At eighteen, Joe decided to take a gap year after his ‘A’ levels, and he got a job working as a porter in a small and backward South London hospital for several months in order to save some money. Living at home was claustrophobic and depressing, but he was working long shifts in the operating theatre, and spending his evenings in the local pub with school friends similarly taking their year out. After eight months, he’d saved some money and wanted to see the world before going back into education. He saw a small ad in the paper for overland tours which sounded exciting, so he bought a ticket and boarded a bus to India. He’d been toying with a summer in the Greek islands, just as his elder siblings had taken some years earlier, but opted for the Budget Bus from North Totteridge to Delhi in six weeks (price £55), because he craved the exotic, and was traveling alone.
Moving from country to country and culture to culture, he shared the 1950s St Trinians-style coach, and the taste of freedom, with thirty other young travelers. The route into Asia was a hangover of the slow-fading sixties hippy trail, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a well-trodden path. The Beatles and the Maharishi, Tim Leary, The Naked Lunch, On The Road and so much more formed the backdrop to the journey. The experience was overwhelming, both culturally and medically, and after only three months, half the intended time, he was forced to return to face quarantine for typhoid over the summer. After losing three stone in three weeks in a campsite in Delhi during the monsoon, he’d had to fly home to find treatment. He spent that summer in London and had recovered adequately by September to take his place at university.
The decision to take the trip to India had been a watershed. In making it, Joe had cut the already thin emotional ties with his childhood home, and looked to his future. He was struck by the apparent indifference of his parents to his intrepid journey, as he set out alone with his rucksack and bus ticket. It was easier to make the grand statement about independence than it was to grow up overnight. In many ways, the culture shock of the trip, let alone his health scare, was compounded by the separation. Like a steam engine uncoupled from its tender, his momentum alone would not drive him forward, and on the journey, he stoked his furnace with all manner of fuel.
When he returned, it was clear that Wimbledon and all its associations were part of his past. In his Pashtun pajama suit, a rolled Kelim rug his only luggage, he crept back into the house, unannounced and exhausted. Only his father was there, and the house was cold. His parents were already looking to separate and his older siblings were all living away by now. He felt like the soldier in The Soldier’s Tale returning, long forgotten.
Joe had applied to Sheffield, city of his birth, for a BSc in psychology, because he’d studied biology and chemistry for ‘A’ level, and he wanted to move into something that didn’t echo his school subjects, something more cool. His elder sister, Jane, was studying psychology at Cardiff, and she seemed to be loving it, despite her baby son being looked after in London by their mother, Dorothy.
He was delivered to the halls of residence, on that first cold October afternoon by Dorothy, with a car full of his teenager’s belongings. She was silent on the journey, not because she was deeply saddened by their parting, but because she was also embarking on a new life alone, and leaving Joe’s younger sister, Lizzie, with her father. He was the fourth child to leave home, and so he was unceremoniously left to his own devices as soon as he could unpack the car into his room in the men’s wing. Ranmore halls were bleak three storey accommodation blocks, set in the grounds of a large estate, somewhere on the edge of town. Joe did his best to personalize his room with the books and records he’d brought, wishing all the while that he had a guitar to lean in the corner.
He had in mind to display himself in words and images like a young peacock, in the hope, held for several years, of attracting his first mate. An all boys secondary school, a shy disposition and next to no experience of girls left him little ammunition. India had taught him about many things, but sex was not one of them. He had a folder of sketches, and some carefully chosen quotations, written on bits of paper, Bluetacked to the wall, from Nietsche: “Is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man” and Sartre: “Art is optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” He chose a selection of Dylan and Neil Young albums to be strewn ‘casually’ across the floor. His yellow, grey and black spined Penguins, colour-coded on the shelf over the desk, bore testament to his literary aspirations, and supposed maturity, while two Picasso prints, Guernica and The Blue Lady, told of his artistic temperament. Now all it needed was a good-looking girl to adorn it.
The next day, he spent in the students’ union, signing up to a couple of societies: folk music and drama.
