
And before he could change his mind pressed (send)
For five long minutes he stared at the device willing it to respond. Telling himself when it didn’t that she hadn’t heard it go off, trying to convince himself that it was buried at the bottom of her handbag. Or that she was deep in a gossip session with Anna or Mary, yeah that was it she simply hadn’t heard it.
He gave up waiting and typed
I want you to want me (send)
It was a line from a song; he couldn’t remember the name of the band, not that it mattered. There was another line from a song he half remembered by Billy Joel, something like: all the best lines are already written and played on the radio everyday, but that didn’t make them any less true, did it?
Another terrifying five minutes crawled by, now he was imagining her in the arms of her lover, the pair of them sniggering over his pathetic texts, but he was past caring, past his ego.
For the first time in decades he realised how much he loved his wife.
I need you to need me (send)
Almost the same instant he`d pressed send the phone tweeted, he had a text. His heart nearly stopped when he saw it was from Kate.
I love you too, you`re the only man I`ve ever wanted.
He stared in near disbelief at what she`d written. Then with thumbs shaking so badly he had to rewrite almost every word, some more than once, typed,
I`m sorry, I`m such a coward, should have told you sooner, thirty years sooner (send)
This time he barely had to wait a minute for her reply.
You`re not a coward, I`ve always known how you felt.
Am going to do better, be the husband you deserve (send)
We can both do better, she replied.
He didn’t get much work done that afternoon, texting every thought he`d ever had, but never had the courage to express, to the woman he`d shared the majority of his life with.
Feeling overwhelmed with love and relief. It occurred to him that it wasn’t dissimilar to how he`d felt when he`d been a lovesick teenager and told her as much.
She replied with a smiley face.
Around three he booked a table for two at Bacco`s and texted,
Are you free tonight (send)
She replied with a single ?
Only I would like to take you to dinner, if you`re free that is, I could pick you up at 8 (send)
Her reply was almost instantaneous,
I`d love that, but I have to be home by eleven ;)
All this happened five years ago.
And in those years Paul has never forgotten to tell Kate every day he loves her , buys her flowers once a week, lilies, (lilies are her favourite) though sometimes it`s roses, and he takes her on a date every other Saturday. He`s even learning to line dance, though he still thinks it`s stupid, one of the few things he`s kept to himself.
So you see Paul was right, though perhaps not in the way he`d thought.
You can teach an old dog new tricks, as long as he`s willing to learn.