“Hey Man, why don’t you come along on the pub crawl for new members tonight?” said the bearded student behind the table in the union canteen had frizzy orange hair down to his shoulders and wore a denim shirt under his Afghan coat. The straggling wool of the mountain goat or sheep from which it was made smelt unpleasant. “We’ve got Long John Baldry coming in a couple of weeks and Planxty at the end of term.”
The Folk society met every third week in Ranmore Hall Bar for an ‘open mike’ evening with local bitter and an earthy clutch of enthusiasts. After the first hour of the first (and his last) session, and after four pints of Sam Smiths Bitter, Joe took to the mike for a rendition of ‘Where have you been all day, Henry my Son”, to which he had already forgotten the words, and which turned out to be a favourite of the society.
Drama was much more of a success.
“Hi, my name’s Rob, and I’m Chairman of the Drama Soc. If you join, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll meet the most attractive women in college, and get stuck into participating straight away, if you get me,” he enthused.
“I’ve never acted on stage. Does that matter?”
Joe decided on the white lie, in order not to set himself up, though he’d had bit parts in a couple of school plays.
“Nah. If you can’t act, you can always work back-stage. It’s fun and there’s loads of women backstage as well.”
That was just the right thing to say. Joe signed on the dotted line, paid his membership sub and agreed to attend a series of improvisation workshops, starting the next day. Rob outlined the plan.
“Well, man, they’re designed to engender trust, which is important for working closely with other actors. They’re all about free expression, and we work a lot on improvisation, voice projection, that kind of shit.”
What he didn’t say was that they were also meant to provide a suitable opportunity for second year male students to get off with ‘fresher women’. Rob himself was a muscular, square jawed post-graduate engineer. He’d been through a lot of fresher women in his time, and preferred the loose relationships of the drama soc to the intensity of the few women in his engineering faculty.
The workshops took place in the university theatre, a converted church, behind the union, which gave the whole experience an air of authenticity. Rob was an excellent tutor, and the majority of freshers attending were women, which meant he had worked hard all day to talk them into joining.
The fact that Joe was a year out of school and had travelled, that his hair was longer and his stories more extensive than those of other boys in the workshops, conferred status on his naivety. Games included ‘trust exercises’, where attendees paired up and one of each pair called to the other across the stage, who was blindfolded and expected to run towards their calling partner. This resulted in several minor injuries and a lot of laughter. Another involved the group forming a circle around one student who, eyes closed and standing at attention in the centre, was supposed to fall backwards or forwards, to be caught by those in the circle. The distracted or weaker members of the circle were apt to fail in their catching duties, resulting in more minor injuries and more laughter. Whatever this did or didn’t do to engender trust, the first afternoon session generated immediate friendships. As these were theatre workshops, there were also voice exercises, stage whispering to practise enunciation: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” and various ‘Peter Piper’ tongue twisters.
The focus of the workshop each day was a series of improvised mini-dramas.
“Ok, so Joe, you’re a taxi driver, standing at the late night tea stand, and Nick, you’re the tea guy. Jane, you and Jenny, you’re a couple of toms looking for business.” And off we went into our reverie, smirking and stuttering our way through ten minutes of improvised drama, which normally petered out or ended in scuffles.
Jane was a slim, dark eighteen-year-old London girl, with large brown eyes and long lashes. She liked to lead the improvisations, with quick-witted repartee and a flare for the dramatic gesture.
Nick: “Right, that’ll be three bob, mate.”
Joe: “Come on you old git, one cup and a slice, that’s two and six.”
Nick: ”take it or leave it, mate.”
Joe pays imaginary coins across the counter and sips from his empty cup, making slurping noises to signify the heat of the tea.
Jane: “Hi lovey, got a light?” she sidles up to Joe and touches his arm. He looks into her eyes and there’s a slightly over-extended silence while he tries to concentrate on the scene.
Joe: “What’s your name then, beautiful? I haven’t seen you here before.”
Jane: “Why, it’s Dolores. What’s yours?”
Jenny: “Oy, keep yer hands off of ‘er ‘less you got the fiver.” Jenny lays on the accent like Eliza Doolittle, and she’s much more edgy and aggressive than Jane.
Nick: ”What’s your problem tonight, Patsy? Business a bit slow?”
Jenny: “An’ you can fuck off an’ all, Cyril” Jenny is really getting into her role, and pretends to throw Joe’s hot tea over the counter at Nick, but instead, sprays Jane and Joe with the brew. Jane, in shielding herself from the imagined shower, steps in close and wraps her arms around Joe’s neck.
“Oh dear! I’m all wet!” She gives him the biggest smile.
“Wow! I’m sure I’ve got a fiver here somewhere.” Joe’s arm slips gently around Jane’s waist and he leads her into the wings, stage right.
It was clear after the first day that the spark between them was strong. Rob had also paired with Jane for a couple of exercises, mostly as a way of demonstrating one or another game, and especially those involving physical contact. Jane was quick and funny, and she loved to perform. It was obvious she would go far in the drama society as a leading lady, and Rob was not the only ‘old lag’ who watched her with interest.
Walking back from the theatre Jane was animated.
“That was amazing, don’t you think?” She gesticulated wildly “I loved the one where we were made to lay with our heads in the other’s lap and have them rotate it.”
“Yeah, it was so hard to relax in someone’s hands and let them take the weight.”
He could still feel the warmth of her scalp. “You were great at it though.”
“Who’d’ve thought someone’s head could be so heavy?”
“Are you accusing me of having a big head? It’s all brains you know.” He laughed, wanting to just stop and kiss her in the street. “What’re you doing tonight?”
“Nothing much. You?”
They agreed to meet in the refectory at seven and spend the evening listening to music. Jane rolled her own cigarettes and Joe thought this particularly cool, so he would be trying to get the hang of that, among other things, and learning to inhale of course.
As the week progressed, they paired up for most of the workshop games, they began to touch more, to share private jokes, explore each other’s pasts and exchange cherished possessions. Each exchange told something. Each was a gift laid on an alter.
“Do you want to borrow Steppenwolf? It’s one of my favourite books. Have you read The Glass Bead Game? He won the Nobel Prize for that I think”
“Can I take Blood on the Tracks and listen to it this afternoon? I’ll bring it back tonight, if you’re around.”
And later, they lay close on the built-in bunk to listen to Dylan’s new album.
“ Oh God, I love this track. Turn it up a bit. He’s such a great poet . . . pass me the sleeve. ’Say for me that I’m all right, though things get kind of slow.’”
On the final evening of Freshers’ Week, after the last improv workshop and a few drinks in the Ranmore bar, they went back to Joe’s room with their new found friends, Nick and Jenny, to listen again to music. Though drinking in the bedrooms was forbidden, Nick had bought a naggin of vodka on the way back from the theatre, and they’d shared it from Joe’s tooth mug. By now, everyone was rolling cigarettes, and Nick brought out a tiny silver foil parcel of hashish. He’d scored it on his first day in the union bar – which seemed very sophisticated for a first year, but Nick was already 20, almost a mature student, and he seemed completely at ease. He pulled the gate-fold sleeve of Yellow Brick Road from the table and licked the glue on three Rizzlas to make a large joint, which he filled with rolling tobacco. He singed the small black lump of dope with his Zip lighter, and crushed the corner into powder, which he sprinkled onto the tobacco, without spilling a grain.
“I got stoned in Kandahar” Joe felt he had to lay down his marker. “I didn’t smoke then, so I just swallowed it. Afghani Black. About the size of a sugar lump.”
“Whoa…. That must’ve set you back a few quid.” Nick lit the joint and inhaled deeply. “This little baby was a tenner.”
“Nah, not in Afghanistan. It was pennies I think, ‘cos someone gave it to me. On the border, they offered to make me a pair of flip flops out of a slab of it the size of my shoe sandwiched between two pieces of leather. Trouble was, if you walked across, the guy who made the shoes would tip off the police, who’d throw you in jail and give the stuff back to him for the next dumb tourist.”
“Cool.” Jenny was pretty. She’d taken to Nick that first day, and the two of them were already inseparable. His age had been his winning attribute. In a room full of eighteen year olds, the twenty year old is king.
The air was thick with smoke, and they were all quiet as Dylan sang Tangled up in Blue and The Jack of Hearts. Joe moved to open the window to let in the cold night air, hoping that the smell of dope wouldn’t linger in the morning when the cleaners came around. Nick decided he and Jenny needed privacy for their increasingly explicit fondling, and dragging her from the bed, he took the dregs of the naggin and they left.
“That’s better. Just the two of us.” Jane was pretty stoned.
“Yes. No prizes for guessing what they’re getting up to.”
“No. Shall we see if we can work it out? An improvisation without words?”
“Mmmm, sounds fun”
And so, after the week of moving inexorably towards ‘the moment’, and when the night was dark outside and the wind blew sensuously, they made love, after a fashion. For Joe, it felt like surfing the perfect wave, surfacing after a high dive, something that had been thought of, dreamed of, for years. For Jane, it wasn’t something new, but it was nice.
Later she sat naked next to him, propped up by his pillow. He closed the window, turned down the volume on the stereo and re-started the second side of Blood on the Tracks.
Laying back against Jane’s leg, basking in the feelings of his conquest, but not wanting to talk about what had happened, Joe let the music seep into him.
“I love how he writes lyrics and his voice is great. It’s all over the place and he’d never win a singing competition, but you’d know him anywhere.”
Jane sang with the record “‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will.’ Will we?”
“Will we what?”
“Will we have a falling out? Now we’re lovers. Will I go to Tangiers? Maybe have an affair with a Bedhuin?” Ever the drama queen.
“That’s nice, just when we’ve met and you’re talking about going off and leaving me for some guy in a Kaftan.” Joe knew she was teasing, but his insecurity was close to the surface.
“Jealous? Mmmm . . . that’s kind of cute.” She laughed, stroking his hair
“What?? Cute??” He raised himself on one elbow, turned and scowled at her. She ignored him and continued to sing.
“I always respected her for doing what she did in getting free.”
But Joe wasn’t letting that one go.
“That’s the last thing I am. Cute is for lapdogs! So you want a lapdog who respects his mistress. . . ”Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m getting soft.” Strange how the lyrics seemed to mirror their thoughts.
“Do you think I should get my hair cut short?”
He was staring at their bodies in the wardrobe mirror. It was the first time he’d ever really looked at a naked woman. The first time he’d had more than a surreptitious glance at one, anyway. That didn’t count the pornographic images in his friends’ magazines at school. It was a wonderful moment. One he thought, then, he should commit to memory in every detail and hold dear for the rest of his life. The man and his woman, relaxing after making love. After sex. Intercourse.
“Why would I care how long your hair is if I was off tripping down in Fez or somewhere with my new Bedhuin man?” she said, and his mind drifted back to their conversation.
“I bet he smells like a camel. How do you like the smell of camel?”
“Do you think Dylan was in love with her?” Jane’s mind was wandering again.
“His sad eyed lady of the lowlands? I read he’s so rich that he’s got houses all over the states and he keeps a different woman in each one.”
Joe wanted to get back to his India adventure. It was the most important thing he had ever done, until now.
“I once ate camel steak… in Kabul – not as nice as buffalo though. ‘Sun down, yellow moon . . .’”
“It’s like all great loves have to end in great heartbreaks.” She was drifting back to Tangiers. Joe stared unashamedly at her body in the mirror as she lay back, her eyes closed.
“God you’re so beautiful. It’s amazing. Where did you spring from?”
“I know, I am amazing. Call me Ophelia.” Jane laughed softly.
Two days later, it was the start of term. Joe spent his day in lectures in the psychology block, half a mile from the main campus, while Jane spent hers in the Tower Block, listening to her fellow music students performing on their chosen instruments, and herself performing on the cello. The start of the term had fractured their idyll and brought them down with a crash. After a mutual debrief that evening, they were both considering the prospect of spending the night together. Joe dearly wanted this to happen, but recognized the limitations of a night in a single bed, and the early start he had in the morning. Jane was somehow more indifferent to the idea, more fidgety. She hadn’t made the first move towards him when they met at dinner, and had sat between Nick and Jenny across the refectory table, rather than next to him, where he’d held her a space.
There was a loud knock on Joe’s door and he leapt up in surprise.
“Oh Christ. Who’s that? Pass me my shirt. You get under the covers and I’ll tell them where to go.”
It was Rob, standing in the corridor in denims and a great coat.
“Hey man. Just wondering if you’ve seen Jane?”
Strange. Joe didn’t think Rob was living in Ranmore Hall. Perhaps he was.
“Oh cool. Is that Blood on the Tracks?” said Rob. Joe was immediately wary of Rob. He’d been openly flirting with Jane in the workshops, and even today, Joe had seen them talking at lunchtime outside the drama soc office in the union.
“Oh hi, Rob. I . . . ”
Jane sat up when she heard Rob’s voice and made no effort to cover her breasts. “Hi Rob. Yes, I just bought it. Great album isn’t it. I’m decent. You can come in. Let him in.” Joe held onto the door long enough to see Jane lift the sheet and cover herself.
“Oh sorry, I’m not interrupting anything am I?” Rob knew full well he was.
Jane grinned “No. We were just listening to some music. What about you?”
“Hey, Jane, I was thinking of going down to the union bar and I thought you might like to come, talk about The Importance of Being Ernest. You know I’m casting it next week. I was thinking of you for Gwendolin.”
The drama soc committee had chosen two plays for this term, and had posted dates on the notice board for casting sessions. Jane and Joe had by then made enough friends in the society to find out that casting was never a totally open thing, and that the best roles always went to ‘insiders’ on a nod. Rob was to direct ‘Ernest’, and there was only one part Jane really wanted.
“Yeah, well, maybe another . . .” Joe tried half-heartedly to distract Jane from the obvious come-on.
“Well, just you and me so far.”
It was eminently clear that Rob was neither subtle nor coy. He had wanted to get off with Jane since day one and here he was, barging into their love nest without a care.
“Look Rob, how about . . . Jane you don’t want to go out now do you? “ Joe began to sound a little desperate, more of a whining child than the man he wanted to be.
“Sounds kind of fun. I’ll need to get dressed.”
“Oh Grrreat!” This came out more as a bitter expletive than was intended.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Jane clearly couldn’t care less how he felt
“Well actually . . .”
Rob’s rich baritone cut across his last attempt to block their plan “I’m only borrowing her, man. Keep yer hair on . . .” And that was that, the beginning of the end, the writing on the wall.
“Give me a few minutes. Meet me down by the coffee machine in ten?”
Jane was already pulling on her jeans and looking for her socks, while Joe pushed rob back from the door in the hope of shielding her body from Rob’s greedy eyes. Jane just smiled and continued to dress.
“Cool. See you round, man.”
Joe slumped back onto his bed and stared at Jane in disbelief. How could she do this to him? What had their love affair meant if she could up and leave at the first opportunity? And what did Rob have to offer that he didn’t? Don’t answer that!
“You don’t mind, do you? I mean, Gwendolin. That would be great and he’s Chair of the theatre group, so, you know, it’d be good to keep in with him. Hey, you could audition for Jack or Algie next week.” Did she really think that would appease him? Frankly, it was an insult. Rob and his fucking casting couch!
“No thanks. Not my sort of thing. I’m not into that bourgeois shit. But who am I to stand in your way?”
This time, the venom was undisguised, and in the space of minutes, Joe’s newfound happiness felt it had been dashed to pieces. More than that, his newfound manhood was withering. He dropped his head into his hands and fought back tears.
“Oh don’t be like that. Anyone would think you had reason to be jealous.”
Blood on the Tracks. What a great name for an album. What an absolutely depressingly accurate fucking song! “and to think how she left that night, it still brings me a chill.